Why do you run? #RunOnEmotion

Whether you’re a ParkRun fanatic, a Couch-to-5k starter, a pavement pounder or a trail-runner, we all run for a reason. Much as it may be rumoured that I run off jelly-babies, for me as a trail-runner here’s my story why I think joy is the best fuel for running, and what gives me that fuel.

Fuel yourself with joy
Running at its best ought to be inherently joyful. ‘Why would you get up from the sofa and put yourself through the pain of exercise?‘ many ask. For the joy that comes from it and through it, would be my reply.

Many will testify that guilt is a bad motivator (Paul O’Connell’s rugby biography being one) and fear too (as rock-climber Alex Honnold discusses with psychologists here). But there’s an endorphin rush you experience deep inside you after you’ve finished that gives you a ‘bounce’ for the rest of the day (even if you’re tired). There’s a delight in the achievement of what you have just done. The thrill of feeling free as you arrive at the peak of a mountain ridge, or stick in the earphones to run and forget the day’s worries. But what about when we feel more drudgery than joy? When we see the next unbearable slope ahead, or after the brief moment of elation on the podium has passed?


Our trouble often is that we think that habit or duty is the antithesis of joy. So as soon as we don’t feel like something, or think it’s too hard work, we give up. Those first few weeks of starting running. Those weeks you seem to be plateauing and not going anywhere. Those days you look at the weather outside and just couldn’t be bothered.

But joy is more than a feeling we get when we muster up a good performance or work hard for all to see on Strava. Such joy would be very short-lived and not a good fuel for running, let alone the rest of life.

Could there be a more deep-seated joy within us that gives us energy even in injury, mental doubts and hard times?

Listen to your body
It’s what has turned many to find greater purposes to generate joy within themselves. Are you running to get away from the problems and worries of work or to escape for a few hours from a relationship going through a rough patch? Are you running to prove to yourself that you can reach the goals that you aim for? Are you running to keep your body or mind in shape?

Many internal reasons motivate many of us, as we search for the joy to run inside of ourselves. And as we do so, the phrase “listen to your body” becomes a repeated mantra in many circles. Physically and mentally this can be liberating advice. Instead of being chained to training regimes, this gives the freedom to realise when we need to slow down, or when we can push ourselves more. Instead of choosing to try to push our body beyond actual pain in training, we can stop and think why we’re feeling pain and how to combat it.

But like many things in life, “listen to your body” alone won’t get you anywhere. We often deceive ourselves to what we are capable of (either not pushing hard enough or pushing too hard), we don’t understand our body to the extent we think we do, we don’t have the time to be an expert in everything in order to flourish as a runner, or quite simply, we don’t have motivation within ourselves at many times in life. True joy can still escape us.

Running unites
And for when looking inside and listening to our body doesn’t do the job, many of us have turned to running communities to help us. ParkRun (local 5k runs once a week in a local park, run by the community, for the community) has exploded across many areas to the extent that there are more people wanting to do it than some parks can host!

Others join running clubs that cater for all standards. Many of these have been able to keep meeting, even with tighter Covid restrictions. What better than to have a weekly rhythm to motivate you and give you people to provide some kind of accountability and support? What about people with huge experience in running alongside you to help when niggles start, or someone who knows what you’re going through mentally, to spur you on?

I find that running unites me with people who I never would have thought about hanging out with before. Something about persevering in hard miles together, side by side, is the perfect way to see each other as fellow humans and to help each other out, even if you have radically different backgrounds or thoughts about life and politics.

Someone could be your enemy at work 9 til 5, but when met out in the mountains, they become a fellow runner. We’ve even seen it in the Refugee Team at the Olympics. Running can unite.

And it can unite us even to the extent many runners realise how it even mimics religious communities. #sundaychurch is a hashtag not altogether uncommon around those who head out for their long run on Sunday mornings, or #parkrunfamily for those who embrace the ParkRun community week by week. It’s a beautiful joy, that the lone runner (although accessing more freedom and flexibility) will struggle to ever replicate in any meaningful way.

The trail is unknown

But ultimately the unity brought by running communities and the wisdom of listening to our bodies is still not where joy can be truly found to fuel us for our running. I myself have learnt the hard way but many others have had similar hard lessons.

I was up running in the Dublin hills not so long ago, and found myself taking a “wrong” turn and losing track of the lead group. I slowed down to see if anyone was following close behind, and sure enough one runner soon caught up with me. As we ran for the next hour together, sometimes in silence (going up the hard slopes!) and sometimes chattering away about everything in life, it soon became evident that our stories overlapped to some small amount, even if he was a 50 year old Dad, and I was only just 30.

There was a day he feared, when the track would run out, and the community would die. A day when listening to his body would do no good. He told it in two ways.

The first was of a friend of his, one of the fittest people he knew. Jumping in the waves on a beach in Wexford with his daughter, he felt his leg snap when he landed on the soft sands of the beach. Somehow, he’d developed brittle bones, and his femur had just snapped. Brittle bones which would plague him for the rest of his life and make even the simplest of things hard. The running community would gather round him to help for his time in hospital and for many weeks, but after the news grew old, he was left alone, no longer fitting into the club that were once his family.

