Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Shack & The Road

I am still reeling from my recent reading. After putting it off for a year or so, I finally succumbed and borrowed a copy of the most read Christian book of recent years (or decades even), 'The Shack', to at least find out what all the controversy was about. At the same time I decided I needed to read Cormac McCarthy's prize winning 'The Road' before the movie came out. Neither book could be described as a light hearted bundle of laughs, so I was steeling myself for a less than easy literary experience

Let's start with 'The Shack' – the story of a man whose daughter was abducted and murdered some years earlier being drawn to the site of her death by God at the eponymous Shack. Turning up as an African-American and an east Asian woman and a middle-eastern man, the Trinity then proceeds to show him the nature of the divine and his human misconceptions about God, life, death, suffering, etc, etc, and in so doing help him come to terms with his awful loss. If that summary sounds banal and superficial, it is because at one level, the book is banal. Badly written, cliché ridden, verbose to the point of tedium, the God of 'The Shack' communicates in trite sermons and homely proverbs, but seems unable to use metaphor and parable to explore deep and complex issues. It presents a rather wishy-washy God, the sort of nice cuddly figure of the American Megachurches, rather than a more robust Biblical vision of the Divine.

Others have written at length about the book's literary and theological deficits, but it obviously scratches some spiritual itches in our post-Christendom culture. Certainly, it does speak into the darkness of human loss and sorrow, and for all its faults, I found myself moved at times. But like a McDonald's, it tasted good but left me feeling strangely under nourished.

'The Road' on the other hand left me reeling, as if I had been at a good friend's funeral – deeply sorrowful, but also left with a profound sense of hope. The premise is as bleak as you can imagine – a nameless father and son walk across a United States that has been utterly devastated by a nameless global disaster, leaving the air leaden with ash, blotting out the sun and extinguishing all wild life. The only things left in this bleak landscape are the sporadic forest fires sweeping the land, and straggling bands of human survivors scavenging for food, many of whom have turned to cannibalism to survive. With just a trolley of scavenged food supplies, a pistol with two bullets, and each other, the two protagonists struggle towards the ocean for no clear reason. Along the way they face mundane struggles against the elements, the other human survivors, and their own failing health. Not a barrel of laughs you'd think, and for certain it is as grim as that summary would suggest. But to write it off as too bleak to be endured would be to miss out on a truly moving and uplifting masterpiece.

Much has been made of the beautiful, stark and simple prose with which McCarthy paints his pictures and tells his tale, and rightly so. But it is the simple, profound way that he paints the relationship between father and son that got to me. As a father myself I identified with the relationship so powerfully. The father seeks to protect his son from the stark hopelessness of their situation, seeking to convince him that they are keeping the flame of humanity alive, and seeking others who do the same (while not really believing this himself). However, it is the son who keeps challenging his father's single minded resolve to survive at any cost by constantly enjoining him to share their food with others, to take in the lost and help those who are in danger. His simple, naive compassion and hopefulness sits in stark contrast to the vicious cannibalism or despairing, bewildered hopelessness of the other survivors that they encounter. The son teaches the father to be truly human in the face of bleak inhumanity.

In 'The Road' God would seem to be absent – he was either never there, or has turned his face away from humanity and abandoned us to our fate. Yet the novel's finale gives us a glimmer of hope – that God has not turned his face, and that he is to be found in the finer human qualities that have not been extinguished, even in the worst of circumstances.

So, while 'The Shack' seems to be about God, it is really only about a certain, American cuddly image of God that is vapid and all too human. Meanwhile, in 'The Road' God remains off screen, but his presence is there in the simple humanity of the boy and his relationship with his father. It is that altogether more painfully realised image of God that is the more authentic.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Climate Change, Population and Health

At the time of writing, the Copenhagen Climate Change Talks are about to happen, and much comment in the media suggests that the chances of a meaningful agreement on curbing emissions rests on whether the West can persuade India, China, Brazil and much of the developing world to sign up.

At the same time, reports have been published recently expressing concern about the role of a growing population will have on climate change, poverty and development Many climate change activists like Jonathon Porritt are calling for drastic reductions in birth rates to save the planet. Others raise the concern that growing third world populations will not only add to climate change but set back development by spreading meagre resources too thinly.

This growing trend needs to be challenged. Recent research has shown that far from contributing to climate change, the poor barely have any impact but are disproportionately affected. China, which has a low population increase rate has one of the highest rates of increases in emissions – the same is true of much of the developed world, while most Africans have less than a thousandth of the carbon footprint of your average European (let alone your average American).

The problem is not population growth but the emergence of developing world middle classes who aspire to Western consumer lifestyles, complete with its conspicuous over-consumption of resources (hence the hike in oil steel and wheat prices over the last five years). This raises two awkward questions. Firstly, what sort of development do we really want? Do we want Africa and Asia to enjoy Western standards of living (and thus consumption)? It has been said that to sustain that level of consumption would take the total resources of 2-3 additional planets like Earth. Secondly, if we do not want that kind of development for Africa, Asia and Latin American, then what right have we to deny them what we permit ourselves? It strikes me that calls to curb the population in the developing world smack too much of the rich trying to control and demonise the poor, while side stepping the consequences of our own love of cheap credit and conspicuous over consumption

Climate change is happening - whether we can change it is open to debate, but like the global economic crisis (which will swell the ranks of the poor by 100 million this year), the poor are not responsible but are the first to suffer. Poverty and lack of resources, infrastructure, and often governance, greatly increase the vulnerability of the poor to the effects of climate change. Those living in costal or tidal river flood plains (e.g. a large part of the population of Bangladesh and Southeast Asia and the Pacific) will be at risk of flooding if sea levels rise - increasing risks of water born diseases, loss of food production, homelessness and descent into further poverty. Competition for water and other resources as climates warm will increase wars and conflicts amongst poor communities and nations, leading to the further collapse of health and social infrastructure and increase rates of malnutrition. Increasing climate refugee communities forced off flooded or drought ridden lands will also put huge strains on health infrastructures of their own and surrounding nations. The subsequent sequelae particularly in the areas of maternal and child health will reverse the meagre gains of the last decade. Climate change, not caused by the poor, will have disproportionate impact upon their health.

We sit back and debate about climate change and whether it is real, while some extremists call all human beings the problem just for being alive. It would seem that the anti-life psychosis that seems to be afflicting late post-industrial Western consumer cultures is being exported to those who do not need to have to put up with such utter evil nonsense. All the while we are fiddling while the poor suffer for our actions – it is us, our cars, our gadgets, our waste, our demand for more, cheaper newer, for the exotic and out of season food shipped half way round the world, the need for bigger cities and more roads to fulfil our demand to get where we want when we want how we want. Porritt, Attenborough and their like are just obfuscating.

