Week 5 miscellany: celebrity deaths, eagles killing drones, help with prayer, hope & despair in football

This photo I took doesn't come close to showing the wonderful colours in the sky on Monday just before Storm Henry arrived. Search "nacreous clouds" to see what it was like. 

Why do people mourn the deaths of people they never knew? Mathew Block shares John Donne's explanation.

The more people on the planet, and the more of them who want to eat meat, the more we've got to raise our farming game. Betsy Isaacson reports on the latest agricultural ingenuity.

Praying can be hard, so here are some helps. Gavin Ortlund lists seven ways to fight the distractions that everyone who prays experiences, and Andy Geers announces the latest updates to his app, PrayerMate.

How many stories about bad things happening in sport will it take to make us give up on the whole thing? Simon Barnes is worried that we're getting close to finding an answer.

On a more hopeful sporting note, here's Lionel Messi being amazing. (The chosen soundtrack is not amazing.)

Lastly, Dutch police are training eagles to destroy drones, which they seem good at...

Bonhoeffer on how to read the Bible, and how to die

On reading the Bible:
"One cannot simply read the Bible, like other books. One must be prepared to enquire of it. Only thus will it reveal itself. Only if we expect from it the ultimate answer, shall we receive it. That is because in the Bible God speaks to us. And one cannot simply think about God in one’s own strength, one has to enquire of him. Only if we seek him, will he answer us." (136)
On death and dying:
"No one has yet believed in God and the kingdom of God, no one has yet heard about the realm of the resurrected, and not been homesick from that hour, waiting and looking forward joyfully to being released from bodily existence.
"Whether we are young or old makes no difference. What are twenty or thirty or fifty years in the sight of God? And which of us knows how near he or she may already be to the goal? That life only really begins when it ends here on earth, that all that is here is only the prologue before the curtain goes up – that is for young and old alike to think about. Why are we so afraid when we think about death? … Death is only dreadful for those who live in dread and fear of it. Death is not wild and terrible, if only we can be still and hold fast to God’s Word. Death is not bitter, if we have not become bitter ourselves. Death is grace, the greatest gift of grace that God gives to people who believe in him. Death is mild, death is sweet and gentle; it beckons to us with heavenly power, if only we realise that it is the gateway to our homeland, the tabernacle of joy, the everlasting kingdom of peace.
"How do we know that dying is so dreadful? Who knows whether, in our human fear and anguish we are only shivering and shuddering at the most glorious, heavenly, blessed event in the world?
"Death is hell and night and cold, if it is not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvellous, that we can transform death." (531)

Quotes taken from Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas, Thomas Nelson, 2010.

Week 4 miscellany: gambling, blindness, death

We were in The Netherlands last week, doing loads of great things. Here's Amsterdam looking good in the early evening.

I hate gambling adverts, and so does Barney Ronay.

Blindness has forced J.I. Packer to retire from ministry. Is he bitter or angry at God? See for yourself in an interview that's like a window into another world.

My friend Jennifer Rawson has written another poem of great power and weight, in response to a death in the family.

Chris Giles wants you to take Oxfam's claims about global inequality with a pinch of salt, or at least several footnotes and chart-related caveats.

Simple living is fashionable but for Christians it cannot be an end in itself. John Piper's comments about expensive conferences make this point brilliantly.

Smart or dumb?

When I was ten, my dad bought me a monstrous Swiss Army knife. Over an inch thick, it had everything from a fish-descaler to a magnifying glass, as well as a finger-threatening wood saw. I loved how many options it gave me, and 25 years later I still use it from time to time (though I leave the task of descaling fish to the professionals).

I get the same satisfaction of multifunction with my smartphone but dissenting voices are crying out from the wilderness. "Dumb phones" (probably a still-stylish Nokia) can be seen in the hands of actor Eddie Redmayne and journalist James Brown, who feel free from the shackles of email. Professor Alan Jacobs is delighted to have dumbed down.

Clearly this is a First World Problem par excellence but if you live in the First World that's where you have to work out how to live. Smartphones can make our lives easier, and they can make our lives worse. So, what to do with them?

