Monday, 21 December 2015

When do we get to do the stuff?

This is one of the most famous quotes from John Wimber. He had read parts of the Bible, what was done in the early church, and went to a church expecting to see the same sort of thing. He was, of course, disappointed, and he asked them "When do we get to do the stuff?".

I have recently finished reading Sara Miles "Take this Bread", and she experienced something of the same struggle, but from a very different perspective. For her, she read the Bible, saw that Jesus fed people, welcomed people, accepted people. She found the church that she arrived in was generally very welcoming of others, open to different liturgy and worship, but was still struggling to be as accepting as she saw the New Testament church was.

And it raised the question for me, as for Wimber, of when the church starts doing the stuff. Unlike Wimber "the stuff" is not the miraculous, the amazing - the stuff is the core of the New Testament church. The Stuff is the care, concern, acceptance and love that the church was known for. John 13:35 is a core promise of what the New Testament church was showing - that Christians should be known for their love.

What I see today is that Christians are known for all sorts of things, but "love" is not high on the list. We are known for being reactionary, for hating homosexuals, for being cliquey, for rejecting others and being legalistic.

And I know that whenever I say that, there are many people who say that "we are not like that. We know churches who are but not us" to which I would argue that yes you are - to those outside the church you are known for something other than being loving. Almost certainly (there is always a possibility that you are an exception, and I have not heard of you). And even if you are, in your area, the Christian Church as a whole - and that reflects on each one of us - does not have a positive perception.

Sara Miles church was far more open and accepting than many. She became involved in it because it was prepared to accept her, coming from a very antagonistic position. It was considered by many other churches as being rather tolerant and unconventional. So in terms of churches, it was very much on the forefront of what I am looking for - and yet still struggling to accept, to tolerate and welcome the broken, the damaged, the sick and the disruptive. If they were seen as struggling - from an insider - how much further from a New Testament ideal are most churches?

A long way.

I think so many churches like to focus on "outreach" and "programmes" (including Alpha and suchlike), and fail to do the basics about being a fellowship, a group who are caring for each other, working with each other. I don't think a church should focus on itself until it is perfect before looking out. I do think that churches should consider very critically what they are inviting people to join. I think they should ask why people would want to join them, and what it would mean if they did.

In truth, I don't think that the New Testament church is a model that we should build everything on. I think that is dangerous, because they were working to their own situation. But the church was supposed to be living out the principle of loving others, and that is something that we today need to also demonstrate.

So come on, when do we get to do the stuff?

Wednesday, 16 December 2015


Trigger Warning : Suicide

OK, this is a neologism, a word I have devised from Greek roots, that seems to reflect something of what suicidal feelings are like. Sorry if such a lovely word means something so bleak, but that is the way it goes sometimes. Let me explain how I got there, and why it seems to be an appropriate word.

The starting point was actually the phobia side - suicidal thoughts are not rational, they are more phobic than anything. I will explore this more later. I started by using the phrase Zoephobia, from the Greek Zoe meaning life, but I realised that this was not quite what I was meaning.

Zao comes from the same root, but is more of an active phrase, meaning living, not just life. Zoephobia would be a fear of life, whereas Zaophobia is more a fear of living, a problem with the process and the effort of continuing to live.

Phobia is not really a fear in the traditional sense. It is an anxiety disorder where the dread of the thing is disproportional to the thing itself. Zaophobia is therefore an irrational dread of continuing to live.

Why is it so important that it is seen as irrational? The prime reason is that an irrational fear cannot be calmed by rational ideas and discussion. I don't like spiders, and I know that my fear of them is not rational. I know that "they are more afraid of me than I am of them" - something that has never been scientifically tested as far as I know. I am aware that they are not out to do me any harm. But this rational, logical argument does nothing for my feelings, my emotive response. What is more, this lack of a rational basis for my emotional response does not make it "all in the mind" or "imaginary". It is very real, but the means of dealing with it is through working with the fears and emotional responses, not by explaining why it is not logical to fear spiders. In truth, I am much better than I was.

Someone who is suicidal does not need logical, rational explanations of why their choice doesn't make sense. To them, it makes perfect sense (which is partly a result of post-rationalisation), so explaining why they are wrong can sound like explaining that they are stupid. Whereas dealing with it in terms of a phobia, an irrational response, means that you are accepting their conclusions, their thought processes, and deal with it according to an emotive response, not a rational one. Rather than an argument of "no, that is not how it is really", this is a response of "yes, it sucks big time".

I look at Jesus' responses to people, and sometimes, he comes back with rational, logical, law-based arguments - when people challenge him with rational, law-based arguments. But for people who are hurting, he doesn't - he sits by them and engages with their emotions. The woman caught in adultery, for example: those who wanted to stone her because The Law said so, he responded with a logical reply - none of them conformed to the law completely. But to the woman (who, it would seem, he had stayed by this whole time), he simply told her than nobody was condemning her. As one example among many.

The healing at the start of John 9 always intrigues me. The disciples wanted a logical, rational explanation for why a particular man was born blind. Jesus response was not a logical or rational response - he didn't give the disciples the reasoning for babies being born blind, he didn't offer then a codified answer to the effects of sin (and bear in mind that the action of sin on people was part of their rational understanding). His response was unbelievably unsatisfactory in so many ways. He explained that this man was born blind so that Jesus could heal him. Which might not make up for the 20 years he had spent blind, or for the unpleasant response he had from the Pharisees. But the man's enthusiasm towards the Pharisees suggests to me that Jesus had engaged him emotionally, even though the rational arguments didn't seem to add up.

The first part of this word is also important in terms of understanding the suicidal mentality. It tends to be (and I am aware that there are always cases and situations that do not match this) that the struggle of living is where the problem lies. It is the difficulty and the day-to-day effort that is required to continue living that is so hard. The thoughts of having to do that again and again and again is too much. It is hard work living, but for most people, it is something that we can cope with, because that is what we have to do. For many people, spiders are just part of nature, and they are not a problem. But for some, zao is really difficult. The decision to take ones own life is not an easy one, and not a rational, logical one normally. But for many, it comes from this incredible burden of zao, of having to live. It is not rational, but emotive, which is how it should be engaged with, but it is very real, very significant.

It is also important in terms of understanding how a depressed person acts and behaves.Imaging having a fear of heights, and waking up every day in a bed slung on the side of a cliff. Actually, that is rather extreme, because most people with a sense of perspective would find that a frightening prospect. Imagine always waking up somewhere high up, near a precipice. Or being forced to work as a tower crane operator. You wouldn't do it, of course, it would be a living nightmare, you would have to find an alternative.

So imagine if your fear was of living.

I should point out, I am not suggesting that depression is the same pathology as phobias, just that seeing suicidal thoughts in this way might help those who do not suffer from them understand a little more what it means, what it actually feels like to be inside these brains.

So zaophobia - a new word for suicidal responses, trying to reflect the emotive nature of these feelings, and the importance of responding in the appropriate way.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Why trident is a waste

I read on facebook recently a post by Alan Storkey (sorry I can't link because I can't find it any more!) on reasons why replacing trident is a bad idea. They were great thoughts, but one resonated with something I have thought for a while, and for me is the main reason that Trident is a bad idea.
The problem is that Trident - and all nuclear weapons capability - belongs to a different age of warfare. I am not saying that 40 years ago it was valid and acceptable, just that then there were different reasons to challenge it. But the world today is different.

The major threats on the world stage today are terrorist groups like IS. The majority of the conflicts across the world are not nation-on-nation, as they were for much of the last century, they are faction on faction, organisations like IS who are fighting for recognition and a cause. Groups like Boko Haram in Africa and the drug barons in Mexico are involved in much more typical conflicts today than was the case.

And, of course, Trident - any nuclear weapon - is of no use against them. How could we use any of them against IS? They do not have a geographical claim, so the use of such weapons - which are indiscriminate across a geographical area - is pointless and dangerous.

"But we have to have them, to protect ourselves against other nuclear nations". This has been the argument for decades, and yet it is flawed. As noted above, conflicts today are not against other nations. The likelihood of, say, Iran attacking us with a nuclear weapon is extremely remote - they may not like us, but that tactic would be so abhorrent that they would never utilise it. Because they are a geographical nation, they would be destroyed in a range of ways that would not require a nuclear strike back.

"They are a deterrent against anyone using nuclear weapons against us". The thing is, let us suppose that IS had nuclear capability. Let us suppose, horror of horrors, that the Paris attacks had been nuclear. Would we then use our nuclear weapons against them? Of course not, because they are not a geographically located group. It is groups like IS with nuclear capability that is the biggest danger, but even if they did achieve that, out deterrence would not stop them and out defence would not be appropriate to use. So what is the point?

I hope against hope that we never see another nuclear weapon deployed. But if it is, it will not be a nation using it against another nation. The response will not be more such weapons. Nations arming themselves with nuclear capability in the 21st century is an anachronism. We would all be safer if we had none of them around.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Henri Nouwen

"When there is not a community that can mediate between world needs and personal responses, the burden of the world can only be a crushing burden"

This is quoted from Nouwens "Compassion" in the Spring 2015 issue of Geez magazine (which is superb and you should subscribe to it). It struck me as an interesting quote, and one that made me think - in general, I agree with it, but I want to explore why.

The implication of this - in context of the magazine - is that the church is, or can be, that mediating community. The problem is, I think, that it does not always do that job particularly well, if at all.

Firstly, the reason that I agree with the quote is that needs of the world is a crushing burden if we try to take it all on, without help. Anyone who does not suffer from compassion fatigue, from a sense of desperation, from a feeling that it is all too much probably doesn't grasp the scale of the world problems.

At times, the church can and has been a helpful mediator in this context. It has served to give some sense of meaning or purpose to the apparent random calamity that we see around us. But what of those people who do not have a church, a community to mediate?

It seems that there are three possible responses without this community:

1. Find a different community that helps to mediate. Of course, sometimes this is not a positive mediation - sometimes it is mediating by hating people, sometimes it is mediation by cutting off from the world. Sometimes, of course, it is a positive and helpful mediation, but the tragedy of the west is that many are not in any form of community.

2. Ignore the rest of the world. Resolving the "burden of the world" is done by pretending it doesn't exist, keeping a focus to yourself and those nearby.

3. Letting the burden of the world crush you. As Nouwen says, this is what happens with no other means to handle it.

It is an indication, I think, that as people we are not meant to live in a world of the size we are in. Rather, we are not properly adapted to a world of the scale of the current one. We have not learned how to be part of a community of 7Bn people, across the world that is far larger than we can really comprehend. We need a local community to be "our world" who can then help us to grapple with the bigger picture.

The problem for many people today is, I think, that we do not have a community. We lack the structures that can enable us to be a small world as part of a larger one. While there are many issues that this causes (dissociation, lack of emotional support), I think the one the Nouwen points out does cover a critical aspect - we cannot live in the world, deal with the world, acknowledge the world and its problems without a community.

Maybe this is why many people dismiss the problems of the world, ignore them, assume they are other peoples issues. Maybe this explains why some people join churches or yoga classes or whatever, because they need to find some context within which to engage with the burden of being human.

And maybe the church needs to start understanding this.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Why Greenbelt is important.

As many of you know, I have been going to Greenbelt for the last few years, and I am passionate about the festival. I want to explore here why that is - something that has been brought to focus in the last year with the major financial problems the organisation has had.

The first reason for my support of it is that it is unique. There are, of course, other events around the country like Spring Harvest and New Wine, as well as Soul Survivor. I do not have a problem with any of these, and did go to Spring Harvest for many many years, which is where my experience of these events comes from. There is a reason that these events are quite different from Greenbelt.

Spring Harvest is not a festival, but a conference. The difference - at least when I was attending - was that a conference is very structured, with sessions that are clearly timed, meaning that there are clear breaks for mealtimes. In the professional world, these are crucial times for talking to others, chatting, sharing ideas across sub-groups. A conference is very structured, both time-wise and (often) content-wise. When I went, the mornings were a structured set of talks, each group supposedly coving a similar set of ideas, in different ways or from different perspectives.

More significantly, the evenings were big, all-together events - it was only the later years that an alternative evening celebration developed. Even then, the celebrations had the same themes. I should clarify that the big celebration were fantastic - I loved them, because they were proper celebrations on a large scale. They were times when I felt a member of a big group, a part of something larger than me and mine.

But Greenbelt is different. The form and structure is different, but - more crucially - the purpose is different. It is not a conference, it is a festival. It is not as regimented - there is all sorts of things going on at different times. It is quite possible for two people to attend and experience completely different festivals. It is quite possible to attend different talks and get opposing or irreconcilable arguments. It is possible to go only for the music, or only for the talks, or only for the Tiny Tea Tent. The only "communal" aspect is the Sunday Morning Communion, and that is, like everything else, optional.

But it is the purpose that is so crucially different. The purpose of the conferences - Christian or work-style - is to impart information, teach the latest idea. The big draws are often well-known writers and speakers, this is a chance for them to tell people about their latest ideas (and sell more books).

Greenbelt is different. Well, not entirely - for many of those performing, they are there to sell their merchandise. They are doing the rounds, although the rounds are more likely to be the festivals than the conferences. Greenbelt is there to give people a chance to explore, engage, discuss. Greenbelt is a place where someone can say anything they want. But more importantly, anyone can answer, challenge, debate and argue. You can claim that black is white, and you will find someone to agree with you and someone to disagree. But there is a good chance that you will find these people are prepared to listen as well as argue.

I think most importantly, the theological position of Greenbelt is different. The conference circuit is on the Conservative Evangelical part of the theological spectrum, whereas Greenbelt is much wider. In its early days, most of the music came from the Evangelical Christian music culture (and the attendees too). While this has changed, this early focus on the arts has remained. It is the only place where the Christian faith and the arts collide in this way, where Christians can have their ideas and understanding challenged by the insights from the arts. It is also a place where those who do not sign up to the Christian faith can explore spiritually with no pressure. Or, of course, just get to experience some great performances.

This is why Greenbelt is important. The target audience - in terms of what it does, not necessarily the organisation's definition - are those people who are spiritually on the edge. Those who are on the edge of church and churches, for whom the standard route and approach is not one that works. It is for people who want to explore spiritual truth, not be told what they should believe if they want to join in. It is for people who want to understand what faith means when people disagree.

It is also for those who would explore faith and spirituality that is not book- or word-centred. Given that Jesus never wrote a book (he may well have been illiterate), and that so much of the biblical teaching is done visually (although it is reported to us in words, because smartphones hadn't been invented then), this is a vital aspect of Christian faith.

It is for those of us for whom living faith is about constant exploration, not formulaic expressions. It is for people who like discussions where their view is changed, and they come away with new insights - not necessarily agreement with others, but a greater understanding of their position. It is for people who can say "I'm sorry" and "I am wrong. Thank you."

For me, and I know for many others, church does not provide what I need any more. For me, Greenbelt gives me a message that I can still be a Christian, despite all of my doubts, anger, illness and failure. It tells me that I don't have to conform to any particular system or hierarchy to be a Christian. It tells me that I don't have it right, but that I don't have it all wrong either.

So if you have never been, can I encourage you to consider it, and give it a try. And support it, even if it doesn't work for you, because it is a crucial part of the spiritual life of this country.

Saturday, 19 September 2015


OK, so what did Greenbelt hold for me this year? Well it was different to recent festivals, mainly because the financial problems from last year changed the nature of the festival. Not necessarily for the worse, but there did feel like it was less exuberant than it has been. Maybe that is a good thing, in truth.

Well, Friday evening was enjoyable - the Worry Dolls and Rosalind Peters were pleasant and enjoyable, and a good start - I don't normally do the comedy gigs, so it was a nice change to start with some.

The main stage for me properly started with The Polyphonic Spree - interesting performance. The music was - to my mind - nothing special. The performance was fabulous, which is (again, in my view) the real point of music at a festival. So enjoyable, crazy, weird and fun. Which could also be used to describe one of my festival highlights, Acrojou. Their performance of Frantic was pleasurable, brilliantly performed, a real positive performance, and one I was really glad to go to.

Sunday had the communion, which was, unusually for me, a really positive event. It is always nice to share communion with friends at this festival, and this was not as interrupted as sometimes. The end of the day was highlighted by The Unthanks, a beautiful folk-influenced group, marred slightly by the fact that I experienced a very odd deja-vu (genuine deja-vu, not that I have seen them before). If you want a treat, do check out their "Magpie".

Speakers - I did hear some talks as well. Marika Rose talking on "Angels and Cyborgs" - she is always good, focussed and clear. Also the always excellent Katherine Welby-Roberts, struggling to do her talk, because doing such things is very difficult for her. The reality of what her illnesses mean was shown clearly. And, as always, she spoke from the heart and with honestly and openness.

There was a literary aspect to my festival too - I heard A L Kennedy after a recommendation, and she was very useful discussing aspects of "how to write stuff". Later the same day I heard Stephen Oram discussing "opting out". It was interesting, drawing on his latest book, and I will blog some of my reservations and thoughts on this later.

There was a theme to some of my other picks - Grace Petrie was brilliant as always; Gaz Brookfield was a new name for me, but one whose angry passion about real music, people, life was fantastic. Like Grace, but angrier and more aggressive. I remember him being very passionate about "real" music, not the manufactured drivel from Simon Cowell and the like.

And the last act I saw in the weekend was Jonny and the Baptists. This is a duo, whose comedy act was described as "post-watershed" material - that was accurate, as their first piece was about having sex in libraries to make them more interesting. It continued in a similarly adult vein, but was excellent, hilarious, and a great way to finish my festival. The theme between them all was a distinctly left-wing approach, a criticism of the current administration and the damage it is doing to people.

In the end, this is the ongoing theme of the festival for me - people who have problems with the government, not because of political differences, but because people are suffering from the decisions made, the pain and suffering imposed on people. As I write the refugee crisis is in the news, because the denial of these peoples human rights has meant that people have died, children included. One picture has made a difference, but if we had responded earlier, maybe this child could have lived.

Greenbelt reminds me that there are Christians - many of them, and an important section of them - who believe that abuse and damage to people is wrong, who believe that the biblical injunctions to help others, the poor and the needy, are the prime commandments of the Bible. That always gives me some hope.

 There was one other encounter that struck me. I was taking a look at the Quaker stand - just seeing what there was, what they were about. I have always thought that the Quaker approach may be the closest to mine, albeit with a different style (I am probably a bit noisy for them, but the principles and ideas I find a lot in common with). As I was about to leave, one of the people on the stand, said nothing but handed me a booklet. There was something about the quiet, unassuming way that he did this, trying to help, without words, that struck me. There was something of what I understand of the Quaker way about it. Given how most other stalls were tempting with chocolate, or desperate to attract visitors, this was - for me - a much better approach. So I would like to say thank you.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Budget changes

In the budget (several months ago now) there was one that has not apparently attracted much attention. It is the proposal to remove tax relief from Buy-to-Let (BTL) mortgages. I am sure that some people consider that these greedy rich, landlord should have tax reliefs stripped from them and serve them right.

Except, that is not what will happen. I speak as a landlord with a BTL mortgage (but I hope not a particularly Dickensian landlord).

Let me be clear, I have one property, currently let out. I operate it on a business, balancing income and expenditure, actually charging rent at a level based on what I need to cover my expenses (and so, for your information, less than I could be charging).

So what will the impact of these changes actually be? Well, for most landlords in this situation, they will have to balance their books still, and so will increase their rents. The first effect of this change will be to increase rents (slowly, as the change is being phased in, so it will probably not be noticed as a direct result). Of course, that hits tenants, not landlords. So many are already priced out of certain areas, and this will just get worse.

I should point out that this is not what I am planning to do.

The other impact is that people like me will not find it financially viable to be landlords. It means that I could consider getting out of the market, selling my property and removing one more place available for rental. The people who will be able to stay in the landlord market are those who do not need so much of a mortgage on the properties - that is, those who have some ready cash. It will play into the hands of the wealthy, who are not necessarily interested in being landlords for the benefit of the tenants, but for the money.

That is also not what I am intending to do.

I am intending to reorganise my finances to pay off my mortgages early. I am attempting to take myself out of this particular market (something that I was expecting to do eventually, but I might try to do this early). I am getting out of the BTL market but without selling the property. I am fortunate to be able to do this, but 10 years ago, and I would not have entered the market at all. That is the problem.

So yes, this proposal will hit some greedy landlords. But mostly, it will hit smaller landlords, and tenants. To those who need rental properties, this is bad news. As usual, the wealthy will just handle it, and the less well off will suffer and pay

So maybe you shouldn't be celebrating.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

The House of Lords

I went on a visit to the House of Lords recently, as a guest of the Bishop of St Albans. It was an interesting visit, and provided some interesting insight into the place and the workings of that house.

The place itself is quite something - very elegant and ornate, quite a spectacular and beautiful building. You can walk along corridors with the most ornate carvings and paintings. It is a place that should inspire awe and a sense of responsibility. To an extent, I think it does. To a large extent, those who occupy the privileged seats in the house do realise what a responsibility they have. Certain recent news stories excepted.

I think that many of the Lords work hard - being involved in the processes, discussing and questioning. There were a number of members there who were doing their job well, asking and getting the answers, being present for the discussion of items that they have skills in. In particular, the bishops who work there combine their other work with attendance and involvement in the work there. Others combine other work with attendance and involvement there.

The problem I have is deeper rooted than that. The fact that some of those involved are good, honest and hard-working, while others may not be does not change the fact that the process seems to be wrong and broken. The part we saw - questions to the government - was a chance to raise questions, but they were answered by rote, and there is a limit to the questions and the time to discuss.

The problem I see is that it is a slow and compromise-driven approach to making laws does not seem to produce good and timely laws. There is a whole lot of debate and discussion over each word and phrase of the law to make sure it is clear and represents the views of the house. This is to ensure that lawyers cannot then untangle it, find loopholes through the legal phrasing. But this does not necessarily make for good laws, because the focus in on the minutiae, not the big picture. It seems to me that these people - the people we have chosen as the best in our society - should be focussing on the big picture. It seems that lawyers should be able to draft the phrasing, based on what the intention of the lords is. It seems that these lawyers should also be able to clarify the meaning of the legal position where needed.

Well, maybe not - this is not completely thought out. But is this the best use of their time? Is it right that (for example) our bishops, selected for their spiritual leadership, their insight and discernment. Their time in the lords is spent trying to identify potential loopholes in legal documents. The time we watched proceedings was worthwhile, but this was half an hour - the rest of the session (potentially late into the evening) would be picking apart a bill.

So yes, the visit was very interesting, and thanks to Bishop Alan for the opportunity. It is always fascinating to see how these institutions function, to observe the practicalities of the business. But in seeing these institutions at work, their archaic nature is sometimes shown up. I think Mhairi Black is absolutely right that the institution is, in some ways, outdated, not least the need to vote in person, not electronically. There is a definite need to update, to make the chambers work in a more modern way. There is a need to The problem is, we often see this way as being the definition of "democracy". The truth is that this is one was of running a legislative house - there are others, and others might be better. The wonderful, historical building should not mean that the functions within it should be as archaic. We can have a modern legislature in a wonderful old building.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015


OK, I thought there is a place to put my thoughts together on what this actually means. Some of these have been written elsewhere, but it is a personal perspective.

1. Don't ask "why are you depressed?" It is a meaningless question. Why do you have a cold? Why do you have poor taste in clothing? For me, there is probably a genetic disposition, and there have been events that have knocked my brain into a different state. None of which answers "why?" to me or to anyone else. I wish I knew, because I could then sort it out. But it is not a rational decision or choice. It is an illness, an aspect of my broken body.

2. "A depressive" vs "have depression". My son has diabetes, and I was once told off for saying that he was "a diabetic", because that shouldn't define him. Rather, I should say that he has diabetes. While it is true that his illness doesn't entirely define him, something that should involve testing and injecting 4-5 times a day, avoiding sugary food and drink, and meaning he cannot walk as well as he could does pretty well define his life and activity. It is an all-encompassing aspect of him, 24/7, and something he cannot get away from.

In the same way, for example, that I am a Christian. It is not something that just impacts me some of the time - it is not just about what I do on Sundays. My faith is an integral part of me every day, in all I do. I cannot escape it for a while, and I do not expect to ever grow out of it: even if I do, its reality over so much of my life is permanent. And the same is true of my depression, in a more negative way. It is permanent, it is always an aspect of my life, and I do not expect to leave it behind permanently. So I am a depressive. I am a Christian. I am a parent. None of these totally defines me, but they are quite fundamentally part of who I am. Rewording it does not help.

3. You cannot recognise a depressive. It is easy to assume that the grumpy, miserable person at work is most likely to be depressed. You may well be wrong - they might just be a grumpy, miserable person with poor social skills (in my business, that is quite likely). If you want to find the depressed person at work, look for the lively one, the chatty one, the one who is always joking. They are as likely to be suffering from depression at any particular time. Many people manage their illness well, and are not obviously "depressed", but that does not mean that they are not suffering. Very many depressives cannot talk about their feelings, their illness, how they are at any particular time. Just because someone appears fine, or says they are fine, doesn't mean diddly squat.

4. Sometimes, depression means that I feel miserable. Sometimes, it means that I have to struggle to get out of bed in the morning. Other times, it means that I am out of bed easily in the morning, because I haven't slept well, and am awake early. Always, it means that the basics of life are a struggle. Always, every day. Much of the time, I have coping mechanisms and the medication help to enable me to get through the day. But "getting through the day" does not mean that I am not struggling through it all. The fact that I am high functioning" means that I can achieve some things that others cannot - working and studying for a PhD at the same time. But that does not mean that getting up and going out for a walk is not a huge burden at times.

5. Suicidal thoughts and feelings are a constant companion. Now before you call the doctor, this does not mean that I am suicidal all of the time. It means that the nagging thoughts and ideas are always there. Sometimes, in all honesty, they are welcome thoughts, because life seems to be too much. But mostly, they are annoying distractions making me struggle even more with life. I live with thoughts in my mind that many others would find extremely upsetting. I am numb to them, but it doesn't mean they are not still distracting, tempting. It is just another thing that some of us have to deal with constantly.

6. Yes, it is a real illness. Just because you cannot see anything wrong, doesn't mean it is "all in my mind". Well it is, but not in the sense of being made up. I realise that there is nothing physical that you can see, but that does not mean that it is not real. It is real, and it is disabling, because it breaks my ability to think straight and clearly. This impacts my ability to do anything. People who assume it is not a "real" illness tend to be people who don't suffer from mental illness. Just because it is not visible, just because it is not clearly and fully understood does not mean it is not real.

7. I am sorry if you don't like this, but there is no cure for many mental illnesses. There are treatments, and these are effective and important. Treatments help us to cope with life with a mental illness, and sometimes they enable us to live and cope while the brain cures itself. There are forms of treatment like CBT can change our way of thinking, but these are also life-long treatments - the fact that they are not pills does not really make a difference.

