You may not have heard of Frances Whitehead – but if you have read any of John Stott’s books, you will have witnessed her extraordinary handiwork: transforming his handwritten scrawl into immaculate typescript ready for the publishers. For more than 50 years, she worked very closely with him and her perspective on his life and work is unique and valuable.
So it was a total joy for me to spend the best part of a day with her at home in Bourne End, on the Thames, to the west of London, during which our conversation ranged over all kinds of things. 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
Without a doubt, the greatest privilege of working for Langham Partnership is the opportunity to make friends all over the place, especially when one returns to specific places over time. This is certainly the case with a number in the Balkans, of whom Slavko has become the closest. He has been to stay with us in London on numerous occasions (including with his family), and I’ve been able to spend time with them over there. Read more
I’ve been thinking about this for a while – and was spurred finally to do something about it after the inspiring Memorial Service at St Paul’s Cathedral on Friday. It was a great service – the most affecting were the tributes from Frances Whitehead and Ruth Padilla DeBorst as they felt the most personal. But it was good to have input from Africa and Asia as well as Latin America, and a very apt sermon from Bishop Tim Dudley-Smith. Read more
So at last, the time has come. The time for the announcement of the prizes. The Virtual Crunchie can be printed off and enjoyed at your leisure.
There were some excellent entries. And so I felt duty-bound to aware a number of prizes in two categories: Topical and Exegetical. Runners up are honour-bound to share their crunchie with someone else. I’ll know if you eat the whole thing yourself.
Am in Greece this weekend for the launch of Langham Greece. It’s gone really well so far – lots of great discussion. Around 35 attending the conference and around 15-20 watching streaming of it online. REALLY encouraging.
But yesterday we had a free morning and so headed off to Corinth (obviously). I’d no idea that it was only an hour or so from Athens, which was great. We clambered up the Akrocorinth, and wandered around the remains of Ancient Corinth – which are extensive but in parts hard to imagine as intact buildings. You can see the snaps here. Read more
Yesterday was one that will be hard to forget: the funeral of an extraordinary man of God. It was an occasion full of gratitude and even joy, but also overwhelming at moments to say goodbye to Uncle John (or as we were reminded in the service, it is only Au Revoir). There was great pathos to think that, as his coffin was carried out, he was leaving All Souls for the last time. Read more
Yesterday at 3.15, Uncle John died peacefully at his retirement home. We mourn his loss and rejoice with him.
It is very poignant to be writing this today, as we’re all at the Hookses, Uncle John’s retreat in Wales (see yesterday’s post). The place is full of memories of him – he restored it, oversaw its extension, wrote many of his wonderful books here and above all loved it. And so the news of his death is bitter-sweet.
While studying and writing talks for our All Souls week away next month, I’ve been getting up out of my chair every 5-10 minutes taking photos of exactly the same view. All day. Slightly bonkers you might think – and some will wonder how I get anything done. Well, fair question I suppose. But actually I’ve got the sort of will-o’-the-wisp mind that constantly needs interaction with different things. So bizarre as it may seem, I work best when juggling different things. Read more
This is a post I wrote 4 years ago on the occasion of John Stott’s 86th Birthday. Quite a lot has changed since – not least the fact that he has moved into a retirement/care home in Sussex, and is not really able to move around now. But with this milestone, it seemed entirely appropriate to repost, not least because everything I said in this tribute remains true. Read more
On 27th April, John Stott will celebrate his 90th birthday. In the coming years, there will be a great multitude claiming to be inheritors of the Stott legacy. Just has happened with a towering figure like Bonhoeffer, so will it happen to Uncle John. And it is not as outlandish to put them in the same bracket as some may think. For both, albeit in very different ways and as the result of radically different experiences, made a profound impact on twentieth century (and therefore, twenty-first century) Christianity. Of course, some will pick and choose, some will appropriate its mantle without its substance, while others will wonder what all the fuss is about and doubt whether it matters at all.
