Salem! Peace! Finding Some in Sarajevo!


I took a trip to Sarajevo, the Olympic City! I left Paris feeling nervous that I’d not care much for this city. Hadn’t war just happened there 20 years ago or something? Would the buildings be full of bullet holes and would poverty be around every corner? Driving from the airport to the center of town did not help change my mood. It was wet and grey and the nondescript apartments that lined the road did little to make me have hope. But my fears were not realized. But something happened, maybe after day two… I fell in love with the people and the city. I saw the hopeful signs of life.

May I tell you of a very personal, but perhaps for you, an odd experience? I do tread a bit here worried of your disapproving frown. Please do not rush to judgement. The rain had finally stopped and I ventured outdoors on my first evening. I was glad to only have to walk for about five minutes into the Old City. Immediately I could feel ancient history on cobbled stoned roads and through narrow alleyways. It didn’t take long to discover that there were many mosques. I had no idea of the make-up of the population. I did not know that over 50 percent of the population were muslim. I had a lot to learn about this land.

While walking further into the old section of town enjoying the architecture of one particular mosque, the call to prayer sounded. I know that sound well because in Thailand I lived near a mosque for years. I had never gone into a mosque there, to my shame! So I listened and caught the call to Prayer on video and watched as a small number of young men went into the mosque to pray. I wanted to go in and observe, but was quite hesitant. “Is it allowed,” I thought? That’s when I caught the eye of a more elderly man motioning me to come in. I pointed to my boots, I knew that they had carpets everywhere. But he motioned and gave me a thumbs up. I followed him in the small well-lit domed mosque. He showed me the proper place to put my boots. And I hesitantly joined the sparse second line of men who had come to pray. And that’s the part you might find that odd, unless you really know me. You see, I am at heart an adventurer and like to see where life and God will take me!

There I was, my first time in a muslim service. No expectations. No knowledge. And no one looked at me weird. At the front facing a wall, Mecca, was a young man in a cleric’s garb. He might have been barely thirty years old. He sang in perfect pitch his prayers beautifully. He then led the men in bowing, holding out the hands in a prayer position and then the literal touching of the head onto the carpet. It felt like humility was happening, the recognition of a greater God and His supremacy over us. And yes, I followed the actions awkwardly eyes open and silently praying to my heavenly Father. Over and over we did this for what seemed like about fifteen or so minutes. And then near the end, when we all were sitting on the carpet, one of the young men grabbed a basket of beads and threw me a set to use in order to recite more prayers. I prayed my own prayers starting with the Lord’s Prayer. Before I knew it everything was over. No sermon. No singing by a congregation, although there was one 30 second solo effort by the same young man who threw me the beads. My first Muslim service was simply participation in the movements of the body, respect for God, and for mostly silent prayer.

Afterwards I shook hands with each young man. One took the time to hug me. Smiles. Camaraderie. The older gentleman who invited me in stayed by my side. He introduced me to another older gentleman who spoke a few words of english. He began pointing at things in the mosque and telling me the meanings. I understood maybe 10 percent of his words. Maybe he was hoping I would convert? He showed me a newspaper article that pictured a Muslim cleric, a Jewish rabbi, a Christian Orthodox priest and a Catholic priest. Was it his way of saying we all need to find ways to love each other? I left that night feeling light. I had prayed. I felt close to my Lord. I used my own words coming from my own heart. This wasn’t at all about religion but the heart. My heart and my God.

The next day I heard the bells of the cathedral ring. It was Catholic Mass. I went to the door to go in and observe. The man at the door told me I couldn’t go in! I said I wanted to observe. He looked at me and said, “No pictures!” And the church was quite full. It was beautiful inside. There was a trio of singers, professional singing. It was pretty, violin and all! But no one joined in, even as I tried to harmonise. The reading of scriptures was done a couple of times. A long sermon. I didn’t understand the words but I was familiar with the structure of the service. I quickly began to be bored as the Dominican priest droned on and on. I wasn’t participating really. There simply was nothing to do but watch others, professionals, do their “holy” thing. And I left that night no lighter and wondering what had just happened? For me, the best answer I can come up with lies in the participation. I was truly invited to participate in the first service. In the second service I was more of a spectator. I enjoyed being in both services, but what I came back with is that participation equals value. Its true of everything in life.

