UZBEKISTAN: A NEW SPRING


Since Shavkat Mirziyoyev took over as President in 2016 following the death of Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan has been experiencing something of a Spring.

The new President has opened up the country to tourism by relaxing the visa regime, has begun to tackle corruption and cronyism, and has lifted the heavy hand of persecution of religion.

In 2019 a number of churches were registered with the government, including two majority Uzbek-speaking churches, in Syrdarya and Samarkand. This is a historic development, as before now the government has tried to hinder churches from attracting ethnic Uzbeks, forcing Uzbek believers to meet secretly and face punishment for doing so. Some changes to the law on religious associations have also been made, such as reducing the cost of registering a church, and stripping the Ministry of Justice of its power to annul a church’s registration. A church can now only lose its registered status through the decision of a court.

Religious leaders have now requested that the number of members needed to found a church be reduced from 100 to 10; and that the current requirement, for the local neighbourhood committee to agree to a church’s registration, be waived. These local committees are often strongly prejudiced against Christians. However, frustration has been expressed at the secrecy and apparent lack of progress in the consultation process which closes on 1 July.

The new outward-looking, friendly-faced government of Uzbekistan is being severely tested in 2020. And as the Uzbek churches continue to emerge from a long wearying period of persecution, they too find themselves faced with new challenges and opportunities.

First, the Covid-19 crisis began to paralyse the economy, as quarantine restrictions hit wage earners both inside Uzbekistan and abroad, primarily in Russia. Many families suddenly found themselves with no income as day labourers could no longer work. Migrant workers in Russia could no longer send back remittances.

Then, at the end of April, a hurricane struck the west of the country, particularly causing damage in Karakalpakstan (an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan) and over the border in eastern Turkmenistan. The newly constructed Sardoba reservoir in the region of Syrdarya overflowed, and the dam collapsed, causing massive flooding. The reservoir was the largest in Central Asia, providing irrigation water to a vast area of farmland in the region. More than 70,000 people had to be evacuated from the area.

Christians have been caught up in these disasters along with everyone else. In response, the churches have organised relief efforts. In Tashkent, Uzbek churches organised a central collection point to which food and clothing could be brought for those who lost their homes in the Sardoba flood. Christians then took this aid to Syrdarya and distributed it. This gave many opportunities to share the gospel with those in need. In Karakalpakstan, Christians have organised distribution of food relief to families with no income. To date, over 80 believing families have been helped. Many testimonies of God’s miraculous provision have been shared, and the effort has been noticed by the local authorities. Local church leaders in Karakalpakstan are praying that this will also bolster their efforts to register one church in the city of Nukus; currently there are no registered churches in the whole of Karakalpakstan.

People International

Better Church Meetings: Nine Tips


Many of us in nonconformist circles have horror stories of church members’ meetings gone terribly wrong. But do they always have to end in bitterness and bickering? I don’t think so.

Here are a few quick suggestions to help set members’ meetings on the right track.

1. Stop calling them business meetings

Business meetings conjure up images of corporate leaders angling for personal gain. Instead, call them members’ meetings, or family meetings, or something else that suggests that we come serving Christ’s agenda, and not our own.

2. Remember that a members’ meeting is for members

A church members’ meeting is not a public meeting, so kindly exclude any stray visitors at the start of the meeting, letting them know they are more than welcome to any of your public weekly gatherings. Visitors have no more right to participate in your members’ meetings than citizens of one country have the right to vote in the elections of another.

3. Aim for accurate membership roles

Trying to conduct healthy members’ meetings without a healthy membership roll is like inviting the fox into the hen house.

4. Pray!

We need the wisdom only God can grant (James 1:5-6). We need to rely on the only weapons that have divine power to demolish the devil’s strongholds (2 Cor. 10:4). So begin by praying that God’s Spirit, not the fallible ingenuity of fallen man, would guide your meeting.

5. Recite your church covenant together

Recite your church covenant together if you have one. Every now and then we need to hit the ‘reset’ button. That’s part of what a church covenant does. It draws us out of the ‘me’-dominated world we live in, and helps reorient us around basic biblical truths.

A church covenant is to membership what vows are to marriage: they help define how we’ll live together. Such vows and promises don’t magically solve divisions. But they may just help you more humbly work through such divisions, as you remind yourselves that you’ve promised ‘to work and pray for the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ and exercise an ‘affectionate care and watchfulness over each other’.

