Friday, May 29, 2009

A Poor Joke

Boris (aged9): "eeeerrrrRRR, don't pick your nose and chew it"

Norris (aged 6): "but Mum's always telling me to eat my greens"

Thursday, May 28, 2009

MPs troughs, rules and perspective..

Amidst the political fun of the unfolding expenses scandal at Westminster, in which freedom of information has given us the right to peer into their publically-funded world of moats, duck islands and 'adult' movies; has a sense of perspective been lost somewhere? The latest reports are that a handful of MPs will be disciplined for outright breaking of parliamentary rules; while up to 50 will not be seeking re-election, because what they did was within the rules but somewhat embarrassing. Politics is in turmoil, democracy is held up to public ridicule, the first speaker for over three centuries has fallen on his political sword, and parties are maneuvering to rid themselves of candidates whose expenses claims are as bloated as their tax liabilities are minimised.

In one sense, I want to join in the clamour. The filthy swine, have after-all had their noses firmly in the public trough. They have not only advantageously set their own conditions of employment, but have sought (and failed) to have their actions hidden from the public, only being foiled by freedom of information releases pre-empted by The Daily Telegraph. In constructing a system that no citizen would get away with in their workplace, they have demonstrated indeed that some pigs are more equal than others. So, send them all back to their 'very very large' houses that 'look a bit like Balmoral' and lets start parliament all over again with a fresh co-hort.

On the other hand, surely two factors must be weighed against that:

Firstly, how many voters use the system in place to ensure that they pay as little tax as possible and claim the maximum expenses? We might live in another world from the Steen's and Hogg's in the opulence of their mansions and castles; but my guess is every self-employed person in the UK pays an accountant to work this out and signs it off with little eye for detail. I'm not justifying the excess and greed that has been paraded in the daily role call of shame, but I am asking if the fault has been wholly about greedy individuals, or also about a dodgy-system inevitably producing dodgy outcomes?

Secondly though, what troubles me here is that our political system is creaking towards a crisis over a comparatively minor matter - compared to things it has swallowed whole, without straining.

Here is a truly scandalous figure: 92,126 – 100,580 .

The question is, what prefix should these numbers have to contextualise them and so provoke a relevant and proportionate response. Is it a £-sign, referring perhaps to the amount of offensive expenses claims the cabinet have promised to repay? Nope! Is it a Euro-symbol, suggesting a similar fate about to befall our MEPs? Nope! Is it the amount of capital-gains tax avoided by shadow-cabinet ministers, 'flipping' their 'primary residence' to milk the system? Nope - wrong again!

The figure 92,126 - 100,580 rather, refers to civilian deaths which have resulted from the allied invasion of Iraq. It was something for which the majority of MPs still in parliament, and both major parties supported in the face of public opposition. The graph above plots these deaths by year (source). It was morally repugnant, internationally illegal, it used vast amounts of public money in ways the public found unacceptable. But of course, it actually broke no parliamentary rules and wasn't done in secret to be sensationally leaked .... phew! so that's alright then.

er, except that it's not.

One of the most valuable lessons to emerge from the current snouts-in-the-trough scandal is that being within the scope of the written law is an insufficient standard for public service. Acting immorally, or greedily within the code of conduct, is still wrong. Procedural justice is of course an absolute necessity, the process of decision making must be watertight, whether the context is a courtroom or a legislature or a business. But procedural justice cannot be the only criteria to satisfy. Just because correct procedures have been followed, this cannot and must not be a screen behind which to hide flawed decisions, or bad decision-makers. In part, the very procedures themselves can be critiqued in the light of the decisions they generate.

Almost fifty MPs are to go over this expenses scandal, some being disciplined, the whip being withdrawn from others - with many shame-facedly retiring at the next election. This uproar contrasts markedly with the Iraq war debacle, which only resulted in the resignation of Robin Cook, a handful of minor government resignations, and the pathetic on-off resignation will-she-won't-she of Claire Short; who at least seemed to be aware of the impending genocide even if she didn't quite see it as a resigning matter. Oh, and a by-election win for Respect. What a completely bizarre disaprity in outrage!

