Wednesday, 15 August 2012

It's (almost) like watching Brazil

Roy Hodgson (picture from The Sun website)
As I start typing this, we're into the 40th minute of England's football friendly with Italy. Roy Hodgson's first game as manager without any major pressure, where he can experiment and begin the process of building up to the next international competition. So far, I must say I've been very impressed. The players aren't afraid being in possession, there's a lot of movement off the ball, and some pretty nifty play at times. Adam Johnson on the right has particularly caught my eye with a couple of lovely moves, but the whole team is looking confident and ambitious.

Matches like this can be so useful for a new(ish) manager, being a great opportunity for him to take a look at fringe players and try new tactics and formations. Hodgson's taken this opportunity fully, I think; starting Cleverley, Johnson, Walker and Carrick and giving the 4-2-3-1 formation a go. Remember when Italy passed us to death in the Euros? Their star midfielder Pirlo had more passes than our entire midfield in total. Yes, I know they only won on penalties but we were so lucky to last that long, don't you think? Whereas in this game (no Pirlo, I realise!) we are competing in midfield and getting into some good positions. I'm optimistic.

My only negative is the big lad up front. Andy Carroll totally does not fit in this sort of system and I can well understand why Liverpool are trying to get rid of him, seeing as their new manager, Brendan Rogers, is also a fan of this tiki-taka quick passing stuff. On that note, I'm really excited to see how Liverpool do this season!

The second half is just about to start so let's see if England can keep up the good work. I expect there'll be a few substitutions so the rest of the game might well not be as fluent, but never mind. I've seen enough to give me hope that England could do all right under Hodgson's stewardship.

Monday, 13 August 2012


I was off work last week and had a marvellous few days of walking in the Peak District with my friend Gary. I don't do it often enough but I love getting out into the countryside, away from human-created noise, and tramping up a few hills. And as you'll see from these photographs, the Peak District has plenty of hills!

The thing I like most about walking, though, is that it really helps me reconnect with God. Partly that's about escaping from the city and experiencing a bit of nature, but for me it's mostly about spending several hours with a few close friends and having a good old natter. I especially love it when we talk about faith issues; anything from how much we're growing in godly character, to new songs we've recently learnt, to thorny doctrinal issues like what you have to do in order to be truly saved.

It seems the unhurried nature of a day out with a few people gives the perfect opportunity for wide-ranging and often deep discussion, leading to a real connection with my walking companions and with God. That's certainly been the case for me with this trip and I'm very thankful for the fresh sense of closeness with God. I've not felt this way much this year so it's a welcome relief.


Friday, 3 August 2012

Mind your language!

Words are important. It's so easy to give the wrong impression just by using a slightly ill-advised word or two. I read about a classic example of this yesterday, regarding the phrase 'kingdom of God;. Many Christians would say the key message of Jesus' teaching is 'the kingdom of God is near', the words Jesus used in Mark 1:15. Now I understand this to be good news; I have some idea of what the 'kingdom of God' means. But what about people without any background in Christianity? What might 'kingdom of God' mean to them.

Jesus used this phrase 2,000 years ago, in a time and place where the word 'kingdom' meant something. Indeed the phrase 'kingdom of God' (along with 'Jesus is Lord') was a politically-charged rebuff against the Roman empire and the emperor. But now, certainly in the western world, what meaning does the word carry? Isn't it something more like this:
A Monty Python knight in shining armour
If there is any electric charge to the language of kingdom today, it is the faint current of the quaint and the nostalgic, conjuring knights in shining armor, round tables and chivalry, damsels in distress, fire-breathing dragons, and Shakespearean thees and thous that doth go running hitherest and witherest. In Jesus' day, kingdom language was contemporary and relevant; today, it is outdated and distant.

This is from Brian McLaren's book, 'The Secret Message of Jesus', which I mentioned in my previous post about the fruit of the Spirit. McLaren is especially interesting in meanings and culturally relevant communication:
We must discover fresh ways of translating his [Jesus'] message into the thought forms and cultures of our contemporary world...
The network of God

So McLaren looks for phrases we might use instead of 'kingdom of God' that would get across the meaning that Jesus intended. How about 'dream of God'? You might then rephrase the 'Your kingdom come...' part of the Lord's Prayer as, 'May all your dreams for your creation come true'.

How does that feel to you? If you're new to Christianity or not a Christian at all, I'd love to know what 'dream of God' says to you in contrast to 'kingdom of God'. Does the latter leave you a bit cold, like McLaren suggests? Do please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

The dance of God
McLaren tries several other metaphors, including the 'revolution of God', 'network of God', and 'dance of God'. All of these emphasise different elements of what Jesus taught the rule and will of God was all about, but none quite seems to capture the whole, complete meaning. I suppose, then, we shouldn't be afraid of using several different metaphors, should we?

In any case, I think McLaren is raising a tremendously important point about the language we use when we're talking about our faith in Jesus. If we're not careful, we can send a message completely at odds with what we're intending to communicate; and that message might be a real turn-off to many people.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Like an apple tree

Apple tree image from

The talk at our church meeting yesterday was about being filled with the Holy Spirit, covering both the Toronto Blessing charismatic experiences (things like shaking and falling over – read the article I've just linked to if this all means nothing to you!) and the fruit of the Spirit that Paul spoke about in Galatians 5. It's the latter that I want to focus on in this post.

The guy doing the talk drew the standard but, I think, helpful parallel with trees that produce fruit, like apple trees and plum trees. They don't strain to produce apples, plums or whatever; they simply do it. But, here's the kicker for me; the conditions have to be right. A tree must have fertile soil, enough sun, shelter from the wind, and the right amount of rain, or else it won't produce much fruit.

So what about us? In this analogy, what conditions do we need in order to produce the fruit of the Spirit; what does it mean for us to have the right soil, plenty of sun, enough rain and so on? I think the analogy breaks down a bit here. One could take the analogy and say there's nothing we can do to produce the Spirit's fruit, like patience, goodness, love, and peace. That's not right though, is it? God doesn't just zap us and make us patient, good, loving, peaceful etc.

Coincidentally (or not...) I'm reading a book which touches on this issue a bit. It's one by Brian McLaren, whom I've raved about before, called 'The Secret Message of Jesus'. McLaren is working through Matthew 5-6, part of the so-called Sermon on the Mount, and he's looking at the three passages where Jesus talks about three spiritual practices or disciplines; firstly giving to those in need, then praying and finally fasting. With each of these practices, Jesus corrects the religious leaders and their way of performing (word choice deliberate!) the practice, replacing it with the correct, healthy usage.

