Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Calling God A Liar

Something recently made me think again about the way science and Christianity sometimes clash rather violently. You know what I mean; the way that some Christians believe there's a conspiracy or a plot of the Devil to spread the lie that all humans have evolved from more primitive life-forms, while some atheists believe that Christians are simple-minded fools who put their brains to one side when they came to faith.

My blog post from a few months ago shows what side of the argument I'm on. I just don't see the need to take the Bible as a crudely literal account of how the earth and all the life on it came into being. But plenty of Christians do believe that the Biblical account of creation is meant to be taken literally; God really did create the universe in six days.

What got me thinking about this was hearing Brian Cox on the radio, talking about his new book, The Quantum Universe. The interviewer asked, as an aside really, about how some religious people (Christians and others) reject pretty much all of modern science because it contradicts a literal reading of their holy books. I don't remember the details but Cox was keen to stress that he's not anti-religion as such, just anti-anti-science. So any religious belief that rejects science is going to get pretty short shrift from Prof Cox (although it seems that's not enough for some people...).

I'll be honest, it baffles me that plenty of Christians – intelligent Christians – find it possible to reject the story of creation that the overwhelming majority of scientists believe to be true; that life on earth arose starting with simple molecules which could replicate themselves, and these eventually (over a few billion years) developed into all the variety of life that we see on earth today. Sure, there may well be gaps in our understanding of how life arose (especially on the question of how the first living things came about) but for the whole idea of evolution by natural selection to be plain wrong...? I'd be amazed, frankly.

And yet, I wonder how I'd feel about all this if I'd been brought up to believe that God made the universe in six periods of time, with all the different plant and animal types appearing roughly as we currently observe them. I'm trying to imagine how I'd handle being told at school that, basically, that idea was a load of rubbish and it all really happened according to this process called evolution. Wouldn't accepting evolution be calling God a liar? The Bible clearly says that God created everything in six days and 'blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because it was the day when he rested from all his work of creation'. No wonder many intelligent Christians reject science in this one particular area, because to accept it could lead to questioning the very heart of their faith. And that's a pretty terrifying thing to do.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Double Dip


No, not that sort of double dip. This sort of double dip. It's been predicted that the UK economy is going to shrink over the next few months, meaning we are likely to see what is usually called a double-dip recession. If only it were simply about the demise of a certain sherbert-based confectionery product...

So what should be done? The red team says the government is cutting 'too far, too fast', to quote one of their favourite phrases. The blue / yellow team says the cuts are necessary and anyone who believes otherwise is a 'deficit denier', to quote one of their favourite phrases. I find it both fascinating and frustrating that people can come to such different conclusions based on the same information...

What's particularly got me thinking recently is how it seems to be all about growth, on both sides of the argument but especially with the Labour party. As I see it, there are two massive problems with this. Firstly, with the way that the growth of economies is measured, you could make the economy grow by employing people to do useless things like dig holes and then fill them in again. And secondly, the emphasis on growth ignores the existence of a rather large deficit (see this earlier post of mine). If we keep on borrowing money then surely sooner or later we'll end up just not being able to borrow any more. Like it seems half of Europe is on the brink of.

George Osborne, the Chancellor, will be giving his Autumn Statement speech tomorrow and I will be interested to see how he intends to reduce the deficit without completely destroying economic growth. Best of luck, Mr Osborne...

PS: Sorry for the lack of updates recently. Writer's block.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Saying 'Yes' to God

I was away in Wales for a few days last week and spent a happy Friday here reading and praying. I've now finished reading Brian McLaren's book Naked Spirituality and the next of McLaren's words that I want to share with you is 'yes'. He writes about the Bible conceives of history as a story beginning with a break-up and ending with a wedding. The romance between these two points is filled with tragedy and comedy, McLaren says, but 'it always and at every moment remains at heart a love story, and every moment is a proposal'.

So the 'yes' is our response to this proposal from God:
I love you. Do you love me? Will you join me in at-one-ment, unity, reconciliation, reunion, belonging, membership, love? Will you accept my proposal and enter into the vital communion of theosis – union with God?




But it's also an affirmation of God's 'yes' to us; wonderful confirmation that we are all included and welcomed into God's family. Imagine yourself hearing these words from God:
Yes, I love you. Yes, I want you in my mission. Yes, I forgive you. Yes, I accept you as you are. Do you love me? Do you want to follow me, to join me in my work of healing, feeding, caring and self-giving? Are you with me, as I am always with you?

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Kevin has turned Conservative


What's this? A (mostly) Conservative government doing things I like? But... the Tories are the enemy; I grew up believing they were evil, child-killing monsters who didn't squeeze the toothpaste tube from the bottom! Anyway, two good things they've done recently: one about their economic approach and the other to do with a consultation on entertainment licensing in village halls and similar venues [Kevin loses most of his readers to the sound of collective yawning...].

The economy, then. I wrote a while ago of my belief that the Government is not actually destroying the UK's public services. In a speech a week ago (full text of speech here) the chancellor, George Osborne, contrasted the UK Government's approach to that of some countries in mainland Europe. He said:
We had an emergency budget last summer on our own terms - not this summer on the market's terms - unlike so many other countries.

Contrast this with the Labour party's approach. They keep saying that cuts are needed (albeit at a slower rate) but they hardly seem to have identified any cuts that they'd actually make. Unless I've missed something, all their comments on the economy are along the lines of 'This is an ideologically-based cut that will cause much damage to the nation's public services'. So, Ed and Ed, what would you cut?

My second reason for singing the Government's praises is a much more niche issue that I noticed at work yesterday. Currently, village halls (run, usually on a shoestring budget, by a management committee of volunteers) have to get a premises licence if they want to put on entertainment for the public and if they wish to sell alcohol. The licence just covering entertainment (showing films, putting on plays, hosting dances etc.) is free but there's still a fair bit of administration involved, and it all contributes to the workload of, in the case of charitable village halls, volunteer trustees who may well be put off by all the red tape. So imagine my joy when I had an email on Monday about a Government consultation on simplifying the premises licensing procedures. I'm going to quote the foreword in full (with key parts picked out in bold) as I think it's a wonderfully clear statement of intent. Simple language, a clear summary of the current situation, and a straightforward statement of what the Government proposes to change:
At the moment, the law and regulations which require some (but not all) types of entertainment to be licensed are a mess. For example, you will need a licence if you want to put on an opera but not if you want to organise a stock car race. A folk duo performing in the corner of a village pub needs permission, but the big screen broadcast of an England football match to a packed barn-like city centre pub does not. An athletics meeting needs licensing if it is an indoor event, but not if it’s held outdoors. A free school concert to parents doesn’t need a licence, but would if there is a small charge to raise money for PTA funds or if there are members of the wider public present. A travelling circus generally needs a permit whereas a travelling funfair does not. A carol concert in a Church doesn’t need a licence, but does if it is moved to the Church Hall. There are many other examples where types of entertainment are treated differently for no good reason – the distinctions are inconsistent, illogical and capricious.

But they cause other problems too. Whenever we force local community groups to obtain a licence to put on entertainment such as a fundraising disco, an amateur play or a film night, the bureaucratic burden soaks up their energy and time and the application fees cost them money too. Effectively we’re imposing a deadweight cost which holds back the work of the voluntary and community sector, and hobbles the big society as well.

Equally importantly, the various musicians’ and other performers’ unions are extremely concerned that all these obstacles reduce the scope for new talent to get started, because small-scale venues find it harder to stay open with all the extra red tape. There is also evidence that pubs which diversified their offer to include activities other than drinking were better able to survive the recession. Making it easier for them to put on entertainment may therefore provide an important source of new income to struggling businesses such as pubs, restaurants and hotels.

Last but not least, laws which require Government approval for such a large range of public events put a small but significant dent in our community creativity and expression. If there’s no good reason for preventing them, our presumption should be that they should be allowed.

So this is a golden opportunity to deregulate, reduce bureaucratic burdens, cut costs, give the big society a boost and give free speech a helping hand as well. Our proposals are, simply, to remove the need for a licence from as many types of entertainment as possible. I urge you to participate in this consultation so that we can restore the balance.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Football – lots of debuts today

So we're back with top-level domestic football after a break for Euro 2012 qualifiers, and it's the first set of matches after the close of the transfer window. This means several players will be making a first appearance for their new club. Arsenal might well be giving four players their debut, although don't rule out late injuries that the club say will just put the player out of action for a week but actually end up sidelining them a month or two. What do they train on at Arsenal, gravel?

Everton-Aston Villa is likely to have the first appearance in English football of Royston Drenthe, tipped for big things when he joined Real Madrid four years ago but arguably not fulfilled those expectations yet. I reckon he's just the kind of player that a strapped for cash club like Everton could do with; potentially fantastic and with something to prove.

Liverpool's trip to Stoke City should also be an interesting one, with Peter Crouch in line to make his Stoke debut against one of his former clubs and Craig Bellamy returning to Liverpool (although it looks like he'll only be a sub). Stoke have done amazingly well since they got into the Premier League in 2008. Their squad is strong, with a few very talented players (like Everton, mainly players who've perhaps not lived up to the hype earlier in their career), and I think they could challenge for seventh place this season.

Finally, I'd love to see Bolton give Man Utd a real fight in today's evening kick-off. Owen Coyle is my tip to be the next-but-one England manager; after Harry Redknapp charms and schmoozes his way to the job but gets shown up as not really very hot tactically. Bolton have done well with their signings and I love Coyle's approach to interviews. He gives real answers, isn't afraid of telling it how it is and doesn't just talk in cliches.

And the great thing is that all these games are taking place on the same day! In fact, Arsenal, Man City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs all play at 3pm. I wonder when that last happened...

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Help! More from Brian McLaren's book 'Naked Spirituality'


After a busy couple of weeks I've got back to reading Brian McLaren's recent book, Naked Spirituality, which is all about living and interacting with God (the book's subtitle is 'A life with God in twelve simple words'). And once again, McLaren has really hit the spot for me. The chapter called 'Help!' is about admitting to God that we need his help and asking him to make things better. But we can cry out to God for help in more or less mature ways. Here are what McLaren gives as some immature 'help!' prayers:
I'm running late, most often due to bad planning on my part, and I petition God for good traffic or a close-in parking space.

My wife is angry or disappointed with me about something, so I pray that God will change her heart – that way, I won't have to deal with whatever it is in me that's bothering her.

I'm afraid to confront an interpersonal problem, so I pray that God will solve it for me.

I've said yes to too many things, so I ask God for extra strength to accomplish all of them.

McLaren writes that this sort of praying reduces God to our personal assistant; we're asking God to 'adjust and remake the universe for our convenience and benefit'. For sure, we all pray this way a lot of the time, and surely God hears these requests and even grants some of them. But how about we pray in a more mature way that doesn't simply ask God to fix things for us?
Lord, I'm running late again, and once again, it's because I thought I could get just two or three extra things done. Please, Lord, help me develop wisdom so that I won't be so prone to tackle too much in too short a time. And when I walk into the meeting late, help me not make any excuses but take full responsibility for inconveniencing my colleagues.

Lord, my wife is upset with me. Please help me to understand what's bothering her and to respond with compassion and love. And please help me learn to anticipate and meet her needs rather than frustrate her, as I so often do.

Lord, I have a problem with Sam. I need to speak frankly with him about it. Please help me to tell the truth, and not hold back, but help me to do it cleanly, without bitterness or hurt.

Lord, Once again I've taken on too much. Now I'm exhausted. Help me, Lord, to remember that you are the God who created Sabbath, that you want me to live a life that balances good work with adequate rest. Please liberate me from the fears and insecurities that are like a slave-driver, always demanding more of me, never letting me say “no, I can't”. Help me to settle into the healthy rhythm that you set for me, for your yoke is easy and your burden is light.

This is how McLaren sums up the difference between these two kinds of prayer:
Immature petition tries to convince God to remake the world in our image for our convenience and ease, but mature petition asks God to remake us in God's own image so that we can expand our capacity to respond to the world as it is.

At the heart of this is the idea that God doesn't simply want to make things easier for us. Instead he wants us to willingly submit to him and allow him to turn us into people of strong, holy character. Here are a few well-known Bible passages on this theme:
We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. (Romans 5:3-5)
That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. (James 1:2-4)

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Science and Christianity – must they clash?

Implacable enemies or close friends? As I wrote a few days ago, I've been reading a book that aims to show how scientific discoveries (especially evolution) need not present a barrier to believing in Jesus Christ and the Christian faith. In that post, my focus was on how evolution by natural selection explains certain things about our genetic structure much better than a literal 'God made Adam from the dust' account of how humanity came into being.

The next topic I'd like to look at is why some Christians feel the need to take the Bible's account of creation literally in the first place. What motivates some Christians to treat with suspicion any scientific ideas that seem to cut across the literal Biblical account? In a moment, we'll step back some 400 years to the time of Galileo, an Italian astronomer who made some discoveries that caused a mighty stir among the religious authorities of his era. But first, a word about how we read the Bible.

The classic evangelical way of reading the Bible is to take it as something like a law textbook, meaning we happily pluck from it isolated verses and phrases to quote as God's definitive word on a particular matter. By way of example (a personal bugbear of mine, this one), look at God's well-known words to the Israelite exiles in Babylon, spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

'For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.'

Those words were written as God's message to a particular group of people at a particular point in time. Now I'm not saying I don't believe they apply now to Christians in general, but this approach can get us into trouble. It's too simplistic to take some words of God from the Bible and casually apply them to ourselves. That might lead us to go into battle massively outnumbered and with each soldier carrying only a ram's horn and a lantern, as per the story of Gideon in Judges 7. Or perhaps we should delight in the violent deaths of our enemy's children, as the author of Psalm 137 seems to. On the contrary, we need to remember that all the dialogue, all the prophecies, all the events in the Bible took place at a certain time among a certain group of people. Surely that should be the starting point for all our efforts to interpret the Bible.

