Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Finding meaning in Advent

Blogging at Hopeful Imagination this morning (here)

The BBC's nativity got off to a good start last night. Available on iPlayer for those who missed it.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas is about changing the world

'What has always frightened the rich and powerful has been the appearance from among the oppressed of self-confident leaders who prove their strength by organising in a way that could alter the balance of power.' (p39)

With that Tony Benn gets to the heart of Herod's panic. As we saw so well and wittily portrayed on this evening's first episode of the BBC's promising new Christmas drama, The Nativity, Jesus was born into a oppressed majority, ruled over by a greedy and paranoid client king.

'You must always ask yourselves whether it is possible to change the world in which you live,' Benn says. 'by accepting the world as it is you legitimise it and thereby become responsible in part for its iniquities.' (p38). What is noticeable about Benn is the way he stresses personal responsibility. He is not the kind of socialist who lazily attributes everything bad that happens to the mechanised forces of global capitalism. We each play our part, he says, in accepting injustice or battling to overcome it.

Jesus similarly calls each one of us to own our part in making the world what it is and to commit ourselves to his movement in changing it according to his agenda. Advent is the season when we get ready for this; when we examine ourselves, repent, receive forgiveness and immerse ourselves in the prophets whose vision of the coming Kingdom of Justice, joy, peace and equality is fulfilled in Jesus and passed on to us.

Tomorrow I'm blogging over at Hopeful Imagination and will be reflecting on Isaiah and the manger

Journalism's loss is ours too

Today's a bad day for journalism as the deaths of two of its towering figures have been announced. Anthony Howard and Brian Hanrahan have died relatively young and both at the height of their powers.

They represented all the best qualities of the noble art of journalism at a time when there's so much mediocrity in print and TV news. Both were masters of brevity and sound judgement; both knew how to hold the powerful to account for their actions.

Along with Hugo Young, Tony Howard was one of the greatest post-war political commentators, whose encyclopedic knowledge of the men (mostly) and women who have held the great offices of state since 1945, enabled him to put today's politicians in their proper context.

I will miss his clipped tones on the Today programme bringing sanity, wit and wisdom to the morning brawl.

Hanrahan is known for his 'I counted them all out and I counted them all back' report during the Falklands War. But his reporting from Tienanmen Square, Berlin as the wall came down, Russia in the Gorbachev years, offered huge insight into these world-changing events.

Even latterly presenting the World at One as a stand-in for the regulars, he brought insight and incision to interviews that most of his peers could only dream of.

It would be good to think that there are young reporters modelling their approach to their craft on these greats.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Lessons in nail care from a master

James Taylor has long been one of my favourite singer/songwriters. He's written some classic songs and this year or late last year released an album of some of them recorded live with Carole King at the Troubadour in LA which is a lovely record.

I love his voice but I also love the way he plays guitar. He has a unique style that seems effortless in its brilliance. Well, I was overjoyed to receive a mailing from James Taylor's website this morning announcing that he is offering video guitar lessons, the first two of which are posted on line now. It will be interesting to see if I can pick some tips on playing better.

The second film shows him strengthening his nails using glass fibre tape and nail glue. Strong nails are a key to being able to finger pick consistently and well. It is the nail on the string - not the fleshy part of the finger which tends to be how I do it - that makes the string sing and resonate. It's great to see a man of his stature providing basic lessons in nail care!

You can check it all out at his website here - as well as listen to some classic music!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Advent fireworks

I am loving Tony Benn's Letters to My Grandchildren. He writes about things that matter with a disarming simplicity. And in advent it's good to be reminded of the things that really matter.

Benn says: 'Christianity provided me with a set of moral values and a series of comforting rituals.' (p34). While he has in mind hatching, matching and dispatching, it's clear from other places that those rituals include the seasons of the church, times when we reflect on aspects of our lives in relation to God.

He goes on, 'Christianity helped me answer some of the mysteries of life and death and provided me with the reassurance that there was someone who loved me despite my faults.' (p34).

As we await the birth of Jesus, it's good to reflect on the fact that God loves us despite our many faults; indeed that he sent his Son into the world to redeem us from those faults and to give us the power to overcome them and rise above them through his teaching and Spirit.

'If someone I love is in danger, I will naturally pray for them,' he says, 'in the hope and belief that it will be of some help in their trials.' (p35)

Benn has never slotted comfortably into institutional religion - he doesn't really do institutions of any kind, as the some in the Labour Party would no doubt happily tell you! But he does offer this wonderful insight into Jesus, the teacher, the one to follow, while being sceptical about those in authority in the church!

'Religious and political leaders shine a torch on the path they wish us to follow but teachers explode fireworks into the sky so that for a moment we can see the whole landscape, learn where we have come from, where we are and the paths ahead.' (p36-37)

That's a great description of what we are waiting for. As Jesus arrives, there is an explosion of fireworks, a lighting up of the landscape of our lives. We see ourselves as we are and as we could be. And we see Jesus as the one who has come to make the difference, come to lead us into God's future by showing us its landscape and the paths that we must travel together to get there.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Hope, humility and holding on to Jesus - grandfatherly advice from Tony Benn

I've been on the look out for something to read during Advent. I know, I should have been doing this two months ago and been already to go when the season started. But nothing seemed to strike the right chord with me until yesterday when I came across Tony Benn's Letters to My Grandchildren: Thoughts on the Future.

It's an unlikely choice, I know; yet it's a book full of advent themes - hope, justice, peace, a new world order where people are free and there's equality. I was also drawn to it because I wondered what kind of letters would I write to my grandchildren - one already here and another arriving in the New Year.

Benn gets off to a belting start: 'people have always dreamed of a world of peace and plenty but it was beyond man's capacity to secure it,' he says (p2), adding 'I have made many mistakes, and I have also become aware as I have got older how little I know. I am much less sure than I was in my youth that I am right about anything and for these reasons I am reluctant to give advice to you.' (p3).

Hope and humility - those are two great advent themes; recognising our need for a world better than the one we have, but realising that we don't have the resources in and of ourselves to make it happen.

He continues by suggesting that advances in technology raise fundamental moral issues that we have to face, adding that 'the teachings of Jesus are more relevant now because the stakes are higher, and the violent anti-Christian atheists who denounce those who follow Jesus completely fail to appreciate that science and technology offer no moral guidance as to what should be done with them.'

Hope, humility and holding on to the values we find in Jesus - now those are great advent themes worth hearing again.

I'm beginning to wish Tony Benn was my granddad.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

the festive fifteen

It's that time of year again when I ponder what new music I've listened to this year and why - and which album should sit at the top of my Christmas tree. Unlike previous years, there's a clear, runaway winner this; and for the first time, more of this year's entries were acquired by download only than bought on CD.

The clear winner is Arcade Fire's The suburbs, an album of sublime tunes and lyrical brilliance. It's probably the album of the decade and seals Arcade Fire as the hottest band of the moment, worthy successors to Talking Heads in their ability to put a finger on what's happening and what it might add up to.

The rest of year's crop, in no particular order, are:

Tracey Thorn Love and its Opposites, a great collection of songs reflecting on growing up, even growing older, of being with same person for an adult life time and having kids who are growing up and flying the nest.

Laura Veirs July, a wonderful, lyrical, celebration of life

Laura Marling I speak because I can is clearly a good record by a hugely talented song writer. I reckon in a decade or so, she will produce a true masterpiece. When you listen to her songs against the likes of Veirs or Thorn, there's a sense of something lacking which I suspect is life experience. it's not surprising as Marling is only 20! It's a fine album none-the-less with great tunes and quirky instrumentation.

The Smoke Fairies debut album finally arrived in the autumn, after a couple of storming EPs. Through Low Light and Trees is full of heavenly harmonies, delta blues guitars and great tunes.

It's been a good year for women singers and in the late autumn the peerless Mavis Staples produced an album to get you marching for justice and worshipping Jesus. You are Not Alone is a stunning mixture of old gospel and new protest songs which doesn't put a foot wrong.

Cherry Ghost followed up 2007's Thirst for Romance with darker fare. Beneath this Burning Shoreline is full of chilly brilliance; great tunes and opaque lyrics that is technically wonderful but hasn't grabbed the emotions like the debut did. Maybe it will. It's definitely worth repeated listens, however.

Gorillaz Plastic Beach, the third outing from Damon Albarn's cartoon group is full of quirky, wonderfully realised pop. I'd love to see it live.

Delphic's Acolyte flowed out of Manchester on a wave of good will. Feeling like Soul Savers lite, it bounces along very tunefully. They sound like a youthful New Order.

