Wednesday, May 29, 2013

What’s the best way of learning from our history?

For those of you who access my church magazine piece via this blog, here is this month's. It's a reflection on history as a spur to mission in the present (I think):

‘History is bunk,’ said someone, while Shakespeare said that it ‘is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ someone else, however, observed ‘those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ Who to believe, hey?!

Anniversaries are a time to look back and take stock. Sometimes they are an excuse to wallow in nostalgia since we feel that the good old days were so much better than now. Equally often we write the past off, assuming that it has nothing to tell a world that’s changed out of all recognition; the present is all that matters, the future calls us on.

Christians value history. Our faith is rooted in it. It’s not just that there have been Christians in every generation for two thousand years. It’s that our faith stands or falls on its historical roots: either Jesus lived or he did not; either he rose from the dead or he did not. Negative answers to these questions mean that history renders our faith worthless, as Paul told the Corinthians.

Evangelicals tend to play fast and loose with history. We pick the bits of our past that we approve of or which bring us greatest comfort, preferring to skirt around those episodes that we find embarrassing or out of keeping with our theological preferences. So we’re big fans of Luther and Wesley, Spurgeon and John Stott, but not so keen on the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Oxford Movement or the Honest to God debates of 50 years ago.

As the current education secretary is finding out, history comes weighed down with ideological baggage. The past is another country whose terrain we struggle to navigate and we’re unsure which maps on offer we should trust.

So, what about our past? Those of us who’ve been members of Park Road for a long time – and some can trace their arrival here back before the second world war – will have a particular view of our past. It will be a view that is replete with memories of friends, of significant moments in the development of our faith, of struggles shared and victories won. For those of us who have recently arrived, the past might be interesting but it is a tad inconsequential since it has had no role in shaping our lives or experience.

But history is more than just a personal story, a collection of events that we have been involved in. Our church has lived through countless wars, recessions, booms and crises of various kinds. This community has been witness to the growth of Bromley from a small market town ten miles from London Bridge to London’s largest borough; it has seen changes in the economic and ethnic composition of the neighbourhood; and it can tell stories of how ministries and groups have come and gone in response to such changes. And that makes our history worth recalling and repeating; the stories of how God has led individuals and the whole church through times of challenge and joy bear close inspection (something that is possible through the people’s history of the church).

But these are only worth recalling if they act as a spur to our reflections on what God is calling us to be in the here and now. The trouble with church history is that it’s not a particularly good predictor of the church’s future. And the current crop of statistics from the 2011 census and other surveys make for gloomy reading. The number of people who identify themselves as Christians is falling (somewhere in the mid-50s%, down from 75%+ only a decade ago), barely 10% of our neighbours are in church on a Sunday, and of those, barely 10% are under 40. You don’t have to be a mathematician to work out that the future is not that rosy! 

As we celebrate our 150th birthday and look back over the years of God’s goodness and faithfulness to us as a people, what do we notice that might help us face the coming years with faith and fortitude? My feeling is that the church is at its best when it takes God at his word and speaks the language of the streets. Spurgeon always recommended praying with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. It’s good advice.

As we have been burrowing into God’s word through the Community Bible Experience, we have been caught up afresh in the story of God’s love affair with creation, his desire to undo all that human sin has done and make all things new. Beginning with Jesus, working out through us to the ends of the world, God’s mission is to bring everything back into its proper relationship with him. So, how are our lives and our church programme being shaped by that story? 

What about the world in which we are seeking to be a missional presence? Stories in the press and stories we hear over the garden fence constantly remind us of the brokenness and despair of so many in our apparently go-ahead society. People struggling to make ends meet, struggling with addictions, struggling with crumbling relationships; people who seem outwardly to have it all together, inwardly crying out for someone to care; people who have reached the end of their ability to cope without support wondering where to turn in a world of cuts, closing services and failing friendships.

We have been at our best in the past when we have taken God at his word and thrown ourselves into this world of pain with the good news of Jesus; we have been most like the church that Jesus envisaged when we have sought the power of his Holy Spirit to be the presence of his healing power, grace and challenge among our neighbours.

