Friday, 14 November 2014

Compassion that makes a difference

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Lebanon is a county of delicious food and boundless hospitality. I had an opportunity to experience both of these over a couple of days this week. In addition a warm sunny weather, and ripening grapefruits and mandarins at hand, which, I am sure, makes everybody from the Nordic hemisphere think that this must be heaven. Sitting on the terrace of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) and sipping ‘thick’ Turkish coffee after a wonderful lunch it is hard to grasp all the burdens this country is loaded with.
Lebanese Society for Education and Social Development (LSESD) was one of the first NGOs that started to address the needs of Syrian refugees who began to cross their country borders in 2011. Since then LSESD has developed together with local Baptist churches different programmes to assist the Syrian people who have escaped the extreme conditions caused by the military conflict in their homeland. Financial means for the programmes have been donated by approximately 30 donors who were invited to the consultation in Beirut from 9-11 November to discuss the current situation in Lebanon, meet the local people and familiarise with the LSESD programmes.
LSESD consultation participants
Several high level officers from different organisations were invited to contribute to the consultation programme. Here I refer only to a few of them. However, the fact that a number of leading officers were present at the consultation shows the credibility of LSESD in the Lebanese society and the trust that they have built when serving the Lebanese people as well as refugees through their different programmes.
One of the consultation speakers was Ibrahim Kenaan, member of the Lebanese Parliament. He gave an honest overview of the political, economical and social developments in the country. I imagine it is not easy for a parliamentarian to admit publicly that his country’s internal politics has always been a problem, elections contradictory and that there has been no state budget since 2005. Lebanon needs time to recover.
Lebanon needs time to recover from the long civil war that lasted from 1975 until 1990, from the Syrian occupation from 1976 until 2005, and the military conflict with Israel in 2006. Yet there is no time to build up the country when the neighbours are in need – neighbours from Syria that used to be the oppressors but are now knocking on their door and bagging for help. Several speakers of the consultation mentioned the fact that Syrians, and recently also Iraqi, are coming to Lebanon not because life is better there; they come because they have no other choice if they want to survive.
Nabil Costa, Executive Director for LSESD and member of the EBF Executive Committee, said in his opening speech to the consultation participants: ‘Our responsibility is to show compassion to the conflict victims because we as Lebanese know what it means to lose home, we know what is trauma, what it takes to live without electricity, how it feels to be stateless and to lose identity. This is why we want to show compassion.’ In showing compassion, the LSESD staff and local churches make no distinguish between people of different religion or social status. All are accepted. Because this is what Jesus taught and did.
Jean Marie Garelli from UNHCR who was also one of the consultation speakers, stressed the fact that Lebanese welcoming attitude towards Syrian refugees is exceptional and truly remarkable. This is what makes the difference for those seeking refuge.
One of such examples is the Zahle Baptist Church that in cooperation with LSESD is running different programmes for the Syrian refugees – food distribution, English classes for adults, school for children. All programmes are run with love and care, and with excellent administration that values each person.
Syrian refugee children at the school run by Zahle Baptist Church
The church has opened a school for Syrian children so that they could continue their education. The school follows the Syrian public schools’ programme, which enables the children continue their education without a major gap.
The children love their school, they sing, laugh and look happy. When the school holiday comes they don’t want to stop because it is much better to study in the school than to spend the days in grim refugee camps. But when one of our consultation participants asks from one class whether they miss Syria, all children raise their hands. Each of them, without exception, wants to go back to Syria – this is their home and they miss it. When will this day come?
Refugee camp in Zahle


Helle Liht
EBF Assistant General Secretary

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Gathering the Family

As so many of our EBF Union and Convention leaders gather this week in Bucharest, Romania, I reflect once again at the amazing way God brings us together form such a diversity of cultures, languages, theologies and ways of being Baptists. It just should not be possible! Ten years ago in Beirut Lebanon I pledged myself as the new EBF general Secretary to seek to build what the Apostle Paul in the letter to the Philippians calls a 'partnership in the Gospel'. The word he uses there is koinonia with its rich layers of meaning - fellowship, community communion, with Christ and with each other.

And if I was to sum up what the EBF was about, above all our projects and strategic planning, it would still be this – that when we gather together as we will this week we experience and deepen our experience of God's gift of koinonia amongst us. Part of that is that we rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. So, for instance, this week we will rejoice that the new beginning for our International Baptist Theological Study Centre in Amsterdam has finally arrived and has got off to a great start. And so we will once again hear first hand from our brothers and sisters in the Middle East and stand alongside them as they live every day in a context of violence and intense suffering at the present time. And so we will hear from leaders in Ukraine and Russia of the challenges they face in the conflict which has so devastated Eastern Ukraine and made the whole region less politically stable. We will ask some tough questions about how our unity in Christ and the Gospel transcends all  our cultural affinities and national allegiances.

And all this will be context of worship, which will focus in Bible reflection and prayer on peace, and how we European and Middle Eastern Baptists can play our part as God's reconcilers and peacemakers in a hurting world.

And there will be times of relaxation and laughter and new friendships being born across cultural and linguistic divides. We are hosted in Romania for the first time and will experience again the inspiring leadership of their President and ours, Oti Bunaciu.

And most important of all, the Spirit of God will move among us....

Tony Peck
EBF General Secretary



Wednesday, 28 August 2013

What happened to the Dream?

Today is exactly 50 years since Baptist pastor and civil rights leader Martin Luther King made his 'I have a Dream' speech in front of Washington DC.  Reaching deep into the prophecy of Isaiah this modern prophet memorably held out before his dream of a time when racism and prejudice against African-Americans would be at an end.  Some call it the greatest speech of the 20th century. 

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.



I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.


These words still reverberate around the world today, and challenge racism and discrimination wherever it is found and wherever it is officially sanctioned by government.  I found it a moving experience on a visit to Atlanta, Georgia, to visit both King's birthplace and his last resting place after he wascut down in his prime by an assassin's bullet in 1967.  That same evening I attended the opening of the Baptist Covenant, a great gathering planned by Ex- President Jimmy Carter and others which was the first significant meeting of its kind which had brought all the Baptists of the USA together, black and white, 45 years later.

Despite all the progress towards racial equality which has been made in the USA, South Africa,  and elsewhere in the world to rid ourselves of racism and discrimination based on colour of skin, culture or religion, the Dream has still been resisted by some.  In our own region of Europe and the Middle East we cannot be complacent. 

In my country of Great Britain the issues of immigration is often used by certain groups to display their prejudice and discrimination against the 'other' who is different.  Black people still experience racism and inequality in our society.  As British Baptists we have taking some steps forward on The Journey, an initiative which seeks to fully integrate Black churches and their leaders into our life together, but we still have a long way to go.

In countries such as Russia it is shocking to see the abuse suffered by black men and women who travel or work there, and this xenophobia is found in other nations too.

Only a week or so ago right-wing groups marched through Prague, Czech Republic chanting hatred against the Roma people, who suffer discrimination in other European nations too.  I give God thanks for the work of Baptist leaders like Otniel Bunaciu in Romania and Teddy and Didi Oprenov in Bulgaria who set their faces against such prejudice and engage in projects which share the love of Christ in word and deed with the Roma people.

From their earliest history Baptists have stood for an end to discrimination based on religion, race, culture or nationality. Declaring the essential separation of church and state has meant for us that we are truly an inter-nationilst movement who really do believe that at the Cross of Jesus Christ these human barriers fall in order to build what King called 'The Beloved Community'   But in my work among European Baptists I see how difficult it often is for us to declare this unequivocally, and to rise above nationalism, racism and the prejudices which are so deeply ingrained in many of our societies.  King's Dream still deeply challenges us.

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Last year I visited the Martin Luther King Memeorial in Washington DC, not far from where he made his famous speech.  The sculptor was inspired by King's words about 'hewing out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope' to form the statue of  King coming out of a great rock which itself seems to come from a mountain.  All around the memorial carved in granite are King's words, such as We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. and Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.

Some years ago I met an elderly British Baptist lady who told me that one of the greatest experiences of her life was hearing Martin Luther King speak at the EBF Congress in Amsterdam in 1964.  He has made his indelible mark on the history of all humankind, this Baptist preacher and prophet of non-violence whose words Let Freedom ring! challenge hatred, oppression, racism and discrimination wherever they are found.

May his Dream continue to inspire us and never cease to challenge us. 







Sunday, 18 August 2013

Pray for Egypt

Like many others I have been shocked and saddened by the loss of life in Cairo and elsewhere this past week as the Egyptian military have cracked down on the protesters supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and the ousted President Mursi.  Some of the TV pictures have been truly horrifying as they have shown unarmed civilians being gunned down in the streets.  I find myself praying that we will not have another situation like that of Syria where civil confilict turns in to civil war.

And I think of my friends in Egypt, some of whom I visited only 18 months ago when an EBF delegation met the leaders and pastors on the Egyptian Baptist Convention, and also some of the official Evangelical leaders sin the country.  How different the situation was then, after the Tahrir Square demonstrations and before the elections.  I have not managed to make contact with the Convention in these past days so can only wonder about what is happening with those pastors and churches, and to commend them in prayer to God's protection and safe-keeping. 

But I am aware there has been a sharp rise in attacks on Christian churches (mainly Coptic) in the past week - some estimates say as many as 40 churches have been attacked.  Egypt's ten million or so Christians are something of a soft target.  As the Al-Jazeera news headline this week put it 'Egypt's Christians face unprecedented attacks'.

It is understandable that Christians in Egypt (and also in Syria) fear for their religious freedom if radical Islam becomes the controlling ideology of the government.  There were already signs that in a society governed by the Muslim Brotherhood hostility to Christians increased, even if not officially sanctioned.   The result is that most Christians, along with more 'secular' Muslims, womens' groups and others give their support to the military to keep the peace and try to pave the way for a more plural vision for Egyptian society.  The difficulty in this case is dealing with the anger of supporters of the Muslim Bortherhood that their democratically elected President has been removed by force, a fact which comes across in much of the Western media as a gross injustice, making the kllings of so many civilians all the more unnacceptable.  It seems to me that Egyptian Christians are now in an unenviably dangerous situation.  Will they be able to continue to protest about the attacks on them and the possible far-reaching loss to their relgious freedom if radical Islamicists come to power; whilst at the same time making it clear that that they abhor the loss of life which happens when the military fires on civilians?  I pray for much wisdom for their leaders in these days.

I have been looking for other voices which might be said to represent evangelical Christians such as Baptists.  I see that the CEO of SAT 7, the media company supported by many Baptists in the Middle east and elsewhere in the world, issued a Press Release last week, In it he says he is 'appalled at the misunderstandings about the situation in Egypt being propagated by even normally balanced international media like the BBC and the way it has, in general, portrayed the Muslim Brotherhood as the victims of injustice.'   He goes on to justify this claim from the perspective of Egypt's Christians.  You can read the whole piece here:  http://crossmap.christianpost.com/news/sat-7-ceo-commentary-understanding-the-present-situation-in-egypt-4703

On one reading it all looks horribly familiar as yet another Middle Eastern nation slides into civil conflict, and with the country's Christians suffering as scapegoats.  But in looking for some signs of hope I remember how an Egyptian friend described how at the time of the Tahrir Sqaure demonstrations which seemed to hold out so much promise, Muslims and Christians had stood together and neighbours of these different faiths got to know each other for the first time.  And now in this article by the Sat 7 CEO, one paragraph stands out to me as a 'flicker of hope' when he says:

It is also important and encouraging to note that some Muslims went to proect churches and that, in return, many Christians then sent messages to their fellow Muslims saying 'buildings can be rebuilt again, but you are priceless, so stay safe and don't worry about the churches'

I don't want to overestimate such initiatives in the scale of the present crisis in Egypt.  But I also know from examining past conflicts that when God moves change in the hearts and intentions of ordinary men and women, amazing transformations of conflict can take place.  This, I pray for Egypt at this critical time.  So I will gladly support the prayer request of Sat7 that the current violence will end soon and that 'Egypt will be governed for the benefit of all its citizens, with people of different persuasions able to live alongside one another peaceably'. 

The message on this southern Egyptian home says 'Love your enemies.  We will pray fervently'







Monday, 29 April 2013

Going up Baptist Street

I often wake up and think what a privilege it is to work for the European Baptist Federation. Only very occasionally do I consider the other possibility...!

But the heart of the privilege for me is centred on travelling around Europe and the Middle East and seeing for myself at firsthand some of the surprising, not to say amazing, things that God is up to, often in very challenging situations. 

I am often visiting Unions and Conventions for their Assemblies and Congresses, when they bring their churches together to celebrate in worship and reflect on the future together.  So last weekend was unusual in that I was the guest of a local church.  I was, in Katowice, Poland with my friend Jerzy Rogaczewski the pastor of the First Baptist Church in the city.  I met his father Stefan, one of the 'saints' of the Polish Baptists, having lived nearly all his own ministry through the Communist time.  In spite of that, under Stefan's leadership an impressive church building was opened in the 1980s and during the same period the Baptists were instrumental in birnging Billy Graham to Kaowice for a memorable evangelistic initiave in which many people found faith.  Billy Graham even preached in the Catholic Cathedral at the invitation of the Archbishop.

So what of the church today, as Poland faces up to the chill winds of secularism, despite the hold which Roman Catholicism still has on the population?  And there are other challenges too.  In the past decade so many young people have headed for the UK and other parts of western Europe to find work. And in Katowice, the centre of the former thriving coal and steel industries of Silesia, the city is coming to terms with industrial decline and all around are signs of urban regeneration.  

I came away from Katowice impressed by what one local church is doing to witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in its contemprorary environment and culture. 

First of all, the church has a respected voice in the city.  A visit to the city Mayor confirmed that the Baptist church and its pastor, and indeed the other city churches have a part to play in the regeneration of the city, and to be welcomed to speak in to the issues which face it.  The Mayor is a regular visitor to the church, and recently the City Government agreed that one of the streets bordering the church building could be re-named 'Baptist Street'.  This engagement of our churches in the 'public square' is for me one of the marks of effective mission in our contemporary situation.

Secondly, long before the word 'ecumenism' became so problematic for some Baptists, there were cordial relationships between leaders of different Churches in the city of Katowice, including the Roman Catholics.  Today this continues and develops, with leaders meeting regularly for prayer for the city and preaching in one another's churches in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  I  was warmly welcomed by Catholic and Lutheran leaders and left in no doubt as to the importance of the Baptist contribution to the Christian presence in the city. I often find that official suspicion of ecumenical structures among European Baptists in combined with some committed working together locally. Perhaps that is how it should be as our ecclesiology is so centred on the local church, but I long for more of our Baptists to have this sense of belonging to the one great church of Jesus Christ. 

And most important of all, this is a church which is still sharing the good news of Jesus Chirst with the city.  The climax of my weekend in Katowice was a baptismal service on Sunday morning where 26 men and women from four churches in the region confessed their faith.  It made me realise that in western and central Europe baptism services for so many are now quite rare.  It was an inspiring service with great music, enthusiastic worship and I found it a real privilege to be the preacher.

I am sure that the church in Katowice is not an exception  All over the EBF region are some encouraging stories of what local churches are doing to speak into the issues of their cities, to make positive and productive realtionships with Christian brothers and sisters of other traditions, and to not lose sight of the purpose of the church - to proclaim Christ in in all that it does in such a way that people will respond in faith and the commitment of their lives to Christ.  So we can be confident that the Gospel continues to speak to contemporary Europe, despite all the many challenges that confront it.







Friday, 29 March 2013

Good Friday

I have been struck how quickly many Baptists go from the Hosannas of Palm Sunday to the Alleluias of Easter Day with very little pause in between to tread the journey of Holy Week.  If they worship on Good Friday it is often to expound Paul's theology of the triumph of the cross rather than to enter into the suffering and death of Jesus.

This was true of many of the Baptists in Scotland where I grew up.  But in my home town there had been a tradition of the churches combining for Holy Week Services - long before anyone described such coming together as 'ecumenical'.  I attended these from being a young teenager, and I remember some profound meditations from gifted preachers as we tried to somehow enter into to the events of the final week of the life of churches.  It culminated in a shared communion service on the Thursday and then the final act of worship together on Good Friday.  By the time we reached Easter Day, back in our different churches, the Alleluias were all the more heartfelt because we had gone on a journey together as churches during Holy Week.

On this Good Friday I find myself wanting to linger at the cross just trying to take in what it meant for Jesus who suffered there for us.  One of the prayers for Good Friday in a Baptist service book begins:  'God our Father, in remembrance and awe  tread the hold ground of Calvary:  this place of abandonment which has become the scene of our adoration....'  and that's how I want to approach it.  I want to hear again the cry of desolation, 'My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?'  and know that it was real for Jesus.  I want to be there in the darkness and the sense of an ending.

And why?  Because there can be no resurrection without the experience of death.  As disicples we called to identify with Jesus in his suffering as well as in his glory.  And when we enter in to experiences of pain and suffering and loss it is important to know that Christ has been there before us - and it was for real.

Last night in my local church I led a 'Tenebrae' service which ended with us reading from the Gospels the story of the betrayal, arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus.  As we did so the lights and of the church were gradually turned out and then we left the church in silence.  For a moment, in a small way we entered into the experience of the Passion of Jesus.

So on this Good Friday I want to just 'be' there at the Cross knowing that's where God was, too..  And the other thing I will do will be to read again this poem by R S Thomas where in a marvellous and original way he links the experience of hearing the great violinist Fritz Kreisler play with the scene of Good Friday.

And then on Sunday I will be there ready to shout 'Alleluia' for the 'music that lives still'.

THE MUSICIAN

A memory of Kreisler once:
At some recital in this same city,
The seats all taken, I found myself pushed
On to the stage with a few others,
So near that I could see the toil
Of his face muscles, a pulse like a moth
Fluttering under the fine skin,
And the indelible veins of his smooth brow.
I could see, too, the twitching of the fingers,
Caught temporarily in art’s neurosis,
As we sat there or warmly applauded
This player who so beautifully suffered
For each of us upon his instrument.
So it must have been on Calvary
In the fiercer light of the thorns’ halo:
The men standing by and that one figure,
The hands bleeding, the mind bruised but calm,
Making such music as lives still.
And no one daring to interrupt
Because it was himself that he played
And closer than all of them the God listened.            (R S Thomas)

Friday, 15 February 2013

Church and State in the Czech Republic


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This morning I visited the offices of the Czech Baptist Union here in Prague.  Their leaders of these past few years - Milan, Ludek, Iveta and Jan - have become my respected friends.  They are always supportive of the EBF, and were gracious about the decision of the EBF and IBTS to relocate from Prague to Amsterdam, something which I know was quite difficult for them at the time.  And their hospitality by way of a table awaiting us piled high with 'goodies' is becoming legendary!

But this morning we ended up discussing an issue which they as a Union have had to work through and and make a difficult decision.  The government of the Czech Republic has been addressing the question of compenstion for church property confiscated during the communist era.  The government has offered all the churches a considerable annual sum of money for each of the next thirty years by way of restitution.  After a long period of debate, nearly all the Churches in the Czech Ecumenical Council decided to accept this government compensation...

...except the Baptists, who were divided in their opinion about it.  A few years ago when, for the same reason,  the government offered some state help to pay the salaries of pastors, about half the Baptist churches accepted it and half refused.  This latest compensation issue, though, had to be decided by the whole Union. 

I think they engaged in their decision-making in a very Baptist way.  Each church discussed it and come to its own recommendation.  And then the whole Union came together and after a lively debate voted by a narrow majority not to acept the money offered by the state for the work of the Union.

Were they right or wrong?  The debate goes on within the churches and within the Union.  Some felt that by deciding the matter as a Union the 'congregational principle' had been breached. Others were equally sure that to accept such money, which would actually amount to a lot more than the value of the Baptist buildings confiscated in the communist time,  was to deny an important aspect of Baptist identity - the essential separation of church and state. I think it took some courage of conviction for the majority in a small Baptist Union to turn down a considerable annual grant from the State, which might have enabled new initiatives of the Union and its churches.

Outside reaction to the decision has been interesting.  There has been some dismay from  ecumenical partners of the Baptists who wanted the Churches in the Czech Republic to agree together about this question. The Baptists stand alone in their opposition.  But then, Baptists have always been non-conformists.

In the secular media (and the Czech Republic is one of the most 'secular' countries in Europe) there has been a lot of interest in the decision of the Union, and some support and praise for the Baptists from those who do not see why taxpayers' money should be given to the churches in a country which has such a small number of professing Christians.  

It is not the first time that I have encountered approval from secularists for our Baptist understanding of the separation of church and state, and that no religious group or groups  should have a 'privileged' position in society.  Some years ago a prominent member of the British Humanist Society told me of his liking for Baptists because of their opposition to State Churches,  privileged status, and state-funded religion.

Should I feel concerned about these approval ratings for Baptists by secular society?. Well, yes,  if their spokesmen go on to conclude, as they often do, that we are content to have our faith put into a privatised space in society with no expectation that Christians will have any right to contribute to debates in the public square. 

But, no, if it means that we are true to our Baptist origns and identity of putting forward a vision of a society which guarantees space and freedom for all religions - and that for us means that no religious group should be privileged regarding state recognition or financial support.  For us Baptists our full and committed involvement in society is by influence as salt and light; not by privilege or entitlement. 

This was not an easy question for the Czech Baptists to resolve and the result was a close-run thing.  But I for one am glad that they enagaged so wholeheartedly with this important question which has wider implications in contemporary Europe;  and that they sought to discern together the mind of Christ. 

And, personally, I believe that they came to the right decision.


Monday, 28 January 2013

Citizenship


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The EBF is an Associate Member of the Conference of European Churches (CEC).  CEC does an excellent work in relating to the European Institutions on behalf of the churches, articulating their concerns on a range of issues.  I have been quite involved with CEC on issues of human rights and religious freedom; and recently they asked me to offer some brief reflections 'Towards a Christian Understanding of Citizenship'.  Education for good citizenship is a live issue in the EU, and CEC wants to ensure that the churches play their part in this.  So here are my reflections, no doubt incomplete, so I would be glad to get some feedback:



Citizenship is about identity, belonging and (in the EU at least) how the individual plays his or her part in the building of democratic society. One helpful definition I read recently was that citizenship is the way we live together and organise our lives together despite the differences among us and between us.  In the European Union there needs to be a more intentional strategy to imbue the values of citizenship because citizenship in the EU is ‘over and beyond’ the individual ‘s primary citizenship in their own EU member country. 

So what is the contribution of Christian understanding to the current debate about EU citizenship?  I list a few pointers:

1.  The Christian belief is in a God who is personal and relational; and whose nature is to reach out beyond himself to embrace creation and all that dwells in it.  This fundamental connectedness at the heart of the universe informs a Christian understanding of citizenship.  It is seen in the mutuality of relationships in God as Trinity, Father Son and Holy Spirit.  It is there in the Bible from the first anguished question of Cain after the murder of his brother Abel in the book of Genesis, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’; to the great commandment of Christian to love God and love neighbour.  Building human community is not an option but part of the ‘DNA’ of the Christian.

2. This valuing of the inviolable human dignity of people ‘beyond’ ourselves is grounded in the way in which the Bible describes human beings as reflecting the image of God (imago dei).  In a Christian understanding, this is where human rights and responsibilities find their foundation and the nurturing and protection of such rights and responsibilities is a primary concern of what it means to be a good citizen.

3. But what of the ‘other’ who is different from us, and whose presence in Europe can sometimes leads to xenophobia and a narrow exclusive nationalism.  The Old Testament command to ‘love the stranger’ is developed in the New Testament concept of the truly global community of the church where diverse nations and cultures can love together in peace and find their unity in Christ who transcends them all.  European citizenship also needs to embrace a vision of the world and its needs, and Europe’s place within it.

4. Another relevant concept from biblical theology is that of shalom, the Hebrew word often translated simply as ‘peace, but which in its use in the Old Testament embraces a vision of the healing, wholeness and harmony of relationships, personal, communal and societal.  Christian theology also addresses the sin and evil which so often threatens shalom.  In European society it can often take the form of a consumerist selfish greed that does not work for the common good of the whole of society. A Christian understanding insists that in the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (what is sometimes called at-one-ment), the possibility of redemption and a restored harmony in society is now possible. In particular, in the Bible there is a special concern for the poor, the marginalised the refugee and the stranger.  If a society is judged on how it cares for its weakest members then any concept of European citizenship must make this concern its priority.

5. Finally, there is an eschatological dimension to a Christian approach to citizenship.  Christians seek to live as good citizens wholeheartedly committed to being ‘salt and light’ in whatever human society of which they are part. The perspective of the Free Churches from which I come is that there should not be any special privilege or status grated to Christians in a plural society; they work with those of other faiths or none for justice, peace and  the common good of all.

At the same time the Apostle Paul reminds us that our ultimate citizenship is in the heavenly Kingdom of God. For the Christian this gives a certain ‘provisionality’ to all current political structures.  This is not a reason for Christians to opt out of being good citizens of their societies; rather this dimension should often lead them to be dissatisfied with the status quo and drive them seek new creative possibilities of working with others as citizens to make human society come closer to the values of the Kingdom of God.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Embracing Diversity




'Embracing diversity' seemed to be a main theme running through the EBF Youth and Children's Workers' Conference which ended in Prague a couple of days ago. 

I always enjoy attending this Conference each year.  We have some amazingly gifted national leaders of youth and childrens' work and I love to meet them and hear something of their stories, and what God is doing among the children and young people they serve. This year they were very well hosted by the Czech Baptist Youth Department, with the main meetings taking place at the First Baptist Church of Prague in Vinhoradska.

The theme of diversity is a challenging one for the EBF to negotiate.   De facto we are diverse in languages (about 35 different languages in the EBF when I last counted), and cultures, and sometimes we are unwilling to admit how much these factors then influence our different ways of 'being Baptist'.   There is an assumption among some that our way of being Baptist is the only and right way!

And in recent years this diversity has become more apparent because of the migration of peoples as a result of economic, social and/or political factors.  For Baptists this has been especially true of the many Burmese refugees who have come to Europe, a majority of whom are Baptists.  In the Scandinavian countries, in the Czech Republic and elsewhere, Baptist Unions have welcomed and sought to integrate these groups (which may be from different Burmese tribal groups) into the life of the Unions, also offering them practical care and support.

