Tuesday, 31 March 2009

sign of the times (1)

I sometimes find myself at Poplar DLR station waiting for a connection and gazing over at Canary Wharf. This sign caught my eye yesterday and it seemed to sum up so much about where we are with the economy. A lender reposession auction being advertised right in front of the macho symbols of the very banking system which is causing so much chaos for countries, businesses, communities and individuals. I wonder if any of our world leaders will see it while travelling to their G20 summit at the ExCel centre?

The building to the left of HSBC (below) is the newly constructed KPMG offices. I read the other day that many of these building have plummeted in value wiping millions off the companies' asset sheets. Reminded me of Jesus' saying:
For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down to estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him...' Luke 14:28f

Well boys (and these 'masters of the universe' all seem to be boys) no one is laughing now.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

hit the ground kneeling (2)

In the second chapter of Hit The Ground Kneeling +Stephen Cottrell debunks another management speak phrase which has crept into thinking about Christian leadership: ‘I need to make my mark’. Cottrell argues that this is not the object of leadership, at least not in the way the phrase is usually understood.

Instead he argues that the aim of leadership is:
‘To enable others to do their very best and to achieve their fullest potential, and for the purpose of your organisation – whatever it is – to be advanced.’
I find this view of Christian Leadership both attractive and liberating. It frees one from the pressure of continually trying to prove oneself to parishioners, colleagues and senior staff and from seeking affirmation of one’s ministry by meeting a false set of criteria. It also affirms a conviction that leadership is to be exercised in collaboration with others not in competition over against others.

This view of leadership challenges a very unpleasant feature of leadership models in which success is measured over and against others. Take for example the television programme The Apprentice. The whole presupposition of the show is that the best apprentice will be the one who succeeds over a period of weeks in out performing the other competitors. On the way the budding apprentices are given tasks where it appears they are working together but actually they are competing with each other and so cliques form, people ‘stitch each other up’, sometimes lie or consciously subvert the task in order to undermine a colleague. Occasionally this behaviour leads to the eviction of the perpetrator but often such behaviour is rewarded. It can make for entertaining T.V., however, I find myself questioning the aims and values of a leader and organisation that encourages such qualities.

So where does one look for affirmation if it is not to be found in making my mark? Cottrell points back to the Baptism of Jesus.
‘For Jesus, this affirmation, which is the wellspring of his ministry, comes in a single defining moment, the effects of which are felt for the rest of his life. As he surfaces out of the waters of baptism, he hears a voice from heaven say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11)’

Affirmation in leadership comes from knowing that we are known and loved by the Father and it is out of our relationship with him that all else flows. This does not mean that the Christian leader doesn’t have tasks and responsibilities; it does mean that success in leadership is not measured by the mark that I make and have been known to make in a particular context.

‘The Christian leader – whatever the organisation – can be the still point at the centre of the maelstrom, the one whose judgement can be trusted, the one who is not seeking her own ends or his own self-advancement, but cares for those in their charge. Such leaders have an inner security and peace that is both a gift from God and the most important gift they can bestow on others: they are leaders who allow themselves to be led.’

Friday, 27 March 2009

olympic dream in concrete and steel

Many people don’t know that Chelmsford is the real Olympic Diocese. Stratford is part of Chelmsford Diocese not London and I smile about this each time I travel past the Olympic site on the train. It’s fascinating to see the progress being made in constructing the different venues and putting the complex infrastructure in place. If I don’t see the site for a couple of weeks I am taken aback by how much progress has been made over a few days.

The Olympic Stadium
Coming back from London earlier this week I found myself reflecting on all the skills being employed in the Olympic development. The skeletons of some of the venues are now rising from the foundations; huge iron girders welded together and bolted to massive concrete pillars; the main stadium a spider’s web of metal gradually spreading to form an oval theatre; the aquatic centre a series of frailer looking pylons forming a frame for the diving and swimming pools. It is a stunning spectacle as the designs, plans and labours of surveyors, architects, construction engineers and builders gradually take shape.

