Tag Archives: god

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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.


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”.

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.


In Pakistan the backs of houses are usually where laundry is done.  Guests would be invited into the front rooms, which are decorated and furnished to honour those visiting the family, while menial tasks such as cooking and washing are done at the back.  The rear of our house backs onto the rear of the houses on the street above ours, and so it is that when I go out to put in laundry or check to see if the hot-water boiler is still functioning I inevitably encounter our neighbours.  Their balcony is where they, too, do their laundry, hang their clothes, or come out to lie on a charpai (traditional bed) to warm themselves in the sun.  I try not to linger; the rear of the house is normally the place where women come to relax, and I don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable by intruding on their private space.

Our bedroom is also at the back of our house, meaning that our bedroom windows looks out over their balcony as well.  Every morning and evening while tackling the stream of emails that ping into my inbox I look out to the our neighbours come out to pray.  They take down their prayer mat, orient it towards Mecca, and kneel down to go about their prayers.  They close their eyes, their lips moving in silent piety, they bow down, they look left and right, and they go through the simple routine just as millions of Muslims do several times a day, in Pakistan and around the Muslim world.  Their prayer routine is simple, undemonstrative, calm, elegant, and peaceful.

Islam has come under intense scrutiny in recent years.  The actions carried out by a tiny minority of Muslims have resulted in every single Muslim in the world being viewed with suspicion, as if 1.2 billion Muslims are somehow responsible for the violent fanaticism of a few thousand.  No matter that this is blatantly illogical and deeply unfair; no matter that this is akin to considering all Indians culpable for the actions of a handful of rapists or blaming every single Chinese person for the corruption of a few Party officials – this is how the world seems when you absorb the crass and foolish generalisations of the media.  Islam, it seems, stands accused of having a problem.

Except for the overwhelming majority of Muslim people, that is.  After living in Pakistan for four years normal Islam seems, to me, pretty normal.  Quiet, pious, polite, undemonstrative, peaceful.  Confident, yet humble.  These are the characteristics of Muslim people as I have come to know them after living amongst them for four years.  It is a long, long way from the violence and intolerance flaunted around the tabloids of the Western world.

I go out to get the laundry out of the washing machine and my neighbour looks up from his chair where he is sitting to read the newspaper.

“Salaam aleikum!” he calls cheerfully.  “Peace be upon you!”.

And upon you too, friend.