Illegal but beautiful

Graffiti illegal

graffiti gare du nordParis has lots of graffiti. My friend Dan thinks it is no more than London. He also quite likes it. Mostly, I hate it; especially coming in to arrive at Gare du Nord.

Annoying

To me, it is indicative of a rundown area. It makes the area look worse not better. Much of it is talentless and representative of rebellious people taking pleasure in annoying lots of other people. This is how I feel about it.graffiti owl

Occasionally I see graffiti that I find pleasing to look at. Often however, even this ‘good graffiti’ seems to be in an unsuitable location where it clashes with its context thereby rendering it still annoying. Extremely rarely, I see graffiti that looks great and suits its environment.

Subjective

All of this is my subjective view. Taste in art affords such opportunity for diversity I doubt that anybody agrees with me completely.

graffiti big headBut what do the graffiti artists think? I am certain that some of them have no interest in producing something aesthetically pleasing. People who aim to leave their tag in the most daring possible location are merely showing off. I have heard some of them say so in documentaries. Some are asserting their protest; rebelling against society, or the majority of society. Yet, others really seem passionate about producing something of great aesthetic worth; and, indeed, succeed.

graffiti mona lisa and manNaughty

According to Merriam-Webster graffiti is unauthorised writing or drawing on a public surface. The Collins definition suggests that graffiti is often obscene. This is not a positive view. Perhaps this is why young people tend to talk about ‘graff’ rather than graffiti to avoid these immediate negative connotations.

Democracy fails?

Dan talks as though the majority, who do not like graffiti, subjugate the minority who do. He has a point. It is more an evidence of the civilisation of a society how it treats its minorities than how much power is given to the majority. This notion raises a question mark over democracy, quite rightly.

Genocide

My colleague Steve, who sits next to me at work, used to live in Rwanda. That is the country where the majority ethnic group, the Hutus, murdered over eight hundred thousand of the minority ethnic group, the Tutsis, in 1994. This was roundly condemned worldwide as a genocide which left the United Nations’ Security Council looking horrifically inept. The current president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, was not democratically elected. Steve tells me that if there were democratic elections, the Hutu majority would elect a Hutu president who would sanction further Hutu genocide of the Tutsis. Democracy, it seems, is not always the answer.

Understanding but not liberty

Graffiti artists, like Tutsis, deserve as much understanding as any other minority. The question is, how much liberty do we allow them? We do not allow child abusers to continue to offend on the basis that they are a minority that deserves protection. Some minorities, like thieves and murderers, though we seek treatment and rehabilitation for them, we nonetheless subject them to our justice system and quite rightly prohibit them from pursuit of their particular idiosyncrasy.

graffiti banksy balloongirl2 So how should a society decide which minority deserves protection, which deserves impunity and which should be subject to justice? Extreme examples are simple. Ethnic minorities victimised by racists deserve protection while we lock up serial killers; but what about the more opaque examples? Should we really be imprisoning peace protesters who incorporate peaceful civil disobedience into their demonstrations? How much force is excessive when defending your own home against an intruder? What is the appropriate penalty for possession of cannabis? And returning to the main subject of this post, when is graffiti acceptable? Councils prosecute some graffiti artists whilst covering a Banksy with Perspex to protect it. These are examples of what I shall call borderline criminality.Graffiti Banksy kissing coppers

Loo Circle

I saw a Banksy once. It was at Glastonbury Festival, near the stone circle. He was invited to put in his own installation. I would love to know how the Eavis family, the festival organisers, managed to contact him. This installation was a parody; a circle of Portaloos covered in graffiti. I was particularly amused by the bit that read “Ancient Pooins”.

graffiti banksy_buntingMake do

Democracy is not perfect, as we have seen. But it is the best option. If we could find a truly righteous dictator, that would be my preference. But no such thing exists. Dictators throughout history have shown a propensity for feathering their own nests and suppressing their people. So we are stuck with democracy.

Rwanda’s racial hatred, currently obstructed by dictatorship, should actually be dealt with by international intervention. If an ethnic group really is so fixated with murderous intent towards its neighbours, then that group has to forego its right to self-determination. Pacifist intervention would be preferable, however, I cannot call for armies to be withheld from a situation where millions of deaths are inevitable.

Mix

Returning to the knotty problem of borderline criminality, we have to trust the democratic process, including all of its elements; a relatively free press, the right to protest, representation, debate and, indeed, government. It is the inclusion, within this mix, of protest and parliamentary representation, of every individual citizen, that ensures minorities are heard; and graffiti artists have a particularly effective form of protest at their disposal. Given this crucial stipulation of the complete mix, it is safe to say that statute should be relied upon to clarify the boundaries of acceptability.

In the case of graffiti, the law nearly succeeds. There are appropriate areas set aside for legitimate graffiti. I call for more of these. Artists can disregard the law in protest or as a gamble that their work will find popular approval. But if I find someone scrawling over the walls of my apartment, I can have them arrested. You see, I do not want even a Banksy beneath my bedroom window and I want to hang on to my right to choose. As for the Gare du Nord, I wish there could be more vigilance by officials, or, at least, the French graffiti artists could be a tad more imaginative.

graffiti obraeon2008

Ideas for living extremely well

jumping_joySeldom will you meet a more fantastic bunch of people than those at Nottingham Contemporary a week ago. Specifically, it was a week last Saturday and it was Tedx Lace Market, an event where we heard twenty minute talks from some people with messages worth hearing. Let me tell you about it.