The Olympic Aquatic Centre
When the Olympics take place in 2012 we will celebrate the achievements of competitors from across the world, hang medals round the necks of champions and garland them with flowers. We will recognise the blood, sweat and tears poured into years of dedicated training by athletes and coaches. But what about those who will have poured their blood, sweat and tears into creating this Olympic oasis, will we celebrate their dedication, creativity and exhausting endeavours? Why do we find it so easy to recognise the gifts and creativity of some and yet take the skills and achievements of others for granted? Seeing the Olympic Park materialise reminds me that they are all reflecting the image of God using the talents he has entrusted to them.

Monday, 23 March 2009

hit the ground kneeling (1)

I heard Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Reading, speak at an area clergy study day about a year ago. He explained that as part of his job he gets to see lots of parish profiles; job descriptions for churches seeking a new vicar. Many of them say they want a vicar who is going to hit the ground running but what + Stephen wants is someone who is going to hit the ground kneeling!

Hit The Ground Kneeling is the name of + Stephen's latest book. It’s a small book, only 81 pages, but covers some big issues connected with Christian leadership. I opened the book as I started a train journey today and given its length thought I could read about half of it before reaching my destination. However, the book opens with the suggestion in the introduction that even though it is a little book it is a book to be read slowly. So with that in mind I read the first chapter Jumping Off The Bandwagon.

The basic premise of the first chapter is that a key skill in leadership is listening.
'More than anything else the wise leader, the leader who values the contributions of others and is prepared to let things happen at the right place, is someone who dares to listen….. And good listening takes time'.

I finished the chapter and wondered what to do next to occupy my journey. I’d left my Ipod at home; there was Tom Wright’s book Surprised By Hope which I have been working my way through or some papers I could read. And then I thought: why don’t I spend the rest of the journey putting into practice what I have been reading? So I did and by the time I arrived at my stop I felt it had been time well spent. These words quoted by + Stephen provided particular food for listening and reflection:

'The central question is, are the leaders of the future truly men and women of God, people with an ardent desire to dwell in God’s presence, to listen to God’s voice, to look upon God’s beauty, to touch God’s incarnate Word and to taste fully God’s infinite goodness?...... Their leadership must be rooted in the permanent, intimate relationship with the Incarnate Word, Jesus, and they need to find there source for their words, advice and guidance. Through the discipline of contemplative prayer, Christian leaders have to listen again and again to the voice of love and to find there the wisdom and courage to address whatever issue presents itself to them.'
Henri Nouwen. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership.

Seems obvious and surely we should take this as read but reading is one thing, putting it into practice is a different matter.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Ireland: Rugby Six Nations Grand Slam Champions

They never make it easy for us but finally Ireland have won the Grand Slam Rugby Six Nations and laid to rest the burden of 61 years of trying. This is a team that has threatened and never quite reached its potential until yesterday in the Millenium Stadium. In a fantastic, no holes barred, bone crunching, gut wrenching, conflict between the two best teams in the tournament the result was on a knife edge until the final kick. It looked as if Ireland had choked once again when, with no time on the clock, they gave away a moronic penalty only to see the kick drop short. The final whistle blew and it was all over.

The first half was a tense battle and when the break came Wales were 6 points up despite constant Irish pressure. Yet again in this tournament it looked like indiscipline and penalties would decide the outcome. Then in the opening exchanges of the second half Ireland blitzed two tries; the first from O'Driscoll who seemed determined to win this match on his own if necessary and the second from Tommy Bowe sprinting on to an O'Gara kick. Surely in this position Ireland couldn't blow it but they tried. Point by point, penalty by penalty Wales came back and eventually took the lead. Then with little time left Ireland gained a crucial lineout and after manouvering position the ball was fed back to O'Gara for an exquisite drop goal. The game was won until Ireland gave away a needless penalty just inside their own half. Stephen Jones seemed destined to rob Ireland at the last but as the kick sailed towards the posts the tragectory indicated that it was too short. The final whistle blew and the whole of Ireland roared in jubilation and not a little relief.

Come the day and come the hour the boys held their nerve and delivered a fabulous victory. Many will have secured their place in the British Lions tour of South Africa this summer, none more so that Brian O'Driscoll who must be made captain again after his nightmare Lions tour of New Zealand.

Wales 15 Ireland 17. Will the Irish economy recover from the massive hangover that awaits once the celebrations have died down in a few weeks time: Who knows and Who cares?

Honourable mention must be made of the England Women's Cricket Team who have just won the Cricket World Cup to show the men how it should be done. Andy Murray continues to give us hope after beating Roger Federer in the tennis. All this softened the blow of a miserable afternoon for Man Utd who seem determined to make me sweat until the last kick of the season. Get a grip Sir Alex and give Rooney, Scholes, Ronaldo and the other headless chickens a taste of the hairdryer treatment before they completely blow the championship.

Friday, 20 March 2009

good night and good luck

This is a film that looks dated but whose themes are right up to date. Directed by George Clooney, the story follows the conflict between television journalist Edward Murrow of CBS and Senator Joseph McCarthy as he pursues his crusade against communism in the 1950s. The cast is excellent and features Clooney, Robert Downey Jr, Frank Langella, Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels, David Strathairn as Murrow and Jo McCarthy as himself!

The period feel is effectively created by showing the film in black and white (it was filmed on colour stock), a device that allows Clooney to insert original footage from the time including coverage of senate committee hearings. The chain smoking by just about every character is quite a jolt given that hardly anyone is filmed smoking these days and the rule at CBS banning married couples working together seems absurd.

It is the underlying themes of the film that resonate with today. The plot focuses on McCarthy’s pursuit of anyone suspected of being a communist or having communist sympathies. Those who oppose McCarthy become a target with the effect of stifling political debate. Fear of the enemy is used to justify the erosion of civil liberties including the right of free association and the expression of ideas. Those who refuse to go along with McCarthy’s agenda are seen as the enemy within and pursued ruthlessly. One of the most powerful sequences in the film is the original footage of the questioning of Annie Lee Moss, a communications worker at the Pentagon, who is accused of being a communist without knowing either her accuser’s identity or the evidence against her.

Murrow decided to challenge McCarthy and so risked his own career and the future of CBS. He, his journalist colleagues and production team discover that the most effective weapon against McCarthy was to show footage of the hearings and the methods employed and to leave the audience to draw their own conclusions. McCarthy is given the right of reply in an unchallenged broadcast and then Murrow responds to accusations made against him in a later broadcast. It’s riveting stuff creating real suspense over matters of genuine substance.

Other issues are addressed throughout the film; the tension between television’s purpose to entertain and to inform and the relationship between advertisers and programme makers. The film begins and ends with a speech from Murrow in which he calls on the public and television industry not to waste the opportunity to use the medium to inform and educate as well as entertain.

Clooney took a minimal fee in order to make this film and was prepared to mortgage his house to raise the funds. His career veers between popular blockbusters like the Oceans series and more cerebral films including Solaris and Syriana. It’s the blockbusters that enable him to make films like Good Night and Good Luck and for that we can forgive him the disaster that is Ocean’s 12, though my wife still can’t forgive him for advertising Nestle products.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

kids as sermon fodder

A lot has been written over the last few days about Julie Myerson’s new book The Lost Child. The reason for the comment is that in part the book is about her son, his drug habit and the Myersons' decision to ban him from their home. Myerson and her husband have been horrified at the reaction to the book but cynics note the publisher’s decision to bring forward the publishing date to make the most of publicity and Myerson’s exclusive interviews. However, it now transpires that Myerson was writing anonymously about her family and in particular her kids in a weekly newspaper column for several years. There have been those who have defended Myerson’s decision to write the book including Mark Lawson but other commentators have been scathing in their criticism.

There is an issue raised by this sad tale and it is one I think clergy including myself would do well to consider. Is it right to use our children as sermon illustrations? I write as a clergy kid and as a minister with kids.

As a family we enjoy our annual pilgrimage to Spring Harvest and one of the draws is some excellent preaching and teaching. Yet I am sometimes surprised and occasionally horrified by the way speakers share intimate information and stories about their children. I find myself thinking that if that was my dad on stage in front of several thousand people talking about my teenage years I would be seriously p****d off. I understand the pressures on the speaker; the need for good relevant illustration; the intention to find appropriate application; the desire to show others that you may be an international speaker but you have a real life with real family issues and problems just like everyone else etc. It may well be that the speaker has sought permission from the child before telling the story, though I would want to ask how free the child felt about saying no.

The same temptations and issues face those of us ministering in more humble circumstances in the local situation and other speaking / teaching events we might find ourselves in. A family incident comes to mind as one is searching for an illustration and it would work perfectly. Or perhaps one is in full flow in the pulpit and an incident pops into the mind which would serve to emphasise the point beautifully. Yet, our children are more than just sermon fodder and what may seem to me to be the recounting of a humorous incident might be extremely embarrassing to the child who features in the anecdote.

I’d be interested to know what guidelines colleagues follow in this matter because it seems to be something that hasn’t been given much thought if the practice I have observed is any indicator. I certainly don’t remember it featuring in preaching courses I attended and now that I am responsible for designing and delivering such courses I want to give it some serious consideration.

It occurs to me that this is an issue bloggers might also want to consider when writing about our families.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

goodbye jose - man utd 2 - 0 inter milan

This could have been a tricky one for Man Utd but in the end they have seen off Jose Mourinho and Inter Milan 2-0. Make no mistake this game could have caused Utd problems and Inter threatened Utd's goal on several occasions. Early goals at the beginning of each half, however, ensured victory and a safe passage into the last 8 for the Champions of Europe.

It's been a great week for the English sides in the Champions League with Utd's win, Liverpool destroying Real Madrid, Arsenal beating Roma on penalties and Chelski overcoming Juventus. No doubt Michel Platini will complain about the English clubs having too much money and power and try to dream up new ways of weakening their dominance of Europe. Platini the President of UEFA moans about English clubs using their financial muscle to buy up the the best players. I didn't hear him complain when Real Madrid and AC Milan were doing the same. He argues that the rules should force clubs to select a number of home grown players. Of course Platini practiced what he preaches; a French player who spent the best years of his carear in Italy with Juventus.

Platini and Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA, can't stand English clubs' success in international tournaments and make little effort to hide their contempt. Well Sepp and Michel read the results and weep.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

now that's theology - magnificent

Sometimes Bono just nails it.

No Line On The Horizon


I was born
I was born to be with you 

In this space and time
After that and ever after
I haven't had a clue
Only to break rhyme
This foolishness can leave a heart
Black and blue

Only love
Only love can leave such a mark

But only love
Only love can heal such a scar

I was born
I was born to sing for you 

I didn’t have a choice
But to lift you up
And sing whatever song you wanted me to
I give you back my voice
From the womb my first cry
It was a joyful noise....

Only love
Only love can leave such a mark
But only love
Only love can heal such a scar

Justified till we die
You and I will magnify

The Magnificent


Only love
Only love can leave such a mark

But only love
Only love unites our hearts

Justified till we die
You and I will magnify
The Magnificent



For an excellent reflection on U2's spirituality check out Jonathan Evens' series Tryin' to throw your arms around the world.

Friday, 6 March 2009

michael clayton

Clooney is Clooney in this gripping legal thriller directed by Tony Gilroy, the writer of the Bourne Trilogy. He plays the eponymous Michael Clayton ‘the janitor’ for his law firm; cleaning up the mess, doing the dirty work behind the scenes and fixing the problems. The plot focuses on a case in which Clayton’s firm is representing its biggest client, an agrochemical company, against a lawsuit brought by small farmers whose families and land have been poisoned.

Clooney is good but the real stars are Tom Wilkinson as a member of the law firm who realises that his client is guilty and Tilda Swinton as an executive of the company he is defending. Wilkinson manages to convince as an unstable but brilliant lawyer and Swinton conveys brittleness beneath the fa├žade of the hard nosed business woman. She won a best supporting female Oscar for her performance and it is well deserved. Mention should also be made of Sydney Pollack who plays Clayton’s boss. He sustains an ambiguity which means that we are never sure whether he is fully involved in the illegality at the heart of the film or just sailing very close to the wind.

The ending is slightly disappointing and rather perfunctory and I was left waiting for another twist. But the real stunner is the direct rip off in the final shot. Clooney’s face in full screen conveying a mixture of emotions as he is driven around in a taxi during the closing credits is straight from the ending to The Long Good Friday. Its shameless grand larceny and actually is nowhere near as powerful as Bob Hoskins’ career defining performance. Nevertheless, an enjoyable watch.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009


Rarely do I see a film without one sympathetic or likeable character but Closer is that film. Directed by Mike Nichols and based on the play of the same name, the plot follows the complex and deceitful relationships of its four central characters. They fall in and out of ‘love’ with each other over the months and with each dalliance gradually strip each other to the bone emotionally. By the end one is left thoroughly depressed by the viciousness and selfishness on display and struggling to identify any redeeming qualities.

Dan (Jude Law) is an author who makes his living writing obituaries for a newspaper and his profession is fitting for a man who kills off his relationships with a pathological consistency. He falls in love at first sight of Alice (Natalie Portman), a young American waitress and stripper, having seen her across the road just before she is knocked down by a taxi. Alice is possibly the most endearing of the four but even she is revealed to have maintained a deception throughout her time with Dan. Anna (Julia Roberts) is a photographer who meets Dan at a photo shoot and he then sets her up to meet Larry (Clive Owen) in an act of spite. Anna and Larry end up married and over the next few months the couples embark on a series of affairs with each other.

One of the most striking aspects of the film is the lack of any depth in the relationships. There is a lot of talk about sex and how people feel about each other but it all seems very superficial, self indulgent and is in the end self destructive. The actors show a range of emotional responses to the discoveries of betrayal and rejection; there is anger and plenty of tears, however, one is left wondering whether it is little more than self pity. This is particularly true of Dan who at one point sobs about losing Anna and almost in an instant switches his affections back to Alice.

There is one scene that sums up the film. Alice and Dan are in an airport hotel about to fly to the U.S. and Dan insists that Alice tell him whether she slept with Larry. Alice snaps and tells Dan that they are finished. Realising what he is losing, Dan apologises and tells Alice he loves her. Alice challenges Dan to give one tangible example of how he loves her; he says the words but can he show her how he has loved her? The answer is no. Throughout the film the four talk about love, lust after each other, sleep with each other and yet there is not one instance where one of them acts selflessly for the sake of another.

Is this love in C21st?

Sunday, 1 March 2009

man utd - carling cup champions

Great weekend for Man Utd. Yesterday, Utd's main rivals for the Premier League title had mixed results and Utd are 7pts clear with a game in hand. Then this afternoon Utd won the Carling Cup Final beating Tottenham Hotspur.

The game went to penalties after a well contested match and Utd's experience from the spot came in handy against an exhausted Spurs. Ronaldo should have had a penalty when brought down by King during the match; though John O'Shea was lucky to stay on the pitch when he should have had a second yellow card.

It's been a great weekend with Ireland beating England in the rugby union six nations championship and Wales loosing to France. Ireland still on for the grand slam, however, Scotland and Wales away from home won't be easy. To be honest yesterday's game was very poor; Ireland seemd to succumb to nerves and England played their usual negative tactics. No surprise to see another two England players yellow carded and Martin Johnson, England coach, was almost speechless with rage after the match because of his side's indiscipline. Brian O'Driscoll, Ireland's captain, led from the front as usual and scored both a try and drop goal.

Come the day and come the hour
Come the power and the glory
We have come to answer
Our Country's call
From the four proud provinces of Ireland

Ireland, Ireland.
Together standing tall
Shoulder to shoulder
We'll answer Ireland's call.

From the mighty Glens of Antrim
From the rugged hills of Galway
From the walls of Limerick
And Dublin Bay
From the four proud provinces of Ireland


Hearts of steel
And heads unbowing
Vowing never to be broken
We will fight, until
We can fight no more
For the four proud provinces of Ireland

Ireland, Ireland.
Together standing tall
Shoulder to shoulder
We'll answer Ireland's call.