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Dark stories for dark world

The Guardian ran a story this week “We need the darkest Christmas stories. These are dark times”. Basically its message was that the writer was sick of glitz and cloying schmaltz and wanted a bit of of pagan magic with her mince pies. She mentions several darker stories but doesn’t actually get down to telling us why times are so dark. I guess it’s obvious!

Trump threatening nuclear war in the Korean peninsula, the imponderables of Brexit, homelessness on the rise, strains on the NHS, protests against the government in Argentina, Spain and many other countries, the ongoing fight against ISIS, the terrible war in Yemen, sexual harassment of girls, FGM, the list goes on.

So we want to drown our misery in glitz and schmaltz or do we stare into the darkness of our own darkened souls and despair? Or is their alternative?

The real Christmas story offers such an alternative. What could be darker than the Nativity? Suspected adultery, possible divorce, astrology, a despotic king plotting the death of a rival, a Middle Eastern family fleeing oppression, infanticide, and displacement of a vulnerable family to a foreign country: and that’s just Matthew’s gospel! Definitely not for the children. One can hear the outraged headline in the Daily Mail.

“Children traumatised by ‘realistic’ Nativity. Is this what Christmas is about?”

Well, frankly, yes. It is about all these things. It is about danger to the vulnerable, power plays by the despotic, scandal, murder and uncomfortable foreigners. That is exactly what Christmas is about.

But into this darkness comes something else. The baby and child at the centre of this whirlpool of dark forces, brings hope. Not the hope of escape from the darkness, because, as we know, thirty years on, he is the victim of, just as dark political forces jockeying for position in an equally deadly game. Rather, the hope this story brings is hope in that darkness. It is the hope that says, despite all the evil, despite the machinations of the rich, despite your utter impotence to escape, God is there, he is still there.

God doesn’t give us glitz and schmaltz to drown our sorrows. He doesn’t forces us to look into the dark soul of human despair. Jesus Christ shows us a reality far grittier than any Oliver Stone movie but the hope is that God still in control. There is, in C.S. Lewis’ words, “the deeper magic”. This is the deeper magic of resurrection.



A Methodist theologian from Uruguay, Federico Pagura wrote a Tango about this.

Because he entered the world and history;
because he broke the silence and agony;
because he filled the earth with his glory;
because he was light in our cold night.

Because he was born in a dark manger;
because he lived sowing love and life;
because broke hard hearts and
raised the downcast souls.

For this reason we have hope;
For this reason we fight with vigor;
For this reason we look with confidence to the future (in this my land).

Because he attacked ambitious merchants
and denounced wickedness and hypocrisy;
because he exalted children and women
and rejected those that burned with pride.

Because he carried the cross of our griefs
and savored the gall of our wrongs;
because he accepted to suffer our condemnation,
and so die for all mortals.

Because a bright dawn saw his great victory
over death, fear and lies;
now nothing can stop his story,
nor his eternal Kingdom nor his return.


Notes from a Very Small Island – Sign? What Sign?

