‘And the people stayed home’: A longing for shalom?

(This blog is also available as a video at https://youtu.be/9spH7DAw2z8.)

‘And the people stayed home’ is the first line of a prose poem that went viral in March this year. It was written by retired teacher Kitty O’Meara of Madison, Wisconsin, and published in her blog under the title ‘In Time of Pandemic’. Within weeks, it was inspiring thousands of posts on social media around the world. It was being set to music and translated into other languages. It had resonated so deeply with people everywhere that the writer was hailed as ‘the poet laureate of the pandemic’. To me, this amazing response is an expression of a deep human longing for what the Old Testament scriptures call ‘shalom’.

What is shalom? It is usually translated into English as ‘peace’ but, in ordinary language, that word is too often used with the negative sense of freedom from war, civil unrest, disturbance, dissension, anxiety or inner conflict for it to encompass all that ‘shalom’ embraces. It has instead the positive significance of wholeness, completeness, integrity, soundness, community, connectedness, righteousness, justice and well-being.

In the Septuagint Greek version of the Old Testament, shalom is translated as ‘eirene’, the word from which we derive ‘irenic’ and the lovely name Irene. In New Testament times, that word had the same largely negative ordinary language meaning as our contemporary English word ‘peace’ does but the New Testament itself carries over from the Old Testament the full positive significance of shalom.

One of my favourite writers, philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, writes this:

“Shalom is present when a person dwells at peace in all his or her relationships: with God, with self, with fellows, with nature.

… To dwell at peace in one’s relationships, it is not enough, however, that hostility be absent. Letting live is not yet shalom. Shalom is enjoyment in one’s relationships. … To dwell in shalom is to enjoy living before God, to enjoy living in one’s physical surroundings, to enjoy living with one’s fellows, to enjoy life with oneself.” (Educating for Life, p. 101)

Shalom is not just an inner feeling, it is a relational matter – it has to do with our relationships with God, with others, with ourselves and with the wonderful world he has created. This is what we were made for, how it was meant to be. To put it in the form of the usual English rendering of ‘ubuntu’ (which I talked about in a recent blog), I am because God is, I am because the physical world is and I am because we are.

It is these relationships that make us the human beings that we are, made by God in his image, creatures of flesh and blood, made to be together with one another, to love God, to care for and tend the physical Creation and to love one another.

However, shalom was lost when we fell into sin with catastrophic effects on all our relationships. The thunderbolt of our Fall shattered our relationships of shalom with God, with Creation and with one another. We could no longer walk with God in the Garden and know him walking with us in the cool of the day. The whole physical creation is affected, the ground is cursed and Paul says in Romans chapter 8 that the creation was subjected to frustration and decay. Our relationships with one another were broken, jealousy and hatred came in.

But a second Adam came to the rescue! Jesus came to overcome sin and death by himself going to the cursed death of the Cross. He came to restore shalom. Paul says in Colossians chapter 1:

“For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace (EIRENE/SHALOM) through his blood, shed on the cross. … This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.”

There is a world to come in which shalom is fully restored. It is the world of what the Bible calls “the promised new heavens and the promised new earth, all landscaped with righteousness” (1 Peter 3:13, The Message). It is the world of which the Old Testament prophet speaks: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them”. (Isaiah 11:6, NIV)

In her poem, Kitty O’Meara talks of the people listening, listening more deeply and being joined together. In the valley of the shadow of the pandemic, we are discovering afresh the value of human relationships, finding ourselves exchanging greetings with complete strangers, chatting (at two metres distance) with people in our neighbourhood to whom we had barely spoken before.

I’ve found that this also stretches back into the community of memory, the community of people who have had a shaping impact upon us. Two students whom I taught as a schoolteacher several decades ago have recently sent me Facebook friend requests which I was delighted to receive.

Kitty O’Meara also talks of a healing of the earth as people make new choices and dream new images of our relationship with the physical creation. Many people are discovering afresh the childhood or teenage joys of walking, running and cycling. We smell the clean air, notice the cotton wool clouds in the clear blue sky and listen to the song of the birds.

Val and I are enjoying watching American birds via the live webcam at the Cornell Lab Feederwatch. It is so real on the TV screen that we hesitate to go too close lest we scare the blue jays, goldfinches, multiple varieties of woodpecker and many other birds on the feeders!

‘And the people stayed home’ also hints at relationship with God in its mention of meditation and prayer. Our home church has had rather more people viewing our online worship than we ever had in services in ‘normal’ times and this seems to be the experience of many churches.

All of this is evidence, I believe, of a deep human longing for shalom. The likes and shares of Kitty O’Meara’s poem say that this is so. But, as we dream new images, let us not forget that this longing may be felt most deeply by those for whom the experience of the impact of the pandemic is very hard – those staying home with an abusive family member, those weeping for loved ones they could not be with as they passed away, dementia sufferers who can’t understand why everything seems so different, those facing unemployment or the bankruptcy of a business, those health workers preparing for another day at the front-line of the battle with the coronavirus, those crowded together in refugee camps and so many, many more.

Let us pray.

Father God, help us to know your shalom in our hearts, the peace that is given by the Prince of Peace, the peace that transcends human understanding. Help us to be seekers of shalom in all our relationships with others, especially with those for whom this time of pandemic is very hard. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

(This blog is also available as a video at https://youtu.be/9spH7DAw2z8.)

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please EITHER (1) email me through the contact address on this website OR (2) message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook.

Meet Charles Strohmer: Champion of Wisdom

This blog is adapted from a recent online chat with a good friend of mine from the United States. As a young man, Charles Strohmer was into astrology and spirit guides and he made part of his living by writing horoscopes. The wonderful story of how he came to faith in the mid-seventies and of his life and work since is very well told by Charles himself in this interview.

JOHN: Charles, you and Linda live in East Tennessee in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. It sounds a great place to live but you were brought up way up north in Detroit, Michigan, weren’t you?

CHARLES: Yes, we’re pleasantly ensconced here in the foothills of the Smokies but Detroit is about 550 miles north of us, a lot of real cold winter weather up there. It’s the Motor City, so it’s the big three auto makers plus the Motown sound, and a lot of rock ‘n roll came out of Detroit.

I was personally caught up in both of those worlds. I was a car mechanic for a long time and I got into the music scene deeply, not just into the Motown sound which I really like but mainly into rock ‘n’ roll, hard rock, heavy metal.

JOHN: In Odd Man Out, your great book about your life in the sixties and seventies, you say you began to search for “Truth with a capital T”. What set you off on that search when it seemed you had everything going for you?

CHARLES: Now, that’s interesting! Yeah, I suppose it does seem like I had everything going for me. I was living the American Dream on the one hand and then, off of that, I was playing this counter-cultural hippy thing.

But inside of me a lot of things affected me in a very disturbing way. I was totally unhappy with how things were going in the American system. In the 1960s there was the assassination of President Kennedy, then a few years later the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., then, a couple of months later, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy when he was running for president. There was the Vietnam War et cetera and I was, for some reason, really affected by those injustices and evils.

I got this deep desire to know Truth with a capital T. That’s how I talked to myself about it. I said to myself that if I could find Truth with a capital T, no matter what it cost or where it led, then Truth would do two things. It would tell me what was wrong with the American system and perhaps even with life itself or the world and my own life. And number two, it would help me and others to solve some of the problems, correct some things that have gone wrong.

JOHN: And you got into astrology around that time. It was the time of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius or soon after it, wasn’t it? How did that come about?

CHARLES: I thought astrology was a path to Truth. It came about innocently enough. A friend of mine and I were both into race cars, but we also used to meet at Dunkin’ Donuts and talk about life and spiritual things. At the time, he was the only friend I could talk to like that. One day he put this book on the table in Dunkin’ Donuts and said, “Here. This is pretty cool. I’ve been reading about this.” I picked it up and said, “Oh, this is about astrology. That’s a load of rubbish, that’s the occult. I don’t want to have anything to do with that.” 

And that was that, until it wasn’t. A few weeks later, he put another astrology book down in front of me and said, “You’ve got to read this. This is good stuff. It says we’re the same sun sign. That is why we get along so well.” So I took the book and read it. I liked what I was reading. I didn’t understand a lot of it, but it set me on this course of studying astrology and learning how to do horoscope readings for people. I also thought I was learning about myself and helping others by interpreting their horoscopes.

JOHN: And by this time you had become a roadie for a rock band as well?