This year's great find is undoubtedly the National. Their album High Violet is a fabulous concoction, though having snapped that up on its release, I then got Boxer having heard them on Glastonbury TV. Their music is dense and multi-layered, often in several time signatures simultaneously with Matt Berninger's rich baritone vocal musing on life and loss (mainly loss). I think Boxer has the slight edge over the new one but both are truly gorgeous.

Two bands that I discovered on line this year are Gungor whose Beautiful Things is the best worship music I have heard for years; and Evils that Never Came, a band that I know next to nothing about except that they have followed up their debut, 2004's June, with this year's Northerly Winds. They play what can best be described as indie power pop, waves of organ and choppy guitars over driving rhythms. And both albums are available free form their website.

And finally, Mr E (Eels) came storming back this year with not one but two wonderfully tuneful and thought-provoking albums. The spring brought us End Times, fourteen heartbreaking and witty songs about the end of a relationship and the autumn delivered Tomorrow Morning, fourteen life-affirming songs about the start of a new relationship and fresh starts generally. I'm not sure which album I prefer, though the latter has two of the best songs E has ever written, Oh So Lovely and That's Not Her Way

And at number 15 is a reissue which contains a first official release. It's David Bowie's Station to Station, in my opinion the grand dame's best ever record, released at the start of a flurry of creativity that included Low, Heroes, Lodger and Scary Monsters. But Station to Station with its stumbling after faith and geometric rhythms sees him at the peak of his form. This analogue mix - so much better than the remastered version that came out a few years ago - is packaged along with his storming 1976 gig at The Nassau Coliseum in New York. This has been available as a bootleg for years but this is its first kosher release and very welcome it is too: Bowie is fronting the best touring band he ever put together. They play tight and loud and his vocal performance is peerless. One of the truly great gigs of all time.

So, there you are, fifteen Christmas present ideas for you to give or ask for, each one a gem.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Faith in the City and losing my religion....

I'm reading a fascinating account of faith in England at the moment. Called Is God Still an Englishman: How we lost our faith (but found new soul), it's author Cole Moreton, tells the story of the last twenty to thirty years of English church life, trying to account to the collapse in attendance and emergence of a new English identity (Thanks to Glen Marshall for the tip about this book sometime ago).

Moreton writes as a player in these events, not just an observer. A self-confessed teenage fundamentalist, he marched for Jesus in the 1980s, working for a US-based youth organisation that sends young missionaries across the world to share their faith. He was evangelical, charismatic, committed, passionate. Now he is a sceptic.

Part of his book is an attempt to account to himself - and anyone else who's interested - what happened and why, and whether it matters. There are profoundly moving bits of this story and much to think about.

Last night I was reading his account of the publication of Faith in the City. I remember as a young journalist, buying my copy of the report from the book shop in Liberty's on Regent Street on my way to work. I remember talking about it with my editor, partly because we were wondering if there was a story in it for us (I was business editor on Marketing Week at the time, so it seemed unlikely) and partly because he was intrigued with the idea that the church still had something to say about the world we all lived in.

Last night this quote from the report stood out: 'it is the poor who have borne the brunt of the recession, yet it is the poor who are seen by some as "social security scroungers" or a burden on the country preventing economic recovery.' Plus ca change, hey?!

Faith in the City helped to cement my call to ministry - a year after its publication, I was beginning study at London Bible College, en route to ministry in Peckham, a community savaged by the 1980s recession and still suffering its effects when I arrived there in 1989.

Later, in the mid-1990s, I had the huge privilege and joy of working with David Sheppard, the Bishop of Liverpool, one of Faith in the City's authors, on the Churches' Enquiry into Unemployment and the Future of Work (I was representing the BUGB on the steering group of that investigation).

Faith in the City helped to shape my understanding of the relationship between the Christian faith and the world in which we live. it wasn't a perfect piece of work by any means. But it was a challenge to the followers of Jesus to take seriously their call to be a transforming presence in their communities.

For Moreton, it was one more fault line indicating that the church was losing its place as the moral conscience of our country. Its publication co-incided with Live Aid, a clear demonstration that you didn't have to faith to change the world. It was evidence that England's God was losing his grip on the English - in particular on him.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Football isn't coming home

So we're all gutted that England didn't succeed in its bid to host the world cup. Well, while I am gutted for football fans, I have to say that I didn't have a strong view either way about the merits of the bid - though it does raise an eyebrow or three that a country with a world class football infrastructure didn't get a chosen, while a country with a lot of sand and not much else was selected to host in 2022.

This morning it has emerged that FIFA shied away from England because of the media. If that is the reason that two only delegates voted for our bid, then it says everything we need to know about FIFA and nothing about the our ability to stage a world class football event. Here we have a hugely secretive, unaccountable body that is responsible for spending billions of dollars on sport choosing to stage its competitions in places where the media will not ask any awkward questions.

If we did lose the bid because of investigations by the Sunday Times and BBC, then let's raise a glass to a free media that is not afraid to lift the lid on murky goings on. It has to be better to lose than to win when there is a strong possibility that we would have won for reasons other than the quality of our bid. Media investigations of the IOC led to that body reforming itself and allowing the light in. FIFA needs to do the same and maybe we shouldn't be bidding to host anything it organises until it is so reformed.

Fire amid the winter snow

The big freeze did not keep us away from the O2 last night where we were treated to a magisterial set by the peerless Arcade Fire. Not only have they produced the best album of the year by far - the Suburbs - but they are a live act of such phenomenal energy and creativity.

There were some empty around us at the sold-out gig, suggesting the weather had defeated some fans, but there was still a great atmosphere. We were sitting up in the gods to the left of arena as you look from the stage and yet there was still a buzz as the band exploded into Ready to Start - Win having invited everyone (even those of us in seats) to get up and dance.

Dressed in the most amazingly sparkling gold dress, Regine stole the show, moving from drums to keys to accordion to hurdy-gurdy, dancing and fizzing with energy. Although Win sings the songs, she drives the band along.

There was an incredible moment as the band finished their set before coming back for an encore. As they were beginning to leave the stage, the audience all-but stopped clapping and sang back the chant chorus of the track the band had just played. They stopped, listened and started clapping back before leaving the stage. it was a moment of genuine connection you don't usually get at such a large gig.

They duly came back and did a storming encore and we all left singing.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Communities of hope gather in Birmingham

Just back from a great two days with Urban expression in Birmingham. On Friday the chairs of steering groups and regional co-ordinators met for a catch up and to share ideas and concerns. On Saturday, associates, team members, mission partners and others met to reflect, to hear stories and catch up with one another. We were well looked after by the good people at BMS' International Mission Centre in selly Oak.

I was doing the main plenary session on Saturday morning and I think I was a tad ambitious in what I thought we could cover, so the final section was a bit rushed. However, I think I stimulated some thought and I certainly had some good feedback afterwards.

This morning, I am visiting a local church to deliver a lecture and do and a question and answer session on the social history of the New Testament (the stuff in my book basically, three months ahead of publication). I'm a little uncertain how this will go, but the minister's keen for it to happen, so we'll see....

Today is the first Sunday in advent. We begin to reflect on our hope in a world where hope for many seems in short supply. One of the things I was impressed by yesterday in hearing some of the stories of UE teams around the UK was that lots of small-scale hopeful things are happening in some very challenging communities.

I guess something we can all do in advent is to ask God to open our eyes to see what he is doing in quiet ways in and through faithful communities of his followers, little signs that he is on the case, that the good news of his coming to save his people is rippling out, bringing hope and a fresh start.

Remember to go over to look at hopeful imagination which has started posting advent thoughts this morning. Lots of bloggers will be sharing reflections through this season (including me).

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Getting things in proportion

The furore over the bishop of Willesdon is a bit overblown, isn't it? I know Pete Broadbent from Spring Harvest. He is a wonderfully vivacious, shoot-from-the-hip Bible teacher with a keen insight into how the church needs to be communicating its faith to a sceptical world. Oh, and he's an Arsenal fan and a Christian socialist.

Perhaps he shouldn't have facebooked what he did but the reaction of the bishop of London is extraordinary. His statement  to clergy in the diocese reads:

Dear Colleague, "I was appalled by the Bishop of Willesden’s comments about the forthcoming royal marriage. In common with most of the country I share the joy which the news of the engagement has brought. I have now had an opportunity to discuss with Bishop Peter how his comments came to be made and I have noted his unreserved apology. Nevertheless, I have asked him to withdraw from public ministry until further notice. I have also been in touch with St James’s Palace to express my own dismay on behalf of the Church.
Arrangements will need to be made in Bishop Peter’s absence and further details will be given in due course.  With thanks for your partnership in the Gospel.

