Making the most of your travels…

The call to prayer echoed hauntingly across the tower blocks as minaret after minaret sounded out for the final time that night, far below us.  We stood on the rooftop, watching across the night sky as one by one the lights went out in various apartments.  It was one of the few cool places we could go in the intense heat of the summer, when even at nighttime, it was a balmy 28 degrees.  Sweat was still dripping off my brow as I heard my friend draw his prayer to a conclusion:

“In Jesus name, Amen”

It was all I had heard of the last few minutes as my mind had been captured by the nasal melodies ringing out over the loudspeakers.  He looked over at me.

“How do you feel?”

I wasn’t sure.  I’d never had such stark reminders that this world was not my home, than the “other”ness of the sounds that hit my ears.  But the city before me was little more lost than the familiar bells that tolled in my hometown, reminding me of the empty cathedrals and apathy-filled churches.  Not to mention the “cathedrals” built more recently within a few hundred metres of my doorstep in Ireland, some open 24-7 to shoppers and others just crammed once a week with 70,000 adoring fans.  Although here, I felt like a stranger.  That night a tear fell on my pillow as I rolled over again, trying desperately to sleep.  I wasn’t sure whether my feelings were from spiritual realities that lay in front of me, or just because I was finding normal life utterly different and hard in this heat, or both at the same time.

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The next morning we rose early, each muttering prayers nervously under our breath as we packed our belongings and headed off to a secret gathering of believers at an unknown location.

The windows were closed and the singing was meant to be muted, but when the old songs of the native language started being played, the believers grew in passion, unable to contain themselves to the quiet whispers of joy.

“How do you feel?” he asked me again.

I wasn’t sure.  I hadn’t understood a word of anything that had been sung for the last few minutes.  But yet inside of me, something welled up, unable to be controlled by mere linguistic barriers.  I knew I was with family.  Family that I could find in increasing numbers of places in the world, whether in minaret filled cities, under cathedral dominating skylines or beside where modern day cathedrals forced comfort and apathy upon baying fans.  I knew that thousands of miles from my home, I’d found a welcome of far more significance than any other you could expect from meeting people for a first time.  A stranger had found a family.  And I loved it.

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It’s funny how it takes a trip away from home to open my eyes to things the Scriptures already have spoken about on my own doorstep, as well as the eternal realities that starkly presented themselves in the “other”ness that I met those days.  Firstly feeling a little lost in a world so different to my own.  Then starting to understand it more.  And further down the line, sadly often becoming numb to the reality around me as it becomes normalised just like my home setting.

There’s something about travel that keeps me in a learning posture, reminding me of my place in this world as one in seven billion people, and helping me to live in light of every person, culture and people I’ve ever walked amongst.  There’s something about travel which helps me see the world as only the Bible describes it: as utterly beautiful but at the same time in ruins – a fraction of the glory it once was.  And there’s something about travel that makes me yearn even more for a restoration to come – a new heavens and a new earth to explore, as time after time even the ecstacy of travel only seems like a passing thrill, earnestly preserved by as many Instagram posts and YouTube videos as I can manage.

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There’s so much good in travel that I never realised when I first (rather selfishly) booked that first trip away across the globe.  And looking back at all I learnt about God, His world, His Church, and myself, over those days, I’m not only glad I did book such things, but I now want to stop and think twice before (like in everything in life) I am tempted to tell someone else exactly whether they should or should not be travelling.  What if they could instead, see travel through the same lens that God sees it?  What if they had questions to help them make the most of their travels, and stories of other travellers to encourage and to warn?  What if they could travel, in tandem with God’s heart?


Travel: in tandem with God’s Heart is released on October 18th and can be pre-ordered through the publisher’s website, through my supplier in the UK (free postage to UK) or soon from my supplier in Ireland.  For more details of events near you, please see the events page on this blog, or consider hosting one locally yourself, to help others around you of all faiths and none, think through this key topic.

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My greatest act of teenage rebellion

Age 13, Buying a metal album of my (then) favourite band The Lost Prophets (much to my parents’ displeasure)?
Age 16, Sitting in the school changing rooms for a full period, having said to the teacher we were off playing with a school sports team?
Age 18, trying to out-sell an uncopyrighted product that my schoolmates had worked for months to make?

Yes, I’ve had quite a sheltered childhood.  While one teenager who attended my church youth group was off killing someone in the local area, others were trying drugs.  While many friends had rebelled with alcohol, wild hair colour, skipping school, or abandoning their conservative upbringing, I was happily enjoying a quiet life.  But there was still one thing I was told I was being rebellious in….

I did. not. read. books!

And before you roll your eyes too much, let me put it in context for you.  I grew up in a house of books.  One could have been forgiven for thinking that it was actually built from books, such were the stacks of books and walls lined with bookcases that surrounded most rooms of our house.  My father was a bookshop manager of a Christian bookshop in Belfast and my family were bookworms.  Many a Sunday afternoon was spent pouring over theological books.  And many an evening, my sister and family would be found curled up in a ball on the sofa, indulging themselves in every and any genre of book – fantasy, murder mystery, history, ornithology, biography, medicine, mathematics – their love for God overflowed into a love for learning about all aspects of this world.

In this household, I was the black sheep.

I’d read adventure books and biographies but apart from that, very little.  That was, until someone in the family passed me Philip Yancey’s “What’s so amazing about grace?“.  It set my heart alight with astounding stories of the grace (unmerited favour) of Jesus that far more clearly dawned on me than ever before.  Not long after that, AW Pink’s tiny book “The Attributes of God” helped me see that books weren’t just to tell me what I should be doing with my life.  Instead, Pink gave a couple of pages on each attribute of God, packed full of scriptural references in every sentence, and caused me to marvel afresh at who God is, and meditate on his character with awe.

