Monday 21 November 2016

Judgement - A Text Adventure

A course I am doing wants me to create a small text adventure and to share it on the web. So, here it is: Judgement.

Any old gamers (or younger gamers with an interest in gaming history) may recognise a couple of references in here - hopefully worth a small smile.

If you are of a really nervous disposition you might want to be a little wary of this. Although as a text adventure - ie mostly words - any hazard is more in your head than on the screen (as if that were any better!).

Please give it a go and let me know how you get on. I'm fairly sure all the typos are gone, but if I'm wrong please let me know that too.

EDIT: The links to the game should work now - apologies to anyone who tried them before. One tip: if you click on the Full-Screen button the game looks far more effective, I think.

Wednesday 19 October 2016

Two Models Of Church

Both models exist; too often the first makes more noise:-

Are you there?
Can you hear me?
I am thinking of you

Are you hurt?
Are you lonely?
Hope my words get through

Did you know nobody's perfect?
We all fall down
See into the heart of you now

When you are lost
I will find you
Through the dark
I can see you
And you are loved
You are worthy
You can't hide
All the beauty
I can see you ...

Let me put my cards on the table
I've been where you are
I'll never see the stain of a label
Or a scar
You need to know that i wont reject you
Let's unbreak your heart
You are not the voices that shame you
I'm coming out
So call your friends and gather round
It's time to judge and pin me down
I'm in the box you put me in
It's dark and I can't see a thing
No air, I need to breathe ...

You label and name
Because you're afraid
Because it makes you feel safe
But here is the sting:
It don't mean a thing.
So everybody sing

Define me, de­fine me, somebody find me
Tell me what I am­ you know you love it
Define me, de­file me, somebody bind me
Make me what I am/ you want
You'll never break me down

Oh my god ain't it fun to judge, ain't it fun to judge, ain't it fun to judge?
Oh my god now I'm covered in mud, now I'm covered in mud, ain't it fun to judge?
Oh my god now you want my blood, now you want my blood, ain't it fun to judge?
Oh my god now I'm covered in mud and you want my blood, ain't it fun to judge?

Actually, I suspect most churches have a mixture of both approaches in their congregations. That's probably fair enough: churchgoers are, by and large, human too, and tolerance works both ways. Up to a point.

But where I do get angry is when leaders - formal or informal - bring the worst out of others. When someone stirs up prejudice and hatred, spreading the poison from their own soul to their neighbours. It's evil and it's anti-Christian.

The job of the church is to follow Jesus, to treat people as he did. Simple as that.

The lyrics above are from the band Bad Pollyanna, off their excellent Broken Toys album.

Sunday 18 September 2016

Blessed Are The Desperate?

"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit...
Blessed is the lamb, whose blood flows...
Blessed are the sat upon, spat upon, ratted on...
Oh lord, why have you forsaken me?"

Blessed ... really?

I was at a "Continuing Ministerial Development" course on Thursday on "Preaching the Gospel of Matthew". I came away feeling it had been interesting but not really that useful. With one notable exception, it was full of academically inclined people talking in abstracts. Inevitable perhaps, given the CofE approach to selecting and training authorised ministers.

I don't mind abstract ideas myself, but it's been a really busy week and I have a painful back, so my initial response was that it hadn't been an effective use of the day.

One thing which we did look at was the Beatitudes - the opening to the Sermon on the Mount which Paul Simon so evocatively rephrases in his song above. I was part of a small group looking at this, which happened to include the one exception to the academic mould. She focussed us with the practical example of a young mum without the money to buy a can of beans. Is she blessed? Is that what the beatitudes are telling us?

Given a practical focus, the academic stuff sometimes comes in handy. Someone else in the group knew Oscar Wilde's De Profundis - a letter written from Reading Prison, where Wilde had been imprisoned with hard labour for 'gross indecency'. In this he writes that his first year of imprisonment was pure hell, but in the second year he was able to come to terms with all that was happening and use it to connect with Christ and with humanity.
"The poor are wise, more charitable, more kind, more sensitive than we are. In their eyes prison is a tragedy in a man's life, a misfortune, a casuality, something that calls for sympathy in others. They speak of one who is in prison as of one who is 'in trouble' simply. It is the phrase they always use, and the expression has the perfect wisdom of love in it. With people of our own rank it is different. With us, prison makes a man a pariah. I, and such as I am, have hardly any right to air and sun. Our presence taints the pleasures of others. We are unwelcome when we reappear."
To be honest, I'm not a huge fan of Wilde myself - to me he seems overly flowery and full of himself, even whilst celebrating his own 'humility'.

Nevertheless, there is something here about reality, and about our inability to face it when we are comfortable. There is also something, it seems to me, about God bringing good out of situations which are not good. To my mind it is wrong to speak of God making bad things happen, to serve a greater end. But it is true, I think, that God can take the bad things which inevitably do happen in this fallen world and can transform their outcomes: evil happens but in Christ comes resurrection.

There's a famous old sermon called "Sunday's comin'" which speaks of the hopelessness that goes with Good Friday - but, unseen and unexpected, "Sunday's coming".

Somewhere in the beatitudes stands a truth that sometimes it's easier to see light when we stand in darkness, that in Jesus despair transforms to hope, and that God can raise the deadest of dead. And, in due course, a full resurrection is coming when suffering and dying and hopelessness will be no more.

By the way, that young mum who couldn't afford beans - it was a local church who were her blessing. They went out and bought her a pack of food, including bread and beans. It's not a solution, but it was a blessing. The future is in God's hands ... and Christ's people stand as his hands and feet, heart and voice, and - sometimes - his shoppers for beans.

May your week ahead be redeemed by hope and grace in Jesus, whatever you may face.

Sunday 24 July 2016

You Are Loved

Churches can be so frustrating sometimes!

It's a month since the EU Referendum result, when a truly horrible campaign from leaders of both sides led to a situation characterised by anger, despair and terrible division. Churches in this part of the world have talked internally about prayer and reconciliation over this period, but bog-all is visible externally.

Some of that, of course, is down to uncertainty about what can be done on a corporate level. Individually, being nice to foreigners and buying The Big Issue seem to be the order of the day, and the need for reconciliation has turned up in a sermon or two (most fervently in one case where the preacher had witnessed a racist attack in the middle of Reading the previous day). But that seems to be about the lot, in spite of the Bishop of Reading putting out a call for churches to get involved.

I'm not good at grand ideas, even less good at organising people, but surely we could start by doing something as simple and visible as telling people they are loved (even that idea I nicked from the Big Issue).

This is a core belief within Christianity: "God is love", "For God so loved the world", and so on. And the churches in CTM Parish were already being challenged by the PMC team to do something more positive with our noticeboards. It's not brain surgery.

I thought we had agreement to do some sort of poster a couple or three weeks back. So when I drove past St John's a few days ago I deliberately looked at the noticeboard to see what it said. "Thieves beware!" was all I could read from the road. :(

I need to check I am not treading on anyone's toes, that there is nothing already underway, but it looks as though I'll just have to put something up myself. This is my default approach, if I'm honest, and I've deliberately spent the past month trying to do things a better way: to get others involved; to cooperate, coordinate and consult; to seek better ideas and better ways of implementing them. Hmm.