A good bishop has been silenced for having the temerity to disagree with a senior colleague about an issue as trivial as a royal wedding. Is it any wonder that the church's credibility is at a low ebb?

So the upshot is that the men in pointy hats will tell us what we think about the forthcoming royal wedding and those who differ will be invited to take time out from all ministry. We just have to smile and pay the bill (estimated at £5bn by the CBI and Daily telegraph in lost productivity because of the extended bank holiday weekend on the back of the previous 4 day weekend).

I think I'll join Pete in Calais for a party...

Friday, November 19, 2010

Lots of bits and pieces

I seem to be starting a lot of blogs these days by saying how busy I am. Life's been full and lots of things have whizzed by with me going 'oh, I should blog about that... too late. Ah well.'

So, we've had a royal engagement (yawn). Obviously very happy for the couple, not happy for the distraction it will be from the real lives of people blighted our current government's fixation with changing things that would be better left alone, however.

And I've discovered some new music - Joseph Arthur. You've probably all been listening to him for years but I caught up with him a month or so ago. I kept hearing his song In the Sun accompanying a Davidoff ad and thinking that's a really good song but a bizarre soundtrack to naff perfume commercial. I was able to download a clutch of free tracks and found a few more really cheap and have been listening ever since. it's good stuff. He's a song writer with a nice turn of phrase and a great ear for a melody. The free stuff is still available from his website (here).

And I'm reading an interesting book by David Goertz, former editor of Leadership Journal, called Death by Suburb. I was drawn to the title because I thought it might diagnose what I was suffering from! It's quite good, but not the book I was expecting it to be.

I've been on the look out for stuff about ministry in the 'burbs and there isn't a lot (if you know of things, please share). Goertz's book is about how various spiritual disciplines can help prevent the suburbs sucking the life out of you. So it's quite helpful from that point of view. But there's not a lot of analysis about how the 'burbs work and what a church that's faithful to Jesus might look like among our manicured lawns and loft conversions.

I got news of yet another group church plant in our neighbourhood. I went to the web site and it seems to be just more of the same but intriguingly it kept telling me what the time were and that I'd be very welcome but there was no indication of where they were meeting which seemed a little curious. So, I'll not be going.

I'm having a blast teaching at Spurgeon's. It's such fun that I'm expecting someone to come into my lecture room and escort me out saying there's been a huge mistake and that a grown-up has to take my class now! My group of students are surprisingly eager for 8:30 on a Monday morning, ask really good questions and seem to be getting a lot out of the sessions. The proof of that will be when I mark their essays, of course.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Does common language really lead to integration?

Radio 4 broadcast a very moving documentary in its 9:00am slot this morning about twin sisters who have converted to religious faith from an agnostic upbringing - one to Christianity, the other to Islam. The programme followed their journey over the course of a year when their mother was diagnosed with cancer and they were each expecting their second children.

The dialogue between the sisters was fascinating and the eventual awakening of their terminally ill mother to the possibility of God was amazing. It's well worth checking out on iplayer if you haven't heard it before.

It followed a report on the Today programme about the integration of Muslims into German society following the publication of a controversial book arguing that the wave of Islamic immigration into Germany has not brought any benefits and Angela Merkel's recent speech announcing that multi-culturalism had failed.

I was left scratching my head at the end of it. Didn't the Germans invite Turkish 'guest workers' to their country to take the plethora of factory jobs being created in the sixties and seventies by the then West Germany's economic boom?

One of the points being made was that migrants were slow to learn German or in some cases were not learning German at all. It's an example of the tendency to judge the success or failure of integration purely on the language issue. We think that if people learn our language, they integrate. I think what the Radio 4 documentary this morning suggested was that sisters with a common language and common upbringing were not 'integrated' in the sense that they saw eye-to-eye on some pretty fundamental issues arising from their different faiths.

Common language helps but it is not the touchstone of integration. I note the fact that the early Christians spoke Greek which was OK in the Greek speaking parts of the Roman empire - Greece, Asia minor (though even there Greek was not the native language, it was an imperial imposition); but what about in Rome? Rome was a Latin-speaking city yet when Paul wrote to the churches there, he wrote in Greek. He was writing to a migrant cult that had taken hold in the slums where the 'guest workers' lived, those who had come seeking a better life in the imperial capital.

Paul didn't tell the Roman followers of Jesus that the key to success in mission was learning Latin. It would probably have helped. If Robert Jewett is right, one of the reasons Paul wrote to the churches in the city was get support for his mission to Spain that was being funded by Phoebe. The support in question could well have Latin speakers who would have helped smooth Paul's passage into that part of the empire.

Clearly speaking the host language helps integration at the some pretty basic levels - shopping, accessing health care and education. So maybe the Germans should have been welcoming their guest workers with help to acquire the necessary language skills; basic hospitality would suggest that.

But I'm not sure that lack of common language is the reason for opposition to migration across Europe, a continent whose history has been made by wave after wave of migration. We need to look elsewhere to find that.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

A footnote to the new NIV

The eagle-eyed have begun to pick up the differences between the TNIV and the new NIV. There is a good round-up of opinions here. I wonder if the new version is now written in stone or the translation committee is still open to the opinions of its readers. maybe worth sending your comments.

I'm puzzled as to why the new version of Matthew 4:4 has reintroduced the term 'man' when the Greek anthropos clearly means humanity as a whole and which the TNIV properly rendered 'people'. Nothing is gained by suggesting that it's only men who eat bread and read scripture.

Preserving the best of Today's NIV

Something unexpectedly good appears to be happening to the NIV (I never thought I'd type that sentence!)

A while ago the publishers of said ubiquitous translation announced that the TNIV (my favoured incarnation of the NIV) would be withdrawn in 2011 when the new, revised NIV was produced. My heart sank. I feared another rowing back from the great strides made in the inclusive language NIV (withdrawn in howls of fundamentalist protect in the late 90s); it seemed as if the TNIV would suffer the same fate.

But the new version is now available on Bible Gateway (here); and lo, it is good; it is very good; in fact Philippians 2 (often my touchstone of how good a translation is) appears identical to the TNIV. Hallelujah and break out the party poppers!

Does this mean the 2011 NIV will be a repackaged TNIV? Oh, I do hope so: by far the best NIV backed by the marketing muscle of Zondervan and Hodder (something the TNIV hasn't been).

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Getting to grips with rewrites

Today I start rewriting and recasting my dissertation, sharpening the arguments, creating better signposting and even adding commas (my supervisor is very keen on commas). This should all be relatively straight-forward - though I have to substantially rewrite the economics chapter (mapping that out is today's task). It was the first one I wrote and I was constantly feeling my way into a style of argument as I wrote it, even making up my thesis as I went along, so I suspect it makes a number of contradictory cases simultaneously.

The bit of this I am not really looking forward to is compiling the bibliography. So is there anyone out there who has discovered a good tool for doing this - one where you put the author's name into a search engine and all his/her books come up in full bibliography style, for example, or where an ISBN number will yield the full title and publsihing details in a form that can be transported into a Word document at the click of a mouse?

So, better get a coffee...

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

More good listening and reading

As well as good reading (I've just reviewed Stuart Murray's Naked Anabaptist for Spurgeon's - wonderful!), I've also been discovering interesting music. I am, of course, working away at a whole load of things as well!

Gungor are an American worship band - three words that usually have me running for the door. They are, however, pretty good. Excellent tunes, poignant lyrics that touch on real things and a complete absence of bombastic triumphalism - which makes a pleasant change - and lovely guitar playing.

I am already tagging one or two tracks for use at our later service as calls to worship or aids to response. You can check them out here where you'll find all the usual info/downloads/pictures/videos/etc.

Here's a flavour of the lyrical content that had me pondering grace the other day:

All this pain

I wonder if I’ll ever find my way
I wonder if my life could really change at all
All this earth
Could all that is lost ever be found
Could a garden come up from this ground at all

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

All around
Hope is springing up from this old ground
Out of chaos life is being found
in You

You make me new, You are making me new

I was alerted to them at Robin Parry's consistently excellent blog (here).

And talking of good blogs, check out David Kerrigan's excellent post on Israel/Palestine today (here). David consistently shows himself to be a wise irenic missional leader.

Continued learning from the early Christians

I am reading a really excellent short book by Morna Hooker and Frances Young. Called Holiness & Mission: Learning from the early church about mission in the city (SCM), it consists of the Hugh Price Hughes lectures delivered in London earlier this year.

