Maverick and my world

Top Gun Maverick has an IMDB score of 8.6, putting it in the esteemed company of It’s a Wonderful Life and Saving Private Ryan, Life is Beautiful and The Green Mile. It’s a good film.  It’s spectacularly shot with actors sitting in real-life inverted fast jets.  It’s honestly relational; the characters are endearing in their responses, ambitions and regrets.  As you’d expect it’s gung-ho, U.S.A.-go! stuff, but it’s free from both the P.C. overtones of its age and the misogynistic undertones of its prequel.

And yet, as we emerged from the cinema, I found myself strangely unsatisfied among my thrilled co-viewers.   I’ve been trying to work out what my problem is.  

It could be the predictability.  Ask my family – they will tell you I am very bad at predicting what will happen next.  I rarely know who did it.  But I saw all of the reconciliations and all of the rescues in Maverick coming a nautical mile off.

On reflection, I think there’s a deeper disconnect between me and Maverick.  The squeaky-clean, precision-timed realism of the fast jet footage was ultra-real.  Real g-forces and real fear are captured in the eyes of the actors, real cancer in the face of Val Kilmer.  There’s an intense realism to way the film is made.  But there’s a jarring detachment between my view of reality and the main plot-line. 

We’re making our way through the book of Revelation as a church at the moment.  The grittiness of the powers of evil colours every sermon.  Jesus wins, but he and his people suffer and die. History and regular updates from Open Doors, CSW, Amnesty etc today tell the same story.   I find myself watching a fair bit of news at the moment too.  Maybe too much.  It’s complicated – Stalin and Hitler and Chamberlain and Trump and Peter the Great and Prince Volodymir all left deep ruts that present leaders get stuck in.  There is a black and white moral quality to Russia’s action in Ukraine.  But the interconnectivity of the global economic system means that responses end up in fudged shades of grey.  We’re supporting a church in Svitlovods’k who are feeding families of refugees who don’t know if they will ever be able to return to their homes.  Inflation, fuel shortages language barriers, fear, separated families, PTSD all part of their everyday lives at the whim of complex powers beyond any of their control. 

So when a non-descript clear-cut, faceless, nameless black-and-white baddy gets destroyed in a one-off hit involving multiple miracles (I found the borrowing of the enemy F14 particularly hard to swallow), I was left disorientated.   Maybe I need to do a news-fast (I’m not going to do a bible-fast) and go re-watch.   Perhaps the super high IMDB score is a reflection of an escape from realism which I failed to grasp.  But it seems to me that where the realism of the cinematography and sitz-im-leben of any of the other 8.6ers above are in sync with one another, Maverick’s ultra-high-definition pilots and characters jarred with a nebulous setting and simplistic plot.  It’s a well made film.  Definitely worth watching again.  A clear 7.  But 8.6?  Not in my real world.

WE DO NOT KICK FOOTBALLS INSIDE THE HOUSE and other hard-won parenting tips

I am currently caught in an internal battle between parental pride and British reserve. I really do want to talk to you about how amazing our kids are and how proud we are of them, but I genuinely don’t want to be a show off. I’m also aware that when we’ve been struggling, the perfect appearance of other families has not been a blessing. Our four kids are all doing really well right now. Most of this is down to grace of God, but we have also picked up a few parenting tips along the way. While the going is good, I would like to tentatively share them with you.

People sometimes asked us in the past how we coped with four young kids. My stock answers were:

  • You just cope – there’s no alternative.
  • The difference between no kids and one kid is the biggest change.

No-one equips you for the shock of parenthood. I’m not sure that anyone ever could. The transition from living with a supportive, equal partner to living with a totally dependant baby is the biggest change humans can face. Even though we’re pretty well physically equipped and emotionally wired for it, the change can be utterly overwhelming. The arrival of one straightforward, healthy baby (many are not) into a stable home (many are not) can leave competent professional parents jibbering in the corner. We have done our fair share of jibbering.

What tips would we offer for surviving gibbering and raising good kids?

Take all the help you can get. Ask for it when you need it. They tell you this when you find you are expecting twins. It’s equally true when you are expecting any baby. Sleep deprivation and emotional fatigue are coming. You need people who can take charge while you have a nap. If you are doing parenting properly, you will not be able to continue with the financial and temporal schedule you kept before. Get used to depending on family and friends. You can return the favour when they are in need. Parenting courses can be really helpful. Don’t wait till you are forced to go on one to access care. Our church have been awesome with our kids. Having people around who will love your kids even when they bite is invaluable. Having people praying for you in the dark times is even better. Don’t have a church? The doors are always open 😊

Stay calm. It may well be true that you would never have spoken to your father like that… or that your other kids (or other people’s kids) are not head-butters. Nonetheless, in this circumstance you must take a breath and attend to the to the present speech or head-but. Are other children safe from being butted? What are the pre-agreed consequences of this particular piece of nastiness? Your emotions can be talked out with grown-ups later. Meanwhile respond to the facts of the circumstances.

Don’t wait until the police come to the door to take control of your kids’ online devices. Whist this becomes a helpful launch pad for an absolutist phone policy, it is a waste of police time, an embarrassment and a considerable source of inconvenience and anxiety. As well as a world of wonder and endless information and gaming possibilities, your kid’s phone and all of their friend’s phones are connected to every predatory paedophile and violent pornographer on the planet, every scammer in Nigeria, every hacker in Russia, every extremist in Syria and every advertisment agency in the U.S. NO teenager is wise enough to deal with this. NO phones upstairs. Not enough mobile data to watch moving pictures. Also, no phones at the dinner table.

Prioritise your values. Everyone else is seeking to imprint theirs on your kids. Make sure you get in first. Where our kids have been praised for academic or sporting performance we have encouraged them. Where they have been praised for kindness, generosity, including others, forgiveness, courage etc, we have CELEBRATED. We pray when we eat together most days, and when we travel together and when we’re worried and when we are excited. We don’t drive if we could cycle or walk. These are our family values. What are yours?

Listen as much as you talk. Parenting courses today will teach you about child-led play. Kids occasionally utter pearls of genuine wisdom in amongst the half-baked nonsense and hilarity. Take interest in their interests. Keep listening as they grow. That way you’ll have half a chance of them talking to you before they talk to friends who will bless them with the benefit of the wisdom they got from their phones.

Keep going, don’t lose hope. Child psychologists will tell you that childhood development continues for the first 25 years of Western life. I remember this being a terrifying thought. With hindsight, it’s comforting. There will be times when you cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel. But it is a tunnel not a cave; you will come through to the other side. Other families might appear to be perfect, but they will pass through tunnels too if they haven’t already. Ignore them and just keep moving.

I have no doubt that there are bumps in the road ahead. This blog might end up looking like egg on my face. But by the grace of God we’re in a good place right now. If any of it helps you get to somewhere like this, or just to keep going, then it was worth my while writing.


The best sex we can hope for

TV confession time:  since the start of the first lockdown Jo and I have watched every episode of the acclaimed ‘dramedy’, ‘This is us’.  Season 6 is now airing on Prime and we’re hooked again.  The series follows 3 generations of the Pearson family, switching backwards and forwards from the 60s to the present day with occasional future-flashes.  The characters are well developed and endearing and the stories well told but the thing that grips these two middle aged caring professionals is the true-to-life reverberation of action and consequence through generations.  The six series deal with addiction, adoption, cancer, relationships, war, abuse, crime, politics and dementia and chart the effects of these events on whole lives and on the lives of following generations.

Last night’s episode was fascinating.  Not because of any generational cause-and-consequence thread but because of the way it juxtaposed two present day stories. 

Smart, sassy, second adopted generation Pearson, Deja travels to Harvard to see her single parent, long-term boyfriend Malik.  Despite an appearance from his ex, the study and parenting pressures on Malik and the down-at-heel circumstances of his digs, they have a wonderful time, including gently and realistically suggested but unseen first-time sex.   The implied sex was consensual, safe, exclusive, intimate and beautiful – as good as most Western parents could hope the next generation’s early sexual encounters could be. 

