Homeless man

August 27, 2014



homeless 300x190 Gleaning recycling giving generosity featured “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God.”
(Lev 19:9-10)

Here is a good example of an Old Testament law that many admire. Ancient Israel, like most societies for most of human history, was based around farming and agriculture. The ability to grow crops, to grow more than you need to feed your family, so you have something to sell and trade was (still is) a vital piece in the nation building puzzle.

Yet here in Leviticus while the promised land was still a promise, God instructed his people not to maximise their profits, not to be ruthless in their harvesting but to remember the poor. The edges of the fields, the fallen grapes, the leftovers and scraps were to be left so that those who were without land could work, gather and survive.

The most famous example of this in the Bible comes from the story of Ruth who gleaned from the fields of Boaz. In an incredible picture of the gospel, the Boaz becomes Ruth’s redeemer who takes a poor immigrant outcast allows her to gain from his labour and then wins her as his bride. The gospel written into the ancestry of Jesus (Mt 1:5).

Whatever else we conclude about the God of the Old Testament, it is hard to argue that He did not, does not, care deeply about the fate of the poor, the refugee, the lowly. The Israelites had their commands to tithe and to give, but her woven into their new economic system was an instruction to care for the poor.

Today, gleaning is for most of us a principle in search of a practice. We love the idea, but now that more than half the planet lives in a city (and maybe as many as 70% by 2050) we don’t have fields or vineyards and we don’t grow our own food. In the UK, food banks have become one way for people to try and do something with this principle by encouraging people to buy a bit extra and then give that extra to a food bank.

In Sweden food banks don’t exist, so we’ve had to get creative. Sweden has a nationwide deposit system on canned or bottled drinks. You pay one or two crowns extra and then get that money back when you recycle the can or bottle at a return station (usually in the shops you buy the drinks from).

What I quickly noticed was that many of the homeless could be seen walking the streets of Stockholm gathering thrown away bottles and then recycling them and reclaiming the deposit. This has a number of benefits, it increases recycling, it provides a small amount of income to those who glean and they have to do something in order to gain a benefit. I’ve no idea whether it’s better than begging but I think I see the difference.

There are some differences, this is a product of our waste and not our work, it from our leisure and not our livelihood but we’ve begun to give our recycling to our local gleaners. Of course, if giving our plastic bottles and tin cans was the sum of our giving to the poor then that would be a poor showing indeed, but that isn’t what it’s about for us. We could keep the money, reclaim the deposit, walk past the gleaners. We could be more ruthless. Instead we’re trying to build habits into our ways of living that remember the poor.

How could you apply this principle where you live? Leave some ideas and suggestions in the comment section below.

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August 25, 2014


Book Review: The Year of Living Biblically

jacobs year living biblically 194x300 Book Review: The Year of Living Biblically As someone who possesses far too many unread books, there is a constant backlog and churn in my to-read list. I think it’s true to say that this book has been in my ‘to-read’ list for about seven years and only now makes the shift to ‘read’.

In 2007 AJ Jacobs was  an agnostic New York liberal (of Jewish heritage) working for Esquire magazine when he decided to write about biblical literalism. His approach was unique – for one year he would try to follow the rules of the Bible as literally as possible.

Jacobs had a few goals in writing the book one was to explore the spiritual dimension of life through immersion in its world. Another goal (and this is the key one) was to explore the topic of biblical literalism. An astonishingly high number of Americans claim to take the Bible literally (somewhere from one-third to over half) and as Jacobs says:

“A literal interpretation of the Bible – both Jewish and Christian – shapes American policies on the Middle East, homosexuality, stem cell research, education, abortion – right down to rules about buying beer on Sunday.” (p.6)

But Jacobs, quite rightly, suspected that most people were guilty of picking and choosing and Jacobs’ fearless year of doing it properly would expose the shallowness of these other literalists. What follows, in a year long journal of his efforts, is a very entertaining and insightful account of Jacobs’ journey.