Hooker and Young, colossi of New Testament and patristic studies respectively, write two chapters each dealing with their specialism and then a joint chapter drawing lessons. It's wonderfully erudite, concise and yet chock-full of information and insight.

I wish it had been available six months ago when I was mapping out my MA because it would have helped me shape the argument. It covers not just the NT period but the sweep of early church history up to and a little beyond Constantine. I strongly recommend it. It's made me want to read more by Frances young.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A million souls struggling for the light

Been busy and unwell - hence the absence.
However, I thought I'd post my latest contribution to the church magazine - for those of my congregation who don't read the print version and anyone who's interested.

Recently I had an epiphany. It occurred during an ad for Davidoff men's fragrance. It wasn’t that I suddenly wanted to smell like ocean waves crashing on rocks or silk shimmering against a sunset sky (whatever that might smell like!). It was that I was surprisingly aware of God’s voice leaking into my ears through the TV speakers in the ad’s soundtrack: the fragile voice of Joseph Arthur, borne aloft on gentle acoustic guitar, sang:

I pictured you in the sun wondering what went wrong
And falling down on your knees asking for sympathy
And being caught in between all you wish for and all you seen
And trying to find anything you can feel that you can believe in
May God's love be with you
May God's love be with you

Quite what this has to do with selling perfume is lost on me. But I’ve loved the song since I first heard it and sensed a sensitive soul groping for the light. I am inclined to take such songs at face value and frequently find myself pondering what experience has led the writer to involve God in his search for peace or love or a sense that life might amount to something.

I don't know anymore what it's for
I'm not even sure if there is anyone who is in the sun;
Will you help me to understand
'Cause i been caught in between all I wish for and all I need
Maybe you're not even sure what it's for any more than me
May God's love be with you

Nothing is certain – except perhaps God’s love.

I listen to a lot of pop and rock music and frequently find myself hearing God in my iPod headphones in truly unexpected ways. On our Big Welcome Sunday at the end of September, I shared my love of David Bowie’s 1976 album Station to Station and got a hugely unexpected response from people who don’t listen to or like David Bowie but who similarly heard God speaking to them that morning through the thin white duke’s anguish:

Lord, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing
And I'm trying hard to fit among your scheme of things
It's safer than a strange land, but I still care for myself
And I don't stand in my own light
Lord, lord, my prayer flies like a word on a wing
My prayer flies like a word on a wing
Does my prayer fit in with your scheme of things?

Bowie knows we live in an ‘age of grand illusion’ where nothing is certain and where glamour and fame does nothing to nourish the soul. His voice is part of a chorus line from contemporary music all giving melody to the emptiness behind the glitz. The tragedy, of course, is that so many people look in from the outside and think that the celebrity life is one of unalloyed joy and fulfilment and crave it like mad.

I think God speaks to me through this music because he wants me to hear what people who don’t come to church are saying about life and more importantly about him. Bowie’s Word on a Wing longs for a place of belonging: ‘I'm trying hard to fit among your scheme of things… Does my prayer fit in with your scheme of things?’

When Nathanael was brought to Jesus by his friend Philip in John 1:43-51, he received a welcome that he probably wasn’t expecting. Jesus affirms the good things in his life and accepts him as part of his team. All the important stuff about what he believes about God can be sorted out as they eat and travel together.

What a world of popular music tells me is that we need welcome people like Jesus welcomed Nathanael. In so many of the tunes I listen to I hear God saying ‘are you getting this? Are you feeling the pain in this music? Are you ready to welcome the people who feel and speak this way, affirm the good in them and travel with them as they find out more about me?’

We’re often quick to write off such people – and their legions of fans – as merely hostile to the things of God and not really people like us. Well, they aren’t people like us, but they are people loved by God, people he is urging us to welcome into our community and so we can help them with the deep questions they are asking about life and God.

Joseph Arthur wonders ‘if there is anyone who is in the sun/will you help me to understand…?’ Are we a community where people with similar struggles can come and find support as they wrestle with their questions? It’s the kind of community that Jesus was building at the beginning of John’s gospel with the likes of Andrew, Philip and Nathanael. So it might be the kind of community he’d like us to build here in Bromley. How about it?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Being church in a harsh economic climate

One of the things the church has a chance to be is a community that models a different approach to life. For many years it's been popular to describe this as 'counter-cultural'. The trouble is that this term has been frustratingly vague and often informed as much by cultural factors as by Biblical thinking.

Trevor, commenting on a previous post about social solidarity, lamented the fact that churches aren't really talking about what's happening in our country. Part of the reason for this, I guess (rather obviously), is that within our churches are people who voted for most of the options on offer in May's election; there are people who want to pay less tax and so support public spending cuts and those who think the state has a responsibility to protect the poorest in our community. Because of these divisions of opinion, we tend to steer clear of talking about these issues in church.

Trevor reminds us of Jeremiah 29 - a text that called me into ministry 30 years ago - and suggests that 'our churches aren’t going to be able to prosper if the communities around them are being ravaged by cutbacks and redundancies.' That's food for thought, isn't it?

What does it mean, in the context of impending spending cuts and the general fragility of our economy, the squeeze on household incomes and general gloom about our economic prospects following years of boom, to 'seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.'? How will we 'pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper'?

The word rendered 'peace and prosperity' is the Hebrew word shalom that offers a picture of wholeness, well-being, the welfare of everyone in the community. Church, according to Jeremiah, is a gathering, a collection, a community of people who embody the values pre-supposed by this rich Hebrew word. What does that look like?

Peter reflects on this passage in Jeremiah in his first letter and one of his observations is that 'as foreigners and exiles, [we] abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.' (1 Peter 2:11-12).

Perhaps if we see sinful desires as referring less to sex and more to our economic lives (greed, for example; the use of our cash only to satisfy our wants and desires and not the needs of those around us), we could begin to reflect on how this call to godly living might resource counter-communal living in today's harsh economic reality.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

So, exactly what is church, then?

We had a great time with one of our Urban Expression teams yesterday evening - reflecting on the stories from the past year, reviewing progress, setting some goals. In the course of it, all kinds of thoughts started buzzing round my mind.

The biggest was the one that's been there for years: exactly what is church, then? How do you know when you stumble into it? What marks it out from other gatherings?

Time was when church planters were working with a blueprint. They had been sent by their church to reproduce it in a new location. So a group of the willing set off to find a venue in a place where there wasn't a church like the one they'd come from, and they started one. They brought musicians, screens, projectors, hymn books, bibles, chairs, lecterns, an urn to boil water for coffee; they invited people from the neighbourhood; and hey presto - church!

Maybe that still works in some places. But it doesn't actually answer the question at the top of this post.

One of the things I'm discovering as I talk with people involved in UE is that answering that question is nothing like as easy as we thought for two reasons.

The first is that all the religious trappings of a gathering don't make it church. As the young son of one of team from last night observed 'church isn't the building, it's the people, silly.' Quite right. But which people?

The second is that Paul planted churches all over the Greek Roman empire with none of the trappings noted above in evidence. No special hall, no musicians, no projector, screen, chairs, books, etc, etc.

We don't doubt that his gathering in a workshop or an upstairs room was church, despite the absence of anything we seem to think is essential. So, what made it church? And how did he know when he'd planted one? And would his answer help us in the situations in which we're trying to do mission and plant churches?

Answers on a post card, please...

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The gossamer threads of social solidarity

I've hung back over recent days from commenting on what's happening politically - largely due to a mixture of disbelief and incandescent rage that means my fingers don't kiss the keyboard properly! But following the publication of the Browne review into higher education, a thought that has been taking shape over the past couple of weeks finally became expressible.

It's not the hypocrisy of Vince Cable accepting a proposal to more than double tuition fees barely six months after signing a pledge to oppose any rise in fees. It's not the mantra of the government saying they have no choice because they didn't know how bad the deficit was until they took office, despite the fact the size of the deficit hasn't changed since last autumn's pre-budget report (as the Insttitute for Fiscal Studies keeps pointing out). Sadly, such things are just par for the course from politicians. And we can forgive that.

What has struck me is that the debate about benefits, tuition fees and public services is couched in entirely consumerist terms. It's all about 'what's in it for me?' and 'what am I as a tax payer prepared to spend on other people?' (as though we are preparing a Christmas list and totting up how much uncile Bill is worth against cousin Eileen).

There is precious little sense of society (so maybe Mrs Thatcher was right!), barely any notion of our solidarity with one another.

