Remembrance Day

Yesterday I walked part of the Dales Way and came into Kettlewell and stood for several minutes at its war memorial decked with red and white poppies, commemorating those who have died in the wars and remembering all the casualties of war including civilian and non-British casualties. War memorials are embedded into the life of every hamlet, village, town and city here in Britain. A reminder to not only remember but to stand, pray and work for peace.

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One of the most poignant moments of my presidency of the Baptist Union was standing at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. Prior to taking up our places among the ranks of church and other faith representatives, ambassadors and party political leaders I watched the assembled crowd, most of whom were from the Armed Forces and scattered among the rank and file were ex-military personnel. I was in my late 40s and as I looked out upon the elderly former soldiers, sailors and air force personnel, I realised that unlike them, I and the vast majority of people under 60 years of age had no personal memory or experience of war.
I find it hard to comprehend the fact that over 19 million people died and a further 23 million people were military or civilians casualties in the 1st World War and over 56 million people died in the 2nd World War.
Reflecting on these horrific facts and the consequences of the two world wars as I stood by the war memorial yesterday, with the storm clouds emerging down the valley, I felt a foreboding about the storm clouds that are brewing across the world today that threaten peace and could be the sparks that ignite conflict and war once again in the continent of Europe and the wider world.
The unspoken message of war memorials is a warning about the danger of living without virtue and values, about the folly that gets us into war: seeking power and control, following economic recessions, inequality, the widening gap between rich and poor, exploitation, injustice, oppression, the reemergence of tribalism, nationalism, autocratic, dictatorial leaderships and regimes, the threats and counter threats in relation to trade agreements; all incendiary devices and contributing factors that lead to conflict, violence and war.

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I’ve been at Scargill this weekend in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales to lead with good friend and partner in the gospel Phil Stone, the warden of the community here. We’ve been exploring the place of communities in our changing, turbulent world.
The monk Thomas Merton said that “Community is a completely Christian answer to questions of economic exploitation, political oppression, and today’s loneliness epidemic”.
The nature of the God whom we worship is community. The Trinity; Father, Son and Holy Spirit reflect a unity in diversity and provide the pattern and order for humanity. We, being made in the image of God, are called to reflect the nature of God, which is community. The excessive individualism and rampant secular, consumerism of the western world has damaged the notion of community and now with the evils of tribalism, sectarianism, racism and nationalism rearing their ugly heads, the storm clouds of division, conflict, violence and war are emerging.
The current crisis that we are facing in Britain over the foolish referendum and its damaging aftermath has been dominated by economics and national, self-interest. Little attention has been paid to asking the deeper, more foundational questions as to what kind of society, nation and continent we want to live in. The European Union, for all its faults and failings, was founded on the principle of a ‘Community of Nations’. The EU, formed in the aftermath of the Second World War was the brainchild of Christian statesman from France, Germany and Italy who had a vision of a European Union that would no longer go to war. A union that would prevent a repeat of the killing fields which witnesses the death of millions across the continent in the 1st and 2nd World wars. A European Union that would not fall out over trade agreements but would find ways of working and cooperating together for the common good. With Britain’s exit from the EU, we need to employ all our energies into building healthy and harmonious relationships with our European neighbours and in our attitudes and actions given no encouragement for those who would seek to take advantage and fuel the fires of everything that leads to division and war. Popularist politicians with simplistic solutions have and are deceiving people and fuelling fear, prejudice and intolerance which can lead the nation and nations down a path of conflict and war.

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As we were gathered this morning in the wonderful chapel at Scargill to celebrate Eucharist we remembered and gave thanks to God for Jesus who died, a victim of injustice, suffering as a consequence of the worlds evil, whose body was pierced and whose blood was shed like many of those whom we remember today. His battle was with all that was evil and destructive in the world. We celebrated that Christ conquered death and the power of evil is, and will one day, be utterly defeated. Christ’s victory over sin and death and His resurrection points to new world order, a world where people are reconciled with God and one another and nations move from enmity to friendship. We prayed,”Your kingdom come, your will be done here on earth as it is in heaven” and concluded with the words,”Go in peace to love and serve the Lord”.
In the light of this weekend, where we have been looking and celebrating the gift that is community, we left Scargill with a vision of community that is good news to a troubled, fragmenting, partisan, divided world. Good news for America that could hardly be described as the ‘United States’ – now so divided and conflicted, threatening and menacing, mirroring in its own way the bullying behaviour of some other world leaders.
We have a gospel to proclaim and the medium that conveys the message is that of community. Community that reflects the heart of God. Community that averts conflict and war or helps to heal and rebuild life after the ruins of broken relationships, be they in the home, family, workplace, neighbourhood, church, nation or world.
A vision of community which speaks of peace in a world of war, gentleness in a world of brutality, compassion and care in a society that is callous or indifferent, where kindness carries more weight than hatred, where hostility is countered by hospitality, where friendship conquers loneliness and isolation.
A vision of community where the whole of creation is at peace with itself and with one another.
A vision of community where justice and mercy inform all of our ways, where no one dies of starvation or lack of clean water. 
A vision of community that spurs us on, alone /together to work for peace in the world.

