Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Is there anything sweeter than the unintended pun?

A previous tenant of the Innovation centre had been involved developing a device that would allow a female to urinate tidily while standing up. In conversation with a receptionist yesterday, I mentioned finding a she-wee, and if it was useful then she was welcome to it.

Her comment "I'll pass on that".

Actually yes, there are things sweeter than an unintended pun, but I still enjoy them.

Monday, 7 August 2017

There's a question.

Kinda funky embedding, google.

So last week we were at 'Transform' - a church camp with the theme Taking New Ground…..Mission, Miracles and Multiplication”. If you visit the page, those are our friends Vic and Owen caught unawares last year in the video still.

When we saw the title we both groaned out loud - Mission. 

Mission has felt like being part of a group of lemmings, rushing toward a cliff that we can feel coming and going harder because of it. Churches have been shrinking as people melt away - often those who were once quite committed rather than fringers - and for us at least, there has been a combined sense of being under pressure to find people to bring to stuff, along with a feeling of failure for not bringing people along to stuff, together with a feeling of holding on with slipping fingertips. The more mission, the seeming faster the shrink*. Talking with some of the other guys there during the week, it seems we've not been alone in feeling that.

And last year was a bit poo for us anyway.

Opening speaker on Saturday night was Grace Wheeler, evangelist for Youth For Christ. Her message was one carefully judged to demonstrate God was at work, she was ordinary and could still be used, scattered with examples of the things she was seeing happening. Standard fare for someone doing the kind of work she does when speaking to people who don't do the kind of work she does - the lass was good, but too many more of those and we were going to be exploring the nearby Malvern hills while other people sat & listened. We escaped feeling moderately guilty/failed & went back to our accommodation wondering how much more of this there would be.

Somewhere in the first day we were there, we heard about a couple we knew who were leading a small church not far away, who were planning to move to lead another congregation. There was a question about their replacement and something inside said "you could do that". Humm. After our church experiences of the last 8 years I've been actually wanting to walk away from church completely.

Sunday morning came & Chris had a migraine, so we missed the meeting where it was explained how various leaders & groups had fallen out over the last 3 years, but it was all sorted out now. We didn't know that was going to be the subject, of course, but it partly explains the last few lines of my blogpost from 2 years ago, when in retrospect I realised there had been an atmosphere that wasn't healthy.

The next few days are slightly hazy in terms of ways to express the content, and I don't want to do a blow-by-blow account of the content.

Basically the 2 key speakers, Paul Manwaring and Malcolm Duncan did not drum in the message about mission, miracles and multiplication, but instead brought teaching, guidance, encouragement, insight and hope. On one occasion Malcolm Duncan started slowly, as though trying to hear where what he was saying should be going instead of launching into program teaching. It's felt like a long time since I had a sense of the Holy Spirit at work in something like this, and I'm grateful that I was able to respond instead of staying in the trench I'd dug to help preserve some sanity. So I have a sense of what's next, possibly, and hopefully also a bit of freedom from things of the past. Both speakers had aspects to them that made me think "I'm not at all sure that scripture means that" or made me feel quite uncomfy with celtic stuff, but they both seemed to bring what I think God had given them, and for that I'm really grateful.

I've not mentioned worship so far. That's because it a) was not significant and b) is something I'm finding very difficult right now. The band was tight, the mix was the best I've ever heard there, right from the first night, and it was loud enough for door stewards to give out ear plugs to anyone who seemed to be walking out because of noise. Our old friend Mr Smoke Machine was hard at work, but at least the lights were kept shining on-stage only, so thumbs up to Dave Knott for getting that sorted.

Where does this leave us?

Y'know - I'm still me. Still Toni who is wary of people, wants to do things his way, has a bunch of un-healed scars, who still struggles with the idea that God is good & doesn't let us down, and in many ways would STILL like to walk away from church. Chris says she'll follow me where ever I go, and I think she would, trusting I'd not screw both our lives up. But change is around the corner, and will be here before too long, at least a bit.

*Talking with a good friend who IS missional by inclination, he agreed that when we had a real sense of the presence of God powerfully at work among us then we were much more inclined to reach out to people outside the church, and to do it with faith and expectation. It's not that we want to feed Christians so they become fat, but that we want to see God at work in the church so that we can see God at work outside the church.

Friday, 21 July 2017

So for the sake of completion

regarding the Caesar Kalinowski Gospel Primer review below, I managed to read the first 3 weeks (out of 7 or 8) before it had to go back.

