Thursday, 16 August 2012

Number 46

So, my application to enter the Derry Waterside Half Marathon has finally been processed.  My runner's number is 46.  I feel now like it's time to talk about this.  And by doing so, I am committing myself to actually going through with it!

My fancy new trainers, a kind birthday presie from my in-laws

I decided back in February that if I don't get into shape this year, then it's only going to get harder.  And by chance, I came across a series of NHS podcasts called Couch to 5K.  In just nine weeks they took me from gentle one-minute runs interspersed with recovery walks, to running a solid 5K in 30 minutes.  To see the beginner's programme, go to  They recently added a series of three improver level podcasts.

It's a great way to see the great outdoors (even the wilder nooks of Kilfennan Urban Park!).  When I've been away in Dublin on my course and visiting Sarah's family in Berkshire, I've enjoyed getting the runners on and seeing new places.  This weekend we're off to Switzerland for a wedding, and I'm looking forward to planning a route around Wolfhausen on

I never take a mobile on my runs - so please don't mug me.  It's so wonderfully self-indulgent to be uncontactable and just be with my thoughts for three hours.  Ha ha just kidding. I can't run for three hours.

Now, for the past couple of months I've been training for a half marathon and so far so good.  I'm not too worried about how long it takes me to get round, I just want to finish it (and ideally not come last).

I'm running to raise money for Latin Link, who I worked with in Bolivia.  We're all suckers for pictures of cute little children, and rightly so.  But when young people in orphanages and social care projects turn 18, there often isn't anything for them to go to for support.

Tunari Treasures is a project that our friends Gray and Andrea started to support unemployed young men.  They are taken in, mentored, trained and employed as metal workers.  It's a brilliant project, providing the guys with life skills as well as a viable means of income.

Half the money raised will go to Tunari Treasures, and the other half to help with running costs in the Britain and Ireland office of Latin Link.  Running costs don't sound just as exciting as the fantastic things they do in South and Central America, but without the office in Reading, the Irish and British members can't do their work.  (Latin Link have a brilliant website with lots on what they do,

"How do I sponsor you?"  I hear you cry!  Easy.  Just go to for a fast, safe way to donate.  If you pay tax in the UK, tick the Gift Aid box to increase your donation courtesy of Her Majesty's Inland Revenue.

If you can make a contribution, thank you!  And if I mention in three weeks' time that I think I've picked up an injury and might not be able to run, please tell me to wind my neck in and get myself around those 21.1 km!

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Awl for one

See what I did there?  It's a funny Old Testament word.  I actually heard a pretty good sermon on awls once, so good I completely forgave the preacher for it having zero to do with the context of Deuteronomy.

Actually, now I mention it, this post isn't about awls specifically, not at all, to be honest.  But hey, got your attention!

I'm reading through Chris Wright's commentary on Deuteronomy.  Not my normal Thursday night shenanigans, it's mainly due to an essay deadline coming up.  But man alive, is Deuteronomy more fun than I expected it to be!

Basically, God has made his covenant with the people, and they have to decide if they want to sign up to the Ts & Cs.  And it's not all cloven hooved abominations and genocide - they feature, but the great Ulsterman of the Langham Trust (Wright) suggests there are bigger, more relevant things to focus on.

Israel has to decide what kind of community it wants to be, and what values define them.

Just like we have to decide what kind of society we want to be, as we readjust to the new economic realities of spending less money (individually as well as a country).

When we claim we can no longer afford to protect employees, and care properly for the poor and the sick, then what we are really saying is that we don't believe in the God of Deuteronomy who promises prosperity and long life in the land to those who follow his command to act justly and mercifully.

Deuteronomy has lots of great advice that I'd love our politicians to read ...

1.  God's ways work best.  Just because we read them in a very old book, like Deuteronomy, that doesn't make them irrelevant.  And God says we are to have no other gods before him, or (just as bad) alongside him.  So, we have to consciously choose NOT to worship 'The Market'.  We are not blessed by, provided for, protected by or created for 'The Market'. 

2.  Slash-and-burn is a bad policy.  Agriculture, business, everything has to be done sustainably.  We should let things lie fallow sometimes.  It's not necessary to squeeze every last bit out of our resources.  It'll still be there on Monday.

3.  There should be provision for the regular cancelling of debts.  If you're stupid enough to talk someone on a low income into an unnecessary loan, then you should accept that one day the debt may have to be written off.  People in debt should get regular breathing spaces. For set periods of time, red letters should stop coming in, interest should be capped, and the debt-stricken should be allowed to remember what life is like free of debt.

4.  The nation's resources should be equitably distributed, so everyone has a home, food and family life.  Not everybody can work, and not all work grows the financial budget.  But value does not lie in economic contribution.  All sorts of people are valuable in all sorts of ways, and we have to organize things so we can provide for them all.

5.  God guarantees that looking after the poor will not adversely affect a nation's economy.  To avoid huge national debts in the billions and trillions, look after your poor.  Don't turn on them after you've gotten the country into a huge mess. 

6.  We're one big community.  'The' poor, we say in English.  In Hebrew, it's 'our' poor, 'our' widows, orphans and immigrants.  We're responsible for them.  People in God's covenant are not to be out for themselves.

7.  Hard work where someone feels like they 'belong' to an employer should be strictly time-limited and followed by a chance for rest.  Hard work is good, and sometimes long, exhausting days are part of the job.  But that's no way for anyone to live long term.  It's crazy for some to be stressed at having too much to do, when so many are depressed at having no employment.

8.  Social justice isn't an optional extra for fuzzy liberals.  It's legislated on in God's law.  Provision must be made for the most vulnerable in society, in a corporate, organized way.

9.  It's OK to shut up shop for a day.  The world won't end.  If people need it, they know where we are (or if we're at the beach, they can find us tomorrow).

10.  At festival times, everyone should eat and drink and be merry and have their fill.  Nobody should be miserable or left out on their birthday, or at Christmas, or any other big community event.  Scraping by is not a human(e) way to live.  We all need a good party once in a while.

If Israel follows the covenant Ts & Cs, then there should be no poor.  Sounds like something our elected representatives ought to read and take inspiration from!

Budgets are moral documents, as Jim Wallis says, and we have to decide what kind of society we want to be.  Things are tough for us all, but it is never the time to cut services needed by the most vulnerable in society. 

I've taken these 10 points from Deuteronomy 15 and 16, with the help of Chris Wright's excellent commentary.  Bet you can find more!

Friday, 3 August 2012

Broadens the mind?

'Oxford graduates, who would not be remotely interested in getting to know British working-class people on council estates, find it uplifting to go sightseeing among the poor of the Third World.'  (Jack Shamash, Mindless in Gaza, (C) The Guardian)

I actually taught today.  I covered another teacher, and pulled an old lesson off the shelf ready to go, one of those old stand-alone photocopy-in-case-of-emergency ones.

We read an old article from the Guardian, 'Mindless in Gaza' by Jack Shamash.

Shamash disparagingly does violence to the belief that 'travel' is a romantic, lofty, noble pursuit, far superior to tourism.  I suppose it made me squirm as I remembered the times I've said smugly 'I've never been, nor will I ever be, on a package holiday'.  (Which is actually not even true, because I paid an all-in price for a tour of the Holy Land in 2000).

I first taught this lesson in 2005, and it is one of the few articles I could instantly name as a text that has changed my attitude to something.  Shamash argues that travel in fact narrows the mind.

It's meant to be provocative, and it is.  Comfy old views are poked and jibed for a reaction.  Clever examples are selected as supporting evidence: days chewed up looking for the cheapest hostel, tedious pontification by the  travel-wise about how to haggle prices right down, uncomfortable journeys alongside people who are obviously in constant motion because they're avoiding real life back home ...  Huh.  At least tourists are honest about their motives, and are probably much less self-aggrandizing, argues Shamash.

One example left me pondering during the first flush of my teaching career, and still has me perplexed.  Look back at the quote above, the paradox that noble Travellers experience poverty a thousand miles away but ignore grim reality a mile and a half down the road.

'I just had to get out there and see the poverty for myself.'  Heard (or said) that before?


We see it on TV.  Isn't that enough?  Do we have to smell poverty as well?

Do we confuse 'poor' with 'cosy, simple and rustic', thinking we're going to experience the Good Life?  'They're poor, but oh so happy' - that's what the national romantic artists depicted and it made the establishment all the more secure that people have their allotted place in life and shouldn't move beyond their station.

Is it neo-colonialism?  A saviour complex?  A chance to live like royalty with tiny prices, and a feeling that all my shopping for textiles and trinkets is 'making a difference'?  (Disparaging?  Eat your heart out, Jack Shamash!)

I don't know what the answer is, but feel free to comment!  (Seriously, please comment!)

Sarah and I have both gone on short term mission trips, mainly to Latin America.  There's no doubt that the experiences have marked us, and our connections with the communities we stayed with are an important part of our marriage.  Bolivia, in particular, will always be part of us.

Why did we go?  I don't have a big catch-all reason.  Maybe I thought when I was 21 that I could save the world, but when I returned aged 30 I definitely didn't think that any more.  In fact, I went wondering what on earth little I could possibly do.

I suppose I half-expected 'poor' Latin America to be 'poor but happy', which is largely true, but of course that's no reason for it to remain economically disadvantaged.  And I was as seduced as the next gringo at enjoying the sudden rush of affluence when I exchanged pounds for pesos.

It's not that hard these days to go to other continents and see the poor.  It's much harder, I suppose, to come back home a changed person and especially to remain a changed person, having seen poverty first hand.  For myself, returning to Ireland was definitely Plan B.  But here's the challenge ...

... to be prophets in our own homes.

How often has the same passion to see poverty (and implicitly, I hope, challenge it), ever moved me to take a walk around deprived streets in my own town?  It seems easier to be a socialist on Che's own patch, and more attractive to be a missionary in sunnier climes.

There's poverty here too. Economically, of course, and socially too. We're much poorer here than in Latin America in lots of ways.

We come home, the tan fades (in my case, the sunburn peels).  Hopefully, though, other changes might last.

If you went on a mission trip or gap year, it would be great to hear your comments on why you went, what you did and how it affected you.

'Fra Hardanger', by Gude.  An example of a beautiful national romantic painting that, wittingly or not, expresses how happy the simple, rural poor are when they remain at their station in life.

More from Jack Shamash at

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