This is what we have aspired to over the past 150 years, let’s use our celebration this year to renew that aspiration and launch ourselves into creative mission that helps our neighbours to see and experience Jesus. Are we up for that?

Friday, May 24, 2013

A fifth great album for 2013

So, month five and the fifth contender for album of the year invades the airwaves. The National's magisterial Trouble Will Find Me is simply great. Wonderful songs, Matt Beringer's sublime baritone, the band's tight and terrific playing, lyrics that finger the travails of love and life with an envious precision make for an intense and rewarding 50 minutes or so.

What's also great about the CD is its packaging: lovely paintings by band friends adorn the lyric booklet in a way that shows they still care about the album artwork which is heartening to see. Time was that part of the joy of buying an album was to sit with the gatefold sleeve and pore over the lyrics and other information. The art was part of the package, something visual that captured the themes or mood of the record you were listening to.

You don't get that with a download!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Trying to sound less hypocritical on tax

Tweeting from my iPad that multinational companies should pay their taxes in full seemed a little hypocritical, so I thought I'd blog about it (using my PC, powered by Microsoft software produced by a company that has had its fair share of run-ins over anti-trust laws). Hey ho, what a murky world we live in!

At its most simple, it is obvious that all companies, as well as people, should pay all the tax they owe on their earnings. Furthermore, companies, like individuals, should not engage in aggressive ways of avoiding their full tax liability. So, I'm quite happy to say that it's outrageous that Apple, Google, Amazon, Starbucks, Vodafone, M&S and many other companies uses transfer pricing to locate business that obviously occurs in one territory in another one that has a lower prevailing tax rate.

If I buy a book on Amazon's UK website that is dispatched to me from Amazon's UK warehouse, handled by Amazon's UK-based employees, I expect Amazon to pay any tax on the profits from that sale to the UK tax authorities. Simple. In exactly the same way, I imagine that Waterstones will pay UK corporation tax on profits from the sale of a book bought in its Bromley store.

Of course, Amazon will still still be able to charge lower prices because of the way it does business. So this is not a complaint about business styles; it's simply a complaint about paying tax.

The issue is complicated by inept governments competing with one another over relative tax rates and reliefs. And it is complicated by rules about how companies should be governed.

The competition between governments could be resolved through international agreements at G8 and G20 level overseen by the IMF or OECD. At the very least, it seems to me, the case for a single EU-wide rate of corporation tax is pretty strong. It is a nonsense that Ireland has an effective corporation tax rate half that of the EU average - especially when it is the recipient of an EU-led bail out of its economy (partly caused by idiot banking but not helped by a chronically low tax take).

Companies are obliged to maximise shareholder return. This means that they will try to minimise tax in every legitimate way possible. So, again, action through the OECD/G20/G8 to change company law to put other priorities on public companies - such as maximising social return through paying appropriate taxes, investing in the social capital of communities in which they are based (so-called CSR).

Let's not pretend that either of these courses of action will be easy. So, supporting the Tax Justice Network in its work of campaigning and lobbying seems essential;the wealth of research material it produces is invaluable in informed debate. So, protesting against those companies who appear not to be paying their full wack is also essential. I haven't been to Starbucks since it became clear that it treated tax as a matter of voluntary donation; I have cut the amount I buy from Amazon. But I listen to music on iTumes, have an iPhone and iPad for communication...

Pressure could well pay dividends in the long-term as it shames companies into greater transparency and forces governments to act in the interests of all their citizens and not the elite 1% who call the shots - we do, after all, allegedly live in a democracy. But it will take time. As with everything else, good things only come to those who wait.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

More than one way of getting out of the boat

Just when you're flagging, a good friend sends a response to a blog post that leaves you chuckling and hopeful. So I thought I'd share it.

She wrote: 'but Simon - have you forgotten? - you can swim! Jump in! Allow though for a few minutes to tread water in the process as you catch your breath. We're praying for the waves to carry you - and everyone else - and for other passengers in the boat to jump in after you too. Some will need life jackets or even be put in a lifeboat at the start but that's ok. They'll have got out of the boat!'

She rightly points out that there is more than one way to get out of the boat. Life jackets will be available and the strong swimmers will give the more nervous what help they can...

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Getting out of the boat

So, reflecting further on where the tornado left us, listening to the excellent Brown Bear Music's Amazed album (whatever happened to Ian Mizen and Andy Presdee, the UK's two best, most inventive and tuneful writers of worship songs?), I'm pondering...

It is interesting to observe, to feel what happens as you seek to put into effect strategies that have been shaped, honed, worked and prayed through in meetings and away days. It's like the moment when a laboratory discovery is cleared for trials with real humans. Suddenly, this is no longer a good idea, a well-crafted plan. It is something we are going to do. It is something that will have consequences in the lives of people we know, love, have shared our lives with, people who trust us to have their welfare at heart.

And suddenly people aren't as convinced as they were.

That's fear.

I wonder at this point whether God is saying - as he did to Peter - 'Get out of the boat'. Peter was all gung-ho to do so while he was in the boat. Admittedly, it wasn't all that great in the boat with a heavy swell and the darkness closing in all around. But at least it was dry and there was something solid under his feet. Actually getting out of the boat was a different matter. It was wet. The lake was deep. Would faith really hold him up? Why not wait for Jesus to reach them where they were? Why did he open his big mouth?!

Since the beginning of the year God has been saying to me 'get out of the boat'. It's been a word recurring as we've plotted the future direction of the church. And it's been a word for the church not for me as an individual. And now we well and truly need to get out of the boat. And...?

Well, we could wait for Jesus to come to us. And if other people want to meet him, they can come where we are; there's plenty of room for any who walk to us.

And Jesus says 'get out of the boat'; and I am aware that if  I stay here, I'll miss him. While the fear gnaws, faith sparks and I have a foot dangling over open water. What next?

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Four months, four albums, a promising year for music...

The year so far has blessed us four albums destined to be classics and vying for album of the year.

At the moment I'm listening to Nick Cave's majestic Push the Sky Away. I think this is the year's best offering so far - though there is stiff competition. Cave has let out the visceral, animal side of his music in his side project Grinderman, which I haven't really warmed to. It leaves him free to produce atmospheric meditations on life, faith and hope with a buttoned up restraint that you think might explode at any minute but is kept beautifully, achingly in check. It makes for a wonderful journey through Brighton and Cave's netherworld to the title track that is a muted rage against the dying of the light, the need to keep living, creating, singing in the face of our all-too obvious mortality.

First out of the stocks in fact was Eels Wonderful, Glorious, lighting up a frosty late January with Mr E's sometimes angry, often gentle, always prescient musings on the absurdity of life in the modern world and the saving qualities of love and faithfulness. He's so good that his song writing seems effortless, one great riff here, a hook to die for there, a lyric that stays with you for the day here and there and everywhere.

Depeche Mode's Delta Machine, out last month, sounds at times like a southern revival, all speaking in tongues and faith snatching us from oblivion. Coming after last year's collaboration between Dave Gahan and Soul Savers, this album makes you wonder what's going on in these Essex boy's souls. here's a whole ton of reflections on life and faith and love. Wonderful tunes, great vocals, catchy rhythms - all the ingredients of a classic Depeche Mode album are present and correct.

And then there David Bowie's unexpected comeback album; unexpected for two reasons - no one knew it was coming and no one could have guessed that he still had such a great collection of songs in him. The Next Day is the true follow up to Lodger, a ghost ride through the Berlin of the late 70s and early 80s that spawned Bowie's great trilogy. The songs are a dizzying display of hooks, gorgeous vocals, great guitar licks and some pretty wonderful saxophone from the dame himself. Every time I listen, I am surprised at how good it is. Half of me hopes it's his last album ('cause I'm not sure he'll better it) and the other half hopes there's twenty more songs of this quality awaiting release in the autumn. Who knows with the elusive boy from Bromley!

If you haven't added any of these to your collection, you should.