Friday, 23 December 2011

A Big Christianity - beyond Cameron and Chaos

It’s taken me a while, but I’ve been thinking a bit about David Cameron’s recent foray into religion. It received a bit of a mixed reaction from all sides, including the usual rants from the atheists, but also perhaps a surprisingly lukewarm response from Christian voices. Some liked his reminder of our Christian heritage, some thought it was unrealistic given the levels of secularism we now have, some felt his vision of Christianity was too moralistic.


I also read a piece by George Monbiot recently in the Guardian about what he called “The great political conflict of our age – between neocons and the millionaires and corporations they support on one side, and social justice campaigners and environmentalists on the other. ” and a lightbulb went on in my mind connecting the two pieces.

David Cameron’s version of Christian faith is one of standards, morality, maintaining order and uprightnesss. It is typical of a more right-of-centre appreciation of religion for bringing order and peace to a chaotic world. The problem is it can lack sympathy for those for whom life is a struggle and can too easily glide over underlying injustices that keep them struggling. This is the aspect of religion that ‘neocons and the millionaires and corporations they support’ tend to like. On the good side, it maintains order and restrains the chaos. At the same time it can reinforce existing patterns of power, privilege and stigmatise those who fail as deserving of little grace.

Occupy London also asks ‘what would Jesus do’? It's a good question, and once asked, it's hard to see him doing anything other than siding with the poor, the meek, the persecuted, the mourning. The aspect of religion that ‘social justice campaigners and environmentalists’ perfer is the idea of religion as salvation. God rescues the sinking, opposes the unfeeling rich, saves the sinner, heals the sick, lifts up the broken-hearted and oppressed. This is good news for the poor, hope for the hopeless and homeless.

David Cameron had it half right. Occupy London have it half right. Christianity is bigger than both. It combines salvation and ethics, a message that God rescues and that he restores, Christian faith has a vision of rescue; it also has a vision of life as it was meant to be lived -a vision that has a distinct shape. At its heart, Christianity is about salvation – it is about God entering his good but broken world in the story of Israel and the person of Jesus Christ to redeem it, restore it and to overcome the great enemies of life and humankind – sin, evil and death. It is about good news for the sinner, the struggler, the addict, the victim. At the same time, it also gives a reassurance that there is a moral order and structure to the world that if transgressed, tends to unravel things and leads to destruction and death, the very things from which we need rescuing.

These two exist in a dialectical relationship – each need the other. When Christianity is held to be one and not the other, or at least one is championed while the other ignored, (as to be honest, David Cameron did, but perhaps also Occupy London does too), it betrays itself. A moralistic Christianity that has no sense of salvation may uphold a sense of moral order, but has no good news for the strugglers, the victims, the silent sufferers. A Christianity of salvation with no sense of moral order is a band-aid, providing quick-fix solutions with no longer-term rebuilding of lives and communities.

Our culture needs a vision that overcomes the conflict that George Monbiot identifies. It doesn’t need a privatised faith of moral rectitude. Nor does it need a vaguely religious version of secular cries for social justice. It needs a big vision of Christian faith that once held western Europe together and that embraces both salvation and order. How the two fit together is a significant intellectual, moral and spiritual question, but one well worth working at if the Christian faith is to rediscover its social function, and provide a way beyond the tired debates of our current cultural discourse.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Sepp Blatter and the Judgment of God

Sepp Blatter has done it again. Switzerland's most famous buffoon has managed to alienate most of the human race with his comments about racial abuse in football.

According to our beloved head of FIFA, you can get abused for the colour of your skin all game and are then you're meant to shake hands and forget it as if it really doesn't matter. But it does. And we know it does and it isn't good enough to pretend that it doesn't and can just be let go. The public outrage shows our sense of injustice and the desire for judgement - that when something has been done that is fundamentally wrong, it needs to be dealt with properly, not brushed under the carpet.

One charge often made against Christian faith is that the doctrine of divine judgement is exclusive and violent. The idea that God should judge is deemed harsh and unacceptable. Instead, the idea of 'indiscriminate hospitality' is supposed to be more worthy of God, who should accept everyone, with no questions asked. The idea of a God of judgment is a prehistoric remnant of ancient religion. Yet a God who refuses to judge, who refuses to discriminate between good and evil is a God who demands that that the victim of injustice, the abused child, the exploited slave, the beaten wife have to sit down at table in the heavenly banquet with their abusers and attackers. And shake hands as if it is all a bit of healthy banter. Do we really want that? Give me a God who judges, who vindicates the victims and condemns evil any day. I don't want a God like Sepp Blatter.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Prayer alone conquers God

If you ever wonder whether it is worthwhile praying, and whether it makes any difference, here is a bit of early Christian theology that might help. Tertullian was a Latin-speaking theologian of the C2nd with an ear for a good phrase and a great delight in shocking people. How about this:

 "Prayer alone conquers God. But Christ has no desire that it should do any evil deed; he has conferred upon it every power of doing good. Therefore it knows only how to call back the souls of the departed from the journey of death itself, to strengthen the weak, to restore the sick, to cleanse the possessed, to open the doors of prison, to loosen the chains for the innocent. The same prayer absolves sins, repels temptations, puts down persecutions, strengthens the weak-hearted, delights the high-minded, leads wanderers home, soothes the waves, confounds robbers, feeds the poor, governs the rich, lifts up the fallen, supports the unsteady, holds firm those who stand. Prayer is the buttress of faith, our armour and weaponry against the enemy that watches us from every side. So let us never set out unarmed. Let us remember the station (times of fasting) by day and the vigil by night. Let us guard the standard of our emperor armed with prayer, awaiting the trumpet of the angel while we pray. Indeed, every angel prays, every creature. The herds and the wild beasts pray and bend their knees, coming forth from byres and dens looking to heaven, giving movement to the spirit after their fashion with animated mouths. And even now the birds arise, lifting themselves to heaven, spreading out their wings like a cross whilst uttering what appears to be a prayer. What more can be said on the duty of prayer? Even the Lord himself prayed, and to him be honour and might for ever and ever."

I don't know many theologians who would dare the phrase 'Prayer alone conquers God'. It is striking how these early Christians believed that the way in which God's will works out in the world might be changed by our prayers, that he chooses to unite his work in the world to the prayers of his people, that he recreates the world at least in part through the prayers of the church. I can usually see how my work for God might contribute to his purposes in the world. I see less clearly how my prayers do exactly the same. I would be ashamed if I didn't turn up to work for the wider purposes of God's kingdom, but am I similarly ashamed if I don't perform the other part allotted to me - to pray, along with the whole creation, that God would "strengthen the weak, to restore the sick, to cleanse the possessed, to open the doors of prison, to loosen the chains for the innocent?"

