Sunday 11 December 2011

Render unto Caesar

A few weeks ago Martin and I read a well-known story from the book of Luke in the Bible.  To set the scene, it occurred in the week before Jesus was executed, when Jews from all over Israel had gathered in Jerusalem for a religious festival.  Tensions were running high around Jesus - this new religious teacher loved by the crowds but who the religious establisment saw as heretical and deeply dangerous.

This is our story:
The religious leaders sent spies to keep a close watch on Jesus. The spies pretended to be honest. They hoped they could trap Jesus with something he would say. Then they could hand him over to the power and authority of the governor.
So the spies questioned Jesus. "Teacher," they said, "we know that you speak and teach what is right. We know you don't favor one person over another. You teach the way of God truthfully.  Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?"
Jesus saw they were trying to trick him. So he said to them, "Show me a silver coin. Whose picture and words are on it?"
"Caesar's," they replied
 He said to them, "Then give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. And give to God what belongs to God.
 They were not able to trap him with what he had said there in front of all the people. Amazed by his answer, they became silent.

I know this story well and I've puzzled over it for years.  I've read it carefully in context, trying to understand what Jesus was trying to say.  I've even read articles about it, hoping that someone else's reflections would shed light on it.  This time, however, the meaning seemed so obvious that I'm struggling to remember what my problem was with it!

Martin and I are working our way through the book of Luke at the moment.  In recent weeks we've already puzzled our way through two earlier stories about money: the story of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-14) and the story of three servants who were each entrusted with money while their master was away (Luke 19:11-26).  In the first of these stories, money was referred to as 'dishonest gains' ('wordly wealth' in the translation the links will take you to) and a thing of very little importance.  The point of that story was, if you could be faithful in using such an insignificant thing as money to achieve ends that really mattered, one day you would be given 'true' wealth that would really belong to you and would really last.  In the second story, servants who were able to significantly grow the vast sums of wealth their master had entrusted to them were described, again, as having been faithful in "a very small matter".

So it seems that, in the book of Luke, Jesus is presented as seeing money as a thing of very little importance.  It pales into insignificance beside the 'true wealth' which you get from God.

With that understanding already with us, the meaning of this latest episode seemed clear.  Caesar has put his image on these coins and he's instituted a taxation system: he clearly thinks money matters.  However, we know better: it's a thing of very little importance, and is definitely not to be confused with real wealth.  I think that Jesus is saying: if Caesar wants this silly money stuff, then give it to him - but give what really matters to God.

I find that challenging - not least because I don't see money as being of little importance at all.  Instead, I manage my money very carefully, very much acting like it matters a lot.  In addition, I live in a society where we struggle to value anything that doesn't have a dollar value.  But here is Jesus saying that money is a profoundly unimportant thing.

I guess that also sheds light on what he says in the famous 'sermon on the plain', also in the book of Luke.  Jesus says there that if someone steals from you, you musn't demand your property back - you shouldn't even stop them from taking more of it!  That makes more sense when you understand that, contrary to what you might think, the things that they can take this way don't really matter all that much and aren't really worth fighting for.

Something I find really exciting about this insight is that way that it has been built up as we've made our way through the book of Luke.  I'm so appreciating working my way through the Bible in whole books, rather than in scattered passages or verses taken from many different places.  These books are, after all, books.  The stories within them are episodes in a bigger story, not just entities in their own right, and Martin and I have been finding it immensely rewarding to read them as such :-)

Thursday 24 November 2011

So, who should I vote for?

Following my survey of the Biblical prophets, I scanned the websites of 12 of the 16 political parties currently registered in New Zealand.  For various reasons I decided to not even seriously consider Aotearoa Legalise Canabis, New Citizen Party, New Zealand First and The Kiwi Party.  I was looking to see what kind of policies the parties listed first on their websites.  All parties that seemed to be pitching themselves as a party that was trying to do things to improve the lot of vulnerable people went on my party shortlist for further consideration.  These are:
  • Mana
  • Labour
  • Alliance
  • Greens
  • United Future

The next question is: how to whittle that list down to a single party, using the leadership priorities I have found in the Biblical prophets?

My answer has been to try to list out actions I think a New Zealand government could take that would best improve the lot of poor and vulnerable people both here and overseas.  I will then compare those with both the parties on my shortlist (and also with the National Party, because I think I may not have been fair to them on my first pass through the websites).  Here's what I've come up with:

In order to help vulnerable people overseas, we would need to:

most importantly:
  • fight climate change - i.e. have a strong ETS.  I see the changing climate as the single biggest threat to vulnerable people the world over - if we don't get this one right, millions of people will die.
also helpful:
  • do aid and development based on greatest need (rather than based on where our benefit and a need happen to meet).  We should probably focus mostly on our own region as there aren't many rich countries here.
  • expand/strengthen the seasonal worker programme.  This seems to be making a noticeable difference to many Pacific Island countries
  • let more people in based on their need.  We should at least fill our refugee quota (we haven't for a few years) and hopefully exceed it.  I'd also like to let in some of the asylum seekers that make it Australia - the ones they want to send to Malaysia.

To help vulnerable groups here in NZ, I think we need to:

most importantly:
  • provide a good safety net - especially for those who can't get off welfare, e.g. the old and some of the disabled - but also for anyone who happens to currently be needing it.  Try to make it as 'needs based' as possible (i.e. keep means testing etc.)
  • help the poor to get ahead (e.g. try to preferentially deliver better health, better education etc. to poor/vulnerable people, plus try to ensure that working full time always results in getting a living wage)
also helpful:
  • maybe repeal the foreshore and seabed law (I can't even remember where this one is at)

I've also decided that I'm not really interested in things that help people who are at the middle or above unless doing so is actually a way to help poor people.  For example, encouraging good doctors and teachers to stay in NZ helps vulnerable Kiwis, not just the doctors or teachers themselves, as it makes us more likely to be able to meet the educational and healthcare needs of vulnerable people.

I also think I want things to be done that prevent the rich from being able to avoid paying for stuff that they can afford - for example, I'd like to means test Super and prevent people from being able to avoid paying for rest home care through family trusts etc.

So now I need to go back through my shortlist and see how the parties match up!

Results of survey of the Biblical prophets: How should leaders lead?

As I said earlier, in the light of the upcoming election I've been trying to work out how God might want our leaders to lead.  I've been somewhat surprised by what I've found.

As I see it, Christians in the anglophone West tend to adopt one of two political positions: 'family values' or 'social justice'.  I have always been part of the 'social justice' camp.  In doing this Biblical survey, my aim was to allow scripture to challenge that.  To my considerable surprise, I didn't find a single statement in the prophets that categorically seemed to support the 'family values' viewpoint.  Instead, what I found was material on the importance of leading the population in following God and material on the importance on caring for the weak.

I decided to ignore the stuff about leading people towards God: I don't live in a theocracy and it feels deeply inappropriate to me for our politicians to require Kiwis to follow a particular religion.  That then left a bunch of statements about caring for members of vulnerable groups and two statements that may have been about sexual ethics or may have been about worshipping other Gods.  The first was a statement on God hating divorce.  It came in the context of men leaving 'the wife of their youth' and marrying foreign women and worshipping their gods.  I was unclear if it was more the divorce or the foreign wives that was the problem, so I decided to leave it out of my consideration.  There was also at least one negative mention of men having sex with prostitutes, too, but at least some of the prostitute seemed to be temple prostitutes.  I was unsure whether the use of prostitutes or the participation in pagan worship was the real problem, so again I decided to leave it out.

So, this is what I found from the Bible passages listed in my previous post that seemed to be relevant to our secular context.

Firstly, character seems to be at least as important as actual actions.  These are the character traits that good leaders were described as having (or the character traits that I think are the natural opposites of those that bad leaders were described as having):

  • humble (8)
  • truthful (7)
  • there to serve (7)
  • honour God (2)
  • caring (2)
  • not ruthless/aggressive (2)
  • wise (1)
  • love what is right (1)
  • good (1)

(the numbers in brackets are how often that particular trait came up.)

In terms of actual 'policies', this is what came up:

  • will make sure the poor have access to justice (12)
  • will care for vulnerable groups in society (12)
  • will bring just laws (4)
  • will rescue people trapped in bad situations (2)
  • will offer mercy to those who have done illegal things (2)
  • will make laws that do not oppress vulnerable people (2)
  • will look after good people (victims of crime?) (1)
  • protect employees from employers who want to take advantage of them (1)
  • consider the impact of policies on the needs of  those outside the country (1)

So, now all I have to do is compare the policies of the various parties with that list and see how they match up!

Incidentally, I'd be really interested if someone of the more 'family values' persuasion could explain to me how they have arrived at that position.  I can't begin to imagine that it isn't in the Bible - so many very Biblically literate Christians believe it, after all.  But I was surprised not to find it in this wee survey and I'd love to hear about where it is to be found so I can add it into my considerations for the next election.

Friday 11 November 2011

How to vote

We are having a general election in New Zealand in two weeks time.  As I've been wondering how to vote I've started to wonder about how God would want (does want?) me to vote.  This has led me to wonder about what the Bible has to say about governance.

There is a lot in the 'history' sections of the Old Testament about the various kings of Israel, but they are kings in what is essentially a theocracy.  In that context it is natural that the main criterion for judging them to be good or bad kings is whether or not they themselves followed God and whether they did things that helped their people follow God.  However, I do not live in a theocracy and, while whether or not a politician follows God is not unimportant, I don't think it should be the number one factor.

In the New Testament there is, again, a lot on leadership.  However, again it doesn't seem all that relevant to my question, as it's all about religious leadership: either that of the pharisees over the Jews or that of the leaders of the fledgling church.

However, there's one other set of texts that I hope will have some answers for me: the prophets!  In these books Israel is often berated for going against God's ways (including going against them by the way they treat people, not just in things that we might see as strictly religious).  The prophets also pronounce judgement against other countries for acting in ways that God can't stand.  I'm hoping that this section of the Bible will allow me to see what are God's key concerns in the way a country is run.

I've put together a list of the sections in each of the prophetic books that seem to contain actual statements of judgement or affirmation, and intend to go through these Biblical passages to look for the major themes.  In case anyone else would like to join me in this endeavour, this is my list:

Judgment against Israel (9:8—10:4)
Judgment against the Nations (chs. 13–23)
Universal Judgments for Universal Sin (ch. 24)

Condemnation of Kings, Prophets and People (chs. 21–24)
Judgment against the Nations (chs. 46–51)

Oracles of Judgment against the Nations (chs. 25–32)

The Lord’s case against Israel (4:1-6:3)
The Lord’s case against Israel enlarged (6:4-11:11)

The Eight Judgments of Amos (1:3-2:16)
The Depravity of Israel (4:1-13 )
The reprimand of the entire nation (6:1-14)

The Basis for the Judgment on Edom (10-14)

The Content of Jonah’s Preaching (3:4)

Judgment on the nation’s leaders (chap. 3)
Characteristics of the kingdom (4:1-8)
The Ruler of the kingdom (5:2-15)
An indictment by the Lord (6:1-5)

The Cause for God’s Judgment on Nineveh (chap. 3)

The Judgment of the Day of Yahweh (1:2-3:8)

The Pollution of Israel (1:6-3:15)

(with thanks to several online resources giving outlines of Biblical books!)

Also, if you do decide to work through these texts, could you let me know?  I've given myself a week to go through this process, as I want to leave the other remaining week to read through the material from the political parties and see how their concerns match up with the Biblical ones.  There's no way I can really do justice to the project in that time, so if someone else is interested then maybe we could divide up the work between us and do a better job!

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Carrying your cross and counting the cost

The more I read the Bible, the more I find in it!

At the moment, Martin and I are making our way through the book of Luke: the second of the four books that tell us about Jesus' life on Earth.  Today's reading was from the end of chapter 14:

 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?
For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you,  saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish

Luke 14:25-30, NIV

This passage contains two ideas that are very familiar to me: "take up your cross" and "count the cost before you take the plunge".  However, as seems to happen depressingly often, it now seems clear that neither of them mean quite what I thought they did.

In the society that Jesus' first hearers lived in, only one group of people went around carrying crosses: condemned prisoners.  When Jesus asked them to take up their crosses, he wasn't asking them to endure hardship, he was asking them to die, or at least knowingly take on that risk.  The earlier sentence actually says it even more clearly.  To put it in my own words, Jesus is saying "if you aren't willing to risk both your own death and that of the people you're responsible for looking after, then you just can't follow me".


As a matter of fact, I found reading these words on this morning to be oddly comforting.  In the last fortnight, our household has felt called by God to do something that carries a small risk of exposing one or all of us to considerable physical harm.  I'm disproportionately likely to be the recipient of any such harm, should such harm come.  This passage affirms my conviction that accepting such risks (and Martin and I allowing each other to accept them) is a normal part of following Jesus.

Once you've grapsed that that's what following Jesus is like, the bits about counting the cost before you start make perfect sense!  However, while I was familiar with the idea of counting the cost, I don't think I'd ever noticed just when you're supposed to do this.  You count it before you start following Jesus at all and not, as I had thought, before you agree to accept each particular risk.

Have you ever been in an evangelistic situation where people have been encouraged to do that?  Encouraged to count the cost, not of rejecting Jesus, but of actually following him?  I don't think I have.  Is that one of the reasons why so many people start following Jesus but then give up - that it was never made clear to them just what following Jesus might entail?  And peversely, would more teenagers and young people be interested in following Jesus if any expression of interest on their part was greeted with an exhortation to consider the potentially life-threatening consequences before making any rash choices?!

Exciting (and disconcerting) stuff, this Bible-reading!

Apple in China, take 2

A fortnight ago one of the digital technology correspondents on Radio New Zealand National's Afternoons programme suggested that Apple's track record in China was no worse than anyone else's.  I rapidly emailed them an abbreviated version of this by way of refutation.  I was amazed and delighted to hear my points discussed, sympathetically and in detail, in that same correspondent's slot on today's programme!  Woohoo!

Thursday 13 October 2011

Praying the psalms

This morning, when I was praying about the political crackdown in Syria, I found myself thanking God for crushing the oppressors there.  I was a bit surprised at myself: even asking God to crush oppressors is a relatively new development, and I'm pretty sure that thanking Him for something He hasn't done yet is a first.

I know where both bits of this way of praying have come from, though.  As I've mentioned earlier, I now pray through a list of people and situations most days, and I've also read a psalm a day since near the beginning of this year.  Often I've seen the psalmist pleading that God will bring down or crush those who are oppressing the poor, the weak or the righteous.  More surprisingly to me, the psalmist also frequently thanks God for doing whatever he is currently asking God for - i.e. he is thanking God for doing something God hasn't done yet*.  It seems that these ways of praying have gotten into me and are coming out in my own prayers now too!  Yay :-)

* one example I've read in recent days is Psalm 39

Saturday 8 October 2011

A request from our brothers and sisters in China

I originially wrote this for my friends but am putting it up here too in the hope of spreading the message more widely.

