Monday, October 31, 2011

Honest talk about the seasons of life

I thought I'd share the thoughts from our church magazine with a wider audience as it's generally applicable and quite a few of my people don't read the magazine but do read the blog. 
So here it is

We Brits thrive on talking about the weather. I’m sure others cultures do it, but we seem to have it down to a fine art. In particular, we look for the good in every season. We love Spring because of all the evidence of new life bursting out all over, summer because of long balmy evenings stretching out in the garden, autumn because of the riot of colours in the trees.  We even have good things to say about crisp, cold winter days when the light is sharp and intense and our breath clouds as we walk.

Just as the seasons pass and we find something in each one, so there is a seasonal aspect to our lives and something good happens in each season we experience. Often people talk of something they are involved in with church or in the wider Christian community as being ‘just for a season’. There is a sense in which nothing that we are called to do is necessarily for the whole of our lives.

Of course, some things are: following Jesus is for life, as is devoting ourselves to the regular reading of scripture and prayer. If we pay close attention to James, helping the poor and marginalised and avoiding becoming embroiled in the world’s ways of doing things are also habits that should last our whole lives (James 1:27). And always being ready to give an account of the hope we have is something that we do from cradle to grave (1 Peter 3:15); indeed the call to mission is the call to a lifelong way of living that seeks to help others to see Jesus and find faith in him.

But other things are seasonal. And there’s good reason for this. Sometimes it’s right for us to serve on a committee or in a team of folk leading some enterprise or other – be it youth work, teaching in Sunday School, playing music, taking the offering, whatever – for a period of time, before we move on to do something else. Sometimes, it’s right to do something for a while and then take stock of where we are and what God is saying to us and perhaps move on from activity to a new one.

It’s good for there to be vacancies in the groups that run our church ministries so that new blood and new thinking can come into them. If we hang around for too long, all we end up doing is blocking to door, preventing others from getting in. If we stay doing one thing for too long, we can become stale, bereft of ideas, wedded to ways of doing things that are easy for us but which stop new ideas coming into the group we’re a part of.

But recognising the seasonal aspect of our own Christian life can be tricky. So we need to develop ways of talking about spiritual seasons just as we have all learned the art of talking about the weather. The danger is that some people want to give up a role they have because they are having a bit of a crisis of confidence and what they need is an encouraging word from someone who urges them to carry them on and promises to pray for them. The opposite danger is that people refuse to talk about what they do in church for fear of others asking whether it wasn’t high time they stopped and allowed someone else to have a turn.

We need to learn the art of forming relationships where we can share our feelings about what we’re doing in church and beyond, where we can ask others to be praying for us, and helping us to work out whether it’s time for us to seek fresh challenges, respond to new opportunities. The New Testament talks about this in terms of discernment. It’s a gift that is rooted in prayer and the Holy Spirit.

It works when a number of aspects of healthy Christian living come together. The first is that each one of us is open to hearing the voice of God as we spend time praying. This entails leaving silences in our times of intercession for the church and the world so that God can respond. Sometimes that response will be what can only be described as a vision – such as Ananias had in Acts 9:10 (though God needed to be pretty emphatic with Ananias since he was asking him to make room for the church’s worst enemy and persecutor to join them!). Most often, it’s a nudge or a feeling that we ought to talk to someone about how they’re doing and whether they’re still engaged in the activities that God wants them to be doing.

The second is that we develop honest and open relationships with one another. Now, we are not going to have relationships of the same depth with everyone in the church. We will relate to some people much more deeply than we do to the majority of our friends. But it is important that we each have a handful of close, warm and deep friendships, the kind that allow us to speak the truth in love into one another’s lives. Within those relationships, we occasionally find that when we sense that God has nudged us about something in our friend’s life, he has also been nudging our friend along the same lines; we find that what we speak about confirms what our friend has already begun to think about.

The third is to pray together, asking that God will confirm the sense that we each have that change is on the way. It helps if having prayed that we give it a few days to settle as we both get on with living and keep the matter in our prayers. When we chat again, we could well each have a sense that God is definitely telling our friend that a fresh challenge awaits them and that they need to relinquish a particular role or focus on something new.

In this process we’ve discerned the change of seasons in a person’s life and as with the weather, there is something good about every spiritual season that God leads us into if we go into it prayerfully and with our eyes open. Let’s get as good at talking about these seasons as we are about the weather.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Nailing the issue

This is a great quote for a Lutheran pastor Tom Gaulke from Chicago who has been spending time with those occupying Chicago in the way that people are occupying London (around St Paul's).

"The more the corporations focus on the wealthy, the more they worship the god of wealth, the more they're sacrificing the 99 percent, The crisis isn't just economic or political. Really, it's a spiritual crisis. For Christians, it's a matter of idolatry," he says.

That seems to nail it. We look for political and economic solutions to the mess we're in and that's right and proper because it is part of our mandate as stewards of creation. But in order to solve a problem we have to identify it properly. And Gaulke has put his finger succinctly on the issue - idolatry.

And idolatry is a spiritual problem requiring a spiritual solution. Whatever politics and economics we conjure to extract ourselves from this mess, without repentance and humility, they are sticking plasters placed over an arterial burst.

You can read the rest of piece where Gaulke's quoted here.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Approaching the heart of the matter in the camp at St Paul's

So St Paul's will open again as the health and safety issues have been dealt with apparently by moving a couple of bikes and re-siting a handful of tents. It's good that this grand Wren landmark will reopen for people to marvel at the space.

But let's not confuse this building with the Christian faith. As its outgoing canon chancellor, Giles Fraser, so aptly put it yesterday: "Ironically the church is a church of the incarnation. That means it has to address things to do with everyday life, including money. Christopher Wren's forte was not 'Jesus born in a stable'. What the camp does is challenge the church with the problem of the incarnation – that you have God who is grand and almighty, who gets born in a stable. St Paul was a tent maker. If you tried to recreate where Jesus would have been born, for me I could imagine Jesus being born in the camp."

Its reopening will coincide with the publication of the protesters' demands. Interestingly, they have to do with bringing democracy to the City of London. The manifesto has not made to the Occupy London website yet but details of the demands can be found here.

They seem to be a pretty coherent agenda for change. Maurice Glassman, the labour peer behind the blue labour initiative welcomed the proposals, saying: "By declaring that the point of their protest is the democratisation of London the meaning of the occupation is transformed. It opens a prospect for civic renewal and the challenging of unaccountable power elites.The protesters have stumbled upon the source of financial power within the British state. This could get interesting,"

I think his last statement is the one that resonates with me. This could get interesting. In a world dominated by soundbite politics, people have been critical of the protesters for being against everything and for nothing. Many of their spokespeople have been sadly inarticulate when appearing before the cameras with news people demanding a 30 second soundbite that sums up their  reason for being there. This, linked with criticism that they tweet and drink lattes, indicating that they take capitalism's goodies while rejecting its ethos, has made people dismiss them as middle class slackers.

Now we are beginning to see some interesting thinking emerging from the tented village. These are ideas that the political establishment ought to discuss with those putting them up. As Giles Fraser says "A great many people think that something has gone wrong in the City of London and that the wealth generated by the City does not exist for the benefit of us all."

The trouble is that the establishment just wants to man the barricades, clear the embarrassing blot off our streets and return to business as usual. The trouble is that on the day when it's revealed that the remuneration packages of the FTSE 100 companies have risen by an average of 49% at a time when their work forces are seeing real incomes fall, business as usual is just not acceptable.

Yesterday figures from the US revealed that the richest 1% have seen their wealth grow considerably over the past year while the 99% have seen theirs fall. It is clear that there is something broken at the heart of our system.

What is quite encouraging is that there are a number of business people and thinkers who are seeing this. Umair Huque (and others blogging at the Harvard Business School) argues for an end to trading and raiding and a return to creating and building. People at the heart of capitalism recognise that it is in crisis, failing to deliver for the majority what it has increasingly hoarded for a tiny minority. The trouble is that the financial crisis of the last three years demonstrates that the costs of this to everyone else is far too high.

So today is the day when the protests get interesting. The Corporation of London should save the money it will be shelling out on lawyers seeking injunctions and spend it instead on coffee and muffins to fuel proper conversations with those camped on their streets.

If democracy means anything, it surely means that we need to find mechanisms for hearing the voices of everyone; that those voices are listened to, ideas weighed, new thinking allowed to emerge. If it is rule of the people, by the people, for the people, then decisions need to be made by more than just a coterie of the great and the good being rubber stamped by their hangers-on in Parliament.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Why paying our dues is a sign of love

Richard Murphy is an interesting accountant. That's a sentence I don't write very often! Murphy has been quietly gaining a reputation as a commentator on what is happening in our economy and wider society from the perspective of taxation. Now, this doesn't sound riveting but just consider these two observations.

First, the Greek financial crisis is partly - if not mainly - a crisis of the non-payment of tax by the rich, by businesses and, by example, of anyone who can get away with it. If government coffers are denied income, spending will inevitably lead to problems.

Second, that the £50bn evaded or avoided by UK tax payers - corporate and individual - would go quite a long way to solving our own deficit problems without punishing the poor for the sins of the wealthy.

I believe that paying tax is a sign that we love our neighbours - as Paul says in Romans 13:6-7 as he reflects on what it means to love one another. So, I confess that I read the  article and commentary by Nick Cohen in yesterday's Observer with my jaw in my breakfast cereal this morning (you can read it here and here).

In short, he is reporting a pretty significant spat in the House of Commons over the behaviour of the head of the Inland Revenue. MPs on the Public Accounts Select Committee have accused Dave Hartnett of lying to them and called on Gus O'Donnell, the cabinet secretary, to sack him. Why? Because he has cut deals enabling some of the richest institutions in the UK so they can avoid paying billions of pounds worth of tax. The list of beneficiaries includes Goldman Sachs and Vodafone. The fact that he has enjoyed 107 lunches over the past two years with large corporations, the big four accountancy firms and countless merchant and investment adds to the picture of a somewhat cosy relationship between Britain's tax collector-in-chief and many of the groups who pay little or no tax.

This at a time when a number of PAYE customers of HMRC are being hounded for underpaid tax because the Revenue seems incapable of doing something as simple as programming its computers correctly. We should not be surprised if people lose faith in the tax system because they feel they are paying their due while those with influence and sharp-suited accountants are robbing us blind. Isn't this what has happened in Greece?

Which brings us back to Richard Murphy, a man who thinks that we need to bring capitalism back under democratic control. We need to note that he's not anti-capitalist (a term that is so devoid of meaning as to be completely useless in describing anything or anyone). He thinks that this begins (though doesn't end) with a just, accountable and transparent tax system where people and corporations pay what they owe. He blogs here and anyone interested in charting a way to a saner, more just society ought to read his stuff.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Is it 1968 again?

I was too young to take to the streets in 1968 - though I remember the heady days of that year quite well - and I'm probably too old to occupy the City now (though, I'm not sure of that).

It is heartening to see countless thousands of young people taking to the streets in cities across the globe. And totally understandable: in Spain, where the movement started in May, unemployment among the young is touching 50%; even in the UK it's almost 20%. In virtually every economy the young and the poor are paying for the reckless activities of the so-called masters of the universe.

It's a shame that the demonstrations in Rome turned troublesome, with tear gas and water canon being deployed. But it is still thrilling to think that in 80 cities across the world, people are standing up (or should  say, sitting down?) and saying enough is enough. And that the young are leading the way for all of us. We cannot continue running the world in the interests of a minority of rich people, arguing that their profits will generate funds that will trickle down to the poor at their gates. It's time to nail this lie: trickle down doesn't work, it never has and never will.

It's also time to say that ordinary workers and young people at the start of their working lives should not be asked to pick up the bill for an economic meltdown that arose in the financial sector because of the actions of a small group of people who got above themselves.

We'll know we're approaching 1968 when the airwaves fill with songs about the possibility of a new world order and the movie theatres run films that offer an alternative to business as usual (sadly Hollywood seems incapable of producing anything with a brain at the moment). There are hints of this. The new BBC drama Hidden appears to be asking questions about the rich and their effect on the rest of us. But one swallow doesn't make a spring. Has anyone heard any political pop recently?

At least what today's news shows us is that not every young person on planet earth is gripped by apathy and sitting in front of the X Factor!

The wider lessons of the Fox hunt

I've not blogged about Dr Fox. I'm glad he's resigned but I haven't felt that I've anything to add to the acres of comment that is available elsewhere. The Guardian has done a good job chasing this one down but so has the Times and the FT.

What really swung it for me was the evidence that Fox and Werrity were effectively running an alternative foreign in their meetings in Sri Lanka. There is a government that we need to be very cautious of, a government that still has questions to answer about the death toll at the end of the civil (questions that it doesn't seem to want to ask, let alone answer). And here are messers Fox and Werrity lobbying for influence and possibly contracts in a way that contradicted what the Foreign Office is trying to do.

It seems to me that one of the key things that this whole sorry affair raises is about the role of the civil service (who Fox and Werrity appear to have sidelined on a number of occasions). And this issue comes into even starker relief with the news from earlier this week (all but lost in the frenzy over the defence secretary) that Gus O'Donnell is stepping down as Cabinet Office Secretary and head of the home civil service and his job is being split up.

This is a major constitutional change and just appears to be being nodded through. It takes from the heart of the government machine a single pair of eyes watching over how the civil service and ministers are working together. Even Peter Oborne - not a man I often agree with - sees the danger of this as he explains here. He is also hugely critical of the appointment of Jeremy Hayward - a man as much a banker as a civil servant - to the role Sir Gus is vacating.

The Fox affair reveals a government at risk of blurring the lines between government and business, between a division of powers carefully balanced in our constitution and policy increasingly driven by lobby and special interest groups.

Whatever way we vote, whatever we think of the government, we need to be concerned when it seems that unaccountable people have more power and influence in our system than those properly recruited and trained to run the government machine alongside ministers.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Asking the right question

In the middle of the hand-wringing that's accompanied the Care Quality Commission report on the horrendous way that many elderly people are treated in our hospitals, Joan Bakewell asked a simple question on this morning's Today programme.

She asked where people learned to care in our society in view of the decline of religion. She said that she learned compassion in Sunday School and church and asked where children and young people learn it today. It's a good question.

I hope it gets a good answer

Thursday, October 13, 2011

New beginnings and rethinks

Autumn might be the season of mist and mellow fruitfulness but in church and at college, it's a bit of a frantic time of new beginnings and initiatives.I'm really enjoying teaching New Testament Theology - though feel a good way beyond my comfort zone - and have a really good group to work with.

At church this week we reviewed how our home groups were going. An instant poll revealed that some 70 people attended the groups last week - more than I was expecting. It suggests that we are doing something right in a time when people are busy and have many calls on their time and commitments that they are keen to prioritise meeting together for study and mutual support.

We also began to talk about a fresh vision for home groups. This has been generated by my reading of Alan Roxburgh's recent book and by a small group of us exploring what it means to get back into our neighbourhoods as the focus of our activities as followers of Jesus. But it has mainly been stimulated by the fact that I am having a growing number of conversations with people who want to engage mid-week but aren't looking for a home group or church-based bible study and prayer activity. These people say they want to do something.

So we are looking at how some of our groups could feel their way to being more missional and neighbourhood focused. To this end, we have cleared the mid-week evening programme of everything but home groups (with the exception of a monthly Bible study that is attracting 25 people) to allow groups to explore what shape they might take on if they were more missional and neighbourhood based.

It will take some time but I was encouraged by the response both at the meeting and subsequently. People seem to be up for a challenge, recognising that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn't really work and seeing the need for the church to be more engaged with its community.So, let's hope that this autumn sows the seeds for future fruitfulness.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Fresh insights into 1 Corinthians

Picked up Kenneth Bailey's new book, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (SPCK 2011). I love Bailey's work - his writing on the parables is wonderful - but he doesn't write enough about Paul. So this is a welcome arrival.

I shall be recommending it to my students on the introduction to Paul course that I've just started teaching at Spurgeon's because it will offer a unique and helpful insight into this most intriguing letter. I hope they enjoy it

There was a lovely moment in my class on Monday morning when, after the mid session break, one student strode in bearing a copy of my World of the Early Church that he had just bought from the bookstall. I suspect that he'll do well and go far!

Sunday, October 02, 2011

A summer reading report

Among my holiday reading highlights this year were two excellent books: William Gibson's Zero History continues to confirm Gibson as one of the best novelists around. It's a taut, wonderfully constructed thriller with savvy observations about contemporary culture and a truly sympathetic central cast of characters.

And Richard Sennett's Respect: The formation of character in an age of inequality confirms his status as one of the leading thinkers of our day. The book is a wide-ranging, historically erudite exploration of how we build respect in an unequal society. He leaves countless loose ends but provides a mountain of stimulating ideas and insights. I await delivery of his slightly older book on work.

Tomorrow I start teaching again at Spurgeon's - two slots this semester as I'm covering for a sabbaticalling colleague. So, it's Introduction to Paul at 8:30am tomorrow (what a great way to start the week!) and New Testament Theology at 8:30am on Tuesday. I've been frantically reminding myself over the past 48 hours what these two courses are about - especially NTT which I have not taught before. Looking forward to being stimulated by a set of lively students.

I have also written a review of the Blackwell Companion to Paul for Regents' Reviews. This is an excellent and wide-ranging resource covering all bases in the area of Pauline studies. But it's so eye-poppingly expensive (£110 for a 600 page book) that I wonder who will benefit from its insights!