Yes - standards in public life must improve. Yes - morality must exceed the written code. No - 'I was within the rules' is as unacceptable as 'I was merely following orders'. And yes resignations should follow scandals. But for goodness sake let's get our moral-outrage gauges re-calibrated. If Anthony Steen has hd his mansion subsidised by the taxpayer, he should go. But if he voted for George Bush's illegal war, he should have been removed, long long ago along with all the others in similar positions.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Christians Against Poverty (video clip)

I've had a few converations with people recently about CAP: "Christians Against Poverty". Some asked where they could find more information. CAP have just released this new seven-minute video introducing their work, by telling the story of a family who were guided out of debt, welcomed by the church and eventually found faith themselves - through their work. Video is below, CAP's website address is:

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

We saw nothing.... it was great!

Glas Tulaichean literally means, "grey-green hillocks", I am reliably informed. Two Saturday's ago, it should perhaps have been named, Great Lump of a Hill, Hidden in Fog and Lashed with Rain. When the suggestion of doing a Munro was made to all the guys on the church men's weekend over twenty of them responded. On the day however, only four foolhardy idiots still thought it was a good idea, given the weather conditions and deteriorating hill-forecast.

Nevertheless, we parked at the Dalmunzie House Hotel (wasting a fiver, but saving about three miles!) and followed the disused railway track up the glen, to a magnificent and completely ruined hunting lodge nestling at the foot of the hill, above a wonderfully powerful mountain river. The climb up to the summit of the hill is navigationally aided, but visually ruined, by the bulldozed track that ascends from the old hunting lodge right along the summit ridge to within a few hundred metres from the trig-point. Allegedly a terrific viewpoint, the only view I could see from here were three wet, cold, gnarled faces peering at me from under hats and waterproof hoods, grimly pondering what dinner might be waiting for us for, back at the Compass Christian Centre.

Trudging back, along the broad summit ridge, it occured to me that despite the elements; safely encompassed within my goretex cocoon - out in the hills was still a wonderful place to be. The Glen See hills, may be blighted by all the unsightly ironmongery of the ski-ing industry, but tucked just behind the likes of the Cairnwell and Carn 'Asda', great expanses on unspoilt upland lie above majestically ice-carved glens. As we dropped back into the glen, we dipped below the cloud level and were rewarded with views down its length, the hills appearing and retreating mysteriously in the mist. Just a great place to be. Back at the Centre we were able to smugly ask how the 'low-level' walkers had fared in our absence, grab showers and destroy a vast acreage of lasagne and salad.

The church men's weekend had many other highlights too. There was some good Bible teaching, from 1Thess2, an interactive Bible study, a quiz-night, a prayer time; and an especially moving communion service in which we all served each other, prior to leaving the centre to go home. Not having the kids at a church thing was a good change for me - usually managing them, organising them, finding their coats, drawings, or just finding them; means that I am so preoccupied that getting to know new people is very hard. The weekend away threw many of us together, around meals, dorms, kettles, up hills and in quiz teams and meant that I had real conversations with some people I have previously shared only the obligatory 'good morning' with. It was well worth going for this itself.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Perth's New Image

The shore road incinerator plan seems to be progressing through the mysteries of the Perth & Kinross Council planning process. It threatens to give the town centre a makeover; giving the 'once fair city' the look and feel of a Soviet Industrial-5year plan.

As such, the city will no doubt require a re-branding and an accompanying logo. I have taken the liberty of assisting the council with this important task, by providing a proportionately appropriate revision of their badge. Above is the new PKC coat of arms, which I think captures the very essence of the town's future in the finest traditions of heraldry.

Monday, May 18, 2009

This Morning's Dilemma

This morning I was the unfortunate recipient of a European Election leaflet from the rather scary BNP. It contained some ludicrous statement about it "not being racist" to hate Johnny foreigner and want to kick him out of 'our' country. If only time-machine technology was further advanced - we could repatriate the BNP to their natural home in around 1870.. . .

Therefore I now have a dilemma and a decision to make about what to do with this A5 piece of noxious nonsense.... bin, shredder or fire? Or some combination of the above maybe?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Book Notes: What's Going On by Mark Steel

A foul-mouthed, revolutionary socialist with no sympathy for Christianity, might not be the most obvious candidate for a place on my bookshelves - but I have to confess to being a fan of Mark Steel. In his new book, "What's Going On?" he is back to the acerbic, witty and polemic humorous best, like he was in his first book, "Reasons to be Cheerful". One of the reasons I enjoy him is that as he views the world from within the Socialist Workers Party, he describes what it looks like to be part of a small misrepresented minority, treated as a laughable irrelevance by anyone who still knows what he actually believes in and wrestles (in a self-deprecating, amusing way) at the doctrinal wranglings of the left........ there are so many parallels with life as a Christian in 21C Britain. The Left, like the church, has a coherent critique of contemporary life, many beliefs which are very popular, a core of very committed believers - but struggles to recruit new adult members and is failing to influence public discourse. The following from page 168:

The young aren't attracted to the Left primarily because socialism appears to them as an archaic belief, but the problem is compounded by these [meetings] that can appear as cliquey as a giant dinner party. Everyone at these events seems despairingly familiar with the etiquette of the group. everyone knows who the speaker is talking about when they mention an obscure Guardian columnist, everyone knows when to clap (like an audience at a classical music concert), which minor government figures to jeer, and no one says '****'. If the Left was attracting a layer of people from outside this group, this etiquette would come under threat. But instead there's a cosiness that makes anyone from outside feel exactly what they are - an intruder.
As anyone who has heard Steel on his various radio and TV shows will be familiar with his talent for the hilarious rant; as he unleashes the wrath of his tongue on targets as deserving and diverse as Bush, Rumsfeld, Haliburton and Dido. His standard 'that would be like' gag in which he lampoons his enemies through the medium of preposterous comparison are in relatively short supply here, also he now seem to be able to mention a 'church' without virtually accusing all Christians of being closet Inquisitionists or Crusaders. (Mark Steel not ranting irrationally at Christians? "That would be like Margaret Thatcher saying that her one aim in retirement was to get re-opening Orgreave Pit under state ownership at the top of the Tory manifesto") - er, you get the idea.

Much of this book concerns Steel's reflections on being in his forties - reflecting on many of the disappointments which have come his way. He reflects on the fortunes of the far-left in politics, and the way in which they have tendencies for moments of great grandeur (like Galloway before the US Senate) but always seem to disintegrate into, comic farce, Celebrity Big Brother or Sheridan's Shenanigans. He charts his disillusionment with the SLP, and his final exit from the party he had immersed himself in since his youth, despairing at its wranglings, feuds and failures. He bemoans the way in which although globalisation and multinationals are now more unpopular than ever - there is no credible alternative movement.

Woven through this comic-tragic tale of mid-life crisis and disappointment, Steel rather movingly describes the end of his marriage. He describes his exile on the sofa, the petty rows, the pain, the growing acrimony, the reconciliations, the children pleading with him not to leave. Its a very, very sad tale indeed. At its worst, Steel rants about her instability, volatility and belligerence. However when the sorry tale nears its conclusion, Steel shows us that when he can stop all that effin effin all the effin time; he can write.

This is a good follow-up to Reasons to Be Cheerful, and much better than It's Not A Runner Bean. A good read for lovers of political satire, although Steel's style is certainly not to everyone's tatse.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Book Notes: Surprised by Hope by Tom Wright

N.T. (Tom) Wright, has written a book with the (ambitious) aim of correcting what he sees as an error in all streams of the 'western' church. In essence, Wright argues that due to the prevailing influence of the greek philosophical tradition (specifically Platonic dualism) the church has lost sight of the New Testament's central theological and historical concern: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The result of this, he says, is at best a distortion of the meaning of Christian hope and a failure to grasp our responsibilities to this world; and at worst an apologetic for social, ethical and environmental neglect.

Compared to many of Wrights works (such as the densely argued 'Origins' series) this book is a blast, a genuine page-turner which illuminates and surprises with every chapter. Stylistically its only fault is a tendency for repetition of the central theme a little more than was perhaps necessary.

Wright believes that both the liberalism to his left and the fundamentalism to his right have mis-interpreted the resurrection texts of the New Testament's Easter narrative. Fundamentalism he believes has taken a 'flat' reading of 1 Thessalonians to develop 'St' Paul's "we shall meet him in the air" comment into a 'rapture' theology that views salvation in terms of escape from this world. That is to say it sees Christian hope as 'going to heaven when we die'. This, argues Wright misinterprets Paul and does so to replace the genuine biblical hope of resurrection, replacing it with the medieval artists disembodied harp-playing notions of glory. Such views, he insists, are rooted in Platonism and Gnosticism, which make the 'soul' the good-bit that gets saved, and the body the 'bad bit' that is lost with death. In contrast, biblical hope lies in the bodily resurrection of Christ which is the pre-cursor to the physical resurrection of us all. Theological liberalism has made a mirror-image error by lapsing into the same unbiblical categories as this wonky scan from p230 demonstrates:

The end result of this is a crisis in which the hymns, liturgy and preaching of all sides have obscured the central claim of historic Christianity. Fundamentalism's 'soul-only' gospel detaches body from soul and seeks only to save souls and has little concern for bodies or this world which it regards as of no consequence - rather than being loaded with massive resurrection significance. Likewise liberalism, in its denial of the bodily resurrection of Christ, cannot offer the hope of a renewed, resurrected, perfected world-order of justice, hope, peace and the oft-invoked Kingdom of God; because these are the very promises of physical resurrection and renewal of the whole earth. The answer to both these extremes, says Wright - is the rediscovery of the Christian orthodoxy of hope! This he says is historically grounded, theologically coherent and demands holistic mission from the church; challenging those to his right to thoroughly engage in social concern - doing mission in a world that will ultimately renewed; and those on his left to proclaim Christ and the salvation he is bringing to the world and calling people be part of that.
On his central theme - Wright is excellent. Less convincing are some of his excursus into related matters, which are interesting cul-de-sacs which are often well-observed but do sometimes obscure. His view of 'justification by faith' as a temporary expedient until works are done, is perhaps especially unfortunate in this regard (especially as this so strongly militates against genuine hope in a book about hope!), but this is but a footnote in the overall project. Critics from the right will also want to know the basis on which Wright selects which eshcatalogical images to interpret literally, and which metaphorically; in more helpful terms than references to his other works.
Despite these reservations, this is a great read; fascinating, well-argued, thought-provoking and response demanding!

Friday, May 08, 2009

TMC completed again

Last night we got to the end of another Marriage Course in Perth. Once again we ran a 'micro-course' in our house (rather than a large-scale one in a church hall or hotel etc) and as ever used the DVDs for all the 'talky bits', leaving us free to worry about catering and trying to make everyone feel at ease.

I always reach the end of a course with mixed emotions. In some places, the couples who come have dinner together in private, which facilitates time to talk and relax. For logistical reasons that's not possible here, so although we share a meal we all eat together before watching the DVD and splitting up into couples for times of private discussion. That means that over the seven weeks of the course we get to know everyone quite well - and look forward to seeing them all each week and blethering over dinner. In comparison, next Thursday will seem rather dull! On the other hand, reaching the end of the course will mean that we get a rest from all the work of running it! Mrs Hideous has to start work very early on Friday mornings, so part of my contribution to the whole thing is to clear up after the event. While filling the dishwasher in the early hours this morning, while the house slept around me; I experienced this conflict of both looking forward to being asleep and also being really privileged to be able to be a part of this work.

Being involved in the Marriage Course is the end result of something that we experienced many years ago. Some friends of ours were having trouble in their marriage - which we observed from a fairly close distance. At almost exactly the same time, with one young son, and both of us working full-time and being involved with church too; we were aware that while we were not in a crisis, our marriage had elements within it that could have caused problems in the longer term- if not addressed. It was precisely at this time that we went to a Care for the Family day-long marriage seminar, held in our church centre. That day marked a turning point for us in two ways. Firstly a session entitled, "active listening" by a couple called Pete and Barbie Reynolds transformed our ability to communicate (er, actually to be more honest it confronted my almost total inability to listen without interrupting!). Secondly it marked the day on which we changed from the mindset of bumbling along assuming that all would be well because we were in love - to consciously trying to work on our marriage as a labour of love. Our friends subsequently endured a very painful separation and divorce.

Over the following few years we became aware that in 'the church' (broadly, not just our fellowship) we 'do' an awful lot of weddings. We also tend 'do' a huge amount of talking about the value and importance of marriage. Neither of these things is to be decried. What we felt we also needed to be doing was helping support actual marriages, rather than just talking about marriage in general and leaving people to get on with it. When HTB published their 'Marriage Course' we did a test-run to see if it would be worth running in our church. One of the first things we noticed was that the techniques for 'active listening' that we had found so helpful years ago, were included - along with many other helpful things we hadn't considered. We also found the structure of the course really helpful. For instance, we had for more than five years identified that the top need for our relationship was to spend more time together. When we kept this as a general principal we were completely indisciplined about it and we'd end up going weeks or months without ever having time for us. The Marriage Course emphasises weekly 'Marriage Time' as a priority - and booking this well in advance so that it takes precedence over many worthy (but less critical) activities. It was through the structure and discipline of doing the course that we finally seem to have got that right. Ironically, the greatest threat to our 'marriage time' these days seems to be the pressure of hosting the Marriage Course!

Last night we also said farewell to the old Marriage Course DVD set which we have used over the last few years. The authors of the course thought that the old format was looking a bit tired (and we were all fed up with the cheesy theme-music!) and so they have completely re-filmed all the talks - and the new marriage course material should be available soon. We've seen a sample of the material, a 5minute promo - and if the whole course is as good as that it should be even better to use.

The Marriage Course is being run in thousands of venues all over the world. To find a course near you click here: " Find a Course".

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Doris at Four

In an almost 'narnian' feat of time-elapse, little Doris has turned four; the intervening years since the above photo was taken, slipping away with a bewildering rapidity. Had she held on another few hours she would have had an 05.05.05 date of birth -she didn't manage to make her birthday that easy to remember, her birthday instead is duly remembered with the lamentable tag, 'May the 4th be with you' (Anglicans may respond 'and also with you'). So while sports fans will remember 04.05.05 as the night on which Liverpool beat Chelsea in the semi-finals of the European Championship (which was showing in the delivery room, I might add), our family remember it as the day upon which our lives were changed forever by the presence of a daughter/sister!

Into our world of trains, footballs and mud a very girlie-girl has appeared. She surrounds herself with hairbrushes, pink shoes, glitter, hair-clips and all such accessories, changes her outfits at least four times a day, raids her Mum's make-up bag, and sings and dances her way around the house. This festival of girliness was never more evident than at her party yesterday in which several of her young friends appeared similarly bedecked in all things pink and shiny, grooved to "Dancing Queen", and decorated princess pictures with pink and red glitter!

Young Doris is convinced that four is very grown-up, and takes this very seriously. If her older brothers attempt to tell her what to do, or to suggest that being older gives them any kind of authority over her, she will resist their control with the resilience of a freedom fighter! Doris and I had a discussion at the weekend about 'who is in charge' in the house. She was not enthusiastic about the plan I had arranged for the day and told me to change it..hence the discussion which concluded with me explaining that she was a little girl and I was her Dad and that meant that I was in charge and organising the day. She sat and thought for a while, put her head to one side and came to a decision which she clearly thought was fair, resonable and well-considered. "OK Daddy", she said, "you can be in charge today...... but only a bit!"

She is also very aware of her own growing-up-ness. A couple of weeks ago she was sitting fiddling with her toes when she noticed one small, solitary, blond leg-hair! Examining it carefully she said, "Look! I'm going to be a Mummy soon!" - although why she so closely associates motherhood with hirsute limbs... I couldn't possibly imagine, or indeed comment if I could.

Happy Birthday little Doris!