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.