CHARLES: Yes, I had moved to Chicago from Detroit and I was working in a Chevy dealer there selling car parts, and I liked it. It gave me some money to head out and go to music clubs and so on. I had very long hair and a Fu Manchu moustache then. It’s a funny story, but there was a girl who worked in the office at the Chevy dealer. We liked each other. But she didn’t like it that I came to work with my hair in a ponytail stuffed down my shirt to hide it, so that the bosses and customers wouldn’t be offended by it. She used to tease me and say, “You gotta let your hair out. You look so good with it long like that. Stop hiding it.” So one day to get on her better side, I arrived at work with my long hair hanging out all over the place. That went on for a couple of weeks, until the general manager took me aside and gave me an ultimatum: “You can either quit today or be laid off.” So I was suddenly out of work.

Then, long story short, a few weeks later I was partying at a music club and heard a great band, called Marcus. It was an American rock ‘n’ roll band and they were in the process of cutting their first album, which would eventually be produced by United Artists in California. We got on famously and I started travelling on the road crew with them. I eventually became the stage manager and worked with them for over a year, travelling in the Midwest.

JOHN: Yes, so they went off to California then and after a while – a short time back home in Detroit – you set out to drive to California?

CHARLES: Yes, an interesting period in my life. When the band signed their contract with United Artists, they had to move to California to record the album. So the roadies were without work. I went back to Detroit and stayed in my parents’ house for a while.

But I wondered what I was going to do with my life. And I was getting deeper involved in occult practices beside astrology. I had a little room in my parents’ basement. I had a cheap desk there and all my astrology books and my other occult books. I’d sit there for hours a day with a pot of jasmine tea, trying to interpret horoscope readings and then talk to clients afterwards about that. I even got paid a little bit for doing it.

Eventually I decided I had to get to California, so I loaded up my car and began driving to California, where I hoped to work with the band again.

JOHN: And you drove through the Badlands of North Dakota?

CHARLES: I did. By the way, that was interesting that you included that word in the title of your blog. I thought, “This is lovely. I wonder if John knows about the Badlands of North Dakota”. So this was the spring of 1976. I drove to Chicago, where I owed somebody a horoscope chart, dropped that off there, stayed a couple of days, and then drove across the top of the United States through the Badlands of North Dakota to Washington State and then came down the coast highway through Oregon to California.

It was in the Badlands that I started to have really strange spiritual experiences that undid my life and completely dismantled my occult worldview. I used to rely on a lot on occult beliefs, and some eastern religious beliefs – karma, reincarnation, spiritual evolution. I had a lot of really disturbing spiritual experiences all the way to southern California. They left me broken and in tears and living like a hermit on my own.

JOHN: And you bought a Bible and began to read it?

CHJARLES: Yes. It had been about six or eight weeks since I’d left Detroit. I was now living near a beach in southern California, in a little hotel room with a small stove, a refrigerator and some cupboards. I was now also a strict vegetarian – nuts, grains, fruits and vegetables only. And I was doing this unusual kind of fasting that I had been taught by an occult teacher. It was supposed to help me evolve spiritually. But I kept having these very disturbing, and sometimes frightening spiritual experiences. I was at my wits end and didn’t know what to do.

So about a week before my twenty-sixth birthday I bought a Bible in a Bible bookstore. I had read the whole Bible when I was an astrologer, but it didn’t communicate to me. I was in Costa Mesa, which was one of the sources for the Jesus revival that was going on during that period.

JOHN: That was the time of the Jesus People!

CHARLES: Yes. But I didn’t know that. Had never heard of them. I felt really weird going into this Christian bookstore to buy a Bible and being the only longhair with the Fu Manchu, but there were longhairs there! It kind of shocked me, and nobody bothered me.

I bought a Bible and started reading it back in the hotel room. Again I couldn’t understand it. That was the last straw. One night I just broke down completely and started sobbing alongside the bed in this little room. I started crying to God, saying simply, “God I’m sorry, God I’m sorry, God, I’m sorry. I’m just a sinner”. I was sobbing and crying out to God like that for a long time that night. But after a while I began to feel deeply peaceful and I sensed the presence of Jesus in the room with me. I felt forgiven, and the terrible spiritual experiences ended. And I no longer felt like a dirty guilty person.

It was late at night when this happened. I was alone and I didn’t know what else to do so I crawled into bed and went to sleep. I woke up the next morning, and I remember laying there in that bed and everything looked different. Even the air looked different. I remember walking around that small room and looking at all the astrology books and the occult literature and all the charts I had laid out. I thought, “I’ve been duped, I’ve been duped”. It was like the Holy Spirit was already teaching me that the way that I’d been going for six or seven years with the occult was leading me the wrong way in the search for Truth.

And then I saw the open Bible on the table from the night before. Why not? I thought. So I started reading it again and I could understand it! It was amazing. And I couldn’t stop reading it. And that’s where we come back to the vow I had made years’ earlier, to find Truth with a capital T. Because I then read in scripture some weeks later that Jesus said, “I am the truth”. He says that in John’s Gospel. “I am the way, the truth and the life.” When I read that Jesus Christ was the truth, well, more blinders came off. Oh, Truth is a person, that’s astounding! That completely transformed my thinking about the source and nature of Truth.

JOHN: And you went back home to Detroit after that and you got into church life?

CHARLES: Yes, I finally drove back to Detroit, but I didn’t know what to do. I was like burning out of control for Jesus. I was stopping to get gas along the road and I just had to tell the guy in the gas station about Jesus. “Can I tell you about Jesus?” I didn’t know what I would say if someone said yes. And some did. My first pastor in Detroit once joked with me about this. “Charles, new believers like you should hide out for six months because you’re doing more damage than good! You’re telling everybody about Jesus but you don’t know what you’re doing half the time.”

But he was a great pastor, and I was part of his church in the inner-city of Detroit, where I lived for a year. It was a wonderful church, a mixed congregation of blacks and whites. We served the inner city. We did a lot of Christian ministry there. We had a resale shop, we did radio broadcasts and ran concerts, we had three church services a week, we prayed a lot and had a phone counselling line. That was in 1977, and it was where I began to get my Christian legs.

JOHN: And for the next few years you were in Detroit and then you began to travel and you even came to the UK?

CHARLES: I did! Another interesting period of my life. The Lord called me out of that inner-city ministry and “back into the world” – as we used to say – to work. So I went back to selling car parts and eventually landed a job in a Chevrolet dealership in downtown Detroit. I liked working there among so many different kinds of people, and I eventually became a parts manager there.

I was also supporting an American gal who was a missionary in Paisley, Scotland, with YWAM. She was an educator and she cofounded a preschool in Paisley with YWAM, called ‘The Wee Friends Preschool’, which became a template for the founding of similar other schools. She came back to the States on a short furlough, and at the time I was just a supporter of hers, but she visited me and a girlfriend of hers in Michigan, and by the end of this visit we were getting serious about each other! Linda and I got engaged, and in June of 1986, I moved to Scotland and we married in Paisley. I lived there for a few more years, and the Lord was gracious to me and began opening doors of ministry in the UK.

We moved back to the States in late 1989, and Linda returned to teaching first grade in the public schools here. Her forte is children’s literacy. She was an award-winning Teacher of the Year in Tennessee for children’s literacy.

I was being invited back to the UK. It was mind-blowing for me that churches and parachurch groups wanted this American bloke to come to teach on Christian worldview and biblical wisdom. And I learned so much from Christians I met everywhere. Some became my best friends. For ten to fifteen years I travelled all over the UK. I remember that you and I met for the first time during one of those trips, when you invited me and the lovely Pam MacKenzie to do some teaching for the Association of Christian Teachers.

JOHN: Yes, it was for a weekend for teachers on a Christian response to New Age philosophy! During the nineties you had become a writer as well as a speaker.

CHARLES: Yes, that was my entry into the world of publishing. My first couple of books were about a Christian point of view on astrology and a major book on communicating the truth to New Age seekers.[1]

Then I felt the Lord nudging me to get more and more involved in the wisdom tradition. That’s become a key in my ministry for twenty, twenty-five years now. I was an apologist for quite a while and published frequently in that field. But the field of apologetics for me was no longer getting me where I believed the Lord wanted to take me. Its organising principle tends to make as wide as possible the gulf of dissimilarities between different theologies and belief systems, and I saw the need for that. But it wasn’t satisfying my growing interests in helping people to come together on common ground in mutuality.

It was actually through a mutual friend of ours, the inimitable John Peck, whom I had met in the States a decade earlier, who began to mentor me further along in this, in biblical wisdom development. He was a godsend.

Of course, John had his hand in a lot of things in the UK, like the Greenbelt Festival and College House in Cambridge. He had done a lot of thinking about how the biblical wisdom tradition seeks to bring people who are different, even those who have different core beliefs, to bring them together on common ground to try to solve problems, work together for justice, and so on. And John relied on help from the biblical wisdom tradition for this.

