Friday, 26 June 2009

Moldova 2009

On Monday, I'm heading out for the third and final time with a team of students to Moldova to partner with the IFES movement there, CSC.

I'm a swirl of emotions as I prepare to return to Moldova. It's been a hard period of sad goodbyes to friends in Lancashire, and the past few weeks have been quite demanding. The whole setup in Moldova means that you are made to feel weak. I'm already feeling weak and so I'm somewhat nervous about how I might cope this year.

At the same time, I'm aware of how amazing an opportunity we have in Moldova. The main part of the camp is resourcing an 'English and Bible Camp' where there will be about 60 Moldovan students (including 40 non-believers) who come to practice conversational English and study the Bible. We're using The World We All Want evangelistic Bible overview and I'm excited to see the impact this makes in the Moldovan context.

Please pray for us. We're a big team with an extraordinary amount of diversity. Pray that this acts to underline the truth of the gospel that we are proclaiming, rather than act as something that undermines team unity. Pray that we're not ashamed of the gospel, that the British team grow in their knowledge and love of Jesus, and that God draws people to himself.

I'll try to update from Moldova, but this might not be possible.


  • 29th June: team meets in Luton
  • 30th June: early morning flight from Luton to Bucharest, then travel by coach to Chisinau
  • 1st July: arrive early morning in Chisinau; team orientation lasts until 6th July
  • 6th-15th July: on the English and Bible camp
  • 15th-16th July: team members stay with Moldovan hosts
  • 17th-19th July: team debrief in Chisinau
  • 19th July: travel to Bucharest
  • 20th July: flight back from Bucharest to Luton
Sarah has some more detailed daily prayer requests here.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Evangelism-driven legalism

I've been thinking a bit recently about a subtle form of legalism which I think seems to be common in many evangelical churches.

The argument runs a bit like this:

  • Unbelievers will have the gospel commended to them by Christian behaviour, and so will want to ask questions of Christians.
  • Therefore make an effort to impress non-believers by your behaviour - this might take various forms: be outgoing, be generous at work, arrive early at church to chat to newcomers... and so on.
It's certainly true that lifestyle commends the gospel. But I feel uneasy when I hear this sort of teaching. Here's why:

1. It seems to forget or sideline the place of grace. Titus 2, for instance, speaks of how different groups can commend the gospel through the way that they live - older men, older women, younger men and slaves. But the whole chapter is bound up with a theology of grace: Titus 2:11-14. The gospel of Christ (and the redemption in full from sin that he has achieved) gives a Christian a whole new perspective and teaches them to say no to ungodliness. The chapter is bound up with Jesus and his grace, not merely with exhortation.
2. For this reason, the implication of the above exhortation without grace is that Christians should try hard to be something that they are not really e.g. friendly, outgoing, generous. These actions are stripped away from the salvation we have received in Christ.
3. This effectively relegates godliness to a place where it is not much more than a piece of bait that can be dangled before non-believers to win conversations.
4. It also is likely to promote self-righteousness and/or despair amongst believers as they seek to strive towards these outward forms of behaviour. This behaviour is not coming from believers' hearts, and it ignores the empowering of the Holy Spirit.
5. This emphasis means that believers consider that if they show non-believers their sin, they've blown it forever.

There is a missing stage to the above teaching...
  • Jesus' gospel of grace has freed you and empowers you to live a life of love.
  • Unbelievers will have the gospel commended to them by Christian behaviour, and so will want to ask questions of Christians.
  • Therefore, be what you are called to be - loving Christ above all, and therefore radically seeking to meet the needs of others, trusting that all your needs will be supplied by Jesus. Be confident in the transforming power of Jesus to commend itself, even in someone as sinful and broken as you.
Dave makes a helpful addition to this post.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Looking for Eric: sketch of a maverick genius

Looking for Eric is an unlikely but enjoyable collaboration between footballer-turned-actor Eric Cantona and director Ken Loach.

The story centres around Eric Bishop, a postman whose life has spun out of control. Failed marriages, teenage stepsons that he can't control and other complex family relationships drive Eric to the point of breakdown. Desperate for comfort and escapism, he turns to smoking his son's marujuana, and soon starts receiving visions of his hero, Eric Cantona.

The film oscillates between some light humour and a very gritty depiction of life in Manchester's social underclass. John Henshaw is brilliant as Meatballs, the leader of Eric Bishop's friendship group of postal workers. There's some real wit and brilliantly observed banter, especially between the this crowd of friends. (Two scenes stand out in particular: the session reading Paul McKenna's self help manual in Eric Bishop's lounge, and the scene of Manchester United related banter in a pub, where some knowledge of the Malcolm Glazer takeover helps).

I'll now add a spoiler alert - if you're going to see the film, stop reading now. After saying that the person with most charisma and charm he admires is Cantona, Eric Bishop's visions of Cantona lead him to act as Cantona apparently would in each situation he faces. As Eric Bishop learns to see his circumstances through the lens of the character of Eric Cantona, his choices change. The vision of Cantona encourages Eric Bishop to be spontaneous, to be passionate, to take risks, to trust in team-mates and never to give up when knocked down. There's a couple of sideways references to Cantona's mysterious pseudo-philosophy. The final scenes, in particular, represent Cantona (acting through Eric Bishop) as a big-hearted maverick rather than a crazed individual (as he was often portrayed in the media, especially after the infamous kung-fu kick).

The audience is forced to ask the question: what would Eric Cantona have been like in any other sphere of life, other than a professional footballer? Looking for Eric is a biography, yes - but a biography with a difference. It is a celebration of a unique kind of genius and, in that respect, a celebration of the diversity of personalities and gifts there are amongst members of humanity.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Playing the enemy: common grace and wisdom

A few weeks ago I read John Carlin's excellent book Playing the Enemy. It tells the story of Nelson Mandela's project of nation building in post-apartheid South Africa, climaxing with the 1995 Rugby World Cup final.

It's rare that a retelling of events in recent history that are in my own living memory can evoke as much emotion as they did at the time. John Carlin's book almost moved me to tears as I was led to appreciate the great significance of the events that formed the Rainbow Nation. I understand the book is to be made into a film, and I should imagine that it will transfer across media very well.

The book is really a biography of Mandela himself. He is represented as a political genius - using his charm and charisma pragmatically to achieve what he wanted, and being very aware of his surroundings. Mandela is quite a hero of mine, and whilst the book sometimes overstates his saintlike qualities, I felt I understood him further after this sketch.

One of the things that I've found myself responding to time after time is Mandela's strategy to always expect the very best to come out of a conversation, even those in situations of confrontation. Time and again, Mandela seems to go beyond reasonable expectation in giving his opponents the benefit of the doubt. He seems to assume that people are generally good - undoubtably corrupted by other influences - but good nonetheless. Here's a case in point of Mandela at work, responding on radio to one far-right opponent Eddie von Maltitz:

For a full three minutes he [von Maltitz] ranted and raved at Mandela - communism that, terrorists the other, the destruction of our culture, civilised standard, and norms. He ended with a brutally direct threat. "This country will be embroiled in a bloodbath if you carry on walking with the Communist thugs."
After a tense pause, Mandela replied, "Well, Eddie, I regard you asa worthy South African and I have no doubt that if we were to sit down and exchange views I will come closer to you and you will come closer to me. Let's talk, Eddie."
"Uh... Right, okay, Mr. Mandela," Eddie muttered in confusion. "Thank you," and he hung up.
[page 151]
I've been made to return to Mandela's strategy on several occasions in recent days. I wonder if often tense meetings would be made easier if we gave our opponents the benefit of the doubt as Mandela did. Mandela's theology seems to imply universal goodness and evil systems. A closer Biblical theology is of universal depravity of all human hearts. But I wonder whether our understanding of this true theological diagnosis of the heart sometimes causes us to put limits on the common grace he has placed into the hearts of all humans, and leads us into unnecessary confrontation and arguments when they might be diffused.

Thursday, 4 June 2009


I have been struggling for days with feelings of anticlimax. I've found these feelings highly disconcerting and pretty exhausting.

This isn't the first time that I think I've struggled with anticlimax. About five years ago, the week after a CU mission I had been highly involved in organising was perhaps the week in which I struggled most as a Christian and was my sharpest period of doubt so far.

This time round I've found myself not doubting the gospel as much as being self-obsessed. I think this is linked to being in a period of flux and change - finishing as a Staff Worker in Lancashire, preparing to move eastwards as Team Leader with UCCF, having to say a whole suite of goodbyes and preaching on some emotionally-demanding passages. The way in which this self-obsession has shown itself has been constantly comparing where things are with how I imagined them to be, and comparing where I imagined things would be relationally with a whole number of individuals with where they actually are. I've scared myself with how God-less these thought patterns have been, and the pride and despair that I've found myself being sucked into. All of this has been tiring, and I've really felt the devil on my back.

Like all periods, over recent days I've had to preach the gospel to myself. I've been blessed by the Lord's kindness in helping me. Singing songs about the cross on Tuesday night helped me lift my eyes from myself and back to Jesus. A conversation with a minister friend this morning spoke truths back into my life. And I was encouraged to a more helpful and God-centred viewpoint of my circumstances by Psalm 29 in my own Bible time this morning.

Anticlimax isn't something we often talk about or think about. But it is powerful. And I think, like grief, anticlimax is an important period through which we adjust to changes in our surroundings. Like grief, though, it's important to ensure that our emotions are ultimately surrendered to Jesus' Lordship and to his gospel. Just as we don't mourn as the pagans mourn, so it seems to me that disciples of Jesus shouldn't suffer anticlimax like others around us.

The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
the LORD is enthroned as King forever.
The LORD gives strength to his people;
the LORD blesses his people with peace.
[Psalm 29:10-11]

Embarking on the adventure

I've been reflecting recently on how certainty is often considered uncool at best and arrogant at worst when talking about spiritual issues. The Bible speaks of confidence, of certainty and of being sure - yet to many people, this appears to be a boring turn-off.

Many people are suspicious of confidence. They're suspicious partly because it sounds as though it could be dull. We are surrounded by seemingly heroic people who are on a spiritual quest into the unknown – and Christians say, “We know.” And it sounds like if you become a Christian you’ll never going to go on an adventure again; it sounds like you’re just going to close down your mind and resign yourself to a cosy future with cardigans and slippers and just a small little world.

Actually, it is not knowing that is paralysing. The present economic climate is a great example of this. Whilst there is so much financial insecurity, it's very difficult to make long term plans. It's difficult to embark on an adventure when it feels there's nothing solid to build upon.

Similarly, as long as we are not sure about God, there is a kind of paralysis. We never live lives which are completely hung on the gospel, because we're not sure. We’re not quite sure we want to put all our eggs in his one basket. We feel as those we need to keep our options open; so we live a bit for Christ and a bit for other things as well. And when this is the situation, the Christian life seems very average.

In contrast, when the Bible writers say 'be sure' (and, as I've shown before, the Bible writers want us to be sure), we need to realise that being sure is not the end of adventure, but rather being sure is the beginning of adventure, where the Christian life can really take off! Life knowing the God that made you and redeemed you can really take off in all its richness and joy, because you know you can hang your life on Jesus and your death on Jesus. Hanging your life on Jesus means that you will serve and sacrifice and find joy in a whole range of unexpected places. The adventure really begins.