Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Day


May the babe born in Bethlehem
gift you with wonder;
the carpenter apprenticed in Nazareth
gift you with purpose;
the miracle-worker of Capernaum
gift you with wholeness;
the sacrifice on Golgotha
gift you with forgiveness;
and the prince of Heaven
gift you with hope eternal.
Amen.

Happy Christmas!


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Monday, December 24, 2007

Advent 23 | Christmas Eve


This baby
will not stay wrapped in cloth and
lying in a borrowed manger:
for there is a life story
to grow into…

This man
will not stay wrapped in cloth and
lying in a borrowed tomb:
for there is a life story
to grow into…


Sunday, December 23, 2007

Advent 22


When Jesus is born,
the amniotic sac is torn:
the thin veil between
anticipation of this world
and intimate knowing of it.

But, uniquely, this is a virgin birth;
and so, uniquely, the hymen is also torn:
the thin veil between
anticipation of the bridegroom
and intimate knowing of the bride.

When Jesus dies,
the curtain in the temple is torn:
the thin veil between
anticipation of God’s presence
and intimate knowing of his glory.

And when he comes again?
The heavens shall be torn:
the thin veil between
anticipation of God’s reign
and intimate knowing of it.


Saturday, December 22, 2007

Advent 21


When I am with my newly-met college friends, who I am growing to love, I feel the absence of my wife.

And when I am at home with my wife, who, still after all these years, I am growing to love, I feel the absence of my college friends.

It is not that when I am with my friends I wish I were with my wife instead; or that when I am with my wife I wish I was with my friends instead; as if I were perpetually unable to live in the moment.

It is that being in the presence of one you love is a weightless experience [1] [2]. Whereas being in the absence of one you love is a weighty experience.

To bear the
wait
is to choose
to bear the
weight.

Come, Lord Jesus!


[1] we understand this most clearly in relation to romantic love, where we even speak of the sensation of “walking on air”
[2] as opposed to being in the presence of one you fear, which is a heavy burden


Friday, December 21, 2007

Advent 20


The next day [John the baptiser] saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’
John 1:29; 35, 36

What is the nature of John’s testimony?
It is not to describe what he has seen: Jesus is a man, not a sheep.
It is not even to ascribe a theological interpretation to what he has seen – as we might say if a witness to Jesus’ crucifixion were to say, ‘Behold the Lamb of God!’
No, John’s testimony is a perceiving of
how something that has yet to happen
impacts upon the here-and-now.

Seeing is nothing.
Perceiving is everything.


Thursday, December 20, 2007

Advent 19


Through incarnation, God’s creative
Word
Was and is reconciled to the created
World,
In order that the created
World
Is and will be reconciled to God’s creative
Word.


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Advent 18



The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not apprehend||comprehend it.
John 1:5


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Advent 17


What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
John 1:3b, 4 NRSV

Darkness has no texture.
Night is rich in texture,
precisely because night is not
devoid of light:
moonlight,
starlight,
firelight,
candle-light.
Even the deepest blues
and purples add texture
only because of light.

Existence has no texture.
Life is rich in texture,
precisely because life is not
devoid of light:
the glory
of God’s presence
at home
in human flesh.
Even the deepest blues
and purples add texture
only because of light.

Life is to existence
as night is to darkness.


Monday, December 17, 2007

Advent 16


One of the great Christmas traditions is flicking through the film guide in the TV listings, and anticipating what you intend to watch – chance would be a fine thing! – over the holiday…

There will, undoubtedly, be a gluttonous spread of action/thrillers on the menu. And a recurring plot device in such stories is the principle that:
the best place to hide something
you don’t want to be noticed
is out in the open;
the best place to meet someone
without being observed
is in a busy public space.

The same principle is at play in the Gospels:
Jesus is the secret,
present but hidden in the open;
seen, with unseeing eyes, by everyone;
eluding the grasp of enemies
and would-be allies alike;
passed over.

But the viewer has a privileged position:
we do not lose sight of the hero,
swallowed by the crowd at the station…
not for long, at any rate:
look, there he is!

And what of Jesus?


Sunday, December 16, 2007

Advent 15


Might we catch a glimpse of God coming to us today…
…in the busyness of getting ready for
Christmas?


Saturday, December 15, 2007

Advent 14


Might we catch a glimpse of God coming to us today…
…in the ache-weight of bereavement,
sitting with us, weeping with us,
where another sits no more?


Friday, December 14, 2007

Advent 13


Might we catch a glimpse of God coming to us today…
…in the unguarded face of a friend?


Thursday, December 13, 2007

Advent 12


Blessed are you, Sovereign God of all,
to you be praise and glory for ever.
In your tender compassion
the dawn from on high is breaking upon us
to dispel the lingering shadows of night.
As we look for your coming among us this day,
open our eyes to behold your presence
and strengthen our hands to do your will,
that the world may rejoice and give you praise.
Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Blessed be God for ever.

Liturgy from Common Worship, Morning Prayer in Advent


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Advent 11


Watching and waiting:

For though we await the age to come,
the life of the age to come
has already begun
within the present age…


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Advent 10


Are you in, or out?

A bastard: Out.
Born beyond the margin of human society,
where the animals shelter: Out.
Acknowledged by unreliable witnesses –
sheep herders, geriatrics, women, foreigners: Out.
Political refugee: Out.
Didn’t go to the right school: Out.
From the wrong place: Out.
Welcomes sinners: Out.
Touches those whose touch defiles: Out.
Breaks the Rules: Out.
Beyond the wall: Out.
Hung on a cross: Out.
Cursed by God: Out.

Are you in, or out?


Monday, December 10, 2007

Advent 9


Rumours,
hovering on the borderland
between what is un/perceivable
to eye and ear…

“He who is without beginning has begun!”

“He who is immortal is risen to life!”

“He who is without end will bring to completion!”

Rumours,
hovering on the borderland
between what is un/perceivable
to eye and ear…


Sunday, December 09, 2007

Advent 8


Hair matted
body splattered with
congealing blood
screwing up the courage
to draw breath
attended to by women
(the men at safe distance
in the shadows)
King of the Jews

WE SHALL SEE
THIS LAMB AGAIN


Saturday, December 08, 2007

Advent 7


Hair matted
body splattered with
congealing blood
screwing up the courage
to draw breath
attended to by women
(the men at safe distance
in the shadows)
King of the Jews

WE SHALL SEE
THIS LAMB AGAIN


Friday, December 07, 2007

Advent 6


My soul is waiting for you, O Lord:
in your word is my hope.
My soul is waiting for you, O Lord: in your word is my hope.
There is forgiveness with you,
so that you shall be feared.
In your word is my hope.
Glory to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit.
My soul is waiting for you, O Lord: in your word is my hope.
from Psalm 130

Liturgy from Common Worship, Evening Prayer in Advent


Thursday, December 06, 2007

Advent 5 | Feast of St Nicholas


Nicholas, early C4th Bishop of Myra:
miracle-worker;
renowned for secret acts of generosity;
adopted by sailors as their patron saint,
and carried by them to Amsterdam;
from there, as Sancte Claus,
carried onwards to New Amsterdam,
which, in turn, became New York;
from where,
dressed now in red with white fur trim,
relocated to the North Pole,
emerges Santa Claus:
for whom the children,
wide-eyed,
wait up watching…


Almighty Father, lover of souls,
who chose your servant Nicholas
to be a bishop in the Church,
that he might give freely out of the treasures of your grace:
make us mindful of the needs of others
and, as we have received, so teach us also to give;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Amen.

