Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Spirituality of Computer Programming

About 18 years ago I had an unusual experience.  I found myself crying - albeit fairly briefly - over a few lines of a small computer program.  I am not referring though, to cries of frustration in response to a particularly badly written piece of code.  I can't remember what the code was now, or even whether it was mine or somebody else's.  I seem to remember (although I'm not certain) that it was written in a language called Lisp.

In the Christian circles that I've found myself involved with over the last few years, there has been a lot of talk about the "sacred/secular divide".  This has to do with the fact that - particularly in Evangelical churches but probably in other Christian traditions as well - some parts of life are often treated - explicitly or implicitly - as more "holy" or "spiritual" than others.

So for example, going to Church, reading the Bible, or working for churches, charities or missionary organisations is often considered more worthwhile or significant than cleaning your teeth, watching television, being a good primary school teacher, or - indeed - writing computer programs!

This seems to be a little at odds with the Bible itself.  For example, Psalm 24 verse 1:
The earth is the Lord's and everything in it, the world and all who live in it.
Or  Colossians 3 verses 23-24:
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.
Or Philippians 4 verse 8:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
As well as being contradictory to the Bible, this artificial sacred/secular split also goes against common sense.   If God made the whole of the created order, including human beings with their skills, tastes and ingenuity, then it makes sense that the whole of life would be important to Him.  And if it's important to Him then it should also be important to me.

So - getting back to my original subject - what does God have to say about computer programming...?  I have to admit that the Bible is a little sketchy on this topic!  I'm not sure exactly why I got so tearful all those years ago over those few lines of computer code, but I was praying at the time and I did feel genuinely moved, and felt that God was moved by what I was seeing.

The best way I can think to make sense of this is that computing is a small but very significant part of mankind's technological development, and that technology was always part of God's intention for us.  It springs out of our God-given ingenuity, curiosity and creativity and is part of our call to rule over creation and fulfil it's potential.  It is up to us of course, whether we use these God-given skills wisely or not and ultimately, whether creation suffers or benefits from our stewardship.  God cares that we have these skills though, and He cares deeply about how we use and develop them, and what we do with them.

I have always felt passionate about computer programming - although I also feel slightly embarrassed to admit this "in print"!  I have a very logical mind, but I also have a fairly strong creative streak.  The existence of computers gives me a unique opportunity to combine these 2 things.  Because of computing, I can create something, purely out of logic, with no physical form, which nevertheless still somehow exists in a very precise and clearly defined way, is unique to me, and has an obvious and measurable impact on the real world!  Just a few decades ago, such a thing would have been completely unheard of.  I often feel as though I was born for such a time as this!

As well as having a practical use though, computer programs have something else that is common to anything we create, but which most non-programmers (and even some programmers) might be surprised by.  Computer programs have - or at least can have - beauty!  (the flip-side to this of course, is that they can be extremely ugly as well!).  I'm not just talking about the beauty of a well-designed web page or graphical user interface - although that's part of it of course - I'm talking about the code itself!

Computer code consists of logical solutions to problems.  But there are almost always a near infinite number of ways that any particular problem can be solved.  There are complicated ways and easy ways.  There are ugly ways - and yes, beautiful ways!  The word "beauty" isn't used that often by computer programmers when they talk about their code - instead the word "elegance" tends to be preferred instead.  An elegant piece of code is one that does what it's intended to do clearly, succinctly and efficiently and is - ideally - easy for others to understand and maintain.  But it has an aesthetic as well as a functional quality - it is pleasing to the developer, and to any other developer who sees it and has an eye for that sort of thing.

I have to admit that I sometimes struggle with the fact that I put so much effort into creating  beautiful things that are so rarely and seldom appreciated - or even understood!  Sure, users appreciate the outward form of my programs and are pleased with what they do (assuming I've done a good job) but hardly anyone fully appreciates what goes on underneath.  If I'm working as part of a team, which has a good quality control process in place, then parts of my code will be checked by other programmers occasionally to make sure I'm not doing anything stupid, but that's not quite the same thing.  Just occasionally I get to share my work with another programmer, who might be impressed by it, or a programmer who happens to read my code might appreciate what I've done and even mention it, but this is quite a rare thing.

It strikes me that a lot of creation itself seems to be like this.  Beauty is everywhere in all sorts of unexpected and inaccessible places and we continually seem to be discovering more of it.  It's almost like God didn't care that most of it would never be seen - although I'm sure He also delights in our continuing discovery of it.  It seems to me though, that God delights in beauty for its own sake - although, like my computer programs, most of it seems to have a functional purpose as well.  It's part of His creative nature, His joy, His exuberance.  He doesn't just create to perform a task, or for the sake of it.  Beauty, infuses everything He makes.
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.     (Genesis 1 verse 31)

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger

The title of this post is the title of a book by Ronald Sider. I read an old version of this book as a teenager and it had a profound - if disturbing - effect on me. A friend of mine has recently mentioned that he is currently reading the updated version and this has got me thinking about it again.

If you're hoping for a review of the book then I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed as I can no longer remember anything about the contents. I just remember how it made me feel afterwards and the kinds of thoughts it triggered in my mind - some of which I am still living with. Basically - partly as a consequence of this book, but perhaps not entirely - I now have the following script running in my head, which in the last 20-25 years I have been unable to resolve:
  1. I obviously have more than my fair share of "stuff" - certainly on a global scale, although even in UK terms I'm pretty sure I'm above average.
  2. There are loads of other people out there in the world who have so little "stuff" that it's a struggle - if not an impossibility sometimes - for them even to survive.
  3. I haven't done anything to deserve it. OK, if I'd been a bit more lazy I would probably have less, but most of my success has been down to accidents of birth, ability and opportunity. There are lots of people out there living on the bread line (or below) who work a lot harder than I do!
  4. The logical thing for me to do therefore, would be to get rid of a lot of my "stuff", only keep whatever I decide really is my "fair share", and give the rest to those who have nothing. OK, it wouldn't change the world overnight, but it would if we all did it and it has to start somewhere!
  5. I don't want to! I could use my marriage as an excuse - and it's not a bad excuse, because I'm pretty sure my wife would have something to say about it if I suddenly decided to give away three quarters (or whatever) of everything we own! - but actually that doesn't really wash because the truth is I was just as unwilling to do this before I ever met my wife.
  6. There are obviously lots of implications involved in giving most of my stuff away. Money, to a large extent equals choice. Without money I am far more restricted in terms of what I'm able to do, where I'm able to go and even to some extent, who I'm able to spend my time with. None of these implications are insurmountable though, they just involve very big adjustments. In many respects, these adjustments could turn out to be very positive in terms of forcing me to rethink what is really important about life. 
Basically, there seem to only be 2 possible ways of resolving this dilemma:
  1. Convince myself that it's actually perfectly fine for me to keep most of what I "own" and just give away a relatively small amount of that as I do at the moment.
or
  1. Actually do it! Work out what I genuinely do think is a "fair" amount to hold onto and give the rest away (but only with my wife's approval of course!). This would of course be a radical and probably very difficult lifestyle adjustment and would be extremely restricting in very many ways. I think I would find the curtailment of liberty the hardest thing to get used to. It would mean sacrificing a great deal of independence and consequently depending a lot more on God and on other people. In theory at least, I believe these to be very good things, but they are also extremely scary and seem to require a massive effort which I can avoid by simply not doing this!
So in the last 20-25 years I have completely failed to plump for either of these options and have consequently had to live with this dilemma!

