Saturday, 4 November 2017

The Last Word?

I once knew a middle-aged lady whose marriage fell apart after the kids left home. A while after her husband moved in with someone else she found a lump on her breast ... which she carefully ignored ... and ignored ... until at last she could ignore it no longer.

She underwent treatment for the breast cancer and came through. During her phased return to work they found a secondary in her brain, which killed her. At her funeral a neighbour said:
"It's hard to believe in God when something like this happens."
I knew another middle-aged lady who had a very difficult childhood. In her twenties and early thirties she fought back and thrived, making something special of her life. Then the demons caught up with her, gradually tearing much of what she had achieved apart and eventually killing her:
It's hard to believe in God when the demons win.
I can see the point, but for me it is far harder to not believe in God when such things happen. To not believe in God is to say that disease and demons have the last word.  To me, God is about meaning and purpose even in the midst of destruction and despair, about Resurrection when evil seems to have won.

For those of us who do make it through middle-age there is another 'd' waiting - decay. The longer we live the more we fall apart. In God I can even see meaning in that; but without God there is little to learn, or at least not much future in learning it.

I believe God has the last word: after disease and demons and decay and despair have done their worst, God still has something to say. And God's final word is about hope and love and life and purpose and a new future in a world of justice and peace and meaning.

But sometimes I do feel very, very tired.


Thursday, 2 November 2017

Bombastic? Overblown? Serenity!

... and they were absolutely marvellous.

I'm talking about the melodic metal band Serenity, of course (named after the ship in Firefly apparently).

Last night we went to a concert at Koko in Camden to watch Delain headline with Serenity and Cellar Darling in support.

The doors opened late, and it took some time to get the sellout crowd into the venue, so we missed the first half of Cellar Darling's set. Apparently there was some sort of mishap as they started, which may have put them off a little, but they sang several interesting folk-metal songs. Mostly they were accompanied by the hurdy-gurdy, as well as the usual drums and guitars, which made for an original sound; although my favourite song was one accompanied by flute instead (which I now can't remember the name of, sigh). The lead singer is definitely a talented musician.

Serenity were up next and really hit the ground running with Deus Lo Vult,  the highly dramatic instrumental which opens their new Lionheart album, continuing with United from the same album. Four older songs followed before the set peaked with the title track of Lionheart. They finished with Follow Me.

There are lots of things I like about Serenity: they are a really powerful band, musically, vocally and lyrically, yet they understand and use light and shade, heavy and gentle, slow and fast. Their frontman Georg Neuhauser, who is also their songwriter, has a remarkable voice, yet they ring the changes on vocals, with a second male voice in the band and a guest female vocalist for some of the songs.

It helps that Neuhauser is apparently a history lecturer so he has interesting things to say on the historical themes which the band so often sing about. Although it has to be said their Lionheart album is something of a whitewash of Richard the Lionheart, who was a complex and not always honourable leader: the album is more about the legend than the reality.

What about the headliners, Delain? Hmm. Koko was sold out last night, so there was a vast number of people in a limited area. Add to that a bevy of six-footers who felt they had to stand right in the centre, blocking people's view, along with the rudest crowd I have seen at a melodic metal concert: pushing and shoving their way around. I was feeling downright claustrophobic and Delain took forever to come out, so I wasn't at all enjoying myself by the time they did.

It was the last night of the tour and Charlotte Wessels' voice sounded quite badly shot to me, so maybe they had to spend time working on her throat so it could survive one final night, hopefully without damage. Wessels has a very distinct timbre normally, which was missing last night - so much so that at first I wondered if they had a guest singer themselves.

Nevertheless she hit the notes and the whole band sang and played well. A particular treat was that they did have a guest singer: Marco Hietrala, who came out and did the male vocal parts to several songs which they don't normally perform on tour; I especially enjoyed Control The Storm.

I don't really like going to London for concerts, because the journey back is always grim; the wonder of privatised rail: first-class prices for a third class journey. Last night/this morning the train was standing room only - just four coaches so what can one expect - and a points failure outside Slough added to the delight. Still we got home eventually, and it is always good to see live music.

To finish with a bit of enthusiasm: a song which Serenity sadly didn't do last night, but which I think is brilliant:-


Sunday, 29 October 2017

Judgement & Exclusion

There's rather a lot about judgement in Matthew's account of Jesus' life. In part this makes sense as the people he was writing to were attempting to come to terms with the destruction of their Temple in Jerusalem and the suffering which accompanied it.

So this is introduced in a series of stories and parables highlighting the faithlessness of the religious leaders in Jesus' day and the judgement which would surely follow after they persecuted first Jesus and then his followers for so many years.

Finally, the end of chapter 23 and the bulk of 24 addresses the consequence of this, bringing together the terrible suffering during the siege of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, and the hope of Jesus' eventual return into one terrible apocalyptic warning. We're bad at apocalyptic today so we tend to get lost in this passage but it most likely made sense, even brought a sense of comfort and meaning, to its early readers.

Then in chapter 25 the scope widens and we get three quick parables about judgement more generally, which are potentially easier to follow and apply today. These parables, known traditionally as The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, The Parable of the Talents and The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats are all parables of judgement.

Interestingly, given the traditional  Protestant religious focus on 'Salvation by faith not works', all three parables are most immediately about actions. Equally interestingly, given the traditional religious focus on avoiding 'sin' - refraining from doing forbidden things - all three are about people's failure (or not) to do what they should have done; no-one is criticised for doing something wrong, just for failing to do something right.

In the first, ten young women are chosen to accompany a bridegroom to his wedding feast. Five of the ten are prepared and ready when he comes, so they are welcomed into the feast in places of honour. The other five were not ready when he came and they are excluded: the bridegroom says he does not know them.

In the second parable a wealthy man goes on a journey so he gives his servants portions of his immense wealth to use while he is away. This is a tremendous opportunity which two of the servants use, whilst the third buries the wealth away and tries to go on with his life. When their master returns those who used the opportunity are praised and "given charge of many things"; the servant who deliberately failed to use the opportunity, however, is sharply criticised and thrown outside "into the darkness".

The final parable has Jesus returning in glory to judge people from all the nations. When he judges he does so on the basis of how they have treated those in need around them. He says the way we have treated the neediest is the way we treat him, and he separates people on this basis into those facing eternal life and those facing punishment.

Literally the word translated 'punishment' in that final parable means 'pruning' or cutting away, so again the implication is that judgement is about separation: separating those included in God's Kingdom from those who are excluded from it.

The basis for that separation is either what we do or, maybe more likely, on the underlying attitude: an attitude of expectancy which leads us to make sure we are ready and prepared; an attitude of trust which leads us to make use of opportunities God gives us; and especially an attitude of compassion for those we see in need.

And, in the end, inclusion means life and exclusion means death. How we live matters.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

What About KRACK?

A man in panic
It seems some marketing wonks at Norton have noticed the publicity around KRACK, a recently discovered vulnerability in the main wi-fi standard, and have decided to spread some FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) in the hope of generating a few extra sales for their VPN package.

I've been contacted by customers who have received scary emails from Norton telling them:
"All Wi-Fi connection points and devices could be vulnerable—your local coffee shop, home, or workplace connection.
KRACK can allow attackers access to important information like credit card numbers, passwords, and emails transmitted over Wi-Fi networks. This vulnerability can also allow attackers to potentially infect your devices with malware or ransomware."
Then comes the sales pitch:
"HIGHLY RECOMMENDED - Consider using a secure Virtual Private Network (VPN) such as Norton WiFi Privacy*, to help protect your data against this new threat."
Personally the last people I would trust to protect my wi-fi would be those who deliberately spread misleading information for gain, but that's a matter of personal (dis)taste.

So what is KRACK? Most wi-fi networks these days are encrypted to protect against eavesdropping, with the commonest form of encryption being something known as WPA2 (Wi-fi Protected Access 2). KRACK (Key Reinstallation Attacks) is a newly discovered way of breaking into WPA2-protected wi-fi networks. It targets the devices on the network, rather than the wi-fi as such, so changing your password doesn't help.

So far, so scary ... why am I suggesting Norton's email was more marketing FUD than engineering reality?

The way Microsoft and Apple implemented WPA2 on their PCs and laptops happens to be resistant to this particular attack, and both have released patches to fix remaining issues, so up-to-date Windows, iOS, macOS, tvOS and watchOS devices should be fine.

If you are sending credit card numbers and the like over the internet, I very much hope you are checking that the website you are sending them to uses https - every major vendor that I am aware of does. Https encrypts your details before they ever get near the wi-fi, so anyone breaking into the wi-fi would only get gobbledegook. Similarly with most passwords; and the vast majority of email providers support something similar (https, SSL or TLS) for email messages.

There are genuine concerns about smartphones. About half of smartphones being used were thought to be vulnerable when the problem was discovered (ironically, the newer ones with an Android version greater than 6.0). Apple phones should already be fixed, and Google's own phones should be updated with a fixed version of Android fairly quickly, but other manufacturers can be slow distributing updates. The comments above about https and other end-to-end encryption methods still apply though.

There are also concerns about the 'Internet of Things' - smart kettles, baby monitors used over the internet, and the like. To be honest, these have such a bad reputation for insecurity that I'm not sure KRACK makes much odds - although hopefully it will increase pressure on manufacturers to get a grip and take security seriously.

There are things that you should do as a result of this scare (under most circumstances buying a VPN service is NOT one of them):-
  • Make sure your Windows/macOS/iOs is up-to-date with its scheduled updates;
  • If you have an Android smart phone and its Android version is 6 or greater (or you cannot see what the version is), contact your phone supplier to ask if it is patched against KRACK;
  • If your printer software asks to patch your printer firmware (check the request comes from the printer software itself, not an email or a website pop-up) then let it.
  • If your broadband router came from your broadband supplier (not all do), contact them to see if they have updated the router software against KRACK.
  • If you are filling in personal information on a website, make sure the website address starts with https (sometimes this is indicated by a padlock) - if it doesn't, you can often add the 's' yourself and it will take you to a secure version of the page.
  • It is a good idea to protect all PCs and laptops with a reputable antivirus (Norton Antivirus is one example), for all sorts of important reasons. I suggest you seriously consider also protecting your Android smartphone with its own antivirus.
KRACK is mostly a major problem for high-level technical infrastructure and in corporate environments. For home users it is largely common sense and not letting the marketeers panic you. 

Sunday, 22 October 2017

"Jesus Might Have Been Gay"

That made me blink!

The context was a book promotion, by its three Dutch authors, of a new book called Re-imagining The Bible For Today. It was advertised as being about engaging people from around the fringes of faith with the Bible, which was enough to drag me across to Salisbury on my scooter one slightly chilly Friday afternoon.

One of the areas they talked about in their presentation was times they had encouraged special-interest groups to question and interact with the text: feminists, environmentalists and gay groups included. I must admit my 'political correctness' alarm was ringing at this point, but the discussions actually seem to have been carefully structured and focused to genuinely provoke a different way of looking at well-known texts.

One example Bert Dicou spoke about was a time he led a discussion on the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, with a gay activist group. It seems they related easily to ideas about travelling and eating together and so growing a relationship, but one of the young men had a question: might Jesus have been gay? It seems Dicou (or maybe someone else involved) told him that he might have been. The young man found himself freed to start attending his local church, for the first time since childhood.

That has to be a good thing, surely, but I must admit the answer given brought me up short - it was, for me, such an unexpected idea. Which I guess is the idea of such discussions, they help us think the unthinkable. I find it raises two main extra questions of its own.

The first is the obvious one: might Jesus have been gay ... really?

I am not aware of anything in the Gospels which so much as hints that Jesus was sexually active: contextually it seems plausible to assume that he was not. Which leaves his sexuality - in the sense of any romantic or sexual attractions - a completely blank page. Within the constraints of what we are told, the rest we tentatively assume for ourselves. So it is genuinely reasonable to say that Jesus might have been gay - although also reasonable to say that he probably wasn't.

The other question I find myself wondering is why that 'might' made such a difference to the young man?

I suspect it could be to do with being part of a community which has long been discriminated against: an 'us and them' with Jesus assumed to be part of the excluding majority. A session engaging with Jesus as a companion and  a traveller helps to break down religious preconceptions, then even just the possibility that Jesus might have been part of the young man's community helps him to see that Jesus can accept and love him as he is. The rigid boundary just isn't there with Jesus.

That simple might leaves the understanding that, for him, Jesus really was 'one of us', therefore he can be one of Jesus' followers. He is free because he understands that Jesus is free, is another way to look at it.

Either way, a good excuse for an excellent song from Joan Osborne: