‘Brexit means Brexit’ – 10 Brexit slogans I’ve come to loathe.

slide1Six frenzied months have passed since Britain voted to leave the European Union. Politics is interesting again. All of a sudden it is hard to find anyone who doesn’t care about politics. For a second time we have a strong-minded woman Prime Minister, stirring many memories. However, unlike the 1980s, we are still living in the age of spin. The political class think that everything has to be reduced to a slogan that will somehow stick in our apparently simple minds. So the press oppress us by refusing to stock nuance, or supply detail, or honour our intelligence with a decent debate, because we are told that there is no demand for anything other than meaningless slogans.

So, let’s take some Brexit slogans in turn and unpack them to get a little nearer to reality.

‘Brexit means Brexit’. This is the silliest slogan of all. Imagine trying to explain anything else in the same way: ‘Marriage means marriage’, ‘Cricket means cricket’, or ‘Fruit cake means fruit cake.’ At least when you shout ‘Points mean prizes’ there is a connection between two different but related words. But since Brexit is an invented word to describe a process that has never happened before and has yet to happen, I’m sorry Prime Minister but this catchphrase does nothing. Nor are things clarified by some engaging adjective. A Hard Brexit sounds painfully surgical, a Soft Brexit fluffy and pillowed from all ills; then there is a Grey Brexit (presumably loved by John Major, though I doubt it) and even a Red, White and Blue Brexit (could also work for the French and the Dutch) though by now this is just getting silly. The politicians should admit they are patronising us because they don’t want to discuss detail in public.

‘A hard Brexit was not on the ballot paper.’ This was claimed by Lib Dem leader Tim Farron MP. What does he mean? Well, a ‘hard Brexit’ (I think) means leaving the EU completely, including the customs union that allows tariff-free trade between EU countries, as well as ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice over the UK. We would be out of the Single Market and its regulation of British business and finance. Agriculture and fisheries policy would be ours to decide. A ‘soft Brexit’ means paying to be part of the customs union, continuing to charge the common external tariff on goods imported from outside the EU, sticking with Single Market regulations, and in some way remaining under the European Court of Justice. The problem is, the ballot paper was quite simple. It was a binary choice: ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’. In the debates on TV, and conversations on the ground, the ‘hard’ options were what we were being offered, and the public voted to leave. We knew there were serious consequences. We knew it was a step into the unknown, and it might hurt our economy, but we voted to leave. Leaving can’t add up to a grey remain.  Continue reading “‘Brexit means Brexit’ – 10 Brexit slogans I’ve come to loathe.”

Ipswich Murders ten years on – hope and a future

police-tapeTen years ago this week, Ipswich became the focus of the world’s media, as a serial killer murdered five women, their bodies being found in woodlands along at A14 south of Ipswich over a period of ten days leading up to 12 Dec 2006. Kesgrave, the community in which we lived on the east side of Ipswich, and where I was pastor, was caught in the media bubble that descended on us. The BBC News broadcast every news bulletin live from Suffolk police headquarters a mile from our house, and even Fox News joined in the live media scrum. The murders lifted the lid on the dark underside of our town, as all five women were addicted to hard drugs and worked as prostitutes. One of them I recognised – she had grown up in the neighbourhood of the church in a lovely family, and as a child had come to our Church’s  Holiday Bible Club. All too easily she had become addicted to hard drugs and all the rest followed.

The following Sunday I ditched my sermon series and preached, through tears, the following sermon. Below this sermon I’ve posted an update on what is happening in Ipswich today to help rescue women from drugs and prostitution, through the remarkable project, Talitha Koum. Continue reading “Ipswich Murders ten years on – hope and a future”

G K Chesterton: superstition and Christmas

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A superb quote to use this Christmas:

‘It’s part of something I’ve noticed more and more in the modern world, appearing in all sorts of newspaper rumours and conversational catchwords; something that’s arbitrary without being authoritative. People readily swallow the untested claims of this, that or the other. It’s drowning all your old rationalism and scepticism, it’s coming in like a sea; and the name of it is superstition….It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense and can’t see things as they are. Anything that anybody talks about, and says there’s a good deal in it, extends itself indefinitely like a vista in a nightmare. And a dog is an omen, and a cat is a mystery, and a pig is a mascot and a beetle is a scarab, calling all the menagerie of polytheism from Egypt and old India; dog Anubis and great green-eyed Pasht and all the holy howling Bulls of Bashan; reeling back to the bestial gods of the beginning, escaping into elephants and snakes and crocodiles; and all because you are frightened of four words: “He was made Man.”’

  • K.Chesterton, The Penguin Complete Father Brown

The Black Dog in December

img_20161130_0817551It is early December, and a very foggy day, and by a strange line of lateral thinking I remembered that I once wrote this piece for a blog I ran during a sabbatical in 2007. Nearly ten years later it is interesting to revisit this, and I am posting this not because I am in a low mood – I am feeling very positive – but I am mindful of so many in ministry and mission who are depressed at this time of year.

When I posted it on my blog in 2007, I was jumped by my deacons who said ‘Pastors really shouldn’t post this kind of thing. It will make your flock reluctant to share their problems with you. Keep quiet about your depression. It is most unwise to talk about it.’ Well, they leaned hard, and I took it down, and I continue to think that was wrong. In the dark of winter, or at any time of year, it is really important to talk about depression, and to be open about it and help each other. So here it is. Hope it helps someone.  

Churchill called it his ‘black dog’, but it is still the great unmentionable today, and it still carries a great stigma, especially among those who do not understand it. Many people suffer from depression without realising it, and live in denial, making their own lives and the lives of their loved ones a misery. For me, the past week has brought back some of the old symptoms: noticeable mood swings, disturbed sleep, lethargy, loss of concentration and creativity (hence no blogging), loss of interest in anything (starting reading lots of books and quickly giving up), introspection with weird temptations, a malaise and listlessness, comfort eating, short temper, and the illusion that life would be so much better if we upped sticks and started again elsewhere. I would describe it best as waking up in a lead helmet.

There are several things to say about depression. First, it usually surprises you. I never expected to get a bout of depression during sabbatical, and for the first few weeks that didn’t happen: lots of jollies to look forward to – Edinburgh and Italy made me feel so happy. But now I’m home, quietly reading and deprived of my regular fix of adrenaline and other people’s attention. This is time to discover the real me rather than the busy me, and it is not a pleasant experience.

Second, it may hit you at the same time of year, as indeed happened to me when I returned from holiday in Belgium last year. There seem to be particular times of year when it strikes, and you get wise to them.

Third, there are degrees of depression – this bout is by no means the worst I have suffered, though lots of the symptoms have a familiar ring to them. Finally, when you get wise to depression, it doesn’t have to be utterly suffocating. All that is happening is that the brain’s biochemistry is lacking, and that can be restored. Rest is crucial, but also exercise. I went out on Wednesday for a 6 mile walk round Martlesham and felt hugely better the next day.

However, Friday wasn’t so good, so it takes time, and you have to ride the mood swings and get wise to them. On a good day, make the most of it but don’t overdo it, and on the bad days do what you can and get an early night. Also, work out what jobs you can do when depressed, especially things with a tangible end-product you can look at and say that you did something, and get them done, and leave the ‘road-block’ type problems to be solved on the good days. Call it ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’ if you like, but in the end if you suffer bouts of depression, in the end you get wise to it and know how to work round it. This week life is better, and I expect life will improve from here. Today I’ve had a burst of creativity and haven’t felt so threatened by failure.

 

In the heat and dust of Burkina Faso

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When you step off the plane, even as you stand at the top of the steps, the smell of heat and dust, sweat and spice, diesel and sand greets you in that warm and gentle West African way. Welcome to Burkina Faso! It is mid evening, and Ouagadougou, Burkina’s capital city, is surprisingly dark at 8pm. I had come to visit missionaries and see this country for myself, trying to understand the state of the churches and the challenges they face. It has been eight years since I last visited West Africa, and this was my first visit to Burkina. Now that I am back in Blighty and have been able to reflect on those life-packed days, here are some thoughts about the culture of Burkina Faso, and its opportunities and challenges.

