RealityBites blog

One of my heroes has died!

In Pittsburgh in the 1950s, a black evangelical Christian Robert Lavelle set up a most unusual bank. The Dwelling House Savings and Loan Association would lend money to poor people who are not 'good risks' at the lowest possible rates of interest. This banking philosophy challenges banking orthodoxy which prefers to lend money to rich people at high rates of interest.

A handsome man even in his advanced age, Mr. Lavelle was charming, dignified and distinguished by his erect posture and the warm radiation of his words, deeds and his commitment to serving the poor and the needy. His bank was a huge blessing to hundreds of desperate people who couldn't get loans anywhere else. Loansharks cursed him and lost a lot of lucrative deals!

When armed robbers came into his bank and demanded money, Mr. Lavelle often tried to talk them out of committing the thefts. Boldly he said to one hooded boy – "Try God". He never considered moving out of the Hill District, would not allow protective barriers between bank tellers and customers and was vehemently against installing iron bars on the bank's windows and doors. Sometimes robbers would ring him up to apologise for their shoddy behaviour! They knew Lavelle was a godly man.

Mr Lavelle rescued the bank, which had been chartered in 1890 as a state mutual bank owned by its depositors, in 1957 and reinvented the institution to assume a new mission. He helped build its capital reserves over the years by taking a modest salary, which reached a maximum of $15,000. He even performed janitorial services himself at one point to limit expenses.

After dedicating much of his life to running the small savings and loan at the corner of Centre and Herron avenues, Mr. Lavelle turned the bank over to his son, Robert M. Lavelle, in the late 1980s.

Dwelling House was shut down in August despite a community rally to save the institution when bank regulators determined the 119-year-old bank was bankrupt and had no reasonable hope of recovering. Cyber thieves were blamed for tapping into the computer system and electronically transmitting up to $4 million out of the bank’s capital account. No one has been arrested for the thefts and federal officials say incomplete financial records at the institution made it difficult to determine what happened.

Mr Lavelle died on the 4th of July 2010 at Forbes Hospice in West Penn Hospital as a result of a stroke he suffered on Father's Day. He collapsed at the pulpit in Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church in Schenley Heights while delivering a keynote speech about his own father and the legacy of fatherhood. He was 94.

Bob Lavelle was a wonderful disciple of the Lord and his deeds, his faith and his love will follow him into the renewed creation (Revelation 14:13).

Read more on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette website.

Friendly debates with atheist

Last Saturday I was interviewed on Unbelievable?, the Premier Christian Radio programme that gets Christians and non-Christians talking.

I thoroughly enjoyed the show! Paul 'Sinbad' Thompson, the atheist, was a very likable and genial man. I had a great chat with him about the north of England; my mum coming from Stockton-on-Tees and he growing up in Middlesborough. I really like Sinbad and hope we can meet again. It's really fantastic to go on radio and be interviewed by great people like Justin Brierley and have frank but cordial discussions about worldviews with lovely fellahs like Sinbad.

In all the debates we have with sundry folk let's keep it friendly, good-natured and kind-hearted.

Tom Wright has a great story about the famous 18th century wit and raconteur Samuel Johnson. Apparently Boswell, his autobiographer, was amazed at how the great man seemed to treat everybody with courtesy and respect. 'Why do you do this?' probed Boswell. Johnson famously replied – 'because I want to practise kindness'. Enough said.

Shenanigans at Sky

There's been a lot of talk in the press about these two geezers – Andy Gray and Richard Keys. They've both departed Sky Sports amid a cloud of lurid and seedy lad mag shenanigans. Apparently both 'lads' like aggressive sexist banter and don't mind upsetting people. Any nastiness is understood as just having a bit of a 'laff' and a joke luv! They love their nasty banter and so should we.

It is the culture of fear and bullying that we need to understand. Aggressive banter really does hurt. But we need to see banter through the lens of the biblical story. In earlier postings Jon Swales and David Hanson have talked about the biblical story and how it begins with the goodness of creation and the cultural mandate. Do reread those great postings. Banter is a wonderful thing when it is understood for what it is. Banter can bring warmth, joy and encouragement into our social lives. Banter can enrich our lives. We can even tell God our favourite jokes. But banter, just like football and politics etc is in urgent need of God's healing kingdom of shalom. Our God doesn't want to eliminate banter from our lives. He wants to redeem it. And this is good news for all of us who enjoy a bit of a 'laff and a joke'. God loves humour and in the beginning it was very good.


Ted Hughes and Paganism

It isn't only Romanian witches and politicians who live in pagan stories.

English poets are very fascinated by pagan and gnostic worldviews.

Ted Hughes was one of the most gifted British poets of the last century. He was also fascinated by the occult. At Cambridge he experimented heavily in the dark arts. He and the American poetess Sylvia Plath got married in 1956 and they spent many hours playing with the Ouija board. Ted Hughes once asked the 'spirits' if he and Sylvia Plath would become famous. "Fame will come", the Ouija board answered, "but at an enormous cost". In 1963 his American wife Sylvia Plath committed suicide. Tragically in 1969 Ted's new partner Assia Wevill killed their four year old daughter and then also committed suicide. In 2009 Sylvia and Ted's son Nicholas committed suicide after battling depression.

Ted Hughes was a Gnostic. Gnosticism is a complicated worldview but it contrasts strikingly with both materialism and Christianity. Gnostics are often intrigued by non-Christian forms of spirituality. Indeed Hughes was very influenced by early animist and pagan religions. In these religions there is a strong sense of unseen forces and spiritual powers that can be contacted and befriended. This can help us to understand Hughes' fascination with the occult.

We need to understand both secularism (consumerism, materialism etc) and paganism (gnosticism, rat worship etc) if we are to understand how people live and how to engage intelligently with them about the Christian faith.

Romanian politicians and the Evil Eye

A few years ago a group of Romanian witches warned former Chelsea player, Adrian Mutu, that his career might suffer because of curses put on him by a former girlfriend.

"No problem", replied Mutu, revealing an unusual Romanian superstition. "Curses can't touch me because I wear my underwear inside out".

Many western people find this story perplexing and bizarre. Secular people do not just ignore God but they also ignore the spirits, the gods and the superstitious behaviour that paganism brings.

Secular man does not fear God or the gods. He/she revels in autonomy and often trusts in science and technology to bring the good life. A 'rational' as opposed to an 'irrational' kind of faith.

Today's Daily Telegraph is running an article about Romanian witches who are refusing to pay their taxes!

For more on this see The Independent article.

Queen witch Bratara Buzea, 63, who was imprisoned in 1977 for witchcraft under Ceausescu's regime, is furious about the new law which will force her to pay income tax. Sitting cross-legged in her villa in the lake resort of Mogosoaia, just north of Bucharest, she said she planned to cast a spell on the Taxman using a particularly effective concoction of cat excrement and dead dog, accompanied by a chorus of witches.

How will Romanian politicians and civil servants respond to this magical cursing a la Balak and Balaam (Numbers 20)?

Romanian president Traian Basescu and his aides are known to wear purple on certain days, supposedly to ward off evil. As committed pagans they are 'ready' for the magical attack.

And this raises a vital question – Will increasing numbers of western people turn their backs on the gods of science, technology and economic growth and imitate these Romanian folk? Will paganism replace secularism?

Marriage and Consumerism

Vickie Lynn Marshall (1967 – 2007) was better known under the stage name of Anna Nicole Smith. She was an American model, actress and television celebrity. She first gained fame by appearing in the magazine Playboy when she became the 1993 Playmate of the Year. In 1994 she became notorious when, at the age of 26, she married the 89 year old billionaire J. Howard Marshall. This union led to numerous allegations that she was a cynical and opportunistic gold digger. In 1995, Marshall died and Smith began a lengthy legal battle over a share of his huge estate. She died at the age of 39, apparently as a result of an overdose of prescription drugs.

Smith stated that she was a Christian in a television interview, saying: "Jesus Christ is my lord and savior, and will always be, and I pray every day."

Some people believe that marriage is merely a contract. They enter marriage in order to increase their bank balance or enhance their status. For some marriage is all about personal profit and gain. On this view marriage is a means to an end. If the spouse doesn't deliver the goods – you leave the marriage. We could say that this is a consumerist approach to marriage. We consume a marriage in much the same way that we consume popcorn or chocolate. It's there, it gives pleasure and then suddenly it's gone. An original feature of the consumerist worldview is its uncanny ability to transform every relationship into a business proposition.

Tragically there are many stories of consumerists who believe they are Christians!

Christmas Prayer

Our good friend from Australia Bruce Wearne has sent us this prayer from 'down under'.

A Christmas Prayer

Father in Heaven, As we celebrate the birth of Jesus,

Grant us a happy celebration that refreshes us and brings us together in glad thankfulness for the birth of Your Son, for the new start for the human race, for the life you have given us, here and now, of what is now past and what we now enjoy.

On this day as our feasting celebrates the coming of the Redeemer, help us to remember that soon after the shepherds gave their devotion and the foreign visitors gave their exotic gifts, the young family had to flee and become asylum seekers in a foreign land. So in being grateful for the coming of Jesus, give us also a taste for the bitter lives so many face who do not have enough bread, whose peace is shattered by war and violence, whose lives are ruined by flood or famine, who wait in detention seeking a new home.

When we sip soups prepared for our celebration, remind us again of who we are, and grant we may find good ways to serve the dispossessed and the lonely, the shut-in and the immobile.

When we taste sweat sauces, on our salad, meat and sweets, give us thankful hearts that can humbly resolve to keep on working for good, for justice and peace wherever you place us.

And when we clear away this table and stack the dishes, make us joyful in the soapsuds, knowing that our life of service, nourished by a firm hope in your promises in Christ Jesus, may blossom and flourish in a nurture that loves our neighbours as ourselves,




A guest post from David Hanson, with some wonderful thoughts about God's kingdom and the creation.

"Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible" avowed the learned Christian physicist Lord Kelvin in 1895. It seems he was mistaken. What, though, did God think about this faith-founded proclamation? May we surmise that there was amusement in the heavenly courts that day?

Then, when Kelvin was proved wrong eight years later, was Screwtape pleased or provoked? Did he gloat over vast new opportunities for destruction, terror, waste and self-indulgence lying before Adam's race? The benefits were surely not beyond even his imagination. Did he congratulate himself on holding back this earthling achievement for so many millenia? The 'Enemy' (his language, of course) had, for goodness' sake, provided all the wherewithal from before the foundation of the earth. Already then, the aeroplane was scheduled. It sat in the inventory of treasure that the nations would some day bring to the new Jerusalem, where its beauty and usefulness would be carried forward.

Imagination! Humour! Invention! God's gifts all! But this true story includes God, humans, the aeroplane and the parasite, Satan. Don't forget the land of Havilah (Genesis 2) and its gold (good gold!) or the "promised land" which didn't only offer milk and honey, wine and oil, but whose "…rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills" (Deuteronomy 8 ). Our generations aren't called merely to survive or to be whisked off to heaven, but to add value to what God entrusted us with in creation's story. Yes, the story is tortuous. Sin cannot be wished away: neither can our everlasting calling to exercise dominion in stewardly (imaginative, technically exciting) ways. New things come (watch grandma with your iPhone). Others go (who's turned the handle of a mangle?). They are intrinsic to creation's on-going story. We didn't create them. At most we fashioned them (just like hybrid roses, race-horses and livestock) under God's forgiving delight.

Out of it all, sin included (remember Rahab?), God perfects the inheritance he has promised the meek. God isn't bored with this work. Why should he be? And why should we? At the head of the meek walks his Son in his titles: "Heir of All Things" and "Second Adam".

Aeroplanes, iPhones, gold, copper, oil and wine are and remain creatures, susceptible of change. Using them we marvel at the "works of the Lord". Conforming them to God's will is our task; they are among the "all things… on earth" that Christ has reconciled to the Father. That's how we preach the gospel to every creature.

Human Trafficking and Consumerism

In Bosnia, Victor Malarek, the Canadian journalist met a 15-year-old girl who had been trafficked to Bosnia. "She was the 21st birthday present for a soldier in a United Nations platoon and was raped in turn by men with American, Canadian, British, Russian and French accents – so many she stopped counting," he writes. Malarek describes the traffickers' recruitment methods. An orphanage in Romania might receive a visit from "social workers" offering "apprentice programmes" for adolescent girls. The girls are taken away and forced into prostitution. Trafficking in human beings is now the third-largest moneymaking venture in the world after illegal weapons and drugs. In fact the United Nations estimates that the trade nets organized crime more than £12 billion a year.

For some western people today everything is up for sale. This includes normal birthday presents like watches and mobile phones. It can also include young girls and boys who have become objects of consumption. Hardened consumerists obey a simple commandment. Love things and use people.

This is the gospel of consumerism. The good news of secularism.