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I have several friends who voted for Donald Trump.  After Trump won the election I did the only productive thing I could think of: I invited one of them over for dinner.

Does that sound crazy?  We live in particularly divided times.  The online dialogue about the US election has been divisive at every level, with Nazi comparisons and vicious trolling flying around like confetti.  My friend and I sparred online in our discussions of events, though thankfully we were more polite to one another than some people are.  We have never compared each other to Hitler, which in the current climate makes our discussions oddly courteous.

But this is part of the problem, isn’t it?  Online discussions are a terrible phenomenon.  Email and Facebook are terrible means of communicating as they strip out the personal aspects of a discussion and reduce it to mere ideas.  Offence is easily taken.  We infer the worst intentions from comments, get defensive, and arguments ensue.  So dinner it was, sitting and eating together, discussing things face to face.  And here is what I learned.

  1. Not all Trump voters actually like Trump. My friend – a white, middle-aged, Christian man from a southern swing state – does not. He finds him crude and offensive.  So why did he vote for him?  Because he dislikes Clinton more than he dislikes Trump.  It really is, for him, the lesser of two evils.  The thought of electing a politician widely thought to be corrupt, duplicitous and incompetent was enough to make him switch to Trump.  Interestingly, he would not have voted Trump if Sanders had been the alternative.
  2. A lot of American people feel left out, sidelined by what they see as a sweeping, liberal agenda that perpetuates intolerance in the name of tolerance. The social and political mainstream automatically condemns anyone taking an alternative point of view on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, unisex bathrooms, or immigration. Whether Donald Trump is likely to take a different stance on these issues is not important: what matters is that he is outside the establishment, refuses to subscribe to the liberal narrative, and enables their anger to be heard.
  3. Oddly (to me, at least) Trump is not seen by everyone as an aggressive candidate. My friend perceives him to be less interventionist and therefore less likely to embroil the USA in the mucky scuffles of recent years: Iraq, Libya, Syria, and so on. Trump as less warlike than Clinton?  It sounds baffling, but that is how some people perceive him.

What mattered more than all of this was the simple act of meeting and talking in person.  This enabled me to see my friend as a human, not as an abstract collection of ideas and motives.  I saw him smile when I joked.  I saw the pain on his face when he discussed abortion.  The simple act of sitting together made me soften what I said to him (and he to me, I think).

I still disagree with him and I am profoundly shocked and worried by Trump’s victory.  But in an increasingly divided world, and one that is separated and made more remote by the technologies that were intended to improve communication, I found it a helpful and uplifting experience.  Politics cannot be boiled down to black and white issues, to anonymous and intangible ideas and policies.  People, actual flesh and blood human beings, are involved at every level.  Whether or not we agree – in fact, especially if we don’t agree – we have to listen to one another, lest our divisions grow even more stark.

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Our work in Pakistan is self-funded.  This means that our salary comes directly from donations from other people.  This, in turn, means that we spend a lot of time raising funds.

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This is a problem, since most people don’t like talking about money.  It is one of those things – like political opinions and questions of religious preference – that most people in the West want to relegate to the private sphere.  Yet by the nature of what we do we have to drag it out into the open.  Everything we have – our furniture, our home, our clothes, the food we eat – comes from the giving of others.  I don’t like it.  For one thing it reminds me of the televangelists who are constantly banging on about money to fund their private jets and their mansions.

Yet I also love this situation very much.  There is a personal connection between all of our possessions and the people whose giving made them possible.  A friend recently donated £200 to us.  A day later, our washing machine broke down, and the replacement cost £200.  Now, whenever I do the laundry, I remember her generosity with gratitude. Another friend once posted us some books when our son started to read, and every time they come down from the bookshelf I think of him.

Our situation also fosters frugality.  When we left for Pakistan one elderly lady told us that she couldn’t afford much, but had worked out that she could reduce her pension by £5 a month and give it to us instead.  When your income comes from sacrifices like that you really start to consider whether you actually need that TV, that takeaway pizza, that fancy cappuccino.  And generosity, too.  I keep careful track of our own giving and it is significantly higher, as a proportion of our income, than it ever was when we had “normal” jobs.

And now I need to start asking for more money.  The plummeting value of the pound has caused a significant rise in our living costs.  I need to go to our supporters, to the ladies who send us £5 from their pension, and ask for more.  It feels as though our lives are on hold until we can figure out where the supply is going to come from.

Yet that’s the wrong way to look at it.  Think about it: if Moses had waited for the supply to fit the need, the Israelites would never have left the Promised Land.  Better, surely, to wait for a supply of food and water before taking 40,000 people into the desert, no?  Well, no.  They went in faith, and then the supply came.  Or take Nehemiah who went with a handful of men and a few letters to rebuild Jerusalem, trusting that God would provide the workforce and the tools.

