Wednesday, 18 November 2009

The importance of leaving

I preached this sermon at an occasional service held in the Ecumenical Centre, Geneva to welcome new colleagues and valedict those leaving. My thoughts were occasioned by my own imminent leaving the pay of the WCC and a desire to encourage others to consider whether it was also time for them to go. Sometimes people develop false perceptions of their own significance and benefit to their work. And there is always a temptation to hang on to a well paid job, even if others see you as a time server. We should always be asking the question of whether we are in the right place.

These notes don’t contain the more pointed extempore commentary delivered on the day.

Notes for a sermon at the Service of Welcoming and Sending Out, 17 November 2008 in the Chapel of the Ecumenical Centre

A question that is frequently put when people know you are leaving, as I have experienced these days: What are you going to do? The presumption that we only leave because there’s something to do, somewhere to go. Like all presumptions it should be questioned.

Is it only a man thing or a cultural thing that there is also a presumption that moving on is to something more significant, better paid, higher status? Even pastors get infected with this – if the new congregation to which they are moving is not bigger, it has to have special circumstances or immense potential.

Of course, moving on to something or somewhere is an important topic for reflection – and I could preach at great length about it, often! But this morning I want to concentrate simply on the significance of leaving in the context of this Welcoming and Sending Out service.

The two passages we had read for us this morning can help us – Genesis 12.1-10 and Matthew 17.1-5.

Abram’s family had moved to Haran from Ur of the Chaldes. They were wealthy with much livestock. There was no particular reason to leave Haran (war, famine, lack of pasture etc) and probably every good reason to stay and prosper. Then Abram gets this feeling that it’s time to move on – some God who he didn’t know had things for him to do. And he didn’t even get to settle where he thought he might be going – passing through and ending up as a refugee in Egypt.

The experience of the transfiguration was so powerful that Peter wanted to preserve it and stay living within in, keeping it for themselves. He proposed a building project – a tendency followed by Christians throughout the ages who spend far too much time being preoccupied with buildings. However, Jesus led them off the mountain into the pain and messiness of everyday life where his love and power were to be found.

So, why is leaving so significant?

Sometimes we should leave because it feels the right thing to do, even when it is not clear where we will go or what we will do. The faith-full act of leaving may open up possibilities that are closed while we are where we are.

Sometimes we should leave to break out of our comfortable existence which inevitably will undermine our creativity and commitment and lead us into unconscionable compromise to maintain our status quo. Living in Geneva may be a snare and a delusion. Yes, we can glory in God’s creation when we see the rising sun shine on Mont Blanc from one window and the setting sun glowing behind the Jura mountains from another. Yes, we can do good with our comfortable monthly pay cheque. This is real life, but not as the vast majority of the world know it.

Sometimes we should leave because we cannot prolong an amazing experience for ever and keep it to ourselves. And it is an amazing experience working here at the Ecumenical Centre. Where else will we come into contact with such a variety of sisters and brothers in Christ with all their variety of tradition and culture? Where else will we have opportunities of understanding how we, our nation, our church, our theology etc. are seen by others? Where else can we begin to understand why others say and do what they do? But all this is to be experienced in the life of the whole world, not just to be the experience of a few fortunate people.

Sometimes we should leave because we have given what we can give and new insights, experience, knowledge and energy are need. It’s a matter of self-knowledge, awareness of needs and, most of all, a matter of personal integrity.

Perhaps most of all we have to leave, sooner or later, because neither I or you are all that important. Before you start protesting, I’m not speaking of the way God loves and values each one of us no matter who we are or what we have done.

It is exceedingly dangerous when:
churches or the ecumenical movement begin to think that they are more important than, or indeed somehow control, the gospel, the good news, embodied in Jesus Christ;
individuals begin to think they are more important or significant than the churches and ecumenical movement and than the gospel, the good news, embodied in Jesus Christ.

The act of leaving reminds us that none of us is indispensible. That even though we have been given a unique opportunity to contribute and to benefit, there are others who will come after us and make their contribution.

Throughout the scriptures we are reminded that the fulfilment of God’s loving and just purposes involves our faithful response – but it always is God’s purposes and ultimate glory – not ours.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Inter Faith Week

Like any designated week, Inter Faith Week will only be of value if it helps us the other 51 weeks of the year. Making the space to encounter people of different faiths with mutual respect has many benefits for us as individuals, for local communities and for society as a whole.

It shouldn't just be about learning what 'they' believe, as though faith was a collection of intellectual propositions. It shouldn't just be about how they practice their religion. Faith is a word which may be owned by many very different religious communities. But we should be careful because we all interpret it from our own experience and culture. A Muslim or Buddhist does not mean what a Christian means when they use the word, not that all Christians understand it in the same way. The most obvious dimension of meaning is whether faith is inherited or whether its is believed as a conscious individual decision.

Encounters with people of different faiths should help us understand how they believe as well as what they believe. It should help us understand what it means to see their religion and the world through their eyes. What it means to be a Hindhu or a Jew in British society. And equally importantly to understand how they see us.

In this way we don't just learn about other people, we learn about ourselves.

When I was working in Manchester before going to Geneva, I was part of a group of Christians meeting with a Hindhu and hearing about his faith. In talking about reverence for life he made the remark that he had to exercise his faith from the moment he put his foot out of bed each morning and casually added that we Christians only had to bother about faith on Sunday mornings. In later reflection, the group felt that they had learnt more about the living practice of Hindhu faith in Manchester. However, what really grabbed them was the genuine perception of this man of what the practice of Christian faith meant.

As Robert Burns said:
O would some Power the gift to give us
To see ourselves as others see us!

We learn to live in community by knowing ourselves as well as getting to know others.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Vote Christian - pay less tax

An advert for the Christian Party (political, that is) in this week’s Baptist Times has as its number one enticement “Do you want lower taxes?” – presumably on the basis of Jesus’ memorable saying “Blessed are the taxpayers for they shall pay less”. You would be disappointed if you ran down the list of reasons to be interested in the Christian Party expecting to find anything like the words Jesus as actually recorded in the Gospels. In fact, their language of less state interference or to have “once again” a just legal system might come from advertising for the Conservatives, the UK Independence Party or even from the non-racist parts of the policies of the British National Party.

But it’s the lower taxes bit I want to stick with. It’s a hook of self-interest – I get to keep more of my money to spend as I want. The Christian Party would probably argue that it’s more money to give away and I expect many of their supporters do work on the biblical principle that a tenth of one’s income is for God and giving only starts beyond that. But they would be the exception among the whole population.

As is the young man I saw interviewed who had studied ethics and on starting a well paid job (£33K he said) was giving away over 50% of it each year. He reckoned that his giving would save 1,000 lives each year and that was more satisfying than consumer expenditure. What can one say? Those of us who say we actively care about our fellow human beings and the environment don’t go that far – not by a long way. The majority of the population do give to charities but in the pounds not hundreds of pounds, let alone thousands of pounds each year.

Charitable giving is a fine idea for motivated and committed people. I don’t want to knock it and neither would those who benefit. Undoubtedly, the tax system could be improved, especially in respect of the rich who at the moment pay a smaller proportion of their earnings than lower paid workers. Undoubtedly, governments are wasteful and spend money on the wrong things. However, taxation is the best way we have of ensuring that we all pay our fair share. If we want all our citizens to have decent lives and we want to do the same for the poorest of the poor elsewhere, then taxation is a must.

Vote for a more equitable tax system but don’t vote for lower taxes – we may enjoy the extra money in our pockets and we may even give some of it away. If we earn enough to pay tax, we won’t be the ones who pay the price.

PS Jesus didn’t really say “Blessed are the taxpayers for they shall pay less”, I made that up. Of course what he did say was “Sell what you own and give the money to the poor”. If you object to paying tax, perhaps that’s the best thing to do!

