‘Ubuntu’: One of my favourite words!

(This blog is also available as a video on YouTube at https://youtu.be/q9RXAnfC2Mk.)

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.

(This blog is also available as a video on YouTube at https://youtu.be/q9RXAnfC2Mk.)

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.


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

Meet Joe Donnelly: Champion of Hope

This blog is an edited version of an interview recorded a few days ago via Skype with Dubliner Joe Donnelly, a former student of mine who is one of my heroes. Joe was brought up very religiously in the Dublin docklands and by the age of twenty he was an atheist and a member of a rock band that shared gigs with U2. He is now leading a truly amazing ‘hope-shaped’ community project in that same docklands area. 

ME: Joe, you are a Dubliner born and bred and you grew up in Ringsend. What was Ringsend like in those days and what were you like?

JOE: Ringsend was a docklands community, fiercely religious and a tight-knit community. Everybody knew everybody for generations back. I would have been a bit on the quiet side. We were a very religious family. I had to spend a lot of time living with my grandmother because we were a family of ten living in a two-bedroom council flat. My granny took me under her wing and she was deeply religious and I imbibed a lot of that.

ME: She lived in Ringsend too?

JOE: Yes, she lived a few doors away.

ME: There was an old mission hall by the river and that was a place with which you were acquainted when you were young. You didn’t attend meetings there, did you?  

JOE: No, we didn’t go to meetings. We were warned not to go to any of the meetings there.

ME: They were Protestants?

JOE: Yes, they were Protestants. We used to throw stones at the bus that used to bring the Protestant children to the meetings. When we were older, we used to have cider parties at the back. Then gradually it decayed into near dereliction.

ME: Thankfully, these things don’t happen there now! Joe, did you change as you went through your teens?

JOE: Yes. Although I was brought up fiercely religious and there was talk about me becoming a priest at one stage, I ended up an atheist punk rocker. I suppose it was a typical Irish family story – a candidate for the priesthood in your early teens and an atheist punk rocker in your late teens. We started playing on the same circuit as a band called U2.

ME: U2?! I wonder what became of them.

JOE: I think they have notions about themselves now – the best band in the world!!!

ME: Did you know any of them?

JOE: Yeah, we knew them and at that time we shared several musical venues with them around town.

ME: Wow, you’re an ageing rocker then? So, as an atheist, you went to the Netherlands and you found yourself in Amsterdam.

JOE: I hitchhiked around Europe, John, with a couple of friends and I ended up in Amsterdam. Most of my time there was a bit of a drunken haze. One night I got mugged and that night I suppose I fell into a pit of despair. I just felt that all of my hopes and dreams … I knew I had hopes and dreams in my heart but they were all slipping through my fingers and I couldn’t manage it. I couldn’t control it. It is hard to articulate exactly what despair is in words, what profound despair is. I seriously and intentionally considered suicide that night.

ME: But something stopped you?

JOE: Yes, John. Again, it is hard to articulate. At the age of six in Dublin’s docklands I came very close to drowning. I can still remember it to this moment. I can remember it vividly and as I was preparing to throw myself into a canal in Amsterdam, I got a complete flashback to that event at six years of age. It may sound crazy to some people but it was as if a voice was saying to me, “What you’re doing is wrong”. It shook me to the core of my being. There’s a lovely line in that poem ‘Missing God’ …

ME: Oh, I know that poem! It’s in one of my blogs!

JOE: And the guy speaks about missing God like, “the way an uncoupled glider riding the evening thermals misses its tug.” And I felt as if I’d got a tug that night, as if something was pulling me back from the jaws of suicide saying, “This is wrong”. I came back to Dublin then and I was totally in despair because I’d gone off hitchhiking around Europe seeking adventure, but here I was and I was forced to admit that my life was falling apart and I was sinking into quiet despair.

ME: But somehow you went from there to faith in the Lord?

JOE: Yes, it’s a very long story but I was given a copy of the New Testament by this guy who was bananas about Jesus – whereas I was an atheist punk rocker! I was terrified that I would catch whatever he had. I threw the New Testament beside my bedside locker, inexplicably I eventually started to read it. I was always interested in history and famous people and I thought to myself, I’m reading about Jesus Christ. He’s somebody famous and I can quote him at parties and impress people. So I read Matthew’s Gospel and by the time I had finished Matthew’s Gospel, a revolution had taken place in my heart and mind and soul that has continued to this day. I can only say that the closest way of articulating it is in John Newton’s hymn where he says, “It was grace that taught my heart to fear / And grace my fears relieved / How precious did that grace appear / the hour I first believed”. Now I can only say that there I was reading Matthew’s Gospel as an atheist punk rocker and I began to fear that I wasn’t right with God. What if all of this is real? Etc.

ME: So you became bananas about Jesus?

JOE: Well, I don’t think I could nail down a particular fruit but let’s say that the fruit of the Spirit began to develop in my life!

ME: Joe, it was quite a few years after that that you and I first met.

JOE: Yes, John, but a lot of things happened before we met at the Irish Bible Institute. Within a year of me surrendering my life to Jesus, John, I felt that the Lord was leading me into Christian work in Dublin and to give up my job which was quite a drastic step for me. Part of my new Christian workload then was to develop outreach work in the inner city. And after a while we were seeing a lot of stuff happening in the Sherriff Street and Sean McDermott Street areas of inner-city Dublin. It got to the stage where we knew we had to pray and ask the Lord for a venue in the inner-city area. As I was praying about an office and a little desk and a window and a phone, the Lord led us to this place – the old mission hall that we had vandalised as kids and had a third of an acre of a site in the inner city.

ME: Wow!

JOE: And I was appalled at the thought that the Lord would want me to take on the old mission hall.

ME: Memories of cider in the back garden?

JOE: Not so much that, John. I just felt that this was the last place on the planet I would go to! You’re warned in school and you’re warned in the chapel and you’re warned at home not to go near this place. And the words “Prods out” were sprayed on the front door. They had faded with the weather but the implication was still pretty clear, you know. So Sharon and I decided that we would take it on. We called it ‘Mission Impossible’ at the beginning because it was an old mission hall. I learned the wisdom of that verse where it says, “The foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom”.

ME: Yes.

JOE: A great verse in First Corinthians chapter one. It reminds you that sometimes God takes you to the craziest place to do something that will glorify his name.

ME: Wow, Joe, and sometime after that you signed on to become a student at the Irish Bible Institute. You’d left school at fourteen or fifteen, hadn’t you?

JOE: Yes, that was another crazy decision. I’d left school at fifteen because my Dad died when I was thirteen.

ME: But you signed on for a Master’s degree?!

JOE: Pretty crazy but I think in fairness to IBI they were saying that if you had a BA qualification or had ministry experience of more than twenty years (which I had working in Dublin’s inner-city), your ministry experience would allow you to submit an initial essay. This would then be assessed and then you would do two years which would take you up to BA standard and then you could do a final year which would give you your MA.

ME: So hope was an important theme or passion.

JOE: We took on the old mission hall and we renamed it ‘The Anchorage Project’ because the great biblical metaphor of the anchor – “hope like an anchor of the soul” as it says in Hebrews chapter six. And we always had a great passion to develop it into a hope-shaped space to showcase something of the Kingdom of God in the inner city.

ME: Yes, that idea of the space. There’s an American writer named Andy Crouch whom I often quote who has written a book entitled ‘Culture Making’. He always makes me think of you, Joe, and what you’ve been doing. For too long, he says, Christians have been happy to condemn, critique, copy and consume culture. The only way to really impact culture is to create culture. In a very short video about the book, he talks about a coffee shop near where he lives. It was opened by a young Christian fresh out of college who saw this building and created “a beautiful space which is now a whole cultural world of its own … where friends meet, teenagers come after school, Moms get together during the day. … A wonderful hospitable welcoming environment.” Now I’ve been to the mission hall, to the project, to the Fair Play Café and those words describe what you’re doing there so thoroughly.

JOE: I suppose that when I did my dissertation under your tutorship, John, and I can’t speak highly enough about your impact on my thinking – especially with the use of metaphors and using metaphors to help mould and shape our thinking in Christian work. My Master’s dissertation was four key concepts – beauty, children, community and justice. These are four key components through which hope seems to run like a river with four tributaries. And people connect with a real profound sense of hope and hope becomes tangible. I researched this through ancient thinkers like Aristotle and Augustine and all the big thinkers.

ME: Yes, I remember. Yes, you did.

JOE: Right up to the likes of Jurgen Moltmann and Miroslav Volf and Tom Wright or N T Wright as well … to try and get a sweep through theological and secular thinking around the subject of hope. And so it was this quadrilateral (to use an academic word) of beauty, children, community and justice that I articulated in my dissertation and then pulled back into our ministry at the old mission hall.

We’re busy right at this moment planting seeds in our greenhouse and these seeds are sprouting in the midst of a Covid pandemic. We’re working furiously because we know that we’re going to see better days than what we’re in right now. There will be a tangible beauty, as our garden is going to be dripping with flowers again. Several dozen children will come back here again every day to our childcare project. We have a community café and a garden space where our local community can enjoy meeting up again. And we work very keenly with justice initiatives locally as well as overseas. We work to develop an integrated project here whereby people can connect with expressions of hope and be drawn under the umbrella of God’s outreach in the community.

ME: That’s wonderful, Joe! Now you mentioned the pandemic. That must have some impact on what you can do with the café.

JOE: It has indeed, John. We have a tips jar in the café which we call it the ‘Share Your Lunch Fund’. When Jesus was presented with the need of five thousand plus people, he said to his disciples, “You give them something to eat”. It’s very profound that this happened at this moment because Jesus obviously was ready to feed everybody but he halted a miracle because he wanted some human interaction and the disciples really struggled with this. So as we had been reflecting and praying over the needs of this community, this city. We felt the Lord saying to us, “You give them something to eat” so we put a tips jar there and we said that’s going to be the five loaves and the two fishes. Whatever goes into that, we’re going to build up this fund. Now this pandemic hits and over the years we’ve been giving free food to lots of people in the community, people in difficult circumstances and so on with this Share Your Lunch Fund. And now we have the police, district nurses, worried residents and family members contacting us and saying, “Can you deliver food to this person or to that person?” We have scores of people every day that we’re feeding.

ME: And your daughter has launched an online appeal to raise more funds for this?

JOE: Yes, she set up a GoFundMe page and would you believe, John, that last November, before anybody ever heard of Covid or whatever, she ran a half-marathon and she was hoping to raise a thousand euro for our Share Your Lunch Fund?

ME: And you’re still open to receiving more if I put a link into this blog?

JOE: Yes, that is very thoughtful of you. You can be sure that it’ll receive more because it’s just whatever the Lord wants to do. It’s a bit like the disciples. I wonder, and I’m sure you would wonder, at what stage did the disciples start doing the Maths as the five loaves and the two fishes were being handed out.

