On the road: winter in Ireland

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Minnowburn, Belfast, Co Down

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Tramore Beach, Co. Waterford

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Random field, on the train to Tralee (from Cork)

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-6 degrees celsius but beauty through a dirty train window! Co. Ketty

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M8 Co.Limerick

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View from Tralee IT campus – if Heineken did campus views…

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The road gets packed: the 72 get on their way

The question “What do you do?” will get a different response from me, depending on who I talk to, their awareness of Biblical Christianity, and inevitably what mood I’m in.

“I run community spaces to help people think through the big questions of life”

“I work with clubs and societies in universities and colleges, equipping the student leaders”

“I persuade people that Jesus is more true and beautiful to live for than anything else out there” (that’s when I’m feeling bold or want a provocative conversation!)

“I help people know to read the Bible properly for themselves as rational adults – and cut out extremism”

But it’s the bottom one I turn to today, as we look in our theology of travel at what we can learn from the disciples on the road.  If I’m being honest, there weren’t many conclusions about Jesus’ travel time and from the outset I’ll be honest, I’m not sure we can conclude much from here either.

Only the disciples’ way of spreading the good news of Jesus seems to build on Jesus’ relational approach, and takes it from door to door throughout neighbourhoods, making sure everyone gets a chance to respond.  It appears to be what the early church did too as they sent a mission team (Paul et al.) of evangelists and supporters around many places.

And so that’s perhaps all I’ll conclude that we should take away from this.  That travelling for evangelism should always be done in teams.  I could tell sad stories of burnt out, lone-wolf evangelists who still are heralded by many in modern day evangelicalism as “the” ones to look up to.  Some of the most famous evangelists and pastors sadly fall in to this category.

Why do I not take away more?

Modern mission agencies are increasingly forcing strategies such as “find the person of peace and let them lead you to hundreds of people” onto their staff (Disciple Making Movements or Church Planting Movements).  They quote Jesus’ words in Luke’s gospel to his follower’s before they go out (Luke 10:6).  And I’m not saying I don’t look for people who are open the gospel.

But I’m more convinced that a Pauline theology of preaching/evangelism (and by that don’t necessarily assume the disciples’ methodology was similar, even pre-cross) was persuading hearts that weren’t necessarily visibly open to the gospel and seeing God work by His Spirit to make them open people (who could sometimes lead tens of others to Christ).

Paul’s theology of preaching:

  • 2 Cor 4:4-6 Spiritual blindness
  • 2 Cor 5:11 Godly Persuasion
  • 2 Cor 10:4-5 Divine demolition

It reminds me of a CU in England (and many others) I worked with at one stage who were convinced a lady with a red jumper was going to be open to Jesus, if they found her.  For an hour they searched, and did indeed find a woman (who was quite perplexed) with a red jumper.  In the meantime, the rest of us had spoken to tens of others about Jesus, had some great conversations, and seen the usual responses to God’s Word (Mark 4).

Now I’m not saying God doesn’t lead miraculously to particular individuals (In fact, I taught this in Youth Alpha on Friday with a Methodist Church, and would quite happily teach it to my reformed presbyterian friends that I grew up with too!), but what I am saying is that I don’t see any evidence from the 72 or early church to suggest we should wait around for it!

Oh to have the spiritual wisdom to know how to best hold the tension of wanting to urgently tell everyone the gospel, but knowing that slow, relational seed-sowing, often bears more fruit, and often suffers from abrasive, cold, evangelists who go in with metaphorical gospel bombs!

Of course all of this wouldn’t need to be a tension or a dilemma if we’d continued what the early church started – going to the unreached.  Our centuries of apathy has left us in some pickle.  Better shape our lives round sorting that one then….

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The closest I get to travelling on evangelism teams: United Beach Missions

Festival season: a song for the road

We all have them.  The “together” moments.  The ecstasy of experiencing something in a large number.  Whether you’re a music festival junkie, or whatever makes you want to travel to be with others, there’s no doubt something special occurs when we’re in big crowds.

It’s why many people plan their travel to coincide with the big festivals.  Whether catching New Year in Edinburgh, the beach parties of the Festival de San Juan in Spain or the raves all night long on Thai beaches with the sun setting.  Ireland has learnt fast that festivals mean money, whether tourist money or local money.  There’s barely a single weekend of the calendar that Cork doesn’t have a festival (the Irish Times does a breakdown of the bigger ones here) of some sort.

And it’s not just those liberal twenty-something-year-olds who do festival and “group experiences”.  No, head up in the tranquility of the Western Isles of Scotland and you’ll find a completely different, yet still spine-tingling experience in the religious community.

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The Isle of Lewis

The Free Church of Scotland hold their eucharist/communion/celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection in particular a couple of times a year.  And to prepare themselves and to remember the importance of this event, they meet for one week, every night of the week to still their hearts and confess their shamefulness before the God they serve, both as individuals and as a community.  In seeing more of their shame and imperfection, they rejoice more in the perfect solution at the end of the week that removes this shame forever.