Monday, 9 November 2009

Even by their own logic

Colonel Bob Stewart, who came to public attention through his service in Bosnia, had a background in military intelligence. I’ll pass on making the usual joke about that because, even though his post-army career may take him to being a Conservative MP, he is an intelligent man. So it’s usually worth listening to what he has to say, even if you happen to disagree sometimes.

In the course of a rather busy weekend, I caught a tv interview with him where he drew attention to the ‘intelligence’ relating to military operations in Afghanistan. The numbers were:
‘persons of interest’ (what interesting language the intelligence services use) in Afghanistan = 100,
‘persons of interest’ in the UK = 2,000.
If it raised questions for him, it did even more for me.

I also heard Gordon Brown saying that a clear connection between the Afghan/Pakistan border and the streets of Britain was the reason for the Afghan mission. How interesting. If it is true that the border region is a source of incitement to terrorism in the West (and we should stop continuing to conceptualise al quaeda as being like an enemy nation or even like the IRA), what are we doing trying to bring our style of political discipline to a whole national territory that has never achieved it, or even wanted it, for themselves or had it imposed by successive invaders. There are many reasons not to like the Afghan Taliban but to regard them as the same as the Taliban over the border is a dangerous over-simplification.

Logic would suggest that if they want to ‘deal with’ any state, it should be Pakistan – but there is another discourse about that country, particularly around nuclear weapons. Is Afghanistan somewhere where a UK government can be seen to be ‘doing something’ where it won’t cause too many other international problems? Because even by their own logic what we are doing there lacks credibility.

If so, why should young people be sent there to die or suffer horrific physical and mental injuries on behalf of the rest of us. Sometimes attacks on people on our streets are called ‘senseless acts of violence’ – isn’t the Afghanistan mission a state-sponsored senseless act of violence on our own young people as well as on the local victims?

Friday, 6 November 2009

Because I'm worth it?

Why is it that sometimes those who achieve high office or responsibility develop such a strong sense of personal entitlement that they lose their moral perspective? And it’s not just dictators, bankers and MPs.

The question is prompted by a story today of resignations, sacking and suspension for disciplinary reasons of the senior leadership of a school and its governing body “after senior teachers allegedly paid themselves £1m in bonuses” Yet another high profile, much lauded head teacher bites the dust.

What gets into the minds of people responsible for running values-based organisations that they can behave in ways contrary to that which they espouse? We might expect it of bankers who after all only practice what they preach in making money. Schools work, or should do, on the principle that their own practice of communal life expresses the values they want to promote. I don’t think that many schools get their students to read Animal Farm to help them see the importance of getting their snouts first in the trough filled at the expense of everyone else’s rations.

It’s not only self-delusional head teachers. I’ve seen too many church leaders filled with a sense of personal entitlement, demanding five-star treatment, often at the expense of their own impoverished communities. I’m afraid that their saying that this is a way of showing respect to God does not wash with me. Perhaps following the example of Jesus in a less ostentatious lifestyle would be better.

The human mind is an amazing thing. It can believe and advocate fine sounding values and practices. At one and the same time, it can create a story about what I’m worth, how I’m entitled to that and how it is actually important for the people who pay the cost for me to be treated in this way. And it doesn’t make any connection between the two! But that’s no excuse.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

What’s the good of higher education?

On BBC Radio 4 today, Lord Mandelson, discussing soon to be announced proposals for higher education in the UK, said that universities are there “to provide us with both civilisation and competitiveness” ( Well I couldn’t have put it better myself, especially the order in which civilisation and competitiveness appear. Nice soundbite and very pleasing to those who believe in education as a good in its own right and not merely an economic instrument.

However, the bite of the soundbite comes in the surrounding discussion. This seems to be all about giving businesses more say in higher education. Giving students information about the different levels of salary they might expect by taking different degree courses and even allocating funds according to the economic productivity of courses. So education primarily serves as an economic good for individuals and society alike. Nothing about the civilisation mentioned in the soundbite!

Now I’m all for developing people’s knowledge and skills. That does lead both to productivity and job satisfaction. We don’t have enough of it. But it’s a career long process and people may have more than one career in their lifetime. It’s not a front loaded process where people begin their working life equipped for everything in the future. It is both before and during – with the during, as contextual learning, being most effective.

But education is, or should be, so much more than learning knowledge and skills. It is about the whole people we become, not just our economic activity. Mandelson, who did benefit from education rather than training, has obviously not learnt from his own experience. Or does he regard it as only for the cultured few? Successive governments have starved non-work related adult education of funds. The Workers Educational Association thrived because ordinary people wanted to learn history, art, science, politics etc etc because they were interested and it gave them personal fulfilment – and contributed to the quality of community life. Thousands of people devote hours of study through the Open University whilst doing fulltime jobs because they believe in the non-economic benefits of doing a degree. And, if you think Mandelson is bad, just see what the Conservative party believe!

However, there is something that unites personal, communal and economic benefit, and civilisation and competitiveness. Something which is, I think, a primary function of higher education – no matter what the subject matter of the course. That is critical thinking – the ability to access, analyse and evaluate evidence, to put together arguments or cases and to be able to deconstruct those put forward by others. It involves self-awareness and the ability to see bigger pictures, including understanding that others may see and interpret life differently. It makes people both confident and open.

Higher education is good for us but not just to make money.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Political expediency insults us all

The very public spat between Alan Johnson (UK Home Secretary) and David Nutt (now ex-Chair of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs) makes for entertaining political theatre – but it is profoundly depressing.

Professor Nutt had the temerity to state publicly that alcohol and tobacco were more dangerous than cannabis (something I thought was common knowledge) and that it was a nonsense to have cannabis classified in the middle rather than lower category of drugs with the consequent penal consequences for use. Professor Nutt is no libertarian hippy but is rather against the misuse of harmful substances. His trouble is that he is guided by research on the actual effects of different drugs and the demonstrable results of policies to deal with misuse.

The problem for Alan Johnson, who is equally against the misuse, and that’s the irony, is that political expediency means that he wants to play the hard man on drugs because they are perceived as the preserve of low-life who will only respond to punitive measures. (Middle class people may suffer from problems but we’re OK with that if they get help and we recognise that celebrities and aristos are different creatures altogether who need to be indulged - or at least we appear to.) He doesn’t want to go with the evidence (a) because it would seem weak to downgrade some drugs and (b) because logic would dictate an attack on the availability and use of alcohol. It’s been hard enough to tackle smoking and that was only possible because by-and-large middle-England had turned against it. Alcohol’s a different matter because voters like it and because like many other substances it is not harmful in reasonable quantities. There is a real issue here which needs to be openly discussed and probably no legislative solution that will solve the problems.

What is insulting is that Alan Johnson would prefer us not to be aware of the evidence. He wants to maintain a deceptive line that will scare us away from drugs. If the message is not politically expedient he and his colleagues shoot the messenger and rubbish the message.

We have had another example in recent weeks. A carefully researched report suggested that formal learning should not begin in primary schools until 6 – that young children learned best through play (actually play is a significant means of learning for all ages and should not be demeaned). Ministers dismissed the report before it was published and disingenuously characterised it as saying that children should not attend school until 6. They think that the public believes that teaching automatically results in learning (far from true as many of us can testify) and therefore children must be sat down and told. Accepting the report, even for discussion, might make them look weak. Another opportunity for public reflection lost.

Alan Johnson, one of the few senior politicians in any party not from an elite background, ought to be someone who trusts people's ability to understand that issues may be complex. But no, he seems to want to place us in a position of an uniformed choice of agreeing or disagreeing with what he says. It would be no better (and, on the evidence of history, worse) were the Conservative party to be elected next year. Political posturing and expediency insults us all.