Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Spend a little, live a lot

After the weekend's lacklustre G20 and G8 meetings, it takes an economist to cut through the cant and tell it like it is. Paul Krugman does that in today's Guardian (a piece that first appeared in the New York Times.

The Nobel laureate is one of the world's leading economic thinkers. He has been consistently accurate in his analysis of recent events - often before they actually happened - so his is a voice worth heeding.

He argues we're on the verge of the third depression (the first being in the years after 1873 and the second in the 1930s following the Wall Street Crash. The first was long and the second was deep). And he lays the blame squarely at the door of policy makers and governments obsessed with cutting deficits.

He argues that the G20 is looking at and therefore treating the wrong symptoms. They are fearful of inflation when deflation is the biggest risk facing the world economy and they are tightening their belts (meaning, our belts) at a time when the world is massively underspending and therefore demand is too weak to secure a recovery. In the words of Aldi, we should rather 'spend a little, live a lot...'

This isn't just academic number-crunching, however. This is about the lives of millions of people across the globe as well as in our neighbourhoods who, as a result of government policy here and in the other G8 nations (especially in Europe), might never work again.

And he suggests that such policies don't really even satisfy the financial markets, even though governments (especially our hysterical chancellor) are constantly talking about fiscal rectitude being needed or the credit agencies and bond markets will give us the thumbs down. In fact, Krugman argues, the markets appear to be telling us that long-term fiscal rectitude is good but slashing spending in the short term, weakening demand and raising unemployment is not a recovery strategy that they want to invest in - hence the continued weakness of stock markets around the world, driven by fears for corporate profits.

And this comes on the day when Frank Field - for the second time called in  by a government to think the unthinkable about welfare reform - suggested that young men should have their benefits removed completely if they don't accept a job offer. The trouble is Frank, there aren't any jobs for these young men to be offered that would not result in them becoming homeless and indebted.

Welfare reform is vital but it has to go hand-in-hand with economic recovery ands the creation of jobs that pay wages sufficient to support a family - and minimum wage jobs in most of the UK do not come close to that when housing, travel and living costs are factored in.

However, it was heartening to hear Frank say that the new Government's decision to scrap the jobs fund (which guaranteed work to young unemployed people) wasn't very clever. It looks like unemployment is going to be the touchstone in the next few years as it was in the 1980s and early 90s. Plus ca change, hey?!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Eating, drinking and renewing our faith

In keeping with my policy of publishing my church magazine perspective piece on my blog for those at church who don't read the magazine (and a wider audience who might be interested), here's Summer 2010's offering (slightly amended):

I’ve just got back from having coffee with a friend. I’ve not seen this particular friend for a while so we had a lot to catch up on. It would be true to say that over recent months we have not seen eye-to-eye – he votes differently to me, moves in different circles, likes different music.

But as we sat nursing our coffees – mine a cappuccino, his, a black Americano (we don’t even see eye to eye on beverages!), I realised that I’d missed seeing him to chew the fat and put the world to rights. More than that, I realised that for all the things that divide us, so much more brings us together.

I left the café with a spring in my step, feeling refreshed and invigorated.

As I listened to him to sharing his thoughts on what had happened in his life over the past few months, how he saw things in the church where he worships, what his family’s been up to, I realised that God so often speaks to us through our friends. I found myself nodding, smiling with recognition at what he was sharing, warming to his insights.

The summer’s a good time to catch up with friends. The weather is conducive to spending time sitting in the sunshine or shade, chewing the fat. The normal routines of our lives wind down a little, giving us more space to see people in a relaxed way.

Often we recommend using the summer, when the church’s programme is lighter, to focus on renewing and recharging our spiritual batteries, often through reading a good book or trying a different spiritual discipline to refresh our relationship with God.

But as we’ve been finding as we’ve read 2 Corinthians together over recent weeks, our relationship with God is intimately bound up with our relationship with one another. In fact it’s probably true to say that it is impossible to have a relationship with God if we do not also relate to his people. That after all, is the gist of what Paul is arguing in the first 7 chapters of his wonderful, intimate and emotionally-charged letter.

So, how about using the summer to sit and chill with a friend or two. You can do it a local café – Bromley has a surfeit of them these days, so you’ll never find yourself unable to get in and find a seat! You could do it at one of prayer picnics – an opportunity to catch up with one another, shoot the breeze and pray for the needs of the community and wider world. You could use the gaps in your week left by the shutting down of various church programmes to invite people round for coffee or a meal.

Jesus spent as much times eating and drinking with friends as he did in synagogue (more probably) or praying alone. Why? Undoubtedly, because he wanted us to learn something from his practice; he wanted us to see that being together in a relaxed and extended way was good for our souls. But was it also because it was good for his? Did it refresh and renew his faith to spend time chilling with friends over a meal?

So, if this was the pattern of Jesus’ life, shouldn’t it also be the pattern of ours. We cannot grow in our relationships with one another as a church through sitting in rows at services. Services help us grow in our faith in a variety of ways. But they do not help us to develop the kind of trusting relationships that are essential to our growth as Christian disciples.

I have often said that church should be no bigger than the average dining table, no bigger than the number you can comfortably share a meal with. This is because church is a place where we grow to know God through sharing with one another, where we meet Jesus in one another’s lives, where we find strength to face whatever life throws at us through the support, prayer, wisdom and laughter of our brothers and sisters.

So, get our your diaries, lift your calendars down from the fridge and start marking those dates through the summer when you’ll be getting together to share a beverage and chew the fat; where you’ll be deepening your relationships with one another and with the God who calls us into community.

I’ve to go now because a friend has just rung to say he’s on his way for a coffee and will be here in twenty minutes. Now, where shall we go….?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Nick and Hannah's awfully big adventure

We were at Nick and Hannah's wedding yesterday and it was everything a wedding should be. There was so much joy and good will on display you could almost taste it.

I conducted the ceremony at church which went really well (I think), a good balance between the formality of the words and the joy of the occasion. We then had tea, coffee and cakes for anyone who'd been at the service in the church hall. It was heaving and the happy couple got to talk to most groups who had come.

We then decamped to Sundridge Park for the reception - fabulous surroundings and excellent food. And we were joined in the evening by a load nore people for yet more food and dancing.

Undoubtedly the weather helped since we could be meandering and chilling outside, especially during the long evening, but there was such a great atmosphere. I really enjoyed catching up with people I see at church but rarely have time for more than just the briefest of conversations.

Sitting chatting and laughing, sharing memories and stories, reminded me yet again that church is about relationships; it's about what happens when people make connection with each other and share their hearts with one another.

In many ways the wedding service itself captures something of this with its stress on committed relationships, on the couple coming together within a community that will support and offer strength to them in their developing relationship. Well, yesterday certainly lived up to that. It was particularly lovely to see the way that the two families were knitting together around the love of these two young people.

So, I wish Nick and Hannah many long years of joy and pray that their relationship may be a beacon of hope to many.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Singing for a more just world

There's a great story in today's G2 about Hannah Atkins and her husband offering a failed asylum seeker a place to eat and sleep for a few months. It's a great story about how hospitality - a key Christian virtue - can make a real difference in a world of injustice.

Check it out at the Guardian's website.

And then go to Hannah's website. She is a singer-songwriter with a wonderful voice and a neat line in catchy folk-tronica. Clearly committed to some great causes, she writes with a disarming honesty and the production is first rate.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

So, who speaks up for the poor?

When I was a financial journalist, Budget week was a time of frenetic activity and excitement. I and my colleagues would pore over the red book and talk to city analysts and economists about what the measures announced in an invariably dull speech actually amounted to.

Budgets are always full of bogus statistics, massaged numbers and big claims. This one was is no different. The specious Office for Budget Responsibility, run by one of Mrs T's favourite economists, hardly offers a fig leaf for George Osborne's voodoo numbers.

It's a bad week for the poor. Even on the government's own figures the poorest 10% of the country are the second hardest hit group after the richest 10%. As John Humphries asked Nick Clegg this morning 'why should this group be paying anything?'

We're in a global recession that has been caused by two things. One was a failure of international financial regulatory systems - the IMF, G20, and national governments (including the one that left office here in May). The major cause was free-wheeling banks creating ways of making money for their shareholders on the backs of the world's poor. The rich - for they are still making huge profits and paying enormous bonuses - plunged us into a recession that the poor are now being asked to pay to get us all out of.

The banks were in receipt of getting on for £140bn of direct support plus some £800bn+ of indirect support in the financial markets to keep them from going under - and still they are not lending to small and medium-sized business in anything like the way needed to get us out of the mess we're in.

The cost to them is a paltry £2bn levy announced in this budget. A Robin Hood Tax would have raised £20bn a year, something like a fair contribution from the banking sector for the deficit it's caused.

With VAT rises, a freeze on child benefit, the linking of other benefits to the consistently lower inflation measure, caps on housing benefit (coupled with the disappearance of any target for building affordable homes) and swingeing cuts coming in the public services that the prosperous never have to rely, this was a bad budget day for the poor.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Applying the lessons learned at the latest conference

Back home from NAMs to a day of sermon preparation. In the light of Steve Holmes' reflections on the sermons - which were very thought-provoking - this task will be an interesting challenge.

This Sunday we're kicking off our series on Ecclesiastes, reflecting on how this enigmatic author urges us to see that life is not a rehearsal. Steve's central case is that the sermon is for inspiration not information; it is for inspiring the listener to live up to the call of the gospel, rather than informing her of the content of the gospel.

Perhaps this is what Qohelet was doing: looking life squarely in the face and calling his hearers/readers to live life out of what they know to be true about the world and God. We'll see.

Having completed all the corrections on the manuscript of The World of the Early Church, I returned home to an email asking another set of questions of me. Hopefully, these will be straight forward. I have to say that I'm really quite pleased with the way the book's turned out; I think it looks and reads really well.  All being well, it will be in bookshops next March.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Defending the sermon

Day 2 in the NAMs house saw us paying rapt attention to Steve Holmes. He was excellent, mounting a determined and powerfully argued case for the monologue sermon. He asserted that the sermon is crucial for inspiring rather than conveying information. His monologue contained good pictures and movie clips, as well as the requisite dose of humour and helpful illustration.

I'm not sure I bought his case entirely. But I'm reserving judgement until tomorrow when he delivers part 2.

Apart from that, it's been a good day. The ministry matters session did not contain last year's not entirely convincing assessment of social networking. rather, we were told that a report is being put together on the appropriate use of such new technology. In the meantime there's a good Grove Booklet in its youth work series that tackles the issue.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Chilling in the spring sunshine in Leicestershire

Day one in the NAMs house and we're all still playing nicely!

It's been good to catch up with friends and meet new people. The programme is relatively light so there's plenty of room for chatting.

This evening we watched the film 2012 - chosen because it contained no swearing to speak of, no sex and no strong violence (bar the obliteration of whole continents!) - and I for one was so pleased it didn't cost me anything. Clunky dialogue, ridiculous science and pretty average CGI - and this from the director of Speed and Independance Day (obviously having an off day). It was hysterical, though that was a bi-product of the dreadful script.

Tomorrow I'm looking forward to hearing Steve Holmes.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Dodging the raindrops in good company

I spent a very happy morning yesterday with my MA supervisor. The first chapter of my thesis got the thumbs up (it needs some pretty major tweaks, but the general thrust and level of engagement was deemed ok). So now I have to write the other two over the summer, recast the first and submit it.

I shall be making an argument that we can locate the early Pauline churches - economically, socially and physically - in a way that makes good sense of the broader social context and of the theology of the letters that Paul wrote to those tiny communities.

On my way to and from St John's Wood (trying to dodge the showers), I listened to the new Tracey Thorn album, Love and its Opposites. Thorn was one half of Everything But the Girl with long-term partner (and now husband), Ben Watt, who first came to my attention back in the early 1980s on a Cherry Red records sampler album. She has a silky smooth voice and keen eye for life's foibles. This new album is a mature woman's take on family life, identity, heritage and love. And it's truly wonderful. It'll be one of the albums of the year alongside the National's equally sublime High Velvet.

And last night I finally got to watch Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland last night. It was full of typical Burton wit and playfulness; the performances were uniformly excellent, the human actors more than holding their own against the animated ones. The story bounced along at a fair lick, the dialogue sparkled and the special effects did what they needed to without overwhelming proceedings. All in all, a hugely enjoyable two hours 

Monday, June 07, 2010

Meaning in the mayhem?

For our first foray of the summer into the Old Testament, we doing a short series on Ecclesiastes, five Sundays beginning the week after next. The idea is to tackle some issues that people talk about around the water cooler and at BBQs, when they're not talking about the world cup; things like 'why do I work so many hours?' 'where does all the time go?' 'Why aren't we having any fun?' 'Why's the government so incompetent?' Why's family life so demanding?' You know the kind of thing...

So, in preparation for this I have been been dusting off commentaries and looking for angles. Of all the things I've read, Greame Goldsworthy's Gospel & Wisdom is still the best. This book, which covers more than Ecclesiastes, helped me form my view of the wisdom material while I was at college. A close second is Robert Davidson's The Courage to Doubt. Eugene Peterson also has good thoughts in Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. Of the commentaries, Murphy and Longman are exhaustive and Kidner is full of insight. Finally, Robert K Johnston's Useless Beauty: Ecclesiastes through the lens of contemporary film is a feast of good things.

All I've got to do now is create a series, brief my preaching team, tell the church what we're doing so they can invite friends along and launch it. Happy days!

The heart of communion

It was communion at the Later Service yesterday, so we did a version of the communion we'd used at Prism this year (HT to James), namely, we had cake and wine to remember the partying Jesus and bread nailed to a plank to help us reflect on the suffering Jesus. I think it worked well.

Communion as we practice it in our churches (certainly Baptist ones) can be a strange affair. A couple of days ago, David Kerrigan blogged about the vicar of Soham offering communion to everyone attending church in the wake of the killings there and describing it as a moving expression of mission. I'm sure he's right.

But wasn't it also the most natural thing to do. Isn't communion a picture of Jesus inviting us all to sit and eat and chat with him? And isn't it entirely right that the group sitting round the table with him will be a mixed bunch? Certainly every meal, banquet, feast and party Jesus attended contained a pretty mixed bag of guests - pompous religious folk, hookers, local crime bosses, ordinary working people trying to make sense of the economy and where God had gone.

We've turned communion in our churches into a solemn recollection of how Jesus died for me. Our habit of taking a morsel of bread and sip of wine reinforces this: just enough to tickle the taste buds with the thought that this is all about me and my salvation.

But when Jesus came to the aid of the bride groom at Cana, he made enough wine to keep party going for a month because the whole point of eating and drinking together is not the eating and drinking but the conversation that happens between mouth-fulls.

When Paul condemned the table manners of the Corinthians, it wasn't because they were eating and drinking with the unsaved or allowing those who didn't know who Jesus was to eat with them. It was because some were eating and drinking their fill, while others - mainly manual workers - arrived at the end of the working day to find only scraps left.

The point of communion, says Paul, is that poor and rich are equally catered for and that in sitting and sharing together around the meal table in a way that stresses the equality of people in Christ makes that meal a memorial of Jesus.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Blessing everyone, saving some

Last night at our leaders gathering we used part of an excellent new resource from Girls Brigade. Called bridge the gap, it's a DVD and group study resource on how to be missional people. On episode 1 Ruth Gilson, GB's national director, says that GB is about blessing everyone and saving many (or something like that). In other words, GB exists to bless all who come to it whether they find faith in Jesus or not.

This statement jumped out at a number of our leaders. One asked if as a church we would ever do something that was not intended to bless people. And of course, when phrased that way, the answer is obviously 'no.' Sadly, though, we inadvertently or carelessly do all sorts of things that don't bless people.

Churches can be places of petty vindictiveness and long-running feuds between members that render its witness anything but a blessing to those coming in off the street. Such visitors catch a whiff of cordite on the air and twig that they have wondered into a war zone and need to beat a hasty retreat. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3, everywhere we go we kick up a stink; the trouble is that sometimes it is anything but the aroma of Christ.

It means that we have to work at being good news on two fronts simultaneously. The first is the obvious one of what we do to reach out and embrace people of all kinds, offer to bless them and bring good into their lives. It's the ministry that Jeremiah urged on the exiles in 29:7: 'seek the shalom (the well-being, peace, wholeness) of the city where I've sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its shalom you will find your shalom'. Everything we do should be good news, aiming to bless people regardless of how they respond to us.

The second is less obvious but equally essential: the community we build must be a place of wholeness and acceptance, a place where the barriers between people come down, where there is genuine forgiveness, where past hurts are not allowed to fester or ossify into stumbling blocks to one another. I think this is why Paul spends so much time in his letters talking about our relationships with one another. Time and again I come back to Philippians 2:1-5, 11-18 and see that this is key to being a missional people.

We will not be able to be good news to the world unless we can be good news to and for one another.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Are we good news to anyone?

At the end of our cafe church on Sunday, a man walked in looking for the pastor. He was looking for help, any help we could give him. He'd been a bike messenger in the City - carrying documents between some of the leading financial services companies in the country - and had a flat. But six weeks ago he'd lost his job and a month ago, lost his flat. He'd slept rough in Bromley the night before. What could we do to help him?

He's the tip of a vast iceberg; people who clung to a life through the boom who've been washed up on the rocks as the wave has broken.

As we phoned round the usual agencies, we discovered that there's virtually no help for such homeless people. Nearly all the hostels only take referrals from their respective local authority and have waiting lists as long as your arm; everyone tells you to call Shelter - wonderful organisation - but their helpline isn't available at 9pm on a Sunday.

We found him a hostel place - somewhere he'd stayed before but couldn't afford to to anymore - and booked him a couple of nights and wished him well. I'll call him at the end of the week to see how he's doing.

But is that it?

Sometimes in the face of need, I feel so impotent. More than that, I feel fearful; afraid that acting, doing something will lead to a situation where I am not in control. And so, I hesitate...

Over on thinking mission, David Kerrigan has mused on what it means to be radical. It's good stuff; go and read it. In particular, he's asked us 'why, if we are good news, do so few recognise us as such?' And he adds: 'I am pleading that we have the humility to look at how we live, how we gather, and how we express our Christian faith in a world riddled with injustice, where power is used and abused in a way that has little in common with the way Jesus encouraged his followers to live.'

London faces a housing crisis that if current projections are to be believed will get much worse over the next ten years because we are just not building enough homes for everyone who needs one. For those of us on the property ladder already, this is probably good news because it means rising property values. 

But for those in poor, inadequate, over-crowded housing and those sleeping on a mate's sofa or in a box in the park, this is really bad news. Their plight will get worse. Again, the poor land at the bottom of the heap. And who will lift them up?

It's trite to ask 'what would Jesus do?' But I think it is worth asking, as David does, because I think we need to look into our collective hearts and ask ourselves 'what kind of people do we want to be?' and 'what kind of people do we think Jesus wants us to be?'