09 November 2012

Child support

Our future as a nation depends on the well-being of our children. They will be the leaders, politicians and educators of the next generation. Where children are not getting the support they need it's essential that the government steps in to help.

Roman sculpture of children playingChildren are precious. They are, in a very real sense, our future. How the next generation is supported, educated and encouraged will have more effect on the future of a nation than almost anything else.

Today's children are tomorrow's policy makers, employers and employees, teachers, police etc. They will shape the societies of the next generation.

To a considerable degree, therefore, the future also depends on today's parents and educators. But underlying all of this is the means by which our children's practical needs are met. In an ideal world this would be through the love and care of two parents in a stable and safe home environment with an adequate income. But we don't live in an ideal world.

What happens when marriages break down or a child is born to a single mother? Single fathers are less common, but death of a Mum or marriage breakdown can lead to situations where single dads face the same issues as single mums. One of these issues, perhaps the simplest to fix, is adequate income. It's usually difficult for a single parent to sustain full-time work. When children are small it may be all but impossible, when they are older the situation may ease to merely very difficult.

In this post we're going to focus on the role of the Child Support Agency (CSA) in securing an income where a marriage has failed. Earlier today my wife and I were chatting with a friend who is a single Mum. It turns out that this month there is a difficulty, the father's bank account has failed to fund the monthly payment to the CSA and they, in turn, are unable to pay our friend until the problem is resolved. Meanwhile there are bills to pay, not least for food. (Of course we and/or other friends will help out, but that is not the point.)

This is a very common situation. Sometimes the days turn into weeks and the weeks into months and  the children suffer. It's not the CSA's fault as far as I can see. They are following the rules and guidelines under which they were formed by the British government in 1993.

The way it works is that the CSA acts as a clearing-house or go-between for funds. The CSA will typically rule on the level of monthly funding that is appropriate. They can either take the money direct from a salaried income and pay it to the partner caring for the child, or they can agree to take a monthly payment from a bank account and pay that to the caring partner.

So far, so good. However, when the payment to the CSA fails for any reason, no payment is made to the caring partner and the children suffer.

It seems to me that the rules of operation need to be changed. The CSA should have a legal obligation to provide the agreed level of support to the caring partner (technically, the person/parent with care) and would become responsible for collecting funding from the funding partner (technically, the non-resident parent). In this case the children would be properly supported whether or not the funding partner paid up. In cases of non-payment it would be up to the CSA to pursue recompense, if necessary through the courts.

This would improve security for caring partners and children and make it far harder for individuals to avoid their obligations.

I urge the British government to examine the issue and modify the legislation if necessary. As a nation we cannot afford for any of our children to suffer like this during their formative years. The future of the country will one day be in their hands.

Legislation is no replacement for love and provision by willing parents living in harmony. But where this fails the children deserve much better from us.

Questions:

  • Are you a single parent? If so, do you feel the CSA is doing a good job?
  • If you could change one thing about the CSA, what would it be?
  • If you're a single parent, how important is the support you get from friends and family?
  • Do you know any single parents? What informal opportunities have you found to support them?

See also:

07 November 2012

A Bible free of religion?

The Religion-Free Bible is a project by Jim Palmer to develop a new paraphrase of the Bible. The objective is to inspire people to greater love, peace, compassion and harmony. It's a collaborative venture with everyone invited to be involved.

Life and religionJim Palmer, best known for his book 'Divine Nobodies', is working on a new project (Jim and a whole series of helpers, that is). Anyone can volunteer to help with the work of The Religion-Free Bible (RFB) Project. There are several ways to get involved. But first, what is the RFB?

I suggest you go to the RFB website and take a look. On the home page Jim provides twenty-five reasons for creating a religion-free Bible. One of his reasons is that the Father 'has no religion'. Another is that 'in the hands of the people, the Bible can be an instrument of love, beauty, peace, acceptance and harmony in the world.'

Here are two extracts from the RFB 'About' page...

The Religion-Free Bible Project exists to inspire more love, peace, beauty, goodness, acceptance, compassion, justice and harmony in the world by offering humankind a paraphrase of biblical passages, which combine texts and images to creatively capture the spirit and meaning of the Bible, free from the bias and baggage of man-made religion. The goal of the RFB Project is to make the Religion-Free Bible accessible to all people worldwide, and for 51% of our world population to have a copy of the RFB in some form.
...
Jim believes that the value of the Bible lies in its capacity to transform people’s relationship with themselves, God, others, life, and world, not perpetuating theological dogma or religious rules and rituals. In frustration about the disempowering spin on the Bible he often saw online, Jim wrote out a paraphrase of one of Jesus’ sayings and posted it on Facebook. He added and image to his post and referred to it tongue-in cheek as the JPV – Jim Palmer version. A significant response to this and other JPV posts, led to the idea of the Religion-Free Bible, which combines Jim’s paraphrase and images he has selected for each entry.

What does the RFB text look like? - This Bible is a paraphrase, a rewriting of the meaning using entirely new wording. It should not be regarded as a translation, there are plenty of those in many of the world's languages.

Other paraphrases include the 'Living Bible' and 'The Message', both of which are widely known and used. Unlike these, the RFB is luxuriously reworded in order to emphasise the meaning in all its richness. Like any paraphrase there is, of course, a degree of interpretation involved. It's the Bible as understood and experienced by Jim Palmer.

Here is John 3:16-17. Compare it with some other versions.

  • NIV (UK version) - For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
  • The Message - This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him.
  • Religion-Free Bible - Love gives. Love is what brought me into this world. I am a gift, offered in love. Love desires your freedom. Love desires your wholeness. Love wants you to know yourself as complete. Love wants you to be at peace. My life was an invitation to this freedom, wholeness, peace and love. But my invitation is a choice. You have also been fed a lie about yourself that will ultimately destroy you. The lie says you are bad and worthless, irreparably flawed, defective and unacceptable, and undeserving of love and acceptance, even from God. I’m here to say that’s not true, and I’m asking you to believe me. Even when everything in your head or everything in your life seems to be evidence of the lie, I’m asking that you believe me instead. I’m going to be gone soon, and I need you to get this because I need your life to be that invitation as mine was. You are as much a gift to the world as I am, and I want you to accept and own that for yourself. Love never stopped giving. Love keeps birthing new expressions of the truth to awaken those lost in the lie. First, you have to wake up yourself and then your life naturally becomes the smelling salts this world needs.

Is the RFB going to succeed? - You will have to be the judge of that. All of you who choose to read it for yourselves.

The language is different from anything we've seen before. Does it put the sense over well? Will ordinary people understand it? Some people will feel it is a misleading version, that religion is an essential part of the Bible. Some will be unhappy that it leaves certain things out or adds other things in.

We must remember that it is an interpretation. I'm asking Papa to use it to open hearts and minds to the fragrance of his presence in this world and to reach many who reject religion but in doing so may also reject the truth of the Father's love for his creation.

I know this project won't please everyone and will offend some. But on balance I think it's a great idea and a worthy project and I will be supporting Jim any way I can.

All I ask of you, my readers, is that you take a look at the RFB Project and make up your own minds.

Getting involved - If you want to help, the RFB website has all the information you need. They are looking for financial support for the process of publication, of course. But they are also looking for practical help with photography, the writing/editing side and in getting the word out by telling friends and contacts.

Questions:

  • What do you mean when you use the word 'religion'? What do you think Jim Palmer means by it?
  • Is it possible to tell people about Jesus without being religious?
  • Was Jesus religious in what he said or in what he did? What sort of people liked him? What sort of people despised him?

See also:

04 November 2012

Astonishing tales of reconciliation

Hear some interviews with extraordinary people. This article provides a little background to some recordings available online and then suggests ways you might engage with the situations described. Listen and consider carefully what you hear.

A slimline microphone
In the last post we heard something of the need for reconciliation in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. In this post we have more on the same theme.

Julia Fisher records interviews with some extraordinarily brave people engaged in sometimes suprising ways with Father's purpose for his people.

Here in the West we have little idea of what it means to be a believer in a place where it may be hard and dangerous.

Every week she broadcasts one of these short but informative, moving, challenging and encouraging interviews. Here's what she wrote about one of them a few weeks ago.

It may surprise you to hear that in the Arab neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem and in the West Bank there are a growing number of Palestinians who were born into Muslim families coming to faith in Jesus – these people are called Muslim Background Believers or MBB’s for short.

It is very dangerous for them to openly declare they are Christians. Equally for Christian Arabs to witness to Muslim people is very dangerous. My guest today is such a person. To disguise his identity let’s call him “J”. I met J in Jerusalem recently – he lives there. He spends a great deal of his time encouraging MBBs in the West Bank. I put it to him that not many people realise these people exist.

There's a full list of these broadcasts on The Olive Tree Reconciliation Fund website. You can listen to them online or download them (click the 'Radio' link at the top of the Home page). They are all worth hearing but the interview she refers to in the quote above is week 115. Listen to week 116 as well where the story continues.

These followers of Isa (Jesus) have truly difficult and dangerous lives, probably much like those of the early church persecuted by (among others) Saul of Tarsus (Acts 7:54-8:3). They need our help and support in prayer, and perhaps in other ways too.

A suggestion - Download the recordings for weeks 115 and 116 and listen to them with your friends. You could do this with any small group of twenty or fewer. Perhaps you are part of a cell group, a Christian Union, or a prayer group. After listening you could discuss what you have heard, pray for the people you heard about, pray for Julia Fisher and her work as an interviewer and broadcaster.

Questions:

  • Do you think it would be easier or harder to grow as a believer if you had no access to the Bible? Why? Did the early church have Bibles?
  • What does it mean to you to store up the word in your heart?
  • Apart from the Bible, what other aspects of our lives do you think Western believers take most for granted?
  • How can you help these people? How should you pray? What else might you do?

See also:

03 November 2012

Israel and the need for reconciliation

A report about a Palestinian Christian sparks thoughts of reconciliation and encouragement between Arabs and Jews in the land of Israel. We consider what we can do, individually, to take this essential process forward.

Speaking in the Capernaum synagogueThe Archbishop Cranmer blog recently had a guest post about the problems between Israel and the Palestinians, in particular claiming that we are hearing much less than the whole truth about the Palestinian side.

The article, by Anglican Friends of Israel, involves some analysis and examines the reasons that ordinary Palestinians might wish to be very circumspect in what they say, especially to Western media.

A personal story - But what struck me most powerfully was the story of a Palestinian Christian woman who has decided to speak out. Her name cannot be revealed for obvious reasons, but her story is outlined in the full article and she is clearly a very brave person. She has been speaking to meetings in the UK recently, helping to expose the false reports so readily accepted by some churches in the West.

It's most important that stories like this are told and shared widely. That's why I've decided to pass the information on to everyone who reads 'Journeys of heart and mind'. Some extracts from the article are quoted below, but I encourage you to visit the original and read it for yourself in full.

Many of us suspected that [the] romantic picture of bravery and harmony in the face of brutal oppression concealed a much darker reality but it was hard to prove as Palestinians largely kept silent. To be sure, some clues couldn’t be missed – the murder of Bible Society employees in Gaza, the sack of Bible Society and YMCA property in the West Bank.

Back in 2007 when the Gaza murder was still raw, my wife and I were invited to a meeting to hear the widow of the victim speak. She very bravely told us her story. Some dozens of us, Palestinian followers of Isa (Jesus) and European believers met together for prayer, to talk, sing and to share a meal. It was a very special day, an occasion I will never forget.

Fr Nazaih, the long-time parish priest of Ramallah, the capital of the West Bank [said], “…Little by little the Christians leave because they cannot live with the Muslims. There are some fanatics who do not like the fact that we exist.”
...
One of the most courageous women I have ever met spoke ... about her life as a Christian Palestinian in the West Bank. Her life and family members have been threatened because she has dared to break the conspiracy of silence that permits too many Christians to retain a rose-coloured vision of life on the West Bank.
The original article goes into her story in some detail.

What can I do? - Let's think for a moment about our role in all this - our role as believers living in the West. How do we deal with deceit, especially when it is widely promulgated as fact? We do need to keep speaking the truth and doing it in love, not from an angry, vengeful heart. But apart from spreading the truth whenever and however we can, we also need to provide whatever practical help we can.

One way to do this is to work through organisations like 'The Joseph Storehouse' who provide help to Jewish and Arab families facing hardship in Israel, or 'The Olive Tree Reconciliation Fund' (OTRF) who work so hard to build reconciliation and trust between Arab and Jew in Israel.

There are many more good and exciting stories out there. Julia Fisher, director of OTRF and a broadcaster in the UK, has written a series of books about much that has been happening in and around Israel encouraging so many across the divide. I strongly recommend buying a copy of her first book, 'Israel: The Mystery of Peace'. The true stories it contains will lift your spirit and warm your heart. Take it from me - they will! It's also very worthwhile spending some time looking through the pages of the OTRF website.

Israel is not a lost cause. How could we even begin to think such a thing! This land is so beautiful, so historic, and above all so special in the sight of the Father and of the Son. Even for those with a purely worldly view of history and geography, this is a special place. Harmony and reconciliation are possible here - possible but not easy. It is well worth making the effort.

Questions:
  • Have you visited Israel? If so, did you have an opportunity to speak with ordinary local people (Jews and Arabs)?
  • Are there ways you could help the reconciliation process? Visit some of the links on this page and see if there are things you can do.
  • If there is no reconciliation in Israel, what do you think the result will be?
  • Should reconciliation be primarily a political process or can it begin at a more personal level?

See also:

02 November 2012

Why is life dangerous?

Why is there so much danger in the world? We examine how random chance is necessary if we are to have a choice and how choice is necessary if we are to be capable of love. The most surprising thing is that there are not many more disasters.

Mount Pinatubo in 1991
What underlies the fact that life is dangerous and the Earth is such a dangerous place? Wherever we look we see danger and catastrophe lying in wait for us. Road accidents, volcanic eruptions, storms (like Hurricane Sandy), diseases of all kinds, violent crime; there's no denying the risks we face daily.

Some of these hazards can blamed on human wrongdoing or failure. Violent crime is an example of wrongdoing and most road accidents result from failures of judgement, design, construction or maintenance. But what of a volcanic eruption? Who is to blame for that?

Let's put dangers into three broad categories - deliberate human action or inaction, unintended human action or inaction, and natural events. Of the three, natural events form the category we want to consider in this article. We need to begin by understanding that the universe has always been open to the effects of chance.

Let's elaborate a little. We don’t know how the universe came into being, all we can say is that we have a pretty good idea how it developed after the first tiny fraction of a second (10-35 s). But we do know that since that first fraction of a second, randomness and chance have been (and remain) fundamental to its development. Sub-atomic particles flashed into existence and then, just as suddenly vanished again. They still do that today, what we regard as a perfect vacuum can be shown to be a sea of churning activity.

Chance is absolutely necessary in a universe where there is to be some freedom of choice. Why? Because we can only choose if we live in a universe where things are not normally determined in advance. My understanding is that Yahweh created a universe in which intelligence would arise and in which any intelligent life forms would be able to know him and choose to love and follow him.

Perhaps we see a glimpse of this in 1 Kings 19:11-13. We'll be exposed to many things during our lives, but Yahweh is not present in the outward tumult and danger; he communicates quietly. We may fail to notice him if we are focussed on the loud and dangerous things.

Let's put it very simply. Love requires a universe in which things are not directed. Volcanoes can erupt, earthquakes can shatter cities and hurricanes can flood coastal plains. The chain of  dependency is that love depends on the ability to choose, and choice depends on the existence of chance. In other words chance makes choice possible and choice makes love possible.

It seems to me that the real wonder is not that bad things sometimes happen, but that they happen so rarely. We certainly shouldn't blame Papa for random disasters, but we should thank him for such an exquisite combination of personal freedom and relative day to day safety. This supreme balancing act is something worthy of great praise, awe and gratitude.

In conclusion we have to take a small amount of rough with the surprisingly large dollop of smooth. Thank you, Father, for doing such a great job of designing this universe! Truly you are worthy of praise.

(This article is based on a comment I left on an article on the Jesus Creed blog.)

Questions:
  • People sometime ask, 'If there's a God, why does he allow suffering?' How do you answer this?
  • Has this blog post provided any unfamiliar arguments about suffering?
  • Do you believe a creator is free to create things without regard to logic?
  • Is a universe possible in which something could be simultaneously true and false?

See also:

01 November 2012

Dunbar and 130 to 160

< Groups of sixty to eighty | Index | No later items >

The Dunbar Number represents the size limit for meaningful social interaction with others. We need to be careful that we don't have so many church friends that we have no remaining capacity for close social connections with neighbours and others.

Prof Robin DunbarThere is a value called the 'Dunbar Number' which is about 150. Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist and pschologist, proposed that this was a natural limit to human group size. He wrote that it is ...
... a cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships, that this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size ... the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.

In other words, groups much larger then 150 are too large for the members to know one another in a continuous and meaningful way. We simply cannot interact regularly with more people than this. We may know about other people and we may meet other people but we can't really get to know them adequately in a social sense. Knowing someone personally involves spending time with them more or less regularly and 150 is the approximate limit of our ability to do this.

In church life - So in a church context, although we might meet in larger numbers than this, we can expect to only properly know a subset of the people present. And if we regularly socialise with 150 church friends, we will not have much capacity remaining to socialise with neighbours, work colleagues, or the other people we meet day by day. And that is a problem.

Why is it a problem? Simply because we are supposed to be making disciples! We can only make disciples by spending time with the people around us in a social context. To do so our existing regular social group needs to be smaller than the Dunbar number of 150. If we maximise the number of friends we have in the church, we are automatically minimising the number we can maintain in the world. And we do not go into the church to make disciples, but into the world.

Practical suggestions - My advice is to expect church to involve smaller numbers, two or three, six to twenty, and for special purposes sixty to eighty. Meanwhile, focus some effort on having good social involvement with as many non-church people as possible. These will include your wider family, your neighbours and those you share an interest with or work alongside. These are the pools in which you may discover future disciples.

Recognise that good fellowship is possible with the twos and threes and with the sixes to twenties. Do you really need more than that? Weigh up the benefits and the costs of larger church groups than these. What will be gained and what will be lost if your entire capacity to socialise is spent within the church community?

Questions:
  • If you meet regularly with others in a group this size, how many would you say are your friends?
  • How do you relate to the others, those who are not close friends?
  • Are there arrangements to meet in smaller groups at other times? Does this help?

See also:

< Groups of sixty to eighty | Index | No later items >

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