I would like to pass on to you a request from Chinese NGO the Institute of Public and Environmental affairs (IPE) and the women of Tongxin village.  Please don't buy electronic/IT gadgets from Apple, and please write to both Apple and the supplier of the gadget you buy instead, explaining that you are boycotting Apple because its factories are poisoning people in China.  Kiwis can contact Apple here, and the international contact is here (you'll need to click on the actual item you would have bought before you can give feedback).  The IPE hopes that this will pressure Apple into having a transparent supply chain (so that complaints regarding the actions of its suppliers can be made to Apple), and that the suppliers will thus be able to be required to protect worker safety and the local environment.

I was first made aware of Apple's record in China by this interview on the bilingual website China Dialogue.  In it, Ma Jun describes the work his organisation has done tracking down the various companies that supply Apple, as well as those supplying many other major Western IT companies.  They have produced a report [pdf] on both the openness of these Western IT companies to investigation and their responsiveness to reports of environmental violations by their suppliers.  Their investigation found that Apple was the most secretive and had the worst environmental and worker safety records of all the companies examined.  They are thus asking consumers to boycott Apple in order to pressure them to do better.  The report also includes a table ranking all of the IT companies examined.

This report appears to be reputable.  It was picked up by both Reuters and the Associated Press and the spokesperson for the report, Ma Jun, is a former South China Morning Post journalist and was named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2006.

To finish, a story from the report that helped me to see the human face of this 'environmental pollution'.

According to the villagers’ comments, Tongxin village was a once a prosperous model village. Ten years previously Kaedar Electronics [an Apple supplier] constructed their plant, occupying the arable land and giving the villagers very low compensation. According to the villagers, in these ten years, the village’s stream that once had relatively clean water has now turned inky black. In the past few years, these electronics companies have been discharging wastewater and emitting waste gases, along with noise pollution. Over the ten year period, many people have fallen sick, with a sharp increase in the village’s cancer rates. The villagers had hoped to take this matter up with the factory, but they could not find a means to do so. They have reported the problems to the local government but the company seems to very quickly become aware of this and so before someone goes to carry out monitoring at the factory, the smell often disappears.

During the investigation, the villagers spontaneously took water from the stream, pouring the water into a plastic bottle. Suffering from gastric cancer, Zhu Guifen, who has already had her stomach removed due to cancer, clutched a plastic bottle; along with more than ten middle-aged villagers they assembled in front of us. At that time, we were astonished by the scene in front of our camera. These 21 ladies, with an average age of 55 suddenly and simultaneously fell to their knees, clutching the bottle of polluted water and pleaded “We beg you, help us! Help us ordinary people!”

Saturday 24 September 2011

Awesomeness :-)

Things that make us smile?  This audio clip made us laugh out loud!

It's from This Way Up: a consumer issues magazine-style show on Radio New Zealand National that we both enjoy.  In between the articles they generally play random bits of historical audio.  The clip that found its way to the beginning of this article was just fantastic!  You can listen on for the actual article about LED lighting if you want, but it was the historical audio that made us laugh :-)

Monday 19 September 2011

Daffodils and stained glass biscuits

We're staying with Martin's sister and her family at the moment, and there's lots to make us smile :-)

Daffodills from their garden.  I look at these all the time when I'm resting.  In the background is 'Tom', made by Sandra (Martin's sister) and her daughter Kayla.

Stained glass biscuits, more or less from this recipe.  Sandra, Kayla and I made them on the weekend, with intermittant help from two keen but over-excited 10-year-old boys.

I love stained glass biscuits: easy to make, beautiful to look at and yummy to eat!

Saturday 17 September 2011

Good news to the poor

Near the middle of the Bible is a collection of 150 'psalms' or poems.  I've never really known what to make of them, but I while back I decided to try and read one each day and see where that took me.

I've recently completed my first cycle through them and finally, just in the last week or two, Ive noticed thing that a great many of them seem to have in common.  Psalm after psalm celebrates or holds onto the notion that the oppressors won't get away with their oppressing forever.  God cares for the poor and downtrodden and one day he will crush their oppressors and set them free.

Good news for the poor, indeed.  But what about for me, a follower of Jesus but also a member of the priveleged elite responsible for most of the oppression these days?

Sobering stuff.

What price security? What price life itself?

Vinoth Ramachandra, who works in Sri Lanka for the parent organisation of the Christian group I was part of at university, has written a reflection on the US response to the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Centre 10 years ago.  Most of it agreed with my own view of that response (the internet's good at helping you find material that demonstrates what a right-thinking person you are...), but the ideas in this paragraph were new to me:
It is incumbent on governments to provide security for their citizens. But when “national security” overrides all moral considerations, one is forced to ask whether such a society is actually worth defending. If my “security” is obtained at the cost of harming, degrading or endangering the lives of innocent others, then I should be willing to forego that security. Security obsessions are inexhaustible and insatiable; and once we go down that path, whether as individuals wanting to live in “secure environments” (e.g. gated condominiums) or governments pursing every potential “security threat’, it is difficult to change direction. Groups and persons targeted as “threats” are turned into objects and excluded from the moral universe. They can be the targets of “pre-emptive” eliminations, unilaterally undertaken.
I'm familiar with the idea of foregoing conventional chocolate because of the cost it imposes on others, but I've never thought of foregoing security for that same reason.  I wonder what else in my day to day life "is obtained at the cost of harming, degrading or endangering the lives of others"?  And, in this interconnected world where I am so priveleged (and rather like the life this gives me1), do I really want to know??

1 After all, without this privelege, my CFS would have killed me years ago.  Few families in this world can support an adult who is not only completely non-productive, but who requires others to significantly reduce their own productivity to care for her.  Faced with the choice of abandoning me or us all starving together, I don't know what my family would have done.  On the BBC I've heard stories of families in contemporary India, China and the Congo who have faced similar choices.  Sometimes the sick person has chosen to starve themselves to death, other times the family abandon them at the hospital (even though this means they will never see each other again) in the hope that this will save their life.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Political violence in the Ivory Coast

This was intended as a comment on this blog post, but it became too long so I've posted it here and linked it from there, instead.

I've been praying for the political situation in Ivory Coast a lot since their elections earlier this year.  I've come to understand that a major contributor to the violence we were seeing back then was the strong belief all Ivorians seemed to share that there just aren't enough resources to go around.  People were fighting for political power for their tribal group so that they themselves could be confident that they would have access to the simple necessities of life.

I have been praying that the people there - and especially those who know Jesus - would dare to believe that there were enough resources for all.  I have also been praying that the global Church would be willing to do whatever we can to make that true.  And that has led me back to Fair Trade cocoa and cocoa products.

I'm pretty sure that cocoa is the major export earner in the Ivory Coast - if not, it's a very significant contributor.  Many Ivorian cocoa farmers use slave labour (often kidnapped Malian children) on their farms.  Like the cotton farmers of the old American South, they believe that they couldn't make ends meet if they were to hire adults and pay them liveable wages.  Unlike the old American cotton farmers, it looks like they may be quite literally correct: they probably couldn't earn enough from their crop to send their own children to school without enslaving someone else's children on their farm.  In other words, like the political violence we've seen in the Ivory Coast earlier this year, slavery on cocoa farms also has it's roots in the belief/knowledge that there simply aren't enough resources to go around.

But what if the church in the West was prepared to pay those cocoa farmers enough that they could afford to send their own children to school and hire adults to work their farm - adults who they, in turn, paid enough so that they could send their own children to school, too?  We have that power: that's what buying Fair Trade means.  Other cocoa (even the fancy stuff) is sold at the lowest price the farmer will accept and so favours those who have the lowest costs: the slave owners.  However, if all Christians in the West decided to only purchase Fair Trade cocoa and cocoa products then the slave owners would lose their market.  They would have to move to paying a decent minimum wage if they wanted to sell their product.