Jesus and the prophets warned strongly that sitting back complacently makes us culpable in the exploitation of the poor (e.g. Matthew 25:31-45). The tough question for me is, what the hell am I going to do to help change this? Watch this space.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Spirituality of the Long Distance Runner

I have recently been enjoying the "What is Spiritual Practice" blog series by Christine Sine and associates over in Seattle these last few months. Exploring how every day experiences can be part of our devotion to God has always interested me, and this series of thoughts has been quite refreshing and eye opening about unexpected ways of encountering God.

Thanks to my recent health problems I have had to make some major changes to my diet and start a proper exercise regime. For me, proper exercise means running – it was a passion for much of my twenties and early thirties, but somehow marriage and fatherhood squeezed the time for such practices – until I realised it was one of the only ways I could lose weight and help bring my diabetes under control.

So, I dusted off my old running shoes, bought some running shorts, and fished my worn out running socks from the back of my drawers, and started to pound the pavements whenever I could. I started taking my running gear to work and running the streets of Borough in my lunch hour (I briefly tried to run the route between the Millennium Footbridge and Tower Bridge on both sides of the Thames, but the volume of tourists made this hazardous, and a gashed arm caused by a distracted individual idly forcing me into some railings made me give up on that idea!!).

I started working out longer routes around my neighbourhood – streets that I knew by car, and then back routes and down through woodland and waste ground that I had never even been aware of before. At work I discovered side streets with hidden parks and those wonderful London squares with shared gardens in the centre tucked away behind the utilitarian facades of Borough High Street and London Bridge. I have found that you learn much more about a place pacing it out on foot than you do in a car or on a bus.

But it is the discovery of things inside myself that caught me by surprise. That my body actually craves exercise, and that years of being sedentary had not only harmed my health but had affected my spirit – my body wants to run, and denying it that had left me feeling something was missing. Suddenly it was more than the endorphin high of a good run, it was a sense that my body was doing something it was designed for and designed to do well. I am a runner by nature, and on the road I have found that "sweet spot" – the place where my body works at its best. The challenge of a new hill, a harder circuit, a longer route, a better time, all making me stretch my body to do more of this, and my body responds with joy. I have lost over two and a half stone (around thirty pounds if you are American, around fifteen kilos if you are European), and around eight inches off my waist. But it is more the sense of having energy and stamina and feeling young again that has struck me. It's like the years have fallen off, and I have my old self back again.

And as I find this new/old sense of self, I am also finding God with me on my runs. Granted I usually run listening to a podcast of films reviews, news or other matters of interest to me, but even with that I find myself aware that I am not running alone. I am not sure why God made me good at this – I am never going to be good enough to compete (nor do I want to), and it is an intensely solitary pursuit for me, (although I enjoy running with a partner from time to time). Yet I sense that in finding this one area where I am fitted, I am opening myself up to God to use me in other ways that He has suited me to.

We all have a place where we fit, a role or a skill that is uniquely ours. Finding that "sweet spot" is the road to joy, peace and fulfilment. Not necessarily the road to comfort, prosperity and material security, as some of the American prosperity heresies would have it, mind. In fact quite the opposite. Running takes hard work, discipline and commitment, self-sacrifice. Serving God in whatever way takes no less focus and commitment. So I have found that while running is a good in itself for me, I have found it more as a reminder that God has good works prepared for me in whatever role or walk of life that I am in. That is the challenge we all face – and sometimes we find it by the most unexpected route.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Era of the Reboot

I think it can hardly have passed notice that the world of cinematic and TV science fiction is going through a strange phase at the moment. I say strange, because it at once both highly creative and innovative while at the same time being tied somewhat pathetically to its antecedents.

Look at some the major science fiction films of the last eighteen months - Star Trek, Terminator Salvation, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and The Day the Earth Stood Still etc. All either remakes or reboots or sequels. Or on recent TV - Stargate Atlantis (a spin off to a TV show that was spin off to a film), Enterprise (the fifth spin off series from the original Star Trek), Battlestar Galactica (a reboot of a short lived seventies/eighties series), Doctor Who (a continuation and re-boot of a the longest running TV science fiction series on Earth) and Torchwood (not only a spin off of Doctor Who, but an anagram of that show's title!), and finally Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles (another spin off from the expanding Terminator franchise). And while Joss Whedon's Dollhouse stands alone as the most original show to have arrived on the scene in a few years, that is only thematically (and even then it has borrowed heavily on ideas from Joe 90 and Dark City to name but two obvious sources). However, structurally (at least to begin with) it was all too tied to the formula of a weekly sci-fi/spy show.

But this trend is not all bad - the new Star Trek film not only brought life and energy to a tired old franchise, but re-booted it in a way that gives infinite room for story progression. Battlestar Galactica remains one of the stand out shows of the noughties, standing up there with The Wire, West Wing and The Sopranos as one of the most innovative, engrossing and compelling television series of any genre. Some old ideas are worth re-visiting and improving upon.

Meanwhile Doctor Who continues to go from strength to strength on both sides of the Atlantic (and indeed, globally). Even it's initially weedy daughter show has at last found its stride with the five part Children of Earth mini series, but at the cost of killing off most of the characters and destroying its base of operations (a fourth season is still rumoured, but no yet confirmed).

Dollhouse may be finding its own original voice after an uneven first season, but at least has the virtue of coming from a (mostly) original idea that is not an attempt at a remake. But it is no Firefly (at least, not yet - the expectation on Season 2 is huge). And while Fox did grant it a second season, it did so at the cost of a third season of The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which had suffered from a very slow and uneven second season after a lean and engrossing first.

The less said about Terminator Salvation the better - maybe that franchise is finally ready to be laid to rest. Please! Ditto The Day the Earth Stood Still.

What does this all tell me? Maybe that there is a need to play it safe in US and British TV producers minds. Go with what we know will sell, rather than risk something different or new? That may be true, but there are genuinely innovative shows out there that give a lie to such an easy conclusion.

It may be that there are few writers willing or able to come up with something original? Or of a generation so raised on TV and cinema science fiction that they will not raid the treasure trove of ideas in literary science fiction.

However, there are some breaths of fresh air - Cameron's forthcoming Avatar looks set to revitalise the genre, not just through state of the art effects, but also through a premise that draws heavily on classic literary science fiction ideas. And there is District 9, with it unique setting in South Africa (at last, the aliens are not landing in New York or London, but Jo'Berg), and the recent Moon with its original and intelligent premise couched in references back to classic '70s science fiction films. But overall, I fear that TV and cinematic science fiction is in a state of decline in new ideas and innovation. Maybe we need a new generation of writers willing to branch off in new and unexpected directions. The creativity is out there, I am sure, I just hope it gets to see the light of day.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Faith and Theology: On assisted suicide: the problem with choice

Faith and Theology: On assisted suicide: the problem with choice

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This blog post and the related letter raise an interesting question about the nature of autonomy and personal choice in the debate about assisted suicide. Is our Western notion of autonomy and choice largely illusory and socially determined (as in the Bantu word ubuntu - I am who am because of you, and vice versa, the choices we make and the lives we lead we do in relation to one another, not in isolation)?

