Smaller world, bigger picture

This advent I deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone. I abstained from browsing to those sites, I let tweetdeck go dormant. I took a break from social media. It wasn’t a complete abstinence, once or twice I decided I needed to tweet for work, and I responded to a couple of event invitations. But for the best part of a month I heard about engagements from colleagues, births from friends, and asked them to add a proxy ‘like’ on my behalf. I’m sure I missed out on a dozen controversies and left answered innumerable buzzfeed quizzes which would have told me which Charles Dickens character I was, or the like.

There was no great noble purpose in this departure, and writing this review makes it seem much grander than it was. It started with the recognition that I needed space. I needed room to think and my mind was too crowded with the trivialities of those I barely knew, the announcements of those I cared about, and the worries of a world that stirs heartache with every fresh recurrence of violence, war and trauma. When I explain to friends (those I see in day to day life) that I would occasionally spend an evening on the sofa engaged in a couple of conversations on Twitter they look at me with a combination of astonishment and amusement – with friends that don’t tweet, and most of them don’t, it feels like an alien world.

I have no gripe with social media, I often love it, on the way into work each morning (apart from this last month) I check Twitter, find out what’s going on in the world, send out some trivial tweets, some articles I think worth reading, and respond to the latest nonsense in my feed.

But it was drowning out the world I walked in each day. It was distracting me, sometimes entertaining me, often dulling me to the people I spent my time with. I’d be in the middle of conversations and browsing Twitter, not even doing the semi-legitimate conversation type thing, but the unfocussed dispersal of my attention until it was wafer thin. I say semi-legitimate because I’m a fool for drifting from one conversation to the next at the best of times, not allowing one to hold my attention.

I’ve been about two days behind the news for most of December, and I learnt to be okay with that. I’ve missed seeing what my friends are doing on Facebook more than what’s going on in the rest of the world. And that represents what I learnt this month, I focussed my attention on a smaller world and I got a bigger picture of a world that has more depth than can ever be fully explored.

This isn’t intended to ape Andy Crouch’s post lent review which I read months ago and had in mind as I deleted apps on my phone. But I returned to it and read it again, and found that having written all of the above, he made the same point but with far greater eloquence:

“Our screens, increasingly, pay a great deal of attention to us. They assure us that someone, or at least something, cares. The mediated world constantly falls over itself to tell us, often in entirely automated ways, that we matter every bit as much as we secretly hope we do. … an utterly dedicated, ingratiating concierge for our preferred future. The unmediated world does not flatter us in this way.

“So the real gift of my absence from screens was that nothing was paying attention to me. … And in the absence of that constant digital flattery, feeling much smaller and less significant, I was more free to pay attention to the world I am called to love.”

An utterly dedicated concierge for our preferred future. When we think of technology taking the place of humanity that’s the problem. Not that it can’t do the job, but that it can do it too well. We live imperfect lives and the idea of programmed automation that fulfils what we might think we want it to do is the vision of science fiction and it is the reality of the illusion we too often live in.

We think we know what our preferred future is and we have tools at our disposal to curate a life that as closely resembles that as possible. We go to concerts and spend most of it viewing it through a four inch screen as we record for double digit views on YouTube the demonstration of what an amazing time we’re having. We see incredible sunsets and filter them so frequently that it becomes a novelty to tag that we’re not. Our methods of distribution are designed for distortion.

I have friends today that I wouldn’t have were it not for social media, and I’ve stayed in touch with people on other parts of the planet I would never have dreamed with keeping up with otherwise. Social media broadens my horizons, it provokes me, it infuriates me, it stimulates me. Heck, I wouldn’t have ever started blogging if I hadn’t seen on Twitter that someone had written something that annoyed me.

I needed to shut it down for a while. I needed to step away from the delusion of a life with almost infinite social connections and the lives of others that I could only feign to share.

I needed to nurture the friendships of people I saw all the time but don’t know as well as I could. I needed to give all of myself to their attention.

