Poking the Rattlesnake's nest

In the late nineteen-eighties, I was a youth pastor in Starkville, Mississippi. It was a truly formative period of my life. Working with Jim (Nap) Clark and Kenny Hodges and also with Dick and Linda Hill was one of the most important experiences of my life.

This is also where I developed my phobia of snakes. I was 26 years old and so needed to be macho with the guys in the youth groups. Fear of snakes is not something that is respected among the rural young men of Mississippi. I learned that almost all if not all black snakes in the US are not poisonous, but can give you a really nasty bite. Black racers are non poisonous but have a really bad attitude!

One time I was in a very rural part of Mississippi and came across a Rattlesnake's nest. The snake was motionless and for all intents and purposes, looked dead. Hoping not to look scared, I got a long stick and poked at it. As it turns out, not only was the snake not dead, it was the world record holder for the longest strike from a standing start (well lying-down start). It got within 2-3cm of my hand. OK, it could have been 20-30cm! When I told the pastor, Nap, he said "if you poke at a rattlesnake don't complain when you get bitten!"

Now you can poke a lot of animals and not get bitten. I can dig my finger into my dog's side and she'll simply look at me with a "what was that for" look on her face. But there are certain animals that you just don't poke at or if you do, you need to do it in a way that does not provoke the animal to strike. Poking at rattlesnakes is not against the law in Mississippi but it's not advisable.

Draw your own conclusions.


The Culture Swamp

Yesterday, I left rather a big question begging. How do we avoid culture Christianity? It seems to be rather like a swamp. The more I try to avoid being a culture Christian, the more I am dragged down into the dark mire of the relationship between the Gospel and Culture.

There is a further complication though: the way we read the Bible. I am pretty sure many of the readers of this blog are thinking, “but we have the Bible and so we know what is culture and what is Gospel.” There are at least two problems with this statement. The first is that the Bible is a huge book. Well, it’s not even a book, it’s a library of varying types of literature, written over a very long period, with numerous authors, widely differing cultures and worldviews. It is not so easy to choose where to start.

The second problem is that we bring cultural baggage to our reading of the Bible; often unconsciously. I will give a couple of examples. I was in a discussion with some colleagues from another Bible College about the role of women in the Church. They did not believe women should lead or teach and I don’t have a problem with it (this is a discussion for another time). One of the people from the other college said, “well, all we need to do is to go down to your wonderful library and look at some commentaries to see what they say about the subject”. I remember one of my All Nations colleagues saying–quite rightly–“yes but almost all are written by men”. This is not to say that a man’s view is not valid but it highlights that a women may have a completely different view because of her gender.

Let me give you another example. the local leaders of a church planted in East Africa by a Western mission agency believed that it was time for the foreign missionaries to hand over the reigns of the church to the locals. The foreign missionaries did not want to do this. A mediator was called in and after some discussion he suggested that the local leaders and the missionaries went away and discussed separately what the meaning of the Joseph story was in Genesis 37-50.

After a time the two groups came back together and the mediator asked them for their conclusions. The Western missionaries said that this was a story of a man who was faithful to God as God had been faithful to him. The African church leaders said that this was a story of a man who was faithful to his family even though the family had done evil to him.

Now, we can see both interpretations are true and, perhaps see the cultural emphases of each group influencing their interpretations. The Western group emphasise the individual and his relationship with God. The African group emphasise the importance of faithfulness to the family.

Perhaps this is the answer: we must read the Bible together; bring all our cultural baggage to the other; listen, respect and not reject their interpretation because it does not fit with our own and be mutually accountable to each other for our interpretation of the gospel.

Am I doing mission right? Ask your brothers and sisters from other cultures, traditions and denominations.



How culture is our Christianity?

I mentioned yesterday how some majority world mission leaders, at a mission congress in 1974, accused Western mission leaders of perpetuating a "culture Christianity". This "culture Christianity" is an expression of the Christian faith that is more dependent upon Western values of freedom, individual expression and internal spirituality.

