Saturday, 19 December 2015

A Pilgrim World

Not the heavenly city, but Mont St Michel in France.

Last Thursday night at Pilgrim Dinners, Peirce gave the seventh instalment in his cycle of seven talks. This year Peirce has been telling the great Redemption narrative -  or, as he's explained it to the travellers, "The Love Story of History."

The last talk was called "New Creation." It was quite thrilling to look around the room at over 40 young people from all over the world, listening intently to Peirce getting excited about the New Jerusalem.

Discussion afterwards was remarkably lively and joyous.

A young German woman who has come to every talk asked if she could take one of the Bibles to read ("Um, YES!").

Our regular trio of jokey UK blokes asked me "why is God nasty in the Old Testament and nice in the New". They listened with interest as I talked about the nature of the Covenants and the Atonement. In fact, I was given an excellent opportunity to point to the mercy of God in the OT when one of them asked why the story of Jonah is in the Bible.

It was an evening on which I felt very blessed to be walking in this good work that God has prepared.

Discussing the unseen joys of heaven with a room full of travellers is a good launching point for this quote I've been saving for a rainy day:

For all its greatness (trust me—I am the last man on earth to sell it short), the created order cries out for futher greatness still. The most splendid dinner, the most exquisite food, the most gratifying company, arouse more appetites than they satisfy. They do not slake man’s thirst for being; they whet it beyond all bounds. Dogs eat to give their bodies rest; man dines and sets his heart in motion. All tastes fade, of course, but not the taste for greatness they inspire; each love escapes us, but not the longing it provokes for a better convivium, a higher session. We embrace the world in all its glorious solidity, yet it struggles in our very arms, declares itself a pilgrim world, and, through the lattices and windows of its nature, discloses cities more desirable still.
You indict me, no doubt, as an incurable romantic. I plead guilty without contest. I see no other explanation of what we are about. Why do we marry, why take friends and lovers, why give ourselves to music, painting, chemistry, or cooking? Out of simple delight in the resident goodness of creation, of course; but out of more than that, too. Half of earth’s gorgeousness lies hidden in the glimpsed city it longs to become. For all its rooted loveliness, the world has no continuing city here; it is an outlandish place, a foreign home, a session in via to a better version of itself—and it is our glory to see it so and thirst until Jerusalem comes home at last. We were given appetittes, not to consume the world and forget it, but to taste its goodness and hunger to make it great.

 From "The Supper of the Lamb" by Robert Farrar Capon. 

Friday, 16 October 2015

Culture Matters

With Pilgrim Dinners only a fortnight away, Peirce is drafting his series of talks for the new season. This year's theme, in seven sessions, will be God's story of salvation, from creation to new creation. 

One of the constant challenges with these talks is to write and speak simply. With over 25 nationalities represented, you can imagine the range of English-proficiency! It's no easy task to communicate the Gospel simply to so many.

However, being simple is not an excuse for being simplistic. Below is a transcript of a talk on Culture from last year's dinners - one that provoked some of the most heartfelt questions and searching discussions among the travellers last season. As you can see, it may be simple, but it isn't simplistic.

Transcript from Dinner #17, February 19th, 2015

Culture matters.

What do I mean by “culture”? 
Someone once said, “Culture is religion" - or belief - "externalised.”
Meaning that culture is the way we live out what we believe. 

Cultures matter because they show the fruit of what we believe. Cultures are where our beliefs affect the real world and the real people in it.

Tonight, we’re going to look at two problems that show up again and again in cultures, as the fruit of different beliefs.

Then, I’ll share with you the solution God gives to anyone who wants it. 

Here’s the first problem: unity without diversity.

Some beliefs say one culture must totally dominate. There are so many examples in history:
  • Imperialism, like in Ancient Rome.
  • Communism, like under Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China.
  • Islam, like under the Islamic State in the Middle East today.
These beliefs say that one culture should dominate everything: there should be only one culture. When we look at the fruit of these cultures, we see bad fruit.

