So where did half term go?

By , 31 October 2008 9:03 pm

One of the great blessings of the teacher’s life (apart from a salary that does not depend on the state of international finance) is the holidays. Given that much of the teaching week is basically a non-stop theatrical performance for six hours each day you do need the breaks. Yet on this Friday night as I look back over the half term just ending I wonder where it all went. What actually did I do?

Well, we went up to stay with my mother-in-law in the Midlands for the first part of the week and that means we spent a total of six hours driving. It was a good time and we had the first snow of what promises to be a cold winter. What was especially valuable was that we were able to catch up with relatives. So we met up with my brother-in-law’s and sister-in-law’s families, but we were also able to see our elder son and his wife and young Simeon. I am pleased to be able to report that Simeon is doing well and now looks (and sounds) like the average ten-week-old baby. His parents seem to have come to terms with his CAH well and are handling the need to dose him regularly with saline and steroids with commendable skill and diligence. So there’s an answer to prayer. Thank you all!

What else did I do? I attended a funeral of a dear saint in our church. I did a solid day and a half’s work on writing a whole lot of new notes for the new environmental studies syllabus. I put various programs on my iPhone and digitally processed a number of photographs. I also wrote a rather difficult sermon on the stark subject of ‘Sin’. It is one of those topics that on the surface seems fairly easy but which has all manner of trickiness in depth; original sin, total depravity and (not least) the fact that you don’t want to make everybody feel utterly gloomy. So that took time.

I’ve also been waiting for word from a British publisher on a collaborative non-fiction project which should take up much of my spare time over the next six months. I was due to hear this week but that seems to have slipped away. Linked with this apparently is an interest in a possible fiction project so I have also been accumulating a very large number of notes on a new book. Yes, I have a lot on the epic fantasy trilogy of the ‘Seventh Ship’ but frankly I’m not ready to start that and I’m not sure it’s that attractive for a publisher at this stage. So I have been putting ideas together for a standalone volume that will grab the reader from the first line, involving theology, the supernatural and a fair amount of violence. I’m afraid there is a need for pragmatism!

So with all these things the week has slipped by so fast that now it is in the rear view mirror of life. Did I use it wisely? As I look back at it before much of it disappears entirely from memory I am reminded that the Psalmist wrote: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12). Hmm.

Some time I need to spend time thinking about how I use time.

Confessions of a failed evangelist

By , 24 October 2008 5:47 pm

A colleague with whom I share an office and all sorts of things (including probably his cold) has just decided that he’s going to buy an iPhone. Curiously enough this news makes me depressed.

How so? Well he’s buying an iPhone on my recommendation; I’ve talked a lot about it, expressed how pleased I am with it and let him have a play with it. He loves it. So even though he already has some time left on his old phone contract he is going to get one. So why am I depressed? It is that I seem to be better at selling iPhones than the gospel. We’ve talked a lot about Christianity and he’s made some interesting comments, but he’s buying into the phone and not, as yet, into the faith.

Of course it’s easier to talk about a mobile phone than it is to talk about faith. Phones are everywhere, everyone has them and everyone is using them. Phones come up naturally in conversation. These days faith is not anywhere near so frequent a topic of discussion. To talk about it can actually seem rather forced and unnatural. Phones also somehow a much more concrete topic; it’s much easier to say to someone – as I did today – ‘have a play with this’. It is much less easy to say to someone ‘here, try my Christian faith’. And of course it’s easier for people to risk getting involved with phones than with faith. An unhappy experience with a phone will, at worst, leave you a few hundred pounds or dollars out of pocket. An unhappy experience with faith could be far more costly and open you to considerable embarrassment. Nevertheless I’m sure you understand my unease; shouldn’t it be much easier to talk about a faith that means everything and a phone which, however nice, means very little?

And yet. A year or so ago I extolled the virtues of C S Lewis to my colleague who greatly enjoyed Surprised by Joy. The other week he said that he’d picked up a copy of the Screwtape Letters and here his tone grew pensive, he ‘found it very thought-provoking’. Well maybe the dead Lewis can do better than the living me. Actually from what I’ve heard, the living Lewis wasn’t that great an evangelist. Maybe death will improve me, but I’m in no hurry to try the experiment.

Incidentally I had some lovely fan mail from Ghana this week. These nice comments count, they really do.

Have a good week


On admitting guilt and offering forgiveness

By , 17 October 2008 8:13 pm

There’s a lot to be said for a careful reading of the popular press and a careful listening to what people say on the TV and radio. Getting dressed this morning, I listened to the excellent Today programme on BBC Radio Four where the redoubtable editor John Humphrys was interviewing Angela Knight, head of the British Bankers’ Association. Towards the end of the interview he said it was an awful pity that the head of one of these banks would not come onto his programme and admit they had made dreadful mistakes and offer to make it up. The smooth answer came back: ‘John, let me tell you that there is not a single person in the banking industry who is not extremely concerned about the state of things.’ And despite further pressure that was as far it went: no admission of guilt, no confession, only an expression of that wonderfully ambiguous concern. Concern about what one wondered – loss of reputation? loss of earnings? Who knows?

And of course isn’t that the way of the world today? Admission of guilt is extremely rare. We try not to even say sorry. There has been a recent and rather sordid case involving the head of Formula One and what was claimed to be a Nazi-themed orgy. What has emerged in the legal cases (and, friends, I have not followed it closely) is that there is no question that this married man was involved in the orgy; only the Nazi theme is disputed. The upshot though is striking: far from admitting any wrongdoing, the man concerned is now brazenly trying to implement legal measures to prevent newspapers reporting anything that infringes on an individual’s privacy without consulting them first.

I’m reminded of my conversations with the number of Lebanese in the 1990s about what history calls the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-88, in which some appalling events took place. (I know: I was there for some of it). ‘Oh it wasn’t our war,’ they would say dismissively with a shrug of the shoulders, ‘it was the others. The Israelis and the Syrians (or the Palestinians) fought each other on our territory. We were innocent bystanders.’ Well, of course that is a big, bold lie; many Lebanese were active participants. But denial is easier than admission of guilt.

Let me make one obvious, and one less obvious, point. The obvious point is this: although denial of guilt is attractive, it is not a wise strategy. To deny that you are ill is one of the few things that utterly rules out any possibility of healing and to reject guilt is to completely eliminate the possibility of forgiveness. The less obvious point is this: admission of guilt is only really likely where there is a culture of forgiveness. The problem is that we are now in a post-Christian culture where any idea of forgiveness has largely been overlooked. The result is a vicious circle: to admit guilt is to invite a merciless punishment so we don’t admit guilt. We have no culture of forgiveness so we do not dare to seek forgiveness.

I have no idea which comes first: the readiness to forgive or the readiness to admit guilt but we need desperately to bring back both.


Finance, faith and fantasy

By , 10 October 2008 6:32 pm

I thought it was time I made some comment, however brief, on the world’s financial state. So far for many of us it appears to be like thunder on the edge of the horizon, something of a dramatic novelty but not a matter that directly affects us. Of course very soon it is going to be having a direct effect and not a benign one. In fact in our church it looks as though we are going to create a finance subcommittee whose brief will be to offer aid and assistance to those who will have been affected. At least that’s the plan.

Let me make two other observations.

The first is that I find myself troubled by absence of any prophetic Christian response; not to this present crisis (which may come) but to the bizarre and reckless boom we saw over the last ten or twenty years. Where were the prophetic voices saying that ‘it’s not going to last’, ‘it’s a house built on sand’ and ‘what goes up must come down’? I am happy to include myself in this critique. Frankly, even those of us who were not avid supporters of the prosperity gospel seem to have been content to receive the benefits of a financial situation that we now realise was based largely on irresponsible property speculation. I wish somewhere there was some prophetic figure who could say ‘I told you this would all end in tears’. Perhaps there is and I will be glad to hear of him or her.

The second observation is this. If there was a failure of the prophetic nerve there was also it seems to me a failure in the area of imagination. Quite simply no one seems to have been able to conceive of the scale of the pending disaster. It is almost as if an assembled mass of lemmings had peered over the cliff before them only to mutter ‘Well, it certainly looks a long way down, but I don’t suppose it can really hurt.’ Perhaps everybody should have read a few more fantasy books and a few fewer property magazines.

Other news quickly. Simeon continues to do well and gain weight and has survived his first cold. There are also some developments occurring with my writing career that I am not at liberty to discuss but which sound promising. Your prayers are welcome on both counts.

Whatever happens to the markets, have a good week.


Field trips in a wet climate and the problem of unresolved gratitude

By , 3 October 2008 7:30 pm

I don’t often write about my job on this blog, which is just as well as I found out today that at least one student regularly reads it. Hi Ioan! Teaching geology has one slight problem attached to it: the need to do fieldwork. In theory this is fine, as in South Wales we live in an area where, within a day’s drive, we can see some very fine geology. But when am I supposed to take my students out? Term starts in early September, but for the first few weeks my first-year students know very little geology and fieldwork presupposes at they have least some knowledge. And by the first week in October temperatures have started to drop and the autumnal gales and rain are upon us. So should I leave it and do it all in late spring? That is hardly acceptable from the teaching point of view and anyway, in some years the weather doesn’t really improve until mid-April. But as our exams start in mid-May we are already in revision mode by then and my colleagues are less than happy at losing students from their classes. So my habit is to try to get the fieldwork in at the very end of September.

Yet here matters are made even more complex by the fact that almost all our best rock sequences are on coastal sections. ‘So what?’ you say. Well, we live in a part of the world that has the second highest tidal range in the world (9-10 metre tides are perfectly common) and the omnipresent health and safety legislation means that I can only really work on a falling tide. So the dates of my field trips are more or less chosen for me and this week was the week: I had three full-day trips. The weather was bad on one day but good on the other two; by the miserable standards of 2008 a very good result. In fact even the field trip on the wet day went well and I actually had some pleasing feedback. I’ve been very glad to get them out of the way because the temperature today has really dropped and there is a feel of late autumn in the air. We also had on the radio that message which is for Brits the first harbinger of true winter: a warning of snow on the Scottish Highlands.

Anyway I’m very grateful for the good weather and am happy to attribute it to answered prayer. I am well aware of this raises lots of problems (what about those who, for whatever reason, prayed for bad weather?) but I’m content to let my praise sound out. This whole issue raises for me one of the most telling arguments against atheism and one which I think is insufficiently discussed. It is this: when faced with some potentially disastrous situation that, in the event, goes right, we all – atheist and believer alike – feel the urge to give thanks. Yet for the atheist this is the most frustrating of all desires: there is simply no one to give thanks to. It may be that if the problem of pain is the strongest objection to Christian belief, the problem of pleasure is atheism’s Achilles heel. The atheist cannot admit for a moment the existence of ‘blessing’; that would require the existence of a Blesser.

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