Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Is what's good for Africa, good for us too?

We've had a good Christmas. The services went well, the family was all together and we feasted and laughed, shared and celebrated in a lovely relaxed way. All-in-all, it was a really refreshing time.

I'm catching up with a few things today - one of which was to finish an article for Ministry Today Magazine on ministering in exile. That's done and sent. I've also done a bit of sorting for our new teaching programme which kicks off on Sunday.

I also thought I'd draw your attention to an interesting article in last Saturday's Times (the London Times as Americans call it). It's by atheist Matthew Parris and it's well worth reading. you can do so here.

The headline says it all but leaves a substantial elephant in the room.

I can't fault his analysis of Africa's predicament or the contribution of the Christian church to the continent. 'In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good,' he says.

And he concludes his piece by saying: 'Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the know-how that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted. And I'm afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.'

The elephant in the room is that if the Christian faith causes such transformation in Africa, does it also in the UK? If Christianity is so essential to Africa's transformation, could it not also be essential to Britain's?

I wonder if Matthew Parris would like to tour Britain's difficult places and see what Christians are achieving there through good works and life-changing evangelism. I wonder if, as a result of looking, it might suggest that his firm atheism is as harmful to him and our culture as he suggests animist and witch doctor beliefs are to Africa.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Christmas

So, it'll be Leonard Cohen and Caravaggio who form the backdrop of the sermons this Christmas.

Cohen tonight, at our joint service with the URC, using the charting of Hallelujah (how surreal is that?) to allow me to talk about the second verse of Suzanne, the one that says of Jesus 'And when he knew for certain/only drowning men could see him/he said 'all men will be sailors then/until the sea shall free them.'

Caravaggio on Sunday: his wonderful nativity stolen from a Sicilian church 40 years ago that draws the eye to the light of the infant in the feeding trough. We'll be asking what difference does looking make?

Tomorrow it's why Christina Rossetti's In the Bleak mid-winter is my favourite carol.

And we're done. Another Christmas prepared for.

It just remains for me to say happy Christmas to all of you who pass this way - intentionally or by accident. Hopefully we'll talk soon.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ah, I love Christmas!

We had a fabulous pre-Christmas gathering with good friends last night.

We ate wonderful Portuguese food, enjoyed much laughter, sang songs and reflected on why Christmas is such a special time of year.

It was church as it should be: no more than can fit around a dining table, conversation that ranges from the serious to the hysterical, all wrapped in prayer and genuine concern for one another.

Such a gathering brings us close to how church was in the New Testament. Of course, the culture is very different and we cannot go back. But the domesticity, intimacy and hospitality of the meal table embodies something close to God's heart.

Christmas is often seen as a family affair, which is ok. But really the heart of the story is a community affair. All kinds of people - individually and in groups - are invited to gaze in wonder at the baby in a feeding trough in an over-crowded Bethlehem home, where all the generations were rallying round to do what they could to welcome the new arrival and anyone who turned up was drawn into the circle of praise at what God was and is doing among us.

Ah, I love Christmas!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Pulling the crowds at Christmas

We had a good day yesterday. Carol services, it seems, still draw people in our predominantly secular society. Both ours yesterday were pretty full so we probably had in excess of 500 people through our doors over the day.

Lots of these were family of committed members, many of whom join us every year. Perhaps they come more out of family loyalty than any interest in the Christian Christmas story. But might it also be that there is a residual feeling in broad sections of the wider community that the Christmas story says something important? This is not to say that large swathes of the population are closet believers, just that this story of the baby, the family, the strange array of visitors, the fragility and wonder of it all, resonates with people in a way that other parts of the Christian message don't.

I guess churches up and down the land will be pulling in the crowds over the course of this week - especially the cathedrals. So my prayer is that some of these folk see something new in this familiar story.

Two other things caught my eye. One was a report - sponsored by St Helen's Bishopgate, I think - that suggested fewer people than ever knew what the Christmas story says. This could be true given the nonsense on this morning's Today Programme featuring a BBC reporter trying to get a donkey to travel the journey Mary and Joseph made. Just where in the gospels is there a reference to a donkey being involved at all? How on earth could a poor carpenter afford the transport of the aristocracy? And given everything else that's going on in this part of the world at the moment, how does this constitute news?

The other was that I got a Christmas card from an Imam in London wishing me a merry Christmas and pointing out that the Christmas story appears in the Koran and that 1.5 billion Muslims around the world believe in the virgin birth of Jesus, his miracles, ascension and second coming to rule in peace and justice to establish submission to the one true God. Interestingly, there is no reference to the cross and resurrection without which Christmas is just an amazing story that leads to nothing much in particular.

This week I shall be mostly preparing for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and the Sunday after Christmas. What is so amazing is that even after so many years and even having to think of so many angles on this familiar story each year, I still haven't come close to exhausting the wonder of it.

Friday, December 19, 2008

On the buses with 007

At the risk of sounding trivial (though I hope not trite), which will irk Anonymous who thinks I have to be serious and world-changing all the time, I've been amused by Boris' buses today.

It's been pretty full on over the past couple of days with people and preparation, so light relief is welcome. And Boris has provided it. Now I'm all for public spending in a crisis but I'm not sure £9bn on Boris' vanity bus project represents value for money.

One of the prize winning designs for his 'let's replace the Routemaster because we don't like bendy buses' bus is by Aston Martin. James Bond meets Reg Varney - it's priceless.

He also let slip at the press conference that he might not be able to put conductors on all the new buses so thinks he might use community support officers. That's clearly why people become PCSOs, so they can collect on the upper deck of an Aston Martin.

Well, it made me chuckle.

Now, I've got to get back to saving the world (though I thought that was Gordon Brown's job at the moment!)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Little Dorrit and the credit crunch

We watched the final episode of the BBC's wonderful adaptation of Little Dorrit last night. It's made me want to read the book - like all good adaptations do.

I was struck by the fact that the news was full of the implications of the $50bn Bernard Madoff fraud and the episode opens with the fall-out from Merdle's suicide with all the ramifications for families and businesses being ruined by his fraud.

It just showed how prescient Dickens was. He writes about how moral infection flows from the greed and financial sharp practice of those who ought to set an example in society. And he suggests the humble can point the way to salvation - though even the humble need to be redeemed in some way. Shaw said Little Dorrit was more seditious than Marx's Das Kapital! Maybe he was right.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Things to do, places to be...

I've just iced the cake - so Christmas is really beginning in earnest (actually, my icing this year was a little sloppy and I had to spend the best part of half an hour keeping it on the cake while it set a bit - but I think it's ok now; we'll see how ok when we cut it on Christmas Eve!)

So, now just five services to prepare for - I'm singing at one of them and the other four do not require full-blown sermons (except Carols by Candlelight), but even so finding an angle on the Christmas story and how it intersects with the world we all live in is always a challenge.

I received confirmation this morning of the two courses I'll be teaching in Sri Lanka next summer. In Colombo, I'm doing aspects of NT social history (similar to the course I taught last time in Kandy) and in Kandy I'm tackling NT theology. This latter course will be a challenge - mainly knowing what to include as I've not done it before (any hints gratefully received). I'll be using Howard Marshall's Concise NT Theology as the text book and trying to cover the waterfront of issues without spreading the material too thinly.

I'm still awaiting confirmation of my book deal to write about aspects of NT social history in a lavishly illustrated coffee table volume. Hopefully soon - the recession is slowing people down as book sales are exploring levels somewhere three floors below the basement.

Part of my preparation for Sri Lanka is writing a Christian basics course for church based on what the NT says. We'll be teaching it at the morning services from January to March and then having hosted lunchtime discussions to talk through the material. The aim is to help our folk get a firmer grasp on the basics but also give them a vehicle to bring their friends along to. It's an approach I've never tried before, so I'm looking forward to seeing how it goes.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Exploring Christianity's forgotten history

I've started reading Philip Jenkins' new work, The Lost History of Christianity: The thousand year golden age of the church in the Middle east, Africa and Asia - and how it died (Harper One 2008).

Jenkins is the author of the seminal The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity(Oxford 2002) and a number of other well-written studies.

His new one does exactly what it says in the subtitle, namely chart the largely forgotten history of the church in the non European world from the first to the eleventh century.

In the introduction I was set thinking by this simple fact. in 1050 in Asia Minor - the cities of the seven churches of Revelation and the church planting exploits of Paul and his team - there were 373 bishoprics and virtually the entire population were Christian.

By 1450, barely 10 to 15% of the population were Christian and there were just three bishops.

This is a collapse of allegiance to the Christian faith that mirrors the experience of Europe over the past 400 years but which can't be accounted for by the rise of science and rationalism. Most would put it down to the rise of Islam but as Jenkins has already said, the church in the East lived fairly comfortably in Muslim states - contributing much to Islamic learning (see p18)

I look forward to reading Jenkins' interpretation of this extraordinary fact.

Let's hear it for Neil Young

I've been having a bit of Neil Young fest over the past couple of days. This is partly because it's what I do from time-to-time (he's been such a fixture in my life for the past 30 years, narrating the changes we all go through, casting light and perspective on the world we navigate) and partly because I took delivery yesterday of the third of his archive concerts. Called Sugar Mountain (the title of one his greatest songs about growing up), it was recorded at Canterbury house somewhere in the States in 1968.