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Diversity is Not Just a Snowflake!


Colossians 3:11 “…where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor snowflake3uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and in all.”

I wonder if we Christians have understood just how radical the forming of new relationships through God’s outpoured grace is? God is not just going about saving souls. His heart from the beginning of time was to establish a new kind of family from every ethnicity; love bonds the world had never before witnessed. In Paul’s letter to the believers in Colossae he writes about God’s family on earth which he calls the body of Christ. He proudly proclaims that the uncultured and uncouth barbarians belonged together in the same family with the wealthy intellectually driven Greeks! He mentions uncircumcised gentiles and Jews being invited to sit at the same table. Slaves, especially, were to be treated with respect and dignity, as family. To most this was preposterous. To Paul this equality was the fulfilment of God’s original strategy.

snowNowhere do we see it more clearly than in Jesus dealings with his own earthly family. Remember the answer given by Jesus when told his concerned mother and brothers wanted a word outside with him? ‘And who are my mother and my brothers,’ he said? His next phrase was about to radically realign relationships on our planet. ‘And looking around at those sitting in a circle about him, he said, “Here are my mother and brothers. Anyone who does the will of my Father, that person is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:34)  This was cataclysmic. With those few words Jesus extended the family beyond Abraham and bloodlines! Jesus pulls us all in and throws out the divisive narrative of difference.

To take it further you might remember the time that Jesus appeared after his resurrection to a couple of friends. They didn’t even recognise Him! The account says He appeared to them in a different form to teach them to recognise Him by the spirit and not by appearance. Jesus also spoke of coming to us in the form of a stranger and complimented our willingness to take him in. (Matthew 25:35)  The Lord comes to us through those who are as different to us as foreigners, but like Paul reminds, He is all and in all.

snowflake4Here’s a simple truth for you to embrace today: The universe tends toward diversity! God loves diversity so much that he made every last one of us different. God knows we need the uniqueness and freshness that each one brings to us. We too, like God, are free to love the creativity that diversity brings. Instead of buttressing ourselves within our own lines of sameness and like-usness, we are permitted, even encouraged, to step out and learn from each other. Be open and expectant! That is such a different posture from the closed stance we were taught which is based on fear. Next time you are in a church or meeting that is not your own look around and say to yourself proudly, “This gathering is more than a belief in the same God, these people are family!”

The apostle Peter revealed that God is building something big and beautiful out of all of us, Anglicans, Baptists, Brethren, Coptics, Catholics, Charismatics, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, and the hundreds of other kinds of Christians.   We are each “Living stones to make a spiritual house.” 1 Peter 2:5  Can we plumb the depths of that sentence? Each rough-edged stone is being fitted. We are not certain how it all will look in the end, nor do we have to. That’s the glory of God. We are pretty sure, though, that the family of God, imperfect as we are, was made to teach the world the beauty of unity in diversity. We haven’t always done such a good job at this, have we? Lets keep at it!

snowflake

 

Your Gifts


“Isn’t everything you have and everything you are sheer gifts from God?”

You might not have given much thought to this question lately but it’s a good question. I’d rather live by a good question than a bad answer.  In case you were wondering, it’s a question from the Bible. Paul wants to bring to light what should be obvious, that what we have and who we are should be understood as sheer gifts from a generous God. See if you can hold your breath and read this entire blog before exhaling!  If you are a speed reader you might be able to, but most of us can’t last long without oxygen. And this invisible air we breathe second by second is gifted to us without cost by another much greater than you and I. You wouldn’t be reading this blog without that perpetual supply of that oxygen! So, no room for entitlement or conceit because life, every part of it, is a gift.

So back to the question, what’s the point of Paul’s asking? To not live by a bad answer: Conceit. Conceit doesn’t recognise gifts. The next step is obvious, too. It doesn’t recognise a giver. I found out that the more I knew the more I knew I didn’t know! So I decided trusting a God I believed was beautiful and generous, albeit cloaked in mystery. I found out I didn’t need to throw away my head to believe and I could give thanks. I simply trusted my heart and let my heart’s response inform my head. Realising that all of life is a gift made trusting the guiding hand of God become easy. That’s not a bad place to start this New Year, by enjoying the generous giver, God.

Now after the weirdness of 2016 lots of people are afraid that 2017 is going to be a harder year yet. Those crazy U.S. elections didn’t help much, right?  Add to that the big bear Putin flexing his Russian muscles and aligning with the Syrian tyrant to destabilise the middle polar-beareast even more than it was. And those poor polar bears so used to running around on ice at this time of the year now find themselves swimming, a lot. It’s a weird world. Not to mention that our personal worlds are full of variables too. Will we lose our jobs, our health or one of our loved ones in 2017? God forbid! Yet even if this were to occur, there is reason to not give up hope.

Though the future may seem out of our control, there is an obvious certainty that we can trust: God is bigger than we. He hasn’t lost sight of us nor control of our universe. It doesn’t mean you and I won’t have to face some hard situations. We will. And hanging tuff through that can mean being a part of the white knuckle club! Yet, humbly, I assert to you that our lives and our days are safe in God’s past movements, present moments and future mercies. We, all of us, are on a trajectory towards greater goodness, healing, wholeness of the likes that will last for an eternity! So take a big deep breath, now exhale, and know that where that breath came from, is the greatest gift of all, God himself.

breath

Family Means…


It had been years since I saw him last. As I passed through customs to retrieve my luggage, I knew he would be waiting for me in the welcome hall. This trip was because of him. I would preach and teach as usual, but this time God wanted me to be a friend to a big-hearted individual. Anton and I go back a long ways. The first time I met him was in 2000 at a church dedication and conference I was speaking at. We were sitting at the same table. He let others do most of the talking. My impression was that he was shy. I had no idea then that this man with a fun loving smile would one day be part of my own destiny.Anton&me

Honestly, Sri Lanka was never a place I thought about visiting. When Ray Faulkner, the Regional Coordinator at the time, asked me to come and speak, I was surprised, but pleased. It was the first of many trips, often with teams from Canada and Thailand. When Pastor Anton became the Superintendent years later he was keen on developing the young people in both the Tamil and Singhalese churches. I wanted to be a part of this embryonic vision! That’s how Sri Lanka became one of my passions.

It has been my honour to speak in many camps and church meetings. I have spent countless hours with this man weaving in and out of Sri Lanka’s notorious traffic. I became familiar with Colombo’s dichotomy of a colonial past and its continued struggle to become an independent nation. I’ve seen the outcome of a civil war and learned about the persecution by a controlling Buddhist population on minority religions. Anton’s own church was hit twice, once with a grenade in 2002 and then with a petrol bomb in 2003, causing damage to the building and vehicles. I visited after the Tsunami destroyed homes and lives. From the beautiful southern City of Galle to the breathtaking tea estates in the highlands of Candy and Nuwara Eliya Anton and I have laughed generously, cried some, prayed and told each other God-story after God-story.

A lot had changed since I last saw Anton in 2013. I knew he had been through some deep waters. Being a pastor and leader carries a heavy price. While he groaned many prayers, shed many tears, and lost weight, I was going through my own transition. Brain surgery changed drastically the direction of my life and our family transitioned in 2013, first to Germany for a year and then to France. But we kept in touch, as best as one could, considering the distances and circumstances. This year he reached out to me and yearned to lead his church for a time of retreat. I wanted to bring a team from Canada and speak too. Unfortunately the expenses were far too great for the abilities of the congregation to organise a camp on their own. I could neither find a team, nor funds for a camp. My first thought was, “Should I just forget about it and cancel?”  It made sense to say, “Next year, Anton!”