I saw this as a missing jewel in Christian worldview teaching and development. Unlike the traditional apologetics paradigm, the wisdom tradition, simply put, seeks to bring people together on mutual ground, yet while acknowledging difference. This really lit my fuse. For the last twenty-five or thirty years much of my published works and talks have been trying to build on what I call a wisdom-based gospel-shaped way of engaging all of life, its art, its politics, family life, and much more, and especially, for many years now, the field of international relations, foreign policy, and diplomacy.

JOHN: And yes, talking about the international situation, you mentioned the assassination of President Kennedy. Most of us can remember where we were when we heard the news that he had been assassinated. And the nine-eleven attack on the Twin Towers 2001 is like that because we can all remember where we were when we heard the news of that. But in your case, Charles, it was particularly powerful, wasn’t it? Where were you when you heard about it?

CHARLES: I have a funny way of understanding that to myself. I’m pretty sure that I was one of the last people on earth to hear about it. I had boarded a plane in Gatwick that morning before it happened. I had just finished a three-week book tour with John Peck about our book Uncommon Sense which had just come out with SPCK.

We were about two hours out of London over the Atlantic headed toward the States when the captain — I’ll never forget his announcement. Through his deep Texas drawl he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please. Your serious attention.” And he went on to explain that there had been an international incident in the United States and we had to land in Halifax, Nova Scotia. But he wouldn’t say what had happened.

So three hours later, we’re landing in Halifax, circling the airfield, and we see this very long queue of planes, dozens and dozens of jumbo jets and L1011s that have landed ahead of us in this little international airport. We passengers still didn’t know what was going on. After we had taxied to our place at the end of the queue, our captain then explained what had happened. We were like, “What?!” We were all stunned. Passengers on our plan were bussed to an air force base, where we lived for four more days. Those days and that event affected me deeply.  

JOHN: Yes, when you were back home, you became passionate about developing what you call “wisdom-based inter-cultural relations between Christians and Muslims and wisdom-based international relations between the United States and Muslim Middle East states”. You set up the Wisdom Project and you have a blog entitled “Waging Wisdom: Uncommon Sense for a World in Conflict”. Tell us more, Charles.

CHARLES: Thank you for that question, John. I really appreciate being able to say a few words about that. It’s a long story, but I’ll try to be brief. I slipped into a mild depression after I got home. I was praying a lot, and I concluded I could get out of it in one of two ways. I could completely ignore the significance of the nine-eleven attack or I could do a little research and study to learn what had happened. So I choose the latter option, because it was obvious that the attack couldn’t be ignored.

So I turned to the experts, but the experts in Washington were saying, “We don’t know why it happened.” To their credit, it was good to hear some humility from experts. And even from Christian leaders, who were admitting the same thing. But that was a huge disappointment, because I wanted somebody with some wisdom to explain to me why it had occurred, how to respond wisely, and how to prevent it from happening again. Well, if nobody knew, Strohmer was going to find out! Some kind of pride thing in my life!

I began some research, naively thinking that after several months of study I would learn all I needed to know about this. Then I’ll write an article or two, maybe do a couple of seminars about it, and that will be that. Well, that turned into a two- or three-year research project into the broad field of international relations, foreign policy, and diplomacy in which I was learning all sorts of new and crucial things from different points of view, especially the different American ones and many of those in the Middle East — the different ways that different capitals had of analysing and responding to the attacks.

JOHN: What did you do with all that research?

CHARLES: Well, I had learned a lot about what many people would call a secular view of U.S.-Middle East foreign policy. But that wasn’t nearly enough. I thought, “What would the biblical wisdom tradition have to say about this, if anything?” After a real struggle, by the grace of God I began to be able to get under the skin of the wisdom tradition and understand how the sages who gave us that tradition understood foreign policy and diplomacy. I don’t take credit for it, but a wealth of material began to open up to me, from both the Old and New Testaments. So over time I was able to lay my understanding of the wisdom tradition alongside that of the “secular” views and then develop and offer a way of foreign policy, diplomacy, and negotiations based on biblical wisdom norms, ideas and principles.

That led to founding the Wisdom Project and to becoming a visiting research fellow for the Christian think-tank in Washington called the Centre for Public Justice. That too was a godsend, thanks to James Skillen, its then president, and its board of directors. The project grew into a major book project which has yet to be published. InterVarsity Press looked at it seriously for six months but then decided not to publish it. The book is based on what I call the five norms of wisdom and how they can help people who are different to work together, whether on a local community project or a national or international problem, be they Muslims, Christians, Jews, secularists, whoever.

It’s been a rewarding journey, and a lot of work, but the Lord has opened doors for me to talk about this with key people and groups on many different levels, including at the State Department and the Council on Foreign Relations. You know, when you get to talking with “experts” who are open to new ideas, and you sit with them and learn from them and they learn from you about ways to use the principles and norms and ideas of the historic wisdom tradition in their analyses and policy decision making, to defuse adversarial relations and suchlike, well, it’s not only exciting. It also, importantly, helps to make life a little better for any number of people. Jesus spoke of “blessed peacemakers.” Diplomats and international negotiators, among others, are tasked with fulfilling that calling.  

JOHN: Yes, you must be looking at international relations in the present global pandemic situation and thinking what does the biblical wisdom tradition have to bring to this?

CHARLES: I would say that there’s different levels. One is that we are now in the age of social media where there’s too much polemics going on. One of the purposes of the wisdom tradition is to help us shake free from rigid ideological thinking. But on social media you have countless people entrenched deep inside their fortresses with contradictory ideological viewpoints. They only come out to shoot polemics at each other from behind their fortress walls. That is just dividing the country, dividing people. The wisdom tradition offers us biblical norms and principles and ideas that will help out of our fortresses, let down our drawbridges, walk across our moats, and start talking with each other civilly about how we can work together to help our countries. So that’s one level.

Another level is at city-wide, regional, and state levels. Here in the States you’ve got the fifty states. In your country and in Europe you’ve got your own levels of government. But whether we are talking about cities or counties or countries, the wisdom tradition can help politicians, medical people, and other kinds of COVID-19 decision makers to be more on the same page helping us ordinary citizens to get through this difficult season with less divisiveness, in order to work together for the good of our countries. And, mind you, this is not some idealist pipe dream. The wisdom tradition is utterly realistic about what is possible in our fallen world. 

And then there is international level, where these days you’ve got the United States playing off China and Russia, and vice-versa. The wisdom tradition has a lot of, well, wisdom for those who work internationally, which affects us all. Take, for example, a friend of mine, Chris Seiple, who was President of the Institute of Global Engagement in Washington DC. He has a whole paradigm that’s just lovely. It’s called “relational diplomacy,” very wisdom-based. We’ve had many conversations about how it has helped him and the IGE teams with some amazing breakthroughs in difficult situations in the Middle East to ease adversarial relations and help bring about some good changes, including when ISIS was running rampant there.

And Chris is not shy about letting his interlocutors know up front that he is an evangelical Christian. But he knows the potential of the wisdom tradition. It’s my belief and hope that if more organizations like IGE tap the potential of the biblical wisdom tradition, then parliaments, and congresses, and White Houses, and Downing Streets around the world could be more equipped to deal wisely, together, with all sorts of injustices and help make the world a better place for us ordinary folk to live in.

JOHN: Well, let’s pray that it will be so …


JOHN: Now Charles, I reckon that you’re round about three score years and ten. For a lot of people, there’s a word ‘retirement’ that comes in at that point. But in your neck of the woods, Dolly Parton came from there and she sang about “working nine till five”. Are you going to sit back? What are your plans, brother?

CHARLES: Dolly Parton, yes, she’s still going strong. She’s quite a philanthropist, you know. We live near where she grew up. My wife retired from teaching a few years ago, but she is busier than ever, giving grace and offering wisdom in a lot of areas. But I’m not retired. I spend much of my day researching, writing, a bit of advising, and seeking advice, too. When you’ve been doing what I’ve been doing for three or four decades, you have a lot of ideas! They can overwhelm you and you think, “I’ll write about this, I’ll write about that”. I joke to myself that I want to clone myself at least three times so that I can assign projects to myself and trust they get done.

The tricky part for me is that if things come together to begin a certain project, then I’ve got to try to do it. When I worked on an assembly line decades ago, if I was sick, someone else could fill my spot on the line that day. But I have a different calling now. The onus is on me to see a task through to completion. It’s a strange responsibility. I’m always praying to try to understand just what it is I should be getting done!

A focus these past months has been trying to determine, “Lord, what are you saying about COVID-19?” I don’t want to be spinning my wheels. So I haven’t said much publicly yet because I want it to be wisdom-based, and the penny hasn’t dropped yet. So maybe I could take this opportunity to ask your readers to say a prayer about this. I would like to get some traction on making some wisdom-based communications about this difficult season that we’re all in. I’ve got ideas floating around but I need an “Aha!” moment.

