I’ve no evidence to back up this claim, but I strongly suspect that those who have the news on 24/7 will go mad. Simply because 99.9% of news items (which usually consist in the urgent rather than the important) are bad – and when taken in such large doses, they can propel one into the deepest of pits. Or perhaps that’s just me. Anyway, we need antidotes, things that bring joy, delight and perhaps even a little dose of optimism. In other words, things to be grateful for.
Notice how none of my list involves spending much (if any) money. Which says something in itself, does it not…? Read more
It is not just the victims of imperialism who easily identify its sins and blindspots. Those who have wielded and then lost empires are quick to spot the parallels in others’. Perhaps that was partly why Graham Greene was such a caustic critic of what he perceived as the twentieth century’s new imperialist incarnation: the United States. Of course Greene had strong left-wing sympathies and was openly anti-American, which provided convenient filters by which the right could ignore his perspectives. It’s no surprise that he was under FBI surveillance from the 1955 publishing of The Quiet American until his death in 1991. Read more
Back in Parliament yesterday, and I unexpectedly arrived a little early – so found myself waiting for around 15 minutes in Westminster Hall. It was idyllic – the sun streaming through the great south windows. Perfect for reflections on the extraordinary events that occurred on this very spot: from monarchs and statesmen lying in state (the most recent, of course, being the Queen Mother), to grand inquisitions and historic orations (such as Mandela in 1996, the extraordinary moment of seeing a Pope address both Houses in 2010, and then Obama this year, the first US President to address both Houses from the Hall).
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
Was leafing through the Royal Academy of Art magazine this week – and encountered this photograph filling a whole page. Was blown away.
It’s utterly mesmerising and bewildering all at the same time. Where are we? An airport? A fancy dress party? A film set? Who are all these people anyway? And what are they up to?
It is in fact a photograph taken in 2007 by Andreas Gursky called Kuwait Stock Exchange I. And it manages to convey the incongruities of the modern world, with a forum equipped with the latest communications technology populated by hundreds of men (not a woman in sight), dressed in the formality and uniformity of classic Arab desert dress. It is a picture of anonymity – even those who knew them wouldn’t really be able to tell them apart from this angle – it all looks beautifully stage-managed and set up. But i suspect it isn’t.
There are all kinds of interesting contrasts with another of his images, this time from the Chicago Board of Trade:
This is equally mesmerising – but this time is a living fireworks display of colour. Half close your eyes, and it could almost be a Jackson Pollock. Wonderful.
Photography at its best should do this – show us the world in a new way. Here is beauty in the rawest of capitalist temples… Surprising really.
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…
I recently surfed (via StumbleUpon) to another random photo compilation, this time of the inestimable Yves Arthus-Bertrand (he of the amazing Earth from Above photos). His images are always stunning. And the compilation is certainly remarkable. But this one stood out, even though it is by no means one of his more spectacular images. It gave me this weird sense of deja-vu – and I couldn’t place it for a while. (If you’re interested, it’s of some very unusual suburbs in Copenhagen.)
Then it came back to me. But a few years ago, while we were still living in Uganda, I had the chance to go on a day’s flight around Uganda with an old friend, Laurie, a pilot with MAF. Every few years, they need to fly to each of the airstrips in the country to measure them (to make sure they’re not shrinking because of weeds and other growth), to check coordinates are right and other tests. As it was not possible to use this to take passengers, I was able to go along with them.
As we were flying over the remote and underdeveloped region of Karamoja (near Uganda’s border with Kenya), we saw these Karamajong villages far below us. Ring any bells?
The Karamajong are a people group whose lives revolve around cattle. Their wealth is measured in heads of cattle; their diet is built on the staples of cows’ milk, cows’ blood and beef; their lifestyles entirely revolve around the care, protection and health of their herds. And as you can see vividly from the air, their social planning does too. For in the centre of each settlement is an area to keep the family’ herd at night. The reason is simple – one of the other activities they get involved in is cattle rustling. Feuds with the other clans, and with the other people groups across the border like the Turkana, go back decades even centuries. This social phenomenon, probably more than any other factor else, drives this sort of town planning.
It’s especially interesting when placed alongside one I took on that trip in another area of Uganda – this time Busoga, the area around the source of the Nile at Jinja. As you can see, this is a very different arrangement. This time the protective ring is not dwellings around the herd, but trees around the dwellings. This is a fertile area of the country, as you can tell by the greenness, and these are arable farmers.
I’m by no means a social anthropologist nor do I have anything particularly profound to say. But it did provoke some thoughts about how we go about protecting what we value. Are we then to assume from the Danish image that their most important possessions are their cars? Probably not because the innovative plan is not designed to keep outsiders out as an experiment in forming new units for community.
However, what do we invest in protecting? And more to the point, what do we not invest in protecting? Simply looking for clues like what gets locked up most rigourously or protected most assiduously might just reveal something about where our hearts lie…
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…
- Mark Ashton writes powerfully and movingly about his battle with terminal cancer. Part 1 here.
- Not normally a total devotee (as some are in the habit of being!) but Mark Driscoll is at his most trenchant when talking here about ministry idolatry.
- Anglican Mainstream have helpfully listed the numbers of Anglicans around the world – of whom 80% now live in the ‘global south’.
- BBC History Magazine has a great article in last month’s edition about the times when Britain has called a National Day of Prayer.
- Love this idea: 66 books of the bible each summed up by one of its verses. I would quibble with one or two – but take my hat off to the attempt. (HT Beth)
- A fascinating American perspective on the UK Leadership debates from Hendrik Hertzberg.
- What war can do: a comparison between Kabul in 1970 and 2010:
- There’s been a whole load of kerfuffle (lost in the General Election storm) about the recent Digital Economy Bill (one of the very last acts of the previous parliament). Lots of potentially foolish and even frightening stuff in it. Tom Watson, PPC for West Bromwich East, has some very sensible Digital Pledges. There’s also this, rather more ‘direct’ response!
- And while we’re on th topic of technology affecting our lives, Wired has a salutary investigation about the effectiveness (or not) of CCTV cameras in the UK. Did you know that Shetland Islands Council has more CCTV cameras than San Francisco?
- A 6-year old gets a polling card – this is how he’d vote.
- Obama dancing with heads of state: a timelapse compilation from the Washington Nuclear Summit
- How China mourns an earthquake: websites go black and white (HT 22 Words)
- The new unit of measurement in UK life: “THE TESCO“
- Check out the British Library’s coming Magnificent Maps exhibition. Some amazing ones on the website
- A wonderful slideshow celebrating the 20 years’ achievements of the Hubble Space Telescope
- Oops – not a great start to a driving career.
- What should you do with spare bits of lego? You can do a LOT worse than what this guy’s done…
- Beware the small print – you might sign away your own soul. Literally.
- This is pretty amazing: a CG version of Stockholm library… a fabulous library that dreams are made of!
- 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:
Having painted something of an amateurish potted 20th Century history of Sarajevo, here is one story that gave me great hope.
Last week, I was meeting in Sarajevo with a small group of pastors in Bosnia. It’s estimated that there are only around 750 Protestant believers in the whole country (pop: 4.6 million) – and one of the hard things about being Protestant in the Balkans is that you’re misunderstood at best, avoided or despised by everyone else (because, of course, religion is integral to Balkan identity: Croatia=Catholic, Serbia=Orthodox, Bosnia=Muslim).
And yet the Christian gospel has the power to rise above and transform these identities.
One friend, R, had been in what was then the Yugoslav army – after the fall of communism, this was commandeered by the Serbian government in Belgrade and in 1991 sent into Croatia to prevent it seceding from Yugoslavia. S was just a regular soldier, but found himself fighting in Vukovar – the subject of a post from a previous visit to Croatia and a brutal episode in a horrifying decade. R is ethnically Serb but from Bosnia, and wasn’t a Christian at the time. After a year, he went AWOL from Croatia, and left for his home town of Sarajevo. Only to find that this was now under siege. Unlike many of his relatives who joined the Serb army because of ethnic allegiance, S fought to defend his city with fellow Bosnians. But he was lost in life, a feeling exacerbated by month after month guarding his sentry post during the siege. Drink and despair drove him to a friend who told him about the Christian message. He is now full-time in ministry.
P is a Croatian by background, whose family comes from Vukovar. During the 1991 siege of the city, P’s mother was injured by gunfire, but mercifully not killed (unlike many others). P’s family has been in ministry over several generations, and he is now committed to working in Bosnia.
Years later, P was talking about the past in a meeting (not an easy thing to do in this part of the world) and he mentioned what had happened to his family in 1991. And suddenly R realised the implications – in fact, he could even remember the specific day. Horrified, he realised that it could even have been him who fired the very shot that struck P’s mother. And at that point, he was overcome. He asked R for forgiveness, which P was willing to give… to his brother in Christ. The gospel transcended horror, history and ethic strife.
What else could have the power to do this? What else could unite and reconcile like this or in the way I saw during a previous visit?
Mungo Park was an unusual figure who was sponsored by Joseph Banks and the Royal Society to explore the unknown parts of central Africa – a scottish doctor, a Christian believer, a driven explorer. Above all, Banks clearly saw in Park a reflection of his younger self in his now long-past exploration of Tahiti.
But I was very struck by this description of how he had his assumptions completely overturned after ending up in dire circumstances.
At dusk Park was greeted by a Negro woman who had been labouring in the fields near the river. She invited him back to her hut, lit a lamp, spread a mat and made him supper of fish baked over a charcoal fire. Evidently Park half-expected some kind of sexual overture. But instead the woman invited into the hut various female members of her family, and they all quietly sat round him in the firelight, spinning cotton and singing him to sleep. Park suddenly realised the song was extempore, and the subject was himself. He was amazed when he began to understand the words: ‘It was sung by one of the young women, the rest joining in a sort of chorus. The air was sweet and plaintive, and the words literally translated, were these: – ‘The winds roared, and the rain fell. The poor white man, faint and weary, came and sat under our tree. He has no mother to bring him milk; no wife to grind his corn. Chorus: Let us pity the poor white man, no mother has he…’
The women reversed all Park’s assumptions about his travels in Africa. He realised that it was he – the heroic white man – who was in reality the lonely, ignorant, pitiable, motherless and unloved outcast. It was he who came and sat under their tree, and drank at their river. He found it hard to sleep that night, and in the morning he gave the woman four brass buttons from his coat before he left, a genuinely precious gift. (p217)
It brilliantly illustrates why, despite its challenges and unexpected outcomes, we should relish the opportunity to relate cross-culturally.
Well, as the snow tumbles throughout the UK, I feel slightly guilty about sharing these – but not that much. We’ve just got back (after a rather hair-raising journey) from a week on the north coast of Tenerife. (We’ve got into the habit of finding last minute package deals over New Year – so we’re entirely dependent on what’s still available when we book a few days before – seat of the pants stuff but fun and cheaper!) It was great to get away from the UK cold and to avoid the tourist madness of the island’s southern beaches.
A real highlight was being just below the summit of Mt Teide (a volcano that last had a major eruption in the 18thC) – Spain’s highest mountain (3700 metres) with stunning views, though we all felt the effects of the altitude. It has the most extraordinary lunar landscape (the sunken valley in the view below was the result of other ancient volcanoes collapsing, creating a this mini-desert encased in a ridge) and being so high above the clouds was spectacular…
The journey back meant driving down through the cloud cover, giving views that you only expect on movies:
A few other views…
- Puerto de la Cruz
- Garachico quayside
He’s a great poet – but hasn’t produced much recently. (Hint hint, Steve) This is a gem – nestled in one of his great children’s collections.
While we take burgers, cokes and fries
The TV tells of hate and lies
Shows death beneath bright foreign skies
Can someone pass the salt?
The ground is parched, the river dies
The Red Cross camp has no supplies
The cold night air is cut with cries
Which ice-cream have you bought?
With bones stuck out like blunted knives
And bellies swollen twice the size
The people cling to fading lives
Who’s washing up tonight?
We see their pain in bulging eyes
And faces gaunt and thick with flies
The camera zooms as someone dies
What’s on the other side?
From The Day I Fell Down The Toilet (Lion, 1996) p67
One of my reading habits/disciplines is to try to read about every place I work in or visit. One of the dangerous joys of living near the unsurpassed Daunt Books is that it feeds this habit perfectly! If you don’t know it, Daunt’s warrants a visit to London W1 all by itself. Its genius is simple – a travel bookshop that groups fiction, history, maps and guidebooks altogether, by country and region. Now why don’t they all do that.
Because my Langham Partnership work takes me to Turkey twice a year (see various previous posts), I’ve been reading quite a lot about the country and its history over the last few months. I picked this book up there as a result and couldn’t put it down. Some may be familiar with Giles Milton’s other books (like Nathaniel’s Nutmeg and Big Chief Elizabeth etc) and he is a wonderful writer. This is no exception, though the focus is of a particularly dark chapter in European history. Read more
Just back from California, after a few meetings in LA and then speaking in a church in San Francisco. Really encouraging time – and great to (re)connect with friends new and old in both cities. Here are a few pics (click on each for the whole Flickr set):
Just back from week in Romania & Bulgaria – big encouragements there – to find an email request from a friend whose mother knows this boy’s parents. So very happily agreed to post this just on the off-chance it could help…
They’re trying any means possible to get the message out – and because they’re members of a church, there’s a very slight chance that Andrew has been seen in a church in London or anywhere else. Andrew was last seen on 14th Sept 2007 at King’s Cross station in London.
This is Andrew’s parents’ message for him:
We have all missed you so much since the day you left. Not a day goes by that you are not in our minds constantly. You were always so witty, polite, caring and intelligent that we desperately miss your company. The same is true of all your friends and the thousands of people who have prayed for you and helped us search for you
If you should ever read this, forget about any water under the bridge and please have no fear about making contact with us. We do not care where you have been or what lifestyle you choose for yourself. We only want to know that you are safe and well and to help and support you if we can. We remain as proud of you as we have always been and love you deeply.
All our love,
Dad, Mum & Charlie
Our Contact Details:
Home: 01302 344087
Mobile: 07766 268778
My heart and prayers are with you all in this truly ghastly situation.
Please pass this on…
Have arrived safely and soundly in Antakya (aka Antioch – or if you follow the NT closely Syrian Antioch as opposed to Pisidian in Antioch, which was in … er… Pisidia, roughly between Antalya and Konya on this map).
Only been here for a few hours, but have already experienced:
- Wonderful Turkish hospitality despite an infuriatingly feeble lack of Turkish vocab on my part. 3 inter-related families gathering together for the conference elsewhere tomorrow and hosting me tonight
- having my finger being bitten by a Turkish dog – fortunately, no damage done.
- wandering around the older parts of the town with new friends. Though there is not much left that is genuinely ancient or even older than a couple of hundred years – which seems a shame. The town seems like so many others around the world – a web of concrete, construction and half-finished buildings.
- A throwback to Ugandan life – seeing a bloke riding on the back of a moped (otherwise known as boda-bodas in Kampala) carrying a huge, white plastic-framed shop door. The thing that tickled me was that it still had its shop sign dangling in the top half window – which helpfully declared to the world ‘Closed’ … in English bizarrely enough.
- The goal of our night-time wanderings was to go to a künefe restaurant. This stuff is basically a heart-attack on wheels – a delicious but lethal concoction of shredded wheat, honey, cheese and ice cream. hmmm
More news as we go and as access allows…
My brother, Francis, has set up a B&B in North Norfolk and has now set up a web-presence for it. It’s called The Old Gatehouse, and is a beautiful old house, set in an historic village, only a few miles from the sea. The perfect place to escape for some R&R.