My heart was heavy as I prayed and I knew I was giving up too easily on Anton and his family. I let the Lord know about my desire and my personal financial situation. I felt led to I reach out to an individual, asking humbly if there was any way he could help me with travel. When he agreed, I reached out to another friend for help with some of the logistical expenses. The trip began to take shape. I was pumped. I would spend a week with Anton and his church and a day at a youth camp as well.

Leaving the airport we made our way into crowded Colombo. The traffic was as bad as I had ever seen. Everyone was shopping before the New Year celebrations would close shop. We spent the next three hours chatting away and missing where we were supposed to turn. I reminisced how the last time I visited we were slated to do a Youth Conference but only a few kids showed up. I found out in our car ride that many pastors had boycotted the camp. I never knew how much Anton felt betrayed and deflated. We did a shortened version of the camp there anyway. On our way to the hotel Anton shared how that over the years he was looking for a father figure; his own dad left with another woman when he was 12 years old. At first he wanted a kind of fatherly relationship from me, but as we spent time together he realised we could become real friends.

I prepared well for this trip while in France and was ready for our church meetings on Sunday and Monday. My theme was ‘Transformation’ and emphasised how God does His best work in our lives  when we go through difficult situations. Our teachers are darkness, wounds and pain. If we avoid the blame game we gain insight into our own blind spots and ego. It leads to finding our true identity in Christ. The second day I was blessed by an even larger group and continued to speak on how a changed identity provides security, transparency and a willingness to be vulnerable in family. When Jesus was told that his

Anton &I preaching

Sharing in the church.

brothers and mothers were outside wanting to speak to him, he asked those sitting inside, “Who are my brothers and mother?” No one was prepared for that shocking answer as Jesus realigned what true family would look like in his kingdom. “Anyone who does the will of my Father are my brothers and mother,” he answered!

 

Even as I was speaking my revelation of family was growing clearer. I had always loved travel and meeting people of different cultures. Now I was beginning to see how brothers in Christ should view and treat each other. We say no to slander, divisiveness and stumble together towards grace. It is the only way. We refuse to allow opinions, skin colour, racial or economic biases or jealousy to wreak havoc on the family. The world has been waiting a long time to see such a family. Unfortunately we have showed them a lot less of that. The response to these messages was encouraging.

After four nights in a hotel Anton announced to me his home was ready to receive me. An air conditioner was installed, rented by the day! His three kids painted the walls, moved in Anton’s and Silverine’s own mattress, bought new pillows and sheets and welcomed me home proudly. I saw his family up close. I heard Anton address his wife and children with unfamiliar words. I wanted to know why? He taught me the meaning of these Singhalese words. I asked him how do friends address each other. You see, from my first visit to Sri Lanka I’ve been addressed as Pastor Peter every day, every time, by every single person, including Anton. I wanted to drop the formalities. After thinking a bit he found the word, “machang.” “This,” he said, “is what good friends call each other.” And of course I decided to use that word at the dinner table. “Machang, can you pass the curry?” I waited to see the reaction. It was laughter, appreciation and it was appropriate.

Anton Murphy and I

Anton and I for the evening ritual of sitting outside to relax.

This tall thin white visitor and this short chubby dark-skinned local were now friends and we were a microcosm of the true family of God.

 

I left a bit of my heart in Colombo on this trip. My hope for the church in Sri Lanka has been renewed. The church carries a great responsibility to show its population what our true identity is. It has nothing to do with buildings and rituals. It is above all a receiving of Christ’s identity, participating in His very life and grace.  It took a long trip to a tear-shaped island in the Indian Ocean for me to rediscover a life hid in Christ in God looks like love.