Like I wrote back in March, what if we step back from the law textbook approach and instead see the Bible as a God-inspired collection of books that tell us about God's people through the ages? Perhaps this would free us from a slavishly literal interpretation, while still leaving intact the Bible's status as the inspired word of God. Another (often-noted) point specific to the creation account in Genesis is that it is very poetic; it may well never have been intended as a literal, historical account.

On to Galileo, then. Galileo Galilei, to use his full name, made some important observations that cast great doubt on the traditional understanding of the universe. Here's the summary from that book I've been reading; The Language of God by Francis Collins:
In 1608, inspired by information he had heard about the invention of the telescope in the Netherlands, Galileo made his own instrument and quickly made a number of astronomical observations of profound significance. He observed four moons orbiting the planet Jupiter. That simple observation, which we take for granted today, presented significant problems for the traditional Ptolemaic system[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geocentric_model], where all heavenly bodies were supposed to rotate around the earth. Galileo also observed sunspots, which represented a possible affront to the idea that all heavenly bodies were created perfect.

Galileo ultimately came to the conclusion that his observations could make sense only if the earth revolved around the sun. That placed him in direct conflict with the Catholic Church... The Dominican Friar Caccini... insisted that “geometry is of the devil” and that “mathematicians should be banished as the authors of all heresies.” Another Catholic priest claimed that Galileo's conclusions were not only heretical but atheistic. Other attacks included a claim that “his pretended discovery vitiates the whole Christian plan of salvation” and that “it casts suspicion on the doctrine of the incarnation.” While much of the criticism came from the Catholic Church, it was not limited to that. John Calvin and Martin Luther also objected.

Personally, I suspect that Christians and churches who reject evolution nowadays are in much the same position as Galileo's opponents 400 years ago. Francis Collins notes that: 'In retrospect, modern observers must wonder why the church was so utterly threatened by the idea of the earth revolving around the sun.' Collins picks out a few Bible verses that suggest a geocentric (earth-centred) view of the universe (Psalm 93:1, Psalm 104:5, Ecc 1:5) but then says: 'Today, few believers argue that the authors of these verses were intending to teach science.' I'm hoping that in the future people will say the same regarding the Genesis creation account, and evolution will be accepted by just about everyone as the explanation for the breathtaking array of life that we see all around us. Maybe that would stop what the Roman-era theologian, Augustine of Hippo, wrote about regarding Christians who (usually with the best of intentions, I have no doubt) speak about science from a position of ignorance (quoted from 'The Language of God'):
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions... and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.

Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show a vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but... [that] the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books and matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learned from experience in the light of reason?

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Language of God

Francis Collins is an American scientist who directed the Human Genome Project, a multinational research programme to 'read' the entire human DNA sequence. The Project itself was completed in 1993, although work to analyse all the information (including work on discovering cures for various genetic conditions) is ongoing. Collins is a Christian and a firm believer in evolution as the mechanism for how humans came into being. He's got a lot to say about the mess that Christians can get into when it comes to science, but for now I thought I'd look at one aspect of what Collins considers to be the language of God.




To start with, here is Wikipedia's short introduction to genetics, along with a diagram from the Human Genome Project's piece on basic genetics. So, every organism on earth has a genome, a very long string of genetic information. In all but some viruses, the information is carried in a molecule called DNA, which consists of two 'spines' twisted together and linked by pairs of simpler molecules called 'bases', making something like a giant rope ladder twisted around into a spiral (diagram below thanks to www.chemguide.co.uk). There are only four options (given the letters G, C, A and T) for these bases, so the complete DNA sequence is a long (around three billion letters long in humans!) string of letters: GCCATCGTTCAATACGCC and so on.




Some sections of the DNA sequence, the string of letters, cause proteins to be made. Proteins are the chemicals that form the basis of pretty much everything in any living being; skin, blood, nerves, muscle and much more. In the protein-making sections of the DNA sequence, each little group of three letters gives an instruction for a certain protein component (called an amino acid) to be made. Large parts of the DNA sequence, though, don't seem to do much; a point which I'll come back to later.

On to Francis Collins' book, then. Starting on page 126, he notes that our DNA has much in common with the DNA of other creatures, especially mammals but also fish and even some insects. The amount in common changes quite a lot depending on whether you're looking at parts of the human DNA sequence that code for proteins or at the other, apparently inactive parts (so-called junk DNA). If you start with a stretch of human DNA in a protein-coding area, the chances of finding a similar sequence in other creatures are:

Chimpanzee 100%
Dog 99%
Mouse 99%
Chicken 75%
Fruit fly 60%
Roundworm 35%

But the chances of a close match drop quite a bit if you look at those 'junk' DNA sections:

Chimpanzee 98%
Dog 52%
Mouse 40%
Chicken 4%
Fruit fly almost 0%
Roundworm almost 0%

Doesn't this strike you as odd? Why should the correlation between human and other DNA be much higher in the protein-coding areas than in 'junk' DNA? Collins says it gives support in two ways for an evolutionary understanding of how we came to be. Firstly (from page 129), he notes that we can build up a tree of organisms that shows how closely related they are, based on how much DNA they have in common:
At the level of the genome as a whole, a computer can construct a tree of life based solely upon the similarities of the DNA sequences of multiple organisms... Bear in mind that this analysis does not utilize any information from the fossil record, or from anatomic observation of current life forms. Yet its similarity to conclusions drawn from studies of comparative anatomy, both of existent organisms and of fossilized remains, is striking.

The second point Collins makes is that evolutionary theory predicts a gradual build-up of mutations that do not affect the organism, while mutations that do have an effect will be much rarer. And this is what we see; mutations in the 'junk' DNA sections are far more common than mutations in areas that give instructions for making proteins. This is because most of the latter will severely hamper the individual organism in which they happen, leading to the organism probably not surviving to adulthood and therefore not having any offspring to pass the mutation on to. Only a few mutations in protein-coding areas will be advantageous (or at least neutral) to the organism and stand a chance of being passed on to the next generation.

There's a follow-up to the second point, which relates to the fact that a few DNA mutations don't lead to the protein changing. As I mentioned above, the DNA sequence is basically made up of a huge string of the letters G, C, A and T. In sections of the DNA that cause proteins to be made, each set of three letters gives an instruction for a certain protein component (called an amino acid) to be made. For most of these protein components the set of three letters has to be exactly right, but there are a few where changing one letter in the set for a different letter still leads to the same amino acid being made. And these 'silent' mutations are seen far more often than mutations that do cause a different protein component to be made. I wonder why this might be, if not because evolution is the means by which humanity was created...

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Don't label me!

I want to have a moan tonight. There's been a lot of labelling in the media over the last week or so relating to people involved in the rioting. You know what I mean; 'feral youth', 'hooligans', 'irresponsible parents' and so on (and so on...). I wonder why we feel the need to label people like this, rather than talking about their behaviour. Is it because we think that we'd never do terrible things like those, those criminals are doing? Perhaps it's comforting to subtly draw a dividing line between basically decent, law-abiding people like us and low-life, hooligan scum like them.