I started this post intending to come from a completely different angle, actually, prompted by this post from HTB which makes the disappointing assumption that all parents feel instant and overwhelming love for their children and, more seriously, that all children are loved by their parents. It seems to me that maybe amongst those who most need to know that they are loved are precisely those who have least prior knowledge of their parents' love.

One role for the church is to show what love looks and feels like in practice, so people can have a starting point for recognising the love of God, whatever their background may be.

The referendum exposed deep divisions and insecurities in our communities. But these were already there, really. People need to know that they are loved, then that love can overflow to their neighbours. As I said before, it's not brain surgery - but it does seem remarkably difficult to do anything about in practice.

Fortunately I do believe in a God of miracles (as well as love)!

Edit 15/08/16:

It turns out that the poster was actually underway. A week or so back it turned up on our noticeboard, which now looks like this:

The person who did the posters is a gifted graphic artist, so I can only assume the brief he was given was somewhat ... unassuming.

Sunday 26 June 2016

Us & Them On So Many Levels

June really hasn't been a good month.

This is a picture of Stanford rapist Brock Turner: white, wealthy, privileged. When he found an unconscious women rather than helping her he began to rape her.

Some people came along and caught him so technically I suppose he is an 'attempted rapist', but he got far enough that the woman reportedly had dirt and grass inside her when they treated her in hospital.

He was sentenced to just six months in prison, reportedly reduced to four, by a judge who shared his background, and he and his family are appealing that as too harsh. His victim, once she had been treated, was articulate enough to ensure the case came to wider notice: a shocking example of 'them & us' in US society.

Melissa Etheridge's song, at the top of this post, was written in response to the mass murder at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando this month.

A deeply homophobic man shot dead 49 people and wounded 53 others. Behind him lay a deeply homophobic family, living in a deeply homophobic culture, surrounded by deeply homophobic churches (and presumably mosques).

Homosexuality has been a divisive issue across the world in recent years. My question on such things is "where are the haters?" Those who spread hatred of others are not God's people; and those who would divide Christ's body are nothing to do with Jesus.

Then we come to the UK's EU referendum campaign. The picture shown was probably the low point of a generally negative campaign. 

Both the Leave and Remain official campaigns focused on fear-mongering and negative propaganda. Both the official and unofficial Leave groups hammered away relentlessly at immigration and at people's fear and resentment of 'the other'.

Now the result is out and it seems the Leave campaigns worked - at least among older voters. The picture below, in many variations, is widely shared on social media by younger people angry at what they see as a betrayal of their future by those who won't have to live with the consequences. I suppose 'us & them' across generations is nothing new, but the anger is real.

I was going to put up picture of those utterly stupid politicians whose response to a crisis is to play politics and ignore the needs of the country. In many ways it was the Conservative party's internal politics, especially the ambition of Boris Johnson, which created the crisis, now Labour's MPs have decided they'd rather play leadership games than help rebuild the unity this country desperately needs to face a challenging future. The us & them of a broken political system.

In my view the most apposite comment was used as a headline by the Guardian newspaper: "If you've got money, you vote in ... if you haven't got money, you vote out." Subheading: "Brexit is about more than the EU: it’s about class, inequality, and voters feeling excluded from politics. So how do we even begin to put Britain the right way up?"

So much of the anger, so many of the divisions, arise from the deep and increasing inequalities within our society. A lot of the Remain campaign was based around fear of losing what we have got; to many that means nothing. A lot of the resentment of immigrants and minorities flows from insecurity, uncertainty, and a feeling someone must be to blame.

I'd like to come up with a nice 'Christian' solution to all this: "love one another," perhaps, "then everything will be wonderful." Meaningless! If we loved one another we wouldn't have the problems anyway. "Jesus Christ died to bring reconciliation," is at least apposite, but lacking in how and when.

At the moment my feelings are more in line with Habakkuk: how long, O Lord, is this unholy mess going to continue? When will there be justice and peace and cleansing?

Tuesday 14 June 2016

Truth, Unity, Humility & Grace

There are two big lessons to learn from church history. The first is that people never learn from church history. The second is that living in unity has been a problem all the way from the New Testament to the 21st Century.

I've been working with Paul's letter to the Galatians a lot over the past few months and a major issue raising its head as soon as Gentiles started joining churches in significant numbers was that Jewish Law blocked Jews and non-Jews from eating together. Basically it would have meant two separate churches: one containing Jewish Christians, one containing non-Jewish Christians, plus a few people who made sacrifices to break the boundaries. Paul hated that: there is one Jesus, there is one body, one people of God, undivided.

It has been particularly abhorrent to me therefore that there are 21st Century churchgoers who will refuse to receive communion with other churchgoers because of their views on particular hot-button issues - often claiming adherence to 'Biblical values' as their justification. Do they not read those Bibles?

The challenge is to combine unity with truth. If I sincerely believe the person next to me at the altar rail is living an immoral life, shouldn't I be making a stand? Actually I'm not sure 'sincerity' has a lot to do with truth: I can sincerely believe that the world is flat but that doesn't make it true. If it comes to that, the sincerity of my belief that the world is round (more or less) doesn't make a lot of odds to whether that belief is true either.

As I write it's only a couple of days since the atrocity in Orlando, so I'll skip that particular issue and go with something else which bugs me.

I believe that when God made man out of the dust of the ground he used evolution to do it. For me God's word and God's handiwork are in clear agreement.

However, I have no problem with those who say that God created the world exactly as described by a mechanistic reading of Genesis 1; that he created dinosaur bones because, let's face it, dinosaurs are cool and God wanted the best for us; and that the mechanical inconsistencies between chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis are down to our limited understanding and we just have to trust God. I'm all in favour of trusting God, that's what faith is all about.

Where I do have a problem is with people like the 'Creation Science Movement' and 'Answers in Genesis' who go way beyond that, raising towering edifices of intellectual speculation which not only go far beyond either science or Scripture, but actually end up contradicting both. They really wind me up. But what pushes me to the edge is when they follow up by saying that anyone who believes in anything different is not a Bible-believing Christian and that disbelieving their particular interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis is tantamount to disbelieving the Gospel.

Some years back a couple came along to a housegroup I was leading pushing this view hard. I was fine so long as they simply stated their opinion, but as soon as they started rubbishing other views I had to point out that many faithful Bible believing Christians had different approaches to understanding what the Bible says on this topic, and that the mainstream orthodox Christian view on the matter is, and generally has been throughout history, considerably more nuanced than the approach they were pushing so determinedly.

Truth matters and they were moving beyond legitimate (if irritating) opinion and interpretation into downright falsehood. The Gospel is about God's love shown through Jesus, crucified and raised. Anyone can put their faith in that, irrespective of their beliefs, or lack of, in evolution, special creation, Noah's flood, or pretty much anything else in the Old Testament. Not that I don't think the Old Testament is important - I do -but Jesus and his amazing news is where new life is at.

They didn't come back, but if they had they would have been welcomed (possibly with an internal wince); I'd happily have eaten with them at the next housegroup social; and I did share communion with them next time it came around. Truth matters, and sometimes (but not always) needs to be stated, but disagreements don't have to break community.

