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How the practice of faith is good for the soul…

Most weeks I play football with a bunch of other middle-aged men defying time’s wear & tear… along with some much younger and faster players.

With no referee and in the heat of the moment, we sometimes get decisions wrong. Was that a foul? A penalty? The action replay comes afterwards, via selective memory, over a pint in the pub. That’s the moment when we’ve calmed down and can get over ourselves.

Now and again tempers flare. When mine does I’m reminded of the smouldering volcano inside, that we all try to keep a lid on.

Anger – at colleagues, friends, loved ones – can erupt within even the most peacable of us. And if some things are worth sleeping on, anger is rarely one.

According to a study published in the journal Nature Communications, during sleep the brain reorganises the way that memories are stored.  Negative memories, it suggests, become harder to reverse.

In other words, go to sleep feeling angry with someone and it will be far harder to resolve that anger. Far more chance the rage becomes resentment, the bad-feeling bitterness.

But didn’t we already know this? After all, the most common advice to couples at weddings is ‘Don’t go to bed on a row.’

It goes back further, to the Apostle Paul, telling the early Christians to ‘not let the sun go down upon your wrath.’ Don’t let your rage get the better of you.

The narratives of our faith traditions often remember practical wisdom that is elsewhere easily forgotten.

There’s a common assumption that the more science reveals about how we’re made and how we tick, the more we’ll realise we don’t need faith. It will be marginalized, deemed irrelevant and finally disappear.

And it’s true that when religion is used to harbour homophobia, misogyny or racism, it looks all too much like a world we’d hoped to say goodbye to.

But another truth also emerges, that the practice of faith is often good for the soul.

Slightly sheepishly, a friend told me the other day that while he doesn’t think of himself as that religious he goes to church regularly. Surprised, I asked him why. ‘I need time to be on my own,’ he said.

While practicing religion brings him the gift of solitude, conversely, for people with too much solitude, it brings the gift of community. When I ask Ivy, 95, why she goes to church, the answer doesn’t focus on her beliefs but on her friends. Sunday morning may be the only time in the week she leaves her flat.

Many of the volunteers at the local church nightshelter would never turn up for a service. But the church is where they go to practice what they believe in… and what they believe in is supporting people down on their luck.

Just as science may reveal evidence to support the wholesome effects of some long-forgotten medical practice or dietary regime, for me the good habits of faith, often overlooked, can be equally beneficial.

Like taking a Sabbath, remembering to be grateful, welcoming the stranger.   Or not letting the sun go down on our anger.

(Thought For The Day, BBC Radio 4, Saturday December 3rd, 2016)