JOHN: Charles, bless you and thank you for all that you’ve been sharing. It’s been great to talk!

CHARLES: Thank you so much, John. Any time.

Thank you to Jeremy Daley for the photo of Charles reviewing papers above.

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please EITHER (1) email me through the contact address on this website OR (2) message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook.

[1] Details of books by Charles can be found on his Amazon Author’s page.

If Paul had Zoom …

If Paul had Zoom installed on his smartphone in New Testament times, I wonder to what extent it would have satisfied his longing to see his friends when separated from them by hundreds of miles.

I’ve been thinking about fellowship and, in particular, about the nature of the fellowship we are experiencing now via phone and internet as we live in a lockdown situation. This took me to Paul’s letter to his friends in Thessalonica where he writes:

“But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you.” (1 Thessalonians 2:17, NIV)

We surely feel orphaned by being separated from friends and family at the present time. “Separated in person, not in thought”. In Greek, it reads as being separated “in face, not in heart” and of a longing to “see your faces”.

Paul goes on to say that when he “could stand it no longer”, Timothy was sent up to Thessalonica (presumably along the 300-mile Roman road up from Athens) and he came back later with the good news that their friends up north “always have pleasant memories” of Paul and his companions and that, as Paul writes to them, “you long to see us, just as we also long to see you”. (1 Thessalonians 3:1,6, NIV)

Paul came to a point where he could stand no longer being cut off from people he longed to see face-to-face. Again, in lockdown, we surely know the feeling!

They didn’t have our 21st century mail services but they could send letters like this one in 1 Thessalonians and they had couriers who travelled with them along the Roman roads. A marked contrast with our instant communication on the worldwide web’s superhighway!

These roads criss-crossing the Empire were the superhighway of the time. Galatians 4:4 talks about how “when the time had fully come, God sent his Son”. It was the right time, God’s time, and part of that timeliness was the availability of the Roman road system for the spread in person and by letter of the Good News of Jesus! Oh yes, bad things also travelled along the Roman roads and doubtless there were many first century scammers seeking out the vulnerable to rob from them and harm them just as there are on our internet superhighway. But God’s people used the Roman roads to bring the news of Jesus to people near and far.

Paul didn’t have a phone or Skype or Whatsapp or Facetime or Zoom. I think he would have been delighted to have a Zoom meeting with the folk in Thessalonica but I also think he would still have longed for face-to-face and side-by-side togetherness with them.

In so many ways, these means of communication are wonderful to have. To be able to see on screen via Zoom a gallery of the faces of church friends in their own homes rather than sitting in church looking at the backs of their heads! (My ideal church building would have seats in the round rather than straight rows all looking forward.) It is wonderfully possible for us to see on screen the faces of family members and friends far away, even those on the other side of the globe, and to converse with them.

It is all surely a true Godsend for us in the present lockdown situation! And yet, and yet, life online in general and Zoom meetings in particular do have their limitations and drawbacks.

They are very demanding of our attention and they can be quite tiring. They seem to take more energy than the face-to-face encounters we are used to. People are beginning to talk of “Zoom fatigue”. [1] This exhaustion can also happen in one-to-one communication with other video-calling interfaces, e.g. Skype, Whatsapp and Facetime but the multi-person screens of a Zoom meeting have a magnifying effect,

Why is this? One factor seems to be an effect of seeing our own faces among the faces we are looking at. We are more aware of ourselves than we would be in normal face-to-face or side-by-side communication and we are therefore less aware of the other. This makes it different from old-fashioned telephone conversations.

Another factor is that when we meet face-to-face, all our senses are involved but online we are relying only on audio and visual signals on a flat screen. It’s a bit like the experience of a hearing- or sight-impaired person in normal times relying on limited sensory input.

There is also the guilt feeling that may come if we don’t take every opportunity available to connect online with others. The pings of new messages or emails arriving can be heard at any time if our device settings allow them and they clamour for our attention and threaten to overwhelm us.

Silences don’t matter when we are physically together but online they can be disconcerting and stress-inducing.

Just having another person physically present with us, watching the same TV programme, walking side-by-side out in the open-air or sitting side-by-side on a car journey, gives us experience of a personal relationship that stirs our feelings and awakens our senses. That physical presence is missing in online communication so that we may feel that we are “alone together” rather than “together together”.

In spite of all these factors, it is nevertheless great, really great, to have this means of meeting. Let’s be thankful for it all and make as good use of it as we can.

Let’s also look forward and pray for a time to come when we can again meet face-to-face and walk side-by-side.

And beyond that, there will be a day when we meet with him and with one another. “When Christ is openly revealed, we’ll see him—and in seeing him, become like him” (1 John 3:2, The Message). We will have new physical bodies and all our senses in a world where we’ll never grow old!

Dear Father and Lord of time and space, we pray that you will help us to go through this time of restrictions on meeting our friends and family members and to use wisely and for the blessing of others the digital communication available to us. In the name of Jesus, Amen.

(This blog is also available as a video at https://youtu.be/QE3Dq7-Akrc.)

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please EITHER (1) email me through the contact address on this website OR (2) message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook.

[1] See, for example, articles on nationalgeographical.com, psychologytoday.com and bbc.com.

Welcome the Stranger

(This blog is also available as a video at https://youtu.be/fvnNK1PBAjc.)

Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you invited me in”. (Matthew 25:35)

Tribalism, the attitude of “us” versus “them”, has many ugly faces – racism, nationalism, sectarianism, social or intellectual snobbery and many more.

If we are infected by a tribalist attitude, we want a pure world, a world of people like us, and we want to push those who are not like us out of our world. In his book Exclusion & Embrace, Miroslav Volf says that this exclusive attitude can take three forms (pp. 74-75):

(1) In extreme cases, we kill and drive out. Volf himself was brought up in the former Yugoslavia and witnessed the horrors of ethnic cleansing in the conflicts that broke out after its break-up. In my Irish homeland in my own lifetime, members of the Protestant and Catholic tribes drove each other out of their homes to create pure territories, cleansed of those who were different. The walls of segregation went up and suspicion of the other was all-pervasive.

(2) Alternatively, we assign those who are not like us the status of inferior beings. In their book The Gift of the Stranger (what a counter-cultural title!), David Smith and Barbara Carvill say that, in New Testament times, the world was “divided into Greek speakers who were bearers of full humanity and foreigners who were considered of lesser worth” (pp. 20-21). The outsiders were ‘barbaroi’ (barbarians) because their language was unintelligible ‘bar bar bar’.

I was once in a classroom when David Smith was teaching about this. He asked half of us to sit on the floor where we could just peer over the edges of our tables while he ignored us to talk to the others who were still in their seats. Back in our seats, he then got us in both groups to reflect on how we felt during that part of the lesson. An unforgettable experience!

(3) A third form of exclusion, Volf says, is in the way we ignore or abandon others. It is found not only in the way the rich of the West and North relate to the poor of the Third World but also “in the manner in which the suburbs relate to inner cities, or the jet-setting ‘creators of high value’ relate to the rabble beneath them”. He likens this to the attitude of the priest and the Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan who cross to the other side of the road and “pass by, minding our own business” (p. 75). We simply do not see the inferior beings – they aren’t in our world.

If asked what is the second of the two great commandments in the Bible, many of us would readily answer that we are to love our neighbours as ourselves. David Smith and Barbara Carvill point out that the record of this command in Leviticus 19 is followed by a command in the same chapter to love the alien as ourselves (p. 12). Who is our neighbour? The person who is like “us”, the person who lives in our street? No, the neighbour can be the alien, the stranger, the one who is different from us because she or he is one of “them”! Is that not the point that Jesus was making in answering the question about the identity of the neighbour with the story of the Good Samaritan. Today it could be the story of the Good Palestinian!

Miroslav Volf opposes these exclusivist tribalist attitudes to an attitude that welcomes and embraces the stranger. The picture on the cover of his book Exclusion & Embrace is of a painted plaster sculpture by George Segal entitled Abraham’s Farewell to Ishmael. The contrast between Abraham’s arms around his son and Sarah’s tightly-folded arms with her back turned on them so vividly depicts the contrast between embrace and exclusion! Abraham’s having a child with the maid Hagar (anxiously looking on from the background) was, after all, Sarah’s idea in the first place!

Miroslav Volf uses embrace as a metaphor for our welcome of the stranger and talks of it as a drama in four acts (pp. 140-147). In act one, I open my arms to the other as “a sign that I have created space in myself for the other to come in and that I have made a movement out of myself so as to enter the space created by the other”. In act two, I wait for the other to respond. The embrace of the other is not an invasion of their space. True embrace is reciprocal. In act three, we each close our arms around the other but not too tightly so as to crush or assimilate the other. In act four, very importantly, the arms are opened again. As I tried to say in my blog about ubuntu, ‘I am because we are’ asserts both that I am and that we are. The separate identities of each of the parties to the embrace are affirmed and maintained in true community.

The arms of the Lord Jesus are not tightly folded as were those of Sarah. They are wide open with the invitation to come to him. As we do so, our individuality is not lost in our relation to him.

There is no tribalism, no nationalism, no racism, no intellectual or social elitism in Christ. Paul writes, “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:11, NIV). Again, he writes, “In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 3:28, The Message)

Father, forgive us and free us from our exclusivist ‘us’ and ‘them’ attitudes, whatever form they take, and help us to truly welcome and embrace the stranger for in doing so you tell us that we welcome the Lord Jesus. In his name, Amen.

(This blog is also available as a video at https://youtu.be/fvnNK1PBAjc.)

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please EITHER (1) email me through the contact address on this website OR (2) message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook.

‘Ubuntu’: One of my favourite words!

(This blog is also available as a video on YouTube at https://youtu.be/q9RXAnfC2Mk.)

Hello! I want to talk with you about the meaning of one of my favourite words. It is one of three favourite words of mine from languages other than English. One is from the Hebrew of the Old Testament, another is from the Greek of the New Testament and the third is from the language of the Xhosa people of southern Africa. (You may be able to guess what the first two are. If you can’t, I will tell you at the end of this chat.)

The one I want to focus upon for now is the third. It is the word ‘ubuntu’ and it is usually rendered in English as ‘I am because we are’. Desmond Tutu says this:

“Ubuntu … speaks to the very essence of being human, saying my humanity is caaught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours. We belong in a bundle of life and so we say in our part of the world a person is a person through other persons. It says not: I think therefore I am. It says rather: I am human because I belong, I participate, I share.“

As we all walk in the valley of the shadow of the coronavirus, are we not coming to realise in a new and deeper way that we are all one, that I am because we are? Again, Desmond Tutu talks of ubuntu as the spirituality of humanity’s oneness with our Creator, oneness with the other of another person and oneness with nature, with the physical world. And he goes on to say, “I dream of a new world and a new humanity, a humanity that expresses ubuntu”.

But this is not an idea that is peculiar to the Xhosa people from whose language the word comes or indeed to the people of Africa in general. Is it not an idea that runs right through the Old and New Testaments? We are made in the image of God, made for relationship with him and with one another, physical beings made of the dust of the earth, beings who are charged to care for creation, this physical world of which we are part.

In a poem that begins “No man is an island”, the English poet John Donne writes:

“Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.”

The funeral bell tolls for each and all of us. The death of any fellow human being diminishes us. Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus! He knew this diminishing at that moment. Are we not coming to know this diminishing in a new and deeper way in these days as we see on the screen pictures of those whom the coronavirus has taken from us?!

At the heart of it all is love, love for one another, love for the wonderful world in which we find ourselves, love for God who is love.

Desmond Tutu says ubuntu is very different from the individualism of the ‘Cogito ergo sum’, the ‘I think therefore I am’ philosophy that is so dominant in western thinking. He says that I am because we are, not I am because I think.

Back in the nineties, there was an international conference of Christian theologians in Kingston, Jamaica, who met to consider what it is to be a human being.[1] One task given to the delegates was to come up with a Christian alternative to ‘I think therefore I am’. They decided that love should be at the heart of it. (After all, if we value the capacity to reason above the capacity for love, we are saying that those with multiple learning disabilities or those with dementia are less human.) So they considered ‘I love, therefore I am’ as a possible Christian alternative. However, they quickly realised that, as the Bible says in I John 4:19, “We love because he first loved us” so they moved on to ‘I am loved, therefore I am’? But that is still focussed on the lone individual. They closed, doubtless with the encouragement of African delegates, on ‘We are loved, therefore we are’. This is a rendering of the idea of ubuntu with an explicit reference to love which is anyway implicit in ‘I am because we are’.

So ubuntu is not individualistic and is therefore different from something that is deeply embedded in western thinking.

At the same time, ubuntu is not collectivist. It says that I am and it says that we are. It is not that the individual is all-important and the group isn’t. (Margaret Thatcher expressed that individualist view when she said that there is no such thing as society.) On the other hand, ubuntu is not saying that the group is all-important and that the individual doesn’t matter. Ubuntu is therefore different from, for example, a communist perspective in which the rights and freedom of the individual are devalued. It is not either the individual or the group – it is both the individual and the group! It is a third way, a view of community that is between the extremes of western individualism and communist and other forms of collectivism.

It is both the one and the many. Christians believe in the Trinity of three Persons and one God. Some say it has to be one or the other, either one god or three divine persons, but Christians say it is both. In the same way, ubuntu is an idea of community that values both the individual and the group.

I hope you can see why ubuntu has become one of my favourite words. With Desmond Tutu, I dream of a new world and a new humanity, a world of ubuntu. Is that not the world of what the Bible calls “the promised new heavens and the promised new earth, all landscaped with righteousness” (1 Peter 3:13, The Message), the world of the now-and-not-yet kingdom of God?

The other two favourite words of mine from languages other than English? Have you guessed? They are shalom and agape. Perhaps we can come back to one or both of them later. Let us pray.

O God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, help us all to promote true community wherever you have placed us, especially at this time as we are all seeking to cope with the impact of a global pandemic. Help us to care for the world, to love others and to love you for you have first loved us. Amen.

(This blog is also available as a video on YouTube at https://youtu.be/q9RXAnfC2Mk.)

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please EITHER (1) email me through the contact address on this website OR (2) message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook.

[1] See conference papers and report in a special issue of Transformation: An International Journal of Holistic Mission Studies, 15:1, January 1998.

Meet Joe Donnelly: Champion of Hope

This blog is an edited version of an interview recorded a few days ago via Skype with Dubliner Joe Donnelly, a former student of mine who is one of my heroes. Joe was brought up very religiously in the Dublin docklands and by the age of twenty he was an atheist and a member of a rock band that shared gigs with U2. He is now leading a truly amazing ‘hope-shaped’ community project in that same docklands area. 

ME: Joe, you are a Dubliner born and bred and you grew up in Ringsend. What was Ringsend like in those days and what were you like?

JOE: Ringsend was a docklands community, fiercely religious and a tight-knit community. Everybody knew everybody for generations back. I would have been a bit on the quiet side. We were a very religious family. I had to spend a lot of time living with my grandmother because we were a family of ten living in a two-bedroom council flat. My granny took me under her wing and she was deeply religious and I imbibed a lot of that.

ME: She lived in Ringsend too?

JOE: Yes, she lived a few doors away.

ME: There was an old mission hall by the river and that was a place with which you were acquainted when you were young. You didn’t attend meetings there, did you?  

JOE: No, we didn’t go to meetings. We were warned not to go to any of the meetings there.

ME: They were Protestants?

JOE: Yes, they were Protestants. We used to throw stones at the bus that used to bring the Protestant children to the meetings. When we were older, we used to have cider parties at the back. Then gradually it decayed into near dereliction.

ME: Thankfully, these things don’t happen there now! Joe, did you change as you went through your teens?

JOE: Yes. Although I was brought up fiercely religious and there was talk about me becoming a priest at one stage, I ended up an atheist punk rocker. I suppose it was a typical Irish family story – a candidate for the priesthood in your early teens and an atheist punk rocker in your late teens. We started playing on the same circuit as a band called U2.

ME: U2?! I wonder what became of them.

JOE: I think they have notions about themselves now – the best band in the world!!!

ME: Did you know any of them?

JOE: Yeah, we knew them and at that time we shared several musical venues with them around town.

ME: Wow, you’re an ageing rocker then? So, as an atheist, you went to the Netherlands and you found yourself in Amsterdam.

JOE: I hitchhiked around Europe, John, with a couple of friends and I ended up in Amsterdam. Most of my time there was a bit of a drunken haze. One night I got mugged and that night I suppose I fell into a pit of despair. I just felt that all of my hopes and dreams … I knew I had hopes and dreams in my heart but they were all slipping through my fingers and I couldn’t manage it. I couldn’t control it. It is hard to articulate exactly what despair is in words, what profound despair is. I seriously and intentionally considered suicide that night.

ME: But something stopped you?

JOE: Yes, John. Again, it is hard to articulate. At the age of six in Dublin’s docklands I came very close to drowning. I can still remember it to this moment. I can remember it vividly and as I was preparing to throw myself into a canal in Amsterdam, I got a complete flashback to that event at six years of age. It may sound crazy to some people but it was as if a voice was saying to me, “What you’re doing is wrong”. It shook me to the core of my being. There’s a lovely line in that poem ‘Missing God’ …

ME: Oh, I know that poem! It’s in one of my blogs!

