Monday, December 23, 2013

the politics of Christmas

We were celebrating the beginnings of the gospel last night, Christmas, the start of God's recreation of the world, the making of all things new.. It's a story about God sending a king who will lift up the poor and needy, turn the elite out of their palaces and bring justice for those at the bottom of the pile (Luke 1, Isaiah 9, 11, Jeremiah 23, etc, etc..) 

So when Tory MP Mark Pritchard tweets (as he did  last night): ‘If some parts of the Church of England preached a little more gospel and a little less politics – perhaps [the] Church would be in a better place,’ I wonder if he understands either the gospel or politics! When government ministers refuse to meet the Trussell Trust and claim that they are meddling in politics by linking rising demand for foodbanks with benefit changes, I wonder if they understand either the gospel or politics.

Jesus was born in the midst of political struggle as part of that struggle. The maccabean flavoured magificat, a song of liberation and social upheaval, which many churches sing on a regular basis, is at the heart of the gospel. Jesus came to proclaim a kingdom (a political idea if ever there was one) that questions the claims of every other kingdom.

Politicians who claim that the church should stick to the gospel and not talk about the poor or the injustice of systems that keep people poor, clearly have no idea what the gospel is about. As we celebrate the most political festival in the Christian calendar (apart from all the others!), it is the perfect moment for Christians to be talking about the things that matter to God - justice, equality, being practical good news to the poor, and challenging elites and the wealthy to use the resources under their command to work for God's agenda in the world.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Just when you thought everything was expensive...

Joseph Arthur is a somewhat underrated singer on this side of the pond. If you don't know his work, then those lovely people at noisetrade have put his whole 2012 album Redemption City on their site which you can grab for nothing or a tip of your choice.

It's a rambling, half-spoken, self-released electronica-washed, guitar driven 24 song cycle that's little short of magnificent. Well worth checking out. You'll find it here.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

More great music for free

So, just when you think all the new music worth shouting about has been captured in my top ten, along come the wonderful people at noisetrade and offer for nothing at all, free, gratis and without shelling out any pennies at all, a stunning album from a band new to me called duologue.

Song & Dance was released back in February but didn't cross my radar until the email from noisetrade arrived this morning. That's why the site is essential.

Washes of guitar, violin and keyboards over broken electronic beats, vocals just the compelling side of whiney, they sound a bit like Radiohead a la In Rainbows, but they are definitely their own people, cooking up a warm and edgy concoction.

And it's free here at noisetrade. Of course, you might decide to leave them a tip for their efforts (which would be the Christmassy thing to do!)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Giving our legislators something to fill their days

Had some interesting conversations at the Lords last night over a glass or two of houses of Parliament wine. Two Tories tried to persuade me that I had nothing to worry about from the gagging bill - we'll see! I suspect the government will come back with significant amendments to section two so that it's not a gag on civil society. Let's hope so...

Another MP opened by apologising that fewer members would be around this evening because the House rose early due to lack of business. Indeed, she suggested that there was a strange feeling about the house at the moment as if we were on the verge of an election. The government seems to have very little legislation in the pipeline. And yet the election is 18 months away under the new fixed term rules passed at the beginning of this parliament.

So, this begs two questions. Firstly, what are MPs going to be doing for their increased salaries (something that I'm not really opposed to)? And secondly, why not use the acres of free time to pass new house building legislation, freeing resources (borrowed if necessary) and compelling local authorities to build a range of homes - social, low cost, shared ownership as well as for outright purchase - between now and the next election. It would also be good to enact a clause within that legislation that compelled developers and others sitting on land to use it or lose it.

Imagine spending the £2bn that is currently being paid in benefits to unemployed construction workers in the South East of England on building homes that would get these guys back to work. Win win win....

Well, It's Christmas we're allowed to dream of a new world coming - that's what the angels said would happen.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A good time of year to think about housing

Off to the House of Lords later to mark the end of the If campaign. I was going to lobby my MP this afternoon over the gagging bill but he is not available (apparently). Hopefully enough people will be getting message across to enough MPs so that this pernicious bill will be killed off (for reasons read the two excellent reports from the civil society commission which are here).

The other major issue needing solid and sensible engagement is the mounting housing crisis. Jules Birch charts the depth of the hole we find ourselves in (here). In particular, he highlights the Janus-like approach of our government which on the one hand is stoking the housing market through help to buy, while on the other trying to get local authorities to build more houses to choke off house price inflation. Guess which of those is winning.

House prices are predicted to rise by a third between now and 2020 and rents by almost 40%. Given that for millions of people housing is already unaffordable, these numbers are frightening.

Merely encouraging local authorities to build is hardly tackling the issue. Where I live, the local authority is doing OK but prices are still rising despite what they able to add to the stock. We need something in the spirit of the Attlee and Macmillan governments which at a time of huge deficits, borrowed to build millions of homes (including new towns and cities such as Milton Keynes).

Given that 1% of the British Isles has housing built on it (and a further 2-3% has buildings for other uses), there is space for a new town or two. So now would be the time to stop pandering to the 'we can't concrete over the whole land' argument.

The question is where are the politicians who are moving this issue to the top of an agenda for government? I don't hear them.

It's a good time of year to think about housing, of course. Many churches are opening night shelters to offer a warm meal and dry bed to those without accommodation; and those same churches are about the celebrate the arrival in the world of a baby who was quickly a homeless refugee. That baby grew to be a carpenter preacher who told his followers that he had nowhere to lay his head (of course, any UK local authority would have washed their hands of him, saying he was intentionally homeless!). His message was that in his Kingdom there would be a place for everyone - that should motivate his followers to ensure that everyone has a decent place to live.

A year of listening pleasure

It's that time of year when everyone sharing their best listens of 2013. So here are mine in no particular order. At the end I'll suggest the album that I think is the best of the year - but they're all pretty marvellous.

Prefab Sprout - Crimson/Red: late in the year, back from the dead came Paddy McAloon with a near perfect collection of velvety lush melodies with barbed, witty lyrics reflecting on life as a writer and performer. In particular The Songs of Danny Gallway and the Old Magician stand out from a very strong field.

The National - Trouble will find me: building on the success of High Violet, Cincinatti's finest produce their best work to date; tricky rhythms, elipical lyrics delivered in a lush baritone and fabulous washes of guitars and keyboards make for a heady brew.

David Bowie - the Next Day: who'd have thought that thirty years after Scary Monsters, the dame would come roaring back with his best album since the Berlin golden phase? Droll cover art that recalls Heroes and 14 tracks that stand alongside the best of his canon. Should we want a follow up or hope that this is a legend bowing out on a high?

Daft Punk - Random Access Memory: witty, imaginative, informed, awash with the history of dance and funk, the French duo make an album of joy and fun. Dig below the surface and there's nothing there but that's not the point - it's music to play loud when you need a lift!

Depeche Mode - Delta Machine: the Essex boys continue to explore their spiritual lives to choppy rhythms and swirling electronica. Angel and Heaven stand out but there's just one good song after another here - just what an album should be!

Eels - Wonderful Glorious: Mark Everett seems incapable of writing a dull note. This is a collection of droll observations set to catchy hooks. In many ways it's more of the same, though there seems to be a maturity of tone (both musically and lyrically) to these songs, a sign that E's growing old gracefully but losing nothing of his edge.

Bill Mallonee - Dolorosa: Album 51 (number 50 was an album of the year last year!) and the man gets better and better. This is the best work he's produced (eclipsing even last year's wonderful Amber Waves), a collection of wry reflections on life and faith from a songwriter hitting the peak of his powers - long may he continue mature.

