(The original story here was changed at the request of one of the characters in it, who had previously identified himself to others by telling the same story to them. I would never willingly/knowingly share a public story of someone identifiable, unless they were willing to be identified in it. The story now here is a conglomeration of several real stories of a similar nature which happened a few years ago.)
The sun was blazing and in County Kerry our Christian summer volunteer team were back running our program for all the family. This afternoon, we were running a kid’s club, as their parents watched on. As we started into learning our Bible memory challenge (a verse from the Bible), I suddenly was aware that I might need to intervene. As many teachers do, we were using a “pointer” to point at each word as the kids were saying it and keep them on track. Only our pointer this time round was a huge blow-up red hand of Ulster such as the one pictured below on the Northern Irish flag.
And for those of you who didn’t know, the red hand of Ulster is a political sign not warmly welcomed in County Kerry (to put it mildly). What was I as team leader to do? The team members largely identified as Ulster people. But it would have completely alienated them from the locals, nevermind taking away from whatever was said later by the team. But then again, making a scene about it would also draw attention to this. I sat back and waited for a subtle moment I could move it, and breathed a sigh of relief. Until…
Until the story. We often tell stories to teach spiritual truths to the families listening, and as many in (previously) Catholic Ireland, knew all the Bible stories (or thought they did), we sometimes taught other stories with a spiritual meaning. But this one had me nervously twitching again. The fictional story had opened with 2 characters, and one of them was King William riding on a white horse!
And for any who know their history and the Battle of the Boyne, you’ll know who King Billy and his white horse was, and know that he wouldn’t have been all that welcome in Kerry!
Two small slips that could perhaps have been not noticed, or could have built a culture that meant the volunteer team was regarded as foreign, and rejected because of their insensitive use of politics, language and culture.
Well, thankfully (given the team was a Christian one) we’d been studying John’s eyewitness account of Jesus’ life that morning, and in chapter four we encounter a situation even more radical than these. A Samaritan woman meets Jesus (a Jewish man) and a show-down ensues. Jews vs Samaritans. The Northern Irish troubles would have perhaps seemed minor in comparison to what was going on between rivals then. Perhaps current day Israel and Palestine moves us closer towards the old scene.
But the thing is, a show-down doesn’t ensue. Jesus, side-stepping controversial issue after controversial issue, takes the woman by the hand (metaphorically) and leads her towards where she can find a true, satisfying identity – in Him. Whatever he says (and he doesn’t completely avoid the issue), helps her get over any confrontation, shame or difference, and makes her run off to the town to tell everyone that He’s the best thing ever to happen.
And so, what did I do when the 2 things above happened? Well the Red Hand, nor King William were necessary to the event, nor was it wise to have them, even if it was publicly permitted and deeply cherished by some team members. In an attempt to follow Jesus’ example, at laying down what is dear to us for the sake of the good news, I quietly slipped the the Red Hand away for the rest of the week, and amongst much positive feedback to the story-teller, suggested that they don’t ever use King Billy and his white horse in a story again.
Sadly though, it was not appreciated.
“We have every right to celebrate our culture. This is part of who I am. It’s hardly as if we’re forcing them to believe our politics by simply using these things.” was the rebuke of one team member.
“This is part of who I am!”
What had I done? Had I really just denied someone their very being? What they felt was at the heart of who it was to be them?
Well, no, because as Christians we have our primary identity in someone who is not of these Kingdoms – in Jesus Christ. All other senses of identity come radically far short of that one, whether national identity, sexual identity, race, language etc. Everything else (important as they are,) flows from the beauty and purpose we were created for. Had I taken their identity? No! Not even the devil himself can take away our identity in Christ and all we were made for.
But these happening in County Kerry really just echo a far bigger problem for Northern Irish (evangelical) Christians. Let me explain…
A more complex identity problem…
I was at a prayer meeting tonight about the liberal abortion legislation about to be forced (undemocratically) upon Northern Ireland. For those not in the know, the devolved government has not met in Northern Ireland now for several years, and so Westminster parliament was putting together some emergency legislation to deal with this, when radical abortion amendments (more than the rest of the UK currently has) got included into it.
Suddenly the pro-life Christians are crying, and rightly so. If correct in our views, we are talking about mass slaughter of innocent life. And there appears no way to stop the ending of thousands of voiceless lives in the womb, unless the NI government reconvenes by October 21st of this year. Highly unlikely.
But what one lead campaigner said to me recently revealed an awful lot of why 20,000 signatures, 75,000 postcards to MLAs, and hundreds of thousands of emails will never work.
“Peter, 2 years ago I would never have traded the Irish Language Act for an abortion-free NI, but now I think I would.”
The evangelical Christian identity is too caught up in protestant politics.
What do I mean?
Well for years, many evangelical Christians were more vocal about their British political viewpoints than they were about being heard and seen to live out the values that Jesus would have us live out – loving our enemies, laying down our rights for the sake of loving others, and seeking to best understand and cherish those who strongly disagree with us. Being Christian for some, was, certainly in the eyes of their colleagues or close friends, inseparable from being British. Or at least there were as many passionate arguments about each of them! They would say their identity was firmly in being “protestant” or following Jesus. But to anyone else looking on, it was a muddle of religion and politics all thrown in together, and often a vitriolic or ugly one at that.
For years, many Christians have voted for certain parties that they thought held to “Christian values”. But in doing so, we’ve ended up endorsing political segregation, with no government. No-one really seems to have minded though, given the impasse in talks. Most seemingly would rather have no Irish Language Act and no government, and watch the province spiral down and suffer economically and otherwise, than to concede and give way to an Irish Language Act and other suggested things. According to them, there are many hills to die on, and most of them are painted red, white and blue.
And now we eat our fruit from our tree of bitter divides. Having voted for parties that would never sit down together and didn’t seem to make a big deal of ending sectarian divides in NI, we have ended up with no government. And in ending up with no government, we have ended up with this abortion fiasco, imposed from outside.
Let me be straight – yes, there are some deluded (and perhaps, evil) people to blame for this, thinking they are acting honourably to free women. But instead of just pointing fingers at “them over there”, could it be that in voting for constant segregation (or people who didn’t consider it top priority to end such attitudes), we are reaping the fruit of our voting?
Or will those in government who claim to be pro-life, finally see that if they are consistent in their beliefs, that conceding Language Acts and other such things, will be NOTHING compared to the loss of life that would occur through abortion?
But I fear the battle was lost long ago, and humanly speaking can’t be won now. Sinn Fein won’t be forced last minute into talks, no matter how many emails or postcards people in the country send.
And so how did we get from a beach in Kerry to here? Well, it’s a more complex version of the identity question. And sadly one that many in the country will learn the hard way. That if you speak up as passionately for your politics as you do about Jesus and His Words/views, then your identity will soon become a blur as well, and tragedies like the one that’s unfolding may occur.
Sadly, there may be an even greater tragedy than thousands of unborn lives being lost too. The type of Jesus that is often held out in Northern Ireland, is dressed up in a British flag, and will be so repulsive to any nationalist that few churches will ever form in such areas and eternal consequences will need to be wept over. It’s why one of the most-reached English speaking people groups (Northern Ireland) sits directly beside the least-reached English-speaking people group (Ireland) in the world. If that isn’t a tragedy largely produced by this identity confusion, I don’t know what is.
But lest I be seen to point fingers here, may I sit with everyone reading and say that politics is no easy game. Just because I have been vocal about segregation in society, and never voted for those who endorsed violence or sectarian behaviour, doesn’t mean I have clean hands. There are no easy options of who to vote for, and I don’t come endorsing one way and condemning others. But as Christians, we must keep our identity firmly in place before letting our secondary views flow in light of it. And that, will mean giving up things that are costly to us elsewhere in life. It’ll hurt. But it’ll lead to our flourishing and the growth of His Church.
And for now, I weep. I pray. And we see what the next month holds…
Approach someone to talk with them about Jesus, on the street in the city that I live in, and you’ll get rejection after rejection. Everyone has places to be, things to do, and people to meet. But approach them when they’re chilled out and sitting about on holiday, and most people are up for chatting! Or so the founders of one organisation saw.
And so every year I travel to do United Beach Missions, to reach out to people who are on their holidays. Here’s one sample of them in action:
“Beach Team” (as often affectionately called by the locals), has done 3 things in my experience:
- Beach Team trains.
UBM has trained me in personal evangelism better than any organisation, church or experience. From the age of 15 on Beach Team, I was encouraged to have God’s heart for lost people. Whether through building up friendships with 5 year old children and their parents on the beaches, giving short evangelistic talks at events, helping run literature tables, speaking, singing and interacting on the street or on the beaches, or facilitating others to have these opportunities – Beach Team has given me training, let me have opportunity after opportunity to make mistakes and improve, and given me feedback to help me in that.
Beach Team has given me great experience of Biblical evangelism, which is word-centred, relational and focused on proclaiming the person of Jesus, his life, death, resurrection and second coming. It is partly Beach Team that got me first thinking about Unreached People Groups and coming to live in Ireland and be part of the small evangelical church scene here.
- Beach Team shapes unreached countries/areas
UBM has reached places in Ireland where there was no evangelical church, and in some cases, has helped partner to establish churches there. Whether that be the decades that UBM were in Ballybunion before Listowel Christian Fellowship started, or the decades of outreach in Tramore before Tramore Bible Church came into existence. Or simply playing a significant role in strengthening churches like Youghal Methodist that were in a very different place to where they are now. The impact of decades of prayer and witness to the same people, in similar places, should never be taken away, and has left a visible impact. One church planter in north Dublin said this to me, after I told him of the disproportionate numbers of people who’d I’d found in Cork who’d come to faith from the tiny village of Ardmore. “I’d be surprised if there wasn’t correlation between the decades with thousands of people praying, and the people who come to faith in the same places. Prayer works, and we so rarely persist in it. There seems to be correlation with Ballybunion anyway.” (paraphrased from memory)
- Beach Team reaches thousands with the gospel year on year Through proclamation, evangelistic literature, friendships developed over years with holiday-makers, and one-off encounters, Beach Team has seen fruit each year of people coming to faith and joining churches back home where they are from. Although its focus is one faithful seed-sowing to thousands, there always has been an eager question from leaders and team members of how best we can follow this up relationally. One Ardmore mother told me that she’d been up to the Shankill Road in Belfast for 3 weeks of her summer after she professed faith! Another who remained part of her local Catholic Church in east Cork said that a team member wrote to her and sent her Biblical booklets for twenty years after she came to faith.
United Beach Missions does have its weaknesses and flaws, just as I do, as a leader of UBM, but ultimately it is one of the best ways to spend a week of your summer, regardless of your age (from 15 – 95!).
- it takes all sorts of personalities and gifts to help run a team – you don’t need to be the world’s best evangelist! There are behind-the-scene roles too. Cooks, musicians, kids workers, grannies to chat to grannies etc.
- The accommodation has got better and better (for insurance reasons) and now most centres have normal beds, showers and great facilities. So if you’re older, or even have a family of your own, why not still come?
- This year, it is half price to join a team! 30 euros will pay your team fee for your first team, and 25 euros for the team after that – BARGAIN! (There is a minimal annual registration fee on top of that)
Do go onto their YouTube channel for more testimonies from the likes of UCCF Director Richard Cunningham, who give similar stories of how it shaped their early evangelistic experience.
Coming up to Christmas, here’s 10 top gifts for those with a heart for travel and for Jesus.
- A travel experience
Experiential gifts are not everyone’s cup of tea, but travellers will normally respond well to them. A voucher for a stay at somewhere stunning. Money off flights. A particularly unmissable experience in a place they are going to. Yes, it’s money quickly spent, but we all have things we value, and its so often memories for a lifetime.