That's what Martin and I decided to do about five years ago.  I wrote a bit about why, and about our experiences in doing so, last Easter.

If the Western Church decided to do this - to pay a fair price for the Ivory Coast's biggest export - then there suddenly really would be enough resources to go around.  Obviously foreign income isn't the only thing they need to sort out their problems, but it'd be a big start and it's one that's easily within our grasp.

If you do this, you may find that you have to cut down on your chocolate consumption a bit: that's certainly been our experience, both because of the slightly higher price and because the range of products available is still quite limited.  But it could be worse: many of the people who campaigned for the end of American slavery in the 19th century did completely without sugar for years on end!  Back then, the only sugar available was produced by slaves, whereas at least we can buy fairly produced cocoa at most local supermarkets.

Friday 2 September 2011

How 'real' are real (vs nominal) prices/wages?

Whichever economist decided to call inflation-adjusted price and wage figures 'real' values had a real bad idea. It's a bit like calling an era 'modern' - what do you call your next degree of refinement?

I recently listened to a debate on the American economy where much was made of whether the average 'real' wage had increased since the seventies, and also watched a video by one of the participants (Horwitz) where he discusses cost of living; allowing for inflation (or change in average industrial wage); and the difficulty that the underlying products being priced change radically over time. Horwitz focuses on how the car you buy today is wildly different than a car from 80 years ago, so for only a few more hours of labour you can buy a much more useful car.

The next day I read this book review which quotes Christopher B. Leinberger's calculation that the need to buy a car adds about $135,000 to the effective cost of the average suburban house (in 2005 America). How do you factor that into your inflation calculation? You get more benefit, but you are also more dependent. I believe this is meant to be accounted for by the scope of the basket of goods used to calculate inflation, but the number of estimates and approximations starts to make the mind reel.

ps. If you're wondering what the 'nominal' prices/wages mentioned in my title are, they are just the actual dollar values spent/earned at the time of spending/earning; the original numbers before any adjustment.

Also, hat tip to Chris Blattman for putting me onto the blog where I found Horwitz, which I hope will give me some 'Austrian' economist perspectives that I have lacked exposure to thus far.

Thursday 1 September 2011

Cool patterns!

During the recent cold snap I noticed something strange about my shampoo:

The white patches are where the shampoo's frozen! They're not quite solid, but they're definitely significantly firmer than usual. I think the pattern they make looks really cool :-) However, a few days later when the whole bottle had turned white, I realised I needed to keep my shampoo somewhere warmer for the duration. Solid shampoo is a lot harder to get out of a squeezy bottle than the liquid kind!

Microwave hotspots

Inspired by this post my brother spotted, the other day I found out where the hotspots are in our microwave.

I started with four poppadoms:

After about 15 seconds there was ring of cooked poppadom a bit shy of the outer edge of the rotating plate:

At 30 seconds the poppadoms were mostly cooked, but there were three curious dolphin-shaped uncooked patches, one of which included the centre of the rotating plate:
How did that happen??  It must be something to do with the intersection of the rotating speed of the plate and the peaks of the microwave waves as they bounce around the inside of the oven, but who knows what.

After a full minute all four poppadoms were beautifully cripsy, with only a few tiny spots retaining their uncooked plastickyness:

On the whole, it looks like our microwave cooks a whole lot more evenly than any of the four in the original post, but I'm interested to know that the strongest heat is to be found just shy of the edge of the rotating plate.  I'll bear that in mind next time I want to melt something small (e.g. a few spoonfuls of butter for baking): putting it near the edge should make it melt noticeably quicker!

Plus, it was fun to act like a scientist again :-)

Tuesday 30 August 2011

Allowing God the centre

In recent months, something has begun to change in how I see God's role in my life.  Doing what God wants has always been very important to me and has already influenced a number of aspects of how I live day to day.  However, I've recently come to think that what God really wants is to be the centre of my life.  Absolutely everything I do ought to be shaped by and flow from that centre.
What does that mean?

I'm not all that sure yet.  For some people it means living a quite unusual life, such as the life of a hermit or of a wandering preacher.  But without a specific call to do so, it seems to me wrong to let go of the income, house etc. that you rely on to stay alive, or even to let go of the things that make you happy.  On the pragmatic side, I've recently had it brought home to me that I find it extremely hard to put aside my grumpiness and serve other people when I haven't done anything fun recently.  On the theological side, the Western Church has long believed that the chief end of man (and woman!) is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

It does, however, mean that it shouldn't be possible for 'the things God wants me to do' to get squeezed out of my life, as I shouldn't be doing anything at all that is not part of his call on me.

I find this an exciting way of understanding how I should live, and I look forward to seeing what comes of it.  It's already given me a new angle on Jesus' instruction to love one's neighbour as one's self.  Sometimes I've heard people say that that command includes an implicit one to love one's self, but that's never really felt right to me.  It doesn't really seem to fit with what Jesus was saying, plus I'm suspicious of such a comfortable reading of one of Jesus' parables!  Just recently, though, I've come to think that I'm probably not capable of loving my neighbour like that if I don't look after my own needs as well.  I think that that gives me a yardstick that I expect I'll find helpful, even though it's a very subjective one.

Wednesday 10 August 2011

Making requests to God

As mentioned earlier, for years I've felt that it makes no sense to ask God for things.  He already knows everything, and can work out much better than me what needs to be done.

But just recently I've realised I've had it all wrong.  God wants to relate to me.  That's at least one of the reasons why Jesus died: so that God could talk to me1.  So of course I should tell him about what's important to me and how I'd like the world to be.  He went to some pretty extreme lengths so he could be in communication with me!

1 If that sounds to you like it's bordering on the blasphemous, it does to me, too!  But I think it's true, too.  Before sin entered the world, God hung out with Adam and Eve.  Then sin cut them off from him, and hence he from them.  Jesus came and died in order to remove that barrier that kept people cut off from God and God from them.

Sunday 7 August 2011

Cheers for the BBC

Last week I had chance to catch two BBC programmes about brutal prisons: an interview with Marina Nemat, an Iranian woman jailed shortly after the revolution 20 years ago which kept me sitting an extra 20 minutes in the car, and another with Kim Hye Sook who spent 27 years in a North Korean gulag because her grandfather defected.

Terrible stories, and in some ways I don't want to hear them. Heather definitely has to turn them off, as CFS makes her emotionally labile and these stories are literally bad for her health. On the other hand, it is important to know what is out there. Outlook in particular makes consistently good programmes, revealing so vividly the details of life for a wide range of people. Many thanks to the UK government.

Monday 1 August 2011


The first of the year, just starting to open!  When the spikes* are fully grown and the flowers are all open I'll bring them inside where they'll scent my bedroom and make me smile :-)  They're descendants of bulbs given to me nearly 6 years ago by Martin's Aunty Elspeth and every year it's a real treat when they come out.

*you can sort-of see another flower spike beginning to grow on the right of the photo.

Friday 22 July 2011


This is my response to a comment I got by email after my recent post on prayer.  My friend said:
You say you pray for daily bread for people. I have struggled to understand how God - who loves us more than the sparrows and who promised to provide for all our needs, can let so many many people die of starvation every single day.
Here was my response (unpolished and mostly off-the-cuff with my trademark never-ending sentences) in case anyone else has been wondering similar things.

Those are big questions, and ones that I have thought about a lot since getting sick. Not just in relation to myself, but also as I have realised that someone in my condition in at least 1/3 of the world would die of it because resources are so tight where they live.

My first answer is that God didn't want it to be this way. He made us a perfect world that was 'just right', and his plan was for us to always live in that world that was perfect. However, we/Adam and Eve stuffed it up and now there is all manner of suffering. In the book of Romans, Paul talks about all creation 'groaning', and [my friend's close relative]'s sickness and mine, as well as all those people dying of starvation etc., are all part of creation groaning.

My second answer is that God has bigger priorities than ending suffering in the here and now. Martin and I read a chapter or so of the Bible together every morning and in the last couple of years we've mostly been reading from the Old Testament. In our reading we've been really struck by how different God's perspective on mortal life is from ours. It seems to be terribly hugely important to God that people are in a good relationship to Him, but not hugely important whether they stay alive or not. I guess that makes sense in the context of eternity.

So in the New Testament it says that Jesus' death was the first step towards fixing what was broken in the world, but it won't be 100% right until Jesus comes back to live here permanently and everything is made new again. That hasn't happened yet, and I think the Bible says it won't until everyone on earth has had the chance to hear the gospel (e.g. Matthew 24, Mark 13), although I'm not 100% sure that's what those texts mean. Assuming that is the meaning it then seems that, even though he's completely capable of healing all that suffering, God has decided to limit himself and not do so in the light of the greater good of giving people the opportunity of living with him in eternity. I don't 100% see why fixing what's gone wrong in the world would get in the way of that, but it appears that it does.

And my third and final answer is that God has given us the job of dealing with suffering on earth. We (the Church) are the 'firstfruits' of that new world. As I understand it, one of the things the church exists for is to show people what things will be like in the New Heaven/New Earth so that they are attracted to it and want to be a part of it. We are also Christ's body on Earth, so we have to carry on Jesus' work. In Luke 4, Jesus described his work like this:
18 "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (NIV)
Because we are his body, that's our calling, too. Perhaps one reason why there is so much suffering, so many people dying of starvation, so many people with chronic and terminal illnesses etc. is because the Church isn't doing it's job.

When I pray for 'daily bread' for people, I'm asking that they will have the resources they need to get through the day. That doesn't always happen, but I still ask! Not infrequently, God then asks me to be the means of answering that prayer: I get a strong sense that God wants me to phone someone up, offer that they can stay at our place, take them muffins or whatever. I also ask God to make them aware of him going through the day with them.

Wednesday 13 July 2011


Two of my closest friends are single Christian women in their mid-30s.  Both would dearly love to marry, but their prospects aren't great: there are simply more women than men in the Church.  And even if my own friends are able to marry there will still be a problem: a great many other Christian women will still be living alone.

How do we as a church deal with this reality?

In the wider world, singleness is less of a problem (at least in part because singleness in the secular world is not equated with celibacy).  But in the church there is a clear understanding that you will progress from being a youth to a young adult to a young married to a young parent to being a parent of Christian youth.  (Curiously, the path seems to stop there!)

Update: an older friend pointed out to me in an email that, once your children hit their teenage years, your success or failure moves from being judged on your own performance in this process to being judged on that of your children.

If you deviate from this progression at any point then you have failed.  My friends live with a significant burden of failure alongside the sorrow of their actual singleness.  I, too, live with failure as I have produced no children.

I suspect that this veneration of marriage and family in Evangelical circles has come about in response to two factors:
  1. Family breakdown in our wider society
  2. The high status of celibacy in the Anglo-Catholic traditions (the idealisation of monks, nuns and priests)
We are concerned about family breakdown and we reject the idealisation of the cloistered life so we make lifelong married bliss our ideal.

We have partially succeeded.  In the New Zealand the divorce rate amongst Christians is a small fraction of that in the secular population.  But in the process we have been selling an ideal that a significant minority of our community will never be able to live out.  As well as the pain of living without a partner they have to deal with the pain of personal failure and the resultant questioning of their own worth.

We need to stop doing this to our women!!

Update: the same older friend pointed out that this doesn't just affect women.  It's more likely to happen to them due to the dearth of men in the church, but, just because a man has many women to choose from doesn't mean he'll find himself a partner amongst them.  If he doesn't, he is then subject to the same disapproval as an unmarried woman.

But what can we do?  Should we promote serial monogamy?  Or polygamy?  Should we excommunicate these women?  Should we focus all of our evangelistic efforts on men?

None of those feel particularly Christian to me!

What does the Bible say?

I think we need to challenge the idea that marriage is the only or even best way to truly live the Christian life.  God did say that it was not good for man to live alone, and He did create humanity in His image as male and female.  But He also allowed into the Bible some pretty negatives statements about marriage and family.

In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul said:
to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. 1 Corinthians 7:8, NIV
 Jesus himself went even further:
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple" Luke 14:26, NIV.
Lastly, Jesus taught that in Heaven, where everything will be perfect, no one will be married.  So how necessary to happiness or Godly living can it be?

What does that all mean?

I think that Jesus and Paul were both well aware that family ties bring with them a desire to protect those they bind us to.  The well-being of our family members can easily become more dear to us than following God.  God's not big on having rivals!

In the missionary circles in which Martin was raised the presence of children created much heartache.  The parents longed to protect their children and have them nearby, but in order for the parents to do the work God called them to they often had to live apart from their children.  People also had to be willing not infrequently to allow their spouses to go into danger they would never have faced back home.  People sometimes refuse to serve God as missionaries because of factors like these.  Some people even think that it is actually wrong for people to subject their family members to such dangers and deprivations.

Marriage and family bring joy, but how often do we teach that they also bring a terrible temptation to idolatory?

So what can/should the church do?

I think that my friends' singleness is just one example of how things are not as God would have them be.  The whole world is broken and I long to be part of a Christian community that acknowledges that.  A community where some have the joy of marriage, some have the joy of a satisfying job, some have the joy of children, some have the joy of 'golden years' in old age, some have the joy of abundant material goods, but all have sorrows.  Where we submit to one another in love, bear one another's burdens, and serve God together.  Yet where we also long together for the day when God will live amongst His people and there will be no sorrow or pain any more because everything has been made new (Revelation 21:1-4).

I also want to be part of a community that acknowledges the realities of marriage and parenthood and helps us to live Christianly within them.  People long for marriage in part so they will not be alone in old age, yet nearly half of all married people will die after their spouse.  People long for children who can carry on their legacy, yet Christians should be storing up treasure in heaven, not concerning themselves with their earthly legacy.  Most importantly we should teach that marriage and family are mixed blessings as our desire to protect both our spouse and our children can easily draw us away from God.

Finally I want to live part of a community where no one is alone. You don't have to be alone because you're single.  A single woman need not only know the hugs of female friends and never that of a man.  People without children of their own need not have no role in the raising of children.  Jesus saw his own true family as being not his biological family, but the family of God.  Presumably what was true for him is also true for us, his followers: we certainly speak of ourselves as the family of God.  I want to be part of a people that lives that out, for all our sakes!

In conclusion I must acknowledge my limited 'right' to speak on this topic.  I am married and very happy to be so.  I am deeply grateful to God for bringing Martin and I together and for the joy that there is in sharing my life with him.  I am sorry that my two close friends do not have this joy, and pray frequently that God will join them together with husbands.

Monday 11 July 2011

Heavy Heart to a Sense of Hope

I really enjoyed this post last week from Alison Sampson in Australia.  She's reflecting on Jesus saying that God's burden is easy and his yoke is light (Matthew 11:25-30), and also on being part of a church.  She concludes with the realisation that the work to which God has called her, whilst distinctly unglamourous, is transforming her into God's image.  It's beautiful, and the whole blog is well worth a look, too.  She posts about once a week.

Tuesday 5 July 2011

Grey warbler

Many times every day at the moment I hear the song of the grey warbler.  Click on the link to hear a recording by National Radio or download the mp3.  This non-descript bird has the most amazing song, and I smile every time I hear it.