Child benefit is universal because it reminds us all that we are collectively responsible for raising the next generation - the benefit is merely a token of our solidarity in that task; it says that as a society we think raising children matters more than anything else and we'll all poull together to ensure parents are supported in it. We invest in education because it is good for the country to have a literate and skilled citizenry not just in economic terms but in cultural and social terms as well.

There was a great example of this in last week's Sunday Times. Eleanor Mills wrote a think piece in the News Review section headlined 'without God, culture is lost'. Now this was not a rant by a Christian feeling marginalised, wanting a return to the good old days when we told everyone how to live their lives rather than Richard Dawkins. It was rather a piece based on the simple observation that without some knowledge of the Bible and Christian tradition, vast amounts of our cultural heritage are simply incomprehensible. Can you read Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, our great poetic and literary tradition without knowing the broad Christian culture in which their talents flowered? Can you 'see' the art on the walls of the National Gallery and other great institutions without some understanding of the theological palette of the artist?

I think Ms Mills answer was that we need to educate people so they understand this or something very important about our culture will be lost and we will the poorer in all sorts of ways - and not just economically, though it will have economic effects. And who pays for this? We all do because we all think our culture is worth investing in. And that's best done out of general taxation, managed by those people we have elected to be guardians of the things we value.

Well, it struck me listening to Vince Cable yesterday, that this argument applies across the piece. Our society is knitted together on gossamer threads of obligation and common interest. It's not for nothing that we talk about the body politic; and if society is a body, then when one part is unhealthy, the whole body suffers. It's a notion derived as much from Pauline theology as it is from Plato and Aristotle.

It's easy to cut spending - though as Mrs Thatcher and all who've attempted to slash and burn in her wake discovered, not as easy as talking about it on party platforms; it's much harder to repair the torn ligaments, ruptured muscles and broken bones that can result if it's done without care for the fragility of our social solidarity.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Those wonderful Smoke Fairies

Finally got to listen to the new Smoke Fairies album Through low Light and Trees. And it's really pretty wonderful. The surprising thing is that it hasn't really registered on reviewers radars. This is a shame as this is English eerie folk at its best - like Tom Waites channelling Sandy Denny (or vice versa). Check it out.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Busy but bursting with brilliance

Life's been pretty full-on over the past few days. but excellent.

On Saturday, Robin and Sarah got married and it was lovely to conduct their wedding and share in the celebrations afterwards.

On Sunday morning, we had a storming baptismal service. three young people were baptised in a packed church. Their testimonies were amazing - each one of them has clearly had a profound encounter with God and want to live their lives as followers of Jesus.

There were a lot of people there who don't usually go to church and afterwards a number of them said that if they'd known church was like that, they'd have taken it more seriously. So, we'll see if any make a return visit sometime soon. It will mean that we'll have to make some changes - which is a good thing!

One of the things I take away from the service is that something fast-moving, lively, with many people involved and nothing lasting more than five minutes, does seem to scratch where lots of people itch.

We also had a good later service with a number of visitors and returnees and a good atmosphere as we reflected on prayer and broke bread together.

And then today, I started teaching New Testament at Spurgeon's College. Well, to be strictly accurate, the college's  full-time NT lecturer has gone to Durham and they've asked a couple of local ministers to help out. So, I'll be teaching two hours a week for this year on Monday mornings from 8:30am. And today's session went really well. A good class of 15 alert students, who asked good questions and made intelligent contributions. So, I'm looking to sharing the journey through 1 Corinthians and the life and though of Paul with them.

Tomorrow, I think, I'll need a lie-down!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Soaking up the beauty and mystery of Rennes-le-Chateau

A footnote to our recent French holiday.

On one of the hottest days - it was 35 degrees according to the car's thermometer (though I wasn't sure that could be accurate) - we walked up to the tiny hilltop village of Rennes-le-Chateau. This unprepossessing, if moderately attractive village, was propelled to international stardom of a kind by the Da Vinci Code. What surprised me was that the village bore few marks of this international notoriety.

The reason for the interest of the conspiracy theorists in this little place is the extraordinary ministry of the priest Berenger Sauniere who arrived in 1885. Through his ministry he renovated the church, built a substantial villa and commissioned art to grace the grounds of these buildings.

The mystery is where the money came from to do all this. The myth makers think he found ancient cathar texts that led him to a treasure hoard or that he discovered the truth about Mary Magdalene and Jesus and was handsomely paid off by the Catholic hierarchy to keep quiet (he certainly never revealed his secret). Others suggest that his largess was the result of fraud on a significant scale.

What is undeniable is that the the building work he carried out magnificent (if occasionally bordering on folly). But his artistic taste suggests a fierce Catholic orthodoxy and not the work of a man who had discovered that Mary Magdalene pitched up in this village to preserve the bloodline of Jesus that led to the rise of the Merovingian kings.

The priest himself spoke modestly of his aims for the his work. He wanted to turn the hilltop fortified, though by the time he got there, significantly run-down town, into a place of peace, tranquility and spiritual enlightenment. 'The hordes of warriors have been replaced by peaceful warriors. They come here to admire, within this incomparable setting, the marvels of art...these works of art have taken the place of the murderous architecture of the past. The turrets and crenelations now serve for contemplating, close to heaven, the magnificent panorama strtching away on every side as far as the eye can see.'

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Swift to judge

It's interesting listening to the reaction to Ed Miliband's speech.

Every word is being seized on, every phrase chewed over for what it tells us about the man, his history, his thinking, his values.

Yeah, it was an important speech. But it's not the be-all and end-all of Ed Miliband; not the last word on what the opposition will stand for in the coming months.

His speech reads very well - and you can read it here. The advantage of reading a speech of this kind is that you look at and think about the words without the distractions of the audience response or the commentators opinions.

Part of it talks about the need for a new politics, a new way of talking about the issues we face. So let's begin to have that conversation and not write each other off on the basis of a sound bite or a speech. We need everyone joining the task of bringing ideas to make our big society a good, equal, fair and just society.

It seems it's not only the church that rushes to judgement, after all...

Monday, September 27, 2010

Building on the Big Welcome

We had a good morning yesterday. I had a very interesting and overwhelmingly positive reaction to my musings on Bowie and Nathanael (see my previous post) and the church had a large number of visitors. Intriguingly, many of those were visitors from overseas, including Lithuania and Holland. It says something significant about the way Bromley is changing.

It was, of course, the Big Welcome (or Back to Church Sunday as others call it), so it was great to have a number of visitors in our congregation (though I'm not sure many of them were there because of the efforts of the church inviting them!) I suspect the visitors pitched up because of our location - in the town centre, close to bus routes and recognisably ecclesiastical - and, I'd like to think, because of the welcome we offer once those people come close.

We've been having a conversation about welcome recently, pondering how we can capitalise on what we're already doing, how we make people feel at home among us.

A key part of this has been how we can help people to belong at the level they want to. We have tended to operate a 'one-size fits all' policy: everyone coming to church is looking to be actively involved in the church's programme, certainly wants to join a home group and is probably keen to volunteer in Sunday School, youth work or the women's meeting.

But recent experience suggests that this is not the case. we have a number of people who 'belong' to our church - in that they attend weekly without fail (often more regularly than long-standing committed members) but do not want to become members and certainly don't see volunteering in the church's programme as the path to fulfilment. They are even pretty iffy about the hone groups as they are currently constituted.

I suspect other churches are facing these issues. I'd be interested to know how others tackle it. Our conversations continue. I'll keep you posted.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Finding God in the groove

I'm listening to David Bowie's seminal Station to Station. I'm doing this because it's fab and a new deluxe version is coming out next week with the much bootlegged Nassau gig all digitally tidied up and packaged along with it. I'm also doing it as a displacement activity from sermon preparation. But what do you know if God's not there in the groove saying 'how about reflecting on this...?'

Got to keep searching and searching

Oh, what will I be believing and who will connect me with love?
Wonder who, wonder who, wonder when

Bowie sings on the title track - having mentioned Hebrew symbols that he's pictured drawing on the CD sleeve, in passing. Then on Word on a Wing, he sings
Lord, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing
And I'm trying hard to fit among your scheme of things
It's safer than a strange land, but I still care for myself
And I don't stand in my own light
Lord, lord, my prayer flies like a word on a wing
My prayer flies like a word on a wing
Does my prayer fit in with your scheme of things?

suggesting that maybe the person who's walked into his life out of his dreams in the verse isn't a lover but a divine presence. Of course, Bowie's praying in the midst of his cocaine addiction and living the fast life, his gaunt frame draped in a white suit and swirl of cigarette smoke.