Eat every day. Cook once a month

Mark Westcombe’s talk about co-housing blew me away. He presented a model I did not realise was happening in this country outside of modern monasticism.

co housing dining room bigA number of households, in his case forty-one, live in a cul-de-sac in which the road has been turfed over as a communal play area for the kids. In the middle of the play area is a building for the use of all neighbours. It contains a large kitchen and dining space which can feed all seventy people who live on the street. Upstairs from the dining room are a number of guest rooms that anyone in the street can book when they have friends or family come to stay.

The neighbours take turns at cooking and washing up. It frees up loads of time, reduces waste and costs less. It also creates a great social network. There are always leftovers which can be taken as doggy bags for lunch the next day. Kids play together and are kept an eye on communally. Cars are shared.

I do have some questions about this style of living. I wonder what is done about neighbours who fail to gel. Are there ever any neighbours who expect more out of the arrangement than others are prepared to give; perhaps with an over-developed sense of entitlement? Are neighbours screened before they move in? I will have to direct these questions to those involved.

However, the model does seem brilliant; like a workable utopia. I really need to find out more about this way of living, seriously consider adopting it and certainly discuss it with friends to see if they would want to be involved.

Hungry people chopping onions

As the day continued, Marsha Smith also brought great challenge as she discussed her concerns about food poverty. She shared with us some statistics so horrifying it is difficult not to seek to respond somehow like she did. She opened a “community café” called The Secret Kitchen.

Here are some of her statistics.

  • Two out of ten children in the UK regularly go hungry.
  • One third of food is thrown away in this country, i.e. 400,000 tonnes
  • 4 million people are affected by food poverty
  • Malnutrition costs the NHS £13billion per year

secret kitchen dishShe described the incredulity of the bankers she visited seeking funding as she described her business model. She planned to offer a menu of just one option; no choice whatsoever. She would cook up one great big pot of food and when it had all been eaten up, that would be the end of service that day. Customers would pay whatever they wished.

If someone had no money, they could still eat. Marsha simply said “Welcome to chopping onions!” She wanted to teach people to cook from raw ingredients, once more; to sit and enjoy eating and to eat socially. I will be spending some money in her café if I get my way.

All in it together

I have to mention Laila-Elizabeth Risdon and Vanya Humphreys who stood up to describe their unusual household. They both have husbands and Laila has two children for whom they both take responsibility. They all live together. The unusual nature of the arrangement was something they discussed along with how it all came about. But the most noticeable aspect of their talk was the love and kindness apparent not only in all they described but also in how they described it. They seemed to effortlessly finish one another’s sentences; to take it in turns to talk, without notes, continuing the story so smoothly the handovers became imperceptible. They finished with a beautiful song sung a capella with delightful harmonies. It was like one big hug.

There were a number of other speakers, some stronger than others, but the overall impact was inspiring. As a man of faith I am bound to look for faith wherever I go and, as far as I recollect, God was not explicitly mentioned by any of the speakers. Yet, believing God to be the epitome of love and kindness, I found Jesus in just so much of what I heard. Perhaps none of the speakers share my particular faith but I am convinced there were many in the room who, with me, are seeking goodness, love, peace, hope and joy for the world. I believe they serve with Jesus whether they realise it or not.

The aspiration of TED seems to be to share ideas for free. This event did that successfully and, in so doing, broadened aspirations, stimulated passions and shored up resolution. I would encourage everyone with any interest in community to check out the TEDx Lace Market website.

Not sure about bishops, never mind about women bishops!

The Church of England is not The Church. Actually no church is The Church. The bride of Christ made ready for the great “marriage of the Lamb” (Revelation 19 vv.7-9) is not ready quite yet. The old joke goes: “If you find a perfect church do not join it. You will spoil it!” There is no perfect church; not yet. Please refrain from asking me when The Church will be ready. My study of eschatology is not up to scratch to attempt such a discussion.

Westminster Takeover

But the Church of England is particularly unready! Many would say that the decision this week of the General Synod not to permit female bishops is a case in point. Today there has been a debate in the House of Commons on the subject. Not one MP stood up to say the church had taken a courageous step for biblical tradition. If it was down to Parliament there would be female bishops. Indeed, given some of the MPs’ comments it sounded as though Parliament might want to take over.

Mother of Whores

This seems ironic to the point of paradox. John, writing on Patmos, sets off rhetorical fireworks delineating between church and state.  In his book of Revelation he spares no blushes for the Roman state when he pictures it as “Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.” (Revelation 17 v. 5) Ever since 313 when Emperor Constantine first “tolerated” Christianity and 337 when he was baptised on his deathbed, historians and theologians have questioned the virtue of Christianity becoming the state religion of Rome. Andrew Marr in his History of the World (episode 3) describes Rome’s response to Christianity, as follows. “They reached out and they assimilated even this revolutionary cult and they made it Roman. It’s hard to know whether to admire this or despise it.”

The Church represents God. If it fails to, it is not Church. The bride of Christ is The Church completely in accord with her Bridegroom. It is fine for The Church to have local expressions as we see in the New Testament; churches in Ephesus, Corinth, Jerusalem and Rome. There is no reason why there should not be an English church. It makes sense. That, however, does not mean that the Church of England should be run by the state.

Name Above All Names

At the service of commendation at Derby Cathedral for me and my colleagues completing studies with the East Midlands Ministry Training Course, a cross was ceremoniously carried in through the cathedral to the front. When it reached the British coat of arms above the entrance to the sanctuary at the front, it was lowered down beneath it. It was as though the symbol of Jesus Christ was bowing to that of the state. I agreed with my friend, who drew this to my attention, that if this sort of symbolism is to be indulged in, they ought to at least get it right! Notwithstanding my previous posts regarding patriotism, it is Jesus who has the name above all names; not England! (Philippians 2 v.9)

Methodist Geometry

So if the Church of England is to reflect the will of God, how should it manage that? How does a theocracy function? The Church of England favours the triangle of revelation, taking in scripture, tradition and reason. The Methodist Church quotes its founder John Wesley’s quadrilateral of revelation taking in all the aforementioned elements alongside experience. John Wesley is quite right to include experience. If Christianity is not mere superstition or fairytale, there must be some experience of God.

A theme running throughout both the Old and New Testaments of the bible is that of the testimony of two or three witnesses. (Deuteronomy 19 v.15, Matthew 18 v.16, 2 Corinthians 13 v.1, Hebrews 10 v.28) This model should be adopted throughout The Church as a means to interpret experiences of God. Figuring out what God has to say involves every member of the church speaking out when prompted by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 14 v.26) and wise leaders weighing what comes. (1 Corinthians 14 v29) We see this in action at the Council of Jerusalem. (Acts 15)

So what does God think about women bishops? The ministry of bishop itself is a contrivance of church tradition. There is nothing in the New Testament about all those purple shirts and pointy hats! Biblical elders and overseers (1 Timothy 3 v.2) seemed to be less ceremonial, political figures and more spiritual. However, so long as the Church seems now to have them and there is a weight of history behind the role, it is ludicrous that women should not be included.

Slaves

There are a number of scriptures that, taken at face value, seem to make some unequivocal decree; men should have short hair (1 Corinthians 11 v.14), nobody should be gay (Romans 1 v.27) , women should be silent (1 Corinthians 14 v.34) , husbands have authority over their wives (Ephesians 5 v.23), slavery is okay (Ephesians 6 v.5) and so on. But none of these scriptures should be treated superficially. They reflect a mass of culture of the time and are subject to redaction by editors who all have their own agendas.[i] Is it possible that the House of Laity, the only wing of the General Synod to reject female bishops, is guilty of superficial theology? I might point out that Paul seems to speak very highly of a female apostle, Junia. (Romans 16 v.7)

Ditch Democracy

The Church of England should be concerned primarily with God’s will, not being popular. However when it appears irrelevant because it is hanging on to human tradition that has nothing to do with God’s will, then it is a tragedy.

Parliament should have no part in running the Church of England. Then again, it should not be run by votes of the House of Laity, either.


[i] Gillingham, Susan One Bible Many Voices Different Approaches to Biblical Studies (London: SPCK, 1998)

Why Halloween is okay

I love Harry Potter. I have read all the books and seen all the films. I know it is aimed at kids really, but I was seduced by all the fanfare and thoroughly enjoyed the stories.

Bad Harry

Some people in my old church disapproved intensely with the Harry Potter series. “We are encouraging our children to read about curses and hexes and all manner of evil witchcraft!”

I suppose this is true. But they reasoned that this was a problem. It seems that they had no faith in children to be able to distinguish between make-believe and real life. It has past them by that children have been told fairytales and bed time stories for generations apparently without any psychotic effects. Make-believe games and dressing up seems to come so naturally to little children.

Those same disapproving church folk seemed to have no such qualms about C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books or even J. R. R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is an odd inconsistency.

The Harry Potter books have massively boosted child literacy. Over the last decade many kids who would not otherwise pick up a book have discovered the joy of immersing themselves into the written word.

Celebrate mutilation?

So long as I have been a Christian, I have tended to be anti-Halloween. Charismatic churches do tend to adopt this position. Besides, it does celebrate many things I abhor; darkness, evil, mutilation, demons, witchcraft and death. Why would anyone want to celebrate these things? The conclusion is not hard. Halloween is bad.

Ghost-free Halloween

Yet, recently I was talking to an American theology student who is an avid fan of Halloween. “Happy Halloween” it says on her door in Wesley House, Cambridge. She explained that her experience of Halloween has little to do with nasty, dark, Gothic imagery. Families throughout her community would come together. Children would dress up as favourite film or cartoon characters. Parents would put on barbeques. There would be games. Trick or treating would be a community event. There would be no ghost costume in sight.

This all sounds rather positive. Could it be that my former extremist attitudes blinded me to the possibility of another point of view?

Missing a trick

Few people really question the appropriateness of fairytales, and the Harry Potter stories have done enormous good. Could it be that if Halloween is treated the right way it could be considered harmless? I am starting to think so.

