I am writing this just a few days after the terror attacks in Paris have shocked the world. Less than a month earlier a similar sense of outrage was felt as news unfolded of hostages being held in Sydney, Australia. In both cases the gunmen were identified as Islamic extremists. Man Haron Moris in Australia seems to have acted alone, whilst the gunmen in Paris clearly had accomplices and were part of a more organised terror initiative.

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris 2 million people participated in a rally for national unity to honour the dead and express their solidarity against the attacks under the slogan “Je suis Charlie”. In Australia there was a spontaneous outpouring of public solidarity with peaceful Muslims using the hashtag #illridewithyou to express a willingness to ride on public transport with anyone feeling threatened. These different responses capture the heartfelt desire of most people that there should be an end to hatred and killing.

In the 1970’s John Lennon released Imagine; the bestselling song of his solo career. It includes the lines: “Nothing to kill or die for and no religion too.” This echoes a belief that I hear from time to time that ‘religion’ is to blame for all kinds of atrocities, wars and persecution. There is no denying that leaders have often sought to bolster their position by manipulating religious beliefs to their advantage; even using it to justify acts of genocide and oppression. Terrorist organisations too have found religion a useful tool in extracting loyalty and unconditional commitment from their activists. However, despite this association with religion, is it really fair to lay the blame for these present outrages at that door? Mainstream religious leaders of all kinds would emphatically say no.

I can’t speak on behalf of other faiths but am able to invite you to look more closely at the teachings of Christ which clearly oppose violence and hatred towards others. Jesus taught us to love our neighbours as ourselves. When asked ‘who is my neighbour?’ he told a story that struck right at the heart of his listeners’ religious and racial prejudices. The neighbour who cared for the Jewish victim of violence in Jesus’ story was a Samaritan – the most despised and hated people group for Jews of that day. Elsewhere Jesus told us to pray for our enemies, and to bless those who persecute us. Imagine that! A world where evil acts are met, not with revenge, but forgiveness and mercy, a world where love is shown, not just to people we like, but also to people who might seek to harm us.

The ultimate example of forgiveness towards perpetrators of violence is Jesus himself who prayed as he hung on the cross ‘Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.’ John Lennon dreamt of an idyllic world where everyone lived together as one, yet he never really offered a means to get there. Jesus however offers each of us personal forgiveness and then commands us to forgive as we have been forgiven. Imagine a world where everyone were to live like that; then there truly would be an end to hatred and killing.

This blog post featured in the February 2015 edition of Hook Focus


Do they matter?

If you have ever been to a Christian event and introduced yourself to someone you haven’t met before you will have probably found that the conversation quickly gets round to some discussion about the size of each other’s churches. Apart from the difficulty of how to measure that (Sunday attendance, church membership roll, people attending other church activities and so on?) what does that number really say about the church? Is size a measure of success? A church of 60/70 in a village population 8,000 may be having a far greater impact than a church of 250 in a town of population 50,000 yet superficially the bigger church may appear more successful. If the numbers attending church are our measure of success then the saying that God calls us to be faithful rather than successful may be a helpful corrective. This is especially the case if like me you come away encouraged after a meeting that is well attended and discouraged when the attendance has been low.

So what does the Bible have to say about numbers? The answer is a bit mixed. There are plenty of numbers recorded in the Old Testament, not least a whole book of that name cataloguing quite detailed records of the different Israelite tribal populations! These records seem to meet with God’s approval and form the basis of allocating land equitably after the Israelites cross over the Jordan to occupy their inheritance. Later however King David is strongly rebuked by Joab, and punished by God, for carrying out a census of the fighting men.

The New Testament writers too record various numbers: the feeding of the 5,000, 10 lepers healed, 3,000 added on the day of Pentecost, the registers of widows entitled to food distribution and so. The early church seem to find it helpful to record who was a part of their growing community.

As I was reflecting on the importance (or otherwise) of numbers I was reminded of a parable that Jesus told about a shepherd who had 100 sheep. One evening as he was doing the roll call he found that one was missing. He leaves the 99 in the safety of the sheep pen and goes out searching for the one. If Jesus is concerned about the one then that should be our priority too. However large our church becomes, each of us is called to be concerned for the individual. Are there people in our church that you haven’t seen recently? What could you do to encourage and support them? Could you identify just one person who does not yet follow Jesus and pray for them consistently to meet Jesus for themself?

Yes numbers matter – especially the ones!

This blog post featured in the February 2015 edition of Lifelines