Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Mourning the loss of Marie Colvin

Marie Colvin, who has died today under the Syrian onslaught on Homs, epitomised why we need a free press. Over recent weeks we have been forced to look at the gutter into which so much of the press has fallen that we might have forgotten what the press is really for.

When I was a journalist - a humble financial hack - the war correspondent was seen as the pinnacle of our profession. They were the people who embodied the key value that all journalists must strive for: to be a witness to the truth, to see and to tell others what they are seeing, to tell the story that is happening on the ground and its effect on the innocent and non-combatant.

Colvin was the best of this breed of fearless reporters, spending time in almost every war zone of the past 30 years, shedding light in the heat and fog of propaganda put out by both sides. She lost an eye reporting the war in Sri Lanka in 2001, a war that was almost invisible in the west as the media paid it very little attention. Colvin brought out the story of the horror of this inter-ethnic conflict unfolding on a scrap of land in the North East of the island.

At its best the press is about being a witness to the truth. We need a free and fearless press because governments and vested interests do not want the truth told about their activities, only their version of events.

So in the midst of the entirely justified outcry over press tactics now being investigated by the Leveson Commission, we need to remember what the press is at its best. It is tragic that it takes the death of a talented, fearless and clear-sighted reporter like Marie Colvin to remind us of this.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

How much do you think you are worth, boy?

Janice Turner has a great piece in yesterday's Times reflecting on recent discussions about the latest government workfare scheme. Ads appeared last week - quickly withdrawn - offering a permanent Tesco shelf stacking job paying only job seekers allowance (£53) + travel expenses. It is not an isolated incident.

Many have questioned whether the tax payer ought to be subsidising some of Britain's most profitable companies by offering 'work experience' employees who cost these companies nothing. As Turner points out the tax payer has already gifted Tesco - net profits last year £3.7bn - 168,000 hours of virtually free labour. That's the equivalent of 420 full time jobs at the supermarket.

Other retailers have similarly benefited, though some have withdrawn from the scheme. Some of the most profitable companies in the land are having their bottom lines significantly boosted by the hard-pressed taxpayer (isn't that George Osborne's favourite way of describing us?). Some of these - notably the Arcadia Group - are already embroiled in rows about the avoidance of shed-loads of tax.

Turner's point is that our young people - and it's mostly young unemployed who are sent on these worthless programmes - are worth better than this. One, a graduate called Cait Reilly, is suing the government for breach of her human rights. As Turner astutely observes, amid all the vilification of this young woman, one vital point has been missed: she would happily have done all that was expected of her by Poundland and more if they would only give her a job and pay her for it.

There are hundreds of thousands of young people desperate for work, keen to get into retailing, and this half-baked scheme is keeping them out of the labour market; it is preventing them from becoming tax paying citizens contributing to the national cake, helping to pay off the deficit. As a policy for tackling unemployment, it beggars belief.

Turner also notes that a recent report on supermarket workers pointed to the fact that pay levels in the industry were so low that thousands with permanent jobs were not able to make ends meet without state help in the form of in-work top-up benefits. And this in an industry making tens of billions in profits every year, profits heavily subsidised by the tax payer.

It's time to ask, in the words an old and almost forgotten Graham Kendrick song, 'how much do you think you are worth, boy?' Well, most young unemployed think they are worth a shot at a permanent job (and most of them are). They think they are worth a place in the labour force earning enough to live on and to make a contribution to the society that has given them an education and a reasonable start in life. And in the spirit of the song, I'd suggests that God thinks they're worth that as well for we are made in his image to work and contribute to the community of which we are a part.

The question is, do we think they are worth that? Or are we prepared to go along with a scheme where retailers - already making hefty profits - are further subsidised by us tax payers (from who they earn their profits as we shop in their stores) through these half-baked workfare schemes?

We could all, of course, take a leaf out of Janice Turner's book and refuse to shop at any of the stores taking part in this scheme. She has printed the list of those firms - McDonald's, Boots, Primark, Asda, the Arcadia Group, TK Maxx (though I heard that it might have withdrawn), Matalan - 'because I will not give these firms a penny until they stop exploiting young people - and my tax bill.'

Friday, February 17, 2012

A welcome focus on what ministry is about

There's as good a defence of Christian ministry as you're ever likely to read on the Daily Mail's website (yeah, I know, unlike me to think anything good could find its way there...!) It's by my friend George Pitcher and arises out of the killing of a parish priest in Gloucestershire recently. You can read it here.

Reflecting on the murder of John Studdards, George says: 'Christian ministry is about taking risks. The gospels demand it. Jesus Christ moved among the lowest of the low during his ministry, befriending and healing the mad, bad and dangerous to know. He spelled out that whatever his disciples did for the least in the world around them, they did for the Christ. And that’s true of today’s disciples, whether in lay or ordained ministry.'

And then he adds 'the dividing line between holiness and foolhardiness is so narrow as to be invisible'. That is a wonderful description of the nature of faith, the motive for mission, and a summary of our calling as witnesses for Christ. This is not about about taking risks because of bravado or because it gets us a reputation in the Christian ghetto. It's about walking faithfully alongside our Lord in the places he calls us to, with the people he draws alongside us. 

George also calls us to focus on what matters and not be sidetracked by debates about women bishops and sexuality - or whatever our particular denomination or stream is tearing itself apart over - or by noises off generated at the shallow end of society by noisy atheists. 

Our calling is to look at what Jesus did and do likewise. Full stop. It's advice worth heeding.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Remembering my teacher, Dick France

I've just heard that Dick France died late last week. R T (Dick) France taught me New Testament at London Bible College. It is from him that I gained my love of biblical scholarship done in the service of the church. I'm reading Richard Sennett's exposition of the craftsman at the moment and if ever there was a craftsman in the world of NT studies, it was Dick France.

His lectures were models of good learning, packed full of information and pitched at a level that undergraduates found gently stretching. He whetted our appetite for more and gave us the tools to find it for ourselves. As a personal tutor he was wonderful, listening carefully to your ideas, steering you away from the rocks but encouraging you to follow your passion.

His commentaries on Matthew and Mark are my go-to texts on those two gospels. They are full of godly learning, erudite, well-informed with a light touch that allows the text itself to breathe and offer up its treasures. As you read them, you feel that you are being ushered into the presence of the authors of Matthew and Mark and not shown how much secondary reading Dick himself has mastered (though he had mastered everything worth reading).

His book Divine Government: God's Kingship in the Gospel of Mark is an over-looked gem of insight and scholarship. His 1966 Bristol PhD, published as Jesus and the Old Testament, is still a model of how to understand Jesus' mission in the light of the Old Testament. It was this book that opened my eyes to how to read the apocalyptic discourse in the gospels as concerning both the fall of Jerusalem and the return of the king; a path Dick trod two decades before Tom Wright followed him down it.

And his book The Evidence for Jesus in the Jesus Library is an excellent, short introduction to the evidence both within and beyond the NT to the life of Jesus; and more importantly, how best to read that evidence.

He is a man who has made an enormous contribution to scholarship and helped shape the lives of every student privileged to study with him, of whom I am one. Thank you Dick for your faithfulness, good humour, skill and godly learning.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

A bright, vibrant and surprising Hockney

Yesterday a good friend - who is a member of the Royal Academy - took me to the David Hockney retrospective staged at that venerable institution. And what a blinder of a show it is.

Strictly speaking, it's not a retrospective. There are one or two older works but the exhibition is mainly a showcase for his stunning Yorkshire landscapes produced in watercolour, oil and on his iPad over the past few years. And stunning is what they are.

When I was in York last year, I saw his 'Bigger Trees Near Water' (pictured), a forty by fifteen foot monster of a painting - and totally wonderful. There's nothing as big at the Royal Academy show; but there is plenty as stunning.

Bright, bold colours fill the austere space. There is a child-like playfulness about the work that charms the viewer into lingering longer over them that they might have. But something else is going on too. Hockney paints with a wonderful mix of observation and memory that give his landscapes and townscapes an emotional clout. The painting of Salts Mill - where his own work is being given a permanent Yorkshire home - is rendered from seeing it on frequent recent trips and from his memory of it as he grew up in its shadow. The effect is that these apparently simple works draw you in and make you see the familiar in fresh and vibrant ways - exactly as good art should.

But it is the sermon on the mount pictures that are a real revelation - almost in a religious sense - because they are as unexpected as they are wonderful. Taking his cue from Claude Lorrain's seventeenth century masterpiece, Hockney has created a series of works exploring how Claude staged his work.

They are works of epic colour and again child-like wonder. The final study in oil on thirty canvases is seven metres wide and four high. To say it's imposing is an understatement. The tiny figure of Jesus atop a lush orange mountain draws the eye as just about everything else in the picture - human, animal and natural - strains towards him. There is something here that speaks about the quiet authority of Christ in the midst of a big and bustling world. Another study in the room use the child's yellow stripes indicating light emanating from the Christ figure and one has the word 'love' written above him. The effect is to suggest that these are not just studies in form and structure.

If you get a chance to go and see this show, grab it; it's the best exhibition I've seen in London for ages. And I think it seals Hockney's status as our greatest living painter.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Reflecting on my friend going home

I went off to get papers and bread this morning in the fresh cold air, with Leonard Cohen's new album on my iPhone. Yesterday I had been at the bedside of a friend who was bumping along the shoreline between life and death. Today as  walked in the morning sun, Leonard growled these words in my ear:

Going home without my sorrow
Going home sometime tomorrow
To where it’s better than before

Going home without my burden
Going home behind the curtain
Going home without the costume that I wore

I thought of my friend and Paul's words in 2 Corinthians 4 and 5: 'Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day' and 'For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.'

I got home to be told my friend had died, she had 'gone home', she had gone 'behind the curtain' and would no longer be wearing 'the costume that I wore.' That costume was tired and worn out and ravaged with cancer. Her new costume will be gorgeous as she moves into heaven's fitting room to be prepared for the body with which she will rise.

A loved one's death breaks over us unprepared, however long we've known it's coming. And we're left with feelings of sorrow for those left to grieve and relief that a long road of suffering is now over and she will be in a place 'where it's better than it was before.'

Cohen has lost nothing of his ability to articulate the things we find too difficult for words. And for that I'm hugely grateful.