Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Lessons from Paul in divine discontentment

Someone asked me apropos James 2 and 4 about when it was right for Christians to agitate for change when Paul says that we should be content with the way things are. It was part of a broader discussion about those areas where people think James and Paul are at odds on some pretty fundamental issues of the faith.

It's a serious question, though I think one that gets a bit overblown, so I've been pondering it over the past day or so and here's what I think.

When Paul says he was content and had learned to be content (Philippians 4:11), he did not mean that nothing bothered him or that he put up with what ever came his way or that he didn't think there was a lot wrong with the world that the followers of Jesus should be concerned about putting right, but simply that his personal economic circumstances did not determine how he responded to or felt about things.

He was clearly discontented about many things: that Christ had not yet been formed in his Galatian converts (Galatians 4:19); that those who followed Jesus were failing to share what they had with the poor (1 Corinthians 11:17ff; 2 Corinthians 8:1-15); he wanted to see justice done between Philemon and Onesimus, being discontented with the current situation between them; he was concerned that the Thessalonians didn’t succumb to the lure of being clients but worked to have something to share, indicating a level of profound discontentment about current economic relations in the wider society (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; see Bruce Winter ‘From secular clients to Christian Benefactors’ in his Seek the Welfare of the City [Eerdmans 1994]).

There were a whole range of things that grieved Paul, made him angry at their injustice, that he was definitely not content about and not prepared to learn to be content about.

Indeed, he was only prepared to learn to be content about his own personal circumstances. At the start of Philippians he spoke about his imprisonment being not what he’d have chosen, but still working out for the advancement of the Kingdom of God. And at the end, in relation to their gift, he spoke about having learned to be content about his own personal economic circumstances – whether he had a lot or a little didn’t make him view the world any differently.

But in all sorts of other areas, he seethed with a divinely-inspired discontent at the way the world was and campaigned and agitated to see it change, working mainly through to creating communities which embodied the values of Jesus’ reign, but not afraid to comment on how those values challenged the prevailing ethos of the world around them. And he would have said a loud and enthusiastic 'amen' to how James urges his readers to live.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Christmas travels

Back from Devon. It only took five hours - though it rained all the way. We had a fabulous break - lots of good food, lovely walks, great conversations, though sadly no surfing....

We bought a painting - it's for Linda's birthday in February really, but we'll probably hang it before then. It's a glorious small study of a blue cloth that changes shade and texture in different lights and from different angles.

Lots of writing to do this week as well as getting ready for Sunday (hopes and dreams for the coming year).

After hearing someone in the church I went to on Christmas morning wish Jesus a happy birthday - almost breaking into song in the process - I was so heartened by Michael Gorman's post that pointed out that Christmas is not Jesus' birthday, but the time we celebrate the incarnation of the Second person of the Trinity. It was a good to read a bit of sensible theology over the festive season.

In the post he says: 'Singing Happy Birthday to Jesus would not seem to engender devotion to the One we are called to follow so fully that it might lead to death—yet the Church remembers Stephen, the first martyr, on December 26, the day after Christmas. Singing Happy Birthday to Jesus reflects an understanding of Jesus as a cute little baby or little boy who could cause no trouble and do no harm. But that is not what Herod thought, so the Church remembers his slaughter of the innocents on December 28. In other words, the shadow of the cross is present in the Scriptural Christmas narrative, and in the Church’s way of framing its celebration, but it is absent from the “Happy Birthday, Jesus” mindset.'

Pretty much everything he's been posting through Advent has been top notch, so check him out here (you'll need to scroll down for the birthday post).

With all the hype that attended Douglas Campbell's big book on Paul, it's as well to remember that Gorman published a much briefer but immensely rich Pauline theology this year. Inhabiting the Cruciform God is one of my books of the year (though I've not quite finished it yet).

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas in Kingsbridge

We've decamped to Devon for Christmas, spending it with good friends.

Just back from a wonderful walk across Bantham beach - didn't go in the water today! - and up over the headland before retiring to the Sloop for a coffee. Sheer bliss.

Spent five hours on the M4 yesterday which wasn't so blissful. It was bumper to bumper and we rarely got above 30mph. And then the traffic cleared as soon as we hit the M5 at around 6pm, so our usual 4 hour journey took nearer to nine hours.

But it's worth it for the company and scenery!

Listened to Boo Hewerdine in the car who kept me feeling mellow. I was reminded just how good a songwriter he is.

Happy Christmas everyone.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A good Christmas read

If you're still looking for some Christmas reading, let me recommend Thomas Friedman's new paperback, Hot, Flat & Crowded: Why the world needs a green revolution - and we can renew our global future (Penguin 2010).

Friedman is a New York Times columnist who for the past decade has offered some of the best thinking and commentary on globalisation. His book The Lexus and the Olive Tree is still the best introduction to the new world order that emerged after the fall of the Berlin wall but before the World Trade Centre attacks of 2001. A lot of his analysis still holds true, however.

Friedman points out that this emerging world is bordered by two interesting and memorable dates - 11/9 was when the Berlin Wall came down (that is 9 November 1989); 9/11 was when those infamous attacks happened (that is 11 September 2001).

Now he turns his penetrating gaze on how a globalised world needs to get to grips with climate change. The book came out before the debacle in Copenhagen, so it's message is even more urgent now than it was just a couple of months ago when the paperback came out.

Because a year elapsed between the hardback and paperback versions of the book, a year in which the financial meltdown played out before an open-mouthed electorate, Friedman rewrote the first section. These 60 pages offer some of the best, most prescient analysis of the credit crunch against the backdrop of the increasingly globalised world in which banking and hedge funds are a key lubricant. And he makes intriguing and convincing connections between the three crises that threaten a perfect storm of problems for the world - financial meltdown, population growth and climate change.

So I heartily recommend this narrative full of great anecdotes, interviews, stories and analysis as a welcome distraction from all that theology - as well as a wake up call to Christians to get informed and get active in this area.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Reflecting on our carol service experience

We had a good day of carol services yesterday.

It kicked off with the biggest turn out at Messy Church in its year-long history - and this despite the atrocious conditions under foot. I didn't count but there could well have 70 people at the peak.

Two things stand out. The first is that there were a number of families who've not been before and the second is that a number of families stayed on for the all-age carol service. So we're making new friends and hopefully helping them explore the meaning of the Christian faith for families today.

Then at teatime we had a pretty full and very traditional carols by candlelight. This continues to be an event that attracts a good number of people who don't usually attend church. I lost count of the number of people I shook hands with who joked that they were once a year regulars.

The music was great, the service flowed sweetly with a reasonable number of people involved in one way or another and a number of people commented on how helpful and challenging the sermon was.

But I guess what stands out for me is the thought that this service above anything else we do is worship as entertainment. Now don't me get me wrong. This doesn't mean that the service is not worth doing. Lots of people, church goers and non-church goers alike, find much that is beneficial for them in it. But I wonder if there's a danger that it is just another feature of the traditional Bromley Christmas, up there with the office party, sherry and mince pies with neighbours, last minute shopping, menu planning to suit the tastes of everyone sharing all the meals that will be cooked over the festive season, etc.

My feeling is that the Advent Conspiracy has helped a number of us to think about how we celebrate Christmas this year in terms of what we buy, who we invite to parties and why. But I think we've a way to go.

So - and if this isn't a contradiction - I do feel that carols by candlelight is really good, positive and worthwhile but perhaps it does just allow people to come and do right by God at this one time of the year when the Christian story still resonates with a broad cross-section of the population, so that they don't need to engage with God at any other time of the year.

Maybe this contradiction is at the heart of all the public worship activities we do as a church but it's just thrown into particularly sharp relief at Christmas.

So, a question for next year is whether we can help everyone at our carol services to see the connection between this story and the celebration of it they gladly come at Christmas and their everyday, ordinary, January to November working and domestic lives.

Answers on a post card...

Friday, December 18, 2009

Planning for next year

One thing I tend to do at this time of year is plan the teaching programme for the next session in church. I'm a bit late this year for all sort of reasons, not the least of which has been the trouble I've had writing that has tended to slow everything else down.

In the evenings from January to March we'll be using Nehemiah to ask some questions about what it means to be a missional people.

I have to confess that I find Nehemiah difficult. One reason for this is that I'm fed up of books and conference sessions on leadership telling me that he is the model leader! I'm sure the book that bears his name must have more to tell me than how I exercise leadership - otherwise those who read it who aren't leaders can't be getting a whole lot from it!

The other reason is that he comes across as an insufferable chauvinist, precursor of the Pharisees that Jesus struggled with during his ministry which tends to make the text that bears his name somewhat uncongenial.

However, I've been looking for a handle that will let me into seeing Nehemiah in a fresh way and I think I found one with Stuart Murray Williams' brief comments on this text at the end of his still excellent book on the city and some sermons by Mark Driscoll, who explored Nehemiah as the builder of a city within the city and used the book to help his church in Seattle explore their calling to embody the gospel where they are.

I'm hoping that we'll be able to do the same for us. So we'll be exploring aspects of being a missional people where we are as we read the book together, things like being a people who pray, plan and prepare, who recognise that everyone has a role but not everyone does the same amount of work, who have a passion for economic justice, who seek to create space for those not in our group to explore the meaning of life, who recognise the importance of covenant relationships and constantly retelling the founding stories of the community, and so on.

I think all this - and more - is in Nehemiah, so it'll be interesting to see whether we're able to extract in in such a way that helps to shape our identity as a missional people in our city in the second decade of the third millennium after Christ.

