Thursday, 22 December 2011

Christmas and myths

It's Olive the Other Reindeer time again, which reminds me of one of my favourite lines (said by a reindeer in a bar): "there is no Rudolf, that's just an urban myth". And that in turn makes me think about Christmas and myths.

There's a lot of myths around at Christmas. There's Santa, so bizarre a  story that we have to teach it to children, but is believed by no adults. There's Winterval, the belief fomented by the right wing press that the state is banning public mention of Christmas (pops up each year, almost always completely baseless). And then there's the nativity story...

It's hardly a new remark to observe that much of the popular version of the nativity, seen in countless school plays and cards, is non-biblical. The numbers of wise men aren't recorded, they weren't kings, and they certainly weren't called Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. The stable didn't contain an ox and an ass (indeed, there was no stable - only a manger, which is to say an animal feeding-trough). There's no record of Mary going to Bethlehem on a donkey. We can't place it on 25th Dec, if only for those poor shepherds who would be most unwise to be on the cold hills around Bethlehem at night in winter.

There are problems with the biblical narrative, if we want to read it in modern terms. Virgins don't give birth, stars don't move around in the sky to hover over towns (though much effort has been spent to explain that one),  and while plenty of religious people might believe in angels, few shepherds have seen them appearing en masse.

But perhaps we might be best to take the biblical narrative on its own terms - as John Drane says in The McDonaldization of the Church, the best way with stories is to read them as stories and not worry too much about their factual accuracy. There are many different forms of text in the Bible, but to read them all as scientifically-grounded fact in the modernist style (whether to debunk them as a sceptic or to accept them wholesale as a fundamentalist) is unwise.

So back to myth, and the famous late-night conversation between JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis in 1931, where Tolkien outlined his conception of myth and its relation to the Christian story. It is said to have led directly to Lewis' conversion, and his subsequent work as a Christian apologist. He wrote in October 1931: "the story of Christ is simply a true myth; a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference, that it really happened, and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God's Myth where the others are men's myths".

The myths about the popular version of the nativity support important truths, whatever their authenticity (the stable shows us that Jesus came from the poor and down-trodden, not from the rich and powerful); and the scientifically-dubious aspects of the biblical story likewise have their own truths. The important thing is to look for the deeper meaning behind the details of the myths. As John Betjeman wrote:
And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant, 
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Bill meets networking

I'm not a big fan of alumni magazines - I generally find them smug and inward-looking. The Cambridge one is worse in these respects than many, but does sometimes have some good features. In the most recent issue there's a nice interview between the key people behind Acorn Computers (Hermann Hauser, Andy Hopper and Andy Harter), including this gem by Hauser:
“Acorn Computers at that time [c.1981] was the only company whose products all had a network connection. When Bill Gates came to see us he was desperate for us to adopt MS-DOS. We sat him down in front of the computer and explained we couldn’t take such a retrograde step because our operating system was a lot more sophisticated. Bill’s response was ‘What’s a network?’”
Much might have been different if Bill G had never found out the answer!

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Information and the Eucharist

Yesterday at a meeting of the Society & Information Research Group, I said that I was wary of sharing this blog with work colleagues because I tended to write about non-work topics, especially religion, on it. So I was pleased this morning to hear a podcast of In Our Time from BBC Radio 4 making a clear link between my religious concerns and my research on the nature of information.

Apparently John Wyclif, 14th century church reformer (Master of Balliol College and friend of John of Gaunt, so not exactly a wild radical) argued thus about the Eucharist. He didn't hold to the doctrine of transubstantiation, that when the priest blesses the bread and wine during the Mass, they are literally transformed into the body & blood of Christ. Rather, he argued that the bread (say) remains bread, but simultaneously also becomes the body of Christ. This is the same view that Martin Luther came to hold two centuries later.

