Saturday 31 December 2011

You Who Pass Judgement

Crazy Judge by prthugp
It's probably the worst placed chapter boundary in the entire Bible: the one between chapters 1 and 2 of Paul's letter to the Romans. Of course, chapters and verses weren't part of the original Bible, they were added later for convenience. Convenient they undoubtedly are - I don't know the Bible off by heart, and I don't know anyone who does, so finding references without chapter and verse would be near impossible - but they also sometimes change or obscure the original meaning. Particularly as preachers and writers of Bible-study notes tend to lazily split their teaching by chapter rather than by content.

The problem in Romans is that Paul is using a clever rhetorical trick to make a point, and the chapter boundary cuts off the punchline from the lead-in. It's a trick used long before by the prophet Amos (cf Amos chapters 1 and 2): Amos starts by criticising Israel's neighbours, saying how wicked they are and how God will punish them. Then, when he has all his Israelite hearers nodding along, he turns on them, telling them that they are even worse, so shouldn't God punish them even more.

In the second half of Romans 1, Paul has what looks like the most amazing rant against 'all the godlessness and wickedness of people': "they are without excuse," he thunders. Then you get the chapter boundary. If you stop there you are left with a picture of a wrathful God judging a wicked humanity, whilst the self-righteous churchgoers look on. But that's not the end of the passage, it's missing the turnaround, the main point:
You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgement on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgement do the same things.
How is that unclear? How is that anything but a reflection of Jesus' "Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven"? How on earth do churchgoers find any basis here for being judgemental about other people's lifestyles? Yet they do! As I've written before: too many people read the Bible with their eyes tightly shut.

The main point, then, of this passage is to tell its readers not to be judgemental.

But I reckon that there is another, secondary, point. Drastically summarising Romans 1:18 to 2:4 it looks to me like an argument with a simple beginning, a middle and an end. Thus my summary would be that the passage is saying that there are people who are far from God, because of this their lifestyles are a mess, particularly their relationships, therefore do not judge them because you are the same.

If there are people whose lives are a mess because they are far from God, then how helpful is it to tell them how messed up they are, or even to tell them to follow your rules? Surely if the cause of the problem is that they are far from God, then the solution is for them to come closer to God. And if we are 'just like them' - ie too far from God ourselves - then us pretending to have it all sorted and telling them what to do is a fake.

We need to walk together, helping one another, stumbling our joint way toward God, toward His love and His mercy. That's how lives can be changed, and that's how the world can start to be changed. It is a messed up world, especially in its relationships, because we are all too far from God. Let's work on it together: humbly, respectfully and with love.

Sunday 27 November 2011

No Barriers, No Burdens, Just Be Faithful

Going through the first half of the Acts of the Apostles, trying to see it afresh, minimising preconceptions, is quite an eye-opener. But it leaves me wondering, how on earth did the church end up here? All these rules, all these barriers, all this exclusiveness: that's not how the church began.

One huge theme in the early chapters of Acts is the contrast between the old Jerusalem Temple - full of barriers to keep people away from God - and the new Temple which is Jesus' body, his followers, going out to take God to people: any people, any where, no barriers (see my last post for an attempt at presenting this).

Around AD 47 Paul and Barnabas, two of these early followers of Jesus, took the new Temple out in this way to Southern Galatia (in modern Turkey) founding churches in the towns there. These were churches to which anyone was welcome, no matter who, and of which anyone could be a part: as long as they turned from their old lives to God, through Jesus, of which baptism was the sign; and as long as they accepted God's gift of his Holy Spirit, bringing life and unity to the churches.

After Paul and Barnabas returned to their home church in Antioch, other followers of Jesus came and visited these new Galatian churches. They celebrated that God was at work in this new way, and that new people had come into the family of God's people. Of course, these others told the Galatians, having become God's people they would now have to learn to live like God's people. They would have to follow God's Law, as revealed in the Scriptures. They wouldn't have to learn it all straight away, of course - there are 613 rules in there - but they should start with one of the earliest signs of membership in God's people: circumcision.

When Paul heard he was furious, he wrote a very passionate and rather idealistic letter to the Galatian churches begging them not to be fooled, not to turn away from trusting Jesus. Then when Christians preaching a similarly legalistic message came to Antioch, there were blazing rows, and soon the Antioch Church sent them to Jerusalem to sort the question out “once and for all”.

Essentially the question that the Council of Jerusalem had to sort out was this: are there moral rules you have to follow in order to be a part of a Jesus’ body, the church? Whether these are the 613 rules of the Torah, or the ‘10 commandments’ which are right at the heart of the Jewish Law, or any other set of membership requirements church organisations might come up with. Paul said “no, none”, other early Christians said that the rules laid down in Scripture – Jewish law – were required.

Given the state of the church today, busily tearing itself apart over who is allowed to belong, the answer to this has obvious current relevance. Or it would do, if there was the slightest chance of it being followed.

The Jerusalem Council came out with a rather strange answer. Rather than talking about rules, they simply said there should be no burdens (on non-Jewish believers). What's the difference between a rule and a burden? Consider the old sabbath laws, given to Israel as a celebration of freedom. They had been slaves in Egypt, and slaves don't get days off. But now they are free so they should take a day off a week: they are to remain free and not allow themselves to be enslaved again into an unending routine of labour. The sabbath rules were meant as a boon, a blessing, yet by Jesus' day a crippled woman who comes to Jesus for healing in the synagogue on a Sabbath day is heavily criticised for it: the boon has been turned to a burden. Sadly, religions are all too good at turning rules into cages.

The Council did lay down some restrictions, which at first sight are confusing: they look awfully like burdensome rules. Thankfully Paul later wrote to another new church, out in Corinth, to explain these restrictions. Essentially they are about communion: when we share bread and wine in Jesus' name, we are part of his body. Likewise, if we share in an idolatrous feast we are in communion with an idol, which Paul describes as a demon. So being in communion with Jesus at the same time as being in communion with demonic powers isn't on, it's unfaithful.

Not all communion is about sharing food: even today there are temple prostitutes in parts of India, back in Paul's day they were all over the eastern Mediterranean. Another communion which is inappropriate for a member of the body of Jesus.

So the basic ruling was: no barriers, no burdens, just be faithful to Jesus.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

A Tale Of Two Temples

Model by Alec Garrard
The scene is set in Jerusalem's Temple, AD49, where God Himself is believed to dwell at the heart of the Temple, in the Holy of Holies, where no-one is allowed to go except the High Priest once a year.

"Hey, you, filthy Samaritan – get off our holy mountain. We don’t want your kind here. I'll set the Temple Guard on you - go away!"

"Ah, good morning, Gentile sir. You are not allowed into the Temple proper, but here we have the Court of the Gentiles especially for you. You mustn’t come any further, but there are plenty of merchandising opportunities."

"Ladies, welcome! Come on into the Court of the Women ... you can’t see what’s going on with this enormous wall in the way, but there is plenty of opportunity to chatter and gossip."

"Oh, a eunuch ... I'm terribly sorry, sir, but you know what our Scripture says: no eunuchs in the assembly, so you are not allowed into the Temple. You can go to the Court of the Gentiles, though, and maybe talk to our foreign friend here."

"A son of Israel! Come on up – you are ceremonially clean? Of course you are! Come into the Court of the Israelites. No further: you can’t actually go into the area where sacrifices are happening, but you can see what is going on from here."

"Good day, Sir Priest. Come on up to the Court of the Priests. But don’t go any further – you don’t want to end up in the Holy of Holies, do you sir."

Jewish man: “But I want to meet with God and to worship Him!”

"Meet with God? Oh Sir, you are in the wrong place for that. Why would you want to meet with God anyway? It’s not safe: He's not safe. As for worshipping – well, Sir, that’s the point of this Temple: to help you worship God from a safe distance."

Jewish man: “But I want to meet with God and to worship Him, face to face!”

[Furtive looks around] "Are you sure? You really want to meet with God? What I said was true - He really isn't safe. Okay, follow me."

[Off the stage] "You don’t need to be on a holy mountain or in a special building to meet God for worship, but you do need the right people. Here will do nicely."

"You, Sir! Mr Samaritan, come and join us. Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, told us of a day when both Jews and Samaritans would worship God in Spirit and in Truth – that day has come."

"And you, Mr Eunuch, you come too. The prophet Isaiah said that when the Messiah comes then eunuchs would have a special place of honour in the Temple. The Messiah has come, and God has born witness to that by raising him from the dead. I tell you that wherever the story of the growth of this new Temple, this new people of God, is told, then a eunuch – an Ethiopian eunuch– will have a special role."

