Minister’s blog

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.

 

  

 

Trunk, Pants Evangelical

I have been pondering for a long time the support of Evangelicals in the U.S. for Donald Trump.  I can see that he’s broadly pro-life like me and that he’s prepared to carry out his diplomacy in Israel “for the Evangelicals”.  I also know that bipartisan politics means that you always have to choose the lesser of two evils.   But I still don’t get how the Evangelical voting bloc in the U.S. can so strongly support a man whose life seems to me to be so distant from the personal holiness, wisdom, patience, generosity, courage, faith, hope and love which are the basic requirements for leadership in the New Testament and the foundations of society in the Old Testament. I can’t see how they can stand seeing him waving a bible around like it’s a symbol of his divine right to rule when he seems so unfamiliar with it’s contents.

I may have had an epiphany this morning.  A recent biennial survey of beliefs and attitudes in the U.S. by Lifeway Research and Ligonier Ministries found that 30% of U.S. Evangelicals believe that Jesus was merely a good teacher.  If this is true, it means that U.S. Evangelicals are something rather different from UK Evangelicals. 

Evangelical is not a label which is likely to endear you to the U.K. mainstream press.  It’s still how I self-identify though.  We are the Christians who read and love the bible.  We’re the ones who think it would do you good to repent, be baptised, be filled with the Holy Spirit and follow Jesus.  We think that faith and action are unbreakably joined together in every sphere of personal and political life.  We believe that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus were the central act of all human history, revealing once and for all the love and the power of God.  The word evangelical comes from the Greek work for good news.  It’s a word I like.      

The Evangelical Alliance UK represent a million Evangelicals.  We’re not a voting bloc.  We vote for parties across the spectrum.  Read the EAUK statement of faith and you will see that Jesus is the living object of our worship and our present ultimate authority as well as an historical good moral example.  This is the kind of view of Jesus which is plainly held by the first Christians as portrayed in the New Testament.  We’re aware that some Christians, some quasi-Christians and some ex-Christians have reinterpreted or moved on from this Christology, to one with a nice first century chap kind of a Jesus but we still believe it, like it and live it.  

I was already aware that evangelical is simply a synonym for protestant in mainland Europe and that it is often used in the UK to mean uneducated, antiscientific and bigoted.  Is it possible that Evangelical in the US is now a label only loosely linked to the teachings of Jesus and the bible and more closely linked to an ill-defined set of socially conservative, young earth creationist, second amendment, America-first values?  This would be a shame.  It means further constant qualifying my use of the word as a self-identifier.  Maybe I need a new label?  Part of me hopes it’s true though.  It would be good to think that my links with this Trump-voting bloc were simply etymological.  Maybe Evangelical is just like trunk or pants – a word that means something different stateside?     

Fundamentally different

I’ve just read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s 2006 book ‘Infidel’.  It’s a compelling read telling the story of Ali’s horrifying childhood in Somalia, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Kenya and her journey out of Islam and to prominence as a womens’ rights activist and politician in Holland.  As I read it, I reflected on the voices of my kids teachers who tell them that all religions are equally valid (or even leading up the same mountain).

Like Ali, I grew up in a fundamentalist religious home.  We held a holy book in high esteem and attended a place of worship twice (or more) a week.  We prayed before meals and held to a strict moral code.    We were encouraged to follow in the way of a prophet and to accept his values and those revealed in the book over, above and occasionally against the values of our society.  But that is where the similarities end. 

Ali’s traditionalist grandma in Somalia, Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia and Muslim Brotherhood teachers in Kenya taught her that Jews and the west were opposed to everything good in the world, must be shunned and should be overthrown by force where possible.  My parents and church taught me (in word and example) that the West’s values were the best of a bad lot and that people of every creed and race should be loved and equally treated as neighbours. 

Ali was taught that women must submit to men in every area of life, that they should accept excision, arranged marriage and beatings from husbands as part of their submission to God.  We were taught that men and women are created equal in God’s image.  My sisters were encouraged to follow in my mum’s footsteps in education and freedom of choice 

It’s clear that our circumstances were radically different.  I grew up in a peaceful and prosperous democratic nation with free at point of need education and healthcare: Ali grew up in a range of countries dogged by poverty, sickness and corruption.  But the divergence between our faiths struck me as even more marked.  Our prophet taught us to love and care for even Samaritans (hated racial enemies) and told his followers to put their swords away.  Ali’s prophet spoke of love and submission for those who submit to his strictures and the sword for the rest.  Our book told us that God was a good heavenly father who could be wrestled and argued with and resisted.  Her book told her that God was an impassable and unapproachable force to whom submission is the only option.   These are radically different fundamentalisms because they have fundamentally different foundations.  The nations built on these fundamentally different foundations are fundamentally different societies.   But we’re still teaching our kids that all religions are essentially the same – leading to love peace and harmony.  This is historically; empirically; fundamentally false.

It comes as no surprise to me later in the book that Ali moved on from her belief in the prophet and the book.  I’d like to think I would have had the courage to do the same.  But I don’t feel the need to jettison either my prophet or my book, because they are a contributing stream to western freedoms rather than a desperate dam holding them back.  It also unsurprising that Ali sought to awaken her sleepy new nation to the divergences between the worldview of the fundamentalisms of its growing immigrant communities in the 1990s and Western democratic values of personal freedom and human dignity.   

The fundamentals Ali grew up with and rejected are completely different from the ones I grew up with and accepted.  The book has spurred me on to have to have grown-up conversations with my own kids about this, because it seems that they are not being told about it at their (generally excellent, accessible, caring, free) schools.

No need to apologise

“We’ve got it so good that we feel guilty”.  I’ve had this conversation repeatedly around Wotton over the last few weeks…  We know that Gloucestershire has not been hit so hard by coronavirus as other places in the UK.  There are plenty of WAMA volunteers to meet the needs of our community & even more good neighbours keeping an eye out for one another.  Less commuting means more time with family at home and less money spent on fuel.  Even at the height of the lockdown we could take our daily exercise in beautiful surroundings.  Some of us are seeing more of our distant friends families than we normally do by using new social media platforms.  We know this crisis is really tough for people living in Tower Hamlets and will be worse still for refugees in Cox’s Bazar, but lots of us are doing better than OK, so we feel guilty.  I don’t believe God wants us to feel guilty.

Because he wants us to be blessed.  The bible says that every good thing comes from God.  It celebrates life on this earth, in these bodies.  Wine, bread, fruit, sex, marriage, family, community, celebrations, health, prosperity: all explicitly stated to be gifts from a good God, all to be enjoyed with thanks to the creator.  Don’t feel guilty; chill out.  Enjoy the sunshine and the extra time you’ve saved by not commuting.  Ride those dry trails.  Finally get the garden in order.  And be thankful.

He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for people to cultivate— bringing forth food from the earth:  wine that gladdens human hearts, oil to make their faces shine, and bread that sustains their hearts. Psalm 104:14-15

He also wants us to be generous.  We are blessed so that we can be a blessing.  This is a repeated biblical theme.  Abram is chosen to be blessed and to be a blessing to all peoples.   Ancient Israel is chosen to be a light to the nations.  Jesus tells us to love as we have been loved, to give mercy as it has been given to us, to forgive as we have been forgiven.  The New Testament letters tell us to give just as generously as we have received.  New Testament generosity is born of the radical self-giving love of Jesus.  Not a grudging scrambling for leftover change for the charity pot, but a planned and systemic personal overflow of God’s blessing in our lives.  John Wesley, the great 18th century preacher preached a sermon entitled ‘on the use of money’.  The key points were: gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.  Wesley famously lived this out.  In 1731 he worked out he could live on £28 per year.  He continued to do this until he died in 1791 – even when his annual income was £1400.  Don’t feel guilty.  Make plans to use your time and money to support others less fortunate than yourselves… and then do it.

Command those who are rich in this present world … them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.  1 Timothy 6:17-18

Embarassment about our prosperity and vigilance for something to say sorry for are British traits. They’re not Christian traits though. We have got so much going for us in Wotton, but that’s nothing we need to apologise for.  Let’s enjoy what we’ve been given and use our time and resources to bless others as we have been blessed. 

Lockdown Yorkshire

Over recent weeks, I have joined massed cycling events in Richmond Virginia, Central London, New York City and Harrogate, Yorkshire.  Participants have not been observing social distancing rules and I have not seen a single law enforcement officer.  Since the UK & US introduced social distancing measures these events have got busier and busier with tens of thousands joining in from all over the world.  In Yorkshire last week, the beautiful countryside was crammed with athletes.

Zwift is a cycling app where cyclists from across the globe compete against themselves and one another on virtual courses using smart trainers linked to computers.   The number of miles covered by users has more than tripled since the Coronavirus pandemic began (now 3.5 million miles per day).  Zwift designers copy elements of real-life locations to create their courses – you ride along the Mall to Buckingham Palace, past Betty’s Tea Rooms in Harrogate and around Central Park in NYC.  Real features are shuffled around to make them more interesting for cyclists (Box Hill is just across the Thames from central London on Zwift!).  They have done a pretty good job.

I have cycled in real central London and Yorkshire.   Zwift Harrogate does have grand Georgian buildings, roads lined by limestone walls, green fields, sheep and the occasional traction engine.   But it does not have the smell of fresh rain on dry fields it does not have the feel of the wind behind you and realistic sounds of sheep and birds.  Zwift London does have Tower Bridge and Big Ben, but it doesn’t have the buzz of city life or the thrill of being quicker than the cars.  Zwift is frankly (and unsurprisingly) less real than cycling in the real world.

I advised the kids in our church to read the Chronicles of Narnia whilst in lockdown.  I’ve just finished re-reading The Last Battle again with our kids.  At the end of the story the kings and queens leave the old Narnia behind and come into the new Narnia (you’ve had 74 years to read it, so I’m not apologising for the spoiler!).  What they discover is that things are the same – the same mountains, woods and valleys, but that everything is more real, the fruit is more tasty, the air is fresher, the views are more beautiful.  They also discover that they themselves are strengthened – aches and pains have gone and they can run and run without tiring – they are themselves, but more real.  Lewis covers a similar theme in The Great Divorce where day trippers to heaven realise that they are mere ghosts and that heaven is to solid – too real – for their taste and voluntarily return to the grey town.  Of course, both fictions are drawn from a biblical vision of the future.  The new heaven and the new earth: where the wealth, culture and creativity of all the nations are preserved and unified for the Glory of God – the same stuff, but made real and permanent.  The resurrection body of Jesus: solid to touch, but able to pass unhindered through walls.   The same Jesus, but more real.   The hope of Paul that we too will be raised imperishable – the same but more real.

I’m enjoying zwifting in Harrogate during lockdown, but real cycling in the real Harrogate would be so much better.    There is much that is wonderful about this life – even at a tough time like the present.  But the Christian hope is that resurrection life will have every wonderful blessing of this life made more real…. And no Coronavirus.   

Prayer in a time of disonnection

Lost Connections by Johann Hari is a very good book.  You can tell it’s a good book because it has endorsements from Hilary Clinton and Dr Max Pemberton and Elton John.  You can tell it’s well researched because it has almost 60 pages of footnotes.  You can tell it connects with a current topic because the author’s 2019 TED talk on the subject has been viewed 5 million times.   It’s about depression: “why you’re depressed and how to find hope”.

Hari tells the story of his own depression and medication.  He engages in detailed dialogue with a wide range of scientists and psychiatrists and their work.  He movingly shares stories of hope.  He points us towards ways of reconnecting with ourselves, our world, our work and our fellow human beings which address the root causes rather than the chemical effects of our depression.

Hari leaves no stone unturned in his quest to explore the causes of depression and find solutions….  Well, almost no stone.  Apparently ‘there is evidence that people who pray become less depressed’….  But Hari is ‘an atheist so that’s not on the table’ for him.   Clearly I don’t think Atheists should be forced to pray against their will, but the admission seems particularly odd to me as a praying reader in the middle of such a thorough and well written piece of work.

I’ve seen a few bits of research into the efficacy of prayer over the years.  I really don’t believe that it’s possible to quantify it well.  This is partly because people do other things when they pray – they try to stop their mind racing around, they might be still or quiet or alone – all of which have effects in their own right regardless of any prayer taking place.  It’s also partly because if, like me, you believe that prayer is a two way thing then to whom or what you pray to matters.   A conversation with an abusive partner will not have the same effect on someone’s mood as a conversation with a kind friend or with a chat with a proverbial brick wall.

Jesus described God as a kind Father who know our needs and loves us.  To pray is to reconnect with him.  Jesus advises us to pray with reverence and awareness of our own frailty, but with boldness, clarity, integrity and hope.  The prayers of the bible range from quiet submission to raging confrontation – from the heart and in the language of the time.   Answers to prayer in the bible and today come in many forms – a feeling, a change of circumstances, a picture in the imagination, a verse of scripture on the page or from the memory bank or a new boldness to face the day.  This is impossible to quantify – like any relationship.  It’s also worth saying that prayer may initially be bad for us, where our lives are invested in habits and economies which oppose God’s good plans for the world.   But where prayer is directed to the true God, the relationship established is ultimately good for us.  Because God is good.

Which is why I think Johan Hari would do well to get over his prejudice and pray.     Read the book – it’s full of hope..  But don’t dismiss prayer at this time of disconnection.