His argument was to draw a contrast with the written Bible. It's written on parchment with ink (this is pre-Gutenberg). The thing that matters are the words on the page, but that doesn't stop the parchment and ink from existing. In other words, Wyclif drew a contrast between the information in a book (and the Eucharist) and the medium within which that information exists. And that's a story all about information, and the changing understanding of information - in fact it's a lot like the argument Juanita Foster-Jones makes about books and libraries in Perspectives on Information.

So from the Eucharist to the nature of information in one jump!

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Taking the Bible seriously, not taking it literally: notes from an evening with Jack Spong

By good fortune, we were in my parents’ town of Milngavie, on the edge of Glasgow, the same week that Bishop Jack Spong, retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey in the USA was giving a talk in a local church. Spong is the author of many books on topics such as the Bible, sexuality, gender, and the future of the church. The talk we heard was entitled “The New Testament – where does fact stop and myth begin?”.

Spong’s argument is that while the New Testament is the foundation of our Christian faith, it is both impossible and greatly unwise to take it literally. (He extends this argument to the Old Testament in his writing). As a way of elucidating this argument, Spong went through the history of the authorship of the New Testament, on the way showing its internal conflicts and issues that must be reconciled. Some of this history may be entirely familiar to you, some of it very surprising. Some of Spong’s account of the history is the accepted consensus of most Biblical scholars, others are his own view of what is most likely to be the case.

First, dates. Most of us know that Jesus was not born in 0 AD. He is generally thought to have been born in 4 BC, and to have died in perhaps 30 AD. These are important for establishing the distance from the events described in the gospels to when they were written down. As Spong observed, there was an ‘oral period’ of at least twenty years in the early church from which no written accounts survive, during which (as far as we know) the life and teachings of Jesus were passed on solely by word of mouth.

The first texts in the New Testament to be written were the epistles. There are fourteen that have been traditionally attributed to Paul. The current consensus, by Spong’s account, is that only seven of these were written by Paul: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1+2 Corinthians, Romans, Philemon and Philippians. These were probably written between 51 AD and 64 AD (the usual date for Paul’s death in Rome) – so around twenty years passed after Jesus’ death and resurrection before we have any Christian texts.

Of the remaining ‘Pauline’ letters, three were probably written by his immediate disciples in the decade after his death (2 Thessalonians, Colossians and Ephesians) – they are rooted in Paul’s ideas but not in his writing style or vocabulary. Three further ‘pastoral’ letters (1+2 Timothy and Titus) were written around 80-100 AD, by which time Paul was uncontroversial, a revered elder statesman (by contrast, in his lifetime he was a highly polarising figure). Lastly we have Hebrews, which hardly anyone would attribute to Paul – it is very different from his work.

Paul was not writing Scripture. He was a travelling preacher and builder of church communities, who wrote letters to those communities to encourage them, argue with them, and give them moral teaching. As Spong observed in his talk, the author of 2 Timothy 3:16 (not Paul), who wrote that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (NIV) could not have been referring to the Pauline letters, let alone the gospels (hardly written at that time). The only scripture at the time was the Hebrew Bible, that we Christians call the Old Testament. Paul’s letters, and the whole of what we now have as the New Testament, were designated as Scripture much later.

So what did Paul actually say about Jesus?
1.    He was born of a woman, in the normal way – there is no mention of a virgin birth.
2.    Paul makes no mention of his miracles, nor of his teaching.
3.    There is little mention of Christ’s passion – there is only one (fairly brief but important) account of the Last Supper, nothing about details such as Gethsemane, Judas, Pilate, his burial. All Paul tells us is that Jesus died on a cross.
4.    There is likewise little detail on the resurrection, only that Jesus was “raised on the third day” (note the passive voice – not that Jesus rose up, rather that he was raised by God). However Paul lists all the different groups to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection, beginning with Cephas (Peter) and ending with himself. As Paul was probably not converted until around three years after the resurrection, this suggests he did not seen the resurrection as being one of the physical body.
After Paul’s death, the gospels began to appear. The first of these to be written, as is well known, was Mark – this was probably written around 70-72 AD, perhaps 40 years after the events it portrays. This presents a very stripped-down version of the gospel story. If we read it on its own (and it’s likely that the early Christian communities would have had access to only one gospel) we see no miraculous birth, no story of the risen Christ appearing to anyone. What we see is are a lot of miracles, many of which bear parallels to Old Testament miracle stories, but which serve here principally as a symbol for Jesus bringing in the Kingdom of God. We also have here the first written account of Jesus’ baptism, teaching and death. The authorship of Mark, like all the gospels, is unknown.

