Thinking Faith blogs

The Neema story

Kingdom Structures are vital if the gospel is to thrive.

This story is very significant when we think about the kingdom of God and the Body of Christ. Neema Crafts is not a church! It is a redeemed business. Of course it is inspired and nurtured by Christian teaching, faith and wisdom but a business has a different calling from a local church. This redeemed kingdom structure was able to transform Hezron's life in a way that a local church cannot!

When Christians gather together as a (local) church they are not expected to make and produce handicrafts. They gather in order to hear God’s Word and to take communion etc. We must distinguish between different manifestations of the Body of Christ. Christians are busy at Neema serving disabled people in a way that is not possible for a local church.

Consider this in a slightly different way. There are many churches in Tanzania which do a great job. We affirm the vibrant worship and witness that these churches bring but Neema is serving another purpose. Another calling. We should not attack the Neema craft business by pointing out that it isn't a church! We should rejoice that a non-ecclesistical 'kingdom structure' is complimenting the work of the local church. At the same time we should not attack a vibrant local church for failing to provide redemptive work opportunities for deaf and disabled people.

Exactly the same can be said with respect to George Cadbury's chocolate factory, Bob Lavelle's Christian bank and the Salvation Army model match factory. (Incidentally both Neema and the Model match factory attract and attracted huge interest from MPs, journalists etc; interest that is rarely garnered by local churches.)

When we reduce God's kingdom to the 'institutional' church we will inevitably condemn culture to the tensions and miseries of secularization. Why is it so easy to be a secular person today? Surely the answer must refer to the constant drip-feed factor of popular culture and education. Marinade too much in Eastenders and Coronation Street and your imagination will become increasingly secular and godless!

Hidden worldview stories indoctrinate us as Christians retreat into the church sphere.

Consider the issue from the point of view of the great missionary William Carey. Carey set up many Christian schools that educated girls and untouchables. This was unheard of in 19th century India! He introduced the idea of low interest savings banks to India, to fight the all-pervasive evil of usury and he campaigned for the humane treatment of lepers. He struggled against human sacrifice and prevented the murder of many innocent children.

Carey founded India’s Agri-Horticultural Society in the 1820’s, thirty years before the Royal Agricultural Society was established in England. He wrote some of the earliest essays on forest management and conservation. He wrote concerning this – "If the Gospel flourishes in India, the wilderness will, in every respect, become a fruitful field."

And Carey was also a great preacher and evangelist! Carey affirmed and encouraged church activity and church attendance but he realised that the kingdom of God goes way beyond local church activity. He set up appropriate kingdom structures in different spheres of life and culture.

Vibrant local churches must work with appropriate (non-ecclesiastical) kingdom structures in order to transform culture and communities.

RealityBites in Newcastle

In my work with RealityBites I sometimes go into schools in order to provoke young people to engage with Jesus’ wonderful teaching about the kingdom of God.

In July 2011 I spoke to about 300 largely unchurched teenagers at a sixth form conference in Newcastle. Here is an outline of that conference.

For about fifty minutes I spoke about celebrity culture, consumerism and commodification. I told stories about Jordan, Cheryl Cole and Russell Brand.

I contrasted these vignettes with Christians who are serving God in many different spheres of life. In particular I highlighted the Neema handicraft enterprise which employs 123 deaf and disabled people. This redeemed business is a huge blessing to many people in Tanzania.

A Christian psychiatrist then spoke about his calling to love broken, 'difficult' people who are made in God's image.

And then another Christian spoke about human trafficking and how young girls are lured into a brutal life of enforced prostitution. He spoke movingly about two Christian policemen who spent Christmas day looking for a young girl who had been enslaved by a group of thugs. This girl was too terrified to leave her kidnappers; they had callously told her that if she tried to escape they would do terrible things to her sister!

You could have heard a pin drop!

I then brought the conference to a close by talking about:

  1. the kingdom of God
  2. the hope of the resurrection and the restored creation
  3. why human trafficking is so appalling and how secularism is unable to give us a moral basis to object to it.