It's reminded me of a couple of other references to labelling. Firstly, a friend of mine who has young daughters mentioned that she'd heard (or read; I can't quite remember) about a danger in telling your children that they're beautiful. This had never struck me before (isn't it the most natural thing in the world to tell your daughter that she's beautiful and you love her?) but apparently it can make your child think that you only love them because they're beautiful. I suppose this can easily be made worse by the effect of all the images in advertising that children get bombarded with as they grow up. I've no idea how solidly founded this research was; perhaps it's one person's hare-brained idea that's not based on any concrete research at all. Anyway, it got me thinking.

The second thing that came to mind was something I read a year or two back about academically gifted children. I think this was a proper research paper but I haven't been able to find it again tonight (apologies!). The article referred to two groups of children; both of which were given praise, but one along the lines of 'You're really clever' and the other with more specific statements like 'That work you did was really good'. Each set of children were asked to sit a test and could choose an easier or harder version. Here's the kicker; the children given the broader, labelling-type praise (the 'You're so clever' statements) chose the easier test significantly more often than the children whose specific pieces of work were praised. Label a kid as clever and it seems they'll choose the easier option, because they don't want to fall short of the standard set for them. Label their work as good and they'll choose the harder option, believing that it's within their capabilities. Interesting, huh?

Going back to the rioting and looting, I'm not at all meaning to excuse criminal behaviour. If people are found guilty of criminal acts then I think they should be punished. But I don't think it's helpful to label people as criminal, anti-social or whatever, as if they are fundamentally different from those who have not been out rioting over the last week. Also, as a Christian, it's a core part of my faith (a) that all people are made in God's image, to carry his glory into the world, and (b) that all people fall short of this ideal. To what extent each of us falls short isn't something that should concern us. Planks of wood and specks of dust...

Thursday, 11 August 2011

A massive overhang of debt

With all the analysis, blame-laying and doom-mongering about the riots, I wonder if the speech George Osborne gave today about the global economic situation will get a bit lost. That would be a shame, I think, as he said some very interesting things about the amount of debt that many developed countries are in, and the impact that this debt is having. Osborne noted a few triggers for the ski-jump-like falls in the financial markets over the last week or so:
Mr Speaker, it is not hard to identify the recent events that have triggered the latest market falls.

There has been the weak economic data from the US and the historic downgrade of that country’s credit rating.

And the crisis of confidence in the ability of Eurozone countries to pay their debts has spread from the periphery to major economies like Italy and Spain.

Then he went on to explain what he thinks is the root cause of all these events, and this is the part that really caught my eye:
But these events did not come out of the blue.

They all have the same root cause.

Debt.

In particular, a massive overhang of debt from a decade-long boom when economic growth was based on unsustainable household borrowing, unrealistic house prices, dangerously high banking leverage, and a failure of governments to put their public finances in order.

Unfortunately, the UK was perhaps the most eager participant in this boom, with the most indebted households, the biggest housing bubble, the most over-leveraged banks and the largest budget deficit of them all.

Moaning about how stupidly high house prices are is one of my hobby-horses so I was pleased to see a senior politician like Osborne talk about a housing bubble. Is the Government preparing to let house prices fall back to a sensible level, i.e. somewhere near the long-term trend value of around four times the average salary? Given how much of the UK's sense of well-being seems to be tied up with increasing how prices I'm still rather sceptical, but we shall see... (Graph taken from This is Money.)


Tuesday, 9 August 2011

It's all kicked off

Wow, August is normally a very quiet month as far as politics is concerned. But the financial markets are plummeting following the USA's credit rating being downgraded and, of course, there's been a series of riots across London and some other parts of the UK. What's going on? I've not been at work for the last couple of days and I've found it fascinating to follow what different politicians, journalists and commentators have been saying about the riots. Here is the view of former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone:
While the first priority is to restore peace, to ensure the safety of everyone now and in the future it is also necessary to have a serious discussion about why this has happened.

I am concerned that there is growing social dislocation in London and a threat that the police will be forced into escalating conflict with some London communities. We do not want to go back to the 1980s.

The economic stagnation and cuts being imposed by the Tory government inevitably create social division. As when Margaret Thatcher imposed such policies during her recessions this creates the threat of people losing control, acting in completely unacceptable ways that threaten everyone, and culminating in events of the type we saw in Tottenham.

Tories will issue knee-jerk statements demanding support for the police but they are actually cutting the police. That amounts to pure hypocrisy.

It's definitely vital to discuss the background and triggers for these riots but surely now is not the time to try and score party political points. Too soon, Ken. Also, I think he's utterly wrong to suggest that 15 months of David Cameron's government have been a big factor but that's not the point. Save the blame game for later, when the violence is under control.

Having said that, I'm going to do a bit of armchair speculation of my own. I heard on the radio earlier some really insightful and sensitive (I thought) comment from a lady called Camila Batmanghelidjh, who founded and now runs an organisation called Kids Company. They work with severely deprived and vulnerable children, aiming to help them get (and stay) out of trouble and develop aspirations for their future. This is what she wrote in today's Independent. See what you think. It's got to be better than dismissing the people involved as 'feral rats', 'mindless thugs' and so on, hasn't it? Mind you, I am uncomfortable with how strong a link she draws between deprivation and rioting; how many of those rioting over the last few days are deprived? Whose fault is it that 'the established community is perceived to provide nothing'?

Going back to Ken Livingstone's blaming of the Government and their spending cuts, maybe it's more about a deep-seated failure of education, parenting, social support services, policing etc. (delete according to your personal view) in certain parts of the country. I was amused by the rhetorical question asked in this article from the Daily Telegraph: would the rioters stop in their tracks if their local authority were to reinstate their library?

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Hallelujah!

For my next item about Brian McLaren's book, 'Naked Spirituality', I'm going to look at what many people call 'worship'; joining together with other Christians to praise God using music, dance, visuals and other media. As an aside, I'm not keen on using the word 'worship' to describe singing songs and so forth, for reasons that are explained here. But on to McLaren. He says, drawing from the Psalms (e.g. Ps 16:11), that connecting with God is 'as if we are plugging our souls into a pure current of high-voltage joy'. God is a joyful being, McLaren adds, and (illustrated with a couple of pictures from the Brick Testament):

When we tap into the joy of the Lord, when we step into the pure joy that burns like a billion galaxies in the hear of God, we'll soon find ourselves shouting, dancing, singing, leaping, clapping, swaying, laughing, and otherwise jubilating and celebrating.

Doesn't it make sense, then, for Trinitarian Christians like me to define worship as joining in the eternal, joyful celebration that erupts continuously among Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Is it any wonder that Jesus, describing the kingdom of God, conceived of it as party, feast, banquet, festival?