The second gospel to be written was Matthew (around 82-85 AD). He copied large parts of Mark, almost word-for-word, as well as adding material from a source he shared in common with Luke (known to scholars as Q, from the German Quelle, source), and from further sources. The virgin birth is first written about in Matthew, and much of the birth story is justified by reference to prophecy, exemplifying the very Jewish nature of this gospel. Like Mark, some sections (such as the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness) bear close parallels to the Old Testament. It’s worth noting that the Sermon on the Mount only appears in Matthew, although some of the individual passages also appear in Luke.

The third gospel was Luke, written around 88-93 AD. He copied about half the text of Mark into his gospel (though both he and Matthew added and edited Mark’s text). Like Matthew, he presents a genealogy of Jesus, although the two are contradictory – surely a problem if the New Testament as a whole is to be taken literally? Some of the most popular parables are only to be found in Luke (such as the Good Samaritan, and the story of Dives and Lazarus). Again we see borrowing of Old Testament themes – Luke’s version of Jesus’ ascension is closely related to the ascension of Elijah (2 Kings 2).

Finally in the gospels we come to John (known simply as ‘the fourth gospel’ by some scholars, as its authorship is so uncertain). This was probably written around 95-100 AD. Notably, this followed the expulsion of the earliest Christians from the synagogues, leading to a changed relationship between Christians and Jews, and a stronger understanding of Christianity as something both different from Judaism which took forward the Jewish covenant but in a new way. For example, John often has Jesus use the phrase “I AM”, directly paralleling God’s phrase “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14) when talking to Moses from the burning bush. However, John’s way of writing is much more mystical than the other three gospels. Instead of presenting a birth narrative, he describes a Jesus who is the Logos (a Greek philosophical concept), eternally present with God. He does not use Jesus’ parables – instead he takes seven signs (miracles), and links seven discourses between Jesus and others to the signs. In Spong’s view, the crucial verse of this gospel, and of the whole New Testament, is John 10:10 – “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (NIV).

This kind of critical analysis of the Bible may seem uncomfortable to some, for whom the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. I do not present it here to challenge anyone’s faith. For myself, it increases my faith. God is too complex to be fixed into a simple set of words, whether in English translation or the Greek/Hebrew original. We have a Bible, our greatest treasure and the foundation of our faith – but we must read it with care, with our eyes and brains and souls open, looking beyond the immediate words to the meaning behind them. 

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Learning about microfinance

I've spent the past couple of days in Groningen, the Netherlands, attending the Second European Research Conference on Microfinance. My PhD student, Badruddozza Mia, has been studying the use of information systems in microfinance (in Bangladesh) for the past 18 months, and as it wasn't a topic I previously knew about I've been on a steep learning curve about microfinance ever since. I'm at the conference because the Dutch government, like the UK government, has a dreadful attitude to people visiting from certain countries, and so Badruddozza couldn't get a visa in time.

As a newbie to the field, I've found it very interesting to hear some of the debates aired at the conference, and to see the breadth of research in the area. Most of the attendees are economists or finance specialists, with a scattering of development studies types and some practitioners; there are only a few people interested in information systems. I've attended talks on whether microfinance (MF) is dead; the history and impact of MF; the role of group/joint lending; inclusive development; MF and entrepreneurship; corporate shared values; and the importance of savings.

Some of the lessons I've learnt about the controversies from a talk by Milford Bateman, author of a book on why microfinance has lost its way (health warning - quite contentious, and not representative of the wider MF community):

  • MF is not the uncontroversial development programme it's often presented as by well-meaning Western NGOs. While its goals are laudable, evidence is fairly weak that it lifts people from poverty. The famed micro-enterprises, that MF is intended to fund as a route out of poverty, are often only based on providing goods & services to poor local economies, which have limited capacity to absorb them.
  • Moreover, MF has a surprising supporter - the neoliberal 'Washington consensus', where it fits well with their individualism and lack of focus on collective action, although they work hard against the subsidy of MF that is a traditional part of the model. Interestingly, the Obama administration (economically largely neoliberal) is currently funding MF in Egypt, although the goal of the demonstrators in Tahrir Square was often for rather higher-paid traditional jobs (often hard to find under the Mubarak regime).
  • Building a wider system of enterprises  is crucial - in the history of countries like Germany and Italy, micro-enterprises were enabled to grow into larger groupings because of strong local support. This needs much more emphasis by MF institutions and NGOs. There are good models of this in Vietnam (used as key example in Oxfam's new campaign GROW), Japan, South Korea and China.
A more mainstream approach was given by David Roodman, whose own book is due soon. He presented three perspectives of development which underlie different attitudes to microfinance:
  1. Development as an escape from poverty - like Bateman, he acknowledged that evidence that this works is not strong.
  2. Development as freedom (from Amartya Sen, not the libertarian or Isaiah Berlin sense of freedom): access to finance creates a greater sense of economic entitlement. It's important to notice that poverty relates not just to low income but also to volatile income, making access to financial services such as savings and insurance especially important for the poor. Stuart Rutherford's work in Bangladesh fits well here.
  3. Development as industry-building and destruction (cf. Schumpeter's creative destruction). The innovative and experimental nature of MF leads to the creation of many new institutions, often large, but also their churn. As Elizabeth Rhyne observes, building the capacity of financial systems is better than substituting for their inadequacies.
Some other lessons from the conference:
  • The crucial importance of savings. Microfinance is often equated to microcredit, but savings are as important as credit for many people.
  • The important role of group lending (lending to individuals but in a group context) - public repayments can significantly reduce default rates.
  • Again, the important of supporting structures (training, local advisors etc). M.P. Vasimalai from DHAN in India put this very well: "Microfinance alone doesn't do magic - the magic has to be done with the support of structures."
  • Interesting classification of enterprises (from Farban & Lessik) which puts micro-entrepreneurs on the middle of a spectrum from subsistence labour to large enterprises. But does MF really support micro-entrepreneurs, or is its focus actually somewhat lower?
  • The important role of P2P MF institutions like as a way of lower transaction costs (though I heard very little about the P2P lenders).
  • The widespread use of the concept of information asymmetry, which Badruddozza had included in his paper, and which underlies the issues of moral hazard and adverse selection much discussed in the recent banking crisis.
Lots more to absorb, and links to ideas related to our presentation. But it's undoubtedly an interesting area.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Washable nappies, green technologies and modernity

Warning: this post contains reference to human waste. (But only briefly.)

I was changing Gregory's nappy tonight. He'd filled it pretty efficiently and pretty full. The results had gone right to the edge of the nappy, but not beyond thankfully, so no need to change his clothes as well. We're not always so lucky, but 9 times out of 10 we are. At home, we use washable nappies. When he goes to nursery, we put him in disposables (to make life easier for the staff). He comes back with soiled clothes about half the occasions he goes to nursery. Some of that is down to how rapidly they change him (lots of little ones in the room, so they mostly work on a schedule rather than when he needs a change). But I think most of it is down to the quality of the nappy.