As you can tell we had a great time on Lanzarote. The landscape and how Manrique used it was a marvel.  Another marvel is how the island road administration expect non-islanders to find their way around!
I have already mentioned how Cesar Manrique wanted to limit the numbers of advertising hoardings on Lanzarote. He was successful and, it must be said that, not being reminded how, “we’re lovin’ it” or how “every little helps”, we aren’t and it doesn’t, right! I have been able to survive really quite well without the constant reminder that it is my responsibility to send as much money as possible, with the. Motivation of “helping the economy”. Stuff the economy I say!
Anyway, returning to Lanzarote, one of the side effects of this wonderful campaign of Manrique’s is that the signage in general is a little, how can I put this, creative. Or put a little less gently, maddening, moronic and mmmmmmmm miserable! Road signs seemed to be designed to slow traffic down, because that was the only way you’d see them before you had passed.
This caused a little friction between the navigator and driver. “So” said Wilma, “turn, left, HERE!” This leaves any sensitive driver pleading with his navigator to give more than 3m warning when making a 90′ manoeuvre at 80kph! The problem was the sign was tiny in the extreme, tucked behind a cactus and tilted raffishly at 65′ in the wrong direction!
On the way to the volcanoes and lava fields, we were reliably, and confidently informed…by a brown sign, that the place we wanted was up a side road 14km away. So, off we set, excitedly twittering about, lava tubes, lava bubbles, and lava bombs (yes they are just as scary as they sound). Several minutes and more than 14km later we came to a T-junction. Hmmm! We clearly had missed the road but didn’t know how. There were no recriminations just calm statements that, yes, I had been watching the road. I find driving safer that way!
Well, we duly turned round a the T and discovered another reliable brown sign confidently telling us that the volcano tour was 13km away. Apparently several locals misinterpreted the grinding of Paul’s teeth as a sign that the volcano was ready to put itself about a bit again.
So 3/4 of the return journey later we discovered a sign–to the volcano–only visible from our return side! Our trusty Renault Twingo, encouraged by this positive result sprang into action and less than 5 minutes later we looked upon the turning off to the volcano as Christian had looked upon the Celestial City.
We had gotten lost before. You’ve got to understand the road signage on Lanzarote, it hates you! Well, maybe that is an exaggeration. Perhaps in sympathy with Manrique’s vision, it simply does not want to exist.
Come to think of it, all of this is rubbish. You have got to understand that not all road signs are meant for cars. We discovered this when we followed several signs purporting to Indicate the way to far flung places, but turned out to lead to a dirt track. I eventually worked out (don’t laugh, it happens) that the wooden dun coloured signs are for seasoned walkers. Yes, the destination may lie 30km eastwards but these are walkers’ signs. Once I had that established, I could move on, and misunderstand another type of sign on Lanzarote!
Earlier in the week we had had an equally if not more bizarre experience related to this unique Lanzarote (or should I say ‘Lanzagrotty’) phenomenon. We were attempting to free ourselves from the vicelike grip of the back streets of Playa Blanca, when I rashly turned off on to a side road. This road led into what seemed to be, the twilight zone.
This was not so much a ghost town, because the ghosts had not been born yet. Here was a road, in a wasteland, with parking spaces but no buildings. I don’t mean places where there are the beginnings of building work, but just land, bare, virgin, I don’t know how else to put it, land. We wandered a few blocks in the car, not in a normal fashion because normally you wouldn’t know what was round the next corner. We could see for 10km across the desert or at least deserted land.
We came close to escaping from our personal Emin Muil (sorry for the LOTR reference again) only to be thwarted by 10m piece of rough ground, that our trusty Twingo refused like a spooked racehorse refusing at the second circuit at Beecher’s Brook. Finally, we came to, what Wilma described as “a big road”. We headed north, we knew we needed north. So admonished and chastened, we vowed never to go to Playa Blanca again. Up to now we have kept that vow.

Notes from a very small island – 2

 With a brilliant architect and artist

The fact that I have not heard of an architect or even artist, is no reflection on her or his brilliance or creativity: it is solely down to my spectacular ignorance. Anyway, we discovered that Lanzarote and its tourism (not on the coast) was down to a man called Cesar Manrique. Manrique was, by turn, a visual artist, an architect, a gardener and an early environmental campaigner.
Born in 1919 to a poor family from Lanzarote, he travelled widely and learned greatly from artists around the world. He returned to the Island in the late 1950s and started working on the island and learning from it, drawing inspiration for his art and architecture.
His desire was to create art and architecture that complemented the island’s story and structure. Interestingly he never used materials from the landscape to create. However, he used the structures of rock as a basis and backdrop for his work. He would use plaster and plastics to tie in the lava structures to the walls of a habitable space. The effect is fabulous,
He was the inspiration behind the man-made parts of the Jameos de Agua as well as the “Mirador del Agua” which overlooks the north of the island, and clings to the cliff of another volcano. He also designed some spectacular art pieces within that Mirador. A true genius.
The final day we had our hire car, we visited his house that he designed and had built and where he did most of his creations. It is mainly build within “lava bubbles”‘ caused by trapped gas which was expelled when the lava cooled. My trapped gas has never been so creative. Anyway, Manrique joined several of these bubbles to create living spaces, eating areas and lookout places.
Manrique used the idea of natural light, which had observed in the Jamelos to great effect in these rooms. The ever present volcanic grit was used as a planter for the garden borders.
He also campaigned against the over commercialisation of the island, getting laws passed to limit the advertising signs (great) as well as the size and positioning of road signage (boo, and we’ll get on to this tomorrow).
All in all Manrique was a brilliant and wholistic artist. One commentary said he was able to “convert aesthetics into ethics.”
Sadly, he died in a road accident in 1992 but his influence is to be seen over most of Lanzarote.