"And Isaiah also said that gentile foreigners would find joy here in the new Temple, so you come and join us also."

"Women too. In this new Temple there is no separation, no wall, you are here on equal footing with the rest of us – we are all in the new Holy of Holies and none of us are worthy. And chattering and gossip are inappropriate for us all, I’m sure you agree."

"And finally, Mr Priest, will you join us. Stop sacrificing the same old animals day after day, year after year, and still never getting close to God. Accept the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus and come into the Holy Place, into the presence of God. For when followers of Jesus gather together then that is the new Holy of Holies, that is where God especially dwells, that is where heaven breaks through to earth and where amazing things can happen."

"There are no barriers in this new Temple. Jesus came for everyone - without exception - to remove the walls and to enable anyone who so desires to meet with God and to worship Him, face-to-face and heart-to-heart."

Sunday 16 October 2011

Trusteer Rapport Problems

Over the past month or so I have had half-a-dozen PCs in with serious problems which turned out to be caused by Trusteer Rapport. Now, fixing PCs is what I do for a living so I guess I shouldn't complain that all the online banks who promote Rapport are generating work for me. Nevertheless, it just seems wrong that a product which is supposed to protect people ends up stopping them using their computers. Anyway, a lot of my customers I have known for years and I hate to see their time and money wasted.

Half of the crippled PCs simply wouldn't start at all: windows was just giving a BSOD (Blue Screen Of Death) and promptly rebooting. The other half started okay but Internet Explorer wouldn't run. These are, of course, typical virus symptoms, so I wasted time (and money) running thorough virus checks.

The BSOD machines would start in Safe Mode so, once viruses were ruled out, I was able to load a tool I use which tells me which drivers have crashed the system. Once I had identified that the drivers causing problems had names like 'rapportxx' I was able to rename all Rapport drivers and so start Windows properly. After that I restored the driver names and (without rebooting) uninstalled Rapport. Problem solved, and I simply added a note to the invoice to tell the customer what the problem was and suggesting that, if they believe Rapport to be useful protection, they should talk to their bank to download a fresh copy from scratch.

In the cases where Internet Explorer wouldn't run, once I had eliminated the thousand and one other causes of IE problems, I was able to find a FAQ entry on the Trusteer website telling me what to do in that situation - quite how anyone is meant to find that FAQ when their internet browser isn't working is another matter. The FAQ tells us to start Rapport Console (a program in the Start/All Programs list), to burrow deep into its settings to find the one which is about protecting Rapport from tampering, and to turn it off. Hey presto, the internet is back. The fact that there is a FAQ entry there implies that this is not an uncommon problem; the fact that Rapport fails to give any error messages as it disables Internet Explorer implies that people are unlikely to look at the Trusteer website for their FAQ because they wouldn't know they need to.

If Rapport was just another piece of Internet Security software, chosen and installed by the users themselves, these problems wouldn't be so bad - all software has its issues and antivirus programs in particular are inclined to go wrong, because they are always on the frontline of the battle against the bad guys trying to use our PCs to steal money. But Trusteer Rapport is not just another security program: it is very heavily pushed by the internet banks onto users who are not technologically savvy and who believe what their banks tell them. Those banks should not be promoting software which doesn't have the quality control in place to avoid breaking users' PCs and/or disabling their internet access, particularly when it does not even give clues that it is Rapport doing the breaking.

The first couple of Trusteer Rapport problems I encountered, I just assumed that they had released a duff update and it was a one-off. Now I am suggesting to customers that they might want to have a word with their bank to find out just why they are promoting software which is costing said customers time and money by breaking their computers.

Wednesday 10 August 2011

Mindless Riots Or Mindless Politics

Back in the spring Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, told the UK parliament:
"The price of this financial crisis is being borne by people who absolutely did not cause it. Now is the period when the cost is being paid, I'm surprised that the degree of public anger has not been greater than it has."
Sometimes anger takes time to work its way through the system. The trouble is that it may take even longer to work its way out of the system again.

As English cities face rioting which is more extensive than we have suffered for many years, politicians and rent-a-quotes queue up to condemn it as "mindless hooliganism" and "gratuitous violence". A more sensible response came from James Conolly, a community youth worker in Islington:
"They seem mostly to be looting opportunists. These kids are very annoyed, it's school holidays and they just want to have fun. Right now they are very, very hyper. They don't trust authority, or uniforms. The simple fact is the only people they respond to are community leaders." 
As the Independent points out, many of the looters come from broken homes and damaged backgrounds. Aside from family members and the hooligans' peers, the people best able to calm this crisis are those in the third-sector who have spent years building trust and respect with young people. A consequence of the Government's austerity measures is that such people are far less able to do their work.

There seems to be a perception in political circles that those in power can do what they like, as long as they play the political system and keep the wealthy and influential onside. The poorer sections of our communities may not be influential in that sense, but eventually they get riled up and then it just takes a trigger at the wrong time. August is traditionally a peak time for civil violence, and another controversial killing by the Metropolitan Police, followed by more false 'off-the-record' briefings blaming the victim, makes for a powerful trigger. Mix in high youth unemployment, leaving lots of bored, frustrated young people on the streets, and you have a tinderbox.

As government policy favours the wealthy and the elderly, readers of the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, and heavily penalises the young and the poor, pressure will continue to build. Last year it was middle-class youth protesting over broken promises on higher education, this year it is those with far less to lose. Politicians have already sown the wind, now we start to see how destructive a whirlwind they've unleashed.

Meanwhile it is shopkeepers and other small businesses who pay the price, not the politicians, bankers, and media moguls who caused the crises. Their judgement will presumably have to wait.

Saturday 23 July 2011

Utoeya: Is This How Muslims Feel?

Yesterday evening, as early reports came through of a bomb attack in Oslo, followed by young people killed on Utoeya Island, my initial horror and sympathy was modulated by a 'twitch' as the suspect arrested was described as a 'Christian Fundamentalist'. No true Christian would do such a thing, I thought. On reflection, and as the official death toll moves from the horrible to the near-unthinkable, and as details of the sheer evil of the man's actions are told, I find myself wondering if that is how ordinary British Muslims feel every time there is some atrocity, somewhere in the world, put down to 'Muslim Fundamentalists'. No true Muslim would do such a thing - is that their thought?

It has long been true, of course, that different ethnic groups use a cultural Christian label in self-description: 'Christian militias' in Lebanon, 'Protestants' and 'Catholics' in N. Ireland, 'Catholic', 'Orthodox' and 'Muslim' in the Balkans, and so on. But this is less a cultural label - although the young murderer does seem to have been a far-right racist - and more of an aggressive statement: 'Christian' in the sense of 'anti-Muslim'. Much as some hard-line 'Muslim' groups seem to define themselves more in terms of anti-Western feelings than in any positive religious sense.

Far-right, neo-Nazi groups calling themselves 'Christian' seems a very odd thing from a UK perspective. Yet it is commonplace in the US, it seems, and apparently not uncommon in parts of Continental Europe. Here all major parties have Christian elements in their roots, in particular the left-leaning Labour Party. Indeed when Margaret Thatcher's right-wing Conservatives were trying to dismantle civil society in the 80's, it sometimes seemed that the only major group standing up to her was the Church of England.

I'm two-thirds of the way through Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy (the final book arrived yesterday); Larsson was known as something of an expert on the Scandinavian far-right, founding an anti-racist, anti-extremist publication called Expo to try to counter its influence. Since his time it seems that the Swedish far-right has calmed down a little, whilst the Norwegian far-right has grown and become more organised. To me it is very sad that a group of countries with a long-held reputation for tolerance and openness - Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands - are instead becoming known for intolerant, racist minorities.

An appalling act, then, and a senseless waste of life. But also a reminder that labels are misleading and damaging, whether the label is 'Christian', 'Muslim', 'immigrant' or 'patriot'. We are all human beings, good, bad, and mixed-up, and we should all be treated as such: never dehumanised, never reduced to 'them'.

A final comment from Lars Helle, editor of the daily Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet, which I rather like. He said: "we must avoid being preoccupied by fear, like the US was after 11 September 2001. Rather, we must look to Spain and England and how the people of those nations recovered their freedom after the horrible terrorist acts of 2004 and 2005". Amen to that.

