I am working on a sermon on the Beatitudes (the first part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5). As I am preparing I have noticed the breaking news that the European Court of human rights has ruled on the cases of 4 Christians who claimed that their human right to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” had been infringed in different ways and that they had experienced religious discrimination. You can read about it on the BBC website here

With that breaking news in mind I re-read these words of Jesus: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

First of all, and without wishing to trivialise the experience of those who have lost their jobs and felt so strongly that they wanted to take these issues to the European Court of Human Rights, I don’t think that these people have experienced the sort of persecution that Jesus had in mind when he spoke the beatitudes. Yes they must have felt terrible, yes they have probably experienced stress, yes they have probably experienced economic hardship but Jesus spoke in an era in which people would pay with their life for standing up against the authorities (and he did). He spoke in an era that not long afterwards would be throwing Christians to the lions.

iStock_000008457626MediumThere are some who tell us that there is an anti-Christian conspiracy in this country, or that Christians are always being discriminated against, and I have heard the word ‘persecution’ used about this. I’m sorry, but no. The court decided that one of these four people had suffered discrimination but that is not the same as persecution. Persecution is what believers experience in countries where it is illegal to be a Christian, or illegal to become a Christian and where you may lose your livelihood, your reputation, your family and even your life. It is where you are in physical danger because you’re a follower of Jesus not where you are told you cannot wear a cross as a piece of jewellery.

In fact it is exactly the sort of thing I think we should be expecting to happen if we are living as countercultural followers of Jesus. Jesus did not promise his followers an easy life or that they would not encounter difficulties in trying to live out their life in a world that does not acknowledge him as Lord. Exactly the opposite is true. Picking up your cross daily and following him is not intended to be comfortable or easy.

The other thing that I struggle with is that Jesus’ countercultural response to persecution, even if what has happened to these 4 people could be regarded as persecution, is to rejoice and be glad not to go to court over it. It is to recognise that our inheritance is not in this world but it is “the kingdom of heaven”, the God dimension that invaded this world in the person of Jesus to reclaim it and us for the rightful owner.

I have mentioned before on this blog the wonderful old Christian lady I met in mainland China who had been a nurse in a mission hospital at the time of the ‘Cultural Revolution’. Each week soldiers would come to the hospital and beat the nurses, demanding that they renounce their faith in Jesus. One week it got too much for her and she said that she no longer believed. Once the soldiers had left she bitterly regretted what she had done and when they returned the following week for her colleagues she went up to them and told them that she had lied. She still believed in Jesus and loved him and no matter what they did to her they would never be able to beat that out of her. After that they left them all alone, realising that there was nothing they could do that would change their allegiance to Jesus.

As she told us the story her eyes glistened, tears streamed down her cheeks (and ours) and yet she smiled because she said she had been counted worthy of persecution on behalf of Jesus.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

provocative powerlessness

Several different strands have come together in the thinking space in my brain this morning. There’s the Kony 2012 campaign, Baptist Union Council and Paul Daniels’ show last night in Colchester.

I am sure you have already seen the link, but in case you haven’t perhaps I had better be more specific. The link between all three is ‘powerlessness’. I will work in reverse order.Phone charger

In Paul Daniels’ show last night he did a range of tricks that made me chortle, chuckle, laugh out loud and, on a couple of notable occasions, sit there completely bemused at how he had managed to do what he did. Towards the end of the show he did the trick which put a rather reluctant volunteer in ‘peril’. I won’t elaborate as I don’t want to spoil it for you if you’re going to see it. I think the reason that the volunteer was so reluctant, other than the obvious ‘peril’, was that he was going to be completely powerless as Paul Daniels worked his magic. Once he had allowed himself to be buckled into the contraption he had no way out and was completely at the mercy of the magician.

For the rest of us that powerlessness was part of the illusion. The volunteer’s obvious discomfort raised the level of tension and made the trick even funnier. But for the volunteer the peril was real and there was nothing he could do about it.

The Baptist Union Council is meeting as I post. The major item on their agenda has been to consider what God wants for us for the future as a denomination. The discussion and deliberation is timely but it has come to us in a way that is beyond our control. Whilst the process is not entirely motivated by money, it was precipitated by an awareness that we cannot sustain our current way of being a denomination and resourcing ourselves in circumstances where we are running a significant deficit budget. Much has been said and written about what we should do, but I wonder if part of the problem is that we feel powerless. The current economic downturn was not of our making but has forced us to ask some difficult questions.

And, if I’m honest, there is a sense of powerlessness in me as well. Other people will be making the decisions and while I have been able to participate in the online discussions and in a discussion at a recent ministers’ conference ultimately I will not be part of the team that makes final recommendations after having sifted through all of the feedback. Don’t get me wrong. I trust and have absolute confidence in those who have been asked to fulfil such a difficult role. But the shape of the denomination to which I belong may change significantly and I can feel quite powerless about.

And then there’s Kony 2012. This is a ‘viral’ campaign that’s spreading rapidly through the Internet. The purpose is to raise awareness of the issue of child abductions and child soldiers in northern Uganda and its neighbours, perpetrated by the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army. That is led by Joseph Kony. The campaigners believe that insufficient action has been taken by the world’s more powerful nations to stop this atrocity from happening. They believe that by mobilising millions to campaign and raise awareness it will force governments to take action.

I wholeheartedly agree that this horror must be stopped. I am not against the Kony 2012 campaign as it is seeking to use the power of multiple voices where as individuals we might feel powerless to do anything. I am a little concerned that whilst it is headline- and attention-grabbing the campaign may be a little naive. Even if Joseph Kony is captured and brought to trial I suspect that his second-in-command would simply step into the breach. By all means let’s raise awareness of the issue on behalf of the powerless children. But can’t we make it a wider campaign against the LRA and seek to bring to justice all who have been involved in such hideous acts.

In all of this powerlessness is there something we can do? Hopefully some of you by now screaming at your screens, “Pray!” Yes. Absolutely. Definitely. Wholeheartedly. But it should not be an act of desperation or last resort. Surely it is the first place we turn. The traditional English pose for praying is to close your eyes and put your hands together. I understand why but would like to encourage us instead to open our eyes and pray with our hands ready to pick up whatever implements God calls us to use as he asks us to respond and be part of the answer to our prayers.

Our fingers might need to go to our keyboards or mice in order to join an internet campaign or lobby governments. We might need to pick up our pens and write letters. Perhaps we need to pick up our phones and make some calls. How about we go down to our local cash machine and withdraw some money?

I think one of the reasons that prayer is a spectacularly good response to powerlessness is that not only are we bringing our concerns and to the presence of Almighty God, but he often asked us to do something in response that enables us to act and in doing so relinquish that powerlessness.

Be blessed, be a blessing. Be a pray-er, be an answer to prayer

Kony 2012

A survivor’s perspective from BMS World Mission

A different perspective from Jonty Langley

BUGB Futures Group updates

The 40 Baptist Voices response to the BUGB challenges