Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Jesus Goes Trick-Or-Treat-ing

The grey squirrel was introduced to these islands from North America. Bigger, stronger, and frankly prepared to fight dirtier than the indigenous red squirrel over the same environmental niche, the greys have all but taken over, squeezing the reds into smaller and smaller margins until today they are an extremely endangered species.

Bonfire Night (November 5th) was the indigenous autumnal festivity in England. Halloween has its roots in a Celtic festival, and the red-haired Celts were long ago driven out of England to the marginal eco-systems of Scotland, Wales and Ireland by grey waves of Romans and Anglo-Saxons…But pumpkins and trick-or-treat-ing were introduced from North America in the 1980’s (in Scotland, where I grew up, there is a traditional parallel to trick-or-treat-ing, but without the trick element), and have grown from strength to strength ever since. This year more than I remember before, the talk on the radio and the merchandise in the shops flows from October 31st to December 25th, without even a mention-in-passing of November 5th: in direct competition (falling only five days apart), the grey squirrel of Halloween is muscling-out the red squirrel of Bonfire Night…

The basic idea of trick-or-treat-ing is this: kids dress up and go out from door to door, asking the householder to give them a treat (sweets, chocolate, satsumas); and, if the householder turns them away, executing a trick (throwing eggs and flour against the window). Which has got me thinking of an activity that Jesus instituted:

“When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; if not, it will return to you. Stay in that house, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house. When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God is near you.’ But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that sticks to our feet we wipe off against you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God is near.’ I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.” (Luke 10:8-12)

Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered. He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one…” (Luke 22:35, 36)

All the elements of trick-or-treat-ing are here: the putting-on of a costume; the going from place to place; the accepting of invitations to come in and eat; the symbolic marking-out of those who reject the visitor…But with one significant twist: the door-stepper not only receives a gift, but brings a gift into the home.

The gift is peace – shalom, wholeness – spoken into being; expressing itself, where accepted, not simply as a warm, fuzzy feeling, but in tangible terms such as healing. It could not be further from the fear – especially in the elderly and the young – that arises from fright mask-ed trick-or-treat-ers.

Perhaps when they are a bit older, and no longer scared of people wearing masks, I might take my children out bearing gifts on Halloween…

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Saturday, October 28, 2006


Back from holiday.

One thing we learnt this holiday was that our children just don’t understand what a holiday is about.

Here are some working principles I draw from Genesis 1-3 – a story that is, in my opinion, more concerned with the nature of creation than with the creation of nature:

We are created to engage in productive activity (and where this is lacking, people suffer a loss of wholeness or wellbeing);
‘Work’ is meant to flow out of ‘rest,’ as opposed to rest being taken once work is done (the pattern of days in the creation story – a pattern continued to this day in the Jewish Sabbath – is that the day starts with evening and ends with morning; that rest with God and then sleep proceed labour);
There is a rhythm of rest and work to the day, the week, and the seasons.

Following on from these working principles, I’d suggest that both routine and breaks from routine – say, ‘normal’ days and holidays – are needful. In part, it is about a change of pace: so holiday for someone who has a desk job might mean white water rafting, and holiday for someone whose work is more physical might mean a good book by the pool. Anyway, what we realized with the kids was that they didn’t know what to make of the absence of the ‘normal’ routine of school/nursery.

We did some great things together, that we all enjoyed. But it got me thinking: how do you do holiday with children? Not so much, what do you do. More, how do you holiday with people – and it might not be children – who don’t know what to make of a change of rhythm?

Any suggestions gratefully received. (Answers on the back of a [holiday] postcard.)

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Ten | Tin

Next week (October 26th; we’ll be on holiday) Jo and I will have been married for ten years. Traditionally, that’s the Aluminium and Tin Anniversary. Now, what to get her…?

The modern re-calibration of anniversary gifts allocates diamonds to the tenth anniversary. (Jo doesn’t want a diamond.) With divorce rates spiraling, has ten years become a more significant milestone? I don’t think so: I remember being told by someone who takes a keen interest in British social history that, from the time records began until the end of the Second World War, the average length of a marriage here was eight years: women died in childbirth; men died in war; and men and women both died as a result of disease and of workplace accidents…Perhaps one of the (many, and complex) reasons divorce has spiraled is that a life-long commitment to someone who may reasonably expect to live into their eighties is bigger and scarier and harder than a life-long commitment that can reasonably be expected to last only eight years?

Perhaps the exchange of aluminium and tin for a diamond has more to do with our changing material expectations. Aluminium and tin aren’t very bling. But they have real value in the home. A cursory glance in our kitchen reveals a roll of baking foil; tins of fruit and plum tomatoes and beans and creamed rice pudding in the cupboard; cans of organic lemonade in the fridge…They don’t ‘Ta-Da!’ their presence. But – though life could, at the end of the day, be lived without them, if that should be forced on the family by external circumstances outside of our control – they play an invaluable and daily role in our life. A role that is easily taken for granted, unless seen through fresh eyes.

May be the symbolism of Aluminium and Tin gifts is not so base after all…


Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Tolerance Sucks

The Officially Sanctioned Cardinal Virtue of our society is tolerance. But, of course, we are only tolerant of those who will conform.

In fact, tolerance is a poor virtue, as it fails – refuses – to discern between right and wrong, good and evil. A far better value would be unconditional love: of my neighbour, of my enemy; of my enemy-who-has-become-my-neighbour and my neighbour-who-has-become-my-enemy…


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Deconstructing The Sheriff Of Nottingham

The BBC’s flagship drama this autumn, Robin Hood, is shaping up to be great TV (so far, 2 of 13 episodes have been screened). It has taken some public flack for over-acting, but that arrow misses the mark: to illustrate from another TV series, Friends, there is the inept over-acting of out-of-work actor Joey Tribiani, and there is the deliberate, measured, over-acting of Matt le Blanc who plays Joey; the one is inexperience, the other is comedy genius. The acting in Robin Hood is ‘Matt le Blanc’ not ‘Joey Tribiani’.

Anyway, like much of the Bible, the stories of Robin Hood are myth – that is, stories, whether historical, fictional, or somewhere-in-between, that transcend their original setting and context. This Robin Hood still speaks to us today. In particular, Keith Allen’s Sheriff of Nottingham presents us with a view of law and order which, in times of war – pointedly, war against Muslims (the Crusades) – must be exercised harshly; and with certain individuals considered to be outside of the protection of the legal system, subject to imprisonment, torture and execution without trial; while innocent men, women and children may be legitimately tortured to extract information. Of course, while the character of the Sheriff advocates such a world, the work of the actor portraying the Sheriff is to do the opposite: to call such a view into question. This is how the villain of the piece operates.

Keith Allen is delicious. And he portrayed a similarly subversive Pontius Pilate in The Manchester Passion at Easter-time. It is an important role, and I thank him for fulfilling it so well.

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Eulogy For The Living

At the weekend, my children asked to take photographs of the gravestones at the end of our road – including that of the wonderfully-named Fanny Waterfall, who, somewhat alarmingly, was buried alongside her husband when she fell asleep…

Yesterday I was writing a piece in honour of a friend who is about to reach a milestone birthday – if life was a round of golf, he’s played the nine holes out, and is about to play the nine holes back. It was a great exercise to reflect on what it is about this person that I admire, and would wish to imitate (1 Corinthians 4:16; Hebrews 6:12; Hebrews 13:7). It is a practical application of the apostle Paul’s advice: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3)

Our culture tells us not to speak ill of the dead; and not to praise another publicly until they have died. Perhaps our culture needs turning on its head: perhaps we ought more often to speak well of the living, and say so before it is too late for them to hear. But that will require of us that we choose to look for the good – it comes far more naturally to see the bad – and to point out those areas where others are better than us – again, it comes more naturally to point out those areas where we [think that we] are better. That’s hard. But it just might be worth it.


Veiled, Again

98% of Daily Express readers believe that the wearing of the full veil should be banned by law in the UK. And in their defence they can point to the fact that several Muslim commentators, both male and female, believe that the tradition of the veil is oppressive to women. On the other hand, there are those Muslim women who choose to wear the veil who claim that they feel much safer on our streets behind it…

So there is internal debate among British Muslims as to the appropriateness or not of wearing the veil. Which is exactly where the debate belongs, as our multiple Muslim communities wrestle with how to be authentically British and Muslim and of another cultural heritage but no longer living in that culture.

Why might a Christian choose to speak out in defence of Muslims? Here’s one historical precedent, from the time when Jews were being persecuted in Nazi Germany:

“First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.”

Pastor Martin Niemöller

That might appear to be motivated purely by self-interest, but in fact it goes beyond that. Yes, it recognizes that if I won’t stand for the freedom of others, I should not expect anyone to make a stand for my own freedom. But this also recognizes that we are all connected to each other, in an intricate way: that I am, indeed, my brother’s keeper, and will be held accountable for what I do – or stand by and allow to be done – to them.

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Friday, October 13, 2006

A Total Waste Of My Time

Time is the most precious gift that you can give to someone; and – this may be the harder part – the most precious gift you can receive from someone.

This afternoon Noah and I went looking for conkers and chasing pigeons. Not because it needed to be done, but precisely because it didn’t.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Mind Your Head

I notice that while I was away senior Labour politicians have been speaking out against Muslim women wearing the veil. Not so very long ago they did the same in relation to ‘youths’ wearing ‘hoodies’ (I wear a hoodie a lot: as a member of a New Monastic community, I find it symbolically appropriate; given the climate of the British Isles, I also find it extremely practical). Men of Yorkshire, beware: your flat caps may be next in line…

The reason given is that the veil is “a visible statement of separation.” As, indeed, are the turban and the skull cap (the latter worn by Jewish men to show respect for God and as a reminder that there is always something between man and God). From a Christian perspective, we carry the idea of being set apart for God – that is, having been made holy – and of ‘being in the world but not of the world’ (John 17); of becoming “…blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life…” (Philippians 2:14-16). In other words, there is both a sense in which we fully participate in the wider society, and a sense in which we consider ourselves to be separate, in a way that challenges society where we believe it falls short.

From a religious viewpoint – and freedom of religion is enshrined as a human right – visible statements of separation are helpful, both for the person who wears the statement and for those who see the statement. I for one am glad that there are such statements, as they make me think about how I live my life, and compel me to address the plank of wood in my own eye before I speak about the speck of sawdust in someone else’s.

It is often argued that as there is a wide variety of practice among Muslim women – some wear a scarf over the top of their head but not covering their face; or even a scarf tied around the neck – that one can remain a devout Muslim while abandoning the veil. But this misses a significant point: Islam is not an ethnicity or even a culture, but a religion. We do not so much have a Muslim community in the UK as Pakistani and Indian and Bangladeshi and Malaysian and Indonesian and Iranian and Nigerian and Turkish and West Indian and etcetera communities. To consider them culturally identical is bizarre. When European immigrants sailed into New York from Ireland and Italy and Poland – all Catholic nations – they did not consider themselves to be a single community, spoken for by a single voice. Over time they have become Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans and Polish-Americans: that is, they have become integrated into American society while retaining their own heritage. British Muslims are both British and Muslim, and live with the tension of negotiating a way of life that draws on their inheritance with integrity while reapplying it in a particular context – a context in which they are widely misunderstood. As a Christian, I can identify with all that!

It is also argued that wearing “visible statements of separation” is a provocative act, and as such creates unhelpful tension. But surely for an act to be provocative [in a certain way] there must be the intent to provoke [in that way]? That is, yes, I want to provoke people to think about how they live life; but I don’t want to goad people into a fight. Moreover, even if someone does something with the intention of goading me into a fight, I have the choice to walk away: for an act to be truly provocative takes two…

So here is a plea to our politicians, including the man who wants to be our next Prime Minister: please don’t tell the populace what we should or shouldn’t wear. That takes the Nanny State too literally and too far. And far from addressing the problem of tension in our post 9/11 world, it only adds fuel to the fires you hope to put out.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The End Of The World As We Know It (I Feel Fine)

On the flight home I watched An Inconvenient Truth. Twice over. This is an excellent film, a must-see – I’d love to see church communities watch it and process it together. Al Gore is a brilliant communicator – a near-perfect blend of presence and passion; a technical topic, presented accessibly but not dumbed-down; a serious matter, deftly handled with just the right amount of humour to leven the mix; a global crisis, interwoven with a very personal story of one family…

To the predominantly economic arguments against addressing the crisis of global warming that Al Gore addresses in the film, I’d like to add and address two religious – and specifically Christian – arguments. The first is that “God would never allow a disaster of such global proportions to happen”; and the second is that this world is passing anyway…

The first religious objection to the claims presented by Gore is that “God would never allow a disaster of such global proportions to happen”:
Such a claim sounds pious, but isn’t. It echoes the people addressed by the Old Testament prophets, who claimed, “God will not allow disaster to fall on us” even as disaster was at the gates of the city. Such a claim really states “We are absolved from our responsibilities. God may have commissioned humanity with the stewardship of the planet, but, he’ll always step in to bail us out.” But God doesn’t seem to intervene in ways that absolve us from our responsibilities; though I believe he does intervene to help us fulfil responsibilities we could never meet on our own. An environmental catastrophe that resulted in the end of a majority of life on earth would be one hell of a self-inflicted judgement on human sinfulness; but we need to take such impending judgement seriously, and repent – which is, change the way we live, in very practical, and very manageable, ways. If we don’t, we will find ourselves fulfilling these words of Jesus:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” [Matthew 7:21-23]

The second religious objection is that this earth is passing away; that there will be a new heaven and a new earth; and that our attention should be focused on helping others get there: let the pagans worry about keeping the earth going – ultimately it is a futile exercise, attempting to hold back the inevitable.

The New Testament uses two different Greek words translated into English as “new”: neos and kainos. Neos means something that didn’t exist before and hasn’t existed for long – new like my seven-week-old son. Kainos means something pre-existent that has been transformed so as to be given a new, or fulfilled, purpose: new (kainos) wine skins are filled with new (neos) wine; Jesus’ body was placed in a tomb that had never been used (kainos new) but may have been hewn years earlier (not neos new) – my daughter started at a ‘new’ school this spring, a school that celebrates its centenary next year…When the New Testament speaks of the new earth, it uses kainos. Just as Jesus’ physical body is resurrected – transformed into something new and imperishable, but recognisably the same – and our bodies will be resurrected – again, different and yet in continuity with our present form – so the earth itself will be made new: not replaced. And if Jesus’ resurrection body still bears the scars done to it by human hands, it is not inconceivable that the ‘resurrected’ earth will bear the scars inflicted upon it by us…

Al Gore is a prophetic voice in our world today, and an American. And like most prophets before him, he has been ridiculed by the religious and political leaders of his own people. But perhaps the tide is beginning to turn, one citizen, one voter, at a time; and perhaps a tipping-point will be reached before it is too late. Go see the film. And God speed to Mr Gore, and to Participant Productions.

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These Are A Few Of My Favourite Things

Acorns and conkers and beech nuts and rowan berries and yew berries and hawthorn berries and mushrooms and toadstools and

Thank you, God, for the fruits of the earth that are not intended for human consumption. Amen.

Back In Circulation

I got back from Dallas on Friday. It was a good trip, on so many levels. But on a physical level I found the travelling, and especially the hours on the planes, harder than I’ve ever found it before. In part, probably, because I was new-baby tired before I started; and in part because the extra security measures currently operating are, frankly, tiresome – I understand why they are there; but, understanding does not alleviate the physical pressure, even if it mitigates against some of the emotional pressure. For example, everyone having to remove their shoes to go through the metal-detectors, and then put them on again, makes the process that much longer; and yet it seems no allowances are made for that…you are constantly being pushed onwards by security staff, like cattle, as if we are an inconvenience to them rather than they are there to serve our safety…

It was great to get home, and to go out for a walk on the Longshaw Estate with the family on Saturday. While I was away, the temperature here dropped: I returned to the children wearing vests under their tee-shirts. I love autumn…