So, this is Christmas...

So far, Christmas has not been quite as frantic as previous years, though our grand daughter arrived on Wednesday afternoon and I've had lots of lovely distractions to deal with since then - and my productivity has plummeted! So, this might just be a state of mind!

In common with a lot of churches, we'll be busy this weekend. We have three carol services on Sunday plus an hour spent on the forecourt serving mulled wine, mince pies, tea and coffee to passers-by (it'll be interesting to see if the current lovely weather has any impact on the numbers)

We're also going to Starbucks on Monday evening to sing carols and other Christmas favourites at six to bring a little cheer to last-minute, late evening shoppers.

I've been enjoying more over-looked music - Florence and the Machine and Paloma Faith. Both their records are very listenable. And I've taken delivery of Alan Roxburgh's new book Introducing the Missional Church which I shall take away on my Christmas break to Devon. It looks pretty good.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Moments of musical wonder

Geoff over at wonder and wondering has tagged me with a music meme. The point, he says, is to write about moments when music just made you stand still in wonder, but not to write about your all-time-favourite music.

This is really difficult. I can think of tunes that make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up every time I hear them - Miles Davis' So What, Santana's Every Step of the Way, Vaughan Williams' Lark Ascending

I remember first hearing Jimi Hendrix's take on All Along the Watchtower (which I already knew from Dylan's John Wesley Harding album). I was learning to pay the guitar at the time so I must have been about 15/16 and I was speechless with wonder at the sound he drew out of a Telecaster. The falling chords in the instrumental section took my breath away.

I remember seeing and hearing the Smiths on Top of the Pops performing This Charming Man, Morrissey with Gladioli in his back pocket and wearing a hearing aid (it was the days before foldback was played through headsets). I was captivated. He was a thing of wonder! But the song reached in and caressed some deep part of my soul. I was married by then but listening, I felt like the awkward teenager I had been and yet I felt I was OK to have been it because here was this guy singing my feelings on top of the pops.

For me it has always been the combination of words and music that creates wonder. yes, great guitar playing will always send a tingle down my spine. But it's the way a lyric rising and falls within a sequence of chords that causes me to stop and wonder.

Very early on Leonard Cohen did it in the Stranger song. Over the simple picked acoustic, Cohen's mellifluous vocal sang:

And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind
you find he did not leave you very much not even laughter
Like any dealer he was watching for the card
that is so high and wild
he'll never need to deal another
He was just some Joseph looking for a manger
He was just some Joseph looking for a manger.

and the killer line

O you've seen that man before
his golden arm dispatching cards
but now it's rusted from the elbow to the finger

Joni Mitchell has the same effect on so many of the songs from her classic 70s period (Court and Spark to Don Juan's restless Daughter). The way her vocal rises through the uncertain love song, the same situation to the lines

Still I send up my prayer
wondering where it had to go
with heaven full of astronauts
and the Lord on death row
while the millions of his lost and lonely ones
call out and clamour to be found
caught in their struggle for higher positions
and their search for love that sticks around

I'm sent into all kinds of wonder every time I hear that tune.

I could go on. I guess the most recent music that has done this for me is Elbow. Each of their four albums have been little wonders. But One Day like This off Seldom Seen Kid still makes me stop still with a hush over my spirit. The simple vocal over the rising orchestra and choir

Well anyway, it's looking like a beautiful day,
so throw those curtains wide
one day like this a year
would see me right.

On the live from Abbey Road DVD where Guy Garvey and the gang are performing this with the BBC Concert Orchestra and the choir Chantage, there's a woman in the choir who is so utterly transported by what she's singing that she looks like I feel every time I hear it. It's a moment of sheer bliss and wonder when the song reaches its climax.

Not sure if this is what you wanted, Geoff....

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Seeing the end of the apocalypse

I've just finished the notes for our final session on the apocalypse. It's been great fun doing this even though I've felt at times that I've drowning in john's imagery.

But one thing I have come away more than ever firmly convinced of is that John's letter to these scattered urban communities across the western end of Asia minor is one of the most potent missional texts in the New Testament.

We get so caught up in the imagery, convinced that John is writing to confirm our particular system of theology and narrow conception of the New Jerusalem as a life raft for people like me, that we miss the central unveiling of God's purpose: that through his people the nations of the world will be brought into God's Kingdom and bring their glory and wealth into his city.

This is the end (that is goal) of John's apocalypse and if that's not missional, I'm not sure what is.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Really good TV

Just watched The Secret Life of Cranes on More 4. A film about the people who sit above our cities in tower cranes, who shift heavy materials on building sites; about what they see and how they feel about it.

It was a stunning 40 minutes of visual treats accompanied by quirky observation. If you didn't see it, check it out on 4OD.

Oh, and though the song didn't appear in the film, it was apparently inspired by the Elbow Song The Loneliness of the Tower Crane Driver, but showed such guys as anything but lonely - though they spend long days alone. They were all surprisingly articulate, at times almost poetic.

My phone keeps time perfectly

Well, it seems that Nokia have delivered me an early Christmas present by giving me a software upgrade for my lovely E63 which means that I don't need to keep correcting the date.

Up until last Friday, my phone skipped two days every day which meant that everyday I had to reset the date which was a little tiresome. Now I don't have to, which is lovely. So thank you Nokia and 3.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Yet another late entry

Another late entry into the festive ten - which now has thirteen entrants! - is the wonderful Animal Collective.

I blogged about Merriweather Post Pavilion when I bought it but that was back in the early Spring and as ever with an album bought early in the year, it gets displaced from the playlist by subsequent purchases.

Flicking through my iPod this morning, I alighted upon it and remembered how good it was. Quirky pop, propelled on waves of sound, it's weird and lovely. And I'm sorry I forgot about when compiling my original list.

Conspiring to make Advent meaningful

We're two weeks into the Advent Conspiracy and it's beginning to raise some profound issues for people - which was the intention. As ever when issues are raised, there's a danger that we get side-tracked into questions that have no simple answers, leading to the temptation is to say that there's nothing to be done.

So, for example, when I raised the question last week that how we spend our money shows where our hearts are, that the truth of our worship is seen in our till receipts, I got a number of questions asking about what I felt this meant for the nature of advanced industrial capitalism. Fascinating though such conversations would inevitably be, they can be a way of avoiding the more direct question of what we'll actually spend in the run up to Christmas.

Last night we pursued this topic looking at what Paul says to the Corinthians about the use of any surplus they have. 2 Corinthians 8:1-15 is the beginning of Paul's appeal to the church to join in his collection for the saints in Jerusalem, suffering acutely from the effects of famine and recession.

The principle that Paul works up to is equality, used twice in v14. It seems that Paul here states a key principle of how economic relationships should be organised among God's people. Justin Meggitt argues that this verse is one a key one in understanding the mutualism that was a hallmark of early Christian thinking about the use of money.

So what does it have to do with Christmas? simply this. Paul doesn't come out with the principle immediately. Instead he talks about the grace of God. We will never grasp how God expects us to use money until we are seized and overwhelmed by God's grace. This is why he talks about the experience of the Macedonians - those believers in Thessalonica and Philippi - being gripped by God's grace in such a way that they wanted to ensure that their surplus was used to bring grace to others.

It's not only the Macedonians who are an example here. The Messiah, Jesus himself, is too. He operated out of a grace that meant that though he was rich, he chose to become poor in order that we might be enriched (v9). However we understand this key Christmas text in terms of salvation and forgiveness, new life and rescue, it's context demands that we see it in economic terms as well. Jesus is another example of mutualism in operation. Perhaps the Macedonians had grasped this through what Paul wrote to them in Philippians 2:5-11, 3:7-16.

And so grace should be directing our planning in two areas. The first is purchasing. What do we buy? How do we spend to show our love for friends and family and our commitment to justice and equality across the world? And what's grace got to do with it? And the second is partying. Who do we celebrate with at Christmas? The temptation is to spend money celebrating with friends and family. But the first Christmas was full of celebration with strangers, people invited to share the joy of the birth of Jesus who were unknown to his immediate family.

When I'd preached this at our earlier service yesterday afternoon, I had a conversation with a woman who hates Christmas because she doesn't have anyone to celebrate with and often spends it on her own. Indeed sometimes she prefers that because it's not enough to just invite people to share with us, we also have to think about how we plan our celebration. This woman said that she'd been invited to join a family at Christmas and she felt like a gooseberry, not knowing the in-jokes or family history that dominated the conversation.

There's no easy answer to any of this. I guess a starting point is that we need to pray for an overwhelming experience of grace that will help us to think practically about we use our disposable income to show the reality of Christmas.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Laughing with God

There's a lovely Regina Spektor video here.

You could also check out her charming, witty and thought-provoking song Laughing With

No one laughs at God in a hospital
No one laughs at God in a war
No one's laughing at God
when they're starving or freezing or so very poor

No one laughs at God when the doctor calls after some routine tests
No one's laughing at God when it's gotten real late
and their kid's not back from that party yet

No one laughs at God when their airplane starts to uncontrollably shake
No one's laughing at God when they see the one they love hand in hand with someone else and they hope that they're mistaken
No one laughs at God when the cops knock on their door and they say "We've got some bad new, sir,"
No one's laughing at God when there's a famine, fire or flood

But God can be funny
At a cocktail party while listening to a good God-themed joke
Or when the crazies say he hates us and they get so red in the head
you think that they're about to choke

God can be funny
When told he'll give you money if you just pray the right way
And when presented like a genie
Who does magic like Houdini
Or grants wishes like Jiminy Cricket and Santa Claus

God can be so hilarious

No one laughs at God in a hospital
No one laughs at God in a war
No one's laughing at God when they've lost all they got
and they don't know what for

No one laughs at God on the day they realize that the last sight they'll ever see is a pair of hateful eyes
No one's laughing at God when they're saying their goodbyes

But God can be funny ...

No one's laughing at God
No one's laughing at God
No one's laughing at God
We're all laughing with God

Lots to ponder there - especially the last line...

Late entries in the festive ten

Doesn't this always happen? Just as you've decided on your festive ten along come two releases that compete for top slot.

the first I was expecting. it's the five track EP by the wonderful Smoke Fairies - two girls from Sussex whose English folk sound is filtered through Nashville and the Mississippi Delta - Frozen Heart. Just five tracks (download only as far as I can tell) but each one beautifully played with shimmering vocals. Well worth checking out at less that £3.50.

The other came via the Word's best music of the decade free CD. It's the Decemberists' The Hazards of Love. Shock horror, it's a concept album or at least a suite of songs about a love affair with lots of finely honed musing on the nature of love. The band boasts one of the best rhythm sections I've heard in a good while - languid bass (both upright and electric) with inventive brushed and sticked percussion that keeps the time signatures beautifully fluid.

Song writer, Colin Meloy, is full of pastoral lyricism and wonderful tunes. With vocals shared by him and - I assume - keyboardist Jenny Conlee, this is a sweet confection indeed, if an album boasting a storming murder ballad (The Rake's Song) and such foreboding about the doom as well as the ecstasy of love, can be called a confection. Available everywhere for a song! Check it out.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

My festive ten

This is, of course, misnamed. It’s not a collection of my favourite Christmas songs but the ten best listens of the year, released this year.

That last criterion has left me a bit short of material this year because I’ve not actually bought as many CDs as in previous years and some of them are not 2009 vintage.

One of the best purchases of the year is Lamb’s Best Kept Secrets: the best of Lamb 1996-2204. But it’s four years old so doesn’t count. It's British drum n' bass at its best. i can't understand why they are not huge.

I also don’t think I can count the 2009 remix of King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King. I only bought it because I haven’t got the album on CD in any of its remixes, though I confess I cannot tell the difference between the latest twiddle of the knobs and one done in 2004 that accompanies the CD I bought. It remains seminal and wonderful, however.

But there is a live album in my selection, recorded in London in 2008 and containing material stretching back to the mid-60s. But it only came out this year.

So here they are in alphabetical order (with a little note on why I love them)

Athlete Black Swan. This album is so much better than the critics said it was. It contains a couple of Joel Pott’s best songs to date – namely, Black Sawn Song and Rubik’s Cube – and is altogether lovely.

Leonard Cohen Live in London. This is a recording of his storming gig at the O2 last year which I wish I’d been at. It is simply one of the most beautiful and moving things I’ve ever listened to. I went to sleep with it filling my ears when I was on my own in Sri Lanka this summer. Every song is brilliant. The playing is tight and inventive. It demonstrates Cohen to be not only a survivor but one of the top song writers of his generation.

Editors In this Light and on This Evening. Again, an album a bit savaged by the critics. But I reckon it’s their best to date. It’s full of angular synthesisers. At times you get the impression it was precision engineered on a lathe. But the lyrical content is full of elliptical emotion. The stand out tracks are Bricks and Mortar, the Boxer and the visceral Eat Raw Meat=Blood Drool, but there isn’t a duff song in the collection

Fever Ray. I discovered this self-titled debut via a free download of a live version of most of it via the Guardian (so, thanks for that…). Fever Ray is Karin Dreijer Andersson, one half of Swedish band, the Knife. With lines like ‘when I grow up/I want to be a forrester/run through the moss in high heels’ and ‘accompany me by the kitchen sink/we talk about love, we talk about dishwasher tablets, illness/and we dream about heaven’ what’s not to like? It’s set to a wash of rubbery percussion and growling electronica and is as great in the car as it is on the iPod.

PJ Harvey & John Parish A Woman A Man Walked by. Polly Jean is incapable of producing a dull track and with her long time on/off collaborator, Parish, she serves up a collection of reflections on love and life that are by turns gossamer light and gut-wrenchingly heavy. It’s not her best work, but it still knocks most other artists’ output into a cocked hat.

Imogen Heap Eclipse. Great tunes, interesting lyrics, neat arrangements. Like a number of others in the list, it’s full of washy synths and layered vocals. There’s a depth to the song writing lacking from some of her contemporaries. It’s a delightful confection.

Jars of Clay The Long Fall back to Earth. Liquid, on their eponymous debut album, remains one of my favourite songs. But some of their output since has been a tad bland. Not this, however. Coming hard on the heels of the return to form Good Monsters, this album is even better. Great songs, great playing and its lyrically more inventive and poignant than anything else they’ve done. Stand out tracks are Weapons, Headphones and Hero. Christian music as it should be.

Moby Wait for me. What’s not to like – Moby’s back in his bedroom, playing pretty much anything and everything, inviting a few friends to do guest vocals? It’s his best collection since Everything is Wrong in my opinion. Pale Horses, Study War, Walk with Me and Hope is Gone are the stand-out tracks on an album of shimmery, laid-back loveliness.

Timariwen Imidiwan: Companions. Wafting in from the desert, the Taureg tribesmen’s third album is their strongest and catchiest to date. Driven along by the guitar and guttural vocals of Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, who writes everything, this is probably like nothing you’ve ever heard before. And don’t worry that you won’t understand a word of it, just dance along.

U2 No line on the Horizon. Yeah, I know it’s a bit predictable and I know we all love to hate Bono. But I reckon that this is the Irish fab four’s best album to date - better even than Achtung Baby. Full of inventiveness and instrumental dexterity (as you’d expect), it’s also got some great songs on it. Moment of Surrender, White as Snow and Cedars of Lebanon are the stand outs for me. But I love it all.

If I had to pick a best album of 2009 from this lot, I’d be hard pressed to choose between Leonard Cohen and Fever Ray but would probably tip my hat to the former just because of the delight he’s brought to my life for 40 years.

It’s great that one of you has already made suggestions of other tracks and albums. Please feel free to comment and tell me what you’re favourite listens have been this year – I still have a Christmas list to compile!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Starting the Advent adventure of discovery

As it's Advent, the start of the Church's year, I've decided to modify the look of my blog. I haven't done it for ages. I thought this template was the prettiest.

Advent is a lovely season, a time of reflection as we await the coming of Jesus. Of course, it's a season that's been cheapened by the clamour to spend and over-consume. But it's possible to be aware of the presence of God even in the thick of the high street mob chasing pre-Christmas bargains.

He's there in the echo of the carol drifting from a shop, the wide-eyed wonder of a child pointing at the lights in the windows, the care taken to buy a loved one that one perfect gift.

This year we've joined the Advent Conspiracy, a movement that originates in the US that invites us to think about the meaning of Christmas and make how we spend, give and celebrate a function of our worship.

We kicked it off in church yesterday and I think it went down pretty well. Lots of people agreed but were left asking practical questions about how this might alter how we celebrate Christmas to bring it more into line with the values of Jesus. hopefully, we'll tease out some answers to those question in the coming couple of weeks.

I shall be using Maggi Dawn's Beginnings and Endings as my advent readings this year.

And over the next week, i shall be compiling my festive top ten of essential listening from this year's output of CDs. It's shaping up nicely.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The core fact of our faith

Some good responses to the last post - check out the comments. I agree with a lot of what's there.

I guess I'd say one of the facts that convinces me to take the message of Jesus seriously is this one: the existence across the Roman empire by the end of the first century of small communities of people who believed that Jesus was exclusively the way to experience God.

This is a hard, uncontested fact that demands an explanation for the following reasons

There were lots of cults and religions, philosophies and ways of understanding life in the Roman world. By and large, it was a tolerant culture. providing you bowed the head to the cult of the emperor two or three times a year, you could believe pretty much whatever you liked. And the social expectation was that you'd honour the local gods, the deities of whatever trade you pursued and anything else you chose to.

The amazing thing was that the followers of Jesus were prepared to drop every other faith and worship Jesus exclusively. Only the Jews were similar - but they were a special case because for the most part they were an ethnic group and therefore born that way. The gentile followers of Jesus chose to believe what they did.

And the reason why these early followers of Jesus were prepared to drop all other allegiances - sometimes at great cost to themselves - was because they believed that not only had Jesus lived and died but he had also risen from the dead. More than that, he was alive now and able to bring each believer an experience of God the like of which they'd never had before.

And these people were prepared to die for what they believed - and by the early decades of the second century, this was a relatively common occurrence.

How did a tiny, rural Jewish pressure group, whose leader was executed by the Romans for subverting the state, gain a gentile following in many major cities across the empire? How did it persuade sophisticated gentile people in Corinth and Ephesus, Antioch and even Rome itself, that it held the key to the meaning of life, a key worth surrendering one's life to hang onto?

Because of the resurrection. On the first Easter, the tomb where Jesus had been laid was empty; his disciples saw him, ate with him, listened to him and realised that he was the incarnation of God.

That's the only plausible explanation for the presence of the church in the second quarter of the first century - barely a generation after Jesus' death. And if the resurrection happened, then everything the New Testament says about Jesus is true and worth trusting one's life to.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Justifying mission - as if that's possible!