What do you think about this question? How do you, or have you, managed to resolve it ... ?

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Don't Let Your Understanding Get in the Way of Your Understanding

Christianity is for stupid people!

By that of course I mean that Christianity is for everyone, regardless of intellectual capacity.

As a moderately intellectual person myself though, I like to ask lots of questions and try very hard to reason things through. I have a high degree of confidence in my own reasoning skills which can cause me significant difficulties when I'm confronted by something I can't understand. This can make being a Christian quite difficult - because when it comes down to it I don't really understand my own faith! I like to pretend that I do and I can usually talk fairly intelligently about it in a way that sounds quite convincing to other people (or at least to some other people anyway!), but I always have a lot of questions in my own mind - sometimes nearer the surface than others - which I am not able to answer.

I have often noticed that happiness and/or goodness do not seem to correlate - at least not positively - with intellectual capacity. In fact, if a correlation was discovered, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that it runs the other way! The cleverest people I meet and the wisest people I meet are completely different groups. Just occasionally there is some overlap between the two!

I think there are (at least) two different kinds of "understanding". There is a logical/analytical kind of understanding which can be extremely useful, but can also come to some very wrong conclusions, particularly if it strays outside of the narrow range of problems to which it is particularly suited. Then there is wisdom. Wisdom comes from experience, from making good decisions (and sometimes bad ones), and from an instinctive or intuitive grasp of what is good, right and meaningful - from a deep inner sense of what really matters in life.

But how do you get wisdom? The book of Job (in the Old Testament part of the Bible) has this to say:
There is a mine for silver
and a place where gold is refined.
Iron is taken from the earth,
and copper is smelted from ore.
...
But where can wisdom be found?
Where does understanding dwell?
No mortal comprehends its worth;
it cannot be found in the land of the living.
The deep says, “It is not in me”;
the sea says, “It is not with me”.
...
                        - Job chapter 28
And what is wisdom anyway? The book of Proverbs says this:
The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom1!

                        - Proverbs chapter 4 verse 5
A recursive definition if ever there was one!

Proverbs also says this though:
Does not wisdom call out?
Does not understanding raise her voice?
At the highest point along the way,
where the paths meet, she takes her stand;
beside the gate leading into the city,
at the entrance, she cries aloud:
...
                        - Proverbs chapter 8
So wisdom is both elusive and hard to find (according to Job) and shouting out in public to anyone who will listen (according to Proverbs). Both of these things are true - wisdom is sometimes best expressed through paradox! The logical mind doesn't like paradox and tries to resolve it. The wise heart knows how and when to accept it and hold both parts in tension.

I can't tell you where to find wisdom, but I can tell you that it is accessed primarily, not through the logical/analytical mind, but through the heart. Pascal spoke well when he said:
The heart has its reasons, that reason knows nothing of
Pascal also said:
It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason.
And the quote from Job earlier goes on to say:
The fear2 of the Lord — that is wisdom,
and to shun evil is understanding.
Understanding in the sense of "reason" is a good thing and should be encouraged, developed, listened to and taken seriously, but reason will only get you so far. Understanding in the sense of "wisdom" will take you to a deeper level - a level that will show you what reason is for and teach you what to do with it.

Wisdom should be informed by, but not clouded by reason - don't let your "understanding" get in the way of your "understanding"!

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Life, Faith and Heuristics

The other morning I was lying in bed, thinking about heuristics. If you think that seems strange - well, I'm sorry but that's just what it's like in my head sometimes!

For those who don't know, a heuristic can be loosely defined as, "a rule of thumb". Most of us use heuristics all the time, usually without realising it.

For example, if you want to catch a ball, there are 2 ways you could go about it. You could take the computational approach, which you might use for example if you wanted to program a robot to do this.You could calculate the speed and trajectory of the ball, perhaps factoring in gravity and wind speed, work out precisely where it was going to land, and then make sure your hand was in the right place. Or, you could take a heuristic approach. This would be something along the lines of, "the ball is getting bigger very quickly - I need to move my hand back a bit", and keep adjusting until it lands.

Heuristics are useful because most of us don't have enough information most of the time to make perfectly calculated decisions (or fast or precise enough brains to do so if we did), so we constantly have to make best guesses based on what we do know. Our ability to make such guesses correctly (or at least optimally) is constantly refined through experience. If it wasn't for heuristics we would all suffer from "analysis paralysis" - we would spend so long trying to work out how to do something, or even what to do, that we would never actually get around to doing anything at all! The trade off though, is that sometimes we get it badly wrong! This is where science comes in.

For thousands of years, people have taken a heuristic approach to all sorts of things and come to all kinds of wrong conclusions. For example, based on the information available to them at the time, people concluded that the Earth was at the centre of the Universe and that the world was flat. Science on the other hand, takes a much more stringent approach, and sometimes comes to conclusions that seem quite alien to our heuristic-oriented brains. For example, through a rigorous process of scientific investigation, we now know that most of what we call "matter" is actually made up of empty space (!) - populated by tiny particles bound together by electromagnetic forces, which cause them to arrange themselves in various formations that appear to us as solid, liquid or gas*.

For most of human history it seems, most people have believed in gods or in a God, but nowadays it seems, at least in certain corners of Western Civilisation, that this belief might be on the wane. The wave of scientific progress over the last couple of hundred years or so has overturned and/or thrown into question so many of our traditional assumptions and beliefs. It has also given us a much-heightened sense of confidence in our ultimate ability to solve all the fundamental problems and questions of the Universe. Science has taught us to be suspicious of our heuristic interpretations of reality and to distrust anything that cannot be rationally tested and proved. At the same time though, heuristics continue to be crucial to living our daily lives.

If you want to catch that ball for example, you're going to have to use a heuristic approach - you simply don't have sufficient knowledge or brain-processing-power to do otherwise. If you're considering a new job and want the best outcome for yourself and your family - you cannot work out what will happen in the future and will have to make the best guess you can with the information you have. If you ever want to be in a relationship with anyone, you're going to have to decide whether or not you can trust them - but there is no scientific or logical formula for this! Instead, based on the limited information you have, you are just going to have to decide whether or not to take the risk.

Faith is a heuristic approach to life, and it seems clear to me that in the past (and no doubt in the present) we have got some of it wrong. Faith needs to listen to science and to learn from it (although not necessarily from everything that is said by all of its practitioners!), but science also has a few things to learn from faith. Science will never be able to prove that there is no God, and good scientists - even those who are the most staunchly atheist - will usually admit to this when pushed. By the same token though, science will never be able to prove definitively that there is a God, if indeed He is omnipotent and does not wish to be "discovered" or "analysed" in this way.

For all its remarkable achievements, science is just a tool and remains limited in scope and application. There is so much in life and reality that we don't know, will never fully know, and could never fully analyse if we did. Therefore, although science can and does furnish us with valuable data to inform our decisison making process, most of the important things in life - including faith - must continue to be determined by heuristics.

Monday, 9 July 2012

A Different Kind of Church

My wife and I were recently invited to join "Revive" on one of their weekends away.

"Revive" are a Leeds-based group of Christians, who are not really sure whether they're a "church" or a Christian community. Some of them are also involved in another church in Leeds and some even moved away from Leeds years ago, but have kept in touch and still occasionally meet with the rest of the group. So in some ways Revive is more like an extended spiritual family than a "church" in the traditional sense.



So what is a "church" anyway?

