Sunday, April 29, 2012

Looking to God for the next leap forward

Today is a significant one for us at church. We are electing trustees for the next phase of the church's life. We have 11 good candidates and I hope they are all elected. Such a team will give us the depth and breadth of leadership we need for the next leap forward.

So we'll all be praying that we have a good meeting - lots of conversation and laughter, lots of sharing of wisdom and discerning of the mind of Christ - that will set the platform for where God wants to take us over the next few years.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The dangers of slacktivision

Well, mister biscuit is now following me on twitter.  I imagine that he's only doing it out of morbid curiosity but he did send me a link to a this intriguing track he's posted on you tube. It raises some important questions about the Kony2012 phenomenon that are linked to the easy use of social media.

Via twitter and you tube, mister biscuit is raising the question whether slacktivism - taking stands, even sending small amount of cash from the safety of your own smart phone - is really going to change the world.

I think social media are a great way of raising awareness of issues and of putting people in touch with one another so they can find common cause. But Occupy has shown us that it still takes bodies on the ground to effect real change or even provoke real debate about the issues that matter. It still seems to be important that we gather in the same place to hone ideas and draw strength from each other (maybe this has something to say about church too).

Having said that, you'll all be aware of the young woman, Claire Squires, who died at the London Marathon. She had pledged to raise £500 for Samaritans. This morning, as a result of the media coverage of her death and the explosion of sympathy on social media, donations in her name have passed £200,000. This is money that will be well used by the Samaritans supporting the desperate. The raising of it is yet another illustration of the power of social media to do good.

So, thanks mister biscuit for the reminder - and the cool track - I'll follow you with interest

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Kicking at the darkness till it bleeds daylight

I have finished Brian J Walsh's wonderful Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination (Brazos Press 2011). It serves both as a great introduction to Cockburn's music - constantly sending me back to the CDs - and as an elucidation of Walsh's approach to worldviews (articulated elsewhere in his books with Richard Middleton).

What Walsh does particularly well is to help the listener get an over-view of the key recurring themes in Cockburn's music. He reminded me that we don't judge whether an artist is Christian on the basis of each creative product - I've lost count of the number of times Christians do this with U2 albums, tutting that a swear word there or an expression of doubt here signals the moment Bono lost his faith. A Christian artist looks at the world and reports what he's found in it in the light of his attempts to follow Jesus.

Cockburn has spent forty-plus years and 32 albums exploring the darkness and looking for glimmers of light and echoes of God within it. He has also wrestled with what the human calling is in 'the falling dark'; a call that is summed in the great phrase from Lovers in a Dangerous Time 'you've got to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight' (from where Walsh gets his title).

Walsh helpfully brings together common themes and images in the songs, shows how ideas have developed over the years and indicates that while Cockburn struggles with the label Christian (and who doesn't in this post-colonial, post-Christendom age?), he never ceases to be a witness to Jesus and his values in our messed up world.

This is a book well worth adding to your 'must read' lists. If you're a fan of Cockburn, it'll send you back to the songs with a fresh wonder; if you're not a Cockburn fan - where have you been, what have you been listening to? Read it, it'll make you want to work your way through the Canadian master's entire output.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Lots of rich hot air

Of course, while I was away, the government and it's well-healed friends were getting their knickers in knots over who was better at avoiding tax. The Budget - which appears to have had more booby traps in it than an Afghan highway - wants to limit the amount the rich can write off against tax. The whole thing has blown up in the face of the Big Society government with donors cancelling future giving hand over fist because they won't be able to write it off against tax.

Now, I'm a basic rate tax payer and I give to charity. When I do so, I sign a gift aid declaration so that the charity gets a little extra as a result of the tax I've paid on the donation (averaged out at 25%) being given to the charity. How come some people are able to write their donations off against the tax they pay? Apparently, according to David Cameron no less, some very rich people only pay 10% income on their earnings. How does that happen? Well, one reason of course is that our tax system is labyrinthine, a chartered accountants wet dream. Another appears to be that some people put their income into charities that, in the words of a Downing Street spokesman, don't seem to offer much by way of public benefit.

Clearly, some people are taking the mick and need to be stopped. But the slapdash way that it was announced in the budget has spooked the very charities that the big society is meant to be supporting. Of course, the charity that I'm involved with doesn't face this problem directly because we don't have anyone making huge personal donations.

The thing is that if the government is really serious about tax avoidance, it would go after the deals that are fairly commonly enjoyed by senior bankers (and other 'captains of industry'), where their tax bill is picked up by their employers in the interests of equalisation between tax regimes. Pull the other one!

The latest to have a fuss made about it is Bob Diamond of Barclays (you can read about it here). The bank is picking up his tax liability of £5.7m (for last year), so he doesn't have to (memo to the church...can you please employ me via my Lichtenstein shell company and pay my tax bill in the interests of equalisation?). He'll be doing it again in the current tax year and the one after that. No one's worth what he's costing us.

If the government nails this kind of shenanigans, then we'll know it's serious about tax avoidance. Until then it's just so much hot air

Catching up with life after Spring Harvest

Well, I've been back from Spring Harvest for a couple of days, catching up with stuff and getting ready to go Studland for the weekend for a reunion with a load of friends from our days in Peckham. Should be a blast!

Spring Harvest was very busy and completely manic on the final day. Our team of 8 saw 96 people over the four days plus all those we talked and prayed with after the evening sessions.

We really enjoyed the Encounter Cafe led by Pete and Becca Brierley (who happen to be from Peckham too). It was a great mix of fun and films, interviews and discussion - just what we needed at the end of a busy day!

The other highlight was seeing Joe Fisher. He's a stand-up comedian and I've avoided him in years gone by but this year we caught his show and it's a glorious mixture of send-up and one-liners, focused on the ridiculous things that the church does and spoofs of TV shows - what's not to like? If he visits your town, check him out.

I've also nearly finished Brian Walsh's wonderful book on Bruce Cockburn - I shall be blogging about that soon. But first I have a book review to write on a book I am struggling to like (I have another one to do as well about a book I like a whole lot more but that one must take second place).

Sunday, April 08, 2012

It's all hotting up in Minehead

So, it's day 4 already. Doesn't time fly when you're rushed off your feet?

It's been the usual mixed bag. The high point for me has been the Encounter Cafe. Led by Pete and Becca Brierley, it's been an eclectic mix of film, discussion, board games and interviews, nicely held together by Pete and Becca's easy style. It's what church should be, actually; a place where we can laugh and cry, have fun and be challenged in equal measure.

On the team front, we've seen a lot of people with a whole range of issues needing our attention and prayerful response. Last night I had the joy of leading a member of the Butlin's staff, a Hungarian man, to faith in Jesus, something he described as the best thing that's ever happened to him on the best day of his life!

The most unexpected sight of the week so far is of a young man walking to his chalet clutching a copy of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics (I couldn't see which volume). I'm guessing this is something he didn't buy at the Spring Harvest bookshop.

Tonight and tomorrow will be busier - and it's been busy already!

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Day one in the Spring Harvest House

Day one in the Spring Harvest House (read in Geordie accent - in memory of Steph who's not with us this year as we're too far south!). This year we are in Minehead with a smaller-than-usual pastoral team. But it's great to meet up with old friends and the layout of the site means we're all close together and right opposite the pastoral centre where we'll be based.

A quick sprint round the exhibition hall reveals the usual suspects and a less-well-stocked-than-usual bookshop which as the theme is the church about which there are copious good books, that's a bit of a disappointment. I might look at Gerard Kelly's new book which is on the main theme and looks as though it might be worth a browse.

It'll be interesting to see what kind of issues people bring to the pastoral chalet with them. Will they be things they've been storing up all year or issues that have been provoked by the programme? Watch this space....

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

A book to meditate over

I have just started reading Marilynne Robinson's When I was a Child I read Books (the title alone is worth the purchase price). Robinson is the author of Gilead and Home, novels of rich beauty and seering insight. She is a Congregationalist and has been a teacher and writer in residence at various universities across the States. She has a PhD in English literature and seems congenitally incapable of writing a dull sentence.

When I was a Child I read books is a series of essay on the place of literature and the role of faith in our lives. She writes as one unashamedly shaped by what she reads and how she thinks (and she is a rigorous thinker). She speaks of her current political context in the States (after Walt Whitman) as 'characterised by wolfishness and filled with blather.' She is one, I suspect, who feels that we need to read more and express opinions less.

And she worries for the people of faith. The passive pious, she suggests, just shrug and declare the whole enterprise bankrupt; while the active pious 'see some hope in a hastily arranged liquidation of cultural assets'. What a wonderful phrase that is and how it fingers the shallow activism of so much that passes for faith and theology. She laments the fact that people of faith have in recent years retreated from 'the cultivation and celebration of learning and of beauty, by dumbing down, as if people were less than God made them and in need of nothing so much as condescension.' See what I mean about her language!

I was having a Facebook exchange earlier this morning about Bishop Graham Cray. A friend is doing sessions at Spring Harvest with him this week. I was reflecting that back in the 70s Graham Cray - then a curate, I think, in York - opened up the world of popular music as a field of serious study for Christians. It was, literally, music to my ears; it gave permission for a life-long exploration of and grappling with the deep stuff of popular culture. It also told me - at an impressionable age - that ideas matter, that how we think about the world shapes the way we live in it.

Robinson stands in the same cultural stream as Cray, Christians who recognise that all truth belongs to God and reveals something about him wherever that truth is to be found.

Even on the basis of the fifteen pages I've read so far, I recommend you go and get this book and meditate over it of the rewards it yields will be rich indeed.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Still asking questions of the English

It's been a really busy week - teaching, another funeral and lots of other stuff along the way. Still, I managed to sustain myself for the tasks with a pasty or two (waiting for them to go cold before I bought them, so they were cheaper!) and queueing for petrol

So, I didn't get to comment on George Galloway's extraordinary win in Bradford West. I really can't work out what this says about the state of British politics, though I am drawn to the view that this was a victory of old labour over new. Old labour tended not to invade other people's countries and more importantly had broadly interventionist economic policies (that was the issue most referred to by Bradfordians in the aftermath of the vote). But it could be that it's a one-off coup by a celebrity politician.

Then as the weekend approached I was made aware that Jethro Tull are releasing a follow-up to Thick as a Brick - imaginatively named Thick as a Brick 2. Now I was a Tull fan back in the day. Forty years ago I was sitting in my lounge trying to work out what the album (a single song concept allegedly penned by 14 year old prodigy called Gerald Bostock) was all about. But I'm really not sure we need a follow-up after all this time.

But I listened to the record yesterday as I assembled our new BBQ and was struck by two things. The first was that musically it's held up pretty well. The tunes are typical Tull, the playing never short of wonderful and Ian Anderson's voice a thing of rare beauty. And the second is that the lyrics - which I gather from more recent interviews with band members were not to be taken entirely seriously - do offer a fascinating window into something that was a bit of an obsession with 70s rock bands: what does it mean to be English? From Selling England by the Pound to London's Calling, many bands ruminated on the nature of  Englishness. They were mainly staking their place in an art form that was seen to be quintessentially American by bringing in English folk traditions and cultural pre-occupations. Tull's contribution was to channel a pythonesque humour through folk lyricism and class satire.

Their output is not seen these days as that significant. But I couldn't help think of all this as I watched Diarmaid MacCulloch's final documentary about God and the English last night. I was struck by the simple fact that forty years after Thick as a Brick, we are still asking the question. And just as Anderson suggests in his ruminations on the class system and the place of faith in it, So MacCulloch concludes that God is a crucial part of English identity.

I wonder what that means for our mission in these interesting days....