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Transformation of Work

Very pleased that the Scripture Union magazine Encounter with God has published my article 'Transformation of Work'. Here is the article.

    

God is a worker and He calls us to work in His wonderful but broken world. Some find it surprising that God works but Jesus makes this clear in the gospel of John. "My father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” (John 5:17). So both God the Father and God the Son are workers.

G.K. Chesterton tells a story about God working…making daisies and delighting in the work of His hands. God gets so excited about daisy-creation that He has to do it ‘again and again’. Before you know it there are millions and millions of daisies all over the world, bringing delight to God and humans (Proverbs 8:30-31).

Now God expected Adam and Eve to bear fruit by working - growing vegetables, making tools, building houses, looking after horses and designing work places. Eventually they and their offspring would invent helicopters. Theologians call this the cultural mandate. To understand the cultural mandate we need to take a closer look at the beginning of the Bible - the book of Genesis.

"God blessed them and said to them, 'Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground'. God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning - the sixth day." Gen 1:28

Let’s look briefly at these Hebrew words - kabash and radah (subdue and rule).  Kabash is drawn from a Hebrew word meaning to tread down or bring into bondage. The other word radah comes from a word meaning to trample on and conveys the image of treading grapes in a wine-press. As His image bearers God calls us to rule and unfold creation in good and wise ways. When we work we turn grapes into wine…sounds into music…words into stories…sand, stone and wood into offices and work places.

Imagine Adam and Eve walking in the garden and they see a pineapple high up in a tree. Eve finds a branch and cleverly turns it into a garden tool by which to harvest the delicious fruit. This is ruling and unfolding creation. It is meaningful and creative work. God’s good creation is dynamic and full of rich potential. There is no doubt that humans are placed over the rest of creation. Humans are called to direct and manage God’s world unlike animals and insects which simply cannot carry out the cultural mandate.

Without doubt, if these commands were the only directive given to humans, it would be natural to blame the Bible as the source of the western exploitative attitude towards nature. To balance this, it is essential to probe deeper into Scripture.

Genesis 2:15 tells us: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” The Hebrew words abad (work it) and shamar (take care of) focus on serving and caring for the animals and the earth. Both verbs (abad and shamar) sharply restrict the way the other two verbs – subdue and rule – are to be applied. God calls humans to serve the animals, the trees, the earth itself as they manage the good creation.

This biblical theme of serving and caring for creation becomes more explicit in the books of Exodus and Leviticus. Israel was mandated by God to rest the land in the Sabbath year and in the year of Jubilee (Lev 25:1-13). In every fifty year cycle, the land, as well as humans and animals, would enjoy eight years of Sabbath rest. Exodus 23:12 explicitly mentions Sabbath rest for animals, slaves and foreigners. All this is part of stewarding the earth.

So how can work be transformed in the light of biblical teaching? Two inspiring stories spring to mind.

George Cadbury famously owned a chocolate factory and he believed that the happiness and well-being of his employees was the chief aim of the business. He was profit-sensitive without being profit-driven. Cadbury was a committed Christian and his faith led him to treat his workers ethically. What was it like to work in the Cadbury chocolate factory? Each day began with Bible readings and prayer. The working day was considerably shorter than many other factories of the time. George and his brother Richard introduced half-days on Saturdays and bank holiday closing. Employees were encouraged to have fun at work. Sometimes George would tell his employees to knock off early and everyone would enjoy playing and watching a game of cricket. Sometimes half a dozen employees would be presented with a football and instructed to go and enjoy a ‘kick around’ in the local park on company time. In this way Cadbury refused to commodify or objectify his employees. They were not just human economic resources but image bearers of a good God who delights in both Sabbath rest and wise, responsible stewardship. When George died in 1922, his funeral was attended by over 16,000 people. Many were impressed by his compassionate and ethical approach to business.

