Sunday, December 21, 2008

Annunciation Blues

Today was the official Sunday to remember Mary being told by an Angel that she was going to become the mother of the Messiah, and that this was going to be a miraculous rather than human conception. Officially within the church this is called the “Annunciation”. Old technical term, but that’s the church for you. You can read the full story in Luke 1:26-38.

But I love the whole story in Luke 1, because it puts Jesus’ conception and birth in to a family context. The first person Mary tells is not (perhaps understandably) Joseph, but her elderly cousin Elizabeth, who has also miraculously fallen pregnant (though by her husband, the even more elderly priest, and recently dumbstruck Zechariah). In fact, Elizabeth’s baby (who will become John the Baptist, the herald of Jesus’ ministry) recognises that Mary is carrying the Messiah and kicks out in Elizabeth’s womb.

Two ordinary women, sharing the joys and fears of imminent motherhood, as women do the world over. Yet in that sharing, they realise that they are at the centre of something amazing that God is doing. And that God breaks in to such mundane and ordinary lives in such unexpected ways is truly amazing. There is another side to this as well; God being born as man to an ordinary, teenage peasant girl in a backwater town in a disregarded edge of empire province seems the most bizarre way to bring about the work of salvation of mankind. Surely it requires a palace, great signs in the heavens, kings and leaders from all over the world coming to acknowledge the birt?. Actually, we see that in Matthew’s account, but much more low key – the travellers who find Jesus were actually Zoroastrian Priests (Magi) and astrologers following celestial signs, not kings. And they have to slip out under cover of darkness to avoid giving the game away to a tyrant and mass murderer. Luke tells us that the first to greet Jesus were shepherds – people on the outskirts of society – one step removed from vagabonds and beggars. Hardly an upbeat, glorious heralding of the King of Kings, born in a barn.

But in such a humble birth, Jesus lifts up the humble, and in being born naturally, with all the blood, pain, indignity and mess of human childbirth, He lifts up the value of women and mothers too. In this arrival, Jesus shows us the value of all our arrivals, the dignity and value of all our births.

Which is why this passage gives me pause. Because at the same time we remember this miraculous pregnancy and birth and the value God places on each life brought in to the world, and each mother who brings that life forth, thousands of women the world over are dying in pregnancy and childbirth. Poverty, lack of proper facilities and care, poor diet, war, disease – all contribute to an appalling daily death toll of women and their babies. In Niger, 1 in 7 women will die in childbirth. In Sweden that’s one in 30,000. That is enough to give pause for thought. It is even more worrying when you consider that the nations of the world in 2000 agreed universally to reduce this terrible toll by two thirds by the year 2015. It is one of the eight Millennium Development Goals. And it is the one goal that is least likely to be met – in fact if anything the toll is worsening in many countries, and barely improving in many others. It seems that, while God values women, children, pregnancy and motherhood, we do not. Almost all of those deaths are avoidable – it is our negligence and lack of will that is letting this hidden holocaust go on.

Mary’s prayer when she visits Elizabeth is known as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) – and talks of rulers being brought down, the humble and poor being lifted up, filling the hungry with good food, yet turning away the rich and unjust. She saw then that the child she carried was going to turn the world upside down.

Will we be the rich and powerful who are turned away from His Kingdom because we neglected justice?

Monday, December 15, 2008

An Advent Poem.

Fascinating poem - drawing on Old Testament prophecy, the gospel narratives and many other allusions with beautiful imagery (in both word and video images) - grasps the heart of Christmas, and the future hope of Advent perfectly.

Check out for more

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Human Dignity

It is probably no coincidence that the Vatican has released a long treatise on the dignity of the human person (“Dignitas Personae”) in the same week that we celebrated the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The two in many ways go hand in hand, and it is no surprise that I am involved with the selection panel for an award to Christian doctors and other health workers involved in the response to HIV & AIDS known as the Dignity & Right to Health Awards. Health and human dignity hold together - especially when we understand health as wholeness of being (health and wholeness and holiness all share the same Anglo-Saxon root - and parallel the Hebrew word "shalom" meaning a state of right relationships and well being).

The aim of the Vatican's three-part instruction 'is to provide responses from the Church to new bioethical questions that didn’t exist when the Church released her last biomedical document in 1987. According to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) the document is the result of six years of study and deliberation on the most recent developments in the field of bio-technology. The document seeks “both to contribute ‘to the formation of conscience’ and to encourage biomedical research respectful of the dignity of every human being and of procreation.”' Catholic News Agency

And there is no doubt that the rapid acceleration of modern medical technology is out pacing our ethical thinking. At both ends of life and (increasingly) in the middle, we are seeing the boundaries shifted - from regenerative medicine based around stem cells, to pushing back the boundaries on pre-term survival of infants. This is increasingly complex moral and clinical territory. An intelligent input in to the debates from a Christian perspective is to be welcomed, and Dignitas Personae gives that input eloquently.

I have become increasingly challenged and fascinated by the Catholic approach to a 'consistent ethic of life', as it holds together the traditional, conservative Christian concerns over abortion, euthanasia and experimentation on human embryos, with the traditional liberal concerns for social justice, care for the poor, and opposition to war and militarism. Holding together these two areas, usually associated respectively with the conservative right and liberal left is, I believe, deeply Biblical, and represents a continuum rather than a clash of interests.