Arcade Fire - Reflektor: It was always going to be difficult to top the Suburbs and Arcade Fire seem to have been bowed by the weight of it. People talk about this as a come-back album for reasons that mystify me and while it's not as fresh and original as its predecessor, it's still a pretty cool collection. Helped to achieve a new sound by LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy (a marriage that doesn't always work), the album is full of Haitian rhythms, dance beats and soul-searching lyrics that suggest Win Butler isn't deliriously comfortable with his super star band leader label

Gungor - I am Mountain: Michael Gungor started life as a worship leader and has morphed into a highly original song writer exploring the terrain of faith with some glorious music. Gungor's usual lush harmonies are all present and correct here but the lyrics drive the music to some difficult and demanding places - on God and Country over driving country-esque riffs, he seems to be likening  US forces in the middle east to the beast rising from the sea in Revelation (that must have gone down a bomb in the mid-west!). On other tracks he reflects on the myth of Orpheus (a popular theme for musicians over recent years), the struggles of faith and looks forward to the resurrection on the exhilarating Finally. Heady stuff.

Nick Cave - Push the Sky away: The year belongs to Nick Cave.As winter gripped, the first single, We now who UR, heralded that Push the Sky Away was going to be a work to be reckoned with. And the year ended with Cave releasing a live set featuring a number of tracks form the album performed in front of a tiny audience at an LA radio station. Called Live from KCRW, it boasts a wonderful reworking of The Mercy Seat that makes it worth the price of admission in itself. Push the Sky Away is an epic of restraint. With Warren Ellis providing most of the other sounds apart from Cave's vocal and piano, the album teeters on the brink of erupting but saves its punch for the lyrics where Cave has given full rein to his reflective imagination. He muses on life, love, growing old (the blisteringly moving title track that closes the album), faith in a world of science and celebrity (Higgs Boson Blues) and life in Brighton. Not a note or word is out of place on this musical tour de force. It's definitely my record of the year.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Improving with age

Last year I chose Bill Mallonee's Amber Waves as one of my albums of the year, suggesting that it could well be the best thing he'd done. Well, now I am listening to Dolorosa and thinking that the man just gets better and better.

The twelve songs (with four bonus tracks of alternate takes) are hard-wired reflections on life and faith set to edgy guitar and occasional piano washes. Not a disappointing song in evidence here but 'Here comes the flood' is the pick of them, a world weary apocalypse that wonders why people of faith relish the end of the world so much.

Like a good scotch, Mallonee keeps improving with age. Long may he continue - and, if he's listening, please come and play a gig in my church!

You can only get the album from his bandcamp page, so go here immediately, pay your money and luxuriate in the music...

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Language matters

New figures show that 850,000 people on jobseekers allowance have been 'sanctioned' - that is, had benefit docked for 13 weeks or more in the year to June 2013 - because they were not trying hard enough to find work.

The minister responsible, former daytime TV presenter Esther McVey, says the clue to why this is happening is in the name of the allowance - 'jobseekers'. You are paid, she said, only if you are doing all you can to get a job.

This is an interesting effect of changing the name of a benefit. Many years ago, this payment was called 'unemployment benefit' and it was part of a social security safety net that ensured that people who had lost their job didn't go without food, utilities and housing. It was not a payment made as a reward for seeking work but a payment from a society that believed it had a responsibility to those unfortunate enough to be without work. The system offered support and encouragement to those without work to find new gainful employment while assisting with their essential bills.

Sadly the name change - made many years ago - indicates a change in our understanding of society's obligation to those struggling with the circumstances in which they find themselves. And it is one of the factors that accounts for the fact that 500,000 people in our land are dependent on food banks to feed themselves and their families.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Spreading the word...

Those nice people at Ethics Daily have picked up a recent blog post of mine. It appears along with a wealth of other excellent material resourcing Christian engagement with social, political and ethical issues. Check out my piece here; and the rest of the content here

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The revolution will be along next year...(apparently)

Danny Dorling is on great form in this week's New Statesman, spelling out the extent of the transfer of wealth from the younger to the older generation in today's world. It makes for sobering reading. One sentence in particular leapt out at me: 'for the first time ever, a grand mother in her eighties can expect to enjoy higher living standards than someone in their twenties who is in work.'

This is not the finding of some far left think tank, but of the government's own social mobility and child poverty commission report published a few weeks ago.

The strange thing, of course, is that lots of older people feel left behind in the struggle to make ends meet and tend to think that the young are powering ahead. Sadly, the two groups (this is a broad generalisation, I know) don't mix, don't share their experiences and thus have little sense of solidarity.

Perhaps if they did, there would be a revolution of the kind Paul Mason talks abut in the same issue of the magazine. He quotes research by IT consultancy Gartner suggesting that 'a larger scale version of an occupy wall street-type movement will begin by the end of 2014, indicating that social unrest will start to foster political debate.'

Can't come soon enough, can it?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Is it possible to make society cool again?

In Tracey Thorn's hugely enjoyable and enlightening autobiography, Bed Sit Disco Queen, she suggests that people formed in the 1970s tend to be collectivist about things because that was the spirit of the decade. I think she probably overstates the case but is undoubtedly right.

For me, becoming a Christian in that decade of a kind shaped by a labour councillor curate and fervent evangelicals, moulded by northern working class evangelicals at university in Manchester and still clinging to the ideals of the counter culture embodied in Chicago's first five albums, CSNY and a host of others, collectivism was a no-brainer. 

Like Thorn I stuck to my guns in the individualist eighties, supporting the miners, opposing privatisation in all its forms, believing that we do some things better as a community and that financial capitalism might just lead us all to hell in a handcart (five years on from the collapse I see no reason to change my view on that one). In short, I believe that there is such a thing as society!

I was reminded of this yesterday when I attended an excellent seminar on the future shape of housing policy organised by the Strategic Society Centre. Four speakers - Ruth Davison from the National Housing Federation, Josh Miller, the senior economist at RICS, Toby Lloyd of Shelter and Matt Griffith of Priced Out - each reflected on the current state of the housing market and suggested ways it might be made to work in the interests of everyone and not just the wealthy few. It was a hugely stimulating two hours.
In the course of conversation afterwards, Ruth drew my attention to the fact research suggests that the younger generations (Y and those rising behind them) tend to be more individualistic and so tend to be less sympathetic to those who need a social safety net. Since these are overwhelmingly the age group that the housing market, left entirely to 'market forces' is failing, this is somewhat ironic. 

I guess part of the reason for this is that the press for thirty years has lauded individualism and trashed people who can't support themselves for whatever reason. The latest manifestation of this is the rhetoric of skivers and strivers that George Osborne used but seems to have dropped; and the more neutral sounding 'hard working families' that all political parties seem to want to speak for. This suggests that anyone in need of support of any kind is feckless.

I wonder how we go about rekindling a sense of collective responsibility among the young? Perhaps we could find ways of showing that being 'society' means that we really are all in this together and that those who need assistance - to pay their bills, find work, get training, find a home - are the shared responsibility of everyone, you and me. Further, perhaps we could rekindle the idea that we each prosper when everyone prospers. 

I think that's the idea behind Jeremiah's instruction to the exiles to seek the welfare of the city where they have been sent because if the city prospers, so will they; but if it doesn't, then neither will they. It's the vision Jesus holds before us, the idea of a kingdom where everyone is welcome, everyone has a role, and everyone shares bounty.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Give us this day our daily bread … How, exactly?

We're part way through a series exploring God's Kingdom under the title a brighter day (taken from a Gungor track), We're using Donald Kraybill's classic book The Upside Kingdom as a our launch pad, so the first three sermons were based on the three temptations of Jesus. So here's my piece from this month's magazine reflecting on the Devil's suggestion that Jesus turn stones to bread.

Nothing reveals the upside-down nature of God’s Kingdom quite as much as Jesus’ response to the devil’s temptations. Satan offered Jesus a range of right-side-up options, straight out of the world’s political and religious lexicon. And Jesus passed on them all. In doing so, he left us a model to follow as we seek to be good citizens of his upside-down kingdom.