My anonymous conversation partner asks a range of salient questions about why the church should have a high street presence that go way beyond the mechanics, so I thought they deserved a response of their own.

I guess my starting point is that Jesus is the person who gives my life meaning, purpose depth and a sense of direction. And that Jesus urges me to share what I've found with other people.

Now I know that the church as we've inherited it is not a great vehicle for commending the message of Jesus to a sceptical world - hence my desire (expressed lots of times through this blog) to find other models of community and outreach. In this I am part of a big conversation with lots of other followers of Jesus.

So, when I say that the aim of being on the high street is to engage people in dialogue about Jesus with a view to introducing them to his way of living, I do not envisage many of them turning up at my church (or any other for that matter). Rather I envisage new styles of gathering growing out of those encounters, meeting there, in people's homes, in pubs, clubs or restaurants, being small and always involving the consuming of food and drink - much as Jesus did, in fact.

I agree that Christians have a chequered history. But I would suggest a visit to Sri Lanka and conversations with Christians who've been burned out of their homes and seen their land and churches stolen from under their noses by Buddhist monks before succumbing to the myth that Buddhism never did anyone any harm!

I am not going to give a point-by-point defence of the church, however, because everyone can tell stories of bad encounters, of people being badly treated and casually written off by church-goers in ways that are inexcusable. And it's happened in my church despite my best endeavours to prevent it and I'm deeply saddened by it.

But I would say that none of this - painful though it's been to me and I've no doubt to others - stops me from believing that Jesus remains the most important person who's ever lived, the only absolutely true and faithful representation of God on earth and the one whose message can and does genuinely bring life, hope and joy to millions of people around the world.

I believe the gospel to be the key to unlocking the good life of justice and equality that the world is crying out for and so I want that message to have a clear high street presence where it can shine in the neon darkness. I believe it to be a message of substance that needs to be sounded out amidst the clamour of the consumerist god which is leading our culture well and truly up the garden path to disillusionment, debt and despair.

As to whether the Christian message is sustainable over the long haul, I'd say 'yes'. It's sustained me for 35 years and a colleague I was talking to for 50 years this coming Sunday. And I could line up a room full of other witnesses who'd say the same. But, of course, it's not a question that can be answered at the start of walking with Jesus because he invites us to come and see if it's true. It's an adventure of faith we take with him and in company with others who support and pray with and for us.

It's that that I want to see on our high streets so people at least get a chance to see Jesus clearly and decide for themselves whether he might be offering the rich life they're hankering for.

Sorry if this sounds like a sermon - I am a preacher, after all...!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Connecting to create social capital

I guess the danger of suggesting a high street presence is that I lay myself open to a whole load of good retail analogies - the church is like Woolies in a lot of people's eyes; we cannot compete with big chain book sellers, etc... I think all those are legitimate points. I agree the church is a very tired brand indeed with no commercial future whatsoever.

So, I want to suggest two things about my thinking briefly that might round out what I said in my previous post and point to the thinking that underlies it.

The first is that I want to be a missional presence on the high street. My interest is in making Jesus known to people who don't know him. Those people are less and less likely to darken the doors of our church buildings. And having helped people encounter Jesus to see what kind of groups emerge that help people to be followers of Jesus. I do not think the inherited model of church has much of a future, so new ways of bringing disicples together are urgently needed.

The second is that I am also interested in generating social capital. In the midst of our retail wastelands there is precious little connection being made between people. I believe the church has a key role to play here - meaning 'church' as a community of people coming together because of Jesus rather than an institution that lays on services (precisely what Alan Hirsch talks about in his book The Forgotten Ways).

There is lots of analysis about the reasons for the sense of angst in our society. Both Brown and Cameron have recently laid out their stalls for making our neighbourhoods better places for everyone who lives in them. They don't really add up. Endless think tanks report on broken Britain or versions of it which create vast amounts of column inches in the papers but do little for the growing numbers of lonely and disconnected people in our neighbourhoods.

I genuinely think the gospel has something essential to contribute to the creation of social capital. I saw it in the 15 years I lived and worked in Peckham; I've seen it elsewhere. The kind of community that coalesces around the gospel generates social capital, helps neighbours connect with one another (whether they connect with Jesus or not).

So my idea for a high street presence is about more than retailing. It's about creating spaces where people can hang out, make friends, connect with other human beings, begin to work through issues, etc.

In many ways this is what church buildings did in previous generations but will no longer do precisely because decreasing amounts of people have confidence in the institution of the church to deliver anything they are looking for. What we need to discover are ways of earthing the gospel - which I still believe is the key to helping people get their lives together and satisfy the deep longings of the human heart - in fresh ways that don't carry all the old baggage.

This is a work in progress, so please comment and move the conversation on...

Saturday, November 21, 2009

So, what kind of High Street presence?

Well, my post on booksellers has gone Stateside (you can see where here) - which is a first for me! More than that, it's provoked the 'explain what you have in mind' question. So, here's a very unrefined first stab to get the conversation going...

It seems to me that if there are lots of people on our high streets - and judging by my shopping trip today, there are, despite the recession - then we need to create spaces where we can engage with them without taking them off those high streets and into an alien space, seemingly miles away.

So we need a retail space that is open, inviting, familiar and welcoming. I think the space needs to do coffee and snacks. The food needs to be fair trade, creatively done and competitively priced. We're not talking local church cake stall here.

We need a good range of Christian and other literature, including magazines - and space for people to browse, sit and read. Think Borders.

I'd like to see a gallery space downstairs with art being exhibited by local artists. I spoke to a guy last night while I was Street Pastoring who said there was a chronic shortage of space for artists to exhibit in across South London.

There needs to be free wi-fi and a number of spare laptops for those without machines to use. Wi-fi access could be granted to anyone who buys a beverage or food.

I'd also like to see a group of people on hand to assist those who come in to ensure they get what they need. The Apple Shops are good at this. People in different coloured tee shirts making sure that visitors have product explained to them, etc. One of the things that could be offered is a book ordering and advice service with a guarantee that we'll get anything in print within a week - unless it has to come from overseas - and we'll not restrict ourselves to Christian stock.

And then we need groups to be using the space, people exploring the Christian faith in various ways that are open and accessible to anyone who comes in. Perhaps an artist explaining her work, groups talking through local issues or world news, an alpha or Essence course, Christianity Explored - whatever local churches wanted to organise. The idea is that such groups would happen in space that lots of people who don't go to church would feel more comfortable in.

And we'd need regular cafe church-style happenings, lasting thirty minutes or so which anyone in the store at the time was invited to join in with.

Someone made a comment about Wesley Owen stores not being the most riveting places on the High Street. point taken. This space needs to be quirky, interesting, creative, well-designed and genuinely welcoming to all-comers. This might mean very carefully vetting which local church members you allow in!!

Anyway, this is off-the-top of my head, based on a wish and some experience of places like the Departure Cafe in Limehouse and a cafe I went to once went to in Deptford that had good food and an art space for a while.

It would require a deal of investment from people willing to see it as mission rather than a pure profit generator. And it would need a pool of committed, competent and trained volunteers from local churches, as well as people with experience in retailing and hospitality to come on board.

It's a tall order to do it well. But God's mission is worth stretching for, isn't it?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Nostalgia isn't the source of missional thinking

I'm preparing a sermon for Sunday on living in the now which is the final shout in our What's God got to do with it series. I want to reflect on a couple of things - our anniversary-besotted culture (so prevalent that Radio 4 aired a documentary on the subject a couple of weeks ago) and the church's tendency to indulge in nostalgia, the desire that things return to how they once were, which tends to stifle mission.

Even this morning , the Today programme is lauding the fact that Yes Minister will be thirty years old during next year's election and is about to be remade for Ukranian TV, an excuse to play vintage moments and interview Tony Jay, the writer. It is still seen as seminal political TV in a way that The Thick of It isn't (but give Iannucci's show thirty years and we'll come over all nostalgic about it).

Nostalgia prevents us from living in the present and facing its challenges. This is not to say that we can't learn from the past. The past has a huge amount to teach us and we need to study it to learn those lessons. But nostalgia is about wishing we were still in the past, thinking that the present is not as good as the past and refusing to take it as seriously as our history.

Nostalgia prevents genuinely new thinking being heard and adopted. I got a whiff of this in the debate about the future of Christian book selling over on the UK Christian booksellers blog (here). It's not that there aren't good ideas being expressed, but that one or two posters are saying there's nothing to be done because we're not in the situation we used to be in when people read books and had money to spend on them in Christian bookshops.

One comment talks about the church being strapped for cash, unable to meet its pensions and buildings maintenance bills because of falling numbers. Well, let's shut up shop now, then. Surely falling numbers is a spur to our thinking about what we're doing and why it's not attracting people in the way it used to.

The trouble is that we wistfully look back to the days when people came to our churches; nostalgia tells us the attractional model of mission works. But it doesn't. We are not attractive, very few people come out of the blue or because a friend invites them. So we have to find other ways of engaging people with the gospel.

Given that large numbers of our neighbours spend a lot of their leisure in the High Street, is there not a case for thinking how we might be present on the High Street, engaging them in conversation and creative ways of sharing the good news about Jesus?