I remain set against costumes and masks depicting mutilation. I am also certain that there are dark spiritual forces at work around us that we should not welcome. (Ephesians 6 v.12) But I do not believe Halloween has to be about these things. Certainly, a curmudgeonly refusal to take part is, at worst, an antisocial and unnecessary strain on friendships and, at best, misses an opportunity to engage kindly with neighbours.

Legitimacy

Halloween has a number of possible origins and is likely to be rooted in a combination of several of these; the Celtic festival of Samhain, the Roman festivals of Feralia and Pomona and Christian All Saints Day. (Encyclopaedia Britannica) “Halloween has been creatively refashioned from the fragments, the bricolage of mass culture” (Rogers 2002) Different communities, like the American community of my new theologian friend, can quite legitimately make what they want of Halloween.

Obviously, most people consider it to have a scary theme. But for almost everyone, it is all just make-believe. I stand together with all those who oppose actual evil. I tolerate but do not encourage the Gothic theme. But I do join in the fun and adopt my own emphasis. While others are dressing as mummies and witches, I will be Dick Dastardly, Professor Dumbledore or Jack Sparrow.

In the name of all that is light and good, I stake a claim to seize Halloween from darkness and evil.

Siding with the Sanctimonious Daily Mail

It seems unusual for me to be congratulating a Conservative Home Secretary but this week I do. Even more shockingly, I find myself siding with the Daily Mail! Theresa May was quite right to block extradition of Gary McKinnon to America and perhaps the Daily Mail’s campaign helped. I shudder.

I am sure he is not innocent. But what is he guilty of? According to The Daily Mail he was merely looking for little green men. This cannot be entirely true because he managed to hack into US defence systems and record the message “US foreign policy is akin to government-sponsored terrorism these days . . .” (2008 House of Lords Judgment McKinnon vs US paragraph 16) These are not the words of one who is merely a UFO spotter.

Ketchup

They are words, nonetheless, with which many would agree. Few people these days back the war in Iraq. Those who opposed it at the time now seem courageous and wise. Many innocents needlessly died and the greatest beneficiaries were the arms dealers. The pacifists who cover themselves with tomato sauce and pretend to be dead at weapons fairs do a great job highlighting the real cost of that ghastly business. Pioneers of non-violent demonstration like the late genius Walter Wink make an excellent case for civil disobedience in the face of murderous regimes. If this was Gary McKinnon’s intention, perhaps his motives were laudable.

Lightsabers

However, call me suspicious, but I suspect a fair dollop of ego at work here, too, though. His politically savvy attack on US foreign policy, mentioned earlier, went on to say “…I am SOLO. I will continue to disrupt at the highest levels. . .” (2008 House of Lords Judgment McKinnon vs US paragraph 16) Feel free to cringe now. He had been doing so well! The political rhetoric was powerful and persuasive. Why did he have to ruin it all by turning into a character from Star Wars?

Gary McKinnon betrays here the fantasist within. Perhaps, like me, he is a fan of The X Files. With his hacking skills, maybe he saw himself as a real life Fox Mulder; “Solo”, lone champion for the truth. But he just could not resist showing off. Nobody can really believe he was just being helpful when he left the message on the computer system of a US naval installation “Your security is crap!” (Daily Telegraph)

Help for the Mighty

Nonetheless, however much Gary McKinnon was showing off, he did provide a valuable service to the US military and NASA. It is far better that a relatively benign fantasist hack in and embarrass America’s military might than someone with murderous intent.

Embarrassment is surely what this is all about. Ten years of legal jousting, discussions at The White House and pressure from the US government does seem like a “sledgehammer to crack a sci-fi nut”. (Daily Telegraph) Had he been extradited, he could have faced up to 70 years in prison. (BBC Online) This is like the reaction of a playground bully nursing the bruises of a dented ego.

Immunity & Impunity

So how much damage was actually done. None of the reports I have read link Gary McKinnon’s activities with any deaths or actual harm in any way. Many pacifists would surely declare this to be the perfect protest; maximum impact, minimum risk to human life. The US military claims that $800,000 worth of damage was caused (BBC Online) due to disruption to their activities.

However truthful this figure is, Gary McKinnon did hack in illegally. He broke the law; even if it was the act of a freedom fighter. Protesters who take part in civil disobedience do expect to face the legal consequences of their actions, sometimes even somehow incorporating this experience into their protest. Arguably this has happened with Gary McKinnon; though in his case more by luck than judgement.

Some argue that, after ten years of fighting extradition, he has been punished enough. (Mirror) Certainly there seems to be no doubt and strong medical certification for his Asperger’s Syndrome and his suicidal tendencies. But someone’s illness should not automatically make them immune to prosecution. I was horrified when Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber was released from prison, not because he was suddenly considered innocent, but because he had cancer.

The justice system should offer deterrent, punishment, rehabilitation and protection. Society needs no protection from Gary McKinnon, nor does he particularly need rehabilitation. There are arguments both ways as to whether he has been punished enough. If he receives no sentence whatsoever, though, this heavily implies license to every hacker in the land to do their worst with impunity.