It's wonderful. Between songs he's funny and engaging and the songs are fragile, gossamer-light flights of wonder. With just a strummed acoustic guitar and his frail whine, he transports the listener to a different place and time.

He's probably one of the handful of truly great singer-songwriters of the rock era. And as last year's Chrome Dreams II indicated, he still retains some edge and flair after more than 40 years in the business. He defines the era in many ways, charting many of the social changes of the past half century - though he tends to have a longer historical range than that often engaging with key myths of American history in an attempt to understand the American present - and chronicling the cost of those changes in terms of relationships and personal dislocation.

He's always been something of a showman. He had his 1971 Massey Hall concert filmed and on the DVD accompanying the release of that seminal gig last year, he intercuts concert footage with contemporary film shot on the ranch he had just bought and to which he makes much self-deprecating reference in his between songs banter. He had an eye on posterity even then. As he narrates the American myth, he also creates one of his own.

Next year he embarks on one of the biggest projects an artist has ever attempted. Volume 1 of his Archive is due to be released. Spanning the decade from 1963 when he debuted with the Squires in Winnipeg, through the classic Harvest (which I'm listening to at the moment), it'll contain hundreds of songs - some not heard before; some played with Buffalo Springfield and CSN&Y. it was the decade that defined the era - and in some ways created the world in which we all live (as BBC Radio 4's recent sound archive series and accompanying programmes on 1968 showed).

Young sound-tracked many of the great changes. I still find myself deeply moved when I listen to Ohio as it brings up so many feelings about hopes of changing the world snuffed out by violence at home and abroad.

Young has never engaged the world with anything less than a fierce honesty - and he does it with wonderful tunes and searing guitars. What could be better than that?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

So, it's goodbye to Woolies

It appears to be the beginning of the end for Woolies. Its mega closing down sale begins today. It's a grim day for its staff - up to 25,000 could be out of work within a month.

What has struck me in all the news coverage this morning is the nostalgia of reporters and anchors who clearly have not been near a Woolworth store for the last decade and yet who are still mourning its passing. A number of my friends have told me how sad it is that the shop is closing but when I ask them when was the last time they entered the store, they fix me with one of those looks that says 'as if...' and then tell me they can't remember when it was.

The fact is that Woolies has long since lost its reason for being on our high streets. No one needs to shop there as the things it stocks can be found more cheaply and conveniently - and in more pleasant surroundings - at a host of other retailers.

I used my local Woolies as a short cut from the High street to the mall where my local Wesley Owen is located. Occasionally on passing through - sometimes with a colleague - we'd look for cheap CDs or DVDs and on a couple of occasions pick up a bargain.

I too think its demise is sad but since I rarely shopped there, I shan't be ringing my hands over its passing. That would be a tad hypocritical, I feel.

But let's pray for all the staff affected and look for other ways of helping them practically if we can.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

My fab festive fifteen for 2008

It's been a good year for music. So I thought I'd post my fab festive fifteen - in honour of the great John Peel (but I'm not running to 50!).

For my money the best 15 albums of the year - in no particular order - are:

Goldfrapp Seventh Tree - a wonderful mix of pastoral folk meets chill-out (apparently this was Uncut magazine's album of the year!)

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! - energetic and erudite rock, possibly the best thing he's done, though No More Shall we Part runs it close.

Fleet Foxes - the eponymous debut album is just sublime; CSN&Y for the Facebook generation (though the band has no Facebook or web presence to speak of)

The Cinematic Orchestra Live at the Royal Albert Hall - just plain lovely; music for every mood and all times of the day.

Sigur Ros With a buzz in our ears we play endlessly (it does have an unpronounceable Icelandic title!) - proving that the little island is far better at music than banking, this is an album of soaring anthems, borne aloft on waves of strings and shimmering guitars.

Portishead Third - plaintive, plangent, playful, poly-rhythmic, particularly praise-worthy.

Damon Albarn et al Monkey: journey to the West - like nothing he's ever done before nor anything I've ever bought before. it proves he has ambition and talent in spades.

Yeasayer All Hour Cymbals - cracking debut, full of wonderful rhythms and tunes, as playful as the title suggests it will be.

Toumani Diabate The Mande Variations - Mali's premier kora player with music to transport you to a restful place.

Buena Vista Social Club Live at Carnegie Hall - Cuba's peerless band at the height of its powers; one of those concerts one really wishes one had been at.

Joe Jackson Rain - stripped down (no guitar) to show off not only his fine piano playing but also the best crop of songs he's penned for years.

Nitin Sawney London Underground - the polymath attempts to get to grips with London post-7/7 in a set of intriguing, beguiling collaborations. And he pulls it off apparently effortlessly.

The Last Shadow Puppets The age of the Understatement - side project by Arctic Monkey's front man Alex Turner and Miles Kane that hijacked their lives because it is just so good. 60s flavoured, Walker brothers-infused love songs with bite and wit.

Elbow The Seldom Seen Kid - rightly festooned with praise and prizes (especially the Mercury), 12 near perfect pop songs penned by a lyricist coming to the peak of his powers. They just get better and better.

Amadou et Mariam Welcome to Mali - in which the blind duo from Africa's capital of music build on their wonderful Dimanche a Bamako, with a sublime collection of songs that feature some great guests (including Damon Albarn). So funky, you have to smile as you type when it's on.

David Byrne and Brian Eno Everything that Happens will Happen Today - 25 years after their ground-breaking My Life in The Bush of Ghosts (the album that gave rise to sampling and so much more that has enriched music over the past quarter century) comes an album of ordinary songs. On first listen you think is that it? but repeated listens reveals a depth and intensity to the song craft on display here. it's as near perfect as a pop album can be by two guys comfortable with their own genius.

Mercury Rev Snowflake at midnight - a truly original rock album, a soring journey exploring the possibility of transformation. It's a collection of songs and instrumentals that makes you feel good to be alive.

So, what about the best of the bunch. it's a difficult - and somewhat pointless - choice. But hey, what are end of year charts if not pointless?

I thought of having categories, such as best non-British act (Amadou et Mariam), best album inspired by the shadow of Scott Walker (Last Shadow Puppets), best collaboration (probably nitin Sawney), best live album (Buena Vista social Club), best re-invention of themselves (Goldfrapp), best return (portishead), best Chinese-inspired opera (Monkey), best album by two giant musical geniuses (Byrne & Eno)

But this way everyone wins and you might as just say, these are the best 15 albums I've heard this year (and they are)

but I have to pick a winner and it's Mercury Rev. The record displays such vaulting ambition both musically and lyrically that it transports the listener to a whole new world and makes you see and feel the world you inhabit everyday slightly differently. I love it.

If you're still looking for Christmas gifts for loved ones, you'll not go wrong with any of these. But don't blame me if you - or your loved one - hates them; after all, music is so personal, isn't it.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Is reading a political act?

There's an interesting post over on Robin Parry's excellent blog about using God to serve our social agendas.

In effect the post is about the politics of interpretation. He suggests that a particular feminist scholar does her theology backwards - namely that she knows the kind of God her politics will tolerate, so finds him (or her) in scripture.

This might or might not be true (I've never read the scholar in question) but it does raise a key question about hermeneutics, it seems to me. Recently, scholars have rediscovered that the New Testament was written in a time of empire and that there is possibly counter-imperial language in the documents.

Now is this because these scholars are politically liberal - some suggest their motives have to do with being anti-American - or because they put two and two together and make four. It seems pretty obvious that people who are used to hearing that Caesar is Lord and saviour, upon hearing that Jesus is Lord and saviour might question what that says about Caesar as well as Jesus. Or that when Mark talks about 'a gospel' (Mark 1:1) his original hearers would have wondered how it was related to the other gospel they heard regularly concerning Caesar (especially Augustus).

Are the scholars making such connections, seeking them for political reasons, because they want to create the faith in the image of their own political creed? Or are those who say these scholars are wrong, doing so because they want to ensure that God's politics mirror theirs.

Isn't politics a bit like culture. we are so used to our political attitudes, they are so second nature to us that we do not see them and their effect on how we read texts? Politics affects the paper we choose to read, how we respond to news events - just look at the storm of disagreement over the rights and wrongs in the arrest of Damien Green.

So Robin Parry is right when he says 'She decided what political goals she wanted to achieve, worked out what kind of God would be needed to support that agenda, and then reverse-engineered a doctrine of God that serves the pre-decided political agenda. It is the very self-conscious, and blatant crafting of a God to serve our political ends that is ... worrying.' But wrong to imply that we don't all do it; indeed that it is to some extent inevitable.

What we need is a community of scholarship - gatherings of Christians generally - that gently and lovingly holds one another to account for our interpretations, especially in sensitive areas that spill over into the way we live as disciples in the real world.

I'm just embarking on a study of Ched Myers' Binding the Strong Man, a self confessed political reading of Mark that seeks to close the gap between the text and our discipleship in every area of life in our world - including politics. Is this a more tendentious reading that William Lane's or Morna Hooker's that merely claim to engage in historical-critical-literary criticism of the text?

Let me know what you think...