If we don't get creative, we'll find it harder and harder to meet the pensions and maintenance bills. But much more important (cause, after all, the church can live without high-cost buildings) if we don't get creative lots of people will not have the opportunity to hear and engage with the good news about Jesus - and none of us want that, do we?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

missional thinking about the high street

Last night I finished Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz. I really enjoyed it. It's a ramshackle, witty and well-written set of reflections on Christian spirituality. I recommend it.

I wouldn't have read it had by daughter, then working in our local Wesley Owen, not recommended it to me and ordered me a copy. I wonder how many of us are grateful to our local Christian bookshop for discovering new authors and encountering books that have had a shaping effect on our Christian lives.

Well, the news from Wesley Owen and its parent company is not good. The recession and other things are making life for them really difficult. Now, we've probably all contributed to this - we shop at Amazon, we don't read as many books as previous generations did (perhaps the publishers are partly to blame for this by not publishing what people want to read!).

But I wonder if this present trouble is an opportunity for fresh mission thinking and creative partnership between churches and the high street. After all, our neighbours are regularly on the high street and rarely in our buildings. The high street offers something they want. Analysts argue that shopping is a leisure activity and a source of 'spiritual' fulfilment in the absence of traditional organised religion. Missional thinkers have been rightly identifying consumerism as a rival god over recent years which makes the high street the place where we should be - as Paul was in amongst the idols of Athens - living and modelling a different form of spirituality to our neighbours.

And where better to do this than in a retail space that offers coffee, conversation, Internet access, books for browsing and buying, people to pray, space for groups to gather on a regular basis. The Christian bookshop could become a vital missional space with a bit of imagination on the part of church leaders and Christian retailers.

So are we up for this or will we all be lamenting the passing of the Christian presence on the high street the next time we gather at a conference to talk about how to do mission?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Getting into the Advent Conspiracy

Planning for Advent this year, I came across the Advent Conspiracy. I'm probably late to the party here but just in case of you haven't come across this initiative, it's really worth checking out.

The brain-child of three American pastors (who says nothing good comes from across the pond?), Rick McKinley, Chris Seay and Greg Holder, the Advent Conspiracy aims to help Christians reclaim Christmas from consumerism.

Check out it's website here where you can download the neat trailer they've filmed for it plus a whole host of other resources. The book from Zondervan takes a bit of hunting down because not many have allocated to the UK market.

we'll be launching into in two week's time, using Christian Aid as the vehicle for our giving to those in need.

Rick McKinley, by the way, is the pastor of the church - Imago Dei - that Donald Miller is a member of. Miller is author of a number of books, one of which Blue Like Jazz, I'm just finishing. It's really good.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Revelation's pastoral punch

The thing about Revelation 18 is that it is a withering attack on Roman economic power. Twinned with the wonderful satire of chapter 17, it makes for a powerful assault on imperial pretension. But it is placed where it is in John's Apocalypse, it seems to me, for maximum pastoral impact.

After all, the Apocalypse is a pastoral letter (among other things). And it struck me last night that John, having unwrapped the revelation he's received from the throne room in heaven, in the throes of spelling out the call of the followers of the Lamb to be the means through which the nations of the world are called to repentance, places this coruscating attack on Rome just before the denouement we're eagerly awaiting - namely the return of the Lamb and the restoration of creation.

And why place it there? For maximum pastoral impact, of course.

Having urged his hearers to loyalty in the seven brief message to each receiving church in chapters 2 and 3, he now asks them - the question is implied in how they respond to the lament over the fall of Rome - how would they feel if the empire was swept away?

Just how much are they plugged into the imperial way of life, how fat are they getting on its rich-pickings? How caught up in its buying and selling are they? Will they weep with the monarchs, merchants and mariners as they watch the city fall or will they rejoice with heaven that the enemy of the Lamb and persecutor of his people has had its come-uppance?

Couldn't help wondering what John would have made of the credit crunch, the collapse of Lehman Brothers bank and the market melt-down that followed... Of course, that was just a blip, a hiccough compared to what he describes in Revelation 18, but...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Clearing the decks

Well, I've had a great to getting to grips with Revelation 18 in the context of 15-19. It's not what I'm meant to be writing this week but the decks are now cleared to write world of the first Christians stuff tomorrow - yippee!!

It'll be interesting to see what people make of tonight's helping of the Apocalypse. We're focusing on John's critique of the economic power of Rome in chapter 18. And it's very relevant to the times we live in. Not for the usual escapist reasons but because John asks searching questions of where the loyalties of those who claim to follow the Lamb really lie.

I have really enjoyed getting this occasional series on the Apocalypse. I am going to see whether there's a book in the debris once it's all been delivered. I'm not sure I have anything original to say but I think a mid-level overview that brings the insights of Bauckham, Koester, Da Silva et al to the ordinary Christians who've suffered from a diet of Lindsay, LaHaye and the like for too long might find a market.

I've also discovered that I bought ten CDs this year that came out this year! So i shall be compiling my festive top ten over the next couple of weeks (I know you can hardly contain your excitement!)

Monday, November 09, 2009

the best laid plans...

Well, it's been a good day - and I haven't yet done any thing that I was planning to do this morning! Clearing the decks takes so long....

I'd forgotten that it's the next installment of the Apocalypse this Wednesday, so I need to do some preparation for that. it's been a blast doing it - though I'm not sure what it's added to sum of human happiness and well-being.

So, I've recast my week to take account of it.

I've been reflecting on what James says about making plans in 4:13-5:6 - in preparation for next Sunday afternoon and evening - and it's brought a wry smile to my face. Not that I was planning to make any money today as a result of my planning but, you know what they say, 'if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans'. I wonder if that's a sentiment James would have endorsed...

Remembrance in a busy week

So, a new week. Life's been pretty full-on over the past few days. This is partly because we took a week off. Now, the principle that works here is that when you take time off all that happens to your work schedule is that the first three days of a week away get crammed into the two days prior to departure, while the final four have to be squeezed in to your first two day's back. Consequently, you end up feeling knackered and in need of a holiday...

So, with Remembrance Sunday and the next installment of James to prepare plus meetings relating to the youth charity I'm a trustee of, my three days back in the hot seat last week were pretty full-on.

I find Remembrance Sunday tricky. For some in the church there are personal memories of distant conflicts - especially the second world war and national service in the 1950s - for others there is a sense of wanting to honour a history that we've only really accessed in school. But for one family in my congregation yesterday, the day was especially significant as their son was deploying to Afghanistan that very morning.

A couple of people spent the summer researching the names that appear on our two war memorials in church and yesterday Janice reported on who these men were. It was fascinating but more than that, it put our remembrance in a very real context: here were men who were our brothers in Christ - Sunday school teachers, bookstall managers, players in our church football team - who'd been lost at the age of our older young people (late teens into twenties).

It made our two minutes silence profoundly moving.

This week, I am mostly writing. I want to get a chapter of my Lion book dispatched to my very patient editor and polish off a draft chapter of my MA. Even as I type these words, I think that sounds ridiculously ambitious... We'll see, I guess!

To keep me company, I have the Fever Ray album, Editors and Moby - all pretty wonderful - which reminds me that I will soon be compiling my festive top ten... Now, I need some coffee, I think.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The edited highlights

Just back from a great week in North Devon.

The highlights included discovering some really top notch restaurants in Ilfracombe. The pick of the bunch was 6 St James, a bistro offering superb food in a wonderful relaxed setting. But we didn't have a duff meal anywhere we ate.

We also saw Up - no Lucy, it wasn't on offer in 3D in Ilfracombe - which was great. The depiction of the hero's life with his wife, told from meeting to her death in about 8-10 minutes, was profoundly moving and brilliantly done. And it's a great yarn, well characterised and told.

We got lots of fresh air - in particular walking the headland above Woolacombe Bay - and yesterday, despite the rain, we toured some lovely seaside towns including Appledore and Instow.

Now, it's back to the grindstone - yippee!!!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Taking in vast quantities of sea air

Enjoying a few days in a fairly mild and unexpectedly pleasant Ilfracombe.

Went to see Up the other evening and last night went to a really excellent restaurant that we shall certainly be visiting again.

Internet cafes are sparse and connections a bit hit-and-miss, so I'll probably not be posting at length until we get home next week.

We had a very bracing walk up above Woolacombe bay this morning. Spectacular scenery and foaming seas - sublime....

Friday, October 23, 2009

How do we learn to trust?

I'm preaching about trust on Sunday morning and we're thinking about trust at St Arbuck's on Sunday afternoon - if you're passing the Market Square Starbucks on Sunday around 4pm, drop in, grab a coffee and a muffin and come up and join us.

So, I've been reading Anthony Seldon's new book, Trust: How we lost it and how to get it back, and so far, so good. I've only read the first two chapters but his analysis of why we are facing a problem with trust in our society seems to me to cover most of the bases.

In particular, he talks about the demise of organised religion as one of ten contributing factors - others being the speed of life, inequality, corporate greed, failing politicians, the media - and he does so in a way that recognises what he's saying will not be universally popular.

His argument is that the three monotheistic religions have at their core a call to service, as well as greed social and moral norms. And he quotes Demos' Geoff Mulgan who says that without the clear moral codes provided by organised religion 'it is much harder to understand your place in society; it is much harder to picture what is going on'. And for this reason trust is harder because it relies on agreed norms of behaviour.

It's an interesting thought. I wonder what others think?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Finding the economic middle

Well, I didn't get a lot written yesterday (about 2,000 words) but I did realise what it was that I had to write. So next time I have a writing day, I have a scheme to work to.