Time to step out in faith, again.  God is not in the habit of leaving his people in the lurch.

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The last time I was in the UK was over a year ago.  I flew in from Bahrain, stayed with my parents for one night, then flew to the Netherlands for a conference.  I haven’t spent more than a single night in my “home” country for two years.  That’s rather odd.  I grew up here, went to school and university here, all my family live here, and yet in the last two years I have spent more time in the northern areas of Pakistan than I have in the land which my passport tells me I am from.

Everything here is both instantly familiar and completely foreign.  I can tune the car radio from memory because, somehow, I know the frequencies of all my favourite stations.  I can navigate around the south of England without a map.  I walk into a pub and the barman says “Alright mate, what can I get you?” and it feels entirely natural, as if I never left.

And yet it also feels foreign.  My nephews and nieces are older, bigger, and there are more of them.  Many friends from church have moved away; at least one couple are now divorced.  At church yesterday I saw a friend’s son for the first time in two years and when he was asked if he remembered me, he shook his head and ran off to play.

After five years overseas I feel as though I belong everywhere and nowhere.  If you stuck me in a random country, anywhere in the world, I could probably manage fine.  If dropped into a Pakistani valley I could find accommodation, food, and transport home without a problem.  But the ticket queue at Basingstoke train station, or the self-checkouts at Tesco, are suddenly daunting.  I’ll need to get petrol later today and I bet I’ll have to stand there scratching my head and wondering if someone fills it for you, like in Pakistan, or if you do it yourself with a pre-authorisation from the credit card, like in Canada, or whether I have my supermarket loyalty cards any more to get a handful of points from the purchase.  Probably not.  I hope I don’t create a queue.

Perhaps this is not a bad thing.  Christians have a home, and this is not it.  Thanks be to God for that.

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A bill arrived the other day.  I tore it open and read it.  It was straightforward enough: a single page with a figure at the bottom, for services provided by a local hospital.  When I paid it, I did so with reverence and gratitude, for the services rendered by the hospital had saved the life of my baby son.

He came down with a fever a couple of weeks ago.  It grew steadily worse and was not reduced by any medication we gave him.  Eventually we took him to hospital where he was diagnosed with meningitis of a particularly virulent strain and put on a course of IV antibiotics.  The fever came down, his mood improved, and after a week he was sent home to finish his treatment there.  The strain of meningitis which he had is close to 100% fatal if not treated.  The difference between him dying and being alive is the treatment he received, which is translated, by means of the invoice, into a precise sum of money.  The number at the bottom of the page is the price we are paying for him to be alive.

I am pro-life.  This is usually interpreted as being anti-abortion but I see it as a much broader topic than that.  I see life as a gift, as a thing of immense beauty and worth, as something given by God who, as his first act in the Bible, created life in all its variety.  Being pro-life means that I am opposed to war, to the death penalty, to deaths caused by malnutrition and dirty water, to anything which causes life to end.  Life is immensely precious and ought to be protected.  That goes for my son – clearly, I am particularly keen to keep him alive – but it also goes for every human being on the planet.

And yet, at the same time, Christians are encouraged to hold their lives lightly.  Our earthly existence is, in a theological context, a temporary affair, a brief interlude, a half-hour spent in the waiting room of eternity.  We cling onto it with such tenacity, so desperate are we to rage against the dying of the light, and yet the Bible constantly tells us to put God first and our own lives second, if at all.  “To live is Christ, to die is gain”, as Paul puts it.

I paid the bill with gladness and gratitude.  I would pay it again, a hundred times over, for a chance to cuddle my son, to see him clap, to hear him gurgle with laughter.  And yet a deeper joy awaits, one day, somewhere down the road, in a place where sickness is defeated and where the only tears are ones of joy.

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Our son came back from his Sunday school class at church.  He was beaming from ear to ear and ran up to me as though burdened with some great secret which he just had to share with someone.

“Daddy, do you know what?” he said excitedly.  “Teacher said that if we ask Jesus for anything, he will give it to us.  Anything at all!”.

I smiled at him.  I knew exactly what he was going to say next and, duly, he did.

“I’m going to ask him for three Lego sets”.

I took a deep breath and prepared to shatter his first elementary steps into the world of theology but stopped, for the simple reason that the Bible does indeed say that.  Don’t believe me?  “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” – from Mark, chapter 11, verse 24.  This verse, which set my son’s imagination aflame with the glorious possibility of an infinity of Lego, also appeals to followers of the Prosperity Gospel, that appalling betrayal of the Christian faith which states that health, money and happiness are but a prayer away if you have sufficient faith.  Tell that to my friend Fi who prayed incessantly for her premature daughter to survive, only to watch her wither and die eight days later.  So here we have a problem: this verse is in the Bible, which to an evangelical Christian like me means that it is true, and yet it doesn’t always happen.  Many prayers go unanswered.  Dealing with this inescapable truth is the first step on the path to Christian maturity.