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

St Paul's, Occupy London and the need for Repentance

The Christian church has always insisted on the necessity, every now and again, of repentance. Week after week in churches around the world, people are invited to admit their failings and sins out loud before everyone else in words of confession. It is remarkable when you think of it and not a little counter-cultural, to publicly express the fact that you are sorry for what you have done. After all in a culture always eager to find someone to accuse, who wants to stick their head above the parapet and invite the accusing finger of blame? So usually the default position of most of us (not just politicians) is to find someone else whose fault it is, and whatever you do, don’t admit liability.

Thinking about the strange saga of St Paul’s, it seems to me that the whole thing demands some real repentance as the key to moving on, and that in two ways.

I must admit on first sight, I shared some of the misgivings of the St Paul’s Clergy Chapter. If I were the Dean of St Paul’s, would I want a scruffy shanty town on my doorstep every day, spoiling that nice clean plaza outside the cathedral? If the encampment outside the Houses of Parliament is anything to go by, it would be unlikely to leave for years. For any group with unspecific and unrealisable demands, leaving always feels like defeat. I think I would probably also have subtly tried to move them on without too much embarrassment and just hope that life quickly gets back to normal.

That’s the strategy St Paul’s took, and it was disastrous. It made the Church of England look like what (let’s be honest) it often is – an old-fashioned, out of touch organisation, worried about its own life and survival, more concerned with petty Health & Safety rules and the loss of £20,000 of daily tourist income than issues of economic justice and poverty, or connecting with issues that matter to people outside the bubble of church life.

So I repent. I repent of my scornful attitude towards the protesters. I repent of not hearing God’s Word through them. Yes they lack cohesion and have a whole of host of contradictory concerns and unfocused grievances, but it seems to me more and more now they didn’t turn up by accident, but that underneath they are expressing something deeply felt by many, many people. Maybe they even were sent by God to show us, the Church of England for what we so often are – out of touch, deaf to real people’s anxieties and passions, insensitive to God’s voice, especially when he speaks to us through a rough rabble of face-painted peaceniks and anarchists. It is good that the Church seems to be beginning to get its act together with the Bishop of London taking a lead, refusing to take legal action against the camp, and setting up an initiative in ethical finance under Ken Costa, but it has been a chastening experience and one which needs a good dose of proper ecclesiastical repentance.

Yet it is not just the Church of England that needs to repent. Underneath the various agendas of the protesters lies a deep sense, felt I suspect by many people, that what has happened to the economy over the past few years is scandalous. It’s not so much that people hate bankers, or want to do away with the entire market economy. After all the creation of wealth is a vital aspect of a growing society – it has to be created before it can be distributed. It’s more the way in which a whole fantasy financial system was allowed to grow like an over-inflated balloon, with speculative deals involving the re-packaging of debts as assets to be traded when the money did not even exist, all because it made huge profits for certain individuals regardless of the social cost and longer term risks – that’s what went wrong. But even more it is the lack of repentance that gets out goat. A few bankers were named and shamed (Fred Goodwin for one), but how many have come out with a good hearty mea culpa? Where is the public repentance of the City? Where are the voices prepared to admit that they messed up, they goofed, they speculated with our hard-earned cash (or even with cash we never had?) and now it is gone?

Over the next few years we are likely to enter a period of real austerity, even tougher if the double-dip recession hits. Not as tough as Greece, perhaps, but it will not be pretty, with unemployment and inflation set to rise. What has happened has happened. We need to deal with it and there is no magic wand that makes it right overnight. Sending a few bankers to prison might make some people feel better, but wouldn’t change anything, especially if they fight it tooth and nail. What might change the mood is some genuine repentance. The protesters have high hopes for a new world order. But that can only begin with repentance, and sadly I see little sign of that from the financial sector.

Some kind of public act of repentance from those at the heart of the financial world would at least go some way towards getting us on the right track. I’ve no idea what that would look like (isn’t it strange that we have so few models of public acts of repentance?) but it certainly isn’t rising bonuses in the financial industry, Directors’ pay and perks. That doesn’t look like repentance to me. It looks more like hubris. Change always starts with repentance, because repentance makes possible forgiveness, forgiveness makes possible new relationships, and a new start with real hope that things might be different. Repentance in Christian faith is actually a joyful thing, because it is the moment of honesty, clarity and it always opens out a new beginning. Might that be the place where a new approach to ethical finance starts?

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Leisure: what we are here for


On holiday in France a couple of weeks ago, we wandered into an old, but still functioning monastery. In the gift shop I saw a book by the German Catholic philosopher, Josef Pieper, called 'Le Loisir: La Fondation de la Culture'. I had read one or two of his works before, and this looked to be a promising title for a holiday, so I quickly ordered the English translation (Leisure: the Basis of Culture), and have been reading it for the past couple of days.

A lot of us think of holidays as a necessary break to re-charge our batteries, so we can shed our jaded end-of-year weariness and return to work refreshed and ready to go again. The problem with this view of things is that it assumes that 'work' is what we are here for, and leisure is secondary, something which only prepares us for more work. Holidays are there to stop us having breakdowns, and are good because they help make us better workers. We are really here to work, to labour and to produce.

What if it is the other way round? What if work is there to enable us to have time for leisure? What if we are here to holiday, and work is preparatory for leisure? The key question, of course, is what leisure means. For Pieper it doesn't just mean endless games of golf, watching TV, getting up late and eating lots more food than you really should. Nor is it a process of active, rational thinking, as if we are all to become professional philosophers, pondering the nature of being while we sit on the beach. It is something much richer than all that. Leisure is the ability to step outside normal life to reflect on it and everything else, and to celebrate it. It is to step outside the normal, regular world of work, and to see things you wouldn't otherwise see: bees, waves, rock formations, blades of grass, people's faces. Is is what Gregory the Great called: "the grace to see life whole." as Pieper puts it: "In leisure, man too celebrates the end of his work by allowing his inner eye to dwell for a while upon the reality of the Creation. He looks and he affirms: it is good." (forgive the gender-specific language - it was written in 1947).

Leisure in a sense, therefore, is what we are here for. It is not just 'time off' however. Leisure gives the opportunity for 'contemplation', a more passive and receptive mode of being than 'thinking'. It gives an opportunity for wonder at the nature of things, a realisation again of the miracle that there is anything here at all, and that what is here, despite riots, economic crises and tyrants struggling to hold onto power, is good. It also gives opportunity for 'celebration': the reminder and enjoyment of life as something not earned by our work and productivity, but freely given. So, if eating too much isn't the point, long, leisurely, relaxed meals with friends or family is.

Yet Pieper also has another valuable insight - that leisure depends on worship. Work is productive, focussed on results, ends, and If it is to be more than 'time off', preparing us to dive back into work again, resulting quite often, let's be honest, in a boredom that wants to be back at work again to fill the absence, leisure needs to begin with a sense that there is something more than work, chores, busyness, 'stuff'. When worship is missing, when we can no longer bow down before a God who is bigger, more mysterious and wonderful than we are, when we (or even the physical creation we can see) are the sum and pinnacle of all that there is, dullness results: "The vacancy left by absence of worship is filled by mere killing of time and by boredom, which is directly related to inability to enjoy leisure; for one can only be bored if the spiritual power to be leisurely has been lost." Worship is in a sense pointless. It is not a means to an end, it does not produce anything: "the act of worship sets up an area where calculation is thrown to the winds and goods are deliberately squandered, where usefulness is forgotten and generosity reigns". Worship lifts us out of our ordinary lives and makes leisure possible, and vice versa: In worship we are "transported out of the weariness of daily labour into an unending holiday, carried away out of the straitness of the workaday world into the heart of the universe." Worship and leisure belong together. That is why we have Sabbath. Only worship makes leisure possible and leisure makes art, learning, education and culture possible.

So if you are on holiday, make are you don't manically run around doing too much. Don't forget to say your prayers. And make sure there is time for proper contemplation, seeing things you miss the rest of the time. And if you are not, then make sure there is some time today, this week (that's what Sabbath is for) for true leisure. For without it, we are missing something vital in being human.


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Sunday, 3 July 2011

Love and Death

This weekend, I went to two weddings and one funeral. A real mix of emotions and a chance to contemplate significant moments in the lives of several different people. The funeral came first, a farewell to Gerald Hegarty, a former fellow-staff member at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford, and a wonderfully gentle, humble, wise, incisive and warm man. Two weddings came next, of Lincoln Harvey, one of my colleagues at St Mellitus, marrying Tereza, and my godson Barney Morgan, marrying Josie Cooley. Both of them full of genuine fun, solemnity and happiness.

It got me thinking about the extremes of joy and grief, happiness and sadness right next to each other. What struck me was the setting of all three events - in Christian worship. In all three we said the Lord's Prayer, offered thanksgiving, sung to God and each other, remembered the gospel promises.

The big moments of our lives - birth, love, death, need a kind of 'frame' to give them shape and structure. Christian faith was the frame for all three, and it struck me how well it did just that. Each event, a death, and two celebrations of love and commitment as a result became part of a wider and bigger story, part of a bigger picture. Gerald's death was no longer a sad event leaving a grief-filled space, his funeral a brave but hopeless celebration of a life now snuffed out. Instead, his life was re-stated as part of the building of God's kingdom, and his death merely a transition into the presence of Christ, waiting for the renewal of all things. This was a real parting, with tears and genuine sadness, but with the hope of reunion and resurrection life still to come. The two weddings likewise became part of the great story of God's love for his creation and for us. The love and commitment of these two couples were an echo of the theme that plays at the heart of all things - God's heart of love that beats at the centre of the universe. They were not just an excuse for a party and for getting hammered, a brief celebration that these two people had happened to find each other, but a window into the nature of reality - the love and commitment that God has for his church and his world, and for the entire creation. They were snatches of the same tune that sounds in the heart of God, the music of the past the present and the future.

Without that framing, that fitting of each event into a bigger story, each one would have been important, significant for the families, but containing meaning only in themselves. Being framed by Christian faith, they became full of bigger significance, full of hope, even the funeral. When a life, or even a marriage or a death is placed in the bigger story of God's purposes since the beginning of time, running through until its end, then they take on a meaning, a weight they could never have on their own. They become what they were always intended to be - intimations of eternity, signs of life and hope and truth.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Alpha - the most effective ecumenical movement in the world today?

I have been involved this week in speaking the Alpha International Week at HTB. It has been a remarkable week in all kinds of ways, people finding their vision for church and evangelism renewed, making new contacts and friendships, and hearing all kinds of fascinating stories from all over the world. Everyone feels they know about Alpha, but one of the most remarkable aspects of it for me, is a factor often unnoticed from the outside - the extent to which it brings together an unlikely, but astonishing mix of different types of Christians. I remember the first time I spoke at one of these events around 5 years ago, pausing half way through my talk, while the reality of what was happening dawned on me. I was speaking to a group of around 70-80 people in a seminar, and I realised that in the corner were a group of Russian Orthodox, gathered around a bearded black-robed priest; in another corner were a group of Nicaraguan Roman Catholic nuns, elsewhere were scattered groups of Northern Irish Presbyterians, American Methodists, Finnish Lutherans, English Anglicans - you name it, they were there. Most of the time when I teach, I speak to (mainly) Anglicans with a few scattered Baptists, independents etc. But never had I spoken to such a group representing the worldwide church like this.

This past week, I spoke to a group of over 100 bishops and archbishops from a bewildering range of churches. There were Roman Catholic bishops from Colombia, Peru and Brazil, Anglican bishops from  Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Ghana, a Presbyterian Moderator from Belarus, Orthodox bishops with square-topped hats from Bulgaria and Romania. And those were only the ones I could idenitify - heaven knows where all the others came from. I went with them to Lambeth Palace on Tuesday for Morning Prayer with the Archbishop. It was a bit chaotic, with most of them completely ignoring the careful instructions as to how to say the Psalms and canticles, but the sound of the Lord's Prayer being said simultaneously in countless different languages will linger in the mind for a long time.

Having spoken at these things for a number of years now, I tend to take it all for granted, but once again this week, I found myself wondering where else in the world would you get this range of people in one room? Where else is there anything of comparable ecumenical power?