A contemporary equivalent of George Cadbury is Randy Lewis who was a senior Vice President at Walgreens in the USA. Walgreens is the American equivalent of Boots the Chemist and has 8,175 shops and employs 247,000 people. Lewis had an autistic son, Austin and he desperately wanted Austin to have a future and hold down a good job. Lewis discovered that many people with disabilities were isolated and unemployed. Lewis wanted to create meaningful and rewarding jobs for people with disabilities. He said,  “We underestimate the abilities of people on the margins.” He persuaded Walgreens to change the work place to suit people with disabilities. Walgreens has now designed warehouses where 40% of the employees are people with disabilities. These jobs pay an equal wage to the non-disabled workers and hold all employees to the same productivity standards.

Employing people with disabilities has unleashed a surprising creativity and imagination in the company. In the Walgreens warehouses they use images rather than words which help employees who struggle to read. So instead of an ‘Aisle 14’ they will have a strawberry image. Here is a short story about an employee at Walgreens.

Derrill was born with epilepsy and a learning disability. He had struggled to find meaningful and well paid work. He had been employed in a hot and sweaty workshop where he was paid less than a dollar an hour. Then his life was transformed when Randy Lewis offered him a job at Walgreens. When Derrill first started working at a Walgreens warehouse, he walked with his head down and his eyes on the floor, rarely saying anything to anybody. On the day he earned his first paycheque, he gave it to his mum and she began to cry. Now her son was earning $14 an hour and his mother was delighted. Derrill used part of his wages to take his parents out to the Red Lobster restaurant for a celebratory meal.

The next day he asked his supervisor, Rico – “why did my mum cry?” 

When the new Walgreens warehouse opened, Derrill’s parents attended the open house event. With his mother walking by him, Derrill pushed his father’s wheelchair. When Randy Lewis reached out to shake his hand, Derrill’s dad pulled him in for a hug and whispered in his ear: “Thank you Mr Lewis. My family is finally safe. Now I can die knowing they’ll be alright.” Within a year Derrill’s father died and Derrill was now the sole support for his mother – his salary more than either of his parents had ever earned. 

Walgreens brought in outside experts to analyse the performance of the company. Their findings were fascinating. The workers with disabilities performed their jobs just as well as other employees but had less time off sick and a higher retention rate. “Fears about more accidents had come up, but we found hearing impaired forklift drivers – who many companies won’t hire – are twice as safe as someone who can hear,” Lewis explained. “If I could give everyone a piece of advice, it would be to put plugs in the ears of their forklift truck drivers.” 

In conclusion George Cadbury's Christian faith inspired a remarkable factory in the 19th century and Randy Lewis' work has led to thousands of employees with disabilities doing work they love and getting good wages as well. Both men have been faithful to biblical teaching about the cultural mandate.

For Further Reading

Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen The Drama of Scripture: Finding our Place in the Biblical Story, SPCK, 2006

Randy Lewis No Greatness Without Goodness, Lion Hudson plc, 2014

 

 

 

     

Parable of Touch Wood

Very pleased that my new parable about Touch Wood has been published in the Baptist Times.

https://www.baptist.org.uk/Articles/535279/Parable_of_touch.aspx

I was enjoying a flat white with my good friend Tim who is a Manchester United fan. We were talking about Wayne Rooney and getting rather noisy about his bicycle kick against Manchester City in 2011. Wow. What a screamer! Tim had an insight. "I played the game at quite a decent level but I never broke my leg." He paused and murmured furtively: 'Touch wood'". Now I am not one to go suddenly religious but I had a craving to explore this with Tim.

"I didn't know that you are a pagan who worships tree gods." Tim was clearly befuddled and replied - "You what?" Just then I decided to unleash my parable about Druidic blood and gore and see where it would lead.

"Tim you probably never learnt this in school but the ancient Celts, our ancestors, were superstitious heathens who worshipped and appeased tree gods."

Tim took a deep slug of his flat white and probed me. "Sorry chief, but I didn't know that about our great nation. Obviously I know my history. We won the World Cup in 1966 but did we really worship trees in them olden days?" I unfolded my theme with some juicy historical facts.

