Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Stressed Ramblings

In the middle of last month I received a letter threatening legal action over an old blog post. I found it extremely intimidating, making threats and demanding money.

In a way this gives me insight on a more emotional level into the situation some of my customers have found themselves in. They receive a phone call out of the blue, claiming (in effect) to be from Microsoft, telling them they have viruses and could be disconnected from the Internet, and charging for the 'service' of removing said (non-existent) viruses. Computers are not these customers' comfort zone and they get very worried and often end up making payments which, with a cool head and time to reflect, they would never normally have agreed to.

My advice to my computer customers is always to take time to think about the matter, and to consult an expert (such as myself) if they are concerned. So, after an initial headless-chicken moment, that's what I did over the letter. Legal affairs are as dark, unknown and scary to me as computers are to many others.

Kudos then to E.J.Winter & Sons for advice which I found to be clear, constructive and helpful. A thumbs up also to Harrison's Solicitors in Reading who don't deal with this sort of thing, but helpfully put me onto someone who does.

Meanwhile the empty nesting continues. Our son has started work up in the Midlands, and has now moved into his own rented flat. At the same time our daughter is slowly finding her student feet in the foreign land of Wales. I'm immensely proud of both of them.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Barclays: Jekyll & Hyde

I'm really rather conflicted over Barclay's Bank. At the giant multi-national corporate level I remember it as the 'apartheid bank' of the seventies and eighties; now, in the 21st Century, it keeps hitting the headlines for highly dodgy wheeler-dealing and dubious financial ethics.

In the late nineties, after apartheid was over, it was the only bank with a branch in Caversham which met my small business needs, so I opened a business account there. I find the local branch brings a very different set of associations from the central institution. I have, over many years, found the staff there to be helpful and professional. I've had the odd dubious communication from Barclay's over the years, all apparently from either head office or their marketing department, but no problem at all with the branch itself.

St John's had its Christmas Fair today, which is what got me thinking about Barclay's. Two of their branch staff came over to help us out on the two busiest stalls, did a great job, then matched the takings on those stalls from their branch funds. A small amount for Barclay's, no doubt, but immensely helpful to us. More importantly, though, it was done in the context of involvement: giving up their time and commitment to get involved and make a difference within the local community.

So bravo to Barclay's Caversham branch, to the staff who came and helped out today, and to the other branch staff who doubtless help other community endeavours over the year.

Every now and again there are rumours that Barclay's head office might close their Caversham branch. If that happens I will move my account in a shot (not that they'll miss its small turnover). Until then, though, I will appreciate the positives and be grateful for bank staff who want to give something to their local community.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Indigo Requiem

St. John's Church in Caversham held a special requiem service last night, marking remembrance weekend on the hundredth anniversary of the start of the Great War. Len David conducted his Indigo Requiem, with a combined choir from the Hurst Singers and from St John's. Liturgical sections were led by Revd. Colin Bass, and there was accompaniment from piano, saxophone, bass, percussion and trumpet (as well as the organ for the hymns).

Len has composed Indigo Requiem in a style of jazz which I associate with Gershwin - the respectable end of jazz you might say, but it still raises a smile to hear 'the devil's music' used in a context of formal Christian worship. Jazz has a flexibility of tone and mood which allowed it to move between the sadness of  loss and remembrance and the sure hope of resurrection without jarring ... in Len's hands, at least.

It was a fairly grim night weatherwise - and apparently there had been some firework throwing going on - so the congregation was disappointing; far less than the event deserved. Nevertheless musicians and choir (who were a soloist down through illness, I heard afterwards) did a marvellous job. St John's has wonderful acoustics when the singing is strong, and it was great to hear them ringing out. The sound of fireworks banging outside during the reading of the names of those from St. John's lost in the war was slightly surreal, but possibly appropriate, I guess.

From the programme notes:
The music of the requiem seeks to reflect something of the journey that we make as individuals through distress and dread in facing up to death, ending with a quiet acceptance of hope based on the gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ. As we reflect on our own mortality and remember our loved ones who have died, we are invited to offer our feelings to God and pray that after the service we go away knowing something of the saving power of Christ.
The requiem was being recorded, so I am hoping it will end up on YouTube or somewhere similar, in which case I will add a link to the top of this post.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Lives After Them

"The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones."Shakespeare

My last post looked at evil and grace from the angle that Jesus gives a way back for those who have made bad choices - he has paid the price to redeem the souls they have sold, if you like. The other side of the coin is dealing with the mess and pain which evil leaves behind.

Shakespeare's quote above is mostly intended to be about reputation, I suspect - slightly odd-sounding today given our culture's supposed reluctance to 'speak ill of the dead.' Nevertheless it is all too true in the sense that the consequences of evil for those impacted will often last far longer than the deeds themselves.

