political paranoia

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This bloggage carries a ‘harumph’ warning. It is fuelled by deep dissatisfaction about the direction of politics in the UK and other countries and a fear that we are bumbling our way to a crisis of global proportions. If you’re not up for that I suggest that you head for the fun and funny stuff section.

You have been warned.

Is it just me or are some politicians getting more extreme in order to gain popular support? In the UK and USA there are politicians who are seeking (or have) the highest office in the land and they are making statements that are designed to attract attention and appear to be on the side of ‘ordinary people’. Or am I being paranoid?

I consider myself to be ‘ordinary’ and I can conclusively say that these ‘populist politicians’ are not on my side when they make comments that fuel racism, stoke the fires of the irrational fear of the foreigner and pander to a right wing agenda. Part of making a nation great again seems to be about denigrating other nations so that a nation feels superior to it. In the USA the President regularly tweets in a critical manner about other people, nations and situations.

Another tactic that I see at work is the ability to make statements that have no basis in fact, or at best are a half-truth. And when that is pointed out the critics are the ones branded as peddling ‘fake news’! Or am I being paranoid?

Truth is the first casualty in this campaign of contradictory communication. In the UK the Referendum on whether to leave the EU had a headline figure that was emblazoned on a big red bus that said, “We give the EU £350million a week let’s fund our NHS instead.” Now it’s arguable that the amount of money that flows to the EU is less than that (some say £100million less each week!), but this ‘fact’ ignores the UK also receives a substantial rebate, it receives agricultural and other subsidies,research grants and it benefits from the free trade environment within the EU. It’s so disingenuous, but once the headline has been released into the wild it gains a notoriety and life of its own that no amount of ‘fact checking’ can remove from the public consciousness.

It was very clever and played to the self-centredness and indignation of those who would vote ‘Leave’, but it was a lie, and has subsequently been criticised as “a clear misuse of official statistics” by the UK Statistics Authority. Boris Johnson, one of the candidates to become our next Prime Minister, was the leading propagator of this lie. In the USA the President denies that climate change is a thing or that it has its roots in human activity – denying the truth of the vast majority of scientific research. His actions in leaving international climate change agreements could condemn the planet to serious damage!

If truth becomes defined by the loudest voice then it ceases to have value and politics has become a pantomime of populist personality propaganda. The politicians that seem to be the most popular are those with the most apparent flaws in character and frequently seem to put their foot in it when they open their mouth. I don’t believe that they are as daft as this appears. It’s portayed as them being a ‘character’ or laughed off, while truth lies trampled and unnoticed in the dirt. Or am I being paranoid?

It seems to me that much of this ‘populist’ politics is led by business and financial interests. The politicians at the head of these movements are wealthy, privileged and are not affected in any way by the impact of their actions. They can cope if markets crash because they have investments in many different places. They don’t need to queue for a foodbank, live without money when their benefits are stopped while an assessment takes place or make a choice about whether to buy food or clothes for their children. Yet their policies condemn more and more people to this existence while they celebrate tax cuts for the rich and get excited about how business will save the world.

These politicians are mostly isolated from the real world – ironically the ‘ordinary’ people from whom they are seeking to win support – and seek to blame someone else (immigrants, the EU, other countries) for the negative impact of their policies on the most vulnerable in their countries. Have we seen this sort of thing in the 20th Century after World War 1 when there was a rise of nationalistic fervour and the nation’s ills were blamed on others that began innocently enough and culminated in the most hideous acts in human history? Or am I being paranoid?

And how does the prevailing economic system make sense? Almost all of the governments in the world have borrowed money in order to carry out their policies. But that has to be paid back doesn’t it? And where will the wealth come from in order to pay it back? Taxation? Maybe, but there’s only so much money available from the taxpayers. So the rest is borrowed to repay the loans. But that has to be paid back doesn’t it? The debts rise inexorably while the ability to repay them diminishes. In the UK over the life of the Conservative Government we have been treated to ‘austerity’ which was designed in order to restore our country’s finances to a place where we lived within our means. Between 2010 and 2019 more than £30 billion in spending reductions have been made to things like welfare payments, housing subsidies, local council budgets, police services and social services. And the impact has been on the poorest and most vulnerable in our society while the wealthy have carried on relatively unaffected. And have nine years of austerity reduced our deficit? Well, the Office for National Statistics tells us that the deficit is decreasing. But the general government gross debt was £1,763.8 billion at the end of the financial year ending March 2018 and it’s still increasing! Am I being paranoid?

