The refugee issue

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

The migrants who have so spectacularly been coming into Europe from Africa and the Middle East are already having a huge impact on Europe which will last for generations.  Whether this impact is revealed in the vast numbers of new residents taken into countries like Germany and Sweden, or the huge fences that have gone up around other countries’ borders to keep out even people only wishing to pass through those countries, the entire continent is being affected.  In the UK, the first of the refugees taken from camps in Syria are beginning to arrive, and across the continent politics is being affected by the argument between those who say we should show more compassion to our fellow humans, and others who say our countries are already full and charity begins at home.

These issues are so huge that many individual Christians are feeling disempowered, despite caring deeply about the issue.  They feel they can’t change anything, have no impact on government policy and don’t know what they can do to help.  So here are some of our suggestions.

Pray – It goes without saying that refugees, whatever their religious beliefs, need our prayers.  So do the charities, churches, government officials and individuals working with them.  Many refugees have seen their loved ones killed, and have lost their homes and communities.  They are traumatised, and so are many of the overworked counsellors trying to help them.

Donate  – Many of the charities working with refugees could do so much more to help if they had more resources, to help them feed and clothe people in refugee camps, provide education and healthcare, and help to welcome and settle immigrants.

Be informed –  Many mission agencies are working with refugees – find out which ones they are through their websites.  The European Evangelical Alliance has an excellent webpage, and the latest edition of Vista addresses the issue of migration.  The Refugee Highway Partnership has a major role to play in this and the European Evangelical Mission Association is hosting a conference in June focussing on refugee issues and the church’s response.  Find out if your network or denomination has a policy, spokesperson on refugee issues and get involved.

Help – Volunteering to help a charity might seem like a huge challenge, but they may need people to sort through donated clothing, distribute food packages and do other tasks which their own staff may be overworked with and would value some help with.

Do – Find out if any refugees are coming to your town, get in touch with whoever is coordinating care for them, and ask what you can do to help.  Over 50 local authorities have been helping to settle refugees so there are probably some near you.  They will need practical support, help understanding your country’s dominant culture and language, and friendship.  You don’t have to be particularly skilled to show them around your community, or drive them somewhere, or go with them to meetings with benefits officers to make sure they understand.

Serve –  Many of us have skills which we don’t think about using to help mission workers.  We can cook, drive, and speak the dominant language of the host community.  We have many connections we can utilise to help.  Many of us have professions like hairdressing, nursing, or teaching which we could use to help refugees.

Advocate –  In a world where much in the media is openly hostile to the idea of taking in more refugees, write letters to newspapers, local counsellors and members of parliament advocating for them.  Sign petitions and use social media to keep the issue in peoples’ minds.

The issues of refugees in Europe is not going to go away quickly.  It will change our societies, our understanding of community and the ways in which we go about mission.  Churches have a huge part to play in this transformation and have a wonderful opportunity to be on the cutting edge of change.

Are you compliant?

RatingOnce, when I was working on the mission field, I had to go and tell the head of one of our departments that the government had mandated 30% pay rises for all their workers.  “I’m not doing that,” he fumed.  “They’re already the best-paid workers in the area.”

“You’ve got no choice,” I pointed out.  “The Government says so.”

“We don’t have to obey them.  We’re working for God.”

I wonder if you’ve ever come across people like that, who think that their higher calling saves them from being accountable to lower authorities.  It can be tempting for all of us to take short cuts, and these days we can spend a lot of time making sure we comply with directives: health & safety, safeguarding, anti-discrimination rules, risk management, employment legislation, work and residence permit procedures, tax and payroll regulations, accounting rules, food hygiene – it can be hard even to keep up to speed on what is required in running an office, let alone make sure everything we do is compliant.

Particularly for smaller agencies, it can be a big headache.  It’s not that these things are in themselves bad.  In fact they’re not unreasonable.  But most of us are not professionals in the relevant fields and struggle to understand the nuances and subtleties of what we can and can’t do.  Particularly if we have to do it in a foreign language, in a culture that sidelines women, has significant levels of government incompetence, and in which a small ‘voluntary administrative fee’ is needed to keep the bureaucracy moving forward.

So it can be tempting just to ignore them, like my friend above wanted to.

That may work for a while, but what happens when something goes wrong?  Suppose you failed to do a risk assessment for a short-term trip on which someone gets hurt.  Or you don’t have a safeguarding policy in place when somebody accuses one of your staff of sexual harassment.  Or you didn’t bother setting up a pension scheme for your five employees because it would cost you too much and they’re happy with the current system.  Your organisation – and your trustees personally – are open to prosecution.

Perhaps even more significantly, the name of Jesus is harmed.  What kind of a witness is it when people think ‘Those Christians are always ignoring the law’?  It’s not only our reputation that is at stake, it is His too.  Paul told the Philippians to be blameless and above reproach in a crooked and perverse generation (Philippians 2:15).  In doing so we share in the character of Jesus and reveal it to the world.

Finally, in complying with regulations we’re following the teaching of Jesus who said:

Render under Caesar that which is Caesar’s , and to God the things that are God’s.

(Matthew 22:21)

How often do we try hard to do the latter without doing the former?

 

Come over here and help us

Paul's Macedonian Vision

Paul’s Macedonian Vision

Paul’s vision of a Macedonian man (Acts 16:10) asking him and his co-workers for help initiated Paul’s ministry in Europe.  It is also an excellent paradigm for modern global mission.

It is at the invitation of the local believers, not the instigation of the mission workers.  Today, except in frontier missions where we have no knowledge of local believers, we should be seeking to partner with indigenous churches, agencies or believers.  How often do we go to a local group with a good idea and sell it to them, and they are too polite to say no even though they don’t want it and they know it won’t work?  It is much better for us (and more empowering for them) to go and sit at their feet, and ask them ‘What do you want for your community, and how can we help you achieve it?’  We need to seek their guidance and advice, respect their decisions, submit to their leadership, and be ready to leave when they feel that we’ve done what they need us to do.

We are invited to help, not take over.  It seems that we often marginalise the local believers and do all sorts of things for them, when they may be capable of doing things for themselves.  We turn up with our education, technology, and Biblical understanding, but leave our respect behind.  A genuine partnership asks ‘How can we do this together?’, and seeks to release everyone into the ministry that God has for them.  In many cases we may bring skills and resources which they do not have, but that does not entitle us to take control.

What does genuine cross-cultural partnership in mission look like?

What does genuine cross-cultural partnership in mission look like?

Our work should be inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Paul hadn’t even thought of going to Macedonia.  He and his friends had tried several times to go into different parts of what is now Turkey.  In this vision, God expanded their boundaries.  He took them into something different.  How willing are we to contemplate doing something different rather than doing the same old thing in the same old way?  Let us be open to the Holy Spirit guiding us into God’s appointed ministry for us.

God is already at work and lets us join in.  The spread of the gospel in any country will have started before we get there.  Paul didn’t bring the gospel to Europe; there would have been several small communities of believers which may have traced their roots back to the crowds of Jewish worshippers who had flocked to Jerusalem for the feast of Shavuot (Acts 2:10).  God was already on the move and gave Paul and his friends a chance to join in.  Let us not be so arrogant as to assume we are taking God in with us.

West isn’t necessarily best.  In large parts of the world Christianity is seen as a western faith.  Yet this incident reminds us that the gospel was originally brought to Europe by people from the Near East.  Europeans would still be pagans (and in many respects we still are!) if mission workers from another continent had not come to teach us.  Let’s remain teachable.

Who is today’s Macedonian?  Who today is calling us to go and help them?  We looked at some of the options a few weeks ago – and they include remote unreached tribes, people in the 10/40 window, and urban slum dwellers.  Are we open to the possibility that there are people hungry for the gospel who we haven’t even considered?