Bowie knows everything he's achieved - and he's at the height of his fame and creativity in 1976 when this record is almost thrown together in LA - is a puff of smoke, 'an age of grand illusion'; the golden years cannot last and even in the midst of them 'there's my baby, lost that's all/once I'm begging you save her little soul...i believe, O Lord, I believe all the way.' The glare of the neon and celebrity makes him long to 'run for the shadows in these golden years'

In short, this is an album of spiritual longing set to some of the greatest tunes ever committed to vinyl.

And suddenly, my half-formed reflections on Nathanael begin to take shape. As Jesus collects disciples, he invites people to come and see what's going on around him; Philip fetches his mate Nathanael. It's possible that the way Jesus refers to him indicates that he's a bit of a zealot, an Israelite who's looking for a better world which certainly isn't going to be found anywhere in Galilee where he grew up. Bowie sings what Nathanael might have been thinking: 'Just because I believe don't mean I don't think as well'.

But Jesus invites him to see if that new world might be found in him.

The great thing about this story in John 1 is that Jesus isn't inviting any of these folk to join an institution or come to a meeting. Andrew and John(?) ask where Jesus is going and he says 'come and see'. He's on a journey and he invites people to walk with him and discover stuff along the way. This is the essence of mission - inviting people to come and see.

Have we found anything worth inviting our mates to look at?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Lessons in the stunning beauty of Monsegur

Coming down the steep path from the stunningly beautiful ruined castle at Monsegur, one passes a stone memorial to the 220 cathars who, following the overthrow of this seemingly impenetrable fortress, chose not to submit to the power of Rome. They were burned at the stake in the field at the foot of the hill. It's hard to square such horror with the staggering beauty of the surroundings.

Monsegur was the last stronghold of the Cathars overthrown in 1244. It was the end of a fifty year crusade against the heretical movement that had cost thousands of lives and extended the writ of the French king southwards to the Languedoc and Carcasonne (the key city of the region).

The cathars were a heretical sect, a dualistic blend of gnosticism and Christianity, which was embraced by the leading families of the region probably because it set them apart from growing French state to the north. It is undoubtedly the case that the crusade launched against the movement in the late twelfth century was as much about that state extending its powers over the fertile areas around Toulouse and Carcasonne.

The early leader of the crusade was Simon De Montfort. Growing up in Leicester, I had known De Montfort as a pioneer of democracy, one of the barons that forced King John to Runnymede to sign Magna Carta. Streets and halls, even a university are named after him in my home city. It was only when I when I first went to southern France about 15 years ago that a different picture of De Montfort emerged, a man who cut a bloody swathe through the region, a crusader of stupendous brutality.

As I stood on the low rising hill before the steep climb to Monsegur, I reflected on the fact that people should be allowed to be wrong. No one should die just because they choose to worship in a different way from their neighbours. Perhaps a key aspect of being a follower of Jesus is that we accept that some will get what he's about and others won't. One of the great insights of the Baptist pioneer, Thomas Helwys, was that everyone had the right to be wrong, that everyone had the right to choose what religion or philosophy they would follow and the state had no right to enforce one option over another.

Monsegur is testimony to what happens when that insight gets forgotten as it has so frequently through our bloody history

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Back from a great holiday

Well, we're back from a great holiday in Mirepoix in a part of France we've not visited before.

Mirepoix is a great bastide town with a fabulously preserved central square and a cathedral with the widest nave of any church in France. It's a wonderful place. We spent mornings sitting in the square drinking coffee and watching people come and go.

Afternoons were spent touring great historical sites - the area is dripping with history as it was the centre of Catharism in the twelfth century (more on that later) - or swimming in the local lake.

Evenings were spent eating either in our gite or in one of the numerous local restaurants.

All-in-all it was everything a French holiday should be.

We stayed in a place called l'ancienne pharmacie. It's the first year that the owners have been letting it out, I gather, and it's a great three-storey town house just off Mirepoix's main square. It's very well equipped and decorated and even has a small roof terrace. You can check out the website here.

More when I've recovered!

Friday, September 03, 2010

Breaking the back of my dissertation

I've put the final full stop at the end of the final sentence of the third substantial chapter of my dissertation. So my supervisor now has 37,715 words to chew over (though the first chapter will need recasting and will probably come out a little longer).

All that remains is topping and tailing with an introduction and conclusion plus the slightly tedious compiling of the bibliography (hopefully in alphabetical order) and it's done.

And as if that's not good news enough ahead of a holiday... today I heard that John Drane has written a lovely endorsement of my forthcoming Lion book to join the one that Peter Oakes has already written.

I can lay back in the warm glow of achievement until work rears its ugly (or do I mean lovely?) head again in a fortnight...

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The slippery, scintilating sound of eels

Went to see Eels last night at my favourite rock venue, Brixton Academy. It was a cracking evening - though it started slightly bizarrely with a ventriloquist!

E's band, however, were tight and loud (much louder than I was expecting!). I gather E is not a big fan of live performance and it shows a little in his awkward manner when speaking to the audience and a lot in his tendency to play everything slightly faster than on record. But there were some great moments, terrific versions of tracks for the new record (which I think could be seen to be a classic Eels album), great selections from the back catalogue (one of the most impression in recent  rock) and a blinding cover of Summer in the City.

E writes beautifully, his lyrics are often simple but profound and suffused with a world-weary wit. Sometimes last night the subtlety was squashed by the speed of delivery but it was still possible to appreciate the light and shade in his songs. A great gig.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Lessons from the workshops of Corinth

So, I'm pondering the second half of my chapter on the social location of the Pauline communities (while listening to Chacago Transit Authority) and formulating a thesis (as you do when writing a dissertation - though some might think I should have formulated a thesis already, but let's not go there!) and it strikes me that it might have implications for how we understand church today.

The thesis is simple (and not very original - but I'm doing a review dissertation, so originality is not expected): Paul was a craft worker - a tentmaker, probably a worker in leather rather than a weaver of cloth - who worked from sunrise to sunset in a workshop with others in the same trade. He probably slept at the back of the workshop or on a mezzanine floor above his bench; maybe in a first floor room. He would have eaten there or in the popina (the Roman equivalent of a fast food outlet) on the corner of the street, where for a few pennies he'd have picked a chunck of bread and vegetable stew.

So, where did church and mission happen? In the workshop. As he worked, he talked; his audience was his fellow workers, customers, passers-by drawn by a vigorous conversation. Nearly everyone who heard him speak would have been craft workers or slaves from customers houses come to place or collect orders. This explains why the Pauline communities were dominated by artisans and why there's such a stress on working for a living and sharing what you've made with those who haven't had such a good day or week as you.

It possibly has implications for how we read 1 Corinthians 11-14. Scholars generally agree that this teaching refers to the gathering of believers around a meal for what we now call 'worship' (Paul wouldn't have called it that, however). The apostle envisages prayer and prophecy, teaching and learning all in the context of a meal, at the heart of which was a remembering of Jesus and the cross. Many reckon it was loosely based on the Graeco-Roman symposium (and they are probably right).

But what if, instead of taking place in a family home or appartment, Paul envisages the Corinthians gathered in a workshop, eating together at the end of the working day? In fact, it wouldn't have been like this for all the communities in Corinth because it's clear that one of the problems in some gatherings was that some started eating before others arrived. This implies that some didn't need to work until sunset, suggesting a degree of wealth (though not at all suggesting membership of the tiny social elite as some have argued). But it would almost certainly have been like this in Thessalonica where, from Paul's letters, we get the flavout of a small gathering that is very workshop-based.

It all leads me to the conclusion that Paul's communities were socially located in craft workers shops and appartments and therefore consisted overwhelmingly of poor to moderately ok working people. The typical member of a Pauline community was someone who had to work each day to ensure they got to eat, who worked long hours with their hands, who lived in a space not much bigger than a modern British garage and who were drawn to the faith of Paul by his stress on grace and forgiveness, sharing and economic mutuality.

And what does it tell us about church today? Possibly that it needs few of the trappings that we think are essential. Where a small group of people meet to eat, remember Jesus, pray for and support one another, there is church. So, why can't it be happening in pubs and restaurants, cafes and workplace meeting areas?

I've changed the music to Bowie's Station to Station as I return to dissertation writing wondering what this picture of the chruch says about the role of full-time paid ministers...

Monday, August 30, 2010

Taking a break before the final stretch

Just back from a lovely weekend in Reims with friends - lots of good food, champagne, walking and laughter. The cathedral boasts three truly amazing Marc Chagall windows - absolutely stunning: wonderful colours and shapes telling a variety of stories from the Christian tradition and Old Testament.

This week I am hoping to finish the chapter on the social location of the early Pauline communities which will complete the rough outline of the thesis. I have to revisit the economic material to make the argument I am making somewhat sharper (assuming I can still find it among the welter of statistics).

We're off to see Eels on Wednesday which will be the week's cultural highlight.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Soundtrack to fresh thoughts about history and mission

Do listen to the new Eels album. You can hear the whole of Tomorrow Morning here. But it's worth acquiring for your iPod, car CD player, etc because it's simply lovely.

Great tunes, sharp lyrics, imaginative arrangements, the talented Mr E is feeling at peace with himself and it oozes through the whole album. It could the best thing he's done since Blinking Lights and Other Revelations.

It forms a suitable backdrop to much thinking about social status, place, relations in the Roman Empire and the early Christian groups. Two and half thousand words down so far, just 10,000 more to go (so it probably won't be written by close of play today!)

In the course of my reading yesterday evening I ended up in the Seventeenth Century dipping into a couple of Christopher Hill's books. It was good to be reminded what a great writer he was. But in the course of chasing down an argument about imposing present understanding and frameworks on past events, I came across this:

'In mid-seventeenth century England there were no buildings labelled "Baptist church", "Leveller party", "Society of Friends." There were individual groups gathered around a charismatic preacher or leader. From this milieu of free discussion Baptists, Muggletonians and Quakers ultimately emerged, after many disputes. We can see them as sects, retrospectively, because they survived. Ranters, like Levellers, Diggers and Fifth Monarchists, were suppressed because they were thought dangerous. They never achieved the degree of organisation which was forced on Baptists, Muggletonians and Quakers later in the century.' (A Nation of Change and Novelty p173-174)

He argues that in those turbulent years of revolution in the mid-seventeenth century, new ideas were emerging, taking wing or crashing in flames. There was no certainty that any of the groups generating those ideas would last long.

'It is perhaps misleading to differentiate too sharply between politics, religion and general scepticism. We know as a result of hindsight that some groups - Baptists and Quakers - will survive as religious sects...In consequence we unconsciously tend to impose too clear outlines on the early history of the English sects, to read back later beliefs into the 1640s and 50s. One of the aims of this book will be to suggest that things were much more blurred.' (The World Turned Upside Down p14).

This resonates in all sorts of ways with what I'm pondering in relation to the emergence of communities of Jesus followers across the empire in the middle years of the first century AD. It also resonates with my thinking on how the heirs of those groups are navigating today's choppy waters as they seek to embody the same values as their ancestors in such a different world.

Friday, August 20, 2010

What's the point of studying?

It's been a busy week. I've written the chapter on the physical location of the Pauline communities for my MA - an examination of what archaeology, especially in Pompeii, Rome and Corinth, tells us about where people lived and what kind of accommodation best fits the evidence we have from the NT. I'm fairly pleased with the 12,500 I've written.

I've also been reading the second version of the page proofs for my forthcoming Lion book. I am really pleased with the way it looks and reads. The cover is great and the back features an endorsement from friend and rising New Testament scholar Peter Oakes about which I am hugely chuffed!

It's also been Holiday at Home at church this week, our annual outreach to senior citizens. It's been going really well as far as I can see - I've been in to do a couple of midday thoughts and will be taking part in the musical finale this afternoon.

Last night we were celebrating with our next door neighbours. Their daughter got her A Level results yesterday and did very well. She was having a party and we went in to help serve food and keep order. I have to say that it was great to be with 50 or so good mannered and pleasant young people. Many of them are getting ready to go off to university, others are planning to take a year out to travel and boost their CVs.

It strikes me that there's huge pressure on these young people to perform - as there has been throughout their school career. Education seems to be more and more about landing a high paid job. Only once in yesterday's extensive and over-heated coverage of the story on radio and TV, did I hear that universities were about training people think analytically. And not once did I hear anyone say that knowledge was good in itself.

My fear is that if just see a degree as a ticket to a higher paid job, there'll be a lot of disappointed young people graduating over the next few years. Isn't tertiary level education about something more than a meal ticket?

My MA is not going to raise my salary; land me a dream job; that's not why I'm doing it. I'm doing it because I have burning questions about the shape of the New Testament communities that I want to answer for myself and maybe for others through what I read and write. I want to add - albeit in a small way - to the pool of knowledge about the communities that gathered around the worship of Jesus in the cities at the eastern end of the Roman empire in the middle years of the first century.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Catching God's rhythm

Today I'll be reflecting on Psalm 4 at our afternoon and evening gatherings.

It's one of those psalms we tend not to notice but which is foundational for the spirituality of the book as a whole. It forms a pair with Psalm 5, the latter being a morning Psalm, while Psalm 4 is an evening psalm. Together they draw us into God's time zone.

They put prayer into the rhythm of Genesis 1 with its refrain of 'evening and morning' as it counts the symbolic days of creation. They are rooted in God's core principle that we work from rest and not vice versa - hence the evening coming before the morning in God's time zone (this is why the Jewish sabbath starts on Friday evening and ends at sunset on Saturday).

We see it in the fact that human beings were made in God's image to carry out his mandate of managing creation on day 6, then on day 7, their first full day on the planet, everyone rests: we work from a place of resting in our relationship with God.

And that's what this psalm is calling us to at the end of the day, before we go to sleep to be refreshed for the adventure of the coming day.

And as it does, it reminds us that without our relationship with God, without his Spirit at work in us, his word giving our lives shape and meaning, we are, like the earth at the start of Genesis 1, formless and void. Hence the psalm starts with anxious asking - playing out the anxieties the day has so often left us with - but ends in quiet trust in the one who gives our lives shape and hope.

In between verses 1 and 8, in a framework of trust and gratitude for all that God has given, it commends an evening dialogue with ourselves as we settle into bed that reviews the day, lays open its disappointments and failures and offers ourselves afresh our lives as living sacrifices to the God who calls us through sleep into the working day ahead (v5).

This psalm (along with its close partner) is God's gift of a rhythm of life built on trust and partnership with the creator who shapes our days according to his grand design. Why not weave it into your daily devotional pattern?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A good year for music

I've now been listening to the new Arcade Fire album, the Suburbs for the past fortnight and I can report that it's almost certainly the best album that will be released this year. It's an hour of exciting, sublime music, packing intelligent and funny lyrics musing on what makes us the people we are.

It's been a good year for music so far - great albums already from the National, Cherry Ghost and Tracy Thorn - and there's still the debut album of the wonderful Smoke Fairies to come later this month or early next.

So, come the end of year charts, there'll be lots of good music vying for a place but I'd be surprised if anything knocks Arcade Fire off the top spot between now and then.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Taxes and loving our neighbours

Another day, another crackdown...

Every government has tried to cut benefit fraud. So it's not surprising that the current collection of millionaires want to stamp it out. It's estimated that around £2bn is fraudulently claimed or paid due to administrative cock-ups. It's quite right that this money should be better used. I'm not sure the credit-rating agencies being employed as bounty hunters is the answer, however.

I look forward to the same amount of government zeal being put into chasing the estimated £30bn that is not being paid by UK tax payers because they've found interesting ways of  defrauding the Inland Revenue. When in opposition, the Lib Dems were always going on about targeting tax evaders. But now the Lib Dems have disappeared without trace and with them, any sensible policies they used to promote.

So David Cameron says in today's Manchester Evening News says: "We need to do more to stop fraud – £1.5bn of hard earned taxpayers' money is being stolen from the taxpayer. This is simply not acceptable. Nor is it right that only £20m of benefit fraud-related debts are recovered each year. Or that three in four of those caught don't get prosecuted." adding: "It's quite wrong that there are people in our society who will behave like this. But we will not shrug our shoulders and let them get away with it any longer. We will take the necessary measures to stop fraud happening in the first place; root out and take tough action against those found committing fraud; and make sure the stolen money is paid back."

I'll be cheering when he says the same about tax evaders, also robbing ordinary hard-working tax-payers. until then, I'll just assume this is yet another tough talking gimmick.

I think the only bit of tax advice in the Bible is in Romans 13 where Paul says that we should pay our taxes as a way of expressing our love for our neighbour (v6-7 in the context of what it means to be living sacrifices, 12:1-13:14).

