Sunday, April 30, 2006

Funny you should say that

I think we've lost the ideas of Kierkegaard in modern (post-modern?) thinking. If you're thinking "Who's he?" you probably agree.

I won't post a link, as there are far too many sites for me to evaluate and suggest a best; suffice it to say that if you type his name into Google you'll get plenty of choices.

Nor do I claim to understand him or his philosophy. But I do know that in his eyes, we get to enlightenment (if that's the word and it may not be) by three steps, the last two of which are humour and irony. Which I can go with.

Steph got a bit startled when I laughed out loud, and had difficulty stopping, in Pauline's prayers last Thursday. But the picture of heaven portrayed was so startling and yet insightful that I couldn't help myself.

Also life seems full of little ironies (and not the stuff that woman sings about) at the moment. That I'm finally studying Methodist spirituality just too late for it to help my tutoring. That for all my reluctant (and that's the ironic bit) agreements to put jobs down, I'm prevailed upon to keep some going. That answered prayer still takes a bit of work - but somebody else might do it just when you've decided you must. That the roleplaying group is ready for me to take over again when this time last year I had the time and creativity to really put something into it and now the time fills up no problem and the creativity is heavily invested elsewhere. And lots of other little ones that you had to be there to understand.

So, my lecturers and course leaders, watch out. I'm going to give some of it back. Socrates is about to be reborn. Naive questioning is back in vogue. And as Caroline said last Wednesday, it gets straight to the point.

Money, that's what I want

Which is the problem.

We were reminded yesterday that money is only good when you use it and not when you hoard it. Hope the message came over clearly to all that were present.

Of course, we still need advice on how to spend it. Let's try to make sure that we lay up treasures in heaven and not palaces on earth.

Friday, April 28, 2006

New link

The other week, Angela and I found quite by chance in Exeter an exhibition by the artist Gail Sagman and I've put a link in the sidebar. She literally thinks outside the box. The mathematician in me finds her work fascinating.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Why does the devil have all the best music?

Generalisations are always wrong, but let's not worry about that. Secular music appeals to me much more than "Christian" music, with few exceptions. I listen mainly to rock and blues for excitement, sometimes jazz and ambient for chill-out, yes others. Rarely soppy ballads.

The answer to the question in the title is that he is not happy. Most great music - and don't bother pointing out the exceptions, yes there are great love songs - is produced by those who are seeking or weeping.

Off the top of my head:
Dylan's masterpiece, widely reckoned, is "Blood on the Tracks" about his marriage breakup.
Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" is about the disintegration of two relationships.
Top of the Abba favourites list, according to polls, is not "Dancing Queen" or "Waterloo" but "The Winner Takes it All".
"Wish You Were Here" reveals the loneliness and alienation of Roger Waters in its title alone.

Songs about lost love, unrequited love, unattainable love ... you know them. It's well known that a great love song is much harder to write than a great song about lost love. "Goodbye to Love", "Without You" (I hate that one but it was number one for ever), "I'm Not in Love"...

So let's rejoice that Christians have trouble writing great songs.

[Ironical Postscript time: I was driving to College with the music turned up loud and the window open, as is my wont - Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings. Generally full of happy songs, in contrast to the usual stuff referred to above. What came up as I turned into the College drive? "I Want to be Evil". Literally true.]

Heaven's Gate

The cartoon is courtesy of Pauline who provided us with pictures of heaven to meditate on at lunchtime. I picked it because I thought it was funny.

And then I wondered if it would be funny to everyone.

I wondered if there are people who do think you need to have a "username" and "know the password" - and although they "know" theirs, that these are restricted so that only some people will be able to enter ("the elect"?) - that there are only a certain number of places, maybe? And maybe there are others seeking to enter who think the same thing - only they worry that they don't know theirs and so they think they won't get in? And that they don't know how to find out the "instructions"?

And the consequences for both these groups and their theology and behaviour could be serious?

And suddenly the cartoon wasn't so funny to me either.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

New link

Although trying to keep a clean blog and not have it overloaded with stuff, nevertheless I felt impelled to have a new section on the links and a first link in it. If it provokes, good. Don't be fooled by the apparently dull title.


