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
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.

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 ...