Couldn't have said it better myself...

"We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are."

Anais Nin

Monday, November 30, 2009

Wait for It...

Well, advent has officially begun… And at last I can mention the C-word… Christmas… I’m not a traditionalist in many things but on this I am a complete conservative… I absolutely, totally and completely refuse to put up decorations or even discuss Christmas beyond what is absolutely necessary in order to make family arrangements and preparations for worship, until advent begins… and our tree doesn’t go up until the first weekend in December…
And actually, even though the embargo has been lifted, I prefer not to rush ahead into Christmas carols and the like, but rather to practice the age-old discipline of advent… Watching and waiting for the coming King, as the prophets did of old… And one of the reasons is, I’m not actually very good at waiting.
A friend last week said that he wasn’t very good at waiting, when I suggested that he wait 10 minutes for something… In response I said that if that were the case he must really LOVE advent… to which he replied “It's always so busy I don't even notice I'm waiting.”
I suppose he’s not alone in that… The run-up to Christmas can be completely and totally crazy… But do yourself a favour…
Stop… if only for a moment each day… For even less time than it has taken you to read this and think about what its all about…
Because you don’t want to be moving so fast that you miss the Messiah…

(This was adapted from a "Just a Moment" piece written for broadcast on Downtown Radio this morning. If you would like something to help you pause on the journey towards Christmas day, check out the Paperless Advent calendar here, which goes live tomorrow)


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Children Come First...

Approximately once a month I toddle down to Newtownards at an unearthly hour on a Sunday morning to do a stint on their Sunday morning Christian magazine programme, Dawn Reflections, with Vanessa Jones. My role is to comment on the Sunday papers, from a faith perspective, and to do a pre-prepared 3 minute review of the key story or stories in the previous week's news. What follows is, broadly what I said in that review this morning.
There are various rules, regulations and guidelines regarding what you can and cannot say that anyone broadcasting on radio has to observe, and all of us at Downtown have had to have training in them. There are also personal rules that I operate by for these reviews of the week’s news (rules that I generally carry over onto my blog)… I try not to focus on salacious stories no matter how dominant they are in media… and I tend not to comment on negative stories affecting other denominations… hence I left it to my Presbyterian colleague to comment on the problems with the Presbyterian Mutual Society last year…
However, this week I break that rule, in mentioning the release of the Report of the Commission of Investigation into how the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin dealt with allegations of child abuse during the period from 1975 to 2004. I do so with great sorrow; sorrow for the victims of that dreadful abuse and sorrow for many faithful brothers and sisters in Christ within that denomination who feel that their reputations have been tarnished along with the rest of the church.
Not to mention it would be to ignore the elephant in the studio… but we’re good at that in this island… whether it be turning a blind eye to sectarianism, racism, homophobia or in this case a horrendous catalogue of child abuse and a systematic attempt to cover things up. I can see that those who hushed things up thought they were preventing scandal from rocking the church… but that has actually produced an even greater sense of scandal… And rightly so… Seeking to protect the good name of the institutional church, and worse, as it seems also seeking to protect the economic assets of the church, exacerbated the original offences… it revictimised the victims… exposed other children to danger and ultimately brought shame not only on the church but the name of Christ himself… because the Bible describes the church as his body…
We are coming into that season when we remember that when Christ first took on bodily form, he came as a helpless child into the world… Later, when he had grown up, in the face of his followers keeping children from him (probably for easily understood but unexplained reasons) he said “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, because the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” The original Greek suggests that Jesus was angry with his disciples, though the NIV, RSV and Catholic Jerusalem Bible all translate it as "indignant", because you can't have an angry Jesus can you? The King James Version and old Catholic Douai Bible translates it as "much displeased." I wonder whether he would be indignant, much displeased or incandescently furious at the behaviour uncovered in this week's report.
How many Christmases must we celebrate? How many baptisms must we share in before we realize the import of those facts… The Kingdom belongs to the children… And how dare any of us… any priest or pastor in any denomination… any bishop, archbishop or church administrator, forget that… Children come first…


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Bad Bio-Medical Science... Good Gospel?

