Thoughts and prayers

This morning the world wakes to the news of yet another shooting in the US. And as usual the social media channels are full of people offering “thoughts and prayers.” Some of this is doubtless from people of faith who are genuinely praying for those caught up in the incident. But how much of it is really just the culturally expected response?

And what does it mean to pray in this context? Or indeed in any context. Surely our prayers must be active – we cannot use “I am praying” as an excuse not to respond in other ways – it can’t be a case of I’m leaving this to God so I don’t need to do anything. James is abundantly clear about this:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:14-17, NIV)

Is this not what sections of the American church have been guilty of time and again? Offering “thoughts and prayers” to the victim of gun crime while doing nothing to support efforts for greater gun control. Indeed far too often it is those who claim the name of Jesus who have been arguing for a continuation of the current right to bear arms. I am usually cautious in criticising the views of those who are in a very different cultural context than myself, but in this case I have no hesitancy in stating that this is wrong.

To be blunt, if you continue to support the free availability of instruments that exist for no other reason than to injure and kill, while claiming to worship the God who said clearly, “Do not kill”, then you lose the right to offer “thoughts and prayers” for those who have been injured or killed.

Most people reading this will not be in the US, but many of you may know people in America. If you do, please do talk to them about this issue. If they are not yet speaking out in favour of gun control please urge them to do so. If, like all of my American friends, they already see the importance of this issue, then please encourage them to continue in this fight.

My thoughts and prayers are with those caught up in the incident in Texas. But they are also with all those involved in political and religious leadership in America – that they may have the courage to follow the leading of Jesus, to put faith into action, and to see the responsibility and the power that they have to be agents for change and to reduce the probability of this happening again.

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Do we want a Christian Prime Minister?

With the Conservative leadership election under way the Christian press and social media have kicked into action.  Some are celebrating the fact that all the candidates profess the Christian faith.  Others are trying to reach a judgement on which of them is the ‘most Christian’.  Lots of prayers for God to raise up a “Godly Christian leader.”

But is that what we need?  Before the referendum a clergy colleague of mine cautioned, “Which of us would have voted for the Emperor Nero?”  Yet it was under Nero that the church was persecuted, Paul was imprisoned, and as a result the gospel spread to the ends of the earth far more quickly than it was doing in more peaceful conditions.

And the same is true in the modern world.  One of the fastest growing Christian populations in recent times is in Communist China, where the church is still oppressed, greatly limited in its activities, and under the constant watch of a suspicious government.  Meanwhile in the West, with freedom of religion and a succession of leaders who have claimed to be Christian, the church is declining numerically and to a large extent in spirituality too.

Which is not to say I would suggest praying for an oppressive dictator to lead this country.  It is just to question whether an active Christian leader would necessarily be the most advantageous for the Christian gospel.

I thank God when our political leaders act according to gospel values.  In recent days some leaders have taken a stand to engage with and welcome minorities in our society – most notably Nicola Sturgeon (Atheist) and Sadiq Khan (Muslim).  Some of our leaders seem genuinely concerned for the plight of the poor and working for a more equal society – at the lead here are Nicola Sturgeon (Atheist) and Jeremy Corbyn (Atheist).  Meanwhile a previous Christian leader, Tony Blair, has been condemned for involving the UK in an unnecessary and possibly illegal war.

There are of course Christian leaders doing good things too.  He doesn’t get much air-time but I like a lot of what I hear from Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats and Evangelical Christian.  But the point is that selecting a leader who will be best for the gospel, the church, and the country, is far more complicated that looking at their self-declared religious affiliation.  How a person lives and governs is more important than where they say their loyalties lie.

So I am not praying for a Christian Prime Minister.  What I am praying for is the person who God knows will be the best for the cause of his gospel.  I pray for a leader who will work for justice, equality, and peace, the values of the Kingdom of God, whether or not they can be found in a pew on Sunday morning.

 

EU Referendum – a response

In my posts on the Referendum I tried hard not to come down on one side or the other.  My reason for this was a strong belief that as a Christian minister my role is not to tell people where to put their ‘X’, but rather to open up a Biblical angle on the issues to enable people to make their own decision under God’s guidance.

But now I cannot influence the outcome, I feel at liberty to say that I think the British public have made the wrong decision: wrong economically, wrong politically, but most importantly wrong spiritually.  In the short term I believe Brexit will damage the church’s ability to fulfil our calling to bring hope for the poor, relief from suffering for the oppressed, and the message of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ to the world.

Like many Christians, over the past few weeks my prayer has been “Your will be done.”  So how do I respond now?  Has God’s will been done?  Am I wrong in my understanding?  Where is the message of hope for those who feel angry and hurt today?

As I reflect on this I think I unwittingly preached the answer last Sunday as we looked at Psalms of Lament, and particularly Psalm 137: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”  Because the will of God being done is not the same as a pain free life.  Jacob and his family going down into Egypt to 400 years of slavery, the people of Judah being carried off into 70 years exile in Babylon, the early church being scattered by persecution: these were all horrific experiences for those involved, but each was used by God to bring about his will.  I’m not saying that God caused the suffering involved, but in each case it was the means by which he moved his people on into the next stage of their relationship with him – the people of Israel formed into a nation in the land God had promised them; an idolatrous people brought back to the living God; a Jerusalem focussed church pushed into fulfilling God’s call to witness to the nations.

And the ultimate example, Jesus who in the garden of Gethsemane prayed more fervently than anyone before or since that God’s will be done, and God’s will was that he should endure the cross in order to open up a new level of relationship with God made available to people of every nation.

So my hope for today is that God’s will is always to work all things for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28).  The times of suffering and lament have so often been the beginning of a new movement of God.  Exile is followed by restoration.  Crucifixion is followed by resurrection.  And so too may Brexit be followed by a time in which the church discovers again and anew the calling which God has given us to bring the gospel to the nations, and learns in a new way to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.  Then our prayers will have been answered, and the will of God will truly be done on earth as it is in heaven.

EU Referendum – Migrants are people too!

Most BBC stories covering the movement of people from North Africa across the Mediterranean to Europe, or on across Europe towards the UK, carry the following explanation:

The BBC uses the term migrant to refer to all people on the move who have yet to complete the legal process of claiming asylum. This group includes people fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria, who are likely to be granted refugee status, as well as people who are seeking jobs and better lives, who governments are likely to rule are economic migrants.

I can see why they do this.  One alternative term is “immigrant” which has these days seems to carry connotations of people who are up to no good in one way or another.  “Refugee” is factually incorrect, as not everyone travelling to this country meets that definition.

But I wonder if there is another alternative that could be used?  “People”.  So yesterday’s BBC headline of “Shipwrecks kill up to 700 migrants” becomes “Shipwrecks kill up to 700 people.”  Somehow the latter hits home more – migrants cease to be a different class who we can perhaps mentally worry about less, and we realise they are just like us.

I’m not just getting at the BBC here, in fact they have done more than many news outlets in explaining their reasoning for their choice of words.  Much of our media is guilty, consciously or otherwise, of dehumanising people in their reporting.  One example that hit home particularly forcefully to me was the story a couple of weeks ago of the NHS being overrun by “migrant women having babies.”  Well those babies would include both of my children – they are people, just like you or I – we are all born somewhere.

The Bible is full of stories of people on the move.  The Israelite people escaping from slavery into Egypt, were not welcomed into the land for which they headed, and had to fight to live there.  Centuries later a foreign invading army carried many of them off into exile in a foreign land, and it was 70 years before some of them could return to their home.  Jesus was a migrant – a refugee – in Egypt when just a baby, escaping the tyrant Herod who was trying to take his life.  Freedom of movement is not a new issue.

Having lived in the South East of England for 16 years I understand some of the concerns about overcrowding and pressure on infrastructure.  I am less convinced that the solution is to limit numbers coming in to our country – if you took all the non-British people out of the NHS I’m not sure there would be a health service in the London and the Home Counties.

But others will disagree with me.  The important thing is that, as Christians, we make a decision based on the facts, and based on affirming the humanity of each person.  Whatever the colour of our skin, wherever we chanced to be born, whatever our life circumstances, whether we live in this country already or are seeking to move here, we are each made in the image of God, loved by him, and worthy therefore of complete love and respect.  We are people!