One the one hand it says something about the power of mission to unite. It is often conceded that the ecumenical movement of the C20th died a death of a thousand conferences, consultations, minutes, resulutions, agreement and disagreements. Apart from some notable succeses such as the churches of North and South India, there are precious few evidences of real organic and structural unity brought about by official ecumenism, and where there are, little evidence that the resulting amalgamated denominations arrested decline in any significant way. Focus on unity and you will never unite. Focus on mission, and you might have a chance. It is not accidental that the gathering I found myself in this week focussed around the Alpha Course, which is at the end of the day, an attempt to do something about evangelism in a difficult cultural context - an attempt to facilitate a conversation about faith in which people can discover Jesus for themselves. Only when we focus on something outside ourselves and our own concerns do we find some real unity happening. Ironcially, Alpha is ecumenically effective precisely because it does not focus on ecumenism.

On the other hand, it taught me about the sheer size and power of the Christian church when it comes together. Despite differences of language, culture, dress, liturgy, ethics, even doctrine, there was throughout the week a strong sense of how much we have in common. Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, Church, Holy Spirit, the Future Hope - we might all understand these things slightly differently (and yes, being a student of the Reformation, I do know how different), yet the richness of classic Christian faith, the sheer weight of history, prayer, thinking, experience and suffering that binds this unlikely group together was almost palpable. Ultimately there is one church, not many, the church birthed by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, existing in many forms and shapes, with the person of Jesus at the centre.

Alpha is sometimes dismissed as simplistic or too corporate - we all know the criticisms. But it has managed to keep its focus on the key task of sharing the faith, holding it out to a hungry world, and as a result, slowly, but surely this 'collateral blessing' (as the Bishop-designate of Durham called it) has emerged, bringing Christians together in a way few other things in the world can do. I think Jesus might have liked it.

Williams and Cameron




Two things strike me about the Rowan Williams media frenzy of the last couple of days. One is not so much what he says, but the level of interest in what he says. The New Statesman article is characteristically intelligent, thoughtful, perhaps even a little opaque at times, but if it had been written by any other person (except perhaps Prince Philip) would it have gained anything like the same coverage? On the surface it is a critique of current political debate similar to what you find every day in the broadsheets, but when the ABC says it, it has a lot more power. Christians sometimes moan that no-one listens to the church any more, or that our leaders don't speak out: but this shows the opposite. There is an intense interest when a Christian leader, as the voice of the nation's conscience, speaks to government, as Rowan has done.

The other thing is the level of misreporting. The piece seems to me a model of how to speak to government. It takes no sides, but has some uncomfortable questions for both government and opposition. The Government needs to explain its big idea more clearly. The Opposition needs to find one. Otherwise we are stuck:

"Government badly needs to hear just how much plain fear there is around such questions at present. It isn't enough to respond with what sounds like a mixture of, "This is the last government's legacy," and, "We'd like to do more, but just wait until the economy recovers a bit." To acknowledge the reality of fear is not necessarily to collude with it. But not to recognise how pervasive it is risks making it worse. Equally, the task of opposition is not to collude in it, either, but to define some achievable alternatives. And, for that to happen, we need sharp-edged statements of where the disagreements lie."

Does that sound to you like the one-sided rant the Telegraph reported, or David Cameron responded to? The PM seems to have read the Telegraph, but not the original article, which just illustrates exactly the point about the poverty of political debate that RW is making.

At the end, the Archbishop starts to lay out a Christian communal vision, an idea of a society which is about "the mutual creation of capacity, building the ability of the other person or group to become, in turn, a giver of life and responsibility". It perhaps needs a snappier title, but to my mind that is a more promising and attractive 'big idea' than either left or right have at the moment.

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Friday, 27 May 2011

Champions League Final - The best of the best

I'm just beginning to get excited and nervous about going to the Champions' League Final tomorrow. It will be fantastic and I fully intend to savour every moment. This is a meeting of undoubtedly the two biggest clubs in world football. Here in the UK, we get use to thinking that Barcelona and Man United are just two out of many clubs in the Champions' League, alongside Chelsea, Arsenal, Inter, AC Milan, Real Madrid etc. I don't think so. Go outside these shores and I reckon there is more fascination with these two than any other clubs. Two vignettes to make my point.

I spoke a couple of years ago at the Yoida Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea. There were around 10,000 Koreans there, and as a bit of a warm-up for my talk, I told them I was a theologian, but I also liked football. Sensing a bit of approval, I warmed to my theme, and decided to find out who they supported. I asked how may Chelsea fans there were. About 200 hands went up. I asked for Liverpool fans - about 400. Arsenal? around 300. Finally I asked how many Man United fans were there. Around 9,000 hands instantly went into the air. South Korea? No contest. Park Ji Sung has done his job well.

I was in Prague recently, and spent a day wandering around the streets. There were various shops selling football memorabilia, with a few scarves from Real Madrid, Liverpool and other English clubs. But one stood out: Barcelona. They were way out ahead in badges, hats, shirts, the lot. They even had Barcelona marionettes - puppets of all the Barcelona players, so you could (presumably) re-enact the moves that led to the 5-0 thrashing of Real earlier this season in your living room, with your very own Messi, Alves, Xavi, Iniesta and Puyol dolls.

Tomorrow is the meeting of the two best teams in the world. Club football is now far superior to the international game, and these two have the best support, managers, some of the best players in the world between them, and probably the best team spirit. I went to the final in Rome two years ago and was hugely disappointed United didn't win, but strangely was not distraught, as I had just seen a fantastic team win fair and square without any shadow of doubt that they deserved it. Fair play, and far better than losing to a dodgy refereeing decision, or a bit of bad luck. I'm just hoping tomorrow is a more even game, and this time the reds are ready.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

The Queen's Visit and the Power of Weakness




It feels as though something very good and healing has taken place during the Queen's visit to Ireland this week.

The Irish and the English are neighbours whose history is for better or worse tied up with each other. The bad blood between them doesn't need rehearsing, whether felt as '800 years of oppression' or outrage at IRA violence, but it has festered away for years, and left behind all kinds of tragedy and pain on both sides. And it is always tragic when neighbours don't get on.

I am, I suppose, an illustration of the relationship. As the son of an Irish mother and an English father, who grew up in England but spent most childhood holidays feeling at home with family in Ireland, I have always felt a bit of both. I have both an Irish and a British passport. I happily support England at cricket, Ireland in rugby and both at football. My friends are mostly English, my wider family mostly Irish. And I know many others like me. Being such a mixture, I instinctively feel that trying to separate Ireland and England, like Irish nationalism tries to do, expecting everyone to speak Irish, propagating the myth of Celtic origins that made the Irish fundamentally different from the English was crazy (that it is a myth and that we are close cousins genetically and racially was there for all to see in Fergal Keane's excellent history of Ireland showing on BBC on Mondays).

I remember being at school in the 1970s during the IRA bombing campaign and getting abuse and graffiti on my school locker for being Irish, then spending holidays in Ireland and being teased for being English. Such is the fate of the half-breed. But the Queen's visit this week has healed something. No trace of the frequent English superciliousness towards the Irish. No trace of the usual Irish chip on the shoulder towards the English. A good deal of humility on both sides, a touch of repentance and warmth.

It was not insignificant it seems to me that it came through a frail 85 year-old. If David Cameron had gone, with his Etonian confidence and air of superiority, he would have evoked all the classic Irish feelings of resentment and inferiority. As it was, this sense of harmony and healing came through a weak, unthreatening, quiet, polite and humble old lady. A sign again that the deepest healing and true strength comes not through power and force but through weakness, humility and grace.


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Location:Foskett Rd,Hammersmith,United Kingdom

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Feeling hard done by?

At the moment, I'm working on the 'Philippians and Colossians' volume in the forthcoming "Reformation Commentary on Scripture" series, and came across this vintage bit of Calvin, commenting on Philippians 2.21: "For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ." If there are any ministers, priests, clergy out there feeling a little hard done by, badly paid, unappreciated, wishing they were somewhere else, hear what Calvin had to say. Typically forthright - he calls a spade a spade, as usual - but there is perhaps some wisdom here:

"It may seem at first sight as if it were no great fault to seek one’s own, but how insufferable it is in the servants of Christ, appears from the fact that it renders those whom it possesses utterly useless. For it is impossible that he who is devoted to self should spend himself for the Church... For it must necessarily be, that one or other of two dispositions rules in us: either that, overlooking ourselves, we are devoted to Christ and the things that are Christ’s, or that, too intent on our own advantage, we serve Christ perfunctorily.

From this it appears how great a hindrance it is to the ministers of the Church to seek their own interests. Nor is there any force in these excuses: “I do harm to no-one”; “I must also have regard to my own affairs”; “I am not so hard as not to be prompted by a regard to my own advantage.” For you must give up your own right if you would discharge your duty: a regard for yourself must not be preferred to Christ’s glory, or even put on a level with it. Whithersoever Christ calls you, you must go promptly, leaving all other things. Your calling ought to be regarded by you in such a way that you shall turn away all your senses from everything that would divert you. It might be in your power to be richer elsewhere, but God has bound you to a Church which afford you only a moderate sustenance. You might elsewhere have more honour, but God has assigned you a place in which you live humbly. You might elsewhere have a better climate, or more pleasant scenery, but it here that your station is appointed. You might wish to have to do with more cultured people; their ingratitude, or barbarity, or pride offends you; in short, you have no sympathy with the dispositions or customs of the nation in which you are, but you must struggle with yourself, and do violence in a manner, to opposing inclinations, that you may cherish the Sparta where you find yourself. For you are not free, or at your own disposal. In short, forget yourself if you would serve God."

Commentary on Philippians 2:21

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

This is one conference you don't want to miss...

This is one conference you don't want to miss...

If the church in Europe is to rise from its lethargy, it desperately needs the power of the Spirit to bring it to life. If the world is to find healing from the ravages of climate change and environmental destruction, it will need the life of the Spirit to flow through it. If you and I are to fulfill our true potential as human beings, we will need to be filled with the Spirit so that we can be brought to the full stature of Christ-like people. For those reasons, I can't think of many more important things for the church to think about right now than how the Holy Spirit is at work in the world (and the church) today, and thus to long and cry out for the Spirit's coming with conviction and passion.

On Friday June 3rd, we are holding our next 'Holy Spirit in the World Today' conference. Last year's was a special event, with some fantastic speakers including Jurgen Moltmann and the Archbishop of Canterbury. This year's will take the discussion to another level, focussing on some key biblical texts about the Spirit, with some brilliant speakers.

Professor David Ford from Cambridge University has been working on a commentary on John's gospel for a long time, and he'll be offering the fruit of all those years of reflection on John 14-16 and what it says about the Holy Spirit and life.

Dr Wonsuk Ma is a Pentecostal theologian, missionary and Biblical specialist who will be speaking about the Spirit in the Old Testament, especially Isaiah, and providing an important perspective from a Pentecostal background - Pentecostals do tend to know a thing or two about the Spirit!

Professor Tom Greggs, soon to be Professor of Theology at Aberdeen, is the youngest theology professor in the UK, and one of the up-and-coming stars in the world of theological studies. He's going to be speaking on what it means to do theology 'in the Spirit' - how theology can avoid being dry and faith-sapping, and instead full of life and spiritual wisdom.

Dr Jane Williams, known to many of us, will be taking another key passage on the Spirit and exploring it in her own inimitable style.

Ken Costa, City banker, recently Chairman of Lazards Invstment Bank, will be sharing his thoughts on what he sees as a global awakening to the Spirit, shown in all kinds of unlikely places.

Along with those, there will be all kinds of seminars on subjects like the Holy Spirit and the Church, Culture, Ethics, Mission, Experience, all introduced by people working in the theology of these areas, people like Julie Canlis (author of a recent excellent book on Calvin),
Mark Knight
David Hilborn (who's just been doing some really important work on Anglican-Pentocostal relations)
Lincoln Harvey
Chris Tilling
Stephen Backhouse
Simeon Zahl (also author of an excellent recent book on Charismatic and Lutheran theology),
Sara Snyder
(and me!).

As well as all this, there will be fantastic worship led by the HTB worship band, and opportunity for engagement with the Spirit through prayer ministry and conversation. There will also be the launch of "The Holy Spirit in the World Today" - the book that came out of last year's conference - and a chance to buy signed copies of my new book on the Prodigal Spirit (a signature should decrease the value on EBay.....)

Basically, it will be a rich and fantastic day, an oppportunity to catch up with old friends, make some new ones, and be stimulated for whatever ministry you're involved with.

Don't miss it! To book, click HERE.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The Holy Spirit and the Purpose of Life

Another excerpt from my recent book - The Prodigal Spirit - The Spirit and human vocation- Buy here

The Spirit unites us with Christ, so that we can know the love of the Father for the Son, as a love into which we are drawn. This also means that we find ourselves called into the mission of the Son towards the world. Bring ‘in Christ’ by the Spirit means becoming caught up in his work to prepare for the new creation. Our new identity leads to a new vocation, to join with God in his work of ‘bringing all things together under Christ’, ‘looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth’.