I'd never read one of Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science" column in the Guardian on a Saturday before, but will probably seek it out in future and his blog has now been duly entered in my blogroll. I had been recommended this book, however, by a couple of friends who, I think, saw that I and Dr. Goldacre are of a similar mindset. Nothing sets me off in a "white flecks of foam flying from my mouth" kind of way, as much as the incompetent handling of science in the modern media... Not even the incompetent handling of theology in the modern media, which is almost as bad.
The book should really be called "Bad Bio-Medicine" as it is largely about evidence based medicine and the modern world's/media's total inability to understand how it works. Actually my casual observation is that many doctors don't know how it works either, leading to them blindly jumping onto bandwagons along with everyone else, but then, in my more annoying moments I remind some of my medical doctor friends that they aren't sceintists at all, just skilled technicians and mechanics of the human body!
En route through the pages of this book Goldman takes a well-aimed potshot at homeopathic "medicine" and nutritionist charlatans like the poo "doctor" McKeith. But he is no apologist for the "boffins" of the pharmaceutical industry... indeed he rails against the tendency to try to solve everything with a pill, be it a homeopathic sugar pill or big Pharma product... including the fact that in force-feeding children fish-oil capsules to make them smarter, we are teaching them that to get ahead they need a tablet! There's a good life lesson.
He also throws light on the appalling profiteering by both homeopaths and the pharmaceutical industry in the African AIDS crisis as well as the scandalous media fuelled hoax surrounding MMR... I look forward to a new volume with a chapter devoted to pandemic flu!
He suspects that a major problem is the role of humanities graduates in the media wearing their ignorance of all things scientific like a badge of honour... a suspicion I have had for years...
From time to time he makes sideswipes at religion, and I was half-expecting a fully fledged chapter on the old canard of the conflict of science and religion... the medieval holding back of the scientific endeavour of people like Galileo (more of whom in a day or two), its modern equivalent in the faux-science of creationism (meat and drink to the so-called "New Atheists"), the unthinking superstition of New Age pick and mix religion, and the disasterous effects that the edicts of mullahs, missionaries and ministers have had on the physical and mental well-being of people. Of course, my argument would be that these are examples of bad religion, that I would have as much difficulty with as he has with bad science. But that chapter never came... perhaps he is keeping his powder dry for another book...
But there was one thing he did raise in relation to the inappropriate medicalisation of problems that raised issues for me theologically. He suggested that the tried an tested method of selling us pills (of whatever variety) is first to persuade us that we have a problem and then provide the solution in an easy to take tablet form...
And it made me wonder, is that what we do with the "bad news - good news" approach to Jesus' message?
If it is, is that a legitimate expression of the gospel... or is it a technique that has come down to us from 19th century evangelicalism, where the traveling preachers learned many of their techniques from the quacks selling patent medicines?
Is there a good news without bad news?
But back to the book... my humble opinion is that this should be compulsory reading for every parent before they're allowed to have children... but being realistic it will probably only be read by those of a similar conviction... to use a religious analogy, he is preaching to the converted... Most who have already given up on conventional medicine will have given up on him too because he's a doctor after all...
But you'd never find us religious types just preaching to the converted...


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Only an Horizon...

Whilst preparing for the two funerals that I have to conduct today, I came across this piece by Bishop Charles Henry Brent, which apparently was sent to Fiona Castle by a well-wisher shortly after the death of her husband Roy. Bishop Brent is probably more famous for his more developed analogy of death being like a ship sailing over the horizon. Here he uses the same image but in the form of a prayer:

We seem to give them back to Thee, 0 God, who gavest them to us. Yet as Thou didst not lose them in giving, so we do not lose them by their return. Not as the world giveth, givest Thou, 0 Lover of souls. What Thou givest, Thou takest not away, for what is Thine is ours also if we are Thine. And life is eternal and love is immortal, and death is only an horizon, and an horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight. Lift us up, strong Son of God, that we may see further; cleanse our eyes that we may see more clearly: draw us closer to Thyself that we may know ourselves to be nearer to our loved ones who are with Thee. And while Thou dost prepare a place for us, prepare us also for that happy place, that where Thou art we may be also for evermore. Amen


Friday, November 13, 2009

Fidei Defensor

Prince Chuck has long professed that when (if?) he is crowned King he would prefer to be known as "Defender of Faith" rather than "Defender of the Faith." Now any half competent Latin scholar knows that this is a perfectly legitimate understanding of the title "Fidei Defensor" from a linguistic perspective. What is much more questionable is whether any English monarch can legitimately claim this title given that it was bestowed on Henry VIII by the Pope after his defense of the Roman understanding of 7 Sacraments in the face of Luther et al, prior to the same king throwing his rattle out of the pram because the Pope wouldn't grant him a divorce...
But I'm thinking about this question today not because of the origins of the breakdown in relations between the Churches of Rome and England, which are currently being "repaired" by the current Pope's "generous invitation" to disaffected Anglicans to come back to the one true church, but by an event I was at in London yesterday launching the first Inter-Faith Week in England and Wales (though Wales, typically, never got a mention from the platform...). I may blog further on this over the next few days (if I can summon up the enthusiasm)... but what got me typing today was the introductory letter in the day's programme, written by our esteemed Prince of Wales...
This is what the defender of faith had to say:
'I have long believed that we are all united by a common bond of faith - faith in a sacred dimension beyond ourselves [Are you listening, Richard Dawkins?]; faith in, for want of a better description, a divine "essence" to the meaning of existence; faith in the integrity of life itself.'
An understanding of faith like that certainly NEEDS a defender... because it is so feeble that it certainly couldn't defend itself!


Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Psalm for Remembrance Sunday

Praise the LORD.

Praise the LORD, O my soul.
I will praise the LORD all my life;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortal men, who cannot save.
Blessed are those whose help is the God of Israel
Those whose hope is in the LORD his God
the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them
the LORD, who remains faithful for ever.
He upholds the oppressed and gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets prisoners free;
the LORD gives sight to the blind and lifts up those who are bowed down,
the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the foreigner and supports the fatherless and the widow,
the LORD thwarts the ways of the wicked.
The LORD our God reigns for ever, throughout all generations.
Praise the LORD.

From Psalm 146


Saturday, November 7, 2009

Tom and Toby Separated at Birth?

Here's one from Ship of Fools. Have you ever seen Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham and the West Wing's Toby Ziegler in the same room?


Sunday, November 1, 2009

What's the Point in an Expert Panel?

In this time of public finance cutbacks can I suggest a means of saving a lot of money and wasted time and effort? Ditch all the expert panels and commissions that the government has been establishing... funding for various periods of time and then dismissing their findings when they don't think they will be able to sell them to the wider public... Rule No. 1 of being an expert on a government appointed panel... When they want your opinion they will give it to you.

Recently we've had the sacking of the government drugs adviser, the deliciously named Professor Nutt, for daring to suggest that government drugs policy was politically based rather than based on any evidence of the medical or social dangers of cannabis or ecstasy, and the subsequent resignation of some of his colleagues... And before that we had the public binning of recommendations from what was said to be the most comprehensive review of primary education in England and Wales for 40 years, which suggested that starting kids into formal learning at age 4-5 has no educational benefit. I suspect that these 2 examples, however, are merely the tip of a very large iceberg. But there is no point in appointing these panels if you aren't going to pay attention to what they have to say...

Why is this happening?

Are there wider agendas on the education question regarding getting mothers out to work earlier to swell the workforce and reduce the burden on the welfare state? Then why can't they be honest about that?

On the drugs question is it simply an issue of them going for the lager-drinking Sun vote rather than cannabis smoking Guardian hippies?

Are they trying to show themselves to be champions of the ordinary person and "common sense" in the face of these ivory tower intellectuals who don't have to live in the "real world"?

Is this all just a function of New Labour spin over substance and will the Tories with Blairite-retread Cameron be any better?

But then why should we be critical of the Westminister crowd, when we have reports on education, community relations and dealing with the past which have been parked in a dark alley at the back of Stormont for political reasons (which all largely come down to the Unionists hating the Republicans and vice versa).

I've got opinions on all of the above subjects although I am an expert on none of them, and while I don't believe that you should always go with the expert opinion on any one subject, because of the wider consequences or context, you should at least offer a rationale as to why you have just poured thousands (if not millions) of taxpayers hard earned cash down the drain. Professor Nutt was undoubtedly politically naive in his public comments. His government paymasters don't appreciate being rubbished by their underlings in the full glare of the media. But if there is a compelling social case for rejecting expert opinion then the public should be told why.

But if the reason for rejecting such opinion is simply a matter of it being hard to sell to the wider population, well that is what being a leader is all about... Not simply finding the front of a baying crowd and getting yourself into the front row, whatever way it's heading...