"You might have heard of the Druids? They were not the kind of priests you would invite to your grandma's birthday party. They were experts in propitiating river gods, tree gods and sea gods. They dreaded but placated these pagan deities. They would sacrifice people to the sea god by drowning them. They burned folk in huge wicker baskets to appease the sun god. They would hang men in forest glades to please the tree god. They practised divination by ripping their victims' guts out and then auguring the future by examining the bloody mess on the ground. Not nice so I'm intrigued that you are touching wood." Tim looked puzzled.

"What on earth has touching wood got to do with our pagan ancestors?"

"Back then if you were alone in a forest and strange noises were scaring you, pagans would touch wood in order to summon a tree spirit to come to their aid."

Tim began fumbling in his pocket and I thought he was going to pay me back the £20 he owed me but I was taken aback when he brandished a lucky rabbit's foot and asked me to hold it for him while he ordered more coffee.

"Sweet as a nut." I thought to myself. "This conversation is getting fruity. I can evangelise Tim without annoying him." Tim returned with the flat whites and a cheeky bonus, some unexpected cake, Battenburg to be precise. We gobbled it down. Tim had a spiel. "Mark, the story behind that will fascinate you. My aunty Ethel left that for me in her will. She told me it had always helped her in difficult times. I carry it in memory of her. Is that so wrong?"

"Well, it depends on how you look at the rabbit's foot. Do you view it as an amulet that can protect you from both physical and spiritual harm?" Tim was bamboozled.

"Tim, you lack knowledge, so listen and learn. Juju priest, Nana Tolofasito, comes from Ghana and he trusts in the magical power of amulets. Juju is a pagan faith that deploys magic and witchcraft. In 2017 Nana asked a friend to shoot him with a gun so that he could test his 'bullet' amulet.

Tim choked on his cake: "You are joking, I hope?"

"Sadly not. Nana's pagan faith didn't work and he sustained serious injuries. The story can be found on the internet. Here's the link to your gift from aunty Ethel. What do bullets, acorns, alligator teeth and rabbit feet have in common?"

Tim was listening and drinking in my cut-diamond insights.

"All these and many more are used as charms and amulets by the pagan faithful. Amulets are objects, imbued with occult, supernatural power, that can be trusted to protect you from bullets, ghosts and evil spirits. For some, the right amulet can attract money and make you wealthy. Very popular in Thailand."

Tim was keen to make a point: "So these charms can do almost anything?"

Spot on my chocolate chicken. Egyptian pagans trusted in images of the sacred scarab beetle to ward off evil spirits. Today some depend on their St. Christopher charms as they nervously begin a journey. Napoleon had a lucky coin. And your lucky charm? Some gamblers trust in a rabbit's foot as they feverishly play the slot machines. There are those who claim that the left hind foot of the rabbit is particularly 'lucky' and for maximum effect the rabbit should be killed in a cemetery during a full moon by a silver bullet."

Tim couldn't help himself. "So are you saying that my sweet aunty Ethel was an uncouth heathen?"

"Don't get me wrong. Many today are superstitious without knowing the sordid pagan background. But believe me if you depend upon the rabbit's foot, you cannot enter the kingdom of God. We are to fear the true God who loves us and not fear the pagan gods who hate us. Jesus told us to trust Him and Him alone. Trusting in amulets and lucky charms completely contradicts the gospel of Christ.

Tim was floored. "What on earth do you mean by that?"

"The gospel is the good news that God has defeated death by raising His Son Jesus from the dead. Amulets and charms, like the rabbit's foot, cannot rescue you from death but Jesus can. My advice is this - chuck the rabbit's foot in a bin and put your faith in Jesus."

Tim looked rattled and added, "Let's go back to the conversation about Wayne Rooney. Do you think he has a rabbit's foot which helps him to score such spectacular goals?"