Part of that is about humility and God's grace. I know I get things wrong, both in belief (my beliefs on some issues have moved a fair way over the past twenty years) and in terms of moral behaviour (try reading the Sermon on the Mount openly and honestly), but I come to the communion table acknowledging my failure and depending on the Grace of God, through Jesus. If I do that for myself, surely I have to allow the same Grace for the person next to me. If I think they have faults which I don't happen to share that makes no difference, I doubtless fail in areas where they succeed.

Mealy-mouthed Pharisaisms about my sin being repented and theirs not are just poor and arrogant excuses - Jesus paid the price, not me.

Are there limits? What about Westboro Baptist 'Church', obscenely gloating after the Orlando shooting? If I reckon (as I do) that WBC has nothing at all to do with Jesus, or with the body of Christ, how is that different from the person I recently spoke to who thought the same about the Roman Catholic Church? To be fair, he did make a distinction, which I would tend to agree with, between the organisation and some of its members.

There certainly are limits to my tolerance and willingness to associate with those who so strongly deny and oppose in all they do Jesus and his Gospel. Are there similar limits to God's forgivess and Grace? I doubt it, but God's God and I'm not.

In the end we all have to wonder in humility at the grace shown by God, through Jesus, and do all we can to live in the tension of truth and unity, recognising that we fail but trusting the God who loves us anyway.

Sunday 12 June 2016

Galatians: Service Not Status

From Paul, an apostle (not from men, nor by human agency, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead) and all the brothers with me, to the churches of Galatia.

It is a sad commentary on church history that most books on Galatians treat this opening of Paul's letter as being about him emphasising his own status and authority.

In the days before Skype, emails, or even telephones a ruler often couldn’t speak directly to someone far away, so he’d send a trusted apostolos as his envoy or messenger to carry his words to them.  But an apostle was not just any old messenger, he was someone especially tasked and trusted to relay the message precisely and faithfully, in the name of his master, without distortion or elaboration. It was an honourable role, but also a servant role.

So Paul begins his letter not by emphasising his own authority, but by de-emphasising it. As he goes on to say, his own history of persecuting Jesus' followers leaves him no right to expect any status on his own account. But he does have a message to give.

It's a message he has passed on faithfully once, and he is duty-bound to pass it on again in the face of confusion, distortion and misunderstanding. He cannot vary it nor can he reverse it, because he is an apostle - the message is not his but comes from Jesus.

For Paul had already given this message of the glorious news of Jesus to the people he had met in the towns of Southern Galatia, and they had responded. They had trusted in God’s message, they had responded to Jesus, and they had received his Spirit.

But now they were becoming confused. It looks as though the same people who had been stirring up trouble in Antioch (see this post from early in the year) had carried on to Galatia, spreading their different message to the new non-Jewish converts that, having been accepted into God’s people, through Jesus, they now needed to follow Jewish ways: being circumcised and obeying Jewish Law.

So Paul is writing to repeat his message, the one he received personally from Jesus. He will use this letter to expand on its meaning and emphasise its importance, but the message remains the same. Jesus has changed everything, everyone is welcomed into his community, and his Spirit is the true mark of his people. Jesus has given himself to set us free, and that is sufficient.

Saturday 11 June 2016

Galatians: God's Grace & Saul of Tarsus

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Paul, or Saul of Tarsus as he had previously been known, had been a ‘zealous Jew’ of the party of the Pharisees, we are told here in Galatians and elsewhere. To us maybe that sounds harmless: a religious sort of chap, maybe wearing odd clothes, or spending his days in dusty libraries discussing obscure points of theology, perhaps? Nothing could be further from the truth!

In today’s terms, think of a Jewish version of ‘militant Islamist of the Wahabi sect’. A zealous Pharisee believed in purity: purity achieved by purifying the land of Israel from foreigners and by purifying the people of Israel from collaborators, backsliders and heretics.

The Pharisees’ roots lay in the days of the Maccabees with their violent rebellion against the occupying Seleucids and against the Hellenised Jews who worked with them. Later the fruit of such zeal was seen in the murderous results of zealous Judaism in Jerusalem during the later stages of the First Jewish-Roman War in 69-70 AD (as told by Josephus) when Jewish factions slaughtered one another as the Roman armies waited outside. This is the background to Paul’s mission against the followers of Jesus.

Then Jesus came to meet Paul on the road to Damascus, and gave him a message. Think about that; if God chose Paul of all people to carry his message – that zealous persecutor of Jesus’ followers – how much more can he choose you, even me, to do wonderful and unexpected things?

That's the point of Paul telling his own story early in his letter to the Galatian churches: although by background he is a Pharisee, he now knows that he stands before God as worse than the tax collector in Jesus' story.

It’s the queen’s official 90th birthday this weekend. She’s a little over ninety years old and has been on the throne, and therefore head of the Church of England, for more than 64 years.

Aristocracy is about as ‘us & them’ as you can get, and royalty the peak of that, so Elizabeth Windsor, like Saul of Tarsus before her, might seem an unlikely messenger of Jesus, in whom “all are one”. Nevertheless, the queen’s graciousness and stability in both her royal capacity and as head of the CofE, leave her well-regarded in the country as a whole, and her Christmas messages often have a Christian theme.

This is the first Sunday for our new Transition Minister, Penny Cuthbert, here in Caversham; it seems a fair bet she’ll be talking about Grace at St John’s today, and that she'll have messages for other churches in the parish as she settles in.

Whether it’s Paul, or the queen, or Penny, or you, or I, or even that tax collector in the Gospel reading, we all have a history, a story to tell. And within that story there is a witness to God at work - maybe even to Jesus turning things upside down - and a message from God for us to share. The challenge for us is to notice what God has been doing and to share our experience of God in our lives with those around us, humbly and compassionately.

Tuesday 7 June 2016

Eastern Caversham & The Kingdom Of God Ramble

I'm too tired at present to construct any sort of ordered post, so it'll have to be a general ramble.

I was at a wonderful church service last night where Rev Penny Cuthbert was licensed and installed as Transition Minister for St John's, serving Caversham as a whole but particularly the communities traditionally associated with St John's in Eastern Caversham (by which I mean roughly the area bounded by Westfield Road, Emmer Green & CPV and the river).

The service was inspiring, the bishop spoke well, and the large congregation - church-goers and non-churchgoers - responded with openness and welcome. The next three years are going to be difficult and challenging times, but I certainly felt strongly the presence of God with us as we set out on that journey.

A couple of discoveries have really set me back on my heels in recent months. The first is that Eastern Caversham has about 9,000 people living there, in about 4,200 households. That is a lot more than I had expected, and equates to a lot of individual stories. It also makes St John's average Sunday congregation over the past year a little less than half a percent of the community we are meant to serve.

The second is that there are apparently at least a couple of hundred churchgoers in Eastern Caversham who cross the river every Sunday to attend worship at town-centre churches, mostly Greyfriars.

I became a Christian at St Aldates in Oxford, in some ways similar to Greyfriars as a city-centre student-friendly church; except at St Aldates, back then at least, there was a strong vision that they discipled the people who came through their doors - like me - trained us up, and sent us out to serve God's Kingdom in our local churches. So I find Greyfriars' apparently more acquisitive approach somewhat disconcerting.