It was really encouraging how intensely both the sixth formers and the teachers present were listening! The young people had lots of questions and were very animated. We had excellent feedback as well. And no complaints.

How does this act of mission relate to the institutional church and God’s calling to his people, the worldwide Body of Christ?

Notice that we didn't reduce God's kingdom merely to church activity and church programmes. We began by helping people to understand the world in which they are living. In biblical terms we are helping them to understand the distinctive idolatry of our western culture. Sacrificing our children to the gods of nonsense consumption and economic growth is just as pagan as sacrificing our children to the Canaanite gods of Baal and Molech.

In this kind of missionary endeavour we are contextualising the gospel message by denouncing the false gods that western people are so prone to worshipping. This requires an understanding of both consumerism and materialism.

We are also talking about a Christian psychiatrist who is embracing his calling to bring mental healing to a broken world. Notice this is the calling of a psychiatrist and not a clergyman.

We also need to notice that in our presentation of the gospel we are not merely pointing to individual faithfulness to God but we are pointing to kingdom structures.

And these kingdom structures (Neema etc.) are not churches! They are businesses that are bursting with the good news of the kingdom.

We must beware of any understanding of God’s kingdom rule that reduces God's work to the institutional church. Of course Christians should gather together for the purposes of hearing God’s Word, taking communion etc but Christian activity goes far beyond these ‘religious’ activities. God’s people can also gather together for many other purposes as well.

When Christians reduce God's work to the institutional church we will simply recreate the problems and miseries thrown up by the medieval Roman Catholic Church. Life inside the church becomes ascetic and otherworldly. Life outside the church becomes secular and godless.

The God of the Bible is busy rescuing his broken creation from sin and death. This calls for both individual and structural renewal. And in this context we can talk meaningfully about redeemed businesses and other kingdom structures.

Radio Interview in Oz

During my stay in Oz I was interviewed about the role of Religious Education on the ABC network. I think it's the Oz equivalent of the BBC. The interview lasts about 30 minutes and was broadcast all over Oz. I couldn't resist mentioning the recent Ashes victory. A bit naughty.

For those who would like to listen go to the ABC Local website.

Well done Oz!

I had such a great time in Darwin. Couldn't have been better. I met so many fantastic people and the conference Educating for Tough Times was inspiring. I have never seen so many palm trees in a city and it was wonderful to see some big crocs in their natural habitat. More than 1,000 people from all over the world attended and the conference was very well-organised and enjoyable. Congratulations Australia! We may have the ashes for a few months but you have the prophetic voice.

Off to Australia

Next week I am off to Darwin in Australia where I will be delivering an academic paper on storytelling and a popular presentation entitled James Bond, Rat worship and Postmodernism: Subversive Questions for Christian Educators.

The conference is called Educating for Tough Times. There will be more than 1000 people attending.

Here is my take on how Bond would answer the five big faith questions. Bond is a great way to get young people thinking about faith.

Where am I?

I am living in a world full of gadgets, helicopters, booby-trapped briefcases, beautiful women, luxury and enemy spies.

Who am I?

I am Bond… James Bond. I am a supremely confident MI6 agent. I am 007 licensed to kill. I have complete confidence in my ability to achieve all my assignments. All women find me extremely attractive.

What's wrong?

Sometimes I lack complete control over nature and other people. Sometimes enemy agents refuse to be killed instantly. Sometimes I am attacked by huge crocodiles and sharks.

What's the solution?

I will trust in science and technology. Q will help me here. I have complete confidence in my ability to conquer my enemies and seduce all the attractive women. They can't resist me.

What will happen to me after death?

It's almost impossible to kill me but after I die at home in bed I will rot and be eaten by worms.