So where do we go from here?  We could look at similar verses such as 1 John 5: 14, which says “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.”  The key words, of course, are “according to his will”.  An infinity of possessions are not his will for our life.  More challengingly, health may not be his will for our life either.

I am inclined to go further and say that the prayers we make are indicative of our life’s priorities and of how much our faith reflects the personality of Christ.  If our prayers are in line with the priorities of Christ then our will reflects his.  Should we pray for money and possessions, or for his kingdom to grow in the world?  For promotion at work or for greater wisdom in tackling the challenges of life?

God is not some cosmic slot machine whereby you insert a prayer and out pops a big bank balance or, sadly for my son, a new Lego set.  If we stop viewing him as a heavenly version of Santa Claus and start viewing him as a loving, sovereign creator in the light of whose glory our present world is a temporary inconvenience then we may find our prayers are changed.

Try explaining this to a 6 year old, though…

 

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Yesterday evening seventy citizens of Pakistan were blown apart by a suicide bomber at a park in Lahore.  The death toll will rise.  It always does, especially when seriously wounded people are left to the tender mercies of Pakistan’s healthcare system.  Many were women and children.  Families were enjoying the cool spring weather, taking advantage of a day of rest to push their children on the swings and buy ice creams.  It must have been a wonderful time.

Then a suicide bomber parked his car near the gate, next to the swings, and detonated his device.  Now those same families are ripped apart; their laughter transformed into screams and terror by means of twenty kilos of explosives and a bag of ball bearings.

Many of those killed were Christians.  They, like my family and me, spent Sunday morning at church rejoicing in the glorious triumph of Easter Sunday, when Jesus rose from the dead and conquered death and sin.  They, like us, shared lunch with family and friends.  They, like us, went out to celebrate in the evening.  Yet we were not attacked and they were.  The same people who laughed and rejoiced in the victory over the grave are now, themselves, in the grave.  Life beat death, and then death came back in the darkness of a bomber’s heart and in the shape of chemicals and ball bearings.

And yet this is not over.  After the attack messages started circulating asking for donations of blood for the wounded.  A Lahore taxi firm offered free travel to anyone going to hospital to donate blood.  People of all religions are united in condemning the attack.  The condemnation even united India and Pakistan: the hashtag prayforlahore is trending in India.  Hospitals in Lahore are crammed – literally crammed – with people queueing to donate blood.  Probably most of them are Muslims.  I am crying for gratitude as I type.

Still the pain remains.  This is a profoundly beautiful and deeply misunderstood country, full of polite, kind, honourable people – and yet a country bedevilled by violence perpetrated by a minority of deranged lunatics who kill indiscriminately.  They target Christians, and Hindus, and Shias, and Sunnis, and the Pakistani soldiers who give their lives to protect Pakistani civilians: they are against everyone, except their fellow bigots.

And yet they will lose.  Pakistanis are too good, too decent, too strong to give in to this mass murder.  Love will win in the end, though the path to that victory may be littered with more bodies.  Life will triumph over death.  Easter is not the end, but the beginning.

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We were sitting outside the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore.  A light rain was falling.  We huddled underneath a large umbrella and sipped the cups of chai which we had ordered.  We needed the warmth from the tea as much as the caffeine, in much the same way that people in England drink tea to dispel the murky chill of February days more than for the actual taste.  My son looked around.

“I don’t think God can love people here” he said sadly.

I was surprised by this.  My wife and I have made a point of teaching our children that God loves all people equally.  This is a fundamental tenet of our Christian faith, and a great number of cruelties in the world can be directly attributed to the mistaken belief that some people are more loved by God than others.  I asked him what he meant.

“Look at all the garbage” he said mournfully.  “How can God love people when they don’t care for the world he created?”.

I looked around.  There was, indeed, a lot of rubbish.  Paper cups, empty crisp packets, cigarette packs, crushed juice boxes – the detritus of a thousand tourists was strewn all around the courtyard in front of the mosque.  During our train journey to Lahore we had looked out of the window to see immense piles of trash heaped up on the sides of the railway embankments, flung carelessly out of houses and left to fester.  It is a part of life in the developing world that we have not yet learned to deal with.

“Well”, I said, “do you remember how Mummy and I told you that we love you always, even when you’re naughty?”.

He nodded.

“We do that because God loves us even when we’re naughty” I continued.  “Even when we do bad things, God always loves us.  So we should always try to be better”.

He was silent for a while, looking around at the heaps of rubbish strewn around the courtyard of one of the most magnificent mosques in the world.  Then he said:

“That’s a lot of love”.