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13 June 2019

Return of the exiles

Chris Webb 2019 Chris Webb Minister
Webb family

Chris Webb is soon to join Above Bar Church as Minister for Discipleship, having recently returned with his family from Thailand where he has been teaching. He wrote a post for his blog reflecting on things he’s noticed about the UK since being back, which we are gratefully republishing here.

Coming back from Thailand engenders mixed emotions. We had a tough last semester at Grace International School with dreadful and dangerous pollution in Chiang Mai, resulting in seven days off school. In addition, during our last week, we had to pack up the whole school in preparation for moving, which is taking place right now.

Grace International School

The realisation that we are not returning is starting to sink in. I will greatly miss my colleagues and friends, and especially the students. I had wonderful opportunities in Chiang Mai not only to teach, but also to mentor and disciple people. On my last Sunday, I conducted a baptismal service for a graduating student from our house church. I loved teaching religious studies and being part of a school community. It was the most fun job I have had to date. I laughed a lot.

I am very excited about the new role I will take up at Above Bar Church. It is a warm and welcoming spiritual home which is vibrantly reaching out to the city in concert with other churches in Southampton. Joe and I had the chance to attend a service last Sunday and we loved it. A main part of my role will be to act as director for Formation School, which seeks to train leaders across the city’s churches. It will be great to be working with, and equipping, Christians from a variety of backgrounds with manifold opportunities to influence the city for Christ.

Having been away, I have started to notice things about our country and the way we operate that I didn’t appreciate before. Here are three observations:

1. There is a pace and driveness, but an ultimate lack of meaning

In Chiang Mai, I have been used to greeting baristas, asking them how they are, and trying to respond in faltering Thai. When I have tried to do that (in English) over the last few days, people have thought I am a bit weird. People walk, cycle, and drive very quickly here, with their heads down, earphones in, and phones out.

Busy street (London) - Pixabay: Ch AFleks

Ostensibly, there is a sense of purpose, yet there also seems to be an emptiness and lack of ultimate meaning blighting our population. I listened to a Jeremy Vine phone-in on social media-fueled teenage depression this week, which was very alarming. Last week, I also received the very sad news that my first cousin, Andrew, had died at the age of 38 after suffering depression for the last year.

2. People are reserved, but hungry for community

Brits are notoriously reserved and this stereotype is generally true. I have found my American colleagues to be refreshingly candid, which has allowed me, in community, to confess to my weaknesses, struggles and sins, bringing them into the light. I need to continue to do that here. The Bible says that is the way we overcome as Christians. Yet Brits find it much harder to do that than Americans. We are more suspicious and less open.

Yet people are hungry for community. The great success of Park Runs over the last five years is testament to a desire to be doing things together. I am excited because the church is the greatest community of all. I have been stung by church, and at one point I thought I was not going to recover. Yet the church brings together the homeless and the wealthy, the refugee and the steadfast citizen, the students and the blue collar workers. We are all united in knowing that without Jesus we are lost. But in Him, the debts we owed have been cancelled. There is free forgiveness and adoption into a new family where we stand washed and cleansed.

3. People are secular and self reliant, but unhappy

In most of the world, there is a sense that one needs to be reliant on a higher power. Thailand is full of temples and people seeking to earn merit and atone for guilt. However misguided people are, there is a great difference between how most of the world express their dependence on gods or God and how we in the west seek to live our lives dependent only on ourselves. But the secular worldview, increasingly adopted by Brits, is leaving us less happy and less able to deal with suffering. As Tim Keller notes:

In the secular worldview, all happiness and meaning must be found in this lifetime and world. To live with any hope, then, secular people must believe that we can eliminate most sources of unhappiness for the majority of people. But that is impossible. The causes of suffering are infinitely complex and impossible to eliminate.

What this country needs is neither religion (which makes you tribal), nor secularism (which causes selfishness as there is no ultimate meaning beyond your own happiness), but the gospel. Hearing of my cousin’s death last week, and my young half-sister’s death last year, I am more and more convinced that I need to live my life communicating this precious good news: Jesus died for me; Jesus gives me power and motivation to die for others. There is hope and there is meaning because there is resurrection. Because of this I can know joy even now while I am mourning leaving Thailand, mourning lives cut short, and mourning the nation’s turning from true living water to broken cisterns that hold no water (Jeremiah 2:13).

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