It gives pause for thought in the mounting debate about the decriminalisation of assisted suicide in the UK, in particular when autonomy and choice are the principle arguments in favour of legalisation.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Bishop Says Church of England Won't Surivive Without Radical Change - nothing new here, but a public recognition from within the C of E leadership that t cannot count on being part of the Establishment much longer, that it has to rethink how it can remain a part of the life of modern Britain and how it must rethink its mission to England and to the wider world.

One wonders if the formal structures can handle the change fast enough, or like a super-tanker trying to avoid an iceberg, it takes too long to slow and change the behemoth's direction before disaster strikes.

Of course, loss of an established denominational structure no more means the death knell of the church than the sinking of a ship stops people travelling - they just change vessel or mode of transport. The church in new and unexpected forms is popping up everywhere, and long may it do so - I just hope that the formal structures of my church can change direction before one expression of faith in Jesus in this nation collapses beyond repair.

But that is in God's hands, ultimately.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Foreign aid does more harm than good

Dambisa Moyo argues that aid has actually stopped development in Africa by enforcing dependency rather than creating space for bottom up wealth creation and development.

This is a an argument that is growing in force, and seems increasingly to be coming from Africans - not politicians but economists, entrepreneurs and business leaders. It would be good to know what the African churches are thinking about this? Many are tied by aid apron strings to their Western parent denominations, but an increasing number of indigenous African churches are kicking free of Western ties (although many seem to be creating new ties, especially to the more odious ends of the American health, wealth and prosperity heresies).

I think this is a new debate that needs to be had - the old models are simply not working any more (if they ever truly did). We need new thinking if we are going to eliminate global poverty.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Spiritual Care Conference – Days 2 & 3

The second two days of the conference were primarily for student nurses and teachers. In a wide range of seminars, themes exploring spiritual care in mental health nursing, midwifery, palliative care and general nursing. There were about 22-23 nursing academics and teachers, and about forty to fifty students – mostly from Norway, but also several from Netherlands and Romania.

The first day's themes around how to train nurses in spiritual care were reiterated, but also looking at the issue of the ethics of spiritual care when nurse and patients have different belief systems. The case of Caroline Petrie, the nurse suspended (and later re-instated) after offering to pray for a patient was widely discussed (I was surprised to find how much coverage her story had garnered across Europe). Linda Ross and Wilf McSherry explored this theme together in a closing plenary session, and the debate that was generated could have gone on for the rest of the day!

It was clear from much of the discussion that one problem has been the teaching of spiritual care as a distinct module, rather than interweaving it with all other aspects of care – which reflects more how spiritual care is delivered in practice. From my own experience, it is usually while conducting a routine (though often intimate) task, such as a bed bath or dressing a wound, that a patient will ask a leading question, or make a statement that expresses a spiritual or existential concern. It is a much underrated skill in the art of nursing to read such comments and use sensitive questioning to explore further with the patient the underlying questions and needs the patient is expressing. While looking for the question behind the question is not a teachable skill - it is learnt and acquired through years of experience - the basic skills if observation and reflective questioning are readily taught. One concern I have is that the practice of nursing is moving away from the bedside and in to the office, such that it is the nursing assistant that does the "real" nursing rather than the Registered Nurse. That may explain why RNs in particular express so many anxieties about spiritual care.

Another theme that emerged was the need for evidence based practice in the field. We have long moved on from trying to define spiritual care – there are as many definitions as there are papers and text books, but we do now need to justify all areas of nursing practice in terms of outcomes – not an easy task for such a rarefied and unquantifiable area. I think nursing has less of a professional problem with fuzzy edges and ambiguity, but it is in health system that has focussed on the paradigm of the machine –with inputs, outputs, throughputs and processes at the fore, rather than the ragged complexity of human suffering and healing, which is the rality that nurses deal with routinely. But there is research being done on how best to care for people spiritually, and that is something we need to use as the basis for all training and practice, and to justify the role of spiritual care in nursing care (and indeed all healthcare).

Spiritual care in mental health is a new frontier – with research emerging only slowly. It is a contentious area, as some religious and existential issues will be exacerbated or expressed in mental illness.

Finally, the need for research and training to be multidisciplinary is also key – all aspects of the health service need to recognise human beings as complex social, psychological, relational, spiritual beings, rather than biological machines to be fed through a system. That is going to take more than a few seminars or conferences – it demands a fundamental, radical culture change in healthcare management, government health policy and applied medical science. So – the revolution starts here!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Spiritual Care Conference, Bergen, Norway

Most of this week I have been meeting with nurse leaders, academic, lecturers and students from across Europe as we once again explore what spiritual care is, and how we in practice care for the spiritual needs of our patients. In the UK this has recently become a hot topic with nurses suspended for praying with patients, and the National Secular Society has called for the NHS to stop funding all chaplaincy services.

And there is no doubt, as a recent Nursing Times survey has illustrated, that most nurses in Britain at least, find themselves poorly equipped to assess the spiritual needs of their patients and address the care needs that are subsequently identified. My father-in-law, a full time hospital chaplain, has commented on more than one occasion that most of the nurses in his hospital are actually embarrassed to even ask if a patient has a faith or belief system – even when they are also asking about bowel habits, diet and even questions about the patient's sexual health! Is religion and/or spirituality the last taboo? Have we found ourselves able to talk about sex, politics and now even death, but still "don't do God"?

One of the biggest question raised on our first day was simply how we translate research in to practice, how we train nurses to deliver effective spiritual care, and how we weave the spiritual in to all aspects of care rather than separating it out as something 'set apart'. Talking to one leading expert in the field who had just flown in from a Royal College of Nursing conference on spiritual care, it seems that there are voices emerging who are suggesting that nurses should play no role in any kind of spiritual care – and while the reasoning of the voices so far raised is clumsy and poorly thought through, there is no doubt that there will be opposition to restoring the spiritual as an aspect of nursing.

So, in bringing nurses the skills to address the spiritual needs of their patients, we have to start with nurses reflecting on their own spiritual nature and journey, whilst at the same time not forcing their beliefs on others. But that is only a start, because any practice of care must be based on good research and be held properly accountable within a professional framework, so it is more than just touchy feely stuff – it is qualitative and quantitative research, health policy and professional framework development, and training strategies. Yet, we have talked this over for two decades, and nurses still do not feel equipped in this area of practice.