But Europe has also witnessed the growth of African and Asian churches in several countries, as well as an influx of economic migrants from Eastern Europe settling in the countries of Western and Southern Europe.   These groups bring the distinctiveness and the riches of their Christian traditions, and  present many joys and sometimes a few challenges for the 'host' Baptist community.  But it all means that ethnic and cultural diversity is now a fact of life on our continent and in our churches.

The EBF Youth and Children's Workers thought much about this at their Conference, and heard some challenging words spoken to them about other kinds of diversity.  How inclusive can our churches be?  What are the limits to inclusion?  Can our churches embrace the inclusion of cultural, gender and sexual diversity?   What does a Biblical faith have to say about all this? 

These are uncomfortable questions for many Baptists.  It was not surprising that among our youth and children's leaders there was a diversity of response to the courage and openness of some of the speakers to address them.  But for me it was important that they were considering such questions, which the youg people they seek to serve and mentor are facing every day of their lives.  For these issues are not going to go away; if anything they will intensify in the coming years.

I don't pretend to have all the answers!  But I am struck by the concern of the New Testament churches to model an inclusive diversity which was simply not present 'out there' in their societies.  Paul's lasting word to us on this, which we find twice in his writings, is surely, For there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, nor is there male or female.  For you are all one in Christ.  (Galatians3:28; Colossians 5:11)

In this continent of Europe where there is a rise in groups espousing an exclusive nationalism based on their own culture.and an increasing intolerance of ethnic diversity in some places, these timeless words of the Apostle Paul surely form the basis of the 'new' counter-cultural community of the church, along with the Old Testament injunction to 'love the stranger'.

I appreciate that for historical, cultural and, sometimes, theological reasons some of our EBF member Unions struggle to come to terms with this question of embracing diversity.  It is indeed perplexing and we need God's wisdom and discernment.  But I was encouraged and inspired by the EBF youth and children's workers who were willing to grapple with some difficult questions, and who in their Conference were constantly bringing the issues back to that simple but profound challenge, 'What would Jesus do?'




Tuesday, 1 January 2013

New Year 2013

As I write this in the closing hours of 2012 there is the usual mixture of looking back and forward, of a sense of achievement and regret about the year that has gone, and of of apprehension and confident hope for the year to come.  If we are honest it is not always easy to put our hand into the hand of God in faith and trust to step forward into all that is to come.   Only by grace...

When I have had to lead worship at the moment of New Year I have often used a prayer I discovered many years ago, and I offer it to my friends as I wish them all a Happy New Year 2013!

Eternal and ever lasting God, creator of life and Lord of time,
as we stand at the beginning of this new year, we pray that we may stand with you.

You have always been there:
going before us to prepare the way, standing behind us, urging us on
towards new hopes and a new creation,
being with us in the company of your people and the life of your Spirit.
You have always been there, Lord, calling us again to follow you.

Help us, today, to see this moment of New Year as you see it.
Help us to walk quietly and thankfully away from the old year.

We thank you for its joys and achievements, and all the days of growth and love.
We thank you, too for strength given amid suffering, and hope arising out of fear.

We are sorry for our mistakes, for the wrong we could have avoided, the hurt we have caused
We confess our pride, our greed, our failure to love.
Lord, grant us, we pray, your judgment of mercy, your forgiving grace,
even as we forgive one another.

Help us, today, to see this moment of New Year as you see it.
Help us to walk quietly and firmly towards it opportunities and demands.

We dare to believe that this is a new day, and not a repeat of the year now gone.
Your grace gives us courage, your peace gives us hope.
Your presence is the promise of new life.
In Christ we can make a new beginning, in your Spirit we can be a new creation.

Lord, we are willing to go with you,
to live the good news of forgiveness in freedom and joy;
to share the gospel of justice and peace with courage and love;
to pray with hope and share with faith:

So that all people everywhere
may know your name, sing your praise, and share in the joy of your kingdom
in eternal New Year

Amen

(from Be Our Freedom, Lord  ed. Terry C Falla)