6. Do the most important business first.

What is the most important business? Defining who the church is. Practically, that’s who is taken into membership, and who is seen out. This helps teach that who we are is fundamentally more important than the particulars of whether, for example, we continue to have a Wednesday night dinner.

7. Occasionally remind people what congregationalism is, and isn’t.

Some have the notion that congregationalism is the same as Western democracy, or that it is the byproduct of it. Neither notion is true.

Yes, Jesus gave the keys of the kingdom to the congregation (Matt.16.19) when it comes to matters of church membership (2 Cor. 2:6), discipline (Matt.18:17; 1 Cor. 5:1-13), and doctrine (Gal.1:6-9; 2 Tim. 4:3). And yes, each member is given a vote. But that doesn’t mean there is anything godly in debate for debate’s sake, or that it’s the right of every member to have their voice heard, or that the elders and deacons serve like a bicameral legislature. Elders are still called to rule (1 Tim.5.17), and members are still called to submit and obey for their own advantage (Heb.13.17).

Playing devil’s advocate or token contrarian is a mark of immaturity, not a badge of honour. We would do well to remind our people that when Paul exhorts Timothy to flee ‘youthful passions’ (2 Tim. 2.22), he’s not thinking first about sexual sin, but being quarrelsome.

8. Be quick to inform, and don’t get defensive.

Many are taught to distrust authority, and that power corrupts. Thus, where information is lacking, scepticism or cynicism may run rampant. Though these aren’t godly instincts, it’s wise to recognise that they exist, and remember that the congregation is rarely privy to all the information you are. So get out in front, regularly informing the congregation of what you’re deliberating and thinking through.

9. Know you will make mistakes.

At end of the day, leading healthy members’ meetings is more art than science. You will make mistakes. That’s inevitable.

So apologise when necessary, and make restitution where you can. And don’t get too discouraged. For though you may feel like you’ve failed, Christ has promised that the church never will (Matt. 16.18). So learn what you can from your mistakes and continue to serve wholeheartedly, as unto the Lord, and not to men (Eph. 6.7).

Brad Wheeler

Brad is the senior pastor of University Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

The original article appeared in 9Marks.org

Last Word: little


‘Why shouldn’t you hire short people as chefs? Because the steaks are too high.’ ‘I met this really little guy today… he was so down-to-earth.’ ‘Little men are oppressed… they’re always getting overlooked.’

The world loves to laugh at the little. But God delights in the small. After all, Israel was not chosen because they were ‘the largest of nations, but because they were the very smallest’ (Deut.7:7). God told Samuel ‘not to consider height’ and commanded him to choose David, the smallest of the brothers (1 Sam. 16). In the Gospels, the ‘little girl’ is healed (Mark 5:41), and the ‘small in stature’ Zacchaeus (Luke 19:3) is invited for tea. For the eternal kingdom of God belongs to those who understand themselves to be little. ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it’ (Mark 10:14-15). While every passing generation mocks the small, the everlasting God welcomes into heaven those who humbly recognise their littleness. There is a delicious irony here. Time is ever expanding for the little

people of God; they shall receive an eternal kingdom. Yet the big and powerful of this world who persecute them are getting smaller by the day. They shrink, since their sands of time are sinking.

How, then, should the people of God see those who seek to bring them down? How should God’s people around the world understand their suffering at the hands of the evil enemy coronavirus? How should Christians at home and abroad construe evil racism that they experience at the hands of those in positions of worldly power? How are believers in this country to process the threat of increasing persecution for living with Christ as Saviour and Lord?

For a little while

There are many answers to these questions, but the apostle Peter reminds us of one in the first chapter of his first epistle. By considering the vastness of our eternal inheritance we, as the little people of God, should rejoice remembering that our great trials are comparatively very short. 1 Peter 1:6-7 says: ‘[You] are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.’

Christians feel the grief of being God’s exiles here (1 Peter 1:1). And like Israel in Babylon they will be treated harshly by a big bad world. Yet the knowledge of their eternal glory as God’s elect frames their time. For when we focus upon our exile and so our eternal home we remember the littleness of suffering. Suffering is not nothing, but it is comparatively less – a short stop at the services on the way to the greatest holiday ever.

‘It is not long’

The Puritan minister, Samuel Rutherford, picked up this notion and illustration when he wrote a letter to one of his little friends who was suffering greatly at the hands of a dominant world.

‘Be not cast down in heart, to hear that the world barketh at Christ’s strangers … this is one of our Lord’s reproaches, to be hated and ill-entreated by men. The silly stranger, in an uncouth country must take with a smoky inn and coarse cheer, a hard bed, and a barking ill-tongued host. It is not long to-day, and he will to his journey upon the morrow, and leave them all. Indeed, our fair morning is at hand, the day-star is near the rising, and we are not many miles from home. What matter of ill entertainment in the smoky inns of this miserable life? We are not to stay here, and we will be dearly welcomed to Him whom we go to. When I shall see you clothed in white raiment, washed in the blood of the Lamb, and shall see you even at the elbow of your dearest Lord and Redeemer, and a crown upon your head, and following our Lamb and lovely Lord, whithersoever he goeth you will think nothing of all these days! And you shall then rejoice, and no man shall take your joy from you. It is certain there is not much sand to run in your Lord’s sand-glass.’

Jonathan Worsley

Jonathan Worsley is also pastor of Kew Baptist Church, London

How testing times can bring out the best in us


These pandemic times have been testing times.

There has been tragedy. We lost a friend who lived in the next road whose children came to our church clubs. It was so moving to see the hearse drive slowly by while the whole street stood on their doorsteps with bowed heads.

There has been irritation. So many things in our house seem to have ‘busted’ during the lockdown and you can’t just go to the shop and get a replacement. I managed to fix the sink and the leg of the broken log basket. But the LED standard lamp is beyond me.

There has been boredom. What to do when you can’t do what you would normally do? My garden shed has never been so tidy!

During such times families can get scratchy with each other and tension reigns. But that is not how it needs to be for Christians.

God’s sovereignty

The key to responding well to testing times is to grasp afresh the truth of God’s sovereignty. This pandemic is not some cruel roll of the dice. God has ordained that you and I should be here now.

Scripture insists that in all things the Lord is working out His plans. We may not be able to fathom all His purposes, but we are to be assured that He is in the driving seat. The Thessalonians were ‘destined’ or ‘appointed’ to suffer persecution (1 Thess. 3:3). Paul insists that ‘in all things’ (the bad as well as the good) ‘God works for the good of those who love him’ (Rom.8:28). If we can accept that truth, it gives us a positive handle on trouble. It enables us to face it not with exasperation, but with faith.

I am reminded of a story R. T. Kendall used to tell of an American farmer who grew corn. Each year he sent his boys into the fields to manually gather the harvest – when he could easily have hired a machine to do it. People accused him. ‘Why do you do this to get in the corn? It’s so hard for them.’ His reply was short and to be point: ‘I’m not raising corn, I’m raising boys.’ In other words he wanted to make men of them and bring out the best in them.

A harvest of peace

Why are we living through this pandemic? It is because our all-wise God knows it is best for us. He knows it is best for us as churches and as individuals. He wants to mature us. He wants to teach us, discipline and grow us through it. The writer to the Hebrews puts it like this: ‘No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it’ (Heb.12:11). There are ‘good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do’ (Eph. 2:10).

Why are the churches shut and having to ‘meet’ via Zoom? Perhaps God felt we were relying too much on each other and not enough upon Him. Perhaps we were making too much of fellowship and not enough of personal prayer.

Perhaps He is saying to Christian dads:‘I want you to take more responsibility for your family spiritually and not just put everything in the hands of the Sunday School teachers.’ Perhaps He is saying to young pastors: ‘I’m taking you through uncharted territory, in which no-one before has had any experience and I’m doing this so that you have to think for yourself and mature.’ Perhaps He has brought us all to that point where we have had to look death in the eye and return to the fundamentals of what the gospel of peace is really about.

Loggerhead turtles

When I was teaching on this recently, Gracie, a gifted teenager, produced a children’s puzzle sheet reminding them of many animals who have to undertake hard things to fulfill their purpose. Not least were the loggerhead sea turtles who swim the North Atlantic and cover more than 9,000 miles to lay their eggs on the American shoreline. Let’s start swimming.

John Benton

John Benton is en’s former Managing Editor and Director of Pastoral Support at The Pastor’s Academy, www.pastorsacademy.org

Where is the Justice?


Although not knowing all the details, we know enough to be deeply disturbed by the events of 25 May. Those who viewed those eight minutes and 46 seconds won’t forget them.

It is wrong that a person died at the hands of a police officer, pleading: ‘Please, the knee in my neck, I can’t breathe … Mama! … My stomach hurts, my neck hurts, everything hurts … Don’t kill me.’