Tomorrow we begin the conference proper, but out of today we are pulling together a network of researchers, practitioners and teachers who will work collaboratively on addressing some of these questions, and sharing more widely the experiences of those seeking to put good research in to good practice.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I just want a white coffee

Ordering a coffee – simple you might think, especially in the English speaking world. But even in France, Germany, Netherlands or Romania, I can just say une cafe or eine kaffe, and if I want milk in it, une cafe au lait, eine kaffe mit milch, danke. Easy.

So, when in New York last year I went in to a Starbucks and ordered a white coffee and just got a blank stare from the barista, I was somewhat taken aback. It turned out that what I should have asked for was an Americano with milk. OK, I thought, fair enough, different country, different terminology. Plus I reckon my Southeast England accent was also hard for a native Manhattanite to understand. No worries there then.

But today, when at London City Airport I asked for a white coffee and got a blank stare I knew the goal posts really had shifted. Granted, the guy serving me had a mild Dutch accent, but this was on my native turf! Surely he could understand what a 'white coffee' was?

Then it hit me. I was coming up against Globeish – a hybrid, commercial/business/tech dialect of English spoken around the globe. Shaped by global brands, global business schools, and global information technology, this is the dialect of choice for non-native English speakers and the emerging generation as they circumnavigate the globe (physically or virtually). But it is a different English to the arcane, southeast England dialect I know, where a white coffee is just coffee with milk. It is light years from the broad 'Estuary English' spoken by the kids in my neighbourhood (who neither know nor care about coffee), or to the mannered, professional English of the southeast's middle classes. This is an English where black coffee is an 'Americano' and white coffee a 'flat white', where we 'unpack' rather than explain, and 'google' rather than look up. It is the language of the inhabitants of Cyberia, a country I and my generation can only visit, but of which my children are fast becoming natives. Suddenly, I am old and on the outside.

As I travel the world, my once proud mastery of my mother tongue is called in to question – the English of students and business people, geeks and cybernauts of all cultures is increasingly not my English. I am the outsider, the semi literate who speaks the language as a foreigner, not as a native. This is a new world, linked through social networking sites, connected physically by identikit airports on the edges of urban sprawls, where the same coffee and fast food chains are to be found, identikit cloned, whether you are in Moscow, Seoul, London or Los Angeles. Maybe this is what the adjective ballardian describes; a bleak, uniform, post industrial landscape, full of dislocated and commercially dehumanised and desensitised clones who are no longer people but merely consumers? Is it in this world that Globeish has become the main means of communication?

Or is that just my take as a fearful cultural outsider looking at an undiscovered new country that the teenagers and children of today will call home, but to which I must always be at best, just a tourist? A country that has found its own language in Globeish? I think it was ever thus between the generations, divided by taste in music, fashion and use of language; only now the pace and depth of that change is accelerating and globalising. It is not a good thing, nor is it necessarily a bad thing. Ultimately it is a very human thing, and coming to terms with it is a way of coming to terms with one's own mortality. Time to hand on the baton to the new kids in town – my Generation X gives way to Generation Y, as they in turn will give way to the Millennium Kids – my children's generation. And with each new generation the language will grow and mutate, bending old words to new uses, creating new words for novel ideas and objects. Real horrorshow.

Meanwhile, I think it is time I went off and read some Shakespeare or Milton, or maybe some J G Ballard, just to reacquaint myself with my mother tongue in all its subtle, ancient glory. With a nice cup of white coffee, of course.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Farewell J G Ballard

Science Fiction is traditionally seen as the fiction of glittering futures and humanity conquering the "final frontier". Ballard, who died on Sunday, stood in the defiantly British tradition of SF that had no truck with such naive American over-optimism, and instead explored the darker side of where technological progress might take us. His most controversial novel, "Crash" explored a near future where human emotional connections were so weak, and where the obsessions of technology so strong, that the protagonists could only achieve sexual arousal through car crashes – techno fetishism and violence taken to a logical (and nightmarish) extreme.

He also explored ecological collapse in "The Drowned World" – echoing our modern fears about global warming long before they became part of popular consciousness. In fact, many of his short stories (with which I am personally more familiar) and novels explore unexpected catastrophes that threaten complacency or illustrate our over reliance on technology or social/political control.

In our surveillance dominated, risk averse, socially atomised and culturally stagnant post-industrial societies, he will stand for a long time as a secular literary prophet who confronted us with the uncomfortable realities of our chosen way of life, and the world is poorer for his passing. One can only hope that Ballard's death will renew popular interest in his great body of work, and inspire a new generation of science fiction prophets.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Motto for the Noughties?

Well, this could sum up, with no further comments, the message we are all being fed by our governments and the banks they now own on our behalf.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Lent Week 4

The "Though for the Day" slot on BBC Radio 4's flagship news programme "Today" has been hotly contested for some time – the presenters (especially national treasure John Humphries) make no bones about the fact that they see it as a waste of space, the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society have tried to have it either removed or get humanist/rationalist thoughts for the day included as well as religious ones, and to be honest most of us with a faith also find it impossibly bland and irrelevant a lot of the time.

But every now and again it hits the nail on the head – and the two speakers who hit that nail the most often are Britain's two best loved Rabbis – Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and Rabbi Lionel Blue.

It was the latter yesterday morning who hit a nail on the head for me. Reflecting on a comic mess up at Obama's speech on St. Patrick's Day, he reflected that life does not always go as planned:

Then it dawned on me that life is like that autocue. We think our life is scripted. We've made our plans, written our words, know what we're going to say. Then something happens: an illness, an accident, an unexpected crisis, and suddenly the words no longer fit. We're thrown off balance. We improvise. A sense of humour helps. And we stumble through.

At least that's what I used to do until I made a decision that changed my life. Instead of getting angry or sad when things didn't work out the way I'd planned, I started asking, what is God telling me through this mishap? What is he trying to teach me? What does he want me to learn?

In preparing for our staff devotional earlier in the week I was leading from Ecclesiastes 3: 12-22 . Now I love Ecclesiastes, it is the most atypical book in the Bible – it seems nihilistic, almost Taoist – the Tao te Ching (written more or less contemporaneously I believe) has similar echoes about how life is short, wealth, learning and power are fleeting and illusory, and we all share the same fate – death. Cheerful stuff, but it is refreshing to find space in the scriptures for a frank assessment of the meaningless nature of so much that we lay great store in. Verses 12-14 and 22 of that passage remind us that for all that, work and the fruits of our labour are good things to be enjoyed as gifts from God.

Not that we are to live for these things either. Jesus had another take on it – Matthew 6:34 – live in the present, live now. It is not enough to be always looking to the future or harking on about how good things were in the past – here and now is where God is, and it is in the moment that we must live, because we cannot alter or bring back the past, and we cannot know or fully plan for the future. Of course, we have confidence in the fact that God is at work in our past and future too, and we have hope for that future coming of His Kingdom, but as the rest of that passage in Matthew's Gospel reminds us, don't worry about all that stuff – food, clothes, money, status, etc. Focus on God and His Kingdom, the rest is in His hands alone.

One of the lessons I am learning is to live in the present and to ask what God wants of me in my circumstances here, now and today – whether things are going to plan or otherwise. As I reflected earlier in the week, sometimes the most unwelcome turn of events is God's doorway. But we cannot second guess Him, we need to learn to walk with him each step, however unexpected.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Lent – Week 3-4

I heard a most useful sermon today, based on Acts 27:1-26, on how the path God has for us is less a straight line than a winding mountain path, full of digressions, resting places, and places where the path divides in different directions, yet still leading to the summit. God does not put us on rail tracks, he lets us find our own way, even when we wander off the path, get lost, double back or stop too long somewhere that was meant only to be a resting place.

God also sometimes sends us on other, unexpected routes, maybe placing obstacles in our paths, maybe using our own mistakes to take is in new directions.

My own Lenten journey has gone through an unexpected digression this last week. I had set out with my own idea of the journey, with a plan of prayer, fasting and study. Maybe I was a bit arrogant, too confident in myself, thinking I could self-discipline my way into God's presence, maybe feeling a couple of fasts and some prayer time each week would bring me in to a right relationship with God. Such attitudes can afflict us all when seeking to draw closer to God in times of self-examination and self-denial, and they leave little room for God's grace.

But barely two weeks in I was thrown an unexpected curve ball – a diagnosis of diabetes! Having been well and showing none of the usual symptom of diabetes this was a surprise (to put it mildly). My fasting plan went out of the window as I sought to make sure I was eating properly (interesting how fasting and following a strict diet can affect ones relationship to food in similar ways – it is no longer a simple pleasure and rapidly can become a focus of obsession). My cycle of prayers was disrupted by appointments with my GP and at the hospital, and my inner confidence that I could seek out God on my own terms went way out of the window. My sense of self control, of my body being under my will, was completely shattered.

I also felt a sense of shame and embarrassment – I knew the risks (family history of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus, carrying 2-3 stone more weight than I should, fat stomach, sedentary job, etc, etc.) yet had not taken them seriously enough to make lifestyle changes before the damage was done. I had had no warning shots across the bow – from feeling fine and well, I suddenly found that my body had gone wrong, and that youthful sense of immortality finally got shattered.

God is loving and works the best for His people, but Scripture and everyday experience gives us scant reason to expect that this will always be worked out in happy, cuddly and safe ways.

On Sunday evening, still mulling over the sermon I had heard that morning, I read the story of Jacob wrestling the Angel of God at the ford of Jabbok in Genesis 32:22-32. Jacob, the swindler and scoundrel, charismatic, living of his wits, self reliant. Here he was about to confront the brother he had swindled of his birthright, about to confront all the demons of his past, and once again was using his wit and charm to try and get out of a potentially lethal confrontation. Then a stranger turns up, wrestles with him all night, and finally, as dawn breaks, dislocates Jacob's hip to end the fight and get away. Only Jacob realising this is no ordinary mortal he has been fighting so long and hard, demands a blessing before he will release him from his wrestler's embrace, and so gets the name by which he and his descendants will be known – Israel – "wrestles with God". Jacob would forever be marked by that encounter, limping the rest of his life from a damaged hip. But more deeply he learnt that all his struggles had ultimately been with God, not men, and through them God was turning this supremely self reliant and flawed man into a leader who relied on God first and foremost, and on his native wit only secondarily.

The lesson for me has been similar. As Paul was given a thorn in the flesh, and Jacob a dislocated hip, God has given me more than a reminder of my own mortality – this diagnosis has been an opportunity to stop being so self reliant, and rely on God, and other people (my family, my doctor, and friends, have all been a huge source of support and encouragement already).

Even more, it was a reminder that God meets us on His terms, not ours. We cannot twist His arm; rather we can but receive His Grace as it is poured out in unexpected, and sometimes unasked for ways. And this diagnosis is but the start of a new and unexpected journey for me – not one I fear (although it would be a lie to say I have no anxieties), nor one that I would have sought out, but one I am learning to embrace.

I reflected earlier in Lent how we find God at the most unexpected junctures. Little did I realise how this was to work out. But then, none of us ever do.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Taking Action on the G20 Summit

As we near the G20, the Micah Challenge campaign is urging people to pray and lobby for real decisions that will genuinely benefit the poor.

The UK Government evidently sees this as an opportunity to make an impact - civil society and the churches in particular both here in Britain and around the world need to keep up the pressure to make sure that some genuine decisions are not only made, but put in to practice.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

And so the Grass Gets Trampled. Again.

From today's Guardian

The credit crunch is hitting the income of the world's poorest people the most and will make the UN's Millennium Development Goals more difficult to achieve than ever, according to research released today. The Global Monitoring Report from Unesco estimates the 390 million poorest Africans will see their income drop by around 20% - far more than in the developed world.

There is an old African saying that I have heard - "when elephants fight, it's the grass that gets trampled". The wealthy nations caused this economic collapse, but the poor, who had least to do with creating the boom or its subsequent bust, suffer the worst.

History repeats itself.
Has to.
No-one listens
I have said more on this elsewhere, and for now no more needs to be said.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

One Week in to Lent

I always find lent an austere and difficult time. In part that is a conscious choice on my part – to deny self by some kind of regular fast to focus the time on praying rather than eating. In part it is because it usually falls in the still, dying throes of winter, before spring's new life has had a chance to break out. But mostly it is because I inevitably find that trying to focus on God, and set aside time to pray invariably means other things try to crowd in on my time. And when I do finally get to pray, my mind cannot focus, I pray in meaningless clichés, or my mind wanders butterfly like on to a host of random irrelevancies.

Prayer is work, work is prayer, so goes the old saying. While the latter deserves a whole season of blog posts (OK, I can hear the groans – not seriously), the former is very true. If we are going to do business with God we will face opposition – whether that is from external, demonic forces or the simple stubbornness of the human heart that refuses both true repentance and grace, it is a sign that we are drawing closer to God when it gets harder to find Him. The paradox of God's grace is that the more we need it, the less we believe we can receive it, the more we seek God's face, the further He can seem to be. But then He breaks in, like those rays of light on a dark cloudy day where the sun shines through, illuminating the shadowed ground. Always when we least expect it, always when we least feel we've done anything to earn it. That, in the end, is the maddening, paradoxically delightful nature of grace.

