May contain nuts

Health Warning; Those with possible allergies to poor-quality home movies of someone else’s kids, may be advised to sit this one out.
I’ve meaning to get round to putting these clips up for a couple of weeks, so they seemed like a suitable boxing day project which should at least please the long-distance grandparents.

The following two and a half minutes represent a scale model of the two and a half hours we spent at Joni’s nursery Christmas party; divided roughly evenly between hoiking him up onto the inflatable slide, and catching occasional glimpses of him as he rushed to and fro on the bouncy castle. Apparently there were other activities on offer, but we couldn’t tell you a lot about them.

And the next one, apart from being Joni on his trike, was a little experiment to see if I could add sound. The music is one of our favourite songs by Raffi Actually, it’s a good job we like it, because as Joni’s favourite CD we get to hear it most days. Getting the music off the CD and editing it to fit the video was quite a learning curve. I’ve been mightily impressed by the Nero suite that I found on Martin’s computer, from which I used Startsmart and Wave to create the sound. Unfortunately Virtual Dub then scrambled it, which is why it is now all over the place. Apparently it’s a known bug and the young geek who developed Virtual Dub (just tried to abbreviate it to VD but this is a family show) says he hopes to fix it for the next version.

Joni loves seeing himself on video, he can watch the same short clips over and over again for really quite a long time. Possibly he thinks he’s been catapulted to stardom along with his real super-heros “Thomas” (the Tank Engine) and “Sormaseep” (Shaun the Sheep).

The week before Christmas

It’s ten o’clock in the morning on Christmas eve and we are hoping to start and finish our Christmas shopping in the next two hours, only hampered slightly by the twin circumstances that it is pouring with rain and we haven’t yet talked to the people who we are sharing Christmas dinner with to decide who is bringing what. One of the things that I like about Argentina is the hassle-free Christmas, particularly in the lower-middle echelons of society.
The last few days on the other hand have been fairly manic. Those paying close attention might remember the summer scheme with disabled people that I was involved in last year. That started again on Monday so I have been there all week. This year there is an added bonus in that I have managed to obtain a place for my little friend from the hamlet who I wrote about a few blogs ago, which has also brought its own complications. The local governor had agreed that the village would provide the transport, and then at the last moment decided that he wasn’t very interested after all. This is a fair summary of my experience so far with this governor. A friend said “these people use their money to buy their political position, and then use their political position to get more money”. So maybe I just shouldn’t expect anything, except that the guy is hard to bypass in a small community, especially if you’re trying to access resources. Anyway, the upshot of all that is that my first task every morning is to drive into the back of beyond to collect said kid, and my last job is to return him home afterwards. This doesn’t bode greatly for my campaign for the kid to go to school next year, although I will at least have the law on my side for that round of negotiations.

Anyway, Monday, we arrived, to discover that kiddo needed a health form in order to be allowed in the pool. Not just any old “history compiled by the parents” form, but a full medical completed and signed by a doctor. Swallowing the desire to point out that he probably takes a bath most days to no ill effect, we piled back into the car and went for a tour of San Francisco’s hospital. After making us wait an hour, we were sent on to a different department whose secretary informed us that there were no more appointments available for today. So I went into pleading mode, and the secretary, younger and less Doberman-like than some of her colleagues, suggested that we went upstairs to argue our case with the duty doctor. Carrying seven-year old up two flights of concrete steps no mean feat; (this is a hospital, what do they do with the beds and wheelchairs?) we waited outside the doctor’s office. She, bless her, took one look and said “I know this kid what do you want me to sign?” and filled in the form with barely a poke of the patient. So we made our second (more successful) arrival at the summer scheme a mere ninety minutes after the first.

Worth it? Roaring. This little boy who has barely left his house in his life so far, was anything but intimidated by being part of a larger group, even though they are all more able and mobile than himself. He piled into the middle of the football game with full abandon, and as for the water; ecstatic. The other kids, all with learning difficulties, also went out of their way to include him with friendly greetings, and playing splash with him in the pool. All of which also bodes well for him if he makes it into school next March. The final hurdle for that may be his mum, ironically, for it is also she who is pushing for him to go to school in the first place. She has been accompanying him to the summer scheme this week, until yesterday she said that he couldn’t come every day, as she hasn’t got time to come with him every day. Which I took as an opportunity to suggest that maybe I should try taking him on my own, an idea which she didn’t take to at all, saying that he wouldn’t want to come without her. In fact from what I have seen, he is so well integrated that he rarely even glances across to her during the whole of the morning. However, since his birth-day seven and a half years ago, of the very few places he has been to none of them have been without mum, and I suspect that it is going to take a piece of relationship-building longer and more sensitive than me suggesting it might be a good idea, to bring about that next step of progress.

Meanwhile I’m trying to think of something original and Christmassy to finish with, but really I can’t improve on “The word became flesh and came and dwelt among us”, which is probably just as well. Have a good one.

Missing; One Domestic Goddess

Possibly because I occasionally buy huge quantities of fruit to make jam, or maybe just because I ride a bike and mend my own clothes, the guy in the fruit and veg shop seems to have me boxed as a domestic-goddess/ earth-mother. He is usually waiting for me with tips and ideas for recipes, and he often throws in a freebie of something he’s trying to get rid of and thinks I should be able to use lots of.
My child on the other hand lives with me, and therefore possibly has a more realistic picture. We were sitting in idle companionship on the front doorstep watching the world go by as one does on a sunny evening in Argentina, when he turned to me and said dispasionately:

“Mummy, cut the grass”.

He was right, it was quite long. So long in fact that the bane-of-my-life grass cutting machine starting smoking half way through and I had to turn it off and finish the worst bits by hand with a pair of sheers. Another couple of years and I’ll be teaching Joni to use the stupid thing himself.

Eschatological Shredder

I’ve got a potential humdinger of a blog pending, but I keep getting side-tracked by other things…. Or maybe I’m taking refuge in the distraction of the other things. Anyway, today’s side track is from Ekblad’s “Reading the Bible with the Damned” (2005) which is an interesting little publication for anyone working with folk outside of mainstream culture.
The bit that caught my attention was his end-times discourse where he talks about the destruction of principalities, powers and passions. Along with the usual list of death, disease, hate, social, structural and political powers, and ideologies all doomed to destruction, Ekblad also includes anything that looks like an institution including all the Christian ones; all denominations, all mission organisations, all NGO’s, all para-church organisations.

On my first reading I thought “that’s a bit harsh”. On my second reading I quite enjoyed the idea of certain Christian organisations being consigned to a vast eschatological shredding machine, in a vindictive but fictitious sort of way, like playing a computer game. It wasn’t till a day later on my bike that I suddenly realised what he means, and why he is right.

Institutions are something like folders on a computer; they don’t actually carry any weight beyond that of their content; an empty folder is zero kilobytes; an institution without people is a name on paper. In the grand scheme of things institutions don’t exist other than as entities defined by human beings for ease of organisation. In the final instance what will be left will be the people. When the lamb opens his book of life, the names therein will be people, not institutions. When all the buzzwords, building projects, flow diagrams, meetings, fundraising, smart targets, strategies, leadership elections and form-filling finally crumble, the only thing left of an institution will be any tangible contribution that its members might have made towards building the Kingdom of God.

I’m not about to write a heavy-handed “application” section, not least because I want to go to bed, so let’s just suggest that for some institutions whose vision may have become reduced to “we grow to exist and we exist to grow”, it might be time for a rethink around where those resources might ultimately be leading to.

Not even a mustard seed

It was my turn to talk in church, so I followed on from Martin last week who spoke about the Kingdom of God being the people who the church too often leaves out or marginalises. I drew on my growing “weeds through the cracks in the pavement” image, and talked about the privilege of seeing the “weeds” flourish in unexpected ways in Quebracho Herrado. This is all quite a challenge to the church here, where the concept of “the body” is virtually indistinguishable from “the institution”, and church is an activity once a week led from the front, and the people who everyone else aspires to be are the ones up there leading from the front. I think my Spanish is quite colloquial for the middle-classes of San Fran, which is hardly surprising since I learnt it on the very un-middle-class streets of Rafael Castillo in Buenos Aires. There were some moments where everyone was laughing and I’m pretty certain it wasn’t about the content of what I was saying. Maybe I should work on improving that. On the other hand, if it increases peoples’ chances of remembering anything I said, or of not being offended that I said it, then perhaps I should just count it as a blessing and leave well alone.
Here’s a bit of theology which wasn’t what I was talking about this morning, but something I’m working on in bed at night. I’m playing with an idea about God’s big grace and our tiny contribution, and what might come out of that. For example, if I look at sin offerings in Leviticus there is a list of things that I might bring as a sacrifice, ending with (5:11):

If, however, he cannot afford two doves or two young pigeons, he is to bring as an offering for his sin a tenth of an ephah of fine flour for a sin offering.

As one of our lecturers once said, anyone who can come to church with a cup of flour and go home knowing that their sins are forgiven, has experienced the grace of God. Unless we have an artificially small concept of our own sin (or possibly a lot of flour) then we are confronted with God’s big grace in the face of our tiny contribution.

Jump forward to Jesus, and another type of seed in Matthew 17.

(Jesus) replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

Now the only times I ever heard this passage being taught is in the context of being encouraged that God will move mountains through us and our tiny faith. But actually God never moved a mountain through me or my tiny faith, and as far as I know, he didn’t yet move a mountain through anybody else’s tiny faith either. So I’m thinking that the message of the passage might look less like “all you need is faith as small as a mustard seed”, and more like “whatever faith you think you have, it’s more comparable to a nano-particle than a mustard seed”. And so we are right back with the cup of flour and our tiny contribution in the face of God’s big grace.

Why does this matter? Because when we start defining the limits of “in” or “out” of the Kingdom of God, we inevitably draw our lines in terms of “who has believed in the right stuff”, and before we know it we have defined ourselves a gospel of works where faith is the new work, and ours is big enough to get us “in”, all of which would be clearly challenged by this reading of the passages above.

In a nice black and white box everyone knows where they are: Deserving people believe the right stuff and God loves them. Bad people believe the wrong stuff and God might love them but they certainly don’t deserve it. And then real life and the “what abouts” kick in. What about people who didn’t sign up to the right stuff because they were never born, or they never reached an age of understanding, or they didn’t have the capacity to understand, or they were prevented from understanding because of the other things that life dealt them? What about the people who are genuinely trying to follow God even though they might have signed up to the “wrong” team? So special pleading kicks in; “This is the model but we are sure God must have a special way of dealing with the deserving people who didn’t fit into it”. But if we go back to cups of flour and mustard seeds, we might conclude that the one and only reason why anyone might be “in” is because of God’s grace, since my nano-particle of faith isn’t enough to open a matchbox much less the gates of Heaven. All of a sudden the model defining “in” and “out” doesn’t seem to work very well any more, and the only thing that sets us apart from the unborn child and the profoundly disabled adolescent and the murderer in the prison and the church of the “less saved than we are” down the road, is our profound arrogance as we claim to draw the lines of God’s big grace.

Recognising our poverty of spirit, of faith, of understanding, of generosity, of grace has some interesting implications for mission, not least in terms of who we are prepared to accept and work with as “team”, as equals, as brothers, as the body, as partners in the Kingdom. Sensing that once again I may be on a slippery slope into hot water here, this is me deciding to wimp out of unpacking the logical conclusions of this line of inquiry for another chapter.

This week’s language lesson

In line with the world in general, roads in Argentina come in different grades according to their importance, and their state of repair. Since most of Argentina is frankly unpopulated, quite a lot of what people in the UK might think of as “B roads” are unsurfaced, and as for anything smaller than that, watch out for trees growing down the middle and hippos wallowing in the holes… OK I lied about the hippos but if we were in a different continent the holes would certainly be big enough.
We have discovered that unsurfaced roads come in two categories; ripio and barro. Essentially, ripio is a dirt road that has been filled with sand and gravel, and barro is a dirt road that hasn’t. Often they both look the same, particularly after a storm. However, after some hard-won practical experience in the rain, the experiment concluded that while both surfaces create a muddy pebble-dashed effect on your car, ripio is easily passable by maintaining a low gear and a constant speed, whereas barro involves skating and slithering, and the odd scientific question about how likely we are to hit that tree if we slide too far to the right, or whether this could be a good moment to try throwing it into reverse rather than have to get out and push.

Mission Conference

Imagine a mission where we organised our conference because we had something to say rather than because the constitution said we had to have one.
Imagine a mission conference that was centred around a programme we were excited about, rather than prioritising the dates and the venue before we started wondering how we were going to waste fill peoples’ time having obliged encouraged them to be there.

Imagine a mission conference whose key agenda was furthering mission in its widest sense, rather than our own organisational minutiae.

Imagine a mission conference organised with the academic rigour normally expected in other disciplines; open invitations to submit papers, proper presentations, peer review, real debate, maybe even a publication to follow.

Imagine a mission conference where we went away thinking that if we hadn’t been there, we might have missed out on something worth contributing to.

Imagine on, because it won’t be happening this time. Having seen the agenda, I can confirm that our aspirations are safely limited to rearranging the pot-plants of our own domestic politics. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with house-keeping; heck even I clean the bathroom from time to time. The issues here are about inappropriate matching of resources to task, and a missed opportunity to do something really worth-while with our conference. The agenda we have been given is not dissimilar to the agendas of PCC meetings up and down many countries. But rather than turfing a dozen people off their sofas into a damp church hall for a couple of hours, we are flying however many (couple of hundred?) people half-way across the world to Peru with all the financial and time commitments inherent, for an agenda that wouldn’t tax the average PCC (or was the one I used to be on just particularly excellent?). How can this possibly be good stewardship of resources; people, time, or money? (even ignoring the issue of all those air-miles) In fact I took two days between writing and posting this blog in order to try and come up with a good reason why the suggested topics couldn’t have been reasonably dealt with in an email discussion or a web forum, and so far I can’t think of one. Unfortunately we have a three line whip; otherwise I would save the time and the money, both of which are in short enough supply. At least we can still dream. Another year, another life, another planet…

Cracks in the Pavement

The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Unlike the Cedars of Lebanon it has no intrinsic majesty to call its own, but it grows into stumpy little bushes through the cracks in the pavement and other unexpected places.
For the last month or so we have been in danger of losing our building in Quebracho Herrado, and with the project only just about air-borne anyway, I have been engaging in something like passive resistance; passing people on to talk to someone else who is never available, and not quite ever getting round to shifting my furniture. However, I was finally backed into a corner and agreed that we would vacate, in exchange for being moved to another (smaller) room and a corresponding reduction in rent.

In the end I thought it might not matter as maybe we would end up closing for the summer anyway, since most of what I have been doing is helping kids with the homework or on subjects where they are behind at school. In addition, design flaws in the school system here mean that kids don’t actually get picked up until nearly the end of the school year, when they are in danger of having to repeat the year and then everyone goes into panic mode trying to catch the child up in a couple of weeks with the stuff that they haven’t understood for the previous eight months, which means for my purposes I might not actually have any kids or their parents banging on my door until possibly next October or so. All of which made me think that maybe my future usefulness in Quebracho might need a rethink, and that the issue of the room was just a compounding discouragement.

So I shifted into the new room which is a small ex-kitchen with a door onto the road, next door to my bigger old place, which has now been turned into a corner shop. I left the door open so that the couple of kids I was expecting to show up would see where I was. However, the shop is quite a popular place, it has been in the village for several years in its old location, and plenty of people are continuing to patronise it in its new home. And several of those were curious about who I am so they came in to see. As well as the couple of kids who would have shown up anyway, I ended up running an impromptu kids’ club, distributing the drawing and colouring equipment around the juvenile bodies who had distributed themselves around the table and floor, and in the middle of it all, sat a middle aged lady, the owner of the shop in fact, who had brought some English work she needed help with. So now I’m rethinking how we might capitalise on the new location in order to run some activities for Christmas and the summer holidays.

And the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.

Impractical Theology

I’ve been looking around at options for further study, haven’t made any decisions yet, slightly hampered by certain institutions who don’t appear to want my money enough to reply to my emails.
So far I have discovered that no-where in the UK is financially accessible (apart from possibly the place that doesn’t respond to their emails; would I want to be dealing with a non-communicative institution even if it were financially feasible?) So I have turned my sights abroad. USA out of the questions. Australia not inspired by the options. South Africa maybe a possibility. Of course with distance learning it doesn’t actually matter where it is, apart from maybe a cultural flavour to the course. So where a UK college offers a module called “theology of the poor” (yuk!) a course in a South African context might take a more integrated approach (one might hope at least).

The other thing I have discovered is that “my” area (theology and disability) is categorised as “Practical Theology”. “Practical Theology” strikes me as being something of a tautology; Theology is a practical subject. Think about it for a minute; what would the alternatives look like? Academic Theology? Theoretical theology? Miles removed from the real world theology? Not to be lived theology? Or maybe just Impractical Theology? Who dreams this stuff up?