Sunday, 30 December 2012

Out With The Old

It's a rather sad end to 2012, as I have resigned my membership of Caversham Baptist Church, where I have been a member for almost seventeen years.

The new(-ish) pastor at CBC, who is a little inclined to say strange things without thinking them through, reckons that being a member of a local church is like being in a marriage. As a pastor he must have been a member of some four or five churches over the past twenty years - I wonder if his wife realises how casually he views marriage? I view being a church member more like living in a house: moving house is a painful experience, but sometimes the old house is just not suitable. It is following Jesus which is the lifelong commitment, like marriage; where one is based can help or hinder, but it is not the main thing.

Why have I resigned from CBC after all these years? Basically because seventeen years ago Caversham Baptist was a church I admired and was proud to become a member of; and because back then I found it a really good place to worship God with my fellow Christians and to seek to work together for God's Kingdom here in Caversham. Neither of these things is now the case: there are some lovely people at CBC, but as a church it has lost its way; and as a place to worship it no longer does anything at all for me.

There is a classic alternative approach, which is to hunker down and outlast a lousy 'minister': "I've been here x years/all my life, I'm not going to allow some johnny-come-lately to drive me out." This is a fair enough approach, especially for those who have grown up in a church, or who are getting on in years, but it does ignore the question of what sort of state the church will be in by the time the duff 'minister' leaves. It also treats a church as more of a club to belong to, rather than a working organisation which is tasked with actually achieving something. Better would be to work together to actually change things, but passive deference is a hard habit to break.

Really, though, CBC has been moving away from its roots for longer than the new pastor has been here; indeed the whole process of 'calling' him (the procedure a Baptist church goes through to - in theory - seek God's will for its new minister) was severely tainted. The church direction and organisation have been becoming more top-down and centralised, and less member-driven (the Baptist theory is that Jesus' will is best discerned through his many followers within a church rather than just a single individual 'minister' or small group of 'leaders'), for many years. Focussing out, into the local community, has long been a talked-about aspiration: lots of preparation, not much action. To be fair, during the 'interregnum' - between pastors - there were some encouraging steps made towards this, but these were quickly killed off by the new boss.

For me, preaching is at the heart of Baptist worship; it used to be the one thing they did really well. But even this has, for several years, been drifting further and further away from teaching Scripture and proclaiming Jesus, to be more and more about highlighting the preacher and his traditions and opinions. Granted the new guy has taken this to a new low, but the CBC congregation has happily accepted substandard fare for far too long (remembering that Baptists, in theory, are very Bible-centred).

So, where now? Another disillusioned ex-churchgoer worshipping Jesus in daily life, but without an established Christian community behind me? I hope not: many, many people take that approach, but I am too aware of my own limitations to think that is an effective way for me to live and serve. Obviously there are no perfect churches, in Caversham or elsewhere; for now I'll worship freely and see where I find a calling.

Footnote: I can't help feeling that my final post of 2012 (not my favourite year, in truth), and my only post for December, ought to have more shape and more point than this. But I guess that's where I am at the moment: lacking in shape and clear point. Nevertheless, 2013 is another year, and God always has something new to say; the trick is to be in a place where one can hear Him and respond.

A happy and blessed New Year to any and all who read this.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Acts 8: We Are The Others

I wonder how many people have heard of Sophie Lancaster? Very few, I suspect, and those mostly either part of the goth subculture or fans of a style of music sometimes called 'gothic metal'. Sophie was a young woman who was beaten to death in a park in 2007, apparently just because of her looks (her boyfriend, Robert Maltby, who she was with, was reportedly left with brain damage). She looked different, she was an outsider, she was 'other' and so she was attacked, beaten and killed.

There is a story told in the Bible:
There was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, ... He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opens not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”

And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptised?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptised him.
It looks like just another Bible story; I've even heard it used an example of 'how to do evangelism'. But knowing the context makes all the difference.

Here's a guy travels all the way from Africa (probably around N. Sudan) to Jerusalem to worship God. When he gets there he will have been told he's not allowed into the Temple to worship, because he's a eunuch and eunuchs aren't allowed in the Temple (strictly speaking they're banned from the 'assembly of Jahweh', Deut 23:1). He was a literal 'outsider'. So when he asks "What prevents me from being baptised," that's not a rhetorical question, more of a challenge. Baptism is how one joins this new 'assembly of God' in Jesus, and it's how someone becomes part of the Church, which is Jesus' body, which is the new Temple.

Why would this outsider, this 'other', ever think being baptised by Philip was even a possibility? The answer lies in the passage from the prophet Isaiah that he quotes; but again only in context. I deeply dislike the use of 'proof verses' - bits of Scripture ripped out of their context to 'prove' a point. One of their problems is that people then start to assume that the Bible does the same thing. Many of the early Christians will have known (what we call) the Old Testament off by heart. They would have known that the book of Isaiah is essentially a collection a passages - some short, some long - linked together. The 'sheep led to the slaughter' quote is from near the beginning of a long passage about when the Messiah comes. Toward the end of that passage it talks about eunuchs:
Let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.
So, when the Messiah comes then the rules banning eunuchs will change, and outsiders like him will be welcomed and honoured. If Jesus is the Messiah, as Philip's 'good news' claims, then Jesus changes everything, especially for the 'others', the outsiders, the excluded, the different. Now they are to be welcomed into God's people ... and they are to invite and welcome others, especially the outsiders and the excluded.

According to the Bible, that is precisely what Jesus did, and what the early Church did after him. It is sad then that today's 'churches' are better known for excluding those who are different than they are for including them. Yes, there are many churches who follow Jesus in being genuinely welcoming to all, including those who are different, whose 'face doesn't fit'; but the pretend churches - really Pharisees in disguise - are louder and more often heard.

The challenge for all of us - church-goers or not - is how to welcome and show respect to those who are 'others', in whatever way:-


Thursday, 1 November 2012

A Week Of Windows 8

'Do not try this at home', as they used to say on Brainiac before blowing stuff up in a microwave, or something equally daft. Last Friday Microsoft released Windows 8, its new and rather different take on Windows. And last Friday I downloaded Windows 8 and did an upgrade install on my oldish Vista PC.

A daft idea, usually, but my job is to support people with PC problems and that is much easier if I have already met those problems myself. It also looks dead impressive if someone contacts me with a really weird issue with the new Windows and I fix it in 5 minutes flat (carefully not mentioning the hair-tearing hours I had previously spent at home when I first hit that issue myself).