Sunday 3 July 2011


At our church we have a slot in the service most weeks called 'Journeying with God'.  Anyone who wants can come forward and share something with the congregation at this time.  As I can't actually go to church, occasionally I record a little video to be played at this time.  Here is my latest one:

 (I couldn't actually make the video work this time, but I also couldn't figure out how to put up audio on this blog, so this is an audio recording accompanied by a static picture of me sitting where I was when I made the recording.)

In it I share that I've never really prayed much for other people but recently I've realised that I need to, even though doing so doesn't really make sense to me.  As I've prayed I haven't seen it making a difference for the people I pray for but I have seen it make a real difference in me!  It's made me more involved in my community and more open to God prompting me to do things for the people I pray for, and it's reshaped my view of many of the situations I'm praying for in line with the Bible.

Friday 24 June 2011


This is my response to this post on decision-making from one of my favourite 'green' blogs, the Green Phone Booth. I'm publishing it here as well as it has stuff in it that I've been wanting to put here about how we decide what's important to us - plus I spent so much time on it that it's just about killed me and I didn't want to waste it!

I hear you!

Around 8 years ago, I developed a neurological condition that means I have very little energy.  I'm literally only out of bed for 3 hours per day max.  The rest of the time I'm lying on my back, doing more or less nothing.  Almost everything* I do in a day - from reading blogs and writing emails to eating and showering - has to fit into those three hours. 
*I can push it a bit on reading blogs and emails, and sometimes even on writing emails and blog posts, but not much and not often. I pushed it a fair bit to write this ;-)

Like you, I'm a details person: I enjoy researching things before I make my choices.  But I've had to learn to make that research effort count.  Maybe what I've learned can help you?

You ask: Is our attention to detail impeding our green progress?

I think what gets in the way is not so much our attention to detail but our not having a clear enough idea of what 'green progress' would look like. I agree that picking battles is important, and it makes sense to work harder on decisions that are likely to have a frequent or ongoing impact.  But I think it's also really important to spell out your over-arching goal(s) so you have a yardstick to determine what is the 'right' choice you.

"Frugal, practical and eco-conscious" is a start, but if you refined it a bit more, then you'd know your own answer to: "is it more important to choose a bag that prevents waste from hitting the landfill or to find a bag that is biodegradable?"

Easily the best example of someone who's done this in the green blogosphere is Beth Terry .  Her over-arching goal is 'no plastic', and every decision she makes gets weighed up against that decision.  If she needed to get shopping bags, any bag that was made out of plastic or packaged in plastic wouldn't even be considered.  I suspect that she'd rapidly be left with very few options to angst over and the decision would be pretty easy!

My husband and I haven't (yet) refined our big goal down to such a simple statement, but we're working on it.  Right now it's a bit of a mouthful:
To live in such a way that everyone on the planet could live just like us and keep on doing so for the next few centuries without anything stopping them.

That big goal has then translated into smaller goals.  For example, to achieve it we have to get down to only using our fair share of physical resources and only emitting our fair share of the amount of greenhouse gases the planet can absorb without warming.  We've worked out what these are for various resources and are gradually working to reduce our use/emissions where we're over that target.  It's also translated into goals with respect to other issues, too - e.g. people couldn't live like us if they were being kept as slaves on a cocoa plantation, so we will only buy fair trade cocoa.

Working out these goals has been a heap of work: it's taken a vast amount of research and thought.  And reaching our targets is very much on ongoing project.  However, it's work that really pays off.  We don't go round in circles when faced with multiple options as we can generally work out fairly easily which one will help us towards our goals the most.  It's also very satisfying having a yardstick to measure our progress by :-)

Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

--Heather :-)

PS, if you are interested, you can read about our greenhouse gas emissions targets and how we're doing here and here, and about some of our other environmental goals here.  As part of this we have developed a spreadsheet for auditing our household CO2 emissions in much more detail than any internet calculator we have found.  You can download it from here if you're interested.

Sunday 19 June 2011

Feeling alive!

Recently I've been struggling: it's been hard to be patient and I've been having to really watch that I don't snap at people.  I've also been very jealous of anything that took Martin away from me (i.e. most things) and have felt irrationally neglected.

I've mostly responded by being cross with myself and trying to be less selfish.  However, the feelings of jealousy eventually led me to ask Martin if we could keep Queen's Birthday weekend (two weeks ago, and a holiday weekend here in New Zealand) as a weekend just for us.

After a lovely weekend of absolutely no walking (for me) and lots of baths, back rubs, talking, exploring, eating good food and general decadence I feel like I've had a respite weekend for a change.  I feel alive like I haven't in ages and the world is a much more copeable place :-)

Turned out I didn't need discipline to make me 'nice': I tried that, but it was decadence and a break from my normal routines that did the trick :-)  Apparently, sometimes what grumpy people really need is a hug!

Being included

The other day a friend dropped by to say hello to me before the others arrived for a meeting at our house.  He told me about stuff going on at his work.  I asked a few questions to keep him going.  As he started to run out of stuff to say, I told a funny story - one that was tenuously related and that I'd told many times before.  He smiled and then the room fell silent.  I came up with another tenuously-related anecdote.  Painfully aware I wasn't 'keeping my end up' in the conversation, I tried to tell him about some stuff I'd been thinking about that I knew would interest him.  I didn't make a lot of sense, and made less sense as I went on.  I started to panic.  Finally, the last person showed up at the door and my friend was called through to his meeting.

I felt like crying.  I wanted to interact with my friend - to be included - but my fuddled head had made that impossible.

As I pondered it over the next few days, though, I realised something.  My fuddled head had made it impossible for me to communicate new and interesting ideas to my friend, but those worn old anecdotes had enabled me to be included: at least as far as I let them  They gave me something to say so the flow of conversation wasn't stalled.  Hopefully I'll judge them less harshly the next time they flow from my mouth :-)

I think I might also have stumbled upon why the stereotypical older person tells the same old stories again and again to anyone who'll listen...

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Making yoghurt

This post is a bit different from what you'll generally find on this blog.  It's my response to a discussion on Beth Terry's Show us your plastic trash! challenge.

I make yoghurt roughly once a week.  I like it and it's an easy way to get the extra calcium I need (I have to eat a lot of calcium to prevent my bones from 'demineralising' unduly from underuse).  It also provides one of my twice-daily protein snacks: unusually for a Westerner, I have to work moderately hard to get sufficient protein in my diet as I eat so few calories.  I particularly enjoy a bowl of thick creamy yoghurt topped with a swirl of manuka honey and a sprinkling of milk masala :-)

Over the years I've realised that a lot of people have trouble keeping their yoghurt culture alive batch after batch.  I've been able to use the same culture for around five years now and I believe that the key to doing so is being really careful to keep other bugs1 out of your yoghurt.  In other words, make sure that you use:
  1. Yoghurt starter that has no other bugs in it other than the actual yoghurt bacteria;
  2. Milk that has no bugs in it at all;
  3. A container for the yoghurt to grow in that has no bugs in it at all.
If you get a few bugs contaminating your yoghurt you won't know about it right away.  Over time, however, those unwanted bacteria will multiply and start to take over from the yoghurt-making bacteria, causing your culture to 'weaken'.

It is also important to keep your yoghurt sufficiently warm for sufficiently long, i.e. at 40-45°C/110-120°F for around 5-14 hours.2  The longer your milk/starter mix stays warm, the thicker the yoghurt will become until it eventually separates out into curds and whey.  I have always kept mine warm in a wide-mouthed thermos flask such as you might use for soup or stew.  Other people use a jar placed somewhere well-insulated such as inside a chilly bin or the microwave, or placed somewhere with very gentle heating such as in a crockpot set to 'low' or an oven with only the light on.

So, back to the three things you need to be careful of in order to keep unwanted bugs out of your yoghurt.

1. A starter with no other bugs in it.
When your yoghurt has just been made (or before you first open the container, for bought yoghurt) it only has yoghurt bugs in it.  You need to take out any yoghurt you want to use as a starter at this point, i.e. before you transfer your yoghurt to another container, eat any of it or in any way disturb it.

You also need to remove your starter with a clean spoon that hasn't been used for anything else since it was last washed and hasn't been lying around on the bench picking up who knows what.

Lastly you have to make sure any yoghurt you set aside to use as a starter doesn't come into contact with any other bugs.  I presume that in the 'old days' they did this by putting the starter straight into a clean container and adding more milk to it right away.  That was back when yoghurt was mostly seen as a way of keeping milk edible for a few days when they didn't have refrigeration.

I have a perfectly good fridge and absolutely no desire to make yoghurt every day ;-) so I freeze my starter instead.  I spoon yoghurt straight from the container it was made in into a clean icecube tray and freeze it.  Whenever I want to make yoghurt I just take a cube of frozen yoghurt out of the freezer and add it straight to my warm milk (there's no need to thaw it out before using it).  When I'm down to my second-to-last icecube I freeze some more starter culture from the yoghurt made with that icecube.  That way I'm not caught short if I overheat or contaminate the yoghurt made from my last icecube.  Ideally you use at least 20mL of yoghurt to make a litre (or quart) of yoghurt so you may need more than one icecube per batch depending on the size of your container and the size of your icecubes.  A little too much starter is much better than not enough.

If you don't want to freeze your starter then you'll need to be very careful to keep it uncontaminated until you're ready to use it.  I've only very occasionally done this so I don't have much experience here.  In general you need to spoon the first of each batch of yoghurt into a very clean container with a tight lid and store that out of the way in a cool part of your fridge until you make the next batch.  You shouldn't leave yoghurt culture in the fridge for much more than a week before using it as various bugs will gradually find their way into it no matter how careful you are.

2. Milk that has no bugs in it at all
I expect that in the 'old days' yoghurt was made immediately after milking so bacteria in the milk wasn't really a problem.  They would barely even have had to warm the milk.  These days, however, most of us use milk that's a little less fresh than that and has at least a few bacteria lurking in it.  These would multiply rapidly in the warm conditions we use to make yoghurt so the milk must first be heated almost to boiling (above 85°C/185°F) and kept that hot for at least 10 minutes to destroy them.  Any bacteria likely to be found in your milk are now dead and you can add your starter as soon as the milk has cooled down enough (it needs to be no more than 45°C/120°F: if you can keep your little finger in it for at least 10 seconds then it should be fine).

These days my various physical restrictions make this too hard so I use milk powder instead because it has many fewer bacteria than fresh milk.  I simply dissolve the powder in cold water, heat it to 45°C/120°F and add my starter.

In the past I have also used a previously unopened carton of UHT milk instead of standard 'fresh' milk.  The UHT process has already killed all the bugs in the milk (that's why it keeps so long) so you only need to heat it to 45°C/120°F and add your starter.

3. A container that has no bugs in it at all
You must grow your yoghurt in a really clean container with a decent lid.  If your container is hard to get really clean with normal washing then just fill it with boiling water and set the lid on top while you prepare your milk (don't screw the lid down as a vacuum will form inside the container and the lid will be almost impossible to remove!).  The boiling water will also preheat your container and help your milk to stay at the right temperature a bit longer than it otherwise would, which is especially useful if you're using a lid with a less than perfect seal.  When your milk is warm simply tip out the boiling water and pour in the milk and your yoghurt starter.

Yummy, thick yoghurt
One final thought: if you want your yoghurt to be as thick as commercial yoghurt then you'll probably need to thicken it a bit no matter how long you keep it warm.  Commercial yoghurt is practically always thickened, either by adding thickeners such as gelatine or by concentrating it.  I always go for concentrating, either by concentrating the milk before making the yoghurt or by concentrating the yoghurt itself.

If you make your yoghurt with milk powder then you can simply make concentrated milk by using more milk powder than it says on the packet. I like to use nearly double-strength milk, i.e. 1 1/2 cups of milk powder per litre instead of the recommended 4/5 of a cup.  Yoghurt made this way comes out quite solid but if you give the container of yoghurt a bit of a shake after it's set then it transforms into lovely creamy yoghurt.  I did indeed find this out by dropping a container of yoghurt one day!  I expect you could also make nice thick yoghurt with unsweetened condensed or evaporated milk but I've never tried this myself.

If you make your yoghurt with actual milk and want a thicker yoghurt you will need to concentrate the finished yoghurt itself, i.e. drain off some of the yellowy whey.  I find the following method works well:
1. put a seive over a bowl and cover it with a fine-mesh cloth (I use cheesecloth or an ironed hankie);
2. divide your batch of yoghurt into two roughly equal portions;
3. pour/spoon one portion of your yoghurt onto the cloth on the seive;
4. put the other portion of your yoghurt into the container you want to keep your yoghurt in;
5. put both lots of yoghurt into the fridge overnight;
6. the next day, using a fork, blend the stiff white 'yoghurt cheese' left on the cloth into the unseparated yoghurt you put into your container to thicken it (you can also use a blender or food processor for this).

When you do this, don't throw away the whey from the bowl!  It makes a great substitute for milk in any baking and acid-loving plants also appreciate a drink of it from time to time. I like a drink of it, too :-)  In Switzerland, carbonated, sweetened, thinned-down whey is a very popular soft drink!  Who'd have thunk it?  I was quite sure I'd misunderstood something when someone explained to me what 'Rivella' was made of. I came to like it so much that I've even made a few (unsuccessful) attempts to concoct something similar now I'm back in New Zealand.

That's all I can think of, but I'm happy to answer any questions you may have.

Happy yoghurt making!

1 I suggest a particular set of ways to keep unwanted bugs at bay: if they don't suit your situation then maybe you can work out others.  You need to bear in mind that the bacteria most likely to be in your kitchen and in your milk:
a. won't survive normal dishwashing with soap or detergent;
b. generally won't survive being dried out and certainly can't multiply in a dry place;
c. need warmth, food and water in order to grow and multiply;
d. are very good at finding what they need, even if it's inside a closed container;
e. can live no more than a few minutes at temperatures hotter than 80°C/175°F;
f. multiply more slowly the colder they are (i.e. slowly in the fridge and barely at all in the freezer).

2When I make yoghurt in a pre-heated thermos flask I find it's reasonably thick after about 5-6 hours and even better if it's left overnight.  At the moment I'm making my yoghurt in an Easiyo thermos and leaving it for 18 hours to set.  Yoghurt will always take a bit longer to form in an Easiyo thermos than a regular thermos.  An Easiyo thermos system consists of a container that you fill with cold milk and a reservoir that you fill with boiling water.  The yoghurt culture only starts to grow once the heat from the water has warmed the milk to at least 40°C/110°F and this takes a bit of time.

Friday 10 June 2011

God speaks through the Bible

While I have questions as to just what the Bible is, one thing I am sure of is that God speaks to people through it.  I am grateful to live in an age and a country where Bibles are readily available to me and to practically everyone I know.  I believe that anyone who reads the Bible carefully and in its entirety will meet God in its pages and will be challenged to respond to Him.

I also believe that God uses the Bible to critique (and judge) the way we live.  In a society where Bibles are freely available and are being read, people can only keep on claiming wrong is right for a limited time: eventually the truth will out!

