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!

hyperbole and market mayhem

It looks like the bank I used to bank with is taking over the bank I moved to to get a better service - the lengths some organisations will go to to keep customers!

LloydsTSB is taking over HBOS - or are they merging, consolidating to weather the chill winds of the worst downturn since hyperbole began?

I wonder if, when the dust settles after all the shenanigans going on in world financial markets, we'll still believe in the myth of unfettered free markets; or will we be able to admit that without governments the economy doesn't work and that the mixed economy of John Maynard Keynes is actually the way things are and that Milton Friedman's pipe dreams lead only to catastrophe - especially for the poor.

It is a curious irony that those who have telling government to leave well alone for the past twenty-five years are now blaming the government for everything that's gone wrong and insisting the government sorts out the mess. Northern Rock shareholders objecting that they weren't getting a fair return on their investment when the bank was nationalised seemed oblivious to the fact that market forces - in the form of their bank going to the wall - would have left them at the back of the queue of creditors and almost certainly with nothing. That's capitalism for you...

Ah well... Providing I can get my money from a hole in the wall, I'm happy (and frankly am not too fussed which combination of barrow boys actually manages it.)

Belief precedes believing

'To learn a belief without belief is to sing a song without a tune'

The quote is from novelist Ursula LeGuin and I came across it this morning while reading a paper by Joel Green on holiness in 1 Peter.

It stopped me in my tracks.

She goes on to say: 'A yielding, an obedience, a willingness to accept these notes as the right notes, this pattern as the right pattern, is the essential gesture of performance, translation and understanding.'

I find myself thinking something like this when I come across the debate between believing and unbelieving New Testament scholars over who is likely to be the more accurate. I found myself pondering it when watching a video of a debate recently staged in Sheffield between James Crossley and William Lane Craig about the historicity of the resurrection.

I guess the reason it stopped me in my tracks this morning is that it highlights an issue that ministers face on a regular basis. We can expound the content of our belief in a way that congregations understand on a semantic level. But unless they believe, they will not learn the belief we are expounding.

LeGuin goes on: 'the gesture need not be permanent, a lasting posture of the mind or heart; yet it is not false. It is more than the suspension of disbelief needed to watch a play, yet less than a conversion. It is a position, a posture in the dance.'

If we are going to read 1 Peter well, says Green, we need to put ourselves in the place where we adopt Peter's perspective on the world. Only there will we have any chance of seeing whether it makes sense or not; only if we believe what Peter is saying, will we be in a position to believe that it's true of us and that a posture can become a conversion.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Reminded of Moltmann

Roger emailed yesterday to remind me of Jurgen Moltmann on hope. I hadn't forgotten but I hadn't consulted his wonderful Theology of Hope for the present series, thinking it was probably too demanding. But yesterday evening I found this:

'Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionising and transforming the present.' (Theology of Hope SCM 1967, p16).

That pretty much says it all, I think. And this:

'For Christian faith lives from the raising of the crucified Christ and strains after the promises of the universal future of Christ...the eschatological outlook is characteristic of all Christian proclamation, of every Christian existence and of the whole church.'.

Great stuff to ponder on a sunny Sunday morning.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The dark side of eschatology?

As I've been getting into our series on hope, I've been reading some of Stephen Sizer's material on Israel and Zionism. He is excellent - clear, concise, well-informed and spot-on in his treatment of the biblical material.

It is that last point that makes his contribution on the vexed issue of 'the Bible, Israel and the Church' (the subtitle of his book Zion's Christian Soldiers, IVP 2007) so helpful. Lots of his writing can be found on his website here.

As I've been working through the issues of hope, I am realising that I need to tackle the whole 'end times' industry and the issues it highlights. I'm just not sure how. In a couple of weeks I shall put a toe in the water by talking about millennialism.

My lecturer at LBC, as he outlined the various positions, described himself as pro-milennial - 'whenever it happens, if God wants it, I'm for it,' he says. Can't argue with that!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Getting together in convivial surroundings

Sometimes the world gets what the church has forgotten it knows.

Good friends sent this link to a cafe/restaurant that seems to have grasped something about the social nature of eating.

They probably aren't the only ones - though they do seem to do it very nicely (I'll have to go and check it out).

As Leonard Sweet points out in his book, The Gospel According to Starbucks, that cafe chain is only partially interested in selling you a coffee. it's much more interested in enabling you to connect with friends and have an experience that is life-affirming.

Of course, it hopes that if it does that, it'll make more money, but let's not be too cynical because anything that helps people come together in a world that's falling apart has to be a good thing. maybe we should be in there helping it happen.

Three cheers for Elbow

Great to see Elbow picking up the Mercury Prize for their album The Seldom Seen Kid the day before yesterday. What a result!

Elbow are one of the best bands in Britain - great tunes, wonderfully arranged and fabulous song writing from the almost peerless Guy Garvey. The Seldom Seen Kid is the band's fourth album and probably their best - though each one is pretty brilliant. The previous effort, Leaders of the Free World is a stunning piece of work containing one of my favourite tracks of all time (The Everthere).

Should you not be a fan, you can check out the album here (the site's a work of art in itself) and more about the band here

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Getting excited with Isaiah

As I get into our series on hope, I'm scurrying around my study looking for resources that might contain answers to questions that are popping into my head. Well, today as I was reading Isaiah 65 I kept asking myself where I got the idea that Isaiah spoke about the nations bringing their wealth into Jerusalem and that this act was a key part of Isaiah's vision of the end times?

I found my old tattered copy of Richard Mouw's When the Kings Come Marching in: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem (Eerdmans 1983) and realised that this little book has shaped my understanding of eschatology probably more than any other text (apart from the Bible). It was republished in a revised and expanded form in 2002 (I've ordered that).

I read it the year it came out and remember being very excited about it. Since then, its message has insinuated itself into my thinking about the coming city of God, life after the eschaton, all that stuff. And today, as I read what Mouw has to say about Isaiah 60, an enigmatic chapter that John Goldingay suggests is 'the longest unstructured stream-of-consciousness prophecy in Isaiah', I found myself getting really excited all over again.

In particular Mouw points out that a number of characters - notably the ships of Tarshish - which are judged earlier in Isaiah, feature in chapter 60 coming laden with goods and gifts into the holy city to serve God. What's happening? Mouw suggests that earlier references to these players are about purification, not destruction and that what's happening in Isaiah 60 is a description of God redeeming culture, the fruits of human creativity.

Starting from Psalm 24:1 - 'the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof' - Mouw takes us back to Genesis 2 and the mandate to subdue and fill the earth, arguing that the 'fillings' that humans make are our cultural artifacts, arts and crafts, political and economic systems, everything that makes life sustainable (and unsustainable - because of the Fall) on planet earth. All this is not written off by God. Rather it is redeemed, washed and brushed up for the great parade as His holy city is revealed to his rather stunned people.

More than that the politicians who have 'filled the earth' with governments that have instigated wars and campaigns for justice, empire building and grand initiatives to feed the hungry will march into the city to account for themselves before the people they ruled over. God will decide between them (Isaiah 2:4) as they bow before the king of kings (Phil 2:11) who has stripped them of their power (Col 2:15) and who exercises judgment on behalf of those who've suffered at their hands and cry out for a just accounting (Rev 6:9-11; 1 Pet 2:12, etc).

Whatever is going on in Isaiah 60 - and it is impressionistic and raises all sorts of questions about who remains in the city, for how long and what is the nature of the final judgement, of the settling of accounts and setting things straight - one thing is certain: the eschatological hope of the Bible - for this and other Isaianic texts sweep into the New Testament underpinning all its eschatological teaching - is absolutely rooted on planet earth; it is a physical, tangible hope with a recognisable shape. More than that, the way we live now, the things with which we fill the earth, shapes what we experience there.

In God's eschatological scheme our lives matter. How exciting is that?!

Monday, September 08, 2008

the excitement of preaching

One of the things I love about starting new teaching series (that's a plural, by the way, so read it accordingly...!) is the sense of wonder I get at discovering new things. I think this is probably a good thing. I think preachers should get excited about what they are learning so that they preach as those who are sharing new discoveries.

Of course, I'm not discovering things that I didn't know about or which are changing my core beliefs about God, the world and our place in both. Rather I am unearthing new links between familiar things, like seeing an old master painting from a new angle or with a fresh set of questions in mind.

I'm reminded of the statement that the great historian Christopher Hill makes at the beginning of his quite wonderful The World Turned Upside Down: 'history has to be rewritten in every generation, because although the past does not change, the present does; each generation asks new questions of the past, and finds new areas of sympathy as it relives different aspects of the experiences of his predecessors.'

I thinks that's true of every preaching series. We use our familiar text - the Bible - and our well-known beliefs and understandings of its message - variously known as our doctrines or theology. But each time we embark on a series, we ask a fresh set of questions, bring new experiences and seek to make new connections between different parts of the material and between the material and the audience. The result is that we see things in new ways and, for this preacher at least, make sometimes startling and exciting new patterns out of familiar words and images.

