Happy New Year?

1 January 2011

BBC Radio Humberside – New Year’s Day

Well I wish you a very happy New Year . But, having said that  I realise that we start 2011 with many problems before us – the weather, the economy and those myriad of personal issues which can so weigh us down.  So what does it need for us to be happy in this New Year?  Oscar Wildle that great manufacturer of sharp quotations observed that “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go”

But I am much more drawn to the anonymous observation that “Happiness is not the absence of problems but the ability to deal with them.”, because unless that’s true, then we are doomed to unhappiness, because throughout my life I have never known a time when there haven’t been problems to deal with and I suspect that’s true for all of us.  Indeed it is the problems which give life a texture and responding to them can bring out some of our best qualities.

There was a fashion for imagining a world which was problem free, one of the most famous versions was a book  by Sir Thomas More written some 500 years ago which he called Utopia – a fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean where there was no poverty or misery and all lived in harmony.  As we grapple with the recession, unemployment and all that comes with them, Utopia sounds a good place to be.  Of course the story of Utopia echoes the story of the Garden of Eden at the beginning of the Bible, where God places Adam and Eve in a paradise where there were no problems. An experience of harmony and peace which they can enjoy as long as they used their freedom of choice responsibly.

The story goes on that once Adam and Eve misused their freedom of choice, then paradise became an impossible place for them, because paradise requires a depth of responsibility which enables harmony to exist.  But as we look over human history and read our headlines today, it is clear that such a depth of responsibility seems beyond our capacity to achieve.  The distinctiveness of Jesus is not really so much about him being ‘good’, but about the depth of responsibility which he lived out – to such an extent, that those who met him had the experienced that something of paradise had come close to them.

In wishing you a happy new year, I am not offering a meaningless phrase, but a hope that we will each find the ability to deal with the problems and concerns which lie ahead, whilst at the same time discovering an inner sense of responsibility in the way in which we make our choices, so that something of paradise is found within us to enrich our lives in 2011.  So I do wish you a very happy new year…….



Happiness – beyond Government

16 November 2010

So the new government is going to conduct a survey to discover the levels of happiness in the country.   At last politicians have realised that there is more to life than the economy – a reality which many of us have promoted for a long time.  I just hope that given politicians habit of wanting to measure and control everything, we don’t end up with ‘targets’ for being happy – with pictures of smiling citizens lining the roads whenever a ‘beloved leader’ passes by!

Yet the pursuit of happiness and wellbeing is fundamental to being human.  I can’t recall meeting anyone who has set out either to be miserable, or to be unhealthy.  It is the changes, chances and realities of life which erode our sense of wellbeing and undermine our happiness – and this is something which politicians need to understand.

If the government is really committed to happiness then they have to accommodate the simple truth that it is very difficult to be happy if you have lost your job; it is hard to be happy if your benefits have been cut or removed; it is impossible to be happy if the chaos of poverty becomes your everyday experience.  But most importantly they need to understand that for many of us, we cannot be really happy ourselves when we know that others are suffering and have become victims of the need to balance the budget.

But ultimately happiness is an inner and spiritual quality beyond the reach of legislation and politics. Happiness is something about how we shape our lives and order our priorities.  Indeed we can do much to promote our own happiness and well being.  Learning how to love, to be loved and forgive are sure foundations to a happy life.  Discovering how to value others and preserve one’s own dignity are each ways of securing our sense of wellbeing.  Controlling our anger, greed and sexuality each contribute to stability in life from which we can live at peace with ourselves and our neighbours.

Governments have a responsibility for providing a context and an economy which promote happiness, but in the end it is how we live our lives, relate to each other and share out the good things of life which secures our future.  It is all summed up in a verse from the Bible written many centuries ago, it just says – do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.

Beware the simplicty of extremists

26 October 2009

Article in the Cleethorpes Chronicle  – 29.10.2009

There was a stark contrast between some of the views being aired on last Thursday’s BBC Question Time and the gathering of the Normandy Veterans Association in Westminster Abbey last weekend.  During Question Time we glimpsed the sort of extremism which feeds on demonising a particular group of people and, in contrast, on Sunday the veterans remembered the enormous human cost of combating extremism once it takes hold of power.  Extremism, whether it is political, economic or social, brings in its wake human suffering and misery – how little we learn from history.

The essential feature of the extremist is simplicity.  Simplistic answers to the problems of the age.  In a democracy it is seductive stuff because the simplicity of the extremist offers quick and easy remedies.  In Germany in the 1930’s it was the Jews who were blamed for all the problems and finding a final solution to the Jews would ensure that all would be well.  Tragically there is a long list in modern history where the simplistic answers of the extremists have led to appalling violence, genocide and ethnic cleansing.  In fact I cannot think of any situation where extremism has led to human happiness and flourishing.

The problem with extremist views is that they are cloaked in sounding plausible. Yet they have to distort the truth because they actually have no ability to answer the deep problems of society.    So for the extremist, all asylum seekers are ‘bogus’, people living on benefits are ‘scroungers’,  unemployment  is cause by immigrants and if only we could get back to the purity of the indigenous English people, then all would be well.

D-day vetsWhat utter nonsense it is, yet it is seductive because at elections we want to give power to those who are going to sort things out.  If only life was like that.  Yet as those D-day veterans know only too well – give power to an extremist and it has to be wrestled from them at great cost.

The Normandy Veterans gathering begins this season of remembrance leading up to 11th November.  Once again I will be thanking God for the sacrifice of so many in wresting power from the extremists, whilst praying that we will never again be seduced by their simplicity – for it masks the dark side of human nature which is crucifyingly costly to defeat.

A healthy society defends the vulnerable

18 August 2009

Article in the Cleethorpes Chronicle  – 14.08.09

The name and memory of Peter Connelly, known for so long as Baby P, joins a sad and far too long list of children who have died at the hands of those whom they could have expected to give them the love, protection and security which is surely the right of every child.  This week the release of Peter’s name, along with the names of those who were responsible for his wicked injuries and death has brought Peter’s short and tragic life back to public attention.

There can be no excuses for Tracy Connelly, Stephen Barker or Jason Owen whose actions and inactions caused and allowed Peter to suffer so much.   Once again we are reminded that the vulnerable – whether they be young or old – are at the mercy of those who have them in their care.  Yet vulnerability is at the heart of being human for it is the stuff of our early years, of our old age and, for some, it is their experience throughout life.

A symptom of a healthy family is the care and attention it gives to its most vulnerable members and the same is surely true for a community.  It is how we invest in and support the most vulnerable in society which reveals the quality of our communities.  As we reprioritise our public spending in the wake of the current recession, we must be wary of those politicians who would look for savings in our support for the vulnerable, the sick and the casualties of modern life.  As I see it, their care, through the work of the social services and other agencies, is a good gauge of the health of our nation.

Jesus said “By their fruits you shall know them” and that remains a good measure for many things, not least in our attitude to the vulnerable.   Baby Peter is a sad reminder that when the strong take advantage of the vulnerable – then pain, suffering, misery, death and wickedness are ever present.  The only remedy is for the strong and capable to be vigilant and to demand that the vulnerable are supported and protected.  Another phrase of Jesus comes to mind: “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me”.

The Power to be Wrong

2 October 2008

Well after some weeks off writing this blog, I feel it is time to get back to it. Thank you to all those who have been prompting me so to do.

At a very gloomy time for news, for me a bright spot has been the success of the group of retired Gurkhas in their fight for the right to settle in Britain. Leaving aside the immigration issues, the story is  a very good example of a reality that being in power and having the support of lawyers officials etc., does not always mean that you are right.  Here the government were wrongly advised and thank God for the impartiality of the courts.  But does it always have to entail litigation?

We have developed a culture  where it has become acceptable to be just inside the law.  Such a culture pervades government, business and even the voluntary sector.  It enables those in power to sit very likely to the needs of the powerless or to upholding what is right, because they know that, in the main, the powerless do not have the resources to champion what is right. Only the well resourced can take the risk of challenging the powerful, for if the powerful are in the end deemed to be just on the right side of what is lawful, then the  financial consequences for the powerless can be disastrous.

The Gurkhas have been able to wage a very public campaign, but how many other instances are there of people with  power and position, supported by lawyers, assuming they can do what they like because they are just inside the law?  Those of us with power need to be certain that our first motivation is to do what is right, rather than what it is expedient.  At times there will be those who will prompt the powerful to see what they can get away with, but the world is a better place when powerful are prepared to be wrong in the eyes of those driven by expedience, for the sake of doing what is right.

As we look at the turmoil on the global financial markets, how much of this is being driven by those who have lived just inside the regulations and just inside the law, justifying their risks because they can get away with them for short term advantage, rather than starting from a desire to do what is right for the long term.

The power to be wrong in the face of expedience, may, in the long-term, lead to a far healthier future –  especially when you are dealing with people.  When we work with people doing what is right builds trust – doing what we can get away with, erodes it – will the Gurkhas ever trust the government again?

Lambeth Day 9

25 July 2008

How many demonstrations in London end with a rally addressed by a Prime Minister and member of the G8?

After a remarkable piece of logistics, we all decamped to London today to march through the heart of the capital city calling for renewed energy to be put into achieving the Millennium Development Goals as promised by the year 2015.

The Millennium Goals are about justice and I can’t really describe how I felt to be walking alongside Bishops from places where justice is an elusive quality, where poverty is the norm and where corruption blights the lives of millions.  To me this is what needs redeeming in this world and this is what God’s mission in Christ is all about – the flourishing of humanity.

Over lunch I talked with a Bishop from east Africa who told me how his mind was on his son who had been beaten up and left deaf in one ear by the police, just before he left his country to come to the Conference. It was a horrific story and as he shared it, the pertinence of what we are about was reinforced – how can anyone flourish when they are the victims of corruption and injustice.

One march does not change much, but we needed to demonstrate that we are united in the cause of justice.  The flow of purple cassocks caught the attention of the press, media and passers-by enabling us to remind people that eight years ago promises were made by the rich and powerful in the world to address poverty, injustice and the chronic economic imbalance which so blights the lives of many.     There is much to do to deliver on those promises and only seven years are left to do it.

I talked with a number of Bishops and their spouses and heard how they were immensely encouraged to hear the Prime Minister’s passion about achieving the Millennium Development Goals. They also recognised that it is only a worldwide Communion, such as ours, which would receive the attention of a world leader.

The day continued with the Bishops and their spouses receiving hospitality both from the Archbishop and then from the Queen at a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace.   In the beautiful and peaceful setting of the Palace Gardens I took a moment to reflect that we had spent a day immersed in the contrasts and complexity of life.   During our day we have travelled together, witnessed to our faith, shared in hospitality, engaged with the powerful and promoted the cause of justice – we must try to do more of this!

You can’t be civilised and risk-averse

16 July 2008

I thought that the war on terror was being waged against those who are intent on destroying our civilisation.

I thought that a war on terror was being promoted to protect the values which deliver the freedom which we have won and celebrated from Magna Carta, through to reformation, revolution and two world wars.

I thought that it was a war being waged to defend the way in which we champion the weak, how we protect the freedom of the individual to speak and think, how we ensure that the rights of the individual are safeguarded against the abuse of the powerful and to reinforce our determination that all should live equally under the rule of law.  Yet the sickening sight of 16-year-old Omar Khadr being interrogated at Guantanamo Bay asks searching questions about the the nature of our civilisation and our willingness to live with the risks which come with allowing people to live in freedom.

Once we allow ends to justify means, then we are on a slippery slope to behaving exactly in the same way as those who we claim to be a threat to our way of life.  Guantanamo Bay, ‘extraordinary rendition‘ and ‘waterboarding‘ are examples of how quickly the values of a society can be set aside to achieve the end of safety.  In our own country we witness rights before the law, which have taken centuries to become a feature of our version of civilisation, being set aside on the premise that we will be safer and that we should trust those in power. The film Taking Liberties suggests how our basic liberties have been eroded since the war on terror began.

There continues to be popular support for many of the incursions into our basic values from a public which wants to be safe – and in many ways I am in tune with that desire, especially when I am travelling on the London tube etc.  But lurking in the back of my mind is the question – can you be civilised and free of risk?  Isn’t a free society one where we make ourselves vulnerable because we give other people the same rights as we expect?

Western civilisation has the Christian story deep within its foundations.  The story of a God who comes to us full of risk and vulnerability as we encounter him in the man Jesus.  If we take risk and vulnerability out of our attitude to freedom and out of our way of life – then we become a very different society, for into the vacuum created by the absence of risk and vulnerability comes power and control (“because we know what’s best for you etc.”).

Those who feed on the risk-averse nature of our culture to justify their actions are in danger of usurping the very civilisation they claim to be defending.

Spare a thought

23 June 2008

My contribution to BBC Radio Humberside’s Breakfast programme on Monday 23/06/08

The news from Zimbabwe that the Movement for Democratic Change has decided, in the face of mounting violence and intimidation across the country, not to contest the presidential election run-off, is a salutary reminder of Lord Acton’s observation, as far back as 1887, that ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.  It is a desperate situation for the people of this country – a place so full of natural resources and potential, yet held in the vice like grip of a corrupt regime which presides over the economic chaos which gives rise to so much poverty and injustice.

The people of Zimbabwe join with those of Burma and Tibet in experiencing the political impotence which comes when those who have power have no real interest in the long-term flourishing of the individual, but are consumed with retaining power for themselves.

Of course on a Monday morning in Humberside all this seems a long way away and it is tempting to relegate the plight of the Zimbabweans to the background chatter of the news headlines.  There are other things more pressing on our time and demanding of our attention – yet one of the strengths of our age is that the plight and sufferings of others has an immediacy which draws us into their situation.

Freedom is a precious commodity, which I believe is God-given.  It gives us the dignity of making choices about how we shape our lives and our futures.  In a democracy we surrender something of that freedom every time we go and vote. Elections give us the opportunity to comment on the way in which our freedom is being used by the government and if we feel that they are wasting the opportunities we’ve given them, then we can remove them from power.

It has taken us a long time to reach the point where the democratic choice of each and every adult is part and parcel of our freedom and a sign of our dignity with in our community.

We quickly forget the struggles that we had in our own country for everyone – male and female to be able to vote.  Indeed it wasn’t until 1928, only some 80 years ago, that women in England got the same voting rights as men.  The struggles for the right to vote where about status — to be given the vote confirmed that a person mattered – they had status.

The way in which the people of Zimbabwe are being treated by their government just says that the people don’t matter – in the eyes of a corrupt regime the people have no status.  And as our week gets underway we may well feel that there is nothing we can do to change this situation – but there is – we can give them status by just pausing to think about them.  Those of faith can hold the Zimbabweans in their prayers and those who don’t have faith can still stop and give the people of is Zimbabwe a status by keeping them in their hearts and minds.

One might feel that this is a rather small and inconsequential response to the plight of a people so abused by the powerful — but deeds of darkness flourish when the world is preoccupied with its own busyness.  Robert Mugabe’s regime will fall, but its end will be hastened by a world which recognizes that people of that country, each of them, have a status which cannot be removed by the corruption of politicians and in the meantime we gave a small amount of our time each day to think of them because they may not matter to your Robert – but they do to us.

Everything must change

13 June 2008

I have just been reading a really challenging book by Brian McLaren called ‘Everything must Change’. In the book McLaren looks at the values which are around in contemporary life and sets them against the life of Jesus. He argues that the core message of the gospel actually addresses the economic, political, environmental and social problems of our age, but for it to speak into our age, the church has to move away from talking about the externals of faith and concentrate on what Jesus was actually trying to say.

In many ways he is stating the obvious, but I have sat through so many sermons (and preached a few of them myself I fear!) which are brilliant about the finer points of doctrine, or biblical criticism, or church life, but which don’t actually address the gospel themes of justice, peace, forgiveness or hope. Too often we assume these things are known and understood, forgetting that we are in a culture which doesn’t really understand that this is the stuff we are about. What McLaren reminded me was that this lack of understanding is to be found amongst those who are part of the church, as well as amongst those yet to include themselves in our number.

If you really want to be challenged about the Christian faith – what it means and how we have allowed the practice of faith to divert us from the core message of Jesus, then this is the book for you.

28 or 42 days – living within the tension

11 June 2008

As the House of Commons prepares for its vote on the extension of how long terrorist suspects can be held without charge it is encouraging to see some MPs in moral anguish about which way to vote. Liberty and freedom are ill served by MPs who blithely support the government regardless of concience or regard to the bigger picture of freedom and rights.

When we give power to governments through the ballot box, the first duty of the elected government is to protect the people from abuse of the power which they have been given. It is often portrayed that the government’s first duty is to protect the people from external threat, but history suggests that the biggest threat to the individual comes not from a foreign power but from their own government and its agents abusing their power. We are too quick to forget the Matrix Churchill affair where it was clear that the Government was more concerned about its public face than the freedom and rights of the individual. The Scott report revealed that the government of the day was prepared to sacrifice the freedom of the company directors by putting them on trial, rather than lose face (see The Scott Report).

We have already seen the anti-terror laws used in ways they were not intended, e.g. to prosecute individuals such as Milan and Maya for expressing their freedom of speech. More and more laws, give more and more opportunities for agents of the government to abuse the power they have been given.

If freedom is a God-given aspect of being human and a symptom in each of us having a God-given dignity, then we need to resist every attempt to interfere with that freedom, unless we are convinced that the gift of freedom has been abused. We need to set a high standard for removing or restricting the freedom of others, for we are each the focus of God’s loving attention. There has to be a balance between this belief and the safety of the community – the real question for MPs tonight asks how far we are prepared to live within that tension.