Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

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Greenbelt Festival – August Bank Holiday Weekend, 2010

August 31, 2010
Welcome to Greenbelt 2010

  

I have just returned from an inspiring and really encouraging weekend at this year’s Greenbelt festival at Cheltenham racecourse. It’s been for me a truly wonderful time, for a number of reasons. Firstly, I love Greenbelt because there’s the chance for just a few days of the year to be able to soak up the eclectic carnival atmosphere of thousands and thousands of people from  many different traditions and viewpoints gathering together for a celebration of art, music, poetry, politics and God in one large event. The shere variety of people from dribbling and chortling babies to children, to adolescents and young adults, to the worldly worn middle-aged and the open-minded mature and elderly – the sections of society represented at Greenbelt don’t fit the picture of normal church congregations – here is a much more varied and encouragingly multicoloured spectrum of people.   

Beauty in arts, craft and good conversation

Secondly, there’s the great opportunity to meet new people and make new friends or to catch up with family, old friends and colleagues in a uniquely open-minded, open-hearted, open spirited and celebratory environment. I have met numerous people this year – particular leaders who made a lastingly good impression on you at a time of growth and exploration in your life and faith; good friends you once worked closely  with on experimental projects who you have since lost contact with after you and they have moved to different parts of the country. There have also been those serendipitous meetings with people who were complete strangers, but over the course of the weekend and several coffees, wine and beer in disposable paper cups and some great conversations have become like soul friends and kindred spirits. As a Christian, an event like Greenbelt is so stimulating because there are so many possibilities – opportunities for gift, grace, humour, heart-felt emotion, tears and laughter. 

Colourful flags decorate the Cheltenham race course grandstand

A rainbow coloured celebration - people from all walks of life participate in Greenbelt

Perhaps, equally important to all the opportunities to catch up with old friends and meet new ones, and if not more significant than seeing the wide variety of people who find help, grace and a sense of deep belonging through relationship with God and Jesus, are the occasions of divine ‘eruption’ that break into our ordinary lives through great speakers and artistic, musical events centred on giving worth and valuing God. For me personally, there were a number of occasions where I felt I met not just with a well crafted and intelligent, thoughtful talk, but experienced an encounter with  the Living God – the Divine power, presence and personalities that created the whole of our awe-inspiring and breathtaking universe.   

At 9am on saturday morning, bleary eyed and un-caffienated I managed to drag myself from my tent to find an unoccupied space of green grass in the  Big Top to listen to the harmonious vocals and melodic acoustic guitars of Andy Flanagan and friends leading singing and worship of God.   

I wonder if someone who isn’t a Christian, or a believer in some kind of God, can understand the special moments that take place when beautiful, aesthetically pleasing music combines with an internal knowledge and realisation that you are singing not just into the air and expressing the deep-seated feelings and aspirations of one’s soul, but also communicating – intimately, gently, in a kind of perfect child-like innocence with a Divine Presence that is Love. I know from before I was a Christian that good music and art can bring people to such emotional heights as an artist expresses great truth or beauty in an aesthetic medium that does not bypass reason, but transcends it a brings a person into the realm of the sublime. But somehow…true worship…good worship is MORE than this. It is all of the above, yet it is also unadulterated, raw communication with the Holy teased out and enwrapped in the tenderest perfect love. One experiences not just the deep-seated longing and desires for a true and just and forgiving life and universe. One experiences, a simple, quiet, gentle voice whispering love songs back to you. Affirming in the deepest most emotionally tangible way and yet physically and visibly illusive a voice saying, “Yes, you are loved. All of you. Even with those parts of you that you feel you cannot show the rest of the world – you are loved…and yes, those hopes you had as a child to be a princess in a happy ending fairy tale or those dreams you longed to fulfil to be a knight in shinning armour defeating the enemies of justice and oppressors of the poor, and rescuing the beautiful damsel in distress….They were NOT fantasy. They were REAL. They were You and they were Me trying to teach you…help you to understand your role in all of this in language and images you – a child – could understand. I AFFIRM your desires for love, for justice, for peace, for acceptance, for forgiveness. I AFFIRM YOU, whatever the world or church or christians or priests or ministers or congregations think of you. I…GOD…affirm YOU. YOU ARE LOVED.”   

