Thursday 9 January 2014


A few years ago, my daughter, with beautiful child-like honesty, confided in me that she was afraid of people who looked like they were from another country. My initial reaction was horror that I could have produced a child that was intolerant of differences, but after a little more conversation I discovered it was about the language difference. She was afraid that she would not understand them and they would not understand her. It was all about communication. 

Language is so important in our lives, whether it be the language we speak, our body language or the words we use to speak of things that are beyond language. I admit that these days I have a similar fear to my daughter when speaking about all things spiritual. Will other people understand what I am saying? Will I understand them? Will there be misunderstandings? And how can we even find language to describe that which is beyond words?

For me the key is to listen beyond the words. It is like learning a new language with all it's nuances and culture. It is in the conversation that I discover that we are actually talking about similar experiences, we have just found different ways of expressing that and drawn on our diverse vocabulary. I have long left behind the days of being threatened by people who use different names for God or ways different from mine to express their spiritual journey. My hope for this year is that people will really listen to each other and try to understand the different languages that we use.

Monday 6 January 2014

Bethlehem Revisited

On the morning of May the 10th, 2005 I was standing on the shore at a conference centre just out of Athens watching a boat arrive. I had no idea that this was the beginning of a much larger story for me, where my journey would intersect with the journeys of so many others. As the boat drew closer we could see a large wooden cross on board. To the sound of African talking drums, nearly 600 participants in the Conference on World Mission and Evangelism, received it and prayed together. The 5-metre-high cross, handcrafted in Jerusalem, contained wood salvaged from olive trees in Bethlehem cut down in the building of the wall separating Israel from Palestine. It was a symbol of reconciliation and healing, and of churches standing in solidarity with Christians in the Middle East.

I must admit, at the time, I didn’t have a clue what was happening in Israel. Keeping up with current affairs had never been a strong point of mine. I knew there were problems, but couldn’t have told you anything about the separation wall and what that meant for the people. Despite my ignorance, however, I came away from that conference knowing I had experienced something meaningful and an event that would hold great weight in my life. Momentarily, my journey had touched the journey of Christians in Palestine.

Nine years on, in August this year, I found myself in Jerusalem. Our day trip to Bethlehem was with a Palestinian taxi driver. On the way there, he explained what life was like for his people many of whom struggled daily with Israeli checkpoints and living behind a separation wall. There was no bitterness as he told his story. He simply told us about his life and trusted that God was with him. As we drew closer to Bethlehem a mountainous wall appeared. In fact I struggled to call it just a wall – it was a barrier created out of fear. This was where the cross in Athens came from. It was real. The stories came flooding back and all of a sudden made sense.

I must say the Christmas story has had a different feel to it this year after visiting modern day Bethlehem. The stylized images of the nativity and shepherds in their fields have become a little less glossy after seeing the Jewish settlements built over Shepherd’s fields. Instead the hardship and the desperation of the Christmas story seems more stark as the story somehow repeats itself again and again in the stories of people today.

It is not only a journey that touched the stories of others in the first century. It continues to meet us in our journeys today.  And this is what makes the story so important for us. It is not a story that is out of touch. It is not a journey that is completely foreign to us. It was a journey of struggle, a journey of survival, a journey of hope. Jesus knew what it was to be a refugee, knew what it was like to fear for your life, knew what it was like to be away from home and still he reached out to all people with love and compassion. Despite his own experience and his own journey, he was able to meet others on their journeys and walk with them for a while in love.