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Seeing God like that freed me to read.  And read, and read and read.  From not seeing reading as exciting at all, compared to other things I did, I suddenly realised the impact reading good Christian literature could have on my character and life.  It would be naive to put it only down to those few books: the upbringing of being bathed in the good news of Jesus at home, and amongst church community was combined with my awareness of how little I knew in the world, as United Beach Missions exposed me to so many people who knew far more than me (both Christian and not).

“How do you read so much?” I often get asked.

Without wanting to lose a heart for being real with people in the world, it was in Sundays, summer months, bus journeys and other random moments that I would pick up a book or two and read a chapter.  The intense hockey regime with trips across the island, the musical concerts and exams, the attempted diligence in work and love for those who didn’t know Jesus continued at just the same rate.  Because reading could easily just be fitted in, during five minute gaps.  A book, soon demolished chapter by chapter at that rate.

“But I’m not a reader” people normally say to me.

Soon, bookcases were filling up and I was getting a reputation for being a reader, as I spent hours mining the second hand section of the Evangelical Bookshop Belfast to find cheap reads.  I still chuckle within.  “A reader” is not how I feel.  I read because it warms my heart.  I read because it opens my mind to the Scriptures more.  I read because it works.  Perhaps not always immediate benefit, but arriving into university, my grounding in theology and the scriptures from my local church and my reading, was huge, as I sat in Islamic Society meetings and Secular Society gatherings week by week.

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Of course there were dangers of arrogance (of which sadly my schoolmates could tell you I was prone to); dangers of delighting in knowledge for knowledge’s sake; dangers in not being able to relate to my youth club mates back in inner city Belfast; dangers of reading rubbish or of reading other things at the expense of the Bible.

And so why have I been moved to write a book, despite the dangers and the thousands of books already out there?

Well, I hope that it’s not a book that tells you how to live your life (primarily).  But one that persuades you more about who God is, in unusual ways, and leaves you with questions that you hunger to have answered as we travel and explore this world together.  I would love it if this book was the start of your reading journey.  Not because I think we need to generate middle-class readers who have their heads stuck in the sand.

But because Christianity is primarily a religion that doesn’t want you to cast away your mind, and that calls us to be transformed through the renewing of our minds, regardless of whether we’re the visually impaired student I audibly study the Bible with, the homeless beggar who I sit down beside on MacCurtain Street in Cork each week, or the person who has no written language in an unreached people group I recently visited this summer.  The biggest readers, are often the biggest players in the Christian scene internationally, and locally.  Action and change, will flow from us being slowly changed, bit by bit.

I grew to love books, through many years of rejecting them.  I hope you’ll see the joy sooner.  And for those of you who are already readers?  Perhaps such storied-packed pages can even be helpful for us, as we learn how to communicate God’s panorama, to an apathetic world, which has been distracted by taking selfies when there’s so much more on offer!

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God’s Biker: motorcycles and misfits

(More about this forthcoming title can be found here)

This book felt like a letter.  A letter written to me.  But that would be silly, given I’d never heard the name Sean Stillman, nevermind known him enough to receive correspondence.  Or at least it was a story that resounded deeply within me enough that I felt someone had developed mind-reading technology to know the questions that were on my heart.  It’s a story of a travelling man – a man who journeyed much by motorbike.  But it’s the story of someone who’s story seems so ordinary, so normal, yet achieved (and still achieves) so much.  It’s someone whose life-story resonates with what life is really like.

Sean’s personal story, of how he grew up through frustrations of church, coming to loveGod's Biker motorbikes and also to follow Jesus, was a gripping yet ordinary tale like many others we might have heard before.  But from there, story after story tell of a life well-lived, using his passions, gifts and upbringing to best try and fathom how to take seriously Jesus’ call to make disciples in a broken world.

What do you do when you’re a biker, who spends many hours on the road in your squad, and hangs out with the most unlikely of company to ever enter a church building?

With many from traditional churches who engage with me about travel, they would want to tell Sean to stop travelling and settle down.  To not risk so much.  Perhaps even to cut his hair and keep better company.  But Sean’s missional heart longs for the biking community who aren’t going to respond so well to the “average” church evangelism (whatever that means), and sees that to engage these people with the good news, lived out in community in word and deed, is what Christ is calling him to.  He grasps that in the post-modern travelling world, the travelling, biking community, may not be able to be reached (or would be far harder to be reached) by staying put and knocking on their door.

Equally, through seeing folk from within these communities come to faith, he realises that crossing a threshold of a church building for them, is about as foreign as most of us entering a hangout of a biking squad!  A different language is used.  Different topics of conversation.  Different ways of expressing themselves.  Different hobbies.  A different life.

Throughout the book, Sean tells heartwarming stories that honour the Lord Jesus, tell of his own struggles and provide the ways he has attempted to get round these “problems”.  What I thought at points was going to be a rant against institutionalised religion was actually very constructively put struggles, longings, and questions, with obvious attempts to take what was Scriptural about church life and apply it in his own context.  His ordination within Anglicanism and description of Zac’s Place services (that sound remarkably similar to many churches I know!), are obviously signs that in all his wrestling, he didn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, but has helpfully guided us step by step through how and why he has done everything he has done, with other people.

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Realising that even within the diverse biking communities, that God calls people to be church with far more than “people like us”, he shows a love for such diverse people that goes far beyond the biking community, overflowing into other “unlikelies” within society. but also through to those more typically associated with much of our middle-class evangelicalism too.

