On time and events

By , 24 April 2009 6:57 pm

What’s happened this past week?

  • We’ve had really very pleasant weather, warm to almost hot, without any rain. After a long cold winter, Spring has, well, sprung upon us, and indeed we have had some days that have seemed on the verge of summer. Given the rather damp nature of our climate such times are indeed welcome. Last Saturday Alison and I had a great walk around a nearby peninsula marred only by the fact that the footpaths on the map were not duplicated by anything remotely similar in reality.
  • I preached last Sunday night on the principles of evangelism from Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian church. The congregation stayed awake (they are good like that) and some people told me they found it helpful.
  • Monday to Friday I’ve been back at college teaching, although the proximity of the exams (our first one is an unhappily close on 12th May) means that we are now in revision mode. I finished marking and grading 58 pieces of coursework. Some were of a quality that was arrestingly good and made me feel good about teaching, while some were so pathetic that I wonder what I have been doing.
  • On Monday night, I gave the first (and as it turned out last) lecture in a series of evening classes that had been planned with a biologist friend on Life through Time at the Welsh Botanic Gardens. It’s a great place but very much out in the wilds so the fact that we only had three attendees was hardly surprisingly. We may redo it next year in Swansea.
  • We started a week of prayer at church: so far I have not managed to go to much but should be there tonight.
  • Alison and I watched the Coen Brothers’ film ‘No Country for Old Men’ and both agreed that despite rave critical reviews it was only memorable for the thoroughly irritating way in which it arrogantly trampled over those unwritten rules that good storytellers make (and keep) with their listeners. I will say no more but, for my money, if you haven’t seen it you’re not missing anything.
  • I finished (Hurrah! Hurrah!) the book for Hodder that I have written with J. John; it looks almost certain that it will be called The Return: Grace and the Prodigal. As you may surmise from its title it is a fairly detailed study of the great parable of the prodigal son and its implications for how we live.
  • We heard from our older son John that our grandson Simeon who gave us such concern earlier on is now greatly enjoying life and clearly possessed of a happy and intelligent temperament.
  • We had a truly appalling (in every sense of the word) budget speech this week which a) made plain the extent of the economic devastation and b) manifestly failed to come up with any truly coherent solution for solving it. We are however promised that there will be a massive recovery next year with astonishing rates of growth. The response to this has been levels of mocking laughter normally associated with protestations of innocence from the villain in the pantomime. The truly curious feature on the national scene is that while everyone is really pretty angry about the financial situation the anger so far has been confined to a few protests. We Brits are a pretty placid folk, it seems. Nevertheless everybody has spent a disproportionate amount of time this week talking about the economy.
  • I have a lovely letter of thanks for the books from Kentucky (thank you Debbie) and a nice comment from Canada. Thanks one and all.

There is a lot more than I could add but even so you might well ask: what is the point of listing all this activity? There is nothing particularly new, striking or even probably important in this. Indeed, I suspect your own lives are just as complex. Yet the busyness has preoccupied me: it has been a week quite literally of ‘one darn thing after another’. And yet, as I now look back, I see that somehow the gift of seven whole God-given days have vanished.

Did I use them wisely? Most effectively? Did I consider what I was doing in the light of eternity? Psalm 90:12 says “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” It is easy to see that in terms of a quantitative factor: ‘how many days have I got left?’ It may be better to see it in qualitative terms: on those blank sheets of time God gave me, have I written what was worthwhile?



On bobbies and benchmarks

By , 17 April 2009 7:30 pm

For those of us who respect the British police force, the last couple of weeks have been rather unsettling. In particular, disturbing scenes have emerged of a least two very aggressive incidents during the G20 summit. One was in which a man with his hands in his pockets was struck hard in the back with a baton by a policeman in the Darth Vader uniform they increasingly wear on such occasion and then pushed to the ground: he died shortly afterwards. Another was one in which a woman was struck with a gloved fist in the face and then pushed very aggressively. In both cases there appear to have been very unsatisfactory attempts to cover up the incidents. One or two other oddities have added to the unease: at least some of the policeman had the numbers on their uniform covered up, something which is never supposed to happen.