It is always good advice with new software to give it a few months to get the bugs ironed out before trying to use it yourself - they don't call it the 'bleeding edge' for nothing. Also, my recommendation is that you should never do an 'upgrade install' of Windows from a previous version - it's asking for a world of pain - and, if at all possible, you should install on current generation hardware. Typically Microsoft release Windows to run properly on the hardware which they think will be around about 6 months to a year after first release. A PC which was originally built when Vista first came out - even if it has been upgraded significantly since - is likely to have issues. Microsoft, though, state a minimum hardware spec. that my PC considerably exceeds.

The download and upgrade install took me about 2 hours, roughly an hour downloading and answering questions, and another hour leaving it to get on with it. Impressively, it just worked. No installation problems at all (apparently).

Logging on for the first time was a bit tedious, as it insisted on my giving them a Microsoft username and password. It is possible to skip this and just set up a 'local' account, but that brings its own issues.

Then you reach the start screen ... yeuch! A solid colour background overlaid with lots of plain, flat monochrome boxes, with writing and/or crude icons in them. I can imagine it doesn't look too bad on a 4" smartphone, or even a 7" tablet, but on anything bigger it looks like a child's drawing. Some of the boxes are 'live tiles' where the writing changes and sometimes pictures pop up (sports news is one); nearly all of them go straight to one of the rather naff Microsoft/Xbox/Bing 'apps' installed by default.

One of the boxes/tiles is a 'desktop' tile which takes you to a more familiar Windows desktop, although without a Start button. It's also without all the attractive 3D and transparency effects familiar from the Vista and W7 desktops - everything is very flat and old-fashioned looking, presumably to support the limited graphics hardware of phones and tablets.

Another tile is the Mail App, which should be really useful but isn't. The problem is that you click on it, it asks you what kind of email you use, and if you click on POP3 (far and away the commonest) it tells you that it doesn't work with that, so you should tell your email provider to give you something different. Talk about arrogance!

As mentioned, I chose an upgrade installation, keeping documents and settings, but losing all installed programs. This left lots of 'dead' icons on the main desktop and a lot of unusable games and programs on my 'D' drive (the 'C' drive programs had been archived out of the way into a folder called 'windows.old'). So there was a certain amount of cleaning up and reinstallation to do, but nothing terribly difficult.

There has been a lot of fuss in the media about the 'missing' Start menu; actually the blocky startup screen is really just the Start menu laid out inefficiently. You can press the 'Windows' key or click in the bottom left corner of the screen to toggle between the Desktop and Start views. From the Start screen you can view everything installed by right-clicking a blank area then selecting 'All apps' - which actually shows all programs, not just apps.

I mentioned that the default apps are pretty useless; the ones in the Microsoft App Store, at present, are not much cop either. Basically I had to go online and download programs I needed, in the old way. Windows Live Essentials can be downloaded for its decent email program, Windows Live Mail (which simply carried over the old settings from Vista's Windows Mail). Kaspersky installed with no problems, as did Firefox, iTunes, Steam and various games. Although the Start screen defaults to naff Xbox music and video apps, Windows Media Player is still available: just right-click on the Xbox versions and uninstall them, search for 'Media' - you search apps by simply typing from the Start screen and it goes straight to search - then right-click the Windows Media Player result and choose 'Pin to Start'.

With a bit of effort, it is not too tricky to set up a usable Windows 8 system, but two big irritants remain. The first is that it is slow. Reports say that Windows 8 is quick, but not on my hardware it isn't. Vista was probably slightly quicker, but what really makes W8 a pain is that sometimes you click on something and nothing happens for several seconds. Did I miss the click somehow? No, it eventually acknowledges me and starts to work, but that 'dead' time when I don't know if my program has started or not is very frustrating.

The other irritant is that the corners of the screen make Windows 8 app-related things happen. So I go to close a program by clicking on the cross in the top-right corner and I get the odd W8 sidebar instead; or I want to display the blank desktop by clicking in the bottom right corner and again get that sidebar, or the first icon on the quick-launch bar is just as likely to give me the Start screen because it is in the bottom left corner, and so on.

The old 'Blue Screen Of Death' (BSOD), with all its scary techie info and its really unhelpful hints for solving the problem is now gone. You still get a blue screen - although a softer, less scary blue - when the system crashes, but now it has a big sad emoticon :( and just tells you it has gone wrong and is shutting down. I guess you could call this the 'Blue Screen Of Sadness' (BSOS). I've only had this once in the week, which is pretty good I reckon. I have had several problems with waking up from sleep (I had to change a BIOS setting for that) and with hibernation (I fixed that by turning hibernation off). Windows update doesn't quite seem to be working right, and there are a few odd errors in the error log. But so far I think this seems to be the most stable properly new version of Windows ever.

In summary, after a week with Windows 8 I am finding it usable, but ugly, and with some irritating habits. I see no reason why anyone would want to change to it from Windows 7 (on a desktop); even from Vista or XP getting a shiny new PC would be the only convincing reason to upgrade, in my view.

It is clear to me that Microsoft view their desktop users as being essentially captive, there is no serious competition so we'll have to accept what we're given. Windows 8 is all about tablets and phones; personally I prefer Android, but those are the platforms where Windows 8 makes a lot more sense.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo


The movie remake:  ✮✮✮✩✩

This is a pleasantly entertaining mid-Atlantic remake of the 2009 Scandinavian original, sticking quite well to the events of Stieg Larsson's best-selling novel but losing much of its roots, its soul and its social conscience. Note that the 18 certificate is justified: sexual violence is a key theme of the story.

I watched the original film of this a year or so back, and found it powerful but rather confusing. Still, I was impressed enough that I then got the book, which made a bit more sense, followed by the rest of the Millennium trilogy. Now that the new film is available on Lovefilm I thought I'd give it a go, to see what that was like.

The first problem that struck me was the main characters. Lisbeth Salander is an angry, violent and incredibly intelligent young woman, walled off from most meaningful personal contact after many years of abuse and betrayal. Rooney Mara plays her as weak and sulky; in an early scene of rape and revenge she comes across as being mostly interested in money.

The other main character, Mikael Blomkvist, is a middle-aged investigative journalist. He's reasonably fit for his age but a most unlikely hero. He's a rather passive, courteous, stubborn man; a foil in many ways for the many powerful and abusive men who also people the novel - and, of course, a massive contrast with the angry Lisbeth. Daniel Craig tries hard, but he really doesn't fit; when he backs down from confrontation it jars.

Then there's the storyline. Watching this film it looks as though the scriptwriter has been through the book (it's a thick book) and extracted the main events that make up the basic story. Then it seems he just strung them together in a way which made 'movie sense', leaving out the themes about corruption, about hacking, about sexual violence against women, and about right-wing politics. They've turned a powerful crusading novel into a slightly strange, and safely foreign, 'entertainment'.