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A world, a continent where yesterday the President of France can embrace the German Chancellor on the site where the Armistice treaty was signed at the end of the war in 1918. A world where this evening the German President is welcomed at Westminster Abbey and reads from 1 John 4: 7f “Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God….Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us.”
Amen. So be it Lord.

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email overload ~ challenge and opportunity

You know that feeling when there’s nothing you can do to help a situation.
I viewed the process of implementing a new email system with some trepidation but realised the need for us to make some necessary changes and had to hand over the process to a very proficient outside agencies technician. The promise that the changes would “in due course not only provide an email system that is fit for purpose going forward as an organisation but also give us access to the wider functionality of Office 365 that will facilitate our collective administration”.
The agreed implementation day last Wednesday didn’t go to plan and it is only this morning on the eve of leaving for the Isle of Arran tomorrow that the 145 folders in my Outlook have began to be populated by the several thousand emails, joining the 211 that have been sent to me since being effectively off-line since Tuesday night, most of whom require some response.
Alvin Toffler, the futurologist, back in the 1970s wrote about the impact of the technological revolution. One consequence, I know personally, is that of the overwhelming emails that seek my attention. I try to resist their clamour and regularly de-clutter and refuse to be available with email notification alerts but the ‘inbox mountain’ continues to rise and even my attempts to fool myself by creating folders and subfolders doesn’t significantly reduce ‘Mount Email’.
I have clung tenaciously to that line in our Northumbria Community’s Midday Prayer, “let nothing disturb thee… nothing affright thee, all things are passing” and whether it is denial, expediency or resignation to the fact that I am powerless to do anything but wait, I have got on with the rest of my life and quite enjoyed these past few days.
It’s only when I think of the emails that I know I was hoping to respond to before leaving tomorrow and the thought of the vengeance of the emails awaiting my return a week on Monday that have caused me any moments of pressure.
So instead of spending on average 1.5 hours a day on emails, I have enjoyed some extra reading, conversations with a neighbour, hosting two Companions of our Community who dropped in to see us on their way home from their recent holiday, a round of golf, (my first this year – humility prevents me from showing you my scorecard and revealing the full extent of me beating my golfing partner who plays on a regular basis!). Resigned to the situation of having to contend with email absence, I went out with two of our very dear friends who were staying with us from London for a lovely relaxed Indian meal before we went on and joined other friends for the TEAR Fund quiz at church on Friday evening, (our team, “Northern Rock and Southern Softies’ won by 1 point.) Yesterday, sleet and a dusting of snow greeted us in the morning and thankfully cleared in time for Johnny and I to get ourselves down to the Riverside to see a very proficient Derby County team almost annihilate Middlesbrough in the first half. A poor Boro team selection, inept tactics and lack of confidence made for a very frustrating first 45 minutes for the home supporters. A considerably better second half saw Boro somehow achieve a draw that in truth they did not deserve. Grit and determination overcame style and substance to level the scores but the final whistle was greeted more with relief than appreciation.
In between these very pleasurable times have been periods of work and reflecting this morning on the experience, more qualitative work has been achieved in these last few days in the absence of the need to write and respond to emails.
That is both enlightening, disheartening, challenging and illuminating. What I make of it and how I respond will remain to be seen, but not until November…

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Book TEN Out of Ten that have Shaped my Life: Theology after Christendom – Forming Prophets for a Post Christian World by Joshua Searle.

