Thursday, 27 October 2011

H@ppy birthday email!

I notice that that (nearly) indispensable tool of modern communication, the e-mail, is forty years old this month.

The first message, sent in October 1971, travelled a distance of one metre between two computers. One small step for a message, one giant leap for mankind.

By the end of the 1990s, e-mail had become an essential part of working life in many offices around the world. By 2008, 170 billion e-mails were being sent each day, at a rate of 2 million per second. It hasn’t stopped accelerating; by 2010, the daily rate was 294 billion. Now, many of us are constantly checking our e-mails: we have access to them wherever we are (or not, in the case of BlackBerry recently). We’ve come a long way in 40 years.

This got me thinking of another anniversary: going back ten times further in history, to 1611, it's 400 years this year since the King James (or Authorised) version of the Bible in English was published. While not the first translation of the Bible into English, what is now familiar to us- an everyday part of our lives, which we now perhaps take for granted- was at the time a revolutionary departure. One of the express intentions of translation project was to make the Bible accessible to the ordinary person.

We may not consult our Bibles as often as we do our e-mails: perhaps we would all benefit from doing so! We need to use all the means at our disposal to communicate the good news of the Gospel. The church still has a message- even if the ways of communicating it has changed.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Sea level rise in Tuvalu

The news from Tuvalu is not good. A set of small islands in the distant South Pacific ocean, about as far from Scotland as it is possible to get on the surface of the earth are now at critical risk. Why? Because of a life threatening drought that has been added to the combination of a rising and warming sea which together are making life on these small islands inhospitable.

Why should this be of concern to us in Scotland with all the problems we have to worry about here? There are after all less than 12,000 people living on the islands of Tuvalu and there are others closer to hand, like New Zealand who can help out. I think the reason is a bit like the story of the canary in the coal mine. What is happening in Tuvalu is a wake up call to all of us.

When the climate changes and sea levels rise low lying places will be hit hardest and among the first to suffer are the atoll islands of the South Pacific. The reasons are not difficult to see when the highest point in the Tuvalu archipelago is less than five metres above sea level. A rising and warming sea, both caused by global warming, and a climate that appears to becoming drier spell trouble. The protective coral is bleached by warmer water and if damaged then the risk of storm damage increases; the islands’ limited supply of fresh water is reduced; ground water becomes more saline and a traditional way of life becomes more difficult.

The Church in Tuvalu, the Ekalesia Kelisiano Tuvalu has been warning of the risks for some time but now the risk has become a crisis due to a prolonged drought that has endured for months. I can do no better than quote from a message sent to us by the Rev. Tafue Lusama, General Secretary of the Church in Tuvalu a few days ago:

"… for the past 5 to 6 months there has been no rain at all, and that caused shortage of water, trees are dead, traditional plantations are all dead, land is so dry that even the crabs cannot survive.

"This is the worst experience of a drought we have ever faced in history.
Because even our underground water is salinated and is no longer viable for any use."

They have brought in desalination machines, but even that does not assist the land and the plantations for they only give out enough water for drinking and cooking for a family a day.

Tafue asks us to remember the people of Tuvalu in our prayers, which we will do. He is gracious in his plea for help and does not point the finger of accusation against those us who may be causing the misery that they must endure. But we can read in the experience of the people of Tuvalu the slow and inexorable pressure that makes the land less hospitable and the earth and sea less sustaining. Where Tuvalu is now suffering others will follow, and as the impact of climate change spreads many more will experience conditions that challenge life and wellbeing. In our own worries about the economy and our own prosperity we must find time to remember these distant islands and the warning call they make to all of us.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Priority Areas - really getting it right

Harvey Cox, the eminent American academic and theologian visited Scotland recently.

Whilst he was here he was introduced to the Priority Areas work of the Church of Scotland and Bridging the Gap, a project I am deeply involved with in my day job as a parish minister in the Gorbals.
Harvey has written back to us on his journey home to Harvard, and he said:

“I think that even though many of those involved are not aware of it, the priorities areas project is on the frontier of a new and welcome stage in Christian history and in the maturing ministry of the church. The Church of Scotland, unlike many other denominations, is really getting this one right. I know full well how discouraging it can be at times for the people involved, but I came back convinced that the program is bodying forth a fuller vision of what the Church should be. If Bridging the Gap is not a sacramental token of what the Kingdom of God is, then I do not know what would be."

Wow. Praise from the praise worthy is praise indeed.

When we’re up tae oor oxters in work, meetings, committees, preparing sermons, worrying about finances and roof metal theft, this is inspiring and uplifting.

I have written this post not to blow the trumpet for Bridging the Gap on its own, but to share the inspiration and uplift with everyone else involved in our Priority Areas work, and to share with the whole Church of Scotland that it is at the cutting edge

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Child Poverty and the growing distance between ambition and reality

Headline news today was the publication of an Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) report Child and Working-Age Poverty from 2010 to 2010.

The IFS research says that child poverty rates are set to increase substantially, despite the Government’s child poverty strategy which sets targets for reducing child poverty.

We are members of the End Child Poverty campaign in Scotland. A spokesperson for the coalition of campaign groups, charities, faith groups and trade unions in Scotland said:

"This analysis by the IFS shows that the new Universal Credit being introduced by the UK government cannot reverse the impact of massive cuts to welfare benefits, rising inflation, stagnating wages and higher unemployment. In a rich country that already has shamefully high child poverty levels, this news is devastating. If allowed to happen, it will reverse the progress made over the past decade and set us back to the rapidly rising child poverty rates of the 1980s and 1990s."

We are calling on the UK Government to take immediate steps to reduce child poverty if it is going to stand any chance of honouring the commitments made in the Coalition Agreement.

The group is also called on the Scottish Government to do more to ensure the ambitions set out in its child poverty strategy are supported by its budget decisions.

The importance of giving children the best start in life is underlined by our report from 2009 on Growing Up in Scotland. 

Friday, 7 October 2011

Are computer games good for you?

Since the days of the early computer games of pong, pacman and space invaders through to today's craze with MMO (massively mulitplayer online) games such as World of Warcraft, parents across the globe have despaired that children are wasting their lives on pointless rubbish.

But how would you feel if computer games could have a social good?

Perhaps as confused as me when I saw this article which says how online gamers have helped with an important breakthrough in understanding how the HIV virus works, and so helping research towards more effective treatment.

This form of collective working on a common project through the Internet is called crowd-sourcing, and it is beginning to be used in a number of different fields, from film reviews to the scrutiny of academic papers. Maybe one day we will even do a crowd sourced report for the General Assembly's Blue Book.

The Church of Scotland supports work around HIV AIDS through the HIV AIDS Programme.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Out of solitary places

Mental health and suicide were two of the issues which the Church and Society Council raised at the General Assembly earlier this year.

Two news stories last week have caught my attention and brought be back to look again at the reflections in our reports.

The first is the news of the publication in English of Robert Enke's biography.
Enke was a successful German club goalkeeper, a married father. He suffered from depression and killed himself in 2009. Sadly this is not an unknown story, but Enke's fame, success and celebrity status has meant that a spotlight has been thrown on suicide, and what might be done to support people in desperate need of help.

Suicide is the number one cause of death in young men in Scotland. Our report recommended the play 'Dare 2 Hope' from Cutting Edge Theatre Productions, designed for schools, which helps young people to explore some of these issues.

The second news story was about the increased use of anti depressant drugs as a treatment for mental health issues in Scotland.
This just goes to show that mental health problems remain an important and growing issue of concern. Our report tried to shed some light on this and suggested that local congregations agree a policy or charter for how they approach the issue.

When thinking about mental health issues I often recall the Bible story of Jesus healing the man known as Legion, a man cast out of normal society and tormented by his inner demons (Mark 5: 1-9). Healing is not always an easy process, but by understanding why people become ill and accepting them in society rather than ostracising them is an important way we can demonstrate love and compassion.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Bold action to tackle alcohol misuse

A year ago Holyrood was debating the Alcohol Bill.

One of its key provisions, for a minimum price per unit of alcohol, was removed by MSPs before the final vote.

An outcome of the SNP’s re-election means they can reintroduce this measure, and their majority means it is almost certain to become law.

The Church of Scotland fully supports the Government on this, or rather I could say that the Government is in line with the Church, as we first called for a minimum price per unit of alcohol way back in the early 1980s.

We need radical action, as despite years of talk about education programmes and attitudinal change, as a nation Scotland has a deeply troubling relationship with alcohol.

I read last week that Professor Tim Stockwell of the Centre for Addictions Research in British Columbia, Canada, had urged MSPs to transform alcohol policy by introducing minimum pricing. His research shows that minimum pricing has worked in Canada where there has been a fall in the level of drinking.
Critics of minimum pricing claim it is no ‘magic bullet’ that it alone will solve all alcohol-related problems. Any reasonable person would likely agree. But the thing is minimum pricing is not being introduced by itself, but as part of broader Government and voluntary initiatives, including NHS health living campaigns, education in schools, AA groups and abstinence campaigns. However all these other programmes are not enough, we need to try everything we can or the costs of alcohol misuse will continue to grow.

So I am interested in debating the merits of the plan revealed in last week's Herald (sorry no link) to have separate queues and tills in supermarkets for alcohol, and putting a rateable levy on supermarkets based on alcohol sales (currently supermarkets are only taxed on the size of their shop floor).

The Herald article quotes an unnamed source from the Scottish Retail Consortium: “Demonising alcohol is not the answer.” I say, “Yes, it is”. Alcohol has been demonising our neighbours for too long, we need to make excessive drinking socially unacceptable.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

People First - my thoughts

 Today I was at the People First march and rally in Glasgow.  The heavy rain meant the rally was curtailed, and I wasn't able to speak - but here is what I would have said!

I’m happy to be able to speak for the Moderator today –

because he agrees with me
that when the rich go on getting richer,
and the poor go on getting poorer,
and nothing – nothing in government policy
is designed to change that, to make
any difference at all –
it’s time for people from churches
to stand beside people from unions,
to stand beside people from disability groups,
to stand beside people from right across Scotland

and say that this is an offence
against the kind of society
that we want to be part of.

To be as the old Testament prophets who stood up and named what was wrong ;
Challenged injustice,
And called
No demanded
that those in power
Put others first

Some people, of course, think they come first.
Because of their wealth
Their status
Their position
Or their antecedents
And the deep desire of these people
is – at all times and at all cost
to anyone else – to stay first.

That’s why we have a body of millionaires
making up the Cabinet,
trying to get their own taxes cut
and telling us that we can’t afford
poor people.

The Bible get a lot of stick these days,
but let me tell you now what the Bible says:

It says that when there are resources to be shared out,
everyone should get enough. Everyone should
get enough, and everyone can get enough.
We’re told there’s no choice
about which direction to go in.
And of course they’re quite right,
the government.

If things are to stay the same –
the same inequality,
the same winners,
the same losers,
the same lack of values,
the same lack of compassion,
the same holding on to weapons of mass murder,
the same refusal by the wealthy
to pay a decent share of tax,
the same lack of political will and imagination….

If all these things are to stay the same
then we’ve no choice.

But today we exercise choice – the choice
to say no to the same old, same old,
business as usual.

Today we say it is time to make other choices,
it is time to put some other people first.

All over Scotland
The nation of which we are all part
Whatever our roots and our beliefs
 there are young people who believe
that our society has nothing for them –
no respect, no decent work, no hope, no future.
It really is time to put them first.

All over Scotland there are people
Some of who are here today ,
who have  already felt the sharp edge of cuts –
transport services to disabled people taken away,
to save a fraction of a banker’s bonus.
It really is time to put them first too.

If the Moderator was here he’d tell you
that these are the very people
who should get a fair deal,
because right now they are last,
and what Jesus says in the Bible
is that the last shall be first.

The way they get to be first
is that we stop living as though
there was no alternative
and make the changes that are needed
to prioritise the poorest.

Scotland has a proud record
of caring for all of its people.
We need to call on that pride today,
and say that we will not cease
in our efforts, until we have
a change that puts people first –
that puts all of our people first,
and the ideology of market forces last.

What we have now is not rational,
it is deeply irrational to have an
economy in which the only thing
that  is growing is inequality. And
it is deeply irrational to have some
with all the opportunity and others
with none. 

It’s time for those with the power
to change our political priorities
to rediscover the morality that
needs to underpin our society, and
to say no to the ideological cuts
that are doing such terrible damage
to the most vulnerable people
in it.

On behalf of the Moderator
I thank you for listening, and
thank you for coming.