I came across this remarkable, inspiring story at the end of David Smith’s excellent The Kindness of God, a plea for a new missiology appropriate to these troubled times. It comes a professor friend of his who has ministered for many years in Jos, Plateau State in northern Nigeria. Jos sits on Africa’s great faultline between the Muslim north and Christian south – and thus has faced terrible things in recent years. Read more
While I was in the States at the end of last month, I had an afternoon to kill in Philadelphia. So the completely obvious thing to do was record another Q conversation. This time I sat down to chat with Ruth Naomi Floyd, whom I’d met at the European Leadership Conference in Hungary a few years ago. It’s available on iTunes podcasts, or if you prefer a direct feed, here on Jellycast.
It’s been a germ of an idea for ages, but at last it’s finally come about. Q now has a podcast. Hurrah. I can just sense the infectious excitement simply oozing throughout cyberspace. But there are loads of fascinating people out there: hearing how a few live out their lives and passions ought to be fun. Doncha think?
Well, whatever you feel about the prospect of Q podcasts in general, the inaugural episode in particular is definitely exciting because last week, I had the chance to record a conversation with the very talented and thought-provoking Dutch filmmaker, Jaap van Heusden. Here is the link on iTunes (or if you don’t have that, direct through Jellycast) Read more
This is important. Bishop Zac Niringiye used to be my sort-of boss for the 4 years we worked in Uganda. He was the secretary of the trustees of the college I taught in and had actually been someone I consulted about life there before we moved in 2004. His advice to me was simple then. “Don’t try to be a Ugandan, Mark. You’re not. You’re a Brit.” Superb – of course cultural sensitivity is essential – but it is only works if it is accompanied by authenticity and integrity. Zac is a strong character with strong passions and a good mind (he was a Langham scholar, doing his theology PhD in Scotland). He’s not always easy! But he’s someone with real integrity and gospel concern. Read more
Just read a spine-chiller in the latest New Yorker about PACs, SuperPACs and the growth industry that is behind political attack ads. Jane Mayer’s Attack Dog - The creator of the Willie Horton ad is going all out for Mitt Romney is depressing stuff. For the uninitiated, and unless you follow US politics closely, there’s no reason at all why you should be initiated, PACs are Political Action Committees. Read more
We actually took Epiphany quite seriously at All Souls this year – by which I mean we spent the first 2 Sunday mornings in January looking at Matthew 2. It’s actually quite an unsettling chapter for all kinds of reasons. Quite apart from many of the historical challenges raised by some (though which I think are more than adequately engaged with in commentaries by the likes of Carson, France and Morris), there are some frankly bizarre or horrific elements to the narrative. Read more
Last week saw the final instalment of the little 1 Cor 1 series in the undercroft chapel in Westminster. Unfortunately, we had the slight inconvenience of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement happening on the same day, and as this had been brought forward to 12.30, there were few who were able to come. No worries though. We happy few had a happy time.
And how nice it was to have a Christmas tree in the centre of Westminster Hall. No thought of winterval here… yet. But give it time I suppose. Now, was it my imagination or does this tree look as though it is leaning to the right…? I’m sure that can’t be significant, can it?
The news from Norway has defied words. Senseless, mindless, pointless; it is cruel, irrational evil. And supposedly in the name of Christ. Sickening.
I always resist to tweet or post about every event or topical twist and turn. I’m just not that kind of blogger, I guess. Read more
- The dilemma for Iraqi Christians
- Charts showing the difference between NIV2011 and previous versions, and here. (HT Antony Billington)
- Full schedule of Lausanne III at Cape Town to see videos of main talks etc
- Bring Advent to life by following Natwivity on Twitter
- David Instone-Brewer at Tyndale House has very helpfully reviewed a variety of computer resources for the bible scholar – check them out at Tyndale Tech
- If you know anything about recent Balkan history, this news is an encouraging sign.
- Books vs eBooks – an interesting Newsweek chart
- Very interesting article about what Americans feel about their ex-Presidents.
- Scary infographic about internet porn. (HT Simple Pastor)
- The problem of contemporary parental discipline:
- Ever been on an overnight flight? Well this sums up the experience perfectly.
- I love tilt-shift photos – clever focus manipulation that makes real life scenes look like models. Check these out.
- Some rather fun and quirky photographs from everyday London.
