Friday, 15 July 2016

As I laid the cards down on the floor they felt as precious as finely wrought gold. They were ordinary pieces of card but they seemed so special because of what was written on them.

Each workshop participant, here in the USA, had written on coloured card things that their church was doing well in serving their surrounding community.  One person had written 'collecting baby items for a local pregnant MacDonald's worker'.  It's not a large scale or grand thing to do but it's thoughtful and caring.  I love it.  And I think God smiles when he sees his people doing small, often unseen, acts of kindness.  

I also loved seeing the variety of creative ideas from 'helping with school maintenance' to 'community football on the front lawn' to 'serving deaf refugees'.

And the humility of 'we have organised community events (and we are getting better)'.

Let's keep going people of God!

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Batman and Robin are wading through muddy flood water...  It’s the middle of the night and pitch black.  They are trying to pull up a drain cover.  They are working to release flood water and protect nearby homes.  The difference between Batman and Robin’s usual adventures* and this one is that this one is real.

The story begins with a gate.  When David (‘Batman’) started as the local Church of Ireland Minister he discovered that the main gate to the church was always shut and locked at night.  This was to keep out the local youth and was an understandable precaution.  The area had a bad reputation – it was in the worst 10% for anti-social behaviour in the east of the city of Belfast.  The local kids would hurl stones at the police.  But keeping youth out doesn’t fit with Jesus’ open-handed example.

The gate was kept open.  Many of the local youth wound up joining a vibrant church youth club.  The area now has some of the best behaviour in East Belfast and some of the lowest numbers of burglaries in the whole of the UK.  How did that happen?  Three things stand out to me:

Simple service.  The church’s attitude became ‘what can we do to help?’  This meant, for instance, assisting with sports activities at the local school, handing out bags of salt during a bad winter and lobbying for a new football pitch to replace the existing one that was covered in shattered glass.

'Batman' (right) and 'Robin' (left)
Faith.  John (‘Robin’), the churches’ community worker, says ‘pray for a vision from God and stick to that vision’ and ‘prayer has to be the centre of whatever you do’.  A local house of prayer approach was key.

Working with others.  The church worked with a nearby supermarket to help people with food and cleaning materials after the flood, met the local Water Authority to sort out the underlying flooding problems and helped set up a joint community forum to address local issues.  Here’s a film clip that captures a bit more of the story.

We can stay in our safe areas.  Perhaps literally gated in but perhaps not.  Maybe we tend to stay in the ‘nicer’ parts of our town or our city.  But what would happen if we stepped beyond our safe spaces?  Maybe God would take us on a scary but great adventure. 

*Batman and Robin are the names of American comic superheroes.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

I feel a bit threatened.  Phil’s anchor tattoo, shaved head and muscles trigger my flight or fight instincts.  He certainly doesn’t look to me like a ‘Christian’.  We’re sitting on purple sofas in a building with smooth wooden floors, a thriving cafĂ© and a gym.  It doesn’t look like a church.   Confusing day and an intriguing one.

The story that captures me is how this came about.   In January 2006 five people, who were disillusioned with normal church in Northern Ireland, met in a rented room.  They dreamed together of a different approach to reaching out.  A bit later they were meeting in an old scout hut.  Then that burned down.  Three of the five people left.  I’d probably have given up at that point.   They didn’t.

So now, 10 years later, we are sitting in a vibrant church centre with over 350 church people and a vital ministry to those in debt, food crisis and in need of God.  My friend Diane describes the church as ‘the most diverse I’ve ever seen’ and the wider community talk of the church as ‘the one that loves the community’

Is there something you and I can learn from this?  Here’s three things that stand out to me: relationship, discipleship and prayer.  

Phil tells me 'you can't get your church to love their community until they know their community'.  As the church has served people with CAP debt counselling and a food bank they've got to know and care about each individual. (And as I get to know Phil I decide he is not so scary after all!).

Discipleship is also hugely important.  'We can only serve our community like this through helping our people to become passionately committed followers of Christ'.  But discipleship for them is not mainly about courses. It's mostly about people learning to follow Jesus as they serve alongside more mature Christians.  It's what Jesus did with His disciples.  

And last but not least 'we pray all the time'.  And I love the way they talk about prayer. 'Prayer is just talking with God about what He and I are doing today'.


Monday, 6 June 2016

What's the most humbling gift you've ever received?  I feel acutely embarrassed as Pastor Rahul* hands me his family's 'bank'.  It's a small metal box full of coins, most of which are worth 5p.  Pastor Rahul and his family have just given me 445 rupees (£4.60 or $7).  It's taken them weeks, possibly months, to save this amount and they've just given it away to me.

