Midwife rides swan through floodwaters to deliver baby

Midwife rides swan through floodwaters to deliver baby

Yep, you can’t make up a headline like that. As the floodwaters unleashed by tropical storm Harvey inundated the suburbs of Houston, one local woman went into labor. As interstates and freeways disappeared under water, Andrea Haley began to experience contractions. She knew she was approaching active labor. Her baby was going to be born in the submerged city. But when she phoned her midwife, 63-year-old Cathy Rude, to come quickly, Andrea was told the floodwaters were too high. Cathy couldn’t get out. Her birthing supplies would become contaminated in the filthy waters if she tried to wade through it. Still able to drive the streets around their home, Andrea, her mother, and her husband Daniel climbed into their truck hoping they’d be able to get through the water to pick Cathy up, but they were stopped. Andrea’s midwife couldn’t be reached. The water was too high in her street. After a few frantic calls to friends with kayaks, none of whom could be reached, the Haleys were getting desperate. And Andrea’s labor was progressing. It was then they saw the strangest sight. One of Cathy’s neighbors was floating down her street in a huge inflatable white swan. Yes, I said a white swan. Andrea called from the window of the truck, “Hey, would you be willing to give my

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The monumental importance of being permanently present

The monumental importance of being permanently present

It started with the sparking of a faulty fridge-freezer in a fourth-floor flat. But the speed with which the fire consumed the 124 apartments was breathtaking. We couldn’t believe our eyes as we watched it on our screens. The inferno that erupted in the 24-story Grenfell Tower in west London quickly incinerated the whole building and all we could do was watch gape-jawed with horror. Families appeared at their windows screaming for help. Some people tied bedsheets into a makeshift rope to escape the furnace. Some leaped to the ground below. It was all too horrible. We know now that nearly 80 people lost their lives and many others were injured. Hundreds were displaced, escaping the flames with nothing but their lives and the pajamas they had been sleeping in. We also know that the community response to this tragedy was incredible. The outpouring of generosity and kindness was heartwarming. But it began in an interesting way. At 3.00am the night of the fire, Rev Alan Everett, the vicar of the nearby St Clements Church of England, was woken by a call from a fellow priest who lived in Grenfell Tower. The priest had called to alert Everett that he had a national disaster unfolding almost literally on his doorstep. Alan Everett ran to the church and turned the lights

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Are you willing to be sent where few can see you?

Are you willing to be sent where few can see you?

She was elderly and wore a lavender cardigan. She gripped my arm more firmly than I thought she could. She said she had something she wanted to tell me. I had just preached a Pentecost Sunday sermon about how the Holy Spirit commissions us all as missionaries, or sent ones, to alert others to the universal reign of God wherever we might find ourselves. I had preached that all vocations offer us the opportunity to mirror the work of God in the world, whether it’s to bring healing or justice, reconciliation or wholeness, whether to design and build, or to serve and love. And I threw in references to a few random vocations like stay-at-home parents and lawyers and nurses and union officials and artists and builders and teachers. I had quoted Jesus’ words to his followers, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” (John 20:21) and I asked the congregation, “So, to whom have you been sent?” As I was leaving the church that morning the woman in the lavender cardigan took my arm and said with great determination, “I know who I’m sent to.” We were in the church, behind the last pew, still in the whisper zone before the hubbub of the mingling space beyond the glass doors. She told me quietly that her husband has

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An open letter to moderate, peace-loving Muslims

An open letter to moderate, peace-loving Muslims

Dear moderate, peace-loving Muslims, I know every time there is a major Islamic-inspired terrorist incident you’re called on by angry radio hosts and newscasters to renounce all violence and condemn the perpetrators. And every time this happens your imams and muftis release such statements and appear before the cameras reading them to us. But I’m not writing to demand a similar condemnation from you. I already know you want to practice your religion in peace and leave me to practice mine as well. I know you are as horrified by the recent acts of slaughter in England, Egypt and Indonesia as I am. I know you want extremists to stop bringing dishonour upon Islam and attracting global revulsion toward your religion. I know you wish it would all end. But in case you think the whole world sees Islam as nothing but a hotbed of religious fanaticism and violence, I want you to know, that even though many of us won’t admit it, Christians have a very unhealthy relationship with violence too. We have tried to rule the world with a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other. We’ve fallen to the seductive temptations of violence, authority and control many times. We are addicted to the myth of redemptive violence. And I don’t have to go all the

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Blaming Islam is just too easy

Blaming Islam is just too easy

In the wake of the Manchester Arena bombing I’m seeing a lot of commentators demanding we call a spade a spade and identify Islam as the global problem of our time. Several of them claim we’ve been pandering to Muslim extremists by downplaying the danger they represent. Enough of all this political correctness, they say, we should be bold enough to use the words “Islam” and “terrorism” in the same sentence. In fact, they say, by refusing to lay responsibility for global terrorism firmly at the feet of Islam we’re setting ourselves up as sitting ducks. One columnist, Miranda Devine started her piece this way: “We can’t keep our children safe. Every concert, every train ride, every walk across a bridge, every gap year trip to Europe, every cafe visit is fraught with fear. And that is exactly how the Muslim fanatics want it, the inadequate, baselessly arrogant fans of Islamic State with hearts full of scorn and hatred for the free societies which have taken their families in, nurtured them, and offered them every freedom. They kill our children on purpose. They maim deliberately with nail bombs to rip through soft flesh, mutilate pretty faces, butcher young limbs.” Phew! Aside from the misinformation about the likelihood of death by terror attack (you’re more likely to die of the flu

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Mission is a lot like midwifery

Mission is a lot like midwifery

Joseph Campbell once said, “If you want to change the world, change the metaphor.” Maybe if you want to change the church you should change the metaphors you use to describe it too. You’re probably familiar with the church’s use of militaristic imagery to describe its role in the world. This has often been expressed in the vocabulary of aggression, conquest, crusade, advance parties, and beach-heads. Church leaders often see nothing incongruous in using the language of military campaigns to describe their role of sharing Jesus with the world. At a time when the dominant evangelical tone seems arrogant, angry, or afraid (or all three), maybe now more than ever we need a different lens by which to view the church. Maybe we need a more life-giving metaphor. Why not try this metaphor on for size: the church is a midwife to the delivery of the world God is birthing. Stay with me. Isaiah 42:14 refers to God groaning like a woman in labor. And in Numbers 11:12, as the Israelites complain of only having manna to eat in the wilderness, Moses says to God with an almost sarcastic inflection, “Did I give birth to these people? Did I bring them into the world? Why did you tell me to carry them in my arms like a mother carries a

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If you want to shape your city’s future, learn its past

If you want to shape your city’s future, learn its past

Recently, I’ve been blogging about how to “read” your context, to understand your neighborhood and to join God in what is going on there. I’ve been exploring the work of Michael Mata, professor of Transformational Urban Leadership at Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles, and his five S’s for studying your place (structures, signs, spatial dynamics, social interaction and spirituality). You can start reading those articles here. But now I want to add a sixth S. I think you also need to learn your neighborhood’s story. The story of a place has a lasting impact on its personality and general culture, its strengths and weaknesses. Without knowing its story we fall prey to the possibility of misjudging a place for what it is not. Good missionaries will take the time to excavate and retell the history of their city. The study of place informs the way we pray for our neighbors, the way we extend love, and the way we can contend for God’s Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.   It’s like falling in love with your place – the more you discover, the more you can love with sincerity and wisdom. This process can lead us to accept what we don’t know, while still choosing to love in the everyday simplicity of what we’ve discovered.

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Taking the spiritual temperature of your neighborhood

Taking the spiritual temperature of your neighborhood

I was chatting to a young(ish) Baptist minister recently who was trying to recruit me to support a particular campaign he was developing (that’s not important right now). What intrigued me was that, as he was pitching his idea to me, he casually mentioned that he just met the local Catholic priest who had shown some interest in his campaign as well. I stopped him. “Earlier you told me you’ve ministered in that neighborhood for 10 years. And you only just met your local parish priest? Is he a new priest?” “No,” came the reply. “He’s been the local priest for nearly the same length of time as I’ve been there.” I lost all interest in his campaign proposal and started wondering how a Baptist minister and a Catholic priest could both be serving their congregations in such proximity, but have never met. If the Baptist hasn’t even met the Catholic – or the Pentecostal, or the Seventh Day Adventist – what hope is there that he’s met the local imam or Buddhist monk? I’m often hearing evangelical church leaders telling me they love their city or neighborhood, but I find myself wondering how well they even know the city they say they love. If you’re not even familiar with your fellow Christian leaders, there’s little chance you know any of

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We build our cities, and then our cities build us

We build our cities, and then our cities build us

How do you get to know the city you’re in? In recent posts I’ve been exploring a number of areas every church should examine in order to understand their neighbors better. I’ve referred to it as listening to your city in the same way as a doctor uses a stethoscope to listen to a patient. So far we’ve looked at what the structures of your city tell you about its inhabitants (here), and how to read the signs in your community (here).  In this post, I want to encourage you to examine space and social interaction. City planners give huge amount of time and energy trying to figure out what kinds of public spaces their city needs and how they shape healthy social interaction. You need to do the same. SPACE The spatial layout of any environment can foster relational interaction or snuff it out. Consider airport gate lounges, with their fixed lines of seating all facing the same direction, the lack of tables, or group spaces, and the dominance of screens. Their spatial layout makes them unconducive to interaction. They’re designed in a way that assumes you’re not here to stay, you’re just passing through. Likewise, for most neighborhoods there has been some degree of planning that has gone into creating the environment in which people live, work and

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Listening deeply to your city

Listening deeply to your city

In my previous post I encouraged Christian leaders to consider ways they could listen deeply to the yearnings, desires, hopes and disappointments of their community. My reason for encouraging such deep listening is that I believe all mission is contextual. All mission. We’ve been buying ministry ideas off the shelf for too long, dishing up the same old tired suite of products currently on offer in every church right across the country. Mission is provincial. It’s local. It’s indigenous. It grows in the peculiar eco-systems in which its planted, and so it will taste and smell different in different settings.   So, how are you to know how to respond to the needs of your community, or how to collaborate with the things God is already doing there, unless you can listen? Truly listen. One of the world’s most revolutionary listening devices is the stethoscope. It was invented in 1816 by the impressively named René-Théophile-Hyacinthe Laennec. He pioneered its use in diagnosing various chest conditions (stethos derives from the Greek word for chest). In commending his new instrument, Laennec was noted for saying, “Listen to your patients. They’re telling you how to heal them.”   Get that? The patient’s sick body knows what it needs to be healed. You just have to listen carefully enough. I think deep down your

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What if you could listen to your neighborhood like scientists listen to trees?

What if you could listen to your neighborhood like scientists listen to trees?

Take a walk through a forest and it seems the trees stand still like silent sentinels . A tree is the ultimate individualist, right? Each one appears totally independent of the others. That is, until you realize that trees talk to each other. Yep. They talk to each other. Underground! Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver did experiments that proved that trees pass information between themselves in a silent underground network. And not just between members of the same species. She found that Douglas fir and paper birch trees can transfer information across species’ lines. It’s all a bit technical and sciencey, as she explains here, but, bottom line, she found the underground life of trees is alive with the transfer of information. Basically their root systems can transfer stuff like carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus via something called mycelia. What’s mycelia, you ask? Well, it’s all a bit technical and sciencey, but essentially it’s fungus. Fungal bodies are made up of a mass of thin threads, known as a mycelium. These threads act as a kind of underground internet, linking the roots of different plants, and passing nutrients and elements between them.  If you cover one tree in a forest with a huge plastic bag, like Suzanne Simard did, and pump it full of radioactive gas, like

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In Praise of Protest

In Praise of Protest

I recently came across these two photographs on social media. They both depict elderly protesters at recent anti-Trump rallies in the United States. The photo on the left is of a woman named Shirley, attending her first protest rally at the ripe old age of 93. I found it on a Twitter feed of people posting that they were attending their first public protest. Most were young. But some were old. Like Shirley. What’s happening in America when a frail 93-year-old is moved to protest for the first time? And is it a good thing? Some are saying that such protests are just made up of sore losers who can’t deal with Donald Trump’s election victory. I’ve heard (often), we need to stop complaining and just allow duly elected officials govern. But protest shouldn’t be dismissed so readily. Indeed, protest is a noble cause, a collective responsibility, and a necessary form of self expression. Here’s a few reasons why I think we shouldn’t be afraid of mass protests. Protest is Essential in Liberal Democracies   Dissent is what forged democracy in the first place, and it remains essential in fomenting change in democratic societies. In fact, it moves those societies forward. It always has. Protests nearly always arise in response to social or political changes and can therefore be rightly

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