It’s difficult to explain, but that’s how worship can feel – like a beautiful, intimate, tender dialogue – simplified perhaps as God saying: “You are loved.”   

I had that experience participating in the worship on saturday morning as Andy Flanagan, a small group of musicians and a talented young actress brought together a superb musical and dramatised journey through the story of Mary of Bethany’s love of Jesus, loss of her brother Lazarus and gratitude to Jesus for bringing him back to life. A very touching experience.   

Vibrant colours and flags flowing in the wind of the Spirit represent the variety of humanity and the movement of God's Spirit at Greenbelt

Mark Yaconelli – Our Desires, the Prodigal Son and a God of Compassion

Listening to mature and wise writers and speakers like Richard Rohr, Simon Parke and Lawrence Freeman speak on matters from the importance of holistic worldview to the tortured lives of mystical geniuses such as Van Gogh, Leo Tolstoy and Meister Eckart or on how to practise contemplative prayer were among the highlights of this year’s festival for me. However, the great spiritual breakthroughs for me this weekend came hearing North American author and youth specialist Mark Yaconelli speak on the true nature of our ‘desires’ and on the nature of God in Jesus of Nazareth as a God of weakness and vulnerability, rather than conceived of as an abstract all-powerful, all-controlling and dictatorial Deity ‘up’ in heaven.   

  

 I have never heard Mark speak before, yet listening to him this weekend communicate so passionately and inspirationally the Love of God for human beings – all people – represented for me, two of the highlights of my religious journey and human life. Some of the ideas I had encountered before, yet others were original and new to me. However, what struck me in particular was the bringing together of the ideas with moving real life, true stories. One idea that I had never met before was the notion that the Father in the Prodigal Son story approves generously of the prodigal son’s ‘desire’ to escape the Father’s House and find himself/express himself in the world. I had always thought that the Father (and therefore by implication God) only reluctantly and regretfully releases his younger child into the big, open world. Mark turned this action of releasing around, into a Father who longs to see his child venture out, experiment and express their desires for creativity and self-fulfilment in the wider world. For me this was a new and poignant revelation, made all the more moving by the personal testimonies Mark told which made us laugh out loud and quietly cry at the irony of the passions of adolescent and young people’s desires managing to find expression in spite of the stifling repression in traditional and conservative religion. Thanks Mark, for all your patient work with young people and for not losing hope in a God who is vulnerable and weak, a God who rejoices, not resents when people discover their true desires in their hearts and have the courage to live them out. Thanks also for believing in the God who can redeem and heal all of us. Both those people, like the Prodigal, who are themselves wounded and living in an injured world fall into the trap of abusing their desires and hurting others in the process AND those who out of a desire to do the right thing bury their feelings and passions and end up trapped in dutiful lives, feeling unappreciated and unloved by parental figures and God and feel resentful toward their wasteful and self-indulgent peers.   

Mark Yaconelli’s talks can be bought and downloaded from the Greenbelt website.  

  

More flags at Greenbelt, Bank Holiday Weekend August 2010

 

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‘We simply went out looking for the lost and the dying’ – Spiritual Temperaments (6 of 9): Caring for the poor and marginalised

April 23, 2010

“Caregivers serve God by serving others. They often claim to see Christ in the poor and needy, and their faith is built up by interacting with other people. Such (people) may find the devotional lives of contemplatives and enthusiasts as selfish. Whereas caring for others might wear many of us down, this recharges a caregiver’s batteries.”

Sacred Pathways, Gary Thomas, Page 27

I have been wondering about how to write this section on spiritual temperaments as I personally struggle with giving physical care to others in need, although I find prayer, contemplation, sensuous worship and being out in nature, natural, spiritual responses for me. I do care about the poor and needy though and when I can, I attempt to chat and listen to homeless people who are selling magazines such as The Big Issue ( a magazine started in the late 80s/early 90s in Britain to help homeless people provide for themselves). Still such random, small acts of humanity seem like crumbs compared to the banquets real care-givers provide for the weak, poor and marginalised.

Since being a teenager, I have always liked the earthy, salty and fiery common sense teachings of the writer of the Book of James in the New Testament. I always love the following phrase which is set in the context of not just listening to the ‘word’ (or new teaching of Jesus), but doing it. James seems to encapsulate the heart of the Christian message, as do so many caregivers:

26If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. 27Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

James 1:26-27

Those words inspire me:

27Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…

Oh yes, let it be so!

Thomas uses the example of Mother Teresa in his book – a supreme model of self-giving and caring for the oppressed and poverty-stricken ordinary people of India, whose example has led to the setting up of convents and missionary works to minister to the poor across the globe. An extraordinary woman and an extraordinary Christian, whose work today is carried out by many more beautiful and humble servants of God and of suffering people.

 

However, the people who come to my mind are still alive today and have established an amazing ministry in Mozambique, with influence across the world. They have experienced many signs, wonders, visions and miracles while working with some of the poorest most unfortunate and weakest of society – abandoned children and orphans – in a country which was and still is, I believe, one of the poorest in the whole world.

How have they done it? Well, to be honest I really don’t know how to describe their work adequately in words, but you can read more about their mission and work in Mozambique at the following web-address:

http://www.irismin.org/p/background.php

I also wholeheartedly commend the book There is Always Enough The Story of Rolland and Heidi Baker’s miraculous ministry among the poor by Rolland and Heidi Baker, Sovereign World Ltd. I think it may have been republished simply as Always Enough.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/There-Always-Enough-Miraculous-Mozambique/dp/1852402873/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1272051122&sr=1-1

The Bakers’ story is heartbreaking and awe inspiring in the wonderful progress they have made and continue to make with the poor children and people of Mozambique. A lot of it is difficult to believe that such good things could be done by ‘ordinary’ human beings with the help of God. The testimonies, however, are breathtaking and heart warming as the weak are touched in the kindest ways by the  love of God, are healed and transformed. It’s a wonderful read and a wonderful example of what practical caring for the poor, as well as powerful intimacy and worship of God through Jesus can do in this broken, but beautiful world.

I would like to finish with just a few quotations from Always Enough :

‘There still wasn’t much at Chihango (this was the state orphanage taken over temporarily by the Bakers on arriving in Mozambique) for the children. Their rooms were bare, picked clean by thieves. They slept on the cement floor with no sheets, pillows or even mats. There was absolutely nothing in their rooms. They had no extra clothes other than those on their backs. They had no possessions of any kind. Many of them needed medical attention. Some were missing limbs from land mine explosions.

I bought the children their first cups and plates. For years they had eaten out of troughs and drunk under faucets. we brought toothbrushes. We repaired a bakery that had been built years ago at Chihango and started baking seven hundred loaves a day, for us and for sale in town. We cleaned the septic tanks, installed wiring and painted walls. We hauled beans and rice from South Africa in a used army trailer. We assumed total responsibility for the centre’s administration and funding. It had been treated as a correctional institution for problem street children, but we turned it into a gospel centre for desperate and unwanted children of any kind. We simply went out looking for the lost and the dying.’

There is Always Enough, Rolland and Heidi Baker, page 41

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Spiritual Temperaments – Activists energised by struggling for justice (5 of 9)

April 20, 2010
 
“Activists serve a God of justice, and their favourite Scripture is often the account of Jesus cleansing the temple…Activists may adopt either social or evangelistic causes, but they find their home in the rough-and-tumble world of confrontation. They are energised more by interaction with others, even in conflict, than by being alone or in small groups.”
 
Sacred Pathways, Gary Thomas, Page 26 

 

When I think of activists, I think of the charities and social campaign groups, such as Greenpeace, Oxfam, The Children’s Society, Christian Aid, (C.A.P.) Christians Against Poverty, Amnesty International etc. The people who work for these organisations are tireless in campaigning for social and/or environmental justice in our country, but also in other nations across the globe.

Greenpeace is one charitable organisation that often makes me think and question the selfishness of my  21st Century consumer-driven lifestyle. These environmental activists campaign for ordinary people, politicians and big-businesses to stop abusing the natural world and to take better care of the living organisms of the earth’s bio-sphere.

Deforestation in Amazon rainforest

Recently they campaigned against Nestle using palm oil in their chocolate bars, such as Kit Kat. It took the careful attention, boundless energy and concerted efforts of activists at Greenpeace to highlight for the public the devastatingly negative consequences of a large chocolate manufacturer purchasing palm oil from South East Asia, where rainforests are being torn down to grow featureless miles upon miles of palm oil plants. As a consequence, the natural inhabitants of the rainforests such as Orangutans are being slaughtered through the deforestation process. It’s a chilling connection, which few of us would make where it not for the efforts of Greenpeace and other environmentalists’ activism.

Environmental activism is just one form of campaigning which those people who have an activist spiritual temperament might participate in. For me, although organisations such as Greenpeace have no particular religious affiliation, their dedicated work to alerting peoples’ attentions to the cruelty of modern exploitative, ‘developmental’ processes towards many animals, fish, sea mammals, birds, plants and other natural creatures is part of God’s mandate to humanity, as recorded at the beginning of the Bible:

Genesis 1 (The Message)

Heaven and Earth

 1-2First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.

 3-5 God spoke: “Light!”
      And light appeared.
   God saw that light was good
      and separated light from dark.
   God named the light Day,
      he named the dark Night.
   It was evening, it was morning—
   Day One.

 6-8 God spoke: “Sky! In the middle of the waters;
      separate water from water!”
   God made sky.
   He separated the water under sky
      from the water above sky.
   And there it was:
      he named sky the Heavens;
   It was evening, it was morning—
   Day Two.

 9-10 God spoke: “Separate!
      Water-beneath-Heaven, gather into one place;
   Land, appear!”
      And there it was.
   God named the land Earth.
      He named the pooled water Ocean.
   God saw that it was good.

 

 

 11-13 God spoke: “Earth, green up! Grow all varieties
      of seed-bearing plants,
   Every sort of fruit-bearing tree.”
      And there it was.
   Earth produced green seed-bearing plants,
      all varieties,
   And fruit-bearing trees of all sorts.
      God saw that it was good.
   It was evening, it was morning—
   Day Three.

 14-15 God spoke: “Lights! Come out!
      Shine in Heaven’s sky!
   Separate Day from Night.
      Mark seasons and days and years,
   Lights in Heaven’s sky to give light to Earth.”
      And there it was.

 16-19 God made two big lights, the larger
      to take charge of Day,
   The smaller to be in charge of Night;
      and he made the stars.
   God placed them in the heavenly sky
      to light up Earth
   And oversee Day and Night,
      to separate light and dark.
   God saw that it was good.
   It was evening, it was morning—
   Day Four.

 20-23 God spoke: “Swarm, Ocean, with fish and all sea life!
      Birds, fly through the sky over Earth!”
   God created the huge whales,
      all the swarm of life in the waters,
   And every kind and species of flying birds.
      God saw that it was good.
   God blessed them: “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Ocean!
      Birds, reproduce on Earth!”
   It was evening, it was morning—
   Day Five.

 24-25 God spoke: “Earth, generate life! Every sort and kind:
      cattle and reptiles and wild animals—all kinds.”
   And there it was:
      wild animals of every kind,
   Cattle of all kinds, every sort of reptile and bug.
      God saw that it was good.

 26-28 God spoke: “Let us make human beings in our image, make them
      reflecting our nature
   So they can be responsible for the fish in the sea,
      the birds in the air, the cattle,
   And, yes, Earth itself,
      and every animal that moves on the face of Earth.”
   God created human beings;
      he created them godlike,
   Reflecting God’s nature.
      He created them male and female.
   God blessed them:
      “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge!
   
Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air,
      for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.”

 29-30 Then God said, “I’ve given you
      every sort of seed-bearing plant on Earth
   And every kind of fruit-bearing tree,
      given them to you for food.
   To all animals and all birds,
      everything that moves and breathes,
   I give whatever grows out of the ground for food.”
      And there it was.

 31 God looked over everything he had made;
      it was so good, so very good!
   It was evening, it was morning—
   Day Six.
 

I like Eugene Peterson’s translation of this ancient, ancient passage of the Bible from the beginnings of the Hebrew Scriptures. Peterson channels something of the creative energy and joy that Jews, Christians, Muslims especially believe took place at the beginnings of the Universe and formation of the Earth, so many eons ago.

Peterson is also careful to translate the word which for hundreds of years was translated as ‘have dominion over’ in the King James Version of the Bible, as ‘be responsible for’. Some may argue over the linguistic accuracy, yet from what we know now from science and environmental studies that humanity has used the mandate to have dominion over nature purely to exploit and capitalise upon it, bringing the planet ever closer to complete destruction that surely God’s intention was for human beings to care and steward for nature, not rape it for personal profit.

Activists may often make us feel unease in our comfortable lifestyles, when they draw our attentions off material gain and succeeding according to society’s materialistic goals, and instead point to the needless suffering and agony in the world due to humanity’s inherent selfishness and greed. However, they are some of the prophets of our generation and their sobering message is a very much-needed in a culture of ‘me’ orientated hedonism.

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Resurgent Democracy?

April 17, 2010

Here’s a quote from United States of America, President Teddy Roosevelt that I have always found inspiring:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

 

http://newsimg.bbc.co.uk/media/images/47654000/jpg/_47654225_debate1.jpg

I have just returned from my parents house where I watched the live TV debates between the three leaders of the main political parties in Britain – Labour Prime minister Gordon Brown, David Cameron Conservative leader of the opposition and Nick Clegg leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This was the first time there has been a televised leadership debate between the three main political party leaders in the history of the United Kingdom. As I watched a part of me was stirred again to take an active interest in politics and to hope and work for a better world through responsible democratic government.

The situation today is very different from the politics of the 1980s when I was growing up and the Conservatives had a clear majority in the House of Commons. The world has also moved on greatly since the late nineties and early noughties when New Labour governed the country without a significant opposition. Now for the first time we can see the leaders of the main political parties speaking face-to-face without media manipulation or post-event editing. It was an exciting 90 minutes, even if the debate itself was highly stage-managed and the speakers often seemed to repeat party political rhetoric rather than explain detail policy. Still, I feel revived by the spectacle and encouraged that once again the social upheaval in terms of modern media proliferation over the last ten to fifteen years might finally be beginning to force politicians out from their tribal party politics to public accountability in the face of public scrutiny via live TV debates.

I guess all of this creates in me a hope that we might see a better governed country in the United Kingdom and a more enlightened world politics. Whatever the ultimate results of the General Election, I felt all of the men came across as conviction politicians, although I don’t necessarily agree with their convictions.

All responsible unbiased opinion polls have shown the third-party leader Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats as coming across as having won the debate, with David Cameron coming second and  Gordon Brown faring better than expected in the TV debate, but as runner-up in third place (in some ways this is no surprise as the incumbent Prime minister and as a main architect of the Labour government’s thirteen years in power it is difficult for him to present himself as an agent of reform and change).

I think Nick Clegg’s strong performance, (as well as Vince Cable doing well in the Chancellor’s debate) in the first debate will be healthy for  British Democracy. The two main parties have had sway of politics in this country for too long. It will be interesting to see how they deal with this new development in the next couple of weeks.