So, it has been a dry, hard Lent so far, and past experience teaches me to roll with it – not to expect sudden revelations, sudden clarity, even while I hope for them. But I also suspect, in the words of Bruce Cockburn, that

"nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight/got to kick at the darkness 'till it bleeds day light."

this is part of a group Lenten blog orgnaised by Christine Sine of Mustard Seed Associates. Their Lenten Guide is available online

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Persectued Church? II

Following on from yesterday's post on the confusion about the interface of Christianity & secular society in modern Britain, I came across this quote from Jenny Taylor that sums up in a sentence what took me a small essay to write:
"Rather than litigating against the nation's confusion, and adopting the victim pose that demeans our faith in a Lord who rejoiced in martyrdom, we should use our strength trying to model real Christianity – chastity, hope, poverty, stability and love."
With thanks to the guys and gals at Ekklesia

Monday, March 02, 2009

Persecuted Church?

It seems you can barely pick up a newspaper at the moment without reading that such and such a Christian has been suspended or sacked for speaking about their faith or praying, or that a Christian organisation has been denied funding or told to take down a cross or other religious symbol, etc, etc. These stories are being seized upon to suggest that Christians in the UK are becoming a persecuted minority.

I have three issues with this. The first is that Christians in the UK seem all too readily to be buying in to the cult of the victim that has overtaken Western culture in the last two or three decades. It seems unless you are from a persecuted minority, you have nothing of value to say about life, so everyone seeks to be a victimised minority – including now white heterosexual males and Christians. In fact, the result of this is to trivialise the genuine suffering of minority groups that are excluded by wider society, and leads to a negative mentality that looks for signs of offence or exclusion when there may not be any.

Secondly, this trivialises the genuine persecution that fellow Christians do experience in many parts of the world. It is a widely quoted statistic that there have been more Christian martyrs in the twentieth century than in all the history of Christianity in the previous 19 centuries. If that is true then the reality of persecution is not trivial. It involves people being imprisoned, tortured and murdered or executed for their faith – and there is plenty of documentary evidence that this is happening in many countries of the world even as I write (see the Persecuted Church Blog as one example). To suggest what Christians are experiencing in this country goes anywhere near that is, frankly, arrant nonsense.

Finally, labelling this as persecution misses the point. What is happening is a complex readjustment from a culture where the Christian church was seen as mainstream and privileged, to one where it is but one of a plurality of religious and secular voices. It is a confused time, and a confused process – neither Christians nor secular culture really know how it works any more – the rule books are not only ripped up, but are being re-written by different people in different places in different ways. As a result some silly cases do occur, and people genuinely fall foul of the system.

There are genuine cases of discrimination, based on Christians stepping outside the boundaries, or by secular authorities not being sure what the boundaries are and tightening them unnecessarily. There is no doubt that some of the cases cited show examples of genuine discrimination and prejudice against Christians. What they do not add up to is a systematic persecution of the church in modern Britain.

The example that I am closest to is that of the nurse suspended for offering to pray for a patient. The story is reported in detail here, and what emerges is less persecution of a nurse offering care to her patient than a misunderstanding over the role of spirituality in nursing care. Nursing has deep roots in the Christian faith, and unlike medicine has always tended to see people as whole human beings rather than isolated systems. Nurses are required to assess and care for the spiritual needs of their patients in the same way as their physical, social and psychological care. But they are not well taught in how to do this. When a nurse asks a patient if they want prayer, it should be in the context of an assessment of the wider spiritual needs of that individual – but only once it is clear that the patient has a faith and/or would appreciate some support in that area. To suspend a nurse for making such an enquiry was based on a misunderstanding what was going on. Her reinstatement was with explicit guidelines about the context within which that enquiry into a patient's needs was made, and the misunderstanding has been cleared up in this instance. That I know of other cases where this is still happening shows that there is a long way to go!

A lack of training in spiritual care means that hospital chaplains do not get asked to see patients who want to see them, because the nursing staff do not want to explore that issue, either through a lack of personal understanding or a lack of training and awareness. A recent Nursing Times survey highlights this problem – with a majority of nurses seeing prayer as a appropriate care in the right context, but expressing a concern that they are not well enough trained nor do they have adequate guidelines in which to conduct spiritual care.

As we have become a more secular and pluralist society, we have not become any less human and spiritual, but it has become more complex to address those needs. We need a new engagement by our healthcare system, and by all levels of society, with the spiritual reality of our human nature.

We need not be fearful or apologetic about this. A recent poll suggests that the majority of the population would like to see faith at the centre of our ethical and legal frameworks as a nation - indeed even amongst members of Britain's non-Christian faith communities there seems to be a support for a Christian framework to remain central. It is interesting that secular India keeps a religious framework at the centre of its national identity, and does so as a one of the most culturally and religiously plural nations on Earth. Maybe we have lessons to learn about holding the tension between secular and spiritual from the developing world?

As Christians we should not be sitting on the sidelines in all of this, pointing to all the injustices we are apparently suffering, but rather we should be using these cases as opportunities to show grace and engage with the secular systems, helping them to see that there are gaps in their understanding and provision that we, among others, can help them bridge.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday - Pray, Fast & Give to Zimbabwe - This is a link to BBC video of John Sentamu & Rowan Williams calling on the world to fast, pray and give to save lives and stand in solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe.

It is a simple message - pray, fast, give - for the start of Lent it is a reminder that true worship, true prayer, true fasting, lead to true justice [Isaiah 58:5-10] -

with acknowldegements to Christine Sine and the God Space Blog.

Friday, February 20, 2009

God Bus Wars III

Now it looks as if we are going to get "Atheist Unions" on UK University Campuses and atheist bus campaigns across Europe.

Ah well, all power to them - I doubt either initiative will sway people one way or the other. Faith or its loss are usually grown in the context of family, friends and community, not bus ads or little University cliques. Having been part of a couple of Christian Unions in my student days, I have seen several of my contemporaries lose faith once outside of the comfy clique of CU life, and several others find faith once they were out in the "real world".

And like my most people, I only read adverts to laugh or scoff at their absurdity.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The New Localism?

I'm not given to party politics, but I am detecting some interesting new noises coming from the Tory party, noises that chime with my thinking and concerns about how we live today from a Biblical worldview.

I should qualify that of course – I am a Thatcher Child – I came of age under a Tory Government, I was out there as a young man protesting against the Poll Tax. I grew up mistrusting the Tories as the party of the rich and the powerful, of self-interest. Thatcher's famous "there is no such thing as Society" quote was the death knell for my sense that the Tories were a party that had anything for me or ordinary people of my generation. For most people of my generation, the idea of even engaging with Tory policy, let alone voting for them sticks in the craw and makes the flesh creep with horror!

And the legacy of Thatcher era Toryism is with us still, in the collapse of families, the atomisation of society, fear and mistrust of strangers, etc. It is also with us in the legacy of Reaganomics and the New Right, with the increasing monopolisation of financial systems and markets by a hard right, neo-liberal consensus that encouraged the sort of cavalier risk taking that helped stoke our current financial meltdown.