Christianity offers us wonderful dignity. The Holy Almighty God will share Himself and His power with us, freeing us from sin and into right living as we cooperate with Him. So a consequence (or fruit) of the Holy Spirit is self-control (Galatians 5:23). This means that you can use your smartphone and not be used by it: you can use it for good things and not be dragged into bad. You've got a camera, a map, a notepad, a Bible, your calendar and to-do lists, hours of music, piles of great books and articles, and a phone all in one pocket!

But the stakes are high. Jesus warns us about how to react when our actions and reactions aren't what they should be:
"If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell." (Matthew 5:29-30)
So if having a smartphone dismantles your defences against watching porn, or gossiping, or cheating your employer through wasting the time they pay you for, or getting into debt... then throw it away right now and get a brick.

If you're somewhere between these two positions, here are some things that I've found helpful:
  • Dumbphone advocates always say, "It makes calls and sends texts and that's all I need, isn't it?" Whether this is the main point of your smartphone, why not only get notifications for these key functions? I don't allow any other apps to interrupt me (except WhatsApp which is basically the same thing). Email isn't as important as it wants you to think it is and social media Likes only serve to stir pride.
  • Don't use it last thing at night. The "blue light" will keep you awake, and even if some phones will fix this soon, you still could be talking or praying or reading a book instead, which is better.
  • Take social media apps off your phone for a while. I did this for a few months and learnt a new pattern of not unthinkingly checking them all the time. I had my note-making and read-it-later apps and I intentionally used these more. Eventually I put Facebook and Twitter and Instagram back on but I've kept the resistance reflex (mostly).
  • Put excellent content on your phone using apps like Flipboard, Feedly, and Pocket, or just by having good sites bookmarked in your web browser. If you prefer listening, use the power of podcasting to achieve the same kind of thing. I do the weekly miscellany posts for this purpose*.
  • Don't use your phone at social gatherings, unless you're the DJ or someone is getting an important fact wrong. Focusing on your screen says that people elsewhere are more important and/or more entertaining than the present company. Even if that's true, it's hardly a helpful point to make.
  • Buy the not-latest model. It'll be cheaper, it was probably cutting-edge very recently, and it will help bump you off the conveyor belt of relentless consumerism, which could more accurately be described as envy.
What these things do is put your phone in its place, which should be your pocket or bag more often than in your hand. Unless someone makes one with a wood saw and a fish descaler built in - that would be another issue altogether.


* If you'd like to choose your own things to read from my usual sources, here you go... Pretty much all the Christian stuff can be found through a Twitter list I've made, although I don't use Twitter to keep up with all of them. I have feeds from my five favourite Christian websites sent through to my Flipboard, and they are Think Theology, Desiring God, Ray Ortlund, The Gospel Coalition, and First Things (a recent entrant). I also use Flipboard to read The Guardian's sport pages, The Verge on technology, The Spectator for right-of-centre politics and New Statesman for left-of-centre politics. I also subscribe to The Week in print. I'm less of a podcaster but I like In Our Time and Mere Fidelity.

What a Spirit-filled church looks like

... According to Justin Welby (quoted by Ian Paul):
"All of us here need a body that is mutually supportive, that loves one another, that stoops to lift the fallen and kneels to bind the wounds of the injured. Without each other we are deeply weakened, because we have a mission that is only sustainable when we conform to the image of Christ, which is first to love one another. The idea is often put forward that truth and unity are in conflict, or in tension. That is not true. Disunity presents to the world an untrue image of Jesus Christ. Lack of truth corrodes and destroys unity. They are bound together, but the binding is love. In a world of war, of rapid communications, of instant hearing and misunderstanding where the response is only hatred and separation, the Holy Spirit whose creative and sustaining gifting of the church is done in diversity, demands that diversity of history, culture, gift, vision be expressed in a unity of love. That is what a Spirit filled church looks like."

Week 2 Miscellany: writing, being shockable, preparing for a new kind of Premier League, teacakes

It's nowhere near this snowy yet but I didn't take any photos this week so here's Glencoe in 2010

What does it mean to write with a Christian worldview. Timothy and Kathy Keller explain, giving lots of helpful advice on how not to be a bad Christian writer.

Continuing to be shocked by bad news is hard but Natalie Williams argues that it's important.

The ongoing craziness of this year's Premier League has caused Rory Smith to consider whether a major reset of the assumptions of hierarchy is in process.

A lot of BuzzFeed writes is rubbish but when they're being quietly funny about something ridiculous it's worth a read. Jamie Ross attended a protest against Tunnock's Tea Cakes.

I preached on Paul's total focus in Philippians 1:12-26.

A brief theology of food

"To be sure, food keeps us alive, but that is only its smallest and most temporary work. Its eternal purpose is to furnish our sensibilities against the day when we shall sit down at the heavenly banquet and see how gracious the Lord is. Nourishment is necessary only for a while; what we shall need forever is taste."
 - Robert Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection
quoted in Douglas Wilson, Writers To Read, p.119.

MIscellany: what movies tell us about ourselves, a theology of sport, subversive virginity

Edinburgh's New Year fireworks were as good as ever

Understanding the culture we're in helps us make good decisions and avoid bad ones, so you should read what Frederica Mathewes-Green has written about how movies reflect their times and the story of how we got to where we presently are.

Is it possible to have a theology of sport? Jeremy Treat proves that it is, and makes the case for how Christians can enjoy the goodness of creation without worrying about going wrong.

Virginity is more powerful and subversive than you think, as Sarah E. Hinlicky explains.

Bruce Wydick reports on organisations that are doing a provable job of helping to alleviate poverty. He may make you want to buy a pair of TOMS shoes.

John Piper wants you to use your weaknesses to glorify God.

Festive Five for Friday: decorations, nativity accuracy x2, poetry x2

I like what John Lewis have done with their Christmas decorations but they're quite high up.

The Christmas story is so familiar to us: how could anyone say anything new about it? Steve Mathewson shows that there is much more going on in it than most of us think.

Christmas ultimately only matters if it actually happened, which means the historic details in the gospel accounts are important. Ian Paul looks what how they've been challenged and why we can be confident in them.

At the King's Carol service we had another amazing poem by Jennifer Rawson sent to music and video by Stu Kennedy and George Gibson:

Jen isn't the only poet in action at this time of year. Here's Glen Scrivener asking what you think of Christmas, more of which can be found on his Four Kinds of Christmas site:

On banning people we don't like

The Lord's Prayer must not be shown in cinemas. Tyson Fury must be removed from the BBC Sports Personality of the Year shortlist. Donald Trump must not be allowed into the UK.

I strongly disagree with Trump in both content and style. I strongly disagree with much of Fury's content and much of his style. I love the content of the Lord's Prayer video but think the Church of England's victim complex is a little disingenuous. However, I'm baffled by the consensus statements above because they don't really make sense. Or at least they don't seem to have any more cohesion than arguments I'd expect to hear in a sixth form common room.

The easiest target is the campaign against Trump. Who seriously thinks that the best way to respond to someone who wants to ban people coming into his country is to ban him from coming into our country? If that's not enough irony for you, the petition calling for this has now got more signatures than the one a few months back saying that the UK wanted to welcome in Syrian refugees! So by sheer weight of numbers the British people have demonstrated that they are more committed to keeping people out than letting people in.

The broader point is stranger. From the 1960s until the turn of the century, Mary Whitehouse campaigned for certain TV programmes, films, plays, etc. to be banned because she believed their content was morally wrong. She was criticised and ridiculed for doing so, and is seen as being on the losing side of recent history. The "winners" or beneficiaries of that battle are now calling for viewpoints and broadcasts that they find objectionable to be banned. They have become the Mary Whitehouses of their time! Maybe this is simply what being in the moral majority does to human beings.

The journalist H.L. Mencken attacked the attitude of some Christians of his day with the epithet: "Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." We now live in a time where it would seem more apposite to say: "Liberalism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be thinking something different to you."


If you want to think more about this, because it's clearly important in our culture, the Mere Fidelity guys discussed the Lord's Prayer advert, and for non-Christian perspectives, Alex Massie and Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argued against banning Trump, and the coddling of the American (for which we read Western) mind, respectively.