As a Jew and because the Old Testament is bigger than the new, the majority of the book is weighted towards his exploration of the Hebrew rules so the section on the New Testament covers a mere 50 pages or so out of 330. To be honest, his heart really isn’t in his exploration of Christian literalism – not that I think he’s missing much.

Along the way, there are some strange and difficult rules to follow – his attempt at stoning an adulterer is hilarious and various sideways journeys into rabbinical Judaism are both curious and enlightening. As he discovers that it is almost impossible to take the Bible literally, he also discovers that the Bible also has much that is wise, virtuous and good and he chronicles the positive changes to his parenting among other things. He moves from thinking of religion as simply the cause of division to seeing how the religious do far more good than he had imagined.

Some of his attempts to be literal are just plain silly – not saying Thursday because it’s origin is the god Thor which violates Ex 23:13 and some are funny, his huge biblical beard and tassle-wearing, tent-making and pigeon lifting efforts. Often the attempt to be literal goes much further than the plain-reading would suggest but then, exactly how far do you take literal? Which is, after all, basically his point.

As a result of his quest to be ultra-literal, Jacobs book is oft-quoted in pop-level hermeneutics books – it’s the plea to drop the false notion that we take it literally, or that we don’t all pick and choose which is Jacobs’ conclusion:

“The year showed me beyond doubt that everyone practices cafeteria religion (pick and choose). It’s not just moderates. Fundamentalists do it too. They can’t heap everything on their plate…But the more important lesson was this: there’s nothing wrong with choosing…the key is is choosing the right dishes.” (p.328)

He then raises the key question that follows, what then of authority?

“Once you acknowledge that we pick and choose from the Bible, doesn’t that destroy its credibility? Doesn’t that knock the legs out from under it? Why should we put any stock in any of the Bible?” (p.328)

The question is a good one and Jacobs never really explores the ways Christians or Jews should interpret the Bible, that interpretation has always been a valid task or how one chooses is vitally important although that omission is not a fault of this book.

It’s worth noting this book is one of the more significant books of the past ten years because his ‘Year of…’ approach has also became much copied. Quite often it’s used as a tactic to try to prove the ridiculousness of your opponent’s position by showing how silly it is to take it literally, so don’t try to follow it at all like Rachel Held-Evans and her Year of Biblical Womanhood being a good example of that.

Overall, this is a really enlightening and entertaining read, it reveals as much about general contemporary ignorance of faith as it does about the complexities of living with faith and that literalism is not the way to go when it comes to reading the Bible.

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August 22, 2014


Film Review: Terms & Conditions May Apply

terms and conditions may apply xlg 194x300 Film Review: Terms & Conditions May Apply Have you ever actually read the terms and conditions before agreeing to a new app, website, download, program? No, me neither. As a result of all our online connections, purchases and browsing a lot more people know a lot more about you than you may be comfortable with. Your personal privacy is not very, well, private.

That’s the premise of documentary film Terms and Conditions May Apply as it explores the boundaries, safeguards (or lack thereof) of the information you willingly give to Facebook, Google, Amazon and a host of other companies and agencies.

The information age is only 25 years old, it is not a mature environment and in many places laws and practices are just beginning to take account of the sheer scale of human activity that takes place on the internet and to balance individual privacy, commercial attempts to exploit the mass of information available and geo-political issues. There’s no question that when it comes to setting the norms, values and practices and culture of the information age – Facebook and Google matter more than you or your government.

If you think this debate doesn’t matter, then well you’re not really thinking. From Wikileaks and Edward Snowden to an ill-advised tweet that could cost you your job, get you arrested for performing street theatre or ban you from international travel. The role of twitter in spreading revolution or propaganda is recognised by governments, terrorists and freedom seekers alike.

Facebook and Google and others (such as governments) have more information is available about you to pretty much anyone who wants to know. For example, Google (if they could be bothered) could compile a massive profile on you that has your life history, pictures of your family, your holiday habits, shopping habits, religious views, political preferences, probably what room you’re sitting in as you read this or whether you’re reading it on a train. They could tell your favourite colour, your sexual preferences, viewing habits, friends, travel movements, hopes and dreams, your current state of health and likely future health too. They would know your income, credit rating, educational achievements, they would know whether you look at porn or have bought 50 Shades of Grey instead of Calvin’s Institutes on your kindle and a lot more beside. Even though they say that information won’t be given to a third party, that’s not exactly true.

The basic answer most people give is ‘I don’t have anything to hide so what does it matter what they know?’ and the right answer to that, of course, is – you don’t know what you have to hide until you have to hide it. A Christian living in Iran or North Korea, if they had access to social media, must be extremely careful about what they say. As would a homosexual in Russia or Uganda.

Even today, companies as a matter of routine will Google you, check your Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter accounts before hiring you, how do you know that your personal views haven’t been taken into account? Of course, what we consciously publish is one thing, what they do with what we think is private is another. Which mostly means sell, so-called anonymous data for profit.

Additionally, many of us may think that if we delete an account (let’s say Facebook) then, well, it is deleted, which is not quite true. It may no longer be visible to other users but it is very visible to Facebook. Not quite deleted as in burnt and the ashes scattered to the four winds, more deleted as in hidden in the attic in case we one day need your data.

Like many documentaries TACMA is more interested in making a point than proving its case more polemic and partisan than investigative and inquiring; more fear-mongering than simple awareness raising. As a result it’s quite one-sided in its choice of interview subjects and lacks a balancing voice - there’s no level-headed commentator or journalist here to provide perspective. Still even so, this well-made film forcefully gets its point across.  Thought provoking stuff.

For those interested here’s a trailer

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August 19, 2014


Film Review: Connected

I’ve been doing some research into the issue of faith & technology (expect to read more of that in the coming months) and as part of that research loaded up a few documentaries. First up was Connected. The film, made by Tiffany Shlain who as the founder of the Webby Awards seems well placed for this, is about […]

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August 18, 2014


Baltic Pioneers

ergli camp

So as the summer holidays recede into the rear view mirror it is helpful to reflect on some of the things that happened before ploughing ever onward into the busyness of autumn. One of the highlights was a short camp we went to in Latvia. Hosted by our friend Matt Medd, it was a gathering of church […]

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June 19, 2014


Life Together: Confession & Communion

This is the fifth & final post in a series, taking an in-depth look at Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic, Life Together (Community, The day with others, The Day Alone, Minstry). As Bonhoeffer draws this work to a conclusion he refocuses his sight on the gospel and that a gospel community is made of sinners who have confessed their sin and found […]

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June 17, 2014


Life Together: Ministry

This is the fourth in a series, taking an in-depth look at Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic, Life Together (Community, The day with others, The Day Alone, Confession & Communion). Bonhoeffer opens this chapter with a stark warning; we can destroy Christian community. One of the ways true Christian fellowship can be broken is through self-justification which Bonhoeffer links back to […]

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June 13, 2014


Life Together: The day alone

 This is the third in a series, taking an in-depth look at Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic, Life Together (Community, The day with others, Ministry, Confession & Communion). After having looked at a day in community, Bonhoeffer turns to the individual and highlights two truths of the Christian faith: 1) “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community” 2) […]

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June 11, 2014


Life Together – The day with others

This is the second in a series, taking an in-depth review of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic, Life Together (Community, The Day Alone, Ministry, Confession & Communion). After having considered the nature and purpose of the Christian community and the foundation on which it rests, Bonhoeffer begins to establish a rule of life. A pattern to be adopted by believers […]

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June 10, 2014


God hates visionary dreaming

Let these two quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer challenge your thinking about leadership in the church and your own attitude and expectations of church. “God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. […]

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June 9, 2014


Life Together: Community

This is the first in a series, taking an in-depth review of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic, Life Together (The Day with Others, The Day Alone, Ministry, Confession & Communion). What is the church and what kind of corporate life should it have? These are important questions, especially in an age where style leads substance and effectiveness leads conviction. Into […]

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May 27, 2014


Interview: The Leadership Files

Some time ago I did an interview with Andy Peck for The Leadership Files radio programme on Premier Radio. I answer questions on books, running and church planting in Sweden. Have a listen here

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