I have said it before, but God does not heal most mental illnesses most of the time. This is not to either deny that He might on occasions, but that the answers to mental illness are not to be prayed about and that is it. Prayer does help, mainly because events do cause problems, and prayer for help through these times helps and is important. I would LOVE God to cure me of my depression. However, I don't expect it, because it is far more complex, it is intimately engaged with who I am. God made me like this, and to take it away would change who I am - the good as well as the bad.

8. "You would feel better if you lost some weight". Or whatever. Yes, I know. Of course, the reason I have a weight problem is that I eat when I am depressed. So going on a diet might make me feel better in the longer term, but in the shorter term, I will struggle to cope. For others, it is the same story, but sometimes with other problems. We do have a tendency to do things that are not good for us, and we know about it. The think is, if I ate less, and my depression was better, I would be better.

9. I am not dangerous. Well, I could be if I hear too much rubbish about mental health problems and the people who suffer from them. There are some important statistics to understand: some one in three people suffer from mental health problems. This means that one could expect one in three people involved in violent crime would have mental health problems. In fact, there are all sorts of reasons why this figures is higher, but connection does not imply causality - or not necessarily in the direction indicated.

In truth, people with mental health problems are often involved in crimes and violent crimes especially, mainly because the support services for those with mental health issues often end up failing the suffering. But the idea that people with mental health problems are inherently dangerous is wrong. We are not, as a whole. Of course, there is a strong argument that some of the most psychotic, violent crimes are indications of mental health problems. But that is not an indication that people with mental health are inherently dangerous.

 So this is what I live with every day. This and more, and I fight through it, and live a reasonably normal life. So, of course, when I can do no more, I am just lazy, using my illness as an excuse. Sigh.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Should I be a good writer, or a successfull writer?

When I look at those writers who have made a lot of money from their writing, I do tend to despair. The likes of Dan Brown are not good writers, but they write popularist books, they get some clever publicity, and they sell bucket-loads. The same applies to E L James, author of the Fifty Shades series. I will admit that I haven't read them, nor do I wish to, but I have it on good authority that they are not carefully crafted pieces of work.

This is just a rant about books I don't like. The Harry Potter books by J K Rowling I enjoyed immensely, but they were not all great writing. There are some very clever ideas in them, but there is also some less well crafted parts. But it doesn't really matter, because people bought them anyway.

I was reminded recently of Erich von Daniken, another author from many years ago, who made a lot of money with claims of proof that we had been visited by extra terrestrials, and that this explained a range of mysteries across the world. The fact that his ideas have all been shown to be false and misguided, not to mention that they don't prove what he claims anyway, has not stopped him from making a whole lot of money.

And then there are people like myself, working hard to craft my books and stories, struggling to produce well written, well thought out writing, and I can't get an agent. Of course, it is not just me who can't get an agent - it is the fact that good, high-quality writing seems not to be as appreciated as we would like to think it should be. It makes me wonder why I should try to write something good and high quality, when the stuff that sells is the opposite.

I am not an elitist who thinks that everyone should read quality literature, not just popularist stuff. I understand why people like to read the popular works (and I have also read some of them), but I do think there should be more opportunities for more serious writers. I struggle that I should have to choose between these - that writers cannot, as a whole, make a living by writing high-quality fiction.

So I have to ask myself the question, again and again, whether I should seek to write high quality, in depth, complex works, which explore the important existential questions, but will not get me published, or just write something shocking, cheap or easy to sell, with no meaning, depth or real challenge. But my real call is to people who read material, not to give up just because it is not an easy, quick read. Make the effort to read deeper works, more complicated material. Not because that will make me money, but because that will challenge you, make you think. Because, in the end, if people only read sensationalist writing, that is all that will be available, and we will be diminished as a species.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Jeremiah 23

I read this passage recently - particularly verses 33-39 - and is struck me as a very odd passage. It is talking all about "The Oracle of the Lord" (in the version I was reading), and it reads very oddly.

The translation of the core word "Oracle" is massa, which can also translate as "Burden", which can help to understand the meaning - it is talking about not burdening people with messages supposedly from God. But it can be read quite differently.

One way of reading it would be to say "stop telling me that you have heard this word or message from God, because you are making it up". It is an interesting critique, I think, of some of the churches I have known that their use of something as being "from the Lord" puts it beyond reproach, and yet here is Jeremiah saying "I don't care if you credit it to God, shut up!"

Another way of interpreting the passage is to take the phrase as referring to burdens purely. It can be read as saying "stop burdening other people with the burdens you have taken on. Deal with them yourself, whether they are from God or not". How often have we heard that someone has a "burden from the Lord" for this or that, and so we should all feel similarly burdened and support. But this passage is saying "stop calling it a burden from the Lord - it is all yours. Deal with it, and shut up." I think that has something vital to say to us all, that those things that we have a heart for, that we feel are important to pray for or do for, are ours. They are not things that we should encourage others to be similarly burdened. Just because you feel that God had given you something to do - a burden in the positive sense - doesn't give you the right to burden - in the negative sense - others with it.

However, I do think there is something of both in the passage. The Old Testament (and occasionally New Testament) writers are never shy of puns or double meanings in their writings. I suspect Jeremiah meant both of the above interpretations, as well as the one that I suspect he intended most especially - the message that you should not burden other people with messages that you claim are from God. Which is rather a peculiar word from a prophet (especially one like Jeremiah, who most definitely did burden others with words he claimed were from God).

Of course, we do not know the precise situation and events that prompted this particular passage. It might have been that, as throughout Jeremiahs time, people were using what they claimed to be "Oracles from God" to pressure people into their own point of view - something we still see today. It might have been that people were taking the phrase "An Oracle from God" lightly, mocking his own messages by using it to justify anything they wanted. Whatever, there is a warning here, that attributing something to God does not give us free reign to impose on other people.

We should all remember that.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Norwich and Norfolk

This year, we holidayed in North Norfolk. The rather sad reason was that we wanted somewhere near home for Tess, our dog, who was getting old, and also somewhere without lots of big hills for her an our eldest son, who has foot problems. The sadness was that Tess died before the holiday, but we still went, and we had a wonderful time.

To those who think that Norfolk is flat, I can assure you that it isn't really. It undulates gently, but there are some more hilly parts. It is nothing like as flat as Cambridgeshire or as oppressively flat as I found Holland to be. At the same time, the lack of mountains or large geographical features means that you can, at times, see a long way in all directions. By the sea, in the evening, there is a most wonderful light because it is being reflected from various sides.

Now there are those that I have spoken to in Norfolk and Norwich who are desperate to get out. The usual reason is that it is stuck behind the times, the pace of life is snail like, and they don't want to marry their cousin. In truth, you cannot be made to marry anyone, but Matilda is a very nice young lady, and it is legal nowadays...

In truth, it is rather cut off from the rest of the country. That is, to me, a lot of its delight. As we drove around, many of the smaller roads had wildflower verges (something that is becoming less common in so many places), seemingly untouched by any need to widen the road or trim the sides overly. Norwich itself has beautiful old trees lining the ring road, which is quite wide enough, so they don't need to remove them to provide a bigger route. In contrast to so many places, especially around the South East, traffic getting places quicker did not seem to be the driving force behind changes.

Having said that, there have been improvements. I should point out that I studied in Norwich, so I do remember it from some 30 years ago (of which more later). There is a new southern bypass since then, and to the North of the city, there has been a lot of redevelopment. It has not entirely stood still. But there is still a character to the city that I find in few other places. It is an elegant, beautiful city - quite an achievement, given that most cities are ugly sprawling monstrosities. Because it lags behind the times, it doesn't jump on every new idea, and so retains its character. Just because everywhere else is redeveloping like mad, Norwich doesn't feel a need to follow. Of course, being the back of beyond, nobody really want to move there, so they are under less housing pressure.

So yes, I did study there for 3 years, and I fell in love with the place. I am not sure how much of this I realised until I had moved away, but I still feel it today. The fact that I was there as a student means I am not just praising a place I have spent a week around during a summer holiday (although, I realise, being a student is rather like a 3-year long holiday). I know what it is like in the depths of winter - bitterly cold. And this was not just a nostalgia trip, seeing the place through rose-tinted glasses (OK, I probably do, as much as anywhere) - we didn't really visit my student haunts. This is at least as much a reflection of Norwich today.

When trying to write this, I wanted to find a phrase that summed up my feelings about the city. I came up with an odd one - it was a place I felt safe. I say odd, because it is the only place I have been propositioned, and it was a place that I went through some of my most anguished and agonising times. And yet I felt safe. This is not just physical safety - it is "spiritual" safety, because it is a place that I learned to think about my faith, I learnt that it is safe to do that.

So yes, Norfolk is, to an extent, stuck in the past. As I get older, I realise that this can be a positive. In the villages we visited, I noticed the lack of chain stores, meaning the prevalence of local shops. Not entirely - in Wroxham, half the town is owned by Roys, who seem to be running some sort of monopolistic campaign. Maybe "stuck" in the past is the wrong phrase - not succumbing as much to the MacDonaldisation of the town centres (although I was living there when MacDonalds arrived). Living in the past, in the sense of revelling, enjoying, delighting in the past.

Would I move back? In a flash.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

The changing role of the clergy

I was talking to a friend from twitter the other day, in the spacious garden of her large, 4 bedroom vicarage. In all honesty, for the area, the house is a moderate size place. Among other things, we discussed the possibilities that are being considered of demolishing that building and building 4 properties in its place, including a new vicarage and curates house, all of which would still be reasonably large sized properties.

There was a precedent for this, because the current vicarage sits in a part of the garden from the old vicarage.

It set me thinking about the changing role of clergy, which is, to an extent, shown in their houses - and what this means for the future role and place.

In times past, say 150 years ago, the vicar was often the appointment of the landed gentry, who needed someone to cater for the spiritual needs of their tenants, as he would look after the practical needs. That was the idea. They would often be people of semi-independent means, whose position in society was important. He would often not be married, and so need a houseful of people to look after him - even if he was married, his wife would have her own responsibilities.

It is worth considering, of course, that at a time when a normal-sized household would require the wife to be working full-time on cooking, cleaning and washing, having staff to assist with these was a necessity for larger houses, and places (like the vicarage) where people may be coming to stay. The vicarage would also be used as the office, so a vicar may have a personal assistant. One of the perks of all these roles was often a place to live, a room in the house. So the vicarage needed to be large, to serve it's function, and allow the vicar to server his function.

Of course, a large property needed a large garden, and it would often be used for entertainment purposes. There was a justification - in the context of the time - for large vicarages. They were places that were central parts of the community, and served the entire community. But times changed, and the need for large houses became less - the developments in home technology meant that the size of the household staff needed was reduced. This meant that the houses became unwieldy as a home for one person or family (still, often, a single man). There were changes in the role, and changes in the housing needed. Many of the houses were sold or demolished, and newer, smaller houses built.

This served for a little while, but soon the requirements changed again: the need twenty years ago was that clergy houses needed to fit in with the local area. I have known a number that were large, out of proportion to the area, and stood out. For so many, the size of property reflects the importance of the owners, so a slightly larger than average property made the clergy stand out as trying to be slightly better than those around them. It is unfortunate, with hindsight, that some clergy houses were built or rebuilt to reflect an outdated idea of the role of the clergy.

But what of the future? I think the model of tied clergy housing is outdated, because it no longer represents the way that most people live. At a time when many people lived in tied housing, having clergy in tied housing made sense. Today, when most people have to earn the money to buy their house, maybe this is the model that we should adopt for clergy: earning money for some of their week in the area, and using this to pay for their local accommodation. Clergy should live in the society, and be a part of this.

So yes, I am proposing part-time clergy. But I am suggesting this not because of cost-saving (in truth, it might cost more, if the church has to help pay for accommodation at real prices), but because this would bring the clergy more in touch with their congregation. Because work is such an important part of life for most people, to have the clergy also engaged in this, in a way and style that fit with their fellow worshippers.

And this would involve some significant changes to the way that church operates. But the church has become so dependent on the full-time clergy, youth workers, administrators etc., maybe it is time that we all re-engaged with making church the gathering of the people, not a place run by the "professionals", and supported by our money.

But maybe the church is far too settled in the receiving mode to change. Maybe the church is far too stuck in what once was to be different.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Just occasionally, there comes along a book that blows me away. In this case, I am rather late to the party, but there are good reasons for that, which we will see later. On holiday, I found this book, and thought I would give it a go, and I found an absolute gem of a book.

It was interesting that one of the influences on this book was Kurt Vonnegurt's Slaughterhouse Five, which I had just started reading at the same time. That was odd. Another influence is probably Laurence Stern and Tristram Shandy (another clever book), or possibly James Joyce, but without the incomprehensibility. It is a novel that relies on the book format, and uses that format cleverly and intelligently.

OK, there is a reason why I would probably have avoided this book when it first came out (some ten years ago). The event that triggered off my depression was the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre, and I have tended to avoid references and discussion of this, because I have found it triggery. I noted that this book had references to this, but I hadn't realised quite how closely connected it was. However, I found this story therapeutic instead, probably because of the way that it was written.

The story is told from the perspective of a 9 year old Oskar Schell, working through his dads death in the 9/11 attack. He finds a key that he believes will help him find out more about his dad, and he spends a lot of the book looking for the lock that fits the key - which one of some 16Bn locks in New York. When he finds the answer to this puzzle, it doesn't, in fact, bring him closer to his dad, but the search has enabled him to move on. He doesn't find the answers that he wanted, but he does find some resolution. In truth, as I read this and worked through Oskars loss, I also found some answers, some resolution.

There is another story behind this, which is Oskars grandfather in Dresden during the bombing. There is, I think, a parallel between the devastation in Dresden, and the resultant rebuilding of lives beyond this - leading, two generations later to Oskar - and the necessary rebuilding of lives after 9/11. It is a story of rebuilding after destruction. It is a story of finding answers that are not necessarily the answers to the questions we are asking. It is the story of finding meaning in the meaningless.

In Oskars search for meaning, a search that is ultimately fruitless but in which he does find answers, I have found healing for some of my pain, for some of the struggles I have had.

That was most unexpected.

Because the story is written from the view of a 9 year old, there is a rawness of emotion expressed that is often glossed over by older people. There is an expectation of finding meaning that is far more hopeful than most adults have. There is a reality and a belief that the cynicism of age tends to dull. Most of all, there is an acceptance, at the end, that there is no meaning to be found. Oskar handles this because he has been on this journey, because he has spent time trying to find meaning. In the end, he is not distraught that there is no answer - he realises that he was asking the wrong question in the first place.

I think so often I ask the wrong questions. I then get frustrated when I cannot find answers. In Oskars search and revelation, there is a reminder that sometimes, I need to take the answer given, and search back for the question.


I am sorry that this posting has taken so long to get out. I have had an interesting and challenging few weeks, and have not been able to get any posts to a finished state. There are plenty more in a started state, plenty of ideas brewing, but finishing them has proved difficult. I hope I can do better in the weeks to come! Thank you.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Ready Player One

I have recently finished reading this book, and it does raise some interesting questions. I will try to explore them without giving anything away about the story. There are three aspects that struck me:

1. When everything that we know is online, we need to know who owns the online. When we search the web, we use Google, who know and take the details of what we search for and when. When we communicate with others with email, we use Google, who track what we do, who we talk to, what we say.

When we use our phones, we might use an Android phone, again, written by Google. They can collect information from there about what we do on our phones, what applications we install.

Our web browser may well be Google too, if we use Chrome, and when we want to know where to go, we use Google maps. We trust Google with a lot of our information: Google owns the online.

Of course, we might refuse to go down the Google route, and have Microsoft or Apple as the organisation who own our online presence. But the truth is, one or other does, and we should know this, know that these companies own the online world.

Not to mention that if we buy anything online, there is a good chance that Amazon is involved. They do control a substantial portion of the online e-commerce world, by providing supply and distribution, or by owning the cloud computers that the software is running on.

However much we might not like it, we do have a lot of out information online, we all have a presence in the online world. We should know who owns it, and we should consider how much we trust them.

2. It is easy to forget the online world can impact the real world, the offline world. I for one do try to separate my online persona and my off-line one: not that I am different people between these environments, just that I try not to let on too much about who I am in real life online. Part of this is because information publicly available online is not safe.

But the reality is that someone who was determined could identify who I was in real life based on my online activity. This is true for all of us, however careful we are, not least because any information that is required to be made available to the public is available online, making it much easier to trace people. It is also the case, because a whole lot of information that is not public is accessible online, with a bit of work (not always legitimate).

So the truth is, if you don't like what I write in one of my blogs you could, if you were so inclined, find out who I am, where I live or work, and pay me a visit. I can hope that you post comments to me instead, engage in discussion. But I cannot dismiss the reality that the online writing and my real life could - and occasionally do - intersect.

3. Online community is real. I have been in so many discussions about whether online "church" is a real substitute for physical community. The truth is that it can be, although it need not be. I suspect a lot of the dismissal of "online community" comes from people who have been part of less welcoming and friendly communities.

But I have been a part of the Ship of Fools discussion boards for many years now. Aspects of this community are real and genuine, as much so as any other community. Occasionally, I will meet members of the community, which is always nice. I also meet other people, other Christians, who provide me with face-to-face interaction.

This last week, I have been on holiday, but someone I know has been extremely ill and requiring hospitalisation. I have kept up with events, and offered my prayer though technology. I have been as much part of that mini-community as I can, while being away, and that has been valuable. It is no less real, just because it is electronically mediated. Of course, practical help is harder, but I know there are people giving that.

Of course, there are dangers. There is always the danger that someone will present themselves online differently to how they actually are. I have experienced this, and it can be very damaging to a community. I have also experienced someone doing this in a real life group, and it is equally damaging. It is not purely an online problem. There is a danger that people will substitute virtual interaction for "real life" interaction - in the same way that people can spend all of their time at church and in church activities, and avoid anything and anyone else.

