The Circle of Life

It’s been an interesting day in Argentina.  Today was a public holiday for the national census, happening for the first time in twenty years, so we all got to stay in our houses until we’d been interviewed by a school child with a clipboard (I imagine she was probably a university student but she looked about twelve; maybe I’m getting old).  In our case this happened around mid-day which fortunately only just coincided with Joni becoming bored with building brio train tracks on the patio.  The census started with a whole bunch of questions on the house; what is my floor made of, and the walls, and the roof?  Not being a master builder, I suggested she wrote down whatever most peoples’ houses are made of around here, which she seemed to think was a good idea.   The main surprise to me was that the whole thing was semi-anonymous; I didn’t even have to give my ID number, just my first name, but then the questions following regarding the legal or otherwise nature of my work and tax status kind of meant that that would be necessary; although given that they do know where I live, I still can’t see too many folk sticking their necks out for the sake of honesty or national statistics. 

As in the UK, Argentina’s national census would normally happen every ten years, but ten years ago Argentina’s economy was in the free-fall which culminated in riots, looting, the currency run, devaluation, five presidents in five weeks, and eventually, in 2003 the election of Nestor Kirchner as president.  So it was interesting that his death today coincided with the census, an event which could be regarded as a symbol of the relative stability and prosperity that he is credited with restoring to Argentina during his time of office.  I say relative because there is still no shortage of  marches, riots, strikes, inflation running at over twenty per cent, not to mention the trade-unionist who was murdered this week.  Notwithstanding, there is no doubt that the country has come a long way since the dark days under Carlos Menem at the turn of the Millennium.  The Kirchners (Nestor and wife Cristina, currently president) had planned an ambitious sixteen years of Kirchner rule in order to avoid Argentina’s rules on re-election; four him, four her, four him, and four her (a possible variation on the marriage service “four richer, four poorer, four better, four worse”) but with Cristina still in her first term of office, clearly the plan has gone coffin-shaped before it hit the half-way mark.  As to what happens after the funeral, there are those who say that Cristina has been little more than Nestor’s puppet as president, so there may be interesting times here over the next few months. 

Inside my own house (whatever that might be made of), I’ve been reading this book, which someone gave me.  I haven’t actually started reading chapter one yet, and I’m already in trouble.  The first several pages are the forward and the reviews, which are all given by folk who have themselves written books with titles like “Strategy for Triumph”, and “Fire begets fire” and so I’m already prejudiced against whatever the guy thinks he’s going to tell me.  In fact, if he showed up at my church on Sunday, and preached that we should beware the leaven of the evangelicals, then it would absolutely confirm my belief that he is an arrogant pipsqueak (if reading chapter one doesn’t already do that).  Which is of course exactly what the Pharisees concluded when Jesus said the same thing.  Sometimes I can well sympathise with those Pharisees.  I don’t honestly believe that Jesus is going to return as a revival-preaching Argentinean pastor; but then the Pharisees didn’t think Jesus was going to rock up looking like he did the first time either so, who knows? 

When I’m not putting off reading this book, I’m also busily putting off writing a talk I’m supposed to be giving to a Christian youth-choir this Saturday on the subject of why Halloween is a Bad Thing that Christian young people should have no truck with.  And if my problem with the above book is that it winds me up, the problem with writing this talk is that I’m finding it difficult to care at all.  I’ve read so much stuff on the internet, and even the most hyperbolic Christian writing hasn’t managed to incite me to interest.  The history of the UK is such that most of our “Christian” festivals have evolved by grafting Christian teaching onto Pagan festivals, and I suspect the main reason why we don’t get excited about that is less about the good theology of our “Christian” festivals, and more because the syncretism is working well.  So why have kittens about Halloween, and not about, say, Valentine’s day?  And exactly what is the link between a kid dressing up in a black binbag, and invoking evil spirits?  I think it was an Adrian Plass character who described the occult as Christian pornography; part of the reason why we elevate it to an undeserved position is so that we can get close enough to get titillated.  Do I approve of Halloween?  Not really, mostly because of the annoyance of having my door bell battered twenty times in a two hour period, and partly because of the actually Bad nature of some of what passes for “tricks”, but I would ascribe that far more whole heartedly to “kids in groups do worse things than they would if they were on their own”, and far less to any sort of supernatural manifestation from Evil itself.  So now what’m I gonna write?  Luckily I have a police fine to pay tomorrow (driving without my lights on; a legal requirement on main roads here and easy to forget if it’s sunny and you’re English), so that’ll probably take care of the morning, and hopefully divine inspiration, or at least the galvanising factor of an impeding deadline, will have struck by the time I make it to the computer when the kid’s gone to bed tomorrow evening. 

Spider Solitaire

My computer is old, it was bought second hand to replace the (also old) laptop which was stolen nearly two years ago.  We’ve added more memory, and upgraded the operating system amongst other things, but it is still old.  The thing is, it does pretty well everything I want it to; I have Windows 7, Office 2007, I can open anything I’ve ever wanted to, play PowerPoint with video and audio, and even stream TV and videos across the globe.  So for now, I can’t really see any point in replacing it. 