Returning to the point about that word 'worship', McLaren does go on to say that our singing and celebrating really need to expand into a way of life. As Paul urges in Romans 12, we should give our bodies to God because of all he has done for us. This is truly the way to worship God, Paul says. Regarding how we can offer our whole lives to God, McLaren gives seven ways. I'm tempted to write about all of them but here's a little bit about the one that particularly struck me; giving God the joy of our creativity. We're all creative in one way or another, whether it's writing poetry, playing a musical instrument, gardening, cooking, dancing, woodworking, car maintenance... But what do you think of this point ?
Probably, in whatever you do, you apologise: it's not very good... I'm just an amateur... I never took any lessons... I really do it just for myself. My guess is that you do this for the same reason I do: I really love my creative pursuits, and they are unspeakably precious to me, and the thought of them being evaluated or criticised or even mocked by others is so distressing that I decide to pre-empt the criticism of others with my own disparagement.

This idea had not struck me consciously before, and yet I do play down my own creative efforts. I think there's something in what McLaren says about why this is; it's an attempt to avoid or reduce the sting of any criticism that might come my way. McLaren's suggestion on this is remarkably simple, I think:
Let's apologise less and create more. Let's think of creating for the approval of others less, and for the pleasure of God more. Think of the little girl who draws a picture for her mother. She uses crayons to compose crude stick figures – a blue person, a red car, a green and brown tree, a purple house, a yellow sun with squiggly lines radiating out from it. And what does her mother do? Critique it? No, she uses magnets to display it on the refrigerator, where it may stay until the girl graduates from high school. What if God is more like that mother than the critics we fear? What could give our Creator more pleasure than our creative offerings?

McLaren adds another fabulous anecdote of how young children love to show their parents what they're doing. 'Dad, watch this!', they cry as they climb the playground slide or ride their trike around the garden. We could try to live like this with God, McLaren, suggests, showing off in a sense, but not egotistically; instead it is 'humbly, generously and with childlike abandon seeking to bring pleasure to the One who gave me life'. Worth a go, I think!

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Being thankful

I'm reading Brian McLaren's new book, 'Naked Spirituality', which uses twelve words to describe twelve spiritual practices. Actually that's not quite true; he illustrates each of the spiritual practices with a few different words, starting with one and then using some more to illustrate the point. So the first chapter is about simply welcoming God to be with us where we are. McLaren starts with the word 'here', as in 'I am here'. He also uses 'now', 'you', 'who', 'we', 'open' and 'home' to unpack the idea of us being with God, wherever we are and whatever our state of mind.

It's the next word that's really got me excited today, though. That word is 'thanks'. Not that we should be thankful for everything (that would just be silly) but that we can be thankful in everything, as Paul wrote at the end of his first letter to the church in Thessalonica (1 Thess 5:18). McLaren also uses the word 'this' to convey the attitude of thankfulness:
This day. This kiss. This view. This meal, this taste, this breath, this moment, this song... instead of letting these treasures pass by as if they were nothing or as if we were unconscious of their beauty and wonder, we pause and savour them, and we lift our joy and appreciation up to God in gratitude.

I've been trying this out over the last couple of days and it's really refreshing. Hopefully I'll be able to stay with it for a while, stopping to notice good things and to thank God for them. It's so easy, isn't it, to just move on to the next task that needs doing, or to get distracted by the TV, internet, radio, or the book you're reading. But it's good to pause, even just for a short moment. It's helping me to stay conscious of God through more of the day and to keep a sense of inner balance when things don't go quite how I'd like.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Biblical words that we've redefined

Just a quick post tonight. I've been having a look round a website called Paths of Return, created (so the author says) as 'a kind of travel log of my journey in search of missing or forgotten elements of the Christian life'.

This blog entry caught my eye the other day. It lists seven words from the New Testament that the author thinks are commonly misused:
Salvation
Faith
Elders
Church
Deacons
Preach
Pastor

Those of you who know me well have probably heard me go on about some of these words, and how our modern usage is a long way from what the words meant in New Testament times. I won't do a big copy-paste from the Paths of Return blog (I think doing that is a bit rude) but do have a look and see what you make of it.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Brian McLaren's take on developing a rich spiritual life

My studying is over for the term but, being a bit of a book fiend, I'm still doing plenty of reading! My latest book is Naked Spirituality by Brian McLaren. It's all about developing a richer, deeper life with God, using twelve words as the starting point for twelve spiritual exercises. I might blog about one or two of the specific words, but this post is on what McLaren says about the whole idea of spiritual exercises. He asks how we can experience a life with God day-by-day and moment-by-moment as a way of life, answering that a way of life is formed by practices:
By practices, we mean do-able habits or rhythms that transform us, rewiring our brains, restoring our inner ecology, renovating our inner architecture, expanding our capacities. We mean actions within our power that help us become capable of things currently beyond our power.

He goes on to make the (key, I think) point that this is a very difficult quest to embark on alone. With any skill or character transformation, we do much better if we are among people who are on the same quest. I'm going to quote a rather large chunk of what McLaren says here because I just love his combination of insight and simplicity:
So, for example, I'm incapable of speaking Chinese today. But if I find a social group of fluent speakers, and in their company I begin practising a single new word or phrase or series of phrases day by day, I will one day be reasonably fluent myself. I'm incapable of running a marathon today. But if I find a group of runners who can teach me a time-tested training regimen, I can start with a half-mile today. Then in six months, following their regimen, I will be able to run all twenty-six miles. I'm incapable of playing the violin today. But if I find a master violinist and join her circle of dedicated students, with some months or years of practice, I will someday be able to contribute to a band or orchestra and play an Irish jig or Mozart symphony.

Similarly, I may be incapable of accepting an insult without retaliation today. I may be incapable of remaining grateful in the midst of fatigue. I may be incapable of receiving attention for successful achievements without becoming conceited. I may be incapable of loving my enemies, or seeing things from their point of view, or overcoming discrimination, or resisting the urge to consume or pollute, or remaining patient under stress. I may be incapable of remembering that God loves me and knows my name, or that God graciously accepts me apart from my performance, or that God loves and knows 'the other' no less than me.

But what if there were some practices by which what is now spiritually impossible for me could actually become possible? What if there were practices that made space for the well of living water to flow, for the wind of the Spirit to blow, for the stone jars in my life to be filled with a nobler cause and a more meaningful, joyful purpose? What if there were communities focused on embodying those practices, and what if they were ready to welcome me to learn among them? Would I want to learn those practices, and enter into those communities?
I think that last paragraph sums up a major part of what really excites me and what I want my life to be about. I want to play my part in establishing and growing communities that embody these practices by which God works in and through us, transforming us more into his likeness. Alongside this, though, I hope to develop my own life with God. I've seen it written in a few different places that you can't take people places (spiritually speaking) where you haven't been yourself...

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The hope of mankind – Jesus Christ or the American Way?

I've just handed in my final theology course essay! I should be awarded a Graduate Diploma in Kingdom Theology in due course, once the final essay has been marked. Looking back over the last two years, I've learnt so much about God, his ways, and about myself too. I've also met some truly great people and hopefully I'll stay in touch with many of them. Most of them are finishing this year although I'm carrying on to the Masters programme, starting again in early September.

The final essay was all about the Roman Emperor Constantine and his impact on Christianity. Constantine supported the church very strongly, both in financial terms and through giving many church leaders positions of high political office. Whether this all benefited Christianity is, of course, another matter; and this question was the main focus of my essay. So I looked at how Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire in the first two or three centuries since Jesus' time, despite some horrific persecution at points during this period. I also had to write about the modern-day legacy of Constantine's merger of church and state, and it was during this research that I found George W. Bush seeming to equate Jesus Christ with the American Way...

Bush was speaking a year after the World Trade Centre attacks, giving a speech at the harbour of Ellis Island, where many immigrants entered the USA in the first half of the 20th century. Here's the last little section of his speech:
This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind. That hope drew millions to this harbour. That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it. May God bless America.

And for comparison, here are the first five verses of John's Gospel (italics added by me):
In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.

Now I know it's important to bear in mind the context in which we say things. Bush no doubt wanted to inspire his people to believe that the American way of living is worth defending, and not something to be ashamed of. That's fine, but to equate the American way of living with the true light of the world, Jesus Christ? Too far, Mr President.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

What is the good news of Jesus Christ?

When I first began to follow Jesus, I understood it in terms of believing and stating certain things. I prayed a sinner's prayer which was explained to me as marking my transfer from being 'lost' to being 'saved'. The sinner's prayer follows from a way of thinking about Christianity and salvation that some people call the Roman Road of Salvation. I Googled that phrase and here is one of the descriptions that came up:
Romans 1:20-21 – God reveals himself to humanity

Romans 3:32 – We are all sinners; we all fail to meet God's perfect standards

Romans 3:10 – We cannot cancel out or undo our own sin

Romans 6:23 – Our sin must be punished, because God is a god of justice

Romans 5:8 – But God loves us and so became human (in the form of Jesus Christ) to take the punishment that we deserve

Romans 6:23 – God gives us eternal life through the death of Jesus

Romans 10:9-10 – We must believe in Jesus and put our trust in him alone to make us right with God

Romans 10:13 – There is no complicated formula; everyone who trusts in Jesus will be saved

I do think there's plenty of good in this kind of outline; for example it makes the vital point that being a Christian is not simply about the culture you live in or the family you were born into. Something personal is required.

But are we required to just say 'yes' to a series of statements? Formulas like the one above say very little (sometimes nothing at all) about our behaviour; they just seem to be about getting us to a point where we can state certain things like 'I believe Jesus died for my sins'. Are you not a Christian until you say those words? Can we take isolated verses of the Bible out of their context and knit them together in a new sequence like this?

I've recently been reading and thinking about more narrative ways of communicating the good news of Jesus (which is bad, in a way, because I'm no good at telling stories!). Donald Miller writes about this, in his book Searching for God Knows What. He says that all the various self-help, formula-based books he'd read hadn't made much difference to his life; and he mentions a friend of his who 'believes the qualities that improve a person's life are relational, relational to God and to the folks around us'. Jesus taught his disciples in a relational way, Miller says, not through a set of formulas, so maybe 'God didn't know about the formulas, or the formulas weren't able to change a person's heart'. I like this comment (from pages 13-14):
So if the difference between Christian faith and all other forms of spirituality is that Christian faith offers a relational dynamic with God, why are we cloaking this relational dynamic in formulas?... Are modern forms of Christian spirituality producing better Christians than days long ago, when people didn't use formulas and understood, intrinsically, that God is a Being with a personality and a will of His own?... I started reading the Bible very differently. I stopped looking for the formulas and tried to understand what God was trying to say. When I did that, I realized the gospel of Jesus, I mean the essence of God's message to mankind, wasn't a bunch of hoops we needed to jump through to get saved, and it wasn't a series of ideas we had to agree with either; rather, it was an invitation, an invitation to know God.

So maybe that's how I would explain what the message of Christianity, now that I'm losing faith in the formulaic Roman Road-type methods. Christianity is an invitation to know God, to become an apprentice of the maker and sustainer of the universe. And God is supremely revealed through Jesus.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Portland

My parents were on holiday in Weymouth last week so I thought I'd join them for a couple of days, seeing as Southampton is not very far away. We went to Portland on Thursday, meaning that I've now been to Portland, Oregon and Portland, Dorset! Both were great, in different ways, and I'd love to visit both again. I suspect one might happen rather sooner than the other....

Here are a few photos of the Portland in Dorset:




And here's one of the other Portland, looking towards the entrance to the Saturday Market:

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Is Ed Milliband a robot?

I've just caught up with an interview that Ed Milliband gave to the BBC regarding the public sector workers' strike on Thursday. Now, I know that politicians don't always answer the question they're asked, often taking a particular line and sticking with it. But watch this clip (it's less than three minutes long) and see what you think:



Unless my ears deceive me, Milliband answers five different questions using a combination of the same four phrases , wording them more or less identically each time:

These strikes are wrong at a time when negotiations are still going on
(Five times)

Parents and the public have been let down by both sides
(Four times)

The government has acted in a reckless and provocative manner
(Five times)

I urge both sides to put aside the rhetoric, get round the negotiating table and stop it happening again
(Five times)

Does Milliband really not have anything spontaneous to say or is he too scared of a gaffe to deviate in any way from the script he's prepared beforehand?

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

More on spiritual fitness – how does it happen?

I posted a couple of weeks ago about some sessions we're having on my course that are about Christian virtue, or developing Godly character. Personally, I think this is one of the key roles of every church; how does the church (meaning the entire group of people that comprise that community) encourage and enable its members to grow in Godliness? But can we plan for it, or do people just naturally become more virtuous if they are part of a healthy Christian community?

I don't think it does just happen naturally. Certainly, I think we could develop our Christian character a lot more with consciously-planned activities, materials and support systems. I'm with Dallas Willard (again...) on this one. In a passage from page 344 of The Divine Conspiracy noting the lack of intentional, planned discipleship in churches, he says this:
Imagine, if you can, discovering in your church newsletter or bulletin an announcement of a six-week seminar on how genuinely to bless someone who is spitting you... Or suppose the announced seminar was on how to live without purposely indulged lust or covetousness. Or on how to quit condemning the people around you. Or on how to be free of anger and all its complications.

Willard goes on to invite the reader to imagine a church sign that says 'We Teach All Who Seriously Commit Themselves to Jesus How to Do Everything He Said to Do'. Isn't that what our churches should be all about?

Saturday, 25 June 2011

A trip to Wimbledon

I went to Wimbledon on Wednesday! My friend Clare goes most years and I thought I'd go along as well this year, seeing as I quite like tennis and always enjoy going to live events. Usually it's music concerts or Southampton football games, though I really should go more often than I do. Must go see Saints a few times this season, seeing as we're in the Championship now... (/Total fair-weather fan)

Anyway, Wimbledon. Clare and I got to the back of the queue at around 11:30 and made it in to the complex itself at something like 12:30 and met up with a couple of Clare's friends. It was raining so the only tennis on offer was Venus Williams versus Kimiko Date-Krumm under the fancy new roof on Centre Court. We watched it for a bit while sitting on the grass on Henman Hill / Murray Mound / Robson Green (arf). Cracking game though, just a shame that we were all gradually getting rather wet. Here's a picture of that lovely roof in action, courtesy of the official Wimbledon website:


I did get to see some live tennis, once the weather cleared up at 3:30 or so. We made it in to Court 3 to see plucky young Brit Heather Watson come up just short against French baseliner, Mathilde Johansson. Through my not-at-all-biased eyes, Watson had clearly the better game but hurt her elbow early in the second set and really lost her rhythm. What a shame. Still, Watson (and also Laura Robson) could go far. Top 30 in the next year or two, perhaps...? And then we got re-sale tickets (if people have to leave early then they can hand in their tickets to be re-sold for £5) for Centre Court and saw the tail end of Roddick-Hanescu. I was really pleased to get a bit of time in one of the main courts!

Do go for a day if you get a chance. I loved the whole experience; it's something really special to witness and share a sporting event with thousands of other people. And Wimbledon is an amazing mixture of everyday punter and upper class posh person. You've got all the people who, like us, queued up for £20 ground passes, rubbing shoulders with the folks on corporate hospitality or with debentures that start at a cool £13,700 for five years on Court One. The current debentures are all sold out, I'm sorry to say, but don't panic...
There is a market made in the debentures by market makers Evolution Securities Limited and no doubt your stockbroker or bank manager will be able to advise you in this respect.

Going back to the Brits, once again Andy Murray is the only British player even close to making it to the fourth round. It's so frustrating: James Ward had chances against Llodra in round one, I'm sure Watson would have won if it weren't for her elbow injury and Laura Robson gave Sharapova some difficulties. Ho-hum, next year... And come on Andy!

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Spiritual fitness

We had a lecture about 'Christian virtue' at my theology course session last night. What's Christian virtue, I hear you ask... Well, the definition we were given for 'virtue' is basically 'good character', so Christian virtue just means a Christian understanding of what good character is.

Yesterday's lecture was an introduction to the topic of Christian virtue and next week we'll be moving on to look at the church's role in developing it, helping us to become better people. We were left last night with the analogy of churches being like gyms: just as gyms help us develop physical fitness so churches should help us develop spiritual fitness; that is, Christian virtue. I'll look at this in a bit more detail in a moment, but I should just say that I'd change the analogy slightly. I'd say our churches should be like fitness clubs, rather than gyms. A gym is a building and churches are communities, not buildings. So something like a fitness club (which still meets a gym but is more obviously about the people) works a bit better for this analogy, I think.

Let's have a bit of Bible to illustrate what we're talking about with Christian virtue, from Galatians 5 and 2 Peter 1:
But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!
By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence. And because of his glory and excellence, he has given us great and precious promises. These are the promises that enable you to share his divine nature and escape the world’s corruption caused by human desires.

In view of all this, make every effort to respond to God’s promises. Supplement your faith with a generous provision of moral excellence, and moral excellence with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with patient endurance, and patient endurance with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love for everyone. The more you grow like this, the more productive and useful you will be in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So Christian virtue is not about academic learning, spiritual experiences, social action or correct behaviour, good and important though all these things are. These good things should all flow out of our good character, our virtue:
Does a spring of water bubble out with both fresh water and bitter water? Does a fig tree produce olives, or a grapevine produce figs? No, and you can’t draw fresh water from a salty spring.
Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves. You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions.

All of this leads me to wonder how good a job our church meetings, structures and programmes are doing at developing this good character, this Christian virtue in us. I blogged a couple months ago about church meetings and this was my conclusion back then:
So in our church meetings (and in all our interactions with one another; it's not just a Sunday thing!) we should be strengthened – built up – and equipped to do God's work.

I'd like to add to this a little bit, in the light of our lecture yesterday. And that's to say how we are equipped to do God's work: we are equipped by being transformed into people of good Christian character, people full of 'love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control'.

Dallas Willard (whom I have mentioned in the past) says this:
There is now lacking a serious and expectant intention to bring Jesus' people into obedience and abundance through training... Somehow the seriously thought out intention – not just a vague idea or wish – to actually bring about the fullness of life in Christ must be re-established.
Do you think he's got a point?

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The football off-season

The football season is over then. Man Utd have won the Premier League without having to be all that great, Liverpool are resurgent under King Kenny (hooray!), England were horribly shown up by playing a week after Barcelona put on an absolute master-class to win the European Champions' League and Southampton got back into the Championship (hooray again!).

It's all been a bit quiet on the Southampton FC front but things are already getting interesting in the Premier League. Martin Jol is back, as manager of Fulham. This is an excellent thing. I thought Jol was funny and straight-talking in his time at Spurs and as far as I remember they played some good, successful football while he was in charge. Roberto Martinez is the favourite to become Aston Villa manager, which could also be a good move. Certainly good for Martinez; he'll get to test himself at the next level up and if he does well at Villa then he could find himself in the running to be the next manager of one of the top clubs. Like Jol, he gets his teams playing good football.

The big thing for me as a (completely casual, never been to the city let alone to the stadium) Liverpool fan is the signing of Jordan Henderson for Quite A Lot Of Money. Here's a picture of Henderson signing his lovely new contract, courtesy of the Liverpool FC website.


Now I don't know much about the guy but this is what a Sunderland fan had to say in the Football365 mailbox:
After the world cup, many of us began to really notice the sheer lack of technical talent in the England set-up. By this, I'm not talking about crossing or shooting ability, I'm talking about close control, quick passing and most importantly of all, tactical awareness. Jordan has these traits in abundance... [he plays] patient, intelligent football. His touch in tight situations is excellent and he always seems to find a one-two or a small gap to get the ball through to a team-mate...
Now that sounds pretty promising! A midfield of Lucas, Mereiles and Henderson with Spearing and Shelvey providing talented young back-up. Excellent... What's that you say? No, I've not forgotten Steven Gerrard; I think he's past his best and Liverpool should let him go if Man City, Chelsea or some other moneybags club want to swap fifteen million English pounds for him. What do you reckon?

I'm quite looking forward to finding out what else will happen over the football summer off-season. Like I said, I've not seen anything much about Southampton but maybe that's a good thing. No bigger clubs sniffing around Chamberlain, Lallana or any of Saints' other top players? (*cough* Arsenal) I should think Saints will do just fine in the Championship with the current squad so bring it on! Must get to St Mary's to watch a game or two next season...

EDIT - Perhaps I spoke too soon regarding Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Friday's Daily Mirror has a story saying he'll be off to Arsenal, with a £12 million deal to be confirmed on 1st July. We shall see.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

My bit of public service for this morning

Oh My Word. I've just seen something about a survey that found only one in seven people (14%) knew the difference between 'debt' and 'deficit'. Here's the question:
The government says it wants to eliminate the budget DEFICIT in five years. From your understanding, if it succeeds, will total government DEBT in 5 years time be…
And here are the answers:
14% - Higher than it is now
23% - About the same as it is now
36% - Lower than it is now
10% - Fully paid off
18% - Not sure
No wonder Labour didn't get absolutely wiped out in the last election; it seems the vast majority of the country don't realise just what a mess they've made of the UK's finances!

So here goes with my attempt to explain what the difference is between those two words beginning with 'D'.

Debt – how much money you owe in total
Deficit – the difference between your costs and your income over a certain time period

That's it! Simple as that. So if you take out a £150,000 mortgage to buy a house, you are now £150,000 in debt. That's usually fine because as long as your income is higher than your costs then you'll gradually pay the mortgage off (unless you're on an interest-only mortgage but that's another story...). But if you're personal finances are in deficit, meaning that you're actually spending more than you earn, then your debt will increase; you'll owe more than what you initially borrowed to buy the house.

Here's the bit that people in the survey evidently didn't grasp. Reducing the deficit just means that your debt won't be increasing at such a fast pace. And if you manage to get your deficit down to zero (so your income and outgoings are the same), you'll still be in debt but your debt will stay the same. It won't go away though.

Returning to the UK's national finances just to finish, if we do indeed reduce the deficit to zero in five years' time that means our debt will still be increasing over the next five years. It just won't be increasing so rapidly. And in five years' time, if the deficit is then zero, our debt will stay steady (but we'll still be coughing up the interest payments on one and a half trillion pounds or so of debt). Simple as that, right?

Friday, 3 June 2011

New music from a favourite artist

Being a big fan of music, I always get excited when one of my favourite bands or singers releases a new album. Sometimes it's a bit of a let-down (like Maximo Park's 'Quicken the Heart' from two years ago) but when the expectation is fulfilled, it's a beautiful thing. I remember hearing 'Don't Lose Yourself' by Laura Veirs for the first time, on the radio, just before her last-but-one album was released. Loved it instantly.

Well, this time I'm impatiently waiting for Patrick Wolf's new album. Mr Wolf is a funny one; he left home aged 16 or something, wears all sorts of crazy clothes and is just outrageously talented. He plays roughly 800 different instruments at last count. This album will be his fifth and, judging from the couple of songs I've heard, it's quite a big change of sound from his previous one. Mind you, that's pretty much par for the course with Patrick Wolf! His first album was very electronic, sample-driven; the second one (my favourite) full of acoustic folk, then on the third he went all shiny pop and his fourth album marked a shift back to the electronic, quite hard-edged and almost industrial in places sound of album number one. Here's a song from each one of his four albums, starting with Lycanthropy from 2003:









Patrick Wolf's not that well known so I won't be surprised if you haven't heard of him. I first became aware of him through reading an article on Drowned in Sound, a music review and discussion website. I've found out about quite a few artists through reading about them on Drowned in Sound and then checking out a few of their songs on the internet. Mind you, it's been at least a year since I discovered a new band – recommendations in the comments, please!

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Feasting on the Word of God

At our housegroup meeting last night we tried something called 'lectio divina'. It's a way of reading the Bible that focuses on imagination and contemplation, rather than analysis. With lectio divina, you're not reading the Bible to understand what it means but rather inviting God to speak through the Bible, illuminating what he wants to teach you at this particular time. Here's what the Wikipedia entry says:
Lectio Divina has been likened to 'Feasting on the Word'. The four parts are first taking a bite (lectio), then chewing on it (meditatio). Next is the opportunity to savor the essence of it (oratio). Finally, the Word is digested and made a part of the body (contemplatio).

I particularly like this description of the meditatio phase:
Once we have found a word or a passage in the Scriptures that speaks to us in a personal way, we must take it in and 'ruminate' on it. The image of the ruminant animal quietly chewing its cud was used in antiquity as a symbol of the Christian pondering the Word of God. Christians have always seen a scriptural invitation to lectio divina in the example of the Virgin Mary 'pondering in her heart' what she saw and heard of Christ (Luke 2:19). For us today these images are a reminder that we must take in the word – that is, memorize it – and while gently repeating it to ourselves, allow it to interact with our thoughts, our hopes, our memories, our desires. This is the second step or stage in lectio divina – meditatio. Through meditatio we allow God's word to become His word for us, a word that touches us and affects us at our deepest levels.

I think we all found it a bit odd, this contemplative reading, but it was a refreshing and different way of reading than we are used to. I'll definitely be trying it again and hoping that, as it becomes more familiar, I'll find God speaking to me more and more. Hopefully I'll be able to get over the strangeness of reading the Bible without trying to analyse it and work out what it means!

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Death by Powerpoint

I've been away in Nottingham most of this week on a training course with work. It was interesting but most of the sessions were in the now-traditional style of a presentation with questions afterwards. I don't know about you but I can only take so much of this before I switch off, which is a shame as most of the presenters were giving us lots of useful information. If only they could vary the way they delivered their material; with more interaction, maybe a bit of learning by doing, and a short break or two. It's all about the learning styles.

Every time I have an experience like this it reminds me that most people find it really hard to deliver training and presentations in a truly engaging way. I guess I need reminding as it's one of the things I'm pretty good at. *Thinks how I might make a career out of this talent*

Mind you, there was one shining exception; we had a guy from the Charity Commission talking about how village hall trusts can change their governing documents (cue deafening yawns from my readers!) and he was great. It helped that he had a nice line in dry humour but he also got us to talk in little groups for a few minutes, so we weren't just listening to him for half an hour. The frustrating thing is that I bet all the other presenters we had would love to know how they could make their sessions more interesting, and I think it would just need a bit of training. It ain't rocket science...

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

I am the Lord of the dance, said he

I wasn't brought up as a Christian so I missed out on lots of lovely Sunday School songs. We sang a few at my primary school, though, and I quite liked some of them. Had no idea what most of the lyrics were about, mind you. 'Open the door and let the fruit grow' – what on earth does that mean?

Anyway, I was recently reminded of one of those songs we sang at school that I really did like, even though I don't think I got what it was all about. I looked up the lyrics earlier and, just wow. They've hit me harder (in a good way!) than I've felt in quite a while. Check it out:
I danced in the morning when the world was begun
I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun
I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth
At Bethlehem I had my birth

Dance then, wherever you may be
I am the Lord of the dance, said he
And I'll lead you all wherever you may be
And I'll lead you all in the dance, said he


I danced for the scribe and the Pharisee
They would not dance, they wouldn't follow me
So I danced for the fishermen, James and John
They came with me and the dance went on

I danced on the Sabbath and I cured the lame
The holy people said it was a shame
They whipped and they stripped and they hung me high
Left me there on a cross to die

I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black
It's hard to dance with the devil on your back
They buried my body, they thought I'd gone
But I am the dance, and I still go on

They cut me down, but I leapt up high
I am the life that'll never never die
And I'll live in you if you'll live in me
I am the Lord of the dance, said he
I am loving the metaphor of life with Jesus being a dance. It works on so many levels; individual, family, community, right up to the cosmic. In fact, next time someone asks me, 'So, what's this Christianity lark all about?', I might just give them the words to Lord of the Dance.