Friday, 23 July 2010

Loving the world

“To love the world with a view to participation in its pleasures and purposes is to walk away from God, but to love the world with a view to its redemption from its pleasures and purposes is to walk with God” (Riggans 1983, p 190). This comment is made in relation to the passage in Numbers 25:1-5 where Israel began to follow the practices of the Moabites instead of following and serving God. Riggans quotes I John 2:15 before this but he could equally have quoted Romans 12:1-2. The John passage talks of loving the world as meaning that we don't love God while the Romans passage talks of not conforming to the world but instead being transformed by the love of God.

As I reflect, I realise just how much we have “conformed to the world.” We accept its financial systems and structures, and enjoy the products of prosperity. Although we might intellectually acknowledge God's economy as a gift economy, we struggle to see how it could operate within a society focussed on personal gain and status. Our conforming has meant that we now struggle to see how God really would like our relationships and interactions to work.

The Romans 12 passage with its emphasis on renewal of the mind seems extremely relevant in this context. Without changing the way that we think about life and living, we will struggle to live as God intended and to be the salt and God's method for redemption of the world.

I realise that our world is so focused on personal gain that it couldn't accept a gift of someone's service without feeling that it needed to pay them. If I was to offer to teach in a university without negotiating a salary package, the offer would be rejected. It would also be difficult to develop software for an organisation. However, if I placed what I developed on the market for free, there might be individual takers and some corporate takers. The overall emphasis is on having to pay rather than focusing on how to fulfil the needs of those around us.

If Christians opt out of society, this puts barriers up for being God's method of redemption. In effect, we want to participate but in a way that challenges current practices. Our participation needs to be nonconformist. I no longer think in terms of giving money. Rather I am thinking of giving goods and services. I seek to destroy the dependence on financial currency and accounting. Can we free resources to heal relationships through removing the aspect of accounting for their cost?

Reference:

Riggans, W. (1983). Numbers. Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press.

Bless or curse the nations

In Numbers 23:25-24:9, Balaam makes a second prophetic blessing of Israel. In making the prophesy, Balaam describes himself as a person who sees the Lord and hears His words. Riggans (1983) in his commentary says “How glorious if we in Christ's Church could when needed block out all else and see only him and hear only his words!” (p 183). Why only when needed? There is a sense in which we need to learn to walk daily with our eyes open to see Christ and ears attentive to his words. It is when we think that we don't need his words that we blunder forward and lose direction.

However, this passage has a stronger prophecy with respect to the future blessing of Israel and of her blessing the nations. Riggans seems to interpret this not as a blessing but as domination of the nations. The idea of ruling over nations doesn't need to be seen as warlike. Maybe this is looked for because of the context. Certainly, those who rise up against God's people will not stand but those who seek to know God and to live in harmony with his people will be blessed.

If Israel had focussed on the future blessing rather than the defeat of those around her, I wonder what the situation would be today? When we go out among the people, we can see them as our enemies to be smashed before us or we can see them as people God wants to bless through us. If we see them as people God wants to bless then we will seek to reach out to them with God's love and blessing.

Reference:

Riggans, W. (1983). Numbers. Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Retribution / Revenge / Justice

The background to this blog is very personal making it difficult to write. Other blogs that I have written have focused on issues but this involves a personal reaction to tragic events, the murder of a nephew in New Zealand. It is times like these when personal values and convictions really stand the test.

If you have read some of my previous blog entries, you may know that I promote a pacifist and a reconciliation stance. How do these stand up in the face of such a personal tragedy?

Since the death of my nephew, we have received two reactions. These are to seek revenge or to hope the murder is caught, locked up, and the key thrown away. Neither of these options are acceptable in my belief system. But neither is the act of forgiveness without reconciliation. The offender has breached the laws of the land and they do need to see the impact of what they have done and repent and be reconciled or redeemed but more importantly, we and society need to understand and learn what we might have done that may have brought someone to a point where murder is an option. We too may need to repent and seek to be reconciled. I am also conscious of another tragic event that has happened here in the UK that is also headline news that potentially offers warnings about the direction in which society is moving.

I have just attended a weekend in which we looked at the many faiths that exist in the world. There is a lot of commonality as well as glaring differences. As I left the weekend, my thoughts were on Stephen Covey's (1990) fifth habit “seek first to understand … Then to be understood.” I have often wondered what would happen if this was applied to international relationships. But such an attitude equally applies in these tragic events. Because we feel hurt and violated,we want the offender caught and judged (i.e. justice seen to be done) but unless we seek to understand why these events happen and address the social issues that shape people's attitudes and behaviour, we can not expect to see a better society.

We (society, the wider audience) should not assume that it is all the offender's fault and it is they alone that need to change. We also bear the responsibility and need to consider how we interact with those around us. Are we too busy securing our own future or pushing our own views that we fail to hear the cries for help or the struggle to survive of others?

Rather than seeking revenge or eye for an eye justice, I want to see equality issues addressed and the messages of rejection eliminated (i.e. real justice enacted). We need to be seeking wholeness / shalom for all and not simply peace and security for ourselves. To achieve this, we need to hear the cries from the heart of those who feel oppressed or rejected or who are struggling to survive. Let us listen in the tragedies of life and learn.

Shalom – Go in God's peace and fullness.

Reference

Covey, S. R. (1990). The seven habits of highly effective people. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

The Nature of Prophecy

Partially as a result of the issues related to the computing industry recruitment problems (1 July 2010) and reading the book of Isaiah, I have been thinking about the nature of prophecy. My conclusion is that prophecy isn't about some longer term prediction but rather reading the “signs of the times” and seeing the consistency and trends that have occurred over time. As such the message carries importance for the time in which it is spoken and possibly for future generations.

With respect to the computer industry, I would contend that the predicted shortage will get worse simply because of the reports on the difficulty of students finding work (17% of graduates in the UK). Regardless of the accuracy or the way that this figures are calculated, the message to potential students is that even if you graduate, a reasonable percentage of you will not find work. Previous trends would suggest that students will migrate to subject areas where there is a greater likelihood of finding work. Link that with reports of experienced people being released from the industry supposedly because they lack the ability to adapt to the new technologies, and the message isn't positive for potential new recruits. Despite the industries claim of a shortage of skilled people, the overwhelming message that students are seeing and discussing is the difficulty of finding work. That same message travels down to potential new recruits. Provided all this information is correct then it isn't that difficult to prophecy future problems for the industry. This prediction applies now and to the future situations and to any industry that rejects people while claiming there is a shortage of new recruits.

The same applies for the economic system where even financial gurus have predicted that “recession will happen again” (see 9 September 2009 blog). If you don't actually change the way the system works and address the issues that brought the circumstances that led to the recession then why should we expect it not to happen again. This isn't a miraculous prophecy. It is simply observing what is happening now and that the underlying issues that led to recession are not being addressed.

It would be easy to turn such prophecies into judgements from God but if the systems collapse and the people rebel then the observation is simply based on the actions of people and the use of systems that are not sustainable. The computer industry by not utilising the resources that it already has available compounds it skill shortage. The financial system through debt financing of growth leads to periods of recession as imbalances are addressed. The west's desire to retain advantage and its stripping of resources of developing countries, inevitably leads to anger from those who feel left out from the path of progress. The natural end of an arms race is the destruction of the planet. These are inevitable outcomes of the human race for progress that ignores sustainability and the principles of justice.

God doesn't need to judge in the sense of destroying. Destruction is the inevitable outcome of the path mankind has chosen. God needs to redeem and restore justice and peace for the cosmos. Sustainability as promoted by environmentalists is really only a scratch on the surface of what is required to change. The principles of fairness and equality need to be restored to economic life and a focus on providing shalom for all needs to be the focus of all aspects of life. Wholeness and fullness for the cosmos has to be our goal. Individual desires and goals need to be secondary.

Is any of this prophecy unexpected? It is as much about reading the “signs of the times” as it is about understanding the heart of God. Prophecy isn't speculation about God's activity. Rather it is about observing what is happening and understanding the heart of God. On that basis, the prophet speaks warning of the possible outcomes and possibly providing proposals to avoid what seems inevitable. The prophet could simply say “Look and observe. See what is not working and change the direction in which you are moving.”

Sunday, 4 July 2010

God's Giving Economy

In the past, I have argued that at the heart of God's economy is the concept of giving. This blog entry focuses on this giving aspect but now I talk more in terms of a shalom economy. A shalom economy is focused on wholeness or fullness not for the individual but for all of the cosmos. Shalom doesn't do away with the giving emphasis. Rather it emphasises a focus on working for the wholeness or fullness of all of creation.

My initial thoughts focused on giving of our surplus, but now I am seeing it more as "I see you have a need that I can meet, let me help you." In God's economy, we are are to look toward the interests of others believing that God will provide for our own needs.

There is a huge change of focus here. We have been accustomed to ensuring our own security first before reaching out to others. From that perspective, we may talk of freely giving of our surplus while only seeking what is needed for our own lives.

As we look at God's economy, we need to be putting people ahead of money and status. We are seeking their welfare and not monetary gain.

In God's economy, we are not standalone units. We are interdependent units. We rely on our needs being satisfied by the skills and resources of others while we give of our skills and resources to satisfy others' needs. We should be asking "what is it that we have to give?" and not "what is it that we need?"

My thoughts on economics have focused on reducing cost structures. I see this still as central but I also see that we should be willing to pay a fair price. Abram insisted on paying for Sarah's burial cave. He would not see himself indebted to another. Yet this can be a hindrance to the gift economy.

A gift economy doesn't operate by demanding a gift. A gift is something that is freely given. When I walk down the street, am I prepared to give to a person in need? Is my heart open to recognise the needs of others? Ours is a demand focused environment. We put things there to satisfy the expectations of others or to receive an expected reward.

That isn't a gift economy. A gift economy gives to others simply because I am able to do so. I receive what God wants to give in return.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

The Recruitment Problem

The computer industry talks of there being a shortage of skilled people and that it is not attracting enough new people into what is a creative and innovative career. In this blog, I am going to argue that the computer industry and especially recruitment agencies are partially the cause of their own problems, and that the roots of the problem stem from the measurement systems that we (not just in the industry) use for performance and advancement.

Let me explain.

The computing industry claims to have a very short half life for the technologies. A half life which seems to get shorter each year. This technology half life, they claim means that the knowledge required to remain in the industry also changes rapidly leading to the need to retrain people or to the releasing of experienced people who no longer have the skills that the industry requires. As a result, the half life of people in the industry is possibly less than 15 years or may be even 10 years. I am sure there is research on this phenomenon but I don't have any that I can reference at this time. I know of too many people, including myself, who have been told that we couldn't work with the new technology despite having evidence of having learnt new technologies quicker than new comers to the industry and exceeding their performance even though they were trained on the new technologies.

Having been working with computers for over 30 years, I know that the technology does change but that the principles and concepts on which the technology is built have moved far more slowly. I would go further and say that many of the undergraduate teaching programmes are teaching the same concepts and principles that I learnt when I did my BSc in the early 1970s. Yes, the technologies are different but the foundational principles are the same. This is despite a need to revise some of the ways of conceptual thinking particularly for some of the programming paradigms. I make this last comment based on my own research into the ways that practitioners are aware of object-oriented concepts.

When the industry claims that there are not people with the technology skills, they are writing off thousands of people who have the conceptual understanding to move with these technologies and driving them out of the industry further compounding the skill shortage.

But the message of rejection isn't to experienced people only. The industry continually seeks to employee people with experience thus placing many new graduates on the unemployable list. The industry argues that the universities should be giving these graduates the experience without realising that no academic programme can give students the equivalent of five years of experience in a three year academic programme. So as well as discarding experienced people, the industry is sending a negative message to new comers about there ability to enter the industry.

The industry needs to change its measures of what they expect from new recruits and recognise the skills and conceptual knowledge of those already in the industry.

A further negative message sent to new recruits is the employment of teaching assistants and research associates on short term contracts. Since coming to the UK, I have been employed on this basis and have come across many others who are employed on the same basis. Some of these people are rated as the best teachers and are in front of classes and working with potential new recruits to the industry.

When students ask these teaching assistants what they will be teaching next year, they say “the may not be here next year since their contract runs out at the end of the teaching semester.” What message does this send to new recruits? It sends a message of a lack of stability in the industry.

Part of the cause of this problem is the success measures used in universities. The better teachers often don't have the best research records. They have focused on teaching. They aren't wanted in the universities. The universities are doing exactly what industry is doing and discarding good people because they don't measure up on a scale that has no relevance to teaching. New positions in universities are for those with a research record and who will help the university improve its ranking. They don't seem to realise that for one university to rise up the rankings other universities have to go down the rankings. All compete for a dwindling population of ranked researchers who can bring in research money and raise the overall ranking score of the university.

There is a need for the best teachers to be delivering a message of confidence about the students future and potential for employment. I know that I can not deliver that message of confidence because I don't have any employment security. I know of many others in exactly the same position. The result is that the industry has even more difficulty recruiting people.

I will go one step further with the argument about measures and suggest that in western capitalist cultures, we are using the wrong measures of success. This starts with measures based on growth. Even if we assumed resources are unlimited, growth as it is talked about is not possible for all nations. At the conference that I have just attended, I heard a speaker talk about the host country's desire for a surplus (i.e. exporting more than they are importing). All nations are aiming for a surplus just as all businesses are aiming for profit and households are aiming for surplus. But how can every country export more than it imports or all businesses and households have more income than expenditure. The sums don't add up. This is basic arithmetic. At best, all countries can export as much as they import but this doesn't address issues of inequality or resource shortages.

I could talk of other measures of performance that also have a fundamental problem because the measure only looks at one side of the equation and forget the other side of the equation because that is someone else's problem.

The computer industry and our economic champions all fail to see that they are the cause of their own dilemma because they are stuck in a way of thinking that blinds them to the problems that cause the dilemma. Until we question how we measure success and progress, and look for new measures that address issues of sustainability and equality, both the computer industry and our economic systems are doomed to failure and I suspect that this will happen sooner than most people expect.

To address these issues, we need to find ways of challenging the conceptual thinking of a large percentage of the worlds populations especially those in leadership and look outside the western or developed world for solutions. I say this having just had the experience of the great warmth and friendship of the Turkish people as I attended a conference in Ankara. But I fear that the pursuit of western wealth and practices will destroy that spirit of unity, peace, and friendship.

Don't lose the concern for others and the desire to build a better life for all.

Shalom, go in peace and fullness of life.