The last book in my list is unashamedly an endorsement of my son Joshua’s latest book,
When I read his draft I knew it was a seminal piece of work. It’s a book that if I had had the opportunities, intellectual acumen and time, I would love to have written myself. I haven’t but am very pleased and content that Joshua has used the gifts he possesses to write such an important book that I would commend to everyone. I’d like to think that I made a little contribution to its contents but I can take little credit for the depth and ability Joshua possesses to draw from the realms of theology, philosophy, sociology, history, economics, political theories and literature to write so insightfully on what it means to be a follower of Christ in a changing world.
The author is motivated by compassion. Compassion that comes from God’s heart and his loving and transformative purposes for the world.
The turbulence of the world in which we live should exercise every thinking and caring person. For Christians the task to face fearlessly the challenges of living in a post truth, emerging post-Christendom age, with the attendant global crises, the rise of terrorism and religious fundamentalism, the fragmenting of Europe and the rise of nationalism, populism and the breaking down of Western democracy, is immense.
Joshua’s book seeks to offer a transformative theology and a way for living for all of us in these changing times. He challenges, provokes and encourages the Christian community to embrace the Gospel imperative and to live out the faith and bring hope in an age of cultural despair and moral fragmentation. Theology, insists Joshua, must not be confined to the academic classroom!
The changing times in which we live call for a new vision of Christianity that connects with the crises of our times. As Kate Coleman, a great theologian herself and the founding Director of Next Leadership and a former President of the Baptist Union of Great Britain says of the book;
“Searle’s call for a radical rethink of what often passes for ‘theological training’ is both welcome and long overdue. Many of his assertions expose fundamental shortcomings in historical and current preoccupations that are often bereft of prophetic imagination and revolutionary practice. This is a provocative, faith-full, and deeply passionate book.”
Joshua insists that theology is a transformative enterprise that changes the world. Theology is to be experienced not just behind a desk, in an armchair, or in a church, but also in hospitals, in food banks, in workplaces, and on the streets. Theology is to be lived as well as read.

I could write more but I leave the last words to Joshua himself and sign off this list of 10 books that have shaped my life by thanking Anne Dyer for offering me the challenge and for the many people who have written or messaged me in response to my posts, (apologies that I am unable to respond to everyone – capacity issue). It has been a delightful and encouraging experience and one that I hope has been a source of enrichment to others.

Asked by a magazine editor about his book, Joshua wrote:
“What does theology have to say to the homeless people on the streets of our own cities who die in solitude, unknown and unpitied without anyone even to mourn their loss? What difference does theology make to the lives of children confined to an AIDS orphanage in Eastern Ukraine? How does theology speak into the plight of the starving, the refugee, the dementia patient, the cancer sufferer, or the war-traumatised child in Syria?
What does theology mean to the wretched of the earth, to those without status, wealth, or power? How does theology connect with the lived experience of the poor in spirit?
These are some of the questions I raise in my new book, Theology After Christendom.
For a long time I’ve been frustrated by the usual view that theology is nothing more than a dry academic discipline or a nerdy hobby of a few eccentric Christians. For many people in the world today (especially for so-called ‘millennials’ like me), God seems to have died or is viewed as so boring and irrelevant that they don’t bother to give Him a second thought. I think that part of the reason that God seems to be dead is because he has not been served well by so much modern theology, which has tended to belittle human beings and reduce God to a one-dimensional caricature.
In my book I try to explain that all Christians have a theology; if you’re a Christian, it means you are a theologian – whether you like it or not! This is because theology is simply a technical term that describes the way you think not only about God, but about life’s ultimate questions, such as, ‘What’s the meaning of life? Why am I here? What do I really believe in? What do I hope for? What are my values? Who am I?’, etc.

As I explain in the book, the choice for a Christian is never between either having a theology or not having a theology. The choice, rather, is always between having a good theology or having a bad theology. A good theology is one that is life-giving, life-enhancing, and faithful to the biblical teaching, whereas a bad theology is one that is shallow, thoughtless and life-denying. Therefore, one of the main themes of my book is that theology is not a dry academic discipline, but an inevitable and unavoidable part of the life of every Christian.
Having made this key point, I go on to describe what a good theology looks like in theory and practice. I argue that theology today should be more concerned with what God is doing in the world than with what Christians are doing in churches. In other words, theology needs to put much more emphasis on the Kingdom of God, rather than focusing too narrowly on the church. I make the case that theology should primarily serve not the church, but the Kingdom of God. In simple terms, whereas theology used to say, ‘Church, Church, Church!’, theology today needs to say, ‘Kingdom, Kingdom, Kingdom!’
The future of Christianity today, I argue, depends on whether it can meet the challenges of the new times. The painful travails of living in a secular world and the gradual disestablishment of Christianity from an institution to a movement are like birth pangs that presage the beginning of a new era of hope and renewal.

Amid the prevailing crisis of faith and the apparent dominance of secular humanism in today’s society, I have a presentiment that the genesis of a new Christian movement, unleashed from its institutional church trappings, is under way in the world. The Kingdom of God is poised to break into world history and yield its mighty harvest. The problem is that while the harvest is plentiful, the labourers are few. My hope is that this book will make its own modest contribution to persuading more people to help make the Kingdom of God a visible reality in their own situations.
I confess that in my book I haven’t held back from criticising a lot of what goes on in churches today. I’ve called churches to repent of the ways in which they have so often allowed Christianity to be shackled by demonic religious structures of power and domination, which have inhibited the freedom of the Spirit, suppressed the truth of the gospel and impeded the coming of the Kingdom of God in the world.
The most important chapters from my perspective are chapters 5 and 6, because it’s here that the book starts to unfold a positive vision of the difference that a Kingdom-focused theology could make towards the transformation of the world. Chapter 8 is also significant in this regard, because it’s here that I give the specific example of the Northumbria Community (where I grew up and came to faith) in order to demonstrate what the vision of ‘Church Without Walls’ looks like in practice.
In chapter 6 I offer an outline presentation of a theology that is attuned to the dynamic movement of the Holy Spirit in the world today. The fundamental realities of freedom, compassion, and creativity are proposed as core elements of a transformative theology today. I suggest that these three concepts offer an appropriately Trinitarian focus for theology, since each spiritual reality exemplifies the basic principles of Father (freedom), Son (compassion), and Holy Spirit (creativity), and expresses the unity in diversity of the Sacred Trinity.

While I offer some constructive criticisms, my aim ultimately is not to bring down, but to build up. I hope this is clear from the following words in my conclusion:
‘A day is coming when Christians will finally realise that they are sent by God not to serve and sustain the church, but to redeem the world in the power of Christ’s compassion. In the coming years, we will witness a flowering of solidarity among diverse Christians as the walls of denominationalism and sectarianism come crashing down. Tribal identities will evaporate like the morning dew in the light of God’s glorious new order in which all who follow Jesus will come to see that they are one in Christ. Instead of institutionalised religion, there will be a gospel movement of compassion that expresses itself in a new vision of church without walls. And God will delight in this…’

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Book NINE Out of Ten that have Shaped my Life: Prague Winter – a personal story of remembrance and more, 1937-1948 Madeleine Albright

I have been blessed by many people and experiences that have enriched my life. Among these blessings was the partnership that we shared as a community with IBTS, the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague. The partnership afforded me the opportunity to visit and teach there for several years. I bought Prague Winter because of its title and my interest in politics. It’s author, Madeline Albright, was appointed by Bill Clinton as US Secretary of State during his second term in office from 1997 – 2001. She was born in Prague in 1937. Her father was a Czech diplomat and fled with his family to Britain following the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Following the Second World War the family returned to their homeland only to flee the country again, this time being granted political asylum in the United States in 1949. Fleeing not from the Nazis but the murderous hands of the local Communist Party. Albright’s father, Josef, became the Dean of the University of Denver’s School of International Studies, where interestingly he taught another future Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice.
Albright’s book grabbed my attention from its openings pages. She writes with intelligence and intuition. The book takes us on a journey that includes her compelling personal exploration of her family’s Jewish roots as well as giving the reader an excellent history of Czechoslovakia from 1937 to 1948. The book is insightful and informative and brings vividly to life so many pivotal historical events including descriptions of the German occupation; the assassination of Heydrich “the hangman”, the murder of the heroic Foreign Affairs Minister Jan Masaryk by Czech Stalinists and the subjugation of the country by a communist party that behaved no less brutally than the Nazis. Albright paints a picture of happenings during a period that was to shape the ensuing years that correspond with my lifetime.
And all the time I was reading the book, often sat in a café in Old Town Square in the beautiful city of Prague. Learning about a really important period in history I couldn’t help thinking that without the sanctuary Britain offered Albright and her family she would have died in the Theresienstadt or Auschwitz camps like many of her family members. Instead, she went on to become the first female US Secretary of State. Reflecting on my reading of the book and my travels across Europe in recent years I am mindful and fearful of happenings across the Continent today. The chronicling of happenings that led to conflict and the Second World War, the schemes that fuelled hatred and led to war are being deployed again. Exploiting the prevalent fears, insecurity and ignorance, fanning into flames the seeds of popularism, nationalism and racism, deploying skilful narratives that proport simple ‘solutions’ to capture the hearts and minds of the masses – evidenced in the 1930’s are seen today in Britain and across Europe.
I write this on the morning when our former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson is accusing Theresa May of “wrapping a ‘suicide vest’ around Britain and giving the EU the detonator”. An appalling, dangerous and damaging statement that has been cleverly and strategically released to divert attention from the less than savoury stories that report on his affairs, flings and the ‘love’ children left in his wake. The attack on our Prime Minister follows up his description the other week claiming that “women wearing burkas look like letterboxes and bank robbers”. A statement that triggered attacks on innocent Muslim women. Very disturbing and trouble making.
A Prague Winter addresses not only the past but has some very pertinent things to say to us in a turbulent and troubled Europe today.

