We need to get some things in perspective when it comes to politics, economic policies, and in particular how our Government decides to use its money and save its money. There will always be debate, discussion, disagreement and at times downright ideological collision when it comes to state funded welfare, the NHS, national infrastructure and much else that contributes to the spagghetti plate intertwining and complexity of contemporary national and international finances. And I'm no expert on any of these. Even if I were, it would still be extrememly unlikely I could untangle the particular strands of spaghetti that belonged to my area of pretended omniscience.
So I'm happy to scale down my goal to something I, and most people reading this, know something about. Truth, honesty, trust, integrity, insofar as these are required in one who holds public office and who runs a Government Department which is entrusted, (mark that word which I use advisedly and intentionally), entrusted with overseeing the state's provision for a particular group of people. Such people as the elderly who rely on a state pension, the funds of which have been paid for an entire working life; unemployed people, the large majority of whom would work if they could, and if the could afford to live on what they are paid - hence tax credits and other allowances to support them in work; those who are ill and unable to work, whether short term or long term, and their right to be able to live with dignity, access to care and medical resources and attention; those who care for others to their own cost in life energy, time, money and loss of work, and whose care for and support for others it is in the interests of the state to support. The list could be longer but these will do.
Which brings me yet again to the vexed question of benefit cuts, austerity programmes and that recent euphemism of the uncaring powerful, benefit sanctions. Why not use the word punishment, chastisement, confiscation? Why use a word that is used politically for rogue nations which need to be made to suffer to make them comply with the will of those who inflict such loss and consequence on others because they can? The attacks on this unjust and arbitrary system of sanctions, differing from locality to locality, are answered with remorseless and monotonous mantras - it is to help people back to work, it is to reduce the deficit, it is within the austerity programme to which the electorate gave its democratic approval, it is to help those who do the right thing.....stop there, right there!
"Those who do the right thing...." The DWP admits now that it used fake identities and photographs, and fictional testimonials in its publicity about how sanctions have been praised as beneficial (conferring benefit, ironically) and just what was needed to get some people back to work. Iain Duncan Smith is in charge of the Department which has lied to the public, defended a controversial policy with made up propaganda, refused repeatedly to respond to a freedom of Information request for figures relating to benefit sanctions and suicide, and over the weekend played down reports of training of front line staff in dealing with suicide threats from distressed people being refused benefits. And he is still in office. Now I am not surprised at this; I am shocked and disappointed that I live in a country where such a scandal does not raise the question of a person's fitness for office.
Which brings us back to the words truth, honesty, integrity, and trust, and what it means for a Cabinet Minister, responsible for many of the most vulnerable people in society to be entrusted with such a portfolio. At the very least, it means he shouldn't preside over a Department that defends his policies with fake photos, made up stories and a Government department constructing the identities of people who don't exist - and using them as evidence that their policy works. And when found out, then makes no excuses, offers no apology but raises its eyebrows in surprise that we should ever have had a problem with such things because they are merely illustrative, not intended to deceive, they were produced to show people how the system works well.
There is something genuinely, and chillingly Orwellian in all this. The person on beneift is being patronised and persuaded by Government propapagnda. The truth is being illustrated with lies; policy makers' ideology and mythology is being confirmed by made up personal testimonies of people who don't exist; these actions of deceit are no such things, silly person, they are our Government helping us understand their good intentions. And far from them apologise and acknowledge this is wrong, just wrong, we are made to feel we are children in an adults' world who need to understand the realities of a Government that knows what is good for us. And will tell us so, with made up stories. And no answer yet to the link between benefit sanctions and the incidence of suicide amongst those so sanctioned.
So just be absolutely clear (I love that prefix, so beloved by Margaret Thatcher, signalling what is about to be said will communicate my superior viewpoint over your mere partial grasp of things) - just to be absolutely clear; a leaflet put out in the name of a Government Department, for the purpose of promoting their policy, providing evidence and answering critics, is required to be accurate.
Essay Question: What ethical considerations would you suggest could be presented as a defense for producing a publicity leaflet purported to be an accurate account of the facts, and which contained fictional testimony, false names and borrowed photographs?
The elder statesman of Evangelicalism for over 50 years was John Stott. He managed to maintain a balance of strongly held convictions, biblical faithfulness and a genuine humility, in the presence of opinions, ideas and people with whom he profoundly disagreed. Some of his words written in an early publication should be laminated and attached to the outside door of any room where theological education takes place.
Life is a pilgrimage of learning, a voyage of discovery, in which our mistaken views are corrected, our distorted notions adjusted, our shallow opinions deepened, and some of our vast ignorance diminished."
The experience of the Summer School this week has not been dissimilar to those attitudes which in fact underlie all good teaching and all good learning. Our keynote speakers have each spoken out of their experience, but without insisting that gave a claim to be right without further discussion. The Bible studies led by Tom Greggs have set our talking and listening, our sharing and questioning, our differences and togetherness all in the light of Paul's vastly painted canvas of cosmos and church, election and service, God's purposes and our strategies. Peter Neilson has ensured that each day has been bracketed with prayer and worship, contemplative waiting and open-hearted intercession. Together Tom and Peter have helped us create spacious minds and hospitable hearts in order for us to welcome new thinking, searching questions and theologically potent pointers for developing our own vocational gifts.
So when we have talked in our small groups, or over lunch and coffee, or walking in the campus grounds, we have done so in an environment of openness and trust, because nobody feels the need to be right, to have the last word - or even the first word. We are a very diverse bunch, from Seattle to Ireland, post-graduate and undergraduate, theological educators and folk who have made time and expense available to be part of this pilgrimage of learning and voyage of discovery.
There is something special about a week of collaborative learning when together we are open to the rest of John Stott's description of evangelical and intellectual humility. There's time to think; good folk to talk things over with; experienced people whose vocational achievements are very different, very impressive, but who are the last to see it and the least impressed by it! Alison Wilkinson, Nick Cuthbert and John Miller have offered their personal experience for scrutiny to help us see further and better; they have spoken with that unassuming and therefore more persuasive authority of people who don't need to be right all the time, and therefore make themselves accessible to the rest of us; and they have spoken out of a love for God, an experience of the grace of Christ, and a life in which as they have walked in the Spirit, so blessing has fallen on the paths the rest of us walk.
It's been a good week. It will finish tomorrow, but in another sense it will start tomorrow. Because learning only begins as informative; it then becomes formative as we take it to heart and begin to perform better the script of our lives; and then it becomes transformative as one life touches another, and we become conduits of grace and mercy and peace, ambassadors of Christ, ministers of reconciliation, a community who make the Gospel real through the embodied practices of love, peacemaking and compassionate generosity. The view up into the library building is a stunning concept, like a ladder of knowledge, or a spiral of the intellect, or layers of learning - whichever image it evokes, it encourages a commitment to continue the pilgrimage of learning, and to travel forward on the voyage of discovery.
Two things. First, those children's talks that start with some weird or banal object, or some far fetched quirky story and change key with the phrase, "and that's a bit like Jesus."
Second, I remember a friend telling me of the day Martin Niemoller preached in their church, and when he shook his hand he said, "It was like shaking Jesus' hand - you could feel the holiness." This was a Paisley, West of Scotland working man, who knew holiness because he saw often enough its opposite.
Keep those two phrase in mind - "that's a bit like Jesus" and "it was like shaking Jesus hand..."
Yesterday at Summer School we had the privilege of listening to the Very Rev John Miller, formerly Moderator of the Church of Scotland and more imprtantly, former minister of Castlemilk Parish Church from 1971-2008. I have rarely listened to a more inspiring piece of Christian storytelling, a testimony of one man's determined vocation to take seriously and compassionately the people among whom he had chosen to live. The details of the story can be found over here in an article published in The Herald. I want to mention a few personal responses to what John told us.
This is a man who chose to live in a Glasgow Corporation house rather than the manse in the leafy suburbs of Rutherglen, and declined to use a church car paid for by members most of whom stood in the rain at bus stops. Who with others persuaded changes in Government policy on how benefits were paid in order to deal with indebtedness, rent arrears, eevictions and family homelessness. Mary Miller was a founder of the Jeelies, the children's provision after school which gave birth the the Jeely piece song - listen to the authentic Matt McGinn version over here. When John discovered young people who died 'before their time' had no annual memorial service he called a meeting of the folk, and they arranged to have a day when flowers could be tied to the steel railing fences approaching the big roundabout in Castlemilk, remembering those who had died from drug overdose, alcohol misuse, suicide, murder, and other young lives ended too soon. The result was the formation of the Lost Lives Project. He took any funeral he was asked to take sometimes 4 a week, and for over 30 years wrote a personal obituary of each one, printed it and gave it to the closest relative - and this started before the advent of computers, printers and email.
None of these commitments are core to the organisational and institutional life of the church; each of them is core to a life which, for anyone watching, seemed to replicate in the humanity, compassion and determined goodness of the doer, the way of Jesus with people. John still has no real persuasion that what he did was all that special, or indeed was in any obvious way, 'participating in the ministry of Christ'. I think the real witnesses who could convict him of his own goodness are those mums and dads of children who died before their time, some of whom frame what the minister wrote about their boy or lass; those children many middle aged now who were in the Jeely Piece Clubs; two generations of Christians who witnessed a minister doing stuff that was not the done thing till it was done often enough to convince them it should be the done thing.
Those of us who heard John tell the story of Castlemilk community will never forget those few hours of testimony, from a man humble and genuinely puzzled that others should find it remarkable. Personally, listening to John, and having time to talk with him over coffee and a meal, and thinking of how to interpret a ministry so bespoke to a community, I can think of no better phrase than "and that's a bit like Jesus." We've been working through Ephesians led by Professor Tom Greggs at this Summer School and one of the big themes is holiness, that we are called to be "holy and blameless in love." Whatever else John Miller's ministry has demonstrated, and whatever else 'holiness in love' might look like, it may be that unselfconscious goodness, patient love written in words and actions over decades, and seeing ways of making life less hard and lives less broken, that too "is a bit like Jesus."
On the way to the Summer School yesterday I stopped to take a photo of the Library building. I remember when it was being built, being outraged at the creation of a huge fish tank on a skyline that included King's College and St Machar Cathedral! Then I became more persuaded, until finally, with some reluctance, I admitted the building is beautiful.
Some might say stunning, innovative, eye-catching, imaginative - and I'm ok with these. But only ok. Because I think it is beautiful and culturally subversive. It wouldn't be out of place in the City of London, as the corporate headquarters of a powerful financial institution. And I like the architectural and cultural statement that books and archives, learning and knowledge, wisdom and understanding, a library, the place where we go to know more and diminish ignorance, to grow and explore and imagine and give birth to ideas, a library building, is a power statement.
The Summer school is about all these things - learning and knowledge, wisdom and understanding, a time and space to know more and grow more, to meet and encounter others, to listen and to give effort to understanding and seeing things new. From the library top floor, looking out to the North Sea you have a heightened perspective, a further horizon, unexpected presences in boats offshore, waiting their time in harbour. In Summer School we have that same sense of going up higher to look at things differently, and seeing new things we previously missed in lives often to busy and downward looking to see.
Then there are the windows. Odd shaped, as much a picture frame as a window, but a picture frame that isn't symmetrical, regular and comfortably familiar. Instead you see through its narrowing perspective; as we all do through our own worldview, our prejudices, the window frame of our own limited experience and vision. So we listen to each other, and those who have come to share. And we learn stuff! We see further, things that have long perplexed us have that 'Ah' moment when we 'get it'.
John Miller talking about the immensity of Castlemilk as a parish he served for near 40 years, and the formation of a pastor's heart in the very work of forming community in a vast housing scheme;
Nick Cuthbert talking about ministry as vocation that can become all consuming and the care and wisdom needed to be faithful to the Lord who does not call to self- destruction but to self-giving love sustained by sufficient grace.
And Tom Greggs takes us to that long 8 verse sentence at the start of Ephesians which is all about that grace whose foundation pillars are in the predestined purpose, promise and power of the God who is before all else a Redeeming God.
And so we are encouraged to see. To climb the 193 stairs or take the lift, but either way get up to the top floor and look at our world, our ministry, our self, and to do so eyes open to all God is doing in our lives, and in our world.
The Centre for Ministry Studies at the University of Aberdeen is launched into its first Summer School. The theme for the week is 'Participating in the MInistry of Christ' and we will explore Christian Ministry through the lenses of some of the defining theology that lies at the heart of Christology and ministry.
Ministry is incarnational; the down to earth glory of the Word become flesh points a ministry equally contextual, specific and among these people in this place.
Ministry os cruciform; just as Jesus both promised and warned, the seed must die, as the cross becomes both event and experience in the care and accompaniment of people within the events and experiences of human community.
Ministry is resurrectional; the eruption of life out of death means new creation, new life now, and ministry is a calling through service of word, sacrament and prayer to enable and encourage the body of Christ to live life to the full.
Ministry is ascensional; the ascended Lord, absent yet present, continues a ministry of intercession, gift giving and empowering so that the body of Christ is renewed and equipped in being the mission of God.
These are intended as days of reflection and renewal, re-orientation of ministry and refreshing of vocation. Each day a Bible study on Ephesians and two main sessions from keynote speakers chosen because of their proven fruitfulness in ministry and faithfulness to the core vocation of serving Christ with their gifts and energy.
I'll say more about the themes and the speakers in several posts this week. The photo is of King's College chapel, Aberdeen, at dusk.
"Run with perseverance the race that is set before you", that text for everyone who jogs, runs, cycles, cross-country nordi walking and the many other ways we postmodern car mobile, labour saving enthusiasts, take up the need to recover or maintain the fitness of our bodies. I remember a fitness instructor asking me what I want to be fit for. I had no intentions of entering triathlons, becoming an iron man, or even running competitively. I just wanted to be in good aerobic con dition for my age, a healthy weight, and physically able to do the things I enjoy, from 5 a side football to hill walking and any other activity that is as much fun as can be squeezed in per calorie burned.
There is no need for an advanced science of physiology or a PhD in nutrition. Exercise regularly making sure you stretch beyond what's comfortable, and eat sensibly. Problem is doing this as a way of life rather than as something to be endured in order to have a way of life. I sit a lot. If you write, read, study, and parts of your working life are composed at a keyboard, then chunks of time the body is on under-drive.
All of this had me thinking this morning while I was out running. That early I tend to do a walk / run, and depending how I'm feeling more of the one or the other. The person who wrote that magnificent half-time team talk which we call the Epistle to the Hebrews was a brilliant motivator. He could paint word pictures of the superiority and supremacy of Jesus, the great Encourager, and just as quickly create images of the human Saviour who understands suffering and tears. He knew how to appeal to the longing and ambition of those first followers of Jesus, who wanted to train, to be fit, to play their part in the great commission of living for God in a careless world. And he knew the importance of perseverance, of running the race by putting one foot in front of the other, and not stopping.Look to the Captain he said, look to Jesus the One way out front, and go after him, to the cross, to the empty tomb, to the God-loved world.
When I run in the morning at some point I mutter a Bible verse breathlessly, a way of ruminating, and one of the verses with obvious congruence is "Run with patience the race that is set before you, looking to Jesus, the author and pioneer of our faith". It isn't quite the devotional reverie it sounds; it is muttered through gritted teeth, and given urgency by legs complaining about the lungs needing to work harder. But there is something spiritual happening when aerobic exercise is linked with the day after day discipline of obedience to God, the cost and consequence of following faithfully after Jesus, the sheer toil at times, of perseverance. It helps that the route I take looks across some of the most scenic skylines in Aberdeenshire.