All in all, Sean paints a picture of church, that many across our cities would say “if all church were like this, I’d be there in a flash”.  But it’s a story that goes far beyond Sean, to other communities up and down the UK and beyond, all resembling warm communities that embrace the outsider, love the unlovely and are truly good news in motorbike form.

You may not agree with every minor way Sean takes his fresh expression of church-life (though do we ever agree with anyone fully?), but what this book will do, is warm your heart on the inside, by showing you an ordinary person, who was transformed and equipped by God to faithfully live out the ordinary command to love God and love your neighbour as yourself.

What marvelous ways God uses us in the world to do His works!  And what wonderful lessons we can all learn, from the easily-read pages in this book.  You don’t need to have interest in motorbikes to find principles that we do well to apply to any demographic of the population who would struggle to enter our church gatherings.

A Sunday afternoon reading, well spent.

His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11 according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12 In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. 13 I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory.

(Ephesians 3, outlining how such weak things as church to the human eye, are actually God’s chosen means to bring about His eternal purposes)

[I must confess being given an advance proof copy by SPCK of this book and asked to review it, although by no means am I expected to therefore give a favorable review]

Why can’t we be friends? Thoughts on travel and gender.

I walked into the hostel on yet another trip away from home.  This one was for choice, to see some friends who’d flown over from England.  But it was still a 6 hour round trip in the car for me, and so I’d decided to treat myself on my final day off of the year, and stay over in a hostel in the mountains and go running in the morning.

I walked in tired from the drive and sat down in the hostel foyer, where many others were lounging around, to watch something online on my laptop, and have a can of Beamish.  Half an hour later, and the chat was interesting enough around me that I joined in.

Soon I found myself chatting to a likeminded runner – an Aussie lass who’d come to the Wicklows to run and to hike with friends.  On hearing my intention to run in the morning before I set off for work, she said she’d join me, if we went early enough for her to join her friends hiking afterwards.  And so looking sceptically at my unopened second can of Beamish at my feet, she agreed a 6am start time with me.

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Glendalough from the hills (photo mine)

But it wasn’t me holding the morning up, and by ten past six, I not only was up, stretched and ready, but also had been the breakfast for hundreds of midges, that swarm the lakes of Glendalough at many times of year.  Soon, she joined me, and we set off, ready for 20km in the hills.

I love running.  Partly the freedom of being able to mentally escape.  Partly the endorphins making the rest of the day a happier one.  And partly the joy of the scenery around me and the fun of not having a care in the world.

And even better when you’ve someone to share that with.  We set off, happily chatting about everything and anything in life, from our stories, through to running chat and local tips.  There’s something about running side by side that always makes me open up to whoever I’m running with and be vulnerable with them.  And sure enough, throughout this chat, she shared of how she’d split up from her boyfriend a few months ago and how she was there to get away from life and see what’s next.  She was asking advice, I was sharing of my experiences in life, and we were both asking questions and sharing our life longings.  Would I like to come to her part of the country and run in the mountains near her?

Conversation never gets too deep before my answers generally intrigue people.  And so it was here.  She said she’d never met someone who was so free in life, and wanted to develop themselves and push their limits, but yet someone who kept on chatting about Jesus.

“Do you mind me asking?  You seem so liberal in many ways, and such fun.  But you keep mentioning this Jesus person as if you know him.  Which is different from all those religious people I’ve met before.  So do you still hold to all his conservative values?”

And with my answer barely off the tip of my tongue, she nodded, smiled at me, and then declared she was going to head back to the hostel and let me run on alone.  I wondered whether I could have answered any differently and kept a running buddy.  It amused me that the liberals of this world aren’t very liberal at all when they hear someone takes seriously a worldview that can’t imagine adhering to.

But the question was twofold.  Was it really me saying I wasn’t prepared to have sex that signalled the early end of our brief getting to know each other?  And regardless, should I even have put my tired self in the place of chatting away to a girl at 11pm at night, in a hostel space where both of us were anonymous?  And then to go running with her at 6am in the morning alone in the mountains?  Was I, despite my professed conservative ethics, secretly being motivated by a desire for her?

Such questions are not abstract theoretical ones, but ones that shape our every day lives in many circumstances.  Should we have lunch alone with that colleague?  Should we meet to study the Bible with people of the opposite gender?  Should we have close friends of the opposite gender, even when we’re married?  The list could go on.

It’s one that a lot of ink has been spilt on and causes inevitable stereotyping of the “other” side.  On one hand, a great desire for holiness, and an awareness that we live in a victim culture – what happens if that women had claimed I had done something to her up the mountains?  What if I’d been tired enough to forget the consequences and to have gotten off with her?  On the other hand, a wonderful modelling of the fact that we as renewed-hearted-believers, can have deep friendships with those of the opposite gender to us, that shape us, help us, and point us onwards to Jesus, without the least hint of a sexual nature.

And it’s not just theoretical.  One deacon at a church locally recently ran off with a woman alone, and threw the towel in with his faith.  Another church won’t employ single female workers incase their male workers “stumble”.

And that’s where two books I’ve recently read have been very helpful in helping me see that everything doesn’t have to be seen through Freud’s lenses of sexual desires and in fact, the church can be a place that walks free of constantly having to make boundaries and live in bubbles from each other.

Aimee Byrd’s book: Why can’t we be friends?

Joshua Jones’ book: Forbidden Friendships

Aimee Byrd

Aimee makes a persuasive case, for why we ought to be seeing our brothers and sisters in Christ as exactly that – brothers and sisters.  She digs deep into into how the answer to abuse scandals and #metoo culture of this day in age, is not separation, but wise engagement in meaningful and deep friendships.  She looks into scriptural examples, church history and much more, to find many including Jesus, who’d fall short of the modern evangelical boundaries set, where one can’t spend time with someone of the opposite sex.  She profoundly reflects on the depth of brother-sister bonds, and wonders where we’ll go in a same-sex attracted world….do we have to abandon all meaningful friendships regardless of gender, for fear of people misconstruing our friendship even between friends of the same gender?

 

Aimee’s writing is not for someone who wants a light read, but those who pick it up will plumb depths on the topic that I wish books like Vaughan Robert’s “True Friendship” could have at least skimmed.  She also perhaps doesn’t sit with the sceptic enough to convince those on the opposite extreme – as she will have found out in very public online critiques that have gone on.  But ultimately, I thought I was picking up something I wasn’t going to be challenged by, and instead I found myself stirred to appreciate new ways of looking at friendship, humbled by parts that made me weep in repentance for how I’ve acted towards women at times, and inspired to see far more depth to Biblical community that I’ve ever known before.  Forget reading another book on the sexual revolution, same-sex attraction, or similar topics: start here!

Aimee Byrd2But for those who might want an easier read that shows more awareness of sceptical thinking on this topic, you might be better heading over and picking up Josh’s book first.  He writes clearly, simply, engagingly and along the same lines.

More than that, I’ve seen him in action, and his life models a world that takes holiness seriously, while still discipling people of both genders in ways in a depth and maturity of faith and expression that isn’t often seen.

In a world obsessed by porn, which lets that shape hearts more than God’s word on the topic, it is not surprising that we’ve generated the culture of misunderstanding we have on this one.  But as Josh says, the answer isn’t in running to the opposite extreme, but by enjoying the good gift God has given us: friendship.

And where it has been lived out well, it’s ridiculously freeing.  No more wondering about the intentions of others.  No more having to constantly withdraw.  No more surface level Sunday post-church conversations.  Real community.

Running 92km for…

…joy!

This Saturday I’m off with a friend to run 92km on the Waterford Greenway (there and back).  The original plan was to run an ultramarathon in the English Peak District with another friend, but as he pulled out with a couple of months to go, I thought it made far more sense to go local.  Added to the fact it’s a flatter route that won’t need so much planning, and will draw a few friends to support, it seems like a fun way to do it!

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Just a few miles across the road from the Greenway, the other day

Doing 92km has the advantage for me of being a slow plod (9km/hr being the rough plan).  It’s been one of the beautiful things the training has taught me.  For once I’ve been able to leave my watch and running Apps behind, and have just been able to enjoy running and the scenery around me, for its own sake, rather than always pushing for new PBs or times.  It also means it’s easier on the body, not to mention the trails being better for the joints too, rather than the tarmac roads of many marathon runs.

I would happily just do it for the fun of doing it, but as everyone seemed to think it was a worthy feat, I thought I’d also raise some money for charity while I do it.  You can read my story of why I’m raising for Diabetes Ireland and Christian Unions Ireland by clicking here (for DI) or here (for CUI).

A final question I’ve been asked by some who’ve seen me posting about this: how do I stop it becoming all about me when I’m fundraising and constantly mentioning the feats I hope to achieve?

There’s something self-depreciating about the Irish mentality that we always struggle to mention ourselves in any context of achievement.  Perhaps that also is true for many Christians too, as we want our mantra to be “Soli Deo Gloria” (to God’s Glory alone) rather than receiving any honour ourselves.  Often we beat ourselves up about things, or try and put on a false humility (which is as bad as pride) saying “oh I’m not really any good at all” after we’ve achieved something special.

But the Christian good news isn’t devoid of human means.  It’s not a dualistic message that declares our physical bodies and achievements to be nothing on this earth, and our spiritual immaterial state to be everything.  We are embodied people.  And the gospel comes embodied to us in the person of Christ, with a very real message of renewal and transformation, using weak, earthy means.

And so I’m freed to celebrate human achievement in this world, and to strive to try things to enjoy this world around us.  Not as my primary aim in life, but as a reflection of God’s goodness towards us, that he allows humans to cultivate and bless this world by developing it and seeking to look after it.  And so along with GK Chesterton, I don’t just say grace (thanks) when I eat my food, but when I watch a film at the cinema, when I see something of beauty in this world, or when I get to have the thrill of endorphins rushing through my body after a long run.

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I was reminded of this yesterday as I went for my final longer run in the Wicklow mountains before the big race.  Approaching the top of Powerscourt Waterfall, I was joined by these two creatures for a brief distance.  Though I’m not sure we were well matched for pace.

It reminded me of how the old prophet Habakkuk finishes his book (chapter 3):

I heard and my heart pounded,
    my lips quivered at the sound;
decay crept into my bones,
    and my legs trembled.
Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity
    to come on the nation invading us.
17 Though the fig-tree does not bud
    and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
    and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the sheepfold
    and no cattle in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Saviour.

19 The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
    he enables me to tread on the heights.

 

For the director of music. On my stringed instruments.

Glimpses of local life, from holiday

*All names and places have been changed in this article so as not to incriminate anyone, and stories may be mixed together for security and have happened over many years.  For real accounts, please speak to me in person.

It was 45 degrees Celsius and we were escaping the city for an location unknown to me.  You don’t choose such places for pleasure.  We were wearing trousers so as not to culturally offend, but as the temperatures only got down to 28 degrees at night-time and there was no air conditioning, we remained bathing in our own sweat for most of the trip.  The warm trickle from the shower gave temporary relief each morning, but we were soon back roasting again, a few seconds after stepping out of the shower.

“I want to see churches multiplying across the land”

But it was all worth it to hear words like the above.  These were the bold words of one person, as we sat in an underground gathering of young believers in a secure location as the call to prayer rang out from the minarets across the land, reverberating on every street corner, in a country known to persecute people who were wanting to see growth of the Church.  We’d turned our phones off so we couldn’t be tracked but even that would raise suspicions if someone was keeping an eye on our phone activity.  Sitting in a training session with them all, and hearing them sing in their native tongue, native songs, was a powerful experience, as they shared their heart for their lives, their country and the nations.  The feeling in the room was one of weakness and fragility, but the prayers were bold ones.

In many trips to very different cultures, this was my first experience like this on holiday, and I hadn’t even planned it.  Nor would I know who to contact or where to go should I want it.  It just can’t be arranged.

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A wall magnetic board in a friend’s house.

And that was generally what I thought about authentic experiences in general whilst on holiday.  Meeting local people is one thing, but it is a rarity to be invited into anything meaningful in their lives, even if you’re around for a while.

But this once, it was different.  I went on a one week holiday with a company who arranged a cultural and linguistic package for us, so that we could spend hours a day with local people who loved to share life with us and speak English (and teach us our first baby steps in their language too).  Ranging from a top university professor telling us about the local history, sociology and anthropology, through to a simple teenager who wanted to further his career chances by picking up English, and several local business owners who shared about how they went about their businesses – over half the week was spent with around 40 local people, partaking of all sorts of fun activities.

It’s the type of thing you can’t find in many places for a holiday.  And for many people, it wouldn’t be a holiday they’d want to go on at all.  But as soon as its a regular package offered by a company, the experiences doubtless get less genuine, and the locals grow weary of endless streams of people who aren’t there to invest in the area longterm.  So it felt like a privilege to be there on a taster package and it left me with many more questions that I had before I went, while still teaching me vast amounts, despite having been in the region before, and having read about it.  It was one of the richest experiences I’ve had on holiday.

Just a few of the questions I continued to mull over after these trips:

  • how is business run differently in our culture to another culture?
  • how do you start a business in another culture?
  • what type of business should an immigrant (us) start that would empower locals?
  • should westerners accept random invitations from locals to Christian underground events without endangering them?
  • how can we be sustainable in our tourism?
  • how can English be used as a medium for trips, without colonialism becoming an issue?
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The Tea Garden, Dublin.  One of my favourite spots to get to meet others from various cultures, and to enjoy tea from their culture too!

Pre-order “Travel: in Tandem with God’s Heart” today

 

 

 

 

The final manuscript has been sent off to the publisher, the printing will start soon, and come October, they’ll be making their way to a bookshop (or online retailer near you!).

For the cheapest price so far, you can pre-order it here (with free postage to the UK)

If you’re an Amazon junkie, it’s available through their normal pre-order system.

Or if you want it on the Publisher’s (IVP) website (free delivery if you buy a couple more to give to your avid travelling friends and family): click here

Finally, I’ll be touring Ireland (with a few UK stops too) with a “Travel Experience” event this academic year, so you can buy reduced price copies at all of these events.  Details tbc.

Here’s what others have been saying about it:

I have been travelling internationally for 45 years. I wish I’d been able to read this book years ago – it would certainly have made me travel more thoughtfully: it’s a travelogue; it’s theology; it’s cultural education; it’s mission challenge all rolled into one. A fascinating read.

– Peter Maiden, International Director Emeritus of Operation Mobilization and former Chairman of Keswick Ministries

Loved it! What a marvelous journey through the stories of Scripture (and the author’s life) that will challenge, encourage and widen your perspective, not only on travel, but also on the amazing One who created it all. In a world where it is easier than ever to work or study abroad, this book deserves to be widely read.

– Sinead Norman, International Student Ministry Administrator at International Fellowship of Evangelical Students

Peter Grier gives us excellent, fresh ideas for honouring God with our travels, and helps shape perspective on mission, tourism and the meaningful welcoming of international students.

– Alan Tower, National Director of Friends International
If you’d like to help me spread word about the book, host a “travel experience” evening to get people thinking about the topic, or have me to speak, I’d be delighted to consider any invitations.
Thanks in advance!  Happy reading!

Travelling for business

This summer I was privileged to travel with a businessman who has had decades of experience in cross-cultural business across Ireland and Africa (from North Africa to years living in South Africa).  My eyes were opened more and more to what doing cross-cultural business looks like, as he told stories, ran training sessions and spoke informally as we travelled the road together to diverse settings and met with other business owners and managers.

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International sport can be a great facilitator of economic growth and cross-cultural understanding that usually comes with fewer barriers than most business.

But all in all, cross-cultural business is getting harder to achieve, even for those willing to put themselves out on a limb, learn and seek to culturally understand the setting they are in.  One such young family from the USA recently tried to come to Ireland, and yet despite the fact they were not taking anyone’s job from here (we wouldn’t have employed someone), they still found the Visa system too hard to gain easy entry.  Similar stories are coming back to me from Pakistan to America and beyond.

Here are just a few of the hurdles (hilarious and sensible) in some of the countries I was in this summer:

  1. you come from a country with no reciprocal tax agreement, so have to pay 68% on every income and property you have in the whole world.
  2. you must do business with 60% of its income from outside the country
  3. you must meet all the necessary requirements, even when the officials themselves do not know what the legislation says.
  4. you must not employ another western person, without first employing 7 local people.
  5. you must build a warehouse for your business, even when you do not need a warehouse to function

And perhaps a few of the corresponding reasons below:

  1. people cheat in their taxes and pretend they are paying them in another jurisdiction, so you must assume they are not, unless proved otherwise
  2. you want to expand the economy from rich nations and foreign investment
  3. leaving arbitrary laws means you can act how you wish in certain situations
  4. you don’t want to take away jobs from local people but to empower them
  5. you want every business to also grow the construction industry locally

Doing cross-cultural business is hard, and that’s without considering the language as well, and how a business may need to culturally adapt from another part of the world.

Controversial as it has been, Mr Trump’s policy banning certain nationalities (mostly Islamic) from America, is nothing new at all, as many other countries will ban people who are different to them from working in that country.  I think of Christians friends thrown out of Muslim countries, despite the good work they were doing in that land.  I think of LGBTQ rights campaigners thrown out of Russia and atheists from the Middle East.20180415_205027.jpg

Quite often the motive that it takes to move to a foreign culture and live in such difference, must be a strong-willed one.  And therefore it often is something contrary to that culture’s values or beliefs that people travel to promote.  Particularly when the individual is moving to the third world or developing world, few locals can understand why they have come, and forthright answers often can’t be given for fear of their lives or livelihood!

All in all, I wish it were as easy or simple as all the scenarios below in this famous advert series!  But to anyone who has managed to cross significant linguistic and cultural barriers to run a business, I take my hat off to you!

Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide

“I feel heartbroken for your country.  It is so safe, and the people are so warm and friendly.  Your food is a treat and your landscape is beautiful.  But none of my western friends will come since terror attacks in this part of the world”

The words clearly struck a chord with my Amazigh (Berber) student audience in North Africa as I attempted my first ever seminar on travel in such a context.  The looks in the eyes of those I was speaking to spoke volumes.  “Why won’t people come to our country?  Our tourism suffers.  People are scared of us.  Our country languishes without income.”

And for once, I had few words to reply.

“I don’t honestly know.”

Their hurt was real.

But despite the safety that I still proclaim to everyone, wherever I go, I had just 5 days earlier been held at gunpoint while on holiday in a neighbouring county.  And not for the first time.

I had decided to venture down to see the lesser known pyramids in Egypt.  There are the Pyramids of Giza – everyone knows them.  If you visit there, you’ll get constantly hassled by guides wanting your money, people trying to flog their wares to you, and take photos with tourists in that thousands of others have taken before you.

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Trying to get the Giza Pyramids without tourists is hard, but like everything, is doable off the beaten track

Less known, but as old, and just as impressive are the pyramids south of that just 40 minutes by car.  So for around 6 euro in an Uber, I set off there first before the sun got too unbearable.

My Uber driver, although not by any means conversational in English, still managed to convey international sign language to indicate “I’m puzzled and I think you’re crazy” when he saw the destination that his phone sent him to.  In the middle of the desert.

But nonetheless he obeyed, because he was being paid to do so.  On arrival in the desert, he was still just as puzzled, though admittedly more because he has been so intently following his Uber maps that he hadn’t noticed the giant Pyramids looming large to his left.

“Do you really want me to drop you here in the desert, miles from any civilisation?”

Or at least those were the words I could imagine he would have said if I’d understood enough Arabic, or he, English.

I pointed to his left out the window.

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His jaw dropped.

“We have pyramids here?!”

And so I happily opened the door and clambered out, glad that I could help a local discover his own country.  And a beautiful country at that.

2 hours later, and I’d largely finished my meandering around the pyramids, separated by about 4km across the sand from each other.  During that 2 hours I started to understand how baffled he had been – I had not seen anyone else.  These were in the tourist books ok.  This was the oldest pyramid in Egypt.  But there was no-one for miles.  Perhaps around 15 cars in a car park a few miles back signalled that there perhaps was life here that I hadn’t met.  But then again, perhaps they were parked for the only other building within miles around – something that looked like a research centre over beyond the car park.

As I walked back towards the first pyramid, I noticed a track going up the side of it to an entrance half way up.  Perhaps a last stop before I leave?  And it would be a welcome respite from the searing heat that was starting to build.  I’d forgotten that although in Cairo the 43 degree heat didn’t burn me because of the pollution in the air, that out here, I wouldn’t be so lucky.

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Arriving at the top of the winding stairs to the ancient doorway to the tomb of the Pharaohs past, I was greeted warmly by the usual “Guide”, who seemingly spoke only 4 words of English, and had used them all within his first sentence greeting me.

“Welcome!  You welcome.  Where you from?”

Such “guides” are normal everywhere in this culture and many others.  A means of employing poorer members of society without giving them “dole” money, assuming they’ll get tips for their “job” off passers by.  Call it tipping or bribery, depending on what culture you grew up in, the Arabs have a beautiful word “Baksheesh” to sum it up without the many words.  This man clearly hadn’t got the news that the Tourist Board had decided to not promote these pyramids this year, and was waiting for his rich pickings off the hoards arriving that day: me.

To show my thankfulness at his attempt at English and warm welcome, I exchanged his four words for around 10 of mine in Arabic, but quickly gave up.

“Ana men Irelanda!  Ana Irelandi” (I come from Ireland, I’m Irish)

“Ahh. Landan!  Landan great city!  Sun Landan?”

And much as I wondered whether he’d strayed back into Arabic, I was fairly certain that this was English, and he (like many others) had not heard of Ireland.  What was I to expect when their colonial oppressor had also been ours?