The feel of the film is curiously rootless. It doesn't have the dark brooding buildup of pace we are becoming accustomed to from Scandinavian drama, but it also doesn't have the action or shape of a US movie, nor the quirkiness of something from the UK. The lighting is gloomy and most of the actors speak with a slight Scandinavian accent, but to be honest it could have been made anywhere.

All that said, the film was entertaining: a pleasant enough way to spend two and a half hours. So three stars it is. Also, I'm now rereading the book, and plan to rewatch the original Swedish film version again, so this film can't be all bad.

Monday, 24 September 2012

What's The Point?

So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death. 
Pink Floyd
Time
That was Pink Floyd's cheerful take on life nearly forty years ago, in 1973. Slightly less than two and a half millenia earlier, a sage calling himself Qoheleth wrote:
What do people gain from all their labours at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.

 
The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south and turns to the north;
round and round it goes, ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from, there they return again.

 
All things are wearisome, more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.

 
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.

Ecclesiastes
Chapter 1
More recently (last week) Addie Zierman wrote about the repetitive nature of "this mothering business", on her How to Talk Evangelical blog:
The kids are so little and dependent, and this season of life spreads before me, vast in its sameness. Let’s count the pennies, the socks, the grapes on your plate. One, three…no, we forgot two!…Two, one, three…

It’s No, we don’t hit your brother and Do you need to go potty? a hundred thousand times a day. It’s the only four foods he’ll eat, rotating in tiny, identical circles. It’s the same clothes cycling again and again through the wash, put away in the same place.

It seems to me that time is like one of those tight-wound helical springs, or maybe a very long spiral staircase, going round and round and each loop looks just the same, but actually you have moved imperceptibly upward, closer to the destination. Or you can imagine (somewhat anthropomorphically) the mechanism in a newly fertilised egg: "round and around I go, base pair to base pair, loop after loop, creating endless proteins, gene after gene, chromosome after chromosome, on and on it goes." But at the end of it all, hopefully, there is the miracle of a new baby, with its own routines and its own cycles.

I'm of an age for mid-life crises, for wondering why I'm here, what has it all been about, what on earth is the point of it all? And would I understand the point, even if I could see it?

The thing is, sometimes things change because of one person making a big decision, but most times it is many, many small decisions, made by many people, each decision seemingly unimportant. Especially when that decision is to not do something, to not stand up for what is right, or to not help someone you see in need. Those are the decisions which can really make a difference, and they happen most often buried in the midst of those routines of everyday life.
Nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all
The needle returns to the start of the song
And we all sing along like before
Nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all
They'll burn down the synagogues at six o'clock
And we'll all go along like before

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Democracy, Trust & Voting

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg's recent 'apology', set to music:-


"If we've lost your trust, that's how I hope we can start to win it back"

What, by giving an insincere-sounding 'apology', three years late? Hardly! He could start by resigning as party leader, and the Liberal-Democrat party could then deselect every MP who broke their pledge. That might be a start. This nonsense was just a belated realisation that people actually care about broken promises and that, come the next election, he and his fellow Lib-Dem MPs are likely to lose their jobs.

For those who don't follow British politics, or who have short memories, a quick summary. Back before the last election here, all of the candidates for the Liberal Democrat party (the smaller 'third party' in British politics) signed a clear and unambiguous pledge saying that, if elected, they would vote against any rise in university tuition fees (for more detail see an earlier post). After the election neither main party had enough MPs to form a stable government, so the Conservatives and Lib-Dems formed a coalition. That coalition then came up with proposals to triple university tuition fees. In spite of their pledge, the majority of Lib-Dem MPs failed to vote against this; some voted for, others abstained.

Why does this matter? All sorts of reasons, really. But the most important, I think, is that it reduces trust in our parliamentary system, and in democracy. The Lib-Dems did very well in the last election, particularly among young, first-time voters, and in areas with a big student population. At the time they had an image of being a bit different to the other parties: less cynical, less in it for themselves, more trustworthy. Then, after the election, they particularly betrayed these young voters, and they showed that even a party which appears more trustworthy will sell out its voters as soon as the election is over, given an opportunity of power.

How can we expect those youngsters to have any future trust in a political system which is that cynical? "They're all the same, what's the point of voting," seems like a reasonable response. Except that actually they're not all the same. There are a whole pile of extremist groups waiting in the wings: politically extreme, left and right, and extreme religious parties too. The fewer mainstream voters who bother to go out and vote, the greater the influence of these extremists. That's the way the UK parliamentary system works. And a hypocritical party leader, and his train of power-hungry MPs, in selling out those young voters who believed in him, was hammering another nail into our already damaged democracy. That matters, in my view.

I have my own views about the different mainstream UK political parties, but in one way I would agree that they are 'all the same': they all reflect, more or less imperfectly, the views and ideals of the mainstream of British society. And they are all far, far better for this country than the extremists, with their reflections of the worst of humanity. A democracy which involves most of the population may be horribly flawed but it remains, as Churchill pointed out:
"... the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Paralympian Excellence


The video above shows Oscar Pistorius running 400m in 46.68 seconds, on blades rather than feet, at the London 2012 Paralympics. Meanwhile David Weir completed the wheelchair marathon on 1 hour 30 minutes and 20 seconds, and Ellie Simmonds swam 100m in just under 1 minute and 15 seconds. It gives a whole new meaning to the word 'disability'.

Of course these are not just any 'disabled' athletes, but the cream of them making the most of their opportunity to excel at the sports they love. That, I think, is the point of the Paralympics: it gives people a chance to excel on the world stage who would otherwise be excluded (Pistorius being the exception). Athletes can demonstrate the greatness of their spirit who are outside the standard Olympic parameters.

The Paralympics are the pinnacle of a pyramid, one which spreads throughout the UK and many other countries as well. A pyramid which challenges athletes to achieve their potential, to prove their abilities. The best of them move up the pyramid, and the best of the best take part in the Paralympics. But everyone taking part in parasports, at any level, has that opportunity to excel. As long as they work at it.

In recent years there's been a strange idea that if we "only believe" we can achieve great things. The strength of the human spirit is said to be so overwhelming that self-belief is enough to achieve greatness. Or, in its religious version, that faith and prayer are all that is needed to get God to fix things for us.

Life just doesn't work like that. Surely the message of the Paralympics is that yes, the human spirit is wonderful, and yes, we need to believe in ourselves, but these only make a difference if we work incredibly hard to make things happen. The effort, self-discipline and sheer hard slog required of a Paralympian are frightening, but what they achieved with that effort was even more inspiring.