The book overall does have weaknesses. It may be a little simplistic. It may be a little more Willy Wonka than The Matrix. But it is a good read, and it does make you think. Well, it made me thing, at least.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

I am not a "Done"

In a recent report, people like me who have left the church were referred to as "Dones". I took exception to this - Robb Sutherland pointed out that this was not the worst of the churches terminology, which is true, but it applies to ME, which makes it personal.

I do realise that this is partly to make it like the other category they talked about "Nones" (those whose answer to a religion question put "None"). I know how churches like to have lists of items that rhyme (or alliterate, or form an acrostic), and how no doctrine can be acceptable if it cannot be expressed in such terms, but that is no excuse for labelling me with a term that I find uncomfortable.

The reason I have a problem with the term is that is defined as people who have said they are "done" with church. It sounds like an individualistic expression that I have got over my "church" phase, that I have moved on from this. There are people who have done that, moved on, decided that they have "done" with church. But that is not me, and that is not many of those who I have spoken to who have left the church.

At heart, I think the reason is that I feel the church has rejected me, rather than the other way round. The church has not been able to encapsulate my expression of faith. And yet, if that is valid Christianity (and I believe it is), what is more, if it is valid evangelical Christianity (and I believe it is), then it is the church which seems to have decided that I am not a key expression of this style of faith.

So I am not a "done". I would accept that I have, for now, stopped attending church, as it is not helpful in this stage of my life. But it is not a selfish, huff, stumping off because the church doesn't do what I want. It is a conscious, careful decision that the church was not a positive influence in my faith journey. They had rejected the route I was taking.

Why is this important? Because it is about where changes happen. If it is my fault, me storming off, then I need to change, to re-confirm to the church's expectation. That seems to be the implication off being a "done". Whereas if it is the church that has rejected me - and many others: lets be clear this is not just personal - then it is the church that may need to change, to find a way of accepting me.

In truth, there is probably a bit of both. But I believe that the church does need to make the largest move. If it has any real concern about me and people like me - who have been core members of the church, but find that the church does not move - it needs to be radically different, radically changed. I didn't leave because of some small, minor disagreement. I left because I believe that the church is no longer the place to support my faith and my engagement with others.

This is not just about me. the church is haemorrhaging good, involved, top people. So often the answer is to draw more people into the church, whereas the real solution is for the church to move and find ways of accepting people on the edges, to be making the edges the centre.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Hapax legomenon

Apart from being probably the best answer ever given in University Challenge, this is something that has some significance to those who study the Bible, because the Bible contains a number of these.

Hapax Legomenon

 For those who cannot be bothered to read the wiki link, the basic meaning is a word that is only used once in a context. So a word used only, say, in one of Homers poems and nowhere else would be difficult, if not impossible, to translate. The best anyone could do would be to look at the word in context, the structure of the word, see what clues can be obtained to the meaning. Using all of these skills, an idea of the meaning of the word can be arrived at - but it is not definitive.

In terms of biblical studies, this is significant, because it means that certain words are meaningless, as we have no definitive idea as to how to translate them. In fact, the problem is wider than just words that are used only once, because words used 2 or 3 times can be challenging. The context is important, because a word used in, say formal written texts may have a different sense or meaning than the same word used in a less formal letter.

As much of the New testament is written in koine Greek, we need contexts that are also in the same style, the same type of writing. As this style is not very formalised, it could vary across usages (not unlike someone writing with a regional style - using the same words, but with different, cultural meanings).

What is interesting is that, in 1890, there were some 300 such words. Today there are just 25, meaning that more recent translations of the Bible are important, because they may genuinely be more accurate to the original meaning. Of course, it is possible that the translators of earlier version were divinely inspired to choose the right word, but that is a matter of faith, not scholarship. My understanding of the Bible needs both - good quality scholarship, and faith that work can help me to understand the meaning of the passages.

It should be pointed out that these 25 are the words that have just one occurrence. There are others whose meaning is still not definitive, because there are still just a few references. The issue of unusual and rare words is still a major one, despite improvements in our understanding in the last century - the issue is still there, that we don't actually know the meaning of some of the words in the Bible.

One of the more significant is in the Lord Prayer. The phrase "Give us today our daily bread" is actually unclear - the word "daily" is unique in ancient writings (ἐπιούσιον). It may mean "daily", but maybe "bountiful", and maybe, for all we know, "mouldy, dry, scummy and poisonous".

And yet, there is from this the idea that we should "Read the Bible, Pray every day". The interpretation of this word as a daily need to feed ourselves is given Biblical backing. Now I don't have a problem with daily routines as a good idea, and, as it happens, I do tend to read the bible (or some meditation on a passage) on a daily basis. But I do this because it works for me, not because it is a necessity.

For me, that is the core issue. Too many doctrinal positions, fervently argued positions, and expressions of hatred to others come from small passages of the Bible. Far too much is put on far too little, whereas real Biblical doctrine is well supported throughout the Bible, and not just dependent on a few passages (especially not a few passages that may have unreliable translations). It doesn't mean that these ideas are necessarily wrong, just that claiming them as "biblically inspired" is mistaken and dangerous.

And just to be clear, there are plenty of Biblical exhortations to care for the poor, the homeless, the dispossessed, the widows and children, with good, solid translation behind them. Maybe we should start by concentrating on these - the areas that are relatively clear, well attested challenges, before we start making Christianity about daily Bible reading. OK, it means some harder work, some proper study of the Bible (not just wordsearching something that sounds good), and some real challenges to our lifestyles. But then, I always thought that was what it should be about.

Friday, 12 June 2015

The detectives

This was a series on BBC recently over three days, following the Manchester Police Sex crimes team. I was, in case you missed it, nothing to do with the Jasper Carrott spoof series.

There were a number of really interesting aspects of this show, not least the real challenges and difficulties these teams face. They have to deal with immensely traumatic situations, and they have to approach this with a different approach from most other detective work. It is not for everyone, and it is not easy work, even by comparison with other detective work.

There is another aspect that makes this work very difficult, which is the the high incidence of these crimes, and the low conviction rates achieved. They said that about one in ten investigations results in a conviction, which means that nine of the investigations they work on - and often put a lot of time into - will not result in a satisfactory result. This figure is, I believe, taking out those accusations that are not pursued by the officers at all.

There is often a complaint from women who say that they are not always believed. Alternatively, there is a complaint that the police do not always take complaints seriously. The truth is that often the police know that there is no chance of a conviction, for all sorts of reasons. Crucially, an inability to obtain a conviction does not mean that the complainant is lying. It means that formal legal processes are unlikely to produce a satisfactory result. For the officers involved, putting complainants through what is often a harrowing process without a chance of a positive conclusion is a bad idea.

The show also demonstrated the real challenges of performing these investigations.When there is an act of personal violence, there are usually signs. Even historically, there are likely to be medical reports, hospital admissions or doctors notes. When there is damage to property, this is normally visible; in cases of theft, often there is some evidence that a crime has been committed.

The problem with sexual crimes is that there may not always be clear evidence of an offence. In the immediate aftermath of an attack there may be evidence of sexual activity. The problem is that an offence in this case is about consent, something that can be one persons word against another. Proving that consent was not obtained can be complicated, in particular if drugs of any sort were involved.

I should point out at this juncture that I am NOT suggesting for one moment that significant numbers of women lie about being raped or assaulted. I will return to this later, but the issue in this program was about obtaining legal convictions. When I say that "proving consent was not obtained", this is not saying that the women making these claims are lying. It is saying that getting legal proof is complicated - and legal proof requires something more than one persons word against another.

I want to return to an important point made earlier, because there is another facet I want to explore. One woman who had testified about historical abuse found that the particular charge relating to her accusations resulted in an acquittal. Because this was one of a large number of charges, the accused would not have received any different sentence if her charge had been proven. And yet she found the acquittal hurt and disconcerted her. The weight of her attack, which had been reinvigorated by the investigation, was not lifted because he was acquitted. I do feel for her, because what she wanted was not so much the sentence, but the conviction, the proof that she was telling the truth.

And yet she almost certainly was telling the truth - I have no reason to doubt her story. Yet he was acquitted, one presumes because they were not convinced "beyond all reasonable doubt" that he was guilty. The reason here was lack of evidence.

There was another case of a women who claimed she had been raped outside a nightclub. The problems started because she was intoxicated, and could not clearly remember what had happened. Additionally, there was a witness who gave a different account of the events. Finally, they contacted the accused, who gave a different story again. There was also some CCTV footage that supported some aspects of some of the stories and negated others. In particular, the claim from the accused that he had left her happy and content was clearly mistaken.

This case demonstrates the real problem of this type of conviction: there is a lot of evidence that they had sex together, and both accept this. The problem is whether there was consent, and the woman could not be certain due to her intoxicated state. In this case, he was acquitted of the charge.

Here is the point. The legal process seeks an answer to a specific question: is this person guilty of this specific and defined charge beyond all reasonable doubt. In fact, there is a subtle variation on this, because we should add that this guilt or innocence is based on the broad weight of evidence. It is rare in these types of cases that the guilt or innocence is absolutely clear - there is often some conflicting evidence or testimony. Someone can be found guilty even if there seems to be evidence indicating their innocence, that nobody explains or refutes, if the broad weight of evidence is against the accused. The process is not scientific, in that there is no need to explain anomalous results or information.

A verdict of guilty means that the evidence is sufficient that the accused committed an offence. It doesn't mean that they are an evil person, a regular rapist or abuser. It may be that they lose control when they are drunk. It may be that they misunderstand the signals. This is not to dismiss the crime of rape, it is to say that the action is not necessarily premeditated, that the convicted person may not have realised that they were doing something wrong at the time. It is a simple statement that, all the evidence taken into account, that act constitutes rape (or abuse or whatever). Let me be clear: the simple message is "don't rape women", but maybe I would add "don't rape women, even accidentally".

A verdict of innocence - whether this goes to a court of law or not - does not mean that the person did not commit a crime. It means that there is insufficient weight of evidence that the accused committed that specific crime. It may be that the accused is lying about what happened, but it may also be that their memory and recollection of the events are flawed - memory is imperfect. Again, this is not to excuse the person, it is that there is insufficient evidence from a legal perspective to convict.

As a final comment, if a woman feels that they have been raped, then I am minded to accept that as fact. Rape is an act on the mind as much as anything else, and the sense of having been violated is sufficient for me to accept their perspective. However, this doesn't mean that somebody else is (legally) guilty of rape. It means that someone else has not listened or taken notice sufficiently. Somebody has done something wrong. But what they have done wrong may not constitute a legal definition of "rape".

Sunday, 7 June 2015

What do we do now?

Following a disappointing election result, the next question is, what now?

The simple answer is to protest still in whatever ways are legal, possible and sensible. We have lost the chance to make a point for another five years, but in that time, we need to electioneer for five years. The fight is not finished, it is just starting.

One of Camerons early promises was to scrap the Human Rights Act. I am pleased to see that this proposal has not made the Queens Speech, which means this is unlikely to proceed this year. The truth is that Cameron seems to feel that "human" is not sufficient to grant someone rights. This is wrong. People have rights irrespective of whether they are rich or poor, attractive or not, loveable or hateful. Scrapping the HRA would have meant that abuse of the poor by the rich - something that Cameron clearly supports - would increase.

One aspect of this protesting in whatever way possible is by telling the truth, not accepting the lies. One of the biggest lies is Austerity, but it is important to understand why it is a lie. The word was used deliberately because it has positive associations. When we hear the word, the association are with wartime austerity, the sense of "all pulling together" - that it is good thing we are all working towards as a nation, as a people.

But that is not what the current measures are about. They are completely different. We do not need "austerity" in this country, because there is PLENTY OF MONEY. The problem is that the money is in the hands of the wealthy, and not the poor. The problem is that the distribution of the wealth is wrong. If there was a more even distribution of wealth in this country, we wouldn't need "austerity" measures, because there would be plenty of money to cover the welfare of the needy. If we were to collect all of the evaded tax (that is, the illegally unpaid tax money), then the welfare budget could be increased, not cut; the NHS could be better funded. Even more, if we were to introduce measures to enable affordable housing across the country (and especially in London), we would enable the next generation to have some hope of being able to live.

In truth, if we were to take one of the principles of austerity, and focus on those things that we consider important as a nation: not just pandering to the rich, but supporting the welfare state, the NHS, enabling education for all, a belief in the value of all people. If we focussed on making that happen, we could do it. What is more, I think those values are some of the core British values. I might include a welcoming of strangers, those in trouble, those in need.

So what can we do? Tell the truth, because it is very clear that this government does not tell the truth - they lie to us. Some of their lies are just political manipulation of figures (which means we have to find the truth behind them), but some are just outright lies. Countering these, telling the truth is important. Getting the real story out is important.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Human genitalia are ugly

If your response to this is "mine aren't, let me send you a picture", then please don't, and try not to be so predictable.

Just to clarify what I am saying here, they are erotic, exciting, and so can be very pleasurable to look at. Actually, the naked human form can be very pleasurable to look at, as a whole.

But genitalia are not. They are ugly and functional.That makes sense, because they have a function, and they are very good at fulfilling that function. those functions do not require them to be pretty.

So why am I writing this? Because there seems to be a strange trend of men sending pictures of their genitalia to women, because they are convinced that this will encourage the women to have sex with them. Now this might work for some, but I suspect these are the exceptions. Or maybe these are the women who would have sex with you whatever, they just wanted to be asked.

But there is another reason for raising this, not just because I want to discuss genitalia on the blog. I think the problem is actually more widespread.

Some people are not very attractive.

The usual response to this is that people are attractive in all sorts of ways - people are beautiful on the inside. I think this is sanctimonious drivel personally, because it promotes the core problem, which is that "beauty" is the prime driver that people are valued by. We value beauty so have to identify beauty in everyone.

Whereas I don't think we should value people by how attractive they are, in whatever way. I think we should value people because they are people, made in the image of God, and unique and wonderful as they are. People are not valuable because they are beautiful, attractive, intelligent or whatever. This is as bad as valuing people by their wealth or earning ability. David Cameron's desire to do away with the Human Rights Act is, I believe, because he does not accept that simply "being human" should confer rights. Trying to find "beauty" or "attractiveness" in people is a way of saying that they are not valuable without these qualities.

We are. I speak as someone who is not particularly attractive, outside or inside. I am an ugly person, broken, twisted, damaged and grumpy with it. I am twisted and callused, often stupid and unhelpful.

And God loves me like that.

Some people I find attractive. Others I don't. What is important is that this is not how I value them. Some people I get on well with, others I don't. All are valuable, all are worthy of respect.

So yes, genitalia are ugly, but functional. They don't have to be pretty to be appealing to others, and they have to be functional. Some people are ugly, and God loves them. So I should, and not try to find something worth loving in them.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Here is an idea

I have recently received an energy bill, and on the side there is a note reminding me that I could get cheaper energy by switching supplier or tariff. I presume that this is a legal requirement, because I cannot see that the company are willing putting it there. I presume it comes from the findings that many suppliers and tariffs are complicated and customers might not be getting the best deal.

Of course, the core reason for this is that the energy companies are there to make money, and so are not going to encourage their customers to pay them less or move to another supplier.

So I have an idea: Nationalise the energy companies. Then those in charge can ensure that everyone gets the cheapest tariff available. There would be no need to encourage people to change companies, because there would only be one. There would be a possibility of tracking usage, and ensuring that all customers are automatically on the one that provides them with the best value for their usage.

Surely this is a much better option?

And we can go further. I am not going to discuss the re-nationalisation of the railways - that is discussed and debated elsewhere. However there is another business that I think should be considered.

Something that has become clear over the last few years, with the economic crisis, is that the financial sector is the most crucial to our economy, especially as we have destroyed our manufacturing sector. The financial sector is "too big to fail".

As this sector is so vital, it is clear that we should nationalise the banks. This would have a number of crucial impact. For a start, there would be no need to bail the banks out, as they would already be government owned. The massive profits that are currently earned by the banks, and handed out in bonuses, would then provide much needed income for the country.

Further to that, the bankers would become civic servants, and should then be paid as civic servants. Rather than millions going in bonuses, the bankers would be appropriately remunerated, and in receipt of appropriate honours for successes. We are given many assurances that the finance sector is important because of the money it brings into the country, these changes would, I am sure, be welcomed by all. They would result in far more money for the country, and enable us to manage and control this sector of the market, ensure that it stays safe and behaves, meaning that none of the risky investment strategies that plunged us into the financial crisis would reoccur.

Of course, the banks are not the only part of the financial sector, however, they are the most significant, and by nationalising these, it should exercise some control over other areas. I am, of course, talking about the merchant banks - the high street operations need to be separated from these, and more regulated, but they would seem to operate OK as competitive shops for our normal money.

Now who could really object to this? It provides significantly increased income for the government, the country. It brings the banking sector under control, and so the multitude of regulations and regulatory bodies could be reduced. The loathing that bankers currently face would be reduced, and it would send a strong message to the rest of the financial sector to ensure they do not take stupid risks.


Thursday, 21 May 2015

The church is the only place we teach by a speech

The title is a tweet I saw recently, and it struck a chord. The church is pretty well the only place where we consider a sermon - a speech - to be a means of communicating information.

Now whenever I raise this, the response comes back that "sermons aren't primarily about teaching, they are exhortation, encouragement etc." I sort of get this, at least in places that do have other means of teaching, of learning. But I still think that the pedagogy of the church is way behind anywhere else. There is nowhere else where the core teaching is done in this way.

I do understand that some universities still work of a lecture approach, but the majority of the teaching is on the back of this, writing essays, attending seminars, using the lecture material as one piece of insight into the topic, acknowledging that the main learning will be through the engagement with this material. And I know that for many, home groups provide the "seminar"-like environment, so for those who hear the sermon and go to a home group, and where the home group is genuinely engaging with the material in a more in-depth way, this might work. However, most home-group leaders are not experts enough to really help people take the material as real learning. What is more, they also have pastoral requirements, so the teaching aspect may get sidelined.

The other place that there are "speeches" given as information is conferences. I am not talking about Christian conferences, some of which naturally follow the church model, I am talking about professional conferences. In most cases, the learning material is partly provided in the talks - and they are always worth going to if the subject is of interest - but this is supported by notes and papers so that the real value of learning from these events can be drawn out and used in the weeks afterwards. It is usually only the "keynote" speech which is an exhortation, introduction or encouragement, which people are less expected to remember as such, but to be encouraged by to take what else they learn and use it.

So is this the purpose of sermons? Without the rest of the detail, the keynote is hot-air. It may be enthusing, especially if the speaker is a well-known personality within the field, but it is unlikely to be the information from this that people take home with them.

I know from my experience that if I am to learn something - a new programming language or methodology for example, something I have had to do a few times in my career - I need to have two things. Firstly, some starting information to get me up and running with the new idea, which is often a course or self-teaching package. Then I need to use it, explore it, work out how it actually works and what I can actually do. It is this latter phase where I can make the real difference.

I know that is schools and colleges, they try to do something similar -introducing ideas and then working with them in a range of ways, so that everyone can engage with them, everyone can find their own way of understanding the concept. We all learn in different ways, so I am not suggesting the my approach is the "right" one: I am trying to say that people don't tend to learn from talks. Most training is done by introduction, exploration with slides, and then experimentation by the student.

I do recall, interestingly, when I first went to university and had my first lectures, that I thought they were a superb way of teaching, because for me, I could learn well from them. What I can now see with hindsight is that this was only the case because a lot of the basic information I already knew. In that situation, it worked really well to formalise it, organise it, and give me a framework that I needed to understand it better. As I progressed, it worked less well.

I am a great believer in sermons. However, I think they need to be something different from the typical talk. This is difficult in the position I was in when I was told what my vicar thought a sermon should be. But a sermon should be a teaching opportunity. In my view, it should be an opportunity to explore where people are, what issues are concerning them. It should be a chance for everyone to work out for themselves, with help, the implications of world events/local events/personal events. I believe that the Christian community should seek these opportunities to find a spiritual insight and perspective on the issues that we face. For me, that is what a sermon should be - a genuine learning experience for everyone, in different ways.

But I really struggle to know what the real purpose of a more traditional sermon is, a talk that is without a pedagogic environment. Most sermons are forgotten about within hours or days - so what is the point? We should scrap them, and replace them with something else that actually does something useful, something valid that people will learn from, grow from.

Unless, dare I say it, there is a conspiracy to not help people learn, because if they learn, they might think, and if they think, they may disagree. If that was the worry, then sermons are the ideal mechanism.

Saturday, 16 May 2015


NOTE: Trigger warning on this post and the links.

A few weeks ago, there was a superb Panorama program on the BBC looking at the prevalence of middle-age, male suicide. On the back of that, I have read the Samaritans men, suicide and society report, which makes for quite difficult reading. That is the reason it has taken me so long to put this posting together, as the report is quite long and hard going.

I would warn people that the program and the report are very difficult to read and watch, and are not recommended for those who might find them upsetting.

The starting point was that the incidence of suicide among middle-age men shown a notable peak. Where most other groups have shown a decline, this group hasn't and is either bucking the general downward trend, or moving upwards. There is a problem with this demographic, and this program and report try to address the reasons behind this. I will attempt to provide some summary of these - although summarising 130 pages of report into one post is not simple! Which is one reason that this is such a long post.

The core reason identified was a problem with men losing their grasp on what it meant to be a man, a crisis in terms of their masculinity. This can come in a range of ways, and it is likely that multiple challenges occur at once. And masculinity is in crisis, not that this is necessarily a bad thing (or necessarily a good thing), but it is does have an impact on people.

One of the significant challenges is when men lose their jobs. In fact, this is probably the major factor in a masculinity crisis. Men still have a sense that in working, they do what they are expected to do, what they are supposed to do. However much we talk about the importance of people irrespective of their employment status, there are still many - of any gender, but especially males - for whom they see their definition in terms of their work. As a society we still define people by their work position and status. While "housewife" or "full-time mother" are perfectly valid and acceptable, "house-husband" and "full-time dad" are not so acceptable. Men who do not have an acceptable work title can feel like they are less than true men, that their masculinity is compromised.

A related aspect is that work in the UK - and the west as a whole - has changed over the last 50 years or so. Many of the more manual, physical typically male jobs has diminished - something that Mrs Thatcher can take some significant blame for. What this means is that, for some, the loss of a physical job can mean that they have to take an office job, or a "soft" job, something that they feel is less manly. Once again, this can lead to a sense of loss of manhood of masculinity. For men in middle age, they are unlikely to achieve a role that has anything that they can feel redeems their sense of self-worth. It is more likely to be a menial job - one that is probably demeaning whoever does it, but for someone trying to find purpose and meaning through their work, this is even worse.

I should point out that this perception is not necessarily true - their friends and family do not necessarily feel that they are "less of a man". That is not relevant in this case, because it is the potential suicides perception of their role, their position, rather that the truth. What the report makes clear is that perception is of primary importance, because it is the perception of an individual about their situation that may drive them to a suicidal act. Suicidal behaviour is driven by feelings and beliefs, not by objective truth.

It is also worth saying that the changes in employment and in the entire job situation has been exacerbated in the last few years, under the Tory government. As unemployment increases, and as unemployment is increasingly stigmatised by the government, this makes the likelihood of middle-aged men taking their own lives higher. Although the precise cause-and-effect is hard to define, and there are plenty of counter-examples, government policies that stigmatise the unemployed while making satisfying work harder to get, will lead to more deaths.

There are also changes to the functions of child-rearing in the family over the last 50 years or so. What was once the preserve of women became something that was expected to be shared between both genders. And yet, when relationships break up, it is often the men who are separated from their children, and this becomes traumatic. Having made the efforts to open up, show emotion, become openly emotionally attached to their children (something that seems obvious, but was not the case a number of years ago), they are suddenly torn away from this. The sense of loss, of failure, can be serious. This is especially true when combined with a perceived failure to fulfil the other fatherly expectation of earning the money to keep them. The inability to be a father in any more than the genetic sense can be very disheartening.

There is another related aspect here, that of the break up of relationships - something that is far more prevalent today than it has been. At a time when men might be very focussed on work, and would have expected to be supported at home, they find that this support is not there. Middle age is when many men find that work challenges are at their highest, often because they are pushing to get their final promotion, the final role in their working life, which is probably the hardest to get. It may be that the children are growing up and they are looking forward - either positively or negatively - to them not being at home any more. It is often a time when they realise that work will not provide everything in their lives, and so they are looking for something more out of life - and so to have what is for many their only non-work contact removed can be devastating.

The other side of this problem is that men deal with problems, stress, depression, suicidal thoughts and anything else in different ways to women (and those currently in middle age deal with things differently to the younger men). This part is rather more personal, because I do recognise most of this myself.

Firstly, we don't talk very well. Talking therapies - which are the mainstay of support and assistance for many people suffering disillusionment about life. Talking does not necessarily mean formal counselling - the report makes it clear that many women will talk about their problems in informal ways as well. Younger people are also better at talking. The particular group looked at do not have this outlet. What is more, men are generally better at hiding their feelings (and at not reading or seeing the real state of other people), meaning that sometimes men will take their own lives while even those closest to them were sure there was nothing wrong. Even when pressed, men are often dismissive of their own feelings and thoughts. Talking, in some form, is often the first step toward acknowledging the problems people are facing, and finding ways around them. Men are notoriously bad at going to doctors for "trivial matters", which is another place that problems can be identified early. So many of the early ways to identify problems are not ones that men take, and so early identification is lost - one suspects that this early identification, however precisely it occurs, saves many lives.

The second issue is that men often self-medicate. This can be with alcohol, work, activity, all sorts of things. By medicating ourselves, by actions that numb the pain, this serves to delay the crisis, rather than make an actual difference. Also, we have a tendency to keep our feelings in, not talk about them, but bury them. The result is that, at some point, this is liable to explode. Some (often minor) issue serves as the trigger, which can lead to a crisis, and can push someone to suicide. This introvert approach to dealing with problems can lead to a crisis causing a suicide attempt. The self medication can also be thrill seeking, risk taking, and this does mean that men often use more serious methods for suicide attempts than women.

Finally, historically, I did wonder whether some of the changes in our society have caused this peak to "appear", rather than "grow". When more of this demographic worked in industrial roles, I wondered whether some of the "industrial accidents" were actually suicides. What has actually changed is that they are now being classified appropriately. This means that the problem is not actually a recent one, but something that has been recently identified against the significant reduction in other suicides.

Conclusions? mainly that this is a problem, and telling this demographic to "talk to someone" is not necessarily helpful. Being prepared to listen is important, and an understanding that just being there for people is sometimes so important. Some of lifes events, that are often blandly dismissed as being "unfortunate", can have, for some people, very significant impact. For many, it is some minor issue that finally breaks them. and the loneliness that is associated with this is tragic.