All this has me enthusiastically opening my commentaries and other resources and wrestling with the text of scripture with a smile on my face. It also helps when - as happened this past Sunday - people respond positively to the journey you've invited them to join you on.

Friday, September 05, 2008

The Age of the Understatement

This week I've been listening to the wonderful album by the Last Shadow Puppets, the side project of Arctic Monkey's front man, Alex Turner and Rascals Miles Kane. It's a blinder.

I'm not familiar with the Rascals, but Turner is fast becoming the premier songsmith in Britain. The album, The Age of the Understatement, is a collection of exquisitely crafted songs that wouldn't be out of place on a mid-60s Walker Brothers album. It's full of lush strings and twangy guitars, tricksy key changes and fabulous harmonies.

Pretty much everything they try comes off and as well a clutch of great tunes, the lyrics are a master class in how to write bittersweet love songs.

Try it. you'll not be disappointed.

Welcome to the blogosphere

I don't often do this, but I thought I'd welcome IBTS to the blogosphere. Various luminaries from that august institution are posting on a college blog. Good stuff so far, including a post on IBTS hero James McClendon by our very own Ian Randall - well worth a read.

The picture of Vanessa is priceless!

Hopefully Phil and Alex will be posting soon on the joys of cats...or is that CATs....?

You can get it here

More on why eating together matters

We entertained a couple for dinner yesterday and had a lovely time.

In many ways they exemplify one or two of the issues we wrestle with as a church. In a previous generation, they would probably be at the heart of the institutional life of the church, serving on the diaconate, heavily involved in fellowship and outreach meetings.

As it is, they struggle to get to home group and wonder what the point is of many of the things that church does.

This morning, as I was reflecting on our time together, I began to ask myself whether we stress too much the gathering of believers in large numbers for what we all know of as 'church' - singing, listening, praying, reading scripture, hearing sermons, sharing coffee afterwards.

Then I read 1 Samuel 12:23-24 where the aging prophet tells Israel what he's done - prayed for them and declared God's word - and reminds them what they must do - fear the Lord, serve him faithfully and remember all he's done for them.

Now, you could argue that that is as good a description of church as you'd ever find and yet it seems to me to be a minimalist understanding of it. Do we fret too much over programmes, getting everyone together, ensuring we're all on the same page, moving ahead at the same pace? Does this mean we sacrifice real learning of the faith, living out its implications and sharing one another's lives as we do it?

I'm not sure I have any answers... But yet again, interesting things were happening as we gathered to share food around a table and enjoy one another's company. I feel a theme coming on!

Monday, September 01, 2008

In praise of slowing down

We said a tearful farewell to Jonathan yesterday as he moves on to pastures new in Wolverhampton. Although he's only been with us for a couple of years, it felt like the end of an era. It's been great to have him, things have happened as a result of his being with us that wouldn't have happened otherwise; we're grateful for his input.

But life goes on. Out with the old, in with the new. In the relentless treadmill of church, we start new teaching programmes next Sunday. As Jonathan himself pointed out yesterday, September is always the start of things - new terms, new seasons and, for him, new adventures in ministry.

It would be wonderful to build a certain calmness into the church's programme. It has a sense of relentlessly marching on, reaching ever higher and further, demanding ever increasing amounts of creativity and resourcefulness. Sometimes I wonder whether it's healthy.

Someone reminded me of Juan Carlos Ortiz last week - in particular his approach to discipleship - and I remember him talking once about his approach to treaching. He'd preach on the same subject for a number of weeks until he was sure that his people had not only got it but also started to live it. Done the right way that would offer lots of time and space for reflection and discussion, teasing out the implications of a word before it needed to be filed away as the next one came along.

I am hoping (sorry) that our series on hope will enable us to slow the pace a little. We will be emphasising certain core truths of our faith and reflecting on how they stimulate good living in God's people. Hopefully (sorry again) there will be a sense of each week building on and unpacking what we discovered in previous weeks, helping us grow in understanding and application of wonderful words from God about our future.

Maybe the same will happen as we look at identity from 1 Peter. There's a danger when doing an expository series on a book that you get caught up in detail and a desire to expound and explain and unpack a vast amount of information. I'm hoping that our focus on what Peter says about who we are, will enable us to spend a few weeks thinking about a few select things, allowing them to soak into us.

I guess in short I'd like us to be marinaded in a selection of truth over the coming weeks so that our lives take on the flavour of it.