A white van and a couple of angels…

What stories does a nation tell to one another whilst in exile? How do they understand their nationhood from the perspective of a refugee camp or even worse, a slave colony?

Much of the Old Testament emerges from this context- the people chosen of God, coming to terms with who they no longer are and dreaming of restoration, justice, peace; living in a land where the lion can lie down with the lamb. These dreams and hopes were often personified in the idea of Messiah- a great leader who would defeat the oppressors, and lead the people away from refugee status and establish a New Kingdom.

I mention this because the news has contained quite a bit about immigration of late. In the UK (and in Australia too it seems) the political landscape has shifted markedly to the right. The tabloids have thundered on for years about a so called tide of ‘others’ who are arriving on our shores, sucking our NHS dry, demanding benefits, taking all our jobs, filling our social housing estates etc etc. This has now become the agenda of government.

The general consensus even within the Left wing is that this is an issue that it is no longer possible to be ‘soft’ on. Labour has to be seen to be defending our borders from the seething mass of the outsiders who want to become our neighbours.

It is almost impossible to separate the social facts from the politics (or the politics from the economics) in all this thundering about immigration. I am tempted to try to discuss some of the figures, and what they might mean, but that is not the point of this piece. This is rather about the stories we tell one another.

The stories we currently tell in the UK are dominated by this kind of thing;


The government is experimenting with sending these vans around areas where lots of immigrants live, splashed with black backgrounds and pictures of handcuffs, offering to send people ‘home.’

The inference is obvious- you are not welcome here, we want you out and we are coming to get you. All this fits very well with a certain kind of story- the illegal immigrant as feckless and sneaky parasite, contaminating our country and its way of life with alien colour, religion and culture.

This story has been constructed from the mess of statistics surrounding immigration. Check out this article that dips its tows into this issue. A quote;

We know, for example, that the Office for Budget Responsibility thinks that immigration is good for the public finances in both the short and long run. We know that there is little evidence that immigration impacts negatively on jobs or wages; we know that immigrants are much less likely to claim benefits, and that they overall make less than proportionate use of public services like health. All of this research is based on government data on immigration and immigrants; the committee – and the government – would perhaps be better occupied highlighting the results and calling for further research in areas where we know less.

But I find myself desperate to hear other stories- ones that contain more grace, more humanity, even more plain intelligence. And for this, we can turn again to the stories of the Bible.

Stories of a proud nation, defeated by the rise of empire. Overwhelmed by global forces who have no interest in their God, their tribes, their history. Stories of people scattered, either by force or by economic necessity, to become the slaves and pawns of empire.

Then there are other stories, that tell the stories from the individual perspective. One of the most well known, if the most miss-interpreted, is this one;

Genesis 19

The Message (MSG)

19 1-2 The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening. Lot was sitting at the city gate. He saw them and got up to welcome them, bowing before them and said, “Please, my friends, come to my house and stay the night. Wash up. You can rise early and be on your way refreshed.”

They said, “No, we’ll sleep in the street.”

But he insisted, wouldn’t take no for an answer; and they relented and went home with him. Lot fixed a hot meal for them and they ate.

4-5 Before they went to bed men from all over the city of Sodom, young and old, descended on the house from all sides and boxed them in. They yelled to Lot, “Where are the men who are staying with you for the night? Bring them out so we can have our sport with them!”

6-8 Lot went out, barring the door behind him, and said, “Brothers, please, don’t be vile! Look, I have two daughters, virgins; let me bring them out; you can take your pleasure with them, but don’t touch these men—they’re my guests.”

They said, “Get lost! You drop in from nowhere and now you’re going to tell us how to run our lives. We’ll treat you worse than them!” And they charged past Lot to break down the door.

10-11 But the two men reached out and pulled Lot inside the house, locking the door. Then they struck blind the men who were trying to break down the door, both leaders and followers, leaving them groping in the dark.

12-13 The two men said to Lot, “Do you have any other family here? Sons, daughters—anybody in the city? Get them out of here, and now! We’re going to destroy this place. The outcries of victims here toGod are deafening; we’ve been sent to blast this place into oblivion.”

14 Lot went out and warned the fiancés of his daughters, “Evacuate this place; God is about to destroy this city!” But his daughters’ would-be husbands treated it as a joke.

15 At break of day, the angels pushed Lot to get going, “Hurry. Get your wife and two daughters out of here before it’s too late and you’re caught in the punishment of the city.”

16-17 Lot was dragging his feet. The men grabbed Lot’s arm, and the arms of his wife and daughters—God was so merciful to them!—and dragged them to safety outside the city. When they had them outside, Lot was told, “Now run for your life! Don’t look back! Don’t stop anywhere on the plain—run for the hills or you’ll be swept away.”

Sodom and Gomorrah, so often a phrase used to describe depravity- particularly of the homosexual kind.

You know the rest of the strange old story- how Lot pleaded for the city to be saved, but how in the end he and his family escaped, only for his wife to look back and be turned into a pillar of salt. It is a story that has all sorts of uncomfortable echoes as we tell it within our culture. How do we understand the sexual politics? The treatment of women? What is God condoning and what is God regarding as reprehensible?

But here I want to offer you this story as an image of how a people might abuse outsiders within our communities– how we might see them as less-than-human, how we might be able to demonise them to project our own fears of the unknown, or to meet our own baser fantasies.

Lot and his family (along with the two visiting angels) are the heroes of the story rather than the city dwellers themselves, and this changes everything.

Let us be suspicious of the politics of hate and fear, wherever we see it, and let us listen carefully to the stories of real people. Particularly people in exile.

A change of view (using high explosives…)

firth of clyde, night time


For years, the view along the Clyde has been dominated by the chimney from Inverkip power station. It is (or was) the highest free standing man made structure in Scotland; 20,000 tonnes of concrete piled 237 meters high.

The power stations was built in 1970, to be powered by oil, just before the oil crisis sent prices sky rocketing. The only time it has ever been used was during the miners strike in 1985, when it was switched on as some kind of black-leg to break the power of the National Union of miners, at goodness knows what cost.

Finally they have decided it has to go- it has no place in a globally warmed world with its dwindling oil reserves.  There have been several explosive demolitions on the site, but this one was the big one- the end of the huge chimney.

Down it went, leaving a ghost of itself in a kind of dusty effigy…

I took some dodgy video from one of the bed and breakfast rooms in our house. Here it is (with commentary by Emily, Netta and myself!)


Innellan CC v. Carradale CC, a few pics

A fantastic day playing away in Carradale. The sun shone, even if the cricketting skills did not. We were undone by a poor pitch and some poor shot selection…

William finished 20 not out, and outscored his father yet again!

Sam Hill is recording again…

If anyone asked you to tell them what was the best live performance you ever heard – the one that sticks in your mind most – what would it be?

All that variety of music I have heard – the first stadium rock gig (U2) the first chorale (Bach’s Mass in B minor) the first time I heard Bruce Cockburn play the guitar and make a masterpiece out of words and virtuosity.

Yet the one I would select would be the performance of a man called Sam Hill, along with a band, playing at Calvary Christian Fellowship some time in the early 90s. Everything was lovely- I was there with my friends and my wife, most of us made music together, and were familiar with the sound rig, the acoustics, but what Sam was able to use them to achieve was sublime. Beautiful songs, delivered in a butter smooth Lancashire accent, soaring fiddle playing, and skillful guitar.

I played a support gig for Sam a year or so later- I still have a recording taken as a direct output of the sound desk. We sound scratchy, amateur, even though we had fun. Sam (who had turned up late, with half a band, guitars with pick ups that did not work) sounds gorgeous.

I lost touch with his music. We both moved away from Lancashire, me to Scotland, he to Cornwall. The next time I stumbled across anything he did was a lovely album of poetry and music that he did with Steve Stockman.

Flash forward ten years or so, and I was sitting with my mate Andy in the performance tent at Greenbelt Festival. Incidentally the last time Andy had been at Greenbelt (back in the 90s) he had been playing guitar in support of Sam. Someone had dropped out and so they had brought in a special guest- some bloke called Sam Hill.

The years had not been easy on him. The songs were dark and the voice had gathered some gravel. But every now and then, the music would break out of the cage and come alive.

I mention all this as Sam has been recording again it seems. Another old friend (Bob Fraser- another talented songwriter) posted this on FB. Get the album when it comes out, I will!

(No idea why this video will not load on the page- you will need to click on this link;)



community 1

Readers of this blog will know that I am not one of those people who bemoan the passing of some kind of golden moral Christian age, when all was in its godly place.

Neither do I believe that our churches are the last repository of goodness within our sinful planet- the last means of the planets salvation.

But just sometimes, the zeitgeist gets me down;

The feeling that the beautiful creature, made a little lower than the angels, is busy shopping.

Is busy watching TV, obsessing about royal babies, caught up in rolling news bulletins showing the same clips of disasters in photogenic parts of the world.

Is concerned only with the next car, the next orgasm, the next holiday.

And I start to wonder again about the old Evangelical cliche about a God-shaped hole in the middle of us all.

I was thinking about this word recently;

ni·hil·ism  (n-lzm, n-)


1. Philosophy

a. An extreme form of skepticism that denies all existence.
b. A doctrine holding that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated.
2. Rejection of all distinctions in moral or religious value and a willingness to repudiate all previous theories of morality or religious belief.
3. The belief that destruction of existing political or social institutions is necessary for future improvement.
4. also Nihilism A diffuse, revolutionary movement of mid 19th-century Russia that scorned authority and tradition and believed in reason, materialism, and radical change in society and government through terrorism and assassination.
5. Psychiatry A delusion, experienced in some mental disorders, that the world or one’s mind, body, or self does not exist.
And it took me back the Matthew chapter 5– The words of Jesus that have been known as ‘The Sermon on the Mount’. All those words about finding a better way of living, characterised by love, service, justice, peacemaking.
And in a moment of bleakness (you have been warned) I wrote this;

Nihilist creed


Blessed are the neurotic

But skin them under a cold cloak of positivity

For who wants to see their damaged flesh?


Blessed are those who have loved and lost

For this life has few survivors

We will all too soon be dust


Blessed are the kind, the shy, the meek

Though their fortune fails and their labours are ignored

While the go-getters steal away the earth


Blessed are the God-botherers, the long-skirt-wearers, those frozen-chosen

Let them gather in their holy huddles, to ward off

The must and draft of their empty buildings


Blessed may be the charitable, but beware

For friends offering favours will always want something in return

And their helping hands only serve to show the weakness of your own


Blessed are those with no dirty secrets, with nothing to keep out the light

Let them shine for a while because we are watching and waiting

Nothing falls further than a second rate saint


Blessed are the community-makers, village hall re-painters, singers of the songs of peace

But Rome did not rise without war

So let them march and wave their banners while we sharpen our steel


Blessed are those who still have something to believe in

Fools that they are

For we will construct meaning only from what we can buy and sell


There is nothing more

Preparing girls for botox and compliance?

masked girls

I am a white male middle class man living in the rich west, owning a car, a house and a pension fund. Despite the sense of crisis that has us all fearfully looking over our shoulders at anything different, globally speaking I have got it made.

I heard this slightly annoying American phrase recently- ‘Mind your privilege’. Annoying, but apposite. There is that old Jesus phrase about camels and the eyes of needles. If we live with privilege, we live with the responsibility to question where this emanates from- how the operation of power and control in your favour affects others. This used to be a hot political topic in the UK- we seemed to genuinely strive for some kind of level playing field, even though it was such an elusive goal. We wanted to understand prejudice, class differences in education attainment, the reasons why black young men were vastly over represented in our prisons and our secure mental hospitals, and why women seemed to be second choice for every career promotion.

Which brings me to the point- the old male/female thing.

There seems to have been a kind of general feeling that the gender battle is over- the suffragettes sorted the political stuff, the pill liberated women sexually, the seventies feminists won all those equal pay battles, but since then might have taken the man-hating a bit too far. The reality of course is that by any measure of attainment, career choice, income, etc, men and women are not equal. In fact there is some evidence that things might be getting worse.

Alongside this, there are some cultural cues that are rather disturbing- and makes me wonder if we have come very far at all.

A few years ago, when my daughter was much younger, she came home from school and told me she had joined a group at school who were learning how to do cheer-leading. She was going through some of the usual in-group/out-group nastiness at the time, and this was something she could throw herself into that was socially acceptable for girls at her school- perhaps the only physicality that it was possible to display within the mainstream.

I was rather horrified to be honest, and had long conversations with her about cheer leading. It seems to me to be an activity that sums up the hierarchical, subordinate role of women in sport. They exist to ornament the achievement of their male counterparts, performing acts of sexualised public admiration. Sure, I know there is skill involved, and that there are male cheer leaders too, but we are talking about the symbolism here.

My daughter kind of fell away from it all, thankfully. She made new friendships, got into music and moved on. But I was left quite shocked by the culture of school in post modern UK. Mean Girls seemed to offer more of a glimpse of reality than I was prepared for.

I was reminded of all this when reading Tanya Gold’s piece in the Guardian.

Those who insist we are witnessing the end of men, and cite (middle-class) female over-achievement at school, university and in the early years at work as evidence that feminism has done its job – and promise we will shortly regard a female-run planet, like the Planet of the Apes but more spa-themed – ignore two critical factors: the likelihood of motherhood, and the enduring, complex legacy of a female education.

Even the Girls’ Day School Trust, not a notorious radical feminist pit or favoured kindergarten for the brave women of Femen and Pussy Riot, is concerned that the “skills” females learn at school damage them in the workplace. I agree. They are not so much skills, I think, as dating tips for women who will grow to live – or, if you prefer, die – by the rules.

Dr Kevin Stannard, director of innovation and learning at the trust, was moved to polemic in the Times Educational Supplement last week, as Totton and Zissman battled to impress Sugar with the depth of their conventionality. Stannard asked why, since “girls are outperforming boys at school and then at university … this superiority is not translating into sustained success in the world of work. From politics to the police service, men outstrip women in terms of salaries and representation at the top of management.”

How true. Those who fear the early success of girls, and foretell the end of men, surely miss the point. It is a trend that is swiftly decapitated, as Stannard says. And that women should end so badly, having begun so well, is only more appalling. “Are we,” he asks, “doing girls a long-term disservice by defining their performance in terms of their compliance to expectations of behaviour and work that reflect, reinforce and reproduce differences between the genders?”

Alongside this we have the kind of empowerment known as ‘girl power’- defined by celebrity, fake tan and botox. Girls are valued primarily for their decorative external assets once again. Watch them strut their stuff on the dance floor, coated in expensive cosmetics. If you miss the stereotype then get some work done.

I want so much more for my daughter, beautiful though she is. In saying this, I am aware that I would not be mentioning the beauty of my son had this been a discussion about male gender roles!

Now here is the question- where is the church on these issues?  How do we engage with our privilege? How do we seek to understand our culture, and to sprinkle salt to bring out the goodness. (Or to be engaged critics where we feel this to be appropriate?)

On the face of things, sadly, the answer is that we are doing poorly;

  • All the nonsense in the C of E about women bishops
  • Fixed ideas about the roles of women in other parts of the church
  • The theology of difference- based on readings of St Paul and the book of Genesis
  • The cult of the male worship leader, the male preacher, the male apostle

A work in progress then?

How do we live within the world, but not of it? How do we discover again the life of the Kingdom for women as well as men?

Not by the application of botox, of that I am sure.

A 12 year old Egyptian kid does politics and theology…

I do not pretend to know very much about the complexities of the political mess currently affecting Egypt. The main ingredients- the politics, the inequality, the religious extremities – are filtered through a media system that is skewed towards a western perspective, and all too addicted to the easy stereotype.

However, I saw this clip on FB the other day- see what you think. Is it for real? A hoax?

Or is this kid speaking in a clear voice on behalf of his people?

I am tired of attempting to justify religious absolutes, no matter where they come from. We Christians should always remember that Jesus had this way of subverting hard boundaries in the name of love.

When heard through the mouth of this precocious boy, anything else really does seem like nonsense…

The Holy Atheist Church…


I am sure many of you have heard of the Atheist church services put on by comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans in London. Around 600 non-believers have been gathering in Bethnal Green since January to listen to inspirational talks, sing songs accompanied by a live band, make friends and volunteer for good causes. Meetings are about to move from monthly to fortnightly.

It now seems that they are taking the idea to international heights- there is already a monthly event in New York, with ‘services’  to begin soon in Los Angeles, Chicago and Seattle.

A ‘religious’ service without God, I hear you ask- what is the point? This from here; 

The Sunday Assembly was created after Jones attended a Christmas carol service and enjoyed the sense of community: “There were so many wonderful things about it, but at the centre of it there was something I didn’t believe in. And for me, life is such an absolute gift so why can’t we talk about that?”

He added: “I’d always thought there’d be people in other parts of the world who would like this. It was picked up by the media and more than 750 people around the world have written to us saying they’d like a Sunday Assembly in their town.” At the New York meeting, the congregation sang songs by the Beatles and Queen, and closed with Proud Mary by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Guest speaker was Chris Stedman, a humanist chaplain at Harvard.

It coincided with the city’s Gay Pride march, so the theme was “coming out”. Jones said: “People in the US talk about coming out as atheists. I’d think, what’s an ‘out’ atheist? That’s bonkers.”

Jones visited nine other US cities where people asked for advice on setting up assemblies. In the UK, branches will launch in Bristol this weekend and Exeter and Brighton in September. Jones and Evans kick off a global roadshow on October 20, with 40 assemblies in 60 days. Locations, decided by demand via their website, include Australia, France and Scandinavia.

Evans, a Christian until she was 17, said: “When I stopped believing in God, I didn’t miss God but I did miss church. And that’s the point of the assembly, meeting like-minded people and bolstering each other up.”

Jones added: “Atheists are very good on reason, and science, but that doesn’t get you jumping out of bed in the morning. This is about being alive.”

All of which sounds quite lovely to be honest- anything that celebrates community, encourages people to do good things and to live life in a deeper and fuller way is OK with me.

I suspect that God might agree too.

What does it mean however to call yourself an Atheist? It suggests a little more than just indifference to the idea of a supreme being at the centre of it all.

Perhaps some might describe it as a religion that sets out to describe all other religions as wrong. There are after all a lot of those kind of religions.

As a Christian, I was brought up to see atheists as evil, deluded, the enemy. Agnostics were perhaps redeemable, but atheists were active opponents of God. They were sticking two fingers up at the divine and would have eternity to regret their foolishness. Militant atheists like Dawkins have done nothing to erode the battle lines.

I found this article by Andrew Brown in the Guardian really helpful, in which he describes six kinds of atheism (based on American research);

The largest group (37%) was what I would call “cultural non-believers”, and what they call “academic” or “intellectual atheists”: people who are well-educated, interested in religion, informed about it, but not themselves believers. I call them “cultural” because they are at home in a secular culture which takes as axiomatic that exclusive religious truth claims must be false. Essentially, they are how I imagined the majority readership of Comment is free’s belief section.

They are more than twice as common as the “anti-theists” whose characteristics hardly need spelling out here:

If any subset of our non-belief sample fit the “angry, argumentative, dogmatic” stereotype, it is the anti-theists. This group scored the highest amongst our other typologies on empirical psychometric measures of anger, autonomy, agreeableness, narcissism, and dogmatism while scoring lowest on measures of positive relations with others … the assertive anti-theist both proactively and aggressively asserts their views towards others when appropriate, seeking to educate the theists in the passé nature of belief and theology.

Nonetheless, these people made up only 14% of their sample, and all other research that I know of would place their proportion much lower.

The other two noteworthy groups are those to whom religion is completely and entirely irrelevant, “non-theists”, and what the researchers call “ritual atheists“, who overlap quite a lot with “seeker-agnostics”, both of whom might be targeted under the marketing category known as “spiritual but not religious”. What defines them is the ability to treat religious practices as something like acupuncture or Chinese medicine: something that works even though the explanation is obviously nonsense:

One of the defining characteristics regarding ritual atheists/agnostics is that they may find utility in the teachings of some religious traditions. They see these as more or less philosophical teachings of how to live life and achieve happiness than a path to transcendental liberation. Ritual atheist/agnostics find utility in tradition and ritual.

As the authors observe, this covers a large spectrum of American Jewry.

(One further category, “activist“, is used to label those who hold strong beliefs on ethical and environmental issues. Pretty much what the term means in lay parlance.)

I think the English, or more generally European results, would be different. The typologies are broadly the same, but since Christianity is much less of a marker in European culture wars, and certainly not an active one in the UK, you would expect the distribution of categories to be different, and for people to be very much less self-conscious about unbelief and less likely to regard it as a salient feature of their personalities.

Atheism is an honest response to lack of belief.

However, most of us who continue to try to live with faith in God have to admit to the presence of doubt, and I for one think we should be honest about this.

I liked the perenthetical trickery of  Pete Rollins who talks about (a)theism. Contained in all our ideas about God is also the idea that what we know is always incomplete, imperfect and error-strewn. He would contend that the only honest way to approach God is to start from the point of (a)theism- where our theories about God are confronted with our unknowing.

Gravity gets us all in the end my friends, and may we all fall into the arms of a loving God.