Salaam, Shalom, Peace

If you are like me; white and non Muslim, please don’t allow this attack to be different to those that have happened in the past few months. I have realised in the past year that I give more of myself in response to events in which I can more easily place myself. If I recognise a place, if he victims look like me, if they were doing things that I do, then I respond with a deeper level of sadness, anger and solidarity. This is normal but it is something I must find a way through.

If you’re like me, you also have to wade through the half-narratives and prejudice that comes out daily about the Muslim community in the UK. You see the cursing tabloid headlines as you buy your lunch, you see the tweets and the screaming far right nationalist protests. We can ignore it but it lingers just outside of our thinking.

We must be consciously combating that message of ‘us and them,’ that divides humans into subsets and tribes. Tribal civilisation was violent and turbulent. We can’t allow ourselves to be dragged back there. We cannot allow our response to terror and violence to be governed by dividing lines drawn by the agendas of others.

A faith community in London will never be the same after last night. If you’re a Christian imagine this happening as you left your evening prayer meeting, or bring and share lunch. It’s heartbreaking. People celebrating something that brings them together suffering an attack for a false association to an oppressive and evil movement.

The Metropolitan Police are right. This is an attack on all Londoners. These nightmares are an attack on us all; on our shared humanity and we can’t allow those who do these things to win.

If your ideology, be it religious or nationalistic, causes you to drive a van into a crowd of people, then you are a terrorist. You have committed violence for your cause. You have attacked all of us, but people like you will not win as long as the rest of us continue to reach across these fake divides drawn in our communities.

I always struggle with how the media behave in these moments. I hate to see the attacker’s faces on the screen, and their cause shared and dissected. This is the same. I don’t care who this person is, I care that a faith community has been attacked. I care about those in hospital. I care about our services having to deal with another attack. Share those people on your Facebook. Tell their stories. Don’t raise up the twisted narrative of the attacker, let it fall silent.

Whilst this is an attack on us all, it is clearly a specific attack on the Muslim community. A community who already feel marginalised and blamed. If you live near a mosque, find time to pop in and say hello. My advice from experience is to call ahead. If you can’t go visit send an email or message on Facebook or Twitter. Ask if there are ways to send support to those who were attacked. If you are appalled, but have no experience of Islamic communities it is natural to be nervous and confused about how to help; the easy answer is to ask questions. It might just be the asking how to help is the act of solidarity you can show.

An attack from Islamist terrorists and an attack from nationalistic terrorists have the same goal, to kill and divide through fear. We won’t let either win. We will overcome fear by choosing love and doing good. We will overcome division by coming together and knowing and befriending those whom we are supposed to be suspicious of.

The Jewish and Christian traditions speak of Shalom. The idea of wholeness, prosperity, tranquility, harmony and welfare – peace in short. In Islamic communities this is known as Salaam, and is used in the common greeting ‘As-salamu alaykum,’ or ‘peace be upon you.’ Our traditions have peace at their centre. That is our great commonality. Our humanity brings us together. Let us make Shalom, Salaam and Peace together, that is how good people respond to violence and division.


Finding words when the world hurts.

My timelines on Twitter and Facebook have been hard to read recently. Whether the world is a worse place to be than it ever has been, or it is the outcome of 24-hour news, and instant information via the internet, the reality is, we are now almost constantly faced with stories of unbearable tragedy.
My reaction to these events that display the worst of humanity’s abilities, is usually similar. I begin with anger and sadness and soon follow with defiance. Others I know, spend more time in sadness and fear before moving towards defiance, but they never get angry. Some find it hard to break the cycle of fear. Others seek to reason the causes and impact of tragedy. We are all different.
The past two weeks have seemed to hit many of us harder than previous events. Perhaps it is that the Manchester attack seemed so awful as it was directly against children. Perhaps it was that something as everyday as eating ice cream was under attack in Baghdad. It seems that in the past number of days there was an acceleration of pain and an increase in senseless violence.
There is definitely something about tragedy occurring in a place that you recognise, that amplifies its impact on our emotions. I’ve been to the Manchester Arena, I’ve walked over London and Westminster Bridges. My memory can place me in all three in seconds. We often berate ourselves for giving greater value to things that happen in our western world than to those in other places. We should be more gentle with ourselves. It is natural to react differently to things that are familiar than to things that seem alien and other. It doesn’t make us less human, it doesn’t make us any less compassionate. Our minds are catching up with the information age; perhaps we weren’t meant to process this level of grief and horror all at once. So when you see a ‘yeah but what about this place or that place,’ status or tweet, scroll on, don’t breathe in guilt, process what you can, be kind to yourself and to other people. Of course you are horrified by events elsewhere.
I’m a language focussed person. I process almost everything in my life through talking or writing. So when faced with these things I write and I talk. I rarely sit in silence and consider things. Writing has been hard in light of the events that have dominated the past days but I’ve needed to do it. It has become increasingly hard to find words on which to hang my emotions. It is hard to find words that sum up the rage, sadness, bewilderment and defiance that I feel. The inability to express these things has been frustrating. I know I am not alone in this, it seems the world has been hit so hard, and in such quick succession that many of us are struggling for the words to help our emotions find solid ground again.
Perhaps through instinct or perhaps by accident, I have turned to the Psalms. We all read the Psalms in different ways and from different perspectives. Some will read them as letters from God for our comfort, and others as the collection of ancient songs about humanity’s experience of God and the world. Whatever your view, my suggestion is to try reading them in times like these. They are easy reads, they are beautifully poetic but they are laced with honesty. For all of their hope, they don’t ignore the moments of despair. They are full of triumph and full of defeat. They cry out to a God who feels distant and rest in a God who feels close.
Sometimes when we can’t put words on our own lips, it helps to put use words of another; words that have been passed through the past few thousand years because they reflect our human condition, that this world is as full of beauty as it is ugliness, as full of wonder as it is full of worry. If you’re struggling to process what you’re seeing unfold, then allow the words of another to guide you to creating your own expressions of mourning, anger and hope.
A good one to start with is Psalm, 139. In the same poem, the writer admits that only God can see the tangle in his heart and wishes for the wicked to be slain, that they be washed from the world. It is humble and it is angry. It is hopeful and it is hopeless. All of our emotions in one poem. Start there and read around. There are 150 to choose from. Some will lift you from the pit and some will sit alongside you at the bottom of it. Some will put hope in your heart and others will tell you it is ok to weep. Try it for 30 days, it might help you as it is helping me.
Psalm 139
1 You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
5 You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts,[a] God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand—
when I awake, I am still with you.
19 If only you, God, would slay the wicked!
Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!
20 They speak of you with evil intent;
your adversaries misuse your name.
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,
and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?
22 I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

A prayer for London and everywhere else. 

In light of another senseless attack on our everyday lives hashtags and even prayers can feel futile, but I don’t know what else to do.

Almighty God, who made us and gave us life, we are hurting and confused. We find ourselves, once again, bewildered by how those whom you have made in the same God-image as us can be so callous and do such great evil. The list of tragedy gets longer. Senseless killing across the world you made and first called good.

We are hurting again, as we have before. We are mourning life lost, both young and old; stolen by another senseless act of cowardice. How many more of these tragedies must we face? This world that you created and called good, is pocked with violence that seems only to increase.

When the darkness comes close and invades these places so familiar, our eyes struggle to see you, our ears strain to hear you. Questions grow loud and faith is stretched.

Yet we know you are faithful, that in our suffering you draw close. Our heads hope you are good today, help our hearts feel that you are.

In this darkest moment, we come to you again, with all the small faith we can gather, and ask you to help us. We ask that you intervene, that you save us from this mess. With the hope that we have left we ask for solution. We ask that not one more life is lost to this battle, but that peace will rise.

May the whispered promise that love will one day win, become a shout, ringing like a bell around the world. Comfort those who mourn. Draw your arms around the bereaved. Pull the grieving close and hold them to your chest.

May love heal these hearts broken and changed these hearts set on evil.

May your strong hands break the back of every ideology that calls for death. May you dry up resources that buy weapons, and may you silence networks that recruit lost souls for war. May their plans turn to dust and their hands fumble and fail. May every plan stutter and every foot soldier stumble. Have those who make plans to kill lose heart in their cause; kill their fanaticism and turn it to peace.

May your wisdom be in our leaders, our forces, police and our medics. Show them how to respond and how to prepare, and where to intervene. Give them words of assurance to lead us ,and strategy to defend. May the miracle of medicine save lives and heal bodies.

Pour your peace into our beings and let it flow out from our core. Let us reach across divides to draw close to those whom our enemies would keep us from loving. Give us boldness to unite without fear and to stand with solidarity. For your perfect love casts out all fear and by that love we will win.

May your mercy be with us. Your kindness our guide and your hope drive us forward.

Almighty God, be our Father and hold us, your children near,

Losing my faith in the God I don’t know anymore. 

I have this vague memory from childhood, of a man with grey hairs on his ears standing high in a pulpit shouting about hell. I have no idea how old I was but I can still hear his voice and see the vein popping on his crimson neck. 

“God is very angry with you so be careful,” bellowed through the church. 

When I was 14 years old a preacher yelled at me from the corner of a street, “Son, your soul is filthy, God looks and is disgusted by your sin.” 

At Bible College in my early 20s, I wrestled with the theology of sexuality, abortion and gender and came to conclusions that allowed me full access to Christianity but denied it to others. It was God’s will.

In my late twenties, like many red blooded males, feeling a little intimidated by the world I was seduced by Mark Driscoll’s brand of mascuchristianity. I heard him preach, and listened and nodded as he stated three times in a row that, “you’ve heard that God loves you, He doesn’t. God hates you. He only shows you love because of Jesus.”

I’m 36 and I’ve realised that the God of my memory, the God who hides somewhere in the folds of my brain, pieced together from bad sermons, angry preachers, disappointments and my own fears and prejudice is a God who I don’t believe in. Yet, at the very same time, I am worshiping that God anyway. A part of my life is still given over to that God’s service, He still has some of my faith. It’s time to lose my faith in that God.

As I’ve got older I find the border between the black and white of my theology mixing into grey. I find that more of what I held as factual is open to debate; my assumptions were subjective and my bias unrecognised. I’ve found that my ‘choose a side, pick a team,’ theology is wanting and that actually the truth about God and His world hangs mysteriously in the balance between seemingly opposing views; this truth both ineffable and understood.  

I’ve found God to be more merciful and gracious than the God I once knew. I’ve found God to be more accepting of people than I am, calling them children and friends. The God I have found is patient and kind. It’s this God in whom my faith should fall, it is this God to whom my service should be given. I’ve found a God who called his creation good and didn’t change his mind.

I want to be as generous as this God who gives so easily this hard-won grace. I want to choose to love and accept people before they change and even if they never do. I want to lose my faith and find it again and live changed by what I’ve found. 
If the God of your memory is one in whom you can’t place your trust or who acts in ways you deem horrific or shocking, then seek the God of love again. Lose your faith in that God of your memory and choose the God of mercy and grace. 

It may mean I am labelled a liberal or backslider or even worse, a progressive Christian, but that’s okay with me. I’m at peace with this God, he looks like Jesus, he loves like Jesus and he treats people like Jesus did. That’s the God who deserves my life. 

They say that if you believe in a single God, that you only disbelieve in one less than every atheist. I’d like to add one to the list that I don’t believe in anymore but hold onto one that I do. 

Spiritual Refugees – Those Who Are Fleeing Unsafe Church. 

I’ve tried to write this twice. The first time I deleted it. The second time, WordPress did.

“Spiritual Refugees – Take 3.”

I was sat in a coffee shop a little while ago and ended up in conversation with a stranger – as I am prone to doing. I listened to her story of how she had grown up in faith, her family were members of a fairly mainstream but still conservative church. Her story of childhood and adolescent faith was very similar to mine. The story ended with her being publically asked to leave by  the church because of the boyfriend she had chosen to be with at the age of 20. The relationship had lasted 4 weeks. She hasn’t ever returned to a church, and the thought of it, ‘brings up fear and pain from almost 20 years ago.’

I spoke to another person recently who also grew up in an evangelical church. From a young age he was asked into leadership roles, worship team, sharing at youth services, volunteer roles with youth camps etc. From the age of 13 he knew he was gay. His experience with his friends was that they ogled and commented on the girls and how they looked, whilst he feigned interest. He copied those around him whilst realising that he had no interest at all. Sadly, what happened to him is what has happened to so many young Christians , he went through the trauma of ‘conversion therapy’ and had well meaning but entirely misguided pastors ‘pray the demons out of him.’ He was eventually asked to leave. He still carries the scars of those ‘inteventions.’ The God he loves and the Jesus he follows, are often hidden behind the angry and terrifying experiences he has had. He doesn’t go near churches, he has tried but can’t get out of the car when he parks in the church car park. Instead he has a panic attack and returns home.

I’ve been asked to leave a church before because of a situation over which I had little to no control. It was one of the hardest days of my life. I’m still recovering years later, but have been fortunate enough to have had people who were there the next day, and the days after, who held me in community as I lost the community I had given my life to. If I am honest, I don’t know if I will ever recover fully, it felt like a bereavement, but I’m a lot better than I was then.

It’s very easy to react to stories like these and react with something like, ‘well we just need to get over it and find new communities,’ or ‘that was a long time ago, move on.’ Its easy to say that if you’ve never been through it. Being asked to leave a church is not like being asked to leave a club, the roots go deeper into your heart than a shared interest in golf or chess and tearing those roots up against your will is incredibly destructive.

Believing people often say that their faith is the centre of who they are. When you’re faith in God is central to your identity, impacting on every decision you make the community with whom you live that faith-life becomes family. I’ve been more honest and vulnerable with people from churches I’ve been part of, than I’ve ever been with my biological brothers and sisters. Churches are often places in which people flourish, they are loved and supported, in times of crisis they are held by the community. To those who’ve never experienced church like that, it is hard to describe the deep sense of commonality you feel on every level.

This sense of identity with church and our sense of identity in God become so incredibly intertwined that when the church rejects you it is impossible not to allow that to leak into your sense of who God is and how He views you. It is heartbreaking. The foundations crack and the house starts shaking. What do you hold on to in those moments when everything you relied on has become insecure?

My experience is that a lot people become emotionally numb around their sense faith. Untangling the twisted mass of pain may require a faith community, even a small one, and that seems impossible to find, a second rejection would be too much to bear.

My life is becoming more and more full of these spiritual refugees, those who made a home in a place and a community, but for whom that community and place became too unsafe to be in, or who were forced to wander into the desert because of their life choices, their tragedies, mental illness, understanding of science or who they love.

In a lot of cases those who sent them out to wander were trying to love them. They thought it was that twisting of God’s love – they call it tough love it it translates as cruelty in the heart on the receiving end. The misguided pastors or churches would be hoping that ultimately their rejection, would force the ‘sinner’ to change something that they couldn’t, to alter who they were or miraculously recover from something they were battling. I can forgive a lot of these behaviours because prejudice is more often due to a lack of understanding or education than it is due to bigotry. In one sense, I have to forgive, as I’m sure unknowingly I was the cause of this pain in some when I was a pastor. They thought it was love but it wasn’t. Love casts out fear, it doesn’t amplify it. Love holds people close, it doesn’t toss them aside.

What do we do for these people, whom I often feel like one of? How do we help our brothers and sisters, those words that have lost their meaning through the years, these children of God like us, to find homes again? How do we create spaces that are safe enough for the wounded to express their faith in community again? How do we form homes in which you can be who you are and change or stay the same but still be loved just as much?

If you’re a spiritual refugee, who longs for what you’ve lost, who still loves Jesus but is afraid of His church, I want to know what we can do. In our home we are thinking about this a lot. It’s a daily conversational What can we create that is safe for everyone, that doesn’t place impossible requirements on you, but that wants to celebrate our commonality and our difference – a place for those who are and aren’t like us?

I want ideas, stories and hopes. Tell me your story and what we could do to make the ending of these stories better for all of us. Can we build home together for those who are wandering lost or in shelter that won’t sustain them? Our Father’s house has many rooms, even room for us.

A disabled man, finding lost hope and trying to pray. 

I’ve always been drawn to the story in Acts 3 about the disabled man who is healed after an encounter with James and John. When I read the stories in the Bible, I like to  try and put myself in the mind of the characters in the story. I like to try and imagine the days, months and years leading up to that point in order to build some sort of idea of what they would have expected, and how they would react as events unfolded. 
I love this story because it is on one hand mundane, three people crossing paths as they go about their day, but on the other it is miraculous. At the point where their paths cross there is a divine intervention that goes beyond what any of the three could have expected. 

I am fortunate to have lived my life without a long term or permanent disability. I have little concept of what that is like. I have even less idea of what that would be like in first century Judea where the pervading theology equated disability with sin. I imagine I would have lived in a very dark emotional state, hopeless and without any sense of self worth as the religious  judgement piled up on me. I, like the man in the story would have only been able to hope for the bare minimum; loose change. Healing would not even be on my radar. 

It is easy to fall into hopelessness. When we face ill health, loneliness, addiction, stress etc. often the best we can imagine is making it until bedtime. I’ve been there, where being awake is barely manageable and sleep feels like release. Yet, in this story,  in spite of the man’s low hope, God intervenes. 

Christians often make the mistake, of feeling that they must convince God to bless them by praying enough or sinning less or having just a little more faith but in this story, the man who has his life transformed had none of those, he just reached out his hand for money. Adding guilt to an already painful situation only amplifies the pain and drives us down even further. If we don’t see the result we want, this belief will crush us. This belief only multiplies our turmoil. 

I’m by no means a wise, old man, but in the things I’ve been through in my life, both  painful and wonderful, I’ve learned that God always intervenes. When I’ve prayed for something to change, either he has changed my situation of changed how I think and feel about it. God has always transformed the details of my life or transformed my heart to strengthen me enough to live it. 

People have told me many times that prayer doesn’t work. At times, if I am honest, I’ve agreed with them. I’m becoming convinced, however, that prayer does work when we understand what it is for.  It is much less about detecting God’s hand and more about transforming my mind and heart. Prayer changes me 100% of the time. It changes me in small ways, for example, by calming my mood, or in large ways by changing my desire for what I was reaching for. 

If you don’t pray, try it for 6 weeks, my faith isn’t dependent on the results, this isn’t a social experiment, but you might benefit from it. If you do pray, when you pray, expect Him to intervene. Expect Him to change your situation or change your heart. You may not realise until later but I believe He will do it. Look for the crossing of His path with yours.