Spies at School

Just two days after the ruling by Theresa May, the government assaulted the news headlines with an apprenticeship scheme for spies, targeting young people from all academic backgrounds. The Foreign Secretary made the announcement at Bletchley Park, famous for Second World War codebreakers. It seems to me that if they are looking for hidden talent for this sort of work Gary McKinnon might well be the ideal candidate. He may not be so young as the government target group but he has a proven track record at dealing with modern day security.

I propose he be given a community service sentence. It could last for the rest of his life. I imagine that a decent codebreaker is remunerated pretty generously. Let us assume a salary of £100,000 per year. I think he should be allowed to receive only a small part of this until the US military have recouped their costs of his shenanigans.

Purple Patriot?

Ever since I became a Christian in 1989, I have tended to be pretty sniffy about patriotism. I regarded my citizenship of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ eclipsed my citizenship of anywhere else. Furthermore it has always seemed perverse that people of western countries should expect such a comfortable lifestyle compared with those in the developing world purely because of the accident of being born in a particular country. “National interest” has always struck me as a polite way of saying selfishness. “We must look after the British national interest so that all of us important Brits get to luxuriate in our wealth and to hell with the rest of the world.” I do not think so.

UK government gets something right!

The current UK government have an overseas development budget of £8.164bn for the current financial year. It is the biggest ever. This is quite right. My only concern is that it should be greater still. Nonetheless, this commitment to national philanthropy does offer the green shoots of a reason for legitimate patriotism. We cannot turn our backs on those in our world who have so little, as the British National Party would have us do. Interestingly, I took a look at the policies webpage of the so much more decent and responsible United Kingdom Independence Party and could find no link either to a foreign affairs page or an overseas development page.

As I ditch my old tendencies towards extremism it is perhaps also time I look at how much baby I might be throwing out with the bathwater. Does my first allegiance to God really mean I can have no other allegiance? Was Jesus to be taken literally when he said that we were to hate our fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers (Luke 14 v.26)? No, this was hyperbole, a figure of speech, exaggeration to make a point. I have worked in ministry alongside beloved co-workers who have been avid supporters of Nottingham Forest, Notts County, Leicester City and other clubs. I have even attended the odd game, myself! These good people’s football fanaticism is no more at the expense of their faith than holding a British passport or joining a university society at Freshers’ Week. We can hold more than one loyalty without any threat to that which we hold most sacred. Indeed, our whole lives seem to consist of choices and preferences, many of which pose no conflict to one another.

Icons

We live in an age of icons. Even those of us who would never dream of picking up a copy of Hello cannot help put take our bearings from such landmarks as McDonalds, Nike, Apple; London 2012, 9/11, Live Aid; Jess Ennis, Mo Farah, Prince Harry and Lady Gaga. This is not all bad. Mother Theresa definitely raised the moral aspirations of the world. The Paralympics and Olympics celebrated discipline, commitment and solidarity. Live Aid raised funds to assist with the famine in Ethiopia as well as general awareness.

This jubilee, Olympic and Paralympic year has been wonderful; really positive. Many people have reconnected with one another and a sense of British identity. Solidarity and identity are good things. The more I consider this particular allegiance now, the more I see that it is important that we can celebrate being British without any bigotry. If we love our country maybe we will keep it tidy, maybe we will learn about its history, maybe we will tour around it and maybe it will afford us a basis on which to get to know our neighbours, at a time when so many of us seem to live such isolated lives. This certainly seems to have happened this year. I took part in a “Jubilypmics” party in my brother’s street. Many neighbours who had lived close by for years were meeting for the first time.

Royalist

The royal family are icons. The Queen is perhaps the utmost icon of our time. There are those who think that we can do without the royal family; their extreme privilege; Prince Philip’s comments about slitty eyed Chinese people, Prince Harry’s backside and Kate’s breasts. Then again, there are those who think the royal family are indispensable for exactly the same reasons! Certainly it is difficult to imagine any family accepting the role and putting up with all that scrutiny without compensating privilege.

There are many good arguments for both republicanism and monarchy; fairness, privacy, propriety, tourism, constitution, impartiality; but for me the clincher is iconography. So long as there are royals prepared to take on the role, the country will continue to benefit from their unique focus. At massive state and world occasions, it is the royal family that seal the significance, provide the focal point and somehow articulate meaning on behalf of many. Their images offer a marker for the times. These royal icons do us good.

Holding back the tears

I am in Cambridge this weekend. My friend Dan is at university here. Yesterday he gave me a tour of many of the magnificent colleges. They are awesome. Walking through quadrangle after quadrangle I had a massive lump in my throat. Was it because I was at the centre of such a renowned seat of learning? Was it because these buildings were steeped in such history? Was it because many famous heroes of academia had walked these same paths? It was all these things and more. Kings College with all its conceited crowns sums it up rather well. These colleges are very hallmarks of “Britishness”. Whatever the questionable motives for their original construction, we have them now and they are iconic. I was walking through icons of my heritage. I am not ashamed at all to be moved by this. On Christmas Eve this year, when at 6pm Radio 4 broadcasts Carols from Kings, and that loan choirboy stands to sing the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City, I will be moved again and feel comfortable with my British identity.

Sell everything and give to the poor?

Loads of money?

I am heading off to Lymington to meet up with my brother, to go sailing with him and his family in the Solent on his new yacht. Sandra, the lady sat next to me on the train, is obsessed with how, by extension, I “must have money”.

I am reading Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne at the moment. In it he describes his life which has been so impacted by his time working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta. Do read this book. I fail to see how anyone can be unchanged by it. One of the main themes is how real Christianity has much more to do with poverty than it does to do with wealth. My closest friend bought me the book. He aspires to the life of communal living described in the book.

It was this friend who accompanied me to stay with my parents at their place in Spain. As we swam together in the pool in their beautiful back garden, I asked him “Is this okay?”

“No,” he replied as he luxuriously continued with his leisurely breast stroke.

I certainly do not live in poverty. I have a great many belongings. I particularly love the projector my parents helped my buy. It means I can watch movies and television programmes in an enormous picture projected onto the wall of my lounge. Andy Murray’s tears after the Mens’ Wimbledon final could not have looked bigger or shinier.

Some say it is okay to own stuff, so long as the stuff does not own you. Certainly, it did not hurt as much as many thought it would when I sold my car not to replace it. If it became apparent that I should sell my apartment, I suspect that would be much more difficult. Not only do I love the place, but several members of my family would be unimpressed with me ditching what they see as “security for my future”.

Communal living suits me very nicely. I have shared my apartment for about the last seven years now. I seek to have someone in both of the other two rooms. Not only does it mean that I can afford the mortgage and bills much more easily, but I can also enjoy being sanctimonious about how environmentally friendly my lifestyle is. I enjoy the company, too. I can hear the shouts of cynics that I am bound to prefer this style of living what with me being such an extrovert. But my long term flatmate Chris is not an extrovert at all; quite the opposite. But he convinces me that he much prefers the lifestyle he has being in shared accommodation.

What God says

I continue to read Shane Claiborne’s book and continue to reflect as to what might be the right attitude to have to my material belongings. Keeping my attitude sincerely under review is surely much more than half the battle. But it is important that I am not beating myself up over it. There is now no condemnation Paul writes in the New Testament (Romans 8 v.1).

I visited my mate’s dad in hospital the other day. He is very poorly having just had an extremely big operation. I expected to come and show him a little kindness and attempt to bring him some comfort. But a most unexpected thing occurred. This wonderfully humble man, so grateful for all his blessings, even while tired and uncomfortable, preached me a two word sermon that reached straight to my heart. As I agonised over what is right in the eyes of God, he pointed out that all God really wants is for us to “Just come.”

Just come to God. Just keep coming to God. If we seek to encounter God, to be immersed in God’s divine, glorious goodness, will our hearts and minds not soak up God’s ways?

Sandra, I do not have much money; even if various members of my family do. I will enjoy the sailing and I do plan to visit my parents in Spain again sometime soon. My greatest riches, though, are found in that holy place to where I just come.

Avoiding winding everyone up

“Bible bashers” are about as popular as double glazing salespeople and traffic wardens. I am speaking generally because I find myself, these days, extremely fond of several traffic wardens; or civil enforcement officers as we are now to call them. Estate agents always used to be deeply unpopular. They certainly were when I was one, in 1994, for forty days. Few people seem to whinge about them anymore. Maybe it is because so few people have enough money to think about moving house.

Don’t talk about religion or politics!

The contempt for “Bible bashers” is far more consistent. Never has anyone ever enthused to me of some random stranger telling them all about God. Many still regard religion and politics as completely taboo subjects for polite company. So should those of us who enthusiastically “bother God” do so privately and tell no one?

Well it seems to me to be pretty inconsiderate to discover the meaning of life, the universe and everything, yet keep it to myself! Jesus seemed keen for people to know about His kingdom and the New Testament of the Bible contains loads of examples of this good news about God being communicated in lots of ways; the scary, theological word for this communication being “evangelism”.

Keep quiet

Does Francis of Assisi offer us a way out? He is attributed with the saying “Preach the gospel at all times and where necessary use words.” It is a line my friend NeoWesleyan is fond of alluding to. I am uncomfortable with it. Referring particularly to NeoWesleyan’s post of 27 July 2011, I am also bothered by the idea that evangelism can be left to the evangelists; those with a particular gift in evangelism.

The argument goes that if we are good Christians, people will see how good we are and realise that God is in our lives (Matthew 5 v.16). All this can happen without any verbal proclamation whatsoever. What a wonderful way of avoiding all that nasty Bible bashing.

I am a Christian, by which I mean I seek to obey God as represented on Earth by Jesus Christ. Often I am good, too. But I cannot claim to have always been good. Neither would I want to claim I will never do anything stupid ever again. I know myself too well! So relying on my goodness as the sole means of sharing the gospel at all times seems a tad flimsy.

Also, people hate frauds. Adopting the strategy to deliver our message purely through our exemplary lives risks those around us resenting what can be interpreted as brazen elitism. The moment we put a foot wrong, our strategy backfires as we are seen to be a sham.

Now, I must acknowledge that neither Francis nor NeoWesleyan actually said “Never use words”. Their argument is that words only be used where necessary. My concern is that words are necessary a lot; and not just by evangelists. Only with our words can we articulate our dependence on God’s forgiveness and kindness. By verbalising God’s goodness in our lives and the universal availability of that wonderful goodness, we avoid the pitfalls of perceived elitism.

Kindness

In this light our kindnesses can be appreciated by those around us and indeed point to the God who fills our lives with love. Those referring cynically to us being “do-gooders” and “holier than thou” can thus be minimised and those appreciating us as simply real, honest, kind neighbours and friends can take the overwhelming majority.

I cannot resist just remarking on how sad it is that “do-gooder” is seen as a negative thing. “Just look at those people going around doing all that good. Why can’t they destroy stuff and hurt people?” Crazy isn’t it?

What about evangelists?

So what can those who follow Jesus, but not called to the particular job of “evangelist” leave to those who are? Well, as an evangelist myself, it seems that the particular gifting I have is to connect with all sorts of people. My understanding of the work of the evangelist does not involve going up to strangers to preach at them. I have never seen that succeed; only alienate and irritate!  Normally, the only people who really hear the good news about Jesus are those who want to because they know and care about the people who have that good news to share. Evangelism seldom happens with strangers. What makes an evangelist an evangelist is their habit of making lots of friends easily such that few people remain strangers for long. So, the thing that can be left to the evangelists is making quite so many friends.

Leave it to the ones with the gift?

No follower of Jesus is excused from sharing their faith, and if their faith is such a wonderful thing, why would they want to be? It is slightly disingenuous to point out there are only three occurrences in the Bible of the word “evangelism” and thus imply evangelism’s unimportance. What about Jesus’ commissioning passages of Matthew 28 v.19 and Mark 16 v.15? What about Paul’s connection between our verbal confession and our salvation in Romans 10 vv.9-10 or his description that we are all to be ambassadors of Christ in 2 Corinthians 5 v.20? What about how the gospel is the footwear of the armour of God in which everyone is urged to be clothed as in Ephesians 6 v.15? I could go on.

All followers of Jesus have the privilege and duty of sharing their faith. This does not mean blurting sound bites to strangers. But neither does it mean relying only on godly lifestyles and praying that a gifted evangelist might come along at some point with the right words. We should seek to demonstrate heaven on earth in all of our words and actions. Our commission to share our faith should not be borne as a terrible burden and, yes, there are people with whom you might not make a connection. What a relief it is that none of us are the only Christian in the village!

So many stories. But so what?

I may tell some more stories like the ones in the last couple of posts, but not for now. It seems good to say something about why those stories are important. Also, I think I would like to hear from anyone with a view on what I say here. If you think I am talking tosh, tell me why you think that. But, if you are at all affected by what I have to say here, please tell me why that is, too. I guess I would just like to know what other people are thinking. You can feed back both on this website, and on my Facebook account.

Many people wonder if there is a God. Some believe in fate. Others think that God is a bit of a sadist, like a kid on a sunny day who finds an ants’ nest and decides to play with a magnifying glass. Many think that God simply cares nothing for little, insignificant us. Well, if my stories are true, which I assure you they are, they imply that God is there, God does care and, from time to time, God gets stuck in. I guess you have to decide whether you think I tell the truth or not!

More Please!

I wish God would get involved more. I am sickened by much of what I see on the television news and even see around me. My boss believes unshakably that what goes around comes around. If you are naughty, you will get your comeuppance. Yet it does not always seem that way to me. In the twin towers on 11 September 2001, many people died who were kind, loving and talented. Had they done something terrible for which they were being punished? all of them? I am sure none of them were perfect, but I am equally certain that not all of them had committed heinous crimes. What came around, then, had not gone around. According to Save the Children, a quarter of a million people face starvation in East Africa this year. Would anyone really claim that this is appropriate retribution for a quarter of a million evil lives?

At the same time, some evil people still seem to flourish. Robert Mugabe still hangs on to power in Zimbabwe, after 28 years of a presidency that has subjected that country to starvation. Closer to home, the killer of Milly Dowler remains undetected. How does a God who cares enough to answer my prayers for a baby with a defective heart, not prevent horrific, terrible evil from being perpetrated, and then not ensure that the perpetrator is brought to justice? Theologians give this question a name: theodicy.

But what about the stories?

I do intend to tackle this question of theodicy. It is the most difficult question theology encounters and so deserves attention. However, this will require more posts than just this one. For now, though, I will confine my response to this thought: However much I am dissatisfied with God’s responses to apparent injustices in the world, I am faced with a reality that God must nevertheless care; otherwise those stories I have told, others I am yet to tell and similarly amazing stories other people tell, all demonstrating God’s intimate care and involvement in human lives, cannot be true.

But those stories are true. God did get stuck in. God does get stuck in. We can be confident God will continue to get stuck in. However much I fail to understand those situations when God appears not to intervene, does not discount those times God blatantly does intervene. And the interventions are so exciting.

It reminds me of Jesus’ words to John’s disciples. “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news brought to them.” (Matthew 11 v.5) The stories I have told of miracles I have seen and similar stories I have heard from others, leave me in no doubt. God is a God of miraculous intervention, and I want to see more and more of it! I want to meet people who were formerly blind, deaf, lame or even dead! Bring it on!

So it’s just about the miracles, right?