Even more disconcerting is that I have seen no evidence for their presence in Caversham. Granted, I actually live in a different corner of Caversham, but surely hundreds of people working for the Kingdom of God in their local community should show up on the radar, shouldn't they? How could God's people - his light on a hill, salt and yeast for their communities - possibly be invisible?

One reason I have been using the term 'Eastern Caversham' rather than the more usual 'Lower Caversham' is that the St John's district actually covers a lot more ground than just the flood plain area to the south.

As small churches, St John's and the neighbouring Methodist church have partnered in focussing their resources on a small part of the area, to the south-east. As a place to start this, one of the poorer areas of Caversham, makes sense as a beginning for the local work of the Kingdom. But the rest of the area needs to hear and see God's love too.

I was going to use this ramble to record a few half-ideas toward achieving that but it's already getting a bit long and my brain is fogging, so maybe next time.

Grace and peace.

Saturday 21 May 2016

Archiving The Internet

This post is mostly a shout-out to Dark0ne over on Nexus for some rescue work he is doing, but underlying that is a serious concern about social history.

As regular readers will be aware I am currently working through sermon notes, amongst other things, for a preaching series taking a fresh look at St. Paul's New Testament letter to the Galatian churches. Our understanding of 1st-Century writings, especially the New Testament, has been transformed by discoveries over the past half-century or so of ancient documents showing what life was like in those times. The Dead Sea Scrolls are a well-known example, of course, but there have been many more documents found, less well-known but still giving important insights.

Meanwhile archivists are struggling to read records saved - 'permanently' - to various forms of tape and optical disk archive just a few decades ago.

An important part of late-twentieth and, especially, early twenty-first century social interraction on the Internet has been various forms of modding communities. Modding is where users of computer games create their own additional material: sometimes just fixes for problems that the original game creators considered too minor (or hard) to fix; sometimes minor changes to the appearance of in-game entities; occasionally even significant amounts of extra content, such as new areas or new quests. A lot of this modding was done (is still done, if it comes to that) for free, as a way of sharing enjoyment and as a way of gaining appreciation and reputation. Around these game changes grew discussion groups for commenting on them, seeking guidance about how to solve technical problems, and just general chit-chat.

From a social history point of view this sort of thing is invaluable as a record of how the Internet, including its various forms of 'social media', developed. But's it's also important material for economists and others as there is often no money involved, yet modders spend ludicrous amounts of time and effort creating their work, which they then share openly. I've shared a couple of short quest/story mods myself, for Dragon Age - the work involved for even small mods was stunning; I can't even begin to imagine what some of the largest mods would have taken. Inevitably there will be other reasons in future for wanting a record of such things that we can't even imagine at present.

So I consider it wonderful that Nexus, and Dark0ne in particular, are transferring mods, including their attached information, from the once-massive but now closed modding site FileFront across to the Nexus network itself.
"Back in the middle of 2015, quietly shut the doors to its various gaming hub sites (which were much like Nexus sites for game mods back in their hayday in the early to mid 2000s). Over the past few years File Front was extremely out-dated, slow or outright broken in many areas, lacking some TLC that it needed despite still having an active contingent of core users who still frequented their forums. ... 
As a result, we’ve been working to save as many files from the File Front sites as possible and finding the best method to port them into our Nexus system. As File Front sites were largely like Nexus sites are now in terms of structure, we felt that focusing on the File Front files side of things would be in everyone’s best interest. The focus wasn’t just on not losing the files, but on saving the category structure, screenshots, file descriptions and author information that is actually what made the original File Front sites usable and easier to navigate for the games they supported. ... 
We don’t expect these sites to be popular or demanding on our servers, but I couldn’t sit and idly watch tens of thousands of mods for games I grew up with be lost to the internet forever."
Nice one, Dark0ne!

Saturday 14 May 2016

Is There A Biblical Definition Of Marriage?

The short answer is, no there's not. And anyone who tells you there is probably hasn't bothered to read and think about the Bible for themselves.

There is, of course, a longer answer which is rather more nuanced, but first let's dispose of the commonly quoted reference to Genesis chapters 1 and 2, right at the beginning of the Bible, mentioned by Jesus in chapter 19 of Matthew's account of the Gospel.
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. ... Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.
The '...' in the middle of that quote covers a lot of ground, including: "The Lord God said, 'It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.' So the point of the story in Genesis is that a man and his wife are partners, working together, to the extent that they can be called 'one flesh'. No direct mention of 'marriage' let alone a definition thereof.

Another point before I move onto the New Testament: the passage itself doesn't say whether the relationship it describes is exclusive, normative or illustrative. In other words: is one man plus one wife the only possible relationship which can be described as one flesh; is it the usual relationship which can be so described, with other options available as well; or is it just one example out of many possibilities.

If the relationship described corresponds to marriage then it is clear that in the Bible the 'one flesh' description does not just apply to one man plus one woman.

Consider the case of Jacob, Leah and Rachel in Genesis chapter 29. Jacob is conned into marrying Laban's eldest daughter Leah, when he loves (and was promised) Rachel. So he works for Laban for another seven years, then marries Rachel too. One man plus one woman ... plus another woman. The Bible still describes it as marriage. Hence 'one man plus one woman' may be a common pattern for marriage but it is not the only configuration in the Bible.

Jesus does apply the 'one flesh' idea to marriage and divorce, concluding: "So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." But, importantly, he says nothing to indicate that 'one man plus one woman' is in any way a Scriptural definition of marriage. Just that 'one flesh' is intended to be for life (although even that might be broken due to 'hardness of heart', according to Jewish Law).

It's worth highlighting that Jesus explicitly said that he did not come to change anything in the Jewish Law (Genesis through Deuteronomy in our Bibles), but rather to fulfil it. So you cannot claim that Genesis 1 and 2 are okay but chapter 29 is somehow nullified by Jesus. Either all apply or none.

Paul also references the 'one flesh' passage from Genesis, in chapter 6 of his first letter to the church at Corinth:
Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.”
So Paul takes the Genesis reading as also covering prostitution, not just marriage. Is prostitution only ever one man and one woman? Hardly! In Paul's day, as now, there were prostitutes available for any permutation of men and women that could be imagined. All would appear to be covered by Paul's horror at uniting Jesus' body (ie members of the local church) with prostitutes (quite likely temple prostitutes, in Corinth) as 'one flesh'.

So a definition of 'Biblical marriage' as exclusively one man and one woman simply does not exist in the Bible. There are other patterns described as marriage in the Bible and there are other applications of the 'one flesh' description which are definitely not marriage.

However, there are Biblical patterns for how marriage is meant to be if you look for them, focussing on the type and quality of relationship.

The first is mentioned above: that marriage corresponds to a strong partnership of two people working together in God's world. The 'two' in that statement has all the weaknesses mentioned above, but probably works well enough if it is treated as normative: the usual pattern. Sticking with normative it is reasonable to add that marriage generally involves some form of sexual relationship, based on the way Paul applies the 'one flesh' image.

The second part of the pattern is given by Paul in his letter to the church at Ephesus: "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ." Marriage is about serving one another, not being self-centred but other-centred. Paul uses the 'one flesh' reference in this passage too, applying it to Jesus and the church.

So the Biblical pattern for marriage is about partnership and service: serving God together and serving one another. Simples!

Saturday 7 May 2016

The Story Of Jesus' Body

 Church as people
When they had come together, the disciples asked Jesus, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’  When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. (Acts 1:6-9)

I have a fairly visual imagination and I have to say that I find that final image in the Ascension story really unhelpful. It brings to my mind Flash Gordon, or maybe James Bond in Thunderball with his jetpack: Whooooosh!

That's not an picture I find helpful or relevant to what is going on at Jesus' ascension. So maybe another way to look at it is to tell the story - briefly - of Jesus' body from beginning to end.

“In the beginning was the Word,” we are told, “and the Word was with God and the Word was God … all things were made through him.” We start the story with Jesus not having a body at all – indeed with there not even being a universe to put a body in! God made everything with Jesus, including space and time. Where was God when he did this, if there was no space? When did he do it, if time didn't yet exist? Welcome to the head-exploding world of General Relativity – invented by God, described by Albert Einstein!

If that’s not head exploding enough, how about that Word – the one who helped create the whole space-time universe – suddenly appearing inside that universe, localised to a tiny helpless baby! Jesus now had a body, albeit one that was small and terribly fragile in the grand scheme of things. Somehow this whole impossible mystery gets glossed over every Christmas, but it's a reminder that we really shouldn't expect to be able to get our heads around everything God does -he's just too big and too wonder-full.

The baby Jesus grows up, teaches, makes friends, gets to know people, then he’s killed, on a cross. So, how can you kill God? How come the universe kept going that weekend when Jesus wasn't around? And so on; I hope you're getting the idea that if it doesn't make your brain hurt you're not really understanding the story.

Jesus’ dead body is laid in a tomb, and a rock rolled across the front. But that first Easter Sunday Jesus’ friends came to his tomb and found the rock rolled away and the tomb empty. Later they met him, on a number of different occasions, in various different places. Jesus was alive; he had risen! His body is transformed but living; death is overcome, wrongdoing forgiven, the way to life is open to all.

The risen Jesus spent some time with his friends, but then he had to go away, to be lifted up and to disappear from sight in a cloud. Where did his body go? Presumably back to where he started – somewhere outside space and time … my head’s starting to hurt again.

Maybe a better question is why did Jesus have to go? Actually, Jesus had already told his friends this before he died (John 16:7) – he told them that he had to go so that the Holy Spirit could come. And we are told later in the Bible that the Holy Spirit is what unites Jesus’ followers into Jesus’ new body – one body: Jesus’ hands and heart, feet and voice.

We're having a baptism at St John's tomorrow, and when we baptise the child we will welcome her into the body of Christ, which is the church. Sometimes people say that the church is people, not a building; strictly speaking I think it is more accurate to describe the church as a building made up of people.

Finally, the story of Jesus’ body ends – or maybe comes to a new beginning – when Jesus returns, when we are all raised to a renewed world of justice and peace, and when there will be, we are told, the most amazing party, at the Wedding of the Lamb!

That's a brief whistlestop tour of the story of Jesus' body. I've thrown in various brain-bending questions as I go - if you are of a scientific bent I hope you found them entertaining. However there are a couple of more important questions which I believe arise from that story:-

Firstly, where do we fit into this story of Jesus body? Obviously if we're there at all (and I suspect we all are, somewhere) then we’re something to do with the part of the story where his body is his church, but where are we within that? Some of us are regular churchgoers – what is our place in Jesus’ body, what does it mean in our lives, day to day? But the same question is for those who do not go to church regularly, or even at all, where do you fit into Jesus’ body, and what does it mean in your life?

Tomorrow this will have special relevance in the context of the baptism of a child at St John's – everyone will be making various promises about the child and her place in that body: churchpeople, family, friends and wellwishers, parents and godparents. What is and will be the child's place within Jesus’ body, today, throughout her childhood, and beyond? And how can those present play their part in that? It’s something to ponder.

My second question is about what sort of God this is? What sort of God loves us all so much that he’ll do anything for us, even going through all this faffing about? The Word through whom the universe was made suddenly shrinking down to become a baby within that universe. The man walking the roads of Galilee and Judea, who dies on a cross for us, and is raised. But most of all perhaps, what sort of God would let the likes of us be His body? Flawed, messed up, dreadfully human people like you and me being Jesus’ body in the world? What sort of people would you trust to look after your body (Red Dwarf example springs to mind - bonus geek points if you give the episode in the comments below)? Who is this God and why does he care so much for us?

Not questions with simple answers, perhaps, and my answers are unlikely to be the same as yours. But I do hope that you find them questions worth pondering.

I also pray that everyone attending tomorrow's baptism, on this First Sunday After Ascension, may come to know deeply the love of God who will do anything for them (and you), and that through that love they (and you) will find their/your place in Jesus’ body, here in Caversham. there in your home town, and beyond.

Finally, a cake version of the picture at the beginning, what better way to finish could there be?

The Reason for Jesus' Ascension

Thursday 21 April 2016

A Life With God

I went to a BRF quiet day on Tuesday, run by Daniel Wolpert, entitled Creating a Life With God, looking at contemplative practice. Being a BRF quiet day it was, of course, in beautiful surroundings, in this case the Carmelite Priory at Boars Hill near Oxford.

The day was divided into three sections. Each section began with a bit of theory from Daniel Wolpert, then a suggested exercise to put theory into practice, followed by time to go into the grounds and/or the small chapel to spend time in quiet.

The first section was an overview where he suggested that an important part of a young child's development is separating off their own identity by filtering out most of the sensory information which comes in and by strictly evaluating everything which does come in into good/bad, harmful/helpful.

There's a famous example of filtering in the following video, although it doesn't work so well when you know what it's about. Play the video in full-screen (if you can) and follow the instructions:

The trouble with all this filtering and evaluation is that it means that as adults we miss the vast majority of what goes on around us, including, often, what God is doing in and near our lives. So it can be helpful to practice opening up our 'awareness muscles'. The more we practice being aware of our surroundings, in a non-evaluating, non-judgemental way, the better we get; in particular the more control we get.

Our first exercise was simply to go out and be aware of what is around us, at the same time as pondering a question. He gave us three options for the question: "Whatever you want" is always his first option, "What has brought you here?" was his second, uncovering the many layers behind that seemingly simple question, and "What parable are you hearing in your life?"

That last one came with a clarification of the difference between a fable and a parable. A fable, such as "how the leopard got its spots", is a story which gives an answer to a question, closing it down, whilst a parable, such as the good Samaritan, opens up more questions (maybe this is one reason why so few retellings of Jesus' parables seem to work well).

So the "What parable are you hearing in your life" option was about opening up the questions we are living.

The idea was to set off with our chosen question in mind, whilst being open to all that is around us, and to all the thoughts which drift into our heads. Without judging or evaluating these we simply note them and gently bring our thoughts back to the chosen question.

Having arrived fairly frazzled I didn't achieve great wisdom in this, but that was fine. I did rather wonder why I am so much against stinging nettles. For me the whole day was very much about each session building on what had gone on before.

The second session was about silence and listening. Wolpert made a distinction between 'awareness' practices, which are open and expansive, and 'concentrated' practices, which have an object of focus.

He suggested we try focussing on a variation of the 'Jesus Prayer': "Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me," which he linked to the story of blind Bartimeus, who called out to Jesus and kept on calling even when they told him to be quiet. When Jesus heard him he called Bartimeus over and said "What do you want me to do for you?"

Apparently the Jesus prayer is really good if you are lying awake at night unable to sleep, and when you are walking. I certainly found it worked well with walking at a slow pace through the grounds, saying the prayer with a nice steady rhythm. I found that the rhythm of the words gave space for awareness and thoughts, but chopped up any 'blocking' trains of thought to bring the focus back to Bartimeus' words ... and Jesus' question.

The final session was 'Sacred Reading: praying with Scripture'. In this case we did what is (apparently) a variation on the ancient practice of Lectio Divina:
  • Read the passage (or hear it read) and listen for words and phrases which catch your attention (Wolpert used the analogy of hyperlinks on a web page which are typically picked out by being blue and underlined).
  • Read the passage again and listen for an image: an idea, a thought, a memory, or a picture.
  • Read the passage again and rest in contemplation (or, in my case, walk in contemplation).
We did this on Jesus' parable of the sower, which ends with the disciples asking Jesus why he speaks in parables.

I spent time walking, open to the surroundings, saying the Jesus prayer and pondering the parable, especially that final question. Jesus frequently taught in parables; as an occasional preacher I usually work at unpacking Scripture: opening up context and connections, establishing its meaning then and application now. Why don't I teach in parables?

After we had shared our experiences Wolpert left us with a final thought: Scripture can be compared to a stained glass window. In the dark that window is nothing special, but shine sunlight through it and it wakes to life and beauty. Similarly the Bible on its own is not that special, but shine the light of God's Spirit through it and it transforms to a lifegiving gift from God.

I ended the day far less frazzled than I arrived, and with several ideas to ponder. It was well worth taking time out from work to go.

Wednesday 20 April 2016

Windows 10 Missing Start Menu

Windows 10 has been around since July last year and is being heavily - not to mention heavy-handedly - pushed by Microsoft. Windows 10 is also decidedly flakey.

It's biggest problem at present is a tendency to fall over just after the monthly Windows update.

The commonest symptom I see is that clicking on the Start button (the Windows symbol bottom-left of the screen) does nothing. Then you realise that the search box next to it does nothing either. Then you find a variety of other symptoms which either stop or heavily interfere with your use of the computer. Then you curse Microsoft.

The trouble is that it looks as though that Start button is just a general weak link - a symptom which doesn't tell you much about its cause. Kind of like a headache can be anything from lack of sleep to an alien invader about to burst out of your brain (at least in theory).

So I thought I'd try to keep a record of a few fixes which have worked for me. Usual disclaimers: just because something worked for me doesn't mean it'll work for you; don't try doing technical stuff to your computer unless you know what you are doing; if it all goes wrong it is your responsibility - even if an alien chews it way out.
  1. The best place to start, IMHO, is with a check disk. Windows 10 doesn't like you doing these, for some reason, so you have to persuade it (at your own risk - see above). Open an Administrator level command window (if right-clicking the Start button still works the option is in there, otherwise right-click the taskbar and choose Task Manager; from there choose File/Run new task, type in CMD, tick the 'administrative privileges' box, and click OK). Once the black command window is open type into it (after making sure all your other programs are closed, as it will reboot):
    chkdsk /f C:
    shutdown -r -t 5
    As the computer restarts it should check drive C: for dodgy indexes and file links. When it returns to Windows see if the Start button is fixed.

  2. If that doesn't work, try getting Windows 10 to fix itself. Open that administrator command prompt again and this time type in:
    sfc /scannow
    This will take a while to run. At the end it will either tell you it has succeeded or failed; either way it might be lying, so reboot and see if anything has changed.

  3. If there is still no improvement, try this more comprehensive version. Open that administrator command prompt again and this time type in:
    dism /online /cleanup-image /scanhealth
    dism /online /cleanup-image /checkhealth
    dism /online /cleanup-image /restorehealth
    sfc /scannow
    One of those first two lines is probably unnecessary, but the second is very quick, so you might just as well do both. These will take ages to run. At the end it will still either tell you it has succeeded or failed; either way it still might be lying, so reboot and see if anything has changed.

  4. Finally, for now, a combination of Dropbox and a Windows update can horribly break the Registry. When I came across this it had the additional symptom of popping up a box when you click on the Start button telling you there is a critical error which it will try to fix next time you log in. Of course it fails.

    I did two things to fix this: a system restore back to before the latest Windows Update, then I uninstalled Dropbox, rebooted, and it all worked again. I have no idea whether the system restore was necessary, but that's what I tried first.

    For those interested in technical details, it seems that somehow the Dropbox had corrupted the user classes segment of the registry, such that it failed to load in the general classes when you log in (so in Regedit, under HKCU/SOFTWARE/Classes you just end up with a few Dropbox classes and very little else). It seems that Windows 10 assumes everything is present in this part of the registry when it runs, so if the general system-level classes are missing it fails in weird ways. When you uninstall Dropbox it undoes the damage to the user classes so Windows 10 can load in the system classes again.
Somehow I get the feeling this problem is going to run and run, so I'll add extra fixes as I find them. If you have found a different fix for this which worked for you, please add it as a comment so that others can learn from your experience.

Wednesday 6 April 2016

The Only Way?

But what does that mean?
Caversham Baptist Church have just started a sermon series looking at 'questions people ask'. I'm all in favour of that: I think questions are really important, not just for their answers but for the underlying attitude.

They have started with an interesting one too, with follow-up at their housegroups. I don't remember the exact wording of the latter, but it was along the lines of "How would you answer someone who thinks it is arrogant to claim that Jesus is the only way to God?" 

Good question, and a tricky one to deal with from a church background.

I'll just throw a couple of quotes from John's telling of the Gospel into the pot, so you can see where church people are coming from:
Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10:7-10)
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6)
There's quite a lot of context around these quotes which maybe muddies the waters a little, but it is easy enough, I think, to see why those who believe in the Bible consider Jesus to be the only way to God.

But what does that mean?

What does a non-churchgoer understand by that phrase, what does a churchgoer think it means, and - most importantly - what did Jesus actually mean by it?

I'd guess the non-churchgoer interpretation is obvious: it's a claim that "my religion's right and all the others are wrong".

I'd also guess a lot of churchgoers would, when forced to clarify what they really mean, come up with something similar. The one that used to irritate me with its obtuseness was the idea that it must be right "because the Bible says so". Our holy writings say we are right; oddly enough other religions' holy writings tend to reckon they are right. You're not going to convince someone who doesn't already believe with that, not in this day and age, I'd have thought.

Actually it's a big jump from what the Bible says to 'other religions are wrong' anyway. Both excerpts are in a purely Jewish context, other religions are not mentioned. The context of the first is about true and false teachers, true and false shepherds, and the second is part of a rather obscure passage about Jesus' death and return and the coming of the Holy Spirit, including the repeated claim "I am in the Father and the Father is in me".

Christians believe that through his birth, death and resurrection Jesus paid the price to save mankind. I think it would be difficult to look at the child abuse, violence and corruption in the world and not feel that mankind needed changing, whether you call that 'transformation' or 'rescue'. And I also think that when you look at the compassion, heroism and beauty which people can also produce one must surely feel that mankind is definitely worth saving.

The question then is how we become part of that transformation. Is it by joining a particular religion, or some other way? John 14 suggests that Jesus will come to take his people to God and John 10 talks about his 'sheep' recognising and following his voice. Again, are those people chosen according to their religion, or by whether they trust and follow the Good Shepherd when they hear his voice.

I have a personal interest in this, due to my own experience some 38 years ago, when I was an atheist. I had no religion, yet I had an experience in which, whilst I didn't hear a physical voice, I did feel a clear message that told me that I could be a part of God's people, God's family, by turning my beliefs around and following Jesus. I did and my life followed a different path. That incidentally is what 'repentance', from the Hebrew Teshuva, means.

I didn't come to the Father because of my religion, because I didn't have one. I didn't come because I believed in the Bible, I didn't. I simply came because I heard the voice calling me and I responded. Anyone can do the same, whatever your religion or your lack of religion. When the voice of God calls you, simply respond and follow where it leads. You may be surprised.

Wednesday 30 March 2016

Post-Easter Blues

"Christ is risen", 
but my back still hurts.
Easter service, hard wooden chairs:
up and down, down and up;
lively sermon, deadly songs.
"Christ is risen", who would know?

"Christ is risen",
yet the madness continues.
Daily news, daily blues: 
violence and hatred, injustice, corruption.
America sways: fascist right,
socialist left, sold-out centre;
eating its own sputtering heart.
Britain just gives it all away,
stealing from the poor to feed
the arrogance of the rich,
whilst blaming the other, the outsider, the lost.
"Christ is risen", but we don't want him here.

"Christ is risen",
in the darkness below the surface.
Despair, depression, addiction, alienation,
huddling behind overpriced houses
which ought to be homes.
Where's good news, what's a solution
as Pandora's heritage ravages lives.
"Christ is risen", does hope survive?

Psyche by SteveDelamare

Sunday 27 March 2016


It was an odd feeling having been involved in the interview process, but not knowing who had been selected.

Last week CTM Parish was in the process of appointing a priest to fill the vacancy left when Jeremy Tear moved north.

I'm not quite sure where that process is officially as I write, so I'll leave our new Transitional Minister anonymous for the time being; I assume that when she is formally announced she will appear on the Parish website.

During the days when I knew which candidate I preferred but not who had been chosen, I had time to think about the discernment process. Partly wondering how I would feel if the candidate chosen was not the one I would have preferred; partly worrying about how badly wrong the discernment process had gone back when I was part of Caversham Baptist Church.

Actually, it is remarkable, I think, that the chosen candidate could easily have been someone other than my preference: not only were all four candidates strong in their different ways, but they were all very different in their style and approach.

Would I have been willing to work with someone other than my preferred choice? Of course. I may have reservations about discernment in general, but I am still inclined to trust the interview panel over one single person, even when that person is me. My judgement was that the other candidates would be less likely to make a go of achieving a change that's somewhere between miraculous and impossible, but that's no reason not to give it our best shot.

Although I would want to do so without compromising on my core beliefs about what following Jesus means, which could have caused issues. On the other hand, addressing such issues might have led to mutual growth, sometimes one has to trust God to sort such things out.

As it happens the official interview panel's discernment was the same as that of our unofficial 'stakeholder' panel. That doesn't necessarily mean we are right, but I think/hope it gives a better chance.

If it comes to that, it doesn't make the job we're asking her to do any less miraculous/impossible. But if we've got the discernment right then at least it gives God something to work with.

In the end, it's all about trusting Him.

Sunday 20 March 2016

IDS & Welfare Reform

I detect a spin machine.

On Friday evening Ian Duncan Smith (aka IDS) resigned because the government's budget had made huge cuts to the money spent on the poorest in society, supposedly to 'balance the books' as part of 'austerity', yet simultaneously cut taxes paid by the wealthiest people in the country.

No sooner had the word spread about this than suddenly speculation appeared that maybe his resignation had nothing to do with benefit cuts but was instead about the EU referendum.

I wonder who planted that idea? Surely not the embarrassed government, caught with their hands in the till giving the country's wealth to their millionaire buddies?

Although IDS is known  as a euro-sceptic, his main apparent passion for the past decade or more has been social policy. In particular he has displayed a burning desire to end what he saw as welfare-dependency: the tendency of the welfare state to institutionalise poverty, simultaneously giving people just enough to live on whilst blocking their ability to improve their lot through working.

Although the welfare state has long been a bugbear of the far-right, there are also people from other traditions who have been very critical of the way it is applied in practice: tending to reinforce poverty rather than eliminating it. One high profile critic of welfare dependency has long been John Bird, co-founder of The Big Issue, from a very different background to Ian Duncan Smith.

The trouble with IDS's ideas about welfare reform, it seems to me, has been that he seems to be singularly politically inept, that either he or his department have been callously uncaring about the effects of the changes they have introduced, and that the widespread scale of the reforms he was advocating require more funding in the short term, not less.

At a time when Britain was massively in debt that was unlikely to happen; under a conservative government committed to cutting taxes it was a non-starter. So IDS was trying to bring in changes requiring more money whilst repeatedly cutting costs ("salami slicing" as he put it). No wonder he failed; no wonder government policies created such suffering.

To me it looks as though he had bought into the need to try to keep doing this, hopefully whilst wrestling with his conscience over the human cost of doing so. Then George Osborne made it completely clear that the government is only interested in cutting taxes for the rich, not in improving the lot of the poorest. I may be naive, but I think that is what finally forced IDS into resignation.

I also think this is a government of liars and hypocrites. Just my opinion, of course.

Monday 14 March 2016

Blast From The Past - March

What do bloggers do when their backs hurt and their brains are too empty - or too full - to come up with something new? Lots of them raid their past work, maybe looking for a new angle or application. Let's give it a go:-

I been looking back through posts from two and five years ago. I still like two-year-old ones, but I'm now not so comfortable with a post on parenting from March 2011. So guess which one follows? As ever, comments are welcome.

 Parents - 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.

Tuesday 1 March 2016

Has The World Gone Mad Or Is It Me?

Kudos if you recognise the quote in the title. Extra kudos if you recognised it as a line from the Hawkwind classic, rather than the equally depressing, but also excellent, song from Ben Howard.

Yesterday it was reported that a woman in Moscow was parading around the street brandishing a child's head which she had apparently cut off. Reports say she was the child's nanny.

In the US Donald Trump is a serious contender for the presidency, largely because he specialises in outrageous and impractical statements, appealing to people's racism and fear of change.

Here in the UK we have a health secretary, in charge of the NHS, who once co-authored a policy document which recommended closing down the NHS, and who has lobbied on behalf of homeopathy providers. We have a government of (mostly inherited) millionaires imposing austerity on those who didn't have their head-start in life, not to mention various failed entrepreneurs, politics wonks, and PR specialists lecturing the country on hard work and building businesses.

That's even before you  reach the insanity of ISIS/Da'esh trolls - committing atrocities apparently for the attention it draws; South Sudan destroying itself in a bitter civil war over who controls any battered remains of their country that might be left; Western governments who say we must have peace in Syria, because ISIS/Da'esh must be defeated ... but only peace on their terms. And so on.

It feels like every day, every month, every year the world reaches a new low.

I recently read some wisdom from Michael Card on this topic (in an email and, sadly, I can't find his original piece online).

He makes two important points: firstly that if you look at history the world has always been prone to behaving in irrational, self-centred and destructive ways. To be fair it has also always been prone to behaving in heroic, self-denying and constructive ways too, even now. That is the great wonder and frustration of the world we live in: so much darkness and so much light. So much love and so much hate. Inhabited by those made in God's image but terribly fallen, distorted and hard to recognise.

Secondly, that God cares and has the power to make things right. The day will come when the world is recreated in justice and peace. Why does He take so long? Because he wants to carry us along with him, he wants us to be a part of that justice and peace. For that we need to be willing to change, which is a problem.

As the saying goes: "Miracles take a little longer."

Monday 29 February 2016

Body Image In Middle Age

Not what I See in the mirror
Forty or so years back I was a skinny teenager. I then spent several decades gaining roughly a pound and a half a year - barely worth mentioning, yes? - and still felt like a skinny ... non-teenager.

Body image unreality is most commonly associated with teenage girls, but a quick bit of mental arithmetic will demonstrate that I really wasn't skinny at age 54. At 13st 2lb my BMI was a little under 28: a good halfway up the overweight part of the scale. I wrote back then about the mismatch and my decision that I needed to do something about it.

I probably finally reached my '6 month target' (a stone lost ... three years behind schedule) late last year, but not for long enough to be convincing and I've bounced back a bit since. The trouble is that a year back I had a scan, for another reason, which found fatty changes to my liver, and the follow-up reckoned my cholesterol was borderline. Cue another push to get those final few pounds off to stabilise at or just under 12 stone.

It turns out that the strategies which lost the first half stone - basically a bit less food and a bit more exercise - don't work so well with the next half. Not that surprising really. It also turns out that feeling a bit hungry most days - but never a lot hungry, which just leads to trouble - is important to carrying on with weight loss once the early gains have consolidated. Which is a pity as I had started ramping up the 'have a good breakfast' route.

In terms of realigning my body image with reality, one helpful comment from the practice nurse described the pad of fat on my belly as a separate organ. At the proper size it performs a useful job, but as it expands it puts the body out of balance and gives grief to the liver, in particular. I'm finding I can see what my waistline is doing more realistically now, and there is a clear relationship between what I can see my belly doing and what the scales say.

Which is probably totally obvious to many of you, of course abdomen fat deposits and weight are related! But that's the thing about wonky body image: what you see in the mirror doesn't truly reflect what is actually going on.

So, what am I trying to say? I've not put 'rambling' in the title, so I should be trying to go somewhere.

What I'm not saying is that viewing the stomach as a separate organ would help anybody else but me - that could go horribly pear-shaped. You still have to get the balance bit right: it's a useful organ, in moderation.

I think part of what I'm trying to say is something obvious along the lines that teenage girls and middle-aged men are not two different creatures, totally alien to one another. To paraphrase Paul, writing to churchgoers in Galatia:
There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male and female, there is no longer teenager and middle-aged; for all of us are one in Christ Jesus.
It's not that the experience of a bulemic teenager is really anything like that of a man with middle-aged spread, it clearly isn't. But we are all human beings with all the beauty and brokenness which goes with that; we all have minds which can trick or inspire us and, most of all, we are all loved by God for who we are, not for how we look.

But there's another Galatians quote which I think is relevant:
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.
We are free to look at ourselves however we like: if in five years time I've lost five stone and still feel like that belly fat organ is too big it won't stop God loving me. Nevertheless it won't be the truth and it won't help me live how I want to live. I kind of reckon that matters.

We have been set free, so how do we stay free? If someone offers me crack cocaine I am free to accept or decline. Once I've accepted a few times, I have lost my freedom. My own free choices can either enhance my freedom or restrict it. Using freedom to enhance freedom is surely better.

If you have an eating disorder, whatever your age, please don't depend on the health advice of some random blogger from the Internet (like me). Get proper professional help and support.

If you can, and I know not all families are the same, try to have a good series of conversations with family and friends to get their support.

Oddly enough, a lot of church communities are actually quite good at helping people with real problems like this (although some, sadly, are not). So consider getting involved.

The NHS has a decent page on anorexia here, and the Beat page is here.

Grace, peace and truth for your week ahead, and enjoy God's love in Lent.

Thursday 18 February 2016

What Feeds The Spirit?

I've been feeling wiped these past couple of weeks - hence the lack of posts - and I was given some very wise advice: to seek out the things which energise me, which feed my spirit.

I was reminded of that today when blogger John Pavlovitz posted an article, For Those Of Us Needing A Detox From Religion, talking about how draining church involvement can be, and basically saying it is okay to take a break.
Over time you can gradually develop a soul sickness and be completely unaware of it, until one day you turn around and faith just feels… toxic. The reasons aren’t necessarily clear, but you realize that the spiritual pursuits that once gave you life now seem empty and burdensome. ...
If you believe you need a detox from religion my friend, take it. If you’re wrong you’ll be able to course correct without fear. This is the very essence of Grace. 
Pavlovitz is writing into a very different context from here in sunny Caversham (just at the moment it really is sunny!), but I think that before withdrawing from church life it might be an idea to try just rebalancing that life.

In Caversham, at least, churches will try to take all your time and energy: there is always more 'needs' to be done and there are never enough people to do it. So maybe the first step is to take responsibility for our own time and effort: stick to things where we add most value. It's a bit like a budget, but of time and energy ... and just like a budget, leave some slack for the unexpected. And for the occasional treat!

But it's not just about things being important. In many/most churches it is seen as good to read your Bible and spend time with God working through what it is saying to you and those around you today. It is also good to spend time with those who are unwell and need a friendly word. And it is good to be willing to share your experience of faith with those who are not churchgoers.

All of these things matter and all are well worth doing. But is there one of them which really gets you out of bed in the morning, which really gives your soul a buzz? It may be hard work, sometimes sad or discouraging, but still it's what gives you a sense of purpose, achievement or meaning: a sense that "this is what the Kingdom's about!".

If there is something which nourishes you like that then don't neglect it. Don't let all the other stuff, however important, get in the way of what is - to you - essential. Keep a balance between what you do because it needs doing and you can do it, and what you do because it helps you be who you are.

The examples I gave above are churchy ones, but it doesn't have to be so. Playing with your kids, walking in the wild places, going to the cinema with your spouse, solving the problems of the world with a few good friends over a couple of beers. God is present in all of these, whether you see him or not.

There are real benefits to following Jesus in company, so dropping out may make things harder rather than easier. This is not to say it should never be done, just don't do so lightly.

But much more than that, however you feel about churches and church life - even if you would never dream of darkening the door of any religious building - do remember to feed your soul. It'll thank you for it.