Sunday 17 July 2011

Harry Potter & The King's Cross

We went as a family to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (a mouthful of a name!) at the Showcase Cinema in Winnersh yesterday. It was, like all of the HP movies, a fun watch: well-paced, visually dramatic, disjointed in plot, variously wooden and/or OTT in acting, and overall very entertaining. As with the other more recent HP movies it was also very sad in parts: as JK Rowling has said, if you want to fight evil there is going to be a cost.

I understand there are people who watch the movies without having read the books ... how on earth they manage to follow the plot I can't imagine. Maybe they don't; they just go along for the exciting ride. As the second part of what is really one story, this film is more incomprehensible than most. It's a year or two now since I last read the books (and about 9 months since I saw 'Part 1'), and I was feeling a little lost at times. Still, the film moves on so fast that it doesn't matter.

NB: There are spoilers coming.

When I was reading the books, waiting for the final instalment, one of the puzzles was how the climax was going to work out. The parallels with the Jesus story were already obvious, so Harry was very likely to end up sacrificing himself. But surely Rowling wouldn't be able to pull off a resurrection. Amazingly, in the book she not only pulls a resurrection off, but she also makes it obvious that this is the only way the battle against great evil could possibly be won. And she hammers the parallel home by having Harry meet Dumbledore at King's Cross station. I thought it was a masterful piece of writing. But not the sort of thing they could do in film, surely.

In fact the film handles this remarkably well, I think. Harry learns that the only way Voldemort can be defeated is if Harry offers up his own life, to be killed by Voldemort, in the final 'victory' of evil. So Harry goes to his death and is duly murdered. He carries Voldemort's evil with him down to King's Cross, then returns leaving it behind. About as clear an imagery of 'dying to sin and rising to new life' as one can hope for. Rather than fudging this, the film made it even more explicit, emphasising the 'man born to die' aspect in Snape's final gift of his memories.

The most poignant character for me, in both book and film, is Severus Snape, the Judas figure. The book gives more depth and detail, but still the film shows well how this unpleasant figure is redeemed by love, and given the courage to do what had to be done. As Harry Potter says to his son, many years later:
"Albus Severus, you were named for two headmasters of Hogwarts. One of them was a Slytherin and he was probably the bravest man I ever knew."
My finishing quote, though, is from Albus Dumbledore himself:
"Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living and above all, those who live without love."

Friday 8 July 2011

News Corporation: How Stupid Do They Think We Are?

Yesterday's news that News Corporation are throwing the staff at News Of The World to the wolves by closing the paper is surely a new low in corporate cynicism. Few, if any, of those at the paper now were there during the time of the scandals, yet it is their jobs being sacrificied - presumably to protect the jobs of those who were there but are now part of the News Corporation management: Rebekah Brooks, James Murdoch and, of course, Rupert Murdoch. It's not as if the Murdochs are famous for being hands-off.

The most cynical part of the News Corporation ploy is the near-certainty that once the dust settles there will be a launch of The Sun On Sunday, or some such title, looking remarkably similar to the old NoW, and hoping to pick up the same old advertising contracts. Meanwhile this prospect is likely to help keep the old NoW staff from saying too much, as they will be hoping for jobs on the 'new' paper.

David Cameron, UK Prime Minister, is desperately spinning, hoping to avoid too much of the flak, whilst keeping his News Corp buddies as sweet as possible. I anticipate an intended end-game where the various inquiries decide that all of the British media has behaved badly, not  just the News Corp titles which led the 'race to the bottom' in newspaper standards in the first place; where News Corps gets given full control of BSkyB; and where nothing meaningful changes.

I hope for, but don't expect, rules restricting the amount of control one organisation - never mind one individual - has over the British media, with News Corp having to sell its shares in BSkyB; along with significant restrictions on cross-subsidies which distort the media marketplace (for instance, those manipulations which gave Murdoch his large stake in BSkyB in the first place). I also hope for a major clampdown on tax avoidance by large multi-nationals, such as News Corp, since these tax dodges give such organisations an unfair, and distorting, advantage over those organisations who do pay their taxes. In addition, I'd like to see nationality rules, such as those in the US (if they still apply?), restricting who owns major parts of the British media in the first place, but that's unlikely to happen.

One important question in the kerfuffle to come will be how effectively Andy Coulson has been silenced. He was editor of the News Of The World immediately after Rebekah Brooks/Wade, so it seems likely that he knows where some of the evidence is hidden. Since he is obviously being sacrificed by News Corp to protect her, I wonder why he should continue to keep her secrets?

Wednesday 6 July 2011

News Corp In "A Truly Dreadful Act"

Finally, the trickle of allegations about the involvement of News Corporation's paper The News Of The World in illegal phone hacking has become a flood. It has also moved beyond invasion of celebrities' privacy into allegations of tampering with evidence in cases of missing or murdered children.

Furthermore the timeframe of these activities has moved back from the time of Andy Coulson's editorship - Andy Coulson was subsequently hired by Prime Minister David Cameron as communications director - to the time when Rebekah Wade was News Of The World editor. Rebekah Brooks, as she is now known, is not only chief executive of News Corporation's British operations, but she is also in charge of their internal investigation into these affairs. So now she is investigating herself.

For several years it has been clear that News Corp. papers were involved in illegal activity, but they always denied that it went beyond their royal affairs reporter, and a private investigator, who had already been caught, and the Metropolitan Police refused to investigate further. Then, late last year, following reports in The Guardian and The New York Times, celebrities began taking out private prosecutions and subpoena-ing information. Suddenly News Corp. 'discovered' a limited stash of information concerning 'irregularities' which they handed over, and Rebekah Brooks/Wade took on the job of holding an internal investigation into what News Corp. has done.

I'm sure it's only because I'm a deeply cynical man that I expect her main role is more to do with covering up what can be covered up and delaying what can be delayed. Somehow I strongly suspect that she won't be revealing anything soon about what she, as editor in 2002, knew about the activities of those she was responsible for hiring. It is worth noting, as an indication of her interest in revealing the truth, that when she repeatedly failed to appear before a parliamentary committee last year, its members backed down from forcing her to testify because of fears that she would use News Corporation papers to have their private lives investigated.

Now it turns out the the News Of The World not only hacked (allegedly, as they say) into the mobile phone of missing teenager Milly Dowler, back in March 2002, but even deleted messages stored there. Milly Dowler was a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl who was abducted and murdered on her way home from school, on 21st March 2002. Her body wasn't found until September 2002, six months later. In the meantime her parents had their hopes raised because her phone messages had been accessed and changed; ironically they even gave an interview to the News Of The World about this. Today, further allegations are flooding out about people working for News Corp. hacking into phones in other high profile cases, such as the murdered Soham schoolgirls, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, and the July 7th London bombings.

Worryingly, it seems that this information was in the hands of the Metropolitan Police back in 2006 when they decided not to continue investigations. The obvious conclusion is that strong political pressure was applied. Now that we have a Prime Minister with close personnal ties with News Corp, I don't suppose that political pressure will go away. It is only public outcry and private prosecutions which will keep things moving. Except that, with 40% of the British print media, plus Sky, controlled by News Corp, and with the BBC vulnerable these days to political pressure from the government, I can't help feeling there will be some other big 'spoiler' story coming along in the near future.

Sunday 26 June 2011

Wokingham Baptist Church

It's a beautiful sunny Sunday morning. I got up, I thought "I need a change", I did a quick skim through local-ish churches, and I decided to travel out to Wokingham to visit the baptist church there.

Why Wokingham Baptist? Because I've never been there, because it's (in theory) a twenty minute scooter ride away, because a very good visiting preacher we had a few months back has a link with there, and because long ago I worked in Wokingham for a while so I reckoned that if the church wasn't as easy to find as it seemed, I had a fighting chance of finding it anyway. It duly wasn't as easy to find as it appeared, and I did manage to find it only a minute or two late, so that worked well.

As you can probably see from the picture, from the outside the building is a weird mixture of Victorian and modern; inside it feels spacious: attractively light and airy. Worship was fairly modern and informal, led this week by the church's 'youth specialist', ably supported by a band and singers. Everyone, young and old, worshipped together at the beginning, then the congregation broke by age group. I'd guess in total there were something like 140, 150 people there this morning.

Early in the service, information was presented about a big schools project that the church is currently involved in, with a variety of opportunities available for church members to take part in praying for this work. Looking at their notice sheet gives me the impression that this is a church with a balance between outward-looking and internal-fellowship activities.