The point is two-fold; we need to practice and 'train for godliness' in order to become mature Jesus-followers, but we also need to do the exercises in the right way. So, just looking at what Jesus says about giving, we mustn't do it in order to be seen. It won't have any effect with God and we'll just end up craving the attention and praise of people. On the contrary, we should avoid drawing attention to ourselves. For the person who manages to do this, 'Your Father, who sees everything, will reward you'. I've always understood this to mean some kind of next-life benefit, but maybe it means God will transform us more into his likeness, enabling us to do good works that we previously were incapable of. That's certainly what Brian McLaren thinks (I've added the italics):
Unwise or habitual practice can make the practitioner miserably habituated in unrewarding routines. In contrast, wise practice rewards the practitioner by making possible what was previously impossible.

So it seems I'm saying I don't think all that much of the fruit tree analogy, after all. We don't just stand there and produce the fruit of the Spirit; there is work to be done in order to bring ourselves under God's transforming power. But we've got to be careful about the work as bad practices will cause great harm. As McLaren puts it, ' 'Practice makes perfect' isn't quite accurate. Practice makes habitual'.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Thoughts on Colossians 4

Rather later than I originally intended, here are some reflections on chapter 4 of Paul's Letter to the Colossians. I went through chapters 1-3 a couple of months ago, not at a deep theological level but just reading and seeing what struck me. Click through to have a look at these posts if you like, and then we shall move on to chapter 4.

The final chapter of Colossians starts with another of those 'Lord, fix us!' prayers that I mentioned back in chapter 1. When I pray and, to be honest, when I hear others praying, it's often along the lines of asking God to change situations so they are more in line with our wishes. Yet in the New Testament, there are (it seems to me) far more prayers and requests for prayers focused on us being more faithful. So Paul says in Col 4:3-4:
Pray for us, too, that God will give us many opportunities to speak about his mysterious plan concerning Christ. That is why I am here in chains. Pray that I will proclaim this message as clearly as I should.

Not a peep from Paul, at least not in this passage, about how he'd really rather not be in prison! Instead his request is focused on being more useful for God, a theme which he develops in the next couple of verses:
Live wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone.

'Attractive' is how the New Living Translation interprets the Greek phrase 'seasoned with salt', drawing on salt's properties as a flavour enhancer. Is our conversation always 'seasoned with salt'?

The rest of the chapter is quite personal, with Paul passing on greetings from various people and asking the Colossians to welcome some of his companions who are on the way to Colosse. There's another marvellous prayer that I want to pick out, in verse 12:
Epaphras, a member of your own fellowship and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends you his greetings. He always prays earnestly for you, asking God to make you strong and perfect, fully confident that you are following the whole will of God.

What a prayer! Dear reader, may you be strong and perfect, fully confident that you are following God's will, and please pray the same for me as you read this.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Thoughts on Colossians 3

Photo credit
I've been reading the Letter to the Colossians and sharing a few thoughts here. You can catch up on chapter 1 and chapter 2, then it is time to look at chapter 3.

Paul has been addressing a line of teaching that was taking root in the Colossian church, which as we saw last time was probably a form of Jewish-influenced mysticism. In order to tackle this teaching, Paul reminded the Colossians of how glorious is this Christ whom we worship. They do not need to seek out mystical experiences because 'Christ lives in you' and 'you also are complete through your union with Christ'.

In chapter 3, the focus moves on to practical elements of behaviour for Christians. As verse 8 says, 'Now is the time to get rid of anger, rage, malicious behaviour, slander, and dirty language'. This is what should characterise our lives instead (v12-15 – my emphasis):
Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful.

I particularly love verse 17 in this chapter, as it brings home the point that our whole life should be glorifying to God. I've read that the various religious systems in the 1st century Roman empire were heavily ritual-based, with people performing their acts of worship at the temples and then getting on with the rest of their business. In contrast, Christianity is a whole-of-life thing; there is nothing God is unaware of or not interested in:
Whatever you do or say, do it as representatives of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father.

Now, I think it's easy to view this as a negative thing, a very demanding standard. How can we 'let our hair down' if God is always watching us and expecting us to behave ourselves, so to speak?

This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the whole issue, in my view. God isn't interested in external conformity, he wants internal transformation. 'Let God transform you by changing the way you think'. 'Faith by itself isn't enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.' 'A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart.'

So then, the goal is character change, in order that we will naturally do what is pleasing to God. When we are working, we will work hard for God's glory. When we are letting our hair down, we will party in a God-honouring way. Watching our behaviour isn't really the point, although of course we do all have to be aware of our actions and thoughts as we aren't yet fully transformed and sanctified!

The last part of Colossians 3 has specific instructions for certain groups of people; wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters. That final pair has caused controversy over the years. Is Paul endorsing slavery? At the least, he's not condemning it, which does strike me as odd. Indeed, Christians used to take this passage (and others) as God's approval of slave ownership.

This is a difficult one, that strikes at the heart of how we read the Bible. Some people feel it entirely sensible to take phrases and passages out of their setting in order to prove certain points. I think that approach can lead to all sorts of trouble and just ignores the fact that each book in the Bible was written in a particular context. And in reality nobody takes the Bible to be entirely accurate (dare I say that!?); one obvious example is Genesis 1, in which the moon is described as a light – 'the smaller one to govern the night'. We know the moon is not a light; does that mean the Bible is in error and our faith is for nothing?

It's more sensible, I think to read the Bible as a divinely-inspired library of books that shows God's story and interaction with the world through the course of history. The Bible gives us the best possible picture of what God and his people are like, an idea which I tried to unpack a little bit in another couple of blog posts, here and then here.

Finally, on the slavery point, let's remember Paul's little letter to a man called Philemon, in which he advocated for the freedom of a certain Onesimus, who had run away from his position as Philemon's slave. Here's how Paul appeals to Philemon:
So if you consider me your partner, welcome Onesimus as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to me.

Colossians 4 will follow in a few days' time, but for now I'll leave you with this, while trying myself to live with it in mind:
Put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you... Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him... Above all, clothe yourselves in love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Thoughts on Colossians 2

A week or so ago I started a series of posts looking at the book of Colossians. You can read my thoughts on Colossians chapter 1 here and when you've done that, let's turn to chapter 2.

The first part of chapter 2 carries on from the previous chapter, with Paul writing about his hopes for the Christians in Colosse and Laodicea. These hopes centre on Jesus Christ; referring to 'many other believers who have not met me personally', Paul says this:
I want them to be encouraged and knit together by strong ties of love. I want them to have complete confidence that they understand God's mysterious plan, which is Christ himself. In him lie hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
It seems Paul hadn't been to Colosse himself; the church there sprung from the work of a man called Epaphras. Paul had heard from Epaphras about how the Colossian Christians were doing, and much of the report was very positive. From chapter 1:8 and 2:5:
[Epaphras] has told us about the love for others that the Holy Spirit has given you.
...I rejoice that you are living as you should and that your faith in Christ is strong.
As an aside, Paul's writings are often used as evidence of the 'justification by faith' idea, which states we can't do anything to make ourselves right with God. Yet Paul clearly does think our actions are important; faith in Christ is not merely about believing (in a 'sign this statement of faith' kind of way) certain things.