King of Chavs and being true to yourself

Michael Carroll is infamous in the tabloid press as the King of Chavs after winning £9.7m on the national lottery in 2002. Michael bought 80 cars, several mansions, invested £1m in Rangers football club, built a car-racing track and invested heavily in gold bling jewellery. Along the way, the former dustman has been deserted by his wife and child, had a spell in prison for failing to comply with a drugs treatment order and turned the lives of his neighbours, Allison and Sid into a living hell. They have had to put up with two years of caravans, cars and tyres being set alight, cars being raced constantly and long days in which Michael, the self-proclaimed "Chavvy McChavChav", and his friends sit in BMWs revving the engines until the early hours. Carroll is remarkably frank about his worldview – "I want my kid to follow its dreams. If he wants to be a bank robber, that's cool with me".

The Worldview

How you use and spend money reveals your deepest beliefs. We don't need to ask Michael what he believes in order to work out the worldview that has captivated his imagination. Carroll believes in his own autonomy. No-one has the right to tell him what to do! Many western people would agree with Michael that 'following your dreams' is the very essence of the good life. Few are as frank as Michael in being open to bank robbery as a possible career option for their children. And yet the secular slogan – 'follow your heart' or 'be true to yourself' can admirably describe the lives of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. These men certainly did follow their hearts and look what it did for the world.

Subversive Questions

  • Where has Michael gone wrong?
  • Is there anything wrong with robbing banks?
  • When is it right to follow your dreams and when is it wrong?

Worldview Awareness, Nursing and Peter Singer

A BBC Panorama investigation, broadcast this week, found evidence that staff were bullying and assaulting residents daily. Four staff from the hospital have been arrested and 13 have been suspended.

Terry Bryan, a former nurse at the hospital for people with learning difficulties, said that both the care home's management and the Care Quality Commission, the regulator, had failed to act on his "grave" concerns about the behaviour of staff.

Paul Burstow, the social care minister, yesterday described the levels of abuse as "appalling" and ordered a review into why the regulator ignored the concerns raised by Mr Bryan. The Care Quality Commission admitted that it had made an "unforgivable error of judgment".

We need worldview awareness when we read stories like this.

Immediately I think about Peter Singer.

Peter Singer is a famous and influential Australian philosopher. He is a committed atheist. Perhaps he is most famous for his book Animal Liberation.

Singer completely dismisses the biblical teaching that we are made in the image and likeness of God. He asserts that this view is guilty of species bigotry. For a secular thinker like Singer it is arrogant and false to assert that humans are better than ‘other animals’. In the light of Darwinian evolution we must embrace species egalitarianism. At the end of the day there is nothing special about human beings. We are just one of many species thrown up by the evolutionary process.

So people with learning difficulties are not special.  Some aren't even persons. And if we believe this deep down – nursing care will be profoundly affected.

Delightful story from Tanzania

This is another cracker of a story. It comes from the Neema Crafts project.

Hezron's Story: Weaving

Hezron was a proud and healthy young man in his mid twenties with everything to live for – a lovely wife, two beautiful children and another on the way at any moment, when the minibus taxi he was travelling in hit an oncoming car. All thirty people who were crammed into the vehicle died, except for Hezron and a new born baby, who had to be pulled from the bodies amongst the wreckage.

That day Hezron lost the use of both legs and found himself wheelchair bound at home, unable to support himself or his family, written off as a burden to society. After two years of watching his wife and young children have to fend for themselves, he felt utterly worthless and was on the brink of taking his own life, feeling that they would be better off without him.

When he was first pushed to the centre to ask for work his voice was barely audible, his self-esteem had sunk so low. He was taken on as a trainee weaver and today – one year on – he is full of life and enthusiasm. He has become a highly skilled weaver, enjoying the therapeutic activity involved and taking great pride in the beautiful items he produces. He peddles himself to work each day on the hand-pedal 3 wheeler provided by the centre, and feels proud of himself and his ability to support his young family.

The joy he had found is plain for all to see by the broad smile he wears as he races his fellow weavers up the hill to work each morning!

Another Inspiring Story from Africa

Neema Crafts was started in October 2003 by the Diocese of Ruaha. Its purpose is to provide handicrafts training and employment for deaf and physically disabled people in Iringa region, Tanzania, and also to change negative attitudes towards people with disabilities in the local community. Local employers are invited to see how skilled the workers at Neema Crafts quickly become when given the opportunity to fulfill their potential. The high quality of their work is changing the attitude of local people towards disabled people.

Hand Made Paper Workshop

Neema Crafts was started by Susie Hart, a British woman and herself disabled, who works for the Diocese of Ruaha. She began the Hand Made Paper Workshop, with three young deaf people who were faced with an uncertain future, without hope of further education or employment, due to the stigma attached to their disability. To date there are now over 20 deaf and hard of hearing people working at Neema Crafts. They are taught how to make paper from recycled and natural materials, such as maize husks, pineapple leaves and even elephant dung! They also learn many other skills, including screen-printing techniques and how to construct their hand-made paper into albums, picture frames and cards etc.

Josphat has been profoundly deaf from birth, and was among the first 3 young deaf lads with whom the workshop was started. When he first joined he was a very downcast and short-tempered individual, having suffered years of neglect at the hands of the extended family with whom he lived, his parents having died many years previously. After a few short months training at Neema Crafts Centre, Josphat had become a highly skilled paper-maker, his self-esteem rocketed and the way he expressed himself and interacted with others was utterly transformed. No longer considered a burden by his extended family, he was now able to support himself and contribute to the household income, thus earning their respect at last.

Deaf people give each other short-hand sign names. Due a curvature in his spine Josphat had always been known as 'hunchback'. After a few months working at Neema Crafts the other deaf people at the centre spontaneously changed his sign to 'he is able', as they'd seen that he'd become the most gifted paper-maker in the whole workshop. Thus after years of being made to feel conscious of his shortcomings, his whole identity had literally changed from his disability, to his ability.

This is a lovely illustration of what Neema Crafts Centre is all about; changing negative attitudes towards people with disabilities in the eyes of those around them and also in their own eyes too.

How about this for forgiveness?

Imagine this scene from a recent courtroom trial in South Africa: A frail black woman stands slowly to her feet. She is about 70 years of age. Facing her from across the room are several white police officers, one of whom, Mr. van der Broek, has just been tried and found implicated in the murders of both the woman's son and her husband some years before.
It was indeed Mr Van der Broek, it has now been established, who had come to the woman's home a number of years back, taken her son, shot him at point-blank range and then burned the young man's body on a fire while he and his officers partied nearby.

Several years later, Van der Broek and his security police colleagues had returned to take away her husband as well. For many months she heard nothing of his whereabouts. Then, almost two years after her husband’s disappearance, Van der Broek came back to fetch the woman herself. How vividly she remembers that evening, going to a place beside a river where she was shown her husband, bound and beaten, but still strong in spirit, lying on a pile of wood. The last words she heard from his lips as the officers poured gasoline over his body and set him aflame were, "Father, forgive them".

And now the woman stands in the courtroom and listens to the confessions offered by Mr. Van der Broek. A member of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission turns to her and asks, "So, what do you want? How should justice be done to this man who has so brutally destroyed your family?"

"I want three things", begins the old woman, calmly but confidently. "I want first to be taken to the place where my husband's body was burned so that I can gather up the dust and give his remains a decent burial."

She pauses, then continues. "My husband and son were my only family. I want, secondly, therefore, for Mr. Van der Broek to become my son. I would like for him to come twice a month to the ghetto and spend a day with me so that I can pour out on him whatever love I still have remaining within me."

"And, finally", she says, "I want a third thing. I would like Mr. Van der Broek to know that I offer him my forgiveness because Jesus Christ died to forgive. This was also the wish of my husband. And so, I would kindly ask someone to come to my side and lead me across the courtroom so that I can take Mr. van der Broek in my arms, embrace him and let him know that he is truly forgiven."

As the court assistants come to lead the elderly woman across the room, Mr. van der Broek, overwhelmed by what he has just heard, faints. And as he does, those in the courtroom, friends, family, neighbors — all victims of decades of oppression and injustice — begin to sing, softly, but assuredly, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me."

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