Nature by Numbers (Part Two)

We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment. And when it comes to the church, he organizes and holds it together, like a head does a body.” (Colossians 1:15-18, The Message)

Paul says in Colossians that in Christ all things hold together. In Part One of this blog, I tried to explain an example of this in how the Fibonacci numbers are found in the natural world. Now in Part Two, I will try to do the same for the Golden Ratio, a ratio that is found both in the natural world and in arts created by human beings.

What is the Golden Ratio?

In Part One, we saw that the Fibonacci Sequence is a sequence of numbers that starts with 1 and 1 and in which the next number is obtained by adding the two previous ones. 1 + 1 = 2, 1 + 2 = 3, 2 + 3 = 5, 3 + 5 = 8 so the sequence is 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, … and so on ad infinitum.

Before we go any further, I suggest that you stop reading at this point and view a 7:31 minute TED talk entitled ‘The (ab)surd golden ratio’ by Robb Enzmann‘ of Miami University.

I hope you found that informative and enjoyable. Now for more on how this ratio links with the Fibonacci numbers and how it occurs in the natural world.

The Golden Ratio and the Fibonacci numbers

As Professor Enzmann shows in the TED talk, as we go through the Fibonacci numbers dividing each one by the one before it, the answers converge on a number that begins 1.6180339887 …..

1/1 = 1, 2/1 = 2, 3/2 = 1.5, 5/3 = 1.666…, 8/5 = 1.6, 13/8 = 1.625, 21/13 = 1.61538…

This number is an irrational number like pi (π). In other words, it goes on for ever and cannot be expressed as a fraction for any whole numbers. (0.33333… goes on for ever but it can be expressed as 1/3.) The Golden Ratio is represented by the Greek letter phi (φ).

This can be presented visually by making a picture starting with two small squares of size 1×1 next to each other. On top of them, we can draw a 2×2 square. Beside them we can then draw a 3×3 square and below them a 5×5 square and so on for as long as we like.

Each addition of a square makes the whole into a rectangle – 3×2, 5×3, 8×5, 13×8,… . As the process continues, the whole approximates more and more closely to a rectangle with sides in ratio 1.6180339887… to 1, i.e. a Golden Rectangle.

Golden Spirals in nature

The quarter circles shown above inside the squares form a spiral that approximates to what is known as the Golden Spiral or Phi Spiral.

This spiral often appears in the natural world. Examples include the shapes of sea shells and the shells of snails. The Nautilus sea shell is a frequently quoted and pictured example.

I have seen accounts which say this spiral is also seen in the shape of water spiralling down a drain, waves on the sea, hurricanes, and spiral galaxies. However, I notice that such examples are not usually mentioned by mathematicians so I am hesitant about saying that this is definitely the case. As Ian Stewart says, the literature can be “long on speculation but short on fact”.[1]

One undisputed example is in the case of the spirals we met in Part One – the spirals in seed heads and florets of composite flowers, e.g., the flower pictured at the top of this blog. The angle between primordial cells in the growth of the plant is crucial to the optimal packing of florets or seed heads and this angle is 137.5 degrees and is known as the Golden Angle. Only this angle leads to seeds with no overlaps or gaps. This is represented beautifully in Cristobal Vila’s ‘Nature by Numbers’ video (starting at 1:40 minutes).

At this point, I want to sing with Louis Armstrong (with tears in my eyes as he had in his!) ‘What a Wonderful World’!

The Golden Ratio in Architecture, Art, Music, …

The Golden Ratio has been known since the days of Pythagoras and Euclid. In his TED talk, Robb Enzmann says that it was known to the Mayans. It is therefore possible that it was known from early times by some architects, painters, sculptors, musicians and poets and deliberately incorporated in their work. On the other hand, there are many who hail the Golden Rectangle as the shape most pleasing to the eye and claim that it therefore is likely to occur naturally in artistic creations without deliberate and conscious intention.

The idea that the Golden Rectangle is the most pleasing shape is open to criticism. In his TED talk, Rob Erzmann quotes research done in the 19th century when people were given a group of rectangles and asked to pick their favourite one. The one he picks out on the screen as being most often chosen is not the Golden Rectangle. However, not knowing about any such research, I often gave this task to students when I was teaching Mathematics and I have to say they usually chose the Golden Rectangle!  Perhaps they had read up about it in advance and just wanted to give the answer their teacher expected!

Closeness of approximations to phi is also an issue. Mathematicians tend to shudder when they see phi rounded down to 1.6 and claims made that Golden Rectangles are present on the basis of such rough approximations. They tend to be happier with the observation that the proportions of the credit card are very close to the Golden Ratio. Did it just happen that way … or was that ratio deliberately chosen?

Architecture: Golden Rectangles are claimed to exist in buildings as old as the Parthenon of Athens and the Great Pyramid of Giza. The approximations are reasonably good but there no documents to show whether this was intentional.

In modern times, the Swiss architect Le Corbusier and others have intentionally made use of the Golden Ratio in their designs.

The Core, the education building at Cornwall’s Eden Project, was inspired by the plant architecture of sunflower heads. Eden’s director of learning, Dr Jo Readman, says, “We wanted a building the shape of a sunflower and the size of a spaceship. Nature has a fundamental blueprint which goes beyond DNA. We have translated that blueprint into the structure of this amazing building.”

Painting and Sculpture: Close approximations to the Golden Rectangle may exist in the work of da Vinci, Michelangelo, Seurat and Mondrian. Some cubist and modern painters, e.g., Salvador Dali in his The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, have deliberately sought to use the Golden Rectangle in their work.

Ron Knott says that there are clearly Golden Ratios in Graham Sutherland’s huge tapestry of ‘Christ the King’ behind the altar in Coventry Cathedral.

Music: The Golden Ratio has also been claimed to exist in the compositions of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Schubert, Debussy and Bartók. Some modern composers have deliberately sought to use Fibonacci numbers in their work.

In an interesting video entitled ‘The Golden Ratio and Fibonacci Sequence in Music’, classical pianist Nahre Sol and drummer LA Buckner discuss what are called ‘Phi moments’. These occur when the climax of a piece of music occurs at a point in the whole that lands close to the Golden Ratio. Examples they give include ‘Under Pressure’ by Queen and David Bowie and ‘In My Feelings’ by Drake and they suggest that Phi moments occur naturally and these musicians weren’t “writing songs with calculators by their sides”.

What should we conclude from all this? It is clearly the case that many creative people find the Golden Rectangle to be a pleasing shape albeit not necessarily the most pleasing shape. Their art deliberately imitates nature and therefore reflects natural beauty.  On the other hand, even though exaggerated claims are often made by the over-enthusiastic who see the Golden Ratio everywhere, it seems to me quite likely that human creativity should unconsciously and without deliberate intent manifest these beautiful proportions. They are clearly there in the natural world and most clearly in the plant kingdom so it is hardly surprising that they should be present in works of human creation. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world!

Let us pray

Creator God, we thank you for the wonderful and beautiful world you have made and for the beauty of so much architecture, paintings, sculptures, music, song, poetry that we human beings, made in your image, have made and do make. Help us to recognise and appreciate beauty wherever we find it and to discover and employ our own creative gifts. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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[1] Ian Stewart, ‘Nature by Numbers’, The Times, 5 May 2011.

Nature by Numbers (Part One)

We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment. And when it comes to the church, he organizes and holds it together, like a head does a body.” (Colossians 1:15-18, The Message)

Paul says in Colossians that in Christ all things hold together. You may find it strange that I am going to Mathematics to find one way in which this is true. Please bear with me even if you are one of the too many who, sadly, have had bruising experiences of the subject. I hope that what follows may be redemptive for you as I try to explain the truly amazing, even mind-blowing, Fibonacci Sequence and how it is to be found in the natural world.

Who was Fibonacci?

Fibonacci was an Italian mathematician who was known also as Leonardo of Pisa and who was born at about the time that Pisa’s famous tower was being constructed in the 1170s. As the son of a merchant trader, he travelled widely around the Mediterranean coast. This brought him into contact with the Hindu-Arabic system of numbering and we have him to thank that our number system is not any longer the Roman one of I, II, III, IV, V, …! (Your experience of Mathematics might have been even more bruising!)

What is the Fibonacci Sequence?

The Fibonacci Sequence is a sequence of numbers that starts with 1 and 1 and in which the next number is obtained by adding the two previous ones. 1 + 1 = 2, 1 + 2 = 3, 2 + 3 = 5, 3 + 5 = 8 so the sequence is 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, … and so on ad infinitum.

Before we go any further, I suggest that you stop reading at this point and view a very beautiful 3:43 minute video entitled ‘Nature by Numbers’ by Cristobal Vila.

I hope you enjoyed that. Now for some detail of how these numbers occur in the natural world.

Flower petals

On many flowers, the number of petals is a Fibonacci number. For example, irises and lilies usually have 3 petals, buttercups have 5, delphiniums and clematis have 8, ragwort and corn marigolds have 13, asters have 21. Daisies usually have 34, 55 or 89 petals. Sunflowers usually have 55, 89 or 144 petals.

It is important to note that there are also ‘non-Fibonacci’ flowers. However, as mathematician Ian Stewart of Warwick University puts it, “the plant kingdom seems to have an inordinate fondness for Fibonacci numbers”.[1] Where flowers have varying numbers of petals, the average number for a particular species is often a Fibonacci number.

Seed heads

Fibonacci numbers are also found in the way seeds are arranged on flower heads and florets are arranged in composite flowers (‘composite’ because what appears to be a single flower is a composite of smaller flowers). Viewed from above, the seed heads and florets seem to form spirals curving both to the left and to the right. Counting the number of spirals in both clockwise and anticlockwise directions, they are almost always neighbouring Fibonacci numbers (e.g., 13 and 21, 21 and 34). An example often found on websites discussing this is a beautiful picture of a coneflower daisy.

Neighbouring Fibonacci numbers can also be seen with pinecones (usually 8 and 13) and even with the common cauliflower (5 and 8 spirals). Pineapples have hexagonal scales which tend to exhibit three sets of spirals in consecutive Fibonacci numbers (usually 5 gradual, 13 moderate and 21 steep spirals).

The reason why this happens is that these arrangements mean that all the seeds or florets are uniformly packed in the heads or composite flowers.

Leaf arrangements

Fibonacci numbers can also be found in how the leaves of plants are often arranged around their stems. Looking down from above, the leaves are arranged so that leaves above do not hide those below. This means that each gets sunlight and catches rain.

On his very comprehensive web pages about the Fibonacci numbers, mathematician Ron Knott of the University of Surrey describes this phenomenon:

“The Fibonacci numbers occur when counting both the number of times we go around the stem, going from leaf to leaf, as well as counting the leaves we meet until we encounter a leaf directly above the starting one. If we count in the other direction, we get a different number of turns for the same number of leaves. The number of turns in each direction and the number of leaves met are three consecutive Fibonacci numbers!”

This is not easy to visualise and check. Ron Knott accompanies his explanation with some helpful pictures

Professor Knott goes on to say that has been estimated that “90 per cent of all plants exhibit this pattern of leaves involving the Fibonacci numbers”. I hope you can now see why Ian Stewart said that the plant kingdom seems to have an inordinate fondness for Fibonacci numbers.

In Part Two of this blog, we will go on to look at the Golden Ratio which underlies the Fibonacci numbers and how it is to be found in the natural world and in the arts created by human beings.

In preparation for Part Two, you may like to view a 7:31 minute TED talk entitled ‘The (ab)surd golden ratio’ by Robb Enzmann of Miami University. His aim is “to bring the fun part of math into the layperson’s life by exploring one of nature’s most fascinating numbers: The Golden Ratio”. Does he succeed? I leave that to you to judge.

Let us pray.

Lord, for those of us who believe that everything has its source in you and holds together in you, the occurrence of these numbers in nature encourages our faith in you. We thank you for the wonderful and beautiful world that you have made. Help us all to care for it. Amen.

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[1] Ian Stewart, ‘Nature by Numbers’, The Times, 5 May 2011.

It’s about Time!

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No, this isn’t an impatient plea for the easing of lockdown! In fact, I think that here in the UK we started lockdown too late and that we’re possibly relaxing it too early.

But this piece is about lockdown and, in particular, about our experience of time in lockdown and our perceptions of it.

Strange things seem to be happening to how we perceive time. The position of the hands on the clock doesn’t seem to matter as much as it normally did. We seem to have a distorted image of time. It’s a bit like the melting clock faces in Salvador Dali’s painting ‘The Persistence of Memory’.

I’m going to talk briefly about three aspects of our experience of time in lockdown.

  1. Changed rhythms of life

The first is about the changed rhythms of life that we are experiencing. Human, animal and plant life all have their rhythms. There are the rhythms of day and night, weekdays and weekends, months, seasons, and years. There is the rhythm of annual festivals and celebrations.

Talking of seasons, Val and I lived in East Africa for a year. We were about two degrees north of the Equator. When we came back home after that year, we noticed just how good it is to have the rhythm of the seasons. It was something that we had missed for that year.

Of course, in lockdown there are some new rhythms! Here in the UK we have been going outside our homes at 8.00 pm every Thursday to clap in appreciation of the work of people in our National Health Service, people on the frontline in the battle with the coronavirus.

The rhythms of life have a powerful beat as Sammy Davis Jnr sang years ago. The beat of those rhythms is slower in lockdown!

Even though we have slowed down and been putting less pressure on ourselves, it seems, as we look back, that time in lockdown has been passing surprisingly quickly.

It is surprising because when everything stays the same (our activities, our location), time seems to pass slowly. We give more attention to time and the more attention we give to it, the slower it seems to go. A watched pot never boils!

However, in retrospect as we look back upon the weeks or months of lockdown, it all seems to have gone very quickly. This seems to be because there have been fewer changes, fewer new memories being made, fewer landmarks in time.

Even if we are busy with Zoom meetings all day, we are still in the same location. There is still that sameness which feels slow to experience while we are going through it but seems to have gone very quickly when we look back upon it.

The rhythm of work and rest is especially important. The first blog I wrote back at the beginning of the year before we knew that all these changes were coming was entitled ‘Green spaces in time’. We need those green spaces.

The Sabbath is the climax of the week for Jewish people. Sadly, our UK government is considering totally relaxing the Sunday trading laws for the sake of the economy and people’s jobs.

Let’s be thankful for the rhythms of life and let’s make space for God-filled moments in those rhythms!

2. Irreversibility of time      

A second aspect of our experience of time is of its irreversibility. The arrow of time goes irresistibly in one direction only.

Isaac Watts in his old hymn ‘O God our Help in ages past’ talked of time as being “like an ever-rolling stream” bearing all of us away.

As we see the daily statistics of how many people have died and as we hear the news of deaths of friends or acquaintances as a result of coronavirus infection, we become very aware of mortality, very aware of the irreversibility of time.

Henri Bergson said that the most naked experience we have of time is that of a death and a birth occurring together.[1] Thirteen years ago, in March, my mother passed  away and, in less than a month, our second grandson was born. Dylan came into our lives. I had that very definite feeling of the past being gone and irretrievable and the future opening up with all its possibilities, all its promises.

Let’s remember, as we contemplate this arrow of time, this irresistible movement of time, that Christ is risen and because he is risen, we can have the possibility of resurrection ourselves.

3. Uncertainty about the Future

A third aspect of our experience of time is of total uncertainty about the future. We feel almost as if we are backing into the future. The Ancient Greeks and the Mesopotamians thought of the future as being behind them. They were reversing towards it and the past was in front of them. They could look over the past and contemplate it.

Our modern western notion of time has us facing the future and the past is very definitely behind us. Our younger son, Gareth, was just a little boy when, one day, he was searching for the word ‘yesterday’ and couldn’t get it. He said “the day at the back of this one”! In saying that, he showed that he had already imbibed the notion that the future is something that we are moving towards or something that is moving towards us and that the past is behind us.

In our experience of lockdown and this total uncertainty about the future, about what’s going to happen about our jobs, about the economy, about when we are going to be able to have our loved ones come to visit us in our homes again, it is as if we are rowing facing back rather than forward. We can see where we’ve come from and we don’t know where we’re going.

Of course, in a rowing boat, although the rowers are looking back, there is a cox and he is always looking forward. He or she is steering the boat and coordinating the power and rhythm of the rowers.

As we go backwards into the future and wonder what may be coming, we need a cox. The biblical image is not that of a cox in a rowing boat but that of a shepherd.

Psalm 23 says that the Lord is my shepherd. Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd”. The shepherd doesn’t drive the sheep before him. He goes in front and leads the sheep … and they follow.

I love the Russian translation of ‘good shepherd’ as ‘dobryy pastyr’. I love the sound of those words when spoken by Russian-speaking followers of the Good Shepherd.

We need the cox in our rowing boat, we need the Good Shepherd. We can trust him as he goes on in front of us. We know not what the future holds for us but we can know who holds the future.

I conclude with a prayer, quite a long prayer. It was written by Robert Banks. He is an Australian writer and it is in his book, The Tyranny of Time.[2]

Let us pray.

A Prayer about Time

God our Father, you are the maker of everything that exists, the Author of the world of nature and of all living things, the Creator of both space and time.

Without you there would be no past, present or future; no summer or winter, spring or autumn, seedtime or harvest; no morning or evening, months or years.

Because you give us the gift of time we have the opportunity to think and to act, to plan and to pray, to give and to receive, to create and to relate, to work and to rest, to strive and to play, to love and to worship.

Too often we forget this and fail to appreciate your generosity: we take time for granted and fail to thank you for it, we view it as a commodity and ruthlessly exploit it, we cram it too full or waste it, learn too little from the past or mortgage it off in advance, we refuse to give priority to those people and things which should have chief claim upon our time.

Help us to view time more as you view it, and to use it more as you intend: to distinguish between what is central and what is peripheral, between what is merely pressing and what is really important, between what is our responsibility and what can be left to others, between what is appropriate now and what will be more relevant later.

Guard us against attempting too much because of a false sense of our indispensability, a false sense of ambition, a false sense of rivalry, a false sense of guilt, or a false sense of inferiority: yet do not let us mistake our responsibilities, underestimate ourselves, fail to be stimulated by others, overlook our weaknesses, or know our proper limits.

Enable us also to realise that important though this life is, it is not all, that we should view what we do in the light of eternity, not just our limited horizons, that we ourselves have eternal life now.

God our Father, you are not so much timeless as timeful, you do not live above time so much as hold ‘all times … in your hand’, you have prepared for us a time when we will have leisure to enjoy each other and you to the full, and we thank you, appreciate you and applaud you for it.


The story of the grandmother and granddaughter in the photo is told in my blog ‘Knowing of the Third Kind’. The photo is used with the kind permission of Canadian Guardian journalist Daniel Brown.

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please EITHER (1) email me through the contact address on this website OR (2) message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook.

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[1] Quoted in Paul Fraisse, The Psychology of Time, 1964, p. 281.

[2] Robert Banks, The Tyranny of Time, 1983, pp. 200-201.

My Favourite Hymn … albeit with a ‘but’

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I have drawn up a short list of my favourite six or seven hymns and songs. They include both the more traditional older hymns like Amazing Grace and Dear Lord and Father and also some of the more modern contemporary songs like In Christ Alone and The Servant King.

Actually, talking about what is ‘modern’ can be open to question. Back in 2003, I was teaching philosophy of education for a semester in Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was standing in for one of their folk who was on sabbatical. One day in a session with a group of students, we were thinking about the topic of humility and the contrast between the attitude of Aristotle who regarded humility as a vice and the example of Jesus who washed the disciples’ feet. Towards the end of the session, I put up on the screen the words of The Servant King because it was a song that the students didn’t know. We scrolled down through the verses to the end and, at the bottom of the slide, the year in which the song was written was shown. Then one of the students, a young man named Brian from California who was a great person to have in the group because of his wonderful sense of humour and a very gentle manner, said, “Professor Shortt” (everyone is a professor in American colleges – even people like me!) “you said this was a modern song? You do realise that song was written before any of us were born?!” It was a case of how to make a happy man very old! It was an unforgettable experience.

So what is modern or contemporary probably depends on how old or young you are. But my most favourite hymn is actually in between. It is a kind of bridge between the ancient and the modern, the traditional and the contemporary. The original version was written in Swedish back in 1885. In the early 1900s, it was translated first into German and then from German to Russian. In the 1930s and 1940s, an English missionary in western Ukraine discovered it and began to work on translating it into English and adding verses to it. In the 1950s it was discovered by the Billy Graham team and popularised by George Beverly Shea in the Billy Graham evangelistic events in the mid and late 50s.

You have probably guessed what it is. Yes, it is How Great Thou Art.

I’ve been asking myself why does this one stand out from the six or seven on the list or, indeed, all the hymns and songs that I’ve learned through the years, the decades.

Admittedly it has got a great tune but a great tune isn’t enough to make it stand out. What is it about the words that makes it so special to me?

1. Resonates with childhood formative experiences

I’ve come to the conclusion that, for a start, it resonates with many of my childhood experiences, those formative experiences that make the adult I became. The child is father or mother of the adult.

The hymn talks about seeing the stars. As a youngster I would go out and look up at the stars. No light pollution dimming the sight in rural Ireland in those days. Every month, the Irish Times newspaper published a map of the night sky. I remember the excitement of seeing Sputnik crossing the sky.

It also talks about going through the woods and hearing the birds in the trees. On the farm on which I grew up, there were woods and groves of trees.  I loved to wander and I loved to listen to the song of the birds, even to the less tuneful ones like the corncrake or the sound of the drumming of the snipe as it swooped down through the air.

It also talks about a brook. We had a brook called the Ballyfinboy River that flowed through the farm. My brothers and I loved to go and play in it. We built a dam of rocks to raise the water level so that we could begin to learn to swim. Mention of a brook is therefore very evocative for me.

The hymn also talks about looking down from lofty mountain grandeur. There weren’t very high mountains near where I lived. There were some but I guess mountaineers would call them hills. One of them was called the Devil’s Bit Mountain because it had two high-up bits with a hollow in between (see picture above). Our father and mother took my brothers and me up there and we looked down from that lofty mountain and tried to work out where our farm was away in the distance.

There are all these things to do with Creation, to do with nature, to do with the wonderful world that God made. They certainly go towards making it a hymn that I love, that I can respond to.

Not only that because it goes on to talk about how Jesus bled and died to take away my sin. That has resonances for me as well from childhood.

I was about seven years old and we had a mission in our little church. The Reverend Kenny came as the visiting speaker. It was at Easter time and I can remember sitting in a service on Good Friday with my family. He was up in the pulpit and he was talking about how Jesus died for our sins. I remember sitting there and feeling that he was talking about me and about my life and things that I have done and said and thought. I was feeling really uncomfortable at the thought that Jesus bled and died to take away my sin.

Reverend Kenny also visited our farm and I showed him the dolmen, a prehistoric site. He was interested in it but he took me to a tree that was lying on the ground nearby. He pointed out the thick tendrils of ivy that had climbed up around the tree and brought it crashing to the ground. He said, “John, sin is like the ivy on that tree. If you don’t do something about it, it can climb up and choke you and kill you.”

There are those Creation resonances for me and also those biblical spiritual resonances in this hymn.

I also used to listen to Radio Luxembourg on 208 metres medium wave because it was the only station that broadcast popular music in those days. Every evening from 7.00 to 7.30, it also had Christian programmes. One of them was called ‘The Hour of Decision’ with a speaker called Billy Graham. (I wondered why it was called that when it only lasted half an hour.) How Great Thou Art was probably played on many occasions on that programme but I have no clear recollection of that.

I think it is one of my favourite hymns because of those resonances with childhood experiences, experiences that have formed me and made me the person that I became in adult life.

2. Connected with early days as a committed Christian

I think it is also my favourite because it is connected with my early days as a committed Christian. I had left home and moved to work in Dublin and I came to trust the Lord and to realise that I was forgiven because he bled and died. That is when I would really have got to know How Great Thou Art and other gospel hymns in services in the YMCA and churches in Dublin.

In fact, George Beverly Shea himself came to Dublin to sing in a concert in the YMCA. The demand for places was so great that it was a tickets-only event and I was given the responsibility of checking that people had their tickets before they went in. That was an amazing evening.

How Great Thou Art would have become so meaningful to me at that time and that meaningfulness has continued through the years, through the decades, right down to the present day.

3. Leads me to look forward to the world to come

Thirdly, I think it is my favourite hymn because it leads me to look forward to the world that is to come. The great last verse goes, “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation …”.

Here’s the ‘but’ because it goes on, “And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart”. For me, that suggests something that is not quite right. It suggests that Jesus is going to come back and take us away from this world, this earth. However, as I read the Bible, that is not how it is going to be. The Bible talks about new heavens and a new earth. It talks about Creation groaning to be released from its captivity. It talks about Jesus rising from the dead with a physical body and 1 Corinthians 15 says that we will rise and we will have new bodies. We will be physical beings. We won’t be spirits sitting on clouds playing harps!

I’m therefore not altogether happy with those words “And take me home”. In his book Surprised by Hope, Tom Wright suggests that they could be replaced by “And heal this world”. When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation and heal this world, what joy shall fill my heart!

God comes down to live with us!

Revelation 21:1-5 (NIV)

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.

‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Let us pray.

O Lord our God, how great you are! Thank you for the wonderful world you made. Thank you that you are going to make it all new. Thank you for your Son who bled and died to take away our sin, who rose again and who is coming again. O Lord our God, how great you are!

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Seekers of Shalom

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Following on from last week’s piece about shalom, the focus this week is on three examples of contemporary seekers of shalom. But first we go back to the time of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah in Jerusalem and to something he said in a letter to friends about seventeen hundred miles away in another city.

By the rivers of Babylon

In his letter, Jeremiah urged his friends to “seek the shalom of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7). However, this city wasn’t Jerusalem (whose name means ‘city of peace’) but Babylon!

Babylon! Jeremiah, you have got to be joking! We just want to get away from this awful place of captivity. We want to be back in Jerusalem, back home in Zion.

Alongside Babylon’s rivers
    we sat on the banks; we cried and cried,
    remembering the good old days in Zion.

Alongside the quaking aspens
    we stacked our unplayed harps;
That’s where our captors demanded songs,
    sarcastic and mocking:
 “Sing us a happy Zion song!”

Oh, how could we ever sing God’s song
    in this wasteland?

(Psalm 137:1-4, The Message. Some of you may be hearing in your inner ear Boney M’s seventies hit ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’.)

Jeremiah, you can’t be serious! This city is the largest in the world just now and the Hanging Gardens are truly a wonder but who are we among so many who do not worship the Lord? And if we call for justice and shalom and plead on behalf of the poor and marginalised, we are likely under this autocratic rule to be thrown into a den of hungry lions or burnt to a frazzle in a fiery furnace!

You still say we are to seek the shalom of Babylon? Why? Because, you say, it is the Lord who has put us here, it is the Lord who has carried us into exile.

Okay, Jeremiah, if you put it like that, we will sing the Lord’s song in this wasteland, poor and few though we may be. We will seek shalom in all our relationships.

And they did … and the book of Daniel tells us more about some of them.

Two shalom-seekers you may have heard about

I turn now to three contemporary seekers of shalom, two of whom I interviewed for recent blogs.

The work of Joe and Sharon Donnelly and their team in the Anchorage Project in Dublin’s docklands was featured in ‘Meet Joe Donnelly: Champion of Hope’. Their renovation of an old mission hall by the River Liffey to create the Fair-Play Café and its beautiful and restful garden was surely seeking shalom in a wasteland.

Joe says that when the Lord led them to that place, the mission hall that he had vandalised as a teenager and the space behind in which he and his friends had cider parties, “I was appalled at the thought that the Lord would want me to take on the old mission hall … I just felt that it was the last place on the planet I would go to”.

Surely not here in Babylon, the exiles must have said. Surely not here in Ringsend, Joe said.

Part of the meaning of shalom is community and community has been from the start one of the four core values of Joe’s project. Perhaps at no time has that value been to the fore as clearly as in these days of pandemic. The team with volunteer help are “cooking for the cocooned in the community” as they have expanded their long-standing ‘Share your Lunch’ initiative by preparing and distributing lunch packs to 150 homes of people who are shut in because of the coronavirus.

Charles Strohmer is another contemporary seeker of shalom. His work was featured in ‘Meet Charles Strohmer: Champion of Wisdom’.

As a young man, Charles was an astrologer who consulted the spirit guides and sought to help people to tell the future by reading the horoscopes he prepared for them. He is now a sage who seeks the guidance of the Holy Spirit as he researches the norms of biblical wisdom and shares them with people who are active in efforts to promote international peace and justice.

Charles is a true shalom-seeker among shalom-seekers and their work is for shalom not just in a single city but in the wide spaces of diplomacy and international relations.

In this time of pandemic, Charles says, “whether we are talking about cities or counties or countries, the wisdom tradition can help politicians, medical people, and other kinds of COVID-19 decision makers to be more on the same page helping us ordinary citizens to get through this difficult season with less divisiveness, in order to work together for the good of our countries”.

Teaching Mathematics for Shalom!

Turning from the two very different contexts of a Dublin docklands community and international diplomacy, we come to that of a college mathematics classroom. There we find Francis Su, the Benediktsson-Karwa Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California who was the first person of colour to be president of the Mathematical Association of America.

Francis is a keen Christian and a hymn-writer. His section of the college website contains an Advent hymn of his entitled ‘Light of Life’.

‘Mathematics for Human Flourishing’ is the title of both his book published last January and a speech he gave in 2017 at the end of his term as MAA president that gave birth to the book. James Tanton of the Global Math Project says, “This is perhaps the most important mathematics book of our time. Francis Su shows mathematics is an experience of the mind and, most important, of the heart.”

Francis Su’s book is aimed at a wide readership and especially at those who have had a bruising experience of mathematics. His central concern is to show that mathematics is intimately tied to being human because it meets basic human desires and cultivates virtues which are essential if we are to flourish together in shalom. He writes, “To say shalom to someone is to wish that they will flourish and live well” (p. 10).

Each chapter deals with a different desire exploration, meaning, play, beauty, permanence, truth, struggle, power, justice, freedom, community and love – as well as with the virtues it calls forth. For example, the desire to explore encourages the virtues of imagination, creativity and an expectation of enchantment; the desire for meaning encourages story building, thinking abstractly, persistence and contemplation; and the desire for community encourages hospitality, attention to people and vulnerability.

The last chapter is about love of which Francis writes:

“love is the source of and end of all virtue, for it sits at the heart of every virtue—even the ones that mathematics builds. To love through and because of mathematics is to build hopefulness, to cultivate creativity, to promote reflection, to foster a thirst for deep knowledge and deep investigation, to encourage in ourselves and one another a disposition toward beauty and all the other virtues we’ve discussed.” (p. 206)

He goes on to say that this love has to be unconditional love because “only this kind of love has the promise of changing the practice of mathematics from a self-indulgent pursuit to a force for human flourishing. … Unconditional love reminds us that to love someone is to really know them, to get to know not just their mathematical selves but their whole person.”

As one who had a wonderful nineteen years as a teacher of mathematics, I readily identify with the ideals that Francis Su writes about and only lament the degree to which I so often fell short and failed to display or encourage these virtues.

Your context may not be that of a docklands community, international diplomacy or classroom teaching but, whatever it is, it is where the Lord has put you and in which he urges you to seek shalom in all your relationships.

Let us pray.

Let the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord. Help us to live and labour for a shalom-ful world here and now which we believe will be fully restored there and then. In the name of the One who lived, died and rose again to make it all possible, Amen.

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‘And the people stayed home’: A longing for shalom?

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‘And the people stayed home’ is the first line of a prose poem that went viral in March this year. It was written by retired teacher Kitty O’Meara of Madison, Wisconsin, and published in her blog under the title ‘In Time of Pandemic’. Within weeks, it was inspiring thousands of posts on social media around the world. It was being set to music and translated into other languages. It had resonated so deeply with people everywhere that the writer was hailed as ‘the poet laureate of the pandemic’. To me, this amazing response is an expression of a deep human longing for what the Old Testament scriptures call ‘shalom’.

What is shalom? It is usually translated into English as ‘peace’ but, in ordinary language, that word is too often used with the negative sense of freedom from war, civil unrest, disturbance, dissension, anxiety or inner conflict for it to encompass all that ‘shalom’ embraces. It has instead the positive significance of wholeness, completeness, integrity, soundness, community, connectedness, righteousness, justice and well-being.

In the Septuagint Greek version of the Old Testament, shalom is translated as ‘eirene’, the word from which we derive ‘irenic’ and the lovely name Irene. In New Testament times, that word had the same largely negative ordinary language meaning as our contemporary English word ‘peace’ does but the New Testament itself carries over from the Old Testament the full positive significance of shalom.

One of my favourite writers, philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, writes this:

“Shalom is present when a person dwells at peace in all his or her relationships: with God, with self, with fellows, with nature.

… To dwell at peace in one’s relationships, it is not enough, however, that hostility be absent. Letting live is not yet shalom. Shalom is enjoyment in one’s relationships. … To dwell in shalom is to enjoy living before God, to enjoy living in one’s physical surroundings, to enjoy living with one’s fellows, to enjoy life with oneself.” (Educating for Life, p. 101)

Shalom is not just an inner feeling, it is a relational matter – it has to do with our relationships with God, with others, with ourselves and with the wonderful world he has created. This is what we were made for, how it was meant to be. To put it in the form of the usual English rendering of ‘ubuntu’ (which I talked about in a recent blog), I am because God is, I am because the physical world is and I am because we are.

It is these relationships that make us the human beings that we are, made by God in his image, creatures of flesh and blood, made to be together with one another, to love God, to care for and tend the physical Creation and to love one another.

However, shalom was lost when we fell into sin with catastrophic effects on all our relationships. The thunderbolt of our Fall shattered our relationships of shalom with God, with Creation and with one another. We could no longer walk with God in the Garden and know him walking with us in the cool of the day. The whole physical creation is affected, the ground is cursed and Paul says in Romans chapter 8 that the creation was subjected to frustration and decay. Our relationships with one another were broken, jealousy and hatred came in.

But a second Adam came to the rescue! Jesus came to overcome sin and death by himself going to the cursed death of the Cross. He came to restore shalom. Paul says in Colossians chapter 1:

“For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace (EIRENE/SHALOM) through his blood, shed on the cross. … This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.”

There is a world to come in which shalom is fully restored. It is the world of what the Bible calls “the promised new heavens and the promised new earth, all landscaped with righteousness” (1 Peter 3:13, The Message). It is the world of which the Old Testament prophet speaks: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them”. (Isaiah 11:6, NIV)

In her poem, Kitty O’Meara talks of the people listening, listening more deeply and being joined together. In the valley of the shadow of the pandemic, we are discovering afresh the value of human relationships, finding ourselves exchanging greetings with complete strangers, chatting (at two metres distance) with people in our neighbourhood to whom we had barely spoken before.

I’ve found that this also stretches back into the community of memory, the community of people who have had a shaping impact upon us. Two students whom I taught as a schoolteacher several decades ago have recently sent me Facebook friend requests which I was delighted to receive.

Kitty O’Meara also talks of a healing of the earth as people make new choices and dream new images of our relationship with the physical creation. Many people are discovering afresh the childhood or teenage joys of walking, running and cycling. We smell the clean air, notice the cotton wool clouds in the clear blue sky and listen to the song of the birds.

Val and I are enjoying watching American birds via the live webcam at the Cornell Lab Feederwatch. It is so real on the TV screen that we hesitate to go too close lest we scare the blue jays, goldfinches, multiple varieties of woodpecker and many other birds on the feeders!

‘And the people stayed home’ also hints at relationship with God in its mention of meditation and prayer. Our home church has had rather more people viewing our online worship than we ever had in services in ‘normal’ times and this seems to be the experience of many churches.

All of this is evidence, I believe, of a deep human longing for shalom. The likes and shares of Kitty O’Meara’s poem say that this is so. But, as we dream new images, let us not forget that this longing may be felt most deeply by those for whom the experience of the impact of the pandemic is very hard – those staying home with an abusive family member, those weeping for loved ones they could not be with as they passed away, dementia sufferers who can’t understand why everything seems so different, those facing unemployment or the bankruptcy of a business, those health workers preparing for another day at the front-line of the battle with the coronavirus, those crowded together in refugee camps and so many, many more.

Let us pray.

Father God, help us to know your shalom in our hearts, the peace that is given by the Prince of Peace, the peace that transcends human understanding. Help us to be seekers of shalom in all our relationships with others, especially with those for whom this time of pandemic is very hard. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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Meet Charles Strohmer: Champion of Wisdom

This blog is adapted from a recent online chat with a good friend of mine from the United States. As a young man, Charles Strohmer was into astrology and spirit guides and he made part of his living by writing horoscopes. The wonderful story of how he came to faith in the mid-seventies and of his life and work since is very well told by Charles himself in this interview.

JOHN: Charles, you and Linda live in East Tennessee in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. It sounds a great place to live but you were brought up way up north in Detroit, Michigan, weren’t you?

CHARLES: Yes, we’re pleasantly ensconced here in the foothills of the Smokies but Detroit is about 550 miles north of us, a lot of real cold winter weather up there. It’s the Motor City, so it’s the big three auto makers plus the Motown sound, and a lot of rock ‘n roll came out of Detroit.

I was personally caught up in both of those worlds. I was a car mechanic for a long time and I got into the music scene deeply, not just into the Motown sound which I really like but mainly into rock ‘n’ roll, hard rock, heavy metal.

JOHN: In Odd Man Out, your great book about your life in the sixties and seventies, you say you began to search for “Truth with a capital T”. What set you off on that search when it seemed you had everything going for you?

CHARLES: Now, that’s interesting! Yeah, I suppose it does seem like I had everything going for me. I was living the American Dream on the one hand and then, off of that, I was playing this counter-cultural hippy thing.

But inside of me a lot of things affected me in a very disturbing way. I was totally unhappy with how things were going in the American system. In the 1960s there was the assassination of President Kennedy, then a few years later the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., then, a couple of months later, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy when he was running for president. There was the Vietnam War et cetera and I was, for some reason, really affected by those injustices and evils.

I got this deep desire to know Truth with a capital T. That’s how I talked to myself about it. I said to myself that if I could find Truth with a capital T, no matter what it cost or where it led, then Truth would do two things. It would tell me what was wrong with the American system and perhaps even with life itself or the world and my own life. And number two, it would help me and others to solve some of the problems, correct some things that have gone wrong.

JOHN: And you got into astrology around that time. It was the time of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius or soon after it, wasn’t it? How did that come about?

CHARLES: I thought astrology was a path to Truth. It came about innocently enough. A friend of mine and I were both into race cars, but we also used to meet at Dunkin’ Donuts and talk about life and spiritual things. At the time, he was the only friend I could talk to like that. One day he put this book on the table in Dunkin’ Donuts and said, “Here. This is pretty cool. I’ve been reading about this.” I picked it up and said, “Oh, this is about astrology. That’s a load of rubbish, that’s the occult. I don’t want to have anything to do with that.” 

And that was that, until it wasn’t. A few weeks later, he put another astrology book down in front of me and said, “You’ve got to read this. This is good stuff. It says we’re the same sun sign. That is why we get along so well.” So I took the book and read it. I liked what I was reading. I didn’t understand a lot of it, but it set me on this course of studying astrology and learning how to do horoscope readings for people. I also thought I was learning about myself and helping others by interpreting their horoscopes.

JOHN: And by this time you had become a roadie for a rock band as well?

CHARLES: Yes, I had moved to Chicago from Detroit and I was working in a Chevy dealer there selling car parts, and I liked it. It gave me some money to head out and go to music clubs and so on. I had very long hair and a Fu Manchu moustache then. It’s a funny story, but there was a girl who worked in the office at the Chevy dealer. We liked each other. But she didn’t like it that I came to work with my hair in a ponytail stuffed down my shirt to hide it, so that the bosses and customers wouldn’t be offended by it. She used to tease me and say, “You gotta let your hair out. You look so good with it long like that. Stop hiding it.” So one day to get on her better side, I arrived at work with my long hair hanging out all over the place. That went on for a couple of weeks, until the general manager took me aside and gave me an ultimatum: “You can either quit today or be laid off.” So I was suddenly out of work.

Then, long story short, a few weeks later I was partying at a music club and heard a great band, called Marcus. It was an American rock ‘n’ roll band and they were in the process of cutting their first album, which would eventually be produced by United Artists in California. We got on famously and I started travelling on the road crew with them. I eventually became the stage manager and worked with them for over a year, travelling in the Midwest.

JOHN: Yes, so they went off to California then and after a while – a short time back home in Detroit – you set out to drive to California?

CHARLES: Yes, an interesting period in my life. When the band signed their contract with United Artists, they had to move to California to record the album. So the roadies were without work. I went back to Detroit and stayed in my parents’ house for a while.

But I wondered what I was going to do with my life. And I was getting deeper involved in occult practices beside astrology. I had a little room in my parents’ basement. I had a cheap desk there and all my astrology books and my other occult books. I’d sit there for hours a day with a pot of jasmine tea, trying to interpret horoscope readings and then talk to clients afterwards about that. I even got paid a little bit for doing it.

Eventually I decided I had to get to California, so I loaded up my car and began driving to California, where I hoped to work with the band again.

JOHN: And you drove through the Badlands of North Dakota?

CHARLES: I did. By the way, that was interesting that you included that word in the title of your blog. I thought, “This is lovely. I wonder if John knows about the Badlands of North Dakota”. So this was the spring of 1976. I drove to Chicago, where I owed somebody a horoscope chart, dropped that off there, stayed a couple of days, and then drove across the top of the United States through the Badlands of North Dakota to Washington State and then came down the coast highway through Oregon to California.

It was in the Badlands that I started to have really strange spiritual experiences that undid my life and completely dismantled my occult worldview. I used to rely on a lot on occult beliefs, and some eastern religious beliefs – karma, reincarnation, spiritual evolution. I had a lot of really disturbing spiritual experiences all the way to southern California. They left me broken and in tears and living like a hermit on my own.

JOHN: And you bought a Bible and began to read it?

CHJARLES: Yes. It had been about six or eight weeks since I’d left Detroit. I was now living near a beach in southern California, in a little hotel room with a small stove, a refrigerator and some cupboards. I was now also a strict vegetarian – nuts, grains, fruits and vegetables only. And I was doing this unusual kind of fasting that I had been taught by an occult teacher. It was supposed to help me evolve spiritually. But I kept having these very disturbing, and sometimes frightening spiritual experiences. I was at my wits end and didn’t know what to do.

So about a week before my twenty-sixth birthday I bought a Bible in a Bible bookstore. I had read the whole Bible when I was an astrologer, but it didn’t communicate to me. I was in Costa Mesa, which was one of the sources for the Jesus revival that was going on during that period.

JOHN: That was the time of the Jesus People!

CHARLES: Yes. But I didn’t know that. Had never heard of them. I felt really weird going into this Christian bookstore to buy a Bible and being the only longhair with the Fu Manchu, but there were longhairs there! It kind of shocked me, and nobody bothered me.

I bought a Bible and started reading it back in the hotel room. Again I couldn’t understand it. That was the last straw. One night I just broke down completely and started sobbing alongside the bed in this little room. I started crying to God, saying simply, “God I’m sorry, God I’m sorry, God, I’m sorry. I’m just a sinner”. I was sobbing and crying out to God like that for a long time that night. But after a while I began to feel deeply peaceful and I sensed the presence of Jesus in the room with me. I felt forgiven, and the terrible spiritual experiences ended. And I no longer felt like a dirty guilty person.

It was late at night when this happened. I was alone and I didn’t know what else to do so I crawled into bed and went to sleep. I woke up the next morning, and I remember laying there in that bed and everything looked different. Even the air looked different. I remember walking around that small room and looking at all the astrology books and the occult literature and all the charts I had laid out. I thought, “I’ve been duped, I’ve been duped”. It was like the Holy Spirit was already teaching me that the way that I’d been going for six or seven years with the occult was leading me the wrong way in the search for Truth.

And then I saw the open Bible on the table from the night before. Why not? I thought. So I started reading it again and I could understand it! It was amazing. And I couldn’t stop reading it. And that’s where we come back to the vow I had made years’ earlier, to find Truth with a capital T. Because I then read in scripture some weeks later that Jesus said, “I am the truth”. He says that in John’s Gospel. “I am the way, the truth and the life.” When I read that Jesus Christ was the truth, well, more blinders came off. Oh, Truth is a person, that’s astounding! That completely transformed my thinking about the source and nature of Truth.

JOHN: And you went back home to Detroit after that and you got into church life?

CHARLES: Yes, I finally drove back to Detroit, but I didn’t know what to do. I was like burning out of control for Jesus. I was stopping to get gas along the road and I just had to tell the guy in the gas station about Jesus. “Can I tell you about Jesus?” I didn’t know what I would say if someone said yes. And some did. My first pastor in Detroit once joked with me about this. “Charles, new believers like you should hide out for six months because you’re doing more damage than good! You’re telling everybody about Jesus but you don’t know what you’re doing half the time.”

But he was a great pastor, and I was part of his church in the inner-city of Detroit, where I lived for a year. It was a wonderful church, a mixed congregation of blacks and whites. We served the inner city. We did a lot of Christian ministry there. We had a resale shop, we did radio broadcasts and ran concerts, we had three church services a week, we prayed a lot and had a phone counselling line. That was in 1977, and it was where I began to get my Christian legs.

JOHN: And for the next few years you were in Detroit and then you began to travel and you even came to the UK?

CHARLES: I did! Another interesting period of my life. The Lord called me out of that inner-city ministry and “back into the world” – as we used to say – to work. So I went back to selling car parts and eventually landed a job in a Chevrolet dealership in downtown Detroit. I liked working there among so many different kinds of people, and I eventually became a parts manager there.

I was also supporting an American gal who was a missionary in Paisley, Scotland, with YWAM. She was an educator and she cofounded a preschool in Paisley with YWAM, called ‘The Wee Friends Preschool’, which became a template for the founding of similar other schools. She came back to the States on a short furlough, and at the time I was just a supporter of hers, but she visited me and a girlfriend of hers in Michigan, and by the end of this visit we were getting serious about each other! Linda and I got engaged, and in June of 1986, I moved to Scotland and we married in Paisley. I lived there for a few more years, and the Lord was gracious to me and began opening doors of ministry in the UK.

We moved back to the States in late 1989, and Linda returned to teaching first grade in the public schools here. Her forte is children’s literacy. She was an award-winning Teacher of the Year in Tennessee for children’s literacy.

I was being invited back to the UK. It was mind-blowing for me that churches and parachurch groups wanted this American bloke to come to teach on Christian worldview and biblical wisdom. And I learned so much from Christians I met everywhere. Some became my best friends. For ten to fifteen years I travelled all over the UK. I remember that you and I met for the first time during one of those trips, when you invited me and the lovely Pam MacKenzie to do some teaching for the Association of Christian Teachers.

JOHN: Yes, it was for a weekend for teachers on a Christian response to New Age philosophy! During the nineties you had become a writer as well as a speaker.

CHARLES: Yes, that was my entry into the world of publishing. My first couple of books were about a Christian point of view on astrology and a major book on communicating the truth to New Age seekers.[1]

Then I felt the Lord nudging me to get more and more involved in the wisdom tradition. That’s become a key in my ministry for twenty, twenty-five years now. I was an apologist for quite a while and published frequently in that field. But the field of apologetics for me was no longer getting me where I believed the Lord wanted to take me. Its organising principle tends to make as wide as possible the gulf of dissimilarities between different theologies and belief systems, and I saw the need for that. But it wasn’t satisfying my growing interests in helping people to come together on common ground in mutuality.

It was actually through a mutual friend of ours, the inimitable John Peck, whom I had met in the States a decade earlier, who began to mentor me further along in this, in biblical wisdom development. He was a godsend.

Of course, John had his hand in a lot of things in the UK, like the Greenbelt Festival and College House in Cambridge. He had done a lot of thinking about how the biblical wisdom tradition seeks to bring people who are different, even those who have different core beliefs, to bring them together on common ground to try to solve problems, work together for justice, and so on. And John relied on help from the biblical wisdom tradition for this.

I saw this as a missing jewel in Christian worldview teaching and development. Unlike the traditional apologetics paradigm, the wisdom tradition, simply put, seeks to bring people together on mutual ground, yet while acknowledging difference. This really lit my fuse. For the last twenty-five or thirty years much of my published works and talks have been trying to build on what I call a wisdom-based gospel-shaped way of engaging all of life, its art, its politics, family life, and much more, and especially, for many years now, the field of international relations, foreign policy, and diplomacy.

JOHN: And yes, talking about the international situation, you mentioned the assassination of President Kennedy. Most of us can remember where we were when we heard the news that he had been assassinated. And the nine-eleven attack on the Twin Towers 2001 is like that because we can all remember where we were when we heard the news of that. But in your case, Charles, it was particularly powerful, wasn’t it? Where were you when you heard about it?

CHARLES: I have a funny way of understanding that to myself. I’m pretty sure that I was one of the last people on earth to hear about it. I had boarded a plane in Gatwick that morning before it happened. I had just finished a three-week book tour with John Peck about our book Uncommon Sense which had just come out with SPCK.

We were about two hours out of London over the Atlantic headed toward the States when the captain — I’ll never forget his announcement. Through his deep Texas drawl he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please. Your serious attention.” And he went on to explain that there had been an international incident in the United States and we had to land in Halifax, Nova Scotia. But he wouldn’t say what had happened.

So three hours later, we’re landing in Halifax, circling the airfield, and we see this very long queue of planes, dozens and dozens of jumbo jets and L1011s that have landed ahead of us in this little international airport. We passengers still didn’t know what was going on. After we had taxied to our place at the end of the queue, our captain then explained what had happened. We were like, “What?!” We were all stunned. Passengers on our plan were bussed to an air force base, where we lived for four more days. Those days and that event affected me deeply.  

JOHN: Yes, when you were back home, you became passionate about developing what you call “wisdom-based inter-cultural relations between Christians and Muslims and wisdom-based international relations between the United States and Muslim Middle East states”. You set up the Wisdom Project and you have a blog entitled “Waging Wisdom: Uncommon Sense for a World in Conflict”. Tell us more, Charles.

CHARLES: Thank you for that question, John. I really appreciate being able to say a few words about that. It’s a long story, but I’ll try to be brief. I slipped into a mild depression after I got home. I was praying a lot, and I concluded I could get out of it in one of two ways. I could completely ignore the significance of the nine-eleven attack or I could do a little research and study to learn what had happened. So I choose the latter option, because it was obvious that the attack couldn’t be ignored.

So I turned to the experts, but the experts in Washington were saying, “We don’t know why it happened.” To their credit, it was good to hear some humility from experts. And even from Christian leaders, who were admitting the same thing. But that was a huge disappointment, because I wanted somebody with some wisdom to explain to me why it had occurred, how to respond wisely, and how to prevent it from happening again. Well, if nobody knew, Strohmer was going to find out! Some kind of pride thing in my life!

I began some research, naively thinking that after several months of study I would learn all I needed to know about this. Then I’ll write an article or two, maybe do a couple of seminars about it, and that will be that. Well, that turned into a two- or three-year research project into the broad field of international relations, foreign policy, and diplomacy in which I was learning all sorts of new and crucial things from different points of view, especially the different American ones and many of those in the Middle East — the different ways that different capitals had of analysing and responding to the attacks.

JOHN: What did you do with all that research?

CHARLES: Well, I had learned a lot about what many people would call a secular view of U.S.-Middle East foreign policy. But that wasn’t nearly enough. I thought, “What would the biblical wisdom tradition have to say about this, if anything?” After a real struggle, by the grace of God I began to be able to get under the skin of the wisdom tradition and understand how the sages who gave us that tradition understood foreign policy and diplomacy. I don’t take credit for it, but a wealth of material began to open up to me, from both the Old and New Testaments. So over time I was able to lay my understanding of the wisdom tradition alongside that of the “secular” views and then develop and offer a way of foreign policy, diplomacy, and negotiations based on biblical wisdom norms, ideas and principles.

That led to founding the Wisdom Project and to becoming a visiting research fellow for the Christian think-tank in Washington called the Centre for Public Justice. That too was a godsend, thanks to James Skillen, its then president, and its board of directors. The project grew into a major book project which has yet to be published. InterVarsity Press looked at it seriously for six months but then decided not to publish it. The book is based on what I call the five norms of wisdom and how they can help people who are different to work together, whether on a local community project or a national or international problem, be they Muslims, Christians, Jews, secularists, whoever.

It’s been a rewarding journey, and a lot of work, but the Lord has opened doors for me to talk about this with key people and groups on many different levels, including at the State Department and the Council on Foreign Relations. You know, when you get to talking with “experts” who are open to new ideas, and you sit with them and learn from them and they learn from you about ways to use the principles and norms and ideas of the historic wisdom tradition in their analyses and policy decision making, to defuse adversarial relations and suchlike, well, it’s not only exciting. It also, importantly, helps to make life a little better for any number of people. Jesus spoke of “blessed peacemakers.” Diplomats and international negotiators, among others, are tasked with fulfilling that calling.  

JOHN: Yes, you must be looking at international relations in the present global pandemic situation and thinking what does the biblical wisdom tradition have to bring to this?

CHARLES: I would say that there’s different levels. One is that we are now in the age of social media where there’s too much polemics going on. One of the purposes of the wisdom tradition is to help us shake free from rigid ideological thinking. But on social media you have countless people entrenched deep inside their fortresses with contradictory ideological viewpoints. They only come out to shoot polemics at each other from behind their fortress walls. That is just dividing the country, dividing people. The wisdom tradition offers us biblical norms and principles and ideas that will help out of our fortresses, let down our drawbridges, walk across our moats, and start talking with each other civilly about how we can work together to help our countries. So that’s one level.

Another level is at city-wide, regional, and state levels. Here in the States you’ve got the fifty states. In your country and in Europe you’ve got your own levels of government. But whether we are talking about cities or counties or countries, the wisdom tradition can help politicians, medical people, and other kinds of COVID-19 decision makers to be more on the same page helping us ordinary citizens to get through this difficult season with less divisiveness, in order to work together for the good of our countries. And, mind you, this is not some idealist pipe dream. The wisdom tradition is utterly realistic about what is possible in our fallen world. 

And then there is international level, where these days you’ve got the United States playing off China and Russia, and vice-versa. The wisdom tradition has a lot of, well, wisdom for those who work internationally, which affects us all. Take, for example, a friend of mine, Chris Seiple, who was President of the Institute of Global Engagement in Washington DC. He has a whole paradigm that’s just lovely. It’s called “relational diplomacy,” very wisdom-based. We’ve had many conversations about how it has helped him and the IGE teams with some amazing breakthroughs in difficult situations in the Middle East to ease adversarial relations and help bring about some good changes, including when ISIS was running rampant there.

And Chris is not shy about letting his interlocutors know up front that he is an evangelical Christian. But he knows the potential of the wisdom tradition. It’s my belief and hope that if more organizations like IGE tap the potential of the biblical wisdom tradition, then parliaments, and congresses, and White Houses, and Downing Streets around the world could be more equipped to deal wisely, together, with all sorts of injustices and help make the world a better place for us ordinary folk to live in.

JOHN: Well, let’s pray that it will be so …

CHARLES: Dolly Parton, yes, she’s still going strong. She’s quite a philanthropist, you know. We live near where she grew up. My wife retired from teaching a few years ago, but she is busier than ever, giving grace and offering wisdom in a lot of areas. But I’m not retired. I spend much of my day researching, writing, a bit of advising, and seeking advice, too. When you’ve been doing what I’ve been doing for three or four decades, you have a lot of ideas! They can overwhelm you and you think, “I’ll write about this, I’ll write about that”. I joke to myself that I want to clone myself at least three times so that I can assign projects to myself and trust they get done.


JOHN: Now Charles, I reckon that you’re round about three score years and ten. For a lot of people, there’s a word ‘retirement’ that comes in at that point. But in your neck of the woods, Dolly Parton came from there and she sang about “working nine till five”. Are you going to sit back? What are your plans, brother?

The tricky part for me is that if things come together to begin a certain project, then I’ve got to try to do it. When I worked on an assembly line decades ago, if I was sick, someone else could fill my spot on the line that day. But I have a different calling now. The onus is on me to see a task through to completion. It’s a strange responsibility. I’m always praying to try to understand just what it is I should be getting done!

A focus these past months has been trying to determine, “Lord, what are you saying about COVID-19?” I don’t want to be spinning my wheels. So I haven’t said much publicly yet because I want it to be wisdom-based, and the penny hasn’t dropped yet. So maybe I could take this opportunity to ask your readers to say a prayer about this. I would like to get some traction on making some wisdom-based communications about this difficult season that we’re all in. I’ve got ideas floating around but I need an “Aha!” moment.

JOHN: Charles, bless you and thank you for all that you’ve been sharing. It’s been great to talk!

CHARLES: Thank you so much, John. Any time.

Thank you to Jeremy Daley for the photo of Charles reviewing papers above.

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[1] Details of books by Charles can be found on his Amazon Author’s page.

If Paul had Zoom …

If Paul had Zoom installed on his smartphone in New Testament times, I wonder to what extent it would have satisfied his longing to see his friends when separated from them by hundreds of miles.

I’ve been thinking about fellowship and, in particular, about the nature of the fellowship we are experiencing now via phone and internet as we live in a lockdown situation. This took me to Paul’s letter to his friends in Thessalonica where he writes:

“But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you.” (1 Thessalonians 2:17, NIV)

We surely feel orphaned by being separated from friends and family at the present time. “Separated in person, not in thought”. In Greek, it reads as being separated “in face, not in heart” and of a longing to “see your faces”.

Paul goes on to say that when he “could stand it no longer”, Timothy was sent up to Thessalonica (presumably along the 300-mile Roman road up from Athens) and he came back later with the good news that their friends up north “always have pleasant memories” of Paul and his companions and that, as Paul writes to them, “you long to see us, just as we also long to see you”. (1 Thessalonians 3:1,6, NIV)

Paul came to a point where he could stand no longer being cut off from people he longed to see face-to-face. Again, in lockdown, we surely know the feeling!

They didn’t have our 21st century mail services but they could send letters like this one in 1 Thessalonians and they had couriers who travelled with them along the Roman roads. A marked contrast with our instant communication on the worldwide web’s superhighway!

These roads criss-crossing the Empire were the superhighway of the time. Galatians 4:4 talks about how “when the time had fully come, God sent his Son”. It was the right time, God’s time, and part of that timeliness was the availability of the Roman road system for the spread in person and by letter of the Good News of Jesus! Oh yes, bad things also travelled along the Roman roads and doubtless there were many first century scammers seeking out the vulnerable to rob from them and harm them just as there are on our internet superhighway. But God’s people used the Roman roads to bring the news of Jesus to people near and far.

Paul didn’t have a phone or Skype or Whatsapp or Facetime or Zoom. I think he would have been delighted to have a Zoom meeting with the folk in Thessalonica but I also think he would still have longed for face-to-face and side-by-side togetherness with them.

In so many ways, these means of communication are wonderful to have. To be able to see on screen via Zoom a gallery of the faces of church friends in their own homes rather than sitting in church looking at the backs of their heads! (My ideal church building would have seats in the round rather than straight rows all looking forward.) It is wonderfully possible for us to see on screen the faces of family members and friends far away, even those on the other side of the globe, and to converse with them.

It is all surely a true Godsend for us in the present lockdown situation! And yet, and yet, life online in general and Zoom meetings in particular do have their limitations and drawbacks.

They are very demanding of our attention and they can be quite tiring. They seem to take more energy than the face-to-face encounters we are used to. People are beginning to talk of “Zoom fatigue”. [1] This exhaustion can also happen in one-to-one communication with other video-calling interfaces, e.g. Skype, Whatsapp and Facetime but the multi-person screens of a Zoom meeting have a magnifying effect,

Why is this? One factor seems to be an effect of seeing our own faces among the faces we are looking at. We are more aware of ourselves than we would be in normal face-to-face or side-by-side communication and we are therefore less aware of the other. This makes it different from old-fashioned telephone conversations.

Another factor is that when we meet face-to-face, all our senses are involved but online we are relying only on audio and visual signals on a flat screen. It’s a bit like the experience of a hearing- or sight-impaired person in normal times relying on limited sensory input.

There is also the guilt feeling that may come if we don’t take every opportunity available to connect online with others. The pings of new messages or emails arriving can be heard at any time if our device settings allow them and they clamour for our attention and threaten to overwhelm us.

Silences don’t matter when we are physically together but online they can be disconcerting and stress-inducing.

Just having another person physically present with us, watching the same TV programme, walking side-by-side out in the open-air or sitting side-by-side on a car journey, gives us experience of a personal relationship that stirs our feelings and awakens our senses. That physical presence is missing in online communication so that we may feel that we are “alone together” rather than “together together”.

In spite of all these factors, it is nevertheless great, really great, to have this means of meeting. Let’s be thankful for it all and make as good use of it as we can.

Let’s also look forward and pray for a time to come when we can again meet face-to-face and walk side-by-side.

And beyond that, there will be a day when we meet with him and with one another. “When Christ is openly revealed, we’ll see him—and in seeing him, become like him” (1 John 3:2, The Message). We will have new physical bodies and all our senses in a world where we’ll never grow old!

Dear Father and Lord of time and space, we pray that you will help us to go through this time of restrictions on meeting our friends and family members and to use wisely and for the blessing of others the digital communication available to us. In the name of Jesus, Amen.

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[1] See, for example, articles on, and

Welcome the Stranger

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Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you invited me in”. (Matthew 25:35)

Tribalism, the attitude of “us” versus “them”, has many ugly faces – racism, nationalism, sectarianism, social or intellectual snobbery and many more.

If we are infected by a tribalist attitude, we want a pure world, a world of people like us, and we want to push those who are not like us out of our world. In his book Exclusion & Embrace, Miroslav Volf says that this exclusive attitude can take three forms (pp. 74-75):

(1) In extreme cases, we kill and drive out. Volf himself was brought up in the former Yugoslavia and witnessed the horrors of ethnic cleansing in the conflicts that broke out after its break-up. In my Irish homeland in my own lifetime, members of the Protestant and Catholic tribes drove each other out of their homes to create pure territories, cleansed of those who were different. The walls of segregation went up and suspicion of the other was all-pervasive.

(2) Alternatively, we assign those who are not like us the status of inferior beings. In their book The Gift of the Stranger (what a counter-cultural title!), David Smith and Barbara Carvill say that, in New Testament times, the world was “divided into Greek speakers who were bearers of full humanity and foreigners who were considered of lesser worth” (pp. 20-21). The outsiders were ‘barbaroi’ (barbarians) because their language was unintelligible ‘bar bar bar’.

I was once in a classroom when David Smith was teaching about this. He asked half of us to sit on the floor where we could just peer over the edges of our tables while he ignored us to talk to the others who were still in their seats. Back in our seats, he then got us in both groups to reflect on how we felt during that part of the lesson. An unforgettable experience!

(3) A third form of exclusion, Volf says, is in the way we ignore or abandon others. It is found not only in the way the rich of the West and North relate to the poor of the Third World but also “in the manner in which the suburbs relate to inner cities, or the jet-setting ‘creators of high value’ relate to the rabble beneath them”. He likens this to the attitude of the priest and the Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan who cross to the other side of the road and “pass by, minding our own business” (p. 75). We simply do not see the inferior beings – they aren’t in our world.

If asked what is the second of the two great commandments in the Bible, many of us would readily answer that we are to love our neighbours as ourselves. David Smith and Barbara Carvill point out that the record of this command in Leviticus 19 is followed by a command in the same chapter to love the alien as ourselves (p. 12). Who is our neighbour? The person who is like “us”, the person who lives in our street? No, the neighbour can be the alien, the stranger, the one who is different from us because she or he is one of “them”! Is that not the point that Jesus was making in answering the question about the identity of the neighbour with the story of the Good Samaritan. Today it could be the story of the Good Palestinian!

Miroslav Volf opposes these exclusivist tribalist attitudes to an attitude that welcomes and embraces the stranger. The picture on the cover of his book Exclusion & Embrace is of a painted plaster sculpture by George Segal entitled Abraham’s Farewell to Ishmael. The contrast between Abraham’s arms around his son and Sarah’s tightly-folded arms with her back turned on them so vividly depicts the contrast between embrace and exclusion! Abraham’s having a child with the maid Hagar (anxiously looking on from the background) was, after all, Sarah’s idea in the first place!

Miroslav Volf uses embrace as a metaphor for our welcome of the stranger and talks of it as a drama in four acts (pp. 140-147). In act one, I open my arms to the other as “a sign that I have created space in myself for the other to come in and that I have made a movement out of myself so as to enter the space created by the other”. In act two, I wait for the other to respond. The embrace of the other is not an invasion of their space. True embrace is reciprocal. In act three, we each close our arms around the other but not too tightly so as to crush or assimilate the other. In act four, very importantly, the arms are opened again. As I tried to say in my blog about ubuntu, ‘I am because we are’ asserts both that I am and that we are. The separate identities of each of the parties to the embrace are affirmed and maintained in true community.

The arms of the Lord Jesus are not tightly folded as were those of Sarah. They are wide open with the invitation to come to him. As we do so, our individuality is not lost in our relation to him.

There is no tribalism, no nationalism, no racism, no intellectual or social elitism in Christ. Paul writes, “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:11, NIV). Again, he writes, “In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 3:28, The Message)

Father, forgive us and free us from our exclusivist ‘us’ and ‘them’ attitudes, whatever form they take, and help us to truly welcome and embrace the stranger for in doing so you tell us that we welcome the Lord Jesus. In his name, Amen.

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‘Ubuntu’: One of my favourite words!

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Hello! I want to talk with you about the meaning of one of my favourite words. It is one of three favourite words of mine from languages other than English. One is from the Hebrew of the Old Testament, another is from the Greek of the New Testament and the third is from the language of the Xhosa people of southern Africa. (You may be able to guess what the first two are. If you can’t, I will tell you at the end of this chat.)

The one I want to focus upon for now is the third. It is the word ‘ubuntu’ and it is usually rendered in English as ‘I am because we are’. Desmond Tutu says this:

“Ubuntu … speaks to the very essence of being human, saying my humanity is caaught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours. We belong in a bundle of life and so we say in our part of the world a person is a person through other persons. It says not: I think therefore I am. It says rather: I am human because I belong, I participate, I share.”

As we all walk in the valley of the shadow of the coronavirus, are we not coming to realise in a new and deeper way that we are all one, that I am because we are? Again, Desmond Tutu talks of ubuntu as the spirituality of humanity’s oneness with our Creator, oneness with the other of another person and oneness with nature, with the physical world. And he goes on to say, “I dream of a new world and a new humanity, a humanity that expresses ubuntu”.

But this is not an idea that is peculiar to the Xhosa people from whose language the word comes or indeed to the people of Africa in general. Is it not an idea that runs right through the Old and New Testaments? We are made in the image of God, made for relationship with him and with one another, physical beings made of the dust of the earth, beings who are charged to care for creation, this physical world of which we are part.

In a poem that begins “No man is an island”, the English poet John Donne writes:

“Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.”

The funeral bell tolls for each and all of us. The death of any fellow human being diminishes us. Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus! He knew this diminishing at that moment. Are we not coming to know this diminishing in a new and deeper way in these days as we see on the screen pictures of those whom the coronavirus has taken from us?!

At the heart of it all is love, love for one another, love for the wonderful world in which we find ourselves, love for God who is love.

Desmond Tutu says ubuntu is very different from the individualism of the ‘Cogito ergo sum’, the ‘I think therefore I am’ philosophy that is so dominant in western thinking. He says that I am because we are, not I am because I think.

Back in the nineties, there was an international conference of Christian theologians in Kingston, Jamaica, who met to consider what it is to be a human being.[1] One task given to the delegates was to come up with a Christian alternative to ‘I think therefore I am’. They decided that love should be at the heart of it. (After all, if we value the capacity to reason above the capacity for love, we are saying that those with multiple learning disabilities or those with dementia are less human.) So they considered ‘I love, therefore I am’ as a possible Christian alternative. However, they quickly realised that, as the Bible says in I John 4:19, “We love because he first loved us” so they moved on to ‘I am loved, therefore I am’? But that is still focussed on the lone individual. They closed, doubtless with the encouragement of African delegates, on ‘We are loved, therefore we are’. This is a rendering of the idea of ubuntu with an explicit reference to love which is anyway implicit in ‘I am because we are’.

So ubuntu is not individualistic and is therefore different from something that is deeply embedded in western thinking.

At the same time, ubuntu is not collectivist. It says that I am and it says that we are. It is not that the individual is all-important and the group isn’t. (Margaret Thatcher expressed that individualist view when she said that there is no such thing as society.) On the other hand, ubuntu is not saying that the group is all-important and that the individual doesn’t matter. Ubuntu is therefore different from, for example, a communist perspective in which the rights and freedom of the individual are devalued. It is not either the individual or the group – it is both the individual and the group! It is a third way, a view of community that is between the extremes of western individualism and communist and other forms of collectivism.

It is both the one and the many. Christians believe in the Trinity of three Persons and one God. Some say it has to be one or the other, either one god or three divine persons, but Christians say it is both. In the same way, ubuntu is an idea of community that values both the individual and the group.

I hope you can see why ubuntu has become one of my favourite words. With Desmond Tutu, I dream of a new world and a new humanity, a world of ubuntu. Is that not the world of what the Bible calls “the promised new heavens and the promised new earth, all landscaped with righteousness” (1 Peter 3:13, The Message), the world of the now-and-not-yet kingdom of God?

The other two favourite words of mine from languages other than English? Have you guessed? They are shalom and agape. Perhaps we can come back to one or both of them later. Let us pray.

O God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, help us all to promote true community wherever you have placed us, especially at this time as we are all seeking to cope with the impact of a global pandemic. Help us to care for the world, to love others and to love you for you have first loved us. Amen.

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[1] See conference papers and report in a special issue of Transformation: An International Journal of Holistic Mission Studies, 15:1, January 1998.