Monthly Archives: July 2011

Checking in your life

My friend Eric is moving to New Zealand.  It’s been a fascinating process to watch so far beginning with the job application all the way to getting the freight container packed up. I’m not interested because moving house is new to me.  Moving is not alien to me. We’ve moved five times since we’ve been married and 3 of those moves happened within a 5 years period. Each time has been an upheaval as well as an opportunity to clear out the rubbish and make a fresh start.

But we’ve always moved with the confidence of knowing that within 24 hours our stuff will begin to fill a new home and that getting on with our lives will commence very soon.  Eric’s move is more life changing than that. Right now all his stuff is in a container that will take months to get to his new home. It may have to suffer pirates, strikes, customs officials, removal men and ships’ crews.

Eric’s ongoing obsession over the last few weeks has been over what to put in his  23kg luggage allowance. It’s understandable that he is pondering this because he has to wait three months before the rest of his life arrives. Of course he’s packed clothes and necessities. That’s a given. The deeper philosophical questioning goes beyond the simple “what do I take?”.   The real question is “what can’t I live without?”.  What can’t live in a container for 3 months because I will be diminished without it? What  can’t I risk not turning up because the container ship sank?

I know Eric would point to his family, his faith and his knowledge. But we are physical and material people for whom physical and material things help us to make sense of the world and our place in it. As westerners, we accumulate so much stuff that we don’t need but that doesn’t mean it is all unnecessary.

For instance, the picture at the top of this post is one I took in a refugee detention centre in Hong Kong in 1993 when I visited there while working for Save the Children. It wasn’t a place I expected to find smiling children, chalk drawings of the sun and all the noises and bustle  that go with childhood.  That picture hangs on my wall in a prominent place. It reminds me of a once in a lifetime trip. It spurs me to wonder what those children, who are in their 20’s now, are up to. It challenges me to see  that no matter what the conditions we find ourselves in, the image of God will still attempt to shine through us. That photo is an icon for me. My world would be altered without it. It definitely would be in my 23kg.

I still don’t know what is in Eric’s bag and perhaps he would be kind enough to let us know what he is taking on his journey. And maybe his journey to New Zealand is an unexpected prompt for you, dear reader,  to reflect on what you are taking on your journey that can’t be assigned to an oceangoing container for 3 months because it sustains you daily.  Maybe if you feel very courageous, you’ll share that with the rest of us too.

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Hail to the Chief

One of my favourite films is Dave. It tells the story of a man who runs a temp agency and is an uncanny look-alike for the President.  One day he is hired by the White House to impersonate the President leaving a hotel, thus freeing the real President for a night of passion with one of his secretaries. During his tryst, the President has a stroke and Dave is kept on because the chief of staff needs time to work out a solution. Dave finds the longer he is in “office” the more he cares about what can be achieved and shocked at what isn’t.  The film is one of those “what ifs” that believes the little amateur is more in touch with the real world than the big professionals.

However anyone who has worked in a “system” of any kind knows  that systems put pressure on you to conform to its concerns and way of dealing with things. The amateur goes pro pretty quickly as the system points out the path to making the world a better place. Politicians are keen to tell you that politics is the art of the possible, but they don’t tell you much about how “possible” is defined.  A cynic would say it is the art of getting re-elected.

A friend of mine has recently become a local councillor. He is a capable guy who genuinely cares about people. He cares especially for the poor and marginalised. He genuinely wants to see everyone  share in the opportunity and abundance that our society claims to offer all who will take it. Sometimes he is a bit too partisan for my taste but his heart is in the right place and he has the skills and ability to take what is in his heart and make it work in the real world.

What will be interesting to watch is how long my friend the man can hold out against the system which wants him to be a politician. The vested interests of his party will require him to demonstrate he is “one of us”. There will always be compromises needed to get others to support his agenda to change the world. There will always be the danger of believing he has the answers and all the others don’t. There will always be the “possible” to be achieved which usually falls short of the necessary.

So I will be praying for my friend. The Bible tells us to pray for our leaders not because they are appointed by God but because they are human stewards of power and authority. They need wisdom, a real understanding of their own limitations and a willingness to seek the whole picture even if it isn’t the portrait they wanted. In the Old Testament the first book of Samuel gives a clear idea of God’s view of human political organisation. His view of human rulers (and the powerful of any sphere) is that they take far more than they give back because that is what humans tend to do.

In an incredibly partisan and divisive western political environment our hope (which tends to be dashed) is not to find politicians who are “right” but rather to find those with broad and inclusive vision, who don’t issue solutions before understanding the problem, who converse with those who put them in power and most of all recognise they are stewards of power rather than owners of it. We want politicians who accept that they are flawed human beings and therefore tread forward with care.

So I will be praying for my very human friend as he exercises his stewardship. I’ll do that praying in the confidence that the world will be a better place because he has a seat in that council chamber.

Read All About It?

 

Private Eye ran a controversial cover after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

As you can imagine it caused controversy.  Some people claimed it was in bad taste. Others felt it was telling an uncomfortable truth. People didn’t like to be reminded that she was just as interesting to us dead as she was alive.  We didn’t really want to be confronted by the fact that the paparazzi who contributed to her death also provided the stories that made us love (or hate) her. They were only doing their job.

There has been a lot of hand wringing about whether people should read Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers after all the allegations about phone hacking and police corruption. Everyone agrees that his and other tabloids have misbehaved and should be controlled. However,  News of the World became the largest circulation paper in the country because they ran the kind of salacious, mucky and highly speculative stories we love to read. We want to read them, but we don’t want to know where they come from.   A wise man once said it is okay to love eating sausages but don’t ever see them being made.

The one flaw in all the debate about this scandal is the belief that the sort of stories the tabloid papers turn out can be “ethically sourced” like coffee or green beans.

Can we ever believe that there is an ethical way of producing the trivial and celebrity driven news we desire? Apart from the subject opening their heart, this kind of news can only be produced by eavesdropping, bribing friends to betray secrets, invasion of privacy even the FBI would balk at or even worse: just making stuff up.

We will believe everything is okay because we want to believe it. In the “fat free frozen yogurt” episode of Seinfeld, everyone patronizes a particular frozen yogurt shop because its offerings achieve the impossible: fat free and delicious.  At the same time, Jerry and his friends start putting on weight.  It can’t be all the yogurt they eat, because it is fat-free. The owner says it is, so it must be.  The situation is only resolved when they get the yogurt tested and behold, it is full of fat and the shop has to go back to selling fat-free.  It soon goes out of business.

If we want a better popular press then we need to change what we crave.  Ideally it would have been better for the paper to be closed or reformed because our hunger for what it offered had waned.   Rather than face reality, we  focus on gossip, rumours and lurid stories. Does that lead us to a better life? No, it amuses  while the world crashes around us. The Jam once said, “The people want what the people get” and by that logic, we all phone hacked Milly Dowler’s phone because we wanted the stories that hacking made possible. Rupert Murdoch is the paper boy of our desires.

Sex scandals, photos of celebrities looking ragged while nipping out to the shops, gossip about a footballer’s marriage; all these are great distractions from a world of real issues that demand our full attention.  Our economy is fundamentally unstable and vulnerable, our infrastructure is underfunded and crumbling, our standard of living is on the decline and is still unsustainable. Right now we live in a world that requires us to be grown ups and to have minds focussed on grown up things.

Jesus told his friends and followers to hunger and thirst for righteousness.  We might define righteousness by the two great commandments: love God with your whole self and love your neighbour with every fibre of your being. Rupert Murdoch and his ilk offer us gossip, lies and smug judgemental stories so that we get what we want: to feel superior to other people as they are made smaller. It is like feeding starving people with the empty calories of fast food.

What we hunger and thirst for defines who we are and forms the basis of our spiritual, moral and emotional nourishment.  The heart of righteousness is hungering for what is good for you and for me because that is what God hungers for.  The world can be transformed by changing what we hunger and thirst for.  All it takes is the courage to change our diet.

Bear With Me

The most popular current character in British advertising is the Birds Eye Polar Bear.  He is controlling, slightly sinister and omnipresent.

In a recent ad we find him waiting patiently in a freezer with salmon that you bake in a bag. The door of the freezer is opened by a woman holding some fresh fish that she intends to prepare for that evening’s meal. Why she is opening the freezer we don’t know.  Whatever the reason it gives him the opportunity to plant a seed of doubt in her mind. “Fish is tricky”, he tells her in a way that makes her picture her guests being carted off in an ambulance to have their stomachs pumped at the local hospital.  He robs her of whatever confidence started her on this culinary adventure so she opts for his salmon in a bag and presumably the safety and surety it offers. What happens to the expensive fresh fish, we don’t know. I suspect the bear eats them later as bears rather like fresh food.

Corporations like the one that owns Birds Eye don’t like us trying adventures without their safe, guiding hands.  There is a story from the early days of Betty Crocker cake mixes which demonstrates how determined they were to overcome the sensibilities of housewives.  Betty Crocker sales weren’t very good.  Market research showed that housewives felt like they were cheating if all they had to do was add water, mix it up and stick it in the oven.  So they changed the recipe, removing powdered eggs and requiring the cake maker to add an egg thus “creatively contributing” to the end product. Sales took off once the guilt was removed and the proud housewife could claim she “made” the cake.

While it sounds like a great time-saving idea, there is something disturbing about it.  Making a cake or preparing a fish dish takes time.  The time you spend in the kitchen is time you have to take out of the rat race of being busy, of consuming and getting out there to earn more money so you can do more consuming. The message you receive is that you are wasting your time in that kitchen when you could be out doing more useful things.

What sparked this reflection was discovering an old school friend on Facebook and discovering she loves cooking.  In her blog, (kayesyrah.blogspot.com)  she takes people on food adventures which act like a counterpoint to the polar bear and his meal in a box /bag offerings.

Maybe a move away from the polar bear is a move a little closer to the sort of attitude to life God want us to adopt.

One of the key aspects of Jesus’ ministry was freedom. Through a touch or word from him people were liberated from illness, disability, demons and even death. The people he regularly spent time with were categorised by their condition as something to be avoided and therefore they weren’t allowed to live beyond mere existence.  The key purpose society seemed to keep them for was as examples of what happened to you if God didn’t like you.  The Polar Bear described fresh fish as “tricky”,  lepers and healing were labelled with the same word. So no one bothered.

Jesus not only liberated sufferers, he liberated people from being oppressors. He taught his followers to be last, to care for the little ones and to not confuse high status with holiness. No one was “tricky”, instead everyone was beloved of God.

So we should celebrate those who offer us adventures, fresh foods lovingly made, life enhancing recipes and the chance to step out of our comfort zones. We were made to be creative and life-giving. We were made to appreciate creativity and to be full of life. No corporation can offer you laughter around a table , admiration for your efforts, closer friendships and requests for the recipe. All they can do is hide in your freezer and boss you about.