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)