At my disappointed look, he knew to quickly change the topic.

“Tathcara!”  (ticket)

I was glad I paid attention in my last Arabic class the day before.  I smiled at him, knowing this game well.  He asks me for a non-existing thing.  I look alarmed and ask him how much.  He states his price and I pay him lots of money.  I’d been here many times before.  But something dawned in my head triggering memories of Lonely Planet saying it was 80 Egyptian Pounds (4 euros) to enter the pyramids.  Perhaps I should pay after all.

“How much?”

“Tathcara!!” he said more firmly, not liking that I was clearly playing a game with him.  A game that he had seen all too often before.  I shrugged and showed him I had no ticket.  He sat in silence, perplexed, and quite baffled at how I could get here without “tathcara”.  I sat similarly perplexed, but more wondering how anyone could actually have “tathcara”!  And just when I thought we were united in a beautiful perplexed state, and nearly friends, he lept up, cupped his hands and let out a low horn sound from his mouth, which carried across the sands into the bare nothing-ness of the desert expanse before us.  I smiled at him, delighted to see no doubt, a local tribal call.  He called again, and I sat back to finish my water, in my platypus pack on my back.  A rich cultural experience.

That is, until a Police car appeared through the dust, quite out of nowhere and came to rest at the bottom of the steps I had climbed to get here.

“Come here Sir!” the voice called out below.  And so I ventured downwards to explain, glad that someone had arrived who had more common language than my Baksheesh collector friend.

“How did you get here without ticket?”

“By taxi”, I honestly said.  My next question was as much tongue in cheek as anything, as quite honestly, there was nothing for miles around.  But I felt I should probably ask.

“Where is the ticket office?”

“Back there, 4 miles.  How did you drive through roadblock?”

And then it dawned on me.  My Uber driver had indeed driven through a roadblock.  But as he was Egyptian and Uber vehicles are not obviously designated so, he was let drive through without me buying a ticket from the “ticket office”.

And so he looked at me quite angrily, as if I was a monster, robbing them of their only tourist wages of the day, which, in all fairness to him, I probably was.  And so he called a cab (why drive me himself, when he could make me pay a local “taxi-man” to do the honourable duty?) and sat me down with the train of his gun nudging me in the right direction, and then fixed on me as I sat.  I reached into my bag to get something.  Foolish move.  The gun swung round to a more threatening position.

Well wasn’t this a nice way to end my Pyramid experience.  Me, a friendly gunman, and 35 degrees of sunshine.  I thought that as an Irishman I should at least make the most of one of those.  So I rolled my sleeves up and lay back to enjoy the warm rays on my skin, much to the annoyance of my newly found acquaintance, who twitched his gun at every minute movement.  Little did he know I just didn’t want my biceps browner than my triceps.

And so my taxi arrived, and I was escorted firmly into the back of it and deposited 4 miles later at the “ticket office” where under gunpoint, I was made to pay.

“Six hundred Egyptian Pounds please”

Or so I could imagine he said, given that he typed the same on the calculator.  The price had clearly gone up a bit since Lonely Planet was last written, or my fines for trespassing were larger than I had thought they might be.  I opened my wallet to reveal the barren extent of it.  Not wanting to smile, but realising the hilarity of doing it, I passed him my debit card instead and looked hopeful.

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He grabbed it from me, spent three minutes fingering it and looking over it, as if a new toy had just been given to him at Christmas (only I could imagine probably not at Christmas, given the country I was in).

He called his Police friend over but quite quickly shook their heads.  No card payment here.  But at least I had offered to pay, right?

Seeing this as the most advantage I would ever have in this exchange with gun-wielding ticket-office Policemen, I asked him a polite question.

“Where is ATM?”

And again, after his blank stare:

“Cash….money?”

He looked blankly at me.  I gave the international sign language signal for an ATM (or at least, what I thought was a good shout at pretending to be an ATM, as a human) and pointed off the opposite direction to the pyramids, down the road.

“I go?”

“You need taxi?  You not survive desert.”

I shook my head.  Cautiously taking one step at a time away from the desk and past the Police officers, I nervously walked off into the desert, not intending to return.

The one who showed the most alarm for this whole ruse of finding an ATM was my “taxi driver” from the pyramid who clearly saw his return passenger walking off into the desert without paying a single iota, and correctly understood that he wouldn’t be getting any fare that day.  But by the time he piped up, it was too late, an I was beyond the perimeter by which anyone would care and safely off into the wilderness.**

1 kilometre down the road I stopped to look back, to check I was not being followed.  From here, I would hide and order my Uber (which, of course, does not need cash), and head off to the next adventure – The Tourist Pyramids of Giza – where thankfully no gunmen were to be seen.

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**If it had been possible to give them the normal entry fee, or the taxi fare without having been given far greater fines and risked my safety, I would have done.   This is not to encourage avoidance of fees or payments, which many local people will dearly need to survive.

Travelling “In Search of Ancient Roots” (Book Review, Stewart, Apollos Press)

On my annual leave this year I travelled to some of the ancient Christian sites of the Bible (in Athens) and of the early church (in Egypt and North Africa).  Experiencing such reminders of history, of the global Church and of ancient roots, was a powerful thing that got me thinking.  Is what I believe now, what they believed then?

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Reading this on Areopagus Hill, looking up at the Greek Acropolis.

Living in a fast changing, post-(Roman)-Catholic Ireland has its challenges.  I could imagine that when any culture comes out of a period living under a particular way of life, that it takes a while for people to stand on their own two feet and consider where they are going next.  All the energy was poured into divesting ourselves of the old way, without much thought to where we’ll go now.  And much as we like to think we’re rational creatures, always logically assessing what to believe and how to act, I think we’d be hard-pressed to paint that picture.

Some are very perceptive in that way.  One student who met me last year said

“I’m on my way to becoming an atheist.  That’s where I want to be, because of what I’ve experienced of the [Catholic] church, but I haven’t honestly done enough thinking to defend my position.”

And equally that’s what we find when we come to churches as well.  Thousands have decided that Catholicism is not for them but that they still find Jesus attractive and true, and want to worship Him.  And so how do they do that?  Well they start their own church.  And start it with everything that Catholicism was perceived not to be.

Was it perceived that Catholicism had too much structure?  Start a church that claims to have no structure and is just led by the Spirit!

Was it perceived that Catholicism didn’t allow room for questioning?  Start something where you can question everything.

Was it perceived that Catholicism had such a majestic view of God that you could never know Him?  Start something where Jesus is very personal and the intimacy of the Holy Spirit is emphasized in all the services.

Was it perceived that Catholic doctrines of infant baptism, the Mass and liturgy were too much like institutionalised religion?  Get back to the “early church” and have baptism upon belief, breaking of bread round meals and informal worship in houses.

And so that’s what we’ve had.  Tens of new churches popping up in this city, all who look to correct the ways of old.  Perhaps before moving on to say how this book is very helpful at speaking into that situation, we’d do well to note one final cultural thing that plays a great weight in this setting.

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Exploring what the ancient pillars of the Church were, and how to stay in line with them.

As individuals decide to start new churches (many claiming Divine mandates), many of them will refuse to look outside themselves to do it.  Traditional denominations like Anglican, Baptist, Presbyterian and others are perceived as foreign (and in some cases, are culturally foreign, given most of their leaders are trained abroad in a very different culture and some struggle to differentiate between culture and gospel).  And so much of the resources in the English speaking world, do come from British culture (and America).  But partly because these cultures are different, and partly because we, as Irish people, have our hearts set against learning from those who ruled over us (whether perceived Catholicism or British rule), we struggle to do anything but experiment with our churches.  We would rather do this, and see what works in Ireland (pragmatism) than learn from others.

Now there are some advantages of this.  But also, we’ve hit some pretty major problems.

In our experimenting with claiming its the Holy Spirit who leads us (outside of human means), we’ve let church leaders get away with poor leadership, abuse and have seen churches where the priest-like-figure has just become another personality or extremely gifted individual.  Church discipline is no-where to be seen.

In our reacting to a system that struggled to allow room for questions, we threw the door open to everything and start to question everything without limit.  You’ll find some leaders who don’t think God is sovereign over the future, some who expect Heaven to be realised now on earth, some who claim to be above Doctrinal statements, some who think they have found the keys to reforming the church that no others have found before and others who think they can emphasize that God speaks to them in so many ways outside of scripture, that scripture takes a back seat.  Heresy is rife, and largely under the radar of most of us, who all see the great heart of those making such statements.

In our wanting to escape a picture of God as a grey haired old man in the sky, who had little to do with everyday life, we’ve sought to make God entirely comprehensible and relevant, bringing him down to our own image, worshipping Him as if He was our best mate sitting beside us at the GAA and shunning anything that seemed too grand or majestic.  That was the old way of life.  We’ve got a new covenant personal Jesus now.  The creator-creature distinction in our theology, that emphasized how “other” God is, how mysterious some of His being still is to us, and how above our way of thinking His purposes are, is now lost.  Every service, we have lost a sense of His majesty and our finite nature.  We are on the same plane, in a way we never ought to be.

Finally, in our desire to run from institutionalised sacraments, we have bolted to the only other extreme we thought there was.  Instead of saying baptism has some influence on our salvation (as Catholicism does), we declare it to just be an outward symbol for one service where we invite all our non-Christian mates in to hear our story.  Instead of receiving grace (for salvation) through the Mass (as Catholicism teaches), we abandon any relevance of the Lord’s Supper, pretend they are only symbols and even mull over whether they need to be bread and wine at all (why not baked beans and banana, in a meal together at home?).

Given we’ve come to this “reactionary Christianity”, it’s no surprise to me that many who seemingly came to faith are falling away from it, and that so many who abandoned the Roman Catholic Church actually come back to seeing its extreme advantages compared to the experimental fellowships they’ve encountered since.

To those who’ve encountered any element of this shallow “evangelicalism” (which I would argue is no evangelicalism at all), I can recommend reading Kenneth Stewart’s book “In Search of Ancient Roots”.

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Kenneth starts out by outlining the perceived beauty of a system (like Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy) that purports to believe the same thing throughout all ages, across all nations.

His main points in the book to me, were that:

  • such systems aren’t really as united as they appear at all, across all parts
  • such systems aren’t really united across history in what they have believed
  • there is great historicity in evangelical doctrine all the way from the early church

Now given how complex a topic this is, I’ll not delve into how well I fell Stewart makes his case here.  You can grab a coffee with me for that.  But it’s well worth the read, particularly for those of us in our Irish setting.  It does however, come with the warning that it’s not for the faint hearted.  It’s a meaty book with many a juicy morsel that will kickstart an interest for you in reading church history, if you haven’t ever had one before!  But don’t be put off.  Why not let it challenge you, let it raise questions for you, and let it provoke you to worship a God who has always been faithful throughout history, even (and especially) through a messy Church.  Why not grab a friend and read it together?