Justice for the child in poverty, exploited as a child soldier, trafficked into the sex industry, or left to die of cholera or AIDS holds hand with a concern for the unborn and an opposition to abortion on demand. A concern to prevent legalised killing of the very ill or disabled goes hand in hand with true compassion and care for the sick, disabled and dying. Not that there are always clear cut answers to these questions - but our responses to them must be couched in compassion rather than judgementalism, in seeking understanding and dialogue rather than pushing our own views as the only way.

Nevertheless, this strong sense of human dignity and the right to life and health is why the early church used to scandalise Roman society by going out in the streets to bring in the poor, the homeless, the sick and the dying, including babies left outside the city gates ("exposed") because they were unwanted or deemed 'imperfect'. One wonders if in a 100 years time our societies' increasing acquiescence to abortion on demand and euthanasia, as well as our fondness for war as a tool of diplomacy and our general inertia in ending the scandal of extreme poverty in the developing world, will be seen as barbaric as the Roman practice of exposing unwanted infants or casting out the disabled and elderly?

But at the heart of all of this is not these emotive issues themselves, but something more basic and more wonderful. Human life has something essentially of value and dignity - so much so that we should declare human rights a global priority, and that we should stress, in the face of advances in medical technology, or the spread of tyranny and human trafficking, the importance and value of each and every human life. For me, the central reason for that dignity is simple - not only are we made in God's image, but also that God took on human flesh, that he grew in the womb as we do, that he was born as we are - vulnerable, naked, dependant on human parents. That he grew and lived, and ultimately died as we live and die, and in so doing lifted our ordinary human existence to the divine. This message is deeply resonant, especially as we approach Christmas.

Once you see all humanity in that light, then everyone you meet, tweet or otherwise interact with is worthy of the utmost value and respect, because there is something of the image of God in them. It impels us to care for the vulnerable and fight for justice for the poor, and not for the sake of a quiet life acquiesce to a culture of comfort that turns a blind eye to the suffering of others

That, perhaps, is one of the greatest messages of Christmas.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Zechariah & The Christmas Culture Wars

For our regular office devotions this Advent I set the readings from Zechariah. This often overlooked prophetic book is full of intriguing visions, many of which point to the coming of Messiah, the crucifixion, the final judgement and the coming kingdom of heaven, and of all the nations flowing together to worship the same Lord. It is the fourth most quoted book in the New Testament after Isaiah, Psalms and Deuteronomy - especially in the passion narratives of all four gospels and the book of Revelation. Looking forward to both the coming of Jesus and His return it is perhaps an ideal book to focus on during the season of preparation that is Advent.

This morning's reading was from Zechariah 7 – and it jumped out at me. In particular verses 5 & 6:

"When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted? And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves?"

I am in the midst of a busy time helping my wife to prepare for Christmas, which we are hosting this year. The logistical planning is almost military in its detail and complexity – and it is so easy in the midst of all of this to forget that Advent is the season of prayer and penitence as we look forward and prepare for the return of Jesus. And when we get to Christmas, will we be focussing on "the Word becoming flesh", or will it be on the food and presents, and getting everything ready in time for the Queen's Speech at 3, or making sure we are ready to go off to visit the extended family on Boxing Day? Or will be focussing on the miracle of God taking frail, vulnerable humanity and what that means for us here and now? In fact, it brought me up short about all our festivities – because in Keeping with Isaiah 1:17 and Isaiah 58, it is all too easy to be religious without concern for others, for justice and fairness as well.

"This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.'" [v9-10]

But it also struck me that these were admonishments for God's people, not the nations that did not know Yahweh. So I find it hard to hear the constant whine we make as we see a secular world ignoring the spiritual core of Christmas, and focussing so much on the food, fun and excessive expenditure (in times of recession we are told, it is our patriotic duty to go out and spend, spend, spend, even if it means more unsupportable debt, just to keep the economy going - as if that isn't what caused the problem in the first place!!).

Maybe we should be living our Christmas so differently, so focussed on justice, on compassion and mercy (and not on spend, spend, spend) and ultimately so focussed on Jesus, that the World takes note. Are we out there in the homeless shelters this Christmas, or supporting developing countries through living gift schemes, or in a myriad of other ways approaching Christmas in a different sprit to the world? And let's stop having a go at the secular society for ignoring the spiritual root of Christmas – it does not make them more aware of God, it just entrenches us deeper in these pointlessly petty culture wars we indulge in at the expense of God's Kingdom. Let's rather live out the Kingdom first, and be salt and light rather than shrill noise.

Monday, December 01, 2008

World AIDS Day 2008 - Looking to the Future

This year is the 20th World AIDS Day - and as such is a time to give us pause for thought. At one level it seem like we are loosing the war - HIV infections are increasing, with no sign globally of a slow down, deaths from AIDS related illnesses remain alarmingly high, and so many of the world's poorest people have no access to treatment, care or education on how to avoid infection.

But we have also seen in the last five years one of the biggest mobilisations of resources in human history to reverse this trend, an have seen some countries where rates of new infection are in decline, numbers on treatment climb rapidly, and mortality rates drop dramatically. So, in the midst of gloom there are an increasing number of pockets of light.

But we are now in the early stages of what will probably prove to be a major and possibly prolonged global recession - so the worry inevitably is, can this response even be sustained, let alone scaled up so that the few good news stories become many? That may be the biggest cause for concern in the next two to five years. And even if we can keep the scale up of AIDS related funding, what will happen to other areas of development funding to aid poverty reduction and improvement of basic medical and educational services? Services that are going to be essential in seeing the up-scaling of AIDS funding actually having an impact on the ground.

How can equity and justice be maintained in the midst of economic turmoil? - that will be the key question in the coming year - and the answers we find and put in to practice could be the difference between life and death for millions.

The Churches have a role to play here - speaking up for justice and equity for the poor communities where they are based and minister, mobilising resources independently of governments and major donors, setting up models of best practice in care, treatment and prevention through church hospitals, local clinics, church schools, community projects and the like. Church leaders are speaking out this year in an increasingly high profile manner - but more needs to be done. Churches are being encouraged to see HIV as a spiritual and practical challenge that we are called to respond to by God. But more can be done to empower and envision churches. Leadership is the key, and the principle theme for this year's World AIDS Day.

So let this 20th Anniversary World AIDS Day be the point where we stop, reflect on what we have learned from the past, then put all our energies in to finding a result for the future.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Surprised by Sorrow

Perhaps one of my most significant finds on the Internet recently has been LastFM, mainly because it keeps introducing me to music that I would otherwise never have heard. My most recent find has been Henryk Górecki's 'II Lento E Largo - Tranquillissimo' from his Symphony No 3. Also known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs this is a haunting, moving and uplifting piece that brought tears to my eyes. Despite its title it is not sorrowful or gloomy – it is slow, meditative, beautiful and haunting. It is amazing how music can affect you like this – there are so many pieces that can move me to tears or joy within just a few notes. I only have to hear the opening guitar chords of Johnny Cash's version of Trent Resner's 'Hurt' and tears are in my eyes and I am choking up; the opening sustained chord of 'Shine on You Crazy Diamond' and I am literally transported to another world in my mind.

Films too can have this effect – if you can sit through the closing scene of 'Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence' between Tom Conti and Takeshi Kitano and not weep, then you have a heart of stone! And if the dénouement of 'Sophie's Choice' does not makes you turn away in horror (especially if you a parent) then you have no soul!!

My wife has often observe how odd this is when I did not weep at my own parents' deaths, or that of my Grandmother, with whom I was especially close, or indeed the deaths of several good friends in recent years. Nor did I weep tears of joy at my children's births,. Yet I can cry at a song or a film. Some might think that makes my callous, others that this is just another sign of how emotionally stunted men are – but that is, as ever just looking at the surface. Tears can be faked, but genuine emotions run much, much deeper, and like many men I reflect my deepest feelings in other ways – through the written word, through other acts, rituals, spoken words. Raw emotion does not always cause the same external response in every person.

But that still does not answer how a piece like Barber's 'Adagio for Strings' or Vaughan Williams' 'Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis' can evoke deep emotions and even lead me to weep, when life events do not evoke that response. I do not have the answer fully yet, but maybe music has the power to evoke something deep down in the human soul, homesickness for a place we have never known, nostalgia for a time we never lived, looking for a world that isn't yet. That hunger for something more, something beyond all of this.

Górecki's Symphony No 3 is a musical setting for words written by various people at different times in history who were separated - child from mother or mother from child. The second song that so captivated me was written as a prayer by a Polish girl, Helena Błażusiak, on the walls of her cell in a Gestapo prison calling on the Virgin Mary for protection. It is a cry of hope in the midst of sorrow and separation, for reunion with her mother, for safety, for a better future. In expressing that deep, spiritual longing in music, it shows not only Górecki's genius as a composer, but how deep seated this longing for a better world is in us all.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

90 Years

Today, in many different nations, there was an act of remembrance for those millions who died in the First World War – 90 years to day that the Great War ended. That the War to End all Wars failed to achieve an end to war is one of the great clichés of the last century. That we continue to mourn those who have died in wars being fought to this very day is another truism. As Steve Turner once wrote, 'history repeats itself; has to; no one listens'. But I have always preferred the words of Wilfred Owen:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;

Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?

Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes

Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.

The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.


We do need to remember, although there is a good deal of debate in this day in age about what we are remembering. Is it the "Glorious Dead" who died in a noble cause, or is the horror and futility of war, and the hope that we might find a better way.

A week to the day that Barak Obama came to power in the States in the hope that he will lead their nation towards peace and change. The world hopes he does – and the weight of expectation on one man to save our troubled world are not only unrealistic, they are genuinely dangerous because ultimately, he is not going to succeed. I pray that he does make some difference, but he cannot solve the world's problems. And he is less likely to be as a good a friend to Africa as George Bush has ironically turned out to be - not for lack of good will, but because war and economic collapse will be his priority. We need to remember that others came before Obama promising a brave new world – I was reminded of the euphoria eleven years ago when Tony Blair was elected British Prime Minister – and remember how his tenure as PM ended? And remember Bush wanted to avoid embroiling the US in overseas ventures until that fateful morning in September of 2001 changed the course of his presidency. Events, dear boy, events – you never know where they will lead you.

So, let us remember the dead, of all sides, soldiers and civilians, and remember that leaders will never succeed in ending conflict forever. But let us pray that, this once, they succeed.

Friday, October 24, 2008


I don't think it's just me. I feel it the air, I feel it in the water. Many things that were are not any more... oh sorry, that's the Lord of the Rings!

Seriously though - it's that feeling I had in September 2001, May1997 & Christmas 1989, watching national and world events and knowing that everything was about to change in some fundamental manner. The big cities around the world are full of the deafening sound of stock markets crashing through the floor. Banks are being bought up by governments, global financial systems are in near terminal gridlock, inflation is soaring and recessions are being predicted (and felt) left, right and centre.

The US appear to be on the verge of voting in its first black president - a new JFK maybe? Russia has flexed its muscles in Georgia and finally thrown off any pretence to be being a Western friendly democracy - so much so that the talk is of a new Cold War. We even had a resumption of the Cod War between England and Iceland last week - albeit very briefly, and not over North Sea fishing rights. Power cuts and brownouts are being predicted in the UK this year - it all feels very like the seventies. Bring back Life on Mars I say...

All in all, things are going to change in 2009 - it will be a very different world to the one we faced at New Year 2008, let alone 2007! Only the arrogant or the truly prophetic (or darn lucky) would dare predict where all of this is going, as a new financial calamity, a new geopolitical shift, a new unprecedented global disaster seems to be happening on an almost daily basis. But it will change.

Jesus warned his disciples about this sort of thing - it's normal history though, everything as it always has happened - wars, rumours, economic and political sea changes. We just forget history and assume that this is unprecedented. It is not.

His reminder was not to worry, these are just birth pangs - because ultimately something new is coming, just not quite what he pundits are expecting though.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


Just spotted in the foot links of the BBC website this afternoon

Hunger pains

BBC reporter sees Zimbabweans' struggle for food

Dressed to kill

From moose hunts to couture - Palin's $150,000 makeover

Some juxtapositions are beyond comment

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Blog Action Day for Poverty

With UK headlines showing the highest rate of unemployment, in seventeen years and the highest rate of inflation in sixteen - on top of the market turmoil of the last three weeks, and the credit crunch of the last eighteen months, suddenly you can see that poverty is a reality around the corner for a lot more people than it was this time last year.

But that's just the UK, where to be honest absolute poverty (i.e. living on less than US$1 a day) is unheard of. But at the same time yesterday, the UN was warning that the global financial crisis has pretty much crashed the chances of achieving any of the Millenium Development Goals for those living in absoloute poverty. And the World Health Report has come up with some alarming figures on the widening health gap in health and life expectancy between rich and poor.

Already, the hike in food prices is affecting poorer people in most countries, let alone the poorest of the poor who already could not afford to buy food. And if you cannot eat, you get ill, and if you get ill, you cannot work, and if you cannot work, you cannot earn money to pay for food - and so it goes, and so it goes...

In short, the global credit crunch has done in for the world's poor. But it's not the bankers who created the problem that will suffer. First it is the poor Americans who were conned in to taking out loans that they could never have repaid and who are now bankrupt and homeless. Next it will be the poor of Africa and Asia who find aid budgets squeezed, protectionism closing down the markets they were just hoping might help them earn a decent living and discover that food, fuel and other essentials are increasingly priced beyond their means. And while the rest of us will have four or five lean years, and some may lose homes and jobs, most of us in the West will come out of it OK and alive.

But there are kids alive today in Zimbabwe and Pakistan who will not be this time next year because of the credit crunch. Credit they would never have had access to in their wildest dreams.

You can understand now why there is a clamour for criminal investigations. But what justice will there be for the poor, yet again shafted by crisis not of their making? Precious little I fear from the global banking system and the governments of wealthy nations.

God looks on, but is He weeping or angry?

Friday, October 03, 2008

Anti-Christian Violence in Orissa

Still largely unreported in the Western media, a month long spasm of senseless violence against Christians in the Indian state of Orissa seems to slowly be calming down, at least according to a local blog I am following.

Killing, arson, intimidation (including attacks on orphanages and children's homes for heaven's sake!) - exactly what this has to do with Hinduism is beyond me, but it never ceases to amaze me how humans can excuse the most extreme behaviour in the name of higher principles.

As the author of the Remember Orissa Blog says

Just think of the victims. Yes, they are not tribal. Yes, they are Dalits. Yes, they are Christians. Yes, some may have made false certificates to avail of benefits meant for tribals ; or broken conversion laws when they chose to believe in the Christian God ; or become proud of their progress and education. But don’t they have any rights anymore ? Aren’t they also human ? Aren’t they also Indians ? Or has that also been taken away from them. They go through the reverse Exodus experience – from God’s People to No People.
It is also telling that while the Western World is still obsessing about multi billion dollar and euro bailouts of major financial institutions, or about how Sarah Palin did in last night's presidential debate, (and in the UK how the chief of London's police force has been forced out by the mayor of London) the fact that the lives of ordinary people are being so drastically hit by unrelated problems goes by totally unmarked. The life of a poor person, especially of colour, is worth less it seems than any of the above.

Just where and when did we get it so incredibly wrong?

If you are reading this from the UK, there is one, little thing you can do - sign an on-line petition to encourage the British Government to raise this issue with the Indian Government, and make the situation more widely known.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Bickering in the Flames

As I write, the lower House of the US Congress has just thrown out the bill to bail out US investment banks to the tune of about £380 billion. Well, I'm not going to talk about that much, other than to say I am just going to let the Americans do what they do best, and bicker over the minutiae. But let's get back to that in a moment.

Next month, the British Parliament reconvenes after the summer recess. One of the first orders of business will be to rubber stamp the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Much has been written elsewhere about the controversies surrounding a lot of this bill, and there are yet more crazy amendments to do with abortion being tagged on with little thought for a considered public health policy on reproductive health. One of the Bill's major bones of contention was over the issue of human animal hybrids being used to generate stem cell lines. I have commented before on the questionable science behind this – when other approaches to stem cells seem to actually be yielding effective treatments for around seventy degenerative disorders, why go asking for legal permission to go down a questionable route that will in all probability divert funding from avenues that are having therapeutic benefits?

Of course, stem cell therapies will only ever benefit the rich and privileged. Vested interests (in scientific prestige or profit) will always drive where the research goes – which is why, as I heard only two weeks ago at a conference in Nigeria, less than 5% of most drug company research and development budgets go on treatments that will benefit the world's poor – most of the spending is going on treatments for baldness (don't get me started again!) and erectile dysfunction, obesity, smoking cessation and other lifestyle health problems of the rich, while malaria and drug resistant TB run rampant in Asia and Africa, and many other debilitating tropical illnesses go with no new or effective therapies even in the pipeline. The poor cannot pay, so let them die or suffer, who cares? No one sees, and it does not affect the bottom dollar.

Back to Wall Street's implosion. Last week in New York was supposed to be a global emergency summit to get the world's leaders to focus once again on how they can lead the way in tackling the Millennium Development Goals (which remain so off track that most will now never be achieved). Only the whole collapse of the investment banks and AIG overtook everything, and the focus was on how we save the world economy. I was in Nigeria when it happened, and while the Nigerian press had a certain schadenfreude over the crisis, they could also see that this was going to hit them at some point, in some manner. Most Africans are watching all of this with more interest n most Americans or Westerners realise (a groups of American nurses I travelled with could not wrap their heads around why there was a huge poster of Barak Obama on a main road in Abuja – they could not see that to Africa, the US elections really do make a difference, and the hope that maybe an African American president might just make things better for Africa – maybe...). We are being watched by the world, how are we going to respond?

The fire fighters are out arguing about how we put out the big fires destroying the great institutions of the City Anglo American Capitalism – but as they stand around the inferno and bicker, they are not caring about (or even noticing) the sparks leaping from the conflagration that are setting ablaze the ramshackle huts that cluster together around the city where the world's poor huddle together. They did not light the fire, but they will burn, unnoticed by the rich as we bicker over bailouts for merchant banks and high tech medicine that only benefits us, our bank balances and our scientific egos. But world's poor are watching the fire and our self absorption – and so is God, and one wonders where the judgement will fall next....

Friday, August 29, 2008

New Perspectives

In 'Lila', Robert Pirsig's follow up to 'Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance', Phaedrus, the narrator, notes how we all create constructions about our lives that blind us to the deeper qualities of the world around us. Our everyday habits, routines, clichés, etc, all act as cushions and blinds that keep us sheltered from reality by creating around us our own, comforting bubble of pseudo reality. But when illness or disaster strikes - we lose a job, or a loved one, or we wind up in hospital after a car crash - these constructions are torn away, and we glimpse the world in all its reality, beauty, ugliness, joy and horror. Being taken out of our quotidian existence gives us a chance to gain insight into our world, our lives and the lives of others - however fragmentarily and briefly.

I actually think in practice lots of other things do this in less dramatic ways - and one of them is holiday (or vacation if you are from over The Pond). Having just had two spells of holiday book ending August - two weeks camping on Chesil Beach and an extended weekend at home - I have come back with new perspectives on lots of things, not least how much I really enjoy being with my family.

Because my work routine usually brings me home only in time to have an hour or so's interaction with my children each night - when all four of us are tired and irritable - and gives my wife and I only a few minutes of interaction that are mostly focussed on domestic matters, followed by an exhausted collapse into TV, a book, the Internet or sleep (sometimes all four simultaneously!), anything that breaks that routine and allows us to spend a whole day together not solely obsessed by domestic routine, is a minor revelation.

I discover my son has a wry, almost ironic sense of humour (not bad for a five year old), my eldest daughter is a budding artist and author, and my youngest is madly extrovert and just a little bit domineering, as well as very, very funny. And I keep re-discovering new depths and surprises in my wife that keep me falling back in love with her.

Some people find these times with family just a source of stress - and I can see that. I get stressed with them all at times too. And they with me in equal (if not greater) measure. But it's been like a voyage of re-discovering my family this summer - and its made me want to take time out to do this more often.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Changing the Rules of Engagement

Have just come away from a church service on the eve of the Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast, where I heard a remarkable sermon by Labib Madanat of the Palestinian Bible Society. Preaching from 2 Kings 5: 1- 19, the story of Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram. Aram had persecuted and plundered Israel, and Naaman had a captured Israelite girl as a slave. She encouraged Naaman to go to Israel to seek healing from his leprosy.

Now most takes I have heard on this story focus on Naaman and Elisha the prophet by whom God healed him, but Labib focussed on the slave girl – taken by force, her family probably slaughtered before her eyes (or worse), and now held a captive far from her home land, speaking a foreign tongue, she had no cause to love or care for her Aramite master. Indeed, she could have said his leprosy was God's righteous judgement on him – but instead she had compassion on him. The rules of engagement required that she should be his enemy – she changed the rules of engagement and showed compassion.

Labib recounted his own experience after losing a close friend and colleague to Hamas gunmen, and while initially feeling this hatred he found himself some time later meeting with a Hamas leader, and mourning with him the loss of his son to Israeli forces some two weeks earlier – this after spending time with his colleague's still grieving family, including his young children. He changed the rule of engagement, and showed compassion.

When I look at Jesus, that is what he did all the time. He never met the scribes and Pharisees on their turf, or fought according to their rules. He did not distance himself from prostitutes and tax collectors and occupying Roman soldiers as the religious rules of engagement dictated, rather he went out of his way to engage with them. He changed the rules of engagement between God and humanity.

At the moment I see my own church's global family ripping itself apart over the issue of gay priests. And while I have sympathy with both sides, especially the conservatives, I fear that neither are changing the rules of engagement. At a time when we are finding that gay men in the UK are engaging in risk taking behaviour like never before, and that HIV rates are climbing within the gay community as a result, should we not be changing the rules of engagement and looking at what we as Christians have to offer to help tackle this? Not in judgement and harsh messages, but out of grace, love and compassion to those who are choosing knowingly to put themselves at risk. A radical suggestion, bound to be disliked by gay activists, religious conservatives and liberals alike – so all the more reason to put it forward. I suspect Jesus would have been with the gay communities, and those affected by AIDS as he was with lepers and prostitutes and tax collectors in his day. Those marginalised by society - is the church doing anything to reduce that marginalisation? I fear the answer is a qualified "no".

While some commentators suggest this growing Anglican rift is primarily a conflict based on a clinging to a Christendom model of the Christian faith, and others that it is just plain intolerance of difference, there is no doubt that both sides in the debate have been lobbing missiles at one another, and as things currently stand a growing number of bishops will not be at the Lambeth Conference in July – heralding the real possibility of schism within worldwide Anglicanism.

But in keeping to the traditional rules of engagement between the theologically conservative and liberal, the Anglican Communion may also be missing the mark in other ways – the media and commentators will be obsessing over the gay priests issue, while the other issues under debate, including global poverty will not get an airing. The National Prayer Breakfast (on the eve of which the service last night was held) is focussing around the Micah Challenge – the global church movement to hold our governments to account for the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals to halve global poverty and tackle the other scourges facing the world's poor. This will also be a focus of the Lambeth Conference, with a planned prayer walk to 10 Downing Street of Bishops committing their churches to the campaign. With so many conservative bishops boycotting the Lambeth Conference, the message of commitment to the Micah Challenge vision of a mobilised global church addressing the issue of poverty will be weaker than it should be.

The rules of engagement between liberal and conservative Anglicans need to change – on both sides; there is too much at stake for the world as a whole for there not to be.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Consistent Ethic of Life

So, once again we have US "pro-life" senators trying to pull funding on work that saves lives (just not the unborn). At the same time I am a UN meeting representing some of the smaller UK based Christian HIV & AIDS ministries (and spending some time talking to the larger ones), and find there is an air of intolerance towards Christians in general, and evangelicals in particular. Some of that antipathy is inevitable and not to be avoided - speaking unpalatable truths (as we should if we are faithful the gospel of Jesus) that set people free is one of our callings as believers. But seldom is it the expression of the truth that causes the problem - it is rather this inconsistency from some of the evangelical community (not just in the USA, but most frequently).

Argh! Here at the UN, the US is seen simultaneously as the bad guy (for an example of why, see above) and as a cash cow (ditto!). I am frustrated that we are not getting back to core issue in the AIDS pandemic - how do we stop in spreading, and then how do we treat and care for those already infected and affected. As I see it, the plan to wreck the new PEPFAR funding bill in the US Congress is based on a misapprehension that only drug therapies have the answer, or that prevention should be along narrow (and largely unproven) sexual abstinence only initiatives. Prevention and care need to be tackled in lots of different ways, but at its most effective it is less dependant on the top down approaches of PEPFAR and more on the mobilisation of local communities (churches and other faith communities in particular) to respond in a locally appropriate way.

A consistent ethic of life seeks to care for all - the born and the unborn, the dying and the living, and accord all with equal human dignity. It is about justice above all else. And it is about equipping people to respond to their own needs rather than rely on paternalism from the rich - a Biblical principle found throughout the Pentatuch, and especially in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Sadly, a lot of the "pro-lifers" of the US religious right do not know their Bibles half as well as they think they do, or else they might not be barking up the the wrong tree yet again.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

No Imminent Cures from Stem Cells

Well, here we have it at last, an admission that all this hoo-haa about human animal hybrids is not leading to imminent cures for degenerative diseases. It is both sad and suspicious that only after the vote had been taken by Parliament did the scientific commentators and proponents of this line of research come out and admit the truth.

Vulnerable people have been exploited to make the case for a line of research which, at the very best, offers only a long-term hope for treatments in a few decades. The cynicism and sheer chutzpah of some proponents of hybrid embryonic stem cell research is astounding.

Once again, one has to ask why the government forced this bit of legislation through with such hype about the potential to cure everything under the sun? Are we seeing once again, as with the dodgy dossier and the case for war in Iraq, a peddling of half truths to win over the public and parliament? And with what motivation?

Hmm... I have no more to say on this matter, time will judge.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Social Care Agenda

So, it seems that Gordon Brown et al are suddenly concerned that our old people (i.e. almost all of us in a few years time) are not being well enough looked after, and that the cost of care is disadvantaging all. Well, I can't argue with that, having worked in nursing and care of the elderly back in the nineties, all I can say is that if things have got worse since that time then we are in a truly sorry State.

The thing that worries me is that throwing money, insurance schemes, and other reviews is not really addressing the issue. The way have chosen to live our lives, atomized, families scattered, children too busy to see isolated parents regularly, neighbours too scared, suspicious or ignorant of one another to watch out for the vulnerable ones, and a general abdication of responsibility to the "powers that be" (i.e. social and health services), means that care has been reduced to a mechanistic process rather than one of genuine compassion and engagement by the wider community.

In fact I would go so far as to say that no government can ever resolve this. While a bill goes through Parliament that allows for IVF with no father being named, and as we increasingly rely on self-definition of "family" and "community" – it is no wonder that our care services are in a sorry state. Because at the end of the day it will be down to us, not Labour, the Tories or anyone else coming along making manifesto promises.

We will all (should we live that long) grow old, become frail and need care. Will we leave it till it's too late to wake up and realize that we need to start looking out for one another and not abdicating that responsibility to the State? I am much heartened by new models of church community that are exploring how to care for one another, especially the most vulnerable. But these examples are still the exception, not the norm, and even if every church in the land rose to the challenge that would still run the risk of the wider community abdicating its responsibility to the churches instead of the State, thus creating a new form of institutionalism.

If how we care for the vulnerable is a mark of how civilised we are then I guess we are living in a barbarian society – the old, the young, the dying and the unborn – none are universally well cared for in modern Britain, and more and more legislation to remove protections and allow the killing of those whose lives are deemed "not worth living" are threatening to appear on our statute books.

The only way that changes is going to happen is with each one of us choosing for it be otherwise – and not to rely on someone else to care for our family, our friends and our neighbours. Instead we should look to do it ourselves, together as a community.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Studying Belief

This is a fascinating article from the Economist, that saves it’s sucker punch for the last paragraph, but raises some interesting problems. And my initial reaction was to laugh (it still is to be honest), but on reflection one has to admit it does raise some serious questions about the assumptions in some branches of the scientific community. I say some, as my own schooling in medical anthropology has taught me, the first thing you have to question is every assumption, and reconstruct your understanding from the most basic level.

So the epistemological problem here is quite an intriguing one – can religious belief be analysed and deconstructed, and the basis for it be found in evolutionary biology? The first question I have to ask is, “why are you asking this question?” – is it a valid question to ask if an area of human behaviour and knowledge that deals in the metaphysical, the ritual and the moral/ethical dimensions can be analysed in terms of reductionist methodologies coming from a totally different epistemological starting point. Or to put it another way, can the questions asked by evolutionary biology answer the questions and the search for spiritual meaning and truth? There would seem to be an assumption by the evolutionary biologists that religion has an evolutionary purpose.

And it is a valid question to ask – after all some sociological and psychological studies have indicated that those with a religious belief, and especially those belonging to a religious community of some sort (from a church to a monastery, mosque, synagogue, temple, ashram, etc, etc.) seem to live longer, and have healthier lives, and often contribute more to society (although almost of all of these findings are open to question and interpretation). However, it begs the question – if religious belief has an evolutionary purpose, does non-belief serve a purpose? Is there an evolutionary purpose to scientific research, atheism, secularism, etc, etc? In other words, physician health thyself – it is the old error of earlier generations of anthropologists that their science was purely about the observation of the other rather than the observation of self – the researcher researches him or herself and questions the values, assumptions and mindsets that underpins his or her own field of study and activity. Medical Anthropology soon turned from studying only the patient to also studying the doctor and the nurse, and then to studying the researcher him or herself.

Because the next problem then arises – if those undertaking this research come from an essentially secular and at least agnostic world view then is there not an anomalous problem that the world view they represent may in itself also be the result of an evolutionary process, or, worse still, an evolutionary dead end (after all, the secular, educated middle classes have far lower birth rates than their religious counterparts, so by Darwinian logic are slowly being bred out of existence). So it seems illogical to ask the one question without also asking the other.

The problem is one of blind spots in epistemology, and the ready assumptions that consequently arise. The early question used in the article, about how people may be programmed to see God observing their every move, misses an understanding of what it is that believers actually believe. It is based on the assumptions of what it is that we believe by those who do not necessarily share our beliefs (and of course, there are many scientists who do have a religious belief – the two domains are far from mutually exclusive).

So the whole enterprise of finding a scientific reason for belief ultimately flawed from several angles. However, that does not mean it will not throw up interesting results – but possibly the most interesting results will be what it tells us about the assumptions and beliefs of the scientists undertaking the research.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Best Reading & Listening over the Last Twelve Months

Normally, I'm not in to lists and after the initial appeal of all those nostalgia shows on TV, I have got bored to death of shows with titles like "Top 100 Greatest Celebrity TV Dog Moments Ever of the Nineties" or whatever.

But, unapologetically, and with no real reference to wider culture, here are a couple my favourite reads and listens recently - if for no other reason that to give myself something to come back and laugh at in ten years.

  1. The Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell - admirable for its structure (six nested novella length stories , each in a different literary style, each set in different eras form the 19th Century through to a bleak, post apocalyptic far future by way of a detective novella, a farce, a disjointed set of letters from a venal composer between the wars and an Orwellian dystopia), its readability (you can't put it down - seriously!), and the elegant and beautiful way it brings all six narratives together in an exploration of the human capacity to transform ourselves and our world for good and ill, and the journey of one soul through time. A sort of bildungsroman for the 21st Century. It is also a brave literary author who ventures in to Science Fiction - and pulls it off (the two SF stories have echoes respectively of Huxley's "Brave New World" and Le Guin's "Always Coming Home", along with several very Atwood-esque unreliable narrators).

    Above all, it is about how humans can really foul up the world - and how we have the potential to put it right again.

  2. In Rainbows - Radiohead. Well, just when I though their avant had disappeared up it's garde and the bleeding edge had exsanguinated itself, Radiohead come out with something immensely listenable, but still way out there (at least in terms of commercial pop and rock). It is also dark and ironic.

    One of the great iconic moments of "The Royle Family" is the two leads singing to "Baby David" Radiohead's "No Alarms & No Surprises" as a lullaby. This was Caroline Aherne making an ironic statement about how little most people really listen to music - the song has a beautiful, almost childlike melody, whose lyrics are about suicide(hardly fitting stuff for a lullaby).

    This juxtaposition of lyric and melody is a bit of Radiohead trademark ("Fake Plastic Flowers", "High & Dry", etc.). In this album we have one such moment at least in "House of Cards", a beautifully transcendent piece of music that should be a tender and passionate love song, but turns out to be about wife swapping and lust. "You are All I Need" compares the singer to "an animal trapped in your hot car" - a dark reflection on co-dependency. There are glimmers of hope, but you do get the feeling that Tom Yorke feels humans are a bit of a mess, and not very nice - there is no redemption here. He has a point, but it could do with some leavening with hope and a bit less post-modern irony - but maybe you need faith to do that, and that does seem to be the biggest absence.

    But it's really the music that grabs you - energetic and almost hypnotic - with some almost unbearable melodic tensions stretched out to the limit before being gloriously resolved. It is quite the most beautiful thing they have done since OK Computer, and one of the very best albums of the last year.
The list will be added to as I get through more books and albums (and the odd film or two).

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The tyranny of science

The tyranny of science spiked
Dear old Frank Furedi. He does get it right sometimes - although not completely.

His attack on the deification of science as a new de facto source of "scriptural authority" hits a nail on the head. His targeting is a bit lazy in places, but it does bring up an issue - are we creating a new "Scientific Orthodoxy". Are we allowed to hold dissenting views to that Orthodoxy? hmmm.....

Recently the Science & Technology Committee of the House of Commons presented a report that they said was based purely on scientific evidence to do with altering the lower limit for abortions. But the science was already clouded in politics, as both pro and anti lobbies presented evidence that backed their cases. Despite some excellent research on foetal pain from the States, and on surivial of infants at or below the current lower limit of abortion, the Committee produced a report that backed the view that the abortion lower limit should be maintained, and abortion regulations liberalised. The science that contradicted these findings was left out of the report to such a degree that two members of the committee submitted a Minority Report highlighting it.

The Government has now come out clearly in support of the Majority Report, so quickly that one wonders if it had all been written in advance of the official publication? The science was politicised even before this of course, and only a token number of expert opinions were taken from those who believed a lowering of the upper limit was necessary because of increased survival of pre-term infants. And those who did offer expert testimony were then "outed" as being "pro-life" (even if at least one committee member and a number of those giving evidence to the contrary were members of known "pro-Choice" groups). It seems in British public life at the moment only certain orthodoxies, of a scientific and political persuasion, are tolerated.

And now we are seeing a gradual erosion of protection for families and reproductive rights of fathers, the legalisation of human/animal hybrid embryos (for somewhat dubious reasons) and other reproductive rights and protections on a nod and a wink as the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill goes through without any of its assumptions (scientific, social and moral) being challenged in the public arena (the media have kept the latter stages out of the headlines altogether). Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill Peers vote to sideline role of fathers for IVF children

This is only one issue of course, but it does seem that there is an unthinking orthodoxy emerging in British Society, and that anyone who steps up and says "hang on a mo', is that really right?" is liable to be at best ignored, and at worst vilified and discredited for daring to speak against the prevailing belief system.

Ring any bells - Spanish Inquisition, Taliban, revolutionary Iran anyone? Now it is the "scientific & secular" West that is jumping on dissenters - maybe we don't get imprisoned for questioning the orthodoxy - not yet anyway, but differences of opinion are certainly not being encouraged.

Whither democracy and freedom of thought now?


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