In spite of all terror

palace-of-westminster-1810205_1920It is a double tragedy that a terrorist attacked the British Parliament today. Terrorism is an attack on our national life, an utter rejection of democracy, so when a terrorist targets Parliament itself, we feel a national sense of violation, laden with symbolism.This is not the first terror attack on the Palace of Westminster. In 1979, Abingdon MP Airey Neave was blown up in his car just a few yards from the scene of today’s attack, and earlier in the 1970s the IRA planted a bomb in a doorway of Westminster Hall near the statue of Oliver Cromwell.

As we come to the end of such a tragic day, what is the Christian response to a terrorist attack on our country? Here are some of my thoughts.

  1. Weep with those who weep. An officer ran towards danger for the sake of others, and will not be coming home tonight. Weep for his family, and for every Policeman’s family who wait to see what condition their loved one comes home in at the end of a shift. (The latest post on the Police Commander blog is more than poignant today.) Weep for the families of the other victims, including those who sit at the bedsides of the wounded in St Thomas’s and Guys hospitals. But do not weep in the pagan way, as though lighting candles and laying flowers will somehow placate unknown gods. Weep for these families before the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, and remember that our heavenly Father knows what it means to be bereft, as he was on Good Friday.

Continue reading “In spite of all terror”

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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”

The Porous boundaries of nationhood

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‘We are going to build a wall.’

But can you? Can you really make a nation’s borders as absolute as a wall? Can a nation be sealed off in that way? Even Britain as a group of islands discovered what a border is like when Ireland was partitioned, and realised at the height of the troubles that the best guarded borders are still porous. So what are we to make of Mr Trump’s wall, and how should our thinking be shaped by what Scripture has to say about nationhood and migration?

I have mixed feelings about the Trump wall and the reaction to it. On the one hand countries have to regulate their own immigration, to prevent illegal immigration and protect national security. Those who have been running the ‘bridges not walls’ campaign need to think through the logical conclusions of their arguments. Can a country guarantee its own security without knowing who is passing through its borders? When one of their citizens goes to another country, don’t they need a passport for their own protection and identity? If borders did not exist and there were completely unregulated immigration, the overload on the big destination countries and the loss of key skills in the countries of origin would both be massive problems. That is why we have national boundaries, and controlled immigration, and why America has a rather different border with Mexico to what it has with Canada. The Trump wall is only strengthening an already heavily patrolled and fenced border, on a frontier where illegal immigration is a regular occurrence.

On the other hand, there is a fear of the ‘other’ that motivates the building of the Trump wall. Too many of America’s problems are being blamed on other countries, as though if ‘we’ could only keep ‘them’ troublemakers out, we righteous Americans could enjoy unblemished life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The UKIP segment of the Brexit vote labours under similar faulty thinking about Brexit, as though our problems can all be blamed on Europe and left to itself the British are righteous and better than the rest. That is Continue reading “The Porous boundaries of nationhood”

‘The New Fascism’ – a response

defiance-1948023_1280Apparently I’m a Fascist! This comes as something of a shock discovery, as I had always thought of myself as a democrat who believes in the rule of law and the pursuit of social justice, that all of life should be lived under God and for his glory. But apparently I have used my vote to ‘contribute to the new fascism’ because I voted to leave the European Union.

This accusation comes in a recent document put out by the International Fellowship of Mission as Transformation (INFEMIT). This is a group of world mission thinkers that came together out of the Lausanne Movement (though as far as I can tell the two organisations are different) and are committed to the integration of evangelism and social justice, a key tenet of Lausanne. In response to Donald Trump’s inauguration and on the same day, they issued A Call for Biblical Faithfulness amid the New Fascism. I am as concerned about the growth of neo-fascists as they are, but in their statement they have gone too far, especially in the following key paragraph:

‘As followers of Jesus, we also feel compelled to issue this call because we find it disturbing that many self-identified evangelicals in their respective countries contributed in no small part to the new fascism by the way they voted in a number of recent referenda (e.g. Colombia, United Kingdom) and national elections (e.g. Philippines, United States). In the case of the U.S., we mourn the reduction of the gospel that resulted in single-issue voting, even as we acknowledge the complexity of the political process and the agony of many over the options available. It is true that for many evangelicals, their vote was more against the other candidates than it was for the one they elected. Nonetheless, we grieve the part that evangelicals played in electing a person whose character, values, and actions are antithetical to the Gospel. Furthermore, we find it inadmissible that some high profile evangelical leaders have hailed the President-elect as a Christian and a prophet. It does not surprise us that many people, especially from the younger generation, are abandoning the evangelical world altogether.’

Allow me to respond with a measure of graciousness and nuance as a ‘self-identified evangelical’ (surely a pejorative term) who understands the word evangelical as sitting under the authority of inerrant Scripture and seeks to surrender to the Lordship of Christ as my Redeemer. Continue reading “‘The New Fascism’ – a response”

Trump as the logical absurdity of secular liberalism

donald-trump-1301259_1920Most of the great worldviews have something going for them, but the key question is: where do they lead? When followed, where do we ultimately end up? You may not think of Donald Trump as the expression of secular liberalism, but I think he is where liberalism leads us. Surely not, you say. He’s a Republican (allegedly), apparently elected by the religious right, and he defeated Hillary, the high priestess of liberalism. How can he be the outworking of secular liberalism? Yet the more you think about it, he is the logical absurdity you arrive at if you buy into the worldview that denies the existence of God, idolises democracy and puts self at the top of the pile. Think about these key tenets of Trumpism and ponder where they come from.

I am amazing. Trump is an exhibitionist, from the bling of Trump Tower, to his TV career, his resort empire, and his trophy wives. His long nomination campaign was geared to promoting himself. Policy mattered very little at all, if it ever featured. It was all about The Donald and everything about him, we were told, is amazing. If you take God out of the picture and deny that he exists, then you are top of the pile. Secular liberalism has enthroned mankind in the place of God, and replaced divine revealed wisdom with human reason. Of course, Trump made great play of possessing his mother’s Bible, and would not claim to be an atheist, but does God really matter to him? When your universe revolves around planet you, God is practically irrelevant, or tame at best. Continue reading “Trump as the logical absurdity of secular liberalism”

Revitalising the larger church

larger-churchWhy do we assume when it comes to churches that size determines health? Why assume that a church of 300 must be doing well, while a church of 30 must be unhealthy and in need of revitalising? It could be possible that a large church of 300-500 people is really spiritually unhealthy and in need of serious revitalisation, while the 30-strong church is actually spiritually vital. (For American or African readers, if 300 seems small, please understand that that is quite large by UK standards.)  To assess whether your church needs revitalising, here are six suggested measures of bad church health.

  1. Poor prayer life. Do all the Christians in your church pray together? There is a world of difference between a ‘prayer meeting’ (routine, dull, predictable, driven by habit, unimaginative, happening because it ought to) and a ‘prayer gathering’ (motivated by a real urge to pray about something, led with good preparation, filled with heartfelt prayer, praying for things that have not been prayed for before, going beyond habit in order to cast ourselves upon God, a gathering that happens because it simply has to – the Christians felt they had to be there). If your church meets to pray because of habit rather than because of a heart-felt desire, then the prayer life of the church really needs revitalising. More than that, are you modelling public prayer as an example of the kind of prayers people should be praying alone at home? The way the church prays in public will shape the way people learn to pray in private. The larger the church, the harder it gets to pray for people in public. If someone is ill and awaiting test results after a scan, it is hard to reveal that in front of 300 people, some of whom won’t know who you are talking about. The larger a church grows, the less it remains a fellowship (a strong argument for church-planting) and the more easily it can drift into a life together less and less bound together in prayer.

Continue reading “Revitalising the larger church”

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”

‘Brexit means Brexit’ – 10 Brexit slogans I’ve come to loathe.

slide1Six frenzied months have passed since Britain voted to leave the European Union. Politics is interesting again. All of a sudden it is hard to find anyone who doesn’t care about politics. For a second time we have a strong-minded woman Prime Minister, stirring many memories. However, unlike the 1980s, we are still living in the age of spin. The political class think that everything has to be reduced to a slogan that will somehow stick in our apparently simple minds. So the press oppress us by refusing to stock nuance, or supply detail, or honour our intelligence with a decent debate, because we are told that there is no demand for anything other than meaningless slogans.

So, let’s take some Brexit slogans in turn and unpack them to get a little nearer to reality.

‘Brexit means Brexit’. This is the silliest slogan of all. Imagine trying to explain anything else in the same way: ‘Marriage means marriage’, ‘Cricket means cricket’, or ‘Fruit cake means fruit cake.’ At least when you shout ‘Points mean prizes’ there is a connection between two different but related words. But since Brexit is an invented word to describe a process that has never happened before and has yet to happen, I’m sorry Prime Minister but this catchphrase does nothing. Nor are things clarified by some engaging adjective. A Hard Brexit sounds painfully surgical, a Soft Brexit fluffy and pillowed from all ills; then there is a Grey Brexit (presumably loved by John Major, though I doubt it) and even a Red, White and Blue Brexit (could also work for the French and the Dutch) though by now this is just getting silly. The politicians should admit they are patronising us because they don’t want to discuss detail in public.

‘A hard Brexit was not on the ballot paper.’ This was claimed by Lib Dem leader Tim Farron MP. What does he mean? Well, a ‘hard Brexit’ (I think) means leaving the EU completely, including the customs union that allows tariff-free trade between EU countries, as well as ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice over the UK. We would be out of the Single Market and its regulation of British business and finance. Agriculture and fisheries policy would be ours to decide. A ‘soft Brexit’ means paying to be part of the customs union, continuing to charge the common external tariff on goods imported from outside the EU, sticking with Single Market regulations, and in some way remaining under the European Court of Justice. The problem is, the ballot paper was quite simple. It was a binary choice: ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’. In the debates on TV, and conversations on the ground, the ‘hard’ options were what we were being offered, and the public voted to leave. We knew there were serious consequences. We knew it was a step into the unknown, and it might hurt our economy, but we voted to leave. Leaving can’t add up to a grey remain.  Continue reading “‘Brexit means Brexit’ – 10 Brexit slogans I’ve come to loathe.”

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”

G K Chesterton: superstition and Christmas

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A superb quote to use this Christmas:

‘It’s part of something I’ve noticed more and more in the modern world, appearing in all sorts of newspaper rumours and conversational catchwords; something that’s arbitrary without being authoritative. People readily swallow the untested claims of this, that or the other. It’s drowning all your old rationalism and scepticism, it’s coming in like a sea; and the name of it is superstition….It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense and can’t see things as they are. Anything that anybody talks about, and says there’s a good deal in it, extends itself indefinitely like a vista in a nightmare. And a dog is an omen, and a cat is a mystery, and a pig is a mascot and a beetle is a scarab, calling all the menagerie of polytheism from Egypt and old India; dog Anubis and great green-eyed Pasht and all the holy howling Bulls of Bashan; reeling back to the bestial gods of the beginning, escaping into elephants and snakes and crocodiles; and all because you are frightened of four words: “He was made Man.”’

  • K.Chesterton, The Penguin Complete Father Brown

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”