Friday, June 24, 2011

We're off gramping

We're off to Hope Cove tomorrow with our whole family - daughters, grand-daughters and partners. The weather forecast is good and we have a four bed-roomed house 150 yards from the beach for a week; can't be bad.

Apparently what we're doing is called 'gramping' - where grandparents provide the basis for a holiday for the whole family. We're really looking forward it: Hope Cove is gorgeous and it'll be great to be away from the study and the landline for a week! Best of all, we'll have lots of opportunity for inter-generational bonding.

So postings will be in short supply for the next few days.

The choppy waters coming from Greece

The ever prescient Jon Snow has some sobering words on the Greek crisis over on his Channel 4 News blog. You can read it here.

It might be at the alarmist end of the spectrum but it does highlight a salient point in all this: the city of London is still at the centre of the spider's web of international finance. In particular, we are the hub of the world's insurance and reinsurance business and there'll be a hefty bill when the Greek's go belly up. But that bill will be dwarfed by the one coming our way when Ireland and Portugal hit the buffers.

Instead of tinkering at the edges of serious banking reform, perhaps the EU leaders gathering in Brussels today might sink their teeth into the issue of how we can make the sector more accountable and transparent so that we can see the scale of the waves heading our way before they break over us.

I wondered about the consequences about Greek default yesterday. I still think it's inevitable; whether it's desirable is in the hands of our leaders: it could just be the wake up call we all need and failed to heed when Lehman's and Iceland went down.

I am pondering the parable of the rich fool from Luke 12. It's not an exact parallel to our situation but I am always chastened by the fact that Jesus introduced the sobering tale with the words: 'watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions' (v15).

We're good at applying this verse and the parable that follows to us as individuals (well, to other individuals), but it clearly also applies to us as a culture. We live in a system that says 'greed is good' and rewards that greed with all the stuff that we think is essential for the good life. Unfortunately, as in the parable, such a way of life is not sustainable; eventually God comes calling.

Sadly, unlike in the parable, it is not the paragons of greed who suffer when the wheels come off but the ordinary people, struggling to grab a bit of the action for themselves, who get a kicking; and the poor of the planet who see the little they have swept away in the flood.

So let's pray for the people of Greece, the ordinary people who, like us, have tried to grab the most they can, often in the least sustainable way, and who now face ruin. And let's pray for the leaders gathered in Brussels that they will own responsibility for the mess we're in and actually do something to sort it out in the interests of the poorest rather than the richest.

And let's pray that we all realise that 'life does not consist in an abundance of possessions'

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Giving credit where credit is due

Excellent to see Amartya Sen taking a pop at the rating agencies in today's Guardian. He argues that despite their abysmal track record on rating financial instruments, they are calling the shots over the fate of nations that is genuinely harmful for the future of democracy.

Sen points out that UK policy makers feel themselves beholden to the credit agencies and so have taken decisions on deficit reduction and austerity to placate them. But, he points out, at least in the UK we can debate the wisdom of the policy and the government can claim that part at least of its programme was put to the people in an election.

This is not the case in Greece. Economic policy and the fate of the government is in the hands of the IMF and credit ratings agencies, not the Greek people. Now we could say that the Greeks have had their chance and blown it. But if the generals return as a result of this crisis, part of the blame should be laid at the door of the international, unelected, undemocratic financial institutions.

It's really sad that Congress backed off from suing the ratings agencies over the collapse of Lehman's and the financial meltdown that occurred in its wake. After all, these organisations had given triple A ratings to all the dodgy financial instruments - including the bundles of sub-prime mortgages at the heart of the system's toxicity - being traded around the globe before the crash, instruments that had precipitated the mega-crisis in confidence that led to collapsing banks and bloating deficits across the western world.

I wonder where we'd end up if Greece called the credit ratings agencies' bluff, gave the IMF a couple of suggestions about what it could do with its austerity package and carried on as before. If nothing else it would wipe the Cheshire cat grins off the faces of the men in suits no one voted for. Maybe it would be the first step in a genuine reform of the world's financial system in favour of one that gave a damn about the people at the bottom of the pile.

At the end of  the day, Bruce Cockburn had the IMF well and truly summed up in his song Call it Democracy - you can check it out here and see what I mean...

Monday, June 20, 2011

Sensing a move of the Spirit

We finished our series on the gifts of the Spirit last night and good things happened at the later service with people beginning to have the confidence to share possibly prophetic words with one another as we shared food around our tables. This is a good development. Notes and audio files are on the church website now - you can access them here.

I've discovered some more great new and free music! American singer Josh Garrels has made an 18 track album called Love & War & the sea in between. It's a glorious mixture of folk, electronica, Americana, even acoustic rap. His blog said that he sensed the Lord saying to him that he should make this album free; so it is - and I, for one, am very grateful.

You can download it here and I recommend that you do because it's not only wonderfully played and produced but it boasts lyrics that have real depth and breadth. He also has a lovely voice. Garrels is the latest US Christian artist I've discovered through Noisetrade (you really must sign up for its alerts if you haven't already - it offers a ton of free and really cheap, excellent quality new music). Others include Justin McRoberts, whose album Deconstruction is great, Sandra McCracken, Sleeping at Last and Jenny & Tyler.

The Spirit seems to be at work in Christian music from across the pond in slightly hidden and out-of-the-way places - but then, that's always the way with the Spirit, avoiding the mainstream, side-stepping the crowd, stirring up a storm on the margins. Put yourself in the way of it; let it wash over you and refresh your soul...

Thursday, June 16, 2011

So Beautiful or So What

I'm listening to the new Paul Simon album. So Beautiful or So What confirms Simon's place at the top of the pile of lyricists. Building on Surprise - one of my favourite albums of all time - So Beautiful or So What contains reflections and ruminations on mortality, the meaning of life and what happens when we die.

The lyrics ride on wonderful tunes, played by some great musicians and are shot through with a fierce and playful wit, making the album a delight to listen to.

Simon has been quoted as saying that he's not much interested in religion. But he's certainly interested in God and what God might have do with us. It opens with Getting Ready for Christmas Day (not exactly seasonal for an album released in June - but that's part of the playfulness!) which contains the line: 'Getting ready, oh we’re getting ready/For the power and the glory and the story of the Christmas Day' intercut with samples from a black preacher and poignant reflections on family as the song's narrator has a nephew in Iraq.

And in many ways this playful, witty, scatter-gun opener sets the scene for the rest of the album. It's a roller coaster of tuneful intelligence and rhythm. Check it out

Monday, June 13, 2011

Being good neighbours in a blandified world

I've just finished an excellent book on cities. Anna Minton's Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the twenty-first century city (Penguin 2009) is an examination of how there's been a major shift in ownership of our city spaces from the public to the private. She tells the story of how the redevelopment of London's docklands provided governments with a template of how urban regeneration could be privatised and hence, in the eye of its proponents, delivered more quickly and efficiently.

The upshot, Minton argues, is that public space is being increasingly privatised and blandified. we see it in mammoth shopping centre developments where streets are glassed over and ownership shifts to the property company whose uniformed security people rule the roost and have the right to refuse entry to people they think are undesirable - young people in hoodies, groups of pensioners killing time but not buying.

Maybe this is the reason why all retail parks seem the same, boasting the same rosta of shops and cafes, lacking in local flavour or identity. And it isn't just covered centres that are privately owned. Liverpool One, the redeveloped heart of that great city, is also privately owned and policed by people other than the boys in blue.

Apart from leading to bland and soulless spaces at the heart of our cities, these trends have coincided with the rise of gated communities and the previous government's desire to secure even social housing developments by design that makes the areas difficult to access or pass through. More and more land is fenced off and gated, rendered inaccessible to the general public despite the fact that it seems to be 'public' land.

It has also coincided with the rise of CCTV - the UK has more cameras than the whole of western Europe put together and yet fear of crime in our country is vastly higher than in any of our EU partners. Minton's argument is that the more we separate ourselves from one another, the more fearful we become of 'the stranger' and 'the outsider'.

I think that theologically she is on to something here; something that feeds into what I was blogging about recently in relation to neighbourhood mission. It's simply this: do we have a role, as people who believe in communities comprised of a rich mix of people of all types (since that is what the church is or ought to be), in helping to create neighbourhoods that reflect that where we live?

Minton is iffy about the notion of social capital (for interesting reasons that I  can't go into here) but I wonder if Christians have a role in balancing financial capital with the creation of social capital (which I understand to be simply to be the creation of connections and relationships between people in society); and in so doing, helping to create neighbourhoods where there are just collections of houses and flats.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

A final word on my MA

I thought I'd share a link to the Church of England website detailing my graduation on Monday. You can find it here. And here some more pictures. I thought I'd post these as I don't get pictured with Rowan Williams very often!
And there's a group shot with all three recipients of awards with Maureen Palmer (third from the left) and Martin Kitchen (on the far right but only in this picture!) who run the programme.

And a final word on Rowan, do check out this week's New Statesman, which he has guest edited, and in which he says some trenchant but sensible things about the government as well as a range of other issues that affect our culture at this time.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Graduating in historic splendour

Yesterday, I had the great joy of receiving my MA from the Archbishop of Canterbury in a service at Lambeth Palace. The ceremony was full of fabulously arcane language, involved me swearing an oath of allegiance and resulted in me being created 'an actual Master of Arts' and being admitted 'into the number of Masters of Arts of this Realm.' But I don't get my certificate until the Queen's approved it which could take some time!

It was a lovely day, shared with Linda and her mum and dad (as in the picture) and good friends Anne and Alan from church. The highlight was a long conversation with Rowan Williams. It was good to get an insight into the pressures that he's under and hear his enthusiasm for sharing the good news of Jesus with ordinary people. We also discussed the detail of my thesis, in particular, the levels of literacy among first century craft workers that the light this throws on how we approach group hermeneutics in today's world. He is a warm and wise man.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Jesus' mission to his neighbours

The theme of the mission conference in the Canaries was taken from Matthew 4:19: ‘come, follow me and I will send you out to fish for people’ (TNIV). As I reflected on that verse and my experience in the Canaries, I noticed something that I’d not really spotted or appreciated before. What follows is a rough outworking of that thought.

It centres on Jesus’ relationship with Capernaum as the centre for his mission activity. And what we see is that Jesus is a model for us: what he does is what he sends us to do Luke 10:1-11 (see previous post here).

So, what do we learn from this

Firstly, Jesus calls people to follow him, to be with him. In Mark’s account of the gathering of the Twelve, he tells us that Jesus ‘appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out’ (Mk 3:14a). In other words, discipleship is about being with Jesus and learning his lifestyle. So, what in particular stands out?

Jesus chose a base. Capernaum was a border town of 10,000 people; a trading and garrison town, a centre for tax gathering. It worth noting that Jesus lived there for long enough to get to know his neighbours and be known by them. So he mingles with fishermen (4:18); a soldier (8:5); tax collectors (17:24ff). It seems that he was based in Capernaum, while making forays out into other places.

Then he picked a team. Jesus is an outsider (he moved north east from Nazareth to Capernaum) and he picks a mixed bag of people to work with: Peter & Andrew are economic migrants from Bethsaida who’ve come over the border into Galilee because the fishing’s good and there are mouths to feed; Matthew, a local tax collector (9:9), local and probably unloved; James and John appear to have been locals working in their family business.

The church always works best when it makes use of those who are insiders, born and bred locally, bringing an insider’s sensitivity to the community’s needs; and outsiders who bring a different eye to the situation, a different set of experiences. It is when we blend these two perspectives that we stand most chance of hearing God and seeing how he wants us to fulfil the mission he’s given us.

And then he shared his story. I wonder whether Jesus made things in Capernaum as well as preached; is there anything that precludes us thinking that he was a carpenter in that town as well as a preacher of the Kingdom? I have never seen that question discussed in the commentaries and I’d quite like someone to weigh the evidence. After all, Paul remained a tent maker for his whole ministry and while Jesus clearly devoted his whole life to preaching towards the end of his time, what about the early stages of his ministry in Capernaum. Certainly he lived and ate with his neighbours and shared his story with them. And what he shared was two-fold:

revolution: the Kingdom of God is a revolution in our lives, a new allegiance and a new set of values live by; it’s results in a lifestyle of light for our neighbours (v10; cf 5:14);

repent: this is not a feeling but an action: we look at Jesus and say ‘that’s how I want to live’ and Jesus says to us ‘if you agree with what I’m saying, join my band.’ We repent, not when we feel bad about our behaviour, but when we change our minds about how we are living and what we are living for.

Secondly, Jesus tells his new friends that they will be fishing for people. Now this is an ironic play on the previous jobs of Andrew and Peter, James and John. He probably didn’t invite tax collectors to fish for people! His call is also an ironic reversal of the prophetic tradition – where fishing was an image of judgement: Jer 16:16; Hab 1:14f. As ever Jesus turns a well-known image on its head. How does Jesus want us to go about this task? Three thoughts come to mind.
The first is that we can only do this as we follow in his footsteps. Discipleship is key to doing mission. We cannot share what we do not know and live; mission grows out of knowing Jesus, knowing his word and living his life. It is not a technique that we learn or campaigns that we run for short periods.

The second is that we do this in his power. As we follow, he fishes through us. How can we do what Jesus asks us to do in Luke 10? By living our lives and allowing Jesus to draw people to us for those life-changing conversations & encounters and trusting him to speak through our words and our lives in such a way that they begin to change their minds about how they should be living their lives.

And finally, all this happens in his time. This means that we can be both confident and relaxed about all this, knowing that if we’re living as his disciples, he’ll be fishing through us. We also need to recognise that the response will be mixed: Peter, Andrew, James and John responded pretty quickly, though 4:18-20 was probably not the first time they had met. The centurion that we read about in chapter 8 had been Jesus’ neighbour for a while, he’d seen who he was and what he stood for and, when he had a particular need that he couldn’t get addressed any other way, he came to Jesus. The collectors of the temple tax who engaged Jesus in discussion in17:24ff – possibly friends of Matthew – knew enough about Jesus to know that he had interesting views on the payment of taxes! Some rejected it, apparently (11:23f).

I saw this way of working as I visited churches and communities in the Canary Islands. I was struck by the mixture of insider and outsider, those born and bred on the islands and those who have come as missionaries. All the churches are a rich mixture of nationalities, each of which are bringing their own perspectives on life and discipleship.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Picking up the threads after my travels

Back safe and sound, sitting at my desk, sifting through the emails I didn't answer while I was away and opening the post. But most importantly, catching up with Linda and home. I love travelling, meeting new people and being involved in ministry in different cultures. But I also love coming home.

Among the goodies awaiting my return were two books. Richard Longenecker's Introducing Romans: Critical Issues in Paul's Most Famous Letter looks to be an essential addition to the bibliography for my Romans course at Spurgeons. It's a 500 page compendium of all the issues a reader of Romans has to consider and has been published ahead of his forthcoming commentary.

The other is The Blackwell Companion to Paul edited by Stephen Westerholm which I've been asked to review. I'm excited to see this for a couple of reasons. The first is that, not only does it deal with Paul and his letters against their first century cultural and historical background, but it also looks at how Paul has been read through the ages and a little bit across the cultures. The second is the sheer quality of scholars, established and rising, who have contributed to this volume - Rainer Riesner, Beverley Gaventa, Ross Wagner, Gerd Theissen, Tony Lane, Robin Jensen. I hope it lives up to its billing.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Attempting ministry amidst a spectacle

My 24 hours in La Palma was great. I spent just over half of it with a wonderful missionary couple from Germany who lead a single baptist church that meets in three places around this small island. The reason for this is obvious as soon as you get in a car.

La Palma is the greenest, most mountainous and, I think, most beautiful of the islands in the group, Dominated by a rangle of mountains in the centre of the island, reaching heights of 2,500 metres (just shy of 10,000 feet), the people live in towns and villages dotted around the coastline and just inland (but even these are at the top of steep inclines. The towns tend to be separated by both hills and deep gorges, meaning that journeys of a few kilometres take an hour or more on windy roads. Even recent investment in bridges and tunnels has only cut journey times a little.

So, getting from place to place for ministry means that folk spend hours in their cars. Those without cars are dependent on buses that take an hour or more to get to the neighbouring town and are not that frequent. None of this matters when you come here as a tourist and take advantage of the black sandy beaches or the breath-taking mountain scenery. But it does if you are trying to plant and nurture churches.

However, Pedro and Dorles are doing a fantastic job. They are full of creative ideas and after 17 years are firm fixtures in the community in Los Llanos where they live (this is a lovely town with wide streets, varied architecture and art of all kinds dotted around). Their colleague in Santa Cruz is more traditional in his approach but still has a significant ministry - especially in the local prison.

The churches here - as well as elsewhere on the islands - are very buildings focused and their buildings tend to be quite traditional. My feeling is that they need to think about how they can make better use of their homes backed up by the internet for teaching. But I'd need to reflect more on this.

Yesterday morning we drove up to the highest point on La Palma. The winding road leads up through dense forest into the clouds and then, beyond the cloud cover, into a sparse landscape of volcanic peaks up to the string of observatories built to take advantage of the clear skies. Standing on the peak you look down a thousand feet to the clouds lying like a fluffy blanket over the landscape. It's like the view from an aircraft window when at cruising height. It's truly spectacular.

Back for a day chilling in Lanzarote before my flight home this evening.