Paul’s vibrant and controversial ministry opened up a new mission field right across Mediterranean Europe.  He was driven by the desire to preach the gospel where it had not been preached before (Romans 15:20).  Let’s follow his example and seek out new frontiers for the kingdom!

Sykes-Picot and the ISIS dilemma

NThe ISIS insurgency in Iraq has hit the headlines in the last few weeks as this Islamicist group has rapidly gained control of territory and prompted a mass-movement of refugees by its extreme persecution of minority religious groups, prompting many Christians to show their solidarity with the persecuted church by changing their Facebook photo to the Islamic letter ‘n’, which ISIS have been writing on the doors of the homes of Christians so that they can be easily identified.  It stands for ‘Nasrani’, the Arabic word for Nazarene, the local term for Christian.  Many people will not however have heard of the obscure Sykes-Picot Agreement which ISIS has vowed to overthrow.

ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is the successor to a number of Al-Qaeda-linked organisations which emerged in the aftermath of the Western invasion of Iraq, and which gained ground as an insurgent group in the Syrian civil war.  It has gained sympathy among Iraqi Sunnis marginalised by the pro-Shia regime of the recently-deposed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and it aims to impose a Sharia religious state (or Caliphate) throughout the Levant.

Sir Mark Sykes (left) and François George-Picot

Sir Mark Sykes (left) and François George-Picot

Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot were diplomats, British and French respectively, who in 1916 drew up a secret treaty agreeing how Britain and France would carve up the remains of the Ottoman Empire, which they confidently expected to be defeated in the First World War.  When this happened, The League of Nations gave Britain and France a mandate to run the countries we now know as Syria and Lebanon (France) and Israel-Palestine, Jordan and Iraq (Britain) as part of their Empires while creating independent countries.

Sykes and Picot drew lines on a map with little consideration of ethnic, religious and tribal affiliations, rather as the European colonial powers had done in Africa a generation previously.  The two countries subsequently imposed their own rule on these countries, overthrowing local arrangements which had emerged following the collapse of the Ottomans and reneging on previous agreements, particularly those made with local potentates by British soldier T E Lawrence in exchange for their support in fighting the Ottomans.

1112138276

Ongoing persecution for the church in Iraq?

This meant that local groupings had no opportunity to work out their own spheres of influence in the region.  In fact, since the arrival of Islam in the mid seventh century, the entire region has been in the hands of large empires (the Abbasid Caliphate, the Mongols, the Mamelukes and the Ottomans) which have artificially kept a lid on this turbulent region.  Centuries-old tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims are now erupting  in what experienced Middle East observers, including Lord Ashdown, have pointed out could be their equivalent of the Thirty Years’ War, as rival religious/tribal/ethnic groups vie to carve out their own polities.

The challenge for the Western world, which for the last century has continually tried to keep the lid on tensions in the region through a policy of appointing and supporting local strongmen like Bashar al-Assad and Saddam Hussein, is whether we step into this carnage and reimpose order (at what cost to ourselves and the locals?) or let the conflict that might have resolved issues a hundred years ago play itself out – at incredible cost of life and the ongoing persecution of minorities.

The dilemma is whether the Sykes-Picot Agreement should be overthrown, and if so, can we justify the consequences?

Many Christian agencies are working to help our brothers and sisters fleeing from the conflict in Iraq.  Open Doors is one of them.   Christian Today has some very practical suggestions on what individuals can do to help.

Is it time to move on?

Countries of the 10/40 window, in blue

Countries of the 10/40 window, in blue

Which are the countries which have the smallest proportion of Christians?  Most of the candidates are debatable because it is hard to collect accurate statistics in them, and many believers will be keeping their heads down for fear of persecution.  But the answer is probably:

  • Western Sahara
  • Afghanistan
  • Somalia
  • Yemen
  • Maldives
  • Morocco
  • Mauritania

All of these countries have fewer than 0.5% Christians, and are closely followed by Tunisia, Algeria and Turkey.*  Many other countries in north Africa, central Asia and the middle east have fewer than 1% Christians.  None of these countries are places where it would be easy to be a mission worker, and in many of them, it could be fatal.  As it can be for the believers.

1112138276You might expect the bulk of the church’s mission work to focus on countries like these.  Even if it’s not easy for us to go as mission workers, it’s possible to go and start missional businesses such as teaching English or computing, introduce the nationals to Jesus while they are studying abroad in a more open country, and train locals remotely to witness to their own people.  We can broadcast the gospel into their countries – see the work of TWR Europe, FEBA or Sat 7 for example.  We can pray.  We can go on holiday there and try to be a subtle witness or engage in prayer ministry.  Some agencies, to be sure, are trying to get people into countries like these, but of course we can’t tell you who they are in these pages, though we salute the faith of the few who engage in such a dangerous calling.

Yet a list of the countries to which the UK sends most mission workers tells a different story.  We actually invest most of our missionary effort in countries where Christians are already in the majority.  The top five receiving countries are:

  • Kenya (79% Christian)
  • Brazil (91%)
  • France (68%)
  • Zambia (85%)
  • Spain (68%)

In total there are over 10,000 mission workers in these countries from all over the world.  It is perfectly legal to witness to people and to start a new church in each of these countries (though occasionally very difficult!).  Although many of the ‘Christians’ contained in the statistics may be nominal, with the exception of France and Spain they have strong evangelical churches which are able to shoulder the burden of mission, and in France the church, though still small, is growing strongly.

While there are nearly two billion people living in the 10/40 window who have never heard the gospel, thousands of completely unreached people groups elsewhere, and hundreds of ethnic minorities who have no access to the Bible in their own language, does this seem an appropriate use of our resources?  Ok, perhaps the Christians in those countries do not follow our particular brand of Christianity, but wouldn’t it be better for us to let the local church take over the task of witnessing to the lost?

Is the continuing presence of overseas mission workers in those countries actually preventing the indigenous church taking on more responsibility for evangelising their own people?

Time to move on?

Time to move on?

I know a lot of mission workers reading this will already be angry with this suggestion (thank you for making it this far!) and I recognise that there may be many people working in those countries who will be doing tasks the local church may not currently be equipped to do:

  • providing theological education
  • discipling a young and inexperienced church
  • using those countries as a base for reaching out into other less evangelised ones
  • working with unreached minority people groups
  • providing vital technical support such as bible translation.

There will be other valid reasons for mission workers to be there.  Or are these countries simply ones where we like to be mission workers?  But if 90% of us moved on to minister to an unreached people group or a country in the 10/40 window, that would mean an extra 9000 people freed up to reach the world’s least evangelised people.  That’s over 150 new mission workers in countries like Tajikistan, Laos and Algeria.

Of course it’s risky.  Even today mission workers are being martyred in the 10/40 window.  But that’s part of following Jesus, and despite the western world’s risk-averse policies, Jesus didn’t shrink from paying the ultimate price to show God’s love for the lost, and neither did the early church.

Maybe it’s time for us to move on to somewhere more needy.  Or is that a bit too uncomfortable for us to consider?

* This article has drawn heavily on Operation World for its statistics.  Find out more about this essential guide to prayer for the world at www.operationworld.org

When Jesus doesn’t fulfil our expectations

Triumphant entry by He Qi

(He Qi)

The problem with the Palm Sunday story is that we think we know it.  We find it hard to pay attention, because we’re familiar with it.  We’ve heard it at least once a year throughout our Christian lives.  We’ve still got last year’s palm cross on the dressing table.  But what is really going on here?

The pilgrims who have come up to Jerusalem from Galilee are at fever pitch, full of enthusiasm.  Unlike the residents of Jerusalem, who are asking “Who is this?” (Matthew 21:10), they’ve seen Jesus in action in Galilee and along the road through Jericho.  He’s been demonstrating his credentials and their expectations are high.  Is this the time when Jesus is going to confront the Romans and liberate Israel like a Messiah is expected to do?

Jesus initially indulges their enthusiasm.  He arranges a donkey to ride on.  Why?  Jesus usually walks everywhere (sometimes even on water!) but on this occasion he’s deliberately stoking their anticipation.  They all know Zechariah’s prophecy which Matthew quotes:

Say to the daughter of Zion ‘Behold, your King is coming, gentle, and mounted on a donkey.’ (Matthew 21:5)

Triumph

(Unknown artist)

Jesus is making a visual demonstration of his identity.  He is answering the question they had asked him on his last visit – “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” (John 20:24).  They recognise his answer as such, and treat him accordingly, throwing their coats on the ground in front of him and forming a cheering honour guard as if he were a homecoming king.  Luke even reports that they changed the wording of the traditional greeting ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ to ‘Blessed is the King…’ (Luke 19:38).  Mark points out that they expect the kingdom of David to be restored (Mark 11:10).  No wonder the Pharisees told him to shut them up – they knew that the Romans would not tolerate sentiments such as that (John 11:48).

So this ‘King’ rides triumphantly up into Jerusalem at the head of a rejoicing multitude… and then confounds them.  He goes through the gate and turns left.  He doesn’t head straight for the Roman fortress to force a confrontation with the occupying army.  He goes to the temple.  His priorities are different.  He’s already answering the question that Pilate will ask him a few days later: “My Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).  And in doing so, he disappoints thousands of followers, one of whom was Judas, who was probably hoping for great things from Jesus, but felt he had been let down.  Those thousands were not there to support him when he was on trial for his life.  As far as they were concerned, he was already just another failed pretender.

(Sadao Watanabe)

(Sadao Watanabe)

With 2000 years of perspective, we can see that Jesus was right.  He stuck to his mission and did not let the crowds divert him.  But it would have been hard for those in his enthusiastic following to have appreciated that.  Even his own disciples do not appear to have understood what was going on even though he had spoken to them plainly about his imminent death (Matthew 16:21).

What do we do when Jesus appears to let us down?  Those of us involved in world mission know only too well how wrong things can go.  We find our visas revoked with only 48 hours to leave the country.  A colleague is killed in a car crash.  A loved one is kidnapped.  A pastor swindles money from the church.  Our children lose their faith.  We are constantly ill, or stressed with overwork.  The ministry ends in defeat.  Did Jesus fail us?  It can feel like that at times, and we can be very tempted to respond like the crowds in Jerusalem.  All deserted him.  One betrayed him.  Another denied knowing him.  Others fled for their lives.

Yet, a few days later, Jesus returns (John 20).  Not to the religious leaders, nor to his own family.  Not to his best friend, or to the men who would lead the Jerusalem church.  He comes to a grieving and confused woman.  A woman who remained faithful, even though he had not turned out to be the Messiah she expected him to be.

Jesus doesn’t mind our confusion and grief.  He isn’t upset by our lack of understanding.  He seeks our faithfulness.  Even when all appears to have gone very badly wrong, he is still there for those who trust him.  In the midst of our pain, sorrow, trauma and confusion, let us hold on tightly to the one person who is constant, Jesus Christ – the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).

Guest blog: getting a driving licence

govt office

Who’s next?

This week’s guest blogger is a good friend of Syzygy who has not written for us before, but we are not going to identify her as we do not wish to shame publicly the country in which she is working – Ed.

Today I decided to tackle one of the jobs that had long been on my “To Do” list: convert our UK driving licences to local ones.  The website states that this is a simple process.  So with that in mind I headed down to the Ministry.

It is possible to pay someone to go and convert your UK driving licence for you, but the going rate is about £55 so I decided that I would do it myself.  As the only female and the only foreigner in the area I was somewhat of an oddity (no change there!).  But people were very helpful in pointing me to the correct queues to stand in.  The process requires a number of steps, all of which can be expedited by paying a middleman extra money to push your paperwork to the front of the queue.  But I decided that I did not want any special privileges – I am often uncomfortable with the way a foreigner will/can queue jump while nationals are expected to patiently let them through.  So I dutifully joined the line.

The man with the key has gone...

The man with the key has gone…

There were many different steps in the process, which involved various trips up and down the stairs of the building and into different offices to get my papers stamped.  At one point there was a little confusion as to whether my husband had to be present for his medical to be signed off (he didn’t) and as to whether we needed to take a driving test (phew, we didn’t).

All went smoothly, if at a rather pedestrian pace, and I made friends with the others in the queue alongside me, until I had to head upstairs for the Big Man to sign off my licence.  I presented him with all the paperwork required and he asked me questions about what we were doing here and then demanded letters from the different hospitals I have worked in and from our local employer, all of which I knew were not really required.  When I left his office (with unsigned papers) the man next to me explained that he had been wanting me to pay a “facilitation fee” to complete my licence.

This is something we do not do.  I was rather unsure how to proceed after this.  However, the doctor who had completed my medical form was affronted on my behalf at being asked to pay more than I should and he decided to act as an advocate for me, stating that I would not get the licence without his help.  This basically involved him escorting me back to the Big Man’s office and speaking up for me – to a somewhat humbled official!  As a result after a further 5 different office visits (a total of 12 different stages) and 4 hours later I left with two new driving licences.

The official handshake

The official handshake

This it was an important lesson for me – the feeling of helplessness in the face of power and bureaucracy and even though I knew I was in the right, I was powerless to change the situation.  My naivety at trying to be treated just the same as locals when unfortunately in this country my skin colour affords me both privilege and extra hassles!  The realisation that the lower down office workers helpfully completed their jobs, with no fuss or demands, however, those with the power often use this to their own advantage and abuse their position.

I was so thankful to the kind young doctor who spoke up against this for me.  Without him I think I would have left empty handed.  Indeed many of my friends have since told me of their 5 day efforts to get a licence or being made to take a driving test  – all because they too would not pay a bribe.  This situation is a sad reality replicated across many countries in so many situations.  Those in power often wield it unevenly.  The services they should provide equitably often become only available to those with a friend in the right places or with the money to pay, leaving those who are low down in society, the poor and uneducated, without a voice to speak out and needing someone who will advocate for them.

An interesting ebook on Bribery and the Bible is available from www.missionarycare.com

Who are the real believers?

The Injil (New Testament) is a Holy Book of Islam

The Injil (New Testament) is a Holy Book of Islam

We mentioned previously the conference on contextualisation held last month, and I’d like to follow up by wading into the debate on what happens when muslims find faith in Jesus.

In parts of the world where there is a dominant non-Christian culture, notably but not only Islam, it has become common in recent years for some people who find faith in Jesus to stay within their socio-religious communities.  They may still attend the mosque and call themselves muslims (or muslim followers of Jesus).  This is not necessarily because they fear persecution (they may well get that anyway) but because the community is so tight and hostility to Christianity so strong, that they would lose family, friends, social networks and the ability to earn money or even buy food.  By remaining within their community, even though they hold unorthodox beliefs, they maintain their support structures and, crucially, the opportunity to witness to their families and neighbours.

Some Christians think that these ‘insiders’ cannot possibly be real Christians, and that if they were, they should leave their communities, join a church, call themselves Christians and take the resulting persecution.

Church and mosque - mutually exclusive or is there an overlap?

Church and mosque – mutually exclusive or is there an overlap?