So the Christians in Colosse were doing well in many ways. But one aspect of Epaphras' report did bother Paul. From chapter 2, verse 8:
Don't let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that comes from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ.
The Colossians were being led astray, away from the belief that they were 'complete through [their] union with Christ' and into the practice of certain strict disciplines. The current scholarly view seems to be that this was a form of Judaism that stressed self-denial (such as going without food and drink for long periods) and mysticism. The community at Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, is thought to have followed at least some of these practices. Paul outlines the problem in verse 18 (from the New International Version):
Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind.
According to a commentary I read, Paul uses the catchphrases of these Jewish teachers in his argument against them:
Humility here means 'self-denial' and describes fasting and other bodily disciplines which were self-denying practices in Jewish, mystical piety that were supposed to open the way for receiving visions of heavenly mysteries.
The worship of angels refers not to worship directed to angels but 'the worship [of God] which angels perform'.
Goes into great detail about what he has seen (literally 'things which he beholds upon entering') is the third slogan from the 'philosophy'. The false teachers apparently claimed to have joined in this angelic worship of God as they entered into the heavenly realm and prepared to receive visions of divine mysteries. They were therefore asserting their spiritual superiority on the grounds of these heightened experiences.
Well, that's all fine and interesting but what can we take from this chapter with regard to our own lives in our world today? I'll pick out two things.

The first practical point is about spiritual experiences. We should not seek them out and neither should we thing ourselves superior, more holy, if we do have such experiences.

I don't think Paul is saying that spiritual experiences are bad in themselves; indeed many people think Paul is referring to himself in 2 Corinthians 12, where he describes someone who 'was caught up to paradise and heard things so astounding that they cannot be expressed in words, things no human is allowed to tell'. No, Paul's concern is that we keep things in the right order, not seeking mystical experiences but seeking God, the one who gives these experiences as he sees fit.

And that brings me on to the second practical point. It's all about Christ.

Christ is our focus, Christ the 'visible image of the invisible God', the one who 'existed before anything else' and who 'holds all creation together'.

It's worth noting Paul's approach to the problems in Colosse, He didn't launch straight in to a condemnation of the false teaching. Instead he sought to unveil the wonder of Christ, reminding the Colossians of whom they serve and their security in him. Paul's focus in chapter two is on the Christians being 'complete through [their] union with Christ' and 'raised to new life' but this all builds on his wonderful reminder in chapter one of who exactly this Christ is:
Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, for through him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth.
He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see – such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world. Everything was created through him and for him. He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together.
Christ is also the head of the church, which is his body. He is the beginning, supreme over all who rise from the dead. So he is first in everything.

For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and through him God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Thoughts on Colossians 1

I've not read or written much over the last few weeks so, in an effort to address both those points, here goes with a little series on the Letter to the Colossians. I won't go into a load of theological detail and I certainly don't intend to cover every verse. This will be more of a journey through the Letter, focusing on those points that particularly grab me. Let's start at verse 6. I've written myself about what I think the 'Good News of Jesus Christ' might be all about; Paul (he's generally thought to have written this letter) said about the Good News that it is:
...bearing fruit by changing lives, just as it changed your lives from the day you first heard and understood the truth about God's wonderful grace
The Good News is God's grace, his overwhelming goodness towards us, and it changes our lives. The next passage I want to look at is verses 9-12. When we pray, it often seems to be along the lines of 'Lord, please fix things for us'. But I don't see much praying like that in the New Testament. Instead, it's 'Lord, please fix us!' - like here in Colossians:
We ask God to give you complete knowledge of his will and to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding... We also pray that you will be strengthened with all his glorious power so you will have all the endurance and patience you need. May you be filled with joy, always thanking the Father.
There's another marvellous prayer in Ephesians 1:15-23, which covers the same ground and more:
I pray for you constantly, asking God, the glorious Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to give you spiritual wisdom and insight so that you might grow in your knowledge of God. I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope he has given to those he called – his holy people who are his rich and glorious inheritance. I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms.
Pray those things for me right now, would you please!? My last thought on this section is about the point of the Colossian prayer. ' We ask God to give you complete knowledge of his will...' but for what purpose? Well, let's see:
We ask God to give you complete knowledge of his will and to give you spiritual understanding. Then the way you live will always honor and please the Lord, and your lives will produce every kind of good fruit. All the while, you will grow as you learn to know God better and better.
That's the point – to live fruitful, God-pleasing lives and to grow in spirit!

On to verses 15-20 now. Some scholars think this passage was already in existence as a creedal statement that Paul is quoting. This would make it perhaps the earliest piece of writing we have regarding Christianity. It's also one of the key passages where the idea of Christ being somehow part of God (not just the mightiest of God's creations) comes from – it is said of Christ that he 'existed before anything was created', 'is supreme over all creation' and 'holds all creation together'.

There's also the simple point that this passage does rather read like a hymn. Christ is being praised in a way that Jews would reserve for God himself, seeing as they were very strongly into monotheism, which is the idea that there is one supreme being who alone should be worshipped. The hymn is arguably elevating Christ to the status of God; indeed, one modern author has said, 'a higher Christology does not exist in the New Testament'.

I'd like to pick out one more point in chapter 1 of Colossians. Sometimes we think and act as if everything depends on our own strength or skill. On other occasions we wait passively for God to sort things out. Paul chooses another option: 'I work and struggle so hard, depending on Christ's mighty power that works within me.' God doesn't want us just to let life happen around us, but neither should we think we can shape the world as we see fit, by sheer force of our will. It reminds me of Jesus' words in Matthew 11:28-30:
Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.
Jesus promises rest in the midst of work, not rest from work. Although Paul in Colossians 1:29 uses rather more forceful terms than Jesus ('struggle' doesn't sound much like a burden that is 'easy to bear'), I think they're talking about the same thing.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Ed Miliband, champion bandwagon-jumper

So Ed Miliband has been jumping on another passing bandwagon, with his proposal yesterday to introduce a £5,000 cap on donations to political parties. Before I get on to the details about this one, let's have a look at Mr Miliband's last bandwagon-jump, regarding pasties.

You might have heard in the Budget given on 27th March that hot pasties will now be liable for VAT in the same way as other take-away food. The Labour leadership saw this as an excellent opportunity to portray the Chancellor and Prime Minister as out of touch fops, culminating in the Eds Miliband and Balls popping in to a branch of Greggs to buy some sausage rolls (Guardian video here). I bet the two Eds wish they'd been concentrating a bit more on the Bradford West by-election which took place the following day, though. Labour got absolutely turned over by George Galloway, with a Labour majority of more than 5,000 becoming a majority for Galloway of a bit over 10,000 (a swing of, wait for it, 37%). Guardian report here.