Is this the only reason I follow Jesus? Am I just interested in some sort of sensationally dramatic magic show? No, I am not just in it for the thrills.

I love it every time an angry person learns to forgive instead of escalating the fight. I celebrate when I see lonely folk lovingly befriended. I long for neglected young people to encounter role models who consistently show them kindness. It is just fantastic when the poor are helped, the bereaved are comforted and the hungry are fed.

When these things happen, a chunk of darkness is being replaced by light. Goodness is winning through. Evil is pushed back.

I believe God is good. So I believe when these things are happening, God’s will is being done. God’s kingdom is coming. It is what I pray for. It is what I believe my life is for. Dare I say it, I believe it is what your life is for, too.

I do not entirely understand why God appears to intervene only sometimes. But I do know that God does intervene. I am convinced that God’s way is a good way; whether God’s will is done miraculously or just wonderfully. If you cannot agree with me about following God’s way, at least join me in following a good way. We can figure the rest out as we go on. So, what do you think?

More miracles

Here are some more stories in the same vein as those of my last post.

Counting the answers to prayer

One Saturday evening in 2007 or 2008, I was praying with one of my church colleagues in the foyer behind the main hall of the church premises. We were concerned about the Sunday morning gathering to take place there the following morning. On the rota for leading worship, was one of the weaker worship leaders,so we sought God’s particular blessing for them on this occasion.

We asked that the Holy Spirit would really flow through the gathering and help this worship leader to enter into that flow rather than break it. We prayed that there would be no unhelpful interruptions. There was one particular member of the congregation who had caused disruption a number of times in previous weeks and so we prayed that this would not happen this time. A number of people who were close friends with one another would sit together in the same seats every week, in Sunday morning gatherings. These friends seemed restricted in the extent they would join in with the expression of worship and praise. We prayed for them that they would break out of their inhibitions; that they might even dance!

I forget the other couple of specific requests made as we prayed. But there were about six altogether. It was a pretty passionate time of prayer. Afterwards we enjoyed a real sense of spiritual fulfilment; we had done business with heaven.

The following morning, the impact of the prayer was unmistakable. Every single specific request was granted. My colleague and I literally counted them off. The last one to be realised was that group of friends being released into uninhibited praise. Nobody had told them about our prayers the previous evening. So we were amazed to see them on their feet and literally dancing; every one of them!

Gift of faith

About 1997, I was part of a “home group”; a number of people who lived fairly nearby one another who belonged to the same church. We would meet together to pray and worship together, study the Bible and have social evenings, too. One evening, we were asked to pray for a little newborn baby girl known to one of the members of our home group who was critically poorly in hospital. The parents were devastated because their baby had been born with terrible defects in her heart. There was both a hole and a missing valve. Consultants were advising that they were best to take their baby home to die.

It seemed hopeless. No amount of medicine or surgery could help. What should we pray? As we began to pray, the whole group became increasingly gripped by a sense of complete confidence that the baby would be healed. The prayers became bigger and bolder, until, by the end of the evening, everyone present was unshakeably convinced that a miracle was to take place.

As I left that home group gathering, I became concerned about what had happened. I still had the unshakable confidence that the miracle would happen. However, I did not understand why I had this confidence. I realised that the Holy Spirit imparts gifts of faith. I had read as much in the scriptures. But I had never experienced such a thing myself before, and was concerned that we might all have made some big mistake. Could we have imagined it? Was it merely hysteria?

The next day I received the wonderful news. The hole in the baby’s heart had closed up and a fold of skin had begun to act as a valve. The hospital medical staff could not explain the miracle and were dumfounded. The baby’s prognosis was suddenly excellent. It was the most dramatic healing I have had any part in.

Proclamation in the Park

One Saturday evening I went for a walk in Knighton Park, near my home in Leicester, to pray. It was a summer’s evening around 1992. As I prayed, I suddenly sensed that the Holy Spirit was telling me I was to speak to someone. I did not hear an audible instruction or see some sort of vision. It was a just a loud thought that suddenly occurred to me, as if from nowhere. It nagged at me and convinced me so much that I began to look around me for people who I might be supposed to speak to. The park seemed quite desolate! One person did pass by me to whom I addressed a hopeful “Hello?!” But they merely replied with their own rather uncomfortable “Hello” as though to offer the minimum politeness only to scurry away as if they suspected me of being a little deranged.

I saw nobody else until it began to get dark and I started to doubt whether the Holy Spirit had really said anything to me at all. I turned down a path that led to the park gates. By now it was becoming quite dark indeed. As I made my way down the path I noticed to my left, about fifty yards away, a little orange dot of light. I stopped, to try and figure out what it was.

From the dot there came a voice. “Who’s that?” Immediately I saw other dots and realised that they were the ends of cigarettes.

“I’m John.” I replied, “Who’s that?!”

“I’m Wain!”

“How many of you are there?”

“Quite a few. Are you going to come and talk to us?”

I went over and found about ten teenagers smoking and drinking among the trees around the brook that flows through the park. I sat down with them and listened to them and they listened to me. We talked about lots of things, but Jesus was the main topic. I was amazed at how they hung on my every word. It was as though the Holy Spirit opened the way up for me.

Once again, I must stop. Perhaps I will tell more stories soon.