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Africans in Europe: A Call to Prayer

BY HARRIET, A PIONEERS UK MISSION MENTOR

African diaspora Christians living in Europe are confronted with a phenomenon that presents both a great opportunity and a challenge of equal magnitude. The state of the continuing decline of Christianity in Europe has been a great concern in the global church for a long time now, with many churches in this region being deserted and eventually closing. However, in these same regions, African churches are on the increase. At the same time, there has been increasing migration of people into Europe from countries with many least-reached people groups, yet with restricted access for traditional missionary work. The combination of these factors has led to an increasing awareness in the global church that God may be calling the African diaspora Christians to a task that is greater than the original reasons for their migration into Europe. God is not raising only Africans for this task. Rather, theirs is a call to join other diaspora Christians as well as the indigenous church in Europe in the battle for these lands. Freedom of religion in Western Europe sets just the right stage for the fulfilment of this task. The enthusiasm of African Christians is an added impetus in that direction.

However, this is no small task. Apart from the obvious challenge of massive cultural differences, there are also historical realities from the interactions between Africans and Europeans that lead to set perceptions of how the gospel message should flow, as well as the spiritual forces of Evil characteristic of all mission fields.

While African diaspora Christians should be thoroughly prepared to engage through awareness and cross-cultural training, prayer is the greatest key to overcoming these challenges.

Prayer changes our perspective. As we humbly confer with God about a matter, he opens our eyes to his view. Human calculations and reasonings are brought to nought as we see the world as God sees it and look at ourselves as God does. We begin to see the poverty and impoverishment around us often masked by material wealth. At the same time, we begin to see ourselves not as immigrants on the periphery of society but as agents of change right in the middle of God’s purposes to establish his kingdom in these lands. As Paul the Apostle put it in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5:

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

Prayer disturbs our apathy. Constant staring at idolatry, fluid moral standards, general disinterest in religion and a marked hostility to Christianity in particular, can have a paralysing effect on believers to the point of acceptance of the state of affairs, a resignation to defeat. When we pray, however, our gaze is shifted to God, his will on earth and his sacrifice to accomplish it. We begin to be uncomfortable with the way things are and eventually find ourselves in a passionate plea, ‘thy kingdom come’, rebelling against the status quo.

In prayer, God invites us to participate in his intervention. God is already at work to establish his kingdom in the world, in Europe. He invites us to his ultimate victory. What a privilege! We triumph as we pray and then rise with boldness to follow our prayers with corresponding action.

Therefore, in the face of this daunting missionary call of participating in evangelising Europe, African Christians must join up with all believers, to pray. Persistent, continuous, concerted prayer. We must be prepared to come up with creative ways of praying together. A Kenyan network of ministers in London, for instance, spends hours praying together on the phone.

In these times, Christians from different cultural backgrounds must unite in prayer, laying aside personal comforts for a greater purpose. African Christians need to be willing to be flexible and adaptive to new expressions of worship as they join with Western, Asian and Latino Christians in Europe for concerted prayer.

Many spiritual battles have been waged and won all over the world as missionaries and local Christians have engaged in prayer with humility and brokenness. We are set to see a revival in Europe as well, as we pray as Jesus taught us.

Photo by Samuel Martins on unsplash.com

A Time to Weep

Seven years ago, I moved to England from America, full of passion for God, the gospel and the British people. It was the fulfilment of a lifelong calling, and I felt that after years of waiting, finally my ‘real’ life would begin. I was on top of the world. Little did I know that I’d entered a local church situation that would ultimately dismantle my hope, my faith, and my sense of self. Three years after my first joyous Sunday, I staggered out the door with my last ounce of strength and entered the wilderness.

Over the last four years, during my long and agonising recovery, Hosea 6:1-3 has become very precious to me:

Come, let us return to the Lord
He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us;
he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds.
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will restore us,
that we may live in his presence.
Let us acknowledge the Lord;
let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises, he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
like the spring rains that water the earth.

Hosea doesn’t describe here a quick recovery. Each part of the process takes time: the binding of wounds, being brought back to life, restoring us to his presence, calling us to actively acknowledge him and to persevere, the sun finally rising again and the slow return of refreshing rains that restore us to a place of flourishing. The recovery Hosea describes is slow and painful. But it is not solitary. A loving and infinitely patient Father is there at every turn, nurturing us moment by moment.

During the early phases of my recovery, because I felt rebellious toward God and the church, I decided to be real, no matter who was looking on. If I was sad, I cried. If I was angry, I shouted. If I was afraid, I trembled. I dared God to meet me there, in my raw and unrefined state. But he didn’t have to meet me. He was already there. And he loved me for my honesty, even if my manners left something to be desired.