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Clearing the decks

Now it's actually December, I feel able to say 'Christmas is coming'. Advent has started and we need to be getting ourselves ready to welcome the prince of peace. The trouble is that around this time of year, my life turns from peace to pandemonium - not that there's much peace through the autumn. But the Christmas rush presses in.

I am trying to finish an article reflecting on ministering in exile. I hope to get it done this week - but I daren't tell the editor that because I've got his hopes up so many times over the past few months!

However, the piece has a shape and some observations on Jeremiah 29 and 1 Peter filtered through my recent experience of ministry. The trouble with anything like this is that I'm not sure it will ever feel finished. I never had this trouble when I was a journalist!

Yesterday I was in Didcot for a meeting about the Baptist assembly and picked up a book to review for Mission Catalyst from the fresh expressions folk. Called Mission-shaped Questions: Defining Issues for today's Church, it's a collection of essays on the mixed economy church (an intriguing phrase which I see is also the title of the fresh expressions journal that hit my door mat this morning). It looks promising.

I'm listening to my top ten albums of the year trying to pick a winner for my festive feature that's coming soon. I might have to cop out and opt for category winners, so that each record wins a prize.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

1 Peter, end times thinking and Christian ethics

One of the things that I noticed - not for the first time - as I was preparing for last night is the innate conservatism and parochialism of much current end-times thinking.

The rapture is all about rescuing me from nasty world rulers and the events they unleash (though God hasn't seen fit to rescue any other generation of believers who must be equally deserving, I'd have thought...) And the perceived threat from heavily armed nations with evil intent just seems to be an excuse for upping military budgets at home and imposing our will on weaker nations abroad.

But having just finished our series on 1 Peter, a little part of me wonders whether being a follower of Jesus inclines us towards conservatism. Now not for a minute do I feel drawn to start supporting conservative causes or parties. I remain instinctively and sentimentally pink. But I found Volf's analysis of Peter's social ethics and its implications for us profoundly plausible - and therefore quite a challenge.

I think the New Testament shares a lot of its social ethics with the surrounding culture. In many ways Peter and Paul, James and John want the same thing as Greco-Roman social philosophers. But they believe that the only way to achieve them is in the power of the Spirit who is given by God in response to our faith in Jesus. This would appear to be a key plank in Paul's argument in Titus (yes, I believe he wrote it)

But at the same time, there is something profoundly egalitarian about Christian ethics - the fact that we are all siblings in the faith regardless of our social position, that the rich are expected to share their goods with the poor, that slaves and women could lead the gathering of believers: all these things point to an upsidedownness to Christian social ethics that is anything but conservative.

And if my reading of Revelation is right, it points to a strong streak of social resistance at the core of Christian ethics. John urges his hearers to see that loyalty to Jesus as king means that we cannot be wholeheartedly loyal to Caesar; we cannot join in economic and social practices that empower Rome at the expense of everyone else, that exalt Caesar as god over the claims of the true creator God and his chosen king, Jesus.

So christian ethics are at once conservative and communitarian, quietist and loudly destabilising of social inequities. Does that sound like a contradiction in terms?

More reflecting to follow...

Apocalyptic reflections

We had the second of our two mid-week gatherings devoted to the Apocalypse and end times stuff yesterday evening. It seemed to go well - people were engaged and asked intelligent questions afterwards.

Given that I was offering a somewhat different take to the one many of my hearers grew up with, some of the questions were about trust and change. They were along the lines of 'why was I to be trusted when what I was saying was different from some great preachers of the past?' and 'how hard it is to make the changes required in one's thinking when what I'm saying is so different from what people have believed up till now.'

I was reminded of the wonderful BBC film shown last weekend about Einstein and Eddington and Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. For some people moving from the dispensationalist paradigm (which still shapes most popular end times thinking even if no one reckons they're a dispensationalist anymore) to something different is as enormous a step as moving from the Newtonian paradigm to Einstein's theory of relativity (so brilliantly conveyed in the BBC film).

Such revolutions happen because evidence piles up that questions the veracity of the previous paradigm. It doesn't happen overnight. Little pieces of evidence relating to one aspect of current thinking change our view of that aspect. This change has an influence over another aspect related to the first one. So if we change our minds about the synoptic apocalypse and see that some of it relates to the fall of Jerusalem, how does that change the way we read other apocalyptic material in the New Testament? Bit by bit our position shifts.

I was also reminded of that fairly naff hymn that contains the great line 'the Lord hath yet more light and truth to break forth from his word.' That remains a fantastic and seminal Baptist principle, it seems to me. we are all still lurking in the shadows hoping the Lord shines a little more light on us as we read, reflect and pray.

Well, we upped the wattage a little last night.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Endings are always beginnings

We reached the end of our journey through Christian Hope yesterday morning. And I think it's fair to say that I've never had such a response to a teaching series. Overwhelmingly, people have talked about how the series has 'put the lights on', connected things they didn't realise were connected and opened vistas of the future that have a profound influence on the present.

Apart from basking in the glow of a well-received series - always nice! - more importantly, it suggests to me that there is a appetite for serious, applied Bible teaching. There are lots of people who want to think about their faith, think about how Christian teaching as well as our experience of Christ impacts our daily living and conversation. This is hugely encouraging to a minister!

We also came to the end of our series on 1 Peter yesterday. As part of an evening service during which we commissioned Clare, our new youth worker, we reflected on what lessons we've learned from reading Peter's wonderful letter. Preparing this series has certainly opened my eyes afresh to how the followers of Jesus relate to one another and the society in which we live. It's left me with lots of things to reflect on regarding social ethics and community life.

I'll probably blog on it at some point. As someone who writes as well as preaches, I think there are books, study guides or something in both these series. I'm sure there are lots of others out there producing good teaching that leaves a mark on its audience that would benefit from wider distribution. Sadly, the publishers seem less interested in such material these days. Am I the only one who has noted that good Bible study material is getting harder to come by? (Or is this just me slipping effortlessly into grumpy old mandom?!)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Welcome to Mali

Amadou et Mariam's Welcome to Mali arrived this morning. And lovely it is too.

It picks up from where the hugely accomplished Dimanche à Bamako left off. But it also represents a big step up.

If you like great songs and fluent African blues guitar, check it out, you'll love it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

More light on the Apocalypse

Well, there's no shortage of interest in Revelation! A big thank you to all who've commented - very helpful suggestions.

I remember looking at the spine of a CUP monograph that read 'The sayings of Jesus Boring'. It is the spine of Eugene Boring's book on the synoptic gospels but it's a tad unfortunate that a designer didn't notice! I've not read Boring on Revelation. I have read Bauckham - both his books are indeed excellent, as is Petersen's Reversed Thunder (though it is currently out of print).

I guess my recommendations are for easily accessible books for church members who will want to read Revelation after our two studies. My concern is that they read John's text with a good, reliable tour guide.

The Apocalypse, it seems to me, is one of those books where the gulf between the academy and the pew is as wide as it gets. Scholars debate the finer points of Revelation's literary structure and highlight the social background of John's original hearers. Meanwhile people in the pews either ignore the book altogether (apart from reading the letters to the seven churches) or fall prey to the lurid speculations of Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye et al.

It's possible that next year we'll tackle Revelation as a church, probably in a series of mid-week Bible studies. so, if anyone has pointers on how to do this well; or notes that they can email me, I'd be grateful...

More great music

I've been listening to Nitin Sawney's London Underground, another strong contender for album of the year.

The record is a series of collaborations loosely based around the theme of how London has changed since the 7/7 attacks. Tracks with Natty, Imogen Heap and Aruba Red stand out but it's all very accomplished and thought-provoking.

I particularly like the way that it drifts from West to East, with Asian musical influences becoming stronger as the album unfolds - like the journey the title suggests - ending with a lovely sitar piece featuring Anoushka Shankar (who I'm guessing might be Ravi's daughter).

The album highlights the international nature of the London music scene. Is there anywhere else on the planet quite so cosmopolitan, offering opportunities for collaboration and cross-over of ideas?

With Amadou et Mariam's new album Welcome to Mali (a record that features various cross-cultural collaborations, including a beautiful track with Damon Albarn) winging its way to me, selecting album of the year promises to be an enjoyable if tricky task. I might have to introduce various categories so that I can have more than one winner!

Getting to grips with the Apocalypse

As part of our series on Christian hope I am doing two mid-week Bible study sessions on issues popularly connected with the so-called 'end times'.

In ten days time I'm tackling the tribulation, rapture, the anti-Christ, the future of geographical Israel and the like, all beliefs that I associate with dispensational premillennialism but continue to exercise quite an influence over people's thinking.

Last week I tackled 'reading Revelation without going nuts', offering some reading strategies and a little New Testament social history to help folk get a handle on this difficult, demanding but fabulous book.

I've had one or two people saying how helpful it was, that for the first time they didn't feel afraid of the Apocalypse. We'll see if the positive response continues through the next session!

In preparing for the evening on Revelation, I found Simon Woodman's new volume The Book of Revelation (in the SCM core texts series) quite helpful - I've only been able to dip into it and haven't read it from cover-to-cover, but I shall keep it close to hand. Simon Ponsonby's And the Lamb wins is also helpful, well written and comprehensive - though I don't agree with all his conclusions. And Stephen Sizer's two books on Christian zionism are utterly indispensable for the historical context within people read Revelation these days.

But I found myself coming back to and recommending people get hold of and use Michael Wilcock's Bible Speaks Today volume and Paul Barnett's Revelation: Apocalypse Now and Then which is equally excellent. If Christians immersed themselves in the text of Revelation and these two reliable guides, they wouldn't go far wrong in understanding what John was and is saying.

I look forward to our next session.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Well, it's been a frantic round here - generally in a good way. Catching up with myself I discover I've been tagged by Catriona with the most complex meme I've ever come across!

Anyway the rules are - you need to pay attention here because you might be tagged at the end of this...

1. Link to the person who tagged you. [done that - see above]
2. Post the rules on your blog. [done that - you're reading them]
3. Write six random things about yourself. [see below]
4. Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them. [see even further below]
5. Let each person know they've been tagged and leave a comment on their blog. [good grief, I have places to be, people to see... ok, I'll do it]
6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up. [done]

So, six random things

1. I've just a wonderful day walking on the beach in Whitstable with Linda, my wife. we had fish and chips and mooched in arty shops and spent very little money

2. I was the under-11 record holder for the Leicester Schools 50metres breaststroke, achieved in 1967. Actually, for all I know my record might still stand!

3. When I a financial journalist I interview Alan Clark (of the famous diaries) about import controls (which he was in favour of) and Mrs Thatcher (who we was very much in favour of)

4. I think the Smiths are still England's greatest pop act (apart from the Beetles, of course). 'will the world end in the night time, I really don't know or will the world end in the day time, I don't know...all I do know we're here and it's now, so stretch out and wait' could have been the theme of a presentation I did at church on how to read Revelation without going nuts.

5. I am negotiating with a publisher to write a book on the social history of the New Testament - lots of colour and lovely pictures accompanying text about where the early believers met, what they ate and what the plumbing might have been like in Erastus' house in Corinth. I hope it gets the go-ahead...

6. I discovered the depth of the divide between Brits and folk from the Southern States of the USA, when in an editorial office in Ashville, North Carolina, I was introduced to an eager, young woman feature writer as the editor of a Christian monthly magazine from England; and she replied 'Oh are there are any Christians in England?' I wasn't sure whether this was American irony - which I was sure up to that point didn't exist - or blissful ignorance of anything beyond the Blue Ridge Parkway. The jury is still out.

That wasn't as hard as it might be. The next bit is the hard bit. As Simon and Catriona have tagged almost everyone I know in the blogosphere, I'm going to have to stretch things a bit and tag one or two people whose blog I visit and comment on but who actually don't know me from Adam (sorry guys... No i really am sorry)

So I tag the following Jim Gordon, Stuart Blythe, Jonathan Somerville (who has a great music track posted at the moment), over the hedge and across the pond, Chris Tilling (at the always wonderful christendom blog - I'd love to know six random things about him!) and Sean (I feel we ought to know random things about him to treasure as he disappears to the other side of the world).

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Telling the story of hope

To my mind the most remarkable passage in Obama's post-election speech (well, it had me weeping into my first coffee of the day) was towards the end and featured the story of a 106 year old black woman voter. It's still on the BBC website

It has not featured on any of the news coverage I've seen today which I find surprising because the media has been talking about not only historic the victory is but how close historically Obama is to the days of the civil rights movement and before that the voter rights legislation and before that emancipation, etc..

Anyway, this is what he said:

'This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that's on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She's a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing - Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn't vote for two reasons - because she was a woman and because of the colour of her skin.

And tonight, I think about all that she's seen throughout her century in America - the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can't, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

At a time when women's voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes we can.

When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs and a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can.
When the bombs fell on our harbour and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that "We Shall Overcome". Yes we can.

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can.'

Amazing - as I said, it had me in tears. As he also said 'while we breathe, we hope' and we hope because sometimes extraordinary things happen.

What an extraordinary day

What an extraordinary night. A mixed race man, born at a time when such unions were constitutionally illegal in many American States, has become the 44th president of the USA.

And as Simon Shama noted in extraordinarily religious language, Obama's election atones for the sin of the founding fathers of the that nation who declared all men equal but owned black men and women as property.

And it's the fulfilment of Martin Luther King's dream that one day Americans would be judged on the quality of their character rather than the colour of their skin.

What an extraordinary night indeed.

Of course, obama is taking on the world's worst job, steering a country that's divided, bankrupt, sliding into recession and fighting unpopular wars in two countries. He needs to build a coalition of all the talents who will address the problems at home and reach out to allies and enemies alike across the world.

But it is a day of hope. Let's pray that those hopes are realised.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

God speaks - are we listening?

It's true all sorts of people claim to have heard God speaking. Lots of them are nutters - the overwhelming majority utterly harmless but a few quite dangerous. But that doesn't mean God doesn't speak.

I believe God speaks in and through the Bible, that it is his Word and in it we encounter his mind. The trouble is that as readers tend to be selective - after all, there's a lot to select from and some bits are more conducive to our way of thinking than others.

I think the Goldingay point that I was drawing attention to in the last post was simply this: everything in the Bible is God's word and we need to read it as such. Some of it comforts us and warms the cockles of our hearts. Some of it lances the puss out of us like a needle in a boil. Some of it keeps us awake nights thinking, processing, wondering.

It'd probably be good if people read more, thought more, processed more and spoke less. James had quite a bit to say about that.

We've all received words in church that frankly weren't worth the breath they took to exhale. I've laughed a good many off and moved on. But occasionally we receive a word that stops us in our tracks because it comes from someone who has listened and thought, read and pondered and only spoken at the end of that long silence. What they have said has been like God speaking directly to us.

I'd love everyone to have that experience. I'd love the church to be a place where it happens more often. because in my experience, when it does happen, it results in churches doing stuff out in the world and not just talking to each other about singing and dancing.

If we read the Bible, do we want God to speak to us?

I came across this thought-provoking quote from John Goldingay about how we read the Bible:

If there are no aspects of scripture that they do not like and do not have to wrestle with, then they are kidding themselves. It means that they have bracketed them out or reinterpreted them. That is what as evangelicals we have to do. We know we have to accept all of scripture, so we make it mean something else so we can accept it. As a Bible teacher one of my basic concerns has become simply to get people to read the Bible with open eyes. Some people learn to, others do not. I want people to read the Bible, to be open to finding there things that they had not realized were there, to be enthralled and dazzled and appalled and infuriated and puzzled and worried and stimulated and kept awake at night by these extraordinary words from God, to let their mind and heart and imagination and will be provoked and astonished by them.
(John Goldingay, To the Usual Suspects: One Word Questions (Paternoster, 1998), 153-4)

The truth is that we don't want the Bible to make us feel uncomfortable. We want God's word to come in sugar-coated little gobbets that make us feel fuzzy, warm and loved.

The trouble is that the Bible is not an easy book and God - as CS Lewis - reminds us is a lion and when asked whether that lion is safe, the faun in narnia exclaimed: 'no, of course, he isn't safe. But he is good.'

Sometimes I wonder whether we really want God to speak to us - especially when what he says so often challenges deeply held beliefs. We're not sure that he has the right to correct what we've decided is true of him.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Mixing with the undead

It was cold and dry on the streets of Bromley last night. We had a good time - only five of us due to illness and busy-ness - giving out tons of sweets.

The streets were, of course, thronged with the legions of the undead (it being Halloween and all), so we passed comments on costumes and gave prizes in the form of sweets (to everyone). Jelly babies, it seems, are the preferred sweet of girl revellers, while the boys go for fruit pastilles. Not sure how scientific that is - maybe other Street Pastors would like to research their patches.

We had a stack of good conversations, calmed a few situations, sat with lone women at bus stops and chewed the fat with folk smoking outside their favourite hostelry. Generally the atmosphere was good. Two people said they'd come to church on Sunday evening (not because we invited them but because they said they wanted to continue chatting and asked if they could come - we'll see).

Walked for about four hours by which time our blood was approaching freezing and we were at risk of joining the undead, so we came in and slept.

It continues to be a high point of our month. Maybe we'll volunteer for extra duties...

Friday, October 31, 2008

Gearing up for a cold night

It's been a busy day, so I've only just got round to looking at what's happened on the blog since Wednesday. lots of nice comments. Thanks guys.

been out and about today and on my travels have picked up some thermal gloves as it's going to be quite chilly tonight for street pastoring. There'll hopefully be 7 or 8 of us out tonight which constitutes quite a good presence on the streets of Bromley - people with fleeces who happen to be passing are very welcome to join us!

As it's Halloween, I've loaded up with sweets to give away - along with the bottled water and flip flops. Some people reckon town will be a bit lively tonight as people trick or treat in the queues for clubs and outside bars.

We'll see what the night holds for us - every evening is different and difficult to predict.

I've been continuing to reflect on what anonymous has been saying over the past few days and I find it quite a challenge. I'm not going to say much more than that at this stage because I want to think some more before I commit finger to keyboard. Watch this space...

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Quietly and lovingly living up to our message

I was out all of yesterday when anonymous and Andy's conversation was going on the comment section of my previous post. It's good stuff.

I find myself agreeing with anon that our toughest challenge as ministers is to help 'folks in the church (in its widest sense)...reconnect with both the UK population and with its original message.'

I guess that's the challenge I took on when I became a minister and certainly when I took on the role I currently have. One of the issues I face - as this blog conversation has so wonderfully demonstrated - is that the language we use to do the one needs to be entirely different from the language we use to do the other.

I've spent a lot of time over the last ten years analysing where the church is losing connection with the general population and why and trying to use that analysis to frame how I speak to both my audiences - those within church and those beyond its walls. That analysis has appeared in books, articles and on this blog over the past three years. This task is made slightly more complicated by the fact that both those audiences are pretty fragmented.

The danger of this, of course, is that we become in Russell's lovely phrase 'poor talkative little Christianity', in that we spend a lot of time talking about where we are and why we're not where we want to be. At some stage analysis - vital and essential as that is - has to give rise to action.

And I think that action has to be along the lines that Andy suggested when he said that he longs to be part 'a church that quietly and lovingly lives up to its message, while still being able to explain and explore that message with others.' We need to say sorry for our stridency and judgmentalism, the speed with which we seek to impose our views on others without allowing our message to shape the way we conduct ourselves with those others.

I'm really not sure that the world needs the Archbishop of Canterbury or any other Christian leader making pronouncements. We live in a febrile media culture where a statement is simultaneously lauded and lambasted - sometimes by the same media outlet. perhaps what we need are church leaders caught doing small acts of love and grace, small works that show God loves everyone, actions that draw people into communities that can not only explore what life's about, but also make life better.

So tomorrow evening, I'll be pounding the streets of my town with others, dressed in my Street Pastor's uniform, not to shout the gospel into people's ears but to sit with them on the pavement and listen to them sob about being dumped by their girl friend or help them get a taxi or bus home, provide flip-flops to girls who can no longer walk in their stilettos, give bottles of water to folk who've taken in too much alcohol. It's not going to change the world but it will offer a helping hand, perhaps ensure one or two stay safer on the streets than they otherwise would have been and, who knows, perhaps a glimpse of a deeper reality nudging into our workaday world.

This has been a good and helpful conversation - thanks to both my dialogue partners for their contributions so far.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Judgement and shaking things up

Of course the language in my previous post won't help my non-Christian friends, since the questions were aimed at my christian ones. It is the church that needs to ask itself these questions. There are different questions we need to ask our non-Christian friends.

I'm intrigued by the suggestion that Richard Dawkins is achingly successful at getting his message across. yes, he's in the spotlight of the chattering classes - interviewed yet again in the Guardian just this week - but half the population haven't even heard of him, fewer than a train-full of people have actually read anything he's written and the number of atheists in our society is not rising, according to most polls on belief.

On Sunday, I shall be talking to my congregation about judgement, the day when God puts all things right, steps in to bring justice to the world and salvation to those who've trusted him and looked and worked for his coming. Perhaps the nation can't think as far as their pensions, but some do look further and wonder.

At the end of the day I do what I do in the light of what I think God is calling me to do. The world is in desperate need in all sorts of ways and each of us is called to meet that need. So let's agree that each of us should do something to make a difference. After all, analysing the problem is easy and shouting that someone else should do something about it is even easier.

So, my anonymous dialogue partner, what are you doing about it? How are you shaking things up?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The third question

Yes, of course, anonymous is right to say that there's a deeper question. It's the third question that I was coming to (honest!). It's the question about what it means to be missional (to use the jargon) or more simply, how do we persuade those who aren't followers of Jesus to become followers of Jesus.

The reason for the intermediate question is that being a follower of Jesus is about belonging to others who follow Jesus, meeting with them. The New Testament and Christian tradition doesn't really recognise solo disciples. So gathering together is important. And I guess I think we need to ask what such gatherings would be like that attract those who think they might want to follow Jesus but don't know where to start.

The stats on other religions are unclear and hard to come-by. The best research suggests that Islam and Hinduism are growing almost exclusively by birth-rate and migration - certainly in the case of the latter; and probably in the case of the former, though there are isolated examples of westerners converting to Islam. The figures for Buddhism and other Eastern religions just aren't available in any accurate form. Not that that has hampered the media in rushing to judgement on the issue!

What is certainly clear is that Christianity is not profiting as much as one would expect from a rise in the levels of interest in spirituality that we've witnessed over the past decade or so. Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly that Christianity is seen to be associated with a past that the West has left behind; we've done it, been there, got the tee shirt. Other faith options appear new and untried and thus attractive in a way the Christian faith isn't.

That's a challenge the church needs to rise to rather better than it has so far.

There are Christian heroes and role models out there but by the nature of the beast, they tend not to be flashy and high profile. In the area of knife crime, there's the wonderful Les Isaacs of Street Pastors fame who is doing lots of serious work among communities in inner London, Birmingham and Manchester aimed at reducing violence. He occasionally surfaces in the media as do the pastors and priests of various areas blighted by high crime rates.

But this is certainly an anonymous statement that's worth pondering:

'From an outsider's perspective, I wonder if the church actually went back to simple fundamentals and addressed the very human needs of poverty, pain, suffering and wretchedness it might gain more recruits?'

I wonder that too. What would happen if we got hold of Acts 2 in these times of economic hardship and shared our goods and opened our homes to one another and ensured that no one was in need? Would people join us?

What if we took God at his word and sought his Spirit to move in power among us so that things happened that were beyond explanation - except that God did it; would people join us?

Often Christians cry for a return to signs and wonders. And I echo the cry providing we get both of the above - miracles and economic sharing. But then, I'm not sure you get one without the other.

And why should anyone be bothered? Because God has set a day when he will call all people to account for their lives and he's appointed the one who will be judge on that day by raising him from the dead - Jesus.

More basic questions

More friends have arrived from Prague.

We were chatting last night about what constituted church planting and whether a small but established church could be more pioneering than a church planting team moving into an area with a blank sheet of paper.

On top of asking what Christians should do when they gather, it seems like I'm always having conversations about fundamental questions regarding church life.

Perhaps the reason for this is that churches generally are struggling to engage with the wider culture generally, and each local community more specifically. it's true that most churches can point to people who have joined recently - indeed a steady, if small trickle of newcomers. That most of these are existing Christians shifting church for various reasons is beyond dispute; but there are a few people coming to faith.

But this is in a context of decline - fewer people overall this year than last across the UK - and so more fundamental questions really ought to be being asked rather more widely. Hence these two posts that ask what Christians should do when they gather and how the creation of new gatherings might be best achieved.

No doubt I'll continue to muse on this, but others' comments are always welcome.

Monday, October 27, 2008

What should we do when we gather?

I was chatting to a friend yesterday who is embarking on the worship and preaching module of a theology course.

We started off talking about what are the components of a worship service. I commented that even the title was unhelpful since 'worship' and 'service' are such slippery words in the theological lexicon.

We ended up wondering if we had a blank sheet of paper, what would our gatherings be like? Feel free to chip in suggestions. What should we Christians do when we gather?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

All publicity is good publicity?

A group of atheists is raising money to run the following ad on the side of London's bendy buses: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

They've raised the money through a subscription on the Guardian Comment is Free website and, naturally, from Richard Dawkins (who, I was interested to note, has recently helped to establish a Tory humanist group...mmmm!). Assuming all the money comes in, the ads will run in January 2009.

They're doing it because, they claim, there's so much advertising on behalf of God on London's buses. I assume they are referring to the annual Alpha splurge and the occasional advertising by the Met Tab and KICC.

But I loved this response from the Rev Jenny Ellis, Spirituality and Discipleship Officer for the Methodist Church: "We are grateful to Richard for his continued interest in God and for encouraging people to think about these issues. This campaign will be a good thing if it gets people to engage with the deepest questions of life."

Nice one, Jenny. It just goes to show that all publicity is good publicity!

It should be noted, of course, that for a bunch of atheists the group seems to be hedging their bets with the word 'probably'.

Perhaps now is a good time for us to be reminding people to be happy and enjoy life because there is a God and he loves us and he's seeking relationship with us that will last forever.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Recession, singing and being church

It's been good to have anonymous as a dialogue partner. Really got the grey matter going. And hopefully, the thinking will lead to action.

The recession adds a whole new dimension to this discussion, as anonymous suggests by way of a tangent (the whole comment on the last post repays careful reading). I do have all sorts of fears that cash will drain away from much of the good work that is being supported by Christians as they tighten their belts and that Christians might become more self-absorbed as they see their incomes falling.

But I think the recession - we can use that word now as the governor of the Bank of England used it last night(!) - does afford us an opportunity to assess our values as individuals and communities. We will suffer mild discomfort as bills rise - though already food and fuel costs are coming off the peaks they hit in the summer - but the poor around the world will suffer greatly.

The difficulty with recessions is that they are so uneven in their impact on people. Some sail through them relatively unscathed and others find their lives shattered by them. And often those people can live on the same streets, exercise in the same gym, shop in the same malls. My prayer is that our eyes are opened to see how people are being affected.

One of the interesting features of this recession, however, is that it could affect the middle class in the south much more severely than others - unlike the downturns in the early 1980s and 1990s. It is people working in financial services - and those trades dependent on them in London - and those who've relied on debt, especially tied up in property, to fuel their lifestyle who are at the eye of this storm. And these people are my neighbours.

Inevitably, as they are affected, there will be knock-ons in the wider economy affecting other sectors. But we have such a tiny manufacturing sector these days that it's unlikely we'll be seeing factory closures on the scale we saw in the 1980s.

So it's maybe not a time to focus on singing but on sharing, on being honest about how we're doing and how we can support one another and those who could well be in need around us. In short, we have an opportunity to be church in a significantly deeper, more Christ-focused way.

Of course, some would say that a sing-song in a crisis is just the medicine we need, but I'm not sure I want to go there...

Why, O why do we sing in church?

I think Richard has a valid point (comment on the last post) that the aim of modern forms of worship was to help people who weren't connecting with God in traditional services an opportunity to make some connection with him. And I would say that there have been times when I have connected with God using a mix of vehicles including modern worship songs.

But I also think that anonymous (comment to same post) has touched an issue at the heart of the contemporary church's struggle to connect with people. Put baldy, it is that we are generally frothy and irrelevant, inward looking and a wee bit smug about our relatedness to God.

Now, I wouldn't want to go overboard here. I've met loads of Christians who are getting their hands very dirty in some places where people need help and only Christians are there to do anything. I've been to estates in inner cities in the UK where the only 'welfare' provision of any kind is that offered by Christians who sacrificially give of themselves, their time and their resources to make a difference and bless their neighbours.

And I'm writing this the day after a British Christian aid worker was shot dead in Kabul for doing exactly that as a Christian. So I don't think we can tar the entire church as self-obsessed. It dishonours those who are worshipping God with their bodies laid on the line day, day out.

But sadly, the contemporary worship scene is part of a wider malaise in the western church that sees offering people what we think they want is the way to attract people. And while there might be some superficial appeal for some in the entertaining mix we serve up, the longer term danger of the whole approach is that we are only offering an hour's mildly spiritual diversion.

Now some will protest that worship songs are not entertainment; they are a means of lifting up the name of God in a way that draws people to him and therefore are the essential component of what we do as churches. Sadly, as anonymous' posts so eloquently attest, such an approach repels rather than attracts some, perhaps many people.

We do seem to be afraid of thinking, of asking the hard questions about our faith that would stretch our faith both intellectually and emotionally. As an author, I am frequently asked to remember my audience doesn't want to be too taxed. I need to write in a way that will be accessible to people who don't read books - tricky when I write books!

I had some interesting conversations as I was putting the finishing touches to my recent short commentary on Galatians that I was possibly entering into discussions and debates about the text that were not appropriate for the general Christian public. The idea seems to be that the average church person can only cope with a pre-digested, entertainingly served up gobbet of something to believe rather than a range of possibilities to think about.

This could indeed be why the church in the UK is losing people. But it also highlights a real problem that churches have and it's this: who is our audience and at what level do they wish to be engaged? I have said for a number of years now that I do not believe there is a one-size fits all way of being and doing church. I am neither original nor alone in this view, but it is depressing how few of us there still are who really believe it and are prepared to practice it.

There are a load of people who think seriously about the world and their place in it and who might well find that the Christian faith has something intelligent and helpful to say that would help them engage with and think through these deep questions. At the same time, that process might well help them to meet and engage with God with every fibre of their beings - body, soul and, equally importantly, mind.

Sadly, songs like I can only imagine will only repel those with an ounce of intellect and musicality. I am sorry for anonymous' poor experience of church so far. Keep in touch. I'll return to this theme.

Bigger issues than Graham

Thanks to anonymous for raising a much bigger issue about what Graham Kendrick represents. There is truth - and not just the truth of an unpleasant experience - is this observation:

'It may not be his fault, but he is a symptom of a church that doesn't care about anyone but itself and its members - and making its members feel "great". He is a proponent of weak minded, arms in the air, let's feel the love nonsense.'

My objection to Letts' comment was that he seems to think stoicism and Christianity are synonymous. But your comment puts a finger on a real and much more important issue.

I had one of those encounters in church in Sunday that I never like having before or after a service in which I was told that we must always sing because worship is the heart of what we do as church. I have not believed this for 20 years or more. I'm not sure I ever believed it but I certainly didn't after I read an essay by Howard Marshall on the language of worship in the New Testament. I have summarised his argument in chapter 2 of Building a Better Body.

I agree with anonymous that so much of what passes for 'worship' in our churches is self-serving nonsense that is designed only to make us feel good. It results in us leaving church feeling self-satisfied and smug. It does nothing for those struggling to make sense of their lives or God who have strayed into our gatherings; indeed it might only confirm that the church has nothing to say to them because it's only interested in itself.

I still think Letts is wrong, however, about 'worship' needing to remain in the language of the Authorised Bible and modern church music being one reason for rot setting in in Britain. I'd put the Daily Mail at number one in that league table and suggest that Kendrick, for all his faults, has on occasions sought to lift the church's eyes beyond itself to the needs of the world.

The issue of what we sing - and say - in church is a huge one. Perhaps it's something that needs airing at greater length in a number of blogs.

Thanks again for stopping by

In defence of Graham

There's a great post over on Sean's blog about how Graham Kendrick is one of the 50 men to have wrecked Britain. I missed this piece of nonsense, not being a reader of the paper in question. And while I'm not a cheer leader for Kendrick, I do think his contribution to music and in particular to worship music over the past 25 years has been extremely positive.

The fabulously mis-informed Quentin Letts suggests 'The sturdy hymns of England, musical embodiment of the stoicism, resolve and undemonstrative solidarity of our nation, are in severe peril, and all thanks to ill-shaven remnants of the late Sixties - grinning inadequates who have never got over the fact that they weren't Cat Stevens.'

So much of this is so completely ridiculous that it scarcely merits comment. But I just wondered what on earth stoicism has to do with Christianity. You've got to hope he's not as woefully ignorant about the others subjects he covers - though this piece does not bode well Maybe before he pontificates again, he could allow a fact to interrupt the prejudice.

On the need for Christians to think better

I've been watching the US election campaign with a mixture of fascination and bewilderment. I don't think I really get how the system works or how American voters function at an emotional level. But I've been helped by Simon Shama's spectacularly good documentary series on BBC2 - you can still catch last week's on iPlayer.

Today's paper has an alarming report from Colorado on how evangelicals are facing up to a possible victory by Barak Obama. It really doesn't make for comfortable reading by this evangelical.

Apparently one church is fasting and praying this week for a McCain victory. I'm not sure what the pastoral case load will be like if this doesn't happen and Steve Holt, the pastor in question, has to visit members of his flock to talk about how we cope when God doesn't say 'yes' to everything we ask him.

More worrying was this comment from a church member: 'has Obama through mass hypnosis, figured out a way to bypass the critical faculties of all Americans?'

Is this guy for real? Could it be that Obama has found a way of asking searching questions of all Americans that has resulted in them answering that there could be a better way of conducting ourselves in the world than the way we've been behaving over the past decade? Perhaps elections need to be fought on issues other abortion and gay marriage. Perhaps Christians ought to be as concerned about global poverty and the use of violence to settle regional disputes.

Maybe Obama has tapped into those concerns and people are thinking about what kind of presidency they want, what kind of America they want to live in.

Sadly, some Christians arrogantly think that if people disagree with us it's because they're stupid and sinful. Often it's because they've thought about issues more deeply and carefully than we have and they've found our fortune cookie answers to be wanting. When it comes to mass hypnosis, I think the church member from Colorado ought to ask whether he's been a victim of it for who knows how long and might find an Obama victory is the jolt he needs to snap him out of it.

The disappointing thing about the press report was that there's no mention of Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo or Shane Claiborne - all significant evangelical leaders who are campaigning for Christians in the States to decide their political allegiances and voting intentions on more than abortion and blind support for the secular state of Israel. In the interests of balance, it would be good to see them represented in the reporting of the US election over here.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Praying in the midst of the credit crunch

There's a good prayer we should all be praying posted here (scroll down) - and reproduced below:

Lord God, we live in disturbing days:
across the world,
prices rise,
debts increase,
banks collapse,
jobs are taken away,
and fragile security is under threat.
Loving God, meet us in our fear and hear our prayer:
be a tower of strength amidst the shifting sands,
and a light in the darkness;
help us receive your gift of peace,
and fix our hearts where true joys are to be found,
in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Many in our congregations will be feeling less secure and increasingly anxious in these uncertain times. And they will continue to feel these long after the headlines have moved on to the next crisis. So let's keep praying for those particularly affected by these testing times.

Challenging times

Had a good day yesterday, I think. The morning went well. Our morning series on hope is going very well with people responding positively to the teaching, finding real encouragement in it. One 77 year old said to me after the service yesterday that she felt excited about the future as a result of the series - that was great to hear!

Yesterday evening was similarly interesting. We did a cafe church on the topic of 'is faith anything more than a crutch in these troubled times?' Using a bit of pop music and word games and quizzes, we explored what people thought about god.

The challenge for us all was using a chapter from James Catto and Duncan Bridgeman's intriguing and beautifully edited film What about me? This is the follow up to 1 Giant Leap. The episode - called Grace - plunged us into the world of Athens as recorded in Acts 17, a world of gods and opinions about the gods and faith.

