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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.



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…



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.


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”.

We sat in the restaurant having breakfast.  This is one of my favourite meals of the day when done in proper Pakistani fashion: delicious parathas, fried circles of dough enriched with ghee, and puris, deep-fried dough puffs as light as air, with spicy omelettes and chickpea curry.  Everything was fresh and hot and we washed it all down with sweet yoghurt lassi and Kashmiri tea.


Then I looked out of the window and saw three girls watching us through the plate glass.  With their pale skin and piercing eyes they had to be Afghans.  Their dupattas were wrapped tightly around their heads and they stood in silence, unmoving, watching steadily as I helped our daughter finish her drink, holding the straw so she could sip the last bits of lassi from the glass.  They looked similar enough to be sisters, aged perhaps 5, 7 and 9.  The oldest held a scruffy sack over her shoulder.  They would spend the day scavenging through the bazaars of Islamabad, collecting old bottles and rags to sell for a few rupees.  The restaurant’s cook, seeing them staring at us, started to shoo them away.  Perhaps he thought they would put us off our breakfast – and besides, Afghans are not popular in Pakistan.

I beckoned the waiter over and asked him to send breakfast out to the girls.  He nodded, smiling, and called to the cook to start preparing food for them.  A few minutes later a package of food was pressed into their hands and they were shooed away.  I had assumed they would eat it themselves but no, it was safely stowed away to be taken home for the family.  One of them, the oldest, smiled shyly as she skipped away.

Later, when we left, I saw the girls scampering away from our car in the car park.  I looked, surprised, and saw three stars which they had drawn in the dust of the rear windscreen.  Three stars scrawled in the dirt, a tiny fragment of beauty in a world in profound need of restoration.  The girls skipped away laughing, and, rounding a corner, were gone.

Over in the USA a bunch of ranchers were recently holed up in a wildlife refuge in Oregon, railing loudly against government interference.  Others are stocking up on guns: concerned by possible restrictions on the purchase of weapons, many people are buying rifles and pistols, resulting in the share prices of weapon manufacturers reaching new highs.  On the other side of the political spectrum people are railing against inequality, highlighting the plight of the American poor who drink poisoned water while men in suits take home unimaginably large salaries.

The current political situation is dominated by two men: one who criticises Muslims, who promises to ban refugees, and who pledged in a campaign speech to “bomb the shit out of Islamic State” – while the other, Bernie Sanders, is angry about inequality, about a culture based around the pursuit of wealth; one of his supporters said in an interview “I’m mad…you have to show some level of anger”.


It’s not just America.  In my town in the UK the organisation Britain First recently held a “Christian march” through an area of town populated largely by immigrants, including many Pakistani Muslims.  The anti-Muslim organisation Pegida is growing in strength throughout Germany and also the UK.  The National Front is on the rise in France.  Attacks on Muslims in the UK are increasing.  The political spectrum is diverging sharply, with an uncompromising left-winger in charge of the opposition and a welfare-cutting right-winger in charge of the country.

I wonder if this era will, in hindsight, be defined as the age of anger.  Everyone, it seems, is angry about something or other.  Political disagreement is nothing new, of course, but the breadth and depth of anger felt by ordinary citizens around the world feels different.


I wonder if technology is partly to blame.  We live in increasingly segmented lives, cut off from one another by smartphones and laptops, expressing our opinions and sharpening our ideas through Facebook.  We seem to spend less and less time actually talking to people, and once the variety and individuality of human beings have been removed, people become one-dimensional caricatures: a right-winger, a gay rights campaigner, a liberal, a Muslim – all targets for dislike and anger, if you happen to disagree with them.

Or perhaps there is something deeper at work: the death of ideas.  Throughout history popular discontent has been followed by a proposed solution.  Anger at the inequality of 18th century France led to the French Revolution.  Anger at the injustice of imperialism led to independence and nationalism (as with the foundation of the Republic of Pakistan, for example).  Anger at the aristocracy led to Communism.  Anger at religion led to the state-sponsored atheism of Soviet Russia.  Anger at warfare led to the foundation of the United Nations.  Our present era is still unequal, still stained by warfare, still haunted by abject poverty and lavish wealth, and yet – and yet we have run out of ideas.  We feel a sense of pain, of simple wrongness, at the state of the world, and yet where do we go from here?  Tyranny?  Several steps back.  Organised religion?  Led to the Crusades, to the Spanish Inquisition, to Islamic State.  Communism?  Nice idea, doesn’t work.  Nationalism?  It tore the world apart in the 20th century.  International cooperation?  It didn’t prevent the Rwanda genocide, nor the Vietnam war, nor the Balkan genocide of the 1990s.  Democracy?  Hamas were democratically elected, and Donald Trump may be as well.  Capitalism?  Doesn’t seem to promote equality, does it?

I wonder if modern angst stems from this simple fact: that we can see ever more clearly that the world is imperfect, that we deeply believe that it ought to be perfect, and that we have run out of solutions.  Inequality and strife lie at every turn, so we withdraw into our technological bubbles and feel a profound sense of unease.

Sometimes it seems as though it is impossible for a week to pass without a confrontation between the worlds of Islam and Christianity.  My family and I came to Pakistan to be ministers of peace, yet peace between these two faith movements, whether in Pakistan or elsewhere, is proving to be a rare and precious commodity.

It is not so much the headline-grabbing atrocities of Islamic State that worry me, though goodness knows there are too many of them.  What worries me is that the fear and mistrust between Muslims and Christians is percolating down to every level of society: in government circles, in the media, and onto the streets of every city in the West.  Battle-lines are becoming entrenched at a very personal and local level.  This is deeply concerning, since it is at precisely those levels that this division needs to be healed.


One recent example of this is the case of the Wheaton College Professor who is facing the sack for wearing a hijab to class and claiming that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  This thorny issue raises its head again and again and has become something of a litmus test for anyone working in Christian-Muslim relations, a divining rod for either religious intolerance or wishy-washy liberalism, depending on how you look at it.

So what do I think?  Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?  My answer is simple: which Muslims?  And which Christians?

After all, this is a debate in which complexity is scorned.  We all want an easy answer, a glib articulation of our belief, an opinion which can be defined in a single Facebook update, and yet the complexity of the question is too vast to contemplate.  There are around 2.2 billion Christians in the world and perhaps 1.6 billion Muslims.  Are we honestly saying that all Muslims have the same belief?  Or, for that matter, all Christians?  Are we really so arrogant as to presume that we can gaze into the head of every single Muslim on the planet to determine how they conceive the nature of God to be?

Do I worship the same God as the blood-soaked footsoldiers of Islamic State?  Absolutely not.  The question itself is repugnant.  The nature of the God they serve is as far removed from that of Jesus Christ as the east is from the west.  But what about my friend Saira, a devout Muslim who organises her local youth to clean up rubbish in her area and organises inter-faith events, at significant personal risk, to heal communal tensions?  What about the Muslims in the UK who filled sandbags and organised food donations for those affected by flooding?  Or my landlord, who pays for vegetables to be grown in his garden and leaves them for the poor to collect so that they can eat? I sometimes feel as though these Muslim men and women are better Christians than I am.

Or, to look at the question another way, do all Christians worship the same God?  Donald Trump claims to be a Christian, yet his gun-toting, selfish, hateful idiocy is hardly redolent of the fragrance of Christ.  The KKK claimed to be Christians, as did Fred Phelps, he of “God Hates Fags” notoriety.  Yet so do the Catholic nuns who run a leprosy hospital in Rawalpindi, and Pope Francis who washed the feet of Muslim immigrants, and St Francis of Assisi who went to the Egyptian Sultan to preach peace during the height of the Crusades.

I believe in the uniqueness of Christ.  I do not believe that all religions are the same.  Yet it is foolish of us to think that Islam is homogenous, that everyone bearing the name “Muslim” has beliefs identical to everyone else.  Is it possible that some seek to follow the same God as me?  Not only possible, I believe it is certain.  Jesus commended the faith of people as implausible as Roman centurions, tax collectors, and Samaritans (who, let’s not forget, were the enemies of the Jews).  In this debate, as is so often the case in the collision between Islam and Christianity, we need to recognise complexity, act with compassion, and have the mind of a Christ who transcended narrow boundaries.

Sorry if you were expecting a single sentence answer…


A Pakistani Christian friend of mine recently travelled to the UK, Ireland and the USA to speak about Pakistan.  He visited a number of churches and Christian organisations and spoke about Christian work in Pakistan, highlighting the opportunities for Christians to promote education, healthcare, and community cohesion.  He would then pause for questions.

In London someone in the audience put their hand up and said “What about Asia Bibi?” – a Pakistani Christian lady who has been on death row in Lahore for several years for allegedly committing blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed.

He was surprised, but answered the question.

At his next speaking engagement he did the same presentation, again asked for questions, and again someone in the audience put their hand up and asked about Asia Bibi.

This happened in Belfast, Dublin, Oxford, Southall – and then all over again once he got to the USA.  The first question that the audience asked was, without fail, about Asia Bibi.  Often the only topic that people raised was persecution – and this in spite of the fact that his presentation had been positive, mentioning the positive aspects of life in Pakistan and the many opportunities for Christians to contribute to Pakistani society.  For some reason people in the Western world have got the impression that life for Pakistani Christians is an unrelenting slog of suffering, persecution, oppression, and suicide bombings.

Here’s the truth: it isn’t.

It really isn’t.  Somewhere between 1-2% of the population of Pakistan is Christian.  Although that is a small percentage it amounts to several million Christians – not that dissimilar from the number of Christians in modern Britain.  And almost all of the time they go about their lives like everyone else in Pakistan: going to work, putting their kids through school, buying food, worrying about rising prices, and drinking tea with their friends and family.

Does persecution happen?  Yes, of course.  Incidents of mob violence and individual harrassment happen every year.  Yet we need to put this in perspective: if a few hundred Pakistani Christians suffer persecution each year, it represents a tiny proportion of the whole Christian community.  That doesn’t make the incidents of mob violence any less repugnant and heinous – last year a Christian couple were burned alive in a brick kiln, the year before that 118 Christians were killed when two suicide bombers attacked All Saints church in Peshawar – but it puts things into context.  Shi’a Muslims, for example, suffer persecution far more frequently than Christians do.

We ought to keep calling out for justice for Pakistani minorities who suffer.  It is a key human rights issue and a betrayal of the vision for Pakistan that its founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, had, when he said that Pakistan would be a refuge for people of all faiths or none.  Yet we must also be sure to keep this in perspective, to view isolated incidents in the context of the whole of Pakistan, and to refuse to let fear and anger blind us to the truth.

It might also be worth remembering that Jesus himself told his disciples “the world will hate you because of me” and “in this world you will have trouble”.  It won’t make the trouble any less pleasant, but at least we won’t be so surprised…

I have learned a lot from living in Pakistan over the last four years.  Among other things, I have learned not to take things for granted, such as electricity, green grass, and proper cheese, since these are things that you really miss when they’re not available.  I have also learned a new language (Urdu) and am starting another one (Farsi), an appreciation for new styles of music, and also that Islamabad International Airport is to be avoided unless absolutely necessary (not for nothing was it recently declared to be the worst airport in the world).

Yet Pakistan has taught me a lot more than just these things.  Here, as a tribute to the people of Pakistan, is the single most important thing I have learned since moving here:

People Are People, Not Stereotypes.


When we look at the world it is so tempting to deal in generalisations.  The world is so infinitely complex, so varied and confusing, that it is simply too much for most of us to cope with.  A common response is to retreat into stereotypes and generalisations as a way of imposing some kind of order on the vast and bewildering morass of humanity with whom we share this planet.  Think about any country, any nationality, and it is a pretty safe bet that the images which pop into your mind owe more to stereotypes than to reality: British people are all awkward and cook badly, Americans are all arrogant and insular, French people are always on strike, Germans don’t laugh, Koreans eat dogs, and so on.  We use these stereotypes as a way of feeling superior, feeling more knowing and more important, than others.

I remember having this stereotyping influenced resoundingly shattered when I visited the USA for the first time.  British TV and culture in general had given me the impression that Americans are all dumb, overweight, and arrogant – and then I encountered actual Americans, all of whom were polite, hospitable, funny, kind, and genuinely interested in the rest of the world.  Except, perhaps, for US Border Control agents, who, to put it mildly, are not the best ambassadors for their nation.

This lesson has been reinforced time and time again during my time in Pakistan.  For the first time I have lived among a Muslim majority, surrounded by Muslims all day, every day, for four years.  Even as I typed the world “Muslim” the same lazy stereotypes popped into my mind: 9/11, Islamic State, Iraq, Afghanistan, religious homogoneity, oppression of women, and all the other crude and malicious labels which the Western media casually slaps onto the faces of the couple of billion Muslims in the world.  I probably expected to encounter devout Muslim men, quiet and submissive Muslim women, and that all of them would exhibit a vague sense of distaste for me, a Christian, living amongst them.

Well, it didn’t happen, and I feel ashamed of even harbouring such suspicions.  I have encountered devout Muslims, atheist Muslims, rich Muslims, poor Muslims, Muslims from areas so remote that they don’t know how to use an escalator, Muslims so Westernised that they know more about London than I do.  I have met Shias, Sunnis, Ismailis, Muslim missionaries from the Tablighi Jama’at, Muslims from sects I have never heard of.  I have met quiet and meek male Muslim scholars and bold, vivacious female scholars.  My Christian faith has been both an item for polite concern (“why don’t you convert to Islam?”) and also for genuine delight (“I knew that there must be religious people in the West!”).  I have been robbed at gunpoint, had my pocket picked, had my laptop stolen at a Lahore bus station, and have frequently been offered tea, vegetables, and taxi rides, all for free, all from poor people, simply because I am a guest.  Interestingly, I often feel as though the people I meet are also having their preconceptions challenged: a Westerner who is polite?  A Westerner who learns our language and respects our culture?  Hmm, perhaps these goras (foreigners) are different from what I had been told…


The infinite variety of the world’s inhabitants cannot be reduced to a series of clumsy labels.  It is stupid and arrogant even to try.  God has created a world of immense and delightful variety, too diverse ever to become boring, and in boiling it down to a string of lazy clichés we are insulting both him and his creation and widening the divisions between people of different cultures

People are people, they are not stereotypes.  In a world of growing division, a world in which hostility and suspicion grow day by day, we simply must stop treating our fellow human beings as though they were one-dimensional stereotypes.  We can each do a huge amount to promote world peace by simply stepping across the cultural chams which divide us and getting to know one another – as Muslims, as Christians, as atheists, as human beings.

It is fitting that I learned this lesson from Pakistan, a profoundly misunderstood country.  Thanks for the hospitality, Pakistan, and for the mangoes, and for the hospitality.  I love you all very much.

Even you, Mr Lahori Laptop Thief.


It is currently the holy month of Ramadan, during which time devout Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.  This year is the most challenging Ramadan for many years, since it coincides with both the intense summer heat and the longest days of the year, meaning that Muslims who do fast (abstaining not just from food, but also from water) are enduring terrible hardships.  Over a thousand people in Karachi, the great port city of southern Pakistan, have died due to a heatwave coinciding with the month of fasting.

Yet this is also a month of great charity.  It comes as a surprise to many to learn that Pakistanis donate more money to charity, as a proportion of their income, than any other nationality.  These charitable inclinations are given especial prominence during Ramadan, when people are encouraged to think of those less fortunate than themselves.

A few days ago I sat down to order dinner to be delivered to our house in the evening.  Alongside the many options for delivery – Chinese, pizza, fish and chips, and of course the whole plethora of delicious Pakistani dishes – was one option to buy food for the poor.  The process is simple: you order food, submit your order, and a short while later a motorcycle courier comes round to your house.  Instead of delivering food he collects money from you, returns it to the restaurant, and dinner is provided to a needy family.

Much is written, these days, about the dangers of Islam.  Many in the West point to recent terrorist attacks in Tunisia, France and Kuwait in order to claim that Islam is inherently violent, despite the fact that only a minute percentage of Muslims actually encourage violence and an even smaller percentage actually carry it out.  These critics presumably think that the actions of 0.2% of a population reflect the will of the population as a whole, by which flawed logic all French people could be labelled as anti-Semitic, all Britons as arrogrant aristocrats, and all Koreans as enthusiastic dog-eaters.

Nonsense, of course.  Far more indicative of Muslim intentions is the quiet, undemonstrative will of Pakistani Muslims to care for their fellow Muslims, and they will continue with this quiet charity for several more weeks, while the armchair racists of the West continue to rant and rave.