Monday, April 21, 2014

Something as simple as a glass of water

In a fictional tale, told by David Foster Wallace, an older fish swims past two younger fish and sayswe can't live long without waste "Morning boys, how's the water?" They swim on for a while until one turns to the other and says "What the hell is water?"

It's said we take for granted the technology that already exists when we're born. We adapt to what is developed as we grow up. And then we get suspicious of the stuff that arrives after we turn thirty.

The middle aged person today critiques today's youth for relationships based on texting and snapchat, wishing they would just make phonecalls... and yet that's a call for one kind of technology instead of another. Face to face unmediated contact is ultimate (1 Cor 13) and so maybe a phonecall is better than a text message, but we all have technological bias.

I graduated University without having a mobile phone, and having never drunk real coffee. I'm not sure how long I could survive today without both of those.

The ability to drink a glass of water is one of those things we take for granted. But in a well populated world where you can't often just drink from a river and be sure it's clean... we depend on the ability to turn a tap and get water.

We can't live long without water. 

The glass takes a lot of technology to make - glass from sand with heat... tools, machines, electricity (power plants, oil rigs and pipes, boats, navigation systems, drills etc)....   and then the water has to be piped from somewhere, cleaned, delivered through a network of pipes, through a tap into a ceramic sink with all the technology required to design and make and deliver and install each of those things and the many more parts that don't occur to me along the way.

And it's all part of our story of cultivating this world. Genesis, when you get past the God vs. Science fog tells of a God of spreading goodness who paints in broad brushstrokes and commissions humanity to add in the detail, taking up words and tools to do that, cultivating wilderness into a garden and a city for God and man to dwell together. And it takes everyone's work to do that.

We can't live long without water. 

Hearts get re-made by the technology of words through which the Spirit brings new life... because the technology of execution crucified the Christ, and roads and language and much more enabled that news to spread. But that story finishes pretty fast without food and shelter, and most of us depend on the work of a great many people to have those things today.

I'm thankful, and learning to open my eyes just a little bit more to the simplest things like water.

Richard Sibbes noted:

"We commend the witty industry of those that from springs remote bring rivers to cities, and by pipes from these rivers derive water to every man's house for all domestic services..."

We can't live long without water, and so also (which Sibbes was illustrating) the even greater living water, but that's for another day.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Video: Find me in the city

Find me in the city from Trinity Media on Vimeo.

I wrote this for my Word Alive seminar on God and Technology.  Much credit to John Dyer's book From Garden to City and UCCF's long standing clarity on doctrine of creation and the value of work. The video doesn't have any audio. I think Kings Kaleidoscope's Higher Throne makes a good musical backdrop.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Awesomeness: Word Alive 2014

It was 1am on a Friday morning in the Spring of 2002 when I sat down with a group of Reading University students to watch Paul Thomas Anderson's film Magnolia. Our host that night is now a tutor for the OCCA and I remain thankful that he gave us the experience of this unsettling and outstanding film.... and for the 4.30am ride home through the cold of the night on the back of his scooter.

I've been on the UCCF team for 13 years now and its nights like that that capture what UCCF is about for me. Gospel-loving people, engaging constructively with people about the ideas and imagination of this world, together. And Word Alive is a part of that family - with all the grown-up graduates, their kids and many others around too for a week around Easter.

Last week was my first time at Word Alive since 2008.
I wish my family had been there with me. 
I wish *all* the students I work with had been there. 
I wish my church Community Group had been there.

We experienced:
  • The Don Carson on Jeremiah. 
  • Flapjack and coffee with students discussing the big issues. 
  • The excellent Brad Green on the Christian Mind and recommending Francis Schaeffer
  • Gospel-centred worship led by Lewis Green, Kat Buckley and Stuart Townend. 
  • A beach BBQ with Bristol CU.
  • The refreshing Krish Kandiah on Social Media. 
  • Catching up with old friends and hearing about the kids programme that makes this event unmissable for them.
  • Making new friends. 
  • Tracking down the man who taught me how to read the Bible - 13 years ago at UCCF's Biblical Evangelism Conference - to thank him.
  • A Hog Roast. 
  • A full evening session from Bill Edgar on the roots of Jazz! (even better in week 2 I'm told with Ruth Naomi Floyd singing live). 
  • Quality applied gospel preaching on Luke. 
  • Plus the tracks I couldn't get to by Caroline Cox on Justice, Kathleen Nielson on Wisdom Literature, Mike Ovey on Humanity & Human Rights, church planter Richard Coekin doing the Word Alive staple of a Chronological Bible Overview, Becky Pippert (Week 2), Krish Kandiah on Adoption....and many more.
 And then there was Ted Turnau.

I was at Word Alive on team and I got to pick which week I attended.
Confession: Ted was why I picked Week 1.

Four 90min sessions on God and Culture with uber-geek academic Ted Turnau leading us towards a high quality alternative to the superficial saccharine shouty work that tends to pass for "Christian" art and culture. I don't think I'll be writing the novels or making the films, but I'd like to help make space for those who can, and to help the rest of us love art more as a vital part of life in this world.
Ted Turnau's Five Steps for Interpreting Popular Culture

  1. What’s the story (or quasi-story)?
  2. Where am I (the world of the work)?
  3. What’s true here?
  4. What’s false here (and how to subvert it)?
  5. How does the gospel apply?
I'd read Ted's book Popologetics before, and it was great to finally meet him (I dared to cross the line from Twitter-follower to personal acquaintance...) and to hear him live on a subject that he's clearly passionate about. He was a great example of someone enjoying their subject which is awesome in itself. He has an infectious enthusiasm.

We explored how to read a films and music. We worked examples from Magnolia (!!) and Avengers and music from Audrey Assad.

We considered the vital importance of the imagination in how we see the world.
"We experience this world as our world through our imagination...for the imagination, the cross makes us sensitive to the wreckage of our lives, resurrection sees hope... "
Plus we worked through examples from Polish film maker Kieslowski.

As an aside I loved Ted's family rules:
1. Salvation is by grace alone... but dessert is earned.
2. No spoilers.
Word Alive is a gospel-centred Bible 'holiday' for all ages. Around the site were people from all kinds of different church backgrounds, being given opportunities to explore the implications of the gospel for all parts of life, experiencing the life-changing nature of life in God, and being prepared to express his goodness in local churches, in the work place, at University, at home, or wherever else they find themselves.

There was a rich diversity to the programme, and quality of teaching that was sky high.... drawing on the best of so many 'tribes' and 'streams' through a common commitment to the good news of Jesus.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The knock at the door: a real life parable on the challenges of communication

I opened the door.
"Hello Mr Dish."
I assume salesperson, and in the middle of dinner quip back, with a smile:
"Not a great start, thats not my name..."
"Really?" comes the reply before a check of the clipboard and a second attempt. (Later my wife will gain a new surname too...)
I'm handed a flyer, and it turns out this is our long serving local Councillor.
"Do you vote?" (Only about a third of the neighbourhood do...)
Checks clipboard. 
"Oh, yes I see you do." (I confess I'm not really warming to her at this point...)
She reminds me for a second time that she's been representing us for a long time.
"Will I have your vote?"
"To be honest, it'll depend on policies..."
"I'm sure you've read my six monthly newsletter..." (I don't recall...)
"I'd love to see what you can do about the speeding on our road."
"Well, if you will live on a main road. .." begins a long and fairly condescending answer about traffic volume and how she's working on that by trying to bring in an evening cafe culture in town. She begins to walk off...
"I know there will be lots of traffic, but I asked about the speeding... We lost an elderly neighbour to a speeding motorist ..."

(For most of this conversation my two year old is stood by me... that I am a concerned parent is visible.)
"Oh, yes, I knew her well, she was a loyal voter of mine... "
"I'm concerned for my kids.. "
"I've been your Councillor for a long time, not even worth getting into that issue... "
She begins to walk off again..
"A few speed limit signs on lamp posts would help..."
I'm mostly bemused.

This conversation happened because she wanted my vote... and was a bit of a car crash.

We all have bad days. I could've been a touch less antagonistic in my opening reply... though only one of us entered the conversation with any preparation. I was just heading out to the shop.

This long serving public servant of our city and neighbourhood may yet get my vote.

As I chew over the experience I'm reminded that its easy to get communication wrong. I get it wrong.
# Knowledge creates opportunities. She had my name and knew that I vote but failed to wield that constructively. She also missed the detail of me being a parent. I was an open book waiting to be read. A meeting between a voter and a politician is a match made in heaven, but anything the politician does that is confrontational, dismissive or alienating makes the whole thing pointless. I can easily miss the mark too - I don't have to deny my cause but if I don't take you with me, we're not going anywhere.
# Posture makes a huge difference. She presumed that her place in the establishment and a bi-annual newsletter meant her unexpected knock on my door secures my buy-in to her cause. When the posture is "I'm important" then I'm not drawn to someone. When it's "How can I serve you?" everything changes.
# Listening is rule number 1. She was more interested in promoting her issues than listening to my questions and concerns for the neighbourhood. Even if I'm not sure you can fight my cause, if you care enough to listen you probably win me.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Top 5 tips for your Weekly CU email

I've been receiving weekly emails from Christian Unions for most of the last 17 years since I signed up for one as a fresher. I've been working with CUs pretty much ever since.

Here's my top 5 tips on using this medium well which I'd suggest as part of a wider communication strategy. For some strategy is a dirty word but being organised and well ordered is a deeply spiritual thing, and sponteneity is often used as an excuse for disorder and laziness.

Longest and most important point first.
Please add your tips and thoughts in the comments.

1. Pretty much anyone can sign up for the CU email. 
That means this is not an "in house" commmunication but a public communication. Assume you have a mixed readership.

Don't talk about "non-Christians" (lets ban the term please!), beware of stuff that would be weird if your friends who don't know Jesus read it - because they (or someone elses friends) probably are reading it. You wouldn't talk about someone in their presence as if they weren't there so don't do it in an email. The CU exists for "every student" so write like you're writing to every student. This is a skill that takes a lot of practice but needs working on.

When you do this you start to realise that a whole lot of words and event themes and tones of voice that get used among Christians are unintentionally offensive and counter-productive and need changing too.

And, even if your email was "in house", maintaining a bilingual culture is self-defeating. Let's develop one language that we can use every where in the University. A high level of emotional intelligence is needed to do communication well, and that's increasingly true the further the medium is away from being face-to-face. Most people wouldn't be deliberately rude face-to-face so don't be carelessly and thoughtlessly rude in an email.

2. People misinterpret emails. 
Email is a really bad form for anything complex or requiring nuance. Intention can be misread very easily. Clarity is vital. There are things that shouldn't go in the email.

3. People can publish your emails. 
It was already a public communication but it can be copied out of context. Think about what you write! There are things that really are too sensitive to go in an email. If you wouldn't want it to appear in the Students Union paper or a National Newspaper or the Huffpost then don't put it in your email.

4. People don't read (long) emails. 
Keep it punchy. Brevity is vital. The subject line is important. The opening paragraph is vital and should contain the top thing you want to share. Not everything needs to go in the email. Less is more.

5. People use other channels too.
Good emails are a start, but you need a Communications Strategy. The CU exists to be a community who communicate so this is really important. Think Twitter. Think Facebook. Apply the above lessons appropriately to all your media communications. Think about the interesting articles that CU members can write on all kinds of subjects for the SU paper. Think about your flyers (minimal content, maximum clarity -for instant impact), posters, hoodies (no dates and diaries on clothing and no Bible verses please...)
One other thing... Communication with local churches, with alumni and others also needs some thought. Three things can improve communication with local churches - and they're largely dependent on your logistics and administration strategy being excellent. Clarity, generosity and long-term planning. Do these things well and everything else will run better. Do it badly and you're running up hill all year.

Over to you...

Friday, April 04, 2014


With thanks to James and Dan, a meditation on Luke 10...

Standing tall, standing proud. Ready to impress, ready to win.
To ask the killer question. In the Emporer's New Clothes.
He's misread himself and the one standing there.

Blind to the obvious. The king of his castle.
Is lying in the gutter.  Beaten up and dying.
He's misread himself and the one standing there.

Now his chosen victim is coming. The roles reversed.
The most unlikely of friends, for the most unlikely of men. 
He's misread himself and the one standing there.

The true good Samaritan. The one he wanted to crush.
Has come to bind his wounds. Has come to lift him up.
He's misread himself and the one standing there.

Blind to my blindspots. Sure of myself.
Wise in my own eyes. While everyone sees the fool.
I misread myself and the one standing there.

"I'm giving you my dreams." With so little idea of my loves.
Things I never knew mattered. Until they're taken away.
I misread myself and the one standing there.

Yet he came to befriend me. He came to bring me home.
Welcomed into his family. All of him, none of me.
When the sun's light failed, finally I could see.