Friday, 25 November 2011

A Little Beauty to Salve the Soul!

A few nights ago I had a very vivid dream.

Unfortunately, like many dreams, it has since quickly faded from my memory and most of the detail has now gone. I do remember though, that I was outdoors in sunny weather, somewhere in the countryside, and the scenery was beautiful. So beautiful - it seemed to me in the dream - that it was overwhelming. It made me want to weep - right from the core of my being. I instinctively associated the dream and the natural beauty it represented with God - who created this amazing and glorious world that we all live in.

I got up the next morning, opened my back door and stepped out. From my back yard I have a sideways view of the local park - not a stunning piece of natural beauty, just a square piece of grass surrounded by railings, with a few trees and a play area for the local kids. At the moment it's in the process of being re-landscaped, which means there's big piles of earth and temporary construction-site fencing all over it. It was a beautiful morning though. The sun was shining and it was foggy at the same time, giving everything a sort of misty ethereal splendour.

I stood outside for a moment or two to appreciate the scene and to let the beauty of it soak into me. It occurred to me that in spite of some of the less attractive features, there was actually still too much beauty here for me to really take in. I had other things to think about and I needed to get on with my day - I couldn't just stand there feeling overwhelmed in my back yard all day! Other people might notice and I would start to feel silly! So I appreciated it for a moment, didn't let myself get too emotional, and then went back inside to get on with things.

This experience made me think about how saturated with beauty the world around us really is and yet how little we tend to notice it. Beauty for me is quite closely linked with the presence of God - it's one of the ways in which He makes Himself known.

A little while back I read C.S. Lewis' science fiction series, "The Cosmic Trilogy". (They're not of the same calibre as his famous Narnia series and the last book in particular is a bit of a train wreck in my opinion, but he has a brilliant and perceptive mind which nevertheless comes through in these stories). In the second book, "Perelandra", the main character, "Ransom", visits the planet Venus (you have to remember, this was written in 1943!), which turns out to be a young and perfect world, as yet untouched by any kind of evil. Every now and then, Ransom becomes aware of being in Someone's presence. This presence is almost suffocating and unbearable in its intensity - until he accepts and gives into it, when it becomes, "not a load but a medium, a sort of splendour as of eatable, drinkable, breathable gold, which fed and carried you and not only poured into you but out from you as well".

Later on in the story, Lewis describes a situation in which Ransom is feeling abandoned by Maleldil (the name given to God in the story) and is wondering where He has gone, when he suddenly realises that the incredible and over-powering presence he had felt previously is still there and has been all along - it's just that he has somehow managed to block it, unwittingly, from his awareness.

In "How (Not) to Speak of God", Pete Rollins talks about God's "hyper-presence". This is the idea that God is not absent, as we often perceive Him to be, but is actually so present that He overwhelms our senses. He is simply too much for us and we cannot take it all in. Sometimes perhaps, He is gracious and makes His presence felt in a way that we can cope with. Or perhaps something in us becomes a little more open and we are able to appreciate just a little of His love and glory.

I felt a little like that, staring at the view from my back yard. There was more there than I was able - or at that point was willing - to appreciate. I live my life lost in the glory of God, and yet most days I wander around with my head down, oblivious and unable to appreciate it!

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Reconnecting the financial with the ethical?

This is going to be a little angrier than my usual posts, but it's a subject I feel very strongly about.

The following is my slightly doctored version of a famous story from the Bible (see Mark's gospel, chapter 10).

See if you can tell which bit I've changed (clue - in case you're not familiar with the story, I've typed the edited bit in italics!):
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. "No one is good - except God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.'"

"Teacher," he declared, "all these I have kept since I was a boy."

Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, start an initiative to reconnect the financial with the ethical, then you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
It doesn't work, does it? - for all sorts of reasons. For those who don't know the story, what Jesus actually said was:
"Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and then you will have treasure in heaven". (my emphasis)
I think you'll agree, the original has a lot more punch!

For those who don't recognise it, my edit is a reference to an initiative recently announced by the Bishop of London in response to the protests at St. Paul's. The initiative is being headed up by Ken Costa, who is ex-vice-chairman of UBS, current chairman of Lazard International, church warden of Holy Trinity Brompton, and chairman of Alpha International (a course which provides a beginner's introduction to the Christian faith).