I provoked my lecturer today. I have decided on my ecumenism essay which is about the Anglican-Methodist unity schemes and why they failed, and I suggested that I would present the argument that not only would it never happen, but that it would be a bad thing if it did - which I know he does not agree with. He was quite gracious about it actually and promised to find some reading material.

Of course I will need to review the evidence to see if it supports my feeling - otherwise it would be poor research. Too many organisations actually do this - think of a conclusion and then look for evidence to support it, (or sometimes not bother looking for evidence at all). One of these organisations is the Methodist Church and one is Ofsted.

So when is planning justified and when should you "just do it because you can"?

Sunday, April 23, 2006

A time to speak and a time to keep silent

So 25 years ago I was a young man in a hurry and I was accepted to be a preacher in the Methodist Church and God made me a teacher, for it certainly wasn't my idea, and I've been blathering on ever since in an impatient attempt to move people on in different ways.

And now I wonder whether I've moved myself on at all in this time and so I'm now a student not a teacher but I just can't seem to break the habit of pouring it all out and as I finally begin to take some stuff in and good stuff it is too then I want to pass it on to all and sundry and if it's difficult to quite say I'm in a hurry any more due to my inherent laziness then I'm still conscious of the passage of time and indeed that younger men than me have heart attacks and can't do anything even if they survive and this bothers me to put it mildly.

And today Meryl preaches about patience. Well thank you.

Let no-one say that I can't take a hint even if you do have to hit me in the face with it.

So I'm not preaching on this Plan and I understand why. And we'll see about keeping it down on the next one (sorry Stuart I know it's the summer one). And I'll do my best over the next fifteen months to be the one filled and not the one filling.

But wait for the flood after that.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

A woman's place

This is not an upbeat post. No pictures.

In this week's New Statesman there is a report on how the gender ratio of births in Asia is dropping.

In India in 2001, the ratio of births female:male was 927:1000, down from 945:1000 in 1991 and 962:1000 in 1981.

In China official numbers give 855:1000 but experts put it at 826:1000. In some provinces it is down to 769:1000. Other parts of Asia have poor figures too.

Why is it dropping? Reports suggest that the availability of ultrasound scans enables people to discover that their child is female and therefore abort it. What are we doing?

The bitter irony is the Western magazines that insist on putting women on the cover, presumably because it helps sales. My chess magazine came today with Anna Zatonskih on the front. Not an isolated example - I estimate one in three copies of this mag - "Chess" - have a woman on the front. Maybe to encourage the wider take-up of an extremely male-dominated pastime - but maybe just cynicism.

Friday, April 21, 2006


Just occurred to me: anyone know how long Easter lasts?

The "preparation" seasons are easy: Lent is easy because it begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Day, and similarly Advent has a definite beginning and end.

Christmas lasts 12 days: you are supposed to put the tree up on Christmas Eve and take it down on Twelfth Night, the celebration of foolishness. In English culture this means Dec 24 to Jan 6.

I'm asking because I've just started my second (and last) Easter egg, although I still have the chocolate bars that go with them (three altogether - we had three eggs between us, each with two bars). If Easter lasts all the way to Ascension, as I suspect, I should have bought more eggs ....

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Words, words, words

So somebody said to me on Sunday that they'd never realised the meaning of "Hosanna" until I explained it last week, and that it had given them a new insight into the opposition to Jesus.

A long time ago, someone explained to me that "so be it" (or whatever) is a pretty weak translation of "Amen", not conveying the solidity of the sentiment.

Our understanding of "shalom" is sometimes shakier than we think.

What other words do we not understand? (Apart, of course from holiness lol)

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Seeing the elephant

One of the things near the top of my list that I've not sorted out is community. It's a popular buzzword with all the right soft fuzzy elements; many organisations and individuals use it. South Gloucestershire Council want to know how I feel about the community I live in, and declare their intention to improve it. At assemblies at a school I worked at, the headmaster was always trying to instil a sense of pride in the school's community (with little apparent success from most of his hearers). You see phrases like "the gay community" (and other subcultures too, if you get my meaning). But what is it and what's involved in being a member of one?