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Book EIGHT Out of Ten that have Shaped my Life: Leading Out of Who You Are: Discovering the Secret of Undefended Leadership by Simon P. Walker

I’ve read many helpful books on leadership and Simon Walker’s one-volume trilogy of books on leadership is arguably the best I have come across.
A seminal text from me for both life and faith and certainly in relation to leadership are those words from Proverbs 4:23 Pay attention to your heart for everything you do flows from it. Walker’s books, drawing from biblical, historical, psychological, sociological and ecological insights, are the nearest thing that I can to find to helpfully addressing self-awareness in leadership.
The author encourages readers to be self-aware, to be aware of the background and context and impact of relationships. He deals with issues of the ego, control and defensiveness. His careful, considered arguments are challenging, they subvert so much of our Western culture’s enslavement to leadership images of ‘warriors’. His call for moral leadership is persuasive and so relevant, given the poverty of such leadership in the church and world today.
Conversant with the dynamics of human behaviour, he addresses the key issue of power and argues for a humbler expression of leadership that flows out of leaders who know their own hearts and who understand the power dynamics at work in any interaction between people. He hypothesises how different childhood environments impact different types of leadership: Shaper, Definer, Adapter and Defender, with each of these having a ‘front-stage’ or ‘back-stage’ tendency, similar but not entirely equivalent to introvert-extrovert personality types. Walker contends that leadership is essentially “about who you are, not what you know or what skills you have”.
A deep and insightful work that I have found incredibly useful in my own leadership and observation of others who lead, heightening the sense of responsibility and privilege, opportunities and challenges, pleasures and pitfalls of leading out of who we are, wherever we are. The trilogy has been well summarised by one publishers review: “In the first book he examines the formation of the leadership ego and shows how maintaining a front and backstage derails leaders. In the second book Simon looks at how power is used in leadership, based on eight case studies from history, and draws powerful guidelines for leaders today. In the final book he focuses on the leader’s vision and examines what has caused the current failure of leadership in the West. He points out the direction in which we need to move if life is to flourish in the coming decades”.

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BOOK SEVEN of Ten that have Shaped my Life Community and Growth by Jean Vanier.

A book that I have returned to on so many occasions. My copy is now dogeared and falling apart through constantly referencing it and drawing from it both its inspiration and instructions on community life. Written by somebody who formed and has lived in community, who knows the reality, the joys and pains, struggles and achievements, the hallelujahs, heartache and the harrowings. Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche movement has written several books but this for me, is the classic on community life. A valuable resource not only for those of us who are living within an intentional dispersed new monastic community but for everyone who wants to move beyond the superficiality of many relationships, fellowships and church life to a deeper, authentic way for living with others. Vanier writes out of the deep experience and wisdom that is gleaned over many years of living in the community and is an essential resource, as relevant today as when it was first written back in 1989

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BOOK SIX of Ten that have Shaped My Life. The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I’d come to faith, studied the Bible, read theology and was now pioneering and pastoring a young and growing church.
I’m a simple Geordie bloke who has come to see the faith as embracing the Great Commandment to “love God, neighbour and self” and obeying the Great Commission to “Go and make and disciples of all nations”.
The church culture of the day was one of Church Growth and programmes and strategies were much in evidence, sometimes neglecting the priority to “make disciples”. Jesus will build his church, our task is to make disciples.
Wrestling with these things I returned to a book I’d first come across at Bible college, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. Deep and challenging, a book that I have returned to through the years, not least as a Companion of the Northumbria Community who derive so much inspiration from Bonhoeffer and his call and understanding of new monasticism.
The books is as relevant and challenging today as when it was first published in Germany in the 1930’s. It is a radical statement about what being a disciple of Jesus entails. Discipleship is an essential part of faith, a radical re-orientating of ones life to “follow Christ”.
Bonhoeffer expounds the Sermon on the Mount, the revolutionary manifesto of life that Christ lays before his followers. His straightforward approach to the Sermon on the Mount, as well as other teachings of Jesus, is very refreshing.
The book denounces “cheap grace” and addresses the issues of suffering, evangelism, mediation and peace making. Bonhoeffer’s defining rule for Christian ethics is simple: follow Jesus. The entire book could be summarized with just those two words, “Follow Jesus”. Amen.

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