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

the hokey cokey referendum

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There has been a lot of heat generated by the EU Referendum in the UK. The official campaigning period started last week but the rhetoric has been flying for many months beforehand and, in my humble opinion, has generated more heat than light. The news has been full of headlines that I summarise as ‘hokey cokey’ – “in, out, in, out, shake it all about”!

So this little bloggage is my attempt at offering some reflections that are not intentionally ‘yes’ or ‘no’ biased. It is intended to ask some Bible-based questions that may help me make up my mind: to consider what the issues are.

“What is truth?”

This question is not from Jesus, but was a retort from Pilate when he was questioning Jesus after his arrest (John 18:38). It’s a pertinent question, though. What is truth?

There has already been and will continue to be plenty of spin – so much so that our brains will be dizzy by the time we come to vote. One campaign will tell us that there are benefits to voting their way, or that there are negatives about voting the other way, and the other campaign will respond by telling us that this is not true.

In response to a lot of spin and conjecture about his identity Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) The ‘truth’ he’s talking about here is himself – the truth about God – but for those who seek to follow him we seek to hold to his teaching and then we will know the truth that liberates.

So much of the rhetoric and discussion is about an unknown future. We don’t know what life would be like if Britain voted to leave the EU any more than we know what it would be like if we voted to remain. The future is uncertain and unknowable. So I ask myself, “What is truth, what is conjecture and what is spin?” And I will try to make my decision based on truth. And what aspects of Jesus’ teaching can help me?

What is the most loving option?

This is not about romance! This is about agape – the Greek word used in the New Testament to describe God’s love for us, and the way that he wants people to love one another (especially, but not limited to, followers of Jesus). Jesus taught about this love being a radically different way that seeks the best even for those who oppose us (Matthew 5:43-48).

Agape is gracious not greedy; servant-hearted not power-hungry; and selfless not selfish. My question about the EU Referendum from this is two-fold: “Who are we to love, and which outcome will enable us to be most loving towards them?”

Who is our neighbour?

When Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) he shocked his listeners by making the hero of his story someone whom they hated by virtue of his nationality. This was in response to a question, “Who is my neighbour?” and that in turn was in response to a summary of the Old Testament Law: ‘Love (agape) God wholeheartedly and love (agape) your neighbour as yourself’ (my paraphrase).

At the end of the story Jesus bounced the question back at the person who’d asked it – “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The (perhaps reluctant) answer was “The one who had mercy on him” and Jesus told his listeners to go and do likewise. So my question about the EU Referendum is, “Which approach enables us to show most mercy on those in need?”

“I have come that they might have life… to the full.”

Jesus made this statement (John 10:10) when he was teaching about himself and contrasting himself with people who were only looking for what they could get out of life and of others.

What does ‘life to the full’ look like? Many of the arguments I have heard so far are about economics, but there is much more to life than money. Accepting that part of what Jesus was talking about was a relationship with God (which neither ‘in’ nor ‘out’ can offer), but also that Jesus was talking about more than that too, my question is: “Which approach will enable people to have life to the fullest?”

“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

Jesus said this in response to an attempt to trap him into a position that polarised opinion (Luke 20:20-26).  He refused to allow people to label him or push him into a corner. He refused to allow himself to be manipulated.

My question here is not about taxation. It’s based on a recognition that a ‘yes/no’ referendum is, by definition, polarising. However, deciding to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ does not mean that you have to agree with everything that is associated with that campaign. “Which outcome is least likely to mean that you feel manipulated into a position that you do not wish to be associated with?”

 

These few questions are not intended to be the exhaustive list of questions I am asking myself about this referendum. But they are intended to help me think beyond the rhetoric, beyond self-interest and beyond economics and think about how I can engage helpfully in the politics.

Be blessed, be a blessing

in a spin

I have been preparing for Sunday evening and looking at Acts chapter 23. This is what happened previously, as described in Acts chapter 22:

Paul had been attacked by a mob in Jerusalem and rescued in the nick of time by some Roman soldiers, who had to carry him into the barracks because of the hostile crowd trying to kill him. In their sensitive and proportionate way the Romans decided to find out what had happened by placing him in chains and stretching Paul out to flog him and interrogate him. At this point Paul gently dropped into the conversation that he was a Roman citizen…

[Bear in mind that it was illegal for a Roman citizen to be placed in chains and tortured. Indeed it was so serious an offence that the commander may have feared he would suffer what he was about to subject Paul to.]

Suddenly the mood changed, Paul was released from chains and they decided not to flog him after all. He was brought in front of the commander and treated much more humanely. Later a plot was discovered to assassinate Paul so for his protection the commander had him escorted out of the city by about 470 soldiers and taken to the Regional Governor. The commander also sent a letter of explanation. This is what it said:

To His Excellency, Governor Felix

Greetings,

This man was seized by the Jews and they were about to kill him, but I came with my troops and rescued him, for I had learned that he is a Roman citizen…

PinwheelSome serious first-century spin-doctoring had taken place. The order of events was changed, no mention was made of chains, floggings or interrogation. The commander was covering his back and making himself into a hero for protecting a Roman citizen. His story had a rather big hole in it: he did not say how, in the midst of a howling lynch-mob, he had ascertained that Paul was a Roman citizen prior to intervening!

When we have made a mistake we can be tempted to try to cover it up, to spin what happened, to try to present things in a more positive light. We can blame someone else. We can tell half-truths. We can try to save our own skin or our reputation. We can try to make ourselves look good.

But in my experience it is better to admit when we have made a mistake, to apologise, to ask for grace and forgiveness and to make a fresh start. That’s worth doing when it comes to other people. It is the way of Christ-like humility. And of course, since he already knows the truth and there’s no point in trying to fool him, it’s the right approach to God too.

If we find ourselves in the position of the one who has been wronged, we also need to follow the way of Christ-like humility: the way of grace, forgiveness and reconciliation. When we do we often find release and joy. In the Lord’s prayer we pray for God’s forgiveness as we forgive others. It’s difficult to ask for forgiveness when we have not forgiven. But it is also a joy to be forgiven and to forgive.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

 

 

storytelling

soapWords can be more slippery than soap in a bath. Just when you think you have got hold of them, whoops – there it goes again.

I have been reflecting this week on one of Jesus’ parables – it’s in Luke 16:19-31(you can read it here). It is the parable about the poor man, Lazarus, and a rich man who ignores him in this life and finds himself on the wrong side of the pearly gates in the next while Lazarus is in paradise.

There’s a lot that needs unpacking, explaining and understanding in that parable and you’ll have to come to church on Sunday morning to hear what I make of it (or listen online on our church website from next week). What I want to reflect on for a moment today is the nature of the word ‘story’.

Jesus told a story. It’s fictional. It’s almost cartoon-esque in the way that he tells it. It is based on a popular story of his day. People knew that it was not a true story. When Jesus told it with a twist he turned it into a parable – a story with a hidden meaning. It was still a story but it had more depth. When we use the word ‘story’ we often mean fiction.

But we also use the word ‘story’ to mean a narrative of something true. Sometimes we make that explicit by describing something as a ‘true story’. Yet to me somehow I can’t shake aspects of ‘fiction’ when I hear something described as a story, whether or not it is true and based on real events.

And I sometimes find myself talking about ‘the story of Jesus’, which is when I get worried about the coefficient of friction of the word ‘story’. When I use the word in that phrase does it somehow convey to people (especially those outside ‘church’) that it’s fictional? Does it unintentionally undermined the credibility of his life, death and resurrection – given how incredible it already is we don’t need to make it less credible!

I found myself pondering this over Christmas this year. The baby laid in a manger, with shepherds, wise men, angels, moving stars and virgin births is a wonderful, evocative tale but when we re-tell it year on year does it somehow become more fictional in the ears of the hearer because of the familiarity with it? Does it become more of a story and less of an historical account?

I try to use words and phrases like ‘narrative’ or ‘life-story’ or ‘account of his life’ to describe the gospels but still find myself occasionally telling his story. Of course it may just be my own personal gremlins messing around with the word in my head. But what’s the antidote?

I think it first of all starts with me. We have been working our way through Luke’s gospel over the past year in our morning services and I have been so blessed by reflecting regularly on the record of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. His teaching has such profundity and his stories are so engaging. The way he was with people (especially the fragile ones) is beautiful and yet terrifyingly scary (when he is challenging religious people). It’s not a descriptive biography with lots of details to build up a personal picture of Jesus but his personality still shines through. We can almost see his smile and hear him laugh (as he tells stories with silly endings); we hear him weep at how evil has damaged his world, and we watch empathically as he deals with tiredness and stress. And it’s those aspects of who he is (which are in the text of the gospels if you look hard enough) which I need to be looking out for as well as the big message of God’s love, grace and forgiveness. Because those are the things that confirm his story as being a true story. Those things resurrect him in my imagination as well as in a garden 33 years after he was born in Bethlehem.

If you ever feel that it’s not true, if ‘story’ is becoming more fictional as a descriptor of Jesus, re-read a gospel and look for the real man who was God. True story.

Be blessed, be a blessing

fence sitting is uncomfortable

I’ve been working on Sunday evening’s sermon, which will be on the second-half of Acts chapter 5. This is the occasion when the apostles were hauled in front of the religious authorities and so infuriated them with their teaching about Jesus that a majority of people there want to put them to death. However a Pharisee named Gamaliel intervened with these words: “If their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

I have heard people speak in reverential and hushed tones about Gamaliel’s wisdom here. The prevented bloodshed by stating that there was a clear choice: either this Christianity lark was from God or it wasn’t. If it isn’t then it will fall apart in due course. If it is then you run the risk of offending the Almighty.

To an extent I think he did demonstrate wisdom because he had a sufficiently open mind to recognise that what was happening might be from God. But he also missed the glaringly obvious – if there is a clear choice then surely you have to come down on one side or the other, there is no room for fence sitting. Gamaliel wanted to have his cake and eat it (insert further clichés here, as appropriate).wood fence in nature 1

“Wait and see” is not a particularly adventurous or godly response when we are faced with a choice like the one before Gamaliel and Co. It is risk averse and lacks faith or discernment. Certainly we do not want to get it wrong and be on the anti-God side, but I have a sense that is God would much rather we made a stab at discerning his will and got it wrong than that we sit on the fence. When Jesus told the parable of the talents the servant who did nothing was the one who was castigated and it was his inactivity that was condemned.

This is not saying that we should not seek to discern God’s will. Exactly the opposite is true. But we should not be paralysed by fear of getting it wrong – he is a God of grace after all and will forgive us if we ask: 2nd chances are his stock in trade.

Sitting on the fence is uncomfortable at best and only really makes sense in jokes about what time it is when an elephant sits on your fence.*

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*Time to get a new one

words

a long time ago in Croatia…

Warm air has been flowing up and over cold air and the water vapour from the warm air has super-cooled to form tiny ice particles, which have been precipitated across our part of the country.

It has snowed.

This morning my wife and I coordinated 34 facial muscles and 112 postural muscles, particularly the orbicularis oris muscles, and applied our lips together in an embrace to signify our affection at a moment of separation.

We kissed goodbye.

Isn’t it wonderful how we can say the same thing in different ways. In both cases above both statements are correct (I think) but they tell us different things.

We use language differently on different occasions. You may want to communicate a technical description of snowfall or a kiss. Or you may simply want to state what happened without the technical specifications.

We sometimes commend people for ‘calling a spade a spade’ (as opposed to a hand-held manual soil redistribution implement). Sometimes that is necessary. But sometimes we need to be a little bit more circumspect. We need to be gentle with our words. We might sometimes withhold a piece of information because we know it will upset someone, or we might explain a situation with a lot more words than usual because we want someone to understand all the circumstances rather than the plain facts.

‘I punched him in the stomach’ may be factually correct. But if we knew that the circumstances were that the ‘victim’ was choking on something and by punching them in the stomach we dislodged the obstruction it takes on a very different complexion. (Yes, I know the Heimlich manoeuvre is recommended in those circumstances).

When I look at Jesus he was fairly straight talking. Especially when he wanted people to understand the truth that was contrary to their previously-held assumptions. Or if he was correcting the abuses of the religious elite (Ministers and Vicars should always be especially wary). But he also demonstrated compassion.

I hear a gentle tone in his voice as he corrects Martha when she had a go at her sister for not helping her with getting the meal ready.

I hear compassion as he is reinstating Peter after breakfast on the beach.

I sense incredible gentleness as he asks John to take care of his mother, even as Jesus is dying on the cross.

As followers of Jesus and free samples of him to others, let’s try to ensure that we don’t only speak truthfully, but that we also speak lovingly. And I reckon if there is any conflict between the two, love wins.

Be blessed, be a blessing

Apparently women think dogs are better than men:

Dogs don’t have problems expressing affection in public.
Dogs miss you when you are gone.
Dogs are very direct about wanting to go out. 
Dogs mean it when they kiss you. 
When dogs play “fetch”, they don’t laugh at how you throw.
Dogs understand if some of their friends aren’t allowed to come inside.

You can train a dog.