Collect for today, from Common Worship


Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Advent 4


May the Lord, when he comes,
Find us watching and waiting.
Amen.
Let us bless the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Liturgy from Common Worship, Morning and Evening Prayer in Advent


Watching and waiting
Light and darkness
Presence and absence
(Absence and presence)
(Darkness and light)
(Waiting and watching)

Advent is
the recognition of God’s presence,
Immanuel, God with us:

Advent is
the recognition of God’s absence,
Ascended, coming again in glory:

Watch without waiting,
wait without watching,
and you miss the
moment
(the image revealed
when presence and absence
are juxtaposed)



Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Advent 3


Now it is time to awake out of sleep,
for the night is far spent and the day is at hand.
Now is our salvation nearer than when we first believed,
for the night is far spent.
Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness
and put on the armour of light,
for the day is at hand.
Put on the Lord Jesus Christ
and make no provision for the flesh,
for the night is far spent and the day is at hand.

From Romans 13

Liturgy from Common Worship, Morning Prayer in Advent


Sunday, December 02, 2007

Advent 1


Light and dark.
Light and dark.
The gospel accounts are full of light and dark.
Events that happen at night, under the cover of darkness:
Jesus, walking on the water, his disciples terrified;
Jesus, sought out in secret by Nicodemus;
Jesus, arrested, illegally; tried, illegally;
Jesus, crucified, the sky turned dark in the middle of the day…

Blind men, who see…
…men who can see, who are blind.

And Jesus’ words about himself:
revealing and concealing his identity
in the same moment.
Light and dark.

I thought that it was clear:
That for those who believed, this was
revelation;
and for those who did not believe, this was
concealment.

But I was wrong.
The contrast is not between
those who walk in darkness and cannot see,
and those who walk in the light, and can.
The contrast is between
those who walk in darkness and cannot see,
and those who are blinded by the light, and walk by faith not sight…


The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
On those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.
Isaiah 9:2


Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Prologue



This is something of an experiment, the first time I've made a (very simple!) video worship resource, and the first time I've uploaded video on my blog...

The clip was filmed by me, on my digital camera (note to self: get hold of a tripod). The words are from The Gospel According to John, chapter 1 verses 1-14, and are read by my good friend Mark Carey (note to self: position of voice in relation to microphone). It was put together as a spur-of-the-moment thing when Jo and I were visiting Mark and Penny yesterday evening. It might not be state-of-the-art, but it gives me an indication of how easy it is to put together something simple, and I think I might make some more...

Monday, November 19, 2007

Climate Change


There's a lot I'd love to post at present, but most of my writing is being redirected towards essays instead...

However, I couldn't resist uploading this photograph I took on our quiet day today. I think it is stunning. And from a distance, it looks like an aerial photograph of an ice-shelf breaking up, or parched earth cracking...

Sunday, November 11, 2007

11/11


“To triumph fully, evil needs two victories, not one. The first victory happens when an evil deed is perpetrated; the second victory, when evil is returned. After the first victory, evil would die if the second victory did not infuse it with new life…
…After all, I myself had been redeemed by the God who in Christ died for the redemption of the ungodly. And so…I started walking – and stumbling – in the footsteps of the enemy-loving God.”

Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World, p 9


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Sunday, November 04, 2007

Bonfire


Then, in the evening, we joined with several other college families to go along to the local bonfire, a scout fundraiser. It was a mild night, and we had a great time. The kids loved the bonfire, but Susannah and Noah weren’t so keen on the fireworks – they were too loud. Walking back to college afterwards, Noah was quite upset. He told me, “God kept trying to tell me something, but I couldn’t hear because the fireworks were making such a noise!”

In my view, Bonfire Night (November 5th, but, increasingly, moved to the closest weekend) is incredibly important. If you want to reflect on why, here’s what I wrote about that last year.


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Southwell Minster





We had a great family day yesterday. First, in daylight, we paid a visit to Southwell [say ‘suv-el,’ rhymes with ‘shovel’ – not ‘South-Well’] Minster, the diocesan cathedral. It is an amazing church.

We went because the Minster was hosting a Christmas Market in the nave. It was packed out. And it was great to see so much activity, and commerce, taking place. Historically, the nave belonged to the people, and that space within a church was used as meeting place for all kinds of community activity. That was the way it was, before someone invented the fixed pew; and from that point on, where pews were adopted, it was impossible to use the space for anything other than (a particular form of) worship. The space was reclaimed by the Church from the community – missionally, a disastrous decision.

The pew played a major part in creating the sacred/secular divide.

I’d like to build a pyre of pews, and place an effigy of whoever invented them on top.

Given the rate at which local shops and post offices are being closed down, there is greater scope than there has been in living memory to open up the nave again, for all the people.

Afterwards, we had lunch in one of the surrounding villages. And Elijah came face-to-face with a shire horse, which washed his hair in its mouth!


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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Orthodox | Post-Literate Church

We live in a post-literate society, by which I mean that the printed medium is no longer the dominant communication medium. Print has been displaced by the audio-visual world of television, and both now compete with an increasingly diverse range of media. Post-literate society is not the same as functionally illiterate society, by which I mean a society that is unable to access information in print or written form. There is a debate – being covered by the medium of television – in this country at the moment as to whether or not we are becoming functionally illiterate, and how to address this problem.

An immigrant community naturally faces the problem of functional illiteracy – in this case, how much Greek do the children of the Church, born and schooled in England, know; and to what extent will this – or any other immigrant community – teach them their ‘mother-tongue’? (Churches, mosques, temples often play a key role.)

But, is there anything to be learnt from the patterns of worship of the Greek Orthodox for the context of worship in a post-literate society?

There may be something significant to learn from the use of icons, and other ritual objects. Icons are more than symbolic: as I understand it, an icon is viewed as both a window, through which the worshipper looks onto a spiritual dimension (in this regard, similar to stained glass windows); and a door, through which grace is imparted from the spiritual dimension to the worshipper (in this regard, different to stained glass windows). So they are not merely an alternative way of representing something, or of telling a story. But they include that element. Icons carry the story of the community with a permanent accessibility that the weekly-changing sermon cannot.

Should we expect people to follow readings in the Bible – checking up on what is being read, what is being said? Or should we encourage people to listen to the spoken-aloud word (a very different experience from reading, even following along while listening)? Should we teach people to read non-literate codes, to interpret sensory information – an art arguably lost to the western Church since the Reformation? Should there be more art in worship? I’ll pin my colours to the mast on that last question, and respond with a resounding, yes!


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Orthodox | Church As Theatre

The experience of visiting the Greek Orthodox Church was one of pure theatre. Sitting in the front row of the balcony probably added to that; but so did the stage at the front, on which there was a tabernacle (stage set); the painted walls; the enormous gold candleholders hanging from the ceiling; the ornate pulpit; the costumed principal character; the chorus; the congregation participating with the main proceedings primarily as observers…

The theatre of the occasion was fascinating, and raises lots of questions:
What is the purpose of theatre?
Is theatre unreal, or reality seen through a particular lens? Distilled, focused?
What do we learn, about ourselves, about the world, from theatre?
Is the audience in a theatre passive? (I don’t think so.)
Or do they add something? With a play, is there a qualitative difference between the last rehearsal behind closed doors and the first performance in front of an audience? And is that difference only for the benefit of the players? Does it change with every audience?
Are writer and director and cast and crew and audience co-creators of meaning?
Are we changed by the experience of theatre? If so, in what ways?

What about church as theatre?


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Orthodox | Fluid Worship

We arrived at the Greek Orthodox Church at 11:45am, and went up to the balcony from where we would get the best view of all that was going on.

The service had, at its core, a very rigid structure: liturgy chanted by the deacon and choir; prayers and ritual actions by the priest; set elements to the service, in a set order, with set variations (as, indeed, is the case with Anglican liturgy).

In relation to this structure, the congregation had very little to do; other than stand up and sit down again at the right moments, and cross themselves, over and over.

But around this, a lot was going on. Children walked in and out of their own group in another part of the building. People kept arriving: when we arrived, the congregation was very small; it kept growing over the next hour and a half; filling up, filling up. People came in, in groups; each lighting a candle, kissing a series of icons, and a holy book (Gospels?). A widow brought food, a symbolic gift to her departed husband, and placed it on a table at the front; someone else brought a framed photo of the deceased, and placed it on the same table. People greeted one another, as and when. At one point, various men were invited to take part in a procession in preparation for the communion, which was taken by the children. After the communion, the family of the recently deceased man stood together while the priest prayed over them, a personal interruption to the flow of the whole…

It didn’t matter that people were engaging with things at different levels, at different moments. In fact, the service was structured with that expectation.


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Orthodox | Church As Ark

On Sunday I visited the Greek Orthodox Church here in Nottingham, a congregation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain. It was unlike any Christian worship I have experienced before; fascinating, and well worth the visit. Go yourself, but be warned: set aside time – in its entirety, I think proceedings ran between 9:30am and 2:00pm.

Four things that struck me were ‘church as ark,’ ‘fluid worship,’ ‘church as theatre,’ and ‘post-literate church.’

Church as Ark:
While we were welcome to observe what was going on, it was clear that this was church for the Greek ex-pat community. There was no sense of seeking to reach out to include ‘the other,’ to grow through conversion, to assimilate and be assimilated. Rather, the intention seemed to have to do with keeping the integrity of what it means to be Greek – and Christian – in the midst of a non-Greek and highly irreligious culture. Church as ark. It is easy for evangelicals to disapprove of church as ark, but it is worth remembering that the Russian Orthodox Church more than conquered the Communist experiment; held imagination and communal identity in the face of an atheist alternative reality. And from the ark, the earth is repopulated.

It seemed to me that there were parallels with niche-culture emerging churches, such as Goth churches, which seek to create community that is authentically Christian and authentically their own culture, unwilling to compromise on either.

Should church call us out of our culture; or seek to transform it? Should our response to Christ’s reconciling previously hostile groups be to seek to hold those groups together in any local congregation; or to build partnerships between distinct local congregations?

It seems to me that the ‘calling out of culture’ and assimilating a new heterogeneous group instead approach is built on a theology where heaven is the goal. But as Bishop Tom Wright said to us in our college lecture last week, heaven is not the goal, not the final destination: the final destination is a renewed heaven and earth, the cosmos with decay extracted. That, contra to Bono’s vision, all the colours will not bleed into one, but that something beautiful will be created from a broad palette.


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Monday, October 15, 2007

Live Autopsy



I recall hearing recently a grim news report of a man who had awoken in agony as the pathologist performing his autopsy took a scalpel to his face.

I imagine not many people have a corporeal awareness of their autopsy. But it provides a certain analogy for the experience of being at college:

Of being laid out,
and that which is normally hidden –
that which is integral to who you are,
but not necessarily healthy;
not necessarily pleasant to observe –
being exposed,
on display to others;
and you yourself painfully aware
that they are aware –
adding further hurt to
the rawness of the wound itself.


Here are two examples of what has already been exposed:

a) I know that I am almost certainly dyslexic and dyspraxic. For whatever reasons, my brain is not wired as it should be. I fall short, only able to do with great struggle what others do with ease. This is sin in my life, not in the sense of being a bad person (a very limited definition of sin, anyway), but in the sense of being held captive by the consequences of being a broken person in a broken world (the sort of sin Jesus’ disciples tried to pin down to something done wrong by an individual or their parents; but Jesus wouldn’t let them get away with that). And I have always refused to receive grace,* to accept help; but have built up compensating- and avoidance-mechanisms that have served me well (well enough to have a PhD in an Arts discipline). But it has taken college less than a fortnight to demolish those mechanisms, and leave me in no doubt that I must stop resisting grace, and acknowledge my brokenness. That hurt. So now I need to arrange professional assessments…

b) There are people I don’t like much, for all sorts of ignoble reasons, all kinds of petty prejudices. And with such people I tend not to make much effort, to love them, to serve them. That’s sin, in a more obvious (and no less real) sense. I’d rather not be hauled up over those prejudices by my neighbour, and my conscience, ganging-up on me; but that is what I need. That it should happen is grace. That it should happen in this safe environment is great grace.


Here is the key lesson of the forensic pathologist’s cold steel slab:

Only by thinking of ourselves as the greatest of sinners – and therefore as needful recipients of the greatest grace – can we avoid assuming that our sins are less horrid than those of our neighbour.

“Self-justification and judging others go together, as justification by grace and serving others go together.” D Bonhoeffer


*sometimes diagnoses and labels are not grace, but that is not the case in this instance.

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Friday, October 05, 2007

What Is Worship?


Well, I’ve survived the first week of term. Just about…!


This first half-term, all the first years have to visit at least seven different churches, from various traditions and including Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and a black majority Wesleyan. Part of the idea is to expose ourselves to different traditions, and reflect on them; and part of the idea, I suspect, is to be made uncomfortable by certain things, and to reflect on why we felt uncomfortable. Then, each week, we’ll attend a seminar, posing different questions. This week, the question was: what is worship?

Last Sunday night I went along to Trent Vineyard. As I have known many people who worship in Vineyard churches, and have worshipped in an Anglican church that has a close relationship with the Vineyard, I thought I would feel more or less at home. But as it turned out, I found it a very uncomfortable experience.

There were several things I felt uncomfortable with, which I won’t go into here. But one thing I felt uncomfortable with was the absence of a cross, or crucifix, and an altar as a focal point – or, indeed, anywhere at all in the purpose-built auditorium. (The focal point was the worship band, spread out across a stage at the front.)

Now, the absence of a fixed cross and altar would not have bothered me if we had been gathered in a cafĂ© (though in such a space I would expect a portable cross and a surface appropriated as a make-shift altar), but in a space purpose-built for Christian worship, it just didn’t feel right. Why not? That comes down to how I would answer that question, what is worship?

What is worship? By which I mean to ask, what lies at the heart of formal, corporate worship? (And yes, I believe that worship goes wider than formal, corporate worship; but that is the question, in this context.) Here’s my answer:


The heart of formal, corporate worship is the Eucharist. The Eucharist is not only the point where we remember Jesus’ body broken 2,000 years ago; but the point where the Holy Spirit re-members Jesus’ broken body today. We are the Body of Christ, dispersed both by our geographical circumstances and by those things that come between us and each other and God, which we call sin. The movement of formal, corporate worship, the sequence of its elements, brings us to the point where the broken body is re-membered, in order to be sent out into the world again. It is a journey to the Eucharist; and then out from the Eucharist; with the Eurcharist being the focus, the heart, the pivotal moment. The symbols of Christ’s body and blood, on the altar, at the foot of the cross.


And because this is my answer to the question, what is worship? to be in a place of formal, corporate worship devoid of cross and altar felt profoundly disturbing.

What about you? How would you answer the question?
Would you need a cross and altar?
Or, are you equally comfortable with their presence or absence?
Or, do you find such physical symbols a distraction away from the spiritual truths they were designed to point to?


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Monday, October 01, 2007

Snippets

We’ve had the stabilisers taken off Susannah’s bike. I’ve been going round the Square with her. We’ll wait for a park to let her try solo.
She’s doing an after-school art club on Mondays at the moment.

Noah has got a pretty good eye in with bat, and ball. It’s been fun playing with him in the garden. Susannah’s pretty good too.
Jo scalped him with trimmers last night.
He is loving his reading books from school.

They’re both making friends at school – there are other college kids in both their classes, which is great.

Elijah is into demolition – an aspiring South Sea Islander rugby forward.

Our lawn is full of shallow holes where the local squirrel has tried to bury nuts in too-hard ground.

Our washing machine is dead. By the time it gets fixed we’ll have been washing-machine-less for a fortnight. Fortunately we have some great new friends – thanks, guys!

Scrabulous is fun.

Jo is wonderful. But slightly mad – she’s taking NT Greek, for fun not credit…
Her parents came to visit on Saturday, which was great.
She’s making friends, and finding routines, and enjoying life on the whole.

I’ve played football every week since we’ve moved here, in goal, on the college field – or Field of Dreams, as it is also known. If goalkeeping was good enough for Pope John Paul II at seminary, it’s good enough for me!

College life is a whirl of people to get to know and timetables and routines and coursework to get to grips with – a major change in gear after working 12 hours a week…

Nottingham Castle is built on fibre-glass-enhanced rock!

Last week, someone added a comment on a post I’d written in April 2006. I’m astounded…


Of Godparents

Term began today. Last week was Induction. On Friday afternoon, I was standing outside the Dean of Studies’ office, waiting to discuss my timetable. On the walls in the hallway there are several boards listing the names of those who went out from St John’s to serve as missionaries in other parts of the world. And there, on the board outside the Dean’s door, towards the bottom of the last column:

LAVILLE, J. Philippines 1972

Jo Laville was a godfather of mine. He died, training church leaders in India, not very long back. He’d lived for most of my life in Asia, but, by chance of home-leaves falling at the right time, he happened to attend our wedding in 1996; our honeymoon in Switzerland in 1997 (yes, I know that sounds a little weird: we were married in October, but wanted to go skiing, and so waited until the spring, and went on a group package. We didn’t know Jo was booked on the same group – but he was a life-long skier, who had skied in the Alps long before that became popular); and to the christening of our daughter in 2001.

Just as I hadn’t expected to see him get on our coach somewhere in Switzerland over a decade ago, so I hadn’t expected to see his name on a board in the hall.

As it happens, another of my godfathers, Revd Canon Dr Michael Green, was the first Principal of St John’s, Nottingham (1969-75 – the college goes back to 1863, but was located at various sites in London prior to moving to its current home).

And my parents share a god-daughter with the current college Principal.

And one set of my youngest child’s godparents are the brother and sister-in-law of the wife of the Dean of Studies whose study I was waiting outside on Friday.


Surreal does not begin to describe it. But there is something else: something about continuity; and inheritance; something about standing in a god-parental genealogy; something about arriving somewhere I never knew and until just under a year ago was not heading towards, and finding myself coming home. Something that brings with it anticipation…


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

From Generation To Generation

Today Jo and I attended my grandad’s funeral. Dad led the service of remembrance at the crematorium, on behalf of his younger brother and sister and himself. Dad, you did grandad proud.

It was a good day. Don’t get me wrong: tears were shed, and rightly so. But it was a good day. Grandad’s coffin was brought in to Copland’s Fanfare to the Common Man, because his children thought that Jack deserved a fanfare. And the rightness of that music made me smile an honouring smile that stayed with me throughout the service.

After the service, we went back to my aunt’s who – as so often before, on happier occasions – laid on the most wonderful table, a gift to Jack and those who loved him. Thank you for all you have done, seen and unseen.


But for me today wasn’t just about granddad, much as I shall miss him; for me, perhaps alone, it was about learning my own role. As my father is, I am a firstborn son. And it struck me that one day the baton will pass to me, and I will do for my father that one last act he did for his father today; I will do for my brother and sister and our children what dad did for my uncles and aunts and cousins, and us, today. At least – if this can be said in the right way, heard in the right way – that is my hope; though, please God, may that day be many years from now.

However strange it sounds to our culture, there are other cultures that understand this task to be part of the birthright of a firstborn son (a challenging thought in our rights-obsessed society). It struck me that it is the birthright of a firstborn son to stand up to death and take a blow on behalf of the whole family: not that the pain of death is not felt, but that its force is not unmitigated. And it struck me that taking up this birthright is the very thing that Jesus, God’s begotten Son, the firstborn over all creation, has done for all God’s family; and that is why we can say, where, death, is your sting; where is your victory?

It struck me that standing up and taking the blow must be the most alone moment imaginable – though, dad, I hope we were in some small way there for you today. God knows it was alone enough having the curtain of the future drawn back for just a moment for now today. And it struck me that Jesus has been there, before dad, before I will stand there; and he stands with us, because that is (now, because of what followed) a moment – however evil – and not the final word. It strikes me that, in the most alone moment, we are not left alone.

I need role-models if I am to learn my role in life. Dad was a good role-model to me today. Jesus, you are our role-model. Thank you, both of you.


If this post is too private, too personal, to be thrown out into cyberspace; if I have caused any offence to my family; then I apologise. But why should death, which comes to us all, be taboo? If these thoughts help you, you’re welcome to them. And if not, let them fall to the ground.

The peace of the Lord be always with you.


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Friday, September 21, 2007

Tomato | Meditation On The Cross | 2


I sliced a tomato, and,
Revealed inside,
The cross.

You say, “The sign of the cross did not exist within the tomato prior to your cutting it; it is an arbitrary sign.”
But there was an inherent structure to the tomato, which meant that, when I sliced it in a particular cross-section, a cross was revealed. The sign of the cross was not yet actualised, true; but it already existed in potential.

In the world there is already testimony to the salvific work of God on the cross.
In the world there is already testimony to God’s kingdom advancing in our midst.
It is present before we speak of it.
It is present before we arrive in order to speak of it.
It is waiting to be revealed.

But it is not manifest until our proclamation, our demonstration, in all its inadequacy, plays its part.

I am a kitchen-knife, in God’s hand.
But God grows the tomatoes, picks the tomatoes.
God chooses which knife he will take up,
And which lay aside, on any given occasion.
The knife’s role is both small and essential.

We do not usher-in the kingdom – Jesus did that, 2000 years ago.
But if that kingdom may be revealed through me,
If what is present becomes visible through me,
Then I am satisfied.


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Tomato | Meditation On The Cross | 1


I sliced a tomato, and,
Surrounded by spilt juice,
The cross.

The cross is messy,
Physically –
Smeared in blood, yes,
But in shit, and piss,
And vomit too,
For the crucified body empties itself
In whatever ways it can.

But the cross is messy
In other ways. The cross
Is messy
Philosophically –
For there is no greater proof
Of our need for God
Than deicide.

And yet, like pips
In the juice of a tomato,
In the very midst of the mess,
The hope
Of new life;
That’s where such hope is
Found.

The cross is messy
Theologically –
We have no words,
No doctrines,
That can adequately describe
What defies attempts to be
Described, delineated,
Explained.

And yet, like
The tomato – a thing
Our intellect tells us is fruit,
Our instinct tells us is vegetable –
My failure to
Summise the cross
Denies neither its substance
Nor the fact
That I have tasted
Of it.


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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A Family Story

Once, on my travels, I was introduced to a successful businessman. This man was well known not only in the business circles of his city, but across the city itself. He had served terms as president of both the Chamber of Commerce and the Country Club, and each year he hosted a fundraiser dinner at which the wealthiest families in town donated literally millions of dollars to the several charities of which he was a patron. Of these, the one closest to his heart was a fund he himself had established, to support kids from disadvantaged neighbourhoods through college. Without ever demanding respect from anyone, he commanded respect from all who met him.

This man told me that he had two sons, both of whom had followed him into the family business he had built up over the years. The extent of the older son’s ambition stretched no further than one day to step into his father’s position within the business, and the wider community. His father loved him, and believed that while his son lacked the drive that had led him to build a successful business from nothing, he had the steady character to oversee the existing business, and hand it on in turn.

His younger son was cut from a very different cloth – the same cloth as his father. He was full of ambition. He loved his father, and respected him as both father and a businessman; but he had enough about him to realise that, in this town, he would never be anything other than his father’s son. And that was not enough for him: he needed the opportunity to make something of himself, or fail trying.

And so the younger son had gone to his father, and asked for the 50% share in the family business that would come to him anyway in the future, to have it now when he could make the most of it. And the father agreed. Indeed, he went further: he gave both his sons the 50% share that was coming to them, although the older son had not made any such request. And then he went further still. Because he knew that his son was not interested in running the business but was looking to liquidate his assets; and so, in order to keep the business within the family, he bought back off his son the shares he had just given him.

For this decision, he was for a time derided by the business community that had held him in such respect. To pay the market value for what was already yours was madness. And it certainly impacted his personal fortune. But he was wise enough to know that, in the long term, it was more important to keep the business. And anyway, he understood grace.

His son had gone up the coast, ending up in a city with a reputation that anyone with a little money and a lot of imagination could make a lot of money – enough to slake their imagination’s thirst. And for a while, things went well. Very well. But he had arrived just as the start-up opportunities had reached capacity. Those who had made their money were already relocating their businesses even further up the coast, and the local bubble was about to burst.

A risk-taker at heart – like his father – he’d made a bad call, then another, and then one thing led to another, and rapidly. He tried calling in favours; but ‘friends’ who’d been all too happy to be seen with him when he was on the up, made their excuses now he was on the way down. He went from sleeping in penthouse suites – if he came home at all – to progressively smaller apartments in progressively seedier neighbourhoods; to sleeping on friends’ floors; and then the floors of strangers; and, finally, in doorsteps and back alleys.

It was at that point that he admitted to himself that things had not worked out as he had hoped. But he was still a risk-taker, and there was still one last roll of the dice. He’d return home, and ask his father to hire him, right back at the bottom of the business he’d once – briefly – co-owned.

And in a way, this risk didn’t pay off either; because his father wasn’t having any of this business proposition. Didn’t even let him lay it out on the table. Not interested, no sir. All he was interested in was that his son was back home. First up, he got him sorted with a bath and a shave and a change of clothes. And while that was going on, he was on the phone, giving orders, organising a party, booking the caterers – the best.

The stage was set for a family reunion of – like everything else about the man – legendary proportions. But his older son poured cold water on the plan. He was seriously upset, to put it mildly. He hadn’t spoken to his brother since their father had divided the business between them. Instead, he’d set out to show his father that he was worth so much more, dutifully putting in long hours at work, stepping up to the increased responsibility of being a major player on the board. And now his father was throwing a party for his waster of a kid brother.

Why, he’d asked? Why him? Why not me? Why have you never set aside anything from the wealth of the business to celebrate me? After all I’ve so diligently done for you. He’s always been your favourite. He spat in your face; he pissed away half of what you’d built up; and you let him walk back in as if nothing had happened.