 

 

Sixth Form Conference on Materialism and Human Trafficking

The Conference

Yesterday I went to a school in Doncaster. Picture it. There are 80 sixth formers and I have to engage them for 90 minutes on my own with just one teacher present. A tad frightening.

I tell them about Tarzan, the human trafficker who comes from Ukraine. In the 1990’s he attempted to purchase a Russian submarine to help him smuggle cocaine. Tarzan then gave up drug smuggling and turned to human trafficking. He said: “You can buy a woman for $10,000 and make your money back in a week if she is pretty and young. Then everything else is profit.” A 2003 study in the Netherlands found that, on average, a single sex slave earns her pimp at least $250,000 a year.

During my fifty minute presentation I help the students to understand the materialist philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and how this leads to both consumerism and atheism. Then I show, through storytelling, how this secular worldview impacts both celebrities and ordinary people. I then explain the Christian faith by contrasting it with materialism and consumerism.

I then ask the students to write down any questions they have (this takes 10 minutes). Then they grill me for 30 minutes.

Here are some of their questions.

1) What is Tarzan doing now?

2) Is it possible to have knowledge if everything is physical?

3) How does consumerism lead to environmental destruction?

4) Are beliefs just commodities?

5) What happened to Natalie Dylan, the young woman who wanted to auction her virginity for £2.5 million?

6) Why is sabbath rest so important?

7) How is Hobbes different from Descartes?

8) Do you believe in free will?

In my answers to these questions I explained secular views, both modernist and relativist and contrasted this with the Christian faith. They were very respectful. I touched on the dignity and value of human life, the hope of bodily resurrection and the forgiveness of sins.

The teacher who asked me to do the conference said it was 'brilliant'.

Brief Reflections

To be honest I was blown away by how attentive and responsive the students were. Thanks to anyone who prayed for me. The stories really engaged them and made them think. I was struck by the power of contrasting secular mindsets (we live as if there is no God and everything is just physical) with the Christian faith. It is vital to connect the Christian faith to our contemporary culture. Teenagers really want to grapple with deep and meaningful issues, like human trafficking and free will, but cliches and glib answers do not work.

Consumerism and Teaching French

Here is a 15 minute podcast I recently did on serving God as a French teacher.

https://lcileeds.wordpress.com/2018/11/24/does-teaching-french-have-anyt...

Language expert David Smith has argued compellingly that the dominant way of teaching modern foreign languages (MFL) is shaped by consumerist and materialist narratives. The focus is upon autonomous individuals buying ice creams, making complaints about hotels and busy in the many acts of (self-centred) tourism and consumption! ‘I want an ice cream’. ‘I want to make a complaint about the minibar’.‘I want a cold beer now’. French teachers can challenge this consumerist mindset by telling stories about people who are busy loving their neighbours.

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Parable about the Church of Maradona

Delighted that the Baptist Times has published my parable about the football genius Maradona.      

Picture it. We are enjoying Sunday lunch with friends and the conversation turns to football. It could be Brexit but it isn't. Before you know it, the diners are debating that pressing question. Who is the greatest footballer of all time? Jackie plumps for Pele. Frank is a Johan Cruyff fan. Susan urges us to consider Cristiano Ronaldo. Roy puts in a kind word for George Best. The conversation is noisy and passionate.

Do you go and do the washing-up or do you remain at the table and engage in bespoke evangelism? Bespoke evangelism begins with everyday conversation. You find out what people naturally enjoy talking about, what they find enthralling, and then you build bridges into this delightful chat zone.

To read the full article go to -

https://www.baptist.org.uk/Articles/532300/The_Parable_of.aspx

 

 

Asking Explosive Questions about Jesus and Hitler

In this short piece I want to explore the power of crafting and asking good questions.

Picture it. I am talking to a non-Christian social worker, let's call her Susan. My wife and I are foster carers for a young man from Eritrea and so this is just part of my work life. I have already told Susan some of my stories and she has been responsive and positive.

I have been studying Psalm 110 and I ask this question. "What do you think Jesus is doing right now?" She smiles warmly and tells me: "I think Jesus is very unhappy with all the horrible things going on in the world."

This allows me to unpack Psalm 110. "In my view Jesus is ruling His very broken world from His HQ in heaven. He is also listening to and answering the many prayers He hears."

Susan is alert, attentive and engaged. I decide to ask another question. "So what do you think Hitler is doing right now?"

I was surprised but encouraged by her response. "I think he is probably in hell because of all the terrible evil he did."

I responded like this: "I think you are probably right but I would just like to add that if Hitler had genuinely repented, then he could have received the forgiveness of his sins and avoided the miseries of hell. In my view when anybody turns away from evil and believes in Jesus, all their sins are wiped away and they have the hope of the resurrection and will live with Jesus in the new heaven and the new earth."

Susan didn't become a Christian after this conversation but my two questions about Jesus and Hitler certainly got her thinking.

Psalm 110 is the most quoted psalm in the New Testament. Study it today and use it in mission. "The Lord said to my lord, sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool."

August Francke and his Christian vision for a German city

August Francke (1663 - 1727) was a German preacher and social reformer who established an orphanage and inspired George Muller. One day he had to pay the construction workers but he did not have any money and so he prayed to God for provision. At the end of that day, the paymaster came and asked if he was going to be able to pay his men. The answer was no. Just then a student knocked on the door and reported that someone, who wished to remain anonymous, had brought a pouch with thirty gold talers. He went back into the other room and asked the foreman how much was needed for the payment of the builders. He said, “Thirty talers.” Francke said, “Here they are,” and asked if he needed more. He said, “No.”’ Francke said this incident strengthened his faith and the foreman's faith and they “recognized so evidently the wonderful hand of God.”

August Francke lived in Halle which is near the city of Leipzig. He was a faithful man of prayer and he had a big vision for the town he lived in. One day he was visiting a talented scientist who was dying. Francke had shown this man a lot of kindness and just before he died the brainy boffin gave Francke a recipe for some medicine. This recipe turned out to be very valuable and brought in thousands of pounds. He used this windfall to bless the city. By a series of quite incredible events he completed a huge building programme which included - a library of over 20,000 books, six schools, an orphanage with 2000 orphans, a home for destitute widows, a hospital, a chemist shop, an academy for pastors, a drop-in centre for strolling beggars, a museum of natural history, a printing house devoted to making Bibles and Christian literature available at a very reasonable price. Just like Nehemiah in the Old Testament, Francke thought deeply about his city. He wasn't just concerned with church life but everything that could help people to flourish.

 

Sumo Wrestling and Faith in Salt

Story

Obese but immensely strong, the Japanese sumo wrestlers of the Arashio stable were beginning to stir. A young rikishi (wrestler) tripped over camp beds and heaving bodies, cajoling his fellow wrestlers out of their sweet slumbers. Some opened listless eyes, while others ignored the young man's promptings and returned irritably to sleep. It was 5:30 am and freezing outside; what awaited the dozing wrestlers was hours of backbreaking and grueling practice in an abandoned car park in the outskirts of Osaka. Are these sumo wrestlers only in it for the money? No. Salaries of even the top sumo wrestlers are not that impressive. Is there faith in sumo wrestling?

Background Notes

Sumo wrestling is very different from professional football in England. Shinto is the traditional religion of Japan. This faith is focused on the appeasement of the gods known as 'kami'. The best English translation of kami is 'spirits' and the Shinto tradition declares that there are eight million kami; there are river gods, mountain gods and even boil and smallpox deities. Shinto unfolded as a religion to appease the kami in order to ensure good harvests and divine protection. Sumo, as a sport, aims to entertain the gods, appease their truculence and protect the wrestlers from both physical and spiritual harm. Christians believe that Jesus has defeated the powers of darkness (Col 2:15) but sumo wrestlers would vehemently reject this. Sumo wrestlers spend several minutes before a match lifting their legs high in the air and stomping them down in a vigorous manner. They also throw salt into the fighting zone as a Shinto ritual. This faith in stomping and salt is believed to drive away evil spirits. Even Christian people can replace Jesus with sodium chloride when they throw salt over their left shoulders in order to blind the devil. Sumo wrestlers are also known for their huge intake of food. They are also partial to beer.

Four Ways of Looking at the Story

Materialist faith: "We believe that football is all about money and material enjoyment but sumo rituals are pagan superstitions."

Relativist faith: "We deeply respect the Shinto faith. It is true for those who trust in its colourful ceremonies and the many gods and spirits of Japan."

Shinto faith: "We believe that there are millions of kami and we must appease these spirits on a daily basis. Sumo wrestling entertains our Japanese gods."

Christian faith: "We believe that Jesus is Lord. Worship the Lamb and do not worship demons that masquerade as kami."

Questions

1) Why do people appease the kami?

2) How does the Shinto faith encourage superstition?

3) Is it possible to be a Christian sumo wrestler?

 

 

         

Dangerous Faith in Artificial Intelligence

Marvin Minsky (1927-2016) was a professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in the USA. He is famous for his catchy phrase that the human mind is nothing but "a three-pound computer made of meat." Minsky was an atheist and worked in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI). He was convinced that 'free will' is an illusion and he asserted that "people should give their money to AI research rather than their churches, as only AI would truly give them eternal life.” Minsky believed passionately that science and technology can solve all our problems including the death of death. This faith is sometimes called scientism.

Background Notes

Artificial Intelligence (AI) hopes that machines can perform intelligent tasks like reasoning, learning and developing new technologies. While no one is expecting parity with human intelligence today or in the near future, AI has huge implications for how we live. AI devotees trust in the power of science and technology to solve all our problems and eventually to defeat physical death. Some call this 'Infinite Progress'. Key figures in this movement include Hans Moravec, Kevin Warwick and Marvin Minsky. AI followers predict that brilliant scientists will devise very clever and creative computers and fragile humans will be able to upload their minds onto the hard drives of these fabulous machines, so leaving their bodies behind to decay. There is also the hope that humans will merge with sophisticated technologies. Arms will be replaced by mechanical parts and fleshy hearts and lungs will become redundant. Humans will morph into indestructible cyborgs like The Terminator and we will enjoy eternal life thanks to AI. This is the proud faith of Minsky and his many friends. One way to talk intelligently about the Christian faith is to contrast faith in AI with faith in Jesus. Do we trust in Jesus' death and resurrection or in AI?

Four Ways of Looking at the Story

Materialist faith: "We believe that science and technology will solve all our problems. Death will be defeated by clever boffins."

Relativist faith: "We believe that scientism is true if it works for you. There are many other ways to find salvation."

Gnostic faith: "We believe that death is not a disaster. It is the great hour of the freedom of the soul." 

Christian faith: "We believe that Jesus Christ has destroyed death (2 Timothy 1:10). Trust in Jesus. "I am the resurrection and the life." (John 11:25)

Questions

1) Did Marvin Minsky have a dangerous faith?

2) Do we have hope in the resurrection or hope in a robot replacement?

3) Have you heard of 'transhumanism'?

From Prince Philip to Jesus (article in the Baptist Times)

Delighted that the Baptist Times has published another article by me on creative, storytelling evangelism. Here is how the article begins...

It was the worst of times. It was the best of times. Years ago I tried to tell a non-Christian friend, Derek about my Christian faith. I was walking along a road in Bishopston, Bristol talking football and suddenly I blurted out: "Derek, you need Jesus." Derek said nothing. He just gave me a withering look. We went back to our conversation about Bristol Rovers and their bitter rivalry with Bristol City.

I've spent a lot of time since then pondering my abject failure to communicate my faith to my friend. How could I witness in such a way that the conversation would flow naturally and engagingly? Without evoking that cold contempt....

Read the full article on the Baptist Times website.

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