We then read Acts 17 and asked what we might learn from Paul about talking about our faith in this cacophony of opinions in a way that enables people both to hear what saying and to the God we are seeking to bring into focus.

It wasn't to everyone's taste, needless to say. But some of the exchanges around the tables sounded intriguing and useful and some of the conversations I had afterwards suggested some people had found it really helpful.

The proof, as always, is in the living this week.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Bail out Iceland

There's a great piece in today's Guardian G2 on Iceland. It contains one of the most priceless understatements to have emerged from the current financial meltdown.

The lovely Prime Minister, Geir Haardie, asked what he'd learned the whole frightening experience of the past two weeks, answered: 'it is not wise for a small country to take a lead in international banking.' You can say that again!

I, for one, think the IMF should bail Iceland out, however, because it has given some of the most wonderfully sublime music of the past decade. Bjork and Sigur Ros have been consistently creative, mystical and, admittedly, not a little bonkers.

Maybe we could all buy a share in them and it would recapitalise iceland's banking sector. In return, each of them could play a gig in our streets. Now that would be a result.

Monday, October 13, 2008

New toy

I took delivery of a lovely Dell Inspiron Mini last week. It's a tiny laptop that weighs no more than a bag of sugar but does everything my larger (and not so easily portable) laptop does.

I shall be using it mainly for word processing and blogging on the go. So if you see at the back of a meeting with it open on my lap, I'll be reading or blogging or playing the cool definition game at (assuming there's free wireless access, of course).

I always wanted to own a bank

I always fancied owning a bank. Now, it seems, I own four - obviously not on my own, I share the ownership with whole population of the UK.

'We're living in extraordinary, turbulent times.' So says the Chancellor on the morning he's taking big stakes in three high street banks - RBS, HBOS and Lloyds (these last two are still about to merge to form a super retail bank).

So, the 1983 Labour manifesto pledge to bring the banks into public ownership has been fulfilled by a Labour Government whose economic policies owe more to Margaret Thatcher than Karl Marx.

I think such ironies can be enjoyed - even in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the last one. Indeed Alastair Darling keeps using the words 'exceptional and extraordinary' to describe these events. He's not wrong there.

'The world has had a shock,' he says. Too true. I was glad that in the midst of this shock, the chairman of the World Bank reminded the G7 leaders of their commitments to the poorest of the world, calling them to ensure they redouble their efforts to see the millennium goals achieved by 2015.

Let's hope the world - and the Chancellor - is listening.

Kind of Blue

My copy of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue arrived late last week. And it's wonderful.

I waxed lyrical about So What a while back. The rest lives up to that beginning and the album's conclusion, Flamenco Sketches, is gorgeous.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Unpredictable people

One of the many jaw-dropping, spine-tingling moments on Mercury Rev's Snowflake Midnight is where Jonathan sings in his faltering falsetto: 'Life is uncertain and people are so... Unpredictable'. There's a wonderful hanging pause after 'so' before each syllable of un-pre-dict-able is sounded out. I feel a shudder of joy and hope every time I hear it.

It's a poignant commentary on so much of our experience. Life is truly uncertain. The credit crunch has thrown the precarious nature of our economy into stark relief, we've all heard stories of healthy and good people suddenly overtaken by illness and death.

Jonathan is right - life is uncertain. But the tone of voice with which he sings 'people are so unpredictable' suggests that in the uncertainty of life, some people come good, do good, are there for those that need them, unexpectedly offering hope in despair, light in the darkness. We think they'll act one way, but people are so unpredictable - often they act in unexpected and life-bringing ways.

The song ends with him singing 'there's no bliss like home'; nothing feels like that moment when in life's uncertainty, someone has helped us feel as though we belong, we can cope, we have a future.

Today, we could be the unpredictable people to our neighbours, offering acts of kindness to those under pressure, standing with those who who feel lost and frightened in the midst of the turmoil on the money markets, wondering what the future holds. We could be people who bring them unpredictable blessing, the bliss of a touch of acceptance and friendship.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Bringing the soft difference into focus

As promised here's part 2 of last week's post arising out of Miroslav Volf's excellent essay on 1 Peter. Having preached about it last Sunday, this Sunday, I'm asking how what Peter says works out in his context - and how it might work in ours (that's for the congregation to work on in groups).

It seems to me that soft difference is all about helping people see what God is like. So Peter talks about it applies in the three key areas people live in - the political arena, the work place and the home (of course, the last two were the same place for many people in Peter's world).

What a number of commentators seem to miss is that Peter expected Christians to get noticed. Bruce Winter has shown from 1 Peter 2:14 (and Romans 13:3-4) that Christians who can should behave as benefactors and be recognised as such by the powers that be. This means doing good works that benefit everyone in the community (Jeremiah 29:7 in action). The ancient world was littered with inscriptions commending folk who did such deeds. and Peter says that the followers of Jesus should also do it so that they get noticed and commended. this will silence some of the nonsense spoken about the new movement (2:15).

It's interesting that Peter tells us three times to 'submit' (2:13, 18; 3:1). Submission has a rather negative feel in our culture. But I wonder if all Peter means by it is 'recognise the context you live in and live well in it.' It's interesting that he doesn't use the word 'fear' or 'obey' - those are reserved exclusively for God. Rather, it seems that he is telling his readers to accept the world they live in rather seek to change it, but in their acceptance of this world, they should live in such a way that God comes into focus and the seeds of social change are sown - possibly though the coming to Christ of husbands, masters and governors (not so far-fetched as it sounds if Luke is right about Sergius Paullus in Acts 13:12).

So we submit in the political arena by doing good works that help to bring God into focus. In the workplace we submit to our masters. A good proportion of Peter's first readers would have been slaves, some of good masters, most of those who treated them like chattels. it's possible that Christian slaves would have got a beating for worshipping a foreign god and consorting with others who did so. But Peter says they should do 'good' to their masters, perhaps suggesting that they work beyond what they're instructed to do, going the extra mile, as it were.

And wives submit at home. This is the most foreign part of this passage to our ears - and the one that gets hackles rising (not to mention the one that has been horribly abused to justify the ill-treatment of wives by their husbands - something the text absolutely does not do).

We need to remember that wives were, in a similar way to slaves, the property of their husbands. They were expected not to have an independent life of any kind - no friends that were not from their husbands circle of acquaintances and certainly no religious allegiances that their husbands didn't share. So how is a Christian wife to conduct herself in a non-Christian household (for that certainly seems to be the context Peter is talking about in 3:1-6).

submission has to do with not doing anything that would blur God rather than bring him to focus. So, beauty is to be inward (2, 4) which sounds terribly spiritual but is also very practical: if the wife is going out to a Christian gathering, it's better she doesn't go made-up and wearing her best gown and jewels or people might assume she's heading for an illicit romantic tryst!

The reference to Sarah is subtle and amusing. The only time Sarah called Abraham 'lord' was when laughing at his faith about having a child! (Genesis 18:12). The reference is possibly rather to Genesis 12:13; 20:5, 13 where Sarah goes along with Abraham's plan in order to save Abraham's neck - at considerable risk to herself. In fact three times in Genesis, Abraham obeys her - again because the advice will save his life (16:2, 6; 21:12). Peter's point seems to be that a wife's selfless action can more often than not save the husband - exactly what he wants to see happen here among his first hearers (3:1).

It's interesting that there very little in this section about the wife's motivation, perhaps because Peter wants us to see that this flows straight out of his meditation on Jesus as the servant of Isaiah 53, suggesting that such wives are examples of Christ's submission and suffering that we should take note of and emulate.

So, that's possibly how Peter thought soft difference might work itself in the context he was writing to. The question we have to wrestle with is how might these principles apply to our very different political, working and domestic contexts. That's over to you, then....

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The soft difference

Does Peter have an original social ethic? It's a question I've been pondering as I've wrestled with 1 Peter 2:11-3:12 this week. My struggles have been greatly helped by a Miroslav Volf Essay 'Soft Difference: Theological Reflections on the Relation Between Church and Culture in 1 Peter' (Ex Auditu, 10 1994, Pp15-30). It's an elegant essay that repays careful reading.

To sum up his argument in a rather crude nutshell, Volf argues that Peter urges his readers to be distinctive but not eccentric. He suggests 'To make a difference, one must be different' - a simple, obvious and yet profound observation that's worth reflecting on for a moment or two.

Some scholars suggest that Peter's social ethic - like that of the pastorals - is inherently conservative. He talks about submission in the political arena, workplace and home. He explicitly states that wives are the weaker vessel and that slaves should accept their lot. It doesn't seem promising!

But Volf suggests that Peter's ethic is strongly communitarian (he doesn't use that phrase) in that his teaching urges the formation of strong counter-cultural communities that seek to embody the values of the gospel of Christ in good works. It's not our job to change society, still less the world. our role is not to bend opinion to our view, build up blocs of supporters until we can vote the Kingdom of God through whatever legislature runs our countries.

Rather, our role is much simpler and small scale. It's to live by the values of the Kingdom and tell people why we're hopeful.