The dust is what strikes you first; the red dust of Mars that gets everywhere. Only the main roads have tarmac, so all the side streets are a bright red dust that gets on your trousers, in your nose, on every home appliance and all over anything that stands still. With temperatures kindly settling no higher than 37o at midday (‘This is cool, and the humidity has gone’ they all said with relief), November was a good time to travel, but you can’t escape the attrition of the heat. Police guards on the roads, clad in body armour and AK47s, sweat in the roasting heat, but take it in their stride. Mad dogs and Englishmen need to rise early and enjoy those precious first two hours after daylight, and retire to the shade at lunchtime. After dark is also productive time, which the British generally waste at home in front of their TVs.

I’ve been to Manila, Chennai and Johannesburg, so shanty towns seem normal in any urban setting. What surprised me here is that tin shacks are rare. The poorest live in mud brick houses, still cherishing some of the building skills handed down from their forebears, while anyone further up the social scale will build with concrete blocks. The edge of the city blends more naturally into the countryside, as a village here is a much more tight knit community of mud brick houses. I was told that the father stands at his door and throws a stone, and where it lands there he builds a house for the child who is leaving home. The effect is that houses butt together in small clusters, set among trees and grassland, but with small signs of Continue reading “In the heat and dust of Burkina Faso”

Fifteen tips for starting out in ministry

sheep-1547720_1920I was a young minister once! Up to the age of 50 you’re allowed to think that maybe you still are. But then I have to realise that Margaret Thatcher resigned as PM while I was in college, Scotland didn’t get a Parliament for another eight years after I left Scotland and was ordained, and I am firmly in the second half on ministry, hoping still to score a few goals. So, as I have watched an encouraging batch of young men enter ministry this autumn, several of whom I have followed through training, here are fifteen tips for starting well that I’ve picked up along the way.

  1. Preach within your range. The Bible is like a mountain range, and some peaks are a lot higher than others, so don’t set out to preach beyond your capabilities. We grow into the task of preaching, so don’t set out to preach through revelation as your first series, or John 14-17 or 2 Cor. 10-13. (I tried the latter, and am still scarred by the experience.) Preach what your congregation needs to hear most, and what you can make clear and apply well. Your preaching will reach first class standard after about five years, and test match standard….maybe! meantime, know your limits. John Chapman says ‘Preaching’s not that hard. It’s just the first forty years that’s the worst!’ After twenty four years I am starting to appreciate that quip more and more.
  1. Make a preaching plan for your first few years that takes you to a different genre of Scripture in each ‘term’ of the year. I watched my pastor in Abingdon, Simon Hutton, do this in his early years in Abingdon, and it is a great plan (which had never occurred to me). So we had Exodus 1-15, Colossians, some of Mark, Job (the best early series), Amos and Micah, and so on. As he tackled each series, so he became used to handling that Scripture genre ready for whenever he handled a similar book in future. See your early years in preaching as developing your skills gradually.
  1. If you are a sole pastor, and preach both ends of the day on a Sunday, don’t do a mega series both ends of the day. The real challenge of such ministry is staying fresh at both ends of the day, and not letting one sermon become the poor relation, and typically it is the evening sermon that suffers. Sometimes it is good to do a doctrinal or evangelistic series in the morning that doesn’t tax all your prep time, leaving you free to work hard at an evening series in OT narrative, or a closer exposition of a NT letter. When you want to put your main effort into the morning series, preach from well within your range in your evening series.

Continue reading “Fifteen tips for starting out in ministry”

Blog Post 13 – Cherish the national conversation

Placeholder ImageThe Great British Bake Off is over and gone for ever from the BBC. It is the only cookery programme that has ever made me dare to bake something and mostly succeed. It has made national heroes out of ordinary people, non-celebrities who we can genuinely identify with, and perhaps is the only programme that was genuinely worthy of the name ‘Reality TV’ (a term which seems to be an oxymoron in relation to the programme formats it usually describes).

The Bake Off has also been valuable for another reason: it has wonderfully embodied the Great British national conversation at so many levels. (For comparison, when the format has been sold to other countries, such as Holland for example, their versions have reflected their national conversation in all kinds of ways, and the Bake Off Italia – Dolce in Forno certainly has something about it that is all its own.) In the British Bake Off, the mother/son chemistry between Mary and Paul, the bad jokes of Sue and Mel, the idyllic country house setting in verdant Berkshire, and the wonderful range of accents and attitudes in the mix of contestants all came together to flavour this rich pork pie of British culture. In so doing, they have all helped to shape the national conversation.

What do I mean by a national conversation? It is hard to define easily, but it is a uniting conversation that typifies and expresses the life of that nation and embodies its shared life together. For it to be more than just a social conversation among a few friends, however, it needs to have some key elements.

First, a national conversation requires a common language. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but this is important. When the English nation was forming in the days of Alfred the Great, it was King Alfred’s commitment to spreading the English language across the nation he sought to govern that defined England. He was committed to education, and to translating parts of the Bible into Old English. Continue reading “Blog Post 13 – Cherish the national conversation”

The Niatirbian Bakeoff

cupcakes-690040_1280There lies in the ocean, turned towards the north and west, the island of Niatirb, which is reported to be cold and wet in winter. The islanders, surpassing all the peoples of whom we know in patience and endurance, have traditionally responded to the cold and dank by the interesting pastime of baking. This has happened since ancient times, though it is said that their great king may have been responsible for burning the cakes, so greatly did the unfair dominance of Europe (mostly the Danes) over his native England weigh upon his mind. Others minded their baking skills much the better, so that the Niatirbians have become advanced beyond any other nation in their baking, and in so doing have developed extraordinary delicacies, such as the cheese scone.

With the advent of the supermarket, and the slow decline of the traditional baker, it was agreed among the chief vision-meisters that the wireless picture box should address the decline in the baking skills of the Niatirbians by showing a series of baking parties. The meisters pondered holding this in a grungy warehouse, as they so often did when making modern shows involving dragons, but decided instead to plant a tent on the lawn of a stately home, to install pastel shaded worktops and to festoon the walls with bunting, since such bunting expresses in a unique way the joy of the Naitirbians. Each party would be hosted by the Twins of Innuendo and Laughter, together with she who is the Mother of all Apple Pie, and he who would be proved to be the Rising Prince of Darkness. And where the Mother of all Apple Pie shone with the sunshine, charm and pristine niceness of The South, the Rising Prince of Darkness came from The North, and so many could identify with his sense of lostness. Continue reading “The Niatirbian Bakeoff”

Downs Syndrome and Wilberforce’s long march

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Sally Phillips’ moving BBC documentary ‘A World without Downs’ amazed me. (Those outside the UK can watch it here. Watch it – the best TV you will see all year) It amazed me because it was so refreshingly direct and against the grain of the prevailing liberal elite .  It amazed me because I just didn’t think the BBC would ever commission a programme like that. (Compare and contrast Michael Palin’s interview with Jan Morris, for example) It astounded me for the sheer brutal and inhumane way in which scientific and healthcare professionals talked in such austere was of screening out anyone with Downs Syndrome. They were self-evidently incapable of admitting the humanity of the unborn child, while in the lab next door other medical professionals will be spending huge budgets to try and treat massively disabling conditions (such as cancer, MS, MND and Huntingdon’s Disease) among the born. How can there be such a vast gulf between before and after birth? How can the system institutionalise murder and dress it in a white coat? The scientific amorality of some parts of the medical profession shown in this programme demonstrates in the boldest colours possible the terrifying moral hopelessness of the post-modern generation.

I have been hugely impressed by the blogs of Glen Scrivener and David Robertson on this subject, and cannot express better the arguments that they have expressed. Go and read them. They are both brilliant. Here, I want to look forwards and to ask a question: in this debate, how can we ever counter the ‘women’s right to choose’ argument and protect the rights of the unborn? (The only part of Sally Phillips’ argument that failed was that she defended a mother’s right to choose. Possibly, this was the price of getting the programme aired. Has she considered its implications?)  In a liberal society the ‘free choice’ argument is used to undercut almost any argument we might make, whether it relates to marriage, sexual behaviour, abortion, the broadcasting of pornography, gambling, or the recreational use of drugs. But there is one argument that still holds sway with the liberal elite: defending human rights. If we are ever to make any progress in protecting the unborn, and indeed all the vulnerable, it must be Continue reading “Downs Syndrome and Wilberforce’s long march”

Hymn notes: Psalm 2 – for when you tire of singing ‘Jerusalem’

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It was early September 1997, and I had watched yet another Last Night of the Proms with its rendition of Jerusalem. The second verse certainly can be stirring, jingoistic stuff – ‘Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand…’ etc. etc. But the first verse is absolute tosh. Asking a rhetorical question, ‘And did those feet in ancient time…’ already I want to shout ‘No! They didn’t!’ Indeed, at the end of verse 1, as the musicians play the musical interlude, you can interpose a ‘bridge’ of words as follows:

                The answer’s no; It really didn’t ever happen so!

I am convinced Jerusalem would be much improved if this caught on!

Therefore, fed up with another Last Night rendition of Blake’s spiritual fantasies, I decided to try and do better. I set to work on a version of Psalm 2, which I must have preached about that time, set to the tune Jerusalem. The key phrase to render was ‘I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.’ It is the crux of the psalm, and God’s answer to the nations. Because I was using rhyming couplets, I had two options for the end of the first verse. I could have stuck to a fairly literal rendition of the text as follows:

                Then in his wrath declare his will:

                ‘I set my king on Zion’s hill.’

When it came up for discussion at the Praise Trust editorial board, this very nearly became the version we used, but I wanted to have something more explicitly Messianic, drawing on the sense of rejection that the cross involved that is expressed in Hebrews 13:12-13. So we went with the more dynamic lines:

I set my Son, whom you condemn,

                as King outside Jerusalem.

Continue reading “Hymn notes: Psalm 2 – for when you tire of singing ‘Jerusalem’”

Will there be nations in the New Creation?

S0051361The Rio Olympic Games have finished. I love the spirit of the Olympics, the absence of the ‘winner takes all’ culture of so much competitive sport, and the ability to celebrate every level of achievement. Competitors who have just run what appear to be the most brutally competitive of races turn at the finishing line to congratulate each other as friends and celebrate the achievements even of the person who came twelfth. While the Olympic movement has its own moral challenges and can occasionally show the worst in human nature, this peaceful gathering of nations can make us look forward with longing to a much, much more glorious gathering of nations, when the redeemed gather in the New Creation.

Which raises a question: will there still be nations in the New Creation? My instinctive reaction is to say that if we will not marry or be given in marriage at the resurrection, surely nations will be a thing of the past as well. But I am not so sure. The Book of Revelation makes some extraordinary statements that we have to reckon with. While we must always be guarded over prophetic statements in Scripture that have yet to be fulfilled, we should still wrestle with the text and read it in the context of the rest of Scripture. There are four statements in Revelation 21-22 that I believe are significant clues about nationhood in the New Creation. Continue reading “Will there be nations in the New Creation?”

Was Pentecost a global moment?

IMG_0062.JPG‘Pentecost marked the reversal of the curse of Babel.’ So goes the traditional narrative that tries to tie together these two major events in the history of the nations: Babel marked the cursing of the nations with different languages, and Pentecost marked the beginning of the reversal of that curse. Babel scattered the nations, and Pentecost marked the global moment when the scattered nations began to come together again through the gospel. While I used to hold to this view, I no longer think it is tenable from the text of both passages, and we have to relate Babel and Pentecost together more carefully. This is an issue of huge importance, not just for how we understand the world but for setting our priorities in mission.

There is no doubt that there are strong connections between the two passages. Acts 2:9-11 is a mini Table of Nations that echoes Genesis 10. Where the city of Babel came together in its rejection of God, the crowd in Jerusalem were brought together to worship him. Where the people of Babel were ‘confused’ by what they heard in Gen. 11:7,9, in Acts 2:6,12 they are ‘bewildered’ and ‘amazed’ because they can understand. There is no question that Luke is aware of the words used in Gen. 10-11 when he writes Acts 2, and that the terminology is reflected in what he writes. So what is the connection between the two events? In what sense was this a ‘global moment’ causing the gospel to spread around the world? Continue reading “Was Pentecost a global moment?”