However, since we upgraded to Windows 7, the one thing that it is apparently no longer sophisticated enough to do is play Microsoft’s version of Spider Solitaire (or any other form of solitaire in fact).  Now, I’m not a computer geek, I don’t work for Microsoft and I’m never planning on doing so, but I’m wondering what sort of rubbish code-writing could possibly mean that it requires a more advanced machine to play a card game than to stream and play an hour of TV (to give but one example of the many tasks that my computer still performs perfectly adequately). 

Since I’m not about to buy a new computer, or even buy any new software for this one, I’m left with a dubious freebie version of Spider that I found on the internet (the only one I could find which gave me the whole four suit game without having to pay for it).  It looks naff, it has a mountain of glitches, it cheats, it hangs, and generally it does everything it can to stop me from enjoying myself.  This may be good for my soul.  If I’m honest, the real reason why I’m annoyed is that I just wasn’t planning for 2010 to be the year I break my harmless addiction to SS, but maybe God has other plans for my life.  In the meantime, I’m sulking. 

Ephesians 1

My last Sunday’s sermon is now up, it can be accessed here or under the “sermons” tab at the top of the page.  It’s a bit different in character to my recent forays into Luke, but I think it went OK.  It’s always hard to tell because the people who talk to me afterwards are usually the ones who liked it; at least I know there were some of those, but makes it difficult to imagine how the church as a whole might have responded. 


There was another little sermon writing event on last week, which is past now, having delivered it yesterday. It’s not up on the website yet, I’ll try and get to that tomorrow for those who read Spanish.
Today was a catching up with the things that don’t get done when there’s a sermon-writing event on – day. Apart from going to the special school, the rest was taken up with trip to the supermarket, cleaning the bathroom, cutting the grass (at the behest of our child; he couldn’t give a monkeys about the cleanliness of the bathroom but he becomes strangely offended by the sight of the two foot high thistles protruding from the front lawn), and baking. Wholemeal flour has just made it to our local supermarket, so I bought some and tried it out; four small loaves, two fishes pizza bases, a batch of scones and a chocolate chip cake ought to be enough to feed the family for a few days. I grated some fresh beetroot from our garden into a salad tonight, very nice. There were also home-grown peas in lunch, not to mention the ubiquitous parsley and oregano.

All in all that just left time to have a dispute with Joni about whether he was going to have a bath – yes because I’m bigger; sometimes I negotiate, today I pulled rank, followed by a second dispute about whether he was going to get out of the bath – ditto above, from which we moved swiftly into reading the obligatory pile of stories, some of which he recites along with me, pouring him into his bed, and we’re shortly about to follow (different bed, same concept).

The week so far

Bank holiday weekend, three days on a Scout leaders training camp.  There’s nothing like sleeping in a tent, running around in a field, inventing impossible gadgets out of bits of wood tied up with string, playing silly games in the river (mobile phone in pocket; oops), and coming home smelling of campfire amongst other less mentionable flavours, to make me disproportionately pleased with myself.  The site was fantastic; big eucalyptus plantation, with a grassy clearing in the middle for tents etc. and a  tranquil river (until we arrived that is) running around the perimeter. 

Today I drove to Obispo Trejo, a village some two and a half hours away, to visit the Latin Link short-termer who’s working in the children’s home there.  A five hour round trip is really too far to develop a good mentoring relationship in my un-humble opinion, (unless of course either of the two parties doesn’t have anything better to do with their life) but she seems to be an easygoing and resilient type so I think we’ll figure it out.  The home is run by an older couple from Buenos Aires who moved to Obispo Trejo to take on the leadership when they were newly weds, and are still there forty four years later.  They are now taking more of a back-seat in terms of the day to day washing, cooking and wiping noses, and at the moment the house-mother figure is Miriam, who lives in the home with her own four children, as well as being the maternal first port of call for the other twenty residents.  Her story isn’t mine to tell here, but to say that she is one of the people who Paul had in mind when he says “ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers” (Ephesians 1; I’m preaching on it on Sunday) She’s an inspirational lady.

Joni is fascinated by batteries at the moment having received a couple of battery operated things for his birthday. Now he thinks that he can make any of his toys do anything he wants as long as he can find a hole to insert a battery into.  He’s also decided that three weeks is more than long enough to wait between birthdays, hence yesterday he informed me that he needed a cake and a balloon and some more presents.  It’s in my diary for eleven months time. 

At work, or play?

“Is it only work if it’s outside the home then? Or only work if it involves people outside the immediate family?
Conversely, is it only leisure, if there’s no income or sense of duty attached to it?
There’s a certain amount of work involved in climbing a mountain, yet I suspect that most of the times when you’ve done that, it’s been more for fun than to pay the bills. Perhaps this is where vocation, life as work as love as service as duty and as joy comes in?
Or perhaps this is where I need a stronger coffee.”

I’ve been waiting for a moment to write about this wonderfully thought provoking comment to my blog about work from a couple of weeks ago. Work and play are concepts we think about quite a lot, especially as our job description is pretty well impossible to tie down; something like “Go and live for Christ in another culture…” Does this mean we are technically still working even while we are asleep, on holiday, having sex, playing solitaire (possibly not all at once)? How should one think about work and play, how does one define any difference between them?

Back in a different life, I remember leading a seminar on leisure where I began by suggesting that leisure is in the eye of the beholder. That was an important definition in a context of day-centre service providers who defined “leisure” according to activity, and thus believed that they were “doing leisure” by dragging disabled service users out bowling regardless of what the people themselves might have chosen had they been offered a choice. In this sense it is probably easier to tie down leisure than work; something which is freely chosen, and is perceived in some way as being enjoyable. So does that mean that work is by definition the opposite; activity which is obligated and unpleasant?

Although we probably reject such a harsh definition, to some extent I think it’s what we do believe, shaped as we are by the residue of the good old Protestant work ethic. In twenty first century terms this means we assume that achieving things is desirable, achieving more things is better, and achieving as many things as possible is the highest ideal attainable by man. We can make a virtue out of burn-out, but never out of laziness. As British society we also hold a (largely) unquestioned belief that work is something which happens outside the home, and that parenting and homemaking are neither work, nor appropriate alternatives to work, hence various government initiatives built on the assumption that putting kids into childcare is not only an option, but is the only valid option. In Christian terms this heritage also means that if we accidently catch ourselves having fun outside of our leisure time, then we start worrying that maybe we aren’t doing what God intended.

In our own context here, we are also conscious that other people are voluntarily giving to us to “do mission”, and this consciousness shapes the way we think about our time and resources… What is doing mission? Are we doing enough of it? Would our supporters still support us after they’d spent a week in our house? Is cooking lunch part of doing mission, or is that something that I do in order to enable us to do mission later in the afternoon? Does the answer to that question change according to who is at the table with us? And does even that answer change according to whether the invitees are our friends, or the topics of conversation covered?

On a different tack, one of the most interesting things that I have learnt about myself since being here is that I like to get paid. This surprises me because I’ve always been involved in doing voluntary things, and even where I’ve been paid I’ve never earned a high wage, took a thirty percent pay cut in order to do my last job just because I liked the look of it, abandoned any career aspirations when I realised that good teachers are promoted out of classrooms and into paperwork, and at interview I have frequently had to defend the question “what is someone of your calibre doing applying for this job”. So I always thought that salary wasn’t important to me. Now I know that the quantity of the salary doesn’t matter one iota, but its existence matters a lot. On my thirteenth birthday I was banging on some guy’s door demanding a paper-round. My first pay-packet was one pound seventy. I had the same feeling again last January when I was paid fifteen pesos to spend an hour helping with some kid’s English homework. That’s two pounds fifty. In Argentina that’ll buy you four litres of milk, or three packets of pasta. But it was the first time in over four years that I’d done anything that anyone thought was worth remunerating and it was water to my soul (which is one reason why I’m quite motivated by the idea that the special school here might be able to start paying me soon).

Back to the question; what is work, and how do we decide? In the last couple of weeks, amongst other things I have;

  • Written a sermon… could be work, particularly in the context of being a “full time Christian worker”, and certainly feels like work during the production process, but I’m also conscious that many of the other people who preach in our church write their sermons during their “leisure” time.
  • Organised a birthday party for my three-year old… nice thing to do for one’s kid, part of my duty as his parent, or an evangelistic opportunity as I get to know the families who rub shoulders through the nursery?
  • Been to the special school four or five times a week… probably the closest thing I have to “a job” as the rest of the world would identify one, but it also provides sources of friendship, and fulfils my needs to be valued and to use my skills in a meaningful context.
  • Travelled out to the villages several times a week… this is called a “project” and the church sees it as work. In practice it involves a lot of drinking mate and talking. Is this “making friends” or an “evangelistic opportunity”?
  • Taken part in the usual assortment of Scout meetings and activities… fulfilling my need to go out and play, or developing evangelistic contacts with the kids, parents, and other leaders?

So where are we up to? Work… could be paid, or voluntary; could be obligated, or freely chosen; could be enjoyable, or arduous; could happen at home, or outside; could involve the family, or total strangers; could be identified as work by others, or remain completely unrecognised…

I suspect, in the words of my learned friend, that perhaps this is where I need a stronger coffee.

Parable of the Banquet

Slight sermon-writing crisis meant it was a slow blogging week.  Sermon now written and preached, and up on the website under sermon tab, parable of the banquet in Spanish.  Three hundred people is the most I’ve ever had to preach to in any language, which was a bit intimidating, but I think it went OK.  The people who spoke to me afterwards seemed to like it anyway, whether they were a representative sample or not, who knows!