- I rather like these Ukrainian designs for playing cards
- 50 office jargon phrases we just totally hate
- Some fascinating cartographic futurology from the ever reliable Strange Maps
- People are awesome (not dumb… mostly) …!
- Rather fun reflection by Kevin Connolly on James Bond, America and post-war austerity
Following on from previous post, there is GOOD NEWS.
Thank you so much for all your support of Sherif. Phase 1 of the campaign is complete! Fantastic. SHERIF IS HOME!!
Now for Phase 2 – this should never have happened. And who knows how many others there are out there suffering the same fate but without voices to plead their cause?
We will be working out how best to rephrase the letters to send out – and we’ll hopefully be able to explain more about exactly what has happened. But it is still worth working at this, even if the urgency has gone.
We will keep you posted and the website updated in due course. Watch these spaces…
On 9th November, we had the terrible news from friends at All Souls. Emma and her Egyptian husband, Sherif, who only got married at All Souls in the summer, were travelling to Cairo to visit members of his family. She was immediately put back on the plane she had come in; Sherif was detained. Over the last couple of weeks, contact has been sporadic, mainly by email but one brief phone call.
I was asked to set up a campaigning website for them, and this is now live. The address is www.ReleaseSherif.com
On it we are posting:
- up to date information of Sherif’s situation
- letters that you can write to your MP, William Hague (UK Foreign Secretary) and the Egyptian Ambassador to the UK
- links to background information about the situation of human rights and persecution of the Egyptian church
PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE
- Pass the message around – we’ve set up a TWITTER hashtag: #ReleaseSherif – please follow this for more news
- Write letters to your MP and other key figures
- PRAY for Sherif to be released
We’ve done a short series on Acts 13-14 recently, and I had the job of wrapping things up, with just the last 8 verses or so. I have to say that I slightly panicked at what I initially, but erroneously, assumed was a rather slight and inconsequential passage.
It’s actually quite key to understanding what was about to happen at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. It comes at the end of the famous First Missionary Journey that Paul and Barnabas undertake on commission from the Church in Antioch. And so I tried to put the whole journey (from Acts 13:1-14:28) into the perspective of both what comes before (in particular, Paul’s conversion in Acts 9) and the Jerusalem Council discussions of how to handle all the Gentiles getting converted. This is obviously part and parcel of Luke’s overarching agenda with the Book of Acts in seeing the gospel rippling out from the Jerusalem epicentre.
When you do this you find how central the 2 elements of Jesus’ commission to Paul in Acts 9, and the 2 summary points made in their Acts 4 debrief are to the whole story:
- PREACHING TO GENTILES (& Jews) Acts 9:15 – Paul is ‘chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles … and Israel’
- SUFFERING & OPPOSITION Acts 9:16 – Paul will be shown ‘how much he must suffer for my name’
Then check out the end of the section:
- SUFFERING & OPPOSITION Acts 14:22 – We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God
- PREACHING TO THE GENTILES (& Jews) Acts 14:27 – God opened the door of faith to the Gentiles
Once you see this, Luke’s selectivity in recording Paul & Barnabas’ experiences on their journey make perfect sense. Here’s a summary overview, picking out these two elements:
The next point to strike me on doing this was the escalating intensity of people’s reactions, as the journey proceeds:
- positively – the numbers of responses grow, and the proportion of Jews/Gentiles believing shifts towards the latter
- negatively – the seriousness and horror of the persecution deepens
You can listen to the whole talk here.
One of my big tasks every summer is to do the talks for our church week away, usually all from one book. It’s a challenge, but one that is a joy because it is the only real opportunity for getting stuck into one book of the Bible. This year the focus was John’s gospel. One of the problems with the gospels is our over-familiarity. So to give it all a bit of a different spin, I took John’s bookends (his prologue (John 1:1-18) and closing summary statement (20:30-31) as our base of operations), with a view to seeing how they point to the book’s big themes.
Here is the outline of the talks
- The Beginning: THE WORD OF LIFE (John 1:1-18)
- The Revelation: SIGNS OF GOD (John 8:31-59)
- The Gospel: LOVE FOR THE UNLOVELY (John 3:1-21)
- The Battle: LIGHT vs DARKNESS (John 9)
- The Family: LIFE ON THE VINE (John 13:1-17)
- The Privilege: TRUST & LIVE – ALL-AGE TALK (John 20:24-31)
- Seminar: CAN WE TRUST JOHN’S GOSPEL?
In case it is of interest and use, there are various means for getting hold of some of this material. The talks are available as an iTunes podcast (click on the image). If you don’t have iTunes, you can get hold of them thru Jellycast.
Handouts are available for download from Scribd.
For those who prefer the printed word, here are the transcripts:
I can’t now remember why I was there, but back in early 1989 I had a couple of hours to kill in Oxford (it was probably on a trip to get things sorted before going up to university). And I popped into Blackwells (left) one of the great meccas for all bibliophiles (though it has been knocked off my perch of personal favourites by Daunt Books in Marylebone High St).
I wandered around for a bit, and then noticed that there was quite a throng. I’d no idea what was going on, but in the great tradition of British (and Russian) shoppers, I saw the queue and so joined it. And it so happened that it was leading to a book-signing by the great Russian poet, Irina Ratushinskaya. I knew absolutely nothing about her, nor her circumstances. But nevertheless, I dutifully waited, purchased and had signed – here’s a pic of my copy of her small anthology Pencil Letter.
It’s hard to imagine the dark days of the cold war now. But when I had my book signed, the fall of the Berlin Wall was still months away and unimaginable. She was exiled in the mid 80s and speaking up for those still suffering back home – hence the book tour. I subsequently discovered that before leaving Russia, she was a courageous dissident and Christian believer – despite the fact that she ended up in a notoriously horrific Soviet labour camp, in which she suffered terrible malnutrition, torture, and nearly died.
Fortunately, she had learned how to memorise and write in such circumstances from the master Alexander Solzhenitsyn. She would use bars of soap, matchsticks and constant repetition in order to sustain her creative impulses and dutifully record the atrocities while enduring the camp’s so-called ‘small zone’. To give a taste, here’s the title poem from this book, written in the KGB cells in Kiev while waiting for her trial in November 1982. It lasts for several pages, but here is the opening section:
I know it won’t be received
Or sent. The page will be
In shreds as soon as I have scribbled it.
Later. Sometime. You’ve grown used to it,
Reading between the lines that never reached you,
Understanding everything. On the tiny sheet,
Not making haste, I find room for the night.
What’s the hurry, I find room for the night.
What’s the hurry, when the hour that’s passed
Is all part of the same time, the same unknown term.
The word stirs under my hand
Like a starling, a rustle, a movement of eyelashes.
Everything’s fine. But don’t come into my dream yet.
In a little while i will tie my sadness into a knot,
Throw my head back and on my lips there’ll be a seal,
A smile, my prince, although from afar.
Can you feel the warmth of my hand
Passing through your hair, over your hollow cheek.
December winds have blown on your face…
How thin you are.. Stay in my dream.
Open the window. The pillow is hot.
Footsteps at the door, and a bell tolling in the tower:
Two, three… Remember, you and I never said
Goodbye. It doesn’t matter.
Four o’clock… That’s it. How heavily it tolls.
Anyway, I was stimulated to take down her book from the shelf when leafing through Steve Turner’s poetry again the other day and came across this poem about her. Wonderful. A great homage to a great poet.
We beat her
and she lost weight
She lost blood.
She lost consciousness.
But she never lost hope.
She never lost poetry
And she was never lost.
You must have to beat real hard
to get the God
out of these people;to still the noise of heaven
in their hearts.
It was just a few years ago. 1966 in fact. An Albanian (Vangjel Toçi) living in Durrës (the country’s largest port and site of the ancient Roman city of Dyrrachium), noticed that a fig tree in his garden had suddenly sunk a few feet into the ground. All very weird. Read more
Having visited Romania a couple of times, and talked to a number of Romanians when in Hungary for the ELF, I had heard amazing stories of what Christians did during the dark days of the Ceauşescu regime. So I thought it was time to share a few.
Pastoral training … incognito in the shadows
I’m acutely aware of how great my privilege is to be able to travel and spend time with people in ministry across Eastern Europe – training, encouraging, getting alongside (quite apart from learning tons myself). And what’s more, it is all very straightforward and relatively stress-free. I hop on a plane, walk into these countries without a visa, and go about my business. But it wouldn’t have been like that 20 years ago. While in Hungary I had the joy of getting to know, and hear the story of, a Romanian American. He has lived in the US since 1982, when he managed to emigrate in his early 20s.
The eagle-eyed will have realised that this was of course 7 years before the end of Communism – things were bleak and very tough for Romanian Christians, not to mention everyone else. Because Romania needed trade with the USA, they agreed a quota of emigrants (in most eastern european, the thought of leaving was out of the question). My friend was one of the very fortunate few. But what is remarkable is that he was able to do this despite some of the things he was involved in. For he used to be an interpreter for english-speaking pastoral trainers who came to his town.
The circumstances of this training were remarkable, and exceptionally dangerous for everyone involved. Somehow, the handful of Christians in the town would be sent word that a trainer was coming. They were just told a time to meet him at the railway station. My friend would go and pick him up (you could tell a westerner a mile off in a crowd), take him to someone’s flat, where 3 or 4 Christian leaders would be waiting. The trainer would stay a couple of hours, train, and then leave. They never knew his name. They never knew where he lived. They never knew where he was going on. My friend only knew that there was a group of people like this (he thinks they were American and British) probably based out of Vienna. Every single person was taking immense risks just to be in the room. But such was the commitment of all of them to get training for ministry.
And Romania today has between half and a million evangelical protestants – out of a total population of 20 million. Extraordinary fruit from a very small, risky but hugely important work.
An irrational fear of the bible?
During the Hungary conference, we heard an address from a dynamic Romanian pastor who related some of his experiences as a young border / customs guard in the dying days of Ceaucescu’s regime. He had a Christian background, but wasn’t a believer at that stage. His colleagues would tell stories about the sorts of things they used to get up to, especially when it came to intimidating westerners trying to travel into the country. One thing they said hit home for him: they would talk about how they were mainly on the search for three things: GUNS, DRUGS & BIBLES.
Now, he could understand why guns were banned – their power was obvious. Drugs were obviously a very destructive and negative influence. But bibles? He’d been taught in school that God didn’t exist and the Bible was a collection of made up fairy-tales. If that was the case, then why make such a big deal of it? If it really was nonsense, surely people would read it and simply dismiss it for what it clearly was? But it was clear that the regime was very afraid of the threat posed by bibles. So they were banned.
And this was what, ironically enough, led to this speaker deciding there might be something to the Bible after all – he read one, and came to faith in God. So perhaps they were right to try to ban them after all…!
I’ve been to Romania a couple of times – and I well remember one friend who is now himself a pastor, describing what life was like for his father – he remained a pastor for many years under Communism. I was very surprised to hear it, because i assumed such jobs would have been practically impossible full-time, let alone legal – but it seems that the church was able to pay his salary. This friend’s comment was simply that there was so little in the shops for people to buy anyway, they were easily able to give their church enough to support a full-time minister.
But of course there were snags. For one, each Romanian worker needed papers to allow him or her to work in a particular town. If you moved town for whatever reason, you had to apply from the local council for new papers – or face a fine. or worse. But when this pastor was called by the church to lead them, it entailed moving away from his home area. But the new local council refused to give him the papers. Which resulted in trip to the council to pay the fine every Monday morning – for the next 20 years… The church gave him the funds to pay it each week, simply taking it on as one of the expenses of having him as their pastor.
What strikes me about this is the sheer maliciousness and petty mindedness of it. So pointless but still mildly intimidating – just a drip drip, wearing down of the marginalised. It could have been much worse of course. And no doubt there were other moments of genuine fear and cruelty. But this epitomised the absurdity of what they were trying to do.
All these people are an inspiration – because they illustrate how, in adverse circumstances, believers can survive… and even thrive.
Yesterday, I left Hungary having had a great time at the ELF in Eger. So encouraging – and quite apart from the excitements of seeing folk on our network again and being involved in teaching, I was able to have some very encouraging conversations with folks from Austria, Greece, Macedonia and Bulgaria in particular. Things are really developing fast in some of those places for our work.
But am now in the Czech Republic for a few days, to do a weekend for the International Church of Prague. Had a couple of hours this morning to wander around with Simon, one of my hosts. So good to be back here. Prague is one of my favourite places on earth. Simon has been here for 18 months or so and had not yet had the chance to visit the Museum of Communism and so off we went this morning. It’s quite small – essentially a converted flat in the centre of town – but as well as tracing the history of the country during the 20th century, it manages to convey something of the atmosphere of fear and oppression. Unusually, one is allowed to take photos, so I took a few.
In one room was a looped video narrating the story of communism and in particular the protests against it. Both of us were blown away by a song that accompanied footage of police beating up peaceful protesters in Wenceslas Square in 1989 (during the months leading up to the regime’s fall). When we got home, Simon discovered that it was written by one Karel Kryl, who had lived in exile for much of the time, but wrote string of folk songs about his homeland. Very sadly, he died only a few years after the Velvet Revolution.
The song is simply called THANKS – and is full of profoundly Christian imagery – and speaks of the extraordinary ability of people standing up for truth and justice to endure suffering and even to find redemption through it.
Karel Kryl – Thanks
Lyrics – translation taken from this fan site
God created, created a branch
So as I could make wreaths
Thanks, Thanks for the pain
That teaches me to question
Thanks, Thanks for the failure
That teaches me to work harder
So that I could bring a gift
Despite my weakness
Thanks, thanks, thanks Thanks
Thanks for the weakness
That teaches me to be humble
To be humble with joy
To be humble without any bondage
Thanks, Thanks for tears
That teach me to be sensitive
To be sensitive for those who suffer
Who suffer and cry out for mercy
Thanks, thanks, thanks
Thanks for the desire for beauty
That gives me something to long for
Thanks for the fact
That love combats spite
For the sweetness
Sweetness of falling asleep
Thanks for the feeling of tiredness
For blazing of fire
For rushing of rivers
Thanks for the thirst
That was revealed by my weakness
Thanks for the torment
That inspires good deeds.
For the fact
That I love
Although my heart is constricted by anxiety
Lamb, Thank you
You did not die in vain.
Thanks, thanks, thanks
Very powerful – not least because of the images juxtaposed with it in the museum.
Still, I couldn’t help wondering, as we left the museum, what would have happened had the Cold War ended very differently? What if it had been the West that collapsed? What would a Museum of Capitalism then have looked like?
While I definitely prefer to live in a democratic and capitalist society (no surprises there), and think there are certain aspects of it that are clearly better than communism, it is by no stretch of the imagination perfect – not least because it is equally constructed on the flimsy, flawed foundations of modernity. I fear there would easily be enough material to prove capitalist complicity in iniquity…
- Vinoth Ramachandra, in the midst of a very stressful situation, writes trenchantly from a Sri Lankan perspective about the Healthcare debates in the USA. I have to say I’m inclined to agree.
- In case you missed it, Frank Skinner’s wonderfully fresh and wry take on persecution and being a Christian minority
- Helpful advice on how to review books from Tim Challies
- Some equally helpful advice on how to lead public prayers by Kevin DeYoung.
- Breathtaking: a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel (without any other tourists!) (HT Francis Meynell)
- An amazing ‘apology’ from the New York Times. What more needs saying…? (HT Charlie Cumming)
- Calendars can be reused every 28 years… so go on… what’s stopping you?!
- It’s estimated that the bee population in the UK halved between 1985 and 2005. Could you be a key to reversing the decline by keeping bees in your urban garden???
- The Brand Quiz – much harder than it looks… but definitely absorbing (in a fairly pointless way)! I got 16 by the way (which probably means I’m branded for life).
- How millennial are you? A quick quiz from the Pew Foundation.
- The London Olympic Site in Stratford is gradually taking shape:
- Ingenious: Dorling Kindersley’s Future of Publishing (HT Ed Moll)
- This picture on the right is, believe or not, a clock. Click on it to find out more. How cool is that?
- I love Google Earth – here is a rather cool list for the armchair traveller.
- Yet more perils of using online translators for Welsh road signs.
- Madagascar’s incredible stone forest – another gem from National Geographic.
- It helps to keep your eyes peeled: what happened when someone noticed an unbelievable airmiles deal on puddings.
Here are a couple of websites to keep an occasional eye on:
- Curious Expeditions – a lovely concept – looking for the quirky and bizarre from history (HT Peter Collier)
- NCBI-ROFL – from the plain weird to the downright dodgy, this keeps you up to date with the oddest, published scientific research papers.
- The development of 4 stories. Thanks to the reliably wonderful Strange Maps blog, here is a map tracing 4 seminal plotlines, through history: