Travelling well with the Jones’s…


Many of you will already follow the on going adventures of the Jones family- Andrew (aka TSK) Jones blog is after all essential reading for many of us who are interested in what is happening on the edges of the known (and not yet known) Christian world.

A year or so ago, the family were living in Orkney off the northern coast of Scotland, when they bought an old truck, converted it into a living/entertaining space for themselves and all sorts of others. You can read something of their adventures travelling through Europe, Asia and North Africa here.

The point of all this travelling was to connect with all those small beautiful projects, and small and beautiful people who were working out the mission of Jesus in the lesser known places, and to support and encourage them.

It is an adventure that many of us feel a combination of envy, admiration and incredulity in relation to. It seems both bonkers and wonderful at the same time.

Anyway, the point of this post is to give a plug to Andrew’s new book project- you can pre-order it in order to support the next phase of the Jones journey, into Asia.

Details of the book, and how to order are all here.

We need people like the Jones clan to remind us that other ways are possible, and that other lives in far away places might teach us much about our own, so go on- order the book now!

Doubts and loves dig up the world…

A year ago I wrote a piece about doubting the existence of God. It received quite a bit of traffic for a while as it seemed to hit a chord.

Many of us who have been part of an overly concreted doctrinal system of belief have struggled to acknowledge doubt. It is almost as if any small incorrect belief would form a crack in the whole edifice of faith that might bring the whole thing tumbling down. To avoid this apocalyptic end to everything we have built our lives upon we contort ourselves into all sorts of defensive positions.

In my case, this involved two main strategies-

  1. Do not go there. When you feel the approach of doubt, turn in the other direction. It is better not to ask the difficult questions as the answers might be too much to cope with. Distract yourself with narrower, safer issues.
  2. Dishonesty. Better not to talk about doubt as this might infect others as well as yourself. You also might find yourself ostracised by the fervency and inflexibility of others.

Eventually of course something has to give or we become like stagnant pools, unable to flow, unable to sustain any kind of life. Faith fixed and defended becomes something else called religion. And religion belongs in the text book not in the soul.

I was reminded of this again after listening to this from Giles Fraser;

For my own experience of faith is that belief and unbelief commonly nestle alongside each other. Indeed, I cant make any sense of a faith that doesn’t include unbelief as a powerful element. “My God, why have you forsaken me” is, after all, the cry of Jesus at the very centre of the Christian drama.

As with much that is of the soul rather than the brain, faith and doubt finds voice in poetry. Giles quotes a poem he read that forms part of a memorial for Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, murdered by a religious man because he sought peace.

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

Yehuda Amichai

Pine Marten on the prowl…

This morning, around 5AM Emily came into our room to say that the chickens were making a fearful row in the back garden.

Yesterday we got two new Chickens that we introduced to the hen house overnight. They often fight at first, until they have established their pecking order, but they have next to no sight in poor light, so it is very unusual for them to be active when it is still dark.

I confess I turned over and tried to sleep, while Michaela and Emily went to investigate.

They found the new pair of chickens still in the roosting box, but the two older ones out in the garden shouting their beaks off.

Then they saw a sleek shape move easily over the ground, up onto the wall where it trotted off along the lane. There is a streetlight on the lane, and so they had a good view of the animal against the light.

As far as they can see with research, it was a Pine Marten. The other options- Stoat, Polecat or Mink were all discounted by the intrepid pair as a result of being too small, too short of tail, too dark of face.

Now we have a bit of a dilemma. It is so exciting to have such a lovely wild and rare creature in the garden.

But we also know that they are perfectly capable of taking chickens. And we love our chickens.

For now, all we can do is shut them up at night (we have been letting them go to bed when they are ready and not shutting them in as we have never had any problems before.)

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Michaela reckons that when you are small this is what people ask. They do not ask what you want to do but rather what you want to be.

A subtle but important difference she felt.

Michaela wanted to be a nurse. Nothing really surprising there, it is a rather typical thing for girls to aspire to, or rather it used to be. Hopefully the options have broadened out these days. Certainly Michaela has no desire to be a nurse any more, although when you think about what nursing might have seemed all about to a small girl- the caring, the looking after, the seeking to heal and restore- these attributes are still part of who she is. You might even say that these were who she was always meant to be.

Can you remember what you wanted to be when you were small? Might it contain something significant about your way of being, if not your current way of doing?

I wanted to be in the Navy.

I wanted to sail to far away places and have adventures. I wanted to be in a fast ship along with lots of people doing similar things. I still get a little excited when sleek grey ships pass the house on the way out to who knows where. I want no part in war, but still I find myself proud and unable to turn away.

As I think about it now, I wonder about the longing in me for the far horizon. There is in still the need to form a band of adventurers and go to explore new places, new ideas, new ways of being.

That ‘being’ word again…

Or perhaps it was always just about the uniforms.

Knox casts a shadow…

We spent today over in Haddington with my brother Steve and his wife Kate. It was a really lovely time, spent walking around the old market town and visiting one of the lovely beaches that are all over the coast thereabouts.

Haddington is a quiet market town these days, but this was not always the case. It was at one time the fourth biggest city in Scotland, after Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Roxburgh.

As we walked back to Steve and Kate’s house, I noticed a little set of stone stairs, all overgrown and boundaried by old railings. It seemed to lead up to a platform under an old tree. Further investigation revealed a stone monument…

It was hard to read, but basically it commemorated the birthplace of John Knox, protestant reformer, scourge of the unrighteous, whose memory is marked by a far more visible column that towers over the city of Glasgow;


Knox lived a long and colourful life. His reforming zeal burst into a political/religious powder keg and led to armed revolution and murder. Ends justified the means. The Prince of Peace required the intervention of armed mobs.

And it all started in Haddington, when Knox was born a farmer’s son, and lost his mother early. Perhaps in a different place, with a happier childhood…

Today it all seemed to me to be sad, and a little absurd. I found myself asking again what good came out of all this religious warfare. Was any of it necessary? Is there anything that we can still be proud of with the benefit of hindsight?

Knox himself seems to scowl out at us from the pages of history. What kind of splenetic wrath would he subject us to if he could but see the outcome of his reformation?

Meanwhile the sea rolls over the beach and grains grow finer. And I seem to have fewer answers.

And that is OK.

Religious education in British schools…

There was an interesting article in the Guardian the other day suggesting that spending on religious education in British schools amounts to around £1 per pupil per year.

Not very much.

Does this matter? Well the author of a government funded report, Dr Conroy obviously believes that it does.

Does it really matter? If RE is really in such a state, shouldn’t it be
allowed to whither on the vine? My answer is a resounding ‘no’, and
that ‘no’ is based on what we saw in those schools where RE is done well. What they reveal is that good RE is about something absolutely fundamental: a space for serious, critical exploration of the meanings and values by which we live.

To live good lives, individually and together, we need to be able to make sense of our world and ourselves – and RE offers the only place in the curriculum where that can still be done systematically.

Most people I know who believe strongly in religious education come from a perspective of ‘defending the faith’ (whatever that faith might be.) What is interesting about this report is that it is not anchored to any idea of Holy Empire- rather it just appears to believe that religious education allows for a kind of moral and ethical evaluation of our communities and institutions that the rest of the curriculum simply does not have room for.

It also goes on to identify what is thought to be ‘good’ RE, and what might be ‘bad’. The ‘good’ seemed clear enough-

The point is that if we really intend that children should learn from religion as well as about religion then they must be introduced to the intellectual practice of trying to understand a particular set of beliefs and practices in their own epistemological terms, and then be allowed to apply critical faculties to religious claims. Such teaching does not turn religion into something foreign which ‘others’ do, but into something much closer to home in which we all participate – for we all have beliefs and attachments, and we all have to make sense of life and death.

However the ‘bad’ seemed to offer a little more in the way of surprise;

But what marked poor provision, above all, was teaching which contented itself with introducing students to the surface phenomena of religion. We saw RE teachers fall into the trap of responding to serious student questions (‘but why does it matter that Jesus died on a cross?’) by deflecting it or asking another student to answer. Prima facie this looks like the democratisation of the classroom but, at a deeper level, it is often driven by a fear of making substantive or normative claims, combined with limited time and resource and exam pressures. Such strategies lead to superficiality-as one student put it in a focus group when asked about the ‘usefulness’ of RE: ‘Let me put it this way, if a Jew came round for tea, I would know what to feed them!’ Learning about ‘facts’, important as it is, too rarely translates into a serious grasp of theshape of another’s life world.

To see the place of faith (as a lived experience, not an archaic abstract concept) advocated for so effectively, not least within the pages of the Guardian seems to me to be remarkable.

First day of lent…

In the unfolding year, it always seems surprisingly early, like snowdrops…

Our kitchen reeks of pancakes after last night- I think I must have cooked about 100, for family, friends and house group in order to mark the beginning of a time when we need to get serious, intentional and reflective as we move towards Easter. For some this is marked by doing without- fasting from a food, or an activity. For others, we mark this time by doing something extra- committing ourselves to some regular meditation or act of service for example. Marking these yearly rhythms is increasingly important to me, not least because of the influence of a friend.

Over the last few days we have had an old friend staying with us, Maggy Cooper, who is a retreat leader at St Beuno’s Abbey, a Jesuit spiritual centre in North Wales made famous by the BBC programme ‘The Big Silence‘. Some of it has found it’s way onto you tube if you missed it- and it really is worth watching for anyone who is at all interested in the power of ancient traditions (I have blogged about it previously here.)

When we meet with old friends, we find ourselves looking back over our shared journeys. All those years where we have been challenged, encouraged, and laughed together. Also all those more subtle ways in which we influenced one another- the convergence of ideas and opinions, and ideas that, once shared, take on a deeper significance in our lives.

Maggy is one of those people for us, and it was great to see her again…

Kaynes and Hayek, why their ideas still matter…

In order to look for new ideas of how to organise our economy, we have to understand the old ones. Never was this more important.

In the 1920’s and 30’s, two protagonists argued polarised opposite views in the midst of their own economic crisis. One (Friedrich Hayek) insisted that the free market would right itself, and that the job of government was to get out of the way, to reduce its spending and the proportion of the public purse that interfered with the self correcting forces of free market economics.

John Maynard Keynes fundamentally disagreed. He said it was the job of government to govern, and the primary way that they should do this was by managing the economy. He was concerned with the human consequences of boom and bust economics – mass unemployment, poverty.

These two polar opposite positions have been fought over ever since. One libertarian, one interventionist. One arguing for centralised control, the other wanting no control at all. Evidence for the failure of both positions exists.

The free market brought us vulture capitalism, Thatcherism and the current crisis. It became the mantra of the International Monetary Fund, and the basis on which it manipulated whole nations. Centalised managed economies did not do well in the former communist countries. And we in the UK remember the strikes and power cuts of the 1970’s.

However it is also possible to point to the stable, eventually prosperous and well managed period after the second world war when Keynes ruled the world, or the eventual triumph of the Free Market, until this current crisis of course.

The question remains as to how this argument will play out in our current context. It seems that the current political instinct is towards Hayek, whilst having to acknowledge that when the free market is really free, then the unbridled greed it releases is potentially destructive to us all.

There is a really good clip on the Guardian website, here.

Africa and the emerging church leaders…

The other day I was listening to some news about Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill. It aims to criminalize the “promotion” of homosexuality, compels HIV testing in some circumstances, and imposes life sentences for entering into a same-sex marriage. It would also be an offence for a person who is aware of any violations of the bill’s wide-ranging provisions not to report them to the authorities within 24 hours.

Does anyone remember those ‘Transformations’ films? They described huge revivals sweeping through cities across the world, transforming whole communities. One of them described the revival taking place in Uganda;

How does a country undergoing such a process of freedom from oppression start to impose oppression on people as a result of their sexuality? Is this really the logical progression of revival- puritanical oppression of minorities?It should not surprise us I suppose – the lurch to the religious right is unfortunately a common phenomenon in Africa and elsewhere. It is all so depressing.

However, today I read on Brian McLaren’s blog something about a whole different movement – Amahoro Africa. It did something good to the heart to hear stories of how Christians are seeking a different kind of transformation.

I would love to go to this, but am not sure I would be much use…