Loch Ossian

I also needed to think. I needed time to percolate some of the thoughts in my head and allow them to settle. The constant flow of new information, ideas, opinions was flying through my mind, nothing had time to form and linger – it would get shoved to the bottom, rooted and stuck, there to be ignored unless needed in a pub quiz, or otherwise thrown to the side, discarded along with the latest trivial quiz. It might have been an exhilarating ride but it was like a rollercoaster at a theme park. Fun, but you end up where you began just rather shaken up.

I’m heading home for Christmas as I write this. It’s late on the evening of the 23rd of December and for the next few days the insanity of work busyness will be replaced by a non-stop succession of family events, many fun, many desirable, many exactly what I need. I won’t be heading straight to Twitter when the clock strikes twelve tomorrow night. On Christmas Day I’ll be with my family, playing with kids, talking to my sisters and my parents. Opening presents, eating food, doing things that build relationships.

There is time enough for enough relationships. If I were to spend all my time on a few instead of many I don’t think I would be poorer. Maybe I’m in the fortunate position of having a lot of people with whom I could spend time. Maybe I’m blessed to be able to spend my time seeing them. But maybe it’s also time to invest in those relationships that matter most.

Concluding this the other side of Christmas Day that all sounds incredibly smug. Until late on Boxing Day when I started browsing online sales my phone has mostly stayed out of reach, left at home, or taken only to capture photos. I’m also exhausted and ready for time on my own, too many people – even those I love – leaves this introvert in need of a cold dark space. Juggling four small children (sometimes almost literally) would leave anyone out of breath.

When contact is mediated via technology the choice to opt out is ever present and easy to oblige. I browsed through Twitter for the first time in nearly a month and decided to leave the app off my phone for a little longer. It’ll return, but it cannot be a convenient social outlet when wanted and then discarded when challenging.

And yet, as I contemplated replying to a message from a week ago I refrained as I didn’t want that to be my first tweet to fill the void. The temptation to curate a life in public view that is a tableau of the best moments is ever present. The temptation to let people into my life when I’m at my best is a trap not restricted to the online world, it’s a lure that lies around almost every corner. The challenge is to let people push you to be the best you can be without that creating an artifice that defrauds even yourself.

Screens lie, but sometimes in their lies they betray the truth. Lives also lie, but in their living can turn that lie into reality. The problems that exist within a life curated by social media are only a mask for problems that go far deeper. If we are reluctant to let the world see who we really are, then we are probably also reluctant to let anyone see who we are. If we are manufacturing a world through instragramable lunches and tweetable statuses, who is the person that we are when we enjoy those things with others?

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What exactly is leadership?

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A question that gets harder the more you think about it

Sounds like a simple question: what is leadership? But it’s one of those things that the more you think about it the more complex it gets. Leadership is something you know when you see it, and notice when it’s absent.

And the more I have thought about it, and thought about it a lot I have done over the past year, I’ve got more and more tangled up. So below is an attempt to unwind the strands of thought about leadership, especially among Christians, and even more specifically about Christian leadership outside the church.

There are two different tendencies toward leadership I’ve observed, both of which I think miss the mark in some way. The first is that leadership is something reserved for an elite few who are in charge, this usually means people with formal positions of authority, labels and status which show that they are in charge. Whether this is politicians who are leading the country, chief executives leading companies or pastors leading churches. A leader is the person at the top who is in charge.

The second perspective is that everyone is a leader, but if everyone is leading, who is following? It also leads to a view of leadership that becomes a catch all terms for multiple different attributes, and in the process downgrades a vital and important role.

