Martin Luther’s masterstroke

wartburg-castle-2269144_1920Martin Luther left the Diet of Worms in a wagon, guaranteed safe passage home to Wittenberg by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. He needed a pledge of safe passage. The diet (the occasional session of the Parliament of the empire) declared him to be a heretic, and there was a price on his head. As the wagon passed through a forest near Eisenach, several knights appeared on horseback, surrounding the wagon, and challenged the terrified men to reveal which one was Luther. His companions, dumbstruck, pointed to Luther immediately, and he was snatched away on horseback. By nightfall, he was safely installed in the Wartburg, the castle of Frederick the Wise, his royal protector. Here Luther was able to lay low, growing a beard and becoming known as ‘Junker Jorg’ (Knight George), though he did not enjoy the rich food and copious wine of the Knights among whom he lived, or their more worldly attitudes. Yet it was in this mountaintop hideout that Luther was able to deliver his most subversive masterstroke.

As he had been taken from the wagon in the forest, Luther had managed to grab his Hebrew Old Testament and his Greek New Testament. Hidden away in his castle garret, he set to translating the Bible into German from the original languages. This was radical in several ways. First, any previous translation had been from the Latin Vulgate, not directly translated from the original languages. This had led to several mistranslations, especially in the understanding of justification. The Vulgate translated it as ‘make righteous’, rather than ‘declare righteous’, thereby confusing the forensic acquittal that is justification with the ongoing process of inner transformation that is sanctification. Second, Luther honoured the people’s language when he translating the Bible directly into German. His translation not only reflected the vernacular; it shaped and standardised it. This is normal in many Bible translation projects. Where literacy is low, giving people the Bible in their own language gives the literate the opportunity to read it to the illiterate, and the written language begins to shape the oral use of the language across the whole national conversation. Just as Tyndale was doing the same for the definition and standardisation of English, so Luther’s Bible shaped the language and conversation of Germany. It is only as secularism has moved people away from the Bible, a movement that coincided with the broadcasting revolution, that language has become anchored elsewhere, or, should I say, swept along in the currents of the mass media.

Luther’s Bible translation was radical for a third reason. In his early books, especially his Address to the German Nobility, he had taught the priesthood of all believers. The Roman Catholic Church focussed all power in the local priest, above him the bishops and Cardinals, with the Pope having ultimate authority. In the lives of everyday people, the priest held an unchallengeable position. He heard your confession, administered the sacraments, and read the Bible in Latin in Church, thereby keeping it from being understood by the common people. The priest stood between God and the people, those in monastic orders were near him in spiritual importance, while the laity was kept at a distance. But if every believer is a ‘royal priest’ (1 Peter 2:9, Rev 1:6) then we are all equal, and what Luther called ‘little Christs’ to one another. This means that the Bible is not to be locked up in Latin so that only an educated priest could understand it. It belongs to everyone, and should not just be read in church but studied personally at home. The Church had been keeping the Bible from the people. Now it must be read and taught everywhere.

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of this masterstroke. Across the Protestant parts of Europe, societies and systems of government were massively changed by the truths contained in the Bible. On my summer holiday this year, I read Vishal Mangalwadi’s brilliant book, The Book that made your world, a fascinating study in the way western culture at its height was shaped by, and produced by, the truths of the Bible. While it contains one or two glaring historical inaccuracies, the central argument is brilliantly made, and carries more weight coming from someone who was converted from an Indian Buddhist background. It is worth reading in the year of the Luther anniversary.  Our culture was shaped by the Bible, leading the West to value humanity, rationality, technology, language, literature, science, morality, compassion, and so much more. The very roots of modern democratic, parliamentary government owe their existence to the priesthood of all believers, the doctrine that brings down tyrants, elites and special interests, and empowers the everyday people of society, holding to account those in power. As our society increasingly seeks to drive the Bible out of our everyday life, to plaster over any hint of its influences, and to take for granted the institutions and values it has given to us, so we head back into a world of class divides, elitism and oppression at the hands of the new priesthoods: the secular humanists, the academics in their exalted ivory towers, and the media moguls and famous celebrities who live in a world above us and hold such huge influence over our lives. Without the Bible, truth, rational thought, and the needs of the soul rather than just the body, are all endangered and steadily being eroded.

This leaves me wondering: why do so few churches go out of their way to give away Bibles? Some do well in giving out gospels of Mark, Luke or John, but most just wait for people to enter their building before they get near a Bible. UCCF has done some sterling work in getting the ‘Uncover’ gospels out into the hands of thousands of students. Great work is still done by the Gideons. But we are not keeping up. Britain is going backwards into biblical illiteracy, and fast. I may be wrong, but I suspect that the panic on a train in Wimbledon station recently when a Christian started reading the Bible aloud may have been partly caused by the fact that most people wouldn’t recognise the difference between the Bible and the Koran, or indeed any other religious Scripture, so ignorant are they of the Bible’s content. Christians need to rediscover confidence in the Bible as God’s Word written. We should have the passion and determination of Luther to see the Word of God in the hands of everyone, in their own vernacular language. If we do, it will transform the moral and spiritual malaise of the West.

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Real life in rural Kenya

DSCF8254Africa has a middle class. This is a surprise to many people in the West, but in a country such as Kenya the middle class is growing rapidly. They pay their taxes, drive their cars and live in decent housing, often doing white collar jobs and generating income for the wider economy. This is very obvious in Nairobi, but it is also true in Western Kenya. In Kisumu, Kenya’s third city, life is much quieter than the throng of Nairobi, but there are a few opulent hotels, a large new high-rise University building, and suburbs where the middle class and ex-pats live in walled compounds shaded by trees, protected with heavy security. During my visit there this February, we drove home with some curiosity one day to find men digging a trench down the street to install fibre optic cables. Even in Bondo, the home town of Presidential candidate Raila Odinga to the West of Kisumu with its ‘frontier town’ atmosphere, the town now plays host to a small university. Development is changing rural Kenya, and yet life still remains in so many ways the same.

Rural Kenyan life is still organised around the land, and it is farmed in small ‘shambas’, where each family lives and eats what their land produces. Whereas British farms are organised in units of hundreds of acres, each Kenyan farms about an acre of land or less, which means that homes are spread out fairly evenly across the countryside, rather than gathered into village clusters. Most farmers grow maize and millet, along with cassava and green vegetables, and keep a few cattle and goats, with some stray chickens. Their plot may be fenced in with bushes and sticks, and pieces of board or corrugated iron fill the gaps and make for ramshackle boundaries. If this seems untidy to those who are used to large British farms with fences and thick hedgerows, as an allotment holder I felt rather at home! I chatted to several of the local pastors about what they grew on their plot, and how they made a living. Of course, everything still depends on the rain, and they rejoiced that it had rained for the first time the night I had arrived (not cause and effect, I assure you!). However, as I had come to visit a village church gathering that Saturday, half of those who would have come to the meeting were busy turning their soil as the first rains had softened it, something I could fully understand.

In the West we are told that everything in Africa is a disaster. Continue reading “Real life in rural Kenya”

Nairobi, rich and poor

dscf8189Nairobi is a thriving middle class city. It is also known for its massive slums. How can those two realities exist side by side? The inescapable fact is that they do, just as they did in Dickens’ London. The contrast reminds you to arrive in Nairobi with an open mind, not letting your preconceptions dictate what you think of the place, but to get to know the city on its own terms. It is a happening city, enjoying a building boom, with plenty of signs of spiritual life as well. At the same time, as a westerner it is advisable not to go out after dark. Living securely here is an issue. On the scale of world cities, Nairobi is not vast. Nearly 3.5 million live within its boundaries, so by comparison with Manila, Chennai or Mexico City, it is fairly average, but it is the heart of Kenya. Chosen by the British colonists for its cooler climate at altitude, Nairobi is nearly 6000 feet above sea level, making the air thinner than perhaps you realise.

I arrived in mid-February, on my way to visit missionaries in Western Kenya, and had arranged an overnight stop in Nairobi to see some of the people and places where our Mission used to be involved. I met local pastors, was taken to the ACTS bookshop on the beautiful campus of the African International University, and visited a couple of churches. For someone just passing through, the Kenyans put on a remarkable welcome, and treated me with an interest that I don’t deserve. I found Kenyan Christians warm, easy to chat with, serious about the Bible and zealous in proclaiming it. There is an earnest quality to Kenyan Church life that is lacking in Britain. Continue reading “Nairobi, rich and poor”

5 priorities for 2017

2016-2017So 2016 comes to its foundation-rattling end, and so many people want to forget it as the collective nervous breakdown in the West continues. A New Year is a moment for Christians to reflect on how we can be different in the year to come. Here are five pleas I want to make for Christians and Churches to consider putting central in the coming year.

1.  Hope in God. In the two great psalms that explore despair and hope, Ps 42 and 43, the psalm writer repeats the exhortation to himself: ‘Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.’ At the end of the year that has seen some great political earthquakes, an appalling civil war in Syria, and massive terrorist attacks in France, Belgium and Germany, do you have real hope? I ask this because I have heard so many Christians say as the next upheaval or calamity happens, ‘But still, God is sovereign’, almost as though this is our last ditch hope. We have our own plans and our routine, and we plug on through life seduced by the certainties of a daily working routine, a stable stock market and a quiet suburban life. But when everything is thrown up in the air, whether in a referendum result, a presidential election, or the more visceral and desperate aftermath of a terror attack, then and only then do we clutch hold of the sovereignty of God. The sovereignty of God should not be our last and desperate refuge. He is our salvation and our God! We should be close to him, united through the daily fellowship of prayer, looking at the world as his world, and every aspect of our lives as lived for his glory. Our confidence should be in him, whatever happens, and whatever foes we face, knowing that in life and in death he is our salvation. Continue reading “5 priorities for 2017”

Ipswich Murders ten years on – hope and a future

police-tapeTen years ago this week, Ipswich became the focus of the world’s media, as a serial killer murdered five women, their bodies being found in woodlands along at A14 south of Ipswich over a period of ten days leading up to 12 Dec 2006. Kesgrave, the community in which we lived on the east side of Ipswich, and where I was pastor, was caught in the media bubble that descended on us. The BBC News broadcast every news bulletin live from Suffolk police headquarters a mile from our house, and even Fox News joined in the live media scrum. The murders lifted the lid on the dark underside of our town, as all five women were addicted to hard drugs and worked as prostitutes. One of them I recognised – she had grown up in the neighbourhood of the church in a lovely family, and as a child had come to our Church’s  Holiday Bible Club. All too easily she had become addicted to hard drugs and all the rest followed.

The following Sunday I ditched my sermon series and preached, through tears, the following sermon. Below this sermon I’ve posted an update on what is happening in Ipswich today to help rescue women from drugs and prostitution, through the remarkable project, Talitha Koum. Continue reading “Ipswich Murders ten years on – hope and a future”

The Black Dog in December

img_20161130_0817551It is early December, and a very foggy day, and by a strange line of lateral thinking I remembered that I once wrote this piece for a blog I ran during a sabbatical in 2007. Nearly ten years later it is interesting to revisit this, and I am posting this not because I am in a low mood – I am feeling very positive – but I am mindful of so many in ministry and mission who are depressed at this time of year.

When I posted it on my blog in 2007, I was jumped by my deacons who said ‘Pastors really shouldn’t post this kind of thing. It will make your flock reluctant to share their problems with you. Keep quiet about your depression. It is most unwise to talk about it.’ Well, they leaned hard, and I took it down, and I continue to think that was wrong. In the dark of winter, or at any time of year, it is really important to talk about depression, and to be open about it and help each other. So here it is. Hope it helps someone.  

Churchill called it his ‘black dog’, but it is still the great unmentionable today, and it still carries a great stigma, especially among those who do not understand it. Many people suffer from depression without realising it, and live in denial, making their own lives and the lives of their loved ones a misery. For me, the past week has brought back some of the old symptoms: noticeable mood swings, disturbed sleep, lethargy, loss of concentration and creativity (hence no blogging), loss of interest in anything (starting reading lots of books and quickly giving up), introspection with weird temptations, a malaise and listlessness, comfort eating, short temper, and the illusion that life would be so much better if we upped sticks and started again elsewhere. I would describe it best as waking up in a lead helmet.

There are several things to say about depression. First, it usually surprises you. I never expected to get a bout of depression during sabbatical, and for the first few weeks that didn’t happen: lots of jollies to look forward to – Edinburgh and Italy made me feel so happy. But now I’m home, quietly reading and deprived of my regular fix of adrenaline and other people’s attention. This is time to discover the real me rather than the busy me, and it is not a pleasant experience.

Second, it may hit you at the same time of year, as indeed happened to me when I returned from holiday in Belgium last year. There seem to be particular times of year when it strikes, and you get wise to them.

Third, there are degrees of depression – this bout is by no means the worst I have suffered, though lots of the symptoms have a familiar ring to them. Finally, when you get wise to depression, it doesn’t have to be utterly suffocating. All that is happening is that the brain’s biochemistry is lacking, and that can be restored. Rest is crucial, but also exercise. I went out on Wednesday for a 6 mile walk round Martlesham and felt hugely better the next day.

However, Friday wasn’t so good, so it takes time, and you have to ride the mood swings and get wise to them. On a good day, make the most of it but don’t overdo it, and on the bad days do what you can and get an early night. Also, work out what jobs you can do when depressed, especially things with a tangible end-product you can look at and say that you did something, and get them done, and leave the ‘road-block’ type problems to be solved on the good days. Call it ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’ if you like, but in the end if you suffer bouts of depression, in the end you get wise to it and know how to work round it. This week life is better, and I expect life will improve from here. Today I’ve had a burst of creativity and haven’t felt so threatened by failure.

 

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”

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”

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”