A biblical case study of relevance would be the early Jerusalem church.  While clearly self-identifying as followers of Jesus (or The Way), they still considered themselves Jews, attended temple services and kept the law.  They were, in effect, a Jewish sect.  They didn’t stop being Jewish just because they followed Jesus.  While relationships with other sects like the Pharisees and Sadducees were occasionally violent, mostly they co-existed for nearly forty years.  The split began when the Jesus followers didn’t take part in the war against Rome (68-70 AD) and fled en masse to Pella, so their loyalty to Jewish nationalism was impugned.  Eventually, around 85AD the Jews developed a curse on those who split the faith, which forced the Jesus followers out of the synagogues where it formed part of the liturgy.

In other words, the Jewish believers were happy to remain within Judaism until those who rejected Jesus pushed them out of it.  It was the same in the churches Paul visited – they always started with the synagogue until they were expelled.  It may well be the same with muslim-background believers – only time will tell.

crossRecent research among one particular group of muslim-background believers in Jesus found some startling results.  390 believers in 118 communities (ekklesia) were interviewed.  83.9% met together with other believers at least once a week, mainly in homes.  Most of them are in groups of fewer than ten people and their activities include Bible-reading, prayer, worship and fellowship.  41% of them had come to faith through experiencing dreams or visions of Jesus, or miraculous healings.  57% of them had found faith after being witnessed to by other believers.  Perhaps the most staggering statistic was that 92% of them had shared with non-believers the message of salvation through Jesus alone.

Until the church can match statistics like that, we don’t have the right to claim that they are not ‘proper’ believers.

Contextualisation

Contextualisation?  A 19th century church building in Malawi  (Source: Wikipedia)

Contextualisation? A 19th century church building in Malawi (Source: Wikipedia)

Most of us have heard stories of how mission workers of the past often took their native culture with them in the well-meant but misguided view that it was ‘Christian’ to wear clothes, worship in a certain style or meet in a building whose architecture reflected the mission workers’ culture more than the local one.  Sadly today we often make similar mistakes, although there is generally a greater awareness of the need to contextualise.

Contextualisation is the word we give to how we adapt our presentation of the gospel so that it is culturally relevant to the people we are talking to.  It involves understanding their location and culture so that we don’t say things they won’t understand or even worse be put off by.  So there’s no point in using the verse “Though your sins are scarlet they will be white as snow” in the tropics, where people haven’t seen snow.  Better to replace snow with cotton.  And don’t tell a Buddhist she must be born again – that’s the very thing she’s fed up with doing!

The early apostles – particularly Paul – used contextualisation in preaching the gospel.  When addressing Jews, Paul quoted extensively from Jewish scripture and tradition (e.g. Acts 13:16-41), yet in his famous address to the ruling council in Athens (Acts 17:22-31) he made no mention of either, but argued with them out of their own culture and tradition.  Yet at the same time he was committed to the unadulterated truth of the gospel – “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

Contextualisation or blasphemy?

Contextualisation or blasphemy?

In recent years there has been an ongoing debate over what is optional and what is non-negotiable, as with the recent high-profile controversy about references to Father and Son when talking to people of a Moslem background.  Contextualisation affects our language, as in the case of one English church which has stopped using the word Father to describe God, since that word has such negative connotions in the minds of local non-christians.  It also affects cultural and self-identification issues: should a Moslem who comes to faith be called a Christian?  Or a Moslem-background believer?  A follower of Isa-al-Massi?  Should he be encouraged to leave the mosque and be part of a church?  Or continue being part of his community as a secret believer?

Challenges such as these affect mission to people of other beliefs, particularly in Asia where we come into contact with people of radically different worldviews, and in post-Christian Europe where many are ignorant of even the most basic Christian terminology like ‘sin’ and ‘redemption’.  Which is why many evangelists now use terms like ‘Do you want God to help you?’ in preference to the less accessible ‘You must repent!’

The European Evangelical Mission Association is holding a conference in September (in Majorca!) to discuss these issues.  Representatives of denominations and mission agencies will be there to debate the limits of contextualisation, the future of the insider movement and the relevance of the C1-C6 model.  The speakers will be renowned exponents on these topics: Rose Dowsett, Beat Jost, and John Travis.  To find out more go to http://www.europeanema.org/conference-2013/.  It promises to be a challenging debate!

Creation Care as an Integral Part of Mission

Today’s guest blogger is David Gould, Creation Care Advocate for OMF International, who has a suitably seasonal reflection on good news for a broken world.  

We live in a broken world.  Humanity is now consuming the earth’s resources at a rate that would require 1.6 planet earths to be sustainable (WWF Living Planet Report 2012).  This is expected to increase much further because global population is projected to grow from 7 billion now to between 9 and 10 billion by mid-century, and because of the understandable aspirations of millions in the developing world to share in this unsustainable level of consumption.

This will add significantly to global energy demand.  Our growing use of carbon-based fuels has become a major factor behind climate change.  In September, Arctic ice reached a record low, 18% below the previous record low in 2007; in recent years we have also seen unprecedented weather events across the globe – drought, flooding and storm – that have caused loss of life, of homes, crops and fresh water; acidification of the oceans, disease, no-choice migration and family and community break-up.  But this is just the beginning of what might happen if we don’t change our ways.

The increasing acidification of the oceans is causing severe stress in coral-based eco-systems; this and excessive and destructive fishing practices are threatening the survival of many marine fisheries; and dam building, pollution and soil erosion are having a similar effect on fresh-water fisheries.  Our relentless destruction of tropical forests and other ecosystems is also threatening our sustainable future.

What has all this got to do with mission?  In OMF we have a long tradition of responding whole-heartedly to crisis events such as famines, earthquakes and tsunamis; we have also seen the Lord blessing medical mission in Thailand and elsewhere.  This work continues; should we see creation care in a similar light?   The Lord is calling people into mission with gifts and skills that until recently may not have been recognised as having ‘mission potential’ – water and electrical engineers; specialists in agriculture, animal husbandry, waste management and marine biology; town planners; educators, researchers and missional business people.  How can their work contribute to OMF’s vision of seeing indigenous, biblical church movements in each of the people groups of East Asia?  And how can this vision be realised among ecological migrants and in the megacities of the future?

As we explore integral mission in these challenging contexts we also need to figure out what it means to ‘walk the talk’.  Our methodology of mission is just as important as its outcomes.  Simply as a matter of survival and loving our neighbours as ourselves, the way we live affects everyone else – we live in a single, closed world system.  How can we reduce our own consumption and ecological footprints to sustainable levels?

Then there are the challenges of theological education and disciple-making.  How can we contribute to a biblical understanding of God’s call to all of us to care for creation?

The prophet Joel speaks directly into our situation: ‘listen, all who live in the land:
 has anything like this ever happened in your days, or in the days of your forefathers?’ (Joel 1:2).  Joel was responding to locust invasions of the land; he calls us not to despair or to deny what is happening, but to repentance and trust in the Lord for both the immediate future (2:18-27) and the distant future (2:28-32).

So is creation care just another ‘issue’ – an ‘enthusiasm’ for some of us that the rest can ignore?  Or is it foundational to our life of hopeful worship, service, mission, good enjoyment and Sabbath rest?  A helpful book is ‘Salvation Means Creation Healed’ by Howard Snyder; this explores ‘the divorce between heaven and earth’ in much of our theology; the effects of sin on our relationships with God, with each other, the rest of creation and with ourselves; the healing mission of God; and the church as healing community.