2. A holiday for a single missionary
Sound weird? In my introduction to my book, I mentioned a lass who was in an Islamic setting who couldn’t holiday by herself without cultural shame or danger. All she needed to get time off was someone to come and say that they were happy to go somewhere with her – easy! Even male missionaries can be like that (much to my surprise). I was in a classy holiday resort with a male missionary recently and was solicited by so many local female resort workers, that I was very glad to have someone else to point me to Jesus!
3. Reading vouchers for something they can take with them
Dan’s solo cycle round the world was enhanced greatly by his pastor giving him a reading list of all sorts of incredible things to read. He grew so much in his faith through reading, particularly in the countries where no-one spoke English and he had hours to spare! Why not buy some Kindle books for someone?
4. Money for photos to be printed/framed/put on canvass
Travel memories will be incredible, but having a few photos rarely goes amiss!
5. Travel resources for those with kids
Travel can be easily perceived to be a thing for single people. But the percentage of the industry revenue that comes from single parents travelling with kids, or families travelling, is increasing and very significant. But what about those who do find it hard to travel with kids? Well, I’ve already mentioned these incredible resources from Immeasurably More Designs, made to increase their knowledge and enjoyment of the world, as well as being mad fun to play with! Check them out here.
6. Travel experiences for those not able to travel
How about doing something to take a disabled friend out on a trip, or an experience that let’s someone less privileged capture the magic of the world around us?
7. Shaping your travel plans around visiting mission partners
It may cost you a little more, but why not visit that mission partner of your church, and find out about their lives and context, so that you can better pray for them in future? Or how about sending their kids a prezzie or two, so that Christmas day away from home can still be exciting for them?
8. A gift of hospitality
What money do you ever set aside to serve those who visit our lands? Most people mentioned in the book of Acts came to faith while they were away from home. If you don’t have time to meet such people yourself, why not donate regularly to the local International Student Cafe outreach near you, or to a River Community that reaches travelling people with the good news of Jesus? They’d love to even hear of people supporting them!
9. A gift to those we meet
For myself, as a student or young professional, I always cringed when (and if) I made it to a church service of an amazing church where I was visiting as a holidaymaker, and the offering plate was passed around. I knew that I was spending several hundred on my week away, and would continue to do so that day on things. But I would never dream of putting money in the collection. Similarly with those I was visiting – rarely did I think of going out of my way to give them something lavish, instead of treating myself. Or simply to the needy person I encountered on the street in one place. Buying them lunch would be no harm to them, to my pocket, or society. But I hadn’t budgeted for giving money to others. I touch on ethical situations like this in Appendix 1 of the book.
10. Oh go on then…
Well you’ve probably guessed by now. Number 10 might be a certain book on Travel that I recently wrote. Or if you’ve read it already, why not buy a copy for a travelling friend and read it with them? Oh, so you’ve done that too? Well, hosting an evangelistic gathering on the theme would be easy to do and not too expensive!
There are some songs that speak into the very fibres of the traveller and Dido’s classic album “White Flag” has several tracks that do exactly that. Here’s one of those here but I’d love to hear your suggestions!
We all have them. The “together” moments. The ecstasy of experiencing something in a large number. Whether you’re a music festival junkie, or whatever makes you want to travel to be with others, there’s no doubt something special occurs when we’re in big crowds.
It’s why many people plan their travel to coincide with the big festivals. Whether catching New Year in Edinburgh, the beach parties of the Festival de San Juan in Spain or the raves all night long on Thai beaches with the sun setting. Ireland has learnt fast that festivals mean money, whether tourist money or local money. There’s barely a single weekend of the calendar that Cork doesn’t have a festival (the Irish Times does a breakdown of the bigger ones here) of some sort.
And it’s not just those liberal twenty-something-year-olds who do festival and “group experiences”. No, head up in the tranquility of the Western Isles of Scotland and you’ll find a completely different, yet still spine-tingling experience in the religious community.