Well, I think it probably does matter – not least because not to understand the legacy properly is to open the door to a dishonest, partisan or manipulative abuse of history. It is, in large part, a matter of historical, and indeed Christian, integrity. Therefore, this new book, edited by my Langham boss, Chris Wright, and subtitled A Portrait By His Friends, will play something of crucial role in coming years. This is not a chronological account nor deep historical and theological analysis. Those will certainly come in time (and no doubt draw heavily on Timothy Dudley-Smith’s excellent two-volume biography). This is a collection of sketches by some of those who have been closest to him over the years. Thus it will provide essential insights into grasping his personal (though perhaps not his theological) legacy. It really gives a sense of the man (rather better than the image on the cover!). Read more
Apologies for the rather contrived alliteration but couldn’t resist. Have been in Sofia, Bulgaria since Monday and on my way now to Athens for another couple of days’ meetings. Pretty intense but lots of big encouragements. Here in Bulgaria and Greece to plan for the launch of Langham events in both countries this Autumn.
But I was very struck by this sight in a Sofia church’s meeting place, where we’ve been having our meetings and discussions. It’s amidst the brutalists, not because of the character of the neighbours or local inhabitants – far from it! – I’m using the term (albeit rather loosely) in the architectural sense. For this church has created a meeting space on the second floor of a pretty modern apartment block in a classic, anonymous suburb of Sofia. Like so many European cities, it is all grey concrete, girders and pure functionality with little or no attention to aesthetic values. Huge impersonal squares are surrounded by long residential blocks and the odd supermarket or small health-club. But on entering Holy Trinity church, you are confronted by this unexpected blaze of theological colour.
Of course, the predominant Christian tradition in Bulgaria is Orthodox – and this has clear echoes of Orthodox iconography – quite a surprise in a Protestant Evangelical church. But what I found particularly powerful was the sweeping shape of the wooden cross, which is clearly the focal point of the installation – both because it is a the only physical structure in the set up, but also because the wall-painting and the frosted glass window are designed to highlight it (note the crown of thorns traced on both).
Because of the lines and shape of the wood, this is a cross that opens its arms wide in a welcoming embrace and also, somehow, lifts one up in its embrace – which is a profoundly true theological statement. Wonderful. (Click on the photo for one or two other shots).
Of course, the real joy of being here was to get to know some brothers who will form the team for Langham Bulgaria. We had very encouraging discussions and have great hopes for how things could develop here.
Having blogged a few weeks back about the tragedy of Tani Prroj, it seems that all kinds of things have been happening. It has made waves. Out of that terrible evil have come glimmers of good and redemption.
- A big rally against Blood-feuds took place the other day in Tirana, organised by VUSH (the Albanian Evangelical Alliance). The photos and short clip gives an idea of the crowd (filmed during the singing of the national Anthem)
- Various speakers addressed the crowds – but Elona, Tani’s remarkable widow, spoke powerfully and movingly, about the situation despite her profound grief. She made clear that she forgave the perpetrators and that wanted the cycle to stop. The rally was a powerful call for the tradition to end, and justice to be done, right in the heart of the capital.
- On a much smaller note, it has been really encouraging to me (and will certainly be to Elona and the children) to see that readers and friends of this blog have raised well over £3000 for the family – a wonderful testimony to global Christian ties that cross boundaries and even non-acquaintance.
Of course, after the intensity of these weeks, now the real agony begins as the reality bears down on the family. PLEASE PRAY hard for Elona, and the two children (both under 10) who are struggling to come to terms of life without their father.
And while we’re on the subject, a major article (and quoted below in translation) was written in one of the main Albanian newspapers by Besnik Mustafaj (right). He is a former Albanian Ambassador to France and Foreign Minister.
On October 8 this month, the center of Shkodra, in the pedestrian path that Shkodra proudly call “Piaca” in the middle of the day, exactly at 13:30, was killed a man about 30 years old, a father, an Albanian-servant of God, whose name was Dritan Prroj. I have not had the chance to know him. And from his short life mostly just know the circumstances under which he was massacred and those learned from the press. Even know who was a member of the “Evangelical Alliance in Albania…
He was an Albanian pastor at the church “Word of Christ” in his hometown, a choice that he certainly has made himself and sufficient showing his good nature, said more clearly, for his love for people. He was completely innocent. But his life was not snapped in between the age of the most beautiful by accident. It makes our pain and his loss to us even more severe. Killer is a guy 21 years old. I do not deserve mentioning his name in homage to Dritan Prroj. But one thing must be said: he has committed a barbaric act. Killer is in jail now and will probably rot all his youth there and possibly the age of the husband. Woe to the soul the suffering that awaits him!
Dritan Prroj certainly knew that the disaster had caused five years ago his uncle in the family of killers. His family came from Dukagjin and he must have known that Canon. But Dritan Prroj has judged as belonging to adjudicate a citizen of 2000, an Albanian to be honest, a man of God: he is not stuck. Hiding in the house would make Dritan Prroj part of a fault where there was no finger. He has continued to make his own life to help his family, his fellow believers church where served. Dritan Prroj not knowingly be admitted so in tune with his assassin, has refused to do his evil game. Contrary. Blessed his soul to the memory that has left!
Dritan Prroj, refused to hide in the house and this is a adorable and bravery. He paid a very expensive price, it is true. But this is not a reason to think today penance he should be preserved. Why should be preserved when he was not guilty? And by whom should be preserved in the end, when he did not make anyone worse? I guess he guarded by himself, yes, probably preserved by himself not to lose the way of justice. One thing is clear as the light of the sun: from the barbarity of this kind does not save by hiding. Until the last moment of life when even stopped to tell his name to the killer, Dritan Prroj has proved that there was a quiet man with a clear conscience. Such people, who have the audacity to disagree with evil, our civilization needs as much as air. In this sense and this is a superb sense, Dritan Prroj is a hero for our time. We, all of his compatriots, we must turn our eyes for a moment with deep humility towards the hero. Who said that the time of heroes has gone?
Evangelical Alliance in Albania gave to Dritan’ funeral the event that it deserved. And it would like, I am sure now, even the deceased. They walked in silence, dignified city center, upholding placards with calls. I turn to the conscience of our society as much as state law, including leaders of religious communities to join all the weight of each word of his work on behalf of the need to end feud , this “national disaster”, as called Fitor Muça, president of the Evangelical Alliance.
Among those who joined the calls were relatives of Dritan Prroj. And this is a fact particularly important. The significance of his example would be incomplete without their presence at the event where combined into one policy as the work of citizens, morality as obedience of believers and culture like behavior of people who love life, to serve a purpose common: order and social peace. I believe that the presence of relatives of the deceased at that escorts have understood the relatives of the killer, as I found out in Tirana, as an advertisement that between their family and Prroj there will be no revenge. This ominous chain is broken here. Glory to those who breaks the chains like that!
Believing with all my heart and mind in these words that I say, I feel obliged to explain better my opinion. May God forbid anyone to make the mistake and ask to the Prroj family to forgive the killer. Prroj family has no right either to forgive or to punish. It has power only to believe the killer in the hands of justice, in the hands of the law, who strongly wish to show in this case too harsh. With my heart in hand I feel no compassion for the lost youth of the killers, as I do not feel compassion for the endless torture of his parents’ mind today and in the future. I am convinced that 21-year-old boy would not do this if he would not been pushed and encouraged from his close circle of his family. Now it is late to ask them if they really wanted their son to do all this tragedy and to take an innocent life. A few years ago they remained without a son, and that time they were to be comforted, now they are left without two sons. Lord grant them the knowledge to understand how great fault they made to themselves and to the Prroj family!
Besnik Mustafaraj, President of the Albanian Forum for the Alliance of Civilizations
Was in Istanbul last week doing some Langham training each evening. Which meant that I never got back to my B&B until quite late. Which also meant that I was able to pass some of the great sights after dark and when there were very few people around. Wonderful. Here are a few snaps.
- Top: Ataturk monument (Taksim Square); Blue Mosque exterior
- Bottom: Sultan Mausoleum (Hagia Sofia); Blue Mosque exterior
Most of the time i was in meetings – but I did have one free morning. So I was able to visit a couple of museums, the incomparable Istanbul Archaeological Museum and an Islamic Art Exhibition. Saw all kinds of things famous to those with an ancient historical bent. From the top:
- Statue of Shalmaneser III (Assyrian King, 858-824 BC); Bust of Augustus Caesar
- The Fountain of Life (in the Tiled Kiosk -Archaeological museum); Qu’ran calligraphy from AD1432 (Islamic Art exhibition)
I’ve visited Albania to speak on Langham conferences 5 times now – and one or two delegates have been to every single event. One of them is Dritan (known as ‘Tani’) Prroj. I actually alluded him in a post a few years back, although of course not by name.
His story was one that i found impossible to relate to, let alone comprehend. The ‘system’ of blood feuds (if you can call something as irrational and evil as this a system) goes back centuries. (Wiki has some helpful background to blood feuds in general, and the Albanian form, Gjakmarrja in particular). It is all to do with family honour and revenge. One male from a family gets killed – the victim’s family is duty bound to do the same to the killer’s family. And so it goes on.
Some restrictions were laid down in various codes, like the medieval Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini – so you could not take out revenge on women, children and specifically those doing ‘the Lord’s work’. But still, in various places in northern Albania (where it is most common), it seems that hundreds of school children cannot go to school out of fear and their mothers have to be very careful. It’s truly insane. Whole communities have had their men wiped out in the interminable chain of revenge.
A Terrible Legacy comes close to home.
Tani came from northern Albania – the town of Škodra – which is the epicentre of this legacy. He was pastoring a church in the town – the Word of Christ church. But his uncle had murdered someone some time back. So Tani knew that he was a target. Thus, for 3-4 years, he could never set foot outside his house during daylight. In order to come events such as our Tirana conferences he would have to leave under cover of darkness. He led the church from his front room. Leaders in the church would come to him during the week to be mentored, trained and built up. Then they would run things on Sundays in his absence. It’s impossible to conceive of the psychological effect this must have had on him, his wife Elona and their 2 young children (quite apart from their extended family and the church).
But I’d got to know Tani over the years – as I say, he never missed any of our events. And in 2008, he made it to a 3-day retreat I led for 6 pastors in Tirana. We prayed for him and the family specifically for relief over this issue.
So 3 weeks ago, when we were in Vlore, Tani, Elona and I chatted over coffee – and he said that about a year ago, he remembered that he had sensed the Lord’s peace and providence way back at his conversion. And this was renewed, such that he had the courage to give up the hiding and start carrying on their ministry openly. So for the last year or so, having made the deliberate decision to reject their fears and restart normal living. Very excitedly, the told of the amazing fruit from the ministry in their town, with many being struck by the church’s commitment to supporting those in suffering and difficulty. They’d seen a number of people even baptised. Fantastic and not especially common in this part of the world.
And then on Friday afternoon i got an email. Tani had been murdered that day. Leaving a widow and 2 fatherless children. Senseless. Irrational. Evil.
Friends were at his funeral yesterday (Sunday) and it was a very powerful service. Hundreds were present and heard explanations of the hope that the family profess.
What can you do?
- Pray that out of this evil there would be redemption – that this would somehow break the chain of such madness.
- Pray for the family. That in the bitterness of it all, they would … somehow … cling to the merciful grace and providence of their Lord.
- Give. On the encouragement of some friends, I will do what I can to channel any money to Elona and the family as a way of both supporting her and demonstrating our solidarity with her, across cultures and oceans.
Because of the need for simplicity and urgency, please can you either:
- Send me a cheque (made out to me)
- Give me cash if you bump into me – but please don’t send cash in the post if you can possibly help it.
- Pay online directly through Paypal (it can be in US$, € or £ if you do it this way)
Which every way you use, please LET ME KNOW YOUR INTENTIONS by email (if you know it) or by contacting me through this blog). I fully realise that for those who don’t know me it sounds totally iffy that you’re paying me. I will send you a receipt, and send you proof of the transfer when it’s all done. But I wanted to get this done as quickly as possible and this seemed the simplest and least bureaucratic. The only expenses involved will be the cost of the transfer and currency exchange and nothing else. So 99.9% of what is raised will go to the family at this terrible time.
Am in Vlorë, a dusty and concrete port city situated in a beautiful area of southern Albania, for a Langham conference (here’s the sunrise from my room yesterday). All seems to be going really well, which is no small relief.
I was chatting to a friend this morning, who told me about a classic example of good intentions going pear-shaped when crossing cultural divides.
Emerging from decades of suffering under the world’s only officially atheist communist regime, Albania was in terrible shape in 1991. The church was barely existent – and the national economy was a disaster. No wonder, then, that as people came into pastoral work, financial support was a huge problem. And naturally, overseas churches wanted to help. But such help can really backfire, unless there is real care and cultural sensitivity.
My friend told me about a church in a small, relatively remote village, which would have an annual summer camp at the seaside. The venue was very basic, to say the least. Basically a field, without many facilities or toilets etc. But it was a great event, and it was an annual highlight for the church community for several years.
A church in the US (though it could have been from anywhere, since churches from many other countries have done similar things) developed a relationship through this fellowship and sought to help. So a couple of years ago, they kindly sent over a sum of money (not a large amount from an American perspective but huge for Albania). This enabled the church to book a small hotel – and everyone, naturally and wonderfully, had a great time.
But this was a one-off gift. Generous, well-intentioned, but limited. And there was no way that the church could repeat the booking. However, having tasted the (relatively) high life, no one wanted to go back to their field.
Consequently, the church has not had any camps since. Their gain had been great but short-lived; in the longer-term, their loss was huge.
Last Sunday, I was teaching on the last bit of Hebrews 12. I found it a hugely challenging passage, inevitably. But throughout my prep, my mind kept drifting back to one of my Turkey jaunts just over a year ago. I met with some believers in a small, very remote town – where they are of course vastly outnumbered in the local population. This is a shot of the small room where they meet.
It struck me that to understand how this passage works, we need to restore some vocabulary sadly fallen into disuse. I put it like this:
Now at the risk of sounding like I’ve just walked off the pages of a Jane Austen novel, I want to resurrect the old-fashioned use of two words: Sensible and Insensible. For the original meaning of sensible was not being all boring and level-headed. No – if something was sensible it could be sensed whether through sight, taste, hearing or touch. If something was insensible, it couldn’t. Simple as that.
And we are so indoctrinated in our culture to believe that if something is not sensible (in the old sense), it’s not real. But that’s nonsense. We all know that human senses are too weak and limited to notice all kinds of things. Just try looking for butter in the fridge just by standing in front of it. But still the idea persists. And it is something that we must reject. If I can put it like this, we most open our eyes to the invisible.
The room doesn’t seat more than perhaps 25 or 30 – it no doubt gets pretty cosy in summer when they all come. And when they meet, they can still hear the sound of the imams’ call to prayer echoing around the city. And I tried to imagine something of the feelings and thoughts of the huddle of believers when they meet. Which is not perhaps that different from how many of the Jewish Christians might have felt back in the 1st Century: surrounded, perhaps even hunted down; pressured to return to the Jewish faith culture of their childhood and families.
And so I imagined how Hebrews might have sought to encourage them, using particularly the words of 12:22-24.
- You walk into this unassuming Turkish house. But you’ve actually come to Mount Zion: the rock on which the Jerusalem Temple was built – but not an earthly city, a heavenly city.
But it doesn’t look like it, does it?
- When you sing the opening song with your 15 out of tune friends in that room, you’re actually joined by 1000s of 1000s joyful angels in heaven.
But it doesn’t sound like it, does it?
- When your small group meets, you actually join the church of the firstborn whose names are written in heaven. In other words, the billions of fellow believers living around the world.
But it doesn’t feel like it, does it?
- You recall risks you took to get to church in the first place, but remember: you’ve also come to To God, the judge of all. He knows it all and will do something about it.
But it doesn’t seem likely does it?
- But in case you pay the ultimate price, remember that many others have and are cheering you on – they’ve gone ahead of you and are with you, those are the spirits of the righteous already made perfect.
But that doesn’t look possible, does it?
- But what makes it possible, worth it, above all, real? Well, when you meet, you come To Jesus and his precious blood shed on the cross. This blood brings forgiveness, it brings hope and it brings reality.
And supremely, it convinces us that this is no fairy story – but the reality and truth. It convinces us that the insensible is as real as the insensible. So much more is happening when we meet together than meets the eye. So in a way, yes, we are in heaven. Wherever we meet…
Some news this week has left me feeling very depressed indeed.
These thoughts have been buzzing round my mind for years, but I’ve been provoked to post by 2 friends’ unconnected experiences: both have suffered at the hands of autocratic church leadership. I’m very fortunate not to have to deal with this in my current job, as I work for and with someone who is the antithesis of such things. But I’ve had enough close contact with it (and counselled others who have suffered it) in the past.
A Crying Need
I remember going to visit John Stott back in 2000, in the months before taking up my job in Uganda, a context that he had some familiarity with. I asked him the question I asked many others before and during my years in Kampala – “what do you think the Ugandan church needs?” Uncle John barely blinked before responding: “Servant Leaders”. I certainly encountered a number of Ugandan Christians who are wonderful examples of such leadership. But sadly, they are far outnumbered by those who are not. Stott was absolutely right.
But this need is far from exclusive to Uganda. It is true everywhere – I’ve heard of its desperate lack on my travels in Eastern Europe and the US – and obviously know it’s a UK problem. As the two achingly depressing stories this week prove.
Handling Power Well?
We have SO much more thinking to do in the area of power. Power is a fact of life; it is a fact of church life. We can’t avoid it. It’s just that we must learn how to handle it well when we have it: in the pulpit, chairing meetings, appointing and managing staff and volunteers, discipling young believers etc. Yet too many naïvely assume it’s not really their problem. Others never consider carefully how to wield the authority they do have. While a few are so scared of the trappings of power that they try to avoid the responsibilities of their jobs altogether. We have a long way to go…
At the very least, we must heed the warnings and model of Christ himself. (Matthew 20:25 & Philippians 2:5-11) etc – and bizarrely enough, I took the theme of servant leadership when preaching on Phil 2 just before Easter.
One of the first things we must do is to identify the tell-tale signs. I’m not suggesting that you can find all these traits in one leader. But the combination of even a few of them makes for a grizzly cocktail… And I articulate them not to point fingers or to name and shame – but to search hearts, especially my own. For none of us is immune…
Features of an autocrat’s pathology
- Leaders don’t have to give (let alone even have) reasons for their decisions… they simply expect to be ‘trusted’. Of course, gut instinct has its part to play, especially for those who have long experience of leadership – but if this is the basis for a decision, then at least have the grace to acknowledge it.
- Disagreement (whether on matters theological, pastoral or strategic etc) is regarded as personal betrayal. This a tricky one, I realise – because every conceivable grouping of human beings will contain its own awkward squad – and their motivations are not always pure, to say the least. But betrayal necessarily…? That is an indication of steps too far.
- Church members are merely pawns on the ministry masterplan chessboard. I saw this in Uganda on a number of occasions, where bishops would move their ministers around the diocese to neutralise rivals. But it happens in local churches too…
- Numerical growth is presumed to imply personal endorsement: thus new converts or new members (esp if they are celebrated for some reason outside Christian circles) are seen as trophies of a leader’s ministry, not trophies of gospel grace. No wonder a celebrity culture of church leaders has emerged (which is the complete opposite of what Paul expects of his leaders in 1 Corinthians 1:12). But an autocrat will be grimly possessive about ‘his converts’.
- Seeing the ‘ministry grow’ (whatever that means and entails) becomes the end that justifies every means: pragmatism rules and integrity withers. This is the logical outworking of shoot first, seek forgiveness later. After all, that’s what the gospel does, isn’t it?! But while I’m all for pragmatism as a servant, it is horrific as a master – as Machiavelli once proved…
- Ministry teams are monochrome, or compliant, or both: diversity is a threat to an autocrat, because the leader has to be the best at everything that the team/church does (after all, that’s why he’s the leader, isn’t it?!)…
Each one of these features requires elaboration – each is probably worthy of a blog post of its own. But it’s a start.
We must turn our back on such things, as they characterise some of the shameful ways of ministry we are called to shun when we preach Christ not ourselves. It is not kingdom thinking.
O Lord, deliver us…