Surely every one of us had some sort of "if they can do that, what is stopping me from doing x" moment during these games. The human spirit, backed by hard graft, can indeed achieve unexpected greatness; just as faith and prayer, worked out in trust, can change the world around us.

You are a remarkable person: you can excel, given belief, hard work, and the spirit within you.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Framing Scripture II - The Big Picture

It seems to me that one of the reasons for the lack of meaningful communication between ("Christian") religious left and religious right is that the two groups are viewing scripture from within two very different frameworks. I would argue that these frameworks correspond to the two framing narratives around the whole of the Bible.

If you look at the first two chapters of the Bible they describe God's creation of the earth (in either literal or metaphorical terms, it doesn't really matter), and describe that creation as 'very good'. Mankind's relationships are wholesome and as they should be: with God, with one another and with the natural world. Peace and justice reign.

If you then jump to the end of the Bible, the last two chapters, they describe a world in which peace and justice once more reign: heaven and earth have been restored, relationships between God, mankind, and the natural world are as they should be. At the end of the story, as at the beginning, the world is very good.

To many on the left, or progressive, wings of Christian practice, this narrative of restoring the world by restoring relationships, by promoting justice and peace, is their guiding principle. Following the prophets, they proclaim the need for justice and compassion for the poor; they promote equal and just standing before God, and within human society, for men and women, black and white, straight and gay; and they emphasise proper and responsible stewardship of the natural world. This is all good, but incomplete.

If you move on to the third chapter in Genesis, you come to another, very different, framing narrative for the Bible. In this story sin and death come into the world, for God had warned them, "You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die." Yet eat they did (again, whether this story is to be taken literally or metaphorically is irrelevant - not least because creation before chapter three is so different from today that language is inadequate to properly describe whatever it was that happened in it).

Again, jump to the third chapter from the end of the Bible and this frame completes. The Fall is undone, but in the process the warning is fulfilled: "Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire."

This second frame informs the worldview of the religious right, with their emphasis on sin and death and hell, but also their emphasis on the need for Jesus to provide an escape from that 'second death' through his death on the cross.

If you look at the world around you, and at the people around you, there is beauty and ugliness, good and evil, constructive and destructive behaviours all intertwined. Our world is in the grip of these two different framing narratives, of life and hope versus death and despair. And it is Jesus, through his death and resurrection, who provides the way from the inner narrative of death to the outer narrative of life and peace.

Also, the Holy Spirit provides the way for us to be a part of that process, a part of the transformation of creation from the death of Genesis 3 and Revelation 20, to the new life (here on earth, incidentally) of Revelation 21/22.
To be continued ...

Friday, 31 August 2012

South Africa: Plus Ça Change

George Orwell had it right:
The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
Or, if you prefer your cultural references musical:
Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss
Earlier this month South African police shot at a group of striking mineworkers, killing 34 and creating comparisons with the apartheid era. Yesterday, the South African prosecutors reinforced those comparisons by charging 270 of the surviving protesters with murder, using an old apartheid-era 'common purpose' law - a law which the ANC once campaigned against as unjust. That was before they got their own hands on power, of course.

Once it was a white minority enriching themselves at the expense of the (mostly black) South African people. Now, in the post-apartheid era, there is a wealthy (mostly black) minority doing exactly the same. As they say, colour is only skin deep.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Framing Scripture I - The Road To Jericho

I do get frustrated when people rip bits out of the Bible and try to justify or make arguments with them without considering their context. At its worst this is simple 'proof-texting' - essentially taking an opinion then trying to claim that "God agrees with me and here's the proof". But even fuller consideration of a passage can completely miss the point if done without looking at its proper framing.

For example (from Luke 10:30-35):
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
What is this? It looks like a news report of a mugging and its aftermath. There are those who want to treat the entire Bible as a combination of news report, science manual, and rulebook, yet most Scripture is so much richer than that.

To understand this story we need to look at its frame, the text before and after:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”
In reply Jesus said:

...

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise."
Clearly it is a teaching story, about loving your neighbour, not a factual news report. That's what the story frame tells us.

In the wider context of our knowledge of the prejudices of the time, we know that Samaritans were scorned by many Jews, which gives the story its punch. But we can also read Luke's writings more broadly and see the emphasis on Jesus' acceptance of those who were, for various reasons, seen as 'outsiders' and scorned, and their inclusion into the early church. There is even a context in Jewish history where something very similar to this story - although on a larger scale - actually happened following a battle between Judea and Samaria (see 2 Chronicles 28:10-15).

Context and framing matter for anyone who truly wants to understand the Scriptures, or even to avoid being misled about what the Bible says.

Actually, there is a much bigger frame - or more accurately two frames - which go around the whole of Bible itself. Just as you cannot expect anyone to understand Luke's story of a mugging victim without seeing the story frame that fits around it, so you need to recognise the overall framing narrative of the whole Bible to gain a proper perspective on all it tells us.
To be continued ...

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Windows 7 Gets The Black Screen Of Death Too!


Well, probably.

In this case it was a Vista laptop which the supplier had upgraded in-place to Windows 7 before supplying it (which seems dubious to me) and then the owner had upgraded again to Windows 7 Professional. So it is still just possible that a clean Windows 7 installation is a little more robust than Vista to these extremely aggravating KSODs (blacK Screens Of Death).

I wrote about KSODs in Vista way back, here and here. Essentially there are two flavours, both showing the characteristic black screen with just a white mouse pointer moving around it. The important difference between the two is that one occurs before you log into Windows, the other after. If the black screen occurs after you log on, you have a fighting chance (although it may still be difficult to fix). If the black screen is before you log in then you are in trouble: basically all of Windows' security is aimed at stopping you from changing anything.

In the case of the Vista KSOD-before-login linked above, I never actually managed to fix it - which was deeply frustrating. So this time, when I got a Windows 7 KSOD-before-login I was concerned, but hopeful that I could find a way around it this time.

I did eventually get Windows to boot ... unfortunately not until I had essentially given up, so I ended up trying several things at once and it's not clear which made the difference. And I certainly don't plan to try to recreate the KSOD again just to check them out.

But if you have a KSOD yourself, Vista or Win7, then hopefully some of this may help you do things a little more systematically and find a consistent solution.

IMPORTANT: do not do any of this unless you really know what you are doing in the technical nitty-gritty of a Windows 7 computer and unless you recognise that is you mess anything up it is entirely your own responsibility.

