‘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 …

CHARLES: Amen!

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.