Now, I need to be clear. I am discussing problems about cultures and beliefs right now, not individual people who are made in God’s image and whom we, as Christians, are called to love.

On the most basic level, beliefs that say one culture must dominate produce bad fruit by stomping out diversity, creating an ugly sameness; a dull cultural grey.

Think of the ugly architecture Communism left everywhere. Or the cultural effect of Islam, which one former Muslim (the African academic Lamin Sanneh) has said recreates 7th century Arabia everywhere it conquers.

So on a basic level, we see a dull cultural sameness. But the fruit gets much more rotten.

When one culture must completely dominate, we see things like:

  • Racism = hatred between races
  • Sexism = hatred between women and men
  • Classism = hatred between haves / have nots
  • Religious persecution
We see these leading to horrors like:

  • Enforced poverty
  • Torture
  • Slavery
  • Genocide

We have seen it under Communism, in the hundreds of millions of lives killed and even more still destroyed. We see it right now in the daily horrors of ISIS, which we read about in Middle East.

So, we see in these cultures and others the fruit of what happens when a belief says: one culture must dominate all others

At this point, it would be easy to say, “But my culture doesn’t do those things. And I don’t do those things.”

Don’t be so sure. It may not be obvious in our cultures. But in the First World, our popular culture values young independent adults. It says they should be dominant. This leads to an ugly cultural grey: people of all ages trying to look and act like young independent adults.

It also leads to much worse fruit:

  • Assisted suicide of the aged and disabled, because they don’t fit the dominate culture. They just get in the way.
  • Abortion of the unborn. In the US alone, over 56,000,000 humans have died from abortion since it became legal. These killings are often very gruesome indeed. And all because they didn’t fit the dominate culture, they just got in the way of it.
To sum up these views, beliefs like Communism, Islam and even Secular Popular Culture say one culture should dominate.  They produce rotten fruit: an ugly, grey cultural sameness, and violent horrors, leading to death.

But there’s another view, that contrasts with this one. It’s the second problem: diversity without unity.

Some beliefs say all cultures must be absolutely equal. This is the opposite. It’s very common now, under names like

  • Egalitarianism
  • Tolerance
  • Relativism
  • Multiculturalism
This view says that no culture, no group is better than any other. All cultures must be absolutely equal.

On the surface, this sounds loving. But looking deeper, the fruit is just as rotten. Here’s the big problem: it forces us, in the end, to pretend everything is OK.

When fully believed and practised, it robs us of the ability to say things like:

  • “The caste system in India is harmful.”
  • “Aborting baby girls because they are girls is wrong.”
  • “Communism is wrong to kill millions of people.”
If every culture is equal, how can we say that? How can we judge?
If we’re being consistent, we cannot. We have to pretend it’s all ok. 

But it most definitely is NOT loving when horrible beliefs that harm millions of people can’t be judged, but rather get a free pass.

That’s not loving. In fact, it is the opposite of love. It makes it impossible to fix those things which are broken in cultures. And it allows horrible things to continue happening.

To repeat - saying that all cultures are absolutely equal isn’t the loving answer it sounds like. It actually produces rotten fruit, forcing us to pretend everything is ok, making it impossible to fix things that go wrong, allowing horrible things to continue.

And, this isn’t just something that happens with big issues. In every day life, it comes up all the time, when in the name of tolerance and absolute equality we pretend everything is ok, and let friends do things that hurt themselves and others. This makes for more rotten fruit. It is not actually loving to our friends. True love wants to see the best for a friend. Which means, it doesn’t tolerate brokenness, but cares enough to seek to see it resolved.

To sum up this second problem, a belief that says all cultures must be absolutely equal sounds loving, but produces rotten fruit. It forces us to pretend everything is OK, making it impossible to fix things that go wrong, trapping real people in brokenness, preventing us from showing true love. 

So now, I want to talk about the solution.

The solution can’t be either

  • A belief that says one culture must dominate.
  • A belief that says all cultures must be absolutely equal.
Or, put another way,

  • Unity without diversity.
  • Diversity without unity.

Why? Because both of these lead to rotten fruit, and we’ve seen it over and over again in history and in our own lives.

We need a way to value both diversity and unity. The good news is, God gives us that way.  

For one, God shows us that cultures matter; our diversity matters. 

You see, when God became a human being to save us, He came into a specific human culture. The only God in the universe, who made us all - He valued us so much that He came to us, to our level. In this way, he valued our human cultures because of His love for us. 

Ever since, when Christians have told people about God’s love, just like God, they’ve cared about culture. They’ve said cultural diversity matters.

Not that Christians have been perfect in doing this. We have failed many times in history. We have needed to be called back to God’s way. But when Christians go out to share God’s love, living God’s way, they have cared about local cultures.

Let me give you an example from history. Did you know that the Bible is the first book written down in almost every language? It has formed the beginning of thousands of local literatures that have kept cultures strong which would otherwise have vanished with hardly a trace. 

Why is that?

Christians have translated the Bible into thousands languages because they care about local cultures. When Christianity enters a new area, it develops local ways to worship God, with local music, art, story, architecture; all encouraging local culture.

This doesn’t have to be. It’s the opposite of a religion like Islam, which doesn’t like the idea of translation. 

Did you know that the Qu’ran is never meant to be translated? All good Muslims learn 7th century Arabic in order to recite it. And, there aren’t meant to be localised forms of worship; only one form of worship for everyone, globally. All good Muslims are supposed to worship this same way. And, there isn’t a value on local cultures; all good Muslims are meant to imitate Mohammed, even in his 7th century dress and behaviour. 

This means that everywhere Islam goes, 7th century Arabia goes. You can see the difference in Africa. In Northern Africa, where Islam dominates, we see a cultural grey, a dull sameness. The more seriously Islamic, the more same it is.

In Southern Africa, which is traditionally Christian, we see vibrant diversity. The more seriously Christian, the more diverse.

The Bible talks about it this way. Speaking of Jesus, it says: 

“You redeemed people for God by Your blood from every tribe and language and people and nation.”

The God of the Bible takes cultural diversity seriously and calls us to do the same. As Christians, we look forward to a day when people from every culture will worship Him.

But God also cares about unity. Remember, the fruit of saying all cultures must be equal ends up being love without truth - which isn’t love because it leaves people broken. In the end, it’s as bad as saying one culture must dominate.

God cares about unity. He cares about truth and love. As Creator of everything, He’s the source of all truth. As He tells us and history shows, He is also the source of love.

So, the God of Bible does two things tolerance can’t:
1. He shows love to people who are broken.
2. He gives them a way out, healing people and calling people to repent and turn away from brokenness to truth. 

Tolerance cannot do those things. 

Ever since, Christians have done the same: putting truth and love together. Christians have called brokenness, what it is: something bad. They have sought to help broken people, and to give them a new life.

Which is why, as a Christian, I can say a belief system like Islam or Communism has very bad fruit, but the people behind these beliefs, even very ‘bad’ people, are made in God’s image and need our love.

Again, Christians haven’t been perfect doing this.

But did you know that Christians living God’s way invented:

  • Hospitals
  • Hostels
  • Orphanages
  • Charities
All of these, to care for people rejected by ancient cultures. In Ancient Rome for example, the father (“pater familias”) had absolute power over the lives of any babies born in his house, including his servants' kids. The ancient Roman father could order any baby in his house left out to die. Christians saved those babies and started the first orphanages. 

Did you know also, that Christians were responsible for our modern system of Human Rights? The rights of women, babies, elderly, poor, blind, disabled, prisoners, slaves, and factory workers come from long centuries of Christian reform.

This system of equal Human Rights didn’t develop out of

  • The Ancient empires
  • Buddhism
  • Atheistic Communism
  • Islam

Why? They didn’t because they couldn’t. Those beliefs can’t produce that fruit.

For example, in 1948, the UN put forward their Declaration of Human Rights. Islamic countries stood against it and refused to sign it because they knew it was Christian.

Human Rights and hospitals are cultural fruit of a belief that:

  • Tolerance isn’t enough. We need both truth and love.
  • All human lives matter. What is wrong can be called broken and changed

There are many other examples I could share of good fruit, like 

  • Universities, 
  • The scientific method
  • Most national literatures
  • Polyphonic music (like Bach)

God’s love of unity and diversity made these possible.
Christians are responsible for the existence of all of these things, because God cares about unity and diversity. These things did not and could not exist as the fruit of beliefs that said either

  • Only unity matters
  • Only diversity matters

To conclude, culture matters. It shows us the fruit of our beliefs.

For a belief like Islam or Communism, which says one culture must dominate, the ultimate fruit is not unity but death.
For a belief like modern secular tolerance, which says all cultures must be equal, the fruit is not love, but brokenness, ultimately also leading to death. 

To have a life-giving culture, you need a way to value both unity and diversity. 

The good news is, God gives us the way. You don’t need to choose EITHER unity OR diversity. That false dichotomy leads to death. You can follow the God of this universe, who brings both together and gives us life.

Friday, 11 September 2015

You remembered my name

I'm not that good at names. So you would think it would be a disaster, me trying to connect with a room of 30-80 people on a weekly basis at Pilgrim Dinners, many of them new arrivals each week. 

The surprise for me was how many names I actually could remember (and affix to the correct faces -- also potentially a problem for me). It turns out it is a lot easier to remember names when they are exotic and foreign and interesting. I'd never known people called Frederica, or Fabio, or Ainhe, or Irma, before.

Around the second or third time our famed Angry Italian Atheists attended a dinner (some of you have heard our fond memories of them), I welcomed one of them by name. A surprised smile softened her usually stony face. "You remembered my name!" she exclaimed. 

We would never have expected it when they first showed up, but these guys ended up attending our dinners for four months. I really, really missed them when they left our community. Honestly, I still miss them. I can't be sure, but maybe, just maybe, the tiny kindness of remembering her name was a turning point in our interactions. 

At one of our prayer days we printed out the names of hundreds of dinner guests who signed up for email updates. Sitting there and scanning over column after column in tiny print of beautiful, quirky names from everywhere, I was filled with love and compassion for these people - irretrievably made in God's image - who I dined with, who heard the gospel, who are still somewhere in this world, having slung on a backpack and walked out of my life. 

So if I see you again, please forgive me if I don't remember your name. I'm so glad I serve a God who knows you down to every negligible detail, like the number of hairs on your head (Luke 12:7).   

I hope to dine with you again, at a much more wonderful feast than the one we shared at the Huonville Library. I guess we'll have new names (Revelation 2:17), and bodies that don't get tired and cold from picking fruit in changeable weather. 

In the meantime, I trust you to the care of the one who is familiar with all our ways, whose presence we - blessedly - cannot flee (Psalm 139), though we traverse the wide world.   

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
    when I was made in the secret place,
    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
    all the days ordained for me were written in your book
    before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
    they would outnumber the grains of sand—
    when I awake, I am still with you.
 (Psalm 139:1-18)

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

We're the travellers now

Things have been quiet on the blog lately, and if you haven’t been tracking with our Facebook page, you might even think we’ve been enjoying a lengthy holiday. On the contrary!

Yes, that red line represents us. We just drove across the United States of America.

All 7 of us, including 5 children aged 6 and under, in a large vehicle, from California to Pennsylvania, meeting with supporters of Pilgrim Hill new and old along the way, and now we are looping back to where we started.

Here's a glimpse of our trip, written to our supporters a week ago. (If you’d like to receive weekly updates like this direct to your inbox on the progress of Pilgrim Hill, please email thebaehrs[at]

July 19

Tomorrow will bring us to the end of our second week on the road. We are deep in the South, where the tea is sweet and cold, the swings are as big as beds, and our host this evening met my proffered handshake with “Honey, I’m a hugger”. 

I’m writing this in the big van (“Gertie”) on the perimeter road around Atlanta. We’re on the way back to our accommodation after another event put on by kind Christians whom we just met in a foreign city which is Stop #10 on our trip across America and back.

Today I was struck by something which may seem obvious to you. We’re the travellers now. We’re the ones relying on others to pursue hospitality and to love strangers and sojourners.

I’m thinking about how much small gestures of kindness fortify and comfort us as we are on the road. I’m thinking about how I want to hold on to this so I remember to make those gestures to travellers myself, to not grow weary in well-doing, to pursue hospitality without grumbling. 

So as you are reading this, I want to encourage you to do the same. Hospitality needn’t look the same for all of us. We’ve been richly nourished by hospitality of different flavours on this trip. I’ve been particularly touched by the unexpected ways that our hosts have sought to bless our road-weary children, whether it’s been by setting out colouring books or crafts, preparing special snacks, or inviting grandchildren to play with them. 

These glimpses of grace are nothing compared to the unmerited welcome that God gives us, yet they are little reminders that while we were strangers, God reconciled us to Him through His son. The sweet times of fellowship we have had with Christians all over America are possible because we share one table, with one incomparable host.

Friday, 15 May 2015

The story in numbers

One of our helpers writes up the evening's menu.

I can hardly believe that one week ago we said goodbye to this season's travellers. 

It's been 6.5 months of sitting down with strangers and making them our companions. Companion - literally someone who breaks bread with you (as Rachel Jankovic points out in her talk on the grace and grit of hospitality, which I recommend).

I know that in a blink of an eye it will be October again, and strawberries will be reddening, and there will be new people from all over the world finding out that picking them is a lot harder than they thought. They'll discover they didn't bring enough warm clothes and that food is expensive in Tasmania. 

God willing, lots of them will come to our dinners. They will find out that we are people who care about their needs, the ones they already know about - like being warm and fed - and the ones they don't - reconciliation with God through His Son.

But right now we want to rest in the blessings that God has showered on us over the last half-year. I want to share with you the story of Pilgrim Dinners in numbers. 

Numbers don't prove faithfulness, but numbers can be significant. After all, think of the many times the Bible is specific about numbers, always to the glory of God. 

Pilgrim Dinners in numbers

Dinners: 27
Topics covered: 26
Guests who signed up for our weekly email reminders: 240
Total number of new guests (estimate): 500

Countries of origin of our guests, in descending order of frequency:
UK, France, Italy, Japan, Germany, Taiwan, Canada, Hong Kong, South Korea, Netherlands, Ireland, Chile, Sweden, Australia, USA, New Zealand, Fiji, Brazil, Belgium, Poland, Norway, Mauritius, Argentina, Albania, China.

5 rice cookers, taking up all of the small kitchen counter.
Dishes washed (not including cutlery) in a small town library's staff kitchen: more than 5,000
Families who cooked and brought food: 21
Helpers: over 50

One of our regular French tables.
Rejoice in the God who created and knows all numbers, even to the hairs on the head of every backpacker, from Norway to Argentina. 

500+ of them broke bread with us this year, becoming our companions. Pray that they might also become our companions on the path of life.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

The map on the wall

There was once a little boy who put a map on his wall.

It was a map of Germany, and it represented his heart's desire: to bring good news to the people of Europe.

He grew up and moved to the other side of the world. Nowhere near Germany. Nowhere near Europe. He still has a map on his wall, but it's a world map, and points out to his daughters the places he's been, the places he still wants to go. And every week he packs his van with an 80-piece dinner set, three rice cookers, dozens of chopsticks, and other things that make rattly breaking noises, and he drives to his local library.

There he unpacks it all again. With the help of others, he sets up tables and covers them with white cloths. And then he brings good news to the people of Europe and beyond.

Italy, France, Belgium, Sweden, England, Ireland, Scotland, and yes, Germany. Lots of Germans, asking him, "Who is Jesus? Why do you need God?" Every week. Sometimes so many that there are not enough dishes and chairs for them.

Rewind a minute. Put your finger on that boy's German map. Find a town that has an umlaut in its name, and neatly stacked woodpiles, and lots of other German things. Picture him holding evangelistic dinners every week there, trying to get villagers to come. Would they? I think not.

Praise to the God who prepares good works for us beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 3:10). Praise to the God who satisfies our desires with good things (Psalm 103:5). Praise to the God who brings the people of Europe to the fluorescent-lit backroom of a rural library in far off Tasmania to hear His name praised.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

This is love

Leading up to Valentine's Day, our theme for last Thursday's Pilgrim Dinner was Love. The discussion kicked off with the question: What is love?

"This is!" exclaimed a guest at the end of my table, a tousle-haired Italian woman named, appropriately, Valentina. She gestured to the basket of bread on the table with deep appreciation: "This is."

I wonder if she realised just how accurate her answer was.

We don't put on a dinner for between 40-80 strangers every Thursday night because it's fun. Rather, it is because we love them. We love, because Christ first loved us, when we ourselves were still enemies and strangers to Him. (Romans 5:6-10)

Love is basic to humanity. We are transfixed by it. We need it. Without it, children die, even when their primary physical needs are met.

A universe devoid of a loving, personal God can give us no satisfying answer to this. Because of the relational, infinite, Trinitarian God of the Bible, we can affirm, celebrate, pursue and practise love. 

"Pursue love," Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14. As Christians, we can do this with intellectual integrity, knowing that love is true to reality - real as atoms, real as supernovae, and not a trick played on us by chaos and chemicals.

God made the universe, and God is love. (1 John 4:8, 4:16) "God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8) Christ's body was broken for us like bread, and we remember it by breaking bread together as believers.

On Thursday nights, one group of Christians also remembers it by offering bread, and with it the news of Christ's broken and resurrected body, to strangers. 

Yes, Valentina, this is love.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

A Glimpse of Beauty

La Fleuriste (work in progress) by Margaret Sonnemann

The purpose of Pilgrim Hill is to make disciples for Jesus through hospitality and art. Last week Thursday, our topic for the evening was "Beauty". Rather than giving a talk, Peirce invited three Christian artists to visit us at Pilgrim Dinners and give the guests a glimpse of how artists who follow the Great Artist in life and work think about and depict beauty. 

These three professional artists, Steve & Marion Isham and Margaret Sonnemann, brought oil paintings, thoughtful words and good company to the dinner. Steve spoke about finding beauty in depicting relationships (Steve's poetry blog is here). Marion showed us some pieces she is working on that celebrate the goodness and bravery of stories. 

Margaret brought her painting-in-progress of a girl she spotted selling flowers on a Paris street last year. Margaret has graciously given us permission to share her notes here.

I haven't been painting very long but I soon knew that I wanted to show beauty. I don't I have the skill and experience I need to portray all the beauty I see when I look at people doing every day things. Many very old paintings show Beauty in life, and even death, which gives us hope and shows meaning and that life is worthwhile. I want my paintings to let people see that we have a spiritual nature. We all have those moments where something you see or hear something, beauty, or a feeling like love causes you to realize that there is more to life and that makes it seem worthwhile. This beauty brings joy. We know the presence of another and higher world. It works against the ugliness we sometimes see around us. The Bible says that God's power and nature can be understood through what He has made. If creation is beautiful and even we can create beauty how beautiful is the Creator of everything? We are made to worship, to find joy in beauty, and if we don't worship the Creator then we will worship a creation like nature, ourselves or even beauty itself.

You can more of Margaret's thoughts on her blog.

The conversation-starter afterward was "Why do we care about Beauty?" Some moments that followed:

  • Peirce had a good chat with one of our regulars, a very thoughtful Japanese guy, about the only possible reason for beauty being God.
  • An Englishman, struck by the beauty of fractals, sought out Steve to talk through the possibility God is real. 
  • An American dinner-helper held two Israelis and a Frenchman in rapt attention with her story of the beauty of God’s forgiveness. She broke through their apathy and got them asking questions about connection to a personal God. 
It was undeniably a special evening, and we believe that the guests' hearts were touched by meeting these three Christians and seeing their love for God and His works in their art.