I was reminded of this yesterday, listening to an episode of Outlook (the BBC World Service's daily 'human interest' show) that I had downloaded earlier.  One of the stories* was of Joan Mulholland, one of the many 'freedom riders' who were part of the US civil rights struggle.  She told how, as a kid, she had ventured into the black part of town.  She was shocked by the primitive conditions she found there because she had been taught at Sunday School to love her neighbour as herself.  She saw what her elders hadn't noticed: that her neighbours included black people and that it wasn't loving to treat them so badly.  When she grew up she worked to change the system that she realised was at odds with the teaching of the Bible.

* this link will only work till the end of June 2011

Wednesday 8 June 2011

Older people

Everyone knows that our youth are our future.  It's seen as madness for any social group (from the local stamp club to the largest nation on Earth) to ignore or exclude them.  But what about old people?  While we generally care about them we don't squander many resources on them: everyone (including the elderly themselves) knows that they would be better spent on the youth.

But is that how God sees it?  This paper made me think maybe not.  It's one of the papers from the International Conference for Ageing and Spirituality 2009 hosted on the website of the Selwyn Centre for Ageing and Spirituality (I can't remember how I came across them but their whole site is well worth a look).

I find myself currently asking one question rather a lot: "do I think/do that because of a Biblical value/perspective or a cultural one?".  So do I think the youth are of special importance due to Biblical or cultural values?

This paper suggests that the elderly are a group requiring particular care - like the 'widow and orphan' mentioned so often in the Bible. It also suggests that while the default is that families should care for their own elderly (quoting, for example, 1Tim 5:3-8), the church as a whole should also take on responsibility for the care of any in need.

My church is currently going through the process of appointing a new pastor and a big part of this is thinking a lot about who we are   One question that is being explored is whether there are people groups in our area that none of the other local churches are seeking to serve.  I wonder if the elderly are one such group?  I wonder if any church has 'adopted' our nearest rest home, for example.

The paper mentioned a church in Texas that is inviting elderly folk from their neighbourhood to live with church 'foster' families, and apparently such foster care of the elderly is practised in Israel, too. I wonder what we could/should do?

Lastly, may I reccomend one more paper from the same conference?  Being Old in the 21st Century - the elder person's experience by Sister Pauline O'Reagan RSM  Some interesting insights for all of us who are frail.

Monday 6 June 2011

Mission statements

In recent years I've been trying to put into words what I'm trying to achieve through reducing my use of various resources, supporting Fair Trade, having the neighbours over for a cuppa etc..  I've often lamented that I can't put what drives me into 'a simple, snappy statement'.  And I've recently joyfully celebrated that I'm starting to be able to express it as a statement (although it's more of a paragraph than a slogan...).

Martin pointed out that I'm reaching for a mission statement.

I've always been sceptical of mission statements.  They seem so often to be nice banalities that mean little and have minimal connection with reality (aka the day to day activities of the organisation whose mission they puport to encapsulate).  It never occurred to me that I should want such a thing for myself.

Instead, I've simply been reaching for a way to express some things that have become important to me.  I want a yardstick by which to judge initiatives I come across: a means to assess whether or not they are working towards goals that I see as worthwhile (and hence whether I should consider supporting them).  I also want to be able to communicate why I do what I do and where I'm trying to head.

Martin has drawn to my attention that, in so doing, I've stumbled upon the purpose of mission statements: why it came to be seen that every organisation worth its salt needed mission statement.  A set of meaningless platitudes may be a set of meaningless platitudes, but a thought-through statement that encapsulates what you're all about is a mighty handy thing to have at your fingertips :-)

the Queen's birthday

Today in New Zealand we celebrate the Queen's Birthday (always celebrated on the first Monday of June, regardless of the actual date of birth of the current sovereign).

Presumably this day was instituted as a day to celebrate the British Monarchy.  However, no one I know of celebrates the Monarchy on this day.  Queen's birthday is just a long weekend: and precious as such because it's the last before Labour Day.  It's your last opportunity to snatch a long weekend away while the weather's still sort of nice.  The long grind of winter is approaching and after this it's all downhill till Labour Day.

It certainly doesn't have anything to do with the Queen!

On Waitangi Day we (increasingly) celebrate our  nationhood; on Auckland Anniversary Day we have a massive regatta to celebrate our Harbour - our pride and joy as Auckanders; on Labour Day National Radio, at least, puts on documentaries that draw attention to the fight for the 40 hour week and better labour conditions.

Christians often lament that Christmas and Easter seem to have little to do with Jesus's birth or death and ressurection, at least in the public consciousness.  It seems they aren't the only public holidays to have become divorced from their intended meaning.  Indeed on Christmas and Easter you would expect at least some religious programming on state radio and TV, not the generic 'public holiday' broadcasting we're having today.  It seems like they aren't the only 'debased' holidays: relics of a past when NZ saw itself as a part of both Christendom and the British Empire.

I'd never thought of it like that before.

Tuesday 26 April 2011

Easter eggs

About five years ago we decided to stop eating non-Fair Trade cocoa products.  A report from the BBC had recently come out documenting the ways in which children are abused to make our chocolate.  I can't find the original report, but this story contains much of the same information.  My recollection of it is that nearly 1/2 of the world's cocoa is grown in the Ivory Coast and 1/3 of that is cultivated on plantations using child slave labour: children who are taken under false pretences or simply stolen from their parents.  They were then worked hideously hard, "encouraged" by beatings with bicycle chains.

We decided we wanted no part in that.  If we had to buy our chocolate directly from a child who was clearly being so mistreated, we wouldn't just buy it and walk away: we'd try to help that child.  Just because we can't see the child being abused doesn't mean it's not real - it just means that we need people to tell us about it.

Over the course of about a year we gradually removed regular cocoa products from our diet.  Where we could we replaced it with cocoa produced by adults who are paid enough to be able to send their children to school.  Where that wasn't possible we simply went for something cocoa-free.

We found some low GI chocolate-free muesli bars for me to eat when I get hungry but can't get out of bed.  We drink Fair Trade cocoa mixed with sugar instead of milo, and occasionally make our own decadent hot chocolate mixes.  Unfortunately we haven't found any commercial bakers who use Fair Trade products so we bake our own muffins, brownies and cakes with Fair Trade chocolate (now available at most supermarkets) and cocoa.  No one makes icecream with Fair Trade cocoa either, so I occasionally make chocolate icecream in our icecream maker and otherwise buy chocolate-free icecream.  I've even learned to make something similar to nutella, which is yummy and rich if not as creamy as the real thing.

Whenever it gets too hard, I remind myself about the kids and the bicycle chains.  I'm doing this as I want no part in that.  It's happening far away but it's real.

The one last problem was Easter eggs.  The only Fair Trade ones available commercially in NZ are plain hollow chocolate, and my favourites are chocolate marshmallow eggs and creme eggs.  For five years I've tried to make my own marshmallow eggs, learning from my mistakes but never making a satisfactory product... until now!


It took me one whole day to make the marshmallows, followed by shorter stints over a week or so to chocolate coat them and stick them together.  I think they would take an able-bodied person three evenings after work to make them, or maybe two.  They look good, taste yummy, took only a week to make a batch of 35 and don't need any ridiculously expensive ingredients or supplies to make.  They even have yolks!  Success :-)

I don't think I'll be making my own creme eggs any time soon, though ;-)

If you'd like to make your own chocolate marshmallow eggs, instructions are up on our website.

PS.  We accept with gratitude all gifts that come our way, regardless of the source of any ingredients in them.  We will ourselves only purchase Fair Trade cocoa and cocoa products but we don't require others to do the same.  Our relationships with our friends are very important to us and any gifts are accepted in the spirit they are given.