Leadership in church

A brief side note here about church leadership which demonstrates some of the complexity in using the word. We (Christians) talk about church leaders, but when we do that we are collecting up a variety of different roles and bringing them together. When there is a single person in charge of a church it is relatively easy to refer to them as the leader, the vicar, minister or pastor is in charge. But when we break down what that single leader does we then have to ask which of these multiple roles makes them a leader. Is it that they are the shepherd of a congregation, or the primary teacher, or the administrative manager, or the vision caster? Many churches have recognised these different aspects as well as the enormity of the task facing one person given responsibility for them all so there are often different people who take on each aspect. In some churches there is an eldership made up of the senior leaders who act as the primary decision making body, in other churches a lay eldership oversees the more visible ‘leaders’. If we’re looking for a single leader you either go for the person with the greatest influence on the congregation or the person with ultimate authority.

Who is a leader?

This causes me to reflect on what exactly is leadership, and who is a leader? Perhaps the first step is to recognise that leadership is not a fixed state of affairs and being a leader isn’t a permanent position. This immediately tends away from restricting leadership to formal positions because it is possible, and frequently occurs, that someone has a title which might suggest they are a leader but are not actually leading. To be a leader you have to lead.

The second step is to recognise that leadership is context specific, so you can be a leader in one place and not in another. You might run your business and be a leader there, but not be a leader in your church or in the sports team you play in on Saturday mornings.

These perspectives lead me to view leadership as quite broad, it means that many more people are leaders at some time or place. Some of these contexts will be highly visible, others will be more fleeting and unnoticed. Added to this are differences in leadership styles and the type of leadership required in different settings.

Earlier in the year I went away to Snowdonia with some friends, we were attempting a challenge walk, and I was in charge of the walk. When we were on the mountain there was little doubt that I was leading. I had organised the endeavour, I set the course, and although I consulted with my fellow hikers, the difficult decisions to take were mine. But then we got back to the converted chapel we were staying in my authority was murkier if present at all. We were a group of friends on a weekend away, I found the shifting sands awkward, from requiring organised plans and clear decisions, we now were mutual participants in a shared activity – to try and impose the same sort of leadership would be weird, and I’m not sure my friends would have wanted it!

And yet, even in friendship settings we recognise leadership. It is evidently true that some people lead friendship groups, you see it when different people organise events or social gatherings, one person may strive to gather people together with great difficulty and another do it with ease. This is not just about personality and popularity, I know I am a good organiser, I can ensure things run smoothly and with limited potential for things to go wrong, but when it comes to less formal settings I find it more awkward. I work better where there are clearer delineations of roles and responsibilities.

In the language of start-ups, what is the minimal working model of leadership? If we recognise some things as leadership and other things as not, where does the border lie, is it as straightforward as either leading or following, and in most things in life you are doing one or the other? I think there is a better way of looking at it, and it starts from recognising that we can both lead and follow at the same time.

No-one ever acts completely autonomously, we are always taking our cue from something and often someone. As a Christian I am first and foremost a follower of Christ, and while I may lead in some contexts and follow in others, this occurs within the context of following Christ. Similarly, when I lead I may well be in turn following the lead of other people. Many organisations, whether businesses, churches, or elsewhere, are built on a similar model of delegated leadership: I can have leadership responsibility at work and still be following other leaders. Leaders delegate authority to other people with the freedom to exercise it but to do so within certain bounds.

Is everyone a leader?

One of the smallest scales of leadership is leading a family, this is rarely thought of within the leadership literature, and the number of people impacted may be small, but the responsibility is significant and the consequences of that leadership hard to underestimate. It is the parents, and for some people specifically the father, who lead the family, they set the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, they model a culture and characteristics which children adopt and they demonstrate skills (from walking to speaking, from football to trainspotting) they want children to learn.

I have moved towards thinking that everyone at some point, in some way, exercises leadership, and in that context is therefore a leader. This isn’t quite the same as saying that everyone is a leader, and certainly not in the way leadership is commonly considered, but it breaks down the elite mentality that leadership is only for a special few. Further, it means that the task of growing in leadership is something that we should all give at least some attention to. For some it will be a much more significant part of the numerous roles they take on, and therefore probably require greater focus, for others it will be more fleeting, but I struggle to think that anyone will never benefit from developing as a leader.

There’s one other aspect that proved contentious when I suggested it on twitter, we have role in leading ourselves, and this may be a foundational stage to effective leadership in any other context. In this I am influenced by a book I’m currently reading on the history of Jesuits, Heroic Leadership, by Chris Lowney, a Jesuit priest who went on to work for JP Morgan before looking at what leadership lessons could be learnt from the 450 year old Society of Jesus. One of the pillars of the Jesuits is self awareness, and key to this is leading yourself – the idea is that you can only lead yourself anywhere if you are first aware of who you are and what you are doing. Otherwise you will be led by something else. I would develop this concept within a clear framework of first following Christ and within that we can know our identity and from this develop our purpose and lead ourselves in that direction.

This was contentious because a reply came straight back asking whether I wasn’t just talking about self-discipline? I think it involves self-discipline, but as part of a suite of tools which we use to get somewhere. The key to me considering this as leadership is the element of direction, we want to get somewhere and we lead ourselves in such a way to get there. (This also includes leadership to stay in the same place, especially standing firm in the face of pressure.)

What this isn’t is a description of good leadership, or even effective leadership – leadership can be effective without it being good. However, I would argue that if leadership is ineffective it isn’t really leadership. A further question which was posed to me was whether leadership is, or at least should be, intertwined with goodness and morality. I probably agree that leadership should have a focus towards the good, but I don’t think it is intrinsic to its definition, we recognise leaders in all context include when they are leading themselves, people and organisations in a bad direction.

So my holding position – i.e. one which I hold light enough to be willing to change – is that everyone leads sometimes, and therefore understanding leadership, and learning how to do it well, is vital for everyone.

What is leadership?

That’s the who of leadership, but not necessarily the what. For that I return to two terms I’ve used repeatedly above and sometimes in an almost interchangeable sense: influence and authority. Leadership is about having and using authority, and it is about influencing people. On a microscale personal leadership fits this, but I believe it also fits across the board.

Within influence and authority lie many other aspects of leadership, probably foremost the use of resources – whether that’s materials, people or institutions. I could possibly simplify this even more and say that leadership is about the use of power. Influence and authority are types of power, authority usually considered the more formal and influence the softer. This is also where the leader/follower dichotomy breaks down, exercising power can be a lonely task and requires decisions that will sometimes alienate people. If the purpose of leadership is keeping people following you then difficult decisions may be ducked, but if the purpose of leadership is to do something, and the tool of leadership is the power to get that done, whether people follow is often important but only part of the equation. This isn’t to sound dismissive, working with people and keeping them part of what a leader is doing is usually essential, but it is not the overall goal, if it becomes that then leadership becomes a popularity game.

One reason why I prefer the term power than influence or authority is that the latter are often used as euphemisms to mask what we otherwise might shy away from. Influence is the use of power, authority is the use of power. Power can be viewed negatively within Christian circles – although if we’re talking about the power of the Holy Spirit that’s a different matter – it is seen as dangerous and corrosive, we follow Lord Acton in his aphorism ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. But power is a gift, it is given from God for us to use, He gave Adam and Eve power in the Garden of Eden, Jesus gave his disciples power, and the Holy Spirit filled the early church with power. That we sometimes use it badly, is not a reason to despise it, but the motivation to see it stewarded with greater care and integrity.

The reason we have been gifted with power is to use it for a reason, and that reason is not our own greatness, or our own ends, we have power so that we can work as co-heirs with Christ, and the work that we are called to is front and central in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. We are not just killing time until Christ’s return or our death. We are part of His work to redeem all of creation.

Summary (until I change my mind): leadership is the use of power to achieve something

Where does our strength come from?

This is a bit of a working draft, I’m still processing my thinking but this is where I’ve got to. I don’t want to misrepresent anyone’s views so open to comments and corrections to ensure it’s accurate and clear.


Yesterday the internet went into one of its sporadic meltdowns, a bit like Iain in the bake off kitchen which ended up with his baked Alaska in the bin and him heading home. This time – as with many others – the debate that exploded was over the role of women.

It was a curious affair, Andrew Wilson picked up on comments Alistair Roberts made below an article Hannah Malcom wrote for Threads and reposted an excerpt on the Think Theology blog. The original comments were made a month ago and were part of a long discussion which I had previously missed, as clearly had many others who became inflamed when they were given prominence. Part of the problem is that Alistair Roberts writes very long comments, his longest in response to Hannah ran to just shy of 3000 words, and below Andrew Wilson’s post he wrote another of similar length replying to Steve Holmes which he has reposted on his blog with a couple of additional remarks.

To get my head round what he was saying took quite a lot of time! Last night, before reading anything bar the Think Theology post I had a hunch that Alistair was saying something interesting, but also sure that I disagreed with him, and that despite both of those I didn’t really understand what he was saying. Having read in some detail the various journal article length comments on various posts I’ve come to the conclusion that I do disagree with him, but at the same time he makes a useful point which is danger of getting lost in the wave of criticism he’s received. But also that the level of my disagreement is significant and the strength of his logic lost because of the direction he chooses at the outset. He says many things I am not going to engage with, for example others have picked up on his articulation of feminism. This is what I have summarised his position as, I may have this wrong, and I am undoubtedly overriding some of the nuance he covers in his discussion.

  1. men are stronger than women,
  2. things are better when strong people are present,
  3. strong people inevitably rise to the top of power structures,
  4. exercising power is a key function of leadership
  5. strength is therefore a key feature in the affective exercise of leadership.

Alistair writes in his comment responding to Steve Holmes which I think is the crux of his position:

Just as men have a natural relationship to power that women don’t have, Genesis and the rest of Scripture presents women as possessing a natural relationship to life, communion, and the future that men don’t possess. If the tasks of taming, naming, and exercising dominion over the world (tasks corresponding to the first three days of creation) primarily fall on men’s shoulders, men are to empower women to perform the tasks of filling the world with life and fellowship, a task for which they possess a unique aptitude

As an understanding of why men dominate power structures this is a fair historical and sociological assessment. Coupled with this is a critique of advocates for equality as wanting to undermine the power structures for its own sake without considering whether the outcomes of that shift to equality would benefit those who most need it. Alistair argues that equality, if meant by that raising up and protecting those who are marginalised and disenfranchised, is better served by strong leadership and that is best achieved by not bowing to an overarching concern for equality. He also goes further and suggests that equality is so disputed it is an empty concept. Specifically this means that where women are marginalised they are better off with men in more positions of leadership because those men are better able to protect and to serve. As an extreme but useful example he says an equality which demanded parity of gender representation in the army would leave the country less able to secure its defence. Continue reading

7 things I learnt yesterday

Yesterday I wrote about whether we should mock David Cameron, and whether the response to his Easter reception and message was what it should be.

I got a lot of feedback, some fair, some angry, some both of those at the same time. Here are 7 things I realised:

1. More sure than ever that regardless of disagreements we should treat each other with civility and that includes our political leaders.

2. The healthy critique of leaders should not restricted out of an undue sense of propriety

3. Finding the balance between those two points is crucial to the church having a prophetic voice to society.

4. Jesus was creatively subversive in his dealings with authority, we should do likewise.

5. Jesus acknowledged that the earthly rulers had authority, but only because of the initiating authority of the Father.

6. Knowing when to accept authority and when to challenge it, knowing when to live peaceably and when to uproot unjust regimes is hard. Should dictators be challenged? Yes. When does a dictator become a dictator? That’s harder.

7. There is a place for humour. In criticising the #CameronJesus meme yesterday I felt I was giving humour a hard time. Humour is a vital part of subversion but I think there is a line between that and mocking, and that’s a line we have to work hard to find.