I spent a lot of time yesterday reading about income distribution in the early Roman Empire and how this affects our reading of the economic and physical location of the early communities of Jesus followers. The correlation is simple (in theory), namely if there are middling sorts of people in the communities, the likelihood is that the groups would have met in domus-style houses and could, therefore, have been larger than if the groups were mainly comprised of poor people from tenements. Furthermore, leadership in those groups would have come from the heads of the households in which they met.

Rodney Stark argues - on sociological grounds - that the key group attracted to the new movement (as to all new religious movements) were the aspiring but liminal middling sort of people that Justin Meggitt suggests did not really exist in the empire and were not in evidence in the Pauline communities.

The question I was investigating yesterday was whether the data as handled by Roman historians suggests the presence of a middling, aspiring group whose status was in transition (ie they were liminal in some way). I think the answer I found was on balance 'yes' and that gives me the framework for the chapter on economic location.

I think Graig (thanks for the comment) is right. I now have to write what I know and then go back and tidy it up.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Getting to grips with the ancient world

I spent yesterday afternoon grading papers from my students in Sri Lanka and was pleasantly surprised by the quality - especially from those on the MDiv course.

Many of them showed a really good grasp of the material and genuine creative thinking about how reading the New Testament with an eye on its social context can help apply its message creatively to their present mission context. It was quite gratifying.

Today, I'll be writing - I'm aiming to draft a chapter of my MA on the economic location of the early Jesus movement. My supervisor has recommended that I just write and then see where the gaps are. This is a new way of working for me, so it'll be interesting to see how it works out.

The other issue that I'm looking forward to delving into is just how good is the reading by NT scholars of Roman history. The reason for asking this is that one of the key voices in the current debate - Justin Meggitt - based his approach to exploring the social and economic location of the early Jesus movement on the history-from-below approach that flowered in George Rude and Eric Hobsbawm's Captain Swing in 1969.

I remember when I first read Meggitt's excellent Paul, Poverty and Survival I felt my heart sink that a generation after an approach blossomed in secular history, NT scholars had finally caught up with it. I felt it particularly because even when I read history at Manchester in the mid-1970s, the approach was already being questioned by scholars who argued that all Rude, Hobsbawn, Thompson et al did was read their own sociological and philosophical theories back into the past.

I wonder if NT scholars are at risk of doing this with their use of particularly sociological models in their reading of the NT and its context. It's just a question... The context group of NT scholars have produced some fascinating and worthwhile work, much of which has enriched my understanding of the world the first Christians lived in. So I'd hate to think people thought I was dismissing it out of hand - I am certainly not doing that.

But I do wonder what regular (if one can call them that) ancient historians make of all this. In particular, I'm interested to see whether the ancient historians so loved of NT scholars have the same reputation within their own field. I just need to find a way of analysing that!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Good day in London

Well, I had a really excellent time with my supervisor and am all set to start writing my review of the state of the debate about the location of the early Christians, with a deadline of the end of January to get a draft outline of the whole thing done (45,000 words). There'll be three substantial chapters dealing with social location, economic location and physical location with an intro and a conclusion. All I need now is a catchy title!

And I succumbed to a book in Church House Bookshop. It's Peter Oakes Reading Romans in Pompeii: Paul's letter at Ground Level. I've been waiting for this since I heard Peter was writing it but thought it wasn't coming out until next year. I resisted everything else, though.

On my way from Victoria to Church house I went past people queuing to see pieces of a dead nun in Westminster Cathedral. And for those not willing to join the queue, the 'spectacle' inside was being beamed live to a giant screen in the square outside the Cathedral. There people were able to watch while consuming hot dogs and other fast food being sold from a range of stalls set up all around the square.

I have to say that it was all a bit surreal. I'm sure the nun in question would have been extremely embarrassed to be the centre of such a mawkish spectacle!

I also spent some time in the National Gallery. In particular I stood for quite a while in front of Pieter Bruegel's adoration of the Kings- a spectacular work up close; and Piero della Francesca's The Baptism of Christ - also quite magical. I also sauntered round a few other rooms and drank deeply of the atmosphere. Lovely. I must do it more often.

A day out in London

Listening to a great episode of In Our Time on the death of Elizabeth 1 with the peerless John Guy as well as two other really interesting historians. This is Radio 4 at its best.

Last night we continued our reading John's Apocalypse, tackling chapters 12-14. It seemed to go well - one or two making really positive noises afterwards. I have really enjoyed getting stuck into this book and think I might try to write something about it when I've finished.

But today I'm off to see my MA supervisor. Yes, my on/off on/off studies are back on because Lambeth will allow me to do a review MA on the social location of the early Christians. This dovetails nicely with the book I'm writing for Lion, so I hope to kill two birds with one stone without killing myself in the process!

Anyway, heading for St John's Wood means that I'll get a chance to stop off at a gallery or two on the way, as well as drop into my favourite bookshops. I still love browsing bookshops despite the fact that I can get all I need at much better prices from Amazon (and particularly Amazon Marketplace). There's nothing like actually fondling books in the hushed environment of a bookshop. The end result, of course, is that I normally buy things - but I will be resisting that today!

Part of the reason for that is that I have plenty to read already. I'm still working through Hirsch's excellent The Forgotten Ways and this week I took delivery of Allen Brent's A Political History of Early Christianity which looks interesting. Brent is a a bit of a maverick, a patristics scholar who has written widely about the influence of the imperial cult on the shape of early Christianity.

I'm also working through some excellent papers on Roman economic history and poverty in Paul's churches. Yes, I know, I need to get out more....

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Good listening

Ok, I'm persuaded, the new Editors album is their best yet.

Brooding, wonderfully tuneful, lyrically intriguing, In this Light and On this Evening is finely crafted - almost machine music recalling Joy Division and New Order - yet deeply emotional.

It's a great listen. I'll ponder what it adds up to over the next few days.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Picking up the threads

Spent the day recovering from my weekend away and feeling as though I'm going down with a cold. Ah well.

The weekend was excellent. The group was very responsive and joined in well - especially on Sunday morning when we did something quite fluid, moving around the space and thinking about what it means to shine where we are.

As those who've commented on the previous post have noted, it is now up to the church itself to earth what was learned, sift what was useful, debate it back in their everyday context. I quite like the idea of a follow-up day (I'll suggest it to my mate).

I also think it would be great if our church organised a weekend away. I'll have to find out whether there's any tradition of it. We've had a couple of day conferences that have gone well. But there's nothing like going away together and spending quality time eating and playing as well as learning together.

The thought of organising it makes me lose the will to live, however!

I'm listening to the new Editors' album In this Light and On this Evening but it's too early to tell whether it's a cracker or not. There's certainly some good tunes on it.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A weekend conversation in the autumn sunshine

I'm mid-way through a weekend conference with a church that is pastored by a friend from way back. It's going well.:Nnce people, good atmosphere, lively conversations - and the sun's shone today!

One of the most impressive things this church does is a Wednesday evening congregation with a group of mainly young homeless people. They seem to have created something that enables these guys to connect with each other and with God. To hear their stories is really moving.

The great thing about weekends like this is that we can spend a concentrated time looking at a particular issue. In this case, it's how we'll be missional disciples. It works better than trying to do this kind of thing over a number of weeks at church for two reasons.

The first is that everyone has come away from the daily grind and have relaxed. They are open to thinking new thoughts and seeing life from a different perspective - and have a whole weekend to think about it, talk it over, thrash it out - in between bouts of playing, laughing, eating and talking about all kinds of stuff.

The second is that the speaker - on this occasion, me - is able to deliver a sustained case for something without a week at work intervening between each episode so that the audience has forgotten three-quarters of what was said last week when they turn up this week.

The key, of course, to such an event being beneficial long term is follow-up. How do you do that? Answers on a postcard, please...

Thursday, October 08, 2009

We are the Hollow men, after all

Well, well, T S Eliot has been named the nation's favourite poet in a BBC poll. The news report on it, however, said it was unclear whether this was because people loved The Waste Land or Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (the inspiration for the long-running musical)!

It's a problem with a poet of such breadth and development, I guess. I have to confess that I've never read Possum. but I do read Ash Wednesday (baffling but beautiful), The Waste Land and Four Quartets fairly frequently.

And The Hollow Men always resonates:

Between the idea
and the reality
between the motion
and the act
falls the shadow

For thine is the kingdom

between the conception
and the creation
between the emotion
and the response
falls the shadow

Life is very long

between the desire
and the spasm
between the potency
and the existence
between the essence
and the descent
falls the shadow

For thine is the Kingdom

For thine is
Life is
For thine is the

this is the way the world ends
this is the way the world ends
this is the way the world ends
not with a bang but a whimper

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Telling the story of God's mission

Like Jim over at living wittily, I was at an induction yesterday. And I would endorse everything he says about the service for Catriona at Hillhead.

My mate Richard was being inducted to the pastorate at Upminster. I had the privilege of preaching on the theme - chosen by him - of 'the church has left the building', reflecting on the crucial missional call of God's people.

The service was a joyous mix of worship and story-telling, encouragement and challenge. And, of course, it was followed by fantastic church buffet, canapes and conversation over endless cups of tea.

It reminded me why I do this, because in the story-telling there was a profound sense of the God who leads us on, urging to step out together into this adventure of mission he's been on forever. And looking round the congregation, I had a wonderful sense of the potential of these ordinary people to be extraordinary in their acts of simple kindness that could change the world.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Where the sun shines its light

So the Sun has switched allegiance. Is anyone surprised? Does anyone really care? Do newspapers really decide what we think or how we vote? If so, then we truly get the leaders we deserve.