Despite recordings showing the police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck till he was motionless, and not even moving after Floyd became deathly still, the following morning the Minneapolis Police Department issued a statement titled: ‘Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction’. There was no mention of (now former) Officer Chauvin’s deadly actions, attributing Floyd’s death to a pre-existing medical condition.

As it became obvious, even to the police, that the story they put out wasn’t going to be accepted, the officers involved in the incident were fired. It became known that Chauvin had received 18 complaints on his official record, two of which resulted in discipline including official letters of reprimand.

It was then that nights of protest began, across the United States and into Europe. Many chanted Floyd’s last words: ‘I can’t breathe’, ensuring his death was not forgotten. They were perhaps also expressing in visceral terms the stifling feelings wrought by acts of discrimination, both structural and everyday, still faced by so many.

A Christian responds

Christian blogger, Samuel Sey, wrote the first of several well-thought-through essays as the rippling anger turned to waves, moving thousands of people to take to the streets across both the US and the world in response to Floyd’s horrific death.

‘What makes George Floyd’s killing especially disturbing to me is that, unlike most recordings of people who get unjustly killed by police officers, Floyd’s distressed face and distressed words are so clearly seen and so clearly heard before he dies.

‘Just as Floyd’s [alleged] unjust attempt to defraud the deli doesn’t justify the police officers’ unjust actions against him, the police officers’ sins do not justify our sins either. We will all be accountable to God for our unjust and sinful actions. God gives us freedom to grieve; He gives us freedom to be angry. But He doesn’t give us freedom to sin while we are grieving and while we are angry.

‘Some citizens in Minneapolis are using the injustice against Floyd as justification for their own unjust, destructive actions. They are using Floyd’s killing to sin. They are rioting, stealing, assaulting others, and destroying property. We shouldn’t be like them. We shouldn’t react with unjust, destructive behaviour on social media either. If we’re angered by the police officers’ unrighteous behaviour, we shouldn’t react in an unrighteous manner too.

‘Therefore, we shouldn’t make any conclusions about the incident – including the police officer’s motivations and Floyd’s character – if it isn’t explicit in the video recordings.

‘Those of us who reject social justice ideology might be tempted to allow the opportunism and foolishness of others to cloud our own judgement. But we shouldn’t allow those who cry wolf to make us deaf to real, genuine growls of wolves.

Just like me

‘And you’ve probably noticed I haven’t mentioned the police officers’ skin colour and, especially, Floyd’s skin colour. I haven’t mentioned George Floyd was a black man. I haven’t mentioned the police officers apparently consisted of one white man, one Asian man, one brown man, and one black man. I haven’t mentioned that Derek Chauvin, the officer who pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck, is a white man.

‘I didn’t mention that because when I watched the horrific video, I didn’t see a black man – just like me – unjustly killed by a white police officer. I simply saw a human – just like me – unjustly killed by police officers.

‘That doesn’t mean Floyd wasn’t a victim of racism. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. I don’t know. All I know is: four people like me apparently unjustly killed another person like me.

‘I look forward to the day when I won’t have to see this anymore. And I especially I look forward to the day when Jesus won’t have to see this anymore – when He returns to execute perfect justice.’

Samul Sey

Samuel Sey blogs at slowtowrite.com

‘Not as Me-centred as it Sounds’


TEACH ME TO FEEL:
Worshiping Through the Psalms in Every
Season of Life
By Courtney Reissig
The Good Book Company. 256 pages. £11.99
ISBN 978 1 784 984 441
Buy online from The Good Book Company 

I thought I wouldn’t like this book. Perhaps it was the title. Being of the ‘get-a-grip’ generation, I have a slight aversion to the touchy-feely, preferring to crack on and not make a fuss.

But this book is not as me-centred as it sounds. It is a series of short studies on the Psalms and it is thoroughly Christ-centred. Starting with Psalm 1 and Psalm 2, Courtney Reissig gives us some solid ground before we get to dealing with emotions. We are reminded of the crucial importance of rooting ourselves in God’s word as opposed to the counsel of the wicked. And we are taken to the bigger picture: ‘I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.’ As Reissig says, ‘In many ways, the message of the entire Bible is captured in this one sentence.’ We get the end story first and this is the perspective for the meditations that follow.

There are 24 short chapters, each given to a psalm and titled according to an emotion. Some readers, on reviewing the contents page, will immediately turn to the one with a title that sums up their own feelings on that day. Others will find it more like a medical dictionary in the hands of a hypochondriac: recognising symptoms of every described disease in themselves. Worthless? Tick. Weary? Certainly. Ashamed? Definitely.