I feel humbled because I've seen the scale of their home: one shared bedroom and a small kitchen and toilet.  I feel humbled by the open-handed generosity of this family who live in poverty.

And I feel inspired.  I think this small box represents the possibility of thousands of communities across India being transformed.  


Yes.  Often I think development organisations believe the answer to poverty is money from outside, from for instance the Global North ('economically richer countries').  I think the main key is actually money from the Global South ('economically poorer countries').  After all, 10 Christians giving 10% of their income (in cash or kind) can support one full time worker.  Wherever we live.  And yet as I travel in both the Global North and the Global South I realize how rarely Christians anywhere give this Biblical amount.  So I think the challenge is to all of us to give at least this much.  

Let's 'be rich in good deeds, generous and willing to share' (1 Tim 6v18). Perhaps the humbling generosity of Pastor Rahul's family will lead the way...

*Name changed for privacy

Friday, 15 April 2016

Have you ever eaten a rat?  Ormilla* doesn’t look like a ‘rat eater’.  She’s a beautiful young lady with a shy smile and is dressed in a sunshine yellow shalwa kamise.  She stands out a mile from the children who mill around her.  Yet Ormilla and her community are known as ‘rat eaters’ and it's not meant as a compliment.

Ormilla is unfortunate enough to belong to the very lowest of India's 900 sub-castes of 'untouchable' people. As a 'mahadalit' (meaning 'most crushed') Ormilla's traditional place in life is to do the dirtiest jobs, to be banned from drinking water from wells used by higher castes and to be forced to eat separately at school. That's if she ever got to school(1).  Yet Ormilla is a remarkable lady and what has happened in her community challenges this story.

Ormilla used to have 'no food so I would drink water to fill my stomach, but I wanted to study.  I heard there was a church nearby and that if I went they would guide me'.  The church did help, using their own small resources to provide 900 Rupees ($12) for the entrance costs for school and supporting Ormilla for extra tuition. 'Now I am in Standard 11 studying science, the only person in the entire history of my village to get this far'.  

As Ormilla has been blessed so she longs to pass on that blessing to the children around her.  'I want every child to be able to study like me' so she is currently looking to begin a non-formal school in her community.

Later on I am playing a game with a lively group of kids in a nearby mahadalit community.  It's a fun game called Samson, Delilah and the lion and the kids are particularly enjoying roaring like lions at each other.  Each precious kid here is part of a non-formal school started by the church and community.  They demonstrate to me their perfect knowledge of the English alphabet and, rather shyly, their beautiful singing.  Life for them is beginning to look more hopeful.

There are many other signs of hope in this community.  I walk past new brick houses being built, in all 19 have sprung up in the last year.  Encouraged by the dynamic local pastor the community have lobbied the previously disinterested local government.  As a result 62 of the 75 families here have now gained access to the government benefits they are due.  We drove to the village over 500m of new government funded road.  The community have planted trees to help look after the land.  Realizing the problems resulting from their previous involvement in brewing strong alcohol, the community has completely stopped. 

This has all resulted from 'Parivartan' (church and community transformation), an approach which releases the potential of people to change their own situation with no funding from outside. 

I think it's time to stop calling Ormilla and her people 'rat eaters'.  I think it's time to remember how precious they are and so call them 'loved by God'.

* Name changed for privacy.
(1) Only 1 in 50 Mahadalit women can read and write (Telegraph Online News 20 May 2014).

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Is this the most radical church I’ve ever seen?  I talked with Aesha* yesterday after the end of her meeting with women involved in sex work.  We sat in a simple room which has two rush mats on the floor and little on the walls.  The hot air was being slowly moved around by a ceiling fan.  And I wondered is this group of women a church?

It’s a bit of a radical thought and might be shocking to some of you.  I feel nervous about sharing my half-formed thoughts but then I think that can be what blogs are for. 
The most obvious argument against this being a church is that most of the participants are still involved in sex work.  Surely they would need to have made a commitment to God and changed their lifestyles before they could be a church?

Or maybe not.  Perhaps the important thing is to welcome them as they are and encourage them on a journey towards God.  In Luke 15 we see that the father sees his wayward son in the distance and ‘filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him’.  

Jesus does not condemn the woman caught in adultery but says ‘go now and leave your life of sin’ John 8v11.  There seem to be twin themes here of compassion and a call to holiness.  This reminds me of the excellent book No Perfect People Allowed (Link) which talks about ‘come as you are but don’t stay that way’.

Aesha (2nd right) and her team
I prayed for Kavita* and the child she bears.  When I finished she had tears in her eyes.  