Our political system and the reporting of it is such that personality seems to be more important than substance and the media is keener on promoting their own preferences or prejudices in the way that they report the activities and words of their favourite puppets than in proclaiming truth. And people seem to have lost the ability to discern when they are being sold a lie and take on board what they are told in the ‘news’ as being the truth. In May 2019 Nigel Farage made his 33rd appearance on BBC Question Time – more than any other MP even though his party has no MPs! And the public are unwitting accomplices in this as they forget (or choose to ignore) that they have chosen the media outlet that they prefer, which reinforces their own preferences and prejudices, rather than listening to the voice that proclaims that the emperor has no clothes. Or am I being paranoid?

Don’t worry, the harumph is nearly over. You see I believe that there is a different way. Not all politicians are like this. I see many members of parliament (of all parties) whose reason for being MPs is to serve not to self-promote. I see many members of parliament whose voices are raised in protest at the lies. I want to thank them, encourage them, pray for them and (if I lived in their constituency) vote for them. It doesn’t have to be like this.

I am not advocating communism or socialism, certainly not in their current national incarnations that lead to oppressive regimes founded on a flawed atheistic view of life where there is the same inequality between those in power and the poor as there is in capitalist countries. I am advocating a new politics based on love and justice. What if society existed to benefit all, not just the rich, and there was a model in which justice and love were the main motivators for policies. What if we really did what Jesus encouraged and ‘love our neighbour’ and seek the best for everyone else? If everyone did that, what sort of society would we live in? Or am I being idealistic?

Be blessed, be a blessing

solving or resolving?

Recently, in order to make an online order up to the amount that qualified for free delivery, I bought a Rubik’s Cube. Technically it isn’t a Rubik’s Cube because it is not an official one, but you know what I mean.

Rubik's cube 3

When they first came out I was a teenager and I got hold of one. I learnt how to solve it and spent a lot of free time trying to solve it as quickly as possible. I was delighted when I managed to do it in 45 seconds on one occasion, and my average got down to about 1 minute. There are a few moves that you have to know, and of course you need to know where and when to do them. I was pleased with myself.

I don’t know that I could solve the cube as quickly as that now, but I am enjoying the challenge of solving it (each time is almost certainly different to the last because of the number of permutations of a cube). There is something satisfying about being able to transform a mixed up cube back to its solved state. However my pride at being able to solve the cube was put in perspective when I saw a video of people solving the cube in about 6 seconds! They do have special ‘speed’ cubes but even so it’s astonishing to witness. My method of solving the cube would not work at such speeds so it is clear that they have another approach.

A bit like my love of fountain pens (see the previous bloggage) part of my enjoyment is also tactile. There is something satisfying about the way that a Rubik’s cube moves. The noise it makes, the smooth clacking as the cubes are rotated and even the way that the cube fits into my hand and can be flicked by my fingers is soothing.

And there is a sense of fulfilment about reorganising the confusion and returning order. Each time I succeed is a victory for order over chaos (albeit a tiny and insignificant one). It’s also a victory for persistence over hopelessness and logic over muddle.

Life could be described as being like a Rubik’s cube in that it can be chaotic, disorganised and frustrating. It is also unlikely that we will come across exactly the same permutation of experiences in life, even if there are similarities. And there are some people who seem better at life than others (often they also try to sell us their advice).

But of course life is not like a Rubik’s cube. It’s not always possible to solve it. We can’t simply apply the right moves in the right order and at the right time to resolve difficulties, trauma and horrific events. Logic can’t always be applied. Sometimes the answer to life is that it sucks and it’s awful and we can’t change our circumstances.

What we need then is not someone on a video (or bloggage) telling us how to solve things, we need people who resolve to be with us. I know that some people avoid people who are going through rough times because they don’t want to say the wrong thing, or even wouldn’t know where to start with saying anything. The good news is that words aren’t necessary. They don’t need to give us advice, answers, resources or solutions. They just need to have the wisdom to know that being with us is enough. A hug can say more than a thousand words. A reassuring smile can be louder than a 1000W speaker system. An empathetic tear can be more effective than hundreds of advice videos in helping us to cope.

That, for me, is one of the amazing things about Jesus. One of the ways he is described is ‘God with us’. And he has promised that by his Spirit he remains with us and in us. He experiences our deepest depths and darkest darkness with us. The Bible even says that when we can’t articulate words the Spirit translates the groans within us into prayers in the throneroom of heaven!

And Jesus asks his followers to emulate him and we can be ‘God with us’ to others. Yes there may be practical things we can do to help, but starting by ‘being with’ is an astonishingly powerful thing. When, last year, I was trying to recover from my heart surgery the best moment of the day was when my wife and family and friends came to visit. I learnt what Sally’s footsteps sounded like in the corridor and that lifted my spirits. They didn’t need to say or do anything, simply them being there was wonderful for me. And knowing that those who could not physically be there with me were praying for me was also an immense encouragement. The McFlurries and other treats that people brought me helped, of course, but just knowing that I was not alone and that I was loved was the best medicine.

I am not going to be as glib or frivolous as to suggest that knowing that God is with us is enough and that simply being with someone is all that is needed. Of course we want terrible circumstances to be improved and there may be things we can do to help with that (like when my nurse sister spoke to the ward staff on my behalf when I was in excruciating pain). We want to believe that there is hope – that even though God is with us as we walk through the darkest valley, the valley has an end. But knowing that we are not alone, we have not been abandoned, is a good start.

Who needs you to resolve to be there for them?

Be blessed, be a blessing

x = 10 10 10

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Rene Descartes is thought to have nailed it when he said, “Je pense, donc je suis.” Or, in Latin: “Cogito ergo sum.” In English we translate it as: “I think, therefore I am.”

It’s really clever. I can prove I exist because I have consciousness and because I have consciousness I am able to prove I exist. It’s almost a circular argument along the lines of whether the chicken or the egg existed first, but the genius of Descartes is that he enables us to enter that circle by the way he phrased the statement.

There have been later developments of this…

“I’m pink, therefore I’m spam.”

“I stink, therefore I scram.”

“I drink, therefore a dram.”

“I sink, therefore I swam.”

(You may suspect that some of these are not so much ‘later developments’ as ‘hot off the press poor quality puns’, and you’d be right).

But while Monsieur Descartes’ ability to prove existence is quite incroyable it does seem a little bit, erm, limiting if all we do is exist. I wonder whether beyond ‘I think, therefore I am’ we ought to consider something like: “I love, therefore I live.”

Existence is all very well, but it’s a bit lonely on our own. To be in relationship with others is far more exhilarating and the pinnacle of a relationship is to love and be loved. Not a mushy romantic love; nor a passionate sexual love; not even a familial kinship love. But he sort of self-giving love that wants the best for others and is not based on feelings that can change or on what the other person has done for us but on an a sense of the innate value of others. In loving that way we become truly alive.

And because love does not exist without someone to love it demands relationships so we go beyond existence on our own and find community, fellowship, friendship, companionship, belonging and the joy of being known.

If that sounds good, then don’t be surprised because it’s what Jesus was saying nearly 2000 years ago! It’s the way that God loves us and enables us to love others. It’s the way to experience life in all its fullness. It’s what is described in 1 Corinthians 13.

The art is to put it into practice.

Be blessed, be a blessing

By the way, if you don’t understand the title, x is tens… existence


What to do when someone else’s world feels like it is falling apart

bear with me

One of the greatest privileges in life is to be with people in the moments when their world feels like it is falling apart. Simply by you being present reassures people that they are still loved despite what has happened. They don’t need many words or answers to questions. They don’t need flowers or cards. They don’t need much beyond being loved (and perhaps practical things like a cuppa). All of us could do that couldn’t we?

neighbours, everybody needs good neighbours

[This post was written on 19th June and does not appear to have made it into the full bloggage history, so I repost it now for completeness. Apologies if you got it more than once.]

reaching hands

The news recently has contained harrowing accounts of a number of hate-motivated attacks, the most recent at the time of posting this was against Muslims in Finsbury Park. They have left me with a number of deep-rooted emotional responses. The first is deep, deep sadness for those who have been injured and bereaved; secondly there is anger that fellow-humans are treating each other in this way; the third is powerlessness that there is nothing I can do that will make a difference. And then I stopped and reflected on the third emotional response and that led me to write this tweet:

We pride ourselves on being a tolerant society but recent events show us it’s not enough. We need to LOVE our neighbours #lovenothate

It’s not that I think that by tweeting I can make much of a difference on my own. But the power of social media is that we can share our ideas, thoughts and emotions much more widely than ever before and that might make a huge difference. One brick on its own may make a couple of people trip up, but thousands of bricks together can create a a tidal defence that will hold back a flood of hatred. If you doubt me, consider this… last weekend all across the country hundreds of thousands of people engaged in The Great Get Together. It was a series of community events inspired by the late Jo Cox MP and her words: “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than that which divides us.” We got on board with this rather too late to organise a street party but we had some of our neighbours around for a barbecue. It was lovely to get to know each other a little more and come out from behind our front doors. It was a glimpse of what community could be like if we tried.

Coming back to my tweet, and bearing in mind that for me the origin of “we need to love our neighbours” was the encounter Jesus had with a lawyer who wanted to look impressive (what a surprise!). It’s recorded for us in Luke’s account of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus in Luke 10.

The lawyer had asked Jesus what he had to do to “inherit eternal life”. Now he should have known (as a lawyer) that his question was fundamentally flawed. You can’t do anything to inherit something. An inheritance is a gift from another. But Jesus knew that the bloke wanted more than a semantic argument so he asked him what he thought the Old Testament said about it. (They didn’t have a New Testament at the time, they were living it!) The lawyer gave the stock answer which was to keep the Commandments and that is summarised as ‘Love God, love your neighbour’.

In order to show how impressive he was the lawyer asked a follow-up question, which he probably regretted afterwards: “Who is my neighbour?” That’s when Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan. If you’re not familiar with it follow the link above and read it. But make the man a violent racist and the Samaritan a muslim and you’ll get an idea of the shocking nature of the story and how radical it was that Jesus made the Samaritan the hero.

But the man didn’t actually get an answer to his question. The question was “Who is my neighbour?” but the story answered a different question. The message of the story is not that our neighbours are anyone in need. The message of the story is that to discover who our neighbours are we first need to examine ourselves and discover our self-justified prejudices, our self-obsessed self-interest, and our compassion-fatigue. We need to let go of those and see that we define who our neighbours are. The number of neighbours we have is limited only by the limits of our love.

And yes, let’s say that word. Love. Not mushy romantic love. Not lustful carnal love. Not even the love we have for our families. But rugged, determined, self-denying, putting others first and considering the needs of others love. If the story of the Good Samaritan didn’t tell the lawyer who his neighbour was it did give him a glimpse of how he was to love his neighbour when he worked out who it was!

make a dealWe pride ourselves on being a tolerant society but recent events show us it’s not enough. We need to LOVE our neighbours #lovenothate

Be blessed, be a blessing.

post-truth?

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The word ‘post-truth’ has been declared the Oxford Dictionaries word of 2016. It is an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. It emerged this year to try to describe the way in which the UK Referendum on EU Membership and the US Presidential election were conducted and how people voted.

I am not keen on the word. It’s not because I don’t think that both the UK and US campaigns were marked by misleading, emotive and undeniably false claims and statements aimed and getting an emotional response and appealing to less honourable human instincts. It’s not because I don’t think that people were unaffected by these claims and statements. It’s because I don’t think that ‘post-truth’ is the root of the problem.

People have always responded to others with a combination of heart and head. And that has always been exploited from the time that Thag persuaded Ug (remember them from yesterday?) to come hunting with him with the promise of a full tummy at the end of it right through to advertising campaigns and political debates today. What I think has changed is that those who are seeking to affect public opinion are no longer being held accountable for what they say.

Part of the responsibility for this lies with us, the general public. We have allowed things to slide: by not challenging disingenuous statements in the past an environment has evolved in which it is acceptable knowingly to make outrageously false statements and get away with it.

Part of the responsibility for this lies with the media – television, TV, radio. They need headlines that grab our attention. Why else do newspapers devote so much of their front page to a few words in massive print? Why else to news programmes trail the rest of the programme with sentence summaries of what is coming? And the more outrageous the headline, the more likely we are to pay attention to it. Why else did a bus get driven around the country with “We send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead” plastered down the side? It got a lot of publicity because it was considered headline-worthy, even though those who were funding it had no intention or power to use any saving from leaving the EU to fund the NHS.

Part of the responsibility (and I think the biggest part) lies with our culture in which ‘the end justifies the means’ has become one of our mantras.

‘The end justifies the means’ allows us to buy the goods we want for the cheapest possible price because we want to maximise what we have while ignoring the price paid (literally and metaphorically) by those who are the sharp end of the production process.

‘The end justifies the means’ allows us to tell lies about someone else in order to protect or enhance our reputation without considering the impact on the other person.

‘The end justifies the means’ allows us to feel okay about polluting our planet in order to allow the rich minority in the world to continue to live in the manner to which we are accustomed.

‘The end justifies the means’ allows us to salve our consciences when innocent civilians are killed by ill-directed bombs or drone strikes in the so-called war on terror.

‘The end justifies the means’ allows us to make false statements in order to try to get elected or the outcome we want from a referendum.

I don’t like to think we are in a post-truth era. I think we are in an era where we are reaping a harvest from a lack of love. Not mushy romantic love or sweaty sexual love, but dogged, belligerent, ‘want-the-best-for-you’ love in which we value every single person has as much as we value ourselves.

You see, when you love someone like that you don’t want to deceive, dishonour or destroy them because they matter so much. Rather you want to respect, encourage and bless them with the way that you speak to them and treat them. You are not indifferent to their suffering, anguish or despair. Rather you want to alleviate suffering, comfort and affirm them.

Perhaps we are not in a ‘post-truth’ society so much as a ‘post-love’. What would a political campaign look like that was based on that sort of love? What would a life look like that was based on that sort of love? (Hint, if you want to know read one of the Gospels in the Bible).

Be blessed, be a blessing

a love story

This Sunday morning in my sermon I will be exploring Hosea (the whole book). Every time I come to Hosea I find myself thinking, “What would I do if I was in Hosea’s position?” How would I feel? How would I cope?

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Hosea’s story is a love story… of sorts. The narrative is fascinating: Hosea set aside his personal preferences and on God’s instruction married a woman, Gomer, who was of dubious reputation (to say the least). This was to be a prophetic symbol to the nation of Israel about how God saw them – promiscuously pursuing other gods. He even named his children with names that spoke prophetically – how would I feel if God told me to name my daughter ‘Not Loved’?! And then there’s the emotional pain and heartache of Gomer’s further unfaithfulness and prostitution.

God not only told Hosea to take her back but he actually BOUGHT her back – perhaps paying off her pimp! Again, this was to be a prophetic sign of how God was going to treat Israel for a season (Hosea bought Gomer back but they were to abstain from sexual intimacy for many days and in the same way Israel’s return would be gradual). It’s only 14 chapters into the book (the final chapter) that there is a glimmer of hope for Israel as Hosea the prophet finishes denouncing them and instead announces the possibility of return to God, forgiveness, reconciliation and a renewed relationship with him. Hosea went through an emotional and reputational wringer in order to give the people God’s message. Some of you may be empathising with him a little! But he was willing to allow his whole life to be a message from God, not only his words. It’s a love story where we are Gomer and God is Hosea.

Ministers can feel a pressure (it may come from within or from outside us) to be a shining example of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and not admit to any weakness. We can present ‘supercope’ to our people: nothing fazes us and we are as close to Jesus as it is possible to be this side of heaven (I exaggerate for comedic effect) (I think). But do we really want people to look at us and see a message from God that it’s wrong to admit weakness and that we never struggle? That’s not a message we find in the Bible: read Romans 7 if you doubt me!

It is important for people to know that we are trying our best with God’s Spirit’s help, they need to see leadership from their clergy, and the qualities of a leader are clear in the Bible. But I believe that we also need to admit that we are fallible, that we are not perfect, and that we don’t have it all together. I’m not talking about airing all of our dirty laundry – we have to be sensible about what we share. But how often are we prepared to be vulnerable about our own doubts, failings and struggles? Can we admit to people that we make mistakes – even Ministers who have trained, studied and are set apart for ministry? Do we dare allow the admission of our mistakes to be a message from God  – that no follower of Jesus is perfect but when we struggle, fail or even doubt there is hope because his Spirit is in us? Does admitting our struggles strengthen or weaken the message that there is the possibility of return to God, forgiveness, reconciliation and a renewed relationship with him?

What message from God do people get when they look at you?

Be blessed, be a blessing