In short, Thatcher era Toryism, and it's bastard spawn, New Labour, have promoted a system that is, frankly, Godless, self focussed, and ultimately as ethically and financially bankrupt as communism and fascism were before it, albeit with a thin veneer of liberal democracy instead of brutal totalitarianism (although Labour's control & command approach to social policy is creeping in the direction of the totalitarian).

Globalisation was the proudest achievement of this way of doing things, but with it came an increasing impoverishment of marginal and developing world communities, reactionary religious and then secular fundamentalism, and ultimately exposed the economies of nations little involved in US or European financial systems to the catastrophic collapse of US, Japanese and EU markets and economies.

But there are signs of something changing. Two articles in this month's Prospect Magazine illustrate an interesting take on the way local communities are beginning to rest political, financial, and cultural control from the old centres of power. Phillip Blond argues in "The Rise of the Red Tories" that the Conservatives need to rest the discourse away from the consensus that they and Labour have built up, and move towards recognising local communities as the political, cultural and economic power bases of society. In the same edition, Peter Bazzlegate argues something similar with respect to Public Service Broadcasting – getting local, web based PSB publicly funded and moving away from the monolithic structures of the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

The Tories have just launched a series of policy initiatives that is moving in that direction as well (see below)

Now, I am not jumping on board and saying this is it, wow, let's all vote Tory. I am still waiting to see the fine print and how this might work in practice. But I am excited, because we need to build community again in this country, and every political, economic and social trend over the last four or five decades has systematically eroded this. Anything that seeks to reverse that trend, and move us towards a more healthy and human way of functioning as a society is worthy of serious consideration.

The Biblical model is useful to consider – because it emphasises relationships. Justice is relational, compassion is relational, faith is relational – we work these things out through communities, congregations, shared stories of what God has done, what He has asked of us, what He has promised us. We grow in all ways together, not in isolation, and our salvation, while not a result of birth or group membership but born of a one-to-one relationship with God, is mediated and outworked in practice in the context of a congregation, a family, and a community.

The impersonal, the money driven, the self centred are all condemned throughout Old and New Testaments, time and again. But what is lauded in scripture is not community for its own sake, but a community that is in right relationship first and foremost with God, and then with one another, with neighbouring communities, and with the environment. All relationships are contingent upon one another, all start and end in our relationship with God The Hebrew word for this is Shalom, which we often translate as "peace".

Will the churches engage with this new localism? Is it just another fad that will pass, or is it the start of a new, dramatic paradigm shift in British society and politics? Time will tell, but I for one do not want to see this opportunity to see a profound change slip past.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Friday, February 06, 2009

God Bus Wars

While the atheist adverts doing the rounds on London buses stirred up a bit of a buzz a few weeks back (quote: "There Probably is no God: so stop worrying and enjoy your life"), they would probably be largely forgotten about now. But rather than letting the ads lie and treating them with the humour and disdain they richly deserved, some rather sad (and humourless) Christian groups have launched their own versions, and they are as ever embarrassingly bad.

I preferred this one myself, more topical and more inclined to raise a smile on a snow & fog bound London on a Friday morning

(with acknowledgements to St. Aidan to Abbey Manor blog and Kouya Chronicle)

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Keep Calm and Carry On

Somehow or other, this old war time poster has become a bit of a cult image it seems, according to BBC Online Magazine

This is a bit of a "British Thing" - that sense of pragmatism in the face of adversity, the famous stiff upper lip and the belief that what one really needs in a crisis is a good cup of tea.

Given the fact that the UK economy is (to quote an oft overused phrase) "going to hell in a hand cart", our children are the most physically and emotionally unhealthy in Europe (thanks to us selfish adults) and that we are stuck in the midst of the worst winter weather in eighteen years, it is perhaps more timely than ever. In the face of everything, let's just keep calm, not make a fuss and get on with it.

From a Christian viewpoint it makes particular sense (to me at least) - if God is in charge, why panic? We are reminded time and again in scripture to fear no evil if we trust in God. It is sound advice, because panic seldom achieves anything.

And on the subject of not panicking - "don't panic Mr Manwaring!" being the famous cry of Corporal Jones in 'Dad's Army' and of course "Don't Panic" the wonderfully British soothing words on the cover of the 'Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy' - panic remains an essentially foreign idea to British culture.

We prefer to moan instead. As Stephen Fry recently pointed out, when Americans say "Only in America" it is an expression of national pride, when we say "only in Britain" it is invariably the start (or end) of a long moan or rant.

So maybe keeping calm and carrying on are good messages, but maybe we need some more positive messages as a nation too. Because like so much in British culture, this poster is about facing hardship with stoicism, and not about seeking change and transformation - about bearing the problems rather than finding solutions.

We need first to believe in the possibility of change if we are to change things or be changed ourselves. That, maybe is something missing in British culture, and needs restoring.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Mother-tongue Scriptures Change Hearts and Lives

Borrowed from the Kouya Chronicle and Wycliffe Bible Translators - shows simply how spiritually important it is to get the Bible in to people's own heart languages.

So much of how Christianity has been presented in the last two or three centuries has been about the white man and the Westerner as the epitome of the Christian faith - forgetting that Jesus and the Apostles were neither white nor Western. It is the quote "God speaks my language" that got me -you don't have to speak any other language let alone a Western European language (especially English!) to read the scriptures and to grow in faith.

God's language is the language of our hearts and souls, not a borrowed second or third tounge.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Fast for Zimbabwe

There is now a growing movement in Southern Africa and around the world saying "enough is enough" in Zimbabwe – and one expression is the weekly fast started by Desmond Tutu, that AIMS to get over 100,000 people to fast for Zimbabwe until the following six demands are met::

  • South African Development Community (SADC), the African Union (AU) and major political parties in the region to end their policy of "quiet diplomacy" on the issue of Zimbabwe.
  • An urgent response by the United Nations and the international community to Zimbabwe's humanitarian crisis.
  • An immediate end to the "abductions, torture and other sinister forms of intimidation against civil society and political activists."
  • For the SADC to grant refugee status to Zimbabweans fleeing their own country,
  • For Zimbabwe to lift restrictions on freedoms of expression, association and assembly.
  • For the transitional authority to be installed if a power-sharing deal can't be reached in Zimbabwe by the end of February.

Whether one has a religious faith or just a belief in humanity, I would urge anyone reading this to join with a growing number to fast every Friday, and make this known as widely as possible. There is no website, although if you are on Twitter do follow & there are several Facebook Groups – but above all else, the people of Zimbabwe need real change.

As a Christian, I see this fast as an outworking of Isaiah 58 – true fasting and worship bring justice.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Day

Well, here we are at last, Obama is about to become a historic 44th US President. Whatever he does he has made history. His choice to use the words of the protest song "A Change is Gonna Come" at his acceptance speech back in November was inspired –harking back to the Civil Rights Movement and the changes the very fact of his election represented in American Society. It also suggests someone looking towards the future, knowing that change is ongoing and never complete. It was certainly a more inspired choice of song than New Labour's use of the twee "Things Can Only Get Better" after the 1997 UK General Election that overthrew 13 years of Tory rule, and promised a bright new future. And we are seeing what has happened to that future right now!

Bright new futures of course are the stuff of fairy tales. The good times don't last (especially if they are spun out of the fairy dust that was the debt fuelled boom of the last decade). And as Enoch Powell once said, "all political careers end in failure". Nevertheless, while not swept along by the general euphoria that comes with the beginning Obama's presidency (and which may be as much to do with the end of Bush's eight disastrous years of power), I am still praying for the man whose choices will affect so much of the world that had no say in his election. He has the chance to make a difference – maybe not as much as so many hope, maybe not as little as the cynics are saying. He is but a man, but a man with power, and whose choices can lead to good or ill. My prayer is that, at least for the next four or eight years we see a President over the Pond who chooses good.

Time will judge how God answers that prayer

The Questions No-One is Asking

So, once again we have to bail out our banks as tax payers. And we probably have no choice, because if the banks go under, so do our savings and pensions, let alone all the businesses that will no longer be able to transact their day-to-day business properly.

But it struck me yesterday as I read from the book of Proverbs that we are laying up a mass of trouble for ourselves and our children.

Proverb 6:1-5 is a warning about standing surety for another's debts:

Dear friend, if you've gone into hock with your neighbour or locked yourself into a deal with a stranger,
If you've impulsively promised the shirt off your back
and now find yourself shivering out in the cold,
Friend, don't waste a minute, get yourself out of that mess.
You're in that man's clutches!
Go, put on a long face; act desperate.
Don't procrastinate—
there's no time to lose.
Run like a deer from the hunter,
fly like a bird from the trapper!

The Message

Interesting that the next five verses go on to encourage us to learn from how the ant thrives through long hard work and saving in times of plenty ready for times of austerity. The exact inverse of what we have done as a nation in the UK and indeed a lot of the Western world! So much so that the question is now being raised of the UK becoming insolvent!

The first questions that is not being asked is how we have let this mess happen in the first place? How could unsustainable borrowing be allowed to have got so out of hand? In other words, why did we think increasingly levels of unsecured debt would lead to long term prosperity? The second question that is being dodged is how much criminal activity by the banks or their employees has been going on, and how much has that stoked up this crisis? They are beginning to ask these questions in the US, but the British government and regulatory authorities seem unwilling to address this. The elephant in the room is quite simply that an economy based on debt, get rich quick schemes and out and out fraud, rather than genuine wealth creation, saving and mutuality, will always eventually collapse – and the higher the tower of cards is, the greater the collateral damage for ordinary people. But it seems that we are setting out to increase the level of unsustainable debt to try and dig our way out of the recession. It feels dangerously like trying to dig your way our of a hole only to find oneself further buried and unable to escape.

We need a change of heart as a nation, and we need our government to hear that we are not happy with propping up this situation. Unless there is massive institutional reform, history will just recapitulate. But the change has to start with us as citizens – unless we give up our debt fuelled lifestyles, and regain the values of the ant, individually and collectively, then maybe we are doomed to see the cycle repeat itself endlessly.

You lazy fool, look at an ant.
Watch it closely; let it teach you a thing or two.
Nobody has to tell it what to do.
All summer it stores up food;
at harvest it stockpiles provisions.
So how long are you going to laze around doing nothing?
How long before you get out of bed?
A nap here, a nap there, a day off here, a day off there,
sit back, take it easy—do you know what comes next?
Just this: You can look forward to a dirt-poor life,
poverty your permanent houseguest!

Proverbs 6:6-11 The Message

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Following on from my musings on the Hebrew word chesed [חסד] in my last post, here is an excellent posting on the meaning and practice of kindness (and its absence in modern Western culture and much institutional Christianity) from This Fragile Tent

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

A New Year Epiphany

And so starts another year.

One of the few New Year Resolutions that I have ever kept is to make no New Year Resolutions - on the simple basis that I never managed to keep up with anything I started with good intent. Well, I do have one this year, and that is to get my Romanian up to conversational level by the end of the year – it's a long story and I'll bore you with it another day.

But towards the end of 2008 two, familiar passages from the Bible jumped up and hit me – Matthew 25:31ff and Isaiah 58. Both speak powerfully that the true outworking of faith is in justice and compassion. They are familiar to me, as I have many times taught on them, and been challenged by them to live out my own faith with these values at the centre.

Today is the feast of Epiphany – remembering when the Magi visited Jesus. Epiphany means a showing forth – it has also come to mean a sudden realisation or revelation. I have been on a prayer retreat in a remote South Wales village for three days with a group of Christian health professionals from all over Europe. Today was a day of silent, solitary prayer and fasting, and as I find sitting around in a room to pray almost impossible for any length of time (I have a butterfly mind and fly from one distraction to another all to easily), went for a walk early in the morning before the sun came over the Brecon Hills. Well, it was bitterly cold, and after resting in the local parish church to pray, I decided I needed to keep moving, on through the woods and fields and beside the frozen lake. As I walked and prayed another very familiar passage came to me – Micah 6:8 – "what does the Lord require of you, oh Son of Adam, but to act justly, love kindness and walk humbly with you God". That brief passage summed up the two previous passages that had been playing on my mind, and summed up what I needed to hear.

To walk humbly with someone means to let them take the lead, set the pace and choose the path. You walk alongside, but at their bidding – and it was a challenge to me to let my own daily walk with God be set at His pace and His direction, not mine. I am often so busy doing stuff for God that I forget to listen to what He is actually saying.

But the verse also make it clear that true faith is outworked in practice – in doing what is right and just and fair. But justice can be cold, and it needs to be tempered by kindness, or mercy in some translations. The Hebrew is chesed [חסד] meaning "loving kindness" – often used as an expression of how God feels about His people, it suggests not only tenderness but forbearance and even indulgence – giving favour when it is not necessarily deserved. Mercy in short. True faith is born out of a close, obedient walk with God, worked out in showing practical kindness to strangers and working for justice for the poor and oppressed. Sounds straightforward, but as the passages in Isaiah and Matthew also show us, this takes work. But, as James 2:14-26 warns us, faith without works is meaningless – a head knowledge of God, or even a warm fuzzy feeling about God count for precisely nothing (I Corinthians 13:1-4 also reminds us of this), if they are not also practically worked out in love, compassion and justice.

So maybe less a New Year's Resolution and more a New Year Epiphany. For 2009, my greatest challenge is to once again work out how I live this in practice. I expect to fail many times, but as someone once said, success is buried in the garden of failures.


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