He says: 'What we should learn from the text is not, of course, to keep our mouths shut and hands folded, but to make our rhetoric and action more modest so that they can be more effective. As we strive for social change, 1 Peter nudges us to drop the pen that scripts master narratives and instead give account of the living hope in God and God's future (3:15; 1:5), to abandon the project of reshaping society from the ground up and instead do as much good as we can from where we are at the time we are there (2:11), to suffer injustice and bless the unjust rather than perpetrating violence by repaying "evil for evil or abuse for abuse" (3:9), and to replace the anger of frustration with the joy of expectation (4:13).'

And that's why we need to be forming strong communities that are shaping those values in places of mutual support and prayer, so we are strengthened to live well in our homes, work places and political arenas. 'For people who live the soft difference,' he says, 'mission fundamentally takes for the form of witness and invitation. They seek to win others without pressure or manipulation, sometimes even "without a word" (3:1)'.

It's great stuff. Later this week, I'll be reflecting on how this approach helps to understand the practicalities of what Peter says about our lifestyles.

Soaring to another place

The new Mercury rev album, snowflake midnight, is a strong late contender for record of the year. A decade after the band's sublime deserter's songs, snowflake midnight is an album of ambition and subtlety and wonderful tunes.

In many ways it shouldn't work. It's a sort of concept album, hanging around ideas of the transience of life in the enormity of the universe; it owes far too much to the prog rock of King Crimson and early Pink Floyd; and at times it meanders. Yet none of these things should put you off.

Mercury Rev have woven a load of disparate elements into one of the most affecting 41 minutes of music created this year. Check it out here. As ever the lyrics are intriguing and literate, a pile of images rather than a set of narratives. But they are embedded in gorgeous tunes and soaring melodies. it's genuinely an album to transport you to another place.

So album of the year has quite a strong and somewhat eclectic field this year - Yeasayer, Elbow, The Last Shadow Puppets, Potishead and Fleet Foxes are all in contention and there's still a couple of months to go.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Lives in the balance

Stephen Sizer's blog has a posting of Jackson Browne's wonderful Lives in the Balance featuring the lyrics and a number of links of YouTube videos. it's here and well worth checking out.

Jackson Browne was an important voice during my university years. His album Late for the Sky was rarely off the turntable and still brings tears to the eyes thirty years later. He's an excellent lyricist and beautiful singer.

He seems to have undergone something of a renaissance in the mid to late 80s and turned out some good songs reflecting on the parlous state of the world and the need for a spirituality that works - Lives in the Balance, The Barricades of Heaven and Looking East are among the best.

Voices like his are rare. Neil Young - another seminal influence, still going strong - lamented recently that there are no young singers manning the barricades and calling the politicians to account, which is why he's out on the road again doing it!

More recent posts on Stephen Sizer's blog contain reviews of his book Christian Zionism by a range of good people, including Stephen Travis and Peter Walker. it looks really worth reading - I found the book really helpful (if a little scary).

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

So what - a classic of soul music

Just listening to Radio 4's Soul Music devoted to Miles Davis So What off the Kind of Blue album. Wow! What a piece of music. What a bunch of musicians - including John Coltrane on saxaphone, Bill evans on piano

If you missed the programme, go to the listen again feature on the radio 4 website. You'll not regret it.

Then, like me, you'll need to order the album...

The joys of the brief getaway

I struggled through Sunday with a sore throat, kept afloat by adrenalin I think, and crashed yesterday. So I was listening to the news through the day, drifting in and out of sleep, as US stock markets crashed and Congressmen failed to grasp reality.

Last Friday we went over to Amiens in Northern France with friends for a twenty-four hour getaway, ate by the river in the shadow of the cathedral, visited the market, sat in the sunshine enjoying bread, cheese, wine and good company. It was a world away from the shenanigans on world financial markets and the pressure of ministry.

So, I'm trying to get my head in gear this morning for the challenges of the week (or maybe that should be weak as I don't feel too brilliant yet). I took delivery over the weekend of Jurgen Moltmann's The Coming of God, his exploration of Christian eschatology. I look forward to dipping into that today, along with Simon ponsonby's really rather good And the Lamb wins.

The series on hope is going fairly well. Reactions in church are positive and the questions I'm getting are helping to shape how we proceed. Having spent three sessions mapping the framework, next time we get much more personal looking at what happens when we die and how Christian hope helps us with our grief.

Our sermons are online now, so you can hear what I'm making of all this here - should you wish to (you'll need to click the downloads button on the right of the welcome screen and follow the links through).

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Keeping the rich to their promises

Well, as some of us feared, the credit crunch is beginning to affect how the rich world is acting towards the poor world. At meetings this week at the UN, France and Canada are wobbling on commitments they've made to helping fund the millennium development goals because of economic wobbles.

You can read about it here, sign the petition and sign up to receive alerts from this intriguing sounding organisation called Avaatz, a campaign and advocacy web portal seeking to empower ordinary people to act together to have their voices heard. It looks good.

It was deeply disheartening to hear Breakfast TV's 'typical' British family responding to Gordon Brown's conference speech by saying that they didn't care what happened in other countries, they just want help to cut their fuel and food bills. They didn't speak for me. I hope they don't speak for many. But it serves as a warning that a little economic gloom can make us inward-looking and more selfish than we normally are.

It's true that I spend more at Sainsbury's now than I did last year. But I've got a full fridge and an over-full stomach. The huge hikes in the cost of basics like rice and wheat, combined with the severe weather affecting many parts of the poor world, means that more people are dying for lack of food.

Now doesn't seem a good time to be turning our backs on those in need.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Play games and feed the world

Thanks to Janice who at our harvest service yesterday recommended a website called free rice (you can find it here) where you can play all kinds of games to improve your mental agility and for every answer you get right, twenty grains of rice are given to the world food programme to help eradicate hunger.

So this morning before breakfast I was playing a definitions game and donated 600 grains - not much, but imagine if we all did it!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Bringing a historical persepctive

Thanks to Iain for his comment on the last post - always good to see sensible baptist ministers at work!

There was an excellent documentary on Radio 4 this morning looking at the context of the current economic woes. It was by Jeff Randall, someone I don't always agree with. But I thought his analysis was spot on, especially in terms of the effects of the big bang (October 1986) on the way money markets work. You'll be able to listen to it again for a week at the BBC website.

What was great was hearing the latest member of Hoare family suggesting that markets crash from time-to-time and we all get on with life. His family bank has weathered many storms since it was founded in the 1690s. You could almost hear his eyebrows rising as he spoke.

Also good to hear Brian Winterflood's perspective. He's been a city dealer for more than 50 years. I used to talk to him occasionally when he was a stock jobber. He lived through the market meltdown of the early 1970s and said it was worse than this one - people lost trust in the banking system altogether and were taking home bags full of Kruger rands to bury in their gardens!

A bit of perspective never hurt anyone - perhaps someone could tell the Today presenters.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Market meltdown and the millennium development goals

Have others seen the irony in Barclays acquiring Lehman Brothers US operations for $1bn today but walking away from the opportunity to rescue the group on Saturday despite the chairman of Barclays trumpeting today that it was a great deal at any price?

I was a financial journalist in the early 1980s when Mrs Thatcher was presiding over a financial meltdown that caused similar headlines to the ones we're seeing now. Unemployment hit three million plus, interest rates were in double digits as was inflation. Manufacturers were queuing up to go to the wall. Whole towns were left wasted and broken. In those days, furrowed brows combed the public sector borrowing requirement numbers for evidence of who knows what... There was much chin rubbing and mutterings of 'the markets will correct'.

Now as we face a yet another serious correction in the financial markets and jitters like we've not known for a good while, we are nightly treated to ever younger reporters overdosing on hyperbole as they seek to tell us that things are even worse than they were yesterday. I find myself sounding like the classic grumpy old man, shouting at the TV screen 'how many recessions have you seen, sunny boy?' Of course, when I was pontificating on the state of the economy, I was a mature 25 year old! 'Twas ever thus...

I wonder how much of this might have been avoided by cooler, wiser heads suggesting no one panic, no one buy or sell anything, no one create yet another fictitious financial instrument to make it look as if our asset-base is bigger than it actually is and we are all richer than we really are. I remember an FT ad in the 80s that asked where the money goes in our crazy 24 hour, global securities trading system, asked 'does it even exist?' I wonder...

Soon, it seems, we'll all be banking at the single global financial services conglomerate left after the current meltdown. Funny how unfettered markets and rapacious competition reduces the number of players and the choice left to hapless and baffled consumers.

Nothing like a good rant.... It makes me feel better about my bank being taken over by the bank I left because I wasn't happy with its service. But it also leaves me with a broader question.

When the dust settles, what will have happened to the Millennium Development Goals? How much of the money that was earmarked for achieving those - you know the ones, free primary education for all children by 2015, rising levels of healthcare, access to clean water, action on HIV, TB and malaria - has been diverted into propping up the financial institutions that fuel the global economy that has kept the developing world on its knees for too long?

Bruce Cockburn got it right back in the 1980s when the seeds for this mess were being sown in the privatising policies of the Thatcher/Reagan governments and the IMF started intoning its free-market mantra. He sang: 'spend a buck to make a buck, you don't give a flying f... about the people in poverty.' Now that's high quality economic analysis and commentary from a seasoned hand!