The art of conversation

“I’m travelling to find myself. To find who I really am. To discover the potential within me. Too experience all the world has to offer.”

Or so many say about travel. And it’s true. But what if you could do the same from home? Would it be boring? What would it look like?

I got introduced to Alain de Botton through his book “The Art of Travel” and several TV shows that went along the same lines. And much as I travel in tandem to a different pulse of life and in a alternative direction to what he tries to persuade us all of, he’s someone I still find intensely thought provoking and wonderfully helpful in life’s paths.

So when I heard that a conversation card pack had been launched by him, I set my usual scepticism aside and bought it. Normally, I would think such things are a cringeworthy waste of money, that could be spent on asking the same questions, without the cards infront of me. But when a church pastor on Twitter who I respect, said he would happily give every ‘Fresher’ (first year) one of these upon entry to university, my ears pricked up.

All pictures copyright and taken off the website: https://www.theschooloflife.com/shop/eu/100-questions-original-edition/

Sadly in our current age, deep conversations are not always had. In Ireland, perhaps not without a pint or two in one’s hand. In other cultures, perhaps at other times, or in other places. But increasingly, the soundbite, technological world that we live in, darts from trivial topic to the next in a line of banalities, and doesn’t often deepen. If people get too serious, or chat about something for too long, jokes are quickly made, and many turn away from such displays of earnestness or knowledge. Do we perhaps fear those we think have a ‘powerplay’ over us and don’t want to be shown up for what we do not know? Or might it be because knowledge is genuinely used for ill, or in a lacklustre way that sends us yawning and reaching for our drink again? Or have we just lost our wonder and awe at the incredible world around us?

For those who bemoan this current state of society, I do wonder whether there was ever a “golden age” in this regard? The old geographically-limited, (often more conservative) cultures or decades, where people spoke only to their family, neighbours or village each day, did not breed the same diversity or curiosity perhaps as modern-day culture allows for.

Nor do I wish to assume that those who can hold conversation on one topic for a period of time and travel deep into conversation with it, are necessarily better off, morally superior or more gifted than those who cannot. Some cultures go direct into a subject, whereas others circle around it. Many tertiary educated people are taught to think in certain ways, but this should not necessarily exude better things than those who do not learn in such ways.

However, if I look at my life and see no deep relationships where I delve under the surface of the superficial and enjoy the hidden mysteries of people’s character, the vibrant colours of their personality or the reality behind why their hearts beat the rhythms of life which they do, then I must pause a moment. Why is it I don’t ever converse on this level? Could I find more our about myself by doing so? Might I learn how to love others better, or to disagree well with those from diverse backgrounds? Dare I suggest, that I find myself corrected, sharpened, encouraged and changed by similar expressions to me?

And that’s where these cards come in. They’re not cheesey, they ask great questions for the western, individualistic mind, and they could both simultaneously reveal far more about yourself than you’d want to find out, and surprise yourself with the strengths and ways of living that you have been gifted in. It could be a step to becoming self-aware. A step to finding who you are.

Alain chooses 9 topics, which are in my mind, perhaps the top 9 spoken of or dreamt about every day on university campuses. You can see them in the picture above. (Has he missed one? Let me know your thoughts.) And of course, “Travel” is one of those top topics the current generations are buzzing about. Here’s a few of the questions to get your juices flowing:

  • are you more attracted to a nomadic or settled life?
  • if you were in a city and had to choose between a good meal and a bad hotel, or a bad meal and a good hotel – which would you prefer?
  • what makes a person a good travelling companion?
  • would you prefer a view of a desert or of the sea? Why?

I could imagine these cards being used in various ways. Some will use them in a formal classroom setting. Others may bring them out for dinnertime conversation. But many will simply read them, and be provoked to ask better questions, or to steal them for everyday conversation!

Like everything in life, you’ll like some of it, and may not like other bits of it, but perhaps it could even be a springboard to making your own cards too? But be warned, Christian traveller – please do not make these a tool to preach at people. If you make your own cards in order to get “better” questions, please do ask yourself why your worldview or thought-process doesn’t like the questions given. Do you not know how to relate to the questions at hand? Do you not understand why such things could be fascinating or wonderful glimpses of a Christ-centred eternal reality? Are you seeing life through such narrow lenses that you only want to ask a couple of questions to everyone? Perhaps I might dare to suggest that if so, these question cards might teach us more than what you think we have to bring to others.