Meanwhile first generation Pearson Uncle Nicky makes an unannounced trip to visit old flame Sally for the most awkward dinner in history with his sister in law Rebecca, her second husband Miguel and Sally’s husband Eric.   Nicky recalls a swinging sixties sexual encounter in Sally’s camper van over the meal and speaks about his subsequent 40 years of emotional pining.  Nicky speaks of his ‘deflowering’ without regret.  Indeed it was portrayed as another consensual, safe, exclusive, intimate and beautiful moment in a previous series – one of the high points of Nicky’s messy life.  But it’s clear to the viewer that the aftermath of that night in Sally’s campervan where Nicky does not join her at Woodstock is part of the matrix of tragedy, loss, and alcoholism which darken the next 40 years of his life.

The stories of these two sexual encounters side by side was a refreshingly realistic telling of the beauty, power and risk of sexual intimacy.  The episode also highlights the context of sex as key in harnessing this power, beauty and risk.   Nicky’s encounter with Sally was not set in the context of any stability, hope or commitment and so, for all it’s beauty, it became a source of regret, and angst.  Deja and Malik’s relationship seems pretty solid, but we haven’t seen Malik in the future-flashes YET.   Could this sweetness yet sour?  

I read recently that David Cameron’s dad advised his kids never to sleep with a virgin.  I think Western parents could want better for their kids.  Yes, sweetness and consent and gentleness and intimacy and beauty in the moment.  But how about a context that harnesses that raw emotional power for a lifetime of love and joy and thick-and-thin stability.   Call me old fashioned, but I do think there is a lot to be said for marriage as the context of sex.  Not just because God says so, but because in all of the cause-and-effect joy and life and brokenness and death I observe in the real world, I am yet to see a better idea.  Rebecca Pearson’s two very different, but very strong marriages seem to point that way too.

Where postmodernism went after graduation

Postmodernism seemed ridiculous to me as a university science student in the early 90s.  I could not see why my arts-student friends were being asked to deconstruct language, to find meaninglessness in meaning and to despise all claims to truth.  As far as I could see, the rejection of all truth claims and meaning in print or dialogue was of no practical relevance in the real world of science, relationships and road crossings.   I’m told that as a movement, post modernism had already lost its bite.  Of course, the deconstruction of language when taken seriously renders peer-reviewed academic work a hopeless enterprise.  I guess its limited practical application made funding difficult to find too.  I left university, got on with living my life and apart from the odd ‘that’s your truth, this is mine’ kind of conversation, postmodernism disappeared from my ordinary life… Or so I thought.  

Reading Helen Plucknose and James Lindsay’s book ‘Cynical Theories’ (suggested by a listener to one of our podcasts) recently made me realise where postmodernism went next.  Plucknose and Lindsay chart the course of postmodern thinking from posturing university departments into some areas of modern social activism.  This was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me.   

I have often been a little confused as to how we as a nation got so muddled about gender.  Our kids came home with a PSHE sheet on puberty recently.  It explained what puberty means if you have a vulva, what puberty means if you have a penis and what puberty means if you are trans.   It is so normative now for us to reject the binary nature of gender that our schools are teaching kids that discomfort in puberty might be due to your belonging to a different and pioneering category of human being. 

Most of my middle-aged peers, Christian or not seem equally confused by this new gender politics.  We have all known forever that some boys like girl things and some girls like boy things, but boyhood and girlhood have persisted as concepts because they are broadly true and because they are generally useful in helping us to live and love in our bodies.  I explained to our kids that (very very nearly) all girls grow up to become women and (very very nearly) all boys grow up to become men because this is the way our bodies work.  This can be confusing and uncomfortable, but it is best to roll with it as resisting these changes is emotionally and financially costly and won’t necessarily deliver relief from the discomfort and confusion.  I also explained that because we are Christians, we are called to accept, love and care for confused and uncomfortable people whatever they think of our old-school views.

Plucknose and Lindsay trace a line of thought from postmodern deconstruction techniques through queer theory to a place where words like male and female lose meaning.  They point out that postmodern rejection of meta-narratives as oppressive power structures feeds the gender-activist suspicion of the scientific worldview and its defined biological categories.   Post-modernity didn’t disappear, it just left university and got into social activism.

We Christians have our own metanarrative of creation, fall, redemption and future hope.  Human beings, male and female were created to bear the image of God in his world.  Like every other area of our physical and mental world, gender is marred by the fall and is constantly being either further marred or redeemed in these in-between times.   In the age to come, men and women will neither marry nor be given in marriage.  I am not sure what this means for gender then, but there is certainly no reason for Christians to be swept along with gender-redefining ideology in this world.  

“Christianity is just another metanarrative” postmodernism said to me when we were students.  Of course, but Christianity’s ordered view of the world and the scientific rationalism it spawned worked for me as a science student.  It also works for me as the backbone of the free, orderly and mostly sensible society in which I live and work.    Since I graduated, I’ve been cracking on with sharing the good news of Jesus and trying to help broken-hearted people find wholeness, hope and healing. 

Me: What have you been up to postmodernism? 

PM: Mostly queering language and ethically confusing the kids.  Oh, and a bit of art.   

Me: I get funded by people who want the good news of Jesus shared and for broken-hearted people to find wholeness, hope and healing.  Who funds you post-modernism?

PM: Well… there’s a funny thing.  With my new clothes, I get a free ride in universities, schools and the UK mainstream press.

Me: I guess I’ll stick around to help clear up some of the emotional and relational confusion you’re leaving in your wake.

PM: See you in court, old school bigot.

Me: Sigh

The Truth about Science

I am a Christian, so the truth matters to me. The bible is true is everything it affirms. It points to Jesus as the ultimate revelation of truth. He and it speak of the importance of believing the truth, speaking the truth and living out the truth.

I am not a scientist. I have an undergraduate degree in Environmental Geology from 1996. This means that I have a casual and out-of date acquaintance with earth sciences. I am not good enough at maths to be a scientist. A few of my friends have science PhDs. They know an awful lot about a tiny corner of the scientific enterprise – more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing – as the saying goes. Most of the polymaths who have a grasp of something like the full picture are incapable of communication with normal people despite English remaining the mainstream global language of science. So how can we be clear about anything? Because of the truth about the way science works:

Bob has a chemical idea. Bob tests the idea in his lab and proves that his idea was correct. He does it again to check. And again. Bob then publishes his idea and describes how he tested it in a scientific journal. Bob’s friends try the same test. Bob’s rivals try it too…. and Derek who hates him. They all try the same test. 2 of his enemies get it to work. The others don’t. All of them write about it in scientific journals, some slating Bob’s idea, others praising it. Zihao in China notices that the people who didn’t get the experiment to work did something wrong. He can make it work every time. He is proud of his country’s scientific prowess & publishes his findings with a note of patriotic pride. Derek tries Zihao’s method and then goes to print to say that Zihao is right (inferring that Bob is still a halfwit). After five years everyone agrees that Bob was right. Everyone agrees that this is interesting and could be significant. No one knows how it can be applied. Jane writes a PhD about the body of knowledge in this area. Nobody reads it. Thirty five years later, Chris in the pharma lab remembers an old professor referring to Jane’s other work and wonders whether it might be the key to making their new chemical into a medicine. It turns out that Bob’s idea is a small part of a permanent cure for athlete’s foot. Bob is long dead. He did not have athlete’s foot.

Mainstream science accumulates peer-reviewed, publicly available, repetitively tested knowledge which gets absorbed into a built-up picture of a small, interesting or lucrative area of the universe. These pictures are pieced together over decades to form an understanding of the world. Occasionally there are seismic shifts in this understanding. But mostly the picture is formed by long, slow, painstaking, honest, sometimes tragic Bobs, Janes, Zihaos and Chrises. The accuracy of this picture is confirmed by the medicines we take, the bikes we ride, food we grow, the foundations we build & pretty much everything we consume.

I think the British Antarctic Survey were the first to spot global warming in the early 1900s. It has taken over 100 years of painstaking research and endeavour to pin the cause on human activity. This is not in the interest of the big money players in the global economy. Vaccines were discovered in 1796 at the expense of a kid called James Phipps about 8 miles from where I am sitting. It has taken over 200 years of peer reviewed development, testing and truth seeking for us to get to the stage where vaccines for a new flu virus can be turbo-developed in a matter of months and rolled out globally with constant scientific review from informed competitors, rivals, and colleagues. In the area of science with which I have a casual acquaintance, James Hutton proposed his ideas about the systems of the earth in 1789. Gregors and Charleses and Igors and Daiyus, soldiers and prospectors, physicists and botanists have published and reviewed, experimented and tested, theorised and argued to form the mainstream body of earth sciences today. All of these people were fallen human beings. Every one of them subject to the temptations of money, sex and power. But the passage of time and the framework of accountable scientific testing acts to keep the process truthful in the long term.
I think the truth matters.

Facebook pseudoscience and “Christian” anti-science short-circuit the above process and do not do the world any favours in the process. I get particularly concerned when Christian faith is marketed as an enemy of mainstream science. Jesus placed a pretty high value on truth telling and truth seeking. I think God endorses mainstream science becasue it’s about truth seeking and loves mainstream scientists just like he loves the rest of us sinners. I have a lot of time for Francis Collins, the outgoing director of the U.S. National Institute of Health and former head of the Human Genome Project: “The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. He can be worshipped in the cathedral or in the laboratory. His creation is majestic, awesome, intricate and beautiful – and it cannot be at war with itself. Only we imperfect humans can start such battles. And only we can end them.” (From his NYT best seller, the Language of God). I think it’s time for Christians to find out the truth about science.


Why the ESL makes sense Part 3 of 3

Maybe having read part 2, you can see that Relationism makes sense but you can’t see why I would bother with God in my bottom line.  If we can love our neighbour as we love ourselves and build relational societies of mutual trust, commitment and respect, why should we bother with religion?

I see the existence of God as a brute fact.  The brute fact, in fact.

C.S. Lewis said that he believed in Christianity as he believed that the Sun has risen: “not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.”   For me, God’s existence makes moral, emotional and philosophical sense of the universe I perceive.  And this God, revealed though the person of Jesus loves us, wants the best for us and asks us to respond by loving him.  I don’t believe I have the option to cut God out of the picture.

God compels us to love our neighbour.

In the life of Jesus and the teachings of the bible, God provides us with a framework for living a good life which look something like relationism – honesty, care for the poor, justice, freedom, marriage, work, reward and rest, generosity and celebration.  If we reject his moral framework we need to come up with our own.  Some of these frameworks involve a different kind of God – like Saudi Wahabiism.  Others involve no God other than the state like North Korean Juche ideology.  Personally, I prefer a form of government with closer relationship to God’s blueprint as revealed in the biblical narrative.  I do think that there’s something of this blueprint innate in the human condition.  We all know already that the ESL is not the right way to go. I also think we need steering to the right path sometimes.  Jesus says ‘If you love me, keep my commands’.

We seem unable to consistently love our neighbour.

We like the idea of building relational societies of mutual trust, commitment and respect.  But all the blood, sweat and tears of human centuries have never come close to achieving this.  We need outside intervention. – some hope and help from elsewhere.   There are plenty of religious interventions on offer.  But there’s only one God who, after entering our history, died to take away the stain and penalty of our failure and rose from death to start a new humanity.  I choose to love God – not just because he exists, or because he has some great ideas on how to live life, but because Jesus reveals how much God loves me and makes a way for me to start over.

All of which is why I am sticking with loving God as my bottom line.  This is the reason why I know loving my neighbour is the right approach and that relationism is a good thing.  It’s also why the ESL makes no sense to me. 

Why the ESL makes perfect sense. Part 2 of 3

So we’re agreed that money is not the bottom line.  Someone once asked Jesus what the most important commandment was.  He mashed two Old Testament quotations together: Love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbour as you love yourself.  Jesus’ life embodied the kind of self-giving love he was talking about.  His actions and teaching redefined neighbour as a radically inclusive category.  Because I’m a follower of Jesus this is the bottom line for me.  Not the best football, not financial profit, not the greatest good to the greatest number, not the furtherance of the interests of my race but the the love of God and neighbour.

If you’re not a follower of Jesus I can see why the God bit might not appeal to you.   But if you’re uncomfortable with the ESL or with financial gain as the bottom line in general, I wonder whether I might make a suggestion of a bottom line to you..     

Relationism is a philosophy which puts human relationships at the heart of economic and political decision making.  What is good is defined by what is good for strong, positive and mutual human relationships.  This is manifestly obvious at the level of the family.  Broadly speaking kids from stable, loving homes perform better at school.  Adults in stable, loving home relationships are less prone to take time of work with mental health struggles.  What’s good for the family is good for society.  I recently listened to an interview with Gary Grant, the owner of The Entertainer toy shops about his decision not to open his stores on Sundays in defiance of retail wisdom.  His priority as a Christian was to give families time together.  The interview also included his story of how his high St retail business has defied the odds of declining high streets and the Coronavirus pandemic to remain a strong business supporting thousands of employees through these tough times.   

A focus on strong, honest, long term relationships is a good framework for business.  We’re all aware of the benefits of employee ownership in firms like John Lewis and Richer Sounds.  “Partners” know that their role in the business is secure and valued, and that it contributes to their own prosperity, so they take pride in their work.   It is possible to grow a business rapidly without investing in relationships and employee wellbeing, as Brewdog have recently demonstrated, but toxic working relationships don’t make for good long-haul productivity.

Higher up the economic food chain relationships often seem to be looser.  Shareholders can buy or sell speculatively with no regard for the lives and livelihoods of employees and no consequence for themselves.  The economic crash of 2008 resulted from the selling on of bad debts as good in an environment where the eventual owners of the mortgage liabilities had absolutely zero relationship with the original lenders, let alone the home owners at the bottom of the pile.   Economist Michael Schluter, a leading relational thinker suggests we’d do well to put an end to the limited liability of shareholders for losses or slumps in the companies in which they are invested.  Schluter posits mechanisms such as a minimal term for share ownership forcing shareholders to investigate potential investments more thoroughly and to foster positive relationships with other shareholders and with businesses.

If relational thinking had been applied to the question of an ESL, the existing relationship of clubs to fans would have carried far more weight than sometimes distant relationships with financial stakeholders.  The potential of grassroots football to build community relationships with trickle-down funding from professional clubs would have meant that a separation from the premier league would have been unthinkable.   In a relational framework, the ESL makes little if any sense.   

Why the ESL makes perfect sense. Part 1 of 3

Fans hated it.  Politicians slated it.  Pundits were aghast.  Players didn’t seem keen.  Managers refused to comment (apart from Pep).  It seems that the only people who could see that the European Super League was the best way forward were the club owners and some far-flung fans in South Korea and the U.S. When it was announced I wondered how on earth Daniel Levy and co could have possibly thought this was a good idea.

Not surprisingly the press asked the same question and a very sensible answer emerged.  The ESL was a way for 6 premier league clubs to stabilise and maximise revenues.   The Kronkes, Glazers and Abramoviches of this world exist in a world where this is normal.  The right decision in this world is the one which maximises and stabilises income for the corporation / share holder / family.  Our laws and the structures of our society encourage them to act this way.  We all accept this as a normal way to run a corporation or a country.  Why shouldn’t they run their clubs likewise? 

Maximising revenues is good most of the time.  A shopkeeper utilises display space and stock keeping systems to sell as much produce as possible to keep his kids in school shoes and take his family on holiday whilst providing a vital service to a local community.  A salesman travels far and wide to maximise sales for the pharma company, meaning that they can provide employment in their local community whilst helping to fight disease across the nation. 

The problem comes when maximising revenue becomes the sole, central or overriding aim.  Financiers mis-rate and mis-sell sub-prime mortgage debt.  Developers dodge affordable housing requirements, overlooking the needs of local communities.  Fashion chains fail to check health and safety and wage levels of Bangladeshi factory workers.   Despite the lessons of the 2008 financial crash we still often behave as though unlimited financial growth is the way things are and that maximisation of profit for shareholders is the ultimate good.

Football, of course, does not work like that.  It’s an inherently risky business.  The best team can have an off day or an injury-strewn season.  Fans are human beings who like to be entertained.  Loyalty to clubs is beyond reason and sometimes even beyond football.  Over decades, teams will have ups and downs.  Football will always have one foot in this highly emotive, insecure, artistic world of love and loyalty.  The other foot is in the competitive, commercial world of TV revenues, advertising and merchandising which is why we pay the unsustainably large sums to players and managers pulling us into unsustainable splits.   The ESL proposal was a split too far because of the damage it did to the game from top to bottom. 

The whole saga asks the question:  what is the bottom line?  Are we about football or about money?  Before we get too mad with Sheikh Mansour and co, we might want to ask ourselves a similar question: what is our bottom line?  Are we about human thriving and relationships (of which football is just one small facet) or money?  After all we live in, assent to and perpetuate a society where profit maximisation is woven into our clothes, built into our houses and stored away in our banks.  Maybe it’s time we began to think and live differently.                 

Jacob blessed Pharaoh

There have been times during this pandemic when I’ve wondered what I’m doing.  Family, friends and church members are practitioners & leaders in the NHS and Schools, heroically and self-sacrificially keeping the country afloat.  Meanwhile the church building is closed, except for foodbank storage and distribution and some small support group activities and I’m preaching, blogging & podcasting from the caravan. 

It’s great to see the way church members are supporting one another and caring for their neighbours & it’s lovely to see 100 or so still faithfully turning up for the Sunday Zoom.  I’m also aware that the civil servants, community volunteers, scientists and donors who attend groups and services at churches like ours rely on church for the spiritual strength to do what they do.  But there have still been days when I’ve been niggled by the feeling that I am not contributing enough to putting an end to this pandemic.    

Which is why I was relieved to read in Genesis 47:7 recently that Jacob blessed Pharaoh.  For all his importance as a patriarch of the Jewish and Christian faiths, Jacob was a nobody from nowhere.  A consumer of emergency aid with a dysfunctional family and some serious moral skeletons in his closet.   Jacob comes to Egypt and blesses the king of the Southern superpower.  Probably the most powerful man on earth at the time.  Unlike his blessings on his children and grandchildren, the words of Jacob’s blessing on Pharaoh are not recorded.   Perhaps some words about God’s favour and forgiveness.  Perhaps some inkling of God’s future for Egypt.  Perhaps an affirmation of Pharaohs’ part in the fulfilment of the promises of God to Jacob’s ancestors.  All translated by Joseph or some other court official from Jacob’s obscure semitic dialect into the civilised language of court.    This would, of course, all be hot air to Pharaoh if it hadn’t been for the God-inspired prescience of Jacob’s favourite son.  God led Joseph to save Pharaoh and resettle Jacob in Egypt.  Jacob reminded Pharaoh that Joseph’s leadership was God’s promise in fulfilment.

Maybe I’m just here to speak God’s blessing to you.  To remind you of his promises, his presence and his forgiveness, his future.  If like Pharaoh you have encountered God’s people from our church or any other church serving God in their various spheres of life, you will already know that this is not just hot air.  It is life-changing truth.  Either way, you should know that God loves you.  That he has good plans and purposes for you and that his friendship and forgiveness are available to you.  Whether you are nobody from nowhere or whether you are the king of the world, may you know God’s blessing at this time.



Vaccines, abortions and loving your neighbour

Let me say, as a faith leader: GO GET VACCINATED.  Gloucestershire NHS have made a flying start with their vaccination programme.  It seems that our excellent network of GPs surgeries has used local centres rather than mass vaccination centres to get ahead of the rest of the UK.  This is great news as far as I’m concerned.

I haven’t come across any COVID denial in the Christian circles I mix in.  Most of those circles include Christian doctors, nurses and scientists who have seen COVID-19 up close and personal.  They also include folk who have spent time in hospital or in isolation at home and know that coronavirus is no joke.    Nor have I come across much resistance to the vaccine programme.  One genuine Christian concern which has been brought to my attention however is the use of cell lines derived from aborted human foetuses in the production and testing of the vaccines.  As you would expect, the online conspiracy theory mill has spun this into ‘foetuses used in vaccine production’ and ‘vaccines will change your DNA’ etc, which are ignorant untruths.  However, it is true that all three of the vaccines currently approved for use in the UK were developed using cell lines derived from specific historical human abortions. 

Broadly speaking, Christians are opposed to abortion – this is an ethical stance which is strongly held by Catholic and conservative believers around the world.  Christians have various views and stances on how and whether this should be enforced by the state, but the sanctity of human life and the protection of the vulnerable are core Christian values.  We are deeply troubled by pain of the thousands of UK women whose pregnancies have been terminated to save their own lives, as a result of medical emergencies or due to rape since the 1967 abortion act.  The loss the other six million fetuses and premature babies and the pain of their mothers is a national tragedy far greater than the unspeakably dreadful mother and baby home scandal recently exposed in Ireland.  Christians should be filled with compassion for the mothers facing such dire circumstances that they should consider an abortion.  We should also be ashamed that this ill-formed legislation slipped through with barely a whimper from the churches and has held sway for so long.    

So how come I’m saying go get vaccinated?

Avoiding food previously offered to idols was a big issue for the first Christians.  Part of any offering  to the gods was burned, part was kept by the offerer and the priests ended up with far more than they could eat.  Consequently, Roman markets were flooded with idolatry-tainted meat.  Which was a problem for Christians who had turned their back on idolatry as a sin against the person of God and the dignity of human beings.  When St Paul addresses idolatry, he’s crystal clear – you can’t worship idols and inherit the kingdom of God any more than you can be greedy or a murderer and do so.  But when he talks about food derived from idolatrous offerings he leaves it to the conscience of the believer – in the same category as which day you worship on.  Not an issue of personal sin – just a matter in which to make informed choices and have regard for those around you.

I have no idea of the circumstances which led to the specific 1970s abortion from which the HEK293 cell line was derived.  One of my own generation snuffed out within the bounds of the law.  I also have no idea of the personal trauma, ethical weighing and social pressure which brought their mother to the point of that termination.  It seems highly unlikely that that the potential use of the fetus for medical research was a consideration.  As far as I am concerned we all bear responsibility for that fateful moment – father, mother, legislators, influencers.  The derived cell line is not a human life, nor does it have the potential to become a human life.  It seems to me that the testing of the vaccine on these tissues, or their use in vaccine production is not a participation in the sins surrounding the original abortion but a wise use of a derivative of that tragedy.  So, like the consumption of food offered to idols in the early church, this is a matter of conscience.   Receiving the vaccine could not only save your own life, but the lives of those who need hospital beds for Covid treatment and other life saving surgeries or interventions.  I would suggest Christian conscience points us in the direction of getting vaccinated for love of our neighbour.  

If Christians are concerned to minimise their dependence on the HEK293 cell line, then the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines which only used HEK293 in design and development might be considered better than the Oxford AstraZeneca one which used HEK293 which also uses it in production.  That said, the transportability of the Oxford vaccine makes it the best bet for the developing world at present & for me love of neighbour and care for the poor and marginalised outweigh my concerns about the derivation of the cell line.  Other vaccines in various stages of production have not used cells derived from aborted foetal tissue, so there may be a less bio-ethically muddied option in future.  

We live in a globalised economy in a fallen world.  Even a bio-ethically pure vaccine is likely to depend on a financial system geared to benefit venture capitalists and shareholders or tied to some nationalist regime.   Christian ethics is bound up with the incarnation of Jesus – the word became flesh and dwelt among us.  When he did so, he entered a blood line with some messed up stories.  But the personified love of God entered the history of blood and filth and gave himself up for us nonetheless.  For me, that self-giving love in the now overrides the sins of generations past.  So I’m in agreement with the pope and Justin Welby on this: love your neighbour, wear your mask and support the vaccination programme by participation if you’re vulnerable and however you can if you’re not.    If you’re in Glos, you’ll be able to get it done sooner rather than later.