Somewhere between the sparkling commercials and the Christmas-crackered gripes, the happy families and the horror stories, the credit card overspend and the food bank, and the hopes and fears of all the years, there is a dangerous truth about a king born in Bethlehem in order to bring to completion the original and authentic plan to save the planet.
I really hope that we all can enjoy the festive celebrations without consumer guilt and apprehend a little more of that dangerous truth. I do wish you and yours a wonderful Christmas! Happy birthday Jesus!
I was in an upper room recently with a large group of claimants to the label of, let’s say, “reasonably intelligent and well informed educated bods” where we learned that only a handful of us clever clogs bought a newspaper at least once a week. Surely Facebook cannot trump the quality broadsheets? Farewell free press, hello post-truth politics. Who will pay for good investigative journalism when nobody buys a paper? Meanwhile another once paper publication, the comic, now explodes in surround sound, ethical ambiguity and computer generated imagery through the medium of the big screen. Here it would appear that the responsibility for saving the planet has now been assumed by numerous costume clad superheroes.
In foolish contrast, the vulnerability of incarnation appears to be a most unlikely strategy. The peril of the world and its need of rescue is taken as read. But the identity of the real saviour is disputed. As Chesterton said, “when men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing; they become capable of believing in anything”. And if we have avoided the shock and awe of Marvels’ masked and digital creations, at some point we probably have seen a film with a cowboy in a cowboy hat, maybe chewing a cheroot, riding alone into some needy situation and emerging unscathed (and so unchanged), having heroically saved the day without even a small hole in either hand from a cruel nail. Alas, the Church Mission Society is yet to equip its fledgling mission partners with super powers. And, with the centre of gravity of Christianity located in the global south, cowboys with or without hat are not welcome even in needy situations. As a current TV drama expresses it, when the native minister of justice of a country in need says to the foreign agent: “We accept your help, but not your condescension.”
So someone preparing to go overseas is now made keenly aware of these kinds of delicate sensitivities. And I sincerely seek to be so sensitised. The pain of getting it wrong – be it foot in mouth disease or ignorant clumsiness – is just horrible. And happily I am now one of those preparing to go overseas. At which point I hear you say, “We’ll believe it when we see it Malcolm!” And yes, I quite agree. I dare not look up the record for the longest time it has taken for someone’s calling to reach the point of placement. There is a word for mañana in my vocabulary but it doesn’t carry the same sense of urgency! It has been a rocky ride with hopes disappointed, mistakes made and plans just not working out.
However, in May I went to Northern Uganda, to a town called Gulu (which the ever hilarious Google Translate rendered once as “goulash”), to Archbishop Janani Luwum Theological College (AJLTC) where I was kindly and graciously welcomed by bishop Johnson Gakumba and principal Sandra Earixson. The College trains ordinands, evangelists, readers, catechists and Mothers’ Union leaders. And while I do not possess any professional theological qualifications, I love to teach the Bible and my basic level of knowledge is appropriate to the need. I look forward to working in partnership and building relationships with local staff.
Gulu is a moderately sized town. It has an ATM machine. The long runway at the town airport is metalled. The climate is warm. The green surrounding countryside indicates a plentiful rain supply. It is a good place to live. The pineapples melt in your mouth! Gulu has had a painful history but the region is peaceful today. Many of us will have learned about terrible things that happened in Northern Uganda not so long ago, but if like me you depend on mainstream media (in either its paper or electronic form) then the whole truth will still be concealed. There are many non-government-organisations working in Gulu, a measure of former troubles. I remain convinced that the gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, is the hope of the world. I seek to be faithful to that gospel message and give assistance where I can to those who are going to live out and broadcast the dangerous truth of the Good News to Northern Uganda.
The trick will be to behave in a way that rejects cowboy mission, follows the vulnerable way of incarnation and accepts the two way reality of mission partnership. I am very willing to learn but I hope also that by extension those who link up with me will share in that learning. I do not want to idolise any culture but the church in Africa has many gifts for the church in the UK. And having worked in the UK church for a while, to my shame I know how easy it is to put up barriers to receiving those gifts.
Currently AJLTC is preparing for an onsite visit from its accrediting institution, the Uganda Christian University (UCU), to allow the college to offer three additional courses in 2017: chaplaincy, child development and children’s ministry, and guidance and counselling at both diploma and certificate level. There is a vision for growth. (And by the way, with its inclusion of Biblical studies in all degrees, UCU offers a stunning model of higher education not just for East Africa but for the world.)
Meanwhile I am uprooting from the challenging parish in Luton where I have been deeply rooted for nearly 24 years. How I wish I had obeyed Jesus’ command about not storing up treasure on earth! I am grateful to my bishop who mercifully has given me some extra time to clear out. My resignation from parish ministry is effective from 31 December. In January I move to Oxford for some training in mission. I will live in a communal house with about a dozen other CMS bods who are either returning or preparing to go. Training finishes before Easter. And then after a commissioning service on Thursday 4 May, I will travel, God willing!
Uganda is sometimes called “The Pearl of Africa”. Its natural beauty is undoubted. And that makes me think of the Parable of the Pearl of Great Price as a picture of the Kingdom of God. Especially at Christmas, we remember how the Living God, like the merchant in the parable, gave up everything in his son for the world he so loves – for the pearl that is the nation of Uganda and for all of us. And all we have to do is accept being found – as we would accept any Christmas gift.
So thank you for linking up with me. Thank you also for your prayers. And thank you very much for your kind gifts of financial support. I look forward to being able to say more when the placement is under way.
May his kingdom come.