Now, of course, all our expressions of the Christian faith will always be culturally defined; there is no way that we can have a "pure" expression of the Christian faith. And if you make a survey throughout Church history, you will find that how people worshiped, acted, thought about the faith and a host of other factors will be radically different from one another and from ours, but it is the same Christian faith.

What is true historically is also true geographically and culturally. The expression of the Christian faith in Africa will be different to that in South America, or Europe, or Asia. Walk into a African church in London and you will not think that this is middle class Anglican church in middle England. Now, I would say that is great and perfectly ok. However, where does the problem arise when an expression of the faith become "culture Christianity"?

Like I said earlier it is really when the culture rather than the gospel defines that expression. Or more accurately, it is where the values, essential to the gospel are replaced with values essential to the culture. Culture wins out over gospel.

This is difficult to think about in abstract forms so let us take a concrete example: Western culture. As we have observed over the past few days with the Charlie Hebdo massacres, values essential to Western culture are (1) freedom of self-expression; (2) individual rights and (3) the denial of a critique of these values.

When we think of Western Christianity today--especially in its Evangelical, Charismatic and Pentecostal forms--and examine its worship songs, preaching, church government, etc. I think we must seriously question whether we are not perpetrating a "culture Christianity" today.



Which Good News?

Here in the UK there is a TV programme called "Russell Howard's Good News". Russell is a talented young comedian who has a sharp eye for hypocrisy and the plain weird. He is irreverent but very funny.

It occurred to me not long ago that actually the title of his show is quite shocking. "Good News" is what we call the gospel. I know I'm a bit slow on the uptake but I got it eventually. He has a section in the show which is not comic but is a good news story. The rest of the time he points out with comic effect the crazy things going on.

What is the good news? When I was a kid and I started to take my parents' faith seriously, I started to witness at school. One kid who I had clearly annoyed said, "so what's the good news you keep banging on about"? I said rather nervously, "if you believe, you'll go to heaven when you die". Now pretty much every 12 year old boy thinks he's immortal this is not good news.

In 1974 there was a mission conference organised by the Billy Graham Organisation and Christianity Today. The agenda was pretty much organised in the US and the conference was going well until a group of young Majority World student workers accused the conference organisers of promoting a "culture Christianity" that promoted Western Values more than the gospel. That culture Christianity was individualist, future orientated and internally pietistic. Does the gospel take people to heaven or bring heaven to earth?


How do I know I am doing mission right?

There's a question to toy with? Not as easy to answer as you may think? You may be thinking, "don't you call yourself a missional theologian? Don't you know?" Well, I know the question; I'm just not convinced that I can answer it?

The classic answers would be "taking the gospel to other countries"; "spreading the word"; "planting the church" or "preaching" are obviously valid enterprises.

In 1792 when William Carey sailed the ocean blue to India and in the subsequent century these were the definitions. 1792 up until 1914 is what Kenneth Scott Latourette called "the Great Century" (Ken was never that good at maths!) Up until the First World War, there was great confidence in the Western view of the gospel and of mission. How we are to achieve it was the question that the Edinburgh World Missions Conference was asking.

After the two greatest missionary sending nations (Germany and Britain) had spilled the blood of a generation on the fields of Flanders and France as well as many of the young men of their colonies (which they had evangelised) mission confidence began to wain.

Those benighted four years of slaughter questioned the right of European powers to teach the rest of the world how to live and what to believe. Not only had a generation of potential missionaries been shattered by the war but the very project was being doubted. Do Europeans know what the gospel is? Is their missionary project valid?

As an Evangelical, I trust in the gospel, but I don't trust human endeavors, including missionary enterprise. We must be critical. We must reflect upon this enterprise in the light of the gospel. We must bring our missionary activity to the light of the gospel to allow it to be critiqued and interrogated at the foot of the cross.

This week I will be reflecting upon how we can do this in our current context. Do join in the debate!


Je Suis Charlie

I have been blogging over the past few days about identity. My point has been that we need to maintain closely our relationship with Christ. This is important for at least three reasons. Firstly, so that when difficult times come we are not shaken because we are not what we do but we know who we are. Secondly, it is important because this enables us to hold lightly to parts of identity when we enter other cultures. The final reason I want to give today is that we need to know our identity in order to identify with others.

As you will have already read the title of today's blog, you will know that I want to mention Wednesday's incident at the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. I want to identify with the victims of that evil act of murder. You may know the magazine and have seen their cartoons which are normally aimed at being offensive to especially religious people, whether they be Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or any other religion, They do also target politicians and many other institutions.

The people who carried out this attack were clearly committed, well-trained and utterly brutal and ruthless. They were driven by a deep hatred of those who they see to have blasphemed Mohammed. We have seen with the growth of ISIS this year that radical Islam creates people who hate anything that is not their brand of Islam, especially Christians.

It is not surprising that it did not take long for many commentators in the media to begin the rather tiresome traditional bashing of all religion. Salman Rushdie (probably not surprisingly) is leading the way saying that all religion deserves our deep disrespect. Christian medics and nurses, motivated by their faith, who go and help vicitms of Ebola are hardly worthy of deep disrespect.

How do we react to the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo and their like? How do we react to radical Muslims? How do we react to those who condemn all religion because of this terrorist act?

How do we react as Christians? Well, I would suggest something rather simple. You don't need to read too many pages of the New Testament to find the answer to my question: fewer than 5 chapters of Matthew. This is Jesus speaking,

I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you

No matter whether those enemies be Humanist cartoonists, Muslim extremists  or liberal commentators, our responsibility is to love them. Hate is not an option. I personally can easily start getting angry at the injustice of it all and shout at the TV or write to the Independent an angry email.

How do we find the love in our hearts? The truth is we can't. This love only comes from being "in Christ". Having our identities firmly rooted in Him. God is love.

Peter also broaches the subject of how we react to evil and insult,

Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.

I Peter 3 is rather a lot further through the New Testament but the point is easily seen: do them good, bless them. We can only do this if we know that we are children of God. Insults from any enemy can hurt but when we know that we belong to Christ we can identify with even our enemies like Christ did.

Therefore, I say today Je Suis Charlie.


Identity and mission

"Hey Ali, Ali, Ali!" I heard this but didn't react. "Halima, get Ali". I suddenly realised that it was me that they were calling. We were in Morocco for mission experience trip. We were training missionaries in Argentina and also in other parts of Latin America. A lot of these students wanted to be missionaries in the Muslim world but neither of us had any experience there. Wilma had been in Taiwan and I had been short term in the USA. So we decided to spend a month in complete immersion in Muslim culture.

A Latin American organisation, working among Muslims organised a trip for us. A former student, now a missionary in Morocco organised for us to spend time with a couple of Muslim families. When our friend told the family our names--Pablo and Wilma--they said, "Oh that's too difficult to say, he will be Ali and Wilma can be Halima". (I only realised later that I got called "Ali" because I had a ginger beard and Ali Baba was red bearded.) The problem was that I didn't possess an "Ali" identity so didn't even realise I was being called.

I did, however, develop a "Pablo" identity. I spent 30 years being Paul before going to Latin America and got called "Pablo". It was slightly weird but I did prefer it to "Pol" and "Pool" which I did get called at times. Wilma was variously addressed as "Vilma" or "Bilma". There was another a missionary who was very irate with Argentines because they could not pronounce her name right.

I often say the first part of my identity that I lost in Latin America was my name. In cross-cultural work, the successful missionary will give away a lot of his or her identity. You cannot express yourself in the way you normally would do. If you do then you are likely to be misunderstood. You need to find ways of expressing yourself that are culturally appropriate.

The big challenge is to stay me but be me in ways that are understood by local people. This is why it is so important to know who you are in Christ primarily. Child of God, saved sinner, chosen, holy and loved.

Lord help me to know who I am in you, not relying on my success or even my name but on your love for me.


What do you do? Who are you?

The first question is one that I get asked a lot; the second one isn't polite so I don't hear it so often. If I go to a conference people constantly assume that I have a fixed role, with an organisation. At this point in my life this is a question that stirs many emotions. I'm in a liminal period only gets a coherent response from anthropologists and readers of my blog! I used to answer, "as little as possible", which although true, was not something I succeeded in doing!

These two questions are linked but actually come the wrong way round. What I do is dependent upon who I am. In Western society we find our identity in what we do. Biblically, the order is reversed: who we are should lead to what we do. Our actions are based on our identity. Of course, it's not that simple because our actions also form who we are but the Bible starts with who we are.

In Colossians 3:12 Paul tells his readers that as believers they are three things: chosen, holy and loved. After that he gives the Colossians a list of massively challenging instructions, but those instructions are based upon the fact that they are chosen, holy and loved.

It is interesting to observe that none of these facts are based upon the Colossians themselves. They are all external and objective.

They are chosen by God. They are selected by God. It is almost as if God points his finger at us and says, "I choose you, and you, and you". The idea is that we are specially selected for a purpose. Our existence is not dependent on us, or our success or on other people's opinions of us; rather it is based upon God's selection.

We are also holy. We have been made holy. We have been set apart. Although this is closely related to the idea of election, it adds the element of distinction; of comparison. Being holy is being like God. Again this is external and objective. God has made it so. There is no room for boasting, only thanksgiving.

Finally we are loved. Paul uses a word with the root word "agape". It is such a strong word to use. God loves us. This gets to the heart of our election and holiness. They are due to God's infinite love upon us. Once again, not because we are lovely or attractive but because sets his love upon us.

What I do emerges from these facts: we are selected by God for his purposes, we are made holy by him so we reflect his character and he loves us with his infinite because...well because he IS love.

Thank you our father that you have chosen us--may we be worthy; that you have made us holy like you--may we reflect your character to the world; and that you love us--may we love others with that same intense love.


Who is the one who is to be born king of the Jews

Just when you thought Christmas was over...well it's not! Not for the millions of Eastern Orthodox Christians across the world. The 6th January, for them, is Christmas. Last year we had 25th December in Ethiopia, which was a normal working day and Orthodox Christmas in the UK, which was also a normal working day. So, we celebrated both

The word Epiphany means "unveiling" or "revealing". So it makes sense when we realize that the 6th is also the celebration in Eastern Christianity of the Baptism of Jesus where he is revealed as the Son of God. In Western Christianity we celebrate the coming of the Magi where Jesus is revealed as, not only "king of the Jews" but also the Lord of the Gentiles as well.

The wise men come to worship him and Matthew gives us an early hint that this very Jewish Messiah is the one who will command his followers to "make disciples of all the nations". The 6th of January is an intensely missionary day. Christ is Christ for all. Jesus is not the "God of the Christians"; Jesus is the Lord of the Nations.

So today, do feel free to have your very own epiphany and worship the king of both Jews and Nations.


Who am I?

Over the past 6 months I have questioned my identity many times. The first module in En Route is entitled, "Who am I?" It is so important to know who we are in Christ and not rely on our own job or role in life.


I want to share with you with a poem written by someone, whom a Latin American theologian called, the most authentic Christian of our time—Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer wrote this when he was in prison during the Second World War. He was hanged just a few days before the Allies liberated Flossenburg Prison where he was being held.

Who Am I?

Who am I? They often tell me

I would step from my cell’s confinement

Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,

Like a squire from his country house.

Who am I? They often tell me

I would talk to my warders

Freely and friendly and clearly,

As though it was mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me

I would bear the days of misfortune

Equably, smilingly, proudly,

Like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I know of myself,

Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage, struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,

Yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,

Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,

Trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation,

Tossing in expectation of great events,

Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,

Weary and empty praying, at thinking, at making,

Faint and ready to say farewell to it all?

Who am I? This or the other?

Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,

And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?

Or is something within me still like a beaten army,

Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.

Obviously my situation, my reflections and my humility do not reach anywhere near the extremity, the depth nor the height of Bonhoeffer’s but I hope we can reach towards that authentic Christianity exemplified by Bonhoeffer and modeled perfectly by Jesus Christ.