Reflections on a week in Cambodia

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I began yesterday on the top floor balcony of the pastor’s house in Tonle Bati. I woke to the dawn chorus that arrived before the sun. In the day I took in two church services, almost all of which were in Khmer and untranslated. I had rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner – five meals on the trot in all, and realised fairly late that it was the first day in a long time I had gone without tea or coffee. It ended with the first spot of souvenir hunting in Phnom Penh’s night market, cramped between tourists and locals, browsing stalls and trying to avoid being ripped off, and when the power cut, definitely trying to avoid being mugged.

It was a day of difference even in a country already so different. Seeing the rural poverty and the scratch existence of families working multiple jobs and raising chickens and ducks to reduce their dependence on the buying from the market. Seeing the neon signs above the market, and seeing the different rates we got on the tuk tuks when we had a Khmer speaker aboard.

Back from a night under a mosquito net, almost under the stars, and into a hotel that’s certainly not grand but comfortable and with warm water. My arms, never quite fully sweat free even under the fans in the late evening, stick to the leather seats as I make the most of the best wifi in the building by working late in the hotel lobby.

When presented with the itinerary for the final three days of the presidential campaign in the final season of the West Wing, Matt Santos grimaces with horror at the demands placed on him but stoically replies that you can hang from your toe nails for three days.

That’s been a bit of my attitude this week. It’s been tiring, we’ve been up and out early each day, spending fairly full days in villages, meeting with pastors and umoja facilitators, hearing from members of the community, those who participate in the projects and those who might like to. We’ve got back into the city ready for a rest, but with photos to sort, edit and upload, and blogs to write, edit and post. I made the situation a little on the ridiculous by deciding to write a guest post each day. I wrote a post for work, one for church, another for Tearfund’s Rhythms’ site (and another is on its way), one for the God & Politics blog, and one for Anna Robinson, one for Claire Musters, and there’ll probably be a couple more in the next day or two.

Each day when I’ve been tired I’ve looked at the incredible place I am and the chance to see and do things I rarely receive and determine to make the most of it. Sleep is for the weak, I can survive on very little for a few days. When I woke at 4.30am on the pastor’s balcony and the cockerels were only the start of the cacophony of sound surrounding me, I lay on the mattress and gazed through the mosquito net towards the slowly brightening sky and took about the only time I had had so far to think and reflect. I had said before I went that I thought it might provide such a chance, an opportunity to do what I have so little time for, the chance in a very different place to think thoughts that are crowded out of my mind most days. And then the only time for thinking comes when all sane people are asleep.

I thought deeply, too deeply for that time in the morning. I thought about the value I place one people and things, and what I do about that. Over the past week I have seen poverty and I have seen community resilience. I have seen the way that Tearfund works in Cambodia and how it works.

I realised that as much as we make a virtue of difference and use it as leverage to encourage donations to causes overseas, that much we keep people at arm’s length. When we seek to show poverty in contrast to opulence; when we show illiteracy compared to education, hunger to feasting, thirst to quenched mouths. When we do this we use difference as a lever to cajole.

And as I thought in the early hours yesterday as I asked questions I rarely do. As I appreciated things I skip over. As I wondered what future turns my life would take, I thought afresh about the value we put on other people, and the value we undermine when we hard sell in simplistic ways to reduce complex situations to tweetable lengths.

There’s something about the simple that is attractive, and there are times when it is vital to remove complexity and communicate with clarity is a virtue worth retaining. But there are also times it is reductionist and it insults the reader and the donor.

Every time a photo of a small child, preferably in shabby clothes, is used to solicit donations. I’ve done it, I’ve done it this week. Every time we reinforce the idea that certain things matter more than others.

Yesterday afternoon before the second church service the umoja group in Tonle Bati met. It was possibly even less photogenic that the earthworm raising project we visited on Thursday. Yet that’s the heart of what we’re witnessing in Cambodia, and at the heart are people who are valued more than gifts of resources.

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We often hear that when people are in old age it is not that they wish they spent more time at the office, or accumulating possessions, but spending time with people, their friends and their family.

When we think about development do we think about this? Do we think about people in far off places as partners in what we want to see happen, or consumers of goods we decide we are kind enough to offer?

And when I think of my relationships, do I value them highly enough, and if I do, if it is the relationships with people who I love and care for that matters the most, then what am I doing to reflect this affection?

Relatively Godless: To Be Or Not To Be – live blog

To be, or not to be, that is the question.
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die, to sleep.

This is ridiculous. I’m going to try and live blog the RZIM triaining day – Relatively Godless. With Michael Ramsden speaking at, I expect, his usual machine gun pace this could prove impossible.  Anyway, some worship to get us going, (I’m not going to live blog that).

Session 1 Michael Ramsden on Objectification

Session 2 Tom Price on Downloading Hope 

Session 3 Questions & Answers 

Session 4 – Sharon Dirckx: The morality of God, responding to objections to God’s character

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Michael Ramsden starting off with the topic of Objectification: From connection to consumerism Continue reading

11 things not to do when walking in the Mourne Mountains

When asked what I should do with my day in Belfast many people suggested I should visit the Titanic Museum. I rejected their advice and headed south at the urging of Pete Phillips.

If you wish to try this yourself I have a few words of advice.

1. Do not begin your walk at 2.35pm in January.

Jan 2014 0722. Do not walk in jeans and shows that have matching holes on the outside of each foot’s toes.

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3. Do not expect to stay dry.

Jan 2014 0754. Do not pause in the rain to read the information board explaining the peculiar hut on the other side of the gushing river.

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5. Do not walk in the streams that pretend to be paths.

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6. Do not think that you’ll be able to take decent photos when your phone won’t even let you tap in your entry code because it and your fingers are so wet.

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7. Do not set off with no water and no sustenance except two Cadbury’s Cream Eggs.

Jan 2014 0978. Do not think you’ll ever actually see the top through the mist/cloud/rain/dwindling daylight.

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9. Do not get most of the way to the top and then have to turn back because light and inappropriate footwear are about to defeat you.

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10. Do not forget that the views are stunning, even on a day such as this.

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11. Do not miss out on the Belfast Community Gospel Choir concert which, once I had reached a modicum of dryness, I absolutely loved this evening. 

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Love in a time of courtship

The Dating DilemmaBoy and girl meet.

Boy and girl fall in love.

Boy just knows girls is ‘the one’.

Girl just knows boy is ‘the one’.

So boy buys ring.

And girl says ‘yes’.

They live happily ever after and never argue.

Just how God planned it.

Really?

That’s how Rachel Gardner and Andre Adefope start their book The Dating Dilemma. It’s a myth and we all know it, but it’s still how we often end up thinking relationships should work out. And we judge our performance in the light of our failure to match up to this illusive standard.

It’s not just a myth based on what we want to happen, it is also rooted in theological misconceptions, and that makes the problems run deeper, become more entrenched and require considerable effort to shift. The idea of ‘the one’ finds support in the idea that God is in control of our life, which often veers toward thinking of God as a master architect with a blueprint for our lives. Roger Olson talks about this: “The idea that God has a detailed, blueprint-like plan for every individual Christian’s life is not biblically supported, nor is it reasonable”. He goes on to say: “God is a loving person and not a computer who spits out unalterable equation … There’s a special quality to personal relationships that is lacking in a relationship between a person and a computer – care, concern, flexibility, interaction, communion.”

When we rely on the idea of ‘the one’ we are demanding of God something we do not want him to do. We only want him in complete unalterable control when it suits us, when it makes our life easier.

When it fits to our blueprint. Continue reading

Girl Guides, promises, and restarting the crusades

Crusades“You’re out to restart the crusades!” I haven’t listened to the interview so I’m quoting from memory and may have missed some suitable nuance in the original, but this was the charge that came against me on 5live earlier this week.

I’ve done quite a lot of media work, especially radio, over the past few years, but this was the first time I’d done a live national radio phone-in chat show, and it was on whether the Girl Guides were right to drop god from their promise. There was a healthy bit of banter between me and Stephen Evans from the National Secular Society before callers came onto the line. I was also presented by Nicky Campbell with sections of Baden Powell’s writings citing reverence for Mein Kampf and asked if this was part of the Christian foundation for Scouts and Guides I wanted to maintain.

I should say this all began within 30 seconds of running into the office after chaos on the Northern Line. Yes, I can be at my office phone by 9am, I said confidently 40 minutes before. I threw my bag and jacket on the seat, grabbed some water and some hand towels to mop my sweating brow and picked up the phone. “We’re putting you straight through to the on air discussion, Nicky Campbell will come to you next.” Apparently you couldn’t tell I’d missed the opening seven minutes of the segment, but perhaps a lesson never to rely on London Transport when you need it most. Continue reading

Will the Real Easter Egg please stand up?

Are Real Easter Eggs more problematic than they seem? Is it possible that something as wonderful tasting as chocolate could be linked to more sinister problems in the church? I suppose small children are taught not to take sweets from strangers for a reason.

Vicky Beeching has an interesting piece on the Independent comment pages looking at Real Easter Eggs and suggests they are an identifiable step towards a Christian culture, and a Christian culture that can become a ghetto, and within that ghetto allow things to go on which should never be allowed.

I think Vicky has the principles right, but has the wrong product in her sights. Christians should be concerned with impacting all of society rather than just a niche, and they should do so in a way that serves all regardless of their beliefs. I also think Christians should be the very best at creating culture – Andy Crouch’s work has been instrumental in helping my thinking in this area.

Crouch suggests in his book Culture Making that Christians should focus on creating and cultivating instead of condemning, critiquing, consuming and copying. The latter all have a place, but should only be gestures and not our posture. Our posture should be to create and cultivate.

The danger of doing our culture making in an insular way is that we create norms that are alien to the world around us. So if our focus is solely driven towards Christian films, books, t-shirts and tea towels, these things will become our reference point. The upshot of this kind of Christian culture is a ghettoisation that separates Christians off from the world.

The more sinister aspect of this is when norms are redefined, or morphed in such a way, that things which should never occur take place without question. It’s here that there is a link between seemingly innocuous things prevalent in Christian culture and the scandals we have seen both far too much of, but also too little and too late. We listen only to what is within the bubble we create, and if our norms are not being challenged then they can take a form we would previously have not believed possible. This is why silence has too often been the answer to scandal.

And now to where I thing Vicky takes a misstep: I don’t think the Real Easter Eggs are a marker along this path. Firstly, they are explicitly aimed at a wider population. The manufacturers have now succeeded in getting them into mainstream shops. They taste good by all accounts, and tap into an important cross-over between secular and Christian festivities.

Secondly, I think there is a potentially damaging impact of branding something that is explicit as Christian beliefs as not having a place in the public square. I think that’s exactly where these eggs should be. Not sold at the back of churches to the faithful, or via mail order from a website only known by a few. Too often we have become very good at defending our faith to each other, or marketing our wares among ourselves. The gospel should be for all of society, and getting it into Tescos is brilliant.

Easter should be about celebrating Christ’s death and resurrection, and if these eggs are communicating this message to a wider public then I think that is an excellent way of doing it.

Finally, aside from communicating a message to the public, the eggs are sending a message to other manufacturers and sellers. They are providing consumers with a way of saying that they want to celebrate Easter, want to celebrate it through eating chocolate, and chocolate that is ethically produced. But they are also saying why they want to do that. And in doing so they may be making a small improvement in our collective public understanding of Christianity. Educating the world and not the ghetto. On balance I think these are good eggs.