ME: Well, I was a Maths teacher – I would have done that early on and I would have been stumped.

JOE: I honestly feel that they didn’t actually do it. That’s why Jesus made them collect the left-overs!

ME: Joe, it has been wonderful to talk with you like this. May God richly bless all that you and Sharon and your team continue to do in Ringsend and its impact to the ends of the earth. Bless you, brother.

JOE: Bless you too, John.

The above mentioned GoFundMe page can be found at https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-me-keep-the-hope-going.

You can read more about Joe’s project in Vox magazine, the Irish Times, NewsFour, the Irish Independent, and Faith in Ireland. See also TripAdvisor. You can also find Fair-Play Cafe Dublin on Facebook.

Grateful thanks to Vox and NewsFour for kindly granting permission to use their photos.

The full text of this interview is available here and it includes more about Joe’s childhood in the docklands and about the band’s relationship with U2!

More Pictures

The Good News Wall in the Cafe
Garden with Cruise Liner on the River Liffey in the Background
Children’s Christmas Party in the Hall upstairs
Entrance with Core Values on the side wall
Sharon and Joe behind the counter with Camile Lui
‘Souper Trooper’ Doina making soup for Lunch Packs for senior citizens and housebound April 2020
Camile, Joe and Sharon
Lizzy putting chocolate ganache onto cakes for Lunch Packs April 2020

End of pictures!

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.

Finding your ‘Community of the Heart’

If ever there was a book written for life under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, surely The Shape of Living is it! Back in the nineties, David Ford (Irish Christian and Cambridge academic) wrote it as a “book about coping with multiple overwhelmings”. (p. 18)

In this blog I will focus on what he says about the “community of the heart” from a chapter entitled ‘Faces and Voices: Shaping a Heart’. I think it will particularly resonate with what many of us may be experiencing just now. (You can find the Table of Contents and selected extracts from other chapters here on Googlebooks.)

Being physically distanced from family, friends and acquaintances, Val and I have found ourselves to be in many ways actually closer to them. The phone calls, emails, Facebook messages, WhatsApp video calls and shouted conversations through a door or window have all come to mean so much more to us. I have even found myself sending Facebook Friend Requests to people with whom I’ve had little or no contact for years, even decades. One was a student who was a member of my tutor group when I was first a full-time teacher back in the seventies! (He accepted the request immediately!) His name had popped up in a list of ‘People You May Know’ and I was transported back into the classroom in the tower-block by the games field to be again with him and a great group of young teenagers.

David Ford writes:

“’Heart’ is a way of talking about that dimension of our self where memory, feeling, imagination, and thinking come together. The heart is like a home for all the concerns of our lives, where our identity is sorted out year after year. Above all it is inhabited by images of other people and of ourselves in relation to them. Our hearts are filled with the faces and voices of those before whom we live. These are the members of our ‘community of the heart’. (p. 33)

Is it not some of these people in the community of our heart that we find ourselves remembering and contacting in these physically distanced days? Others may have died long ago but they may nevertheless still be “so much a part of our identity that they are woven into the texture of our feeling and thinking” (p. 34).

Some years ago, England’s Teacher Training Agency had as its recruitment slogan: “Nobody forgets a good teacher”. Is there a teacher or teachers in the community of your heart? Miss Thomson (my primary school teacher) and Roddy Bent (a secondary school teacher of English) are certainly prominent figures in mine.

David Ford quotes from ‘Foster-Figure’, a poem about a teacher.[1] The poem is by Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail, a contemporary of Ford’s when they were students at Trinity College Dublin, O’Siadhail writes of the affirmation he found and even now finds in that teacher’s glance, how he “craved the nurture of his words” and “strings until then silent … stirred, trembling towards song”.

The poem continues:

“I probe the essence of this energy;
no blandishments or blind approval,
his unblinking trust enticed me,
fingered some awareness of worth;
in his praise all is possible.”

Years later, even decades later, the teacher is still there:

“Though at first a copy-cat tremor,
after many storms I’ll still
strum the chords of his assurance,
that music I’ll make my own,
my old resonance I’ll summon up.”

In the praise of Miss Thomson and Roddy Bent, for me all was indeed possible. Of course, it is also the case that nobody forgets a bad teacher. I had one who shall remain nameless, a teacher of Irish Gaelic, who once said to me, “You speak Irish like an Englishman”. It wasn’t a compliment!

David Ford goes on to point out that there are also discouragers in the community of our heart. He quotes from ‘Fallen Angel’, another of O’Siadhail’s poems.[2] This one is about some new teachers who came to the school after staff changes and who were anything but encouragers:

“New brooms with fresh sweeps.
How easily we become how we’re seen;
failure throws an oblong shadow,
I cover hurts with jaunty humour.

pretend not to care, affect disdain,
harden the core to day-by-day
humiliations tiny erosions of respect –
learn the slow rustlings of shame.

And laugh a bitter laugh! …

How many faces must a wound wear?” (The Shape of Living,pp. 34-35)

These people have shaped and are shaping our lives. Their faces and voices are with us. Let’s treasure the good memories, the memories of the good people. Let’s put relationships with people above the false and fading values. Let’s seek the affirmation of the greatest Teacher of all as we go forward together into the unknowns of these days.

Father God, in these days of multiple overwhelmings, bring us into closer relationships with others and with you and help us to be encouragers and channels of your peace, your shalom. In the name of the Prince of Peace. Amen.


[1] Poems 1975 – 1995: Hail! Madam Jazz, pp. 90-91.