For most people, the word "church" probably conjures up images of old stone buildings - perhaps Catholic, Church of England or similar. If you are a Christian, or have hung around many Christians, you are probably aware that there are actually many different kinds of churches, but for the most part they probably still revolve around some sort of building and a meeting that happens there every Sunday morning, where perhaps there is a Bible reading or sermon and people sing Christian songs together. Nowadays there are some very modern, and much more dynamic, variations on this theme which are specifically intended to appeal to a younger, 21st century audience, but the same basic structure usually still remains.

For some years now, I've felt dissatisfied with this model of church and have searched for a more organic, community-based, relationship-centred way of doing things. That's not to say that relationships or community are missing from the traditional model, it's just that I want to be part of something that is primarily based on community and relationship, rather than on a particular structure or way of doing things.

Several years ago, in pursuit of this quest, I joined a church in Leeds called "Word of Life", which at the time was going through a process they called "deconstruction". Their aims seemed to be similar to mine - they wanted to get away from the standard model of church as an institution, and pursue the idea of church as a spontaneous, organic relational community instead. Unfortunately for me though, deconstruction went a little further than I had anticipated as all formal structures were intentionally dismantled. Meetings became fewer and further between and eventually stopped happening altogether. All the leaders stepped down, and since there was no-one left who was willing to take responsibility for anything, the community as a whole ceased - in any meaningful sense - to exist. Many of the relationships continued and some Word of Life members began to organise smaller gatherings with other groups of Christians. Previously, many Word of Life members had also met in smaller "home groups" during the week. My own home group continued, and still does, though to my knowledge it is the only one now, that still meets.

For the last few years then, I have been unattached to any "church", but still get involved in quite a bit of Christian stuff. I meet regularly with my home group and pray and chat things through with other Christian friends. I occasionally visit our local Anglican church, and have recently enjoyed attending a "School of Theology" course at St. George's. I also belong to the "Left Bank God Group", which tries to promote the Christian message in a non-threatening and accessible way through a local community and arts venue which some of us are involved with. In a way then, not being part of any particular "church" has made me feel much more a part of "church" in the wider sense - i.e. the church of everyone who knows and loves Jesus, whatever denomination or organisation they are in.

Regardless of all this though, I still sometimes miss being part of a close-knit Christian community which is larger than my home group, of like-or-similar-minded people who I can share with, learn from and learn with. This is why I have been so pleased recently to learn - and experience - a bit more about Revive.



The venue for the weekend was Westwood Christian Centre in Slaithwaite. The main hall has comfortable seating for about 20 people, but probably the first thing you notice about it is the swing! Right in the middle of the room, surrounded by chairs, is a swing consisting of a wooden bar suspended by two ropes from the high ceiling. For me, it kind of summed up the spirit of the weekend - the "serious" business of worshipping God and learning together, but permeated throughout by a sense of fun, as any genuine prolonged encounter with God is and should be!

Revive are a pretty laid-back bunch of people and I immediately felt at home with them. I particularly enjoyed our Saturday morning worship session, which consisted of 20-30 people, including kids, with a couple of people playing guitars and a large assortment of random percussion instruments which were handed out to anyone who felt like joining in. The kids continued to run around and play while the rest of us got on with worshipping God in whatever way we felt comfortable. I love that feeling of being able to really relax and be yourself in the presence of God!

After this, a recent member of Revive who grew up in the Dutch Reformed Church in Canada, shared how this had helped her develop an attitude to Christian discipleship which encompasses the whole of life and creation. After dinner, the leader of the group shared some thoughts about social media, the potential this has for changing the way we do church and the effects - positive and negative - it can have on community and relationships. In the evening we tried a creative/imaginative prayer exercise in small groups, which was surprisingly helpful for me in preparation for my new job. Most of the rest of the weekend was spent just hanging out and included a depressingly wet walk along a canal on Sunday morning, but in good company nevertheless!

I've shared all this just to give a feeling of what a community like this can be like. Revive do other things besides this weekend and are still trying to work out what they are exactly and what they want to do together. I like the way Revive continue to evolve in response to their members' needs and to the role they feel they should be playing in the world around them. They don't seem to be precious about structure or "success" for their own sake. As a relative outsider I feel I'm welcome to take part as much or as little as I want and many other Revive members - like me - have commitments to other Christian groups as well. This does present some logistical challenges but I like the way it mixes things up so that Christians from different groups can overlap, learn from one other, and deepen their sense of belonging to the wider "body of Christ".

I would like to see more communities like this in Leeds - focusing on what they are good at, overlapping and sharing resources with others and learning to be "church" together - instead of separate groups all trying individually to be the "church" and to provide their members and surrounding communities with everything they need, whilst duplicating effort, wasting resources and competing with one another in the process.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

New Job!

One criticism/suggestion I've occasionally had about this blog is that I don't write enough about my own life, so here goes!

Yesterday I handed in my notice at BJSS, where I've worked as a Software Developer (i.e. Computer Programmer) for nearly 13 years, and in just under a month I will be starting a new job as an Application Developer (pretty much the same thing) for Christians Against Poverty (CAP).

For a long time I've wanted to use my computing skills to do something I really believe in, and for me this is a perfect opportunity. CAP are a sizeable organisation with growing and changing I.T. needs where it looks as though my skills and experience will come in very useful.

CAP are also a charity, dedicated to helping those who are struggling under the weight of unpayable debt. This means I get to spend all my time during work hours helping to make the world a better place by doing something that makes a real difference to people's lives. For me, this is far more motivating than writing trading, pricing and reporting systems for banks and finance companies, which is a large part of what I do at the moment. I feel extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to do this, and to make a living out of it at the same time!

As you might expect, the salary is a little less than I'm used to, but CAP value their staff very highly (they have won the Sunday Times "Best Small Company to Work for" award twice in the last few years) and pay well for a voluntary sector organisation.

There are also some technical challenges, in that charities tend to use different technologies to businesses, so I have some new skills to learn which may not be as useful to me if I decide to go back to a commercial role in the future. I will enjoy learning them though, and CAP are keen to do what they can to help me keep my other skills up to date.

I share one other passion with CAP, which is a desire to share the central message of the Christian faith as widely as possible! CAP are an overtly Christian organisation, are keen to share this message and do so when appropriate with any clients who want to listen. They are not into forcing this message on anyone, and aim "to ensure that nobody receives less favourable treatment on the grounds of race, nationality, religion, age, gender, marital status, sexual orientation or disability" (https://www.capdebthelp.org/en_GB/clientfaqs), but many clients do find faith in God through their work, and they have some incredible stories of those whose lives have been transformed - emotionally and spiritually, as well through finding freedom from debt.

I have enjoyed my time at BJSS (well, mostly anyway!), and have worked with many great people on some varied and interesting projects. I feel sad to be leaving BJSS and will miss it and the people I've worked with, but am also excited about finally having an opportunity to do something I've wanted to do for so long, as well as grateful to BJSS for providing me with the experience that has made all of this possible.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Reconciled

In my previous post, I discussed how - at least according to the Biblical creation story - human beings have become estranged from their creator God. I argued that, whether or not this story is taken literally, its lessons remain valid.

Having discussed the problem I now want to introduce what I (and Christians everywhere) believe is the solution - specifically, the person, Jesus of Nazareth.

Many different religions have come up with different ways to address what is perceived to be the gulf between us and God, or us and perfection, or us and some kind of happiness/fulfilment, either now or in the life to come. There is much wisdom in many of these traditions, but Christianity - as far as I'm aware - is the only faith to claim that God has done something very specific from his side to solve this problem. According to the Christian faith, God isn't just sitting there waiting for us to work it all out - in fact he's very aware that although we may have caused this problem, it isn't one we are capable of solving all by ourselves.

So God - as Jesus - came and visited His creation. A ridiculous claim? Well, maybe, but one that I and many millions of other believers have become convinced is the truth. By coming here he showed and taught his followers and the rest of us how to live. And just by being who He was - challenging hypocrisy, standing up for justice, upsetting the status quo - he provoked his enemies into showing everyone how not to live as well! His presence brought out the best - and the worst - in human nature, as goodness always does when it refuses to back down. Driven by insecurity and jealous rage, his enemies crucified him as a common criminal, though He was innocent of any crime.

But what kind of God allows His enemies to do something like that? A weak God? An impotent God? Someone who isn't really any kind of God at all? Those enemies though, were not just a select group of angry people. In some ways they actually represented the whole human race. They reacted to Jesus the same way all of us often react to God. We are selfish, suspicious, protective of our own interests. We all like to be in control and react angrily at times when that control is threatened or taken away. All of us are capable of crucifying God in our hearts, and many of us do, every day!

So why not destroy us all? - something God is well able to do! But God wanted to do things a different way. His heart is full of love towards us, in spite of the hostility He often finds, and He wanted reconciliation, not war. So instead, He took the beatings and the mocking and the agonising death and the shame. He let humanity - let all of us - do their worst. Given a free reign, man had to kill God. It was the only logical outcome, right from our first rejection of Him when we ate from that tree (see previous post), but God wasn't going to leave it there!

Because of course you can't kill God - not in the end - and there was no way man was going to win. That wasn't the point though. God didn't want to "win" - and refused to fight on those terms. God just wanted to make it clear that in the end He couldn't lose. And one more much more important thing: God wanted to make it clear that He really does love us, no matter what we do! According to Luke's gospel, Jesus' actually prayed on the cross for His persecutors to be forgiven. Then after He died and rose from the dead - according to the Biblical accounts - He didn't come back with holy vengeance to wreak havoc on his enemies. Instead He slipped quietly away. And left His followers with a message of peace and reconciliation for anyone who would listen - that anyone who trusted in Him, could be forgiven for their sins and the relationship with God could be healed.

You might think it would've all fizzled out after that, but no. 2,000 years later, that message is still going strong and has completely changed the shape of this world. There are also many distorted forms of it around and it has been used and abused by those with vested interests, just as many of the powerful guardians of Jewish religion did in Jesus' day.

Its impact has not been lost though, and the central message of reconciliation is just as powerful now as it was then. Believe in Jesus - trust in Him, trust that He loves you, trust that He wants the best for you, be willing to learn to live life His way - and you too can be forgiven and reconciled with the creator God, the God who loves you and wants to be your father again!

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Estranged

I am not a Biblical literalist. Well I am, about certain things. I believe, for example, that the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, was (and is) more than just a person. I believe that he was God come among us and that, after being crucified, he was physically raised from the dead. The early Christians - who lived during and shortly after his lifetime - lived and died for this belief, and I hope that - if it ever came to it - I would be prepared to do the same.

There are other parts of the Bible though, which go much further back, the origins and accuracy of which are much more difficult, if not impossible to trace or to verify. We still have many good reasons to value them and take them seriously though, and in my experience God speaks powerfully through them and they have a great deal still to teach us.

The earliest story in the Bible (that is, the one with the earliest setting), is of course the story of creation. This is not one of the stories I take literally, although I know this is controversial for some of my fellow evangelical Christians. It is a story though, that teaches us some very important things - about ourselves, God and the world around us.

One of the things this story tries to get to grips with is the problem of estrangement. Its author(s) plainly believed that God was real and that He was good - so why did He always seem so distant? And why was there so much evil in the world? The author(s) deal(s) with this by telling a story. In this story, God creates the world - which of course He must have done, somehow - and then makes people to live in it. These people are somehow more than just animals. They are in fact - in some small but very significant ways - like God Himself. God looks after these people - He gives them everything they need - and He trusts them. He gives them responsibility to rule over His world and - crucially - He also lets them choose whether they will be faithful to Him, or ignore Him and go their own way.

In the story, Adam and Eve - our actual, or metaphorical, ancestors - choose to go their own way. They give in to the temptation - presented to them by a serpent - of becoming even more like God than they already are. They eat from the tree of the "knowledge of good and evil" - which is the only thing God has told them they mustn't do. By doing this they are choosing to end their reliance on God's wisdom (and by extension His mercy) and rely on their own judgement instead. Shame and guilt quickly enter the equation as they realise that - without God's help - they are at the mercy of standards they can no longer live up to.

This decision excludes them from God's abundance and provision. They are thrown out of "the garden" - where all their needs have been met, and God has walked and talked with them - into the much harsher world outside, where they are left to their own devices (more or less) in accordance with the choice they have made.

However literally or otherwise we take this story, we can see the reality of it in our own lives and its effects on us and the world around us. Apart from the suffering and evil that are sadly so characteristic of life, God also seems extraordinarily distant, to the extent that many of us doubt, or have even altogether rejected, His existence. The signs of His presence are still all around us though - in the amazing beauty and complexity of nature, wherever and whenever we experience true love, joy or compassion, in our capacity for awe and wonder and in our searching and heartfelt questions about the nature and purpose of reality and of life.

The good news of course is that God hasn't entirely abandoned His creation. The rest of the first part of the Bible (the "Old Testament") is the story of His dealings with a particular group of people, as they struggle to understand Him and live in relationship with Him, and as He prepares a way to heal the rift between Himself and humanity and repair the damage that has been done.

The healing of this rift was the primary purpose of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth - the subject of my first paragraph. How exactly this helps, is the subject of my next post

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

A World Without Money

I recently came across this video on the BBC news website about American, Daniel Suelo, who has chosen to live entirely without money for the last 12 years. Although I have to admit that for most people it doesn't sound like a very practical option, I did nevertheless find his story very inspiring.

Suelo survives by foraging and scavenging and on gifts from friends and strangers. His philosophy is to use only what is freely given or discarded, or already present and available.

Suelo has proved that it is possible for one person to live like this, but what if everyone tried? If we all tried to live out of dumpsters or on hand-outs, who would do the work of producing the food and other resources that we all need? Is Suelo a visionary demonstrating a new way to live, or just a bum who lives off other people's hard work? Suelo's own answer to that question is here, but here are some of my thoughts:

First off - as I suspect many of my readers will have already concluded - it doesn't seem realistic to me that everyone should try to live like Suelo. There are 7 billion of us on this planet and we can't all survive by scavenging. There wouldn't be enough food (or caves - such as the one Suelo lives in!) to go around. I do think though, that Suelo's choice of lifestyle nevertheless presents a very real challenge to the rest of us which does deserve to be taken very seriously.

On his website, Suelo goes so far as to compare our financial system of credit and debt with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. For those not familiar with the Bible, this is the tree from which Adam and Eve - the first humans - ate, when they rebelled against God in the garden of Eden. If Suelo's comparison seems a bit of a leap, consider that before their rebellion, Adam and Eve lived in a permanent state of grace. There were no rules and they had everything provided for them - all they had to do was gratefully receive it and obey God by not eating from that tree! But rather than trust God, they ate from the tree - thus choosing self-sufficiency instead. Cut off from God and His loving influence by their own choice, humanity quickly deteriorated into all kinds of wickedness. This was compounded by the guilt they now had from their new-found insight into the nature of right and wrong. Cut off from God's grace and forgiveness, they designed systems to try to control their destructive behaviour ... and to keep score!

Meanwhile, money - credit and debt - is another way of keeping score and of trying to be in control. It's all about entitlement. If I have this piece of paper, then I'm entitled to that product or those services. We all know where we stand as long as everyone keeps the rules. In the beginning though, there was no entitlement, no keeping score. In a world where love and grace are in charge, there is simply no need for these things.

Having thought this through a little further, I find myself coming to the somewhat startling conclusion that at it's core - as necessary as it may seem to modern life - money is in fact profoundly anti-Christian! The Bible never goes so far as to condemn all money outright, but it does radically undermine that sense of entitlement on which all financial transactions depend. If Suelo's way of life seems radical, listen to some of Jesus' words on this subject:
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? 
And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
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.
If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.
Consider these words as well, written by the apostle Paul - one of the earliest of the first generation of Christian leaders:
Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
Finally, consider the explosive effect that the original Christian message had on some of its earliest converts:
All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there was no needy person among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
One of the most immediate and powerful effects then, of the "gospel" - the message of God's grace made available to us again through Jesus, as it was originally understood - is that the barriers of "entitlement" are broken down. "No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own". It doesn't matter any more! That's grace in action!

Most Christians alive in the world today - sadly including myself - have lost the initial power and impact of this message, but whether we like it or not, this is still where we are all going!

There has been much speculation in Christian circles for 2,000 years regarding the nature of the afterlife. The idea of some sort of ethereal heavenly bliss that has been promoted so heavily by the church for centuries is now slowly giving way again in many quarters to the idea of bodily resurrection to a new/renewed creation, as was originally preached by the early believers. Whatever the next world is like though - whether it's completely disjointed from this one or is in some way a continuation of it - there are certain things we can be sure about if we take seriously anything the Bible has to say:
  1. God will be very present there, and God will be in charge.
  2. It will be a world ruled by love - because God is love - and by grace.
  3. It will be a world free from evil. Evil will have had it's day in this world and having done its worst, will be given no place in the new one.
Will there be any "entitlement" in the new world? Will there be rules and regulations? Will there be credit and debt? Will there be money?

I suspect not!

Friday, 13 April 2012

Things You're Not Supposed to Say

For the last few days (I haven't been able to find out exactly how long) the following advert has been showing on buses all over London, sponsored by Stonewallin support of gay marriage:


Yesterday afternoon, the Guardian reported that Christian group the Core Issues Trust (which is against gay marriage), was about to run its own advertising campaign in response, deliberately mimicking the format used by Stonewall:


This advertising campaign had been agreed by Transport for London and passed by the Committee of Advertising Practise, and was about to go ahead when London Mayor Boris Johnson intervened, by ordering transport chiefs to pull the advert.

Not very many years ago, homosexuals were a persecuted minority in this country and I have to hold my hands up and say that sadly, certainly some, and probably quite a lot of the oppression and persecution that homosexuals have experienced has been at the hands of hard-line evangelical "Christians". This was a sorry state of affairs (and still is in many circles) and campaigning groups like Stonewall have done an excellent and effective job of redressing this imbalance. However, they have unfortunately also done a good job of vilifying anyone who disagrees with them, to the extent that the words, "prejudice", "bigotry" and "homophobia" are now automatically bandied about whenever anyone tries to suggest that their preferred solutions might not always be in their own or the rest of society's best interests.

I have what could probably be termed an "evangelical" approach to sex. This doesn't mean - in case you were wondering - that I go around telling everyone how great it is and trying to make people do more of it! (I do think sex is great though and I have been known to say so publicly on occasion!). This does mean that I have a particular perspective on what sex is and what it is for.

To me (and to many others like me), sex and the body are sacred. Sex is an amazing and beautiful process by which two people of opposite and complementing gender are united as one in holy and intimate love. Through this process a new "entity" is formed, which incorporates both (and becomes the potential basis for a new family). This is why evangelical Christians tend to reject most forms of sexual intimacy outside of a committed, life-long, heterosexual relationship.

"Gay marriage" attempts to redefine what this unit can consist of. It is natural and obvious that two people of the same gender who love and are sexually attracted to one another will want to express that attraction and live or even spend their lives together, but this is not the same thing as a "marriage" in the conventional sense. Gay couples cannot biologically have children and do not bring two complementing gender identities to a relationship. As for those who go on to adopt or artificially conceive children - psychologists have long understood that in a heterosexually based family both genders play important roles at different stages in a child's development. This is not something that a gay couple is able to offer. In my opinion then, a committed gay relationship and a heterosexual marriage are not equivalent or equal - however much some might want them to be - and it is unfair of homosexual campaigners to pretend otherwise, or to try to redefine the language that we have been using for hundreds of years in order to push this agenda on the rest of us.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The Hunger Games

The weekend before last (OK, so I'm getting a bit behind with my posts!) I went to see The Hunger Games.

For those who haven't seen it and are not familiar with the plot, the film is set in a post-apocalyptic future in a nation called PanEm, in the geographical area that was once North America. PanEm consists of 12 impoverished districts, which are ruled by a totalitarian government based in the wealthy and technologically advanced Capitol. As punishment for a previous rebellion, each year the districts must send 2 children each, from between the ages of 12-18 to compete in a televised fight to the death called, "The Hunger Games", from which only one contestant is allowed to emerge alive.

The film follows a girl called Katniss in particular, and also a guy called Peeta, as they are selected, trained for, and then compete in the games. None of the competitors want to be there, but they must learn to survive, and be willing and able to kill their fellow competitors if they want to make it back home alive to their families and friends.

During the preparation period, before they enter the arena, Peeta confides to Katniss, "I don't want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I'm not." This is the main dilemma faced by Peeta and Katniss (and many of the other contestants). They have been placed in a situation which has completely different rules from the ones that - in their hearts - they know they should be following, and indeed want to follow, and yet if they don't follow the rules of the game they are almost certain to lose everything. How will they respond?

I won't spoil the film for you if you haven't already seen it - and if you have, then you won't need my explanation - but it struck me that to some extent this is a dilemma shared by all of us. We live in a world that seems to be governed by many Rules that in our heart of hearts we would perhaps rather not have to follow. I'm not referring so much now though to rules made by governments, I'm thinking instead about the Rules that seem to emerge by themselves and which we come to accept as simply, "the way things are". Rules like, "it's a dog eat dog world", or, "you have to look out for number one", or even perhaps, "charity begins at home". It would be nice we might think, to look out for other people, to put their needs first and give to anyone who has need, but the world just doesn't work like that. We have to put our own needs first or we will lose out, and sometimes even our survival must take precedence over everything else.

Just over 2,000 years ago, another player entered the "arena" that is our world and chose to do things very differently. He challenged injustice, spent himself on behalf of others and didn't respond with violence even when others tried to kill him. The result? - he was tortured and then executed - just as you might expect, in accordance with the Rules in the previous paragraph. If that had been the end of the story, it would have simply confirmed our suspicion that no-one can get away with breaking the Rules for very long! Fortunately for us though, this wasn't the end, because for some reason, when this particular player chose not to play by the Rules, something very special happened ... he broke The Game!

The Bible teaches us that the world was never meant to work according to these Rules, rather, these are the Rules that came into play when people decided they wanted to run the world their way and could do so without any help from God. When God himself (in the person of Jesus) entered The Game and disobeyed its Rules, The Game broke, because it didn't have any power over the one who had created the world in the first place. It cost God dearly to do that - he paid the price demanded by The Game - but The Game couldn't keep him down. On the third day, he rose again bodily from the grave, appeared to his disciples, and returned to Heaven from whence he came. After this, he clothed his followers in Rule-breaking power and they went on to sacrifice themselves tirelessly and unselfishly to spread the message of his triumph, releasing everyone who believed their message to live their lives free from the Rules of The Game.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Does Prayer Work?

Yes. No. Maybe. It certainly doesn't "work" in any kind of scientifically testable or verifiable sense, but that's because prayer is a relationship and relationships don't tend to work like that.

I've prayed plenty of prayers that haven't been answered in any kind of way that I would recognise, but I've also prayed some that have. Some would say that if you pray enough prayers then - statistically speaking - one of them is bound to get answered eventually. The following is a true story of something that happened to me last weekend. Perhaps it was just a co-incidence or a statistic. What do you think?

Last Saturday I lost my wedding ring. I knew I'd taken it off some time in the morning to do some DIY and I discovered it was missing at about 6pm. I hunted all over the house for it. I thought I'd probably put it in the coins pocket at the front of my jeans, but it wasn't there so I hunted everywhere else I could think of. I also knew the coins pocket wasn't entirely safe... I keep my keys there as well and had noticed previously that when I take the keys out, the ring can occasionally catch on the keys and go flying across the room. I should have stopped putting my ring in that pocket after that... But I hadn't...

I knew I'd taken the keys out three times that day - once to lock the gate that bars my back door so I could leave the door open as I was busy around the house, once more to open the gate again when I decided to close the door a few minutes later because it was colder outside than I had thought, and once when I changed my trousers at the end of the day. I hunted all over the bedroom in case the ring had flown out somewhere. I hunted around the kitchen, near the back door, and even outside in case the ring had flown out the door and into the yard.

My wife also hunted everywhere - she's often better at finding things than I am - but without success. So having looked everywhere either of us could think of, we prayed! I said sorry to God for my negligence in not taking care of the ring more carefully, acknowledged that He knew where it was, and asked Him if He could please show it to us.

Having prayed, we had our evening meal and went out to a friend's house for the evening. On the way back I thought about the ring again, but instead of worrying about it I considered once more that God knew where it was and somehow I felt confident that He would show it to us. As I thought this I felt a brief but re-assuring sense of His presence come very close to me.

As we walked along the back street towards our house - before we even got to the house - Emma happened to look down as something on the ground caught the light from a street light. She bent down, picked it up, looked to see what it was, and was a little shocked to discover that there in her hand was my wedding ring!

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Beauty is where you find it

Everything below is an extract from Mark Powley's Consumer Detox blog. I think it speaks for itself and I liked it so much I've simply reposted it. You can find the full (and much longer) Washington Post report here.

In Washington, DC, at a Metro Station, on a cold January morning in 2007, this man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, approximately 2,000 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After about 3 minutes, a middle-aged man noticed that there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds, and then he hurried on to meet his schedule.

About 4 minutes later: The violinist received his first dollar. A woman threw money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

At 6 minutes: A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

At 10 minutes: A 3-year old boy stopped, but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head the whole time. This action was repeated by several other children, but every parent – without exception – forced their children to move on quickly.

After 45 minutes: The musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.

After 1 hour: He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed and no one applauded. There was no recognition at all.

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before, Joshua Bell sold-out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100 each to sit and listen to him play the same music.

This is a true story. Joshua Bell, playing incognito in the D.C. Metro Station, was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities.

This experiment raised several questions:
  • In a common-place environment, at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty?
  • If so, do we stop to appreciate it?
  • Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?
  • If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made, how many other things are we missing as we rush through life?

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Gawd Bless 'er Majesty!

I've just recently finished watching - and have been quite impressed by - Andrew Marr's Diamond Queen series on BBC1.

I have mixed feelings about the monarchy and used to feel quite opposed to it.

There's that whole thing about a privileged few people, who just happen to have been born into a certain family, living in the lap of luxury at the tax payers' expense. It's also not very democratic - these people who we've never elected, still somehow represent us and our interests, at home and on the international stage.

Then there's the whole church thing. I've never felt very happy with the idea of any one person being declared "head" of a church, when the only "head" that the church ever had in scripture was Jesus himself. Even more strange though, is the idea of someone being head of a church, just because they happen to be the ruling monarch. Surely such a role - if it should even exist - should be assigned on the basis of a person's spiritual credibility, not on the basis of what family they happen to have been born into? What if the monarch is not even a believing Christian? How could they possibly, in any meaningful sense, be the head of a church whose beliefs they don't even agree with?

All those comments aside however, I do have a great deal of respect for Queen Elizabeth II. Andrew Marr is obviously very pro-royal and I have no doubt been swayed to some extent by his - not entirely unbiased - presentation, but it did also resonate with much of what I have previously observed. Her majesty is obviously by no means perfect, but I do believe the British Nation has an awful lot in her to be grateful for.

The Queen - and many of the other royals - seem to attend an endless stream of public engagements. I've never really understood the fuss of seeing a member of the royal family drive down a road in a carriage or stop to give someone a wave - they're all just people after all, but I can see that to many people it does make a difference. The Queen has little if any real power, but the job isn't about power any longer, it's about relationship. To some extent, when the Queen visits somewhere, she embodies Britain. If she visits somewhere within Britain then she carries the message that Britain cares about that place, and for a moment at least, the eyes of Britain are focused there. If she is received warmly in another country then Britain is received warmly, animosity is diminished and ties of friendship between nations are developed.

The monarchy also gives us the benefit of longevity. Our politicians are elected for 4-5 years at a time and may perhaps manage 3 terms at the most. For voters this is a benefit because it means that if we don't like our leaders we can change them fairly quickly. For politicians though, as well as keeping them on their toes and reminding them of who they are accountable to, it also often pressures them into taking a short term view. More than anything else, elected leaders want to be re-elected, which means they have to do the things that will make them popular in 4-5 years time. These may not necessarily be the things that are best for the country in the long term.

Our Queen however, has been on the throne for nearly 60 years! - and in that time has seen 12 different Prime Ministers. She religiously and regularly reads through reams of government documents and along with the Prime Minister and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is said to be one of only 3 people in the country who really understand what's going on! She meets with the Prime Minister - of whatever political party - every week, and has a full and candid discussion on government issues, gives the benefit of her advice and offers her opinions. She has no power to make decisions but to my mind this is still an invaluable role. Who else does a Prime Minister have to turn to for outside help who has such a depth of wisdom, knowledge and experience?

The thing that impresses me most about our Queen though, is that I am convinced that she sees herself - and has always seen herself - as a genuine public servant. She may live in the lap of luxury, and I am sure that has many benefits, but as far as I can see she devotes herself tirelessly - and has always devoted herself - to the service of her people. She doesn't just do the job, she lives it and can never walk away (unless of course she abdicates, like her uncle previously did!).

In times gone by, the monarchy was an instrument of power, and often a very oppressive power at that. In the 20th and 21st centuries however, it's role has become much more symbolic. To me, some of the symbols of monarchy and which monarchy represents, still seem to reek of the oppression of the past, but in Elizabeth herself at least, I see a monarch who is genuinely there to serve rather than to be served. Her 21st birthday speech in 1947 in Cape Town, South Africa, included these words, addressed to the Commonwealth: "I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service  ... God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it." 65 years later, I think we can safely say, that she has lived up to those words!