Other helps include:

Lausanne call to action on creation care

A Rocha – Living Lightly

Christian Ecology Link

Climate Prayer’ and ‘environmentguardian’ on Facebook

Dave Bookless, Planetwise: Dare to Care for God’s World

Calvin B. DeWitt, Earthwise: A guide to Hopeful Creation Care

Based in Singapore, David’s responsibilities include reminding OMF fields that creation care is part of Jesus’ commandment to preach good news to ‘all creation’ (Mark 16:15) and helping them develop strategies  for realising this mandate.  Please feel free to contact him with any comments or queries at Int.CreationCare@omfmail.com

News roundup

In a close and controversial move last week the Church of England narrowly voted not to allow women to become bishops.  Over three years ago we commented on this ongoing debate, which has rumbled on since women were allowed to become priests nearly 20 years ago.  The vote was passed by the Bishops and the Priests, but was narrowly voted down by lay representatives of churches.

The no votes represent a small alliance of conservative evangelicals who believe in male headship in the church, and Anglo-Catholics concerned that female bishops will break the principal of apostolic succession, by which each bishop can trace his authority back to St Peter by receiving an anointing from his predecessor.  Special arrangements had been offered them in a major compromise by the ‘yes’ lobby, safeguarding the right of individual parishes to opt out of their diocesan structure and be overseen by an itinerant male bishop, but it appears this did not appease the ‘no’ party.

In the last 20 years the number of women priests has steadily swelled and they have earned respect in their parishes and communities.  It is widely believed that over 90% of church members are in favour of them, which is just as well as they now make up 1/3 of total Church of England priests, and in 2010 the number of women ordained exceeded the number of men.

Now that this proposal has been voted down, despite the vocal backing of the current Archbishop of Canterbury and his successor Justin Welby, there is little likelihood of the first female bishop being consecrated for at least five years.  This remains an ongoing source of hurt and division in the church which shows no sign of going away.  It also leaves the Church of England in the unfortunate position of actively discriminating against women, taking advantage of its unique exemption from equality legislation.  The irony is that there are already voices calling for parliament to remove this immunity, which would legally require the Church of England to appoint female bishops without implementing any of the safeguards for dissenting parishes.  The ‘no’ vote may have shot itself in both feet.

Please pray for healing, reconciliation, forgiveness and mutual understanding in the church.

_______________

The previous week,  in a highly unusual exercise in participative democracy, England & Wales elected their first directly-elected Police & Crime Commissioners (PCCs).  In 41 police force areas across the two countries (London already has the equivalent powers vested in its Mayor), appointed Police Authorities were replaced by publicly-elected individuals who will have the power to set policing priorities and hold the Chief Constable accountable for achieving them, even to the point of having the power of dismissal.

However, such a radical introduction of local democracy to a state not typically known for exercises in democratic grassroots accountability was met not with enthusiasm but with an overwhelming display of apathy and antipathy.  With just 15% of the electorate voting, the lowest ever turnout for a national poll, there are valid questions about the authenticity of the PCCs’ mandate.  Of those voters who turned up at the hustings, between 2.5% and 4%  spoiled their  ballot papers, indicating an underlying dissatisfaction with the concept.  Psephologists normally agree that anything over 2% is an indication of problems.  It was widely reported that comments objecting to bringing party politics into policing were written on papers.

The Labour Party is blaming the government for what it calls a ‘shambles’.  It points out that despite spending £75m organising the elections, candidates were denied a budget for mailshots and publicity, meaning that many citizens were either unaware of the elections or ignorant of who was standing.  The government, which has been enthusiastic about pursuing  a policy of ‘localism’ – giving more power to local government and reducing the size of national government – blames the media for not creating enough publicity.  The Electoral Commission has announced that it will be reviewing the poll.

It appears that alongside general unawareness of the elections or the significance of them, there was a lot of public discontent at the perceived politicising of policing.  Since independent candidates had no public budget to fund their campaign, it was seen as likely that representatives of political parties would be able to get themselves elected.  In the end, this predication proved wrong, as 11 of the elected PCCs stood as independents.  16 were Conservatives and 15 Labour.  it remains to be see whether the independent candidates were voted for on merit or as part of an anti-party vote.  When they are reelected in four years’ time the parties may do better.

Please pray for the PCCs, that they will succeed in maintaining their political independence and will be genuinely democratically accountable.

_______________

In other news, in a small but significant court case, a man who was demoted at work for expressing views about same-sex marriage on his personal Facebook account won an appeal.  He had commented, outside of work hours, that requiring churches to perform same-sex ceremonies was ‘an equality too far’.  Two colleagues complained and his employer, a housing trust, demoted him for misconduct, resulting in a 40% reduction in his salary.  The High Court judge said that he had done ‘nothing wrong’, thereby setting a precedent that Christians cannot be disciplined in the workplace for expressing their views outside of work.

Our verdict: Lions 2, Christians 1 (see A little more secular)

Please pray that this precedent will protect other Christians from workplace discrimination.

What is a ‘calling’?

He Qi: The Burning Bush

One thing that all sending agencies agree on is that before serving God overseas long-term, there must be a sense of calling.  We may make exceptions for short-term trips as they are sometimes seen as exploratory, rather like putting a toe in the bathwater to see if it’s too hot, but before making a long term commitment, there has to be some sort of calling.

But what exactly is a calling, and how do we know when we have it?

A sense of calling  is the deep-seated conviction that God has a task for you, or a place for you to be.  It is essential if you’re going to be effective in your ministry; it motivates and energises you, and sustains you through the difficult times.  Yet it’s also something that’s extremely hard to agree on.    It varies from person to person, and depends on how they relate to God, and on the type of church they’re part of.  Some people feel they have prophetic words spoken to them, others have a vague sense that something is right, or a deep empathy for a place or a people.  Who is right?

Well, they all are, because a calling is as unique and personal to you as your relationship with God.  But let’s look as some of the Biblical models of calling and see what we can learn from them.

Abraham (Genesis 11:31-12:3) is given a cryptic call in which he is told to go, but is not told where, although it appears that they originally had the intention of going to Canaan when they set out from Ur.  Cross-referencing to Acts 7:2-3 it appears that this is the renewal of a call originally given in Ur, and that Abraham had got stuck in Haran – possibly because his father did not want to move any further.  Sometimes we need to hear our call again as circumstances can cause us to lose sight of it.  Sometimes a call is on our heart for many years before we can fulfil it.

Moses (Exodus 3) of course received a most spectacular call, involving a fireproof shrub and a lengthy conversation with God, of the type for which he would become famous.  Yet the key to it all was his own curiosity – on seeing the burning bush, he went to investigate.  If we are aware of what is going on around us, and are open to inspiration, God can get our attention.

Isaiah (Is 6:1-8) made a devotional response to God.  He did not have any idea what God was planning, but out of his profound awareness of being forgiven, his worship overflowed in a desire to serve.

Elisha (1 Kings 19:15-21) had a call which was adoptive.  God sent Elijah to anoint him and Elisha accepted.  He started out being a manservant to Elijah (2 Kings 3:11) but due to his zeal took over his mentor’s ministry and became one of Israel’s greatest prophets.

Saul & Barnabas (Acts 13:1-4).  Someone in a leaders’ meeting had a prophetic word telling them to consecrate Saul and Barnabas for ‘the work to which I have called them’.  There seems to be no further divine direction, so we must conclude that they were already mulling over the idea of a mission to Cyprus and this was confirmation.

Ezra (Ez 7:6, 9-10) went to teach in a Bible college.  It seems that he went out of a sense of personal conviction, yet it is clear that ‘the good hand of his God was upon him’.

Nehemiah (Neh1:2-5) received a call which was both locational and vocational – he had a specific task to do.  But his call arose from his compassion for a specific locality.  We should not underestimate the significance of how concerned we may feel for a particular people, group or place.

Philip (Acts 8:26-40), an accomplished evangelist, is told by an angel to go to somewhere specific.  When he gets there, he is prophetically given further instructions.

Paul and his team (Acts 2:6-10).  After experiencing some sort of closed doors to widening his team ministry, the nature of which is not exactly clear, Paul has a vision of a Macedonian man asking for help.  The whole team responds.

So we can see from the above that a calling comes in many forms.  It can be circumstantial, revelatory, prophetic, general, locational, compassionate, vocational, devotional, educational, adoptive.  It can be a call to a specific task or place, or something more general.  Many times there is some form of direct communication from God, but not always.  Of course, the most all-embracing call of all is the one found in Matthew 28 – Go and make disciples of all nations – which was originally given to the eleven but is commonly understood as applying to all believers for all time.

It is certainly one commandment of Jesus that the church has not yet completed.

Other aspects of discerning a calling can be found in our worksheet on this subject, which is part of the Syzygy guide on how to prepare for going.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

In the early 6th century BC, the small, independent kingdom of Judah was crushed by the power of Babylon, a huge global superpower.  The king was executed, the nobles abducted, the temple burned to the ground, and many of the population were forcibly relocated to a new home deep into enemy territory, where they were surrounded by people with different customs, religions and languages.

Psalm 137 (which made a brief but infamous appearance in the British charts in 1978 at the hands of Boney M) is a lamentation about this experience of going into exile.  It refers to pain, a desire to go back, and a lust for revenge.  Their mocking captors had asked them to sing one of their folk songs to entertain them, but this just reminded them of the home that they couldn’t return to.  ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land’ becomes a shorthand reference to the challenge of living as an insignificant minority in a hostile culture, where there are multiple religious beliefs, a variety of practices which the faithful may be forced to participate in, and a complete lack of tolerance for their previous national customs.

This is a situation not unlike western Europe today, as Christians struggle to come to terms with the fact that Christendom is no more.  Christianity no longer provides a moral compass even if David Cameron himself claims that Britain is a Christian country.  There are too many competing voices now for that to be completely true.  There are Christian elements to our world, and a huge Christian heritage shaping much of our public practice and principle, but effectively now we are a post-Christian country.  Like the exiled Jews, we need to come to terms with it.

In fact, throughout most of history God’s faithful have been in the minority.  In Genesis, just eight people made it onto the ark, and the Abrahamic covenant was made with just one family among many tribes.  Throughout the rest of the Pentateuch they were just twelve tribes among the Egyptian oppressors, or wandering through the wilderness among hostile neighbours.  Under the judges they were just one nation amongst many.  Under the kings, they were battling with external threats and against internal apostasy.  Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel had to deal with the challenge of being subjects of a huge multinational empire and the whole of the New Testament takes place against the backdrop of the oppressive might of Rome.  Subsequently Christianity spread around the world but often had to deal with suffering and persecution at the hands of others – particularly in communist or modern Islamic countries.

For only one significant period of history has there been an exception to this rule: the bizarre 15 or so centuries when Christendom thrived in Europe in an alliance between church and state that ‘christianised’ nations and ‘authorised’ church.  But today Christendom is crumbling.  People of other faiths (and no faith) have a voice.  Christians are losing ours.  We are going into exile and we don’t like it.  Old familiarities are changing, old paradigms are failing.  People stronger than us have taken us into exile.  Now our challenge is to work out how to live alongside others on their terms, not on ours.

Some of the issues that face us include: keeping Sunday special, ethical issues surrounding the beginning and end of life, accommodating other faiths, the possibilities of witness in the workplace, and the church’s attitude to those who sexual and gender preferences are different to those traditionally sanctioned by the church.  When we are not Biblically literate, we struggle to determine our response to these issues.  But we can rely on different precedents to indicate how we might approach these situations, which range from opposition to compliance.

Daniel (Chapter 6) chose to react with open defiance when ordered to pray only to the king.  When Jesus (Mt 22:15-22) was given the opportunity to encourage people to revolt against paying taxes to an illegal occupying force, he chose to focus on our devotion to God.  Paul (1C10:31) would have felt it was ok for Christians to eat halal or kosher meat as long as they felt they could do it with a clean conscience.  Nehemiah (Neh 13:23) clearly thought it was wrong to marry an unbeliever while Paul said that if you’ve already done it, you should not divorce them (1C7:12).

What each of them is doing (in their own context) is determining which issues are worth fighting over, and which we can safely going along with.  Each of us, together in our church contexts, and not in isolation, needs to work this through too.  Sometimes the church fights on the wrong ground, making a stand on things that could comfortably compromised over, or giving way easily over massively significant issues.  Some guidelines to help us extrapolate biblical teaching into contemporary contexts may include asking ourselves the following questions:

Would our compliance contravene the 10 commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), or any other clear scriptural injunction?

Does resistance prevent us keeping the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:32-40)?

Does compromise help us to fulfil the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20)?

Often, Christians who make a stand on an issue can easily alienate and offend the very people we hope to reach out to with the love of God.  So we need to be careful in how we express ourselves.  We need to remember that in a post-Christian, multi-cultural world it can be evangelistically counter-productive and morally dubious to force non-believers to comply with our views, even if we believe we are right.

Jeremiah wrote a letter to the Jewish exiles .  He wasn’t popular for it, but it was good advice from God.  He said:

‘Build houses and live in them, and plant gardens and eat their produce… Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare your will have welfare’.  (Jeremiah 29:5-7)

In other words, get used to it.  Don’t live in a dream world; don’t carry on complaining that this is wrong.  Get over it.  Adapt and thrive.

I don’t want to feel guilty every time I have an ice cream!

The young woman who said this to me wasn’t talking about dieting.  She was talking about being a mission worker.  And some of us know only too well what she means.

We were exploring together the possibility that God was calling her to serve him abroad, and during the conversation, the issue of finance arose.  She was willing to save up to pay her way, but was hugely reluctant to ask friends to support her.  I don’t want to feel guilty every time I have an ice cream,’ she said.  She clearly felt that by taking other people’s hard-earned money to support her in mission, she had an obligation to use every penny of it on her vocation.

Such a burden of accountability, coupled with a consequently spartan lifestyle utterly devoid of treats, is a recipe for increased levels of stress and may possibly lead to burnout.  Yet so many of us, albeit subconsciously, have attitudes that demonstrate our tacit agreement with this woman.  Is it really wrong to eat ice cream bought with your support gifts?

No, it isn’t.  The people who support us expect to have small treats like ice cream, going out for coffee, or going to the cinema, as part of their normal lives, and they would be genuinely surprised if we didn’t do the same given the opportunity.  They go on holiday, and won’t begrudge us to do so too.  And we need to give ourselves these occasional treats to help us unwind and cope with the demanding life we have been called to.  In fact failure to treat ourselves would even be irresponsible if it results in us becoming unable to work efficiently, or having to take extended sick leave in order to recover.

But this is not just about the money.  It’s about a misplaced sense of accountability.  There’s nothing wrong with accountability: it focuses our activities if we have to report back to our senders on our use of time, finance and resources and the outcomes from them.  But to feel that we have to account scrupulously for every penny is coming uncomfortably close to having to fill in forms detailing how many people have given their lives to Jesus in the last month – it reveals a legalistic mindset that is overly concerned about results.

Jesus did not call us to that.  In fact, if his treatment of the dispute between Mary and Martha is anything to go by, Jesus want us to take time out rather than run around being busy and stressed.

So go ahead and treat yourself to an ice cream!

A little more secular?

Empty church, empty argument?

Last week Britain became a little more secular.  Not in a great cataclysmic way as the conservative press is proclaiming, but subtly, and in a way not unforeseen, as two court decisions  were made which in themselves may have little impact but which are indicators of a long-term trend and set a precedent.

Last August we considered the case of a couple of Christian bed-and-breakfast owners who refused to make a double room available to a gay couple.  On Friday the court of appeal ruled that they had discriminated against the gay couple despite their appeal that they weren’t specifically discriminating against gay people as their policy applied to all unmarried people irrespective of their sexual choices.  And the court was right: they did indeed break the law.  In the process of coming to this conclusion, ironically, the court is discriminating against the Christians.  It’s now official: gay rights trump Christian rights.

In another case heard on the same day, an atheist councillor took his local town council to court over their practice of holding prayers at the start of the meeting.  He argued that it infringed his human rights by forcing a religious activity on him.  Councils all over the country do this, as does the Westminster parliament, so it is not an uncommon practice.  The court ruled, interestingly (though a lot of pundits have missed this point) that his human rights weren’t infringed as he had the opportunity to absent himself during the proceedings, but that councils do not have the authority under the Local Government Act to hold prayers as part of their council meetings.  They are able to hold them outside the meeting though.

It certainly feels like these decisions, and several others like them in recent years, are undermining the traditional role of Christianity at the heart of Britain’s values, despite Prime Minister David Cameron recently asserting that Britain is a ‘Christian nation’.  Former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, who has become significantly more vocal in his ‘retirement’ than he was in office, comments: There are deep forces at work in Western society, hollowing out the values of Christianity and driving them to the margins.  It does at least seem that an aggressive secularist agenda is making steady progress.

Get out there and tell them!

The knee-jerk reaction is for the church to condemn both these decisions, though why in a democracy we should want the freedom to discriminate against others, or to force our prayers on people of other or no faith, needs to be considered carefully.  It would seem that our appropriate response to this situation is not to lament the fact that a small but vocal minority are no longer able to force their views and practices on the millions of British citizens who are now generally atheistic, only nominally Christian or hold to other faiths.

A far more appropriate response would be to set about in earnest increasing the number of Christians so that our views become the dominant perspective in this country once again.  We should not be writing letters to The Times in protest.  We should be getting out into the communities around us and proclaiming Jesus.  Only when we comprise the majority will it be appropriate for us to expect legislation in this country to reflect our views.

Our verdict: Lions 2, Christians 0 (see Persecution on its way)

Occupy the London Stock Exchange – what’s it all about?

You may have heard about the tent village which has been set up outside St Paul’s cathedral in the heart of London, to the consternation of many authorities.  The occupants are part of the global Occupy movement.  They represent anger at the excess of greed with which large financial institutions have caused the current economic crisis, frustration at the apparent inability of governments, shareholders and ordinary citizens to rein in these excesses, and a fundamental rejection of the capitalist system which they believe is morally flawed.

The Occupy movement began in New York in September 2011 and has rapidly spread to nearly 100 cities worldwide, inspired by Arab Spring protests, particularly in Cairo, and also mass demonstrations over the summer in Spain.  In October, demonstrators set up camp in public spaces in London and 15 other British cities.

The occupation outside St Paul’s was initially opposed by the police, but the Dean said he was happy for them to stay, and 150 tents sprang up.  A few days later he asked the protesters to leave the immediate vicinity so as not to impede access to churchgoers and tourists, but they refused, realising that they had gained valuable publicity as the UK media blew the issue into a crisis.  The Dean announced the closing of the cathedral on ‘health and safety’ grounds, much to the outrage of the press, who reminded us that the cathedral hadn’t been closed to visitors since it was bombed during the Second World War.  Although the cathedral reopened only a couple of days later, the crisis forced the resignation of three senior cathedral staff.  The police have not helped to calm the situation, seemingly treating the Occupiers aggressively and adding them to their lists of terrorist suspects.

It is possible that the real reason for the confused response of the St Paul’s leadership is that they are morally compromised in this issue.  While wanting on the one hand to be a voice for the poor and needy in society, St Paul’s is painfully aware that many people who work in the surrounding financial district form part of its congregation (and are therefore donors towards its massive upkeep costs) or are people to whom the cathedral is trying to reach out.  While the cathedral was closed to the public, it was alleged to be losing £23,000 a day in donations from tourists.

Meanwhile, the British public, egged on by the media, seems more concerned at accusations that the Occupiers are anarchistic workshy layabouts who are living on state handouts than they are about considering why people are driven to protest, in hostile conditions and worsening weather.  The stoic British are more concerned about their lovely cathedral than they are about the issues which inspire people to protest against capitalism and demand global democracy.  Are the Occupiers in fact unsung heroes like the Greenham Common Women or Brian Haw?

So what do the Occupiers think they can achieve?  They claim to be trying to initiate a dialogue about finding a way forward in shaping a more equitable society.  They hold public meetings and claim that many people who work in financial services are engaging with them, albeit very quietly.  They are also working hard on their public image, and while the camp appears scruffy it is free from litter and other waste matter.  While there have been isolated accusations of graffiti and urinating in the churchyard, the Occupy leadership are at pains to encourage the appearance of  responsibility.  One small example of this in action took place when I was visiting Occupy on a cold and very wet day in December.  I watched while one of the volunteer cleaners swept a huge puddle on the public pavement towards a drain, and when it failed to disappear, he lifted up the drain cover, thrust his hands into the mud and pulled out litter until the drain was clear.

Are they making an impact?  They have a well-presented information tent and even on a miserable midwinter day there was a steady trickle of visitors, making donations, signing the visitors book, and finding out more.  They have over 35,000 followers on Facebook and nearly 25,000 on Twitter, so there is a good groundswell of interest.  Yet they have not yet found a forum to get their voice heard nationally, which is why they can so easily be portrayed as a group of idealists dropouts.  And although left-wing heavyweights like Tony Benn and Billy Bragg have been public in their support, Occupy is (almost by definition) so outside mainstream that they are failing to attract wider political or media patronage.

The Occupiers originally tried to occupy Paternoster Square, right outside the London Stock Exchange, but were ejected by the police on the grounds that it was private property.  So they set up camp next door in the grounds of St Paul’s.  There is an interesting irony in this location which has not been noticed by commentators.  Could it be that deep in their subconscious the Occupiers are looking for a voice that will speak out on behalf of the poor and marginalised, that they are seeking moral leadership from the one institution that they know should speak out?

But are they looking in the wrong place?

FYI:- persecution on the way in Britain?

Source: www.freeimages.com

The legal situation of Christianity in the UK is something that has been slowly giving cause for concern over the past few years, and has become more serious in recent months.  Although our religious freedom is obvious to the many millions of Christians worldwide who can be oppressed, imprisoned, or even lynched with impunity because they lack any form of legal protection, an aggressive secularist agenda has been building up momentum, prompting well-known Christian apologist Michael Ramsden to observe recently that whenever Christian rights come into conflict with rights based on sexual preferences, they will be trumped.

Much of this situation has resulted from the Equality Act 2006, which (quite rightly) made it illegal to discriminate against anyone on the grounds of their religion or sexuality.   However this left an area of uncertainty over what happens when rights collide, resulting in a number of court cases as pressure groups (and their lawyers) endeavour to get more clarity.  We report on a number of cases so that you are informed about the issues.

Cross – For many years the wearing of a cross has been a issue which emerges occasionally in the popular press.  It is not unusual for employers to ban the wearing of jewellery in the workplace and wearing a cross is not deemed to be essential to Christianity (unlike a Sikh Kara bracelet).   A BA employee was banned from wearing a cross and in a high profile case BA was found not to have discriminated against her.  A Christian taxi driver was ordered by York City Council to remove a palm cross from his cab in case it caused offence to passengers, though the council subsequently relented.

