Saturday, July 30, 2005

And we're back

Hi everybody, we arrived back in the UK yesterday morning.
We had a great time, but I don't think we'll be flying Continental Airlines again.

Friday, July 15, 2005


Things will be quiet for the next couple of weeks while we're in America. Normal posting will resume in August.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Close to home

I've just found this statement from the college where I'm studying:

It was with sadness that I heard that one of those personal tragedies involves a Birkbeck student. Benedetta Ciaccia is still missing, following the Aldgate incident last Thursday. Benedetta has been studying at Birkbeck for the past four years on the Foundation Degree in IT. Our thoughts are with her family and loved ones at this difficult time.

We were also relieved to hear that another Birkbeck student Jeff Porter (MA Contemporary History & Politics) emerged safe from the Edgware Road incident. Jeff was the tube driver who led hundreds of his passengers unharmed to safety after he drove past the tube train that exploded.

More on Benedetta Ciaccia here and Jeff Porter here.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Listen to nature at the British Library

The British Library's web site has a new section of nature sounds, with RealAudio files of animals from all over the world. If you'd like to know what a koala or a hedgehog -- or, for that matter, a haddock -- sounds like, this is the place to find out.

These pages provide only a small sample of the library's sound archive, which has hundreds of thousands of musical, spoken-word and nature recordings going back to the invention of the phonograph. I hope they'll make more of these available online in future.

Friday, July 08, 2005

The London attacks

I'd been home for a few hours yesterday before I put my finger on what was wrong: Our suburban neighbourhood was utterly silent. We live between two train tracks, and ordinarily the soft rumbling of the Metropolitan line punctuates our evenings. Last night, of course, there were no trains, and there was no stream of pedestrians from the nearby station. I hadn't heard total silence in London since the memorial service after September 11.

I had been anticipating a day like yesterday for nearly four years, playing out different versions in my mind. But when it finally happened, it seemed utterly surreal. It's one thing to watch in horror as another country is attacked -- quite another when the sites of the bombs are names you hear every day, and the shattered bus on the news is the same kind that takes you home.

Rumours spread around our office all morning -- six buses had been blown up, or seven; there'd been a bomb in Greenford; a train had blown up at Golders Green; the terrorists were making a circle around London, and Harrow was feared to be next. (This last claim was helped along when a sick prankster in our building decided it was a perfect time to set off the fire alarm.) But for all the gossip, no one panicked. And I heard not one call for revenge.

I can't help wondering if, from the terrorists' point of view, yesterday looks like a failure. As I write, 37 people are confirmed dead. For those who believe that each human life has value, that is a horrible toll. But for those who view each death as a mark on a scorecard, it can't be that impressive; the attacks were clearly designed to kill hundreds if not thousands. The terrorists didn't even manage to stop the transport system for very long -- this morning the Met Line trains are once again going past our kitchen window. And they certainly haven't broken Britons' spirit, or caused them to give in to hatred.

I have sometimes wondered how long you have to live in London before you can consider yourself a Londoner. I think I must qualify by now, because I am very proud to be a Londoner today.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

We're fine

Chris and I are OK.

More later.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Baby let your hair grow long

It's always good to know that our elected representatives are concentrating on what really matters. Earlier today, Anthony Steen MP stood up in the House Of Commons to complain that insufficient combs were provided in the cloakroom.

The Speaker intervened to suggest that Members could bring in their own combs, but we all know the real answer to the problem. All human MPs should be replaced by pottos, who already have their own
grooming claw and need not bring in any extra equipment. You know it makes sense!

Theocracy stirs in Russia

I've just put these three items from Russia on the Volodymyr Campaign blog in succession:

  • The Moscow Patriarchate says Russians should value 'motherland, nation and security' more than human rights.
  • The criminal sentence against the organisers of an 'anti-Christian' art exhibit has been upheld.
  • However, prosecutors will not bring charges against 500 public figures who signed an open letter calling for Judaism to be banned. (On the plus side, they have also decided not to charge a Jewish group for distributing a medieval text that authorities earlier claimed was anti-Russian.)

The entanglement between church and state in modern Russia has been particularly poisonous. In 1927 (after a five-year period in which thousands of priests, monks and nuns had been martyred for their opposition to the Bolsheviks), the newly appointed Metropolitan Sergi signed a declaration making the church subservient to Stalin. In exchange for this the church was allowed to go on existing -- just (see this article for a more detailed history). But it had literally sold its soul. And although Communism is long gone, the church doesn't seem able to free itself from the authoritarian mindset. Not only does the patriarchate condone and even applaud Putin's abuses, but the church seems all too happy to practice tyranny itself. Could anything be further from the mission that Jesus gave it?

There are two reasons to oppose the church getting mixed up with the state. One is the damage that it does to the state. That's the more famous argument, and I think it's amply backed up by the examples I've listed above. The other reason -- which should concern Christians far more than it does -- is the damage that it does to the church. Russia is a particularly tragic example, but the same pattern has arisen in many times and places; whether the church compromises with a dictator or eagerly grabs power for itself, the result is the same. The church ceases to proclaim liberation and justice and becomes just another protector of the status quo.

The religious right in America are fond of asking, 'What Would Jesus Do?' Maybe they should ask themselves when Jesus ever formed a coalition with Herod.

Monday, July 04, 2005

More from Radio Polonia

Peter Gentle at Radio Polonia has kindly written to let us know he featured our blog on a recent InTouch Update (it's near the bottom of the page). He's also drawn our attention to his own excellent new blog, the beatroot. You have to love a blog with post titles like 'If white wrist bands make you want to puke...'. Thanks, Peter!

Another Del Col

I've found another distant relative: Robert Del Col, the CEO of FundQuest.

Happy Independence Day!

The Fourth of July is a difficult holiday to celebrate on your own -- especially when you're not just in a foreign country, but in the country America gained independence from. Any small commemorations I try have a hint of Passover about them: Next year, in Cleveland.

So far my contribution this year has been to make cookies with the U.S. map-shaped cookie cutter my
mother-in-law got me on her last trip to Washington. Unfortunately, the U.S., with its irregular edge and jutting-out bits, is not an easy shape to get off the cookie sheet intact. Sometimes regions unexpectedly seceded; other times the entire nation shattered at the nudge of a spatula. If George W. Bush had been watching, he would probably have proposed a new constitutional amendment.

Speaking of which, there is one other thing I can do to commemorate this day: read our
Declaration of Independence and Consititution. (That link is to the original text of the Constitution; the Bill of Rights, with a link to later amendments, is here.) I think it would be a good idea if all Americans read these documents today, to reflect on why our country was founded and what it might be in future.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Yokes and burdens

Today's gospel makes me think of a conversation I had last October. It was the day of the first round of the Ukrainian election. This was before the Orange Revolution had seized the headlines, and the goings-on in Ukraine -- Yuschenko's poisoning, the arbitrary arrest of activists, media censorship -- were receiving little attention in the West. The more I thought about it, the more strongly I felt that I had to do something. So I made a sign urging people not to turn a blind eye, hung it round my neck by a piece of twine, and went to stand near the Ukrainian embassy.

It turned out that Ukrainians who lived in the UK were coming to the embassy to vote. One of them, a man about my age, came and joined me. 'I was thinking I should do something like this myself,' he said, 'and now I've seen you I have no excuse.' He asked several times whether I wanted him to take the sign for a while. The first couple of times I refused. It was just a piece of cardboard; it wasn't causing me any trouble.

During a quiet period we got to chatting. He told me he had qualified as an engineer, but had been unable to find work in Ukraine. So he had been doing various menial jobs in London (I didn't ask whether he was in the UK legally) and sending the money home to his wife and two small sons.

He asked once again if he could carry my sign for me. By now I had realised that he wasn't just being solicitous; he had a need to do this. I handed the sign over. He put it round his neck eagerly, then added: 'When I came to England, my first job was to stand in Leicester Square with a sign round my neck advertising cheap theatre tickets. I remember how heavy it got by the end of the day.'

We usually translate Matthew 11:30 as 'My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.' But as
Paul Nuechterlein points out, that isn't entirely accurate. The Greek word used to describe the yoke is χρηστός, which comes from the verb χράομαι, 'to make use of.' It means 'useful,' 'serviceable,' or 'beneficial.'

A yoke that does us no good, and does not allow us to do good, is difficult to bear. By contrast, a yoke that is χρηστός can be borne easily regardless of its weight. The Ukrainian man had borne his share of burdens, many of them unjust. Yet he was eager to take up this new burden because he felt it would do some good -- for his country, and, in a sense, for him as well.

When Jesus says that his yoke is χρηστός, he doesn't mean that his followers' lives will be easy. Indeed, throughout the gospels he tells us just the opposite. Not only will Christ's followers suffer because they follow him; they are also expected to share other people's burdens. What Jesus does promise is that these burdens will serve a good purpose, that they will allow us to do good to others and also to receive good ourselves. That is what makes his yoke 'easy.'

Friday, July 01, 2005

Fumble or touchdown?

Vladimir Putin stole the New England Patriots' Super Bowl ring.

Or did he?

I hope that this really was a misunderstanding, and that Kraft's claim to have given the ring willingly is meant to save face.
One celebrity Putin groupie is more than enough.