We pay taxes to ensure that those who are suffering in straitened economic times are not thrown to the wolves. I am pleased that my taxes go to support those who are unemployed, need help with their housing costs, are struggling to make ends meet because of ill health or difficult family circumstances. It's love of neighbour in action.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Meeting the housing shortage

So, having unsettled council tenants by threatening an end to lifetime tenancies, the government now plans to incentivize councils by offering them tax breaks for every council house they build. There's surely a much better way to ensure a larger supply of council homes - stop selling them!

If they want to incentivize council house tenants to buy a property, then give them the cash saving as a deposit for a home locally that's not owned by a social housing provider.

We have a chronic shortage of social housing largely because we've sold off so much of it since the right to buy was introduced in the mid-80s, a right that was not matched by a commitment to build. That legislation should have insisted that councils had to use the money raised by the sale of council houses to build more council houses. Instead, the legislation expressly ruled out using the cash raised to add to the housing stock.

Ideology, hey...

Thursday, August 05, 2010

More thoughts on weddings

Giles Fraser was on fine form on yesterday's Thought for the Day (available now on the BBC website), waxing lyrical about the absurdity of some modern weddings. With a price tag for the couple averaging £20,000, he pointed out that even attending a wedding these days could cost a guest - if you include the present (usually from some overpriced store list), travel, overnight accommodation and an outfit - upwards of £500.

He added: 'And yes, I blame the media here, not the happy couple. For the pervasive influence of the media on the look and feel of weddings - not least those weddings that are featured in celebrity magazines - has encouraged an atmosphere of narcissism and self-promotion to work its way into the very fabric of the modern wedding celebration. Little wonder that, at their worst, some weddings can feel like an overblown vanity project, all justified by foot-stomping references to "my special day"'.

And today, as if to prove Fraser right, the editor of one of the wedding magazines was on the programme defending the amount spent on the day because it was so important for the bride to feel special on her special day.

Since when did feeling special have anything to do with the price tag? Surely feeling special is about knowing that today you are committing yourself to the man you've chosen to spend the rest of your life with because you're head over heels in love with him, in the presence of those people who have made you the person you are - your family and friends - and who will stand with you, supporting this choice you have made through all the ups and downs of married life.

This is what we saw on Saturday at David and Ruth's wedding where family and friends came together to create a truly memorable day for a couple they loved dearly. And it really was a special day despite the bill being a fraction of the twenty grand average; special because at the heart of it was the commitment of two people in love, pledging themselves to one another in the presence of those who love and support them.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

What church is really all about

We were at a great wedding yesterday that showed us once again what church can be like.

David and Ruth tied the knot at a service of real emotion and joy and then had a reception in our church hall transformed into a Bedouin tent and catered with love and expertise by their home group.

It was evidence of what happens when take seriously the idea that church is a community of folk who are there for each other, to enable them to achieve things they couldn't have achieved on their own.

The home group had dedicated themselves to weeks of planning and long days in the run up to yesterday of hard work and commitment. The result was a day of joy and celebration where the presence of God in both the service and reception was palpable.

It was yet more proof that church is best when it's small, when a group no bigger than can fit around a large dining table commit themselves to each other, to share their lives with one another and encounter the risen Jesus in their midst as a result.

So a big thank you to everyone involved in making it happen. Thank you for showing me the potential there is when a group of disciples take seriously the idea that church is a family.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Talking pants for justice

Today I thought I'd talk pants. Many of you probably think I talk pants most days but we'll let that pass.

I cam across a wonderful new-ish company this morning as I was trawling the Guardian website. This story alerted me to whomadeyourpants? a Southampton worker co-operative that utilises the skills of refugees and migrants in the manufacture of ethical underwear.

This is a fantastic project at so many levels...

In a world where most garment workers are still earning less than $2 a day (even in those workshops where companies are putting pressure to raise standards; see this report from the War on Want website), here's a company offering good quality jobs to people, paying reasonable wages.

In a world where fashion houses and high street stores are urging us to buy ever cheaper, almost disposable clothes of dubious provenance, here's a company making quality garments of good design quality that founder Becky Johns says you can wash and wash and wash without them falling apart.

In a world where people throw up their hands in the face of injustice and inequality, here's a company founded by a woman who said I can do something to make a difference. You can read about this initiative in an inspiring Guardian story here and check out the company's website here and Becky's blog here

And soon the company plans to offer ranges for men - we have ethical underwear needs too! So, if you're buying pants, ceheck out this site.

It's great to come across initiatives like this one; it lifts the spirits on a morning when the news from Afghanistan and Westminster is depressing to come across someone making a real and positive difference to the lives of the poorest and most marginalised in our society.

It inspires me to think what can we might be able to do here with the refugee projects that we have connection with.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Reading Romans in community

Off to lead a bible study on Romans, slightly fearful of dishing up yet more gobbets of information for people to process.

I'm hoping to avoid this by earthing the text in the real lives of its original hearers (with the help of Peter Oakes' excellent new book Reading Romans in Pompeii) and thence in our lives. I'm also hoping that the learning will be mutual, with everyone there sharing their insights.

First, I have to get over the hurdle of everyone thinking that Romans is only and all about how God puts individuals right with himself. But mine are an intelligent bunch, so this shouldn't be too difficult.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Over-fed over there - and over here, too?

There's a good blog on suburban church stuff emanating for the US but featuring some thought-provoking posts, including this one about teaching becoming something of an idol.

Author, Michael Wallenmeyer, offers some pretty sharp observations. So, it's worth checking out.

The subject came up again last night. One of my leaders and I had a conversation about what we do with sermons. At the end of the day when I delivered two sermons that he'd found really helpful, he was concerned about how we follow this stuff up and ensure that it's not only earthed in people's lives but actually changes the way they live them (albeit incrementally).

I still can't escape the feeling that I'm a Sunday morning and evening entertainer for people with a penchant for the Bible. Wallenmeyer seems to feel the same in his context.

On Tuesday this week I'm beginning a Bible study series on Romans. This is great. There seems to be a real desire for people to study scripture and I am keen to meet that desire and help people engage with it, delving into the context of these fabulous texts, getting an overview of the message and, most importantly, helping people apply it to their daily lives.

This is all good. but I'm still fearful that we engage in information overload in our churches. We offer chunky gobbets of stuff each week and yet very little opportunity for people to work out what to do with it. It's like inviting people to visit a gourmet restaurant every day, making them eat a substantial slab of the menu and not give them the opportunity to exercise before we do it again.

The thing is that this isn't making disciples. It's making people who consume church stuff, judging what they get each week against the standards of the best teaching they've heard both in our church and elsewhere, opting in and out of programmes on the basis of whether they like the sound of it.

As Wallenmeyer points out, we're doing church better than we've ever done before in terms of the offer we're making - nice environment, lively music, great child-care, good coffee - and yet we're shrinking as a movement.

There's lots to think about here....

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Booking the great getaway

Today I booked our proper summer holiday - two weeks in September in South-west France. We've found a fabulous looking small house called L'Ancienne Pharmacie in a small bastide town called Mirepoix in the Ariege department of the Midi-Pyrenees. It's the first time we've gone for a property in a village rather than in a converted farm complex. So it should be an adventure!

Outside the school holidays it will be quiet. The property is near a cafe in a covered colonnade and has a roof garden where we'll be able to sit and read and sip chilled Chablis and other beautifully textured grape-based beverages.

And we go in six weeks - yay!!!!!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Summer news and soothing sounds

Pity the poor people of Guildford. Not only do they have to live in Guildford but they are struggling to understand the ticket machines found at railway stations. And people suggest that educational standards are rising...

This was not the only slightly surreal report on this morning's breakfast show on the beeb. Just after 8am they interviewed a 15 year old festival goer (she'd been at Gilfest in Guildford over the past weekend - I see a theme emerging) about how to stay safe at festivals.

She seemed very sensible and gave good answers to the questions she was asked. But no one asked why a 15 year old was at a weekend festival with a group of friends but no adult to offer light-touch supervision and help keep them safe.

The festival story was based on the fact that there have been five incidents at festivals over this summer so far involving potential harm to women festival goers. It didn't seem much basis for a panic given the numbers attending these events - though it is almost the silly season.

Today, I'm expecting a delivery of wood to build a screen behind our newly laid decking to complete our sitting area and will be reflecting on 2 Corinthians 12:10 - possibly the climax of this complex and compelling letter. As I do this I'll be listening to some free music - new songs from Sarah Masen (via an excellent music called noisetrade) and two whole albums from an American band called Evils that Never Came, gentle indie rock with great hooks and interesting lyrics. I don't anything else about them as their website gives almost information about them but I'm always grateful for free music (click here)