Jesus was offered political power, provided that he exercised it in the way every other tin-pot dictator did. He was offered religious power, the chance to run an elaborate temple empire that kept people in thrall to a cycle of guilt and laws. And he was offered the opportunity to be a welfare messiah. Turn stones to bread, said the devil; what could be better than meeting the needs of the world’s poor by working a miracle of provision? Jesus declined then all, opting for a rougher, harder, more costly way that involved subverting the empires of the world from below.

Nowhere is this more needed in the economic realm. I have been and continue to be a big supporter of our foodbank. I think it is a simple, practical way for us to stand with people who are struggling to make ends meet. I am also furious that we have to be involved in it. I do not think that hunger should be a matter for charity.

And this is the heart of this temptation to Jesus that he be a welfare messiah, doling out charity bread to the poor but leaving the system that makes and keeps them poor unchallenged. So, I’ve been reflecting a little on this with the help of a book called The Stop: how the fight for good food transformed a community and inspired a movement by Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis. It tells the story of a Canadian project that started as a foodbank but grew like Topsy.

The temptation to turn stones into bread is about the daily provision that we trust God to provide. Jesus told us to pray, ‘give us today our daily bread’. His 40-day fast echoed the 40 years that Israel spent in the wilderness during which time God provided bread every day. Jesus lived in hungry times and the devil’s question suggested he take the struggle out of the provision of bread, so being hailed as messiah.

We too live in hungry times. Some 500,000 people in the UK depend on foodbanks to provide some meals each month; that’s more than the population of the borough of Bromley. This is a political issue and not just an invitation to be charitable to people in need. The society that Jesus lived in was hideously unequal with a few fabulously wealthy people living in the lap of luxury while the overwhelming majority of the population struggled to make ends meet. And the devil wanted it to stay that way, hence suggesting that Jesus conjures bread for the poor but does nothing to change the order of things – rulers remain in place, the rich hang on to bank balances.

Jesus refuses to play this game because he’s listening to God. That’s what his answer means. What does quoting Deuteronomy 8:3 have to do with this temptation? Simply that there are words aplenty in scripture that relate to how society should be ordered so that there are no poor who need us to dump charity on them. Deuteronomy 15:7-11 is a good place to start; the laws on gleaning, the Sabbath laws and the jubilee – all point to a society where people do not become helplessly poor. That’s what Jesus meant by people living by the word of God. He took up these ideas in his teaching on the Kingdom; in Luke 12:12-13, for example. And the early church took what he said seriously as we see in Acts 2:42-48 and 2 Corinthians 8:1-15 (especially verses 13-15 which speak about equality).

This temptation begins to look like something that has implications for us. All too often our stock response to things going wrong in the world is ‘someone should do something’. Jesus’ response suggests that I have it in my power to do something that will make a difference. The citizens of his Kingdom are people who live by different rules.
It’s interesting that when Paul quotes Exodus 16:18 in 2 Corinthians 8, a text that was used to show how God deals equitably with everyone, he applies it to us, saying that we should use our resources (all that God has given us) to bring about equality. It is a deeply worrying suggestion but one that we need to take seriously if we are going to be a people who live by every word that comes from the mouth of God (including this one).

So what does being a citizen of this upside-down kingdom entail? In relation to the inequitable distribution of bread, it means that first, we support our foodbank, giving generously so that those in need can receive the help they desperately need. But we do this, secondly, not as an act of charity but as a pointer to the equality that we want to see in the world around us. So, thirdly, we kick up a stink that so many people depend on handouts of food in our society in 2013. And finally, we begin to dream, like the good folk at the Stop in Canada began to dream: What else could we do? How could we use the resources we have to create more imaginative and long-lasting solutions that enable people to provide for themselves and others rather than depend on charity?

In that way we will show ourselves to be caught up in the upside-kingdom, pointing to God’s brighter day. The great thing about this series so far is that people are having conversations along these lines. Long may it continue ...