I'm a member of lots of groups. I'm a member of the Methodist Church because I went through a service of entry, and it would take much carelessness or worse to have my membership revoked. I'm a member of the Chess Club because I've paid my subs for this year. I'm a member of the Nuneaton Games Club although I don't go more than once in two or three months (I'm a member because I have to pay my £1 when I do go). I'm a member of the Gridiron "community" because I have a password and so long as I keep getting my orders in on time, I should remain so (winning the divisional title again would also keep me in the spotlight). And I'm a member at the College (part of the College community) although I do need to sort out my NUS card. And so on; the Monday roleplaying group, the library, the "Buckfast" group ...

But which of these are a community? I'm not even sure community is like the elephant (I can't define one, but I know one when I see one) because I'm not sure I do know one when I see one. I think that Kingsmen/women may be a community but I certainly don't feel part of it. Do gamers make a community, or just a minority group? Smokers? Gays? Any group that feels embattled, ridiculed, forgotten or marginalised can be tempted to reassure themselves by envisaging themselves as a community, but I'm not sure that's enough.

There's something about commitment involved, I think, but I'm not sure it's either necessary or sufficient. Participation helps you to feel it but may not create it. Community can be destroyed but if you believe V for Vendetta, which I heartily recommend, it can be revived by ... an idea? an idealist?

I'll have to come back to this.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Where is the victory?

One of the first sermons I wrote, more than 25 years ago about this time of year, was about victory - a popular theme at this time of year, in sacred and secular. And we were brought back to victory on Good Friday. But the world looks different to a grumpy old man from how it appeared to a naive young preacher who thought he could change the world starting with the church.

Grumpy old men think that not only has the world not been improved, it has got worse in so many ways. And we let it happen. What losses did we snatch from the jaws of victory? What happened to peace and love and redistribution?

The crime figures are not the problem. Any apparent increase in them can be explained by better reporting and collection. But the large picture looks no better. Born-again Christians in power still seem unbelievably to pursue the same old divisive unfair paths. The Church's voice is unheeded.

Perhaps we don't understand victory. Has it happened? Or does it happen every day in small acts of love and kindness against the backdrop of large-scale, appalling oppression, greed and exploitation? I need to see these small victories and understand them.
The examples look so trivial in comparison.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

What I learn from TV SF

To take some ideas in Charity's blog a bit further:

We all believe round here that Dr Who is far superior to Star Trek (which we watch) due to: the stories, the quality of the acting (Patrick Stewart is an outstanding exception), and the issues raised. Dr Who was always about more than a succession of monsters. To be fair, The Original Star Trek did tackle issues. On the other hand, Next Generation rarely got further than Pinocchio. If you want rounded characters, you have to go to the soap Deep Space Nine. Voyager, for all its technical excellence in sets and FX, was an empty shell. Give me wobbly sets any time if the characters and stories are strong (even better when the new Dr Who has managed to marry the stories to good effects.)

So let's compare Dr Who with Star Trek

In New Earth, the Doctor realises something has happened to Rose because "she would care". Both the Doctor and Rose refuse to believe that any life is more important than any other, or that some people's lives or happiness, whoever they are, can be sacrificed without their consent to make others better.

Mr Spock gets a bit of a rough time in Star Trek. His "logical" ideas are continually derided, not only by the other characters, but also - and this is apparent due to the storyline's resolutions - by the writers. The one exception to this, apparent mostly but not only at the end of the second film, is the maxim "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few". Which gives rise to some concern. What would be his views on the practices of the New Earth hospital? Was not this almost the exact justification given by the nurses?

This is the old "utilitarianism" philosophy expounded by Bentham, since rejected by most ethicists but still in circulation. Of course, it is relatively easy to construct scenarios in which it appears to be the correct answer, but I reject it (and it is of course easy to construct a reductio ad absurdum counter-argument to challenge it) as not Christian. The message of the Cross is that of the Doctor - every life is worth saving. Happy Easter.

Friday, April 14, 2006


I don't think I'm an evangelical although I believe in evangelism.
I don't think I'm a charismatic, although I believe I have a charism.
I don't think I'm a fundamentalist although fundamentals are important.
I'm pretty sure I'm not a conservative because I'm a socialist, although I may be a liberal.
I could be a radical because I like to be free.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Yesterday's programme on Rosslyn Chapel talked a lot about the number of visitors, a bit about the architecture, mentioned the need for restoration and interviewed the vicar, but didn't talk about worship.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Old dog, new tunes

We sang "There is a green hill far away" to tune "House of the Rising Sun" on Sunday, and the feedback was good. So it's not a new idea. We sing "I cannot tell why He, whom angels worship" to "Danny Boy" and the "but this I know .. " bit is inspirational.

Charles Wesley wrote words to the popular tunes of the day. I know it was done again in the 60s although it petered out. Can we revive it?

Suggest some tunes of today that are singable. (As an official grumpy old man I know there are no tunes in the pop charts, although I'm told the Sugababes might be an exception.) The more well-known the better.

Suggest some words that might go with said tunes.

Write some new words to go with said tunes. (Proviso: I hope these will be better than the stuff the adverts come up with.)

And is it possible that we can have some more variations, like Gareth's boogie version of "Be thou my vision"?

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Infelicities and absurdities (dislikes part three)

I got called on my language again, hence the different title. But it's the same series. The subject this time is the oxymoronic "literal symbolism". This requires some explanation. It's long; get a snack.

So (and sorry for banging on about it again; promise it's the last time), we start with the Ash Wednesday service as the paradigm example. We had the drama in which the "prophet" was literally covered in sackcloth and had ashes poured over his head. For goodness sake. No-one uses the phrase "sackcloth and ashes" any more. What does a modern worshipper understand by it? Can we have a modern affirmation, please? And then we literally burn something to make literal ashes to literally mark people's foreheads. We carefully do all this just to assert our guilt-knowledge in a meaningful way. Per-lease.

Let's take something else: Communion, and the contortions we get into by trying to be "true to the tradition". Jesus, at the Last Supper, blessed and gave bread to his disciples and said they should repeat it in remembrance of him. So we take bread and wine in our services. And we all share in the one loaf, and the one cup. Fine.

But in the Methodist Church it isn't wine, it's Ribena. It has to be the "juice of the grape"; but alcohol isn't allowed on the premises - a strong witness to the world - and the non-alcoholic stuff is foul, so we fall back on a commercial product. I wonder if it's the unsweetened version that's better for us. But at least it's in separate glasses. In the Anglican church and elsewhere it is wine - and all from the same cup, so we have to carefully wipe the vessel we communally drink from so as not to catch each other's germs. I bet Jesus didn't do that - I bet he and each of the 12 had their own cups and simply poured it from the same source. They may even have had more than one bottle, don't you think? Drink of the one cup, my eye. Other groups like the Salvation Army can't celebrate Communion because if some of your members are ex-alcoholics you don't want to give them any temptation to their bad old ways and so you have great debates about what "can count". The difficulties mankind creates for itself.

Methodists do generally have bread. The "wafers" you get in some other denominational areas are as much like bread as sawdust and half as tasty. One loaf, I don't think.

So who's actually consistent in having bread and wine then?

Oh and do you have to finish it all off afterwards because it's been blessed and/or transformed or can you put it back in the bottle? What about crumbs? Endless debates about the "correct thing to do" because you are too literal about a symbolic event.

Other examples abound:
Easter Day Sunrise services. If you want to go up a hill literally at the crack of dawn to worship then feel free, but don't persuade me that that in itself "improves" the worship. I can see the same thing on the horizon for the College Ascension Day service, by the way.
You'll be bringing tins of fruit to the Harvest Festival next, as if you'd grown it yourself. Perhaps we should get a few tents?

Can we do symbolic, without getting tied in knots by literalism? Oh yes.

Which brings me to today's Palm Sunday service. We recreated the triumphal entry. Palm leaves? Do me a favour. 21st Century English Christians cheer, let off party poppers, blow bubbles and wave balloons to celebrate, and play a fanfare for the entry of a "special person". Now that's symbolic. No donkey either (yes I did a service with a donkey a few years ago, and I had permission from the Senior Steward to do it today, but here I'm trying to use modern symbols to put an old message in a relevant and resonant contemporary format, are you with me?). What's the modern version of a donkey? Answers on a postcard, closing date next year.
Who is the special person? We welcomed Father Christmas - it's a metaphor, geddit? - the most powerful symbol I could come up with. It's not what today's congregation expected, and the suffering servant is not what the Jews expected. On the next level, nor is Jesus really like Father Christmas. (Santa Claus doesn't give out palm crosses.)

