To Be Known
Last week, because I am extremely cool, I found myself watching an informational video about a local health insurance provider. I watched contentedly as the presenter explained all the many benefits of having a policy with her company: dental, dental emergency, consultant’s fees, chiropody, physiotherapy…the excitement was almost too much to bear.
She spoke of the free Doctor Hotline I could use if I needed a second opinion and the Professional Advice Hotline I could use if I had a legal question about pet ownership or wanted to know how to change a lightbulb. She told me about the exciting discounts I can get at Boots and Frankie & Benny’s if I take out a policy with her company. She then whipped out the coup de gras, the Big One, the grand finale.
“The Department of Defence even uses this feature,” she beamed. “It’s sort of like Facebook…a place for you to vent your worries, your frustrations, your anxieties, and a place for you to read about the worries, frustrations and anxieties of others, but without the fear of being discovered. Your name isn’t associated with your account, you are simply a randomly generated serial number.”
She went on to explain the benefits of being able to pour out your true feelings without being discovered. “Your colleagues will never know it’s you,” she cooed.
The music swelled, and then she said it: “Here…you are anonymous.”
The video carried on. But I couldn’t. Anonymous? Is that what we should be? Is anonymity going to solve our problems? Is casting our true thoughts and feelings, fears and concerns into the ether really going to help?
Ours is a world riddled with anxiety, fear, isolation, self-loathing and shame. Dr Jean M Twenge of the American Psychological Association has noted that the average teenager today exhibits the same levels of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the 1950s. Do we really think that a pursuit of anonymity is what’s going to fix that?
Isn’t the answer instead to be KNOWN? I tuned out the rest of the video as my thoughts drifted to how grateful I am to have a God who knows me—inside and out, frailties, faults, failures, fears. I’m so grateful that when I need to pour out my true feelings, I can speak to someone who knows everything about me (past, present and future) and loves me anyway. Isn’t that actually what we need? To know that we are accepted, valued, even cherished, even with the faults we try so hard to hide?
Maybe that’s something to consider as we engage ourselves in mission both in the UK and around the world. Human beings aren’t designed to be anonymous. We aren’t designed to be isolated. We were made for community, for relationships. We have been lulled into a counterfeit sense of community via social media, but there is simply no substitute for looking into a person’s eyes, face to face, and saying, “I know you. I care. I’m not going anywhere.” This is what will solve the problems of anxiety, fear, isolation, self-loathing and shame. It is knowing that someone knows your faults and accepts you anyway. Knowing that you are loved and fully included even with the quirks and oddities that make you, you.
If we, as Christians, enjoy a relationship with God based on knowing and being known, how then can we not mirror (and model) that relationship to friends, family and untold millions scattered across the globe? I love it when summer rolls around and our Pioneers field workers come back for their every-two-or-three-years home assignment. They arrive at the office with their arms full of stories of the work they’ve done, the lives that have been changed, the people they know. They are in the trenches, so to speak. They are in life-on-life relationships with people in far flung lands…showing them that they are known and loved in spite of their frailties, faults, fears and failings. This, friends, is true ministry.
That’s what I want for my life too, right here in the UK. I want to be the person who digs my heels in and says no to anonymity and the anxiety and isolation that come with it. I want to make sure the people around me know that not only do I know them, but also that God knows them. I hope no one I know ever feels the need to vent their feelings to the unseeing, unknowing internet. I want to look them in the eye and tell them that they’re known and loved.
No more anonymity. No more shame.
Photo by Jeremy Cai.
The Great Reversal
BY DR DAVID SMITH
During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries huge numbers of people left the shores of Europe in a vast migration which was to change the demographics of the world forever. Some of those who crossed the oceans did so in search of a new life with better prospects than seemed available to them and their children in the industrialising societies at home.
Very many others went not by choice, but either by necessity, driven by extreme poverty or famine, or by force in the case of convicts transported to provide labour in distant territories now brought under colonial rule. It has been estimated that by 1915 some 21 percent of the European population had been relocated to lands overseas and this white diaspora now occupied one third of the inhabited world.
William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, devised a detailed plan of social action to remedy the huge problems facing Victorian society and in his book In Darkest England and the Way Out he illustrated this with a poster which showed emigration as a key component of his vision. We see ships steaming away from Britain, carrying domestic servants and thousands of the poor and oppressed people who have been rescued from urban slums by the Army’s work of redemption to a new life in British and other colonies. This highlights the fact that the global spread of Christianity, and its later emergence as a world religion, occurred in parallel with this enormous migratory movement and was in some sense made possible by it.
In the 1960s I worked as a humble bank clerk in the City of London at the time that the S.S.Windrush docked at Tilbury with the first group of West Indian immigrants to Britain. From the start there was resentment and suspicion of those who came, and I remember the impact of a poster which appeared on the London Underground with a picture of the cheerful arrivals depicted as saying ‘We are HERE because you were THERE’. As that first trickle of incomers became a flood, people from Africa, India, China, and countless other places might have repeated that statement, reminding white Europeans and North Americans that the migratory movement now flowing from South to North represented the reversal of the earlier mass movement of peoples fleeing poverty and despair in the modernising West.
Where and how does the mission of the people of God fit into this picture? The question is far too big for this article, so I limit comment to a single observation. If what has been called the Great European Migration was the context within which the nineteenth century missionary movement was possible, then the present reversal of the global flows of human population must also create situations within which God’s purpose of grace is being worked out. Jehu Hanciles points out that the extraordinary influx of immigrants to Western societies has resulted in ‘an unprecedented volume and diversity of religious expressions and practices’, while also transferring non-Western forms of Christianity into the heart of a multitude of secular, Western cities. A missionary movement which continues to operate within structures and visions which belonged to the first great migration cannot possibly meet the challenges and opportunities which are presented by the Great Reverse Migration. As Andrew Walls says, ‘The missionary movement entered its old age as the Great European Migration came to a close. Under the conditions of the Great Reverse Migration, it is now in the process of transformation to something else, with the non-Western world increasingly assuming a sending role and producing the missionaries’.
To Lent or Not to Lent
I’ve noticed an interesting trend over the course of the last decade or so: the stealthy backward creep of Christmas. In my American childhood home, there was a strict ban on all things Christmas until at least Thanksgiving, which happens toward the end of November. I still cling tenaciously to that rule as an adult, but I’ve noticed that many of my countrymen—both sets, American and British—are succumbing to Christmas fever earlier and earlier each year. Last year, Tesco put out their Christmas fare in early September! Early September, people!
We can obviously blame the over-Christmasing on rampant consumerism and the commercialization of Christmas etc. etc, but I have become increasingly aware in recent years that we Christians, even those of us who still vigilantly celebrate the true meaning of Christmas, often still have our Christian holidays a little bit out of whack.
I think most of us would agree that Easter is a more significant holiday to Christians than Christmas. I mean, the Incarnation is wildly important, but it would’ve been rendered pointless without the Resurrection. These two events are the one-two punch of the Christian faith, but of the two, Easter is definitely the right hook.
I know, we’ve heard it all before—we should celebrate Easter more than we should celebrate Christmas. We know this, and many of us make strides to emphasise Easter in our lives, in both our private and corporate expressions of faith. I have personally observed Lent for many years, and have always found it a useful way to recalibrate my life toward Jesus.
For those of us who don’t know, you won’t find Lent in the Bible. It’s an ancient church tradition observed by many of the more liturgically-leaning churches. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, lasts for 40 days and finishes on Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday. It represents the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness before the start of his public ministry. Christians often choose something (television, caffeine, chocolate) to give up during Lent as a means of drawing nearer to God.
I grew up Baptist, and didn’t know about Lent until I was in my late 20s. Now that I know about it, I like Lent. I like it a lot. But I haven’t observed Lent for a few years now. A couple of those years we can chalk up to my own Dark Night of the Soul, and a general lack of the kind of spiritual vigor that would lead someone to fast for Lent. Last year, though, I made a conscious choice not to celebrate Lent even though I had (by God’s good grace) emerged from the darkness.
Part of the reason I emerged from the darkness was a book called Surprised by Hope, by Tom Wright (a.k.a. NT Wright for the theology nuts out there). It was the first Christian book I’d read outside the Bible in a couple of years, and if you’ve read it you’ll know that it’s not exactly the Easy-Read, Baby Food, Just-Back-from-the-Brink sort of book you’d recommend to someone who’s recovering from spiritual trauma. This puppy is philosophically dense and raises some challenging questions about what the church believes about the resurrection and our own experience of eternity. For all that, though, it was the perfect book for me.
Not everyone will necessarily agree with the nuances of Tom Wright’s interpretation of scripture regarding the resurrection and eternity. What I think most of us WOULD agree with, however, is the reason I decided not to observe Lent last year (and won’t be observing it this year, at least). Wright makes the point that I’ve made above, though he makes it much more eloquently, that Easter is generally under-celebrated. The resurrection changed literally everything. It made all good things possible. It is the hinge of history, and if we had a firm grasp on what happened on that first Easter Sunday, we would be dancing in the streets, partying for weeks, out of our minds with glee. Instead, those of us who observe Lent spend the 40 days before Easter denying ourselves of pleasures and luxuries, only to get to Easter Sunday just thankful that we can “get back to normal” and hoover up some Cadbury’s Mini Eggs before they disappear from the shelves.
What if, Wright says, instead of celebrating Easter by meditating for a few hours on the resurrection, singing a few joyous songs and then “getting back to normal”…what if instead of all that, we do what Jesus did and celebrate Easter by putting good things into the world?
Easter wasn’t a restoration of the norm—it was the infusion of Eternity into a previously finite world! It was the introduction of Forever Life into humanity’s death-bound soul! It was the ground splitting, enemy squashing, hallelujah inducing culmination of the greatest rescue operation that ever was or ever will be! Why are we not on our feet, whooping with joy and punching the air? Stop right now and do some air punching, please. I can wait.
So if God chose to inaugurate Easter by putting good things into the world, why can’t we?
Last Easter, I started giving to a charity that works to clean up Britain’s beaches, keeping plastic out of the ocean. (Looking after the earth is a big part of Wright’s interpretation of the resurrection and eternity, so it was on my mind at the time and still is.) But putting good things into the world in celebration of Easter can look any way you want it to. Maybe it’s time to start financially supporting that missionary or charitable organisation. Maybe it’s time to start that prayer group for Southeast Asia. Maybe you’ve wanted to take piano lessons or get an allotment—do it in celebration of the day that Jesus made all things new!
This Easter, make a commitment to put something good into God’s world, and tell people why you’re doing it. We are resurrection people. New Life People. By all means, observe Lent. Some of the best people I know do. But at the end of Lent, don’t “get back to normal”. Celebrate! Let’s be known as the people who make the world a better place because of Jesus.
I consider myself very blessed to be living in the wonderful, homely and entirely underrated city of Sheffield. Where else in the UK can a person walk out their front door and within half an hour be either in the centre of a decent-sized city OR strolling the wooded paths that lead to the Peak District?
Just outside my living room window, the Porter Brook river meanders along in its red-brick-lined culvert. It is headed toward its confluence with the River Sheaf deep underneath Sheffield city centre in an enormous subterranean catacomb gloriously (and in no way fictitiously) called The Megatron. It’s true! Google it!
The Porter Brook may finish in The Megatron, but it begins a bit more humbly as little more than a trickle in the hills of the Peak District. When the weather is a bit friendlier, I like to run up into the Peaks on a series of paths that hug the Porter Brook. I start in tame Endcliffe Park, running past the playground and the duck ponds, but my surroundings soon become increasingly wilder and the path steeper as I make my way toward the boundary line of the Peak District some 3 or 4 miles from my house. The Porter Brook is beside me the whole time, gurgling away and gaining speed as it slips down the long slope back toward Sheffield. Sometimes it’s on my right, and sometimes it’s on my left as I cross numerous bridges on the uphill journey. It’s spanned by wooden bridges and stone bridges—even a couple of sets of stepping stones for the more adventurous trail runners—but none of those crossings is quite as special to me as “Oliver’s Bridge”.
Oliver’s Bridge was originally part of a pack horse trail which fell into disrepair many years ago. In 2006, a local conservation group decided to rebuild it. They named it in memory of Oliver Gilbert, one of their number who had recently passed. According to a plaque on the bridge, Oliver was a “renowned ecologist and friend of the Porter Valley who inspired the restoration of this bridge.”
Oliver’s Bridge spans a tributary of the Porterbrook on a particularly steep part of the trail. It’s small. It’s very small. Truth be told, it’s little more than a stone arch over a rivulet of water. Most of us could cross it in one stride. For people who don’t take that part of the path, Oliver’s Bridge might even seem a bit pointless.
But for those of us who do run that way, especially as we’re bombing it back down the steep slope, Oliver’s Bridge means that we don’t have to leap over the stream to get home. We don’t twist our ankles or jam our knees. We don’t even break our stride. I personally need Oliver’s Bridge, even if it is only about three feet long. I’m grateful to Oliver, who inspired restoration of the bridge, and I’m thankful to the men and women who painstakingly rebuilt it, stone by stone, crouching in the water, ensuring that it was strong and stable and safe for me to run across.
The new year tends to make us a bit reflective, doesn’t it? Maybe like me you think you didn’t make much of a difference in the world last year. So much is happening, and there’s so much need. Even if we forget about all the political craziness and climate change and poverty and HIV and the refugee crisis and focus solely on the deep spiritual needs of our world, the need is overwhelming—enough to bury us if we let it. Maybe you’re tempted to think that you’re not doing enough. That you haven’t made a difference. That your contribution is too small to matter.
But I know for a fact that what you do matters when it comes to God’s plan for his world. You may not live in a concrete block warehouse on a rural island in the middle of the Pacific just so you can have an opportunity to tell the people there how much Jesus loves them; You may not spend months at a time in the thick jungles of Papua Indonesia, eating and sleeping like the locals just for the chance to use your teaching skills to help improve their standard of living; You may not spend your days discipling new Mongolian believers so that they can reach their own people with God’s love.
But I know the people who do. And I know without question that when asked, each of them will say that your three minutes of prayer on a Tuesday morning, your £2.50 a month, your four-line email of encouragement, your friendship whether near or far, are the bridges they walk across every day. What you do matters.
Oliver and the people who built his bridge don’t know me and they don’t know how often I use their tiny, seemingly insignificant bridge or what it means to me. When they built that little bridge and left it there in the woods, they had no way of knowing what its legacy would be. But it makes a difference to me every time I run up and down that ridiculously steep slope on the edge of the Peak District, and I know it makes a difference to others too.