JOE: And the guy speaks about missing God like, “the way an uncoupled glider riding the evening thermals misses its tug.” And I felt as if I’d got a tug that night, as if something was pulling me back from the jaws of suicide saying, “This is wrong”. I came back to Dublin then and I was totally in despair because I’d gone off hitchhiking around Europe seeking adventure, but here I was and I was forced to admit that my life was falling apart and I was sinking into quiet despair.

ME: But somehow you went from there to faith in the Lord?

JOE: Yes, it’s a very long story but I was given a copy of the New Testament by this guy who was bananas about Jesus – whereas I was an atheist punk rocker! I was terrified that I would catch whatever he had. I threw the New Testament beside my bedside locker, inexplicably I eventually started to read it. I was always interested in history and famous people and I thought to myself, I’m reading about Jesus Christ. He’s somebody famous and I can quote him at parties and impress people. So I read Matthew’s Gospel and by the time I had finished Matthew’s Gospel, a revolution had taken place in my heart and mind and soul that has continued to this day. I can only say that the closest way of articulating it is in John Newton’s hymn where he says, “It was grace that taught my heart to fear / And grace my fears relieved / How precious did that grace appear / the hour I first believed”. Now I can only say that there I was reading Matthew’s Gospel as an atheist punk rocker and I began to fear that I wasn’t right with God. What if all of this is real? Etc.

ME: So you became bananas about Jesus?

JOE: Well, I don’t think I could nail down a particular fruit but let’s say that the fruit of the Spirit began to develop in my life!

ME: Joe, it was quite a few years after that that you and I first met.

JOE: Yes, John, but a lot of things happened before we met at the Irish Bible Institute. Within a year of me surrendering my life to Jesus, John, I felt that the Lord was leading me into Christian work in Dublin and to give up my job which was quite a drastic step for me. Part of my new Christian workload then was to develop outreach work in the inner city. And after a while we were seeing a lot of stuff happening in the Sherriff Street and Sean McDermott Street areas of inner-city Dublin. It got to the stage where we knew we had to pray and ask the Lord for a venue in the inner-city area. As I was praying about an office and a little desk and a window and a phone, the Lord led us to this place – the old mission hall that we had vandalised as kids and had a third of an acre of a site in the inner city.

ME: Wow!

JOE: And I was appalled at the thought that the Lord would want me to take on the old mission hall.

ME: Memories of cider in the back garden?

JOE: Not so much that, John. I just felt that this was the last place on the planet I would go to! You’re warned in school and you’re warned in the chapel and you’re warned at home not to go near this place. And the words “Prods out” were sprayed on the front door. They had faded with the weather but the implication was still pretty clear, you know. So Sharon and I decided that we would take it on. We called it ‘Mission Impossible’ at the beginning because it was an old mission hall. I learned the wisdom of that verse where it says, “The foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom”.

ME: Yes.

JOE: A great verse in First Corinthians chapter one. It reminds you that sometimes God takes you to the craziest place to do something that will glorify his name.

ME: Wow, Joe, and sometime after that you signed on to become a student at the Irish Bible Institute. You’d left school at fourteen or fifteen, hadn’t you?

JOE: Yes, that was another crazy decision. I’d left school at fifteen because my Dad died when I was thirteen.

ME: But you signed on for a Master’s degree?!

JOE: Pretty crazy but I think in fairness to IBI they were saying that if you had a BA qualification or had ministry experience of more than twenty years (which I had working in Dublin’s inner-city), your ministry experience would allow you to submit an initial essay. This would then be assessed and then you would do two years which would take you up to BA standard and then you could do a final year which would give you your MA.

ME: So hope was an important theme or passion.

JOE: We took on the old mission hall and we renamed it ‘The Anchorage Project’ because the great biblical metaphor of the anchor – “hope like an anchor of the soul” as it says in Hebrews chapter six. And we always had a great passion to develop it into a hope-shaped space to showcase something of the Kingdom of God in the inner city.

ME: Yes, that idea of the space. There’s an American writer named Andy Crouch whom I often quote who has written a book entitled ‘Culture Making’. He always makes me think of you, Joe, and what you’ve been doing. For too long, he says, Christians have been happy to condemn, critique, copy and consume culture. The only way to really impact culture is to create culture. In a very short video about the book, he talks about a coffee shop near where he lives. It was opened by a young Christian fresh out of college who saw this building and created “a beautiful space which is now a whole cultural world of its own … where friends meet, teenagers come after school, Moms get together during the day. … A wonderful hospitable welcoming environment.” Now I’ve been to the mission hall, to the project, to the Fair Play Café and those words describe what you’re doing there so thoroughly.

JOE: I suppose that when I did my dissertation under your tutorship, John, and I can’t speak highly enough about your impact on my thinking – especially with the use of metaphors and using metaphors to help mould and shape our thinking in Christian work. My Master’s dissertation was four key concepts – beauty, children, community and justice. These are four key components through which hope seems to run like a river with four tributaries. And people connect with a real profound sense of hope and hope becomes tangible. I researched this through ancient thinkers like Aristotle and Augustine and all the big thinkers.

ME: Yes, I remember. Yes, you did.

JOE: Right up to the likes of Jurgen Moltmann and Miroslav Volf and Tom Wright or N T Wright as well … to try and get a sweep through theological and secular thinking around the subject of hope. And so it was this quadrilateral (to use an academic word) of beauty, children, community and justice that I articulated in my dissertation and then pulled back into our ministry at the old mission hall.

We’re busy right at this moment planting seeds in our greenhouse and these seeds are sprouting in the midst of a Covid pandemic. We’re working furiously because we know that we’re going to see better days than what we’re in right now. There will be a tangible beauty, as our garden is going to be dripping with flowers again. Several dozen children will come back here again every day to our childcare project. We have a community café and a garden space where our local community can enjoy meeting up again. And we work very keenly with justice initiatives locally as well as overseas. We work to develop an integrated project here whereby people can connect with expressions of hope and be drawn under the umbrella of God’s outreach in the community.

ME: That’s wonderful, Joe! Now you mentioned the pandemic. That must have some impact on what you can do with the café.

JOE: It has indeed, John. We have a tips jar in the café which we call it the ‘Share Your Lunch Fund’. When Jesus was presented with the need of five thousand plus people, he said to his disciples, “You give them something to eat”. It’s very profound that this happened at this moment because Jesus obviously was ready to feed everybody but he halted a miracle because he wanted some human interaction and the disciples really struggled with this. So as we had been reflecting and praying over the needs of this community, this city. We felt the Lord saying to us, “You give them something to eat” so we put a tips jar there and we said that’s going to be the five loaves and the two fishes. Whatever goes into that, we’re going to build up this fund. Now this pandemic hits and over the years we’ve been giving free food to lots of people in the community, people in difficult circumstances and so on with this Share Your Lunch Fund. And now we have the police, district nurses, worried residents and family members contacting us and saying, “Can you deliver food to this person or to that person?” We have scores of people every day that we’re feeding.

ME: And your daughter has launched an online appeal to raise more funds for this?

JOE: Yes, she set up a GoFundMe page and would you believe, John, that last November, before anybody ever heard of Covid or whatever, she ran a half-marathon and she was hoping to raise a thousand euro for our Share Your Lunch Fund?

ME: And you’re still open to receiving more if I put a link into this blog?

JOE: Yes, that is very thoughtful of you. You can be sure that it’ll receive more because it’s just whatever the Lord wants to do. It’s a bit like the disciples. I wonder, and I’m sure you would wonder, at what stage did the disciples start doing the Maths as the five loaves and the two fishes were being handed out.

ME: Well, I was a Maths teacher – I would have done that early on and I would have been stumped.

JOE: I honestly feel that they didn’t actually do it. That’s why Jesus made them collect the left-overs!

ME: Joe, it has been wonderful to talk with you like this. May God richly bless all that you and Sharon and your team continue to do in Ringsend and its impact to the ends of the earth. Bless you, brother.

JOE: Bless you too, John.

The above mentioned GoFundMe page can be found at https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-me-keep-the-hope-going

You can read more about Joe’s project in Vox magazine, the Irish Times, NewsFour, the Irish Independent, and Faith in Ireland. See also TripAdvisor. You can also find Fair-Play Café Dublin on Facebook.

Grateful thanks to Vox and NewsFour for kindly granting permission to use their photos.

The full text of this interview is available here and it includes more about Joe’s childhood in the docklands and about the band’s relationship with U2!

More Pictures

The Good News Wall in the Cafe
Garden with Cruise Liner on River Liffey in the Background
Children’s Christmas Party in the Hall upstairs
Entrance with Core Values on side wall
Sharon and Joe behind the counter with Camile Liu
‘Souper Trooper’ Doina makinging soup for Lunch Packs for senior citizens and housebound April 2020
Camile, Joe and Sharon
Lizzy putting chocolate ganache onto cakes for Lunch Packs April 2020

End of pictures!

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please EITHER (1) email me through the contact address on this website OR (2) message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook.

Finding your ‘Community of the Heart’

If ever there was a book written for life under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, surely The Shape of Living is it! Back in the nineties, David Ford (Irish Christian and Cambridge academic) wrote it as a “book about coping with multiple overwhelmings”.(p. 18)

In this blog I will focus on what he says about the “community of the heart” from a chapter entitled ‘Faces and Voices: Shaping a Heart’. I think it will particularly resonate with what many of us may be experiencing just now. (You can find the Table of Contents and selected extracts from other chapters here on Googlebooks.)

Being physically distanced from family, friends and acquaintances, Val and I have found ourselves to be in many ways actually closer to them. The phone calls, emails, Facebook messages, WhatsApp video calls and shouted conversations through a door or window have all come to mean so much more to us. I have even found myself sending Facebook Friend Requests to people with whom I’ve had little or no contact for years, even decades. One was a student who was a member of my tutor group when I was first a full-time teacher back in the seventies! (He accepted the request immediately!) His name had popped up in a list of ‘People You May Know’ and I was transported back into the classroom in the tower-block by the games field to be again with him and a great group of young teenagers.

David Ford writes:

“’Heart’ is a way of talking about that dimension of our self where memory, feeling, imagination, and thinking come together. The heart is like a home for all the concerns of our lives, where our identity is sorted out year after year. Above all it is inhabited by images of other people and of ourselves in relation to them. Our hearts are filled with the faces and voices of those before whom we live. These are the members of our ‘community of the heart’. (p. 33)

Is it not some of these people in the community of our heart that we find ourselves remembering and contacting in these physically distanced days? Others may have died long ago but they may nevertheless still be “so much a part of our identity that they are woven into the texture of our feeling and thinking” (p. 34).

Some years ago, England’s Teacher Training Agency had as its recruitment slogan: “Nobody forgets a good teacher”. Is there a teacher or teachers in the community of your heart? Miss Thomson (my primary school teacher) and Roddy Bent (a secondary school teacher of English) are certainly prominent figures in mine.

David Ford quotes from ‘Foster-Figure’, a poem about a teacher.[1] The poem is by Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail, a contemporary of Ford’s when they were students at Trinity College Dublin, O’Siadhail writes of the affirmation he found and even now finds in that teacher’s glance, how he “craved the nurture of his words” and “strings until then silent … stirred, trembling towards song”.

The poem continues:

“I probe the essence of this energy;
no blandishments or blind approval,
his unblinking trust enticed me,
fingered some awareness of worth;
in his praise all is possible.”

Years later, even decades later, the teacher is still there:

“Though at first a copy-cat tremor,
after many storms I’ll still
strum the chords of his assurance,
that music I’ll make my own,
my old resonance I’ll summon up.”

In the praise of Miss Thomson and Roddy Bent, for me all was indeed possible. Of course, it is also the case that nobody forgets a bad teacher. I had one who shall remain nameless, a teacher of Irish Gaelic, who once said to me, “You speak Irish like an Englishman”. It wasn’t a compliment!

David Ford goes on to point out that there are also discouragers in the community of our heart. He quotes from ‘Fallen Angel’, another of O’Siadhail’s poems.[2] This one is about some new teachers who came to the school after staff changes and who were anything but encouragers:

“New brooms with fresh sweeps.
How easily we become how we’re seen;
failure throws an oblong shadow,
I cover hurts with jaunty humour.

pretend not to care, affect disdain,
harden the core to day-by-day
humiliations tiny erosions of respect –
learn the slow rustlings of shame.

And laugh a bitter laugh! …

How many faces must a wound wear?” (The Shape of Living,pp. 34-35)

These people have shaped and are shaping our lives. Their faces and voices are with us. Let’s treasure the good memories, the memories of the good people. Let’s put relationships with people above the false and fading values. Let’s seek the affirmation of the greatest Teacher of all as we go forward together into the unknowns of these days.

Father God, in these days of multiple overwhelmings, bring us into closer relationships with others and with you and help us to be encouragers and channels of your peace, your shalom. In the name of the Prince of Peace. Amen.

[1] Poems 1975 – 1995: Hail! Madam Jazz, pp.90-91.

[2] Poems 1975 – 1995: Hail! Madam Jazz, pp.92-93.

Knowing of the Third Kind

A heart-warming story behind this picture will follow shortly but first I have a simple task for you. Take a few moments to think of a sentence that begins, “I know …”.  Got one? Good!

The sentence you have thought of will probably fall into one or other of three main categories, three kinds of knowing.

The first kind of knowing is knowing-that. I know that the square of nine is eighty one … Helsinki is the capital of Finland … Nelson Mandela was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1993 … water usually freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. This kind of knowing is factual knowledge.

The second kind of knowing is knowing-how. I know how to swim … ride a bicycle … change gear in a manual transmission car … make a sponge cake. (Oops, if the last of these is a claim I’m making for myself personally, it is very questionable!) This kind of knowing is skilful knowledge. It is acquired by doing, not simply by reading about it. I can be skilful at driving a car without knowing what is happening in the transmission when I depress the clutch to change gear.

Knowing-how is different from knowing-that. In an age when factual knowledge is available in an instant at the click of a mouse, skilful knowledge is becoming more important. That is not to say that factual knowledge is not important. Far from it, especially at the present time. Talk of ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ had become common in recent years but the advance of the coronavirus has meant we have again become desperate to know the facts and we are becoming tired of spin.

The third kind of knowing is knowing a person, place or thing, knowing with a direct object. I know my grandsons, … the town where I have lived for several decades … the dolmen on the Irish farm where I grew up. This is relational knowing, knowledge by acquaintance.

The importance of this kind of knowing has surely been brought home to us in these days of physical/spatial distancing. ‘Social distancing’ is a misnomer as the photo illustrating this piece shows so vividly. The photo is from a heart-warming newspaper article by Canadian Guardian journalist Daniel Brown[1] about a nurse and her grandmother, both of whom live on Cape Breton Island off the Atlantic coast.

Julienne Van Hul, 91, is in self-isolation at her home because of the coronavirus pandemic. As her grandmother has no internet, Stephanie McQuaid “had the idea of giving her a spare iPhone so she could use its FaceTime app to make video calls. … She bought a SIM card and phone plan … and then configured the phone to be senior-friendly and added some family members into its contact list. She cleaned the phone using lysol wipes and put it in a ziploc bag, then drove out to her grandmother’s home and left the phone package on her porch. Her grandmother retrieved it – making sure to wash her hands first. Then came the challenge of teaching Van Hul how to use the device through the patio window. McQuaid sat outside and used her own iPhone to help demonstrate, focusing exclusively on how to use FaceTime.”

Van Hul is now receiving FaceTime calls from various relatives. She has been “able to see one of her grandchildren who lives in Calgary, and she could share her thoughts on another grandchild’s new haircut”.

The three kinds of knowing are related. Some ‘knowing that’ is necessary for relational knowing for it would be strange to claim to know a person and not be able to state some facts about her or him even though the facts that we state may not be exactly the same as those stated by somebody else who also knows that person. At the same time, it is possible to make an in-depth study of facts about a person and still not be justified in claiming to know that person.

In a similar way, some interpersonal skills may also be necessary for relational knowing but they cannot be sufficient for it because we may know to some extent how to relate appropriately to a person without actually knowing that person.

Relational knowing cannot be reduced to either ‘knowing that’ or ‘knowing how’ or even to a combination of the two. Something more is required by way of a direct acquaintance with or immediate awareness of the person, place or thing that is known.

These distinctions among kinds of knowing are reflected in many languages. In French, for example, relational knowing is connaître while savoir is used for both ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’. German distinguishes usages even further for it has different words for all three kinds of knowing—wissen (know that), kőnnen (know how) and kennen (know a person or place).

The Scottish and Northern English word ‘ken’ has its origin in kennen as in the folk-song ‘D’ye ken John Peel’ although it’s meaning is not limited to relational knowing. We talk of things being ‘beyond our ken’.

Irish Gaelic has the same word for ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’ and a different word for ‘knowing a person, place or thing. ‘Tá a fhios agam gurb é Baile Átha Cliath príomhchathair na hÉireann’ (I know that Dublin is the capital of Ireland). ‘Tá a fhios agam conas snámh a dhéanamh’ (I know how to swim). ‘Tá aithne agam ar Bhaile Átha Cliath’ (I know Dublin)

The word used almost always in the Old Testament for knowing of any kind is yada’. This is the word used when intimate sexual relations are written about in terms of ‘knowing’ a man or a woman. The same word is used for knowledge of God. Knowing God is not merely an awareness of his existence but a recognition of who he is and of his demands upon the obedience of those who know him.

Part III of Handel’s oratorio The Messiah opens with words from the Old Testament book of Job – “I know that my Redeemer liveth”. It takes the form of a statement of knowing-that but it is also and perhaps centrally a statement of relational knowing.

Father God, help us to grow in relational knowing, being connected with one another and with the physical creation of places and things and, above all, in connection with you. In the name of Jesus who came into this world of people, places and things to reconnect us. Amen.

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please EITHER (1) email me through the contact address on this website OR (2) message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook

[1] My grateful thanks to Daniel for giving me permission to use his photo.

Other Birds Our Teachers? Over to You!

My plan has been to post at most one blog per week but responses to yesterday’s piece have made me think I should follow it up today with something for you to think about and possibly to respond with.

Some have written with memories of John Stott or anecdotes about him and his enjoyment of bird-watching. They led me to recall how, as an eighteen- or nineteen-year-old, I had sneaked into a meeting organised by the Christian Union in Trinity College Dublin to hear him speaking. (I wasn’t a student and probably shouldn’t have been there.) I still remember the hush in that hall as he spoke of the absolute holiness of God and our own sinfulness.

Two friends have written to suggest biblical themes with which the characteristic behaviour of other birds could be linked. This in response to my cheeky suggestion that a chapter on ‘The Flight Formation of the Wild Geese: Interdependence’ could be added to Stott’s lovely book.

Matt Kaegi wrote from Winterthur in Switzerland to talk about the playful behaviour of crows, those fun-loving birds that have been observed to do such amazing things. Their playfulness is linked with creativity in the making of tools. Just google ‘crows playfulness’ and you’ll find lots of articles about this. See, for example, Harvard Magazine’sCrows know how to have fun’ and the BBC website’s ‘Crows could be the smartest animal other than primates’.

Proverbs talks about the playfulness of wisdom at creation. “When he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. Then I was constantly at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in humankind. (Proverbs 8:29-31)

Translations use ‘rejoicing’ because it sounds more pious but, in his book Wise Teaching, Charles Melchert writes: “Yet everywhere else in the Hebrew Bible, this term is translated ‘play’ … children playing with toys and games … people playing musical instruments and dancing … even of the love-play between Isaac and Rebekah.” (p. 189) Others have translated ‘rejoicing’ as ‘frolicking’ and ‘jesting’.

Christ who is Wisdom is therefore the Lord of the Dance! And our playfulness is linked with imagination and creativity!

David Smith wrote from Grand Rapids in Michigan to say he had recently read an Audobon.org article entitled ‘In homing pigeon flocks, bad bosses quickly get demoted’ and suggested this behaviour could be linked with the biblical theme of humility. The article reports research that showed how flocks of homing pigeons keep leaders with bad information from throwing them off course.

How often do leaders of human organisations, churches, schools lack the humility to step down or be redirected by others when they get it wrong?  All too often, I think.

Now it is over to you! Do you know of another bird whose characteristic behaviour can be linked with a biblical theme? If so, please share it.  More about how to do so in a moment but first let’s see what we have so far. Here is the list of chapter titles in John Stott’s book:

  1. The Feeding of Ravens: Faith
  2. The Migration of Storks: Repentance
  3. The Head of Owls: Facing Both Ways
  4. The Value of Sparrows: Self-esteem
  5. The Drinking of Pigeons: Gratitude
  6. The Metabolism of Hummingbirds: Work
  7. The Soaring of Eagles: Freedom
  8. The Territory of Robins: Space
  9. The Wings of a Hen: Shelter
  10. The Song of Larks: Joy
  11. The Breeding Cycle of All Birds: Love

To these we can add:

  1. The Flight Formation of Wild Geese: Interdependence
  2. The Playfulness of Crows: Creativity
  3. The Leadership of Homing Pigeons: Humility

So over to you! Please share any suggestions you have for chapter titles to add to the list. Alternatively, you may have memories or anecdotes about John Stott to share.

I suggest you do so by writing a comment on my Facebook link to this blog and you can find it by clicking here.

Alternatively, you can email me (address under ‘Contact Me’ on my website) and, with your permission, I can add what you share to the comments on my Facebook link.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Creator and Wise God, help us to learn from what you have made how to live in peace with ourselves and others, the physical world and, above all, with you. Amen.

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please EITHER (1) email me through the contact address on this website OR (2) message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook.

‘The Birds our Teachers’ by John Stott

I guess many readers of this blog will have read one or more of the many books that the famous Bible teacher John Stott wrote during his long and influential life but have you read ‘The Birds our Teachers’?

In this unique book, John Stott introduces us to what he humorously terms ‘the science of orni-theology’ and he does so in eleven short chapters lavishly illustrated with more than 150 lovely photographs taken during his travels around the world.

Stott traces his lifelong love of bird-watching back to walks with his father in the country as a boy of only five or six years. On these walks, his father would tell him to shut his mouth and open his eyes and ears (p. 7). He finds “the highest possible authority” for his hobby in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells us to “look at the birds of the air” (Matthew 6:26). He says that, in basic English, Jesus is telling us to “watch birds” and he points out that the Greek verb used means “to fix the eyes on or take a good look at” (p. 9).

The book combines the author’s personal stories with information about birds and with biblical themes in a way that should be of interest to both birders and Bible students alike. Each chapter focuses on a different bird (albeit not exclusively because many other birds are mentioned in each as well) and on a different spiritual lesson. It is therefore not a book to be read straight through from cover to cover but rather more of a coffee-table book to dip into and reflect upon, one chapter at a time.

My favourite chapter is one near the end of the book entitled ‘The Song of Larks: Joy’. As I read it, I’m transported back to an unforgettable experience that Val and I had some years ago when we were on holiday in the Black Forest region in Germany. We went up the Feldberg in a cable car and, as we stepped out onto the snowy slopes, a lark was ascending in the clear air and singing its heart out just above us. It was a moment of sheer joy for both of us as we walked near the summit of the highest mountain in Germany outside of the Alps.

The chapter is focussed on the lark and opens with Shelley’s ode that hails the “blithe spirit”. He goes on to talk about the songs of other birds including “the liquid bubbling trill of the Curlew’s spring song” (and I’m a little boy again walking in the callows[1] on my father’s farm!), “the resonant, explosive outburst of the Wren” and “the melodious flute-like warbling of the male European Blackbird” (p. 77). Another songbird I love to hear is the robin and, being an incurable early-riser, I’m serenaded each morning by one in a cherry tree beside our house … but that very territorial bird is the focus of another chapter (my second favourite) in which Stott talks about space and our need to preserve a “combination of colony and territory” and to avoid the extremes of isolation and total loss of privacy (p. 66).

Missing from the list of birds mentioned by John Stott is the wild goose. If I were to cheekily add a chapter to the book, it would be entitled ‘The Flight Formation of the Wild Geese: Interdependence’. I would go on to talk about the V-formation in which they fly. (Actually, it is often more like a J-formation because one leg of the V is longer than the other but the lessons to be learned are still the same.)

The lead bird works the hardest by breaking into undisturbed air. Drag is reduced and uplift is produced for the following birds and they expend twenty to thirty per cent less energy flying. As the lead bird tires, it drops back in the formation and another bird takes its place. The birds constantly communicate with one another by honking. Honking from behind is effectively encouragement for those in front.

In a study of the phenomenon of the V, Steven Portugal of the Royal Veterinary College in Hatfield found that the birds were not only placing themselves in the best place but also flapping at the best time to reduce the energy expended by the flock. He said, “They are just so aware of where each other are and what the other bird is doing. And that’s what I find really impressive”.[2]

If one goose becomes injured and has to land, a few family members will stay with it until it recovers. When it is ready to fly again they all set off and look for a new flock to join.[3]

In these days of life under the shadow of the coronavirus, we can learn, and indeed are learning, how we need one another. We are not independent, we are interdependent! And ultimately, we are all dependent upon God, whether or not we acknowledge it.

In Celtic Christianity, the wild goose was seen as a symbol for the Holy Spirit. God is not to be tamed. A Spirit-led life can be like a wild goose chase!

“Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds.” (Matthew 6:26, The Message)

Creator God, help us to sing for joy at the work of your hands and to support one another as we seek to journey to wherever you are leading us. Amen.

[1] Callows are a type of wetland found in Ireland. Most of the farm I grew up on was hilly but part was low-lying and flooded in winter.

[2] Nature, 16 Jan 2014, pp. 399-402.

[3] https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/natures-home-magazine/birds-and-wildlife-articles/migration/on-the-move/