Remembering the title, it is true that the temptation occurred to take this service also into the realm of the absurd but I hope that the wilder ideas - and there were some - were resisted so that it didn't get there. As for infelicities, even at the planning stage when it looked like the preacher had gone mad, those who heard the idea were giving positive responses. (I here express my thanks to the several people who made suggestions, even those that were not used.) And no-one afterwards has suggested to me that I went too far.

Apply this idea elsewhere. Let's celebrate the Lord's Supper symbolically. Why can I not use digestive biscuits and orange juice? Surely I can do exactly that, remembering Jesus' sacrifice just as well as with any other accoutrements. I can choose for his actual words to be repeated (assuming our records are accurate and remembering He spoke Aramaic) - or I can paraphrase, I can describe, I can re-enact, I can merely picture the scene, you can think of your own. I can do it alone or with others. I can do it without a "priest" present (who did Jesus say was allowed to perform the blessing? I don't think he restricted it, actually. Apostolic succession?) I am suddenly freed to worship and meditate anywhere and anytime.

So there's two examples of non-literal symbolism. Now you make your own. You have permission.

Symbolism is important. Too important to be only taken literally.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Summoned by bells

I won't normally be posting reports on my day or adverts on this blog, but here is something I came across today.

While in the centre of Bristol, on business not unconnected with the church, the bells of Bristol Cathedral began pealing and since I'd paid for the car park, I took a few minutes to find out why. When I got there I discovered they have an exhibition: 12 pieces of art about the Passion, hung in the aisles. I didn't have long enough to give it the time it deserves, but it looks fabulous - so I recommend you go. I'm guessing it won't be up much longer given the theme, so hurry. I hope to try again in the next week.
Don't ask the nice lady in the shop about the "exhibition booklet" because no-one's told her anything about it - she had to come out to find what people were calling in and asking her for.

As my prayer contribution I played "A Wonderful Time Up There" at full blast on the car stereo as I drove away. Only slightly spoilt by the fact that the following track was Ian Dury's classic "Sweet Gene Vincent". Oh, the bells - they were nothing to do with the exhibition but part of the Brunel celebrations. Funny how things work out.

I now add art and music to the list of topics I need to think about.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Careful who you wish for

Following yesterday's post:

A trial reported in an article in today's New Scientist suggests that intercessory prayer is at best ineffective and at worst puts stress on to those who "know" they're being prayed for.

I don't think faith has been discussed though.

(For those who can't get the full article, in a nutshell - those who didn't know whether they were being prayed for (due to the double-blind nature of he test) did equally well whether they were active or placebo group, but those who were assured of prayer had worse healing rates.)

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Careful what you wish for

A busy day, so a straightforward easy entry. Intercessory prayer.

God hears all prayer.
God answers all prayer.
If you believe that God has answered "no", you don't understand what "yes" means.
If you believe God has answered "yes", then you have to ask yourself in turn what He wants you to do about it. (Hence the title - album by Texas.)

Linda and I agreed on the phone the other day, and endorsed by Nick Cave on my car stereo today,
"I don't believe in an interventionist God." (In Your Arms - Greatest Hits)
Nor that God micro-manages all the time, nor that He is a sleeping giant to be prodded awake.

So perhaps not as easy as all that. And that's without considering, as we did today, that Muslims pray too. But do they pray for God to act? And what can faith achieve? If I pray for X to be safe, can I be assured that they will be?

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

An establishment figure?

Here are some of my heroes and heroines. What have they in common?

Tennis: Ilie Nastase
Snooker: Alex Higgins and Ronnie O'Sullivan
Literary: Dorothy Parker

Chess: Victor Korchnoi
Politics: Bob Geldof
Pop Music: Siouxsie Sioux
Preaching: Amos

Add a high regard for Keith Moon and Alice Cooper and three fictional Js from TV and film: Jim Rockford, James Bond and Jack Bauer.

They are all bad boys and girls. They mock, disobey and disrespect the powerful and pompous. They are controversial and they don't mind. Whereas I only wish I was more like them (gifted would be a start, you may say). Can I be an establishment figure?

Monday, April 03, 2006