Watch your step then, Mr Miliband, with your leap on to the party funding bandwagon that is now rolling, courtesy of a secret recording that showed a Conservative party fundraiser offering private dinners with David Cameron and George Osborne in return for huge donations.

Miliband's proposal is that there will be a cap of £5,000 on donations to political parties. Now this will hurt both parties, but the Conservatives much more so, as a lot of Labour's funding comes from the individual political subscription fees that many union members pay to Labour. As I understand it, at the moment union members have to specifically request and then complete an opt-out form in order to avoid paying the political subscription, but wouldn't it be much fairer if you had to indicate positively that you wanted to contribute to Labour? Taking it further, why shouldn't trades unions administer donations to all political parties; why should I only be able to donate to Labour through union membership?

Don't get me wrong, I think there are problems with the way political parties are funded. I'm uncomfortable with wealthy individuals exerting significant influence over the Conservatives (and other parties) thanks to their donations that amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds. But I'm just as uncomfortable with the union grip on Labour, and I think Miliband is being hideously opportunistic with his cap proposal. It's got to be allied to reform of union donations, in my view.

I'll finish with the unsurprising news that the Unite union, one of Labour's main funders is very happy with Miliband's proposals, that will enable them to broadly carry on supporting Labour in the current way (link):
Unite supports Ed Miliband's efforts to restore faith in politics, and is pleased that the vital link between Labour and millions of working people is valued and will be retained.

Picture from the Daily Mirror

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

I came here for a good argument!

I'm right, this is how it is, why don't you get it?

A sentiment that I've expressed on plenty of occasions, unfortunately. Most of the time I'm a pretty easy-going guy but when the conversation moves on to something I feel strongly about, I can get very aggressive and unpleasant. Maybe I need to take on board something that Brian McLaren wrote on his blog yesterday (the post in full is here):
I've found (both in marriage and during my years as a pastor) that if you seek agreement, you often don't get understanding. If you seek understanding, agreement often works itself out.

McLaren wrote these words in response to a guy asking him how he can talk through a difficult issue with his wife. It's not about seeking agreement; understanding is what we should be aiming to achieve.

How difficult this is, though! How natural to try and convince others that I am right and they are wrong! And how strongly my proud nature protests against McLaren's suggestions – 'Don't defend yourself at all... Just listen deeply... and don't move forward until she's satisfied that you fully understand'.

But it's so obvious and simple, isn't it? When I'm talking with someone I want them to understand my point of view, I don't just want them to try and convince me of theirs. So, clearly I should treat people like this myself; as Jesus said:
Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”

Lord, have mercy and give me grace...

And not, 'Oh look, this is futile'!

Sunday, 8 April 2012

God and the future – so what?

I've been writing about the Bible's teaching on whether God knows all of the future. Firstly, I noted that several passages in the Bible seem to indicate God experiences time like we do, expressing sorrow at His actions, being surprised by what others have done, and changing His mind at times.

Then on Friday I tried to explain how we might harmonise those passages with the seemingly contradictory theme within the Bible of God determining or at least foreknowing the future. This was my conclusion:
It seems clear to me then that the Bible teaches two things about God's knowledge of the future. Some of the future is indeed known in advance by God and even set in advance by him. But not all of it. There are many passages in the Bible that speak of God experiencing time just like we do, having hopes for the future, reacting to events, being disappointed when things don't go according to his wishes. God does know the future but only to the extent that he has settled it.

But so what; what difference does it make whether or not God has complete, perfect knowledge of all that will ever happen? Or is it just, as I wrote a couple of days ago, high-falutin speculation? Well, in a way, yes it is; certainly when compared with the heart of the Christian faith. It's Easter Sunday today so I'm all the more aware of how everything pales into insignificance alongside the victory over evil that Jesus won through his death and resurrection.

And yet... Greg Boyd (his book 'God of the Possible' is what's got me thinking about all this) picks out seven ways in which he thinks the open view of God and the future might have a real and positive impact on us. I'll focus on just a couple.

Let's start with our view of the Bible. Many doctrines of Christianity have arisen in order to make sense of apparent contradictions in the Bible. For example, we have the doctrine of God's incarnation as the 1st century Jewish man, Jesus of Nazareth. This doctrine seeks to make sense of the Bible seeming to say that Jesus is both fully human and fully God.

In the same way, the open view of God and the future seeks to make sense of two apparently contradictory threads in the Bible; God has foreknowledge of the future but also experiences events as we do, reacting and making plans in response to them. The open view, says Greg Boyd, 'provides us with a framework in which the Word in its entirety begins to make sense on this issue'. And as we gain a more coherent view of what the Bible teaches, so increases 'our ability to understand God more clearly, relate to him more sincerely, and be transformed by him more profoundly'.

The next practical issue is about prayer. If we believe God sees all of time as settled then what does it mean for us to pray? What difference can our prayers possibly make if we don't really believe that God can change his mind? Christians sometimes talk as if God controls everything, as if prayer is only about conforming our own will to God's will. But, according to Boyd, this 'simply doesn't reflect the purpose or the urgency that Scripture gives to petitionary prayer'. Boyd goes on to say this:
Because God wants us to be empowered, because he desires us to communicate with him, and because he wants us to learn dependency on him, he graciously grants us the ability to significantly affect him. This is the power of petitionary prayer. God displays his beautiful sovereignty by deciding not to always unilaterally decide matters. He enlists our input, not because he needs it, but because he desires to have an authentic, dynamic relationship with us as real, empowered persons. Like a loving parent or spouse, he wants not only to influence us but to be influenced by us.

The Bible consistently speaks of prayer as something that can change God's mind (e.g. see Luke 18:1-8 and 2 Chronicles 7:14), so wouldn't it be great if our theology reflected this?

I could go on. Greg Boyd's book mentions seven practical benefits of this open view of God and the future. Drop me a line if you're local to me and would like to borrow the book; I'd love to know what you think about it all. And if you're still finding it hard to swallow this idea that God doesn't know all that will ever happen, I'll leave you with this from page 86 of God of the Possible:
Classical theology cannot accept this conclusion because of philosophical preconceptions of what God must be like: He must be in every respect unchanging, so his knowledge of the future must be unchanging...

Because of this philosophical presupposition, God is not allowed to say what he wants to say in Scripture. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that God wanted to tell us he really does change his mind. How could he do so in terms clearer than he did in passages such as Jeremiah 18:8 and 10 in which he explicitly tells us, “I will change my mind”? Or suppose, for the sake of argument, that God wanted to tell us he really does regret certain decisions he's made and really does experience unexpected disappointment. How could he do so in terms clearer than he did in passages such as 1 Samuel 15:11 in which he explicitly tells us, “I regret that I made Saul king,” or Jeremiah 3:7 in which he tells us, “I thought... 'she will return to me'; but she did not return”? It's difficult to conceive of how God could be more explicit.