The good:
A stated aim is to get people talking about Jesus and the gospel to each other in normal conversation. This is admirable, though I don't know how effectively the artificial situations of being made to 'talk gospel' would transfer into daily practice. Experience suggests with this kind of thing that it persists about a week after the end of the course, when everyone breathes a sigh of relief and reverts, but who knows.

There is also an encouragement to develop a personal salvation story that puts God at the centre, and again this is very admirable. Tools are provided and help given to do this, albeit in a CK kind of way, and it also made me remember how things were when I first became a Christian, which was useful.

The less good:
The book sets out to belittle the reader's own faith and church, tells them that they are doing it wrong and assumes that they haven't really experienced salvation yet. I found the sets of questions, especially in the first 2 chapters, to be bullying and deliberately dodging the real answers one might give in order to force the user into a weak position. Both Chris and I independantly came to the conclusion when offered a series of options, "none of these" was the only answer for us.

While there is good material in there, this is not a book I could recommend anyone read unless they were strong enough to extract the good stuff without being harmed by the bad.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

It was something you said.

Is there an expression 'preachers hyperbole'?

Perhaps there should be one along the lines of 'missional leader's made up story'.

I've described my views of Mike Breen and 3DM in the past, and have serious concerns that they are, in fact, a cult that will gradually draw people away from orthodox Christianity and into some kind of nebulous gnosticism combined with an understanding of evangelism like the jehovah's witnesses.

So today I started looking at The Gospel Primer by Caesar Kalinowski.

I don't get why people need to tear others down if they have something good. In the introduction it is suggested that you must use HIS method of meeting together, because at present your bible studies are empty and your housegroup meeting is pathetic. Then further on in the start of the section talking about The Gospel, he describes a meeting of pastors where he asked the question 'what is the gospel', and apparently out of a dozen answers not a single one mentioned creation, sin, Jesus, the cross or the kingdom. Really? From a dozen answers to the question put straight like that and not a single one mentioned any of those things? Not once, not any of them? Really? Was this the pagan pastoral association we were asking?

Is that underwear I smell smouldering?

Further on in the section, there are a series of questions weighted to demonstrate how the reader is inadequate and getting it wrong if they aren't doing it the CK way. One of them was based around 'why aren't you sharing the gospel with more people' and the slightly naughty Toni wanted to say 'it's because they aren't my people of peace'.

To be fair to the book, it looks like there might be some good stuff in there too, and 30 years ago we'd probably have swallowed this and run with it, believing that the only God is Yahweh and Caesar Kalinowski is His prophet this was all good teaching and that we were building God's kingdom. I just can't get past the made up stuff, the bullying, emotionally manipulative presentation of it all now.

Please, if you're going to write books for the people of God, leave out the crap - it just destroys your credibility and devalues the teaching you present.

Chris and I have been talking about being challenged recently. We've been through quite a bit over the years, and TBH have had enough of it now. I'm seriously wondering if it isn't time to go re-join the church of England so that we can get on with trying to live as Christians while this missional fad blows over.


I've read a bit further - there is some genuinely good stuff in there, though I keep reading things that don't match what I see as sound theology (forgive the old-fashioned term) that feel like the scriptures have been made to fit a theory, rather than theory made to fit the scriptures. An example of this would be discipleship=evangelism=disipleship, where the word evangeism has been used to replace the word salvation in the context used, and while there's an explanation for doing this, it doesn't ring true.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Does your head do funny things?

Mine certainly does.

Apart from saying inappropriate things sometimes.*

And occasionally talking complete rubbish.

Make that often complete rubbish.

And not doing stuff when I should.

And doing stuff when I shouldn't.

But regardless. Chris has a nasty cold right now, probably the third of spring-summer 2017. Ben has also had at least 2 moderately unpleasant infections, and was quite rough a while back. As for me, I had a cold, back in April running into May, though not bad enough to stay away from work, and my cough from that finally lifted a week of so back.

But it feels wrong.

I'm the one who normally gets bad respiratory infections & Chris is the one who may feel a little off but keeps going. So first off I feel guilty, like it should be me and not her who's down with it (I cope much better being ill than she does: I give myself to it & wait to get better while she fights & struggles feeling worse & worse). Then it occurred to me that I'd like the time off sick - note that she has gone to work feeling 'grotty' - so I could sit at home & not do anything, and I felt slightly cheated that it wasn't me. Then I felt guilty about it.

My head does funny-unfunny things.

*I can't be bothered to explain about the disposable plastic cups and the Mae West greeting.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Why did the world’s largest supplier of lentils choose to invest in Saskatchewan?

That's about as esoteric a title as you'll see here.

About second or third post down in my LinkedIn feed there was a photo of an enormously fat man in a grey suit with a small balding head on top and the title of this post underneath.

Take home message - eating lentils makes you very fat, and they are bringing the problem to Sask so that everyone there can be obese too.

I'm told they make you fart as well, so the state could well become a major producer of greenhouse gas too. Those of you who moved west - looks like a well-timed escape. ;-)

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Is teaching in churches an unwanted throwback?

As we're moving into a post-Christian era and the church, at least in North American and the UK, is heading towards missional communities and outreach by social interaction, I'm wondering if strong, clear teaching is becoming a preserve of leaders and the old people, while the younger ones are all socially motivated to just eat together and enjoy a bit of worship every couple of weeks.

That was a long sentence.

We're making the trip, somewhat against my better judgement (hey, twice in one year) to our church groups annual camp together. What used to be a time of challenge, of inspiration and aspiration, amazement and above all great teaching, seems to have become a bunch of people telling us how to outreach using their testimonies as examples. Perhaps there is a certain Pauline precedent (maybe that's why people fell asleep on him!) but as I recall Paul taught a lot of much deeper theology than simply relating how he went to foreign synagogues and talked about Jesus.

I had the slightly bizarre experience of being complimented last night on helping someone with a Christian background and a need to become connected into a church family become connected into a church in another area. It was done in the context of evangelism, but it was not outreach - purely pastoral care and being a father.

Perhaps I'm becoming a post-outreach Christian?

I'm already moving towards the opinion that the 'great commission' was nothing of the kind, and was quite specifically aimed at the disciples there & then. It's only mentioned that way in 1 gospel, while in every other gospel Jesus commissions specific people to go out - if it's such a fundamental understanding surely at least a second writer would mention it? Certainly some people are called to be evangelists, but that seems a relatively uncommon calling. What about being ready to share the reason for our hope then? Yes, but that's NOTHING like being sent to outreach.

It seems I've been diverted from the original point.

Historically the church seems to have taught the uneducated, and a large part of what they needed to do was impart basic understanding, in so many ways, to those people. Now our society is well educated, able to access an enormous amount of information at will. Is the flip-side of a drift away from teaching people, a hope or even push for them to self-educate? I wonder how Christianity will shape up in the latter half of the 21st century - will looser relationships and a stronger social conscience become the hallmarks of this era, just like evangelism damp-squib was for the latter half of the 20th?

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Darn that's hot

33.5'C indicated by the car thermometer while driving (i.e. not sat in the sun) at 6.30om this evening.

Tarmac on the roads has melted & torn up in places.

Offices without aircon were not nice places to be today.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Don't look back in anger

or regret.

Holidays don't often generate this many mixed feelings, generally being sources of significant pleasure and just occasionally considerable disappointment.

The reason we did this trip was probably not good: certain friends had been on similar trips organised by the same people, and come back exulting over how wonderful it had been, including a friend who is generally similarly inclined to question things in the way that I do. And it is THE place with so many significant historical sites that have influenced Middle Eastern and European culture for the last 2000 odd years, so of course we *should* see it.

Stepping back for a moment, I'm aware of my feelings oscillating about the whole thing, sometimes damning the experience and sometimes thinking that I *should* have enjoyed it (and asking why I didn't).

And that's hard to answer.

Curiously, I didn't find the traditional church stuff especially jarring or wrong, and it was the times of contemporary worship and even bible reading that grated as being out of place, getting in the way of understanding what happened and where I was. It felt a little like trying to impose pop-culture on something deeper, when silence would have been better. I'm guessing some of the others felt it too, when some noted the silent time while floating on the sea of Galilee was most significant for them.

Our tour leaders, Geoff and Mary, did an incredibly good job of organising and making sure we saw everything on the itinerary as much as was humanly possible, while trying to include faith moments (even if those faith moments worked against it for me). They gave themselves, and are probably now trying to rest & recuperate, since they aren't exactly young any more.

As for the land itself, Israel seems to be burying much of their heritage under concrete and stone, building everywhere to house their expanding population, although I'm not so sure they've taken care of necessary infrastructure. Galilee area wasn't so bad, but the land around Jerusalem is now ugly - no other word for it really - and apart from the temple area it could be any large, badly managed urban sprawl in a hot climate.

Would I go back or recommend anyone else to visit?

That's difficult. Jerusalem has fascinating areas that could have stood a lot more exploration, and likewise the wilderness has both beauty and bleakness that would justify spending much more time in. Otherwise I'd say no, and to someone visiting I'd suggest avoiding the key religious sites, because whatever meaning they might have for you now, the actuality will almost certainly be disappointing. So what if Jesus walked there - if He's not alive in your heart and much larger than that pavement then it doesn't matter. I still remember the excitement of Raja the coach driver, stopping at the Elvis American Diner compared to how he felt about the rest of the stuff we visited, and that may tell you something.

My attitude will probably soften in forgetting the poor and mediocre, and in remembering the exploration.

Day 8 - final temple and travelling home

We had another early start this morning: alarm call at 6am, bags packed by 7 and on the coach at 7.30, to be dropped off at the gate like a bell (the dung gate).

Under the western wall is a tunnel running a short length of the temple mount, exposing some of the lower stonework and cisterns from Herod’s structure. The tunnel is also used by many Jewish women to pray, because it gets them closer to the place where the original holy of holies was thought to be than they can manage at the women’s section of the western wall.

The tunnel & structures are mildly interesting, with the few scraps of ‘original’ pavement where Jesus may have walked giving a slightly stronger sense of history. There’s a huge stone, estimated at 570 tons, supporting the wall down there too, and it must have been an incredible feat getting it into place. Also impressive is the quality of stone work required to get the stones to butt together with barely a gap between.

Previous excavations made by Warren in the late 1800s come up during the explanations. It seems Warren ‘discovered’ quite a bit, sometimes having to find novel ways to access parts that he wasn't welcome to explore, and plenty of features got named for him.

Eventually walking through the tunnel, we came to a place where the ceiling is high: probably 25 feet above us, and that indicates the height of the current pavement. The original walls would have been very tall, requiring high ramps and stairs for access to the temple area.

After emerging in the city we walk through the Damascus gate to the garden tomb and Gordon Calvary area. We have a brief explanation about the area, why it was considered to be possibly authentic and then visit the wine press, putative Golgotha and garden tomb there. This area looks less unlikely to be authentic than the area given by tradition, but after 2000 years of erosion, it may be rather different in appearance from the time of Jesus - recently a piece of stone forming the ‘nose’ of the skull shape broke off, reducing the resemblance to a skull. A seating area is given for the group's use and we have readings, songs and communion.  In earlier times I’d probably have found it wonderful, but right then I’d have preferred to slip away and have time alone, however in the hope of better things I stuck it out.

At last we made our way back, walking to the hotel, arriving rather sweaty from the heat and the climb but with no chance of a shower. Bags are loaded onto the coach and we’re finally on our way. A quick stop at the town where Emmaus was, then on to an Elvis burger bar to get ripped off $16 for burger and chips. The burger bar is striking and very different, and Raja the driver is ‘in heaven’, but traditional Jewish it ‘aint.

And so to the airport.

After the usual quizzing and security checks we make it through to the departure lounge. Biometric passport readers work very efficiently. There’s a fountain in the middle of the lounge with an annulus in the ceiling through which water pours downwards like rain while the fountain sprays upwards. Quite elegant and unusual.

18.18pm. Boarding starts at 18.50pm.

Plane leaves at 7.50pm. The movie on the tiny screen ahead of me is ‘Gold’, but the controls built into the seat arm don’t work, so the only audio channel is French and the volume is at maximum. And the chap next to me is breathing out some serious garlic, so effective that even the plane air con can’t completely remove it. Ho hum, pigs bum as Kita used to say, only another 4 hours - at least I've been able to write up the day.

Mr Fragrant next door speaks to the stewardesses and they go away & reboot the system several times, after which last occasion the English audio can also be heard, volume etc is now adjustable. It’s not all bad then.

We eventually arrive at Luton. Long queues for passport control, and this time I am rejected by the biometric scanner and get sent to another desk where I wait and wait, eventually being cleared. We get bags, say goodbye and the put warm clothes & jackets on to face the winds and rain waiting for us at the bus stop. Car collected, and our friends drive us home by a slightly curious route, to arrive around 1.15amUK/3.15am Israeli time. Glad I booked Tuesday off.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Day 7 - ‘Free’ day - walking the walls of Jerusalem, Hezekiah’s tunnel, getting lost

Another retrospective writeup, though as I try to relive the memories it may become written as if in the present.

There were several options possible for the day, including visiting the Israel museum, the holocaust museum, walking the city walls, visiting the city of David ruins, Hezekiah’s tunnel to the Gihon spring or just generally walking round the city. Chris had wanted to do the tunnel, and the wall walk also seemed a sensible plan, so finding ourselves ready to go a little sooner than the suggested start time, we go a taxi from the hotel to the Damascus gate, then bought tickets for the wall.

I’m wondering a little what to write about the actual walk. It’s just what you might expect: you’re high up on a wide stone wall, looking down on roofs and into people’s back gardens. There are areas of steep stone steps and metal railings, the occasional fortification used by the Jordanian army during the first war in 1948. In places there is barbed and razor wire to discourage uninvited guests, and the roofscape consists of water tanks and heaters, plus in many cases a certain amount of rubbish plus the occasional cross or Islamic cresent. Sometimes the view is good, peering down into street scenes or catching interesting individuals passing beneath, while sometimes it’s just squalid.

The wall walk is in 2 halves, norther and southern, and we tackle the northern first, from the Damascus gate to the Lion gate before lunch, then making our way across Jerusalem, picking up the southern route afterward.

We started out with Nick, who we’ve known vaguely for a long time. He wanted a chance to take pictures properly too, and he came equipped with 2 Fuji XT-2 bodies plus standard, wide and super zoom lenses and a bunch of other kit. It becomes obvious fairly quickly that we need to separate so that he can take his time. About half way round we are caught up by some other members of the group who started off after we had, taking the tram into Jerusalem from near the hotel (more on this later).

Eventually we complete the walk and head off for lunch to Israel’s answer to Starbucks - Aroma - which we were told was so successful that it put starbucks out of business there. Lunch is a sandwich and a bottle of drink for the equivalent of £10/CAD15 each.

After lunch we go our own way, heading up to the south section.

Sunday afternoon seems to be a day for schools to go out on field trips. The school children here are some of the most obnoxious I have met anywhere, elbowing and barging passers-by, walking at and blocking tourists, generally behaving with a sense of entitlement I’ve never experienced in children before - God help Israel if this generation don't change before adulthood. We run the gauntlet of the school parties to access the steps up - the day is hot again, and there’s no shade on this part of the wall.

This section has generally less exciting stuff to see, although the views over the Kidron valley are OK. Once we reach the end point we make our way back to the area around the old city of David and buy tickets for Hezekiah’s tunnel.

The tunnel itself is cut through solid rock for around 533 meters, is wide enough for a man that isn’t fat and in places so low as to require me to duck uncomfortably, a lack of lighting requiring that walkers take a torch as they wade through the water that varies between ankle and mid-thigh deep - all fine then. ;-) 

Unfortunately we get stuck between a group of teenage schoolgirls, screaming and throwing water over each other, and a group of students in their late teens & early 20s who shout & sing. The girls frequently stop, which makes for discomfort when standing in a tunnel that feels about 4 feet high, and by the time we reach the zigzag section that marks roughly half way, we are ready to stop.

Eventually daylight is seen in the distance, and we emerge at a pool of siloam (possibly not THE pool of siloam).

There are 2 options for travelling back at this point - either past the pool and up on the road, or via a tunnel that runs back up the hill to the CoD - though the signage doesn’t express it like that. By happy chance we decide to take the tunnel - probably part of the Roman-era sewer system that ran below a wide stairway & ramp that went from the temple area to the pool at the bottom - and get a much better sense of how the 2 might have been connected 2000 years ago over the roughly 600-800 meter distance. After this we walk past some of the CoD ruins, out into the current city & carefully read the map to negotiate our way to the Damascus gate again.

At this point we then make a mistake - trying to use the tram system to get back.

We caught the tram in the right direction after getting advice from the local tourist information centre, alighting at Ammunition hill.

Where is Ammunition hill????

A quick search on the maps on my phone suggested that the Ambassador hotel was just a few hundred yards away, but the location suggested turned out to be the main police depot for the area. A passerby can’t help us either, and in the end we try to use a combination of phone and tourist maps to navigate us to something we might recognise.

Now before the obvious mockery, we are usually pretty good at this kind of thing, finding our way to all sorts of places in foreign lands.

Not this time.
We walk for an hour before discovering that we are on the Jericho road, about level with Jerusalem, but to the east side. Along the route we pass many landmarks that we've seen from the coach, but none of them allow us to place our location. After our experience a few nights before I pray for a merciful taxi & and lo and behold a man walks out of a café and gets into the driving seat of a taxi right beside me, but when I ask for the Ambassador hotel he holds up his hands and shakes his head.

So we do it the way we’ve had to so much now - we figure it out ourselves.
Having finally found where we are on the map - where we REALLY are now - we navigate gradually back to the Nablus road that we should have been on. A hotel receptionist on the way is able to direct us (incorrectly as it turned out) to the Ambassador, and after around another 20min we finally get back, sweaty, sore of foot and exhausted.

The relief is huge.