Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Locked doors but open fields

The great pine doors of our church stand shut before me.  I'd love to step inside.  I miss our church building with its echoes of worship, memories of celebrations with cake and dark coffee and, most of all, the sense of God.

Most mornings I walk through the grounds.  The fresh grass is pocketed with delicate flowers of bluebell and stitchwort.  A few times I have had an image come to mind of clear water, with a trace of the colours of the rainbow. It's pouring out from under the church door and down into the streets.  I think this may be a picture of the Holy Spirit who is now more out in our community as we, the church itself, are spending more time growing friendships in our village. 

The lockdown is deepening relationships here.  My wife has been badly ill with covid for 2 months.  Our neighbours, church family and wider community have warmly supported us by cooking us meals and doing our shopping.  One friend, Heather, kindly took away all our crumpled clothes and then festooned our garden with freshly ironed shirts!  Through all this we've got to know many more people.

Jesus says The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.  Ask the Lord of the harvest therefore to send out workers into his harvest field Luke 10v2. Perhaps lockdown is helping us to get out of the building and into the field.

How can you make the most of this time working to gather God's harvest? 

[This is the second in a series of blogs on walking with God].

*Name changed for privacy.
All photos are by Rick Lister.

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Does God need us? What I've learned from cleaning off bird poo

Soap Bubbles Fun Colors Make - Free photo on PixabayCan you imagine this scene?  I notice that my neighbour Caroline's* car has bird poo on it.  Its brown colour stands out strongly on her small white car.  I find it a bit disgusting when there's bird poo on my car and so decide to clean the poo off her's. 

Having started washing it off I see that Caroline's car is pretty dusty and so set to work to wash the whole car.  Soon soap suds and warm water are everywhere!  I feel happy because I think Caroline will be pleased with this surprise.

David*, one of our sons comes out of the house.  He's 13, gaining height rapidly and has a puzzled look on his face.  'What are you doing Dad'?  I explain and he gladly offers to join in.

To be honest he doesn't do an amazing job, leaving his side of the car still a bit mucky.  I didn't need him to help me. And I could have done a better job on my own.  But I was thrilled that he joined me in doing something to encourage Caroline.

As I reflect on this I see parallels with God and us.  God doesn't need us to get done the things He wants to see happen.  He has a planet-full of other people he could use and almighty power for 'nothing is too hard for [God]' Jeremiah 32v17.  But He chooses to involve us in His work because He loves us, wants us to catch His character and enjoys our company.  

'How great is the love the Father has lavished on us that we should be called the children of God' 1 John 3v1.

I wonder how you feel as you think that God does not need you?  At first this thought made me feel insignificant and unwanted but later on I started to see this as freeing me up.  I can trust God to make stuff happen and do the most difficult things, such as change people's hearts.  And I can take on Jesus' yoke that is easy and his burden that is light Matthew 11v30.

What does Jesus mean when he says His “yoke is light”?Does your work seem burdensome?  Perhaps you are carrying loads that aren't from God.  Perhaps loads formed from striving for God's or other's approval? Or from over-high standards or feeling only you can do something.  How can you release yourself to walk more lightly and trust more deeply in your loving and Almighty Father?

[This is the first of a series of three blogs on walking with God, others to follow shortly].

*Names in this blog are changed to protect privacy.

Monday, 30 March 2020

Why risk your life to resist change?

I remember visiting a village in western Rwanda, nestled on the side of a hill. This community experienced droughts and so frequently did not have enough food to last through the year. The Ministry of Agriculture sent Habimana*, a tall and gentle-faced agricultural officer, to help them by giving advice on how to increase their banana production. He said 'you need to cut down your old banana trees, plant new ones at a greater distance apart and compost around them'. This was spot on technical advice. But the community were not involved in the decision so opposed this. 'These are our emergency crop that give us food even in droughts. No way can you cut them down. If you try to we will hug the trees and you must put your machete through our bodies first'.  Habimana said 'I can't work with this community' and walked sadly away.

A few years later, Tearfund’s partner, Moucecore, started to use a church and community transformation approach in the area. This enabled the community to reflect on both their challenges and opportunities and to become empowered to change their own situation. As a result they decided that they needed to reduce their hunger by making the most of their bananas.