Photograph of Oxford University by ALAMY, taken from the Daily Telegraph

Friday, 6 April 2012

God does know the future

Earlier this week I asked the question, 'Does God know the future?' (Read the post here.) A book I've been reading has made me rethink the traditional view of God's omniscience that says he sees all of time as if it were the present.

The key problem with the traditional view is there are many Bible passages that talk about God being surprised, expressing sorrow, and changing his mind. How can those passages make sense if God does indeed have foreknowledge of everything that will happen? How can a being who has complete, perfect knowledge of the future be surprised?

However, and it's a big 'however', the idea of God having full knowledge of the future appears to have a solid Biblical basis. I mentioned a few passages in my previous post:
You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed. (Psalm 139:16)
Remember the things I have done in the past. For I alone am God! I am God, and there is none like me. Only I can tell you the future before it even happens. Everything I plan will come to pass, for I do whatever I wish. (Isaiah 46:9-10)
This is what the Lord says: “You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again. 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.” (Jeremiah 29:10-11)

Let's see what one advocate of the so-called 'open view' of God and the future has to say about these three passages. That book I've been reading is 'God of the Possible' by Greg Boyd and what follows is all based on arguments from it.

I'll leave until last the first of the three Bible passages above, as the argument from Boyd's book is quite technical and lengthy. The second passage (Isaiah 46:9-10) seems fairly clear, though. God says, 'Only I can tell you the future before it even happens' and 'Everything I plan will come to pass, for I do whatever I wish'. But this doesn't say God can tell all the future, just some of it. And how much of the future God can tell is entirely up to him, for 'everything he plans will come to pass'. I don't see any indication from this passage that God knows the whole of the future.

Next, we have the famous verse from Jeremiah 29:
“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.”

Just before this verse, we see God stating the Israelites will be in captivity for seventy years. If we're going to take this at all literally then it's clear God has the power to set or at least predict the future. But again there's no sense (is there?) from this passage that God sets or even simply foreknows all the future. Just certain aspects.

As for the 'I know the plans I have for you' promise, is it heretical to suggest that God's plans don't always come to fruition? I feel quite strongly about this point because believing that God's plans do always become reality leads, in my view, to some dangerous places. People are robbed of their free will, for a start, and it makes me wonder what Jesus was thinking when he told us to pray 'May your will be done'.

On to Psalm 139 then. Greg Boyd gives two pages (from p40) of his book 'God of the Possible' to verse 16 from this Psalm:
You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.

I'm going to focus on two aspects of Boyd's argument concerning this passage, starting with some points about the original language it was written in. Boyd says that the Hebrew word translated 'laid out' or 'formed' can carry the sense of being determined in advance or merely being planned. I guess which sense we prefer will be conditioned by what we feel the rest of scripture teaches...

There's more, though. According to Boyd, the Hebrew is not clear as to what the subject is in the sentence. What is 'recorded in God's book' and 'laid out before a single day had passed'? Apparently it could be the psalmist's physical form or the days of his life; either would be an accurate translation. Boyd prefers the former option, that it's the psalmist's body which was recorded in God's book:
[This view] has the advantage of being consistent with the rest of this psalm and especially with the immediate context of this verse. Psalm 139 is about God's moment-by-moment, intimate involvement in our lives. The verses immediately preceding verse 16 describe the formation of the psalmist's body in the womb. Indeed, the first stanza of verse 16, “Your eyes beheld my unformed substance,” also concerns the intimate awareness the Lord has of the psalmist even before he's formed. An interpretation of this verse that continues this theme seems most appropriate, whereas one that inserts an unrelated reference to the psalmist's future seems out of place.

The second point I want to pick out is this. Even if Psalm 139:16 is about the psalmist's life (not his physical body), must we accept that the length of his life couldn't be altered, having been 'recorded in God's book'? If you're baulking at the idea of God's intentions changing, have a quick read of these passages:

Exodus 32:33
Revelation 3:5
Isaiah 38:1-5
Jeremiah 18:6-10

According to Boyd, 'The notion that what God ordains is necessarily unalterable is foreign to the Hebrew mind'. To envisage God as being completely unchanging in every respect is to follow Greek and Roman thought, not Hebrew thought. Those of us who consider the Bible to be 'inspired by God' and 'useful to teach us what is true' (2 Timothy 3:16) mustn't import other philosophies and world-views into the Bible. It's the other way round; we must let the Bible shape and inform our world-view.

It seems clear to me then that the Bible teaches two things about God's knowledge of the future. Some of the future is indeed known in advance by God and even set in advance by him. But not all of it. There are many passages in the Bible that speak of God experiencing time just like we do, having hopes for the future, reacting to events, being disappointed when things don't go according to his wishes. God does know the future but only to the extent that he has settled it.

So what, though? I do want to explain why I think all this high-falutin' speculation is important but I'll save that for later as this post is plenty long enough already. Watch this space...

Monday, 2 April 2012

Does God know the future?

Mainstream Christian doctrine says that God is omniscient. Or in less fancy words, He knows everything. I'm beginning to have some doubts about this though. Let me explain.

Part of the idea about God's omniscience is that He knows the future; for example where you'll be living in ten years' time, who'll win Wimbledon this summer, what word I'll type next. There's plenty of material in the Bible that, on first reading, points to this view. Jesus predicts the future several times, for a start, and in the Old Testament God is recorded as saying things like this:
You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed. (Psalm 139:16)
Remember the things I have done in the past. For I alone am God! I am God, and there is none like me. Only I can tell you the future before it even happens. Everything I plan will come to pass, for I do whatever I wish. (Isaiah 46:9-10)
This is what the Lord says: “You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again. 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. (Jeremiah 29:10-11)

Don't all these passages tell of a God who sees everything still to happen in the same way as we experience the present? As if the whole of time is stretched out before God like a sheet, so to Him all is in the present tense.

Well... I don't think it's this simple any more. What do you make of these passages which talk about God regretting His own actions, being surprised by the actions of others, and apparently changing His mind?
Then the Lord said to Samuel, “I am sorry that I ever made Saul king, for he has not been loyal to me and has refused to obey my command.” (1 Samuel 15:10-11)
Now, you people of Jerusalem and Judah, you judge between me and my vineyard. What more could I have done for my vineyard that I have not already done? When I expected sweet grapes, why did my vineyard give me bitter grapes? (Isaiah 5:3-4)
Set your affairs in order, for you are going to die. You will not recover from this illness... I have heard your prayer and seen your tears. I will heal you, and three days from now you will get out of bed and go to the Temple of the Lord. I will add fifteen years to your life. (2 Kings 20:1-6)
He went on a little farther and bowed with his face to the ground, praying, “My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” (Matthew 26:39)

What should we do with all these passages that speak of a God who is within time, much as we are? God is sorry that he made Saul king, He's surprised at His people's disobedience, He changes His mind about when king Hezekiah will die. And finally we have Jesus, in the agonies of knowing what is surely to come, pleading with the Father for another option. How does this make sense if the future is fully settled and foreknown by God?

Two points in closing, and first a request.

Please post a comment if you can think of other Bible passages that seem to indicate God knows all that will happen in the future.

I'll see if there might be another explanation that harmonises with God being surprised, changing His mind, being disappointed and so on, and I'll look again at those passages I quoted at the start of this post.

So that's point one – I'll put a follow-up post up in a few days' time that will, I hope, make the case that perhaps God doesn't know the future in full.

Secondly, this train of thought has all come from reading a book called 'God of the Possible' by an American Baptist pastor called Greg Boyd. (The link is to the church where Boyd is the senior pastor; his personal website is being updated at the moment.) He puts what I think is a compelling case, going through several arguments for the traditional God-outside-of-time view and putting forward his own interpretation for many of the Bible passages that people use to justify that traditional view. Let me know if you're interested in borrowing the book as I'd be glad to lend it to you if you're local to me.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Think before you speak

Do you ever wonder what Jesus would have been like if he got really drunk? No? Just me then... I thought about this again the other day while reading James chapter 3, about controlling your tongue. Here's the passage:
People can tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish, but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! 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.

It's not right that both good and bad talk comes out of our mouth. Our talk should always be pure, wholesome and positive. Clearly it's not, though; we all say things that are harmful, hurtful, even deceitful. So we need to control our tongue, we need to think before we speak. But that's not the ultimate goal, is it?

What we should be aiming and praying for is to become people who cannot help but say positive and helpful things, all the time. You can't draw fresh water from a salty spring, says James, so we should be pleading with God and working hard ourselves at becoming freshwater springs, so to speak. Like Paul says in Romans 12:
And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice – the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.
Which brings me back to my question about drunk Jesus – if he was perfect and always did the will of his Father, then I reckon he'd probably be alright if he drank a bit too much one evening hanging out with his disciples. Not that I'm proposing we get drunk as some kind of test of how close to perfection we are! Although how we behave when we've had a few certainly does reveal our weak points...

Friday, 23 March 2012

Make disciples or build the church?

Christians often talk about getting their friends and family along to church meetings, almost as if that's the goal of our prayers and efforts to share our faith with them. I want to unpick the thinking behind this a little bit. What does it say about our view of how God deals with us and what being a Christian is all about?

Well, first of all it seems to me that we're implying God only (or mainly) works in our church services. If we place particular importance on our non-Christian friends coming to church on a Sunday, doesn't that mean we think there's something special about that Sunday meeting?

Stating it the other way, doesn't it imply that we think God is not really at work in our day-to-day lives, as we work, play and socialise? Surely he is! If we're a follower of Jesus then he's with us all the time and he wants to work through us all the time, right? So we should pray for and expect opportunities to show Godly love to our friends and neighbours, to talk with them about our faith, and to pray with them. We can share the good news of Jesus with them in the midst of daily life; it doesn't have to be the pastor, the evangelist or the music leader on a Sunday who does this.

I've been reading and loving the blog of a guy called Mike Breen, who used to lead a big church in Sheffield and is now involved in an organisation that, in their own words, aims to 'take 30 years of learning from a very post-Christian England context, as well as penetrating Biblical insights, and come alongside churches and organizations who are finding the North American mission field more post-Christian with each passing day'.

Breen tells the story of the Sheffield church, St Thomas', in this blog post. Check out this excerpt which explains how they focus on helping people become disciples, followers of Jesus Christ, instead of focusing on making the Sunday service as attractive as possible to non-Christians:
St Thomas Sheffield isn’t a massive church and the center of a movement because it’s got the best worship service. Or the best digital experience. Or the best preachers/teachers in the world. It’s because everything they do is about making disciples. They honestly believe if you make disciples and release them to lead, release them into their destiny, release them to be Agents of the Kingdom, everything will change.

If we are great at making the disciples, church growth will never be a problem because to be a disciple means you’re a missionary. It was never OK for us to be a large church and have very few missionary disciples. So we built something where that couldn’t happen. Making disciples was in the DNA from the very beginning and it has just carried through.

It's all about helping people become genuine followers of Jesus, people who hear the word of God and do it. The best Sunday church experience in the world will achieve very little if we're not making disciples and empowering each other to do the works of God's kingdom.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Church services - why do we have them?

I thought I'd re-post this entry from around a year ago, about why Christians feel the need to have church services. What's the purpose of them, what are they supposed to achieve, and what sort of things should happen in them? Let me know what you think in the comments...

Genuine question here. Why do we have church meetings, the usually on a Sunday meet up to sing songs, listen to a talk and pray together thing? I've had this on my list of things to blog about for a while but I think now is the time, following on from an interesting chat I had recently with a guy on my theology course. We were talking about the tension between meeting together as a church to share our stories with one another and meeting to be spiritually recharged. I think it's like a bring and share picnic, which works much better if everyone brings something to share rather than a few people being expected to being all the food which they will then give out to everyone. Of course, there will be times where a particular person doesn't have much to bring, both with a picnic and with a church meeting. That's completely fine, but I don't believe it shouldn't be the typical way of things.

I've been thinking for a long time about how our rhythms of church can (unintentionally) encourage us to let our spiritual life drift between meetings. We look forward to the Sunday meeting in the hope of getting a spiritual uplift from the songs we sing together and from hearing great teaching from one of the church leaders. The same thing can happen with annual events like conferences; as the conference season approaches we get excited about what God is going to do there, perhaps forgetting that he can do just as much in our local settings.

It can easily add up to a Christian life that actually amounts to a few meetings per month and not much in between. Surely this is not how it should be, though? A question, then: is there anything about the way we do our Sunday meetings, conferences and so on that encourages this way of living? Someone famous (Albert Einstein, was it?) said that our current systems are perfectly suited to bring about the results that we are getting. Or maybe it was Einstein who said the same thing but the other way round: 'We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them' (I looked this up).

Maybe it's worth taking a step back and wondering why we have the Sunday church meetings. What's the point, what is supposed to happen at them? Firstly, I don't agree with the common view that we meet together to 'worship God'. Look at Romans 12:1-2; one of my favourite little passages in the whole Bible:
And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice – the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

Our whole life should be an act of worship. Paul took the Jewish Temple language of worship and sacrifice and applied it to everyday behaviour, meaning that Christians do not go to a church meeting to worship. Our church meeting should be an act of worship but no more and no less than anything else we do in the course of our day-to-day life.