Ruanda, Bosnia, and South Africa all still bear the scars of evil, open wounds often, as do the victims of Jimmy Saville, and of the gangs in Rochester and elsewhere, and of the abusers in children's homes and orphanages, and of all the abusive family members and 'friends' who make children's lives hell. The evil lives on in damaged bodies, shattered trust and ruined lives.

Good lives on too, but it always seems so much more fragile.

As is often said: it is quicker and easier to destroy than it is to build up.

In the long term the Bible is clear that this will be reversed: those affected by evil will be healed, cleansed and comforted by God Himself. It also says that all good that is done for Jesus will have lasting impact, however small and fragile that good may seem.
I heard a loud voice shout from the throne:
God’s home is now with his people. He will live with them, and they will be his own. Yes, God will make his home among his people. He will wipe all tears from their eyes, and there will be no more death, suffering, crying, or pain. These things of the past are gone forever.
In the meantime there is work to do for God's people. We are called to be the hands and hearts and feet and voices of Jesus in the world. Our task is to do what we can to show God's Kingdom here on earth 'as it is in heaven'. Jesus said that the key marks of his ministry were:
The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have skin disease are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.
Jesus came to reverse the effects of evil, to transform sickness to health, and to bring fullness of life to all - that is now the task of his followers, in all our weakness and vulnerability. Like Jesus:
“The Lord’s Spirit has come to us,
because he has chosen us
to tell the good news to the poor.
The Lord has sent us to announce freedom
for prisoners,
to give sight to the blind,
to free everyone who suffers,
and to say, ‘This is the year the Lord has chosen.’”
Where there is evil, pain and injustice, there you will also find followers of Jesus working, in their small way, to bring comfort and healing. Because Jesus comes to those in need; and often that's through his faithful people. 

Thursday, 9 October 2014

The Evil That Men Do

I came across a quote from Canon Andrew White - the 'vicar of Baghdad' - recently. He had been asked why IS hates Christians and other minorities so much, and he replied:
They hate because they hate. They hate because they are evil. It is not an issue of 'these are Muslims and they're radicals and that's what they're like'. They're like this because they're evil ... They don't know God at all.
Every now and again it seems people get an excuse and an opportunity to cast off the restraints of 'civilized behaviour' and some of them do things which can only be described as incredibly evil. We saw it in Ruanda, we saw it in Bosnia, now we see it in Iraq: people who had lived together comfortably enough as neighbours suddenly descend into anarchy and chaos. It is tied to dehumanising others - the Ruandan Hutus famously described the Tutsis as 'cockroaches' before going on the rampage - rather than religion (Orthodox Christians in Bosnia, Sunni Muslims in Iraq, and no real religious element in Ruanda) or race/geographic region (Africa, Europe and Middle East in these three examples).

That is 'chaotic' evil - where people seemingly just lose the plot and wildly act out the darkness within them. There is also a cold systematic evil, such as the Israelis deliberately killing civilians in neighbouring countries every few years. They dehumanise with terms like 'terrorist', yet their aim is to cause terror and to destroy - in the latest attacks on Gaza, hospitals and those who managed hospitals were targetted, to teach them a lesson.

I've also been reading (again) Steig Larsson's wonderful book, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The four parts to the book are each introduced by a statistic about violence to women in Sweden:
"18% of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man."
"48% of the women in Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man." 
"13% of the women in Sweden have been subjected to aggravated sexual assault outside of a sexual relationship." 
"92% of women in Sweden who have been subjected to sexual assault have not reported the most recent violent incident to the police."
Currently in Britain various child sexual abuse scandals roll on. Last night Channel 4 news quoted a child support worker as saying:
"Rotherham is not the exception, it is more likely to be the norm."
Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg. According to NSPCC research the vast majority of child abuse happens in the home: their figures suggest that one in twelve children (around 8%) is sexually abused during their childhood, the vast majority by either family members or family friends.

It's about power and accountability. Where people have power but do not have to answer for it then some abuse it. Where they can shield their activity in darkness, anonymity and secrecy then some give way to the evil within. And some don't.

Maybe that is a working definition of that horribly degraded term 'sin': when we have a choice between what is evil and what is good, which do we choose?

Most religions, I think, follow most people in condemning those who choose such evil, who sin in this way. A distinctive about Christianity is that it also offers a way back.

When you have made the wrong choices, when you have sold your soul to evil, Jesus offers hope - light in the terrible darkness. Churches still struggle with what on earth that means in practice, and lots of churchgoers are really not keen on this idea at all, but following Jesus means little without it.

For someone who has sold their soul, Jesus has paid the price to redeem it. The Bible calls this 'Grace'. We all need grace ... maybe some more than others.