The least damaging of these possible fixes is simply to repair the partition boot sector (I suggest you refrain from fixing the MBR unless you really have to, as many manufacturers put special code in there for recovery partitions and the like). From the W7 repair console this is simply a matter of typing:
Bootrec /Fixboot
Reboot and see if this has helped. This is such a simple thing that it is probably the best first thing to try. Then try the fixes in my earlier post, linked to above, in case one of those helps you. If not, the other thing I did was much more drastic: I opened up file permissions to everyone in the Windows and root folders. This will make a mess of Windows and you will need to do a repair installation to (maybe) fix it - so it is very much a last resort.

First, try:-
 ICACLS C:\ /grant "Everyone":F
Then, from the root directory:-
ICACLS *.* /grant "Everyone":F
And finally, from the \Windows directory:-
ICACLS *.* /grant "Everyone":F /t /c
It is unlikely that you need all of these so try them one at a time and see if one of them does the trick.

If you do find a solution to the pre-login KSOD please leave a comment to let me, and others, know how worked for you.



Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Monday, 9 July 2012

Caversham Festival 2012

It's funny how being even a very tiny part of an event gives one a much greater feeling of interest and involvement. I was a programme-seller at one of the festival entrances - the festival itself was free, but there was a £1 programme, including a CD featuring the artists - and it was fascinating to see that small glimpse of the organised chaos that lies behind the scenes.

Caversham Festival 2012 was organised by Readipop - a music and arts charity based in Reading - with support from Churches Together in Caversham (CTC), as well as the many Caversham traders and small businesses who set out their stalls, literally, as part of the event. There was lots of music from local bands; the churches ran sports-themed activities, plus a couple of ginormous inflatable bouncy-castle-type-thingies, and started the festival with an open air service; and the stalls either sold stuff or sought to get people involved in their activities. It all felt very much a Caversham community event. I don't know how many people turned up - between showers and Murray in the Wimbledon final - but there seemed to me to be a real bustle about the place.

Unfortunately (in an entertaining way) when the churches set up a quiet tent in their area, presumably to give people a chance to chill out away from that bustle, they put it right next to the children's activity/sports area. It was the noisiest 'quiet tent' I have ever seen.

Since all the bands were local (apart from one import from far-flung Bristol) their quality was very much an unknown (apart from Amy's Ghost). On the other hand, with three different stages there was a good choice. Unfortunately I was programme-selling when Nicki Rogers played her set - I'm told she was very good; we saw her many years ago when she was just starting out and she was impressive then.

After I finished my stint, and had wandered past a couple of acts that really didn't appeal, I came across Private Jet on the Main Stage. Very Zeppelin-esque rock (my daughter hated the singer's seventies-style open sequinned top) played extremely well. Definitely a band I'll be looking out for in the future - I've 'liked' them on Facebook so hopefully I'll be notified of upcoming local gigs.

After Private Jets finished I wandered over to the Festival Stage to catch the end of the Subverts' set. The band were described as 'pop rock' so my expectations were low; it was a pleasant surprise to find really lively, well-performed, indie-style rock music. To be fair, they did play catchy tunes with lots of energy, so 'pop rock' really is a decent description - it's not their fault that the label is also applied to inferior bands.

Then I was back to the Main Stage for Amy's Ghost. Lots of percussion, keyboards and cellos combine with Amy Barton's distinctive vocal style and beautifully-crafted songs to give a remarkable and enjoyable performance which I can't even begin to pigeon-hole.Your best bet is to click on the video at the top of this post to see a slightly out-of-date glimpse of them live. Very entertaining, the show even came with its own post-modern, deconstructionist moment when the keyboard/percussionist threw a drum off the stage and moved over to one side before carrying on giving it welly.

By this point I was getting very tired, so I wandered around a bit trying to find my teenage daughter, whilst enjoying Dead Maids' music coming from the Festival Stage and what I assume, from the timing, was Dolly and the Clothes Pegs on the Floating Stage. I finally found her in the littley's play area, sitting on a dragon. She wanted to stay chatting so I headed home, thoroughly knackered but having had a good day.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Jimmy Carr & Financial Advisors

I wonder if one of the great divides in modern society is between those who believe that paying taxes is an unreasonable burden to be avoided by any means possible, and those for whom taxes are their contribution to the society in which they live and work.

For example, according to Stephen Pollard, writing in The Express:
Let me be blunt: only a fool would pay more tax than he has to. The Government sets the rules and the rest of us follow them. Who would choose to hand over more money than the law requires?
Whereas Channel 4 News reports tweets by comedians Frankie Boyle:
It's ok to avoid tax providing every time you do a joke about a town being shit you add "Partly down to me I'm afraid" under your breath"
and John Robins (in response to someone asking ""why is everyone acting as though @JimmyCarr has killed a baby?!"):
Because babies die in underfunded hospitals
Jimmy Carr's initial response to his outing as part of the K2 tax avoidance scheme is reported by the Mirror to have been very much in the 'only a fool' tradition:
I pay what I have to and not a penny more.
By the following day Carr had changed his approach, as reported in Metro:
'I met with a financial adviser and he said to me "Do you want to pay less tax? It's totally legal." I said "Yes."
'I now realise I've made a terrible error of judgement.'
Hopefully this was a change of heart arising from spending time thinking things through, although cynicism suggests that he may simply have reflected that a comedian with no credibility is unlikely to have any use for tax avoidance schemes, legal, ethical, or otherwise.

But what about the financial advisor? Presumably s/he thought they were just doing their job by coming up with wildly unethical ways for their clients to avoid paying their taxes to the government - I guess it 'justifies' the money being paid instead to the advisor. So maybe the advisor feels duty bound to suggest such schemes and the client, knowing little about financial matters - that's why they are paying a financial advisor after all -  just thinks "saving a bit of cash, fair enough" and agrees.

As Cliff D'Arcy puts it in the Daily Mail:
Indeed, the tax system is seen as a 'game of cat and mouse' by tax advisers, who get paid very well to find new loopholes as and when HMRC closes old ones.
But D'Arcy puts this 'game' into context for the rest of us:
It's reckoned that aggressive tax-avoidance plans such as K2 could be costing the UK as much as £4.5billion a year in lost taxes. That's enough to reduce the basic rate of income tax from 20 per cent to 18.5 per cent overnight.
Many years ago, when I earned rather more money than I do now, I had a financial advisor used to visit. Once we'd got past the initial gimmicks she was well-informed and useful: with good advice about how to balance long and short-term savings, for example, and making sure credit cards are paid off in full each month. Nothing terribly special, perhaps, but I learnt a lot which came in handy later when my income dropped fairly drastically. So maybe financial advisors come in two sorts also: those who see their job as being to help their clients ethically and with integrity, and those who just want to get clients and make money.