Why, then, do we have church meetings if not to 'worship God'? I want to share a few thoughts from 1 Corinthians 14, a chapter that has plenty to say about church meetings. In verse 12, Paul notes that the Christians in Corinth are 'eager to have the special abilities the Spirit gives' and he urges them to ask God for those abilities (or spiritual gifts; the Greek word is charismata) that will 'strengthen the whole church'. Paul then talks about praying and singing in the Spirit, which many Christians take to mean using a language not of human origin (speaking in tongues), but goes on to say this:
I thank God that I speak in tongues more than any of you. But in a church meeting I would rather speak five understandable words to help others than ten thousand words in an unknown language.

So here is another clue as to what Paul expects to happen at church meetings. People should speak words that will help others. And this theme is carried on in verse 26:
Well, my brothers and sisters, let’s summarize. When you meet together, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you.

Everything that is done must strengthen all of you. Maybe there is our answer to the question, 'What are church meetings for?' They are for strengthening and helping the believers. Forgive me for tearing a verse out of its context, but Ephesians 4:11 is relevant to this issue, I think. Here, Paul mentions five kinds of people as 'gifts Christ gave to the church': the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers (the last two are sometimes linked together due to the way the original Greek was written). And the responsibility of these people is to 'equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church'. 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. What does 'God's work' mean, though? Maybe I'll come back to that another time!

Monday, 19 March 2012

Decisions, decisions

I'm about to enter a weekend chess tournament, the Bournemouth Chess Congress. Now, chess tournaments usually have at least three levels of entry, so you don't end up playing and (most likely) losing miserably to people who are far better at the game than you are. For tournaments in England it's all done based on your English Chess Federation grade. My grade is currently 118, which means for the Bournemouth Congress I can enter the lower level of the competition. But do I want to...?
In my last tournament I deliberately played in the middle section, hoping to pit my wits against really strong players and maybe learn a bit from them. They say that's how you improve at any game or sport; find the strongest opponents you can and try to learn from how they play (i.e. how they thrash you!) as long as your ego can withstand the inevitable battering. I did take a bit of punishment but I really felt that playing tough opponents sharpened my game up, and I'm tempted to do the same again in Bournemouth.

What's giving me pause for thought is that the lower level in the Bournemouth Congress is for people whose grade is below 125, meaning that I'd be one of the favourites. I've never won a chess tournament (although I've had a handful of second and third places) so I'm tempted to give this one a go and enter the lower tier of the competition. There's no way I'll finish anywhere near the top of the intermediate competition; an even score would be fantastic.

So do I man up and put in my entry form for the intermediate tournament or do I go for glory in the lower level? Place your bets now! Or give me advice in the comments, as you wish...

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Team roles in Watership Down

In the early 1980s, psychologist Meredith Belbin published an analysis of the various roles needed in a team for it to perform its task most effectively. Around a decade earlier, in 1972, Richard Adams wrote Watership Down, a tale about the adventures of a group of rabbits. So well-characterised are the rabbits in Watership Down that I've been able to match the main protagonists to the team roles that Belbin identified. I think it works quite well for most of them. (The descriptions of each team role are from this page on the Belbin Associates website.)

Plant – Blackberry

Creative, imaginative, free-thinking. Generates ideas and solves difficult problems.

'Hazel', he said quickly, 'that's a piece of flat wood – like that piece that closed the gap by the Green Loose above the warren – do you remember? It must have drifted down the river. So it floats. We could put Fiver and Pipkin on it and make it float again. It might go across the river.'

Resource investigator – Bigwig

Outgoing, enthusiastic, communicative. Explores opportunities and develops contacts.

Peering through the blades of grass round his head, he could see the curve of a white back. Whatever the creature was, it was nearly as big as himself. He waited, stock-still, for some little time, but it did not move... [T]he idea of going back to the Honeycomb and reporting that he had glimpsed an unknown creature in the grass and left it alone was more than he could swallow. He turned his head and looked at Silver. Seeing that he was game, he took a final look at the strange, white back and then went straight up to the edge of the hollow. Silver followed.

Co-ordinator – Hazel

Mature, confident, identifies talent. Clarifies goals. Delegates effectively.

Late in the afternoon Hazel called everyone into the Honeycomb. 'I've been thinking things over,' he said. 'I know you must all have been really disappointed not to have got rid of me at Nuthanger Farm the other day, so I've decided to go a bit further next time.' 'Where?' asked Bluebell. 'To Efrafra,' replied Hazel, 'if I can get anyone to come with me: and we shall bring back as many does as the warren needs.'

There were murmurs of astonishment, and then Speedwell asked, 'How?' 'Blackberry and I have got a plan,' said Hazel, 'but I'm not going to explain it now, for this reason. You all know that this is going to be a dangerous business. If any of you get caught and taken into Efrafra, they'll make you talk all right. But those who don't know a plan can't give it away. I'll explain it later on, at the proper time.'

Shaper – General Woundwort

Challenging, dynamic, thrives on pressure. Has the drive and courage to overcome obstacles.

Soon he had become Chief Rabbit, having killed both the previous Chief and a rival named Fiorin. In combat he was terrifying, fighting entirely to kill, indifferent to any wounds he received himself and closing with his adversaries until his weight overbore and exhausted them. Those who had no heart to oppose him were not long in feeling that here was a leader indeed.

Monitor-evaluator – Fiver

Sober, strategic and discerning. Sees all options and judges accurately.

When [Holly] had spoken of his deliverance by the great apparition in the night, Fiver had listened attentively and asked one question, 'Did it make a noise?' Later, when Holly had gone back, he told Hazel that he felt sure there was some natural explanation, though he had no idea what it could be... Someone called out, 'What does Fiver think?' 'I'm certainly going,' said Fiver quietly. 'Hazel's perfectly right and there's nothing the matter with his plan. But I promise you this, all of you. If I do come, later on, to feel any kind of misgiving, I shan't keep it to myself.' 'And if that happens, I shan't ignore it,' said Hazel.

Teamworker – Dandelion

Co-operative, perceptive and diplomatic. Listens and averts friction.

Since entering the wood they had been in severe anxiety... Pipkin sat trembling under a fern, his ears drooping on either side of his head. He held one paw forward in an awkward, unnatural way and kept licking it miserably... [Hazel said,] Come on, Dandelion, tell us a story. I know you're handy that way. Pipkin here can't wait to hear it.' Dandelion looked at Pipkin and realised what it was that Hazel was asking him to do. Choking back his own fear of the desolate, grassless woodland, the before-dawn-returning owls that they could hear some way off and the extraordinary, rank animal smell that seemed to come from somewhere rather nearer, he began.

Implementer – Holly

Practical, reliable, efficient. Turns ideas into actions and organises work that needs to be done.

He was, rather, a stander of no nonsense who knew when duty was done and did it himself. Sound, unassuming, conscientious, a bit lacking in the rabbit sense of mischief, he was something of the born second-in-command.

Completer-finisher – Silver

Painstaking, conscientious, anxious. Searches out errors. Polishes and perfects.

They found Bluebell by the hedge at the bottom of the field. He was white-eyed and ready to bolt. 'Silver,' he said, 'I saw a bunch of rabbits – strangers, Efrafans, I suppose – come out of the ditch over there and slip across into the water-meadow. They're behind us now. One of them was the biggest rabbit I've ever seen.' 'Then don't stay here,' said Silver. 'There goes Speedwell. And who's that? Acorn and two does with him. That's everyone. Come on, quick as you can.

Specialist – Blackavar

Single-minded, self-starting, dedicated. Provides knowledge and skills in rare supply.

In the days that followed – days of clear sky and fine weather – Blackavar proved his worth again and again, until Hazel came to rely on him as much as on any of his veterans... Now, free among these easy-going strangers, [Blackavar] saw himself as a trained Efrafan, using his skill to help them in their need. Although he did all that he was told, he did not hesitate to make suggestions as well, particularly when it came to reconnoitring and looking for signs of danger.

So there you go! Maybe the group of rabbits from Sandleford did so well because, among their number, they had all the different skills and characteristics needed to make a really strong, effective team. I just want to finish with Richard Adams' mythology of how rabbits came to be as they are; the blessing of Frith (Adams' god-figure) on El-ahrairah, the ancient rabbit hero.

El-ahrairah, your people cannot rule the world, for I will not have it so. All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you , they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Gay marriage – it's an outrage

For my second whinge of this weekend (it must be the stomach bug, making me bitter and angry), let's have a look at the heated issue of gay marriage. This article in the Daily Mail has the latest story and in case you're surprised that I'm reading the Mail, I thought their article would be most favourable to the view that I'm about to have a right pop at. Trying to be fair and all that...

The short version

What in all of God's creation makes us Christians think we have the right to impose our particular view of marriage onto society as a whole?

The long version

Okay then. We Christians don't own the concept of marriage. And across the spectrum of even just mainstream UK Christianity there is a range of beliefs regarding marriage. For example, I gather that the Catholic Church has severe restrictions on remarrying people who've been divorced. (I don't have a link with the details, having tried without success to find any guidance on the Catholic Church in England and Wales website).

So there's argument one against this idea of protecting marriage.

Next, even if all Christians across the world believed the same things about marriage, what right do we have to impose those beliefs on others who don't share our faith-based starting point? Most people in the world are not Christian. So we're asking for our opinion to hold sway... why? Because it's what God thinks? I don't like where that could lead, not at all.

Finally, perhaps we Christians would like to argue on some objective basis, for example that permitting gay marriage on exactly the same terms as straight marriage would damage the family or something like that. Okay, let's have that discussion. But some evidence is required, otherwise doesn't it just boil down to 'This is what God thinks' again? Let's see if we can find any such evidence in what the Catholic Cardinal Keith O'Brien (that's him over there →) has been saying that has stirred this all up (the full interview that O'Brien did with the Sunday Telegraph is here)
Those of us who were not in favour of civil partnership, believing that such relationships are harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of those involved... [my italics]
All children deserve to begin life with a mother and father; the evidence in favour of the stability and well-being which this provides is overwhelming and unequivocal. It cannot be provided by a same-sex couple, however well-intentioned they may be.
Well, here we have a couple of claims that can be investigated. Good. But is there actually evidence that, all else being equal (a key point), a gay partnership is more likely than a straight partnership to cause harm to the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of those involved? What about, again all else being equal, that it's better for a child to begin life with a mother and father, instead of two mothers or two fathers? O'Brien just seemed to beg the question in his interview, so please post in the comments if you know of any evidence for his claims.

One last thing the Cardinal said in his Sunday Telegraph interview:
Imagine for a moment that the Government had decided to legalise slavery but assured us that “no one will be forced to keep a slave”. Would such worthless assurances calm our fury? Would they justify dismantling a fundamental human right? Or would they simply amount to weasel words masking a great wrong?
How is there any equivalence in these two issues? I just don't understand the point being made here at all. Keeping slaves is illegal in the UK (and many other countries) because it robs the slave of their basic human freedom. What basic human freedom would be lost if same-sex couples were allowed to formalise their commitment to one another on exactly the same basis as opposite-sex couples? Oh that's it, the freedom to be outraged at people who want to live according to their own moral standard, not someone else's. (Hypocritical snark, given what I wrote yesterday about assuming good faith in those we disagree with...)

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Arguing honestly – a moan about Tim Farron, Lib Dem MP

Most of my blog posts are the product of at least a few days' thinking, but sometimes I hear or read something and just feel the need for a bit of a whinge. This is one of the latter occasions and is prompted by this piece from Tim Farron (that's him on the right) in today's Guardian newspaper. Farron, tipped by some as the next leader of the Lib Dems, is basically claiming that Labour and Conservative politicians don't have a conscience while Lib Dems do. Here's an excerpt from the start of Farron's article:
When I joined the Liberal party 26 years ago it was because, in my gut, the Liberals seemed the right people to me. Over the last quarter of a century, particularly in these last 22 months, I've been proved right.

When the Tories have had to "do difficult things" – when they closed the mines, the steelworks and the shipyards – do you think they felt bad about it? No. When Labour invaded Iraq, introduced tuition fees, clobbered the poor by scrapping the 10p tax rate or let the bankers off the leash, wrecking the economy – did they feel bad? I doubt it.

But here we are, the Lib Dems, in government taking difficult decisions to rescue our country from the abyss, and we spend our time feeling guilty and beating ourselves up. Do you know what that proves? It proves that we are human, it proves we are decent, that there is something in our DNA as a party that means Lib Dems acquire and retain a conscience.
Now, in my more tribal moments, I'm also tempted to believe that only the politicians from my camp make their decisions based on morality and good judgement. But that's nonsense, isn't it? It's the worst kind of 'my tribe, right or wrong' partisanship. And reading a senior politician making this argument in such a transparent and extreme way really gets my back up.

Drawing out the wider point, I think it's so important to assume good faith with those who disagree with us. If there's good reason not to believe someone is telling the truth, then fair enough, but how can it be right to dismiss the views of those who don't see things our way simply because they don't see things our way? It's certainly never going to bring people over to your point of view, I'd have thought: 'Oh, you've just demonised me just because I disagree with you. Now, let me give some serious thought to what you're saying...' Not going to happen, is it?