Sunday, December 23, 2007

TIRTA 9: The Little Things

At the end of last week, we completely killed our business website to such an extent that there was nothing to be seen. After several days of working to 1am, we finally were able to get it back to a near-normal state. Fortunately it is christmas so nobody is really paying much attention to it anyway.

Basically what happened was that we'd upgraded the software that makes it work and that had completely messed it up, and we had to do a long and complicated gymnastics manoeuvre to get it back.

Most of the problem was caused by a very small file which you wouldn't even notice unless you knew it was there and what it did.

The biblical prophet Zechariah - who is usually only heard of at this time of the year if at all (yes I know, different man. Never mind) - said something which is sometimes translated "Do not despise the day of small things'.

Little things are sometimes very important. Sometimes we lack the perspective to notice what things are really important, dull, irrelevant etc when we are actually living them.

So, this year I'll be listening out for the unnoticed and ignored little things about Christmas. Happy holidays to you.

Things I Relearnt This Advent: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5
Part 6 Part 7
Part 8

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

wealth calculation

Here is a scary calculation.

According to the world bank 2003 figures, the bottom 10% of the world earn around $400 a year on average. That is around £200.

Our house is worth around £130,000 - that is the amount of secured debt that we can get. Which represents about 650 years of the yearly income of a person in the bottom 10%. Which is around 10 lifetimes. My life is worth 10 times of the poorest person.

Of that £130,000, we've paid off about £75,000 (more or less), which means we actually have capital worth 375 years or about 5.75 of the life income of the poorest people.


Is there a gospel for the middle classes?

Lampmeister commented on my last post:

Ok, but there is no evidence to suggest that there were animals, wise men, a stable or that Jesus had "the lowest birth story". Surely the Christian message is that Christ lived and died for *all*?

This ties into some thinking I was doing this morning whilst walking through the mist to the post office and back (bit late this year with our christmas cards).

Lampmeister, if you're reading this, I hope you don't mind if I answer your question indirectly.

If we look at the life and words of Christ, it is fairly clear that he behaved differently with different people. With some he was angry. With some gentle. With some exasperated. All fine so far.

But if we look carefully, it was the people like us - ie generally middle class reasonably intelligent, sofa-sitting, respectable church attenders - that he was harshest with. The people he spent most time with were people we spend little time with - the sick, the poor, the ignored, the ignorant, the ones with doubts. To those he offered healing, words of hope.

To people like us, the ones who know the theology, he offered the confusing story, the extra mile and the impossible challenge.

The poor, he said, were to be put first, to be lifted up. The rich, he said, were to be put last, put down. To those who knew nothing, he said they understood about the kingdom of heaven. To those who had ticked all the right boxes, he said knew nothing.

Any person of any personal disaster is both a victim of circumstance and bad choices. To a greater or lesser extent, we are all partly responsible for the mess we are in. To a greater or lesser extent, the mess we are in was caused by the environment around us. Nobody is totally to blame outwith of their environment. No environment can be blamed entirely for the mess we are in.

But if we look to the situation of the poor in our world, they have fewer choices and few ways to make their lives better. If we look at the problems of the middle chattering classes, problems are overwhelmingly self-inflicted.

So what is the gospel story for the poor? That you are not worthless, that you are not forgotten, that your Father in heaven cares about you and that he has prepared a place of good things which you missed out in this life. That you can receive supernatural assistance to climb out of your circumstance and change the world.

So in contrast, what is the gospel story for the middle classes? That our lives, our church and our world are messed up, and we are largely responsible. That we are not as important as we think we are. That our Father in heaven has prepared good things which we don't deserve because we have taken more than our fair share in this life - but to receive those things, we must make ourselves poor. That we can receive supernatural assistance to break down the walls of wealth we have built around us, to go out and change the world.

Hear me clearly: this is not to say that our middle class problems don't exist, nor that God does not care about them or us. But for most people, the reality is that they pale into insignificance compared to the lot suffered by the poor around us.

So no, the message is not just that "that Christ lived and died for *all*?". For us, the middle classes, God offers us both love and discipline, and as in the past we have been very anxious to discipline others according to our own arbitrary measures of holiness, we can expect also to be judged as harshly for the messes we have created. If we believe in the gospel, we cannot help but be changed to become more like the poor.

This is all easily seen in the gospels. So we then have to ask ourselves which is more consistent: the Jesus who fits our narrow middle class expectations, or the Jesus who was born into the kind of grinding poverty that a majority of the world experience.

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TIRTA 8: the Middle Class Jesus

Yesterday I was talking with a friend about the horrific conditions of refugees in camps we are both acquainted with. The worst thing about these camps is not that they contain starving children that they're riddled with disease (though they often are) that they're places of violence (though they often are), unemployment etc.

The worst thing about them is that the people have no hope. From the outside it is difficult to know even where to start to help.

Poverty is best described as a situation where you are completely without hope of a better future, that you feel your life is entirely worthless and are totally forgotten by the world - and worse, used as a political football by those who really have no interest in your welfare or your immediate needs.

Without putting too fine a point on it, this is the kind of environment that Jesus came into the world. Yet we dress it up to be so clean and tidy and middle class.

Take this photo, for example (taken by Suzannnaa in Ooty, lucky person). We have this perception of antiseptic stables, clean birthing chambers, obedient animals. Yet is it possible we have erected a false god to please our middle class christian sentiments? In India the animals walk in the street and feed on the garbage. A feeding trough/manger is most likely to be on a street corner as anywhere else. The open sewers and filth is overpowering. People scratch a living, their children playing with the dirt as they have nothing else.

How have we missed the shock of the incarnation? That God did not come to palaces. He did not even come to the comfortable middle classes so they could feel smug and superior. He came to the lowest, had the lowest birth story, the whiff of infidelity, the early experience of being a refugee, the life of an apprentice. Even with the 'three kings' and stars, this is not the story of a great messiah but of a child born in a slum to go on to live and die in obscurity.

Is there any wonder that the lost, the forgotten and the unwanted marvel in this story whereas in our comfort it is twee and covered in tinsel? That the lowest take the message of the story - that God is actually interested in them to the extent that he came to be like them - whereas in our culture it is all about obtaining more stuff.

Things I Relearnt This Advent: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5
Part 6 Part 7

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Taking a break from learning Advent lessons, I can across this letter from Groucho Marx to Warner Brothers. WB had claimed that the Marx film A Night in Casablanca had a title too similar to their own Casablanca

I just don’t understand your attitude. Even if you plan on releasing your picture, I am sure that the average movie fan could learn in time to distinguish between Ingrid Bergman and Harpo. I don’t know whether I could, but I certainly would like to try.


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Monday, December 17, 2007

TIRTA 7: Christmas Carols Suck

Christmas carols a) suck b) have nothing whatsoever to do with the Advent story and c) confuse the dickens out of anyone who only goes to church once a year.

Let us take some examples.

Exhibit A "not quite what we meant"

According to wikipedia, this one has been around since at least 1833 when it was included in a collection of carols. It is thought to be to a traditional tune and the author is unknown.

It also includes the rather famous line "The Which His Mother Mary", which I have seen numerous times printed in hymn books. The only good thing about this carol is when you point out to people what they have just sung, and have them try to explain why it makes perfect sense.

Exhibit B "noooo, someone make it stop"

Again according to wikipedia, we have been singing about non-crying newborn babies since at least 1885. I don't care what cuddly stories people want to tell me, small babies who don't cry are either a) extremely sick or b) dead.

Exhibit C "a crime against poetry"

Then from 1872 we have this nonsense. Only in a carol could someone get away with the rhyming couplets 'snow on snow on snow on snow'. Let us not even discuss the time of year or the likelihood of deep snow in Bethlehem (not likely). Let this just stand as a crime against poetry.

I'm boycotting stupid carols.

Things I Relearnt This Advent: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5
Part 6

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

TIRTA 6: The road to Bethlehem

I've been thinking some more about the donkey thing. To travel today between Galilee and Bethlehem, you travel along Route 90, a road which appears to exist within the Palestinian controlled West Bank and away from the rest of Israel, yet in reality is a closed road for the military and settlers.

I travelled along it last year, and it is a strange journey. It runs down from Galilee, alongside the Jordan, through many miles of apparently empty land - save for the odd settler farm, past Israeli settlements, past Jericho (now totally surrounded by settlements), past the odd very poor refugee camps with people living under tents and down to Jerusalem.

I'd imagine it isn't particularly pleasant walking, but then maybe not as dramatic as we are used to hearing. It is pretty dry, but we're not talking about walking across desert sand dunes. It is about 70 miles, so several days of walking.

Bethlehem/Beit Sahour/Beit Jala lies above Jerusalem, so the final part of the journey would be a bit of a climb. However, we are still talking hills rather than full mountains.

A rather more hazardous journey would have been the escape into Egypt, probably via Gaza. I've not been that far north in Egypt, but I understand it to be extremely hot and barren. Once in Egypt, it is unlikely that these refugees would have been treated particularly well. Today's Egyptians see themselves as descendants from the Pharaohs rather than Africans, Arabs or anyone else. To be a refugee in Egypt today is not a good experience.

So to summarise - there might/might not have been a donkey, the journey was long but not particularly arduous (and probably one they made on a semi-regular basis), there was no stable, no inn, no innkeeper. Having been found by local shepherds and strange visitors, the family at some unspecified later point had to escape into Egypt, which was more likely to be a difficult journey, made in a hurry and to a country which didn't really want them. At some unspecified later point, it was safe and the family returned to live in Galilee. The next we hear is from Jesus' early teens in Luke's gospel (which interestingly does not mention the escape to Egypt).

I wonder how this experience of being in danger and unwanted affected the family. How Joseph and Mary survived without permanent mental scarring and/or illness - given their experience with angels etc. And funny how the story is so often couched in terms of victory and success when in at least one account it includes elements of fear and last minute escape.

Things I Relearnt This Advent: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

TIRTA 5: donkeys

[Before I start, I'd just like to say that I'm fairly sure almost nobody is reading this. So if you're not me, and you think the counter on the right hand side shows dozens of other readers, think again - most of those are just me being neurotic.

The good thing about talking to yourself is that everyone agrees with you.

Anyway. Do you know, last night I was doing the-thing-we-do-on-an-annual-basis-but-we-cant-publicise (which involves using non-religious Christmas cards and sending them to various prisons around the world) and there was only one where we were told not to include our name and address. And that case was regarding someone 'renditioned' from somewhere in Europe. How about that? OK, enough of this already.]

Right then. Donkeys. The donkey holds a major part in any school nativity show. Which is interesting, largely because the gospels don't mention it at all.

Whilst the donkey is not the least likely of the bits-of-the-story-not-recorded, it all just goes to show that you shouldn't necessarily believe everything you're told in church. I particularly like the myth that all the farm animals kneel at midnight on Christmas eve in respect for the Christ-child, a delicious bit of wishful-thinking.

Not so far away from Bethlehem, donkeys are fetching a very high price at the moment.

Things I Relearnt This Advent: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

TIRTA 4: On Principle

The other day I found myself using the phrase 'on principle' rather too often in conversation. It is, of course a rather meaningless phrase, not to mention the implication that I do things on principle, whereas you are an unprincipled heathen (apologies to any heathens listening).

I might chose to refuse to send my child to a particular school with a religious policy I don't like, on principle. Another may send their child for a good education, on the principle that the importance of education is higher than of being offended by religion.

So the question is how to balance principled stands, when and how to pick principled fights, when to shut up and when to stop digging.

In the advent story, I suspect many of the characters are acting 'on principle'. Joseph is said to not want to publicly divorce Mary as he does not want to bring disgrace onto her family, although presumably the disgrace would still stick with the mother longer than with the father given that she'd have the baby to show for the relationship. Then an angel visits and tells Joseph to take his responsibilities like a man.

Clearly, we could do with some more angelic visitations to turn principles into responsibilities in our world.

Things I Relearnt This Advent: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

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Friday, December 07, 2007

TIRTA 3: the Old and the Young

In contemporary Middle Eastern culture, children and old people are extremely important. Children are a mark of success, to the extent that I have yet to meet an arab man who does not inquire about my children (just one) and smirk - then proudly tell me he has 3 or 4 or more children.

Indeed, I was reading a job advert for a UN job in an arab country. I'm not quite sure why it was in English, but anyway, it listed all the benefits of the job, which included some payments for dependent children - up to and including the seventh child.

Old people have a special position of honour within these large families. Grandchildren will kneel and kiss the hands of an old person, guests are often taken to meet the elderly in a special smart room in the house, kept for only that purpose. Not necessarily totally analogous to the biblical culture, but probably a lot closer than ours.

Which all puts a slightly different gloss onto the story of Elisabeth and Zechariah - which is not the only story in the bible of older people defying the odds and doing remarkable things. Zechariah was an important man in the religious hierarchy, yet carried the shame of childlessness into older age. I wonder how long they lived to see John growing up.

Things I Relearnt This Advent: Part 1 Part 2

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

TIRTA 2: Study War No More

The prophecies of Isaiah are a fairly major part of the Christmas story, and often are included in Christmas services. How often have we heard children reading 'The people walking in darkness have seen a great light'?

Funny how we rarely hear the whole passage:

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the shadow of death a light has dawned.

You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest,
as men rejoice whilst dividing plunder.

For as in the day of Midian's defeat,
you have shattered the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.

Every warrior's boot used in battle,
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for the fire, will be fuel for the fire.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
and the government shall be on his shoulders.
And he shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.

He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever
The zeal of the Lord will accomplish this.

No great surprise there then that the Jews were waiting for a great military leader and that Jesus Christ didn't fit the bill. Looking carefully, it seems to be saying that the leader will break the chains of the oppressor without needing arms and afterwards destroy the battle equipment.

But then maybe that isn't an unusual part of the message of Isaiah. As well as being generally grumpy, he certainly had a distinctive way with words. In the first part of Isaiah, Angry God sees all the mess that the Nations have made. After calling them a few names, God a bit red in the face, lifts up his arm to strike them from the earth. But instead he takes a different path.

It is almost a cartoon image - steam billowing from God's ears, he says 'and I'll... I'll... pick up all your silly war toys and squash them into something useful' and 'I'll... take away all the things from those who have made such an unholy mess of things and give the weak and ignored a go' whilst making knots in guns and making the politicians and celebrities clean the toilets.

Which is all strangely comforting. Even though we've made a complete mess, he might take our toys away and he might make us clean up the mess, but he isn't going to destroy us.

By the way, the title of this blog came from this new report released yesterday about military funding of academics in the UK - which takes the name from Isaiah 2.

Things I Relearnt This Advent: Part 1

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

things I relearnt this advent 1: pulling down the mighty

Everyone who knows me can speak of my Christmas-hatred. So it is surprising that I'm learning and relearning things this advent. Well it is to me anyway.

Last weekend we were in a church service which started off talking about God lifting up the weak, comforting the poor and pulling down the strong.

And then had songs about God having his way among us. In the midst of my charismatic-church nightmare, this disconnect seemed very stark. Is not God's way to break the strong, punish the self satisfied, take away the things from those who rob the poor?

Do we want him to do that among us? Are we ready for the pain we deserve? Will we respond in anger or will it force us into a greater appreciation and love for those in need?

What has this to do with Advent? Fantastically, all this is encapsulated in the Magnificat - Mary's song of joy. A particular bit of the bible which has been banned in some countries due to its radicalising effect.

Desmond Tutu in a recent BBC interview was talking about Christianity and politics. Others claimed that politics and religion should be kept separate, but Tutu said that the only people who said that were people who had comfortable lives and who had never needed religion to be political.

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