Alongside community empowerment Moucecore provided training on agricultural good practice including advice on replacing old unproductive banana trees. The community decided to plant new younger banana trees at greater spacings and get rid of their old ones.

This resulted in a dramatic increase in yields. Banana production grew from typically 15kg per bunch to 60kg per bunch! Now the community has enough for their own needs and also surplus produce to sell.

Where technical input on its own had failed, the combination of church and community empowerment and technical input produced great results.

I wonder how much you are relying on time-limited projects to improve people's lives? And how much do you link to ongoing processes of transformation?  If you are interested, here are some ideas to strengthen such ongoing change: Learning Together

*Name changed to protect privacy.

Friday, 27 March 2020

A burger, that'll be $180

'How much does a 'Big Mac' burger cost?  According to the Indian Centre for Science and the Environment, about $180.  That's if you factor in the hidden costs to society and the natural world that the burger company MacDonalds gets away with not paying - the tropical forests eviscerated for pasture; the exhausted aquifers; the planet-heating effect of cow farts; the lakes of toxic slurry; the indiscriminate use of antibiotics - and much else'*. 

Our 360 Approach to Stopping Rainforest Destruction | Rainforest ...
Rainforest clearance (Photo by Rainforest Alliance)
I feel shocked and want to take action.  As an individual I can make a contribution by cutting down the amount of meat I eat.  After all, if cattle were their own nation, they would be the world's third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China and the US**. 

But much more deeply, I think we need to totally rethink the way we see the value of people and things.  We need to take on board environmental and social costs and benefits, not just the financial figures.  Carolyn Steel, in her insightful book 'Sitopia: How food can change the world', asks 'what might the world look like if, instead, we were to internalise the true costs of food?  The answer is that industrial farming would rapidly become unaffordable, while ecologically produced organic food would emerge as the bargain it has always been.'

The climate change, the corona virus and social unrest have shown us that our current version of global capitalism isn't working.  Our systems seem to be set up to give 'cheap' products to people in richer countries while people in poorer countries pay the price in poor wages, droughts and lost forests.

God calls his people to live out their faith through challenging such injustice.  'Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?' Isaiah 58v6.

* Ben Cooks writing in the Times Newspaper 21 March 2020.
** Ten simple ways to act on climate change, BBC.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

The women were very hesitant ...

Photo by Rick Lister
The women were very hesitant at first to draw symbols to help memorize the story.  'We have never held a pen in our lives.’ Then Karima*, an old grandmother, took a pen and had a go at drawing and finally all the ladies got involved. At the end, Karima stood in front of everyone and told the whole Bible story from beginning to end. She cried and said: ‘We can learn even if we cannot hold a pen! We are all equal, those who went to school and those who didn’t!’
What do you feel as you hear this real story?  

I feel a mixture of emotions.  Partly joy that these women are growing in confidence and in their ability to engage with the Bible, the book of life.  And partly sadness that so often people like Fatima, who cannot read, find themselves excluded.  

And we're talking about excluding many many people.  Across central Africa, for example, 70 to 85% of people aged over 15 cannot read and write (literacy rates in Africa).

But what if we discussed ideas in more creative ways?  Like stories, drama and drawings and so moved beyond the written word?  Last week Barbara*, over a vegetarian supper, shared with me the ideas of oral or creative discipleship.  I became excited.  Why?  Because I think this approach will help us to more deeply connect with people on the fringes.   And by engaging in more diverse ways we are all more likely to receive, remember and apply what we are learning.  Whatever our background.

Perhaps we need to learn from Jesus.  Jesus, who taught without ever writing a book.  He transformed people with story after story, questions that reached their hearts and actions that practically showed what love is.

*Name changed for privacy.

Thursday, 4 April 2019

The water doesn't care

'The water is at the knee level inside my house and at waist level on the street… Food and clean water are expensive and in short supply… The flood water is so dirty and has germs in it… There is water everywhere: huts and houses, markets and department stores, factories and shops, schools and universities, hospitals and temples. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, old or young, healthy or sick, the water doesn’t care…’ Soontaree, Bangkok City (

Image result for thailand floods 2011 tearfund imageThis was back in October 2011 when severe flooding inundated one third of Thailand including large areas of the capitol Bangkok. Some churches in the city responded tirelessly to support those affected but Pastor Aat* tells me that sadly many ‘churches were very slow to engage with the flooding’. We’re sharing lunch some seven years on in a small restaurant in the heart of Bangkok.
On one level I can understand why churches here may have been slow to respond to the crisis. The Christian church is small, just 1.4% of the total population, and the understanding of many churches here is that ‘social issues are not our role’. Yet as followers of Jesus we are called to live as he lived with a passion for justice and practical compassion for those in need. Pastor Aat puts it this way: ‘The ‘gospel’ (the good news about Jesus) permeates every area of life’.
How can we help people like Pastor Aat to encourage more of the church in Thailand to live out the fullness of the good news in every area of life? Here’s three thoughts:
Good thinking and good practice We need good thinking about what our faith really means for, as Pastor Aat explains, ‘teach the gospel [in all its fullness] and everything else follows’. This needs to be shared both with current church leaders and also with those preparing at theological colleges. We also need to share examples of good practice in living out our faith in love.
And the two strands, thinking and practice, can helpfully come together. For instance theological students can engage in and reflect on practical community work. In north Thailand some theological students realised that one hill tribe community was travelling 18km to collect rice. Reflecting on Jesus’ compassion for people living in poverty resulted in the students working with the community to build a small warehouse to store rice at the village.
Encourage a movement Pastor Aat was not aware of some other people with a similar heart in northern Thailand and they weren’t aware of him. However when linked together there is the opportunity to learn from one another (Proverbs 27v17), encourage one another (Hebrews 10v25) and see God’s blessing poured out on and through our unity (Psalm 133).
Pray big Even though the church is comparatively small in Thailand, our God is able to do amazing things as ‘nothing is impossible with God’ (Luke 1v37) including using what can seem small and inadequate in incredible ways. The boy with five loaves and two fish probably didn’t expect Jesus to use it to feed over 5,000 people...

Friday, 29 March 2019

A different world

Sometimes I open a door to a different world. On Tuesday I cycled down a peaceful street in my local town. This street is full of red bricked cottages warmed by the afternoon sun. I locked up my bike and stepped into a 'food bank'. Here, in the middle of a fairly rich town, I met people with a radically different experience of life. The stories of Peter and Anne* challenged my heart and made me think.

Peter, a broad man with a weather-beaten face, has recently agreed to welcome his nephew, Alan, to stay at his home. Alan is a troubled young man and his mother has been struggling to cope with him. But Peter's kind action has had consequences. He works but the work is really badly paid and so he relies on government benefits to help meet his family's basic needs. The government officer told him that, because the number of people in his household has changed, his case will need to be reassessed. Fair enough. But while this happens his benefits will be completely stopped. So Peter's act of kindness will tip his household into crisis. Don't you think that's wrong?
Image result for photo washing up liquid basic
The food bank** can help people in such difficulties with 3 days emergency food and toiletries, listening care and signposting to other support services.  People in crisis welcome the support they receive. People like Anne. She’s a young lady whose eyes fill with tears when she receives a bottle of shampoo.  For the last 3 months she could only afford to wash her hair with washing up liquid.

I loved seeing the gentle, unjudging compassion of the food bank volunteers as they provided much needed support.  Some were from different local churches and some were motivated by humanist or other caring motivations. However should people like Peter and Anne be so poor in a country with plenty of resources? After all the UK is the 5th largest economy in the world.  I long for us to tackle the injustice of the systems.  To lobby businesses to provide decently paid and more secure jobs, lobby government for the benefit system to be made more efficient and fair and to strengthen the opportunities for people to grow their confidence, skills and voice.

Caring people often help meet the immediate needs of people like Peter and Anne.  But how willing are we to challenge the systems that made them vulnerable? Those of us who are Christians are called to live out the character of our God who is both ‘the Father of compassion’ 2 Corinthians 1v3 and the ‘God of justicePsalm 50v6.

What are the unjust issues in your country and context?  And what could you do, with others, to bring what is right?
You may be in the UK and share the Trussell Trust’s passion to end hunger and poverty in this nation.  If so you can join in with campaigns, based on strong research, to do just that.  You can find out more here.  It’s time for a better life for Peter and Anne.

*All names and some specific details changed to protect privacy.
** This food bank is run by local churches and supported by the Trussell Trust.