Dramatic as that sounds, this story was echoed in the man’s own life. During Covid, as fit as a fiddle, but suddenly developing a bad case of gout, becoming bedridden and unable to perform many functions in normal family life for weeks on end. The loneliness and lack of purpose was palpable for him.

This story, was also previously mine (with a different condition) which had me in Intensive Care in hospital for several days, having only just come from enjoying a few days running in the Mourne Mountains before that.

Ultimately listening to our bodies in any of these instances wouldn’t have helped – we either couldn’t have told what lay ahead or didn’t recognise the signs. Ultimately the running community could only do so much, before we were left outside the weekly gatherings. Ultimately, joy again would be snatched from us, if we had placed it within ourselves or within our communities.

Could there yet be a runner’s paradise from where could flow a joy that would transcend even these fairly unalterable problems? Or are we as runners just on a lottery, investing our joy like eggs in many baskets, in the hope they won’t all be snatched from us?

It’s something scary to most people, that they don’t want to think about. But for me, I want to find a fountain for my joy that will not run dry during hard times, even when the tears come. A joy that is more durable than most surface-level emotions. A joy that will fuel me when no mountain ridges are mine to run along, when no friends are there to support me, and when nothing inside of me (whether self-knowledge or self-motivation) could keep me going.

And that logically for me, could only be found in the transcendent – outside of this world. A joy given to us by something or someone outside of ourselves.

For me, I’ve met One who claims to have made us to enjoy running, and also has made our playground of the mountains to explore. One who removes guilt and fear, and helps us respond in joy to all He has done for us. One who would give us more self-knowledge than we could ever muster ourselves alone. One who gives us a united community (Church) more inclusive than any running club. And one who knows every turn of the track, and can be there with us and for us even in the moments that ought not to happen – the tragedies of this world. Knowing and experiencing Him, is a fountain of joy that fuels all other things in life, running included.

Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But before you dismiss it, do explore the short historical eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life for yourself as an adult. You might be surprised to encounter joy on those pages, and to find His name is Jesus.

You make known to me the path of life;
    you will fill me with joy in your presence,
    with eternal pleasures at your right hand.
(Psalm 16:11)
I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.
Jesus (John 15:11)

On the Big Picture – God’s Glory

As I come to the end of 8 years working in an official capacity with Christian Unions (as staff worker, team leader and then part-time project manager for Christian Unions Ireland), and 12 in CU ministry of one sort or another (including my uni years and Relay internship), I’ve been deeply impacted and changed over this period.  Doubtless for the worse in some ways, but hopefully for the better in far more.  Although the EQUIP festival (now largely online) for hundreds of Irish students was a final ‘hurrah’ for me which left me busy till the last day of contracted working hours, I have been acutely aware over the last few months of a need to reflect on these years, to learn from them, and to give thanks to God for all He has done, both in me, through the student-led mission teams on campus (CUs) and also through my weak and fragile witness.

Doubtless, even for my own reflection, I may well write a few blog posts to help me process some of these years as what would have been known as a ‘travelling secretary’, and to amplify stories of God’s grace that may not have been heard in a remarkable era for the Irish Church. [To those who are here for only travel reflections, I apologise for the short detour – but perhaps it will give you a flavour of what God is doing in another part of the world

Munster being the southern 6 counties of Ireland – I was located in Cork, or at least was meant to be there when I wasn’t off on the road and sleeping on floors of generous friends and strangers!

To be around during these years in Munster and Connacht, has been a privilege that I don’t think I’ll fully comprehend.  In the early days, any time I came home frustrated, weary or in tears and phoned my parents (without whose support I could not have done this job), I was reminded of the big picture – not only the big eternal picture of the gospel, but the big picture of where God has taken Ireland from in recent history.

Perhaps only 45-50 years ago, when Mum lived in Munster, a gathering of all the self-identifying evangelical (Bible believing) Christians in Munster may have only filled one hall of a church in Cork (albeit of course there are many who believe outside of those who self-identify as this).  Now, in the same city, the several thousand who worship week by week in evangelical churches are constantly hunting new premises in the city as they overflow in number on a regular basis, and grow in depth and maturity.  And that’s not to mention across the region.

Of course more gloomy pictures could be painted.  Numbers do not mean true Biblical, deep, historical belief, and many have been burnt by the immaturity of the young and rapidly growing church scene we see today.  As well, the Ireland of today that is steeped in Judaeo-Christian ethics and framework (albeit some of it horrendously applied in ways that we are glad to move on from), is rapidly trying to recover from some of that abusive ‘Christian’ past and seems to lack foundation for where to go.  The effects of this on the days to come will be harrowing and deep, depending on what directions are taken.  But at the moment it does not look promising. 

In addition, one senior figure on the university campuses (an academic) would instead say that this is a wearying time of moving heavy stones off the fields, before any sowing (of God’s Word) is possible (humanly speaking).  Doubtless both perspectives have great truth in them.  As a culture departs from the good rhythms that God has set up for the world to flourish, there will be painful days of reaping consequences.  And as that non-Judaeo-Christian system embeds itself into the fabric of society and into the air we breathe, there will be far more to “undo” before humanly speaking there is any chance of reciprocity of the good news of Jesus.

Holding gospel tensions may be one thing during my staff years that I have learnt is essential to the Christian walk.  For two things may at first appear contradictory, but yet still be completely possible to both be completely true.

And that’s the way I came to what I have been privileged to call my “job”.  I hesitantly stated in my early years of working, holding that tension in this way –  I thought Ireland was ripe for the gospel for a short window of opportunity, perhaps a decade or two (humanly speaking), before a stoic-pagan fusion (or whatever follows – most definitely different to the secular trajectory of other neighbouring European countries) took over more fully.

You can decide whether such an outlook was accurate or whether such optimism was naïve (perhaps reading far too much into the years I would be around serving) but I would hesitate to rebuke my younger self completely for such analysis now (perhaps I have repeated it too many times to myself!).  The power of God to use the vacuum in Irish society post-Catholicism to His glory was not to be underestimated.  The temporary nature of thousands coming to know Him, will be proved true or false in due course, but may already be somewhat evident in the slowing of such a church growth rate (amongst native Irish) in Dublin, where faster shifting from a Judaeo-Christian framework has taken place (than outside of Dublin).  For although God is of course free to work outside of human constraints and circumstance (and delights in doing so at times), the regular pattern in history seems to be of Him using such human circumstances by His Spirit.

Regardless of analysis (for which we can spend hours debating and which will doubtless be affected by our eschatology and personality amongst other things), it was those early days that in my first article for the CUI Irish Prayer News, I wrote of a desire to reflect God’s heartbeat for all peoples, that the CUs would soon be in a place where every student could get a chance to hear and respond to the gospel of the Lord Jesus, faithfully spoken and lived out by their fellow students.  That prayer got people chuckling when I first arrived in Cork.  “Who does this guy think he is?  He’ll soon find out how far off that reality we are” some were heard to quietly say.  Yet thankfully the same voices often were the ones who joined me in praying bold prayers for the campuses – our God can do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine.

Of course, for this to happen, it would need far more than a quick evangelism lesson and weekly splurge on campus.  Convictions deep inside of us would need changed.  A full-bodied ‘good news’ would need to take shape in far more than just our evangelistic zeal.  Our hearts, often so comparatively cold to the love that God has for the world, would need warmed by His love until a flickering reflection was visible in every area of life – academic study (9am lectures!), social life (midnight mischief!) and church community (including being sent on to campus to reach out) – to mention just a few.  Particularly, a young, restless and arrogant staffworker, would need humbled and reminded that God was not in the job of using supposed ‘heroes’ who happened to be in the right place at the right time.

The stories and thoughts that follow (in future blog posts) will echo some of how I’ve seen God to be more kind in answering that prayer of early days, than I could imagine.  But will sadly also tell of one (writing) who learnt the hard way that God does not need any individual to be a hero, but blesses ordinary people and calls them to enjoy glimpsing His hand at work in the world through His Church.

All things written of course should be held lightly, given how limited my perspective is, and how much history will tell whether seeds sown bear long-term fruit that lasts when Jesus returns.  But none-the-less, I do want to share a perspective to tell of His goodness, that the Church may rejoice all the more in our God of the gospel.

It seems appropriate to end this first reflection with the words of one student who asked me a question:

“Peter, why do you think God seems to be doing so little in Cork and on campus these days?”

To which I could only smile, knowing that they were only one of numerous students to have come to faith that term (a few years ago now) on that one campus, and knowing how God had used such young believers to go on to reach hundreds, if not thousands of other students with the good news of Jesus through their leadership of the Christian Union.  Not to mention the comparatively recent explosion of the Irish church in size.

That spiritual hunger in the heart of that student (and many others) to see the glory of God, manifested in people responding to the person of Jesus as He walks off the pages of the Scriptures, by the power of the Spirit, was one I would never want to quench.  And that hunger I hope informs these stories too – no matter what imperfect analysis of the past I do, I pray that it will not quench a great expectancy for more as we look ahead and are brought to our knees to pray for God’s people in Munster (and Connacht), both those who follow Him now, those who will follow Him, and those that will be One with Him and each other because of the latter’s witness too.

20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

John 17:20-21

(Spending 5 years opening John’s eyewitness acount of Jesus’ life on a regular basis with students and staff, made passages like John 17 an even richer feast to enjoy!)

Isolation: the opposite of travel?

With the Corona-virus keeping many of us isolated or indoors, I’ve been back pondering what good news there is in all this for travellers, and the travel industry.

In many ways, the industry is being decimated, day by day, as this continues. Small airlines are weekly being put into administration, travel companies are packing up and even most normal summer holidays plans are now in doubt for many of us too. Is the virus then, the antipathy of travel?

My last sunset on the road, before heading back for weeks in the house.

Is the virus the antipathy of travel?

Perhaps, in some ways. But as writer Marcel Proust (and later Alain de Botton) have reminded us, we daren’t harbour ‘travel’ as the ultimate goal, or else it will destroy us (particularly in times like these). Proust is famous in his writings, for deliberately isolating himself at times in one room, and still taking us on an incredible traverse of thinking, imagination and creativity, that leaves us marveling at the tiny subsection of the world around us. One could possibly, he claims, be more satisfied within a small room, than a world explorer is with the whole world at our fingertips.

The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them us.

Marcel Proust, The Remembrance of things Past (translated, Moncrieff)

And that’s striking exactly what the Christian good news also says. We can visit other strange lands and still not learn or grow, depending on how we view our travels. Travel ought not be our ultimate goal, or else we’ll be broken by it when it’s not freely available. We ought not be bored, even if we were stuck in isolation, if we view things well.

I’m fairly sure self-isolation could happen on beaches like this, in mountain ranges and other stunning location – but the feeling of wanting to be of use to less able members of the community, mean that I largely stay in the city to help.

By a lonely prison wall…

But it’s also different to what the Christian good news says. What Proust is left with, is looking inwards to ourselves, in order to view the vastness of the world, and glimpse the diamond through different lights. Not only do we struggle to do this (just think about how quickly we “other”/distance any viewpoints that are different to ours in the world), but looking within to find true vision and imagination for life, is shrinking your universe to a prison cell. Or so Rebecca McLaughlin would have us believe….

The fact that Proust actively chose to self-isolate in a cork-lined room (to help protect him from the noise and outside world) may baffle many of us at this stage in our virus-strewn world:

“…it was my intention to resume the next day, but this time with a purpose, a solitary life.   So far from going into society, I would not even permit people to come and see me at home during my hours of work, for the duty of writing my book took precedence now of that of being polite or even kind.”

Marcel Proust

But ultimately Proust came up with great works of art, which captivate many like myself today. So perhaps it was worth it?

So as you isolate or socially distance yourself from others in the weeks ahead, I hope we can soon look through any boredom, any temptation to pick up your phone again (for the hundredth time) to scroll, to instead see the world with eyes that aren’t our own. And ultimately, it is my dream, that we would all see through the eyes of the maker of the universe, who can give us infinite glimpses beyond what we could ever muster from within. It is only through His eyes, that we can escape our rather warped, lopsided views of reality.

And that’s what I invite us to do as we #travelintandem – in the corner of our bedrooms, in the chaos of virus-affected-life, and in the bizarre moments we stop scrolling to think.

The beach at Kilmore Quay, County Wexford, Ireland

How our going to church is destroying the church

How can going to church, be destroying the church? Isn’t it the people who aren’t going to church that we should be worried about?

Let’s take a step back and come with me to the area I have just moved into in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

For security reasons, I’ve made my location slightly unclear, but otherwise this map gives you an accurate picture of my area.

Within 1 mile of my house, we have:

  • 2 Presbyterian Churches (with 2 more just outside the mile walk)
  • 2 Roman Catholic (with another 2 just outside the mile)
  • 2 Church of Ireland congregations (with another just outside the mile)
  • 1 Independent Methodist (with 1 denominational Methodist just outside the mile)
  • 1 Congregational church
  • 1 Baptist
  • 1 independent evangelical church
  • 1 pentecostal church
  • 1 Brethren Gospel Hall (with another just outside the mile)

Without visiting them all, I could fairly confidently say that within a mile of me, at least 7 of these churches would hold to historic evangelical doctrine. 2 would be reformed in their understanding of doctrine and practice.

I go to none of them.

Instead, I choose to drive 6 miles into the city, to a church which has its membership on average commuting similar distances.

What difference does this make to church life?

Dr Carl Trueman in his (free) lectures on the Reformation, famously said that the greatest impact on the church post-reformation, was the invention of the motor car. In our cars, we become the arbiters of churches.

In our cars we can get to churches miles away in minutes (I travel to mine in 12 minutes on a Sunday).

In our cars, we can be tempted to go elsewhere. Many of those who I’ve sat beside in church recently (deliberately sitting beside new-comers where I can), said they’re just popping in to visit from their home church – miles away.

In our cars, church discipline (in the positive sense of the term), no longer is effective, as we can jump in our cars and drive to the next church, where the elders know nothing about our character or actions.

In our cars, we no longer see each other as much, as we all live so far from each other. Scripture has 52 “one-another” actions which the church community are called to practice. Can we do them from distance? Debatable.

In our cars, if we were to do these “one-another” practices, we would spend a good chunk of our time driving, and thus dwindle our time with non-Christian friends (who are unlikely to see the need to drive the same number of miles, past perhaps past 50 other churches, in order to go to one which meets our theological niche or stylistic preference).

Is geographical proximity necessitated by New Testament Church principles?

Of course not! You don’t find Paul stating that the main problem in the church was their lack of geographical proximity. But you do find the New Testament authors giving 52 “one-another” practices they see the Church ought to be fulfilling, whilst living as a missional community together. I could imagine geographical proximity was never a problem in NT times, apart from, for example, Ethiopian Eunuchs passing by, who might need to go and plant their own church amongst their own servants and people.

Take a look at this next picture, in the same city (Belfast) that I live in:

Lots of churches still here, but now the breakdown might be more like:

  • 3 Roman Catholic Churches (with another just outside the mile walk)
  • 1 evangelical church
  • 1 brethren Gospel Hall (just outside the mile walk)
  • 1 Church of Ireland hall (1 Church of Ireland just outside the mile walk)

Here, for a similar density of population, in a Irish Nationalist community, we have only one evangelical church (that I’m aware of). I could imagine some places in West Belfast where there would not even be this.

Is it really a problem?

In some ways, no. Middle class people, due to cars/transport, are not geographically bound anymore, particularly in the cities. Our friends are not our nieghbours (often). Consider 3 scenarios:

  1. If I was to live in London, the people I see most during the week are my colleagues in central London, or my friends I meet with after work. Not as many are bound by the area they live in. Many travel on the Underground 30 minutes to meet for coffee or a pint.
  2. If I was to live in Ballingeary or Goleen in rural West Cork, it would take me over 30 minutes to drive to an Evangelical Church. But many farmers, although tightly knit to their communities, drive this distance to the shops or for other things.
  3. If I was to live in Khemisset, in central Morocco, with a population of over 130,000, I might have to drive well over 1 hour to find an accessible underground church community (given as a local I may be not allowed to attend a foreign-led one). This may be an advantage to me, as I may not want to be seen going to a local fellowship.

But really, is there not a problem?

Could I suggest there are several problems here, which are destroying the church, because of travel. We can come back to each in due course.

  1. By traveling miles to church, when we could go to a closer evangelical (or in my case, reformed) one, we put ourselves at a major disadvantage in “one-another”ing, each other (discipleship)
  2. By traveling miles to church, when we could go to a closer evangelical (or in my case, reformed) one, we put ourselves at a major disadvantage in evangelism because we turn it into an individualistic burden instead of living out authentic community: “that they might know that you are my disciples by your love for one another”
  3. By traveling miles to church, when we could go to a closer evangelical (or in my case, reformed) one, we refuse to keep the main thing, the main thing. We divide over secondary issues and often form our identity round them (great as they may be). In this, we fail to prioritise the most unreached areas, instead prefering our own style or theological nuance.
  4. By traveling miles to church, we are telling some communities (whether linguistic, geographical or cultural) that they must become “other” in order to believe. The trouble is, this “other” isn’t often commanded by scripture.

Now all this I say with two caveats. (1) I am part of the problem and (2) I have no intention of moving house or church right now. I would like to think I’m a bit of a unique case (don’t we all??) but lest I get caught up in justifying myself, I’ll refrain from telling you all about it, and allow my elders and church family to ask those questions, my neighbours and friends to decide how effectively I’m living for Jesus amongst them, and my friends of other denominations to see whether I’m dividing us all by placing too much weight on secondary things or not.


You can read more about these specific issues numbered above, here:

Travelling for weddings

My wedding calendar:
May: London, UK
June: County Tyrone, Northern Ireland
July: County Wicklow, Ireland
August: London, UK
September: Marrakesh, Morocco

And I could go on…

From chatting to other young graduates in the Christian scene, I don’t think I’m unique in getting wedding invitations for each month of the year (though perhaps I am a social creature!). It’s a wonderful thing in many ways, that young people still believe in such radical, counter-cultural principles such as love being a choice that one commits to for life. Love is truly the most liberating freedom loss of all time (even if many of us as millenials doubt it, and struggle to commit – either to God or to a person).

But in other ways, the way the west has individualised and internationalised life and society, means that the way we do weddings baffles me, and our habits of thinking of attending many weddings as a good “Christian” thing to do, also makes me ponder.

I have previously written that in Christian mission, the “good” is often the thing that gets in the way of the “best”, and I want in some ways to say that applies here too regarding weddings in two ways.

Photo Copyright and taken by the amazing www.kristianlevenphotography.co.uk

Firstly, if you’re like me and are always on the road to weddings, and each month are forsaking your home community to do so, there’ll be an impact. You’ll be potentially a quarter less effective or useful in your home church, and it’ll impact your finances. For me who is then away on annual leave, or preaching or visiting family some other weekend of the month, it means I’m not in Sunday church for half the month. (Not a worry to you? Here’s some other posts I’ve written.) But for want of sounding stingey and rather heavy-handed in my implications of community life, let me move onto something that has me thinking more.

Secondly, what is the purpose of attending a wedding?

  1. Because you have to? – yes, sometimes you’re a relative, and relatives culturally often feel they can’t say no.
  2. Because they’re an old friend? – often its being invited to someone who was an influence in your life, or whom you influenced in life in the past.
  3. Because they’re a current friend? – most often we don’t need to travel far to our current friends’ weddings, but sometimes we do still.

So which of these would I consider not going to?

Well, no hard and fast rules can be drawn up, nor should they be, but the vows at one wedding caught my attention:

“Do you as a congregation, before God, promise to uphold and support this wedded couple, in any way you can in the years ahead?”

“We do” came the chant back from everyone enthusiastically.

But did I?

For this couple (a generic, hypothetical couple), they were people of my past life – deep friends from years ago. A couple who were unlikely to ever live in my country, nor to contact me apart from social media. Perhaps if we crossed paths in a city again, we might say hello, but ultimately, I knew things weren’t going to be the same again.

So was I realisitically, before God, going to promise to support them in the years ahead?

a. By prayer? There’s only a certain number of couples, missionaries, individuals and friends I could ever say I pray regularly and meaningfully for. “God bless all marriages” doesn’t quite cut it for me.

b. By contact? Once I’ve prioritised my home church community, my family, and perhaps then my inner circle of friends (non-Christian friends as well, of course), it doesn’t leave a huge lot of time to invest in others in life. I’d want to think twice before promising to God that I’d support a marriage.

c. By not doing anything unhelpful? Well, one could take a very hands-off approach and say that (depending on wording of the vow) that I would be supporting them, as long as I’m not negatively influencing them! But I’m not sure we’d want to be so scrouge with our words as to only allow for this.

Ultimately, I would conclude that weddings that have these vows for the congregation, bring the wedding back to The Church, and ground it in a living community that is geographically located. In some ways, this is very helpful. A wedding is not just a gathering of “people like us” but is a full spectrum of the diversity of Christ’s body, united by Him.

Should I have been there?

Well, again, I don’t think there are hard and fast rules. Christianity is not about creating rules, but our heart response to The Groom (Jesus) as His bride (The Church). These were great friends from my past. But perhaps if I can’t honestly say I’ll support the couple that are getting married, it’s one reason I might consider to not attend, if I’ve a list of 12 weddings in a year!

So could the best Christian thing, be not attending a wedding of a friend?

I would suggest the answer could well be “Yes”! So that it means more for you when you do attend them, so that current church communities thrive without people always being away, and so that it means more to the couple who are having people who honestly support them.

In the big picture of our relationship with Jesus, how important is this discussion? Relatively unimportant! But I hope it helps us think again – it’s often the “good” that crowds out the “best” and hinders our Christian walk.

Making Sense of God: an invitation to the sceptical traveller

There are a few Travel Golden Rules which go unchallenged and are seemingly accepted by all and none, when travelling.

  1. Travel is a great educator that shows you how little you know and how small you are in the universe
  2. Travel helps restore your faith in humanity (soo much good out there)
  3. Travel helps you see that all ways of life can be acceptable – we are all on the same path as humans – we just need to find who we are

And underpinning all of these:

No-one must presume to have exclusivity on how to live a life of satisfaction

Because (correlated to the above 3 points):

  1. We are small and know so little: so stop arrogantly assuming that your way is better than others, or that you know enough to tell others how to live
  2. & 3. There is good in every religion, belief and way of life – humans are in general good at heart, so don’t claim that your way of living is the only way. Just get on, be free, be true to yourself, and don’t harm others.

Tim Keller (A New York Times Bestselling author), writes engagingly to persuade us that although some elements of the above are true, that the general ethos of these statements, are far from enough, to help us make the most of our travels (although he writes in a more general context than travel).

(For those who have heard of or read Keller before: “Making Sense of God” is like the prequel to his bestseller, “The Reason for God”. Not many people these days in the west are motivated to read of the evidence for God – we don’t want there to be a god, and see that god is a dying breed, given whats going on in the west, the advance of education, and the creating of happiness elsewhere in life in far more fun places than religious rituals. So Keller wrote the prequel to try and persuade us that God is something we might like to explore more about and to see that it will be of great benefit to us to do so.)

You can hear Keller summarise his book himself in his talk to Google here.

Keller starts off by making two points (chapters one and two):

  • Religion is not going away. Although it is perceived to be a quickly disappearing thing in the west, that due to birth rates across the world and conversion rates, belief in God is forecast to keep growing bit by bit. So if we want to live in peace in a pluralistic society, we better pay attention, nevermind if we want to explore what satisfies.
  • There is no contrast between a secularism based on evidence and religions on faith. All worldviews rest on evidence and all need faith to accept some of the implications. Not much can be proved by repeatable, testable experiments in life. Even agnosticism (which sometimes tries to claim is a lack of belief, rather than a worldview), still has tenets on which it rests, which it accepts often by faith. You won’t find many people who doubt their doubts, but many who blindly accept a position of doubt.

Given that we can talk about evidence, and religion is not going away, Keller suggests we might like to explore it some more through the following lenses:

3. A Meaning that Suffering Can’t take away from you.
There’s nothing worse than religious people suggesting that you can’t have meaning unless you have god. It’s nonsense. But could religious meaning be more hopeful and real than other meaning? Keller argues that finding meaning in God, transcends events in life like suffering which rob us of many things we turn to for meaning. For those of us who are independent travellers who don’t have suffering in our lives, we might think this irrelevant – we have our meaning quite happily thanks! But suffering will strike us all without exception in life soon enough, if we choose to love or let anyone be close to us.

4. A Satisfaction that is not based on circumstances.
The richer we get as a society, and the more free we are to have sex, enjoy ourselves and do what we want the….happier we are? Statistics would seem to suggest otherwise. Even when we have it all, we seem to feel like there’s something illusive still to come. Keller looks at 2 categories of response: those who keep hunting after satisfaction, and those who resign themselves to seeing it not being possible. And in both of these, he tries to make the case that we cannot find satisfaction while we try and root it in the subjective self.

5. Why can’t I be free to live as I see fit, as long as I don’t harm anyone?
To Keller, unconstrained freedom is impossible, if we are ever going to have love. Love is the most liberating freedom loss ever, according to him. And so it is impossible to have satisfaction with no negative limits. As soon as we love anyone, they demand our time, attention, passions. And so it is with God – when we fall in love with Him, it will be a constraint, but one that flows from the heart of someone who made us and was willing to die for us, so that we could be free.

6. The Problem of the Self
Finding our identity in outer relationships was how it used to be done – who we are married to, what our family name is, what god we worshipped, what tribe we are from. But that limited who you could be, it dwarfed us under poor societal expectation, and led to harmful situations. But finding our identity within ourself hasn’t been easier either. What about a warrior of past centuries who had two desires deep within him – aggression to fight and thirst for blood, and a same-sex-attraction. He would reject the latter (or be scorned) and adopt the former as his identity – he was a warrior! But the 21st century man would do the opposite. Why? He would admit he needed therapy for such violent desires, but would fully embrace the “real him” sexually, because society told him that was acceptable. So really, his decision of the “real” him, was just back to coming from whatever society thought. What if we could be free-d from defining ourselves by any of these?

7. An Identity that doesn’t crush you or exclude others
As an alternative to looking to society to define us, or inwards to figure out which of our feelings should define us, Keller suggests we will find freedom looking upwards, in our identity being something outside of ourselves, but which isn’t performance related (the way our identity in society was/is). If we do badly or don’t live up to expectations, we still manage to keep this upwards identity. Here Christianity is very different to every other “performance based” religion, which demands that one does well in order to gain status, confidence or eternal life. When travelling, the two things people push back on, when I describe an identity outside of myself, is that (1) it means I don’t value anything in myself anymore and (2) it means I create a “them” vs “us” (Christians vs non-Christians) attitude which is bad for society. Keller shows that if Christians have done this, they have misunderstood the Christian message, which holds together self-denial and self-realisation, at the cross, and unites us all together in a shared humanity.

8. A hope that can face anything
Suicide rates across many western societies are rising. The optimism of where society is going is being perceived by many to be unfounded in reality. In this chapter, the author sets forward a case that a personal, concrete and unimaginably wonderful hope, is exactly what is needed. Arguing from intuition, but also from the lack of practical response from any other worldview, Keller sets forward perhaps the least convincing chapter, but perhaps the most heart-warming to those who want to dream of what is to come. Read after chapter twelve, this chapter comes alive.

9. The Problem of Morals
From the least convincing chapter, to perhaps the most logically convincing chapter of the book. How do we get our morals? Keller lays out all the ways that modern western philosophers (and humans!) claim to be able to act morally, and of course agrees that they do! But his main question, is whether there is any way of establishing that we “ought” to act morally. (Atheistic) Evolutionary views, alongside social constructionist views struggle to give us this moral ought. And intuitionism (Dworkin et al.) admit similar short-comings. What I loved about this chapter is that Keller is once again at his best, quoting atheists and top [atheist/agnostic] philosophers who come to these conclusions, rather than standing over things and declaring them himself.

10. A justice that does not create new oppressors
“The goods [of churches] may outnumber the abuses, even by far, but wrongdoings lodge more deeply in the memory and consciousness. In the end it would be better to look for other grounds on which to explore the relationship between religious faith and justice”. And so this chapter mainly focusses on how one can have “human rights” without oppressing those who disagree about the standard. Ultimately, Keller points to the fact that the Biblical metanarrative continually exalts the underdog, and has at its heart, a Saviour to follow, who comes to die for the people. His followers are called to be transformed into His image, not dying to re-create a Christian culture, but to love all people, even their enemies. Such radical transformation, if it works, would give a basis for justice, that does not oppress.

Finally, in the last two chapters Keller concludes with some evidence for all the above being found in a belief in God, and where we can turn to examine that. He finishes with a powerful story of a Japanese internment camp, and a secular humanist, who believed in the good of all humanity, and the lack of evidence for God, and how the material his chapters (long before they were written), led him to belief in our need of God.

You can hear Keller summarise his book himself in his talk to Google here.

For any thinking traveller, I would urge you to give this a read, with the caveat that Keller writes for New York professionals, and whilst it isn’t littered with complicated language (in fact, Keller simplifies and summarises many ideas very helpfully!), it will still reference all the top thinkers and their ideas, and deal with them, in a way which may seem daunting to those who haven’t been familiar with other ways of thinking.

The joy of travel is that it will inevitably cast questions into your mind and life, and this is a book which will help process those.

**My thanks to the blog “doesgodmakesense.com”, for the image which I have used for the header on this post. Their graphics simply borrowing from Keller’s original.

Travelling to be baptised

The two things that pub conversations usually bring up quite quickly with folk who are getting to know me and seeing where I stand on things as a Christian, are whether I know my religious festivals, saints, or other-things-very-religious-people-talk-about, and whether I am as old-fashioned, naive and conservative as they think religious people are.

And once more this week it was true.  A German man was slightly shocked I didn’t know his country’s public holidays, which are largely religious festivals.  Similarly I still remember the shame of my primary five school teacher as she publicly derided me at the age of 8 for not being able to say the “Our Father” word for word accurately in the translation of the English Bible she had chosen.

In the land I live, much of the landscape is named and dominated by Saints of old.

Some day, for the sake of loving my friends who value some church’s carefully selected days and Saints, I may sit down and learn them but for now, I’ll happily praise God each day for those who’ve gone before me, both religious and not, who have made this world a better place.  (Thus this post was highly unusual and a delightfully “ecumenical matter, Father”)

Whether I am old-fashioned, naive and as conservative as you think religious people are, I’ll leave for you to find out in person.  But for now just one more comment that often gets thrown my way:

“Peter, wouldn’t you just love to go to Israel?”

To which, strangely for once, isn’t anything to do with them stereotyping Christians as a right-wing, Israel-supporting (DUP?) people, and more a genuine question that they think I’ll jump at.

“Oh Israel, the land where my God walked!  I’d love to go!”

^The line I’ve never said.  

And as many Christians run off left, right and centre to go there, why am I not so keen?

Well in all honesty from what I’ve heard from many others, it’s a bit of a tourist trap.  Lots of guesswork on where exact (fairly unimportant) things were, and for the things that are known, lots of tourist money to be had.  And for what reason?  To get a feel and experience of where Biblical characters lived and walked.  For me, I feel like I’ve had enough theological training and experiences in middle eastern like cultures, that I don’t think I’d come back with any paradigm shift in understanding or experience, but perhaps that’s just my arrogance or naivety.

Walking the gorges similar to Biblical landscape

But more what I was fascinated to know, was that several of my new believing friends were off there to get baptised.  To be baptised in the same waters/place that Christ was baptised (they think).  To which baffles me given:

  • they have largely been baptised already in a faithful Irish church
  • the people who are baptising them have no clue who they are, or whether their profession of faith is genuine or not
  • baptism is surely a sign of baptism into something…The Church, and so having it isolated from such a local expression of church (elders, deacons, those who will be “one-anothering” each other in future etc), seems bizarre to me
  • to do another baptism for the experience of it, makes a mockery of the real thing, which is sufficient and which is there as a lifetime reminder of God’s covenantal love to His (unfaithful) people.

Instead of chasing another spiritual experience like a second baptism, I hope we can:

  • enjoy committing to our own church, and letting them enjoy our unity in Christ, reflected in baptism, even when it seems less glamorous. Why not even try chatting with them on why you feel like being baptised again?
  • see how you can avail of the spiritual gift of baptism to us, by improving on your baptism! (Now there’s language I don’t often hear used about baptism!) As the authors of the above (linked) post remind us, baptism is not just a cannon that was fired once in life and then sits there rusting as a relic of the past.

So for now, apologies to those who still really want to go to Israel – let me not stop you in that! But when you’re there, please don’t be persuaded that you’ll be more spiritual if you practice certain things over there.

Peregrino: Waymarkers for Pilgrims on the Camino of Life (Book Review)

Pilgrimage: It’s the one thing you may have noticed a distinct lack of round here.  Ha – there’s an evangelical Christian for you?  But as I say in my book’s introduction, that’s not because I fear it, or think it isn’t an “evangelical” thing to do.  No, far from it.  It’s simply because many before me have written on it far better than I could, and the engagement of faith with pilgrimages is already a massive thing across the world.

But as all the hype around my book launches dies down and I get back to normal life, I was sent a recommendation by a mentor back home to pick up this one and give it a read.  I was initially sceptical, knowing nothing of either the author or the book, but I’ve found it a rich treasure trove of scriptural meditations, thought-provoking statements and marvelous quotations!

Rev David Cupples set off on a Sabbatical to enjoy two of the Caminos in France and Spain and has collated his thoughts in this colourful guide for anyone contemplating pilgrimage.  Noting that no-one he met in his weeks of walking ever had the original purposes of traversing to the remains of ancient “saints”, he not only leads us in beautiful worship and practical tips, but also adds helpful commentary to many who go on pilgrimage.

For those taking their time and mulling over this as a devotional or as they travel, the added feature of a song for every day is added at the end of the page, alongside the large chunk of scripture and extensive topical thought. There’s just shy of 90 days worth of devotional material in here, and all of it is immensely stimulating and helpful for worship, even if you don’t agree with every single one (I could imagine some wouldn’t agree with David on the extent to which we can hear God and be led by him audibly speaking outside scripture, our conscience and creation).

Regardless whether you call it pilgrimage or not, walking such paths deserve our engagement as evangelicals, partly because so many of us undervalue how much experience shapes us, partly because (as Desi Maxwell recently highlighted at a travel symposium I spoke at) the Bible is such an outdoors book, and partly because we go walking anyway, so why not make it as intentional as this author is? David will surprise you and warm your heart whatever background you come from.

I’ve already ordered a few extra copies and sent them off across the globe to folks who love to pilgrimage and walk in this way, as its an excellent resource, regardless of whether you’re mulling over what is spiritually real for the first time, or whether you’re a seasoned Christian used to rich theology. You can order them from David directly at dcupples57@gmail.com

Happy reading!

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.

TRAVEL Pull Quotes6

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.

TRAVEL Pull Quotes5

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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