The Spirit does not do his work in creation directly. Alongside the Spirit, humanity plays a distinct role in the creation stories in the development and maturing of creation. As human beings are created at the climax of creation, they are called to ‘work it, and take care of it’ (Gen. 2.15). Humanity is deeply involved in God’s work to bring creation to its fulfillment, though activities such as work, art, technology and the scientific enterprise of understanding, naming and harnessing the powers of the world. The Spirit of God is free to work without human agency (after all, flowers grow, birds sing and forests breathe without the help of people), yet to bring creation to its true fulfillment, the Spirit works through human agency. Humanity always had a purpose. It was to work with the Holy Spirit in caring for the created order, and enabling it to fulfill the latent potential in it. Parents cannot make a child mature. They can however help to shape the child as he grows, forming his mind, interests, values and future career. Gardeners cannot make plants grow. They can however tend the plant, pruning it and fertilizing the soil to make sure it grows straight and free from parasites. In the same way, humanity cannot bring or give life to the creation – only God the Holy Spirit does that. Yet we can, and are called to shape that creation as it develops, giving it form, order and structure.
However when we remember the work of the Spirit within a damaged, broken world, we see a further role for humanity. Our calling is not only to help creation grow to maturity, but also to be involved in its healing. Of course, humanity itself is affected by that brokenness. We were intended to be involved in the evolving growth of creation into maturity, yet we have become part of the problem, damaging and destroying the very creation we were meant to tend and care for. Every harsh word, broken relationship or polluted river is evidence that we are complicit in the destruction of creation, joining in the impulse to return creation to the chaos from which it came, co-operating with forces of death, not the Spirit who brings Life.

The work of redemption requires forgiveness, cleansing, and a new creation, so that we can again take our place, working with, rather than against the Spirit in his work of bringing life and vitality to the world. The sending of the incarnate Son restores the image of God into humanity, and atones for the sins of the world. Paul puts it like this: “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself.” (2 Corinthians 5.19). God’s work of restoring the broken creation is focused in the coming of the divine Son into the world in the person of Jesus the Christ. If the Spirit is to work with us and through us to enable creation to reach its full potential, that means that humans will not only need to be ransomed and forgiven, they will also need to be filled with that same Spirit, so they can be agents of God’s work in the world. The Incarnation suggests that God’s normal way of working is not to use people like instruments, like a workman using a screwdriver or a gardener a spade. Jesus has his own will, which he chooses to bend to the Father’s will, as happens most tellingly in Gethsemane. God transforms from within, gradually changing desire and will, so that people choose to do his will, rather than being forced to. So, for us to be agents of the Spirit’s work of completing creation, we need to be filled with that same Spirit, not just mechanically used by him. We are filled with the Spirit so that he can work through us to complete his work in the world.
There is a sobering side to this too. A sense of the power of the Spirit, the overpowering sense of the love of God can end up with a one-sided triumphalism. However, being united with Christ does not just mean knowing the love of the Father, it also means being united with him ‘in his death’ (Romans 6.5). Romans 8, that seminal New Testamenr passage on the Spirit, contains that solemn note of suffering hidden within its theology of the Spirit:

The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Romans 8.15-17)

If we are united with Christ through the Spirit, so that we experience for ourselves the intimate love of the Father for his Son, enabling us to call him ‘Abba’ as Jesus did, then this text reminds us that we are united with the crucified Son. Our fellowship with Christ is a fellowship of his sufferings (Philippians 3.10).

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

When the world hung together


I spent an afternoon in the National Gallery yesterday, in the C16th section. The painting that caught my eye was 'The Ambassadors' by Hans Holbein, a 1533 depiction of two French diplomats. Holbein gives an indication of both of their ages (25 and 29 - pretty young for official envoys by our standards). The one on the left is Jean de Dinteville, the French ambassador, the one on the right Georges de Selve, a young French bishop. Between them lie an assortment of items, a lute, some astronomical instruments, some books, and the strange shape of the foot of the painting is a distorted skull, only visible in proportion when viewed from the right hand side of the canvas.

What struck me about the painting was its sense of harmony and honesty. It is a scene of youth, health and vigour, two men at the top of their game, confident, strong and at ease with the world. One is a politician, one a churchman, in a world where religion and politics can live alongside one another as equally important aspects of life. The scientific instruments lying next to a Christian hymnbook, lute and pipes point a world where science, music and prayer are not mutually exclusive and suspicious of each other, but live quite comfortably side by side. It is also a world where it is possible to celebrate youth and energy, fine clothes and colour, while at the same time include reminders of death and mortality. The broken string on the lute and the cryptic death's head skull (even if you have to look closely and obliquely to see them) are both signs of a culture that could quite happily embrace the realities of both life and death without trying to erase one or the other.

It is beautifully composed, all in balance and proportion, luxuriously painted, and gives you a nostalgic sense of a world where things hung together - science, art, theology, politics - and a world where death and life, youth and age were not hidden from each other. The sixteenth century was of course far from a harmonious age, yet underneath the disputes of the Reformation (and these two men are of course Catholic diplomats in a court fast breaking away from the papacy in 1533) this pre-modern world had an underlying harmony and unity based around its Christian view of the world that our fragmented and pluralistic world can only wistfully imagine.


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Thursday, 14 April 2011

A warning from history - how evil creeps up on you




Michael Burleigh's book, 'Sacred Causes: Religion and Politics from the European Dictators to Al Qaeda' is a long read, at times depressing and inspiring, but always impresssively erudite. One of the most interesting sections is on the Nazis extermination policies in the 1930s.

It started with the gradual acceptance of the idea (shamefully agreed to in 1930 by the 'Inner Mission' one of the main Protestant welfare agencies), that sterilization was 'morally legitimate', even perhaps an act of duty towards future generations, a necessary means of social progress. The next step was the decriminalization of voluntary eugenic sterilization in 1932. That again seemed a fairly harmless step. After all, no-one was forcing it on anyone, it was only for those who chose to have themselves sterilized on racial grounds, opening up the possibility that someone might choose to stop themselves bearing children in the future, and thus perpetuating their own race. The next stage was the possibility of sterilization at the consent of a guardian, for those whose own behaviour indicated that their children could end up being 'anti-social'. Once the earlier rubicon had been crossed, this didn't seem too bad either. After all, if the principle of the benefits of sterilization had been established, then a legal guardian worried about a teenager's behaviour might choose to save society the trouble and cost of future aggro by preventing any possibility that promiscuous delinquent youths might give birth to other promiscuous delinquent youths. It wasn't a huge step then towards the legalisation of compulsory sterilization at the decision of the local Party, who decreed that certain elements of society should be nipped in the bud and no longer allowed to replicate themselves.

From there it became feasible to imagine not only the enforced sterilization of undesirables but their extermination. After all, if you are stopping a particular kind of person from reproducing, why not go a stage further back and stop them living?

The point is that Nazi Germany did not suddenly go from a 'normal' society to one that could tolerate mass state murder of its own citizens overnight. It happened gradually, incrementally, step by step, almost while no-one, even 'good' people, noticed. It is to my mind one of the arguments that should make us pause before legalising euthanasia, however desirable it may seem to stop someone's pain. You never know where it will lead once you step out on that path.


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Sunday, 3 April 2011

A Prague Goose and the Freedom of God




I've just spent a weekend doing some teaching to a group of very focussed and impressive church leaders in Prague. The Czech Republic is one of the most secular countries in the world today. At the same time, the wonderful Tomas Dittrich who showed me around and the others I met had a deep sense of the Christian history of the country and its role in forming European Christianity. I loved a visit to the Bethlehem Chapel, the place that holds the pulpit where Jan Hus preached in the early C15th. For those who don't know, Hus was a radical preacher who mounted a rigorous critique of the church of his day, demanded reform and ended up getting burnt for his pains at the Council of Constance in 1415, despite having been guaranteed safe conduct to the Council. Hus in Czech means 'goose', and during his trial, he had reportedly said “Today you are burning a goose, but out of my ashes will be born a swan whom you will not burn". As you might imagine, Luther quite liked that line. I have often mentioned Hus while lecturing on Luther - it was when Luther realized in 1519 that Hus the heretic had been burnt for preaching views similar to the ones he was himself develop, that Luther began to realize he was on a different track to the papal church that was trying to bring him to book. Nearly six centuries later in 1999, Pope John Paul II expressed "deep regret for the cruel death inflicted" on Hus.

Hus identified six problems with the church of his day. They were these:

Priests who boasted of making the body of Jesus Christ in the mass, and of being the creator of their Creator.

The confession exacted of the members of the Church — 'I believe in the pope and the saints' — in opposition to which, Huss taught that men are to believe in God only.

The priestly claim to remit the guilt and punishment of sin. Only God does that.

The implicit obedience exacted by ecclesiastical superiors to all their commands.

Making no distinction between a valid excommunication and one that was not so.

Simony - the idea that positions in the church can be bought and sold for cash.

In essence all of them are a re-assertion of the radical freedom of God. the church does not possess or control God, much less dispense him to others. God is our creator, we are not his. And yet God gives himself to us in Christ. Holding that tension saves us from many theological and spiritual mistakes. It saves us from domesticating God, making him familiar and safe. At the same time it keeps us from making him so distant and mysterious that we can say nothing about him, or rendering him cool and unconcerned with our struggles and pains. Hus's blow struck for the freedom of God at the price of his own life is something for which we have to thank the Czech nation and it's fine spiritual heritage.

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Location:Prague

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Translating the Bible can cost you your life

In January 1530 a priest named Thomas Hitton was making his way to Dover to catch a ship to Antwerp. Walking through fields near Gravesend, a posse of men looking for a thief who had stolen some clothes from a hedge, stopped him & searched him. They found none of the stolen clothes on him, but they did find letters written to certain ‘evangelicals’ on the continent. Aware of a recent change of policy on ‘heretics’, he was handed over to the officers of Archbishop of Canterbury for interrogation.

Hitton had recently visited William Tyndale and others in the Low Countries, and had returned to arrange distribution of forbidden books, including Tyndale’s new translation of the Pentateuch and the Psalter. Hitton was quickly interrogated, condemned, and burned alive at Maidstone on February 23rd 1530.

Hitton was the first martyr of the English English Reformation, first of many to lose their lives on both sides of the debate over the


future of the English church and nation, over the coming decades. In all our enthusiasm for the literary beauty and grandeur of the King James Bible, published 400 years ago this year, Hitton's story, as is Tyndale's, is a reminder that the appearance of the English Bible was not a gentle, affair sorted out by committees, but was won with blood and fire.

Bible translation was a dangerous business then. It could cost you your life. It still can. This week, Mary Gardner, another Bible translator lost her life because she had gone to Jerusalem to improve her Hebrew so she could better translate the Bible into the language of the people of Togo In west Africa. She caught in a blast that tore apart a bus, part of the ongoing tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No-one had heard of Mary Gardner before. She is a true heroine of the faith, joining the ranks of Hitton, Tyndale and numerous others who paid an ultimate price to allow others to read the subversive and life-giving message of the Bible.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-north-east-orkney-shetland-12856418



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Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The Prodigal Spirit

My new book "The Prodigal Spirit: The Trinity, the Church and the Future of the World" has recently come out. I thought I'd offer a few snippets of the book on the blog. This is a section from chapter 1, looking at one of the main themes of the book, a contemplation of Charlie Mackesy's sculpture of the Prodigal Son, which imagine the image not just as a picture of the Prodigal Son being embraced by his Father, but also as a window into the Trinity. 
 
If we let our imagination run with this way of looking at the sculpture, it depicts God the Father embracing God the Son. In particular it suggests the Father’s embrace of the Son who is on the borderline between life and death. In this sense, the sculpture is a kind of Pietà, though not with Mary his mother cradling the dead Jesus in her arms, but the Father embracing the Son after his sacrifice on the cross. Bringing back the picture to its setting in the Prodigal Son story, the words of the Father: “for this son of mine was dead and is alive again” (Luke 15.24) makes the further connection with the resurrection. The image captures the embrace in which the Father catches up and brings to life the son who was dead and is alive again.
Now of course there are only two persons in the picture – the Father and the Son, which leaves the question: where is the Holy Spirit? There is no visible depiction of the Spirit in the sculpture, but the way in which the image affects the observer hints at the role of the Spirit within it. That second level, the way in which many people have found themselves drawn into the image and begin to identify with the son, held and embraced by the father, is a sign of the place and work of the Spirit. If it were just a picture of a father and son embracing, it would simply be an interesting portrait of what might even be a self-enclosed exclusive love. Yet it is not. We are invited, welcomed into the picture – even into the very embrace between the Father and the Son, so that we begin to experience that same loving welcome, the same life-giving embrace of the Father for the Son. The Spirit is this invisible dimension of the sculpture – the invitation to become part of the embrace between the Father and the Son, to know and experience the love that pulses between the Son and the Father.

Irenaeus spoke of the Son and the Spirit as the ‘two hands of God’ and how the Father does his work in the world through both the Son and the Spirit. It is a crucial reminder to us never to separate Christology from Pneumatology. It also suggests that if we can speak of Jesus Christ as the ‘Prodigal Son’ in the story, perhaps we should also imagine the Spirit as the 'Prodigal Spirit’. Just as the Son of God is sent from the side of the Father into the far country of a rebellious and hurting world, so the Spirit is sent from the heart of God into that same far country to draw creation back into the embrace of the Father and the Son. There is however a sequence about this. In the gospels, the Spirit is sent upon the disciples only after the Son has offered his life as atonement, risen again and ascended to the Father. Once the Son has been reconciled to the Father, the Spirit is sent into the world to draw it back into the heart of God which is the embrace between the Father and the Son. Pentecost follows after Good Friday, Easter and Ascension. The Spirit can only be sent after the restoration of the Son to the right hand of the Father (John 16.6). This is because the Spirit is related intimately to both Father and Son, and proceeds from the Father through the Son, from the very heart of the relationship between them, when the Son has returned to the intimacy of the Father’s right hand. In the terms of the Prodigal Son picture, the Spirit is sent to draw us into the embrace between the Father and the Son.

To read more - buy the book - here!

Monday, 28 February 2011

Bethlehem and Babel


On the hill opposite Bethlehem stands this rather ominous looking Israeli settlement. It lies of course in the West Bank, and is remarkable not just for its location but also its size. It bristles like a well-armed fortress, square and aggressive, a metaphor for Israel's Goliath opposite the David of the Palestinian Bethlehem (appropriate,


I suppose as David is said to have been born there, even if the nationalities are reversed). It is perched on a hill, a monument to Israel's desire for security and determination to keep the Palestinians firmly in their place behind the security wall that has turned Bethlehem and its surrounding villages into what is effectively an open prison.

It reminded me of something, and when I got home I remembered what it was - Pieter Brueghel the Elder's painting of the Tower of Babel. It is both a pictorial and symbolic likeness. Babel was a human attempt to establish security, presence and a future without God. The settlements are attempts to establish security, presence and a future without justice. Israel needs security and has a right to it. Yet however solid the settlements look and feel, they will only ever be as substantial as Babel if they are built on land that not rightfully owned or foundations of fear.

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Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The most important water in the world?

As I write this I am in Israel, leading a group of friends around the Holy Land with my (now) good friend, Dahoud, our Egyptian Coptic Christian guide.


The other day, on a visit to the City of David, the site of the small Jebusite fortress that David captured around 1000 BC, we stopped by the Gihon Spring, the water source that fed the fortress and subsequently the city that David built. Presumably one day, some prehistoric farmer drank from the well, and thought it would be a good idea to build a settlement on the hill above it, as it both had accessible water and was easily defendable with three steep valleys around it.

It got me thinking about the significance of this small stream of water emerging from deep underground. It seems so small, so insignificant. Yet without this spring, there would have been no fortress, without the fortress, David would not have tried to capture it. Without David's raid, there would have been no Jerusalem. Without Jerusalem, no Solomon's temple. Without Solomon's temple, no Herod's temple. Without the Temple, Jesus would not have set his face for Jerusalem, hence no cross, no resurrection. Also, no Western Wall, no Dome of the Rock, no Crusades, no State of Israel, no Palestinian question, no Middle Eastern crisis... the list goes on and on.

And it all stems back to that tiny stream of water gushing out from the rock in an obscure valley in the Judean hills. Can there be a more significant and influential spring anywhere in the world? So watch carefully when you drink from a spring and think it might be a good place to build a city.


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Thursday, 17 February 2011

Lenten Generosity

It may be a little in the distance, but Lent is not too far away. I am beginning to think about what I might do this year. I heard recently of a campaign run by an organisation called Stewardship, which is called “40 Acts, Give Out – Not Up”. The idea is that rather than giving up something for Lent, you do something positive instead, and in particular do something generous on a regular basis. The idea is that on each of the 40 days of Lent you do something out of the ordinary, something generous - giving something away to others, whether it is time, money, gifts etc. It struck me that this was a good idea for a number of reasons.

First, the great tradition of building character through virtue rooted in Aristotle and given strong Christian colouring by Aquinas and in recent times Stanley Hauerwas and others, suggests with reason that good character is built up by regularly practising certain acts. So for example, becoming a generous person requires repeated acts of generosity, so that it becomes a habit. This way it becomes something which is easier to do than not to do. The goal of Christian behaviour is not to perform the occasional heroic generous act, which is difficult and out of the ordinary, but to become the kind of person who naturally, almost without thinking about it, does generous things. This is the impression you get of Jesus. He doesn’t look like he is making some mental calculation all the time to give his time, energy and life for those who need it. These are natural acts that come out the person that he is. For us, generosity is nurtured by a blend of meditation on the generosity of God and creation and in Christ, and the experience of the overflowing love of God poured out through the Holy Spirit, and then repeated acts of generosity in response to this, which embed the practice as a habit or virtue in our lives.

This also struck me as a good idea because generosity is perhaps one of the major qualities which speaks of the nature of God in contemporary life. We live in a deeply acquisitive culture. In other words, we are told again and again that life is about acquiring things, buying objects, getting as many gadgets and toys as we can to fill our homes, lives and time and earning enough money to satisfy every whim or desire. Generosity as a virtue runs counter to all of that because it tells us that true life is about giving things away, rather than about acquiring them. To that extent, it mirrors the very nature of God the great Giver, who gives us the gift of Christ, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and our daily bread day by day. So perhaps this is one of the most counter-cultural Christian virtues of them of all and something which we need to learn more of. For that reason I think it is a pretty good plan. I still might give up something, but I will at least have a go at generosity this year.

Why Freedom is not what you think it is

I have always struggled to understand what Christians mean by freedom. There is quite a lot in the Old  Testament  about  Israel  as free...