I am glad to report that not all the emotions are negative. Some of the best chapters, in this extremely readable and helpful book, are on positives e.g. Content (Ps.131) and Grateful (Ps.103). And even on the more downbeat emotions, the book avoids being mawkish and maudlin by continually pointing the reader to hope in Christ and demonstrating how an honest assessment of our circumstances and our feelings, as we pursue our often fraught path through life, is no barrier to a close and trusting walk with God. Quite the reverse, actually.

Male readers would find plenty of nourishing spiritual food here, but it does feel like a book for women and is frequently addressed to sisters in Christ. It has a lot of womb stories and makes use of many personal anecdotes from Reissig’s own life as the mother of four young boys. She is honest about her own struggles and failures, and her excitement about God’s word and her joy in Christ bubbles off every page. Each chapter is interleaved with a blank page for the reader to write their own experiences/prayers or a record of God’s dealings with them.

The fact is, as Reissig says, ‘When we stand back and look at what God has done in the world, in us, and in the universe, we marvel.’

I thought I wouldn’t like this book. But I did. Very Much.

Ann Benton

† For help with online ordering please contact The Good Book Company directly. EN will receive a small commission for each sale.

Plagues past: learning from the selflessness of the early church


Tyler O’Neil on how Christians saved lives and spread the gospel during Roman plagues of the second and third centuries

Christians facing the coronavirus today would do well to remember how the selfless love of the early church helped spread the gospel in a world much more hostile to Jesus’ message than our world is today.

Christianity spread in the face of persecution for many reasons, but in two cases it spread in the midst of deadly plagues – because Christians risked their lives to save others.

Two historic plagues ravaged the Roman Empire: the Antonine Plague (165–180 AD) and the Cyprian Plague (249–262 AD) These plagues killed roughly a quarter to a third of the population, striking down emperors (Marcus Aurelius, Hostilian, and Claudius II Gothicus), and ravaging the empire. As in the case of the coronavirus today, panic spread because the society did not understand the disease.

As sociologist Rodney Stark noted the in The Triumph of Christianity: How Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion, Christians responded to the plagues differently from their pagan neighbours.

‘During the first plague, the famous classical physician Galen fled Rome for his country estate where he stayed until the danger subsided. But for those who could not flee, the typical response was to try to avoid any contact with the afflicted, since it was understood that the disease was contagious. Hence, when their first symptom appeared, victims often were thrown into the streets, where the dead and dying lay in piles,’ Stark wrote.

Bishop Dionysius recounted the events in Alexandria, Egypt, during the Cyprian Plague: ‘At the first onset of the disease, they [pagans] pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease.’

Yet Christians sought to help the sick, even risking their own lives. As Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, put it: ‘Although this mortality had contributed nothing else, it has especially accomplished this for Christians and servants of God, that we have begun gladly to seek martyrdom while we are learning not to fear death.’

‘Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbours and cheerfully accepting their pains,’ Dionysius recalled of his fellow Christians. ‘Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead … [a death that] seems in every way the equal to martyrdom.’

Even basic care is likely to have powerfully reduced the death rate. As William McNeill pointed out in Plagues and Peoples, ‘quite elementary nursing will greatly reduce mortality. Simple provision of food and water, for instance, will allow persons who are temporarily too weak to cope for themselves to recover instead of perishing miserably.’ It is entirely plausible that Christian care for the sick would have reduced mortality by as much as two-thirds, Stark argued.

This Christian charity did not just save lives – it also spread the gospel. Historians have long struggled to understand how a small group of Christians after Jesus’ ascension – Acts puts the numbers at 120 and 5,000 – eventually outnumbered all other faiths in the Roman Empire (with an estimated population of 60million).

Using estimates from historical sources, Stark found that growth from 1,000 Christians in 40AD to 33million Christians in 350AD required a growth rate of 40% per decade. While this growth seemed miraculous to Christians at the time and historians afterward, it can also be explained through the expansion of social networks.

When Christians risked their lives to help their pagan neighbours during the plagues, two things happened. Pagans who did not come into contact with Christianity were more likely to die, and pagans who received Christian charity were more likely to live – and to develop relationships with the Christians who saved them. A pagan saved from death may befriend the Christians who saved him, and he may have lost his previous friends from the plague. By saving pagans, Christians not only demonstrated the love of Jesus but also spread social influence.

Stark has long found that social networks are essential to religious conversion. While new believers say they are satisfied by true doctrine, friendships with other believers are also essential when it comes to choosing a faith. This is not to say that faith doesn’t matter or that the Holy Spirit is not involved in conversion – the process in each person’s heart is still a mystery – but from a social science standpoint, relationships are key to understanding a person’s decision to publicly identify with a religion.

Christians in the second and third centuries AD lived counter-cultural lifestyles. They stood out because they refused to sacrifice to Roman emperors (who were considered gods) and they stood out because they cared for the sick, the orphans, and the widows. They saved children who were left to die (an early form of abortion/infanticide) and they founded the first hospitals.

When early Christians risked their lives to save pagans during the plagues, they lived out the teachings of Jesus Christ, providing concrete evidence that their lives had been changed by the Holy Spirit of charity. Their sacrifice was a witness to those around them, and it helped spread the gospel by expanding their social networks.

Christians today should adopt the same spirit of charity, although it may look entirely different in practice. Social distancing helps limit the spread of the coronavirus, and Christians should value the lives of others more than the comfort and social opportunities of daily life.

Christians can also support charitable enterprises doing God’s work in this difficult time. The Christian charity Samaritan’s Purse airlifted a field hospital and other supplies to Italy on 17 March to help that country’s overwhelmed health system care for coronavirus patients. Samaritan’s Purse’s DC-8 aircraft carried roughly 20 tons of medical equipment, a respiratory care unit developed for the coronavirus, and 32 disaster relief personnel, including doctors, nurses, and respiratory specialists, who will stay in Italy for at least a month.

‘We are going to Italy to provide life-saving care to people who are suffering,’ Franklin Graham, the charity’s president, said in a statement. ‘There is a lot of fear and panic around the country, but we trust that God is in control. We continue to pray for everyone affected by this global health crisis and for our medical team as they respond.’

Edward Graham, youngest son of Franklin Graham and assistant to the vice president of programs for Samaritan’s Purse, put it succinctly: ‘Medicine is a magnet for the gospel.’

Not every Christian can or should get up and fly to Italy to help with the crisis – there will be work to do in your own homes and communities. But Christians around the world should help however they can, with the same spirit as the early church. Acts of charity can reap a tremendous harvest for the gospel.

Tyler O’Neil

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.

Photograph: The Philistines of Ashdod attacked by plague. Lisbon National Museum of Ancient Art. Photograph by Daniel Villafruela.

. . . but God meant it for good


A round-up of encouraging news stories from the UK and overseas during the coronavirus pandemic


Staying positive

‘How can you stay so positive in the middle of all this?’ This was a question put to one of the Caring For Life (CFL) staff by a gentleman he has been supporting remotely during lockdown.

What a wonderful question! The staff member was able to explain that his confidence in his Saviour is what gives him hope and positivity regardless of life’s circumstances. The gentleman, who would have previously described himself as quite an enthusiastic atheist, then went on to ask more about this Saviour and the Bible.

This is one of many examples from recent weeks of God touching the hearts of vulnerable and isolated individuals with the reality of His presence in these most frightening and difficult of days.

Many of the folk who CFL care for exist without the support of family or friends. Some have people around them who are unhelpful. Many others have those that cause them great distress. Some simply have no-one. At CFL they have the great privilege of becoming friends and family to those they support. One of their beneficiaries expressed this beautifully when he said: ‘I didn’t have real love parents. Caring For Life is my first real love family.’

Gayle Pennant said: ‘We are thankful to God for the many opportunities we have had to share Jesus’ love with the people in our care at this very tough time. We’ve had people ask for prayer who have never asked before. We’ve had some tell us that they are praying for the first time in their lives. A number of our beneficiaries, both those who are and those who aren’t Christians, have been enjoying reading through the book of John and using specially designed, accessible Bible reading notes, and have been chatting enthusiastically about this to their support workers.

‘One lady who can’t go out told us that she spends ten minutes every day sitting on a chair at her back door looking at the sky and the clouds and reminding herself that we have a great big God who loves us and is with us.’

A gentleman who only very recently began receiving support and is very glad to have friends around him at the minute. He summarised the situation beautifully, saying: ‘We will get through this and we will get through it together but, more importantly, we will get through it with God.’

Caring for Life


More listeners online

Just four weeks ago Deniz, an OM worker in London, had approximately 50 people from the Turkish community attending a church he leads, but this rose to over 1,600 once the church had to close. With so many people tuning into the live streaming of their service, he described this lockdown as ‘one of the biggest opportunities we have to reach unreached people with the gospel’.

Deniz continued: ‘I have never been busier, with telephone calls, new social media, writing and recording online sessions.’ New situations are arising all the time and Deniz knows he needs God’s wisdom as he adapts and responds quickly.

Some people in the Turkish community are afraid. The family of one person who caught Covid-19 were panicking. The long-term effects on the congregation could be that people don’t want to meet up again once restrictions are over. Fearful of the consequences of gathering together, ‘this would be a huge struggle for the church’, Deniz commented.

But Deniz sees this as an opportunity to be a voice of peace, hope and reassurance; now more than ever, with so many of the Turkish community listening to the services his church is streaming online. Many in the Turkish community where Deniz serves have unexpected time on their hands. ‘Over 80% of the church are barbers,’ he said. ‘Most have hung up their clippers for the next few months.’ Although it means a lack of income, Deniz notices that many are remaining positive and embracing this opportunity to rest, spend time with their families and engage with God.

‘I cannot express the hunger people have for God’s word at the moment’, Deniz says with great joy, referring to the Bible studies he is hosting over video call. ‘We have new people joining every day.’ Deniz is confident that God is at work, taking a challenging situation and shaping it for His glory.

Operation Mobilisation


Ugandan children: more!

Emmauel Mukeshimana, a Langham scholar, wrote about the way his children have responded positively to having to worship at home as a family.

‘This last Sunday was the first day of family service due to the ban of public gathering. Our service went on very well in which we did a duplication of what we do at church where all members of the family participated. What amazed me is that the young ones enjoyed it so much to the extent that every morning they are knocking on our bedroom door asking whether we are having our church service again!’

Langham


Canada: silver linings

A Canadian hospital network claims it is ‘heartbroken’ after it took the decision to no longer administer euthanasia during the coronavirus pandemic.

Hamilton Health Sciences, which owns ten medical sites, and the Champlain Regional Medical Assistance in Dying Network have stopped their services during the current crisis.

The Christian Institute


Hope online

Almost 5,000 people feeling anxiety or despair due to the coronavirus pandemic have turned to a new website which is offering hope for those affected by the lockdown.

Lookforhope.org is a website set up to help people connect with the Christian faith and find hope during this difficult time. Just ten days after the new website was launched, it has already had over 13,000 individual page views from almost 5,000 visitors.

The Revd Tim Dennis, curate in the parish of Winklebury and Worting in Basingstoke, recognised the need for the website when he posted a blog on social media which reflected on his own experience during the lockdown. Tim was taken aback by the response he had to his blog, and realised that people were crying out for messages of hope relevant to their own experience. And so, with no budget, he taught himself web design and set up the lookforhope.org website in a matter of days.

Visitors to the website have access to an array of thought-provoking articles and videos about life in lockdown. Written by a mix of Christian ministers and lay people from different backgrounds, the blogs reflect on the experience of contending with the challenges presented by coronavirus, and offer a message of hope despite the pandemic.

Across the country people are facing difficult and uncertain times, many are suffering and thousands have lost loved ones. While lives have been drastically changed in the short-term, there is likely to be a much longer-term impact too.

As well as blogs and videos, the website has a contact function so that people looking for support can be put in touch with their local Christian community.

Lookforhope.org


Tech training

Community in a Crisis was set up in response to Covid-19 and a need from churches to help them move online during the time that church buildings are closed.

It has been offering multi-platform online training to get churches online. The training includes: live streaming, Facebook Live, Zoom, pre-recorded videos or any combination.

Over 350 churches have received training and accessed materials so far. For churches that need more help there have been drop-in tech sessions each week, one specifically for Zoom. Another has been in partnership with Church Service Planner – a new website that helps someone easily create online services.

IFES


Accessing cash support

Community workers across the UK are receiving training to help vulnerable people access Covid-19 financial support, in response to fears that millions could be plunged into crisis because they can’t use the Internet to find crucial help.

The COVID Cash Course has been set up by the Just Finance Foundation (JFF) – part of the Church Urban Fund – to help the most marginalised people in the country negotiate the maze of new rules, regulations and benefits as a result of the pandemic.

While there is a lot of information available online, more than a million people don’t use the Internet (Exploring the UK’s Digital Divide, ONS, 2018). The JFF says there are many more who can get online, but lack the skills needed to find the support available to them.

Just Finance Foundation

Is this how introverts feel when life is normal…?


We were four weeks into lockdown, and I had never felt more of an extrovert. The move to home working, the sudden contraction of my social life, the complete absence of church activities, and the impromptu decampment to my parents’ house meant that – like most people – my world had shrunk dramatically.

The condition of being generally under-stimulated soon left me feeling flat; not quite myself; running at less than 100%. And that’s when I had one of those dawning moments of realisation. Maybe this was something akin to how my more introverted friends felt when life is ‘normal’ – too often generally over-stimulated, and therefore operating at less than 100%.

In her 2012 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain makes the case that the world is set up for an ‘extrovert ideal’. Take the office environment at The Good Book Company (TGBC) as an example. Under normal circumstances, most of our staff do most of our week in a buzzing open-plan office with 35 other people. It provides numerous advantages as we work collaboratively. Now, during lockdown, we’re isolated to our 35 individual studies/dining rooms/requisitioned spare rooms/sheds – still working together, but apart. Yet while we’re all missing each other, it’s no doubt also allowing some staff – depending on their personality – to work better than they did in the office (living situations and broadband speeds aside). While the office environment suited how I like to work, lockdown works better for an ‘introvert ideal’.

‘I’ve never felt more myself than I have in the last month,’ agreed one more introverted colleague – also decamped to her parents, and pretty much living her dream life. And (not that anyone looks their best on webcam), there was no denying that she did look… rested. Less harried by life in general. ‘My prayer life is way better than it was before, too,’ she added. If she’d been a Christian in another era, I suspect she’d have joined a convent. But having been born in 21st-century evangelicalism, she’s instead compelled to go to conventions. And those are very different.

Cain’s book is just one piece of a broader cultural preoccupation with personality types. For TGBC, a Christian book on personality types and the implications for how we do church and discipleship belongs in the category of ‘book ideas that Rachel thinks we should pursue for publication but hasn’t yet persuaded everybody else about’. (I won’t reveal what else is in that particular vault.) The – perfectly valid – argument against it is that the Bible doesn’t really say much about personality types. Whatever our preferences, we’re all called to belong to a body, build one another up, and use our gifts in the service of our Lord.

But, at the very least, the disrupted routines of lockdown (and whatever phased exit comes after it) give all of us an opportunity to grow in self-awareness. New situations reveal strengths and weaknesses, not just in our personality, but in our character. When I pick up the phone and talk to someone, is that mainly to fulfil my own desire for social contact – because I know that a phone conversation will make me feel good – rather than a desire to love the other person and build them up?

What about the way that I do ‘normal’ church life? Is my zealously full weekday schedule about pouring out my energy for the sake of others, or filling up some lack in myself?

Contrast that with another friend for whom every Sunday morning is socially draining (even if spiritually refreshing). But she seeks to pour into others Sunday by Sunday, in the power of the Spirit, because she knows that that’s what love looks like. It’s the triumph of will over feelings, and character over personality. And it’s beautiful.

So too the last few months have given some of us an opportunity to grow in empathy for others; perhaps those who feel as though they spend much of their time operating outside of their natural habitat – at work, at church, at conferences. Perhaps I’ll have my day in the sun (or the office) again before too long. But for now, this moment belongs to the introverts.

Rachel Jones

Rachel Jones is an editor at The Good Book Company and author of several books including Is This It? and Five Things to Pray in a Global Crisis.

Global famine imminent


The UN warned on 21 April that the world faces a famine of ‘biblical proportions’ over Covid-19 pandemic.

Urgent and immediate action is needed to prevent widespread famine as the pandemic worsens existing world food crises, said the head of the United Nations World Food Pro-gramme (WFP).

David Beasley, Executive Director of the WFP, told a virtual session of the UN Security Council that at least 265 million people are being pushed to the brink of starvation by the Covid-19 crisis. This is double the number under threat before the pandemic took hold.

‘We are not talking about people going to bed hungry. We are talking about extreme conditions, emergency status – people literally [on] the brink of starvation. If we don’t get food to people, people will die,’ Beasley warned.

In 2020, the world is already facing the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War due to a number of factors including the wars in Syria and Yemen, and extensive terror activity across the central Sahel countries (see map), causing tens of thousands to flee their homes. In East Africa, the worst locust plague for decades has already put as many as 70 million people at risk of acute food insecurity.

Beasley said the pandemic has moved the world into ‘unchartered territory’ where 300,000 people a day could die of starvation from the 36 countries who are in the ‘perfect storm’ for food shortages.

Photograph: iStock

Courtesy of Barnabas Fund