Public witness – two Christians were warned by police that they were committing hate crime by handing out tracts in a predominantly Muslim area of Birmingham.  A university CU was reported to police for handing out gospels to students.

Homosexuality – A Christian couple running a B&B in Cornwall refused to let a homosexual couple share a double bed.  They argued that they were not picking on homosexuals, but because of their beliefs only supply double rooms to heterosexual married couples.  The court found them guilty of breaking the law, but reduced the fine out of respect for their religious beliefs. This couple subsequently admitted that they knew they were breaking the law but felt they had a right to set their own standards for their own business.

Faith in the workplace – A Christian doctor with an unblemished record may be struck off after discussing his faith with an adult patient who agreed to the discussion.  A Christian nurse was suspended for offering to pray for a patient.  A Christian registrar lost her job for refusing to officiate at same-sex civil partnerships.  It is now illegal to advertise for a Christian to fill a job in a Christian organisation if when the job could be done just as well by a non-Christian.

Gay marriage – Earlier this year the Government announced plans to create same-sex marriages on the same basis as heterosexual ones.  At the moment homosexual partnerships are recognised on a different basis to a marriage and there is no requirement to carry them out in churches.  There are significant concerns that once gay marriages are legalised, it will be a discriminatory offence for a church minister to refuse to perform one.

After centuries of Christendom in Britain, Christianity is now actively being relegated to an obscure private viewpoint which is not allowed to have any impact on how Christians behave or speak in public.  Christians are not actively persecuted yet, but it is clear that attempts are being made to disempower Christians so that they have no legal defence for traditional Christian activities and opinions.

While each of the above cases is worrying in itself for Christians, it is clear that the purpose of the law is good: that Christians can no longer discriminate against others because of their beliefs.  The result however is bad: that others can discriminate against Christians because of their beliefs.  Lions: 1 – Christians: 0

For further information visit The Christian Institute‘s website.

For an update on the current situations see A little more secular?  The Lions have scored again.

Enculturation or resistance – a dilemma for Nepali believers

Nepal“Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord” Hebrews 12.14

In a country where 95% of the population is Hindu, we live in an environment where almost all our Nepali neighbours, colleagues and friends are Hindu.  This weekend was Holi, one of the multiple Hindu festivals that punctuate the calendar here on an almost weekly basis.  Like many such festivals, its origins vary greatly, but in Nepal it is associated with the god Krishna who is known for his playfulness and his charm with women.

The festival, appropriately known as the festival of colours, is celebrated by showering friends and family with water and coloured powders.  Excitement builds as brightly coloured water pistols of different sizes appear in the shops.  Many find it hard to wait for the day itself, and for up to 2 weeks beforehand children and teenagers will delight to throw water balloons at unsuspecting passers-by.  Our boys were thrilled when visitors left a gift of two water pistols for them.  We were less thrilled at having to face the issue as to whether or not they should be allowed play Holi, even as several other missionary families from school planned water parties for the day.

These festivals however raise serious questions for many Nepali Christians.  Their frequency and their interwoven-ness with social life here are a significant challenge to separating oneself from Hindu religious practice and ritual, something the church feels is essential to its identity.  Hinduism is a religion that embraces multiple deities, religious teachings and practices, and many Hindus are happy to include Jesus Christ in their pantheon of gurus and leaders.  The church feels it is important to take a stand that clearly reflects their faithfulness to Christ as their one and only Saviour, without the confusion of practices that may have Hindu origins.

Weddings are an example of an occasion that is steeped in Hindu rituals, and thus it is that Christians not only marry in a church ceremony, but that the brides also generally wear a Western style pink or white gown. The fear is that the traditional red and gold wedding sari may carry some significance for Hindu observers and prevent them from clearly distinguishing the Christian faith.  Dashai is the largest Hindu festival in Nepal, lasting several days and involving much animal sacrifice and the exchange of Hindu tikka between family members.  Associated with long holidays and much socializing, non-Christians tend to liken it to our Christmas (we beg to differ!).  But for many Nepali Christians, it is a time of real conflict, feeling isolated from their community and being torn between their family and their faith.  To borrow the allegory, imagine if you as an individual had to choose not to participate in any aspect of the Christmas festivities your friends and family enjoy: the parties, decorations, meals, gifts, let alone the religious ceremonies.  The church is aware of the immense pressure and sense of isolation that many feel at this time, and so usually organises several days of events at churches for Christians to attend and enjoy together, including meals served with meat (butchered, not sacrificed) as a treat.

Some outsiders criticise what they see as the church’s inability to distinguish between cultural and religious practice, and its failure to explore a truly Nepali expression of Christianity.  They fear that this attitude only reinforces the concept that Christianity is a foreign religion and that Nepali Christians are not truly Nepali, an accusation frequently made by Hindu fundamentalists.  But I am not sure that any of us non-Nepalis can fully understand their experience as a minority (at times, persecuted) faith in this country, nor their struggle for recognition in a land where the ‘secular’ government provides massive subsidies for Hindu sites and festivals.  Many Nepali Christians report that even in this day when Nepal is supposed to have freedom of religion, some Christians experience being cut out of their inheritance, denied land that is rightfully theirs, or being thrown out of their families because they have converted.  It is not an easy or light choice that people make, and they usually endure far more than we ever will for their faithfulness to Christ.

So what to do about our boys valid hopes to try out their new water pistols, and join in the water fights and fun outside our apartment for Holi?  At church, we referred the matter to our Nepali pastor, who gently but unwaveringly stated that none of the other children from the church would be playing Holi.  After the service, the church showed a film and provided snacks for the congregation as alternative entertainment for the afternoon.  Our family instead braved the streets again and went home for our ‘traditional’ sabbath nap.  When the boys woke up, the children next door were already out on the empty lot waiting for Mark to start a game of baseball.  Grabbing mitts and bat, the boys headed out, water pistols left lying in our storeroom, waiting for another day.

This blog is an edited version of an article by Deirdre Zimmerman, a long-term development worker in Nepal, where she lives with her husband Mark and two sons.  To read the full version, follow this link.

Confess or renounce?

Sixteenth century Japanese fumie, used for treading on as a symbolic renunciation of Christ

Recently, in a troubled central-Asian republic where there has recently been much turmoil, a Christian was kidnapped and tortured by Islamist extremists.  In great pain, and with threats of similar violence to his wife and children, he agreed to their demands to renounce Jesus, and was released.  Subsequently, he suffered huge pangs of guilt and remorse.  Although he had not done this willingly, he had said the words.  He felt he had let down his Saviour.  How could he find forgiveness for that?

This reminds me of a story explored in Shusako Endo’s prize-winning novel Silence.  It concerns a Jesuit priest in mediaeval Japan, who is captured and forced to renounce Jesus by treading on an image of him, as many Japanese believers were forced to do during the seventeenth century.  As he wondered where his God was in the midst of his dilemma, he looked at the image of Jesus and felt it saying to him, “Trample! Trample! It is to be trampled on by you that I am here.”  Endo gives us an image not only of a Christ who suffered and was rejected on the cross, but one who continues to be rejected.

What would you say to encourage a man who has denied Christ?  Has he lost his soul (2 Timothy 2:12)?  Will he be restored in grace as Peter was after he denied knowing Jesus?  Is he just a normal flesh-and-blood person, who did the rational thing in a crisis, just like the rest of us would have done?  What would you have done in that situation?

Please pray for the believers in this country.  Life is hard for them, as they are marginalised by their compatriots, and find it hard to get jobs.  They risk being attacked, whether individually or as congregations.  A rising current of extremism threatens the notional freedom of religion in this state.  Pray that the political situation would stabilise, that law and order would be established, and freedom of religion protected.  Pray that the suffering Christians would be encouraged, and comforted in their hardship.