I do not mean to suggest that Ken Costa should give away all his money, or that it if he did it would help very much to solve the current financial crisis (although who knows, such a radical example might have a positive effect on some!). What I am suggesting though, is that he is not doing what Jesus did in the real version of the above story, which is to cut to the heart of the issue - whatever the cost!

The rich man above clearly had a problem with money. He was a slave to it - money has a tendency to do that to people - which is why Jesus goes on to say to his disciples:
"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."
Our society is in a very similar situation. It is a slave to money - to capitalism and to the economy. We are addicted to the acquisition of wealth. Simply trying to "reconnect the financial with the ethical" is not going to solve this problem. This is why Jesus once also said:
"No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money."
Costa seems to me to be trying to "reconnect" two incompatible masters and I believe he will fail in the attempt - unless the fundamental starting point for this "connection" is that money should be subservient to people (and to God) and not the other way around. So far, it doesn't really sound to me as though this is what Costa is proposing. He seems to be saying instead that we should all just carry on as normal - but we simply need to be a bit more "moral" in our approach. Here are some quotes:
"I certainly don’t believe the economic system we have is broken, let alone irredeemably broken. But I do believe that our markets have drifted too far from their ethical moorings."
"The market brings together individual liberty, the human capacity to create, and resources such as capital, land and knowledge to form the most effective known system there is for wealth generation and improved living standards. It gives us the freedom and the opportunity to be responsible for our own future because its mainspring is private enterprise rather than the state or collective. It generates the opportunity to develop latent potential and exercise responsibility. It creates a space in which individuals can be creative and constructive. And over the years it has resulted in a higher standard of living than our ancestors could have dreamed of."
Yes, the market has achieved many of these things, but at what cost, and for whom has its wealth been generated? The "market" has destroyed a massive proportion of our ecosystem, corrupted and destabilised governments, caused massive unrest and global suffering and siphoned most of the wealth of the planet off to a tiny proportion of its inhabitants. This is not a system that has "drifted too far from [its] ethical moorings", it is a system that is deeply corrupt - root and branch - and is in urgent need of reform.

Regulations won't make the problems go away, but they could have a significant impact if there is anyone left out there who has both the power and the courage to see them through - we should be forcing through such measures as a matter of extreme urgency. Of course such measures have to be thought through, but we are not ignorant of these problems and have had many decades in which to solve them. Some of the good solutions we used to have were actually dismantled because we were afraid they might prevent us from generating more wealth...! Private enterprise (to quote Costa above) does not give us more opportunity to be responsible for our own future than the state or the collective does - instead it gives the most opportunity to those who happen to be good at private enterprise, rather than to all of us, as democracy seeks to do!

Costa is right that business needs to be more ethically motivated, but the highest ethic should not be to preserve the free market - but to preserve, protect and promote human dignity, equality and well-being, which depend on much deeper things than financial prosperity. Money can help with this endeavour, but only if it is kept subservient to these ideals.

I am not completely anti-capitalist, but I am anti-the-current-global-capitalist-system, which needs a lot more than the quiet talking to that Costa seems to be proposing and that the Church of England seems to support. It needs prophets shouting from the side-lines, confronting it with its evils and abuses and it needs deep and penetrating transformation and reform.

I have little faith in Costa or his initiative, to deliver - or to really attempt to deliver - this kind of transformation. It seems to me that he and the church he represents are still too deeply compromised by the system they are attempting to reform. This was epitomised for me by the following response from Costa to an interview question from the BBC, regarding the ridiculously large salaries so often paid to those in positions of financial responsibility:
Well, that is one of the issues that we're going to have to look at. This initiative is to talk it through. Every time a figure is mentioned of a large pay - we don't know the responsibilities that someone has incurred in order to get there.
Seriously Ken? How much responsibility can you incur that justifies a salary which would satisfy several hundred (or perhaps even several thousand) "less responsible" people? To give him some credit though, he does then go on to say that:
Clearly there needs to be a fairness, and I think we've got to a tipping point...
But then he gets a little hazy again regarding what exactly that tipping point consists of, and large salaries - the point just raised by the interviewer - seem to disappear off the immediate agenda:
...where people now feel we need to articulate an argument for companies to act on in order to do good things and to encourage their employees to actually do the right things.
So to paraphrase then, what we need is a better argument for people to do good things and then everything will be fine - just as long as we can all still hang onto our money...

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Pebbles into Diamonds

A friend of mine is on the board of directors for my local community centre and recently invited myself and some other friends who live locally, to attend the AGM. In amongst the various items on the agenda, one of the presenters told this story:
There were once two travellers on a journey. On their way they met another traveller, and as they began to talk with him it soon became clear that he was a man of great wisdom. They felt extremely fortunate to have met this man and wanted nothing more than to spend time with him and to learn from him. As they neared the end of their journey therefore, they were disappointed to discover that their paths were to separate the next day - leaving them a day's journey to travel without their new friend. 
Before they parted though, they asked the man if he could give them some advice for the last day of their journey. He thought about this for a moment and then said, "Before you set off tomorrow, fill your backpacks with as many pebbles as you can carry. When you arrive at your destination, you will feel very happy, but I think you will also feel very sad". 
The two travellers were stunned by this advice. It sounded like complete nonsense and particularly surprised them coming from the lips of this man who had seemed so wise to them both up until then! They were strongly minded to ignore his advice and put it down to a lapse of judgement, but in the end, seeing as he had otherwise made such a good impression, they decided to give him the benefit of the doubt - but with considerable reluctance nonetheless. And so, the next day they gathered together a small pile of pebbles and loaded them into their packs.
At the end of the day, they finally arrived at their destination, worn out by their journey and especially from carrying the pebbles. They put down their packs and opened them up - to discover that the pebbles they had carried had all turned into diamonds! Both men of course were delighted with their new wealth - but both were also deeply saddened - for had they taken their companion's advice a little more seriously, then they would have carried a lot more pebbles!

The moral of the story - as delivered by the speaker - was that those who look after and run the community centre and its various services, have the job of turning pebbles into diamonds, by helping people, who often find themselves in difficult situations, to explore their potential and become everything they can be. It's hard work sometimes and may not always feel worthwhile, but it pays dividends in the end. Better to make the effort to carry a few more pebbles, than to get to the end of your journey and realise how many diamonds you could have ended up with!

For myself, although as far as I know the story is not meant to have a Christian emphasis, it reminded me strongly of one of Jesus' sayings about treasure:
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." - Matthew 6 verses 18-21
Most Christians today, when they hear the word "heaven", assume that this refers to the afterlife - and so this passage is about earning rewards for the future by performing good deeds in the present. To the original Jewish readers (for whom this was originally written) however, the meaning would have been quite different. "Heaven" for the Jews, didn't mean the place you go to when you die, it meant the place where God is (Jewish belief in the afterlife - for those who believed in an afterlife - was instead focused on the "resurrection", when those who had  been faithful to God would be raised from the dead to live in the new age of the Messiah).

So what does it mean then, to "store up ... treasures in heaven"? I would suggest that it's about what you value, and in my view, the speaker who told us the above story got it dead right. The things that we often think are valuable are not the things that ultimately matter and are not the things that matter to God. To store up "treasures in heaven" is to invest time, energy and resources in the things that God cares about - love, justice and people. When we do this, we are storing up riches that nothing can take away from us - riches that will last. These riches manifest themselves in terms of their current and ongoing effect on the world, and in terms of the type of people that we become - and I believe there is also, beyond this, an eternal dimension.

Christians who take Jesus' words seriously still do hope for a resurrection, although we may not be completely clear (or even all agree) about quite what that means. It does mean though, that we hope for a future with God, in a world ruled by Him and free from all evil. What kind of treasure is going to matter in a world like this?

I am convinced it will be the same kind of treasure that I mentioned above - love, justice, relationships, mercy - those who are rich in these character traits and have stored up treasure in these areas will be the "millionaires" and "billionaires" of the world to come.

When I get there I expect to be delighted to discover that the few pebbles I've carried have become diamonds. I also expect though, that I may feel quite sad, and wish that I had carried a lot more pebbles...