Notes from a large island

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I am just back from a three week trip to America visiting church partners and people interested in what is happening in Oxford.  Judy joined me for the last week.  We had a great time, covered ten states, and I slept in 8 different beds!  Here are some impressions:

  • America does not fit the image that the rest of the world portrays of it.  It is a diverse, fascinating, positive and friendly place full of good people.  Having been in a good number of countries that have a particular reputation in the wider world, I have learned that the reality is always much more complex.  America is no different.
  • Trinity Church has many friends.  From Houston to Grand Rapids and Columbus to Chicago, there are people praying for us, and supporting us financially.  Some of them will pass through Oxford in the next few months.
  • Oxford is potentially strategic for Europe.  Christianity in Europe has imploded over the last generation.  For the first time millions are identifying as non-religious.  It is now the second least reached region after the Muslim world.  Alongside that, bible teaching churches, though small, are consistently growing across the continent.  The need for resources, training and support is, however, enormous.  America is rich in resources, but often ill equipped to understand post-Christian ‘old world’ Europe.  In many ways Oxford sits between these two worlds.  The potential to use this to bless Europe is, I think, significant.
  • Trinity is a wonderful church to belong to.  I enjoyed preaching to hundreds, and a couple of dozen, and worshipping with several thousand, but I was glad to get home.  Don’t underestimate the good things that Christ is doing in our midst.

 

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us,  to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:20–21)  

Justice and mercy

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This picture of Steve Smith, disgraced Australian cricket captain is probably how he will be remembered for the rest of his career, if not his life. A man, broken by one mistake that he made, humbled after a meteoric rise and now hounded by the world's press, his own government and Australian cricket fans.

This is what it looks like when there is a demand for justice with no thought of redemption or possibility of mercy. Amazingly, in one of Australia's other big sports, Rugby League, a number of the stars are guilty of far worse crimes than ball tampering - one player recently found not guilty of GBH having broken someones jaw in Rockhampton, US.

On what basis do Steve Smith, Cameron Bancroft and David Warner deserve much stricter and harsher judgement than any of us? Maybe here we see the lengths the human heart will go to ignore our own failings and sin - if we can punish others, we make ourselves believe that we have nothing to hide or nothing to worry about.

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Seeing this drama unfold this week has made me glad that in the Bible we see both justice and mercy - indeed, at the cross of Christ, we see perfect justice at the same time that complete forgiveness is held out to us. Only in the God of the Bible do we see the opportunity for redemption without neglecting the necessity and importance of justice.

I do hope that Smith, Bancroft and Warner are now given a break. They've faced the consequences of their actions. Now they wait until the next celebrity makes a public mistake that the onlooking world will delight to see them crucified for.

We worship at your feet
Where wrath and mercy meet
And a guilty world is washed
By love's pure stream
For us he was made sin
Oh, help me take it in
Deep wounds of love cry out 'Father, forgive'
I worship, I worship
The Lamb who was slain.

Garissa

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Three years ago I set my BBC newsfeed to send me alerts for any events in Kenya. And then on 2nd April 2015 I sat by my hotel pool and with a strange sense of detachment read the unfolding narrative of the tragic, scary and barbaric events at Garissa University. My initial response was one of anger - anger that groups like Al-Shabab even exist, that they have the temerity to walk into a building that is meant to bring about change in people's lives and change the lives of 148 people and their families forever. But surely anger isn't enough. 

Anger wouldn't bring back those souls that were snatched from their families. Anger won't resolve the conflict that rages on in Somalia and Kenya. Anger won't bring healing. As I sat by the water slide in Antalya I couldn't do anything, much as I might have wanted to but what I do know is that many of those 148 people who suffered and died three years ago would have spent that day remembering the death of their saviour.

April 2nd 2015 was Good Friday - the day that many of those Christians would have been remembering that beautiful scandalous night when Jesus died just under 2000 years ago. As Jesus hung and died on the cross he cried seven 'words' from the cross, perhaps words that those 148 would have rejoiced in today had they still been with us, but words that they would have lived through those terrifying and tragic hours as the five gunmen separated Christians and Muslims and brutally cut short the lives of those they had captured. Surely as the events unfolded they must have cried out to God wondering why this must have been happening to them. 

'My God, my God why have you forsaken me?' Jesus asked. Words which mean that though the 148 might have felt forsaken, God never will have left them, even as they took their final breath. I'm sure many of them would have felt the physical anguish of the situation and longed for safety, comfort and normality. Jesus cried 'I thirst' from the cross, a cry those at Garissa might have echoed as they faced the agony of death.

I'm sure many of the 148 died thinking of the needs of others, of their friends and loved ones (what about the 5 police officers killed?). And what about Jesus, who in his moment of agony could point to his mother and provide care and comfort for her? As Jesus died, he cried out two seemingly conflicting things. 'It is finished' and 'Father, into your hands I commit my spirit'. 

Finished, only in the sense that the awful work of his death was finished. Finished only in the sense that it was the dawn of a new kingdom, a new hope a new chapter in the history of this world. As the 148 were killed at Garissa surely those words were in their minds. Their earthly lives were ended, leaving emptiness for those left behind, but as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said as he walked to his execution 'this is the end. For me, the beginning of life'.

What would have been much harder for the 148 to say would have been what Jesus first said as he was nailed to the cross: 'father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing'. Words which I don't know I could have said, but words which show me that whatever I have done, I can find forgiveness in the death of Jesus. 

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But the words which stick in my mind from that Good Friday, words which can bring comfort, words which remind us that we don't simply remember a martyrs death but also a saviours death - 'today you will be with me in paradise'. Garissa was a tragedy - 148 people cut down just as they were ready to make a difference in this world. 

But those 148 brothers and sisters remind us that extremist opposition to Jesus and His people will never win. The gunmen ended their lives. What they don't realise is that the words 'well done, good and faithful servant' would have been heard by the 148 instead.

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.