In the heat and dust of Burkina Faso

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When you step off the plane, even as you stand at the top of the steps, the smell of heat and dust, sweat and spice, diesel and sand greets you in that warm and gentle West African way. Welcome to Burkina Faso! It is mid evening, and Ouagadougou, Burkina’s capital city, is surprisingly dark at 8pm. I had come to visit missionaries and see this country for myself, trying to understand the state of the churches and the challenges they face. It has been eight years since I last visited West Africa, and this was my first visit to Burkina. Now that I am back in Blighty and have been able to reflect on those life-packed days, here are some thoughts about the culture of Burkina Faso, and its opportunities and challenges.

The dust is what strikes you first; the red dust of Mars that gets everywhere. Only the main roads have tarmac, so all the side streets are a bright red dust that gets on your trousers, in your nose, on every home appliance and all over anything that stands still. With temperatures kindly settling no higher than 37o at midday (‘This is cool, and the humidity has gone’ they all said with relief), November was a good time to travel, but you can’t escape the attrition of the heat. Police guards on the roads, clad in body armour and AK47s, sweat in the roasting heat, but take it in their stride. Mad dogs and Englishmen need to rise early and enjoy those precious first two hours after daylight, and retire to the shade at lunchtime. After dark is also productive time, which the British generally waste at home in front of their TVs.

I’ve been to Manila, Chennai and Johannesburg, so shanty towns seem normal in any urban setting. What surprised me here is that tin shacks are rare. The poorest live in mud brick houses, still cherishing some of the building skills handed down from their forebears, while anyone further up the social scale will build with concrete blocks. The edge of the city blends more naturally into the countryside, as a village here is a much more tight knit community of mud brick houses. I was told that the father stands at his door and throws a stone, and where it lands there he builds a house for the child who is leaving home. The effect is that houses butt together in small clusters, set among trees and grassland, but with small signs of Continue reading “In the heat and dust of Burkina Faso”

Fifteen tips for starting out in ministry

sheep-1547720_1920I was a young minister once! Up to the age of 50 you’re allowed to think that maybe you still are. But then I have to realise that Margaret Thatcher resigned as PM while I was in college, Scotland didn’t get a Parliament for another eight years after I left Scotland and was ordained, and I am firmly in the second half on ministry, hoping still to score a few goals. So, as I have watched an encouraging batch of young men enter ministry this autumn, several of whom I have followed through training, here are fifteen tips for starting well that I’ve picked up along the way.

  1. Preach within your range. The Bible is like a mountain range, and some peaks are a lot higher than others, so don’t set out to preach beyond your capabilities. We grow into the task of preaching, so don’t set out to preach through revelation as your first series, or John 14-17 or 2 Cor. 10-13. (I tried the latter, and am still scarred by the experience.) Preach what your congregation needs to hear most, and what you can make clear and apply well. Your preaching will reach first class standard after about five years, and test match standard….maybe! meantime, know your limits. John Chapman says ‘Preaching’s not that hard. It’s just the first forty years that’s the worst!’ After twenty four years I am starting to appreciate that quip more and more.
  1. Make a preaching plan for your first few years that takes you to a different genre of Scripture in each ‘term’ of the year. I watched my pastor in Abingdon, Simon Hutton, do this in his early years in Abingdon, and it is a great plan (which had never occurred to me). So we had Exodus 1-15, Colossians, some of Mark, Job (the best early series), Amos and Micah, and so on. As he tackled each series, so he became used to handling that Scripture genre ready for whenever he handled a similar book in future. See your early years in preaching as developing your skills gradually.
  1. If you are a sole pastor, and preach both ends of the day on a Sunday, don’t do a mega series both ends of the day. The real challenge of such ministry is staying fresh at both ends of the day, and not letting one sermon become the poor relation, and typically it is the evening sermon that suffers. Sometimes it is good to do a doctrinal or evangelistic series in the morning that doesn’t tax all your prep time, leaving you free to work hard at an evening series in OT narrative, or a closer exposition of a NT letter. When you want to put your main effort into the morning series, preach from well within your range in your evening series.

Continue reading “Fifteen tips for starting out in ministry”

Blog Post 13 – Cherish the national conversation

Placeholder ImageThe Great British Bake Off is over and gone for ever from the BBC. It is the only cookery programme that has ever made me dare to bake something and mostly succeed. It has made national heroes out of ordinary people, non-celebrities who we can genuinely identify with, and perhaps is the only programme that was genuinely worthy of the name ‘Reality TV’ (a term which seems to be an oxymoron in relation to the programme formats it usually describes).

The Bake Off has also been valuable for another reason: it has wonderfully embodied the Great British national conversation at so many levels. (For comparison, when the format has been sold to other countries, such as Holland for example, their versions have reflected their national conversation in all kinds of ways, and the Bake Off Italia – Dolce in Forno certainly has something about it that is all its own.) In the British Bake Off, the mother/son chemistry between Mary and Paul, the bad jokes of Sue and Mel, the idyllic country house setting in verdant Berkshire, and the wonderful range of accents and attitudes in the mix of contestants all came together to flavour this rich pork pie of British culture. In so doing, they have all helped to shape the national conversation.

What do I mean by a national conversation? It is hard to define easily, but it is a uniting conversation that typifies and expresses the life of that nation and embodies its shared life together. For it to be more than just a social conversation among a few friends, however, it needs to have some key elements.

First, a national conversation requires a common language. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but this is important. When the English nation was forming in the days of Alfred the Great, it was King Alfred’s commitment to spreading the English language across the nation he sought to govern that defined England. He was committed to education, and to translating parts of the Bible into Old English. Continue reading “Blog Post 13 – Cherish the national conversation”

The Niatirbian Bakeoff

cupcakes-690040_1280There lies in the ocean, turned towards the north and west, the island of Niatirb, which is reported to be cold and wet in winter. The islanders, surpassing all the peoples of whom we know in patience and endurance, have traditionally responded to the cold and dank by the interesting pastime of baking. This has happened since ancient times, though it is said that their great king may have been responsible for burning the cakes, so greatly did the unfair dominance of Europe (mostly the Danes) over his native England weigh upon his mind. Others minded their baking skills much the better, so that the Niatirbians have become advanced beyond any other nation in their baking, and in so doing have developed extraordinary delicacies, such as the cheese scone.

With the advent of the supermarket, and the slow decline of the traditional baker, it was agreed among the chief vision-meisters that the wireless picture box should address the decline in the baking skills of the Niatirbians by showing a series of baking parties. The meisters pondered holding this in a grungy warehouse, as they so often did when making modern shows involving dragons, but decided instead to plant a tent on the lawn of a stately home, to install pastel shaded worktops and to festoon the walls with bunting, since such bunting expresses in a unique way the joy of the Naitirbians. Each party would be hosted by the Twins of Innuendo and Laughter, together with she who is the Mother of all Apple Pie, and he who would be proved to be the Rising Prince of Darkness. And where the Mother of all Apple Pie shone with the sunshine, charm and pristine niceness of The South, the Rising Prince of Darkness came from The North, and so many could identify with his sense of lostness. Continue reading “The Niatirbian Bakeoff”

Downs Syndrome and Wilberforce’s long march

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Sally Phillips’ moving BBC documentary ‘A World without Downs’ amazed me. (Those outside the UK can watch it here. Watch it – the best TV you will see all year) It amazed me because it was so refreshingly direct and against the grain of the prevailing liberal elite .  It amazed me because I just didn’t think the BBC would ever commission a programme like that. (Compare and contrast Michael Palin’s interview with Jan Morris, for example) It astounded me for the sheer brutal and inhumane way in which scientific and healthcare professionals talked in such austere was of screening out anyone with Downs Syndrome. They were self-evidently incapable of admitting the humanity of the unborn child, while in the lab next door other medical professionals will be spending huge budgets to try and treat massively disabling conditions (such as cancer, MS, MND and Huntingdon’s Disease) among the born. How can there be such a vast gulf between before and after birth? How can the system institutionalise murder and dress it in a white coat? The scientific amorality of some parts of the medical profession shown in this programme demonstrates in the boldest colours possible the terrifying moral hopelessness of the post-modern generation.

I have been hugely impressed by the blogs of Glen Scrivener and David Robertson on this subject, and cannot express better the arguments that they have expressed. Go and read them. They are both brilliant. Here, I want to look forwards and to ask a question: in this debate, how can we ever counter the ‘women’s right to choose’ argument and protect the rights of the unborn? (The only part of Sally Phillips’ argument that failed was that she defended a mother’s right to choose. Possibly, this was the price of getting the programme aired. Has she considered its implications?)  In a liberal society the ‘free choice’ argument is used to undercut almost any argument we might make, whether it relates to marriage, sexual behaviour, abortion, the broadcasting of pornography, gambling, or the recreational use of drugs. But there is one argument that still holds sway with the liberal elite: defending human rights. If we are ever to make any progress in protecting the unborn, and indeed all the vulnerable, it must be Continue reading “Downs Syndrome and Wilberforce’s long march”

Hymn notes: Psalm 2 – for when you tire of singing ‘Jerusalem’

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It was early September 1997, and I had watched yet another Last Night of the Proms with its rendition of Jerusalem. The second verse certainly can be stirring, jingoistic stuff – ‘Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand…’ etc. etc. But the first verse is absolute tosh. Asking a rhetorical question, ‘And did those feet in ancient time…’ already I want to shout ‘No! They didn’t!’ Indeed, at the end of verse 1, as the musicians play the musical interlude, you can interpose a ‘bridge’ of words as follows:

                The answer’s no; It really didn’t ever happen so!

I am convinced Jerusalem would be much improved if this caught on!

Therefore, fed up with another Last Night rendition of Blake’s spiritual fantasies, I decided to try and do better. I set to work on a version of Psalm 2, which I must have preached about that time, set to the tune Jerusalem. The key phrase to render was ‘I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.’ It is the crux of the psalm, and God’s answer to the nations. Because I was using rhyming couplets, I had two options for the end of the first verse. I could have stuck to a fairly literal rendition of the text as follows:

                Then in his wrath declare his will:

                ‘I set my king on Zion’s hill.’

When it came up for discussion at the Praise Trust editorial board, this very nearly became the version we used, but I wanted to have something more explicitly Messianic, drawing on the sense of rejection that the cross involved that is expressed in Hebrews 13:12-13. So we went with the more dynamic lines:

I set my Son, whom you condemn,

                as King outside Jerusalem.

Continue reading “Hymn notes: Psalm 2 – for when you tire of singing ‘Jerusalem’”

Will there be nations in the New Creation?

S0051361The Rio Olympic Games have finished. I love the spirit of the Olympics, the absence of the ‘winner takes all’ culture of so much competitive sport, and the ability to celebrate every level of achievement. Competitors who have just run what appear to be the most brutally competitive of races turn at the finishing line to congratulate each other as friends and celebrate the achievements even of the person who came twelfth. While the Olympic movement has its own moral challenges and can occasionally show the worst in human nature, this peaceful gathering of nations can make us look forward with longing to a much, much more glorious gathering of nations, when the redeemed gather in the New Creation.

Which raises a question: will there still be nations in the New Creation? My instinctive reaction is to say that if we will not marry or be given in marriage at the resurrection, surely nations will be a thing of the past as well. But I am not so sure. The Book of Revelation makes some extraordinary statements that we have to reckon with. While we must always be guarded over prophetic statements in Scripture that have yet to be fulfilled, we should still wrestle with the text and read it in the context of the rest of Scripture. There are four statements in Revelation 21-22 that I believe are significant clues about nationhood in the New Creation. Continue reading “Will there be nations in the New Creation?”

Was Pentecost a global moment?

IMG_0062.JPG‘Pentecost marked the reversal of the curse of Babel.’ So goes the traditional narrative that tries to tie together these two major events in the history of the nations: Babel marked the cursing of the nations with different languages, and Pentecost marked the beginning of the reversal of that curse. Babel scattered the nations, and Pentecost marked the global moment when the scattered nations began to come together again through the gospel. While I used to hold to this view, I no longer think it is tenable from the text of both passages, and we have to relate Babel and Pentecost together more carefully. This is an issue of huge importance, not just for how we understand the world but for setting our priorities in mission.

There is no doubt that there are strong connections between the two passages. Acts 2:9-11 is a mini Table of Nations that echoes Genesis 10. Where the city of Babel came together in its rejection of God, the crowd in Jerusalem were brought together to worship him. Where the people of Babel were ‘confused’ by what they heard in Gen. 11:7,9, in Acts 2:6,12 they are ‘bewildered’ and ‘amazed’ because they can understand. There is no question that Luke is aware of the words used in Gen. 10-11 when he writes Acts 2, and that the terminology is reflected in what he writes. So what is the connection between the two events? In what sense was this a ‘global moment’ causing the gospel to spread around the world? Continue reading “Was Pentecost a global moment?”

Europe – now is the time for mission

DSCF1040.JPGSomeone suggested on Twitter that if it keeps going on like this, Britain will die of news! In three weeks we have witnessed a political earthquake: a solid-looking, confident Prime Minister stepping down the next day, the Machiavellian drama of Boris and Gove, the advent of our second woman Prime Minister, an opposition in crisis, the Iraq Inquiry report, and, let’s not forget, the murder of a keen, new MP on the streets of her constituency one lunchtime. Our mundane national life has suddenly run amuck. We are in shock. This is all real. The earth has moved beneath our feet. We need to recover a new normal. But before we do, can I ask you to look beyond Britain’s rather engaging national conversation, to a bigger and pressing context. When we have left the EU, we will still be part of the continent of Europe. Brexit will be the leaving of a European transnational institution. It should not mean that as Christians we turn our backs on the nations of Europe. On the contrary, because of current events, this is the time for mission among the nations of Europe. Let me explain why I think that, and then set out some priorities for cross-cultural mission in Europe.

The crumbling of idolatries

When life is settled, gospel progress can be slow. People are reluctant to consider change, and they settle into the comforts of a now-centred life, focussing on career, possessions and self. But God uses events to shake the nations to their foundations (Hag. 2:7; Heb. 12:26-29), and I believe that that is happening right now. What I find most striking post-Referendum is the shock of the pro-EU lobby, whether that be the liberal secular elite in Britain’s political parties, the British media, our Universities and the City of London, or their cousins in capital cities across Europe. Their prevailing narrative has crashed Continue reading “Europe – now is the time for mission”

Would Brexit be bad for mission in Europe?

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[26/06/16 Please note, these are my own personal views, and do not as such represent the views of Grace Baptist Mission.]

There have been a number of posts in recent days saying that the best motivation for voting #Remain on Thursday is to see the work of the gospel advance in Europe. I am startled that almost all those Christian Remainers blogging have made this highly pragmatic argument the deal-breaker in making their decision. Will Brexit be bad for mission in Europe? Well, let’s think carefully here.

The mission agency I work for has been helping support missionaries in Europe for 50 years. We sent missionaries into Spain when Franco was in power, into Belgium and France before we entered the EEC (as it was then) and long before free movement was introduced. We sent missionaries into Austria and Latvia a decade before either of those countries joined the EU. No one had their visas refused. One missionary did get arrested, but that was in Franco’s Spain in the early 1970s. We thought it was normal for missionaries to have to apply to get a visa before entering, as they do in Peru, Kenya and the Philippines. Governments have the right to control their immigration, and as Christians we play by the rules.

Then along came free movement in the EU under the Maastricht Treaty, and UK missionaries were spared the tedium of the visa queue. But don’t think that that means you are free from all bureaucracy. In France, missionaries needed to get a Carte de Sejours into the late 1990s, and if today you want to serve in Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria or Romania for more than 90 days, you need a residency permit. Continue reading “Would Brexit be bad for mission in Europe?”

Brexit – return to God’s plan for nations

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[26/06/16 Please note, these are my own personal views, and do not as such represent the views of Grace Baptist Mission.]

‘Jim, the way the British are debating the European Union is shallow and non-biblical’, said my Italian friend. ‘You are just talking about the economy, and how Brexit will affect jobs, and it’s very shallow and disappointing.’ I am not quoting him verbatim here, but that was the sense of what he said. That criticism has motivated me to start this blog. Whether the principles I am blogging here meet with his approval, I have no idea. But he was right to challenge us to think more deeply. So, having set out in previous posts the principles of a biblical understanding of nationhood, and the dangers of race-hatred and idolatrous nationalism, in this post I want to come to the big question: how do we evaluate the European Union in the light of such biblical principles?

First let me rule something out. I do not believe that the EU is the woman wearing a crown of twelve stars (like the EU flag?) on her head in Rev 12:1. That is unquestionably the church, not some evil empire, and need not distract us. The descriptions of Babylon in Rev. 17-18 have attracted more attention. Is the EU the great whore of Babylon? The characters of the vision in Rev. 17 are difficult to identify, and across the centuries Babylon has variously been identified with the Roman Empire (by the early church), the Roman Catholic Church (by the Reformers), and more modern empires in Europe by more recent interpreters. I think we should read this vision in more broadly typical terms, with Babylon as the personification of evil and rebellion against God in all its manifestations. If you are a North Korean Christian, you won’t be much worried by the EU, and likewise Zimbabwean Christians may see other regimes reflected in Rev. 17-18. It’s good to ask yourself how Christians around the world read such visions before we rush to judgement.

However, when we turn to Genesis, the history worked out in Gen. 10-11 gives us material that is clear, much less disputed, and I think can be applied to the decision we face. The EU is not the whore of Babylon, but it does manifest some characteristics of the Babel project that should alarm us.  Continue reading “Brexit – return to God’s plan for nations”

Murder, race hatred, and nationalism

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The tragic death of Jo Cox MP has had a cauterising effect on political debate over the last couple of days. Politicians seem embarrassed for the way they have been treating each other in the referendum debate. Perhaps now, cooled tempers can allow us to think respectfully and with humility about the great judgement we each have to make this week. So far the debate has focused mainly on three issues: the future trajectory of the economy, democracy, and immigration. You can read the tea leaves how you please on the first, have a reasoned argument about accountability on the second, but it is immigration that really raises the blood pressure. So let me here make my contribution to the debate as a Christian who believes passionately in biblical nationhood, but who is appalled by racism and nationalism.

Is it true that the opposite of internationalism must be racial hatred? Is the only way to avoid racial hatred to have open borders and not to care about our own culture, language and history? Continue reading “Murder, race hatred, and nationalism”