Not only did I discover that God was already there, but I also discovered that other people were there – both Christian and not – watching my journey, from having been torn to pieces back to a place of flourishing. I discovered that my long and noisy lament actually left a path for others to follow in their own search for the God Who Heals.

Dr David Smith has just published a book called Stumbling toward Zion. In it, he uses his own experience of grief and lament to address the biblical tradition of lament that is slowly disappearing from the church. He reasons that the church is so concerned with appearing triumphant, of gaining victory, that it has neglected true, biblical lament and is losing touch with God’s heart for a suffering world. Not only that, but he notes that: “This imbalance threatens to undermine the credibility of faith for a watching world, alienating those experiencing hardship and oppression; those wrestling with doubt, uncertainty, and loss.”

I wouldn’t categorise my own wilderness wanderings as “biblical lament”, but God was able to turn my self-focused angst into good, as he so often does. And it got me thinking…

God’s people, on both on the international mission field and the domestic, neighbourhood-based mission field, are in contact every day with people who are experiencing hardship, oppression, doubt, uncertainty, and loss. Many of them lack the hope that we have in Christ.

As those who are called to display the love of Christ in all its many facets, wouldn’t it be a little bit irresponsible for us to keep Jesus’ intimate presence in our times of struggle a secret? Wouldn’t it be more loving – and ultimately more attractive – to show people who don’t know him that he walks with us, even in the dark places?

These are uncertain times. We don’t know what the next few weeks and months will hold, but it’s possible that some of us may have hardship, even grief, ahead. It is possible, even biblical, that how we choose to pass our times of hardship and grief will have a huge impact on God’s reputation both here in the UK and around the world. Let us learn to lament in a way that shows those who follow in our path that our God is good and kind, that He is faithful no matter what, and that above all His love can heal all wounds.

Photo by Valentin Muller.

January: Resolutions Part One

New Year’s resolutions. People love them, people hate them. People rarely manage to keep them. But we sure do try, don’t we?

I’ve recently been encouraged to try a different type of New Year’s resolution. Call it a New Month Resolution or a 12-Part Resolution if you like. Instead of one or two big resolutions to keep all year, I’ve chosen one new skill or habit to cultivate each day for a designated month, hopefully resulting in 12 months’ worth of Resolution Success!

One month I’ll go vegetarian. One month I’ll play the guitar every day. One month I’m going to learn origami. One month I’ll learn to draw. It should be an interesting year!

For my January resolution, I’ve committed to read my Bible and pray every day. Very holy, I know. I mean, it’s something I should be doing every single day anyway, and to be honest I’m kind of cheating because I was already doing it a few times a week.

But I’ve got to tell you, something changed in my relationship with Jesus when I started setting aside time every single day for him rather than just spending time with him when I had a moment or when I felt like it. Something changed when I started rearranging my schedule to be with him. And after only having done it for 23 days I’m more convinced than ever that “should” isn’t exactly the attitude that God wants me to take toward living out my relationship with him. My fulfilling my duty doesn’t exactly warm the cockles of God’s heart. He doesn’t get warm fuzzies when I tick “read the Bible” off my to do list.

We should be doing lots of things. We should be helping the poor. We should be serving in our local church. We should be praying that people who don’t know Christ would encounter him in some way.

Frankly, we can go right through life doing the things we should be doing, and that’ll be just fine. But a relationship with God can be so much more than shoulds, so much more than resolutions.

Psalm 27:4 says, “One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.” He calls us to discipline and duty, yes, but if we let him, he will also woo us into the sort of relationship that compels us “to gaze upon his beauty” and “seek him in his temple.”

Do you know what will happen if we let him arouse our passions like that? We’ll end up not just giving, but choosing to give sacrificially; we’ll end up seeing miraculous answers to our prayers for the lost; we’ll find ourselves longing to serve not just the local church but the global church. We will find that we’ve crossed over from duty into delight, and that we have become his hands and feet in the world.

So let me challenge you (and me!) for 2020: don’t resolve to read your Bible more, pray more, go to church more, give to worthy causes or become a missionary. Instead, resolve to know God. Seek him in his temple. Gaze on his beauty. Let your duty be transformed into delight. He will take care of the rest.

As for my January resolution, 31 days is not enough. I think I’ll keep going. How could I not?

The Dog Ate My Passport and Other Ways to Avoid Becoming a Missionary

The dog ate my homework. We’ve all heard it before. A child doesn’t want to do his homework. He wants to play with his friends instead. Or maybe he wants to sit in front of the television for hours after school. So he comes up with a fool-proof excuse, an excuse that surely no child in the history of mankind has devised before. “But Miss, I dutifully sat at my desk (in my very tidy room, I might add) all night, slaving over your ingenious assignment (which was surely designed to enlighten and inspire me not only to be a better student but a better human). But, to my grave dismay, as I was making my way out the door this morning, my unruly dog Fido ripped the assignment from my begloved hand and tore it to shreds in front of me as I wept in rage (see my tear stains?). Miss…the dog ate my homework.”

I’d always thought the excuse of a dog eating one’s homework was laughable (having been an overachieving child myself). Imagine, then, my unashamed and slightly misplaced delight when I arrived at the office a few weeks ago to find one of my colleagues—who had been due to fly to South America the day before—inexplicably sitting at his desk.

“But you’re in Brazil,” I stated quizzically. He said very little, just presented me with a Ziploc bag. The contents looked like shredded paper at first. That is, until I noticed the remnants of a photograph and the distinctive red of a British passport cover.

“The dog ate my passport,” he said. “I couldn’t go to Brazil because the dog ate my passport.”

I confess that I laughed long and heartily. It wasn’t particularly kind of me, but thankfully my colleague saw the humour in the situation too and we all had a good laugh.

We make small, insignificant decisions every day—decisions we would never imagine could make any difference to our lives. But sometimes they do. (For instance, leaving your passport on the kitchen table unattended could result in a missed week-long trip to the other side of the world.) The fact is, our insignificant, everyday decisions often set the course of our lives more than the major, more dramatic decisions we make.

We know by now that each of us who know Jesus have a responsibility to help make his name known amongst every tribe, nation and language of earth. But boy, do we ever make choices every day that hinder us from actually following through! “I’d rather not read my Bible this morning.” “I need an extra Starbucks this week.” “I don’t feel like praying for Alison’s hurt leg again.” “I can’t be bothered to go to my small group.” “Just one more chapter before bed.” Seemingly insignificant, if choices like these are made enough times, they could hinder us from fulfilling the calling God has placed on our lives.

Howard Culbertson, missionary to Italy and Haiti and professor of missions at Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma has written a checklist for anyone hoping to avoid missionary service. Although it leaves out feeding your passport to your dog, it lists some of the other everyday choices and attitudes that could affect our willingness to say, “Here am I, send me.” The list applies primarily to Goers, but those of you who are Senders, Givers and Prayers will certainly find that it applies to you too!

And now, without further ado, for a good giggle (with just a little sting), I present to you:

10 Ways to Avoid Becoming a Missionary

  1. Ignore Jesus’ request in John 4:35 that we take a long hard look at the fields. Seeing the needs of people can be depressing and very unsettling. It could lead to genuine missionary concern.
  2. Focus your energies on socially legitimate targets. Go after a bigger salary. Focus on getting a job promotion, a bigger home, a more luxurious car, or future financial security. Along the way, run up some big credit card debts.
  3. Get married to somebody who thinks the “Great Commission” is what your employer gives you after you make a big sale. After marriage, embrace the socially accepted norms of settling down, establishing a respectable career trajectory and raising a picture-perfect family.
  4. Stay away from missionaries. Their testimonies can be disturbing. The situations they describe will distract you from embracing whole-heartedly the materialistic lifestyle of your home country.
  5. If you happen to think about missions, restrict your attention to countries where it’s impossible to openly do missionary work. Think only about North Korea, Saudi Arabia, China and other closed countries. Forget the vast areas of our globe open to missionaries. Never, never listen to talk about creative access countries.
  6. Think how bad a missionary you would be based on your own past failures. It is unreasonable to expect you will ever be any better. Don’t even think about Moses, David, Jonah, Peter or Mark, all of whom overcame failures.
  7. Always imagine missionaries as talented, super-spiritual people who stand on lofty pedestals. Maintaining this image of missionaries will heighten your own sense of inadequacy. Convincing yourself that God does not use ordinary people as missionaries will smother any guilt you may feel about refusing to even listen for a call from God.
  8. Agree with the people who tell you that you are indispensable where you are. Listen when they tell you that your local church or home country can’t do without you.
  9. Worry incessantly about money. 
  10. If you still feel you must go, go out right away without any preparation or training. You’ll soon be home again and no one can ever blame you for not trying!

And just for good measure, I’ll add number 11: Leave your passport on the kitchen table. Maybe the dog will eat it and then you’ll be off the hook!

Photo by Matthew Henry @ Unsplash.com

A Hobbit, A Stump, and The Great Commission

I recently had a mildly heated disagreement with someone I love very much. It was about halloumi. Yes, halloumi, the squeaky Mediterranean cheese—whether or not it should be pre-fried before going inside a toasted sandwich. A few weeks before that, the same loved one and I had to carefully pick our way around a disagreement about whether or not a certain stump (which had dropped its bark as it dried out in my spare room) actually NEEDED to have bark on it. And just last weekend, I only narrowly escaped using the phrase, “I’m the bride and we’re doing it my way!”

That’s right, I’m getting married. That means that, as an (in)famously organised person, I currently conduct my life at the helm of the kind of To Do Lists and spreadsheets that would make normal humans quiver with fear. I have a LOT to do in a short space of time, and much of it is, frankly, ridiculous. Like sewing pillowcases together with 2-ply twine, spending endless hours removing adhesive from glass jars, and yes, gluing the bark back on the aforementioned stump. My To Do List includes finding items such as Nerf gun bullets, bricks, weathered wooden planks and a badminton net. I wake up in the middle of the night, haunted by thoughts like, “I need to find more recyclable fishing line!”

Slightly complicating things, I’ve got a little voice in the back of my head telling me that if I were only free to plan MY wedding day on MY own, without someone else’s opinions getting in the way, I would’ve been finished planning by now.

But we all know that’s not true.  My days (decades!) of managing my life on my own are at an end. The simple truth is, as much as I’m inclined to, I cannot and should not attempt to plan this wedding alone. And even more importantly than that, my soon-to-be husband and I cannot and should not attempt to do marriage without help. It’s just too big for us to do alone.

In fact, the older I get, the more I realise that there are lots of things I’ve attempted to do on my own that would’ve been far better had I actively included other people. My first foray into missions 20 years ago, for instance. I chose to go with my denomination’s internal mission agency because I knew I wouldn’t have to raise financial support. I wasn’t required to gather a prayer support team; I wasn’t even required to get much endorsement from a sending church—just a form stating I’d been part of the denomination for two years. So I went off to Botswana with no financial or prayer supporters and no committed sending church. This fiercely independent self-described super-Christian skipped off to Africa for two years ready to save the world singlehandedly. The result was somewhat, er, anti-climactic (if not a bit of a disaster).

I don’t think I’m alone in my tendency toward Go It Alone delusions though. Our Western individualism often gets in the way of our ability to discern a better—dare I say, more Biblical—way of doing life and mission. Perhaps we need to re-evaluate our narrative. Take the Lord of the Rings, for example. Who was the hero of that story? Most of us would settle on one of three people: Frodo, Gandalf or Aragorn. But I’d like to throw someone less obvious into the mix: Sam Gamgee. Without Sam’s patience, courage, strength, loyalty, vigilance and steadiness, Frodo would never have made it to Mount Doom, Aragorn’s kingdom would’ve been overrun and Gandalf’s power would have faded. In my opinion, the crux of the story lay on Sam, the gardener. (And if none of that makes sense to you, get thee to a bookshop immediately.)

It’s too easy (and a bit lazy) for us to think of the people who are called to leave home and serve Christ cross-culturally as the heroes of the story—a story that the rest of us sit back and watch unfold on the other side of the world. I can tell you as a one-time Goer, the real heroes of the story are almost always, like Sam Gamgee, unsung. The heroes of the story are the children who keep missionaries in their bedtime prayers, and the small group leaders who encourage their friends toward mission, and the grandparents who give £10 a month to their grandson serving in Mongolia. The real heroes stay in touch with the Goers while they’re on the field, and listen when they’re discouraged, and send them care packages. It doesn’t feel like much, does it? But if you add up all those bedtime prayers, listening ears, shoulders to cry on, boxes of Yorkshire Tea, inspirational sermons, notes of encouragement, £10 notes month after month, and open arms to come home to, suddenly we become a force to be reckoned with—and the Goer finds him or herself at the breaking edge of a missional tidal wave.

The simple fact is, we need each other. Givers, Pray-ers, Senders, Goers. Carrying the message of Jesus’ love to the remaining unreached peoples of the world is too important for us to let our Goers do it alone. They cannot and should not venture onto the mission field without the rest of us actively and purposely behind them.

Being on mission together as the whole church isn’t easy. We have disagreements and differences of opinion. It feels less efficient at times. We sometimes argue over things that, in retrospect, seem as silly as whether a certain stump NEEDS to have its bark or not. We may sometimes even be tempted to shout, “I’m in charge and we’re doing it my way!” But if we can manage to stay on track, to do our best, to lean on each other, to forgive each other (and ourselves), and keep going, the end result will be a partnership that will proclaim Jesus to every people group on earth and will ultimately finish the Great Commission. And just think of the party we’ll have after it’s all over! I think it’s worth it. Don’t you?

 

Photo by Sven Scheuermeier.

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.

Oliver’s Bridge

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.