The church is 'between pastors' at the moment; this morning's preacher, I would guess, doesn't preach that often. Nevertheless, she was clear, well-prepared, and interesting. She made her points well, including a link I hadn't previously made, between the people's choice to free Barabbas - a violent freedom fighter - and Jesus' later words about the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem. Oddly, though, she didn't tie this into current affairs: Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Syria, etc would be a natural link; instead she stayed rather 'spiritual' in focus. Still, a sermon worth listening to.

Tea and coffee were available afterwards (although it wasn't obvious where), and people were very friendly. I'd say that, for anyone in the Wokingham area, Wokingham Baptist Church is well worth a visit, especially if you are not a regular churchgoer and want to try somewhere that is likely to be warm, friendly and accepting.

Monday 13 June 2011

"We Hope That Little Girls Feast On The Bones Of Many Giving Souls"

Is that a great quote, or is it just a great quote?

It comes from hackers collective Lulzsec, after they emailed the UK National Health Service to let them know that various NHS admin passwords were known to them. As they put it, according to The Register:

We're a somewhat known band of pirate-ninjas that go by LulzSec.
Some time ago, we were traversing the Internets for signs of enemy fleets.
While you aren't considered an enemy - your work is of course brilliant - we did stumble upon several of your admin passwords, which are as follows....
We mean you no harm and only want to help you fix your tech issues. Also, we hope that little girls feast on the bones of many giving souls. All the best.
Lulz Security
Lulz are one of the groups busily embarrassing Sony by exposing the poor security of their websites (or, to put it another way, by hacking into Sony websites and taking copies of confidential data).

Now it seems they are revealing a more caring side: encouraging people to become bone marrow donors, presumably inspired by the story of Alice Pyne.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

Is There Meaning In Growing Older?

I had an interesting non-discussion last night about whether there was any spiritual meaning to ageing. We spend the first part of our lives becoming steadily stronger and more powerful: physically, socially and mentally; then the rest of our life getting weaker and less capable. It's been said before that we start off as newborn babies, weak, helpless and dependent, and end up - if we live long enough - back where we started. So I wondered if this is all there is to it. There seems to be shape, but is there meaning?

The group I was with - a wide age-range of people - didn't catch this idea at all. Probably I explained it badly, particularly since I don't really know where I am going with the thought. But then clarifying and building on a thought is often a benefit of discussing things with a group.

One way of looking at ageing is as a circle: we grow and become independent, likely even having others dependent upon us; then we carry on and become dependent again. But maybe life's not so much a circle as a helix. From an end-on perspective it may look as though we end up back where we started, but from the side it can be seen that the overall progress is upward.

Maybe. Whatever the truth, it just seems to me that as I go past yet another birthday on the wrong side of fifty, and as sight, hearing, hair and fitness continue to fade away, God must have some purpose in doing things this way. After all, He can hardly be doing it for a laugh: old age really isn't that funny.

Monday 30 May 2011

Only By Grace Can We Enter

It seems very strange, yet I'm sure a lot of churches are like ours. We have a thriving set of youth groups coming into the church building, where they are welcomed and gently introduced to God's unconditional love and care, whatever their background, their lifestyle, or their felt sexuality.

Meanwhile, in the adult part of the church, at least whilst we had a pastor (we are between pastors at the moment), anyone who came was at risk of being lectured from the pulpit on permissable and impermissable sexual behaviour. To be fair, at the moment - in the absence of a pastor - I think it is true to say that preaching tends to be rather more grace-focussed. Nevertheless I strongly suspect that anyone who wanted to become a full member of the church, whilst living with their partner without being married (or who was living with their same-sex lover, even with the benefit of a civil partnership), would be unlikely to be successful. Although I could be wrong.

Other churches maybe have different barriers to entry. Nevertheless, high barriers seem to me to be a widespread characteristic of 21st-century churches. Some churches have explicit rules to keep people out, others have cultural barriers, or simply "This is the way we do things here", that lead people to feel excluded and unwanted. If you want to feel part of an 'evangelical' church you have to look at life - and especially God - one way; if you want to be in a 'liberal' church then you have to take another, similarly restrictive, viewpoint.

Doubtless this was always the way with religion, but the barriers over the past decade appear higher as the rest of the world moves on and many churches just stay put. The vast majority of non-churchgoers are just not willing to go so far against their own grain to conform to norms which actually have little or nothing to do with Jesus, not to mention being decidedly unhelpful in engaging with God in their everyday lives.

Yet, in the very early days of the church things were different. In the Bible the early chapters of the book of Acts chart a removal of the old Jewish barriers. The Temple at Jerusalem was full of restrictions on who could go where. Non-Jews were restricted to the very outskirts, Jewish women and eunuchs were restricted to their area, Jewish men were allowed fairly close - if they were ritually clean according to the rules of the Torah, the Jewish Law - but only priests got to be where the sacrifices were made, and only the High Priest got to the Holy of Holies, where God was believed to be especially present. The Christian Church, in contrast, was fully opened up to non-Jews, to eunuchs, and to women very early on.

When Paul of Tarsus went out starting churches in southern Galatia, a Roman province in what is now north/central Turkey,  he founded churches for whoever wanted to join, Jew and non-Jew, where all could worship God freely. This was fine until some conservative Jewish Christians turned up, after Paul moved on, telling people that now they were part of the church they had to obey the rules: the Jewish Law, including becoming circumcised.

Paul wrote a very angry, very idealistic, letter, in which he makes clear that in the Church of Jesus everyone is accepted: Jews & Gentiles, men & women, slaves & free. All can freely come to Jesus in his body, his church, and all can freely remain. There are no rules, other than the rule of love. There are no restrictions, other than the requirement of Baptism as a sign of turning to God through Jesus, and acceptance of God's gift of His Spirit. That was it.

A wise woman once said to me: "You have to have rules, otherwise there will be anarchy". According to Paul, in his letter to those Galatians, God has thought of that. If you don't have God's Spirit then rules are not enough, fallen human nature will break through anyway. But if you do have the Spirit of God within you then it will bear fruit in your life. And the fruit of the Spirit is: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Given these you don't need all those rules, just time and space for God's love to bear fruit.

Now, in 21st century churches, it's as though Paul never wrote his letter to the Galatians. Many churches call themselves 'Bible-believing', yet deny the freedom that Jesus won for us! They throw away God's Grace - his free gift to any who will respond - and replace it with empty rules and religion. Why?

There is a popular song in Church circles; it's a pity people don't always listen to what they are singing:
Only by grace can we enter
Only by grace can we stand
Not by our human endeavour
But by the blood of the Lamb
Into Your presence You call us
You call us to come
Into Your presence You draw us
And now by Your grace we come
Now by Your grace we come
Gerrit Gustafson

Saturday 21 May 2011

Responding To Religious Weirdness

Browsing blogs this week, I came across two interestingly contrasting posts: both responding to religious people doing weird things, but in very different ways.

As I suspect many of you are aware, today is the day of The Rapture, according to US radio preacher Harold Camping and his Family Radio network. Predictions of this sort happen all the time, of course,  but this one has been publicised more aggressively than most (helped perhaps by the fact that 'non-commercial' Family Radio is said to be worth some 120 million dollars, which they presumably don't see much point in hanging onto). Now US atheists are said to be planning post-Rapture parties later today to celebrate still being here.

Earlier this month, following the killing of Osama Bin Laden, many news media published a photo showing President Obama and others in the White House. One minor newspaper, Der Zeitung, the house paper of a Brooklyn-based Hasidic sect, caused a furore by publishing the photo with the women present airbrushed out. This was in line with the paper's editorial policy of not printing pictures of women, "because of laws of modesty". To my mind, laws of truthfulness suggest that, in that case, you print pictures which genuinely have only men in, you don't doctor images to hide the the presence of women. Feminists, of course, had a field day.

Two well publicised examples of weird things being done by religious people ... note, by the way, that I am carefully not saying they are (necessarily) weird people - just people doing weird things. Inevitably, blogs worldwide (not to mention Facebook and Twitter) took up the subjects, in their many and varied ways. Two blogs I follow (you can see both in my sidebar) made me think, by taking radically different approaches to this weirdness.

One blog, by the English Bishop of Buckingham, went for righteous indignation: how dare these Hasidic editors oppress women in this way. The title of the post, Airbrushing Out Women, indicates his take on the subject. My reading of his post is that he is taking a small group doing something weird (and wrong), then loading a whole pile of other sins onto them, like a Levitical scape-goat, which he can then blast away at, to a chorus of approval from his like-minded choir. Standard fare for the religious right (to generalise unfairly), but a little disappointing in a highly intelligent writer who I see as generally on the liberal wing of 'moderate'.

Another blog, by US author Rachel Held Evans, took a rather more thoughtful (and humble) approach to the Rapture story. Yes, Rampling and his followers are doing something weird, yet another demonstration of the daftness of religion. But, for Held Evans, that's a reason to look at ourselves. Not to bask in how wonderful and right-on we are, at least in comparison, but to ask ourselves what strange things we do; how our behaviour is sometimes similarly weird. Also, if we are less weird than some other people, might that reflect on a lack of commitment to our professed faith? 

It's easy to mock and attack others for the strange things they do, but are we really always so rational in our behaviour? It's part of human nature to have odd beliefs that we don't question, and to do weird things sometimes - religious, agnostic, atheist, whatever. Mocking and attacking people, for example. Is that really such a wonderful way to behave?

Sunday 15 May 2011

The Prince Of Wales In Caversham

I've mentioned the PoW several times in previous posts, but I thought it was worth its own ramble today.

Something I only realised recently is that the Prince of Wales is actually part of a small chain of pubs - it seems the same team also run the Fisherman's Cottage and the Rising Sun. It's a very long time since I last went to either of those, but my memory of the Fisherman's Cottage is that it is next to the Kennet, over in Newtown, and seemed mostly focussed on the lunchtime office workers' trade, whilst the Rising Sun is an edge-of-town-centre pub which (back then) had a bit of an unfriendly reputation. As you can probably tell from the links I've put in, there's not much information on the web about either, although it seems that the Rising Sun are also featuring weekly live music and are starting to do food. Clearly the team responsible for the three pubs are not really into posting much info on the internet. Still, I reckon they've done a good job on the Prince, so if you live near either of the other two, they have to be worth a visit.

Like many pubs these days, the Prince has a fairly sizeable and pleasant outdoor area, to cater for smokers and anyone who fancies getting out of the main building and breathing lovely vehicle fumes from Prospect Street. A couple of Fridays ago I turned up, on my bike, to find the outdoor section completely full. Indoors it was like a Tokyo bullet train - absolutely packed. The reason was a local band showcase, with four local bands all playing on the same evening. I watched about half a set from one band, who were excellent, but claustrophobia took over in the interval and I squeezed my way out and left. Maybe they should do fewer local bands at once but more often?

Tonight they had The Generaters playing - to a busy but (thankfully) not completely packed audience - it's the first gig in a while where I've felt motivated to stay to the very end (life's a bit complicated and very tiring recently). They weren't perfect by any means, but were very enjoyable. Basically they play covers in and around the borderland between rock and funk. At times they really hit the groove and were brilliant, but they kept falling back out again. There was a tension between a younger singer and bass player, with an older guitarist and drummer, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn't. The lowlight of the set was a version of Queen's We Will Rock You, where the guitarist just went AWOL  (try to imagine the song without the lead guitar parts, and you'll see why it didn't work), followed by what I assume was AC/DC's Highway To Hell, completely testosterone-free. The main highlight was the encore, something about 'burning your sex'(?), where the guitarist and bass player swapped instruments and the singer finally persuaded several men to come up and 'dance'; but an honourable mention has to go to a really good cover of Bowie's Spiders From Mars during the first session.

I did plan to insert a photo of The Generators from a previous visit to the Prince into this post, but their Flickr albums block copying, so I can't.

Somewhat ironically, I seem to be visiting the Prince of Wales more often since we moved further away from it - as well as the Saturday night live bands (and occasionally Friday too) they also do excellent Thai food, so the two of us sometimes pop over for that also (the kids aren't keen on Thai, which is a bit of a pain, but they are old enough to be left to their own devices from time to time). The beer is more expensive, but far better kept, than the horrible big-chain pub down the road, and it is a genuine, friendly, community pub, which has to be good news.

PS: I meant to mention that on the 'Local Bands' night I dropped my coin purse somewhere in the PoW. When I popped around next day in the slight hope someone might have found it, there it was behind the bar waiting for me. As I said, a proper community pub.

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Judgement Day For Lib-Dem Liars?

Tomorrow (Thursday, 5th May) is local elections day in England. This is a chance for all of us to make clear to all politicians how we feel about outright, bare-faced lying in elections.

A year ago we had the full UK parliamentary elections. In the run-up to these, every Liberal Democrat MP signed a personal pledge to vote against any increase in university tuition fees. This was a personal promise, given without qualifications, by each MP. It wasn't a manifesto, if-we-get-power-and-everything-is-as-we-expect, sort of promise. It was just a simple pledge, made in writing. It gained the Lib-Dems a lot of extra votes, because many people in this country believe that having a skilled and educated population is vital to our successful future as a nation.

As it turned out, the election result was inconclusive, so the Tories offered the Liberal Democrats an illusion of power providing they sold out their electorate and reneged on their promises. Something like two-thirds of them did precisely that: selling out their constituents for a seat at (or near) the top table. The rest of the MPs, and the rest of the Liberal Democrat party, condoned this betrayal by failing to call for deselection of MPs who broke their promises to their voters, and failing to replace Nick Clegg as party leader (or to remove the whip from Vince Cable, the architect of the betrayal).

The assumption seems to be that the British electorate has such a short memory that we'll have forgotten about this by the time of the next election.

I call on all voters to go out tomorrow and vote against your Liberal Democrat candidate - vote for Labour, or Green, or Tory ... even Pirate or Monster Raving Loonie if they are standing in your constituency. But vote against outright barefaced lying. Maybe, if their share of the vote is close enough to zero, the Lib Dems will rediscover their conscience, dump their cynical power-hungry leaders, and get out of that destructive coalition.

Saturday 23 April 2011

Love Wins By Rob Bell

When the religious movers and shakers, the guys with the power and the influence, are vigorously driving people away from God with messages about how hateful and judgemental He is, what can you do about it? If you're Jesus, you walk around Galilee and Judea, teaching and healing in the name of God. If you're Rob Bell you write a book. Either way, the intent is to show that God really is a God of love and faithfulness. But in doing so, they also show up the haters as being far, far from God, and they will want their revenge.

The religious right in the US were out even before Love Wins was published - they didn't care what it said, they just wanted to attack Rob Bell. Here in the UK they're not so blatant, but I was interested to read in this month's Christianity magazine an article arguing that without Hell in the message churchgoers wouldn't be able to witness to Jesus. Curiously Greg Downes, the article's author, goes on to say that universalism - the idea that everybody will eventually be saved - only works if certain sections of Scripture are distorted or disregarded. The irony of this line is that Love Wins gives a lot of examples of Bible passages which Downes has to ignore or distort to dismiss the universalist position. Actually, I think Love Wins is probably the most overtly Scripture-based book that Bell has written.

Once you read the book, it is clear that Rob Bell is not proposing universalism anyway. What he is doing is pointing out that the Christian faith, the historical sweep of mainstream orthodox Christian thinking, is much broader than the bigots would have you think. Variants of universalism have been around a long time and are not necessarily anti-Biblical. The tension between salvation of a remnant and salvation of the whole world is a Scriptural tension: the range of passages is there and we have to accept that we are not God and we don't know everything. In the meantime we are called to be grace-full and loving in our differing interpretations.

For Bell it is God's love which has the last word, yet God's love allows the freedom to say 'no'. So he is not a universalist, but he does believe that God will give every chance He can for every person to respond by choosing life.

Bell's genius is that he writes very well and very clearly, in a modern open style which avoids the jargon and religious nonsense. He writes for anyone interested in living life better, free-er, deeper; for anyone who recognises a spiritual side to life, but needs more than the Pharisees with their blaring megaphones can offer.

This is very readable and interesting book: I don't agree with everything Bell says, but I do suggest you read it for yourself. I strongly recommend it.

Wednesday 6 April 2011

Hospices & Healing

Several weeks ago we had an excellent visiting preacher at Caversham Baptist. He preached about healing - which is easy to preach about badly, hard to preach well - and presented it in terms of the Kingdom of God breaking through into our 'ordinary' world. It is unpredictable and often unexpected, but when it does break in you can only wonder and give thanks.

He gave an example of someone he knew who has cancer, of a generally fairly treatable form, and was undergoing chemo. But there was a complication and she had been taken into hospital - very poorly indeed - where she just wasn't responding to treatment. Because she was so poorly they were about to stop the chemo, with long term consequences. The preacher and the young woman's mother prayed for her healing, then he left. A couple of days later, there she was, with her mother, walking into town, looking positively perky.

This story begs a lot of questions, of course. Was it God doing the healing, or was it the treatment at the hospital? If it was God, then why did she still have cancer, and still need the long course of chemo with no guarantee of the result at the end? Why didn't God just fix everything for her ... indeed why not fix it for everyone in the hospital? You could worry about the questions, or you could just look at this young woman who had been really unwell and now was out and about, living freely. And you could just thank God for that.

Some years ago, my wife worked at the Sue Ryder Hospice, out at Nettlebed. They've broadened their clientele a little since, but back then they mostly worked with people suffering from terminal illnesses. This gives a rather different view of what 'healing' means. In hospitals they tend to be mostly concerned with patching up your body and sending you home 'mended'. In hospices dealing with terminal care, the body isn't going to be patched: mending it isn't an option. Instead hospices look at enhanced quality of life, at relationships, at alleviating suffering: at the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the patient and of their friends and family. Many (although certainly not all) of the staff are Christians who regularly pray. But in most cases praying for longer lives for their patients isn't meaningful, instead they pray for healing and wholeness and peace, as each individual person comes to the end of their life.

At the church service, the preacher did one of those "raise your hand if you want to be prayed for" things. Fair enough, I guess, although I'm not a big fan. Then he did the slightly cringey, "I'm feeling there's someone here who has problems with their right arm" bit. In a congregation of some 80 people, ranging from 20's to 80's or 90's, there's bound to be someone with a sore arm. As it happened that included me, but to be honest I wasn't concerned about anyone praying for my arm. If we were going to have a time of prayer for the Kingdom of God to break through, I had a much higher priority.

Someone I know, and like, and respect, had spiralled completely out of control. Her life had crashed, she was in an utter mess, and it was not at all obvious how she could possibly get out in one piece. So I prayed for her, desperately. A day or two later, there was a development which looked like it was just going to make things worse. In practice, though, it moved her out of her pit of utter despair and into a place where she has the possibility of - slowly and painfully - rebuilding her life. She's not out of the woods by a long shot: sometimes it still looks as if she just wants to lose everything; but still she now has a chance at life and hope and rebuilding. As miracles go it might seem a bit low-key, and maybe it would have happened anyway, but that's no reason for me not to thank God for the change.

Tuesday 15 March 2011

Dragon Age II - Initial Impressions

Last year I enthused (twice) about Dragon Age: Origins, the computer fantasy role-playing game. In particular I enjoyed the story-telling and role-playing aspects: the game drew me in - much as a really good book does - and engaged me deeply. Late last year/early this year I've been trying to use the associated tools to do my own story-telling, through creating short mods. It's very difficult, but fascinating.

Last weekend Dragon Age II came out. Finally we would find out: a) if Bioware could repeat (or even improve upon) the excellent FRPG experience of DA:O; and b) what happens next. The first episode ends on a mystery: you've saved the world from the evil archdemon, but the witch Morrigan leaves carrying a kind of demon-spawn/dragon-spawn child. One of the add-on packs suggests that she somehow intends this for good, to oppose her mother Flemeth's evil plans, but we won't know until Bioware continue the story.

Having spent several hours playing the early sections of DAII (and having a daughter who has completed it all), I can tell you: a) no, it's not even close; and b) we still don't know, as DAII doesn't include Morrigan or her child.

DAII moves to a new character and a new area, which I think is good: from a Grey Warden roaming the countryside, and a small provincial town, in order to defeat an archdemon and save the world; to a refugee striving to make a new life in the big city. Settings are much bigger and more detailed, with a far wider pallette of scenery, rooms, walls, furniture, etc to play with. This is good at first, except that Bioware seem to use this new scenery repetitively. Because it is more distinctive and more detailed it is also more obvious when you come across the same complicated rock formation, or layout of wooden platforms, or strange tunnel shapes again and again and again. It's a good idea but badly applied.

The new game has new, much more interesting, animations for fighting, walking, etc. Some of the fighting ones are very impressive - such as the staff fighting, or the rogue somersaulting into attack - some of the walking and standing ones are less so - such as the main character's sister whose animations appear to be based on a streetwalker. Again, though, these good things have been applied badly. At the same time as making the fighting animations longer and more complex, they have also made them take less time. So the staff fighting moves completely lack any sense of weight or momentum, and the somersaults just make movement fiddly and unclear. Combat visuals that could and should have been awesome become simply awkward.

The quest structure, at least in the early phases of DAII, is similarly fiddly and uninvolving. In DA:O you basically had one big quest, broken down into six sub-quests, plus an assortment of small side-quests. Side quests associated with your companions might have a certain amount of depth, whilst the others were essentially trivial go-fights. In DAII, at the beginning you just follow the path fighting darkspawn every now and again. Then you get taken to the city of Kirkwall and you have to make a choice of who to work for for a year: mercenaries or thieves/smugglers. This seems like it should be an important choice but then the story skips that year and you are out on your own. There are a few small quests come from your old employers, but it doesn't really seem to make a difference. In part that is because the quests themselves don't seem to matter that much. There are basically three types of quest: those where you find some random object and take it back to its owner (whose location you magically know immediately); those where you fight your way through assorted opponents to a location; and those where you go to a location and several waves of nasties attack you. There are lots of these quests, none of them seeming of any particular importance except as a way to get money, in a quest mechanism which groups them by location rather then theme, making it all seem very artificial. I gather that the quests get better as you go further into the game, though.

Companions and their dialogue were a constant source of interest in DA:O; in DAII it is purely functional. They basically only talk to you if they want you to do something; even then they will only talk in specific places. Otherwise you just get a stock response floating above their head. When you do have conversations then your side of the conversation is dumbed down to (generally) a nice response, a flippant response and an aggressive response. These are carefully indicated by symbols and a two or three word summary, but they don't even tell you what your character will say if you click on one. Your character's lines are actually voiced in DAII, which they weren't in DA:O, but that is less of a benefit than it might be as I find the voice used rather irritating.

In summary then: my initial impression of Dragon Age II is that it looks fairly pretty (although less so than, say, 2006's Oblivion) but it fails to engage me. Whereas Dragon Age: Origins was really good at drawing me in and involving me in the characters and the story, Dragon Age II is more about pushing me away to follow as a disengaged observer. Some people consider character statistics and complex skill trees and the like key to CRPGs; I consider the role-playing aspect (which is the 'RP' in 'CRPG') most important: being drawn into the game through engaging character relations and an involving story, and being immersed in the game environment. DAII, at least in its early stages, specialises in de-immersing.

It's not a bad game, to be fair, just not a very good one: Bioware have simply cut too many corners and made too many compromises in Dragon Age II.

Note: 'FRPG' above abbreviates 'Fantasy Role Playing Game' - ie magic, swords, dragons, etc in a setting roughly based on medieval Northern Europe. 'CRPG' abbreviates 'Computer Role Playing Game'. So I guess you could say Dragon Age: Origins is a CFRPG, whilst Dragon Age II is a CFRPG ;-)

Sunday 13 March 2011


When I was a little boy
They would say to me
Don't go in the world and play
It's bad company
All they had was child and faith
Let him grow and let him wait
Just to find out what it was to be free
Nutsy made a comment on my last post which got me thinking, as Nutsy's comments are wont to do. Given the title of this post, not to mention the lyric extract from Budgie's Parents, it won't be a surprise that what I have been thinking about was parents and parenting.

I know kids who are spoiled brats, but whose parents are convinced they are 'firm but fair'. I also know kids who are downright neglected, one way or another, whose parents claim to dote on them, reckoning they would 'do anything' for their children. Presumably so long as there's not something they'd rather be doing for themselves. I've got teenage kids so I've lived through all the hassles, sacrifices and compromises that have to be made to survive parenthood. So I wonder what I'm kidding myself about?

I was fortunate in my parents: they were loving and caring, giving time and energy to raise my brother and myself as best they were able. Nevertheless I carry scars from my upbringing, and I know I'm not the only one. I am fortunate at that, many adults seem to bear open wounds, long after childhood is past.

Long ago, at prenatal classes, we were told not to worry about parenting: it comes naturally and we will find that actually we'll do it perfectly well when it comes to it. That might have been the case back in the prehistoric African savannah; here in 20th/21st Century Britain things work differently.

My take nowadays is that, as parents, we are bound to make mistakes: bound to screw up somewhere along the way. The challenge is to raise kids who are secure enough and sensible enough to grow into well-rounded adults able to make the best of the world in which they grow, in spite of - maybe even because of - those mistakes. Parents who sell the idea of themselves as perfect, never making mistakes, set their kids up to feel like they are failing in their lives, as well as their own parenting.

To raise children that way is a community effort - churches can be wonderful for that, but there are other communities - and an extended family probably helps, but in the end you need parents who are willing to accept that having children is a whole new way of life, which has to be enjoyed for itself, but requires eternal vigilance. The way you treat kids when they are young has a major impact on how they behave as they get older.

Which is one reason why I have tremendous admiration for those who adopt, or long term foster, older children. Someone else has sown the wind, they are called to lovingly reap the whirlwind!

Another group I admire are single parents. Parenting is a team game - sometimes together, sometimes in turn (like tag-wrestling) - so to have to do it alone is a tremendous challenge. Yet I know single parents who have done just that, and done it well. Maybe it helps that when you're on your own you know it's going to be difficult, you know you are going to have to make sacrifices. Sometimes, it seems, couples just don't get that.
Wrap me up and keep me warm
Hide myself far from the storm
Sleep and love will keep
my mind at rest.
Only now I realise why my
parents had to try.
Love you all and keep you all my life.

Saturday 5 March 2011

Fostering, Faith & Fear

According to the BBC, last Monday, the High Court upheld Derby City Council's right to refuse to allow a couple, Mr & Mrs Johns, to foster children "because of their traditional religious views":-

A Christian couple opposed to homosexuality have lost a battle over their right to become foster carers. Eunice and Owen Johns, 62 and 65, from Derby, said the city council did not want them to look after children because of their traditional views. The pair, who are Pentecostal Christians, say they were "doomed not to be approved". The High Court ruled that laws protecting people from sexual discrimination should take precedence.
Irritatingly, the BBC reports did not contain a link to the text of the High Court judgement itself; in my view sloppy reporting.

On his blog, Gavin Drake - who says of himself "I’m not a lawyer, but I have sat through many court cases in the Magistrates, Crown, County and High Courts" - says the media take on this is nonsense:-

A Christian couple have lost their High Court bid to overturn Derby City Council’s ban on them fostering children because of their orthodox Judaeo-Christian views on homosexuality.
It’s a story you’ll be hearing a lot about.  But it didn’t happen.  That is not what happened in the High Court today.
For a start, the couple had not been banned from adopting or fostering – the City Council’s social services and children’s panel hadn’t made a decision about whether or not Eunice and Owen Johns would make suitable foster parents.  But, after social workers asked questions about how their Christian views would affect their response to a child who said they were gay; the couple and the council decided to make a joint application to the High Court for guidance.
 He continues:-
So, what did the court decide?  Well, it decided not to make any declaration and there is no order ... It isn’t a landmark judgement.  It will have a serious impact for nobody – not least for Owen or Eunice Johns who could still be allowed to foster by Derby City Council if they proceed with their application ... That’s the decision of the High Court today – to not make a decision on what appears to be a badly thought out, badly argued, badly presented case.
 Meanwhile, the Christian Legal Centre had this to say, in a press release:-
In a landmark judgment, which will have a serious impact on the future of fostering and adoption in the UK, the High Court has suggested that Christians with traditional views on sexual ethics are unsuitable as foster carers, and that homosexual ‘rights’ trump freedom of conscience in the UK. The Judges stated that Christian beliefs on sexual ethics may be ‘inimical’ to children, and they implicitly upheld an Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) submission that children risk being ‘infected’ by Christian moral beliefs.
The Christian Legal Centre is a pressure group, who have brought several of these "Christians persecuted for their beliefs" cases. Their report does have a link which allows you to download the text of the High Court judgement, for some reason in Microsoft Word format. Gavin Drake's blog entry gives an easier to use link direct to the case summary on the BAILII (British And Irish Legal Information Institute) website,

I'm not a lawyer either, but this case summary seems to me to be clear and well-written: whilst Gavin Drake overstates his case somewhat, it is obvious that he is essentially correct. This is not a landmark judgement, the judges declined to make any order at all:-

  1. We have stated our misgivings about the exercise of the jurisdiction to consider whether to grant any (and if so what) declaratory relief. The defendant has taken no decision and there is likely to be a broad range of factual contexts for reaching a particular decision, the legality of which will be highly fact-sensitive. Moreover, the parties have: (a) been unable to agree on an appropriately focused question for the court to address, (b) each identified questions that do not raise a question of law that can be answered with anything approaching a simple 'yes' or 'no', and (c) furnished the court with no evidence.
  1. ... 
  1. For the reasons given in [107] we have concluded that we should make no order.
Essentially Mr Paul Diamond, from the Christian Legal Centre, on behalf of the Johns, was criticised by the judges for not bringing a clear statement of issue for resolution, for trying to use legal arguments that had already been rejected in previous judgements, and for "extravagent rhetoric":-
Mr Diamond lays much emphasis upon various arguments, many of them couched in extravagant rhetoric, which, to speak plainly, are for the greater part, in our judgment, simply wrong as to the factual premises on which they are based and at best tendentious in their analysis of the issues.
Which, as legal language goes, is about as damning as you can get.

Much was made in the BBC report of the claim that in general rights over sexual orientation took precedence over rights of religion. Presumably the BBC reporter only skimmed the text of the judgement itself:-
While as between the protected rights concerning religion and sexual orientation there is no hierarchy of rights, there may, as this case shows, be a tension between equality provisions concerning religious discrimination and those concerning sexual orientation. Where this is so, Standard 7 of the National Minimum Standards for Fostering and the Statutory Guidance indicate that it must be taken into account and in this limited sense the equality provisions concerning sexual orientation should take precedence.
In other words, no one right is more important than another, only the legal context (various required standards, etc) determines which takes precedence in law in a particular case.

My reading of the judgement is that the key point in law is about what a person does, and whether that is lawful, not why they do it. Thus, if a couple show evidence that they would not follow the legal framework required for foster carers, then it makes no difference whether the reason for that was simple prejudice or was religious belief. So long as the couple's behaviour can be shown to be unsuitable for fosterers then the reason for that behaviour isn't the point. There is no religious discrimination in law because an atheist or agnostic who behaved the same would be treated the same.

If members of a religious group don't like a particular law then, in the British system of democracy, they are at liberty to campaign for a change in that law. But in the meantime, they cannot expect to be exempted from it.

In their evaluation of the suitability of the Johns, Derby City Council asked about their response to a number of hypothetical (but realistic) situations. For example, would they be able to support a young person who was confused about their sexuality; would they feel able to take a young person from a Muslim background to a mosque; how would they support a young person who was being bullied over their sexuality; how would they deal with one who was bullying others regarding the above; and how they would support someone in their care whose parents were gay (or whose future adoptive parents were gay).

Law or no law, statutory guidelines or no, it seems to me that these are situations where there is a response which is about caring for and supporting people, or there is a response which is about being judgemental. Jesus famously pulled up the Pharisees again and again because they set their rules above the people for whose benefit they had been given.

If a teenager is confused about their own sexuality then hammering them with your views about homosexuality's 'sinfulness' is not going to help anybody. They need to know that they are valued and cared for, and they need the time and space and support to work things through for themselves. They matter, and other people matter, for themselves, not because of their possible sexual orientation. You don't bully other people, and if others bully you then you are entitled to action to have it stopped - that is simple justice.

This is not to say that I don't think Christians, or anyone else for that matter, aren't entitled to opinions on such matters. But the rule in fostering (and, I believe, in raising our own kids) is that the needs of the young person come first. That's what they/we sign up to.

My beliefs about marriage are fairly orthodox, and based around Genesis 2:20-24 (modified by 1 Corinthians 7:25-28). I am all too aware that I fall short myself, so I see no justification for pointing fingers at those who fall short in a different way. My kids are teenagers and I have not, and will not, knowingly compromise their right to make their own choices (and to mess things up in their own ways, not mine). My job, I think, is to help them to know that their parents love them, and that God loves them, for themselves, and to have the sense of worth (and hopefully the closeness to God) which allows them to make thoughtful decisions in their own way and their own time.

Fosterers usually have a lot less time to make a difference than parents, natural or adoptive, so that is all the more reason for them to focus on what is really important: building the young person up to cope with the stress and change of their lives, not running them down.

Sunday 20 February 2011

Liberation & Healing

In Egypt, in Tahrir Square, there was a revolution taking place - not just a political revolution, but a revolution in the way people relate to one another. Salma El Tarzi, a 33-year-old Egyptian filmmaker who was previously not politically active, wrote:-
"I was one of many women, young and old, there. We were as active as the men. Some acted as nurses and looked after the wounded during the battles; others were simply helping with distributing water. But there were a great number of women that were on the front line hurling stones at the police and pro-Mubarak thugs.

The duties in the square were divided. We were very organised. Something changed in the dynamic between men and women in Tahrir. When the men saw that women were fighting in the front line that changed their perception of us and we were all united. We were all Egyptians now.

The general view of women changed for many. Not a single case of sexual harassment happened during the protests up until the last day when Mubarak stepped down. That is a big change for Egypt."
Similarly Mona Seif, a 24-year-old researcher, wrote:-
"I was amazed by the peoples’ determination to keep this peaceful even when we were under deadly attacks. When we caught the pro-Mubarak thugs, the guys would protect them from being beaten and say: 'Peaceful, peaceful, we are not going to beat anyone up’. That was when I started thinking: 'No matter what happens we are not going to quit until Mubarak leaves'. The spirit of the people in Tahrir kept us going ...

I have never felt as at peace and as safe as I did during those days in Tahrir. There was a sense of coexistence that overcame all of the problems that usually happen - whether religious or gender based ... We went through many ups and downs together. It felt like it had become a different society - there was one Egypt inside Tahrir and another Egypt outside.

The moment Tahrir opened up, we saw a lot of people that were not there before and there were reports of females being harassed.

I know that Egypt has changed and we will transfer the spirit of the square to the rest of the country. Before Tahrir if I was [harassed] I would refrain from asking people for help, because there are a lot of people that would disappoint you by blaming you. But I think the spirit of the revolution has empowered us to spread the feeling we established wider and wider."
The photo at the top of the page shows the aftermath - protesters out cleaning up the square, clearing out the mess. This was a very different revolution. Liberation is not just about politics, liberation is about how you live. A struggle for liberation is a struggle to learn how to live together. It is a struggle to make the world around you better, not worse.

Long ago, in the Bible, there is another story of a people set free, in Egypt. Those people left Egypt and went on to follow their own path elsewhere. Today the people from Tahrir Square want freedom within Egypt, liberation and healing inside their own land.

Jesus commemorated his people's freedom from Egypt, one Sabbath, by liberating a woman from 18 years of suffering. The religious authorities protested: somehow they missed the link.

Today, around the world, inside churches and outside, Jesus still brings liberation and healing. And religious authorities - some of them - still try to block him. But you can only delay liberation for so long: sooner or later God's Kingdom breaks through. Often in strange and unexpected ways: God's Spirit is unpredictable, but effective. God's Kingdom is all around us, sometimes it breaks into our lives and the lives of those we care for. Then everything changes.

I know some people in desperate need of liberation. Today, maybe this week, pray God sooner rather than later, my prayer is that the Kingdom will break through into their lives. It won't make life easy, but it will make it free. And that, I think, makes a huge difference.

Saturday 12 February 2011

'Interesting Times' In Africa

Egypt is in the news at the moment (so much so that I'll leave it to last, otherwise things will have already changed there by the time I finish). Over the past few months there have been several ongoing stories about African nations which are somewhat different from what has gone before, and which look likely to have long-term implications for much of the continent.

Sudan is currently the largest country in Africa. It is one of those countries created as a result of the carve-up of Africa by 19th-century colonial powers, whose borders bear little relation to the reality on the ground. In terms of geography, language, ethnicity, religion, wealth, health, you name it, northern and southern Sudan are distinctly different (not to mention various east-west divisions). After thirty years of civil war a peace agreement in 2005 gave the southerners a referendum, which was held early this year. The official results aren't out yet, but are known to be an overwhelming vote for secession; the new state is due to be formally created on July 9th, 2011. One possible complication is the tiny border region of Abyei, which has its own vote over whether to join the north or the south; as an ethnically mixed region this is going to cause problems.

The new country is certain to have many difficulties when it comes into being - poverty, oil, ethnic divisions, and a lot of guns all create problems. On a more individual level, there will be many families who will be moving from one side of the border to the other, and doubtless ethnically mixed families will face even greater prejudice and pressure, at least for a while. But the continent-wide issue arises from the simple fact that this will (hopefully) have been a successful secession: one section of an established African country will have split off to form a new country. However logical this move may be for Sudan, and however extreme a case the old Sudan was, this will encourage separatist movements across the continent. In ending this one civil war, there is a risk of provoking or exacerbating many others.

In Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) things have not been going so well. Another civil war was supposed to be ended with presidential elections last November. Except that the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, lost but refuses to stand down ... and has the army backing him. Nothing new there in African politics, but this time it has played out differently. The other West African nations, even (for a time) the African Union, got together to tell him to go. He didn't go, and some African leaders are getting a bit iffy about pushing him, but it remains a standoff in which other African states may be the deciding factor in forcing an ex-president to stand down. This would set an important precedent, and give hope to many African nations suffering under 'strong-man' rulers who stay in power through thugs and militias, rather than the ballot box. If Gbagbo goes under African pressure then maybe things really can change for the better across the continent.

I can't write about Cote d'Ivoire without mentioning chocolate, of course. Most mass-produced chocolate uses cocoa from Cote d'Ivoire, money from which goes to pay Gbagbo's army. The big exception is Cadburys (except in the US, where I'm told 'Cadburys' is just rebranded Hersheys); fair trade chocolate and many specialist chocolates also use higher quality cocoa from elsewhere. So your chocolate consumption may be making a small difference to the future direction of Africa.

Which brings us to Tunisia and Egypt. Very strange situations: long-term dictatorships overthrown by demonstrations which were not organised by any opposition party, or indeed by anybody much. Just tens of thousands of, mostly young, ordinary people going out on the streets to tell their government that they had had enough.

In Tunisia they won, at least for now. President Ben Ali, after 23 years in power, fled to Saudi Arabia. The rest of the regime attempted to cling on to their power, by setting up a supposed 'unity' government in which the RCD (Ben Ali's party) held the key ministries: defence, interior, finance and foreign - ie controlling the army, the police, the money, and relations with the rest of the world. Not an encouraging sign that they planned to break with the past. But continued demonstrations forced a change; now Tunisians must wait to see whether their 'jasmine revolution' will indeed bring democracy, freedom, and economic strength.

In Egypt the game goes on. Egypt is much bigger than Tunisia, and Mubarak's hold on power seemed much stronger, but when the people went out onto the streets the army refused to attack them openly (although behind the scenes arrests and torture went on). Yesterday (February 11th) Mubarak finally went: hundreds had been killed, vague promises and threats had been  made, but the protests just continued to grow. Crucially, younger members of the army are said to have sympathised with the protesters, whilst the old guard supported the regime, so the army remained relatively neutral.

Now we have the country being run by a committee headed by an army 'old guard' - Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Minister of Defence since 1991 and general commander of the armed forces since 1995. Strangely, western observers seem more cynical about this than Arab ones.

One remarkable feature of the Egyptian protests has been the way protesters have organised themselves, and have worked together. Telling images have involved them setting up their own management of people coming into Tahrir Square, and of them working together to protect one another: Christians standing guard during Muslim prayers and vice versa. Tyranny thrives on division: in much of Africa the tyrants thrive on ethnic differences and disagreements; in Arab countries it tends to be religious differences that they can use: fear of Islamists, hatred of other flavours of Islam, divisions between Muslim and Christian. To see the Egyptian people show that by working together they can defeat tyranny is an inspiring sight.

Another remarkable feature has been the western governments' dithering, way behind the curve of what's actually happening. The Obama administration, particularly Hilary Clinton, was busy backing Mubarak as a stable ally, then Omar Suleiman (Mubarak's right-hand man, and head of intelligence - known as 'the CIA's man in Cairo') was supposed to be the great hope for democracy. Finally Obama caught up that Egyptians actually wanted the sort of democracy where Egyptian people have some say in what goes on and where emergency rule and police crackdowns and torture aren't part of everday life. Even now the US look to be wanting to back the army old guard, apparently hoping that democratic aspirations can be kept to a minimum.

Nobody knows whether other North African (or indeed other Arab) states are vulnerable to these sorts of protests. Autocratic leaders are hurriedly making promises and rearranging governments, but Algeria, Morroco and Sudan seem potentially vulnerable. There seems to be some consensus that the critical point is whether the head of state is genuinely respected, or merely hated and feared. In a police state you can't really know that until the protests start, though, and by then it's too late.

So, interesting times indeed for Africa. Events occuring which seem genuinely different from what has been before. Whether this will end up as a blessing or a curse is yet to be seen; mostly that lies in the hands of the African people, in all their amazing diversity.