I believe that at the time his father was too gracious to point out the obvious. I suspect he might have got there for himself, in the end. Since his brother left town, he’d been so focused on proving himself to his father, he’d failed to realise that he was not working for his father but for himself. That half the business was his. That he had all the resources he needed to celebrate whatever and whoever he chose. But he hadn’t registered it. He had failed to receive what his father had given him; and so had been unable to give to anyone else.

But he wasn’t going to take that comment about letting his son walk back in to the family as if none of what had gone before had happened. No, sir. Because the truth of the matter was precisely the opposite. It was precisely because of all that had happened that he wanted to celebrate. Because his son had been lost – as good as dead – and now he was home.

Were the sons reconciled to each other; to their father? I never found out – we had to leave before he finished his tale. Or perhaps he chose not to; I no longer recall. But I suspect that, if they were all reconciled, it was the grace he held out so resolutely that won it.


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Respect | Tolerance | Grace

This post follows on from recent posts on what I have called the graceless society.

The two most prominent words at play in the public debate on social ills in the UK are ‘respect’ and ‘tolerance’:
young people need to be shown respect by the generation who currently hold public office, and need, in turn, to show respect towards their elders;
while tolerance of beliefs – and actions arising from beliefs – other than our own is held out as the key to harmony in a culturally diverse context.
But both ideas are compromised by fatal flaws.

The problem with respect is that it can be given grudgingly. To give grudging respect does not in any way undermine the integrity of the respect given; but it does undermine the usefulness of respect as a virtue for building society. Grudging respect ultimately fosters resentment, not only towards the one respected but also for all that is identified with them, all they are seen to stand for.

In contrast, it is impossible to extend grace grudgingly.

The problem with tolerance is that it does not allow us to make value judgements, whether pragmatic (this option is better than that option) or ultimate (this option is morally wrong). Tolerance insists that every view has equal validity – with the unique exception of being intolerant of any suggestion otherwise. Identifying tolerance as a virtue – indeed, as the primary virtue – acts to deny intolerance of any positive value, such as it rightly ought to have in, for example, intolerance of social injustice. The resulting internal conflict for a society that wants to be tolerant of lifestyle choices but intolerant of the catastrophic impact of free trade (which supports particular lifestyle choices) on the developing world, for example, deconstructs the usefulness of tolerance as a virtue for building society.

Grace is not dependent on tolerance. Millions of Anglicans worldwide, and Christians of many other traditions, part with the words of ‘the grace’: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you…” The original context of these words – perhaps far less familiar – is the very end of the New Testament letter 2 Corinthians, and come at the close of several chapters where the writer, Paul, displays quite spectacular intolerance for certain attitudes prevalent within the community he is addressing, and for those who have propagated those attitudes. Grace allows us to challenge beliefs, even vigorously oppose individuals, without devaluing the individuals in question.

Ultimately deriving from God’s free self-giving to us, grace is an expression of the gift economy. It works on the basis of receiving what I have not earned – what I am not legally entitled to – and giving away to another that which they have not legally earned from me. Rather than attempting to impose my views on others, through intellectual or physical aggression, grace seeks to serve them for their good, regardless of how they will choose to respond. Willingness to serve someone who does not ‘look like’ me or my community – along with willingness to be served by someone who does not ‘look like’ me, not because I have enslaved them, but because they have freely offered – are the acid tests of whether or not I have understood grace. Such a choice, replicated out across individuals and communities, has a potential to transform society that respect and tolerance cannot imagine…


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Monday, September 17, 2007

Farewell, Grandad


My grandad, Jack Dowsett, died today. He was 90.

Grandad was a real gentleman, full of dignity, an understated class act. I’m not sure they make them like him anymore.

Just yesterday, as we waited for the end, I went in search of some record of his having lived and found this, a first-hand account of his experiences during WWII.


We grew up hundreds of miles away from my grandparents, and so my memories are relatively few. But they are happy ones.

Of being allowed to dip my finger in his beer, at family get-togethers when we were small…

Of practicing cricket in a park with grandad, my dad, and my younger brother…

Of being picked up from the railway station in his Jaguar…

Of ‘Dowsett Olympics’ – an annual event, in my grandparents garden when they lived in Whitstable and we were very young; featuring obstacle races between the cousins, the Dowsett boys and the Carter girls; and all recorded by grandad on cinecamera…

Of how, when he was older and his hearing was not what it had been, he would acknowledge things you had said that you knew he hadn’t fully heard, just because he understood how important it was for people to know they had been listened to…


And, much more recently, of him reading to Susannah, sat on his lap, and Noah, and holding Elijah in his arms…

Farewell, grandad. We love you.


God, have mercy on the soul of the departed,
for the sake of the living.
God, have mercy on those left behind,
who grieve this parting.
Lord, grant a clean release
To the dead, and those who survive them.
God, have mercy.



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Friday, September 14, 2007

82 Not Out

The other day, Jo bought the kids a first cricket set – yellow plastic bat, purple stumps and bail, and two orange balls. It didn’t take long for one of the balls to end up on the garage roof, where it sat for a couple of days before it was blown off onto the wrong side of the hedge. Such is the way of children’s balls and neighbours gardens…

This morning I mentioned the ball to our neighbour, and he said he’d keep an eye out for it.

We’d had lunch, and I was stood at the sink when there was a knock on the door. Noah – who’s been on half-days at school this week, and goes to full days on Monday – ran to answer it. He opened the door to our 82-year-old neighbour, who held out a small orange ball, shifted it in his hand, and said with a twinkle in his eye, “I feel like an Australian fast bowler.”


I fancifully wish Australian fast bowlers had the physical prowess of an 82-year-old man. But I sincerely hope that when I am 82 I’ll have the presence of imagination of my neighbour…


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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Honeysuckle


The honeysuckle grows right outside our french window, and is a magnet for garden birds. So far, they have proved too camera-shy for me; but I have at least captured a bee...

This is one of the first photos I took after we moved in, and, for the bee, I really like it.

To Affinity And Beyond, 3

Unlike law, grace cannot be taught. It can only be received and passed on.

The other day I was sitting in the doctors’ surgery waiting room, there to register with the local GP Practice. As I waited to have my blood pressure taken, be weighed and measured, and quizzed about my family health history, I noted a display on sexual health information. There were a couple of posters highlighting the pyramid effect of unprotected sex in relation to risk of sexually transmitted disease: you may only have had sex with one person, but if that person has previously had sex with three other people, and between them those three people have had sex with twelve other people, for the purposes of exposure to STDs, you have in effect had sex with sixteen people…

Grace can work in a similar way. If a person is exposed to someone who has been exposed to grace from a few other people, it increases their chance of being infected with grace. If that same person is exposed to several people who have been exposed to grace, the chances are greatly increased. And the presence of a few particularly promiscuous individuals skews the pyramidal possibilities wider. Especially if they don’t use the equivalent of condoms; don’t take precautions to protect themselves from being infected by grace or transmitting it to others. Such ‘condoms’ might include pride, or fear.

Once infected by grace, a person is a carrier. It might not develop into the full-blown version for years, but they can still pass it on. Once identified, it can be controlled – through regular doses of legal rights – but to my knowledge there is no cure, as yet.

As an individual, the little grace I might have to pass on can go a long way…

Dear God,
Make me promiscuous in relation to grace.
Don’t let me take precautions.
May I infect someone else today;
And may they pass grace on in turn.

May the grace that courses through my veins spread, develop, consume me.
Amen.


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To Affinity And Beyond, 2

For an individual or loose group of individuals to kill another individual may be unlawful, but it is at the same time law-full: a taking the law into one’s own hands and applying it to its full extent – “Your very existence offends me, and so I shall take your life.”

In contrast, grace says, “Your very existence delights me, and so I shall affirm your life.”

When Adam is presented with Eve, who is both the same and yet different, he declares, “You are bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.” Indeed, Adam does not exist as a discreet entity prior to, or without, Eve.

When I am presented with someone who is of a different socio-economic background to me, they are bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.

That is, we are made of the same ‘stuff,’ and, indeed, without ‘the other’ I am myself less complete (I do not mean that economic inequality is a positive thing, but am referring to our attitude towards those who have more or less than we do).

When I am presented with someone whose skin is a different colour from my own, they are bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.

When I am presented with someone who is of a different generation to me, they are bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.

When I am presented with someone who is of a different gender to me, they are bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.

When I am presented with someone who is of a different religion to me, they are bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.

When I am presented with someone who is of a different sexuality to me, they are bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.

When I am presented with someone who is less able to enjoy the educational or relational opportunities I enjoy, as a result of disability, they are bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.

We live in a legal society that legislates against discrimination in all of these cases and more. But a legal society can never change the attitude of the fractured human heart towards ‘the other.’ Neither legislation, nor consciousness-raising, can adequately address the issue. They can only highlight the need for the issue to be addressed, and our inadequacy to address it.

What is it that causes me to fear the other, to strive to exalt myself above the other? It is the fear that the image of God reflected in them exposes the ways in which that image is marred in me. If I can get in there first, pointing out the ways in which God’s image is marred in another – or calling that which is not marred ‘marred’ – perhaps others won’t notice…


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To Affinity And Beyond, 1

It is ironic that the very point where being online would be especially helpful – for accessing all kinds of information; for keeping in touch with family and friends – is the very time when we have lived in the Sheol of existence without the substance of the virtual world…

It has also been interesting, to me at least, to observe how helpful blogging is to the process of theological reflection, and indeed of simply keeping the brain ticking over. Over the summer, I’ve been trying to reflect on one of the major news stories, the apparently dramatic rise in murders – both premeditated and opportunistic; by knife and gun and savage kicks to the head; by individuals and groups – by teenagers. I say apparently dramatic because the rapidity with which trends move is inversely proportional to the numbers involved, so that when we are dealing with a very small number of incidents (e.g. murders) as a percentage of the possible agents (e.g. British teenagers), the trend inevitably appears to grow or be reversed rapidly (if such killings were commonplace, a small increase or decrease would not be felt). On the other hand, it is a growing concern – and concern about the situation may well reach a tipping-point that provides the opportunity to address the problem, before the problem itself reaches its own tipping-point and explodes exponentially.

We have seen an outpouring of column inches in the press, as columnists and politicians alike react to the events of the summer, attempting to identify the causes and the best responses. The difficulty is that, while we don’t have the luxury of ignoring the problem, the wrong responses will only further add to the problem we face. We need to be careful and thorough in our diagnoses; and careful and thorough in the choice and ongoing monitoring of our prescribed course of action.

The apparent problem – the one most readily identified by columnists and politicians, and on the grounds of which many of the suggested responses have been made – is one of lawlessness. That is, within a law-abiding majority living in a society built on legal principles, there are rogue elements, law-breaking individuals. And it is a matter of concern that an increasing number of children are being raised without reference to, or respect for, the legal code; a trend that left unaddressed would ultimately undermine the legal society.

As I have reflected on these unlawful killings, I believe this to be a fundamental misdiagnosis. The problem, as I see it, is not that we live in an increasingly lawless society, but that we live in a graceless one.

And therefore, far from being rogue elements, teenage murderers – and those who sell them weapons – are entirely consistent graceless members of a graceless majority, living within a law-based society. I shall explore this further in the following post.


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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Nottingham

We moved to Nottingham on 22 August, and are settling in. Susannah started school last Wednesday. Noah started school – for the first time – on Monday; he’s on half days this week, and goes to full days from Monday. I’m not sure what Elijah will make of it!


We are renting a lovely house. Until now, we’ve always lived in terraces, so a three-bedroom semi, with front and back gardens, driveway, carport and garage seems very grown-up! The garden is full of birds: robins, blackbirds, thrushes, various sparrows, blue tits, great tits, a flock of green(?) finches, wood pigeons, white doves…The house is light and airy, and while we lose space upstairs we gain space downstairs.


College doesn’t get going until the last week of September, so life is all about finding our feet, getting to know people and the area. There are several other newly arrived families who had to move in time for their children to start school, and there are several college kids in both Susannah and Noah’s classes. The school is just around the corner, as is the church (our garden backs onto the churchyard) and the pub, but not much by way of local shops.

Three days after we moved in, we spent the August bank holiday weekend celebrating Jo’s sister Laura’s wedding, to Steve. Jo’s parents laid on the most wonderful reception in a marquee in the field next to their home. It seems a long time ago – so much has been going on this summer – but now we’re back online I’ll hopefully get some photos up on flickr over the next few days…





Saturday, August 18, 2007

One




What a difference a year makes.

Today is Elijah’s first birthday. He is fast leaving the baby stage behind.

In four days time we will be leaving the house he was born in.

And Grandma and Grandad have taken Susannah and Noah away overnight in their motor-home.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Revisit




I love shooting wildlife – with my camera.

Earlier this year, we holidayed in the North West of Scotland. We saw a lot of red deer, our largest native animal. We saw them in ones or twos on hillsides during the day; and in larger herds on lower ground, where the grazing was sweet, in the evenings. And I hoped to get some decent photos.

To be honest, I was disappointed with the images I came home with, including this one. But today, for whatever reason, I revisited this photo and cropped it, and I’m much happier with the resulting image (which is worth clicking on, to view larger).


Sometimes we try something, and have to say, that didn’t work out as we’d hoped. And that is good, because we learn from reflecting on what didn’t work out, as well as on what did.

But sometimes we try something and too quickly decide that it didn’t work out as we’d hoped. Which is why it is worth revisiting past experience, with the question: what was there all along that I failed to see at the time?


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Monday, August 13, 2007

Connect | Play

The other day I had two coffees with two friends, one in the afternoon the other in the evening.

My afternoon coffee companion raised the subject of Facebook. His view was that this self-named ‘social utility’ would, in the long run, actually work against social connections, being part of a trend that trapped people in a virtual world. He cited anecdotal evidence of a growing number of people who were self-confined to the safety of their own homes, sat in front of their computer, never having to go out and come across, for example, home-less people without access to the virtual world. And he cited first-hand observed evidence of three people he knew who worked in the same building as each other and communicated through the day on Facebook: get off your chair and walk over to each other!!!

The same subject came up with my evening coffee companion. He told me the story of how he ended up with a Facebook account. He had been asked to talk to a group of young adults on engaging in mission within their culture, and he talked about needing to go to the places where people gathered – which, in our world are both physical and virtual – and spend time getting to know them, to understand how they viewed the world, engaging with them. And he cited MySpace as an example.
At the end of his talk, they informed him that they had all moved on from MySpace to Facebook. So he went home and signed up.

Both my friends made valid points. And both made points that are mitigated by other factors we might take into account.


Here are two reasons why Facebook might be A Good Thing: multiple connection, and play.

Another friend of mine has been doing some serious thinking on the subject of friendship recently – how we make friends, and invest in friendships. And one of the things sociologists identify that strengthens our relationships is multiple places of contact. In a ‘traditional’ community, neighbours not only live/d alongside each other, they worked alongside each other, shopped alongside each other, worshipped alongside each other, their children were educated alongside each other…In a transient community, the multiple nature of connections are broken down – and the quality of our relationships suffers as a result.

(I am a transient: my family is about to move to another city for two years, while I am at theological college; we will then move again, to my curacy; and then again…)

This is why teenagers who see each other all day at school (though largely in classrooms where social contact is tightly channelled) get on the phone to each other the moment they get home – having txtd each other on the journey. It might drive their parents insane, but they instinctively recognise that the more the expressions of or contexts for contact, the greater the reinforcement of the relationship. The mobile phone and the Net do not replace physical contact in physical settings; but reinforce – and, indeed, mediate – such contact. And for some of the talk to be serious – the eternal Big Questions of life – there is need for a lot of mindless chatter, or fun. If we represent serious talk by oxygen carried in the bloodstream, fun is both the arteries along which it passes and the red blood cells that carry it along.

Fun is a means of building the trust accounts that allow us to talk about serious things; and a convention that allows us to talk about things that expose ourselves, making us vulnerable, by allowing us to be slightly less vulnerable. And Facebook was created for teenagers – even if ‘us oldies’ are gate-crashing the party…Sending your friend a virtual fish for their virtual fish tank might not change the world in a big way. But who knows what it might lead to?

And frankly, those of us who grew up evangelical could all do with a little more fun in our lives. Andrew – lighten up a little, why don’t you?


If you want to look me up on Facebook, I’m listed as Andrew C. Dowsett.


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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Atheism, And Everything After

I am reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and, alongside it, The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine, by Alister McGrath with Joanna Collicutt McGrath.

I have a problem with Dawkins’ book. My problem is, it is presented in such a way that no-one can question it. If a theist questions it, their points are ‘self-evidently’ invalid, on account of their being a theist. If an atheist questions it, their points are less self-evidently invalid, and so it is just as well that Dawkins is at hand in the preface to the paperback edition to point out the error of their ways. If a theist who informs us that he used to be an atheist (such as Alister McGrath) questions it, then “That is one of the oldest tricks in the book, much favoured by religious apologists from C.S. Lewis to the present day. It serves to establish some sort of street cred up front, and it is amazing how often it works. Look out for it.” [p.13].

Dawkins is unquestionably to be respected as a serious scholar, but this is not the scholarly-but-accessible piece of work that its endorsers claim. Which is a shame, because there is substantive circumstantial evidence to suggest that atheism has intellectual integrity as a worldview, and I would suggest that atheist and theist alike would benefit from a scholarly-but-accessible atheist apologetic.


For what they are worth, here are some of my initial thoughts:

I suspect that one of the reasons why atheists tend to be less vocal about their atheism than ‘faith heads’ (Dawkins’ term) are about their faith is that ‘atheist’ is a negative description – a statement of what we do not believe – and who defines themselves in negative, rather than positive, terms? The current President of the United States of America is not a not-a-Democrat; he is a Republican. When presented with an ethnic monitoring form, I am expected to mark the box saying that I am white (though in truth I have never seen a white man in my life – and I grew up in Scotland, where you would find one if one was to be found), not a box indicating that I am not black (never seen a black man, either). Defining myself in terms of what I am not generally goes without saying.
Is ‘humanist’ the ‘positive’ alternative to the ‘negative’ label atheist?

I suspect that, while there are ‘pure’ polytheists, monotheists, agnostics, and atheists living in the UK today, there is a sizeable percentage of the population who hold a poly-mono-a-theist-agnostic worldview in paradoxical tension; with any given dimension taking front-of-stage at any given time or circumstance. And while such a view is likely to be highly unsatisfactory to both Dawkins and McGrath, it only lacks intellectual integrity if we consider paradox itself to do so. (Which leaves the light-is-both-a-particle-and-a-wave hypothesis in a spot of bother…)


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Cutting A Long Story Short

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I was a postgraduate in a Department of Biblical Studies. Each week, we had to attend a staff-postgraduate seminar, at which we would listen to someone present a paper, followed by a question-and-answer session, before heading off for lunch in the pub.

On one occasion, a professor gave a paper on the story of Samson (which sprawls over four chapters, Judges 13-16), in which she proposed a particular reading: that this was a story written by men for men, ostensibly as a warning not to allow oneself to show any vulnerability to women, who are inherently not to be trusted; but that the account betrayed that thing which all men fear, castration (Samson’s cut ‘hair’ subconsciously representing cut testicles).

The paper presented, and questions invited, I raised my hand. I had a problem with this particular reading. The problem was, it was presented in such a way that I could not question it. If I dismissed it out of hand, that was ‘evidence’ of my fear of castration. If I wanted to call into question any part of her methodology, it would simply be a ‘disingenuous attempt’ at hiding my fear of castration. If I claimed not to harbour a fear of castration, in that my sense of identity was not primarily located in my ability to father children (massive disappointment though that would have been), that would have been ‘denial’ on my part of my fear of castration. If a female colleague called the reading into question, then she was ‘a fool’ for allowing us men to get off the hook (do they use hooks?)…in short, whatever the paper was, it was not a scholarly paper; because such work must, by definition, be open to questioning. The only thing that had been castrated, I concluded, was the academic process itself.

All eyes in the room were on me: who did this impudent boy think he was, to suggest that the Empress wasn’t wearing any clothes?