Notes from a Very Small Island

The land of volcanoes
To get away from the cold and damp of the UK in December, we often take the opportunity to get to the sun on a cheap package holiday. This year we went to Lanzarote.Lanzarote is 60km by 25km so is a very small island.
The whole of the island is volcanic. It has so many volcanoes that every direction you look you can see conical hills, some perfect and others with one side which has slid down. It reminds me, rather fightingly of Mount St. Helens! Much of the ground is covered by volcanic grit. The main function of this seems to cause vigorous exercise by slipping its way between the sole of your foot and the sandal. This causes a great deal of energetic jumping and can turn the colour of the surrounding air a distinctive blue!
We saw a couple of fascinating features caused by fast moving lava. There is a seven kilometre long “lava tube”  running under the island. Two tourist features demonstrate this: the “Jameos de Agua” and the “Cuevas Verdes”. The first featured an entrance and exit with an underground lake in between. There is also a collapse in the roof of the lake between the exit and entrance which, when the sun is high enough, shines down into the lake with spectacular light. It is touristy but quite beautiful.
The “Cueva” is a lot less touristy and is a kilometre long walk through a lava tube. It put me in mind of the mine of Moria, though with fewer orcs! I still mentioned that we “are in good hands Mr. Frodo”. According to Wilma, I repeated this joke several times, so unlike me! Anyway, our particular Gandalf was called Marcos. I think that he must once have had a person in the tour have nasty head injury. The number of times he cautioned us to mind out heads, or “ciudado con la cabeza” was quite touching! I am convinced, however, that he knew little English other that was written on his script! His pronunciation was truly creative. In Spanish, however, he was very well informed, giving detail way beyond the script to those who were interested.
Later in the week we also went on a bus tour around the lava flows in the South-West of the Island. The Lord of the Rings theme continued as the landscape looked like the description of the Plain of Gorgoroth. Whereas the “Cueva” was formed 20,000 years ago, these flows are just 300 years old! The descriptions from an eye witness sounded truly harrowing.
That same day we also visited the visitors’ centre, located about 4km away; I guess somewhere on flat ground! The two men in the office spoke to us in English but we really didn’t understand. I told them, in Spanish that we understood the local lingo. One of them clearly thought I was showing off, unusually I wasn’t. He said “and Chinese”, at which Wilma piped up “just a little”, in Mandarin! The poor man was a picture, with several emotions fighting for dominance of his face! I think the result was a combination of disbelief, discombobulation and defeat!
The landscape of this island is truly inspiring. The landscape has inspired artists and architect to creat some fascinating work. But more of that tomorrow.
It is also inspiring and challenging knowing that God is still at work, creating and recreating his wonderful world.

Practicing the presence of God

A few years ago (2011), we had the pleasure of hosting C. René Padilla in our home. I had been at the 10 year review of the Micah Declaration.  René was there, as were other important majority world mission leaders such as Melba Maggay, C.B. Samuel, and Vinoth Ramachandra. On the Sunday René  was to preach in our home church. We had a BBQ on the Sunday afternoon and invited various students to come and chat.As is his wont, René spoke a great deal about the church. One of the students asked, “but René what is the church?” He replied “simple, ‘where two or three are gathered in my name'” (Matthew 18:20).

I tell that story because, in my conversations and reading, I am increasingly getting the feeling that we really don’t know what the Church is. This simple, almost reductionist answer reveals a great deal.

I spoke last Sunday at that same church on Matthew 1-2; a Nativity play not for the children and one thing I emphasised was from Matthew 1:23, which quotes from Isaiah 7:14, ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).‘ God with us is the presence of the living God among humanity. At the end of Matthew the Great Commission ends with a promise, “And I will be with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Returning to René’s quote of 18:20

These three verses–Matthew 1:23; 18:20 and 28:20-point us to the essence of Church.

Mission and King Louie

No not Louie XVI or the Rapper but the one from the Jungle Book. This King Louie famously sang, “I want to be like you oo oo!” It seems to me that often in the West, and mission (not only from the West) turns that around and says, “I want you to be like me ee ee!”

Christians are often accused of imposing their views on other people, missionaries doubly so. This is sometimes a justified accusation but sometimes it is simply an aggressive reaction to a simple sharing of the Gospel. Much of mission training is to convince students that mission and planting churches is not about reproducing our own culturally appropriate (or inappropriate) models of church in other places.

Because the modern mission movement emerged from the Western European church it shared much of the West’s expansionist elements. This can be illustrated by seeing how Western politicians and song-writers see the establishment of peace. As much as I love and respect US President Barack Obama, his response to the Paris atrocities demonstrates this. He said,

“This is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.”

John Lennon expresses the the same attitude perfectly in his anthem “Imagine,’

You may say I’m a dreamer, But I’m not the only one, Maybe some day you’ll join us, I the world will be as one.

The simply way that the world can be as one, is by you joining us. You need to become like us for the world to be as one.

This attitude divides the world into “them and us” categories, much loved by media all over the world. This is an attack on “all of humanity and the universal values we share”. There are bad people; i.e. those who carry out these attacks and there are good people; i.e. those who share our “universal values”. Whose values? What values? Well the answer is simple; my values.

I believe there are very many people in the world who do not share my values. Many of them are good people as well.

Mission is not people becoming like me but they, and I becoming more like Jesus Christ.

Refugees, migrants or neighbours?

I am attending the INFEMIT conference on “The Migrant Crisis” at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies (OCMS). There are some great speakers and massive themes. We have had Old Testament scholars as well as people working on the ground: there is an OT theologian from Greece and a worker on the ground from Lebenon. There are a couple of things that have struck me.

Firstly, both the speakers from Greece and Lebenon, both shared how the church has been revived by engagement with the people arriving in their countries. They said that there was fear at the beginning but the churches, when they started to help, house, and share their lives with the people then they found their true meaning.

The second thing that really struck me has been the dehumanising nature of the system that the people are coming to. They immediately get labeled “migrant” or “refugee” when they used to be human beings. The speaker from Lebenon said that people change their identity in the process of moving.

Too many organisations have programmes to care for people but not enough who incorperate people into their communities. This is what the local church can truly be. Can we see people arriving on European shores or UK shores as neighbours rather than migrants or refugees?

Exceptional Europe

No, I’m not going to argue that the UK should remain in the EU, although I would hold that position. Let’s not get diverted with those arguments. I am referring to an excellent book by the British sociologist, Grace Davie, Europe: The Exceptional Case where she argues, rather convincingly, that the only continent that is rejecting religion wholesale is Europe.

In light light of last week’s posts, what is the role of the mission agency in this context. In the light of the fact that European churches seem incapable of reaching the non-Christian, especially secular, atheistic, liberal non-believers with the gospel, is there a role for mission agencies? This is the area where I think the agency comes into its own; with its experience facilitating mission elsewhere in the world, the role of the agency is to show the local church how to do mission here.

Lesslie Newbigin was a great example of a missionary bringing his experience from India back to Birmingham and sharing this experience with the UK for its benefit. (If you have never read Gospel in a Pluralist Society for do so without delay.)

There are missionaries from all over the world coming to the UK. They need people who have worked with the church in their home nations to come along side them to help orientate them to become more effective cross-cultural christian workers here.

See here for a Latin Perspective