So do your part, whatever that is. Whether it feels big or small. You are not only building bridges for the men and women who have gone to the mission field, but think of all the people who God might be calling to the field even now. You’re building bridges for them too, and you don’t even know it. You may never know the legacy of the bridges you build, and you may not think your bridges are very important. But if Oliver’s Bridge is important to a few runners on an obscure trail outside Sheffield, just imagine how important your bridge, big or small, can become within God’s big plan.
Photo by Rory Hennessey.
The Back Side of the Wave
I met a man named Lazarus a few months ago who changed my perspective with one finger and a map of the world. Lazarus is the Missiologist-at-Large for the global Pioneers movement. He is Zambian and in addition to his labours for Pioneers, he is Vice Chancellor of Evangelical University in Ndola, central Zambia. With a CV like that, one would assume that Lazarus knows a thing or two about missions. So it was no surprise when, during a chat over our midday sandwiches, Lazarus casually dropped the phrase “The Shift of the Centre of Gravity of Christian Witness” into our laps.
None of us responded with, “Ah yes, that old chestnut,” so Lazarus graciously elaborated. He pointed at the world map on the wall behind where he sat and traced with his finger the 2000-year path of the centre of gravity of Christian witness. Starting in the Middle East in Jesus’ time, it travelled like a tidal wave west to North Africa (think Augustine and Athanasius), then it curved north to Europe (Constantinople, Rome, Geneva, Luther’s Germany), then further north to Britain and the rise of modern missions, and then across the Atlantic to North America where the words ‘Christian’ and ‘American’ are very nearly synonymous today.
But then, to my (all too American) surprise, Lazarus’ finger kept going. In the last decade or two, the tidal wave has shifted direction again, gaining momentum and travelling south at phenomenal speed. The centre of gravity of Christian witness—the place where the gospel is sweeping through hearts like wildfire, where the call to cross-cultural mission is being heard and obeyed—is now in the Global South, that highly populated part of the world south of, roughly, 30° N latitude. Places like South America, Africa, India and China.
It was fascinating stuff – so fascinating, in fact, that I decided that very day to make it the subject of Pioneers’ December Reach magazine. It has been exciting to learn about what God is doing in the Southern Church while making the magazine, but on the day Lazarus visited us, the shift of the centre of gravity of Christian witness to the Global South wasn’t the thing that gripped my heart. What changed me that day was the realisation of what happens once the shift has moved on.
As Lazarus’ finger traced the shift of gravity from place to place, marking the path of that tidal wave around the world, it occurred to me that in the wake of that wave – the places where the wave had come and then gone again – true Christianity had all but gone with it: the Muslim Middle East and North Africa. Secular Europe. Post-Christian Britain and North America.
When the wave first reaches a new place, people receive the Gospel with gladness and unquestioning obedience. They catch the fire, they do what the Bible says, they are sensitive to the Holy Spirit. As the wave crests, faith reaches its height – the whole society (more or less) is Christian, operating under Christian ideals and values. But soon the wave moves on and society finds itself on the back side of the wave. The ideals and values of Christianity become intermingled and confused with culture. Where once Christianity meant faith and obedience, it becomes merely cultural rules to live by, ordinances, norms. People “believe in Jesus” because that’s “what one does”, rather than because they’ve had a life-changing encounter with Christ. And as the wave passes on, young people begin to feel that their parents’ cultural Christianity isn’t all that relevant to their personal experience. They look for something else to fulfil their longings, because what they interpret as Christianity just doesn’t cut it.
When Lazarus traced that line across the heart of Britain and away again, my heart sank. Just like you, I know these people. I know the grandparents whose eyes well up with tears when they think of God’s goodness to them. I know the parents who serve the community and go to church faithfully on a Sunday. And I know their children who have boldly walked away from cultural Christianity, choosing a different and (what they consider) more relevant, up-to-date value system.
I love deeply a few people who grew up in church, have wonderful godly parents, and yet confidently call themselves non-Christian. They’ve left the church for different reasons, just like so many of my generation, but to be honest I don’t find that particularly worrying. That’s because I know that banging the Christian drum in people’s ears won’t make me a better Christian, and it certainly won’t entice people to join me in faith.
But Jesus is a different story altogether. Jesus is compelling. He’s fascinating when you really look at him. He’s mind-blowing when you know him. The fact is, Jesus is the only one who can turn this thing around. And he will do it one heart at a time, just like he’s always done.
So I don’t bother telling my friends to go to church or read their Bible or behave in a certain way or hold certain values. They’ve tried that already and didn’t fancy it. Instead, I just talk about Jesus – not to evangelise them, but simply because he’s important to me. Do I want these dear friends who have walked away from Christianity to come back? Absolutely, unreservedly, with all my heart. But I don’t really mind if they come back to Christianity-as-we-know-it. I want them to come back to Jesus, because he’s where the good stuff is. He’s the one who gives the rest of it life. Church, the Bible, values – without him, it all quickly becomes weak and lifeless.
