RealityBites blog

Factories, Joy and the Kingdom

Wouldn't it be brilliant if Christians were well known for creating the best factories, offices and work places in the UK? How easy it would be to talk about God's kingdom if we could point to an abundance of stories like this:

Julia Turner is absolutely thrilled with her factory job at the American equivalent of Boots the Chemist – Walgreens. You might be surprised to learn that Julia has Down's Syndrome. She is one of the many disabled people who have jobs they love – all because of the vision of one man who had a baptised imagination – Randy Lewis.

"I tell you what — I love this job!" she said. "I'm happy, I'm contented. I've got people all around me who are the best friends I've ever had in the whole world."

She was asked by the bus driver – "Did you have a good day?". She answered "I had a wonderful day."

It is Julia's joy in her work that is so striking. Meaningful, well-paid work has also brought her friendships and a loving community.

Why aren't Christians more interested in bringing God's kingdom into the work place? Have we become so 'heavenly-minded' that we lose interest in what goes on in 'down-to-earth' factories, warehouses and offices?

RealityBites in the Costa del Sol

Last month Anne and I celebrated thirty years of marriage. We wanted a break and so we booked a holiday with Club La Costa World which is located in Fuengirola on the south coast of Spain. Truth be told we got a fantastic discount of 80% which made the gig very affordable.

We had a wonderful time relaxing by the pool and visiting Grenada and Ronda but we had to pay our pound of flesh! We had to spend four hours of the holiday listening to a skilled and persuasive salesman who waxed lyrical about the delights of time shares in Club La Costa. To be frank I was dreading this phase of the holiday but it turned out to be the best moment of our time in sunny Spain.

Frank (not his real name) picked us up in his posh car and took us to a restaurant on the resort. He asked Anne about her work and she told him about working with traumatised asylum seekers as a therapist. Anne asked him about his life and he explained that he had been a soldier in Afghanistan for many years and still suffered sleepless nights mulling over the horrors of war. Anne was delighted to find out that Frank was fluent in Pashtu and Farsi! Frank looked 'emotional' as we probed him about his life and work experiences.

Frank then asked me about my work and I told him a bit about RealityBites. I told him about Randy Lewis and his baptised imagination – employing thousands of autistic and disabled people at Walgreens. I told him several heartwarming 'faith in action' stories and he seemed delighted and intrigued.

When we got to the sales pitch both of us were struck by the endless references to luxury hotels, meals, massages and the 'five star' treatment. We explained to Frank that we had no wish to live in this kind of luxury 'story'. He told us that he had never met anybody who had a well-thought out critique of his pitch. I told him the 'parable' about the rich man who spent all his holiday complaining about the shoddy 25 year old malt whiskey in his luxury suite. He smiled and told me that all of his customers were like that!

I then outlined the consumerist 'way of life' and told him that we didn’t live in that story! He paused reflectively and told us that he had never met people like us before!

He told us about one of his clients who offered to fight him (bare knuckles) and if Frank won the 'punch-up' he would automatically sign up for the time share 'deal'! Frank contended that many of his clients were rude and 'nasty' people. He told us twice that it was an honour and a privilege to meet us! He confided in us that we were the only clients who had ever taken an interest in him! I was astonished to hear him saying this.

In the final moments of our time together he said something quite odd. He blurted out – "Muhammed didn't come back from the dead but with Isa (Jesus) it was different! He has no tomb". I was then able to talk to Frank about my conversion to Christianity from atheism and the good news of the resurrection.

It's amazing what goes on in the Costa del Sol. It's not all beers, sunbathing and sangria!

Randy Lewis and amazing jobs for disabled people

Randy Lewis was a senior Vice President at Walgreens in the USA. Walgreens is the American equivalent of Boots the Chemist and has over 8000 shops and employs 176,000 people. It has a turnover of $76 billion.

Lewis has an autistic son, Austin and he desperately wanted Austin to have a future and hold down a good job. Previously Walgreens had employed disabled people to do jobs like cleaning toilets and sweeping floors on low wages. Lewis wanted to create meaningful and rewarding jobs for disabled people and so he persuaded Walgreen’s to change the work place… to suit disabled people.

Walgreen's has now designed warehouses where 40% of the employees are disabled. These jobs pay an equal wage to the typically-abled workers and hold all employees to the same standards. Employing disabled people has unleashed incredible creativity and imagination in non-disabled employees.

Julie Willard, a deaf woman employee, said this about Walgreens – "It's my dream to work here!" Angela Mackey, a bright woman with an MA, couldn't get a job because of her cerebral palsey. She said that no one would employ her! Now at Walgreen's she is in charge of the recruitment of disabled people!

Walgreens have also designed new technologies that serve and bless the disabled! In these 'warehouses of wonder' they use images rather than words which help people who struggle to read. So instead of an unimaginative Aisle 14 they will have a strawberry image. This helps people who cannot read numbers.

The HR department has changed many of its policies. When applying for a job a disabled person can bring someone to fill in the application forms etc. What is so exciting is that the company has discovered that disabled people can often outperform non-disabled people. Not only was performance the same (Lewis called in statisticians who studied 400,000 hours of work and proved performance is similar for those with and without disabilities), but in the warehouse, staff turnover was 20% to 50% lower and absenteeism was also down.

Safety costs were also lower for people with disabilities. "Fears about more accidents had come up, but we discovered that deaf forklift drivers – who many companies won't hire – are twice as safe as someone who can hear". said Lewis. "If I could give everyone a piece of advice, it would be to put plugs in the ears of their forklift truck drivers."

What a great example of God's kingdom in action! Randy Lewis has a baptised imagination.

Easter thoughts

A guest post from Bruce Gulland (@BruceGulland) of Reach Beyond (@ReachBeyondUK).

You may recall Ali Burnett's thought-provoking piece Beyond the Bunny just before Easter, about using radio advertising to help get a Christian message across. And you may remember that lovely rabbit pic!

Sticking with the theme of getting something of the good news onto commercial radio, here's some other news of faith-based programming that made it onto the airwaves this Easter, between the ads for carpet sales and cars.

It's not the place you'd first expect to hear material exploring the deeper side of life. You’re more likely to think first of one of the (excellent!) items or programmes on BBC stations – 'Thought for the Day', 'Good Morning Sunday', and so on. But on commercial radio, with its diet of mainstream pop, low-brow chat, and ubiquitous ads? How often do you hear a programme of any sort dealing with faith there?

Well on Easter Sunday morning, on at least 17 commercial stations around the country, you could hear something about Christ and the resurrection. Making quality audio for this area of the media is what we seek to do at Bradford-based Whistling Frog Productions, the UK radio arm of the international media and healthcare mission Reach Beyond.

We produced a short feature called Easter Makeover looking at makeover TV and deeper transformation. We also made Easter Expectations, a set of humorous monologue spots tackling different views of life after death. The first aired on the UKRD network of 16 stations, and the second on Pulse 1 in West Yorkshire. Both feature Mark Roques, who is Director of RealityBites, and adept at relating faith to pop culture.

For years now, with its eye on the bottom line and no obligation to play anything faith-related, mainstream commercial radio has tended to steer well clear. But opportunities do exist – often dependent on the openness of a station or network manager to broadcast such material – and developing a good relationship there. And with significant audiences, particularly in ages and sections of society that may not tune in so much to BBC stations, it’s well worth seizing these opportunities.

A radically different style of radio is called for though. The format is fast-paced, topical and music-driven, so productions work well that combine catchy music and pacy speech or dialogue. It really is a far cry from Thought for the Day. It's also an exciting challenge: creating such a mix that also encourages reflection about God, Jesus and faith in our sceptical society.

Idolatry, Ideology and Islamic State (part 4)

Bob Goudzwaard, a Dutch Christian economist, wrote a brilliant, short book Idols of our Time back in the 1980s. It really is a superb resource for any thinking Christian.

He begins the book with these words:

We live in a world possessed and we know it.

When we focus upon the recent brutalities of ISIS, these words become poignant, powerful and relevant. Biblical norms of justice, love, mercy and forgiveness have been trampled upon as ISIS pursues its goals with extreme force and cruelty.

Goudzwaard argues that when humans become possessed by a goal, ideology is born. Ideology is the way that idolatry seizes the initiative and enslaves individuals, organisations, social structures, political movements and governments today. Ancient pagan people were enslaved to Molech, Baal or Sobek, the crocodile god, but today ideologies have largely replaced these crude pagan deities. In other words, Molech has had extensive plastic surgery!

Goudzwaard identifies four major goals or ends which occupy people around the world today.

  • The resistance of all exploiting and oppressive powers in order to create a better society. This is the ideology of revolution.
  • The survival of one's people or nation: the preservation of one's cultural identity. This is the ideology of nation.
  • The preservation of one's wealth and the opportunity for continued material prosperity. This is the ideology of material prosperity.
  • Guaranteed security: the protection of oneself, one's children, one’s fellow human beings against any attack from outside. This is the ideology of guaranteed security.

Turn on the TV, listen to the news and you will hear many voices that are enslaved to these four pervasive ideologies. Do we discern the idolatry at work?

Idolatry, Ideology and Islamic State (part 3)

Let's focus for a moment upon a key idea – ideology. Ideology is the way in which idolatry affects people today and this includes the soldiers and supporters of IS.

The term 'ideology' was coined by French intellectuals just before the French Revolution. The word means far more than merely a framework of thought. In its original sense ideology refers to an entire system of values, convictions and norms, which are used as a set of tools for reaching a single, concrete, all-encompassing social goal. For the French revolutionaries the goal of overturning the corrupt old regime was so sweeping and decisive that it legitimised in advance every means for reaching that end.

The famous philosopher Rousseau believed passionately in the intrinsic goodness of human beings. He rejected the biblical teaching that humans are sinful and prone to idolatry. This secular mindset was to influence deeply the notorious mass murderer Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794) who led the French revolution into its darkest cruelties by sending thousands of innocent people to the guillotine.

To put it simply, Robespierre believed that the vast majority of the French people were innately good and virtuous. We only need to eliminate the enemies of progress (aristocrats and priests) and – bingo! – a secular paradise would be born.

During the Reign of Terror (1793-94), Paris became a blood bath. People would drink aristocratic blood and pass it around cackling with glee. Children would play with decapitated heads. What the Revolution required was by definition correct. Existing norms and values were emptied, refilled, tainted and warped until they became instruments of the all-embracing goal – "No God and no master".

Anybody who resisted the revolutionary ideology was by definition a traitor.

This redefinition of norms is what characterises ideology. It defines goodness, truth, justice and love as that which serves the end. In its original sense, therefore, ideology has everything to do with religion. It is religion's substitute.

Ideology declares "As God I create my own norms and values. I say what will benefit humanity. And I allow no god above or power below to make any other law". What is the origin of ideology? Ultimately it is demonic.

In the next posting we will unpack different kinds of ideology and begin to connect this to the recent brutalities of IS and how easy it is for IS to recruit people to its cause.

Idolatry, Ideology and Islamic State (part 2)

A key text for understanding idolatry in the New Testament is a passage in the book of Romans.

They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator.

Romans 1:25, NIV

Here we should notice that idolatry does not merely refer to the worship of idols and images in the sense of the giant bull statue in 'Molech' worship.

Idolatry takes something within God’s good creation and then elevates it above the boundary separating the Creator from creation. It promotes created things to the status of divinity. Jesus helped us to understand this when he made these comments about money:

No-one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.

Matthew 6:24, NIV

The New Testament presents a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of idolatry than the Old Testament. When we focus exclusively on the acquisition of money and take no notice of God and His kingdom we are guilty of idolatry. We replace God with something created. We would suggest that infamous celebrity Katie Price epitomises this kind of idolatry when she stated this in an interview:

No one can live without money. Money and religion are the big things, and that's it, and I stay away from religion. We love to earn money, who doesn't? It gets you things and it's security.

In this confession of faith Katie is boldly declaring what she places her trust in!

Paul also attacks this specific idolatry in his letter to the Colossians.

Put to death the sinful earthly things… Don't be greedy… for that is idolatry.

Colossians 3:5

It is also fascinating that Paul shows us how both pleasure (1 Timothy 5:6) and the stomach (Philippians 3:19) can also become idolatrous objects of worship.

Furthermore, as Paul Marshall has observed, idolatry is not simply one more sin, of which pride, envy, lust and so forth are other examples; in fact, "all sin is an expression of the basic sin of idolatry, of putting something else in the place of God".

In the next posting I will connect idolatry to the contemporary world of ideologies. This will help us to understand idolatry in secularist, Christian and and Islamic mindsets.

Idolatry, Ideology and Islamic State (part 1)

In the light of the recent gruesome activities of the Islamic State (IS) it is timely to re-examine biblical teaching about idolatry and connect this to ideologies, secularism and IS. In this first post we will look at idolatry in the Old Testament.

Idol worship is something which no follower of Jesus wants. Christians know deep down that serving idols violates God's covenant (Exodus 20:1-3).

So how did ancient people worship their idols?

First they would sever something from its immediate surroundings, refashion it and erect it on its own feet in a special place. The idol might look like a bull, a frog or a golden calf (Exodus 32).

Second they would ritually consecrate it and prostrate themselves before it, seeing it as an entity which has life in itself. The ancient Egyptians would call down demonic powers so that they would enter the idol.

Third they would bring sacrifices and look to the idol for instruction and guidance. In short they would worship the idol. Worship brings with it a decrease in the power of the idolater. Now the god reveals how they should live and behave.

Fourth they now expect the god to repay their reverence, obedience and sacrifice with health, security, prosperity and happiness. The idol has become their saviour.

Fifth the idol activates fear in the worshippers. Panic and alarm seize hold of idolaters when the god is not placated and appeased in the designated way. Just reflect for a moment upon the ancient worship of the god Molech. The Ammonites would fill a tall, hollow iron image of Molech (the idol) with hot coals and they would gradually 'turn up the heat'. Then the followers of Molech would begin to dance. A pulsating rhythm would be established by the drums and worshippers of the god would work themselves up into a frenzy. Then at the right moment (when the coals have turned white) young children of the tribe would be thrust into the glowing hands of the idol and die a horrible sacrificial death. The cries of the dying infants would be drowned out by the sound of the drums! Molech is a terrifying god. You don't upset him!

Finally after making and worshipping idols, people gradually become transformed into the likeness of their gods. The disciple of Molech becomes ever more cruel and heartless like his god. The Psalms put it like this:

The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
made by the hands of men.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
eyes but they cannot see;
they have ears, but cannot hear,
nor is there breath in their mouths.
Those who make them will be like them,
and so will all who trust in them.

Psalm 135:15-18

In the next post we will explore idolatry in the New Testament.

Talking About Faith – a new course

Why is talking about faith often awkward and filled with clichés? Why do our conversations about faith rarely grip people and intrigue them?

Mark Roques has spent his life tackling this issue and is convinced that our evangelism can be transformed if we 'do an Apostle Paul' and learn to understand and engage with the beliefs that shape our world.

In this course Mark will move us step by step through the world of religious and secular beliefs, equipping us to talk about the Christian faith in a way that is both engaging and insightful.

Secularism, Blockbusters and Soaps (3)

Films seduce and indoctrinate us in the same way as soap operas, but there is greater variety and the opportunity to discern the difference between the real and unreal worlds. Consider this sequence of films:

The films based on CS Lewis's Narnia stories (2005 and ongoing), and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) and The Hobbit (2012-2014) based on J R R Tolkien's books. These stories are very skilfully crafted. There is no reference to religion, no priests, prophets or preachers, no creeds or catechisms. Yet the visible world is not all there is. There is an unseen world, there is a universal moral order, there is a clear distinction between good and evil and there is an overarching Big Story with allusions to and echoes of the Biblical Story.

Then there are the eight films based on J K Rowling’s Harry Potter novels (2001-2011). Again the visible world is not all there is. There is an unseen world, there is a moral order, there is a clear distinction between good and evil. But there is no overarching Big Story, no ultimate grounding for the morality, for the distinction between good and evil.

The Hunger Games (four films, 2012-2015; 2014 release date 21st November) is based on the trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins. In these films there is no unseen world – now the material world is all there is. There is no supernatural, no magic; it is just high technology. The distinction of good from evil remains, but there is no underlying moral order, or overarching Big Story out there, no justification for the morality, or for the distinctions made between good and evil.

The highly acclaimed vampire film Let the Right One In (Swedish, 2008, American version 2010), based on the novel by Swedish author John Lindqvist. Now not only is there no unseen world, but the absence of any Big Story or moral order out there is affirmed and morality becomes a human creation that can be altered at will. So a vampire (murdering) girl becomes 'moral' because she protects and mentors a bullied boy.

We must explain films and all the media and internet offerings to our children. We live in a dangerously indoctrinating society. The great danger of indoctrination in schools and society today is not from religion, but from secularism. In today's environment it is hardly surprising that almost 100% of unbelieving parents successfully pass on their unbelief to their children. That unbelief is affirmed and reinforced by the surrounding culture. But barely 50% of religious parents succeed in passing on their religious faith. Religious faith is ignored and thereby undermined by the culture. Research also shows that many children give up on their faith in their teenage years or as they enter adult life. The loss of active Christian faith during college and university years (50-80%) is especially shocking, but almost certainly roots back to school years.

We desperately need to rediscover and live in the Biblical Big Story and to be a Christian community (church) that visibly does so.