Now, the arguments for and against washable nappies are pretty well-rehearsed. In favour - they use less energy in producing the nappies, they don't leave hard-to-degrade containers of human excrement in landfill sites, they don't fill up bins and landfill so much, they save money. Against - they're less convenient, require effort to store and wash and dry, there's a higher up-front cost, and washing nappies takes energy too (this last is based on very spurious numbers but is often repeated). The bulk of the arguments for washables are essentially moral ones, and perhaps behind both arguments is a worldview about what really matters.

What doesn't get said often enough (though it's not absent from the debate) is that washable nappies work better than disposables. They hold more waste products, keep them safe for longer, and significantly reduce the risk of nappy rash.

Why is this argument not made more often? I think it's to do with the issue of worldviews. Those who use washable nappies do it because they're green-minded. Those who use disposables do it for convenience. To say that washables are more practical is to cut across these categories, so must be inadmissable in some way.

An interesting question is around modernity. When disposables first came in, they were definitely perceived as the Modern Option. Your parents used washable nappies ("terries"), huge things which could only be fixed with a pin and required a week of soaking before they could be washed. Definitely old-school. Moreover, the very complexity of the manufacturing process of disposables made them attractively Modern. And as David Edgerton describes at length in his masterful book The Shock of the Old, the process by which technologies get labelled as Modern is a very strange one, which belies the fact. Of course, contemporary washable nappies are easy to use and clean, and constantly undergoing 'updates' - but the idea that they're Not Modern persists.

So to green technologies more generally. Whether it's windfarms, hybrid cars, or even just bikes, environmentally-responsible technologies are often sold because they're greener, and the question of their practicality (let alone their modernity) is left to one side. The Prius is an exception of sorts - it's very gadgety - but it's fairly rapidly become associated with wealthy American liberals (Hollywood actors etc) for whom practicality is not the main thing. There's now a hybrid version of the Honda Jazz, a car that's very largely sold for its practicality (we have one, and it is indeed very practical) - it will be interesting to see whether the hybrid version is sold as practical++, or as practical design + green engine.

So: what would happen if manufacturers of green technologies sold them as Modern and practical, instead of as green? It would at the least be interesting to see the results.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Easter and the Apple-Pip Princess: transforming the land and making it blossom again

A couple of days ago, I was reading a favourite book with our daughter Alice, The Apple-Pip Princess by Jane Ray, and it made me think of Easter. The story (beautifully illustrated - you can see the pictures at Amazon) tells of three princesses whose task is to convince their father the king that they should inherit the kingdom. The land is dry and parched, the people in despair. The youngest princess, Serenity, decides to use a gift from her late mother to bring the land back to life, but in the seven days given by the king she can only do a small amount. On the seventh night, she falls asleep in the desolate land in despair. The next morning she is awakened by the king to see the following (quoting from the book now):
As far as her eyes could see, there were plants and graceful trees. There were fruit trees and olive trees and nut trees, all fresh and green in the early-morning sunshine. Serenity and her father walked slowly, arm in arm.

The air was full of the scent of flowers and all around them children were playing. People were picking fruit and tending the trees, and the old people were resting in the dappled shade.

The old King felt his poor unhappy heart fill with warmth again, as all his sadness drifted away on the breeze.

"Serenity, my Serenity", he said. "You shall rule the kingdom! For you have transformed the land and made it blossom again."
What a wonderful image for the new life of Easter! I sometimes think the church (especially the Protestant church) is a bit over-keen on Good Friday. We put great emphasis on the death of Jesus, talk a lot about the power of the crucifixion and the importance of his sacrifice. We spend six weeks in Lent preparing to empathise with Christ's suffering. It's important, but it pales into insignificance compared to Easter.

Easter changes everything. From despair comes hope. From death comes life. From grief comes joy. It shouldn't be possible. It isn't possible. It throws over all the expectations of the world, both of 1st century Palestine and of our 21st century world. Whether to interpret it in literal physical terms I'm not sure, though I'd certainly agree with David Jenkins (often misquoted) that it is "much more than a conjuring trick with bones". But however it happened, it cannot be ignored. As we heard in our church today, it was the conquering of death by life - "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" (1 Corinthians 15:55).

And that's why Easter Sunday matters, more than bunnies and chocolate eggs and even more than Good Friday. And it's why the resurrection, like the quote above, transforms the land and makes it blossom again.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Information in two surprising places

In two successive podcasts from the RSA, I was very struck to hear mention of information systems where I didn't expect them.

First, Martin Simon talked of money as an information system, in that the exchange of money for particular purposes carries with it certain messages. Some of these are current: when I purchase one brand of breakfast cereal instead of another, I am sending a message both to the cereal maker and the supermarket as to my preferences. Some of them are historic: the money I possess and the way it is saved carries messages both about my values and the value society places upon my work. But Martin Simon's work on 'timebanking' also encourages us to view the way we use our time as an information system, in many ways like money but behaving somewhat differently.

Second, Tim Flannery talked of DNA as an information system. It's quite a familiar idea that viewing genetics in terms of DNA is to frame biology as information. But the additional idea for me here is the idea that DNA not just holds information but also processes it.

In work on information with David Chapman, we have often made the point that in today's society (and academia), many phenomena are now framed in informational terms which previously were seen in physical terms. These examples emphasis this trend, but also the importance of the system within which the information sits and is processed.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Life with Android 1

I was telling my colleague John Naughton, who has a keen sense of what matters in technology, of my having bought an Android phone. He sensibly suggested I keep a diary. Not sure if I should be doing it on this or a more work-related blog, but here goes…

I've not had a new-style smartphone before (i.e. an iPhone style). I previously had a Symbian phone with keypad - good Internet access but a small screen + an OS that felt a bit long in the tooth. I've had two kinds of touchscreen PDA though - beloved Psions with great keyboard & software, and a Palm with good screen (and WiFi) but a bit dated. Enough history, on to the present.

So I have an Orange San Francisco - big bright screen with great resolution, small + light, and cheap. Lots of Orange bloatware, but I can ignore that and in time delete it.
Experience so far is positive. All the PDA stuff (calendar + contacts) easy to shift from old phone via Gmail + Google Calendar. Texting + calls fine. Music player also seems to do all you might expect.

Internet access is smooth + easy, with a neat little browser. WiFi is fast at home, though it was a nasty shock to discover that it can't handle proxy servers, so thus far can only use 3G at work.

And the apps are a delight. So far I've installed: Facebook + Twitter (natch), DropBox for updating files on phone & home/office PCs, Adobe Reader, neat Barcode Scanner, and Blogger (yes I wrote this post on it).

Not a lot to dislike, though I find the touchscreen interface a bit unintuitive at times. Still to work out the best way to move around long text boxes when composing and editing text. And the resolution is so good that selecting text links can be a bit tough. Oh, and very little onboard help. But I hope to get over these in time.

More on my Android experiences as time goes on.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

The miracle of daily life

Mars Hill Bible Church (in Grand Rapids, Michigan) is a rare thing, a liberal mega-church. It's also a source of wonderful sermons, which they make available as podcasts. They've just finished exploring the book of Ecclesiastes ("vanity, vanity, all is vanity" - except that as every sermon they give emphasises, the Hebrew word translated as "vanity", or "meaningless" in modern texts, is better translated as "vapour", temporary and passing rather than unimportant).

Last night I listened to a sermon from a few weeks ago, given by Shane Hipps. It was full of wisdom, but especially talked about living life to the full. Here are some extracts from near the end, starting about minute 38 (I've not noted omissions):

"There is one miracle that is as important as the Resurrection and in fact it is so important that if this other miracle didn't happen, the Resurrection is impossible. The Resurrection is irrelevant if this other miracle didn't happen first. Do you know what that miracle is? You were born. If you were never born, if you never lived this life, there is no resurrection for you. This is the miracle. It's unfolding right now before your very eyes, this is the miracle. If we cannot appreciate the first miracle of our existence, what makes us think we will appreciate the second one of resurrection? If we can't actually see how extraordinary this gift of life is right now, do you really think you're going to appreciate it when you get it again? We must learn to enjoy every moment of this passing life."

Brilliant stuff. And it goes along with something posted by a friend to Facebook, about the quality of life to be found in a baby who has the degenerative disease Tay-Sachs, but right now is full of life and doesn't know anything other than the present moment. It's a heart-wrenching but life-affirming read.

As another Mars Hill sermon on Ecclesiastes said, the past is gone; the future is yet to be. The only reality is the present moment, and our greatest joy can be found in celebrating that moment.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Busyness and leaving space for God

Written as an editor's letter for the monthly Record magazine of Abington Avenue United Reformed Church, Northampton.

Busy busy busy. There’s work to do, children to look after, committees to serve on, people to visit, things to do at the church, cooking, cleaning… Many of us lead an over-busy life – me included (so this message is for me as much as anyone else).

In the Reformed tradition, it’s long been believed that salvation comes through faith and God’s grace, rather than through any action of ours. However, Reformed Christians have also kept constantly busy, following what the sociologist Max Weber called the Protestant work ethic. The Kingdom of God won’t come about by itself, you know!

Well actually, yes it will. Our minister, Alan Spence, reminded us in church recently of “the hope to which he [God] has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe” (Ephesians 1:18-19, TNIV). God’s power is so great that our actions are small by comparison.

This doesn’t make our actions insignificant. There are great injustices in the world – poverty, hunger, violence, inequality, prejudice, environmental destruction. These injustices were created by people, not by God, and it is people who must address them. When confronted with the money-changers in the Temple, Jesus was enraged and threw over their tables. And as St Teresa of Avila wrote, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours”.

But that doesn’t mean we need to be constantly busy with our work for the Kingdom. We will achieve more if we also learn to stop sometimes, to be still, to recharge, to sit and experience the power of God wherever we find it. I have long been fascinated by how active is the verb in Psalm 23 which says “he makes me lie down in green pastures”. The psalmist doesn’t say that God invites us to have a quick lie-down, just for a few minutes, if we’re not too busy. God does not invite, God insists.

If we are not constantly trying to do things, we leave more space for God to do things for us, to bring us into new states of being, to give us strength and wisdom. That way, we will be in a much better state to be able to take forward the work of building the Kingdom – and we will have a much deeper and better sense of what that work is.

Moreover, if we are not trying to do too much, we also leave space for other people to do things for us. If we see ourselves only as givers, not receivers, then we miss a huge blessing – and we don’t allow others the opportunity to become givers to us. When Jesus washed the disciples’ feet and encouraged them to wash each other’s feet, there needed to be feet available for washing just as much as someone to do the washing.

The story of Martha and Mary is a familiar one about busyness, and it divides people strongly. For some, Mary seems idle, self-indulgent, unwilling to take her share of the household burdens; for others, Martha seems too busy, unwilling to stop and listen, uninterested in the things that matter. If Jesus is with you, what matters more – to attend to his teaching, or to do your work? Surely the answer is both. In our own lives, we must neither be just a Martha or a Mary, but a mixture of the two – a doer and a contemplator.

There is a piece of Quaker advice on this subject: “Attend to what love requires of you, which may not be great busyness”. So – work for the Kingdom, in whatever way God calls you to do, but leave space to hear his call too.

Now, what was I supposed to do next?

Friday, 11 February 2011

Where this blog get its title

"The God of Heaven is present on earth,
In word and silence and sharing,
In face of doubt, in depth of faith,
In signs of love and caring."
(A hymn by the Iona Community.)