It is part of a larger pattern within the Murdoch empire, of course. James Murdoch's speech at the Edinburgh TV festival shows that the Sun's owners continue to think media is safe only in the hands of unaccountable billionaires.

It's enough to make you even more grateful for the riot of views, opinions and facts in the blogosphere.

I guess if nothing else the Sun's move confirms that the general election campaign has started!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Recovering the incarnation

The section of Hirch's searching book that I've been reading this week feeds directly into conversations we've begun having at church. We know the attractional model no longer works - our falling Sunday attendance and lack of people at special evangelistic events proves that. The question is 'what do we replace it with'?

Hirsch's answer is that we need to recapture the core Christian doctrines of the incarnation and the mission of God. He argues that the attractional model tends to negate these two insights because it 'demands that in order to hear the gospel, people come to us, on our turf, and in our cultural zone. In effect, they must become one of us if they want to follow Christ.'

This is, of course, the opposite of incarnation: God comes to us - the word became flesh and moved into the neighbourhood (as the Message memorably puts it). It means that we, who have been sent as Jesus was sent, must go to where people are rather than expect them to come to us.

This is the method Jesus modelled in his ministry and called his first disciples to follow when he sent them out - Matthew 10:5-16. They were to accept hospitality rather than offer it. It was Paul's practice too - finding people he could establish a workshop with, accepting invitations to be based in people's homes (see Acts 14-18).

Hirsch stresses that church grows out of mission and not vice versa. And mission grows out of a proper grasp of who Jesus is (ie our Christology). So he produces a simple diagram that says Christology determines missiology which in turn determines ecclesiology. It's a good simple principle that ought to underpin everything we do as gatherings of Jesus followers.

It follows, therefore, that mission needs to take place in third places, those spaces that are not our homes or workplaces, but rather where we socialise and have fun. This would mean more gatherings in pubs, cafes, clubs, arts centres, community halls, etc.

So, we'll see how St Arbucks goes this Sunday. But we'll also be exploring how our allotment group can become a missional community with shovels and coffee. And what else...? The possibilities are limited only by our imaginations.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Feeling refreshed

Had a fun time being refreshed by the Baptist Union this week. Good bible studies from Steve Finamore, an excellent lecture on prayer and art by Richard Kidd and the joy of catching up with friends from all over the place.

There was a refreshing absence of competitive churchmanship - the my-congregation's bigger than yours nonsense - and a lot of sharing of ideas over good ale. So it was 48 hours enjoyably spent.

The sun shone most of the time as well which meant I was able to enjoy the lake at Swanwick - walking round it rather than swimming in it, of course - as well as a little of the Derbyshire countryside.

The trouble with three day conferences, of course, is that they only leave two days to do a week's work. But lots of others are involved in delivering this coming Sunday's programme, so the pressures slightly less than usual. Still, back to church Sunday and the return of St Arbucks mean that it'll be a fairly busy one.

I've just watched the conclusion of the BBC's excellent three-parter on the collapse of Lehman Brothers and its aftermath. Called The Love of Money you can catch it all on iPlayer and if you haven't seen it, I recommend you do. It's well-made and delivers a clear analysis of what went on in those fateful days.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Coming to a Starbucks near you

This coming Sunday, we are kicking off our cafe church programme for the autumn.

St Arbuck's Sundays run at Starbuck's in the Market Square in Bromley from 3:30 to 5:30 on the fourth Sunday of the month. Come along for a skinny chai latte and breakfast panini or tea and granola bar or some other combo of beverage and snack.

Our theme is celebrity and who's worth following or not. There'll be a quiz, provocative testimony and a chance to think about who we want calling the shots in our lives.

Come along. Bring a friend.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Taking control of my environment

Having a bit of a sort out today and came across my Bell Jar albums. I've not listened to them for a while, so I gave them a spin. Good stuff. It sent me to their website to see if anything new was happening and came across a four-track ep, a taster of a new album due next year, and it's truly fab. Check it out here (click the listen in the bottom right of the picture).

Tidying is always a displacement activity for me. My study needed it as I was beginning to run out of surfaces to dump things on! But I need to be reading and writing and can't focus so tidying is a good distraction. And you can always comfort yourself by pointing to all the lost treasures you unearth in the process.

Ah well, enough of this. Back to work accompanied by Prefab Sprout - more unearthed treasures I've not spun for a while... gorgeous.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Pinball wizard

Sometimes I feel like the ball in a pinball machine. I'm sure we all do - whatever our job or calling.

An email sends us in one direction, a phone call in another, a friend sharing a grief over a drink in a fresh direction.

Each of these comes while we are already moving between booked commitments, the diary driving our movement through the day, the week - a meeting here, a time of preparation or writing there.

And each comes with its own urgency, demanding attention at the cost of everything else.

And God says 'stop'. In the midst of the rush and tear, the perpetual movement, his voice urges us to 'be still and know that I am God'.

But how can a pinball be still?

As I walked to get the papers this morning, having read the latest crop of emails, some words of T S Eliot came into my mind. They capture the feeling and possibly a way of staying sane, being still in the midst of movement:

'At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor
neither from towards; at the still point, there the dance
but neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
where the past and future are gathered. Neither movement
from nor towards,
neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still
there would be no dance, and there is only the dance...'
[Burnt Norton from Four Quartets].

It is the dance that's all, of course; not jigging alone beneath the mirrorball but flowing gracefully through events with our partner in whose arms we are still, unrushed, quiet, at rest...

'By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,' says Eliot.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Good conversation, music and reading

Just back from a lovely day in Didcot planning next year's Baptist Assembly. It's shaping up to be a good one, so look out for publicity arriving through the autumn (if you are baptistically inclined, of course).

In the car on the way there and back I was listening to the new albums from Imogen Heap and Athlete - both of which are really cool. The final track of the Athlete album, Rubik Cube, is one of the best songs they've written. I also listened to the Radiohead albums that have just been re-issued in bumper editions - Kid A, Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief - and found them to be more satisfying and tuneful than I remember - Pyramid Song from Amnesiac still sends chills down my spine when the drums come in half-way through.

I'm preaching away from home on Sunday morning - at Welwyn Garden City - on Building a Better Body. I'm doing the introduction to an autumn series loosely based on my book (which is a little surreal - certainly a first for me!). I'm going to reflect on what the church is for from a missional perspective using Philippians 2:12-18.

Still finding Hirsch's book richly stimulating. He's got some very good things to say about consumerism as a threat to discipleship. He argues - convincingly to my mind - that it is more of a threat to genuine Christianity in the West than either Islam or the New Age movement.

He talks about discipling believers being the key to creating missional communities in a section where he comes close to echoing Michael Gorman's theosis argument in his Inhabiting the Cruciform God. I need to read it again, however, before I reflect on it.

Time for a glass of sauvignon blanc, I think...

Monday, September 07, 2009

Barefoot in the church

At the end of yesterday morning's service a mate sidled up to me and suggested that I was in my element. We'd just had a lively all-age baptismal service - with three people getting baptised - led by our worship band (with me on guitar). I was standing at the end of the service in bare feet chatting to people when my mate made the comment.

And I thought 'yeah; you're right; this is as good as it gets.'

I would, of course, enter a couple of caveats to that response. Baptismal services are always a high point - what can be better than people who've found faith in Jesus telling the church and their families that they have taken the most significant step a human being can take?

And while a number of people said to me how much they enjoyed the service, I know that some (probably quite a few) didn't and that their voices will reach my ears via the usual channels through this week.

But one thing I did feel at the end of yesterday morning is that we can do things differently even at our morning service without the ceiling falling in. And that has to be good.

The question of what it means in relation to the conversation over Hirsch's book is for another post later in the day.

Friday, September 04, 2009

We're just not that attractive

Thanks to John for that interesting stat from Graham Cray (comments to consuming our way to discipleship): only 6% of the population are likely to be attracted to church events such as Back to Church Sunday (something our church is taking part in).

Hirsch's point is, I think, very telling. And it's reinforced by Cray's comment. In short, what we do in church isn't very attractive, so it isn't going to attract many people. I have to say that most of what the church does wouldn't attract me!

Hirsch argues that churches inhabit only one narrow section of our highly fragmented society. Using a cultural difference scale popular with missionaries, he shows that most of our neighbours are not 'culturally proximate' to us and that we therefore have to cross cultures - just as those going overseas as missionaries - in order to share the gospel.

This means that the attractional model no longer works. We cannot just put on an event and expect people to come. We have to go to them, on to their turf and communicate in their language. That's a tall order for most of our congregations who've grown up in a world where they set the terms of engagement in evangelism. That world is gone.

The great thing is, as Hirsch points out, our world is not that dissimilar to the one the church was born into and so the New Testament is a helpful guide to help us ask the right questions about how we can be missional church in our context.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Shaking up the faithful

One of the points Hirsch makes early on is that the urge for community can lead us to seek safety above discipleship. 'Too much concern with safety and security, combined with comfort and convenience, has lulled us out of our true calling and purpose.' (p25)

As my anonymous friend (good to see you back, by the way) points out 'perhaps discipleship is about being selfless' - absolutely right. Discipleship is the polar opposite of consumerism because it is always seeking the welfare and benefit of others rather than ourselves.