[2] Poems 1975 – 1995: Hail! Madam Jazz, pp.92-93.

Knowing of the Third Kind

A heart-warming story behind this picture will follow shortly but first I have a simple task for you. Take a few moments to think of a sentence that begins, “I know …”.  Got one? Good!

The sentence you have thought of will probably fall into one or other of three main categories, three kinds of knowing.

The first kind of knowing is knowing-that. I know that the square of nine is eighty one … Helsinki is the capital of Finland … Nelson Mandela was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1993 … water usually freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. This kind of knowing is factual knowledge.

The second kind of knowing is knowing-how. I know how to swim … ride a bicycle … change gear in a manual transmission car … make a sponge cake. (Oops, if the last of these is a claim I’m making for myself personally, it is very questionable!) This kind of knowing is skilful knowledge. It is acquired by doing, not simply by reading about it. I can be skilful at driving a car without knowing what is happening in the transmission when I depress the clutch to change gear.

Knowing-how is different from knowing-that. In an age when factual knowledge is available in an instant at the click of a mouse, skilful knowledge is becoming more important. That is not to say that factual knowledge is not important. Far from it, especially at the present time. Talk of ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ had become common in recent years but the advance of the coronavirus has meant we have again become desperate to know the facts and we are becoming tired of spin.

The third kind of knowing is knowing a person, place or thing, knowing with a direct object. I know my grandsons, … the town where I have lived for several decades … the dolmen on the Irish farm where I grew up. This is relational knowing, knowledge by acquaintance.

The importance of this kind of knowing has surely been brought home to us in these days of physical/spatial distancing. ‘Social distancing’ is a misnomer as the photo illustrating this piece shows so vividly. The photo is from a heart-warming newspaper article by Canadian Guardian journalist Daniel Brown[1] about a nurse and her grandmother, both of whom live on Cape Breton Island off the Atlantic coast.

Julienne Van Hul, 91, is in self-isolation at her home because of the coronavirus pandemic. As her grandmother has no internet, Stephanie McQuaid “had the idea of giving her a spare iPhone so she could use its FaceTime app to make video calls. … She bought a SIM card and phone plan … and then configured the phone to be senior-friendly and added some family members into its contact list. She cleaned the phone using lysol wipes and put it in a ziploc bag, then drove out to her grandmother’s home and left the phone package on her porch. Her grandmother retrieved it – making sure to wash her hands first. Then came the challenge of teaching Van Hul how to use the device through the patio window. McQuaid sat outside and used her own iPhone to help demonstrate, focusing exclusively on how to use FaceTime.”

Van Hul is now receiving FaceTime calls from various relatives. She has been “able to see one of her grandchildren who lives in Calgary, and she could share her thoughts on another grandchild’s new haircut”.

The three kinds of knowing are related. Some ‘knowing that’ is necessary for relational knowing for it would be strange to claim to know a person and not be able to state some facts about her or him even though the facts that we state may not be exactly the same as those stated by somebody else who also knows that person. At the same time, it is possible to make an in-depth study of facts about a person and still not be justified in claiming to know that person.

In a similar way, some interpersonal skills may also be necessary for relational knowing but they cannot be sufficient for it because we may know to some extent how to relate appropriately to a person without actually knowing that person.

Relational knowing cannot be reduced to either ‘knowing that’ or ‘knowing how’ or even to a combination of the two. Something more is required by way of a direct acquaintance with or immediate awareness of the person, place or thing that is known.

These distinctions among kinds of knowing are reflected in many languages. In French, for example, relational knowing is connaître while savoir is used for both ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’. German distinguishes usages even further for it has different words for all three kinds of knowing—wissen (know that), kőnnen (know how) and kennen (know a person or place).

The Scottish and Northern English word ‘ken’ has its origin in kennen as in the folk-song ‘D’ye ken John Peel’ although it’s meaning is not limited to relational knowing. We talk of things being ‘beyond our ken’.

Irish Gaelic has the same word for ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’ and a different word for ‘knowing a person, place or thing. ‘Tá a fhios agam gurb é Baile Átha Cliath príomhchathair na hÉireann’ (I know that Dublin is the capital of Ireland). ‘Tá a fhios agam conas snámh a dhéanamh’ (I know how to swim). ‘Tá aithne agam ar Bhaile Átha Cliath’ (I know Dublin)

The word used almost always in the Old Testament for knowing of any kind is yada’. This is the word used when intimate sexual relations are written about in terms of ‘knowing’ a man or a woman. The same word is used for knowledge of God. Knowing God is not merely an awareness of his existence but a recognition of who he is and of his demands upon the obedience of those who know him.

Part III of Handel’s oratorio The Messiah opens with words from the Old Testament book of Job – “I know that my Redeemer liveth”. It takes the form of a statement of knowing-that but it is also and perhaps centrally a statement of relational knowing.

Father God, help us to grow in relational knowing, being connected with one another and with the physical creation of places and things and, above all, in connection with you. In the name of Jesus who came into this world of people, places and things to reconnect us. Amen.

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please EITHER (1) enter your email address in the box above ‘Subscribe’ on the posts page OR (2) email me through the contact address on this website OR (3) message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook


[1] My grateful thanks to Daniel for giving me permission to use his photo.

Other Birds Our Teachers? Over to You!

My plan has been to post at most one blog per week but responses to yesterday’s piece have made me think I should follow it up today with something for you to think about and possibly to respond with.

Some have written with memories of John Stott or anecdotes about him and his enjoyment of bird-watching. They led me to recall how, as an eighteen- or nineteen-year-old, I had sneaked into a meeting organised by the Christian Union in Trinity College Dublin to hear him speaking. (I wasn’t a student and probably shouldn’t have been there.) I still remember the hush in that hall as he spoke of the absolute holiness of God and our own sinfulness.

Two friends have written to suggest biblical themes with which the characteristic behaviour of other birds could be linked. This in response to my cheeky suggestion that a chapter on ‘The Flight Formation of the Wild Geese: Interdependence’ could be added to Stott’s lovely book.

Matt Kaegi wrote from Winterthur in Switzerland to talk about the playful behaviour of crows, those fun-loving birds that have been observed to do such amazing things. Their playfulness is linked with creativity in the making of tools. Just google ‘crows playfulness’ and you’ll find lots of articles about this. See, for example, Harvard Magazine’sCrows know how to have fun’ and the BBC website’s ‘Crows could be the smartest animal other than primates’.

Proverbs talks about the playfulness of wisdom at creation. “When he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. Then I was constantly at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in humankind. (Proverbs 8:29-31)

Translations use ‘rejoicing’ because it sounds more pious but, in his book Wise Teaching, Charles Melchert writes: “Yet everywhere else in the Hebrew Bible, this term is translated ‘play’ … children playing with toys and games … people playing musical instruments and dancing … even of the love-play between Isaac and Rebekah.” (p. 189) Others have translated ‘rejoicing’ as ‘frolicking’ and ‘jesting’.

Christ who is Wisdom is therefore the Lord of the Dance! And our playfulness is linked with imagination and creativity!

David Smith wrote from Grand Rapids in Michigan to say he had recently read an Audobon.org article entitled ‘In homing pigeon flocks, bad bosses quickly get demoted’ and suggested this behaviour could be linked with the biblical theme of humility. The article reports research that showed how flocks of homing pigeons keep leaders with bad information from throwing them off course.

How often do leaders of human organisations, churches, schools lack the humility to step down or be redirected by others when they get it wrong?  All too often, I think.

Now it is over to you! Do you know of another bird whose characteristic behaviour can be linked with a biblical theme? If so, please share it.  More about how to do so in a moment but first let’s see what we have so far. Here is the list of chapter titles in John Stott’s book:

  1. The Feeding of Ravens: Faith
  2. The Migration of Storks: Repentance
  3. The Head of Owls: Facing Both Ways
  4. The Value of Sparrows: Self-esteem
  5. The Drinking of Pigeons: Gratitude
  6. The Metabolism of Hummingbirds: Work
  7. The Soaring of Eagles: Freedom
  8. The Territory of Robins: Space
  9. The Wings of a Hen: Shelter
  10. The Song of Larks: Joy
  11. The Breeding Cycle of All Birds: Love

To these we can add:

  1. The Flight Formation of Wild Geese: Interdependence
  2. The Playfulness of Crows: Creativity
  3. The Leadership of Homing Pigeons: Humility

So over to you! Please share any suggestions you have for chapter titles to add to the list. Alternatively, you may have memories or anecdotes about John Stott to share.

I suggest you do so by writing a comment on my Facebook link to this blog and you can find it by clicking here.

Alternatively, you can email me (address under ‘Contact Me’ on my website) and, with your permission, I can add what you share to the comments on my Facebook link.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Creator and Wise God, help us to learn from what you have made how to live in peace with ourselves and others, the physical world and, above all, with you. Amen.

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please EITHER (1) enter your email address in the box above ‘Subscribe’ on the ‘Posts’ page OR (2) email me through the contact address on this website OR (3) message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook.

‘The Birds our Teachers’ by John Stott

I guess many readers of this blog will have read one or more of the many books that the famous Bible teacher John Stott wrote during his long and influential life but have you read ‘The Birds our Teachers’?

In this unique book, John Stott introduces us to what he humorously terms ‘the science of orni-theology’ and he does so in eleven short chapters lavishly illustrated with more than 150 lovely photographs taken during his travels around the world.

Stott traces his lifelong love of bird-watching back to walks with his father in the country as a boy of only five or six years. On these walks, his father would tell him to shut his mouth and open his eyes and ears (p. 7). He finds “the highest possible authority” for his hobby in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells us to “look at the birds of the air” (Matthew 6:26). He says that, in basic English, Jesus is telling us to “watch birds” and he points out that the Greek verb used means “to fix the eyes on or take a good look at” (p. 9).

The book combines the author’s personal stories with information about birds and with biblical themes in a way that should be of interest to both birders and Bible students alike. Each chapter focuses on a different bird (albeit not exclusively because many other birds are mentioned in each as well) and on a different spiritual lesson. It is therefore not a book to be read straight through from cover to cover but rather more of a coffee-table book to dip into and reflect upon, one chapter at a time.

My favourite chapter is one near the end of the book entitled ‘The Song of Larks: Joy’. As I read it, I’m transported back to an unforgettable experience that Val and I had some years ago when we were on holiday in the Black Forest region in Germany. We went up the Feldberg in a cable car and, as we stepped out onto the snowy slopes, a lark was ascending in the clear air and singing its heart out just above us. It was a moment of sheer joy for both of us as we walked near the summit of the highest mountain in Germany outside of the Alps.

The chapter is focussed on the lark and opens with Shelley’s ode that hails the “blithe spirit”. He goes on to talk about the songs of other birds including “the liquid bubbling trill of the Curlew’s spring song” (and I’m a little boy again walking in the callows[1] on my father’s farm!), “the resonant, explosive outburst of the Wren” and “the melodious flute-like warbling of the male European Blackbird” (p. 77). Another songbird I love to hear is the robin and, being an incurable early-riser, I’m serenaded each morning by one in a cherry tree beside our house … but that very territorial bird is the focus of another chapter (my second favourite) in which Stott talks about space and our need to preserve a “combination of colony and territory” and to avoid the extremes of isolation and total loss of privacy (p. 66).

Missing from the list of birds mentioned by John Stott is the wild goose. If I were to cheekily add a chapter to the book, it would be entitled ‘The Flight Formation of the Wild Geese: Interdependence’. I would go on to talk about the V-formation in which they fly. (Actually, it is often more like a J-formation because one leg of the V is longer than the other but the lessons to be learned are still the same.)

The lead bird works the hardest by breaking into undisturbed air. Drag is reduced and uplift is produced for the following birds and they expend twenty to thirty per cent less energy flying. As the lead bird tires, it drops back in the formation and another bird takes its place. The birds constantly communicate with one another by honking. Honking from behind is effectively encouragement for those in front.

In a study of the phenomenon of the V, Steven Portugal of the Royal Veterinary College in Hatfield found that the birds were not only placing themselves in the best place but also flapping at the best time to reduce the energy expended by the flock. He said, “They are just so aware of where each other are and what the other bird is doing. And that’s what I find really impressive”.[2]

If one goose becomes injured and has to land, a few family members will stay with it until it recovers. When it is ready to fly again they all set off and look for a new flock to join.[3]

In these days of life under the shadow of the coronavirus, we can learn, and indeed are learning, how we need one another. We are not independent, we are interdependent! And ultimately, we are all dependent upon God, whether or not we acknowledge it.

In Celtic Christianity, the wild goose was seen as a symbol for the Holy Spirit. God is not to be tamed. A Spirit-led life can be like a wild goose chase!

“Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds.” (Matthew 6:26, The Message)

Creator God, help us to sing for joy at the work of your hands and to support one another as we seek to journey to wherever you are leading us. Amen.


[1] Callows are a type of wetland found in Ireland. Most of the farm I grew up on was hilly but part was low-lying and flooded in winter.

[2] Nature, 16 Jan 2014, pp. 399-402.

[3] https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/natures-home-magazine/birds-and-wildlife-articles/migration/on-the-move/

Humility: Virtue not Vice

This piece is about the virtue of humility. There’s not a lot of it in our world today, is there?! Some of our world leaders exemplify anything but humility but it certainly doesn’t stop with them. Indeed, many regard it as a bad thing and the humble are dismissed with derision and scorn as ‘losers’.

It seems it was always so. Many in the honour-shame culture of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome certainly did not regard humility as a virtue. Indeed, philosophers such as Aristotle regarded it as a vice. It was dishonourable to be brought low and it was considered shameful to put oneself lower than one’s equals.

Onto the stage of history steps Jesus of Nazareth, the Servant-King – how counter-cultural in his time … and in ours! Paul writes in Philippians 2:3-5, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.”

This is immediately followed by Paul’s quotation of a hymn, presumably one known and sung in Philippi, which I’ve represented diagrammatically as follows:

Commentators point out that the shape of the story of Jesus contrasts line by line, step by step with the story of fallen humankind. I’ve constructed another diagram for this:[1]

Australian writer John Dickson comments on the Philippian hymn: “What we read in the above text is nothing less than a humility revolution. Honour and shame are turned on their heads. The highly honoured Jesus lowered himself to a shameful cross and, yet, in so doing became not an object of scorn but of praise and emulation. … Honour has been redefined, greatness recast. If the greatest man we have ever known chose to forgo his status for the good of others, reasoned the early Christians, greatness must consist in humble service. The shameful place is now a place of honour, the low point is the high point.” (Humilitas, p. 109)

As song-writer Graham Kendrick puts it, “So let us learn how to serve / And in our lives enthrone Him / Each other’s needs to prefer / For it is Christ we’re serving”.

Great God and Father, help us to be revolutionaries in a culture of winners and losers, and in humility to value others above ourselves. In the name of Jesus, the Servant-King. Amen.

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[1] You can read more about the contrasting shape of these stories in chapter 7 of a book that David Smith and I wrote some years ago (available as a free download here).

A New Orientation

This is a picture taken in winter of the mid-day sun over a lake. As you stand looking at this scene from the point at which the picture was taken, in what direction are you looking – north, east, south or west? Most readers of this blog will give the same answer but not all!

Back in May 2016, I had a work-trip to Australia and I made what was to me a surprising discovery. The sun shone from the northern sky!  I was standing by a street in central Sydney and a friend was directing me to the Opera House. He pointed down the street and said, “keep going south and you can’t miss it”. But the sun was shining from behind us and I thought, “That can’t be south … that must be north”. Of course, it was south because the sun (of which I was somehow aware without thinking about it) was shining down on us from the northern sky.

Again, a day or two later, one of my hosts had taken me to the rail station to catch a train into central Sydney and it happened again. She indicated the direction from which the train would shortly be coming and I thought, “Surely not, it will be coming from the west”. East and west were swapped around in my mind because, again, I was assuming that the sun was shining from the south … and it wasn’t!

After more than seventy years of life oriented to the sun being in the southern sky, I was being reoriented to having it shine from the north! East had become west and west east!

In the Introduction to his book What I Believe, Leo Tolstoy wrote this:

“Five years ago I came to believe in Christ’s teachings, and my life suddenly changed; I ceased to desire what I had previously desired, and began to desire what I formerly did not want. … It happened to me as it happens to a man who goes out on some business and suddenly decides that the business is unnecessary and returns home. All that was on his right is now on his left, and all that was on his left is now on his right; his former wish to get as far as possible from home has changed into a wish to be as near as possible to it. The direction of my life and my desires became different, and good and evil changed places.”

At the age of 55, Tolstoy wrote this about his conversion five years earlier. For most of his life he had been a Nihilist. He went on to say, “I, like that thief on the cross, have believed Christ’s teaching and been saved.”

I was seventeen, going on eighteen, back in February 1962. (You can do the maths!) I was sitting in a Sunday evening service in the YMCA in Dublin. It was a service to which young people came from all over the city and its suburbs. The meeting hall was quite large with a gallery at the back. I was sitting with two friends high in the gallery.

I had always believed in God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit. I had always believed that Jesus came as baby, lived, died on the cross and was raised again. I had always regarded the Bible as God’s book and read it regularly. I had always gone to church. I had always prayed to God. But, at that time, I was struggling with the realisation that, in spite of all that, all was not well in my heart and life, that there were things that I had done, said and thought that were not good. They were bad but I wanted to hold on to them.

That evening, sitting there in that service, while a church pastor from Liverpool was speaking, I surrendered to the Lord and trusted him as Saviour and Friend.

I was filled with joy as my friends and I walked the mile and a half or so to where we and other young men fresh up in Dublin from the country were living. I immediately wrote a letter home to my parents and younger brothers on the farm to tell them that Jesus was my Saviour.

I was changed and my life was changed. It wasn’t just a change of mind, a change of beliefs that I had. It was a new relationship.

How to describe the newness of this new relationship? I’ve come to think of it as being a reorientation, a reorientation of the whole person. Having this new friend, Jesus, come into one’s heart and life is a reorientation from having my world centred on me to having it centred on him. It is not that I’m consciously thinking of him all the time any more than I am consciously thinking of the sun as being in the southern sky but my living and my decisions and plans now take him into account. A husband is not consciously thinking of his wife every moment of the day but all his living and all his plans are made and decisions are taken within that relationship and oriented towards it.

Light of the world, help us to be always oriented to you as Son of God, to walk in your light and to reflect you in our living. Amen.

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Why, O Lord?

Come walk with me into Psalm 42.

Hurting, really hurting

The first thing we notice is that the writer is hurting, really hurting.

The psalm opens with the image of a deer: “As the deer pants for the water …” (v 1). This deer isn’t up to its elbows in a mountain stream – it is desperately searching for water in a dry place. The deer is suffering. Where can I find streams in this desert, rivers in these badlands?

As Eugene Peterson translates this psalm in The Message, the writer is “on a diet of tears – tears for breakfast, tears for supper” (v 3). He is “down in the dumps … crying the blues” (v 5). He says to God, “Your breaking surf, your thundering breakers crash and crush me” (v 7).

Some Christians would have us believe that our lives should be lived always on the mountaintop. I remember a chorus that I learned as a teenager that went: “I’m living on the mountain underneath a cloudless sky, / I’m drinking at the fountain that never shall run dry, …”. Is your sky cloudless today?  Thank God if it is.  It is like that some of the time.  For some of us, it is like that more of the time than for others … but please don’t kid yourself that it will always be so! And don’t let others make you think you are somehow a failure if it is not for you a matter of always walking on the mountaintop.

It wasn’t so for Job, it wasn’t so for David, it wasn’t so for Jeremiah, it wasn’t so for Paul, it wasn’t so for Jesus!  He wept, he was the “Man of Sorrows” who was “acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3)!

Questioning

The second thing we notice is that the writer is asking questions.

He is questioning deeply and even questioning God. Again and again he asks “Why?”

There are many today who ask us, ‘Where is your God?’ and if we find it hard to see him in our circumstances, we may begin ourselves to ask the same question, “Where is God?” How can this be happening to me?  How can this be happening to the person I love so much?  Why have you forgotten me, O Lord? Jesus, the Son of God, asked his Father that question as he hung on the cross!

Is it wrong to ask God questions? If we are asking humbly with a genuine desire to know, then I suggest that it is not wrong.  It is all a matter of our motives, of the attitudes of our hearts. The writer says twice that his enemies are asking, ‘Where is your God?’ That doesn’t sound like a question that comes from a true desire to know or a humble heart that is open to learn.

As I read, watch or listen to the news, I find myself asking, “Why do bad things happen to good people? … Why do the wicked prosper?” The latter question was asked by Job (Job 21:7) and one translation puts it like this: “Why do the wicked have it so good?” Why, O Lord?

And yet, and yet …

The third thing we notice is that, in all this hurting and questioning, there is an “and yet, and yet”!

Hear Eugene Peterson again: “soon I’ll be praising again … He puts a smile on my face, He’s my God” (v 5) and “God promises to love me all day, sing songs all through the night!” (v 8). Tears in the night but also songs in the night – what Leonard Cohen would call a “broken hallelujah”!

It is not that the hurt has gone or the questions been answered – they are still there but they are accompanied by a hope that says God is there in the darkness and that one day we will see him and praise him.

There is a verse in Hebrews that goes like this: “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf.” (Hebrews 6:19-20)

The storms of life may toss us about but we can have a hope that is in Jesus who has gone on before us into the presence of the Father. That hope is an anchor in the storm.  It is firm and secure and it holds us in spite of all that is washing over us, all those waves and breakers.

It is an assurance that God is there even when we are not living on the mountain, when we are deep in a dark valley.

A beautiful hymn by John Bell and Graham Maule of the Iona Community begins, “We cannot measure how you heal / or answer every sufferer’s prayer, / yet we believe your grace responds / where faith and doubt unite to care.” It goes on to talk of “The pain that will not go away, / the guilt that clings from things long past, / the fear of what the future holds”.

Let’s make the last four lines our prayer.

Lord, let your Spirit meet us here / to mend the body, mind and soul, / to disentangle peace from pain / and make your broken people whole.”

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‘Gilead’ by Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, the winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, was last year ranked second on The Guardian’s list of the 100 best books of first two decades of the 21st century. It is a staggeringly wonderful piece of writing and I have to confess that, although I feel I must write this piece about it, I am deeply aware that I cannot do justice to the extraordinary quality of the work.

The story

Gilead is set in 1956 in a small fictional mid-western town of that name in Iowa and it takes the form of a long letter by a 76-year-old Congregationalist pastor named John Ames to his six- or seven-year-old son. His first wife had died in childbirth and their infant daughter had also died soon after. In his mid-sixties after many years of loneliness, he met and married his second wife, a young woman named Lila (the subject of a later novel by Marilynne Robinson) and she gave birth to their son.

John Ames has been told that he is facing imminent death because of a heart condition so he sets about writing this story of his life for his son to read long after he has died. His grandfather had been a pastor in Kansas and had fought in the Civil War in the cause of the abolition of slavery. His father, also pastor of the Gilead church, was a convinced pacifist and this had led to a rift with the grandfather. John’s brother had studied in Germany and had become an atheist and had fallen out with their father. John’s lifelong and close friend, the minister of the town’s Presbyterian church, always referred to by John as ‘Boughton’ or ‘old Boughton’, features prominently in the story. So also does his son, ‘young Boughton’, who had brought disgrace on the family and left the town. Later in the story, he comes back home. John Ames struggles to forgive him for what he had done.

What some reviewers have said

Gilead is much concerned with fathers and sons, and with God the father and his son. The book’s narrator returns again and again to the parable of the prodigal son — the son who returned to his father and was forgiven, but did not deserve forgiveness. … Robinson’s words have a spiritual force that’s very rare in contemporary fiction. … As the novel progresses, its language becomes sparer, lovelier, more deeply infused with Ames’s yearning metaphysics.” (Ali Smith, The Guardian, 16th April, 2005)

“Robinson’s prose is beautiful, shimmering and precise; the revelations are subtle but never muted when they come, and the careful telling carries the breath of suspense.” (Ellen Levine, PublishersWeekly.com)

“Robinson demonstrates the extraordinary in the ordinary. She shepherds us up to our own death and helps us face it with confidence. She validates our lives in places where we wonder if they have had any impact. … This book is an amazing unveiling of the truth of the Christian faith, barely hidden behind the curtain of human mortality. Robinson’s guided tour of the dusty, dry insignificant town of Gilead is a walk through the deepest of our human experience. She shows us how to celebrate life and God and appreciate every last thing about this life and the life to come.” (Fred D Mueller, Customer Review on Amazon website, 2nd April, 2017)

Some quotations from the book itself (you can find many more here)

“A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.” (p. 8)

“Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life.” (p. 23)

“People talk about how wonderful the world seems to children, and that’s true enough. But children think they will grow into it and understand it, and I know very well that I will not, and would not if I had a dozen lives.” (p. 76)

“Love is holy because it is like grace–the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.” (p. 238)

“There are two occasions when the sacred beauty of Creation becomes dazzlingly apparent, and they occur together. One is when we feel our mortal insufficiency to the world, and the other is when we feel the world’s mortal insufficiency to us.” (p. 280)

How and why has this book impacted me?

It’s opening sentences are: “I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it.”

John Ames closes his letter to his son with these words: “I’ll pray that you will grow up a brave man in a brave country. I will pray you find a way to be useful. I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.”

The pages in between were for me a journey into my own inner life and the world of my memories as well as that of my present relationships with the Lord and with family members and friends.

Later this year I will be as old as John Ames was when he wrote this letter to his son. I certainly have fewer years left of this life than I have lived so far. My father was my age (and almost the age of John Ames) when he passed away. Yes, between my father and me there was often not only loyalty and love but also what Marilynne Robinson terms “mutual incomprehension”.

Although I’ve never been a church pastor, I’ve preached many a sermon. Like John Ames, I’ve often wondered about their impact.

In 1956, the time of the setting of the story, I was just entering my teenage years, a country boy living with my parents and young brothers on the family farm in rural Ireland. Everybody knew everybody else and every grownup knew everybody else’s family histories and their scandals. It sounds like Gilead, doesn’t it?

I never knew either of my grandfathers but my mother’s father, like John Ames, was married late in life to a younger woman. He was a God-fearing member of the Christian Brethren of whom my mother talked warmly, albeit rarely. I don’t know if there was anybody that he found it hard to forgive but I’ve known family members who have found forgiveness a struggle.

I have sons and grandsons whom I love dearly and for each of whom I pray a bright future.

Need I say more?

God of all love and all grace, help us to live in your Big Story and to walk with you to the end of our days. Amen.

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please EITHER (1) enter your email address in the box above ‘Subscribe’ on the right of this blog OR (2) email me through the contact address on this website OR (3) message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook.