Sunday 4 November 2012

Acts 8: We Are The Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 1 November 2012

A Week Of Windows 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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