Friday, October 11, 2013

Truth, freedom and mission

It was Simon Heffer who started it. In a recent lecture on City ethics he asserted ‘It should once more become unthinkable to tell a lie in business’. Well, duh, when did it become thinkable?
It was Psalm 62 that continued it, the poet bemoaning assault by liars, attack by those speaking untruthfully about him. 

And it was a member of my congregation who sealed it: ‘as a result of your sermon, I went into the office and told people who’d been telling tales and being economical with the truth that it had to stop, we had to honestly sort out our differences and move on.’  

At the heart of this is the fact that all truth is God’s truth (as Christian philosopher, Arthur Holmes once said) and we’re called to be witnesses to the truth, pure and simple. It means honest speech in our hearts and on our lips. But it also means calling untruth what it is, however unpopular. We cannot know the truth unless we recognise its opposites. 

Mission is defending the truth that the stranger should be welcomed, the weak should be supported, the poor should be defended. These no-brainer, biblical statements are not self-evident to so many of our neighbours. 

And witness to the truth must lead to actions. We set up foodbanks to meet an emergency lack of food faced by half a million of our immediate neighbours. But we also ask why a system allows it to happen and what a better one would look like. And then we put our resources to work making that system a little bit more of a reality than it is, creating opportunity for the poor to feed themselves, the workless to find employment, and the struggling to find strength in helping others face their problems. 

If the mind is to be engaged in mission, it must start with our minds. We must be single-eyed in our search for the truth about life, the economy, politics, philosophy, violence, justice and equality. For that will lead us to the one who embodies the truth, namely Jesus.
And as we find it, we need to live it in our churches and draw others into its orbit so that with open eyes they too find the truth sets them free
So like Simon Heffer, we need to be stating the biblically, blindingly obvious because our neighbours need to be set free.

‘Mission of the Mind’ is the theme of Catalyst Live, a day of engaging speakers from the worlds of apologetics, theology, science and culture, organised by BMS World Mission. To book tickets for Manchester (27 November) or Reading (28 November) go to

My fellow bloggers, Simon Woodman, Richard Littledale, David Bunce and Catriona Gordon have also blogged on this theme this week. their contributions are on the Catalyst Live web site (here). Enjoy and join the discussion...

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

A lush autumn treat

I'm listening to the new Prefab Sprout album, Crimson/Red, which joins the short list of blindingly good records released this year. Lush orchestration, Paddy McAloon's voice sounding as rich and velvety as ever, tunes to die for and wry and witty lyrics add up to possibly the best album in the band's impressive cannon.

Apparently, however, there isn't a band involved; it's all McAloon. And there is huge irony when he sings "The old magician takes the stage/ His act has not improved with age/ Observe the shabby hat and gloves/ The tired act that no one loves."Because the old magician has lost none of his ability to thrill.

Waiting for Arcade Fire at the end of the month now; 2013 is shaping up to be a good year for music.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Networks of outrage and hope

Well, it seems it might already be kicking off where we are in a small way!

Just back from coffee with a friend and fellow minister during which he told me that last night our churches together group had a discussion about how to engage more boldly with the council. People spoke of wanting to be a prophetic voice in local government, others of wanting to engage in prophetic actions that demonstrate the life of the Kingdom of God.

This was music to my ears. Though I'm not sure what 'prophetic actions' might look like(!), I am sure that there is a ground swell across the town among Christians and others of good will that something is desperately wrong and that anger is only leading to people feeling frustrated and impotent.

So, we've agreed to use a meeting that I was already due to be facilitating on churches and political engagement in a couple of weeks, to put some flesh on this.

Meanwhile, I picked up Manuel Castells' Networks of Outrage and Hope yesterday, on the recommendation of Paul Mason and because it has such a good title! What better description of church is there than networks of outrage and hope?! Hopefully Castells' book, which casts a seasoned sociologist's eye over the social movements that have sprung up over the last decade, will inspire and inform not only my thinking but also our churches' conversation.

Is it kicking off where we are?

The other book I read as I lazed by the canal in Le Somail was Paul's Mason's Why it's till Kicking off Everywhere: the new global revolutions. The former Newsnight economics editor who is now with Channel 4 News tours the world's places of unrest - from the Arab Spring to Occupy - exploring common features (especially the use of social media to spread ideas.

It's a great read full of stories from the front-line of protest and agitation for social change. Mason identifies common threads in all the movements that have erupted since the global crash. And while the second edition has been overtaken by events in Egypt - one wonders whether a democratic spring has given way to an authoritarian winter as islamists and militarists take centre stage - it still seems prescient.

The more so as I reflect on an event I attended last night where unreconstructed monetarist Simon Heffer offered an engaging lecture on ethics in the City in the light of the crash. Predictably he blamed Brown and Clinton for the crash, made virtually no reference to the Reagan/Thatcher economic experiment and therefore seemed to suggest that a dose of monetary discipline would see everything right. His argument is worth engaging with and the text of his lecture can be found here.

It was interesting listening to him with the memory of Ed Miliband's conference speech still fresh and being reminded that beyond the bruhaha of British politics there are ideas and arguments being floated and made. We should be encouraged by this.

The media has a tendency to reduce debate to soundbite, to give the impression that politics is only about who can spend the least and get the most done, and, in particular, that listeners and viewers are only interested in what's in it for them. Indeed, if the polls are to be believed, most listeners and viewers do not believe that politicians are interested in them at all.

Paul Mason's book reminded me that there is a debate going on across the globe about what kind of world we want to live in. It is debate filled with passion and creativity, fuelled by new technology and fresh thinking, social media, street protests and coffee shop discussion; it's a debate where old ideas, long forgotten approaches, are rubbing shoulders with the new; it's a debate we are all invited to be a part of.

So is it kicking off where we are?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Entering a land of promise...

I'm slowly re-entering 'normal' life after a great break in the south of France. We spent two weeks in Le Somail on the banks of the Canal du Midi, deep in the heart of the Languedoc, basking in the late summer sun. Idyllic.

On the way there and back we stopped off in Amiens, Clermont-Ferand, Chalon-sur-Soane and Reims. We sampled some great food and excellent wine, we wondered in medieval streets and churches, investigated Gallo-Roman remains, tip-toed into the Medietrranean, read, slept, laughed and chilled. Perfect.

While I was there, I read Tracey Thorn's engaging autobiography about being a singer/songwriter and one half of the wonderful Everything but the Girl (if we'd known we were going to last, she says, we'd have chosen a better name). Bedsit Disco Queen: How I grew up and tried to be a popstar is a gem. Thorn writes in a disarmingly honest way about her career, her songcraft, her life-long partnership with Ben Watt.  I first heard her on a Cherry Red sampler in the early 1980s both as solo artist as one third of Marine girls. Reading her account of those years and what followed made me want to listen to the music all over again - something to look forward to in the autumn.

It's a huge privilege to be able to drop everything, swan off and enjoy almost three weeks of uninterrupted leisure. I'm aware of so many who can't do it for all sorts of reasons. So I realise how blessed I am.

And I return to a church that's been doing great without me (just as it should be!) and new reading to look forward to. In particular, this morning my copy of Without Borders by Rob Schellert dropped on my mat (well, it was handed to me by the postman because the package wouldn't fit through our letter box!).

Rob is a lovely guy who is currently working alongside East London's anarchist and squatter communities, exploring how to share life, Jesus, and make community.I love spending time with him, exploring his world, listening to him gently unfold his story. I've already read a good deal of the book in draft but am relishing getting to grips with the finished article. You can get your hands on a copy (and I really think you should) at his website (here).

I will also begin reflecting on our autumn series tomorrow. We will be exploring the Kingdom of God under the title a brighter day (taken from a great Gungor song). We'll be looking at a number of the paradoxes of the Kingdom that make it difficult to pin down but wonderful to be a part of - personal/political, public/private, puzzling/plain, present/potential, etc... I'll be blogging thoughts as we go.

I'm looking forward to having Nelson Kraybill's Upside Down Kingdom and reading Jim Wallis' new book, On God's Side, as companions on this adventure. At our later service, we'll be exploring the same theme using Charlie Peacock's album Kingdom Come and other great music.

So, bring it on; I think the autumn is full of promise...

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Off to France tomorrow (yay!). And I slotted the final album into the journey playlist yesterday when I finally succumbed to the charms of Random Access Memory by Daft Punk.

What a glorious melange of 1970s influences - Niles Rogers guitar (actually played by Nile Rogers), rubbery bass and tight synthesised rhythms worthy of Giorgio Moroder (in whose honour there's a track); it's fabulous prog pop, the sound of summer, ideal for powering down the peage.

Apart from that I've got lots of reading matter and am looking forward to exploring Languedoc in the late summer sun, chilling round the pool and sampling the local cuisine.

Don't miss me too much!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Rubbing shoulders with the saintly

Today I had the huge honour of conducting a funeral with Colin Marchant. We were burying a woman who's died before her time who was in Colin's young adults group at West Ham Central Mission. She'd married a Bromley boy at our church 35 years ago and so her funeral service took place in our building.

Colin is a legend among baptist ministers who work in the city. A pioneer theologian practitioner committed to growing a church with and for the poor; a leading thinker in urban mission and someone who has spent pretty much his whole ministry in Newham .

It was great to catch up with him. At 80 he's still as sharp as ever, still encourages with a twinkle in his eye, speaks directly and simply. But what was great to see was the peer group of the deceased, people scattered all over the country, many of them in ministries of one sort or another, all discipled by Colin into a questing and questioning faith.

He knew their stories, had followed their progress with prayerful interest over 40+ years. Just sometimes you get a sense of being in the presence of a true saint. It was a privilege.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The trouble with normal...

A Brazilian man held for nine hours at Heathrow under anti-terrorism legislation, Vodafone's elaborate and dodgy-tasting tax affairs and police involvement in the blacklisting of workers in the construction industry. These stories don't seem to have much in common, except that they comprised the front page of this morning's Guardian.

But I wonder if they don't reveal something slightly unpleasant about the world we are allowing to be made for us. These three stories are all about the operations of 'the elite state', the unhealthy alliance of powerful corporations, wealthy individuals and governments with over zealous and rather too un-regulated security operations.

The Brazilian man is the partner of Glen Greenwald, the reporter who has revealed the extent of the NSA/GCHQ web of snooping into the live of tens of millions of ordinary citizens; Vodafone is the beneficiary of billions of pounds worth of government contracts despite its tax affairs being more labyrinthine than a Dan Brown plot; and the blacklisting of construction workers shouldn't be happening at all but when the same murky police units that were seeking to smear the Lawrence family in the 90s are involved in gathering 'intelligence' on trades unionists, then the rat smell becomes ovverpowering.

I'm not a conspiracy fan. I think Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK, that we did land on the moon and that Princess Diana died in a car crash. I tend to think governments are incapable of organising a piss-up in a brewery. But I think I can spot the politics of fear and greed at work. And this morning's front pages were full of it. Bruce Cockburn nailed it in his 1980 song The Trouble with Normal:

Strikes across the frontier and strikes for higher wage
Planet lurches to the right as ideologies engage
Suddenly it's repression, moratorium on rights
What did they think the politics of panic would invite?
Person in the street shrugs -- "Security comes first"
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse

Callous men in business costume speak computerese
Play pinball with the Third World trying to keep it on its knees
Their single crop starvation plans put sugar in your tea
And the local Third World's kept on reservations you don't see
"It'll all go back to normal if we put our nation first"
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse

Fashionable fascism dominates the scene
When ends don't meet it's easier to justify the means
Tenants get the dregs and landlords get the cream
As the grinding devolution of the democratic dream
Brings us men in gas masks dancing while the shells burst
The trouble with normal is it always gets worse