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Outside the System?

I recently came across this post on the BBC website, discussing the influence of human hunting activity on evolution. The basic point of the article is that humans have evolved/developed predatory abilities which are far beyond those of any other organism on the planet, and that as such we represent a major threat to the rest of the system.

Normally - so the theory goes - organisms develop, in part at least, as a consequence of an evolutionary arms race between prey and predator. So carnivores for example, become faster runners or develop sharper teeth and claws, while the herbivores they prey on become faster or larger or develop tougher skin or other defences.

The problem is that humans have an incredible ability to out-think their prey, and to develop tools or technology that can get round any or all of their defences, and they have been able to do this so quickly that evolution no longer has any chance of keeping up. The consequences of this are obvious - we have already wiped out many species and seem to be well on our way to wiping out an awful lot more!

All of this raises the question though: If evolution has been such a wonderful system up until now, then what has gone wrong? This system has worked effectively for billions of years, allegedly producing living organisms from non-organic matter and then producing the mind-blowing quantities and variety of flora and fauna that we see today. Has this system finally broken in the last couple of hundred thousand years? Has it finally unbalanced itself by producing this strange new species of super-predator which somehow seems to have the capacity to destroy the whole thing?

There is another way to read this story. It's not a scientifically precise or complete way of looking at it, but in many ways it's a lot more useful. This version of the story has been around a lot longer than modern science or evolutionary theory and can be found - yes alright, you've guessed it! - in the pages of the Bible.

This version of the story says that human beings were made, "in God's image". In ancient times, long before the advent of modern communication, if a king ruled over a large empire it was common for him to put statues of himself in the places he ruled over, to remind the inhabitants of who was in charge. In the same way, according to the Bible, God has left a living statue of himself on this planet - that is, you and me! According to the Bible then, it isn't an accident that human beings have intellectual and other capacities which are far beyond those of any other creature - we've been given these capacities by God because we are here with a job to do. We've been given control of this planet and He expects us to look after it for Him, and to show the world what He is like by our wise and careful stewardship of it.

Of course it doesn't take a genius to notice that this arrangement also seems to have gone rather wrong! But the problem is with us. We know that we have the capacity to be wise and careful stewards, but we often choose to be selfish and short-sighted instead. This again, is either a sign that evolution has gone very wrong (if you believe that version of the story), or that there are other forces beyond mere evolution which are at play.

So then, are we independent creatures with the capacity for moral choice who are meant to reflect the good God who made us, but often don't and - it seems - have become estranged from Him in some way? Or are we simply evolved beings whose existence represents the fact that the impersonal system that created us has now finally over-reached itself? Or could there - possibly - be elements of truth in both versions of this story...? What do you think...?

Monday, 13 February 2012

No Answers?

A few days ago, me and some friends at work had an interesting discussion about the state of the world economy, global injustice and all that kind of stuff. We were all kind of agreed that capitalism has gone a a bit wrong but none of us really seemed to have any good solutions. One person astutely pointed out that it isn't capitalism per se that's the problem, it's human nature, and capitalism in its present form is just one manifestation of that. People are selfish, people are greedy and whatever systems or regulations you set up, people will always try to find a way round them. Of course, that isn't to say that you shouldn't have systems, or that you shouldn't try to regulate!

A few minutes later, as I was mulling over the conversation, I mentioned that I'd read a book when I was a teenager called, "Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger", and that it had messed me up for about 10 years afterwards! The book actually affected me for a lot longer than that and it probably still does, in spite of the fact that I can no longer remember any of the contents! What I do remember though, is that it made me feel incredibly guilty about the enormous disparity between rich and poor in the world and about how much wealth I horde, when so many others are doing well even to survive. One of my friends commented - respectfully I thought! - that I obviously think a lot about these sort of things. My response was that, yes, I do think about them, but that doesn't necessarily mean I have very much in the way of answers!

I often feel that as a Christian I ought to have answers. After all, I'm promoting a message which I believe is the ultimate answer - and yet I often feel that there are so many situations that I don't really know how to apply it to, and that this answer is such a long way from being fully worked out or reflected in my own life.

Much later on the same day, I was trying to think about why I didn't know the answers, or at least still don't seem to be able to apply them to my own satisfaction, and it occurred to me again - as it often has before - that in the end I only really have one answer. It isn't another system though, or another set of rules to be followed, it's a person and his name is Jesus. The heart of my faith isn't about rules or systems, it's about an encounter and a relationship with God-who-became-flesh: God who came and lived among us and gave up his life in sacrificial death because that was the extent of his love; who has ridiculously high standards of love and justice and yet lives up to all of them; who understands and has compassion on us in all our weaknesses and failings; who loves us and wants us to change and has the grace and the patience and the ability to make that possible.

This is my answer: That when I look at my life and see the difference between the man I am and the man I'd like to be, I have only to look at the smiling face of my father in heaven to know that I will get there one day and that in the meantime I can be patient as He is with me, knowing that I am loved and accepted and that I will be forever. And the more I appreciate the depth of His love and compassion for me, the more I am able to show the same compassion towards others and to strive for love, mercy, faithfulness and justice, knowing that I am doing the work of the one who loves me and who laid down His life for me and for all those I want to reach out to.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Gamblers & Settlers

Last weekend I played the board game, "Settlers of Catan", with some friends for the first time.

The game board consists of a representation of an island divided into hexagons, each of which represent different types of landscape - forest, mountain, hills, fields and pasture. The first thing that struck me about the game was that each type of landscape also represents a "resource" - lumber, ore, brick, grain and wool respectively. There is also a 6th type of landscape - desert - which contains no resources and is hence treated as useless. The object of the game is to position your pieces in such a way as to maximally exploit these resources for the purpose of developing roads, settlements and cities. This development earns you "victory points" and the first person to acquire 10 points wins the game.

I'm a competitive person with a good mind for problem solving and strategy and I loved this game! These traits combined with a good dose of beginner's luck, meant that I also won on this occasion which of course enhanced my enjoyment considerably! I couldn't help noticing some uncomfortable comparisons with real life though:

As I've already described, the board reduces a large island - which in the real world is a thing of awesome natural beauty and splendour - to nothing more than a set of resources, which are to be exploited as aggressively as possible if you intend to win the game. Of course, within the context of the game no real islands are involved and so no damage is done, but ... what if people were to treat the real world in the same way ... ? You can probably guess where I might be going with this!

The game is necessarily one dimensional as games usually are - they are not intended to reflect or replace the fully-orbed and multi-dimensional nature of life in the real world. They can sometimes reflect the values that are prevalent in that world though, and some people do actually seem to treat life in a similar way.

This article on the BBC News website describes a workshop called, "Investment Heatmap", which took place this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos.  In this workshop - which was run for the benefit of some of the world's top financial "big-hitters" - each team of participants were given the task of setting up an imaginary investment fund in a particular part of the world. They had to think about what kinds of people to employ to manage the fund, local regulatory frameworks, the state of the market, etc. They also had to consider things like corruption, politics and environmental activism - but only in so far as they might help or hinder their monetary objectives.

This exercise was only a game, but it was a game with a purpose - to help people think about how to approach such situations in real life. It seems to me that the "real life" in which many of these people live though, is actually just the same as the exercise - where the ultimate consideration is the bottom line and all other interests become subservient. To underline this point though, just in case it wasn't clear enough, the room in which the workshop was held was carefully and deliberately laid out like a casino! If this is the view which the world's top financial big hitters have of our world and all of our economies, then it seems small wonder that both have ended up in such a state!

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Worshipping What Our Hands Have Made

I will pronounce my judgments on my people because of their wickedness in forsaking me, in burning incense to other gods and in worshipping what their hands have made.
Idol worship is a common theme in the Old Testament part of the Bible. It was a common practice among the nations who surrounded Israel, and it seems the Jews just couldn't resist joining in! The inevitable consequence of worshipping something though, is that you begin to become like the thing you worship, and so the Jews quickly took on other, associated practices, and forgot God's good laws of justice and compassion. In the words of the writer of the book of Kings:
They followed worthless idols and themselves became worthless. They imitated the nations around them although the LORD had ordered them, “Do not do as they do,” ... They bowed down to all the starry hosts, and they worshiped Baal. They sacrificed their sons and daughters in the fire. They ... sold themselves to do evil in the eyes of the LORD ... 
Most people in the Western world no longer worship idols in the literal sense of that word, but we can still be just as guilty of "worshipping what [our] hands have made". Money is a primary example:


Money is a man-made invention, and it is a strange and curious thing. In and of itself, it has no value - it is valuable only because of what it represents.

If you consider that there are a finite amount of goods and services currently available in the world, then money is like a permission slip that gives you access to a certain quantity of those resources. These "permission slips" can be physical, e.g. bank notes or coins, or electronic, e.g. the money in your bank account. Most of the money in the world today is electronic.

Much of the world is currently in the grip of an economic crisis, but this crisis isn't a crisis of resources. There are a similar amount of resources available now as there were before the crisis began*. This is a crisis of "permission slips"!  It's about how many permission slips there are in the world and who should be allowed to have them.

We often talk about the "financial crisis" as if it's something unavoidable that we are now caught in the grip of and can do little to change, but it's a crisis in the system that we created! If the system isn't working then it seems to me that we ought to be doing something to change the system. This is what people like Occupy London have been campaigning for.

There currently seem to be two main competing and also partially complementing approaches which are being followed in an attempt to "solve" the financial crisis:
  1. Borrow more money:
    This is what the UK and other governments have done to bail out the banks. This is what the UK central bank has effectively done through the process of "quantitive easing". This is what the  European central bank has done in order to increase the size of it's "bailout fund".

    This approach involves playing the system by its own rules, and stores up more problems for the future. It doesn't make us masters of the system, rather it deepens our indebtedness to it.

  2. Austerity measures:
    This is about saving money by reducing government spending, so that the government can afford to pay off its debts. While it sounds like a prudent approach it is damaging in 2 ways:

    1. In the process of cutting spending, it is often the poor and the disadvantaged who suffer the most. But why is this necessary when the amount of resources in the world hasn't changed? It is only the distribution of permission slips that has become a problem!

    2. If the government doesn't spend money to stimulate its economy, economic output will fall, tax revenues will go down and the government will have even less money to pay off its debts!
Either way we are caught in a trap of slavery to this system that we have created and which now constitutes our view of reality.

This system has worked well for us in many respects but it is not a system rooted in justice or fairness. It is a system exploited by the rich and powerful and designed - in many respects - for their benefit. It is a system that tends to funnel "permission slips" upwards to those who already have them and increases the gap between the haves and the have nots. It is a system which has enabled those with the right kind of knowledge and opportunity to exploit those who do the hard work of creating useful things, and to get rich at their expense.

It is a system that we created, and that we worship, because of the riches it has bestowed on us in the past. And it is a system we are now enslaved to because it has reformed us in its image, and we can no longer imagine a different world.

Finally, this system that we have created and exploited, and which now exploits us, has massive consequences for our children. Here in the UK their economic prospects are already far bleaker than ours ever were:

  • Those who want a higher education will start their working lives with enormous debts, having had little or no financial support for their studies.
  • Due to rising property prices, the average age for first time house buyers could hit 40 by the end of the decade!
  • Then of course there is the enormous national debt, which all of our children will inherit.

We may not be literally "sacrific[ing our] sons and daughters in the fire", like the Israelites used to do, but are the consequences really all that different...?

* New goods have been manufactured and/or dug out of the ground, some consumables have been used up - e.g. food, oil, coal etc. - but the differences are not that significant for this discussion.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Nothing is Mine / Everything is Mine

I have written elsewhere of the mixed blessings of an evangelical Christian upbringing. On balance it's something I am grateful for, but it's also left me with some hang-ups, some of which I am still trying to resolve.

One of the many good things I feel I have gained though, is a positive attitude towards money and possessions. My parents have always believed - and this was passed on to me - that everything we have belongs to God. Not only was a proportion of the family income given away - to the church or to various charities - but the attitude I grew up with was that the rest of it didn't really belong to us either. God allowed us to have the use of it, but it really belonged to Him and He was entitled to do something else with it if He wanted.

I have been thinking quite a bit recently about property. Karl Marx is sometimes credited with the phrase, "Property is Theft", although I have just discovered that the phrase actually originates with French anarchist, politician and philosopher, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. For another - seemingly contradictory - take on property though, see this vision of future justice from the Biblical prophet Micah, written in about the 7th century B.C.:
In the last days ... Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid ...
Proudhon though - as it turns out - did not condemn all forms of property and is similarly credited with the phrase, "Property is Liberty", which he did not consider to be a contradiction. Proudhon's point was  that, for a peasant or farmer, property meant freedom from the control of a landlord - much like Micah's vision above - but for the landlord, property meant "owning" something which was used and needed by someone else, thus making it possible for the tenant to be exploited.

Property - and the prevention of its exploitation - was an important part of the law given by God to the Israelites in the Old Testament part of the Bible. This law said that every 50 years there was to be a year of "Jubilee", where all land was to be returned to its original owners. In chapter 25 of the book of Leviticus, God speaks these words to the people of Israel:
The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers. Throughout the land that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land.
So the land "that you hold as a possession" actually belongs to God - i.e., the same attitude that my parents have towards property and that I was brought up with. In the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 24:
The earth is the Lord's and everything in it, the world and all who live in it ...
This makes for a radically different attitude towards property.

The New Testament part of the Bible goes beyond this though. In his first letter to the church in Corinth (see here - I've abridged it slightly because the original is in the context of a different discusion), the Apostle Paul says this:
All things are yours, whether ... the world or life or death or the present or the future - all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.
So if you are a follower of Jesus, then you are "of Christ", Christ is "of God" and thus everything belongs to you! But what does that really mean?

In "Drops Like Stars", Rob Bell points out that there is a difference between "ownership" and "possession" (at least in his particular use of those terms). He cites the example of a Rickenbacker 330 6-string guitar which he "owns". His friend Joey though, who is a much better guitar player, is able to appreciate that guitar, enjoy it and get far more out of it than Bell can. In Bell's words, although he is the legal "owner", Joey "possesses" that guitar in a way that he is simply not able to.

If ownership/possession is viewed more in this kind of a way, it becomes a lot easier to believe the words of Jesus, who famously pronounced that the meek would, "inherit the earth". It is the proud who want to own and control everything, and by doing so often fail to appreciate its true worth. It is the meek on the other hand, who can maintain a sense of grateful awe and appreciation. The proud may end up "owning" everything and yet "possessing" nothing, where the meek may "own" nothing but "possess" the world.