Disagree? Or curious?

Well perhaps you can ask me more and we can listen to each other well. Let’s travel together and chat, side by side, and see where it takes us.

But regardless, can I ask you whether you’re willing to start to cultivate such deep relationships with diverse people? It’s not easy!

For those who like the look of the cards, they can be bought here.

Valentine Travels

And so, in line with all things to do with St Valentine’s Day, I present to you a commercial advert for a certain book. Because who really wants roses or wine for the day that’s in it?!

Back to proper writing soon….

#TravelinTandem Chapter 7: Extra Material

Image chapter 7
Destination unknown!

BLOG POSTS that relate to this chapter:

Will the world burn? Or are we headed for restoration or a mix? Some borrowed thoughts from 1 Peter here.

Travel: a metaphor used for life

Our travel dreams are too small. Some thoughts that shaped this chapter.

Odysseus and a government monitoring travel

Travelling to find yourself

Someone who paints a far better, more persuasive picture than I do is Glynn Harrison in his book about sexuality “A better story”.

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The misty scenes remind me of the lack of clarity we sometimes feel in trying to find ourselves.

Tangential thoughts somewhat related to the chapter:

As I recently made a reading list of what books I’d read in the last 7 years, I noticed a distinct lack of eschatology (end times) on it. And by that, I don’t just mean end times debates about what will happen, but heart-warming thinking and meditating upon the new heavens and the new earth. And that’s all the worse for me – I’m missing out. So often I get lost in philosophising over what I don’t know, or getting angry and arguing about what precise end-times view someone holds, instead of marvelling at what is to come. It’s where I’ve found Nancy Guthrie’s latest book “Even better than Eden” to be a wonderful start.

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Father Ted: exemplary of where conservative culture gets confused with Christianity, and we go round telling people to stop doing things without anything positive.

Feedback from readers on the chapter:

Interestingly this chapter contains the most shared quotation so far: that “Christian culture” should not be our goal – making ourselves comfortable in our own societies (pg. 132). Here’s one example of a review that spoke of it. I find it fascinating that this should be something that the generation of travellers would be passionate about. So why do you think that is?

From living amongst them, and from my own heart, it’s obvious that the culture they react against is the over-politicised, right-wing conservatism, that cares a lot for enforcing “moral laws” (think: abortion, drugs, sexuality, gender etc) but are not as evidently mixing and mingling with, and helping those they are perceived to be campaigning against (often they are not campaigning against them at all, but their lack of engagement on the ground makes it appear that way and implicitly speaks volumes).

And whilst the traveller’s critique is often a fair one, I do wonder whether our own travelling culture needs also challenged here – as we sit creating our own conservative culture in hipster coffee shops, lauding our travel stories to each other from craft-brewing pubs, and going out of our way to know everything about what everyone is doing via social media, without engaging with them. The result, is arguably not much different, in terms of engaging meaningfully with people. Perhaps slightly less influence on national laws, and slightly less public square bitterness towards Christendom. But if we can expect that simply by sitting quietly drinking lattes and engaging positively with the world’s best sights, coffee and news headlines, will win the next generation to Christ, we will be sorely disappointed.

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Looking up, a path is always far harder to spot than looking back!

How Christmas unites Columbanus and Muhammad

Some thoughts that I never got round to recording before Christmas, having just finished a month studying Columbanus’ life. It ties in loosely to travel, to why I enjoy having a travelling God – a God who comes down to us. Much lies incomplete but I hope the gist is there:

Columbanus: Irish monk, traveller and missionary to Europe in the 5th/6th century, spreading the Christian message and bringing higher education standards, challenges to those abusing power, rebukes to  religious leaders not living out an authentic message and much more – to everywhere he went.  Believing that God came down and walked earth as a man (Jesus) was foundational to his message.

Muhammad (Peace be upon him – PBUH): Arabian leader, traveller and missionary to swathes of Arab territory in the 7th/8th century, spreading the message of Islam largely by force, rebuking polytheistic practice and laying down a firm moral standard for all to follow.  Believing God came down to earth as a human, was an abhorrent and heretical impossibility, that was worthy of punishment.

Christmas: a time when a few people in the world still gather to celebrate Jesus’ incarnating Himself on earth, born of a virgin, as the God-man – fully God and fully man.  (Most of Christmas celebrations, not being anything to do with that at all, and in fact, directly contrasting to the good news of Jesus)

Given this contrast, how on earth (pun unintended) does Christmas unite our two travellers: Columbanus and Muhammad (PBUH)?

To follow this next bit, I’ll try and keep it simple, but for those who want to push into the finer complexities of theology, please don’t be put off by that – drop me a line or leave a comment.

Columbanus perhaps unlike some other Irish missionaries of the time, seemed to have little hope for the eternal future.

“The things we ought to have loved are so remote and undiscovered and unknown by us, that while we are men and situated in this prison of the body, the things that are truly good and eternal are utterly incapable of being seen or heard or thought by us.”

(Sermon 3: how the monk should please God)


But in case that wasn’t firm enough grounding to conclude Columbanus’ theology, we’ll see that Columbanus everywhere he went, was known for introducing daily (or regular) confession to one’s “Anam Cara” (soul friend) or priest.

And who could disagree with a rhythm of repentance and faith in the Christian life, right?  Keeping short accounts before God and with each other is a beautiful thing.  But why did Columbanus do this?

Well sadly, because he had little hope of standing before a holy and perfect God one day, without it.  He thought that if you could only ask for forgiveness once (as was the tradition at the time), and have your slate wiped clean once, then it left you trying to second guess when you are near your deathbed, and then trying to live an incredible life after that, to merit your way to Heaven.  Columbanus thought this very dark and hopeless, because one didn’t know when one was going to die, and it was nearly impossible to live a good enough life for a perfect God, if you lived any longer.  The slate was never going to be clean.

And so regular penance would solve this.  A daily wiping of the slate and starting again.  Good news?  Well, it would certainly seem so to those who had no eternal confidence.

But that’s where I don’t agree with Columbanus.  The gospel writers seem to have great confidence in the eternal life that is theirs, and not because they were good people. 

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled[a] among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eye witnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

Luke 1:1-4


I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us – whatever we ask – we know that we have what we asked of him.

1 John 5:13-15

This confidence comes from a realisation that wiping the slate clean, will never be good enough.  If that’s what forgiveness is, then we’re screwed.  A holy God awaits us, and a new Heavens and new Earth where nothing impure can ever enter.  Should we have the slightest moral failure, we would be out.

And that’s where Patrick (around at a similar time to Columbanus) seems to have understood things slightly better by his emphasis on receiving everything from God in Christ by the Spirit.


I am Patrick, yes a sinner and indeed untaught; yet I am established here in Ireland where I profess myself bishop. I am certain in my heart that “all that I am,” I have received from God. So I live among barbarous tribes, a stranger and exile for the love of God. He himself testifies that this is so. I never would have wanted these harsh words to spill from my mouth; I am not in the habit of speaking so sharply. Yet now I am driven by the zeal of God, Christ’s truth has aroused me.

The Confession of St Patrick

It would appear that a naughty chap called Pelagius, who was branded a heretic by most people (Roman Catholic and not) for his perceived views on being able to work our way up to God by our goodness, actually impacted Christianity more than some might want to admit.  Following on from his time, swathes of people adopted semi-Pelagianism, claiming that by God’s grace, we are able to obtain merit by our works in this world, because God will empower us to do it.  Thus we have hope for eternal life, if we work hard and are good enough people (by God’s grace).  Columbanus, I would argue, seemed to live this out, and it drove him to flagellation in ascetic communities across Europe.  Much of European Christianity (both Protestant and Roman Catholic) has since followed him in living this way.

So what’s this got to do with Muhammad (PBUH) and Christmas at all?

Well everything.  Let me explain. 

You see the problem with not knowing whether you’re in or out of eternal life with a perfect God, is that He immediately becomes the distant God who awaits you in another realm, and is very hard to know, because you are impure, and He is not.  This is where the scary god of the New Atheists comes in, who watches you like a hawk in the sky, and will pounce on you to make you feel guilty at many times and in various ways.  Perhaps if you say sorry enough , and live a good enough life, you’ll be ok.

This is a stark contrast to the God, in Christ, by His Spirit, is said to dwell in the hearts of all those who believe in Him.  Somehow, the most Holy and infinite God, claims to dwell in our hearts, and not obliterate us.  This would be opposed to the times when God and His glory showed up in the Old Testament and completely destroyed all those who dared approach without permission.  No-one could look at the face of God and last.

So the God who we’re not sure whether we’ll meet his eternal life standards, is actually the same God who we hope is empowering us, within us, in our life here on earth.  And because that seems either impossible or a fearful thing, we make him into a god who is far off.  Nearly unknowable.

We say in our creeds, confessions and liturgies that we believe in a Triune God (Father, Son and Spirit) but in reality, we wonder whether the Father is angry, we thank the Son for all he’s done at the cross but ultimately think we’ve to work hard to top it up, and we’re not sure whether the Spirit is really within us, because it doesn’t feel like it, and how can God be in us if we don’t know whether we could even be with Him in the future?

We deny the fact that (for those who trust in Jesus) we’ve already been adopted in a heavenly family with a Heavenly Father better than any a=other.  We can’t be un-adopted.

We deny the fact that (for those who trust in Jesus) we’ve already been declared righteous in God’s sight, and given new clothes to wear by Him.  It’s far better news than having a slate wiped clean – we are legally innocent, completely free from punishment, and have been given everything we could ever need (spiritually) for life with God (both for here and the life beyond).

We deny the fact that (for those who trust in Jesus) we’re indwelt by the Spirit of Christ, God Himself, who is not just our prize for the end, but our joy and peace in the trials and turmoil of this world, as He changes us more into His likeness – what we were created to be!

We deny our Triune God.

And that’s where we essentially deny the good news of Christmas – that Jesus came into this world with news of great joy, that would tell shameful and guilty people to “not fear”.  We instead, join our Islamic friends, in believing in a Holy God “up there” somewhere, who might (if we’re lucky) allow the best of us in one day.

And in practice, that’s what we see across Ireland amongst many of the older, pious, religious people.  Many of them that I’ve spoken to recently, fascinatingly (and contrary to our Mormon and JW friends who deny Christ’s deity) will go as far as denying Jesus’ humanity (what we celebrate Him taking on in His incarnation) – that he ate, slept, pooped, cried etc – because they’re horrified by a God who comes down to our level.  “God” for them by very definition, is something we work up towards.  The emphasis of their religious traditions leaves more still to be attained in the strength of what Christ has done, and therefore, it devalues His works (on the cross) and His words (in offering certainty).

Similarly my Muslim friends are also horrified by such a “crude and condescending” view of a God who would take on the shame of human flesh.  But they take the option of denying his deity, rather than his humanity, as their get-out clause.  For them, a rescuer who dives into a muddy and filthy river to save someone drowning, is not more of a hero (compared to a clean river), but is actually now impure.

So now, although one (Columbanus) still professes a Triune God with his lips, you see how the consequences of his belief for others, end up looking altogether Islamic.  Which is why I’m not surprised that his monastic rules are so obsessed with the outer appearance and practice, or on a completely different spectrum, why some churches in England have no problem with Muslims reading the Qu’ran from Christian pulpits.

In fact, I nearly applaud them for making logical steps and realising that Columbanus, is not so far away from Muhammad (PBUH) at all, in that they both minimise the emphasis of God coming to us, and instead throw weight on us going to God.

It’s why I’ll take a travelling God anyday, over one we have to travel towards.

Christianity Today interview about “Travel: in tandem with God’s Heart”

A month or two ago I “sat down” with a like-minded traveller from the other side of the globe, and had a Skype which turned into this Christianity Today article.  It’s been one of the joys of this whole process – being introduced to top thinkers and practitioners in various settings and from various theological backgrounds – what a joy!

Do check it out!

Pastoral authority in a travelling world

“All my congregation are travelling.  The older generation visit their children and grandchildren.  And the younger generation for work and just about everything from music gigs to sport to pleasure travel in and of itself. What should I say to my travelling congregation?  That’s what you should write on next.”

It’s what I’ve been told or asked several times in the last week or two.  So what’s my response?

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Travelling for the bank holiday weekend in Ireland: I made sure I went with other church family, and with the goal of mixing and mingling Christians with non-Christians too.

Well, although I didn’t write the book primarily for the church pastor, I hope that what I say can still be very helpful at demonstrating how to speak to someone with their heart set on travel.  In chapter two of the book, I touch on a [borrowed] metaphor for humanity that my blog name actually derives from – beautiful ruins.  Everyone on earth is beautiful but broken.  Everything on earth is beautiful but also fallen, to some degree on another.  But it creates life hard for us all.  Because it’s far easier to see the extremes of the spectrum in anything.  To brand people, things or viewpoints as entirely bad or wonderfully good.  And so pastors who have travelling congregations could quite easily do the same.  They’re looking for a quick fix to tell people to stop travelling and start committing to church.

“…quick fixes aren’t available in the Christian spiritual world.”

But I wryly smile, because quick fixes aren’t available in the Christian spiritual world.  Convictions of what church is, and other such things are taught and caught over years of pastoral ministry.  Even if I did think it was the answer to tell people to sit down and stop travelling (which I don’t, primarily), a book that told everyone to do precisely that, wouldn’t exactly be a best seller to travelling people.

But because there’s far more to travel that just “is it good or is it bad?”, I write to help people think for themselves and see both the potential and the harmful sides of travel in their life and the lives of others around them.

So the way I identify with my fellow travel-lovers, the language I use about it all, the emphasis I take and much more, will hopefully be an example or a sharpening to those who teach and those who lead churches, in how they can do similar.  A book about that, would only end up exampling and repeating so much of the same things again.

But a final note to pastors or those who are frustrated at the amount of travel their congregation or certain individuals do:

If I can boldly say so, I think in saying this, you’ve often been steeped in the same individualism as your young travelling congregation have.  Pleasure travel has thrived in the extreme individualism of the western world.  But so has pastoring-from-a-distance.  It’s amazing how we have churches now where everyone drives in from miles around, and never sees each other from Sunday to Sunday (or occasionally at the midweek).  Living out the tens of “one another” commands in Scripture (love one another, forgive one another, confess to one another etc) which seem to dominate the discipleship patterns of every letter in the New Testament, seem virtually impossible without seeing people from one week to the next!  Relationships will never thrive and sin can always be hidden from each other in such contexts.  Conversations will always be shallow after church on Sunday, if we don’t know each other better than that.

“So how was your week?”

“Oh, alright thanks.  I had a cold on Tuesday and work has been busy but good apart from that.  Did you see the football on Saturday?”

“Oh sorry to hear!  Yes, great game, wasn’t it?”

Etc.

But many of the younger generation won’t go to this type of church – they want real community.

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“They want real community”

And so as a pastor/elder, gone are the days where you can get away with saying “I’ll meet with you if you have a problem or if you’re new, but apart from that, I’ll focus on other things” (if you ever could say that).  I’ve heard it numerous times from students, that the student finds it impossible to get to know their elders or feel like they’re accountable to them, because they’re not known by them.  It’s led many of my students to find their church leaders authoritarian (because rebuke comes outside the context of deep relationship), or for them to not respect local church at all (just leaning towards a worldwide church and taking “elders” to be those who they respect across the city/world, because they actually feel understood and known by these people).

Now of course it’s a two-way thing.  And to willingly forsake a regular Sunday local meeting of God’s people around His Words and His sacraments, is just silly.  But I’ve rarely found young travelling people to be away so much when there is genuine connection and community.  It excites people, despite the messiness of true community being with people who aren’t like us.

What this means for city centre churches in big cities, or for churches that aren’t made up of geographically proximal people, is hard to see.  I think we have to be more creative than to tell people that they must just go back to the old way of life of living and spending time with all our physical neighbours (chapter seven of my book touches on why I think this).  But in other ways, I’m increasingly convicted there has to be more geographical proximity than we currently have in most churches in Ireland.  We must preach the gospel to ourselves and to each other regularly.  It’s partly why I believe Christian Unions see so many coming to faith, because of the beautiful [geographically proximal] community that models the good news for onlooking people.

(It’s also why, although I’ve been away from my Cork church two Sundays in a row launching this book, I’m quite content that I’m not forsaking the gathering of God’s people.  Not only am I visiting my sending church, and at a friend’s church on those Sundays, but I’m also intensely involved in the lives of my Cork church family during the week, often spending whole days with some of them (partly due to the flexibility of my job, admittedly) in ways that I can be vulnerable even with my elders).

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So in short?

Elders, please do be involved in your congregation’s lives and seek to know them and “one another” them regularly.

Travelling friends, please do seek to get to make yourself and your schedule open to rubbing shoulders with your elders and sharing your life with them.

It’s a two way thing.  The fault is rarely just in those we point the finger towards.

Further thoughts or advice?  Get in touch or comment below.

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.

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!

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!