On a cold winter evening you’ll find them packing into rooms of local believers, that weren’t meant to host that number.  And you won’t be there long before haunting a-capella melodies will start of some of the Bible’s songbook (The Psalms) that point them to humanity’s persistent shame, and to the solution.  Three part harmonies, or four will not be out of place, and all are welcomed singing, regardless of ability.  It’s beautiful!  The tears welled in my eyes.  The memories will last a long time.

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More of Harris and Lewis

But what are these songs they’re singing?  Ancient songs from many thousand years ago, preserved (but re-arranged close to the time) in historical records to give us a glimpse of the festival tunes that would have been known by everyone – the hits that lasted down the years.

And some of them I’ve been studying recently are songs that would have been put together for the road.  Songs for travel.  For when Jewish people were setting out to the big religious festivals in Jerusalem where their temple was.  They felt the buzz of the festival coming and being with likeminded people for a change (Ps. 120).  Everyone was on the road, but the roads weren’t just as easy as ours.  I could imagine they’d have been something like this at points:

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A Tunisian dry riverbed in an ancient gorge, that many walk for miles along

The hills were something to be afraid of, when the songwriter turns his eyes to them (Ps. 121).  They were like the Jericho road that the good Samaritan walked – are therdsc_0859e gangs lurking behind the next rock?

What will walking in the heat of the sun do to us?

Or what about when the sun sets and leaves chilling shadows over the hills? (Ps 121.)

Together when they get to the festival they will glimpse what they long for – true peace between people that they are united to!  (Ps 122)  That’ll be fully known in a future, in a “Jerusalem” that won’t be an Israeli capital city.  In a “Zion” that will be as if God is the towering mountains of safety (not of fear) around them (Ps 125) who’ll protect them from evil people (Ps. 124).dsc_0852

This festival will help us send postcards to home, reminding everyone across the world what God has done, even when it’s hard to see that (Ps 126).  These festivals will remind us there’s something bigger than ourselves!  Something that we should give even our very offspring to honour (Ps 127).

And I could go on.  Psalm 133 and 134 nearly seem to speak into an arrival into the ecstasy of the festival – no longer being on the road.

They’re marked in the ancient manuscripts as the “Songs of Ascent” (121-134) and they come to life when you remember their context of the traveller on the hard road up to the festival!  Enjoy!

Naples, Italy

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Travel Postponed!  

With a few fractured bones round my eye from hockey training, and a rather sore head, I think photos are about the most I can do for the moment!  Here’s one from one of the universities in Napoli, where I was recently for work.  20 degrees celsius and November!  My delight at Naples was not quite equalled by concerns as the presence of the Mafia, was still all too real on the streets.

“Pizza….pizza for you.” came the voice through the buzzer at the bottom of the block of appartments.  The confident manner of the one speaking wasn’t matched by any evidence of pizza in his hands, or any others for that matter, who were congregated in a small group at the door.

“Uh, I didn’t order any pizza” came the response.

“Well it was probably your neighbour then, so do please open the door”….

…and we walked quickly on, not waiting to see the response.

Unity, post-election.

There’s nothing like making a few Donald Trump jokes.  That was the mood my house were in this morning.  A friend, staying over last night was quick to google search “Trump jokes” probably to lighten a fairly gloomy mood on a rainy, cold, winter’s morning in Ireland, when you’ve just learnt the news of the US elections.  But sadly googling that is exactly why I think most of us Europeans are no better than the mud-pie slinging Americans who are sitting in their polemical political camps, throwing things at each other from a distance.

This is a book review of “The Righteous Mind” by Jonthe-righteous-mindathan Haidt (Penguin books) which has been one of my top-reads in the last year (and for those of you who know how avidly I read, that says something!).  Jonathan is an academic social psychologist, but also an American Democrat.  But if that would put you off, please don’t let it – he writes purposely to describe how he thinks we can sit down side by side and talk constructively in the political and religious realm, instead of just talking past each other, and mis-understanding the “other” as just something from our nightmares.

He follows on from other recent works in social psychology (and perhaps goes back to agreeing with Aristotle and many before) to persuade us that we’re not so rational as humans as we’d like to think.  As an intuitionist about moral values, Haidt thinks that “the emotional dog wags the rational tail”.  His thoughts have been previously well drawn on in other works such as “Switch” (another must-read in my opinion, for those wanting to learn to bring about change in this world), but makes a convincing case, even if you haven’t read them.  (A video here to explain.)

Once he has convinced us of this, he then spends some time trying to look beyond our blind spots to see how conservative and liberal minds think morally.  Summed up in these two diagrams, this powerful analysis would help people at opposite ends of the political spectrum to not just throw mud-pies at each other, but to understand that there may be strong rationale why  people vote certain ways on certain issues, and how we can appeal to other voters and talk in terms that are meaningful to them.

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Once we understand these frameworks (for which he gives evidence in the book), and seem (intuitively!!) to me to be correct, we can start to talk.

Thirdly, Haidt goes on to argue for evolutionary group selection.  Given how much common populace reading (think Dawkins’ Selfish Gene and others) has derailed such concepts, it was eye-opening to me to see him advocating for such and suggesting that others will/do.  Perhaps I’m just behind on the academic thinking at the moment.  Through this, he tries to argue that anything that binds us together in social groupings could be for the advancement of society.  This would help an atheist to see the good of religion, as well as democrats to see and start to understand why having republican groupings might be good (and vice versa for both).

Finally he applies it concretely to life.  There are not those who are “good” and those who are “evil” as we so often like to pretend (we, or anyone who agrees with us, of course, are the good).  There is good and evil in everyone, and we must sit together and learn from each other.  Admittedly he says, it will be hard.  And if this election is anything to go by, the elephant has chosen the easy path, which is sitting in our camps yelling loudly.

Perhaps it’s the one fault of this book.  By it’s own theory (part 1), it will be virtually impossible to enact.  We are too emotionally driven to see its sense.  But for those who wish to see unity, I suggest this book is remarkable and well worth the read, particularly if you are a leader wanting to bring about change, or someone so frustrated with an “other” side of a political or religious grouping that you can’t fathom the attraction of it or how to bring about change.

(NB: for those concerned or persuaded that his group evolutionary thought may mean Christianity is a mere social construct, I can point you elsewhere.)

Odysseus and a government monitoring travel!

It seems a bit bizarre, but the government seem to want to know our travels this year (well, for one month anyway).  Sadly the month our household was chosen, was October, in which was my busiest month and no travel was to be reported.  I mean, when I say no travel, I did actually travel a lot.  But not according to their criteria of purely leisure travelling.

I thought I would make a blog post about it just so that it may be noted not only in government records, but also for all to see:

Therein lies the form that speaks of the tragic month where no travel didst occur.

Well, none from me anyway – just my two housemates!  But for every month that one does not travel, one dreams of travel, or one hankers back to the days of travelling.  Like an insatiable desire, the lust of travel isn’t helped by signing forms to say one does not do it.

The response of a Jesus-follower is not primarily that of Homer’s Odysseus, who was trying to sail past the most powerful, alluring songs of the Greek Sirens on the rocks nearby (the fate of many a sailor), by putting beeswax in his crew’s ears and binding himself to the mast so they couldn’t be lured:

“Past the island drove the dark-prowed ship, but the sirens seeing it began their sweet song. ‘Come hither, come hither, brave Odysseus,’ they sang. ‘Here stay thy black ship and listen to our song. No one hath ever passed this way in his ship till he hath heard from our lips the music that is sweet as honeycomb, and hath had joy of it, and gone on his way the wiser. All things are known to us. We will sing to thee of thy great fights and victories in Troyland. We shall sing of all the things that shall be hereafter. Come hither, come hither, Odysseus!’

So sweet and so full of magic were their voices, that when Odysseus had heard their song, and seen them smilingly beckoning to him from amongst the flowers, he tried to make his men unbind him.” (Odyssey XII)

The binding and beeswax does indeed work for Odysseus here, but I’m not sure it necessarily does so in real life when our hearts are captivated by something.  No, when my heart yearns to explore this world and to travel, or spends its unproductive hours mulling over what already was, I need a better song to be sung.  A more alluring one.  One that is so sweet, so clear, so all-consuming that all other songs sound a faint and distant clanging in comparison.

And that for me is the song of my maker.  The song of a Jesus who promises more in due time.  The song of one who knows that I am made for something more.  The song that woos me to taste of sweeter joys and find satisfaction in them.  Come, listen to that song!

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Roman roads: good news for the world!

I love learning on the road.  It makes for far more interesting ways of engaging with history (a subject I never warmed to as a kid).  And when work are sending me to a conference with top European academics and university workers, I’m especially happy.  I’ve been reading some Gramsci and also on Roman Catholicism since I’ve been away.

But sitting in Rome currently writing this, it’s given me a chance to l20161101_093200ook up what others (including my past Relay worker Heather) told me about Roman roads and the early church.  Below is the type of road that’s everywhere in Rome, and it doesn’t look that far removed from older pictures.

The Roman Empire had vast networks of road for trade and to keep control of areas, supposedly over 120,000km of roads, long and straight in many instances.

And so there were things about that time that come to my mind that could have assisted the fast spreading of the news and message of Jesus:

  • trade routes were easy to travel on and for messages to be carried on
  • trade routes already crossed cultures and had contextualised messages, so this was not as strange
  • the language of the empire was most likely Greek (from what I’m aware), and therefore most would have spoken or understood it
  • the empire was largely united and stable, which allowed for greater ease of such things to spread.

Now of course these are just helping factors in the spread of the gospel, as God often uses human means to work in this messy world (perhaps some would have hated Roman rule and their roads as a sign of that oppression).  Doubtless, the power of the gospel to change lives, the zeal of early Christians and many other spiritual factors were primary considerations.  But when we look at parts of history where the gospel didn’t spread as quickly, perhaps it’s not just due to completely sinful reasons (or not at all).  We must bear in mind our context too, and of course, the God who is sovereign in bringing about context, as He builds His Church.

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