Such a calling requires people who are constantly asking questions. If Hirsch is right that 'the most vigorous forms of community are those that come together in the context of a shared ordeal or those that define themselves as a group with a mission that lies beyond themselves - thus initiating a risky journey' (p25), then our gatherings should be awash with questions about what we're doing, why and how we'll do it.

The church's mantra should focus less on answers (the usual focus of teaching programmes that fill our people's heads with information) and more on questions (what is the shape of discipleship in the context we actually live in? How do we live for others in that context?)

So I agree with anonymous that 'Christian teaching might not be all it's cracked up to be' in this sense: if a teaching programme is just about filling people's heads with information that has precious little effect on how we live when we're not in church, then it's not going to make disciples and is really a complete waste of evryone's time.

And it's not what Jesus did. As Hirsch points out: Jesus 'spoke in confusing riddles (parables) that evoked spiritual search in the hearers. Nowhere does he give three-point devotional sermons that cover all the bases. His audience had to do the hard work of filling in the blanks. In other words, they were not left passive but were activated in their spirits.' (p44)

Now that would shake things up a bit.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Consuming our way to disicpleship?

Started reading Alan Hirsch The Forgotten ways: Reactivating the Missional Church. He's the co-author (with Michael Frost) of the Shaping of Things to Come. As expected it's good stuff so far.

Following my previous post, Hirsch says this about church, based on a couple of diagrams of the way churches are laid out, 'we plainly cannot consume our way into discipleship.' (p45)

I think that's pretty prescient. He's arguing that our basic mode of operating in church is consumerist. And this applies to traditional, seeker-friendly or off the wall experimental gatherings. Each is seeking to meet a need in an audience member.

'They come to "get fed". But is this a faithful image of the church? Is the church really meant to be a "feeding trough"for otherwise capable middle-class people who are getting their careers on track? And to be honest, it is very easy for ministers to cater right into this: the prevailing understanding of leadership is that of the pastor-teacher. people gifted in this way love to
teach and care for people, and the congregation in turn loves to outsource learning and to be cared for.' (p43).

His argument - that I'm really forward to seeing him unpack - is that churches have to get smaller (and more numerous) so that everyone participates rather than comes along for the ride; and they have to get a whole lot more serious about relationships: 'a church is formed not by people just hanging out together, but by ones bound together in a distinctive bond. There is a certain obligation to one another formed around a covenant.' (p40). Such a covenant community is serious about worship, discipleship and mission.

I guess where this fits with the previous post is in the area of how our gathering help to make disciples. Part of the church's weakness in the UK is that we're not very good at making disciples. We have attenders, friends, even members; but how many disciples do we have and how do we measure growth in their discipleship?

I think my disquiet about our teaching programmes is that I'm not convinced that the learning outcome is discipleship - and anything less than that is a waste of everyone's time, isn't it?

Getting on the hamster wheel

Confession time. I've found it really hard getting back on the hamster wheel.

Autumn is coming and I need a teaching programme for the church. I've tried this and that, one permutation of topics with another of exposition - you know the kind of thing... And always at the back of my mind has been the nagging question 'why?'

I've blogged before about how the church is good at teaching programmes but not very good at learning outcomes (as you can see from the fact that I'm bloigging about this again!) I have been constantly thinking as I've wrestled with dates and deadlines, subjects and scriptures 'what's the point of all this?'

Our church has a reputation as a good teaching church. but is anyone learning anything? Isn't the autumn just one more turn round the hamster wheel where we move from week to week tackling a new meaty subject before we've had the chance to digest last week's meal?

And what difference does it make? are our people better equipped to make sensible judgements about relationships, decisions about what to spend their money on? Are they kinder, gentler, more gracious and out-going people at work? Do they embody the values of Jesus in their daily lives and conversation?

So I was having a chat yesterday with one of our young adults, an intelligent, thoughtful committed guy, who was telling me - in effect - that he was all sermoned out. What he'd really like is a chance to reflect on what we're learning, interact with others learning the same things, pray through issues we're facing at home and work.

Of course, we get a chance to do this in home groups. But the trouble is that church on Sundays just gives a whole load more stuff to process and really nowhere to go and process it.

So, as I've said before, we're going to try to be even more interactive at our Later Service on Sundays, more responsive to where people are at with the material we've already engaged with, more alert to the issues people have faced in the previous week and how what we're learning might help them face them more faithfully.

In short we're going to try to turn our hamster wheel into a hamster ball - something that actually goes somewhere rather than just round and round in circles.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Hotels and parables

A final reflection on our Sri Lankan hotel experience that kind of sums the whole thing up.

Hikkaduwa was pretty trashed by the tsunami in 2004. When we stayed there in 2007, the hotel we chose was part of an international chain and had had considerable help in getting itself back on its feet. It was full when we looked at the website ahead of this year's visit - it was also pretty expensive!

The Supercorals where we stayed wasn't so lucky. The sea washed away the ground floor and did quite a bit of damage to the pool and outdoor bar area. Five years later, it's still being rebuilt. Half the hotel was boarded up with workmen coming and going doing major plumbing and electrical work.

Our room was comfortable, the bathroom was excellent, the air conditioning was quiet and wonderfully effective. And given that we were paying the equivalent of £13 per person per night bed and breakfast, we thought that it was good value. And to be honest even after the loss of my mobile phone from our locked room, I'd consider staying there again.

We felt that our presence was a tiny vote of confidence in their reconstruction efforts, their comeback from being all-but washed away by the tsunami.

And our stay was not without its comic moments.

On the first day of multiple occupancy, we came down to breakfast at our usual time of just after 8am. It was laid out for a buffet but there was no food in it yet. 'about ten minutes,' said a bright eyed young waiter. So we sat down. What he'd failed to tell us was that the ensuing ten minutes would offer us some of the best slapstick we've ever witnessed.

In an attempt to light the kerosene burners under each of the large dishes that keep the buffet warm, two waiters managed to set fire to the table cloth. Three foot high flames quickly spread as the kerosene spilled out from the burner. Other waiters arrived with cloths. For the next two or three minutes about half a dozen of them fanned the flames along the table. Eventually a manager with a jug of water and the fact that all the kerosene had burned up meant that the conflagration died down and went out.

In the meantime, another group of waiters was trying to get the toaster working. It was one of those devices where you put the bread in at one end and it falls out two or three minutes later from the other end nicely brown. Except this machine was only producing warm curly bread. One waiter thought that this was because the conveyor belt was moving too quickly, so he was trying to slow it down using spoons. After a moment or two it stopped working altogether.

So there was much frantic fiddling with the plug and cable. Still nothing. This was probably due to the fact that one of the waiters was sitting on the floor with the two ends of the power cable sticking up from his fist, completely separated from the plug in the socket. The manager motioned to him and he proceeded to shove the cable ends back into the live plug and hold them there. The toaster sprang to life - although it continued only to produced warm curly bread unless the same slice was put through it three or four times.

And we were not charged a penny for this floor show! The breakfast that eventually followed it - some half an hour after we first sat down - was pretty good too, though we avoided the fish curry and French toast.

This is a hotel with huge potential - a great location, lots of rooms, a well appointed pool in a lovely garden area with the Indian Ocean as a constant backdrop. But it requires a management revolution and an influx of high-spending tourists to achieve that potential.

In many ways, it's a tiny parable of Sri Lanka as a whole. I for one am up for investing a bit of time and cash in the country. We just need a million or so more.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Just like a Friday night in Bromley

The Hikkaduwa beach festival - the second since the tsunami - happened while we were staying at the Supercorals. As a result our hotel, which was deserted when we arrived, filled up with two Sri Lankan families and a host of young people from Colombo.

Two particular memories linger about the festivities.

The first was that on the Friday evening, as we were walking through the town on our way to a restaurant, we saw large numbers of heavily armed paramilitary police, some toting Uzi machine pistols, others with AK47s. You have to wonder what kind of trouble they were expecting!

When we saw the chief of police the following morning, he said that there'd been very little trouble, 'just lots of teenagers being naughty,' he observed. 'mainly drunk and disorderly.' It sounded like Bromley on a Friday night.

The second was the behaviour of the young people staying in our hotel. In common with young people the world over, it seems, a good time is equated with heavy drinking. The haul of bottles removed by cleaners of the rooms after the weekend would have kept a medium-sized recycling plant in business for a month. The drink of choice appeared to be vodka with a variety of mixers but there was also a brewery's worth of beer bottles and a fair haul of empty wine bottles.

Linda observed that she felt like she'd woken up in the middle of a Club 18-30 holiday - incessant noise, doors banging all night!

Alcohol is a problem on the island, like it is everywhere. The Government looks forward to the day when liquor along with cigarettes is a thing of the past. But that is a long way off. It isn't only well-healed young people getting tanked up for a weekend of partying; the poor are also prone to drink. Many of the fathers of the kids at the Hanbamtota project had problems with alcohol - a way of numbing the pain of unemployment and crushing poverty.

Often we risk having an idealised picture of the places we visit. Sri Lanka is a needy country because of poverty and natural disaster but it's needs are exacerbated by human sin and greed, fecklessness, poor government and oppressive religion that makes huge demands on the poor but offers precious little grace.

It's why the country needs a strong church that has grasped what it means to be missional communities, living for and sharing the good news about Jesus at all levels of society. It's why I'll continue to pray for my students at LBC, for the pastors I've met and worked with and the believers struggling to embody Kingdom values in their everyday lives. In fact, I'm praying for them exactly what I'm praying for myself and believers in the UK.