The world-famous British bobby is important to us, not just in practical terms but also symbolically. To those of us who are law-abiding members of British society (which I mostly am) there has always been something rather reassuring about the idea of the unarmed, amiable and incorruptible British copper, the very epitome of fair and gentle law-keeping. How we despised those lesser breeds (I name no names) governed by vicious gendarmerie/guardia civil/ polizie /policia with their tendency to beat the heck out of anyone who even looked vaguely troublesome. Unfortunately, even those of us who don’t protest or steal cars are increasingly coming to realise that all is not well in the British police force. One reason why it has taken us so long to realise that there is trouble is because we have been misled by focusing on a single benchmark: the use of firearms. The fact is that (thankfully) our police still do not carry firearms except on very special occasions. (They are hardly ‘unarmed’: their batons and sprays are pretty unpleasant.) Anyway my reading of the situation is that although we have been worried about our police force for many years we have been reassured by the mantra ‘Relax, things are all right because they don’t carry guns’.

Now I could talk more about the police force and may do so; there are fascinating and troubling issues emerging in Britain as the ‘Protestant consensus’ within our society ebbs away rapidly. What I want to do though is comment on the peril of keeping your eye on single benchmark.

In a complex world it is easy over issues of concern to mark a line in the sand at some particular point. You turn your attention elsewhere, constantly glancing back at your line in the sand and, as long as it remains untouched, you conclude that all is well. So, for example, I consider that everything is all right as long as I can walk down to the city centre in daylight without being mugged. There are many such benchmarks in society and in our lives. Indeed I suspect almost all our public and private morality is composed of a series of such benchmarks. So, for instance, we consider that our freedom as Christians is intact because (benchmark issue) they have not closed down places of worship. True, but we ignore the fact that in a dozen other unbenchmarked areas our freedom has been eroded. We consider our political liberty to be unchallenged because we can participate in that great benchmark, democratic elections. We overlook the hundred other ways of freedom has been drained. We imagine that we have free speech because the police do not march into newsagents and carry away particular issues, but we ignore many other ways in which our liberty is constrained. (As an aside I think we work on the benchmark basis in our teaching. Our exams include almost all the key topics that they did 20 years ago, and as this is the case, there is an assumption that therefore everything must be well. However what you find is that in most cases these have been reduced to such a token representation that their presence is effectively irrelevant.) It is rather like denying coastal erosion on the grounds that the key lighthouses still exist while ignoring the fact that they are now on islands rather than on the continuous cliff they once were.

If you are an evil person, being able to recognise these benchmarks is extremely useful. You simply leave them intact and work your way around them. So for instance someone could probably take it over Britain but all would be well as long as you kept the flag flying and the Queen in residence. Perhaps they have…

What’s the answer? I suspect it is the necessity of shunning isolated benchmarks and instead trying to see the whole picture. The problem with doing that is very simple: it is hard work.

Have a good week


A Good Friday meditation on kings and pirates

By , 10 April 2009 7:20 pm

There are a lot of things I could talk about this week, but it is Easter. And I have been preaching once a month at our church in a series broadly based around Christ in the Old Testament. Last Sunday evening I got round to Christ as King and it fitted in very nicely with the Palm Sunday theme. In truth, I find preaching something of a labour because I spend a lot of time preparing but it is extremely helpful in that it forces me to think through things. Anyway this is something that that emerged from my sermon preparation and you may find helpful.

One argument of the sceptics of traditional Christianity centres on the issue of how one man’s death can atone for others. Their argument is simply that what we dignify with the phrase ‘substitutionary atonement’ doesn’t really make much sense arithmetically or morally. Well, the arithmetical side can be dealt with by pointing out that as God, Christ has infinite merit but that still doesn’t really explain how one man can stand in for millions of others. So how do we answer this?

The first point to say is that to a large extent this is a problem that we have brought on ourselves in western Protestantism. Our celebration of the individual means that we tend to see ourselves as solitary figures isolated effectively from all others. Yet other societies operate on a different basis. Certainly in the Middle East, at least, the family is the fundamental element of society and an individual is always part of a family. One bizarre side-effect of this was that at AUB we had to make students taking the English entry exam display their identity cards, as it was all too common for the fluent Rami to stand in for his much weaker brother Amir. (We are now adopting this policy in the UK: it may be for similar reasons.)

The fascinating point was that, if caught, neither of them would have seen this as being fraud: for them substitution is one of those things that families are all about. So one answer to the problem of the cross is along these lines: as our ‘elder brother’ Christ is fully entitled to stand in for us. Another answer – and this may be more satisfactory – is to remember that in many cultures, a King is not just the ruler of his people but also their representative. As monarch he embodies all that they are. And on this view, Jesus as our Lord and King is of course perfectly entitled to stand in our place. His death on the cross was also his people’s death. (And in some way his resurrection is also ours.) Anyway, that was one spin-off from my talk last week: if it helps, you’re welcome to it.

There was actually an interesting little sideline on the news today which made me think of a third analogy. As I write this, Capt Richard Phillips of the ship Maersk Alabama is being held hostage by Somali pirates. As the story stands at the moment, apparently Captain Phillips offered himself as a hostage in order to save his crew from the pirates. It’s a nice Good Friday metaphor and we must pray it ends up well for the captain. I notice that the French – familiar with the area and untroubled by Protestant niceties – have just launched an armed raid to rescue some of their own citizens held hostage and inflicted a good deal of damage on the pirates in the process. (As an aside, this dramatic incident, which seems to have escaped from the series West Wing, is being seen over here at least as President Obama’s baptism of fire.) And incidentally, if anyone is at all interested, I must sometime tell you about my own modest role in contributing to the Somali civil war and the current state of our piracy. It’s not something that one boasts about…. 

In the meantime have a blessed Easter.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same”

By , 3 April 2009 6:26 pm

First of all, no news on the work front except that unknown number of voluntary redundancies have been agreed. Any news on compulsory redundancies will have to wait till after Easter. Although I am most unlikely to be affected there is a general atmosphere of unease around that no one cares for.

Anyway, today at 4:30 was the deadline for my students to submit their coursework. Most of them had known about the coursework for nine months and sadly a large number left it to the last possible minute. Oddly enough most of the worst offenders were on Facebook which I happened to glance at last night. Let me list you some of their comments. I have removed names (to protect the guilty) and in one or two cases slightly sanitised the language.

A: is thinking…coffee….lucozade sweets….cafeine tablets….just anything too keep me awake!!! roll on the all nighter…..who’s with me???

B: I am… but without all those caffine things lol… think u’ll race me at finishing the coursework ???

C: i’m goin to get it done even if i have to stay up ALL night and have literally no sleep… u think u’ll get urs done 2nite? Xxx

D: i’ve only just finished the methodology thing… i have like everything left to do lol… oh well as long as they’re done i suppose :) going to be a long night!!! Xxx

E: quater to five i went to bed… not the best idea in the world seein as its still not done! 3 hours now :O:O:O xxx

F: For those of us who are in the worst mess of our lives… DEADLINE TOMRROW PEOPLE!!

G: im not sleeping 2nite. 😐 i had a lil kip in the afternoon so ill be awake thru the night hahaha.


(And there is always the self righteous one: J wrote ‘I am so pleased I started my geology coursework early and only have spellchecking to do :)’)

Now as it happened I also checked the Blog of one Samuel Pepys yesterday. For those who don’t know who he was or need reminding let me cite the introduction to his Wikipedia entry: “Samuel Pepys (23 February 1633 – 26 May 1703) was an English naval administrator and Member of Parliament, who is now most famous for his diary. Although Pepys had no maritime experience, he rose by patronage, hard work and his talent for administration, to be the Chief Secretary to the Admiralty under King James II. His influence and reforms at the Admiralty were important in the early professionalization of the Royal Navy. The detailed private diary he kept during 1660–1669 was first published in the nineteenth century, and is one of the most important primary sources for the English Restoration period. It provides a combination of personal revelation and eyewitness accounts of great events, such as the Great Plague of London, the Second Dutch War and the Great Fire of London. His surname is usually pronounced /’pi?ps/, sounded the same as the word peeps.”

I call it his ‘blog’ because some clever soul has realised that the entries can be turned into one. And reading the entry for Saturday 31 March 1666 I came across this paragraph.

All the morning at the office busy. At noon to dinner, and thence to the office and did my business there as soon as I could, and then home and to my accounts, where very late at them, but, Lord! what a deale of do I have to understand any part of them, and in short do what I could, I could not come to any understanding of them, but after I had throughly wearied myself, I was forced to go to bed and leave them much against my will and vowe too, but I hope God will forgive me, for I have sat up these four nights till past twelve at night to master them, but cannot.

Nearly 350 years separate Samuel Pepys from my students but nocturnal desperation unites them. I suppose we may be undergoing some slight physical evolution as a species but we certainly do not seem to be undergoing any mental or spiritual change.

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