So what are we to do, here on the back side of the tidal wave? I believe that we, as people in relationship with Christ, must unearth Him from the towering mound of traditions, rules, cultural idiosyncrasies and religiosity that bear his name. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that bald religion has never met anyone’s deepest needs. That honour belongs to Jesus himself. It is only Jesus who will attract those who have walked away from what they consider an irrelevant religion.
One lunchtime conversation with Lazarus shifted my perspective. It sparked in me a new hope that maybe, just maybe, this period of British Christianity is a great opportunity to streamline our faith, jettison the surplus and present our non-Christian loved ones with a new vision of Christ. Anything more or less than Jesus simply won’t do. Not anymore.
Photo by Tim Marshall @unsplash.com.
Giving and the Great Commission
BY MARK, PIONEERS’ PARTNERSHIP MANAGER
Last year I had the pleasure of meeting Peter Jones, a lifelong SUM, Action Partners and Pioneers UK supporter from Southport. Recently I invited him to look back over his life supporting missionaries and share his views on giving. Here’s what Peter had to say:
“I first came into contact with Sudan United Mission (SUM) when a man called Peter Heaps came to speak at our school Christian Union. He even joined in our houseparties. I remember him helping us new Christians, only 14 years old, with our burning questions like, “Should I tell my mum and dad I’ve become a Christian?”! It was just a natural thing to support him when he went to serve in Nigeria.
I went to an SUM Houseparty where we were asked, “Are you willing to go anywhere for God?” I thought, “No!! You will have to make me!”
Two weeks later I was asked to go and work at my company’s head office in London! The day of the interview my Bible reading was Isaiah 55:12, “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace!” I went, eventually becoming an insurance underwriter and without being ambitious, was given promotions and senior management roles over the years. It was just the grace of God, not me!
In 1977, when I was asked to manage my company’s work in Thailand, I said, “Only if I can visit my OMF missionary friend from church, in the Philippines.” It was such an insight. Then the same thing happened a few years later when I was sent to Lagos, Nigeria. I got to see Eileen Veasey (SUM) for week – it really helped me to understand how important missionary work is.
You know, I’m a very average person who’s just had sufficient so I can support someone else doing a job that I can’t do – just like supporting my church minister – it just seems natural!
I remember reading a book where the author asked, “Why should I only give 10% to God?” It’s all His anyway. Far better that I keep a little and He gets the rest.
Although personal friendships have always been what started me supporting a particular charity – and I support a few – I notice that even though workers move on, retire or pass away, that charity still needs support. So I tick the ‘where it’s most needed’ box on their slips!
When I’m deciding to continue supporting a mission and not just the friend, I look on the Charity Commission website and check how they use people’s gifts – it’s the insurance man in me! Pioneers is excellent – low overheads, careful spending. I know they’re a safe pair of hands.
And when I die? What then? Well, in Deuteronomy it says, “…for it is He who gives you the ability to produce wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:18). I think it should go back into God’s Kingdom rather than the government’s coffers! So I’m leaving legacies to the main charities I support, including Pioneers. It’s just good stewardship.”
Photo by Alyssa Kibiloski.
God According to the Aloe
Confession time: I love my aloe plant. It was given to me by a friend when it was only about three inches high. I’ve watered it and repotted it, and every morning I make sure my bedroom curtains are open so it gets lots of sunlight. I have watched it grow from a wee spikey thing to a, well, slightly bigger spikey thing and have been amazed that something that started so small has grown so much, just sitting there day after day on my chest of drawers.
A few months ago, I started noticing other wee spikey things pushing through the soil. There were four of them in a wide circle around my aloe plant. “What is this?” I thought. “Aloe babies? I didn’t know my aloe was having babies!” And yet, there they were. Aloe babies, right there in the pot, encircling their mother like a tiny hedge.
I left the babies alone for a while, but over time they started to crowd their mum, so I decided to take a risk and uproot them, planting each in its own tiny pot. Now, instead of one aloe plant, I have five.
God has a way of speaking to me about himself through his creation, and my aloe plant is no exception. I was minding my own business, thinking I had one aloe plant. I looked after it as best as I knew how, but all the while, under the surface, things were happening that I couldn’t have imagined. For months, deep below my carefully mixed, succulent-friendly soil, my aloe was putting out roots. When conditions were right, the roots sprouted, sent up shoots, and in time four new aloe plants burst into the world. It was a total shock.
How often does God do things under the surface? Things that we have no clue about? Things we wouldn’t believe were possible, even if He told us? Pretty much all the time, in my experience!
If I think about it in terms of mission, I see God’s character revealed in my aloe plant even more. I imagine just about every missionary you know could tell you a story involving months or even years of praying for and ministering to and loving a group of people who seemed completely impervious to the gospel, only to have God surprise them with what He’d been doing all along under the surface. A hardened tribal leader surrenders to Christ. A household of unbelievers “suddenly” believes. A whole community is radically transformed practically overnight.
It has happened. And it will keep happening. Because God loves a surprise. He loves to see the delight on our faces, and feel the worship rising from our grateful hearts when he moves in ways we didn’t see coming.
I started with one aloe plant, and now I have five. If the aloe babies have babies, that makes twenty. Imagine what the world would be like if God were to multiply by five each prayer we pray for a lost loved one, each person who ventures onto the mission field, each pound we give in support of His work in the world? And what if those were multiplied by five, and so on and so on? It could happen, you know. He’s always working under the surface. And he’s done a lot more than that with much less.
Our job is to keep believing he’s going to move, even if we can’t see what’s going on under the surface. Our job is to water the soil, provide sunlight, and make sure conditions are favourable so that when He does show us what he’s been up to, we’re ready to act.
On Hope and Volcanoes
Ever slept on top of a volcano? I have. A supervolcano, actually. In fact, not only did I sleep on the volcano, but I drove around on the volcano, spotted an osprey on the volcano, and even enjoyed a delicious tuna sandwich on the volcano. And no, Clever Cathy, it wasn’t a dormant volcano. This volcano is, in fact, one of the most active geothermal spots in the world. It is home to top-of-a-volcano features such as: fumaroles (vents that spout hot steam in huge clouds that smell like rotten egg), travertine terraces (places where magma-heated water rises to the surface, cools and leaves chalky deposits in huge terraces that smell like rotten egg), and hot springs (which are exactly what they say on the tin—but do smell like rotten egg, just to be clear). Of all its many geothermal features, though, my supervolcano is most famous for its geysers. It is home to two-thirds of the world’s active geysers, most notably Old Faithful, which has been erupting every 90 minutes since—for all I know—the beginning of time.
You guessed it. I was at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, and it was simply wonderful. Standing in the park, snowcapped mountains in the distance, bison grazing peacefully on the valley floor, you’d never imagine that you’re standing on top of a magma chamber that’s 37 miles long, 18 miles wide, and up to 7 miles deep. That, my friend, is a lot of magma. The supervolcano has erupted three times that we know of – generally once every 600,000 to 800,000 years. The funny thing is, despite the widespread destruction wrought by those three eruptions (think, half of the United States under a couple feet of ash), they also laid the groundwork (literally) for Yellowstone’s famous biological diversity. Yellowstone National Park is one of the most biologically diverse places in North America, and is well known as the largest intact temperate zone ecosystem in the world. Not bad for the crater of a supervolcano, eh?
But enough about Yellowstone. I’m meant to be writing about God. The trouble is, I can’t actually separate the two. Romans 1:20 tells us that God’s character has been made evident to us through his creation. So according to the Bible, Yellowstone’s supervolcano is an actual physical representation of God’s character. To me, the obvious connection is that God uses the destructive forces in the world to ultimately bring about good—in the case of the volcano, he uses lava and ash to bring life and newness. In our spiritual lives, likewise, he often uses the trials of life to bring us joy and healing. That seems clear enough, right?
But as I get older, I’m realising that there’s a problem here. While it’s true that God uses the destructive things in life to bring about healing and newness, one look at the news tells me it’s not as simple as that. Creation clearly displays God’s promise to bring new life out of destruction, but creation also shows us that not all of us will get to experience new life in the way we’d prefer. The largest intact temperate zone ecosystem in the world may have grown out of the eruptions of the Yellowstone supervolcano, but unnumbered plants, animals and probably people met a fiery, ashy end in the process.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what’s been called “Winner’s Circle Theology”—the idea that when we in the West read the Bible, we nearly always identify with the “hero” of the story. We learn lessons from David and Bathsheba, but never think of Uriah. We rejoice at the restoration of Job’s family and wealth, but never stop to consider his dead children. The fact of the world we live in is that we aren’t all Davids or Jobs. Sometimes we experience the destruction, but not the new life that comes afterward. In fact, most of the world’s Christians live in that reality.
I received a prayer request in my inbox a couple of weeks ago from a woman named Karen* who is a missionary in West Africa. She and her husband have been ministering to a community who were displaced from their village by a terrorist group a couple of years ago. They now live in a town in the central part of the country, hoping that someday they may be able to go back to their village in the northeast. But now, another group is threatening their safety.
Karen writes: “At [a town an hour’s run from us] and nearby villages over 200 people were killed and houses burnt and everyone fled. This was over the weekend. The [attackers] have now moved onto the land of the burnt villages and are building their houses. At [a crossroads 20 minutes away from our village] at least two people were killed. There is now a curfew from 6pm-6am and soldiers are all over the place.
Pray for us as this is possibly their next place of attack. God protected our people during the last two attacks some years ago. Pray the same will happen now.
We know we are in the Lord’s hands and rest in Him.”
Talk about the opposite of Winner’s Circle Theology! Christians are killed in Karen’s country most days. Lord willing, this small community of displaced people will be spared. But many others have not been spared. We in the West always think of ourselves as the winners, the ones who will be spared, who will get to enjoy the new life that arises from our trials. But real life isn’t like this. Our sin-cracked, man-marred world is indiscriminate in its distribution of destruction. We Westerners are neither more immune nor more protected than anyone else. We are not likely to be displaced by terrorists or attacked by land-grabbing murderers. But the truth is that some of us will die of cancer, some of us will lose a loved one to a car accident or violent crime, some of us will experience destruction without the benefit of coming safely through the storm. In volcano terms, some of us will be caught in the lava flow.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is compelled to state, in no uncertain terms, just how vital the resurrection is to our faith. He sums it all up by saying “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” The Bible turns our temporal idea of “coming safely through the storm” on its head. The fact is, if we, as Christians, only think of “life” as something that happens in this temporal phase of our existence—this pre-resurrection-in-Christ bit—then of course anything that leads to death will feel unfair, unacceptable, ungodly. But when we realise that we’re an active participant in something bigger and more permanent than what we see around us, we will find ourselves on a journey to being able to say with Karen and the displaced people she serves, “We know we are in the Lord’s hands and rest in Him.”
There’s much more to say. About the injustice of murder, rape, kidnapping. About how unacceptable it is to lay a Romans 8:28 patina over the agony, grief and hopelessness that invade the lives of victims and their families. About so many of my loved ones’ unwillingness to engage with a God who allows such horrific suffering in the world. About my own struggle to believe and then practice what I preach. Maybe someday I’ll feel qualified to tackle these subjects that today leave me defenceless, but for now I can only cling to faith in the resurrection and the character of Christ, who makes all things new.
I write about the faith that says “I’m in Your hands” very much as a theoretician, not as a practitioner. Forget about claiming to rest in God’s hands with a machete pressed to my neck. I often can’t even manage to risk my social life to talk about how much Jesus means to me with friends who don’t really know him.
And I know I’m not alone. I wonder whether the illusion of personal safety—physical, social, professional—is what holds so many of us back from being bold and brave in our faith both at home and abroad. I wonder what would happen if I really got it into my head that there’s more to “life” than meets the eye…that there is actually life after life.
What if, instead of considering it my right to be a winner—to be part of the new life that has bloomed so extravagantly in the wake of the volcano—I actually allow myself to be burned by the flame and buried by ash, willingly becoming part of the rich soil from which the promised new life springs? What if I welcomed adversity, struggle, even death if it’s required, if it meant bringing about healing and new life for others? Isn’t that what Jesus did? And shouldn’t I be following his example? I’m not there yet, and maybe I never will be. But I have to at least try…don’t I?
*Name changed for security
Photo by Julien Millet.
Mind the Gap
BY DR DAVID SMITH
The very last verse in the Old Testament predicts that when a prophet comes to announce the arrival of the ‘great and dreadful day of the Lord’, he will ‘turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers’ (Malachi 4:6). Centuries later, the evangelist Luke began writing his gospel and recorded that an angel had appeared to the father of John the Baptist with the astounding message that his son would become a prophet, anointed with ‘the spirit and power of Elijah’ and would ‘turn the hearts of the fathers to their children’ (Luke 1:17).
We are used to thinking of the gospel as a message of reconciliation, overcoming the barriers and divisions of culture, race and class and creating a new community united through the healing power of the cross. In the first century the great division which concerned the disciples of Christ was that between Jews and Gentiles, and the letter to the Ephesians celebrates the power of the cross which is able to remove the dividing wall between these ethnic and religious identities and ‘in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross’ (Ephesians 2:16). However, there are other divisions within human society which may easily be overlooked, yet can be at least as significant as those which have ethnicity, class, or religion as their source. At the present time, perhaps the most pervasive and urgent of these tensions is what we have been used to call the generation gap.
The twenty first century is witnessing an explosion in the numbers of young people growing up with high expectations of change in the conditions of life which their parents and grand-parents took for granted and assumed were likely to be unchanging. An Indian writer, Snigdha Poonam, recently published a book with the title, Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing The World, in which he says that half the population of the sub-continent, more than 600 million people, are under the age of 25. Mind-blowing statistics like these can easily be paralleled elsewhere across the majority world and just walking the streets of cities like Lahore, Bangkok, Shanghai or Lagos, the youthfulness of the crowds encountered on the pavements is immediately striking.
Yet, what future is there for this generation? Millions of young people have access to education which comes with the promise of a different kind of future, only to discover that the reality of their situations is often bleak. In India in 2016 more than 1.5 million people applied for 1,500 jobs with a state-owned bank; more than 9 million took entrance exams for less than 1,000 vacancies on the railways; and 19,000 applied for 114 jobs as municipal street sweepers! Little wonder then that Pankaj Mishra has warned of a rising tide of frustration and anger among the young, making them vulnerable to political demagogues who prey upon their disappointments for their own ends.
What about the generation gap in the West? Here young and old seem increasingly to exist in different worlds, one of which is virtual, the other solid and time-bound. How do we cross that gap? Those promises in Malachi and Luke suddenly seem to be really significant, reminding us that the healing power of Christ relates to the tensions and alienation that can exist across the generations. Where the healing power of Jesus Christ is at work, old people will love and encourage the young, rejoicing in their zest for life and affirming their hopes and dreams, while the young will recognise and treasure the wisdom that comes with life-experience and be grateful for the knowledge left to them by parents and earlier generations stretching back into the mists of time.
A final point: sometimes the generation gap is also a faith gap; children turn away from the deeply held beliefs of their parents. Where this happens the promise of Malachi has to be read in the light of the extraordinary image of the ‘waiting father’ in Luke 15. If Christian parents need help in knowing how to relate to children who have rejected their faith, let them reflect on the example of God himself who granted freedom for the exploration of the far country, and whose love remained undimmed and was expressed in the uncritical embrace of the returning son.
Photo by Warren Wong.
Just to be Human
I was walking with a friend in Sheffield the other day, on the way to dinner. We weren’t in a hurry, the weather was actually pleasant and I happened to have a small mound of loose change in the bottom of my handbag—maybe 70p—so when the young homeless man who often sits under my bus stop asked for money, I stopped. Having lived in New York City for a number of years, I confess that I’ve got my “I don’t have any money to give you” face honed to perfection. I use it more often that I’d like to admit. On this day though, in the pleasant weather, with the coins weighing me down, I handed them over and stayed for a quick chat. It was the typical conversation: “Thanks so much,” “You’re welcome, I’m sorry it’s not much,” “That’s ok, every bit helps. Have a nice day,” “You too,” and we were off again.
My friend and I began talking about the interaction. He wondered whether the man’s cheerful gratitude was really more a form of customer service—an act, designed to keep the people happy—than it was genuine friendliness. I countered that perhaps friendly customer service isn’t necessarily false; perhaps he knows, just as we all do, that kindness and courtesy go a long way. In the end, we left a hanging question: What if it wasn’t just about the money? What if he was just happy to be spoken to, to be looked in the eye, to be treated as if he mattered?
Mother Teresa spent much of her life running a hospice for leprosy sufferers in Calcutta. She observed, “We have drugs for people with diseases like leprosy. But these drugs do not treat the main problem, the disease of being unwanted…Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.” That was the poverty she spent her life combatting in the Indian slums.
I’ve just finished reading The Insanity of God by Nik Ripken. He touches briefly on the same theme, but in an extreme context. Somaliland in the early 1990s was, few people would argue, the worst place on earth. Ripken and his small relief organisation were in Mogadishu long before UN peacekeepers arrived, before the international community had grasped the horrors of starvation, brutality, and pervasive death the Somalis called “daily life.” He was there when American troops waded to shore, there when the Black Hawk Down tragedy shocked the world, and there when America left again. And he outstayed the UN too.
Day after day, month after grueling month, he and his colleagues fed and served the starving, homeless, dying people of war-torn Somaliland. He had seen horrors that most of us can’t imagine, and he was pouring out his life trying to save the lives of these men, women and children who had been abandoned by the outside world. He had been in Somaliland for a few years when God convicted him of what he called “the sin of loving arrogance”.
One day as he faced yet another queue of hundreds of hungry people waiting for their rations, he changed his normal line of questioning: “Do you need food? Is your baby sick? Do your children need clothes? Does your family have shelter?” This time, he simply asked, “What do you need most?” One old woman answered his question with nothing less than her life story—a tale of sorrow, fear, injustice, inhumanity and despair. Ripkin writes:
So many people with similar stories desperately needed more than the help that we were prepared to give. What they wanted even more, however, was someone, anyone, even a stranger who was still trying to learn their language, to sit with them for a while…and let them share their stories. I perhaps should have known this, but I was amazed to see the power of human presence…I wasn’t able to listen to every story…but the stories I did hear taught me that there was much more to those suffering Somalis than their overwhelming physical needs. (The Insanity of God, p 86)
I love the gospel story of the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years—how she sneaked up to Jesus, fearful of being discovered; how she desperately reached for his cloak and was healed; how over a decade of shame had conditioned her to try to sneak away again, having “stolen” her healing from Jesus. But Jesus wasn’t satisfied with her shame. And he wasn’t satisfied to meet only her physical need. He called her out of the crowd, looked her in the eye and called her “my daughter.” He had healed her body, but perhaps more importantly, in that simple humanising act, he had healed her heart.
Isn’t that what we all need? Someone to look us in the eye and tell us that we matter? That we are wanted?
It’s so easy for us to look at people like Nik Ripken and Mother Teresa—and especially Jesus—and say to ourselves, “I could never do the things they’ve done. They’re spiritual giants! They have so much courage! So much wisdom!” But it seems to me that their courage, wisdom and spiritual giantism didn’t really come in to play here it all. It was their open hands, their listening ears, their time. It was the ability to stop, ask questions and listen.
People all over the world live in varying degrees of material need, but there is something that every one of us needs in equal degree: to know that we are wanted, to know that we are human. It doesn’t take a spiritual giant to look someone in the eye and show them that aspect of Jesus’ love. And how can I hope to get the realities of the full spectrum of His love across to anyone—especially those who don’t know him—without first showing them that they matter, to us and to Him? Isn’t that where He started?
Photo by Remi Walle.