The difference, incidentally, between ways of reducing tax paid that I consider ethical and those which I do not lies in their contribution to wider society. For example, in the UK an ISA is a way of encouraging individuals to save by reducing the tax paid on interest earned in qualifying savings schemes. They were deliberately set up by the UK government because such savings are seen as being good for the nation as a whole, and they are simple and straightforward in operation. K2, and other avoidance schemes, are none of those.

I started by considering two sides of a great divide on paying tax: those who want to pay their way, and those who want to avoid responsibility. Actually I think there is a third group, probably much larger than either: those who will follow the crowd. Nobody really likes paying tax, but tax is a vital foundation of a functioning society. So either people think it through, coming down on one side or the other of my divide, or they just drift. If Jimmy Carr's 'terrible error of judgement' has the effect of encouraging people to drift towards paying their way in society that would be a useful start.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Love The Sinner But Hate The Sin?

The total transformation that occurs within a chrysalis has always amazed me. A caterpillar ties itself up with a little silk, then its whole internal structure is reworked into something totally new. After a period of weeks or months the new butterfly is revealed, yet it is formed from just the same stuff as the old caterpillar - everything is reused except for a little silk and the outer skin. There's a wonderful description of the process, by Dr Lincoln Brower, here.

Comparisons between the caterpillar/butterfly metamorphosis and resurrection have been made before, of course, but these usually involve the thoroughly unbiblical image of some sort of immaterial butterfly casting off the shackles of material existence to fly free into heaven. It's a pretty image, and I can see why those who just want to escape from the world might like it. The God of the Bible, though, isn't interested in helping us escape from the world, he wants to renew the world, and us as well.

Jesus was the first true resurrection and he is the model for how it works. After he had been raised his tomb was empty and he was recognisably and physically human ... although changed in some odd way, maybe best described as more than human, but never less.

So for us the biggest, most important transformation to look forward to at resurrection is not the change to our bodies, but the change to our hearts and minds. That is where we will soar like a butterfly, rather than an earthbound caterpillar - doubtless the new improved body promised will be great (especially for those of us who are middle-aged or more), but renewal starts with the heart.

So why the post title: 'Love the sinner but hate the sin?' - what does that well-known phrase have to do with butterflies?

Over on Jared Byas' blog, he recently wrote a post with this same title (apart from the '?') which got me thinking and commenting to the extent that it became clear I really ought to do my own blog post. The heart of his argument is that the separation between sin and sinner is spurious, and a denial of the embracing power of God's love:
If we don’t accept that deep down we are still sinners and that sin is a part of our identity and yet Jesus still loves us, then we will keep naively and unintentionally hurting a lot people. By definition, sinners have sin as a part of who they are. So if you use this cliché, what you really mean is that I will love this part of your life but I will hate that part of your life. Or should I say, that’s often what people hear you saying. And you wonder why people find Christians judgemental and not very Christ-like? ... We are all sinners. We are all sin. We are all loved. All of us.
Jesus once said that the things we do and say come out of our hearts, from who we are. So separating 'sin' from 'sinner' is indeed spurious. So how can God love us (and our neighbours)? Does God love sin?

I think a good part of the answer to this lies in the transforming power of the Resurrection. Some churches and churchgoers talk in terms of judgement: God destroying anything that is tainted by evil. Yet resurrection promises transformation: God changing evil to good. It is like the chrysalis: all of the caterpillar is used in making the butterfly, nothing is rejected. So it is that God can see the potential for goodness and beauty in all that we are, even the parts that seem dark and ugly, and so He loves us - all that we are - and sends Jesus to save us, so that we may be made beautifully new.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Wave Particle Duality For Beginners

I started off trying to do a post about determinism, and it's religious equivalent, predestination. But I soon found I was having to spend too many words trying to describe wave-particle duality and quantum uncertainty, so I'll try hiving that off into this post. So here we go, one of the deepest, most mysterious and least understood areas of modern physics, explained for the intelligent non-scientist in a little under 750 words! And a jolly nice picture of a t-shirt to boot.

So, what's wave-particle duality all about? Essentially it just says that things (more later about what 'things') sometimes act like a waves - spreading out, reflecting, refracting, diffracting, interfering with other waves, that sort of thing - and sometimes act like particles, travelling in straight, narrow lines, bouncing off one another, and so on, rather like billiard balls (or pool balls).

Victorian-era scientists 'knew' that light was a wave and that atoms and electrons were particles. They also 'knew' that the job of scientists was pretty much over, as all scientific principles had been discovered ... this was before electronics, before the nuclear atom, before relativity, before television. It's amazing what people 'know' sometimes. Around about a century ago several (mostly young) scientists spoilt the party by discovering that the world is a lot stranger than anyone had realised.

A guy called Max Planck threw the first spanner in the works by showing that when a body (such as the filament of a light bulb) emits light, it does so in discrete lumps, known as photons, whose energy depends only on the frequency of the light. Then Albert Einstein showed that when light was absorbed by metal, kicking out an electron in the photoelectric effect, it was also absorbed in photons. Essentially light is created as particles, travels in waves, and is absorbed as particles again. This was revolutionary and took a long time to be accepted. Nevertheless, when the experiments were carried out that is what they showed: light behaves as waves in some circumstances but as particles in others.

Particles rule okay? Well, no, not really. A few years later, Neils Bohr - who didn't actually believe in photons - showed that electrons in an atom orbit around a dense, positively charged, central nucleus, but they can only do so in certain discreet orbits. So the electron can't zoom around any old where. Years later Louis de Broglie showed that these allowed orbits could be explained if the electrons behaved like waves which were only stable if their orbit was a whole number of wavelengths. I.e. at the end of one orbit around the nucleus the wave function was exactly back where it started. He generalised this to say that all moving particles can be described as matter waves, a hypothesis which was later demonstrated to be true when electrons were fired through a diffraction grating, resulting in a wave interference pattern. So, electrons, amongst other things, behave as particles in some circumstances but as waves in others.

All very well and good, but where does determinism come into it? Well, the essence of determinism is that the laws of nature are completely predictable: if you could know the exact properties of every entity in the universe at any one time, you could predict their properties at every other time. In other words, determinism says: "everything is fixed and you can't change it".

Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg extended de Broglie's work and made it more precise. In doing so they had to deal with a difficulty in the transition from wave-like behaviour to particle-like. A wave is spread out whereas a particle is at a single location. Somehow the wave function of a matter wave must 'collapse' into a particle at a point. They showed that the matter wave acted as a probability distribution: the actual position in which a particle appeared was random, more likely where the matter wave was biggest, less likely where it was smaller, but still essentially indeterminate.

Einstein and de Broglie both hated this randomness; Einstein famously said that "God does not play dice with the universe". The trouble is that as the years go on and as quantum theory becomes more refined and more tested, that fundamental randomness remains. The transition from wave behaviour to particle behaviour is inherently unpredictable.

Our best scientific description of the universe is that its behaviour is not predetermined; there is room for free will.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Is The West Making Syrian Suffering Worse?

The 'Arab Spring' hit Syria in March last year when security forces arrested and tortured a group of teenagers - for painting revolutionary slogans on their school's walls. They opened fire on the resulting protest march, killing four, and again at a funeral for the victims, killing at least one more. As a display of brutal incompetence by the Syrian regime it is hard to see how this could have been beaten.

Before that commentators were generally agreed that Syria was unlikely to be seriously affected by the changes affecting the more southerly autocratic regimes in the region. Although far from democratic, President Bashar Al-Assad was seen as reasonably popular within Syria, had already brought in some mild reform, and represented stability and security in a large country with a varied population. Opposition and protest groups were fragmented and localised; Syrians saw the possibility of breakdown, even civil war, and were thought to be horrified at the risk. The horrible example of neighbouring Iraq made it all too clear what could happen.

The trouble is that all those arguments still stand, except that Assad isn't doing so well at imposing security himself. Syria is currently headed toward anarchy and civil war, and Western intervention is just making chaos more likely. The Independent reports that the death toll to date is thought to be around 10,000, whilst a further 1.5 million are estimated to need 'urgent humanitarian assistance'.

Meanwhile the spotlight of the Western media is on every minor uprising, encouraging revolt to happen and criticising every attempt to prevent rebellion from growing. The publicising of the violence leads to pressure from consumers of the media to 'do something', without any idea what that 'something' is. So now Western leaders are again talking about 'regime change'.

We've been here before, in Iraq. Years of sanctions which hit the poorest, and limited oil-sale schemes which benefited the corrupt, until finally the West got the invasion it wanted and Iraqis got anarchy. At least in Iraq the regime had been genuinely evil: something like a million people had suffered and died under Saddam Hussein, so the half-million plus who died under US rule could, arguably, be said to be vaguely proportionate.

Under Bashar Al-Assad, the only report of significant regime killings I can find was at the 2004 Al-Qamishli riots, where clashes between Arabs and Kurds, combined with police brutality, led to some 30 deaths (some reports set the figure as high as a hundred). Since the Western media focussed on Syria the death toll is well up in the thousands; if full-scale civil war or other form of anarchy breaks out then that will be in the hundreds of thousands, maybe even worse. Brutal suppression of rebellion can be bloody; sometimes the alternative can be worse.

It is notable that the diplomatic games around Syria refuse to involve Iran: if there was a serious interest in peace then Iran and Russia are the two states with a realistic chance of making a difference, but peace and justice are really not the name of the game here. If they were then the focus would be much more on the Arab Gulf states, particularly Bahrain, where a tiny but immensely wealthy regime oppresses the majority of citizens with little more than token complaints from its Western 'friends'.

I'm not saying that Assad is a good leader, nor that Syria is anything other than autocratic and corrupt. But what's happening there now isn't part of an 'Arab Spring' movement toward democracy. It's small localised revolts which are gradually growing towards outright civil war; and civil war is very bad indeed for the people of a country.

So, next time you see a news report of deaths in Syria, before you indulge in self-righteous indignation and claim 'something must be done' ... just take a moment to think that it is likely that your 'something' will just make matters worse. By responding like that you may well be a part of the problem.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Sower and The Seed II

'Israel' in the New Testament almost always refers to the people (the descendants of Israel, aka Jacob Ben-Isaac) not to a country. This is hardly surprising, as no country called Israel had existed for more than seven centuries, and even back then it had specifically excluded Jews, who inhabitanted the separate kingdom of Judah. Jews, however, were always part of the people Israel.

The exception to the above is in the second chapter of Matthew's gospel, where he talks about the return of Jesus' family from exile in Egypt to 'the land of Israel' - as a clear reference to the old Exodus journey.

When Jesus told his parable about the sower and the seed, many in the crowd would have been familiar with the writing of the prophet Isaiah. Many years before, Isaiah had written a poem, known as 'The Song of the Vineyard', which talked about Israel as a vineyard which would only bear bad fruit. Therefore God had abandoned it and given it over to being trampled, filled with weeds, and dried out.

Why, in Jesus' parable, was the land so neglected? Because when God looked to Israel in that time for justice and righteousness, nothing had changed: He found only bloodshed and cries of distress.

Yet Jesus still came to scatter the seed. Much of it was wasted, perhaps - this was not good land. But there were still places, here and there, maybe where it was least expected, in which seed did manage to take root, to grow and to bear good fruit. Israel's leaders may have rejected Jesus and handed him over to be crucified, but there was still a remnant of Israel to remain faithful and to receive God's Spirit: new life for them and for the world.

And so it seems to continue: the seed is scattered and people respond in different ways: some with indifference, some with enthusiasm; some bear good fruit, others very bad - as a knowledge of church history makes only too clear.

But I'm not sure the story ends there. I think (after discussing the passage with others) that there is another, higher note in the chord - one which is maybe more directly relevant to our lives today.

Jesus' death and resurrection changes everything, and that change is enabled by God's Spirit poured into people's hearts. It seems to me that the farmer is at work again: clearing stones and removing weeds. God's Spirit waters and cleanses lives, allowing fruit to grow in the most unlikely places.

There are people in churches today who are sure of their own righteousness (in Jesus, of course), and of their own suitability to grow fruit for God. Maybe they are right. But there are many others, inside and outside churches, who are all too aware of their own limitations, who assume their own unsuitability to be God's garden.

The truth is that it is often those who are most aware of their need for help who will bear the most fruit, because they will let the Spirit do the work. Jesus changes everything: it is the flawed and the insecure who are the most important in His Kingdom. If that is you, then be glad. Watch out for, and celebrate, God at work within you. Be open with those around you, about your flaws and about your growth, that they may share in your encouragement.

God is good and God is love ... sometimes we forget.

Friday, 8 June 2012

The Sower And The Seed I

The vast majority of the Bible was written to be listened to and discussed in groups, not read alone. There is a breadth of knowledge, wisdom and Spiritual insight in a group which no one person can have on their own. So it is really strange that the standard pattern for teaching and preaching in modern churches is one person spending hours alone in their study then standing up to give a lecture to a congregated, but silent, audience. Maybe that's why so much preaching today fails to engage, with either daily life or even with the Scriptures.

Jesus' parable of the sower and the seed comes up fairly often in churches, as it occurs in all three synoptic Gospels and comes with an 'explanation' from Jesus. It's less well known outside churches, probably because its usual interpretation is not really very interesting or relevant. Jesus does seem inclined to give 'explanations' which raise more questions then they answer, and this parable rather illustrates this.
"Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times."
Then Jesus added "Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear" - in a Jewish context 'hearing' is partnered with 'responding', as in the Shema, "Hear, O Israel, ...". So Jesus is presenting this parable as something which should be producing a response in its hearers.

Tom Wright, in his Mark for Everyone study guide, likens Jesus' parables to chords and speaks of choir auditions where he had to pick out and sing individual notes from a chord. A parable can have several separate layers of understanding, from the basic story up through different interpretations until we reach the one which corresponds to our part in the musical score of God's story in our communities.

In medieval times interpreters sometimes went to extreme and, to modern ears, ludicrous lengths to forcibly allegorise their own opinions and prejudices onto parables, so understanding does need to be done with care, humility, and a rootedness in the text. Every harmony needs to relate back to the root, and to the other notes in the chord.

So the basic text, the bass line so to speak, is an odd story of an apparently careless farmer who doesn't bother weeding and destoning his field, and just scatters seed about without visible concern where it lands.
"The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown."
The two quoted sections above are from Mark's gospel, chapter 4; retellings in Matthew 13 and Luke 8 are almost identical, except that Luke likens the seed to "the word of God", whilst Matthew refers to "the message of the kingdom". All three versions place the parable in the context of large crowds of people coming to hear Jesus speak.

So the next note in the chord looks to refer to the thousands of people who came out to listen to Jesus. Some simply saw the latest spectacle and would move on; others might respond initially, but only a minority would stay with Jesus all the way through. But those few would be enough for God to start a movement of people through whom He would change the world.

Which still begs several questions about a farmer who does nothing to clear the weeds and remove the stones, not to mention being so careless about where the seed is scattered. And what does it have to do with us, here, today?

To be continued...

Saturday, 2 June 2012

May 2012 Ramble

I think last month has to go down as being very definitely not my favourite month.

It began (and continued) with my wife hobbling about on crutches, off work and needing to be taken everywhere by car - including extra trips to physios, doctors, scans, etc. Lousy for her, challenging for my CFS/ME. Thankfully she's now working part time - mornings - trundling around on her crutches, although that gets very painful for her after a while.

I gather there are increasing numbers of people being injured by out-of-control dogs in our local parks. It is the old problem of an incompetent and inconsiderate minority messing things up for everyone else - if they cannot control their dog they should keep it on a lead, it's that simple surely.

Having had CFS/ME more-or-less under control for many years now, I have occasionally wondered how far the symptoms nowadays are more down to middle age and physical unfitness. Mid-May I was hit by a virus when my system was already on the edge, and simply crashed. There is a distinctive combination of feverishness, migraine, nausea, hunger and utter exhaustion - suddenly it all came rushing back to me. Now I'm just fragile and sleeping like a toddler (or old, old man) every afternoon.

A fortnight ago my father-in-law (pictured) died; his funeral was last week. He'd been very poorly since last summer, and not at all well for several years before that, so it wasn't really a surprise ... but still a shock, if you see what I mean. Similarly, it was very sad that he's gone ... but also not sad, because he really was not well and emphysema isn't something you recover from. It's amusing to think of him up with Simon Peter: discussing boats, supping fine ale, and setting the world to rights. Then settling down for a good long rest.

The sting in the tail is that it would have been my Dad's birthday at the beginning of the month; he too died of emphysema a few years back. Not good.

Any silver lining to this May? Well, there was the Delain concert I have already posted about, and there was my son home for the final week. We expected him back for his Grandad's funeral, but he suddenly turned up several days earlier than I'd expected; so that was a pleasant surprise.

That's about it though, in truth. Oh well, here's looking forward to June with optimism and hope. We never quite know what treats might be just around the corner.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Delain At HMV Institute Birmingham

I got back home in the early hours of that Sunday morning utterly exhausted. My neck was tender - and promising to feel much, much worse in the morning - my hands were sore and my feet hurt, my voice was giving up and my ears were ringing: it had been a fantastic evening!

Delain were headlining at the HMV Institute in Birmingham, supported by Trillium and Halcyon Way, back on the 12th May. It was supposed to be three of us going, but my wife had a badly injured knee so it was just my daughter and myself making the long trek up the M40 - it would have been nice to have gone by train, but there was no way of getting back after ten pm so car it had to be.

After a lot of messing about finding a car park that stayed open late enough, and a long queue, we finally got in about half way through Halcyon Way's set. This was very loud thrashy metal. Their singer, Steve Braun, had a really good voice, but I felt the band as a whole simply didn't rock. Maybe they were just having a bad night, but they didn't seem to be together that Saturday. Vocalist and drummer were mostly together most of the time, but the bass and guitar players just seemed to be thrashing away in their own individual time zones. Disappointing.

Trillium were up next. I hadn't heard of them before, and didn't really have great expectations, so they were a very happy surprise. Amanda Somerville is a classic operatic metal soprano with an amazing voice, and the band behind her were very together, and very heavy, but with plenty of colour and dynamics. For a supporting band they also had a tremendous stage presence, and their energy filled the room (although, to be fair, the HMV Institute isn't actually that big). I would imagine that 'back home', in the US, Somerville/Trillium headline their own tours.

Trillium were great, but Delain were utterly unbelievable. Trillium's energy filled the room; Delain radiated presence and energy to fill a far larger venue and it was picked up and reflected back by the crowd, which inspired the band, who generated more energy, and so on. It was like being inside a kind of acoustic laser cavity, overwhelmed with such coherent energy and power.

They played songs from their two released albums, as well as from We Are The Others which is due out in early June. One of the new songs is Get The Devil Out of Me, which is a good illustration of their style that you can hear by clicking the YouTube thingie above.

On their records Delain tend to be quite song-focussed: majoring on words and tune ... still quite heavy and quite rocky, but that side is a little less to the fore. Live, they are solid, high-energy metal.

The songs are still very strong, so there's no tendency to become 'samey', as can happen at heavy rock concerts; also Charlotte Wessels has such a strong voice that the vocals don't get drowned out. The result is that songs on the album where I'd thought, "I bet that would be amazing live" absolutely are amazing live, but so are other songs where I'd just thought, "That's a nice song". Quiet songs were played with quiet power, loud heavy songs with explosive power, all interweaved with the colour and melodic interest which makes symphonic metal such a worthwhile artform.

The UK leg of Delain's 2012 tour is over now, but if you should get an opportunity to see them in the future I highly recommend them. With musical energy, intensity and authenticity they put on an amazing show: brilliant!

Saturday, 5 May 2012