The Free Church of Scotland hold their eucharist/communion/celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection in particular a couple of times a year. And to prepare themselves and to remember the importance of this event, they meet for one week, every night of the week to still their hearts and confess their shamefulness before the God they serve, both as individuals and as a community. In seeing more of their shame and imperfection, they rejoice more in the perfect solution at the end of the week that removes this shame forever.
On a cold winter evening you’ll find them packing into rooms of local believers, that weren’t meant to host that number. And you won’t be there long before haunting a-capella melodies will start of some of the Bible’s songbook (The Psalms) that point them to humanity’s persistent shame, and to the solution. Three part harmonies, or four will not be out of place, and all are welcomed singing, regardless of ability. It’s beautiful! The tears welled in my eyes. The memories will last a long time.
But what are these songs they’re singing? Ancient songs from many thousand years ago, preserved (but re-arranged close to the time) in historical records to give us a glimpse of the festival tunes that would have been known by everyone – the hits that lasted down the years.
And some of them I’ve been studying recently are songs that would have been put together for the road. Songs for travel. For when Jewish people were setting out to the big religious festivals in Jerusalem where their temple was. They felt the buzz of the festival coming and being with likeminded people for a change (Ps. 120). Everyone was on the road, but the roads weren’t just as easy as ours. I could imagine they’d have been something like this at points:
The hills were something to be afraid of, when the songwriter turns his eyes to them (Ps. 121). They were like the Jericho road that the good Samaritan walked – are there gangs lurking behind the next rock?
What will walking in the heat of the sun do to us?
Or what about when the sun sets and leaves chilling shadows over the hills? (Ps 121.)
Together when they get to the festival they will glimpse what they long for – true peace between people that they are united to! (Ps 122) That’ll be fully known in a future, in a “Jerusalem” that won’t be an Israeli capital city. In a “Zion” that will be as if God is the towering mountains of safety (not of fear) around them (Ps 125) who’ll protect them from evil people (Ps. 124).
This festival will help us send postcards to home, reminding everyone across the world what God has done, even when it’s hard to see that (Ps 126). These festivals will remind us there’s something bigger than ourselves! Something that we should give even our very offspring to honour (Ps 127).
And I could go on. Psalm 133 and 134 nearly seem to speak into an arrival into the ecstasy of the festival – no longer being on the road.
They’re marked in the ancient manuscripts as the “Songs of Ascent” (121-134) and they come to life when you remember their context of the traveller on the hard road up to the festival! Enjoy!
Interestingly secular historian Tom Holland came out a few days ago in the New Statesman to say that he’s increasingly realising how much of our western ethical thinking is still grounded in Christianity. Of course, he’s just slowly repeating what many others have said before him (as we all do), though at least Nietzsche tried to be consistent and rid himself of the Christian morality:
“When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know, what is good for him, what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows it. Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God has truth—it stands or falls with faith in God.”
Whether we can rid ourselves of such a moral basis and still have an “ought” behind our morals? It’s been a great philosophical question in recent decades.
By that I suggest we mean we want to call evil wrong. But why is evil wrong and good right? Well it ought to be so. We can try and define evil by harm caused or injustice or inequality but we’ll always face to annoying two-year-old master question “why?”. Why is injustice or harm wrong? I know it is in virtually every culture. But what if we all have it wrong?
And in my mind such questions have never been answered sufficiently since we moved on from deontological frameworks (where morals are rooted in divine being), though the intuitionist may want to argue. And I’m not talking about poorly formed divine command theories (of which most we were given at undergraduate level were straw men!).
I’ll happily listen to someone who’ll give us a moral basis outside of a divine being, but for now, I see it being necessary if we’re going to be able to call ISIS evil in any proper way. Time won’t allow take us the full way to seeing whether that being is a Christian divine being or not. Perhaps for later…
8,100 people all singing acapella underneath an atmospheric, floodlit Edinburgh Castle. The singing continued as it echoed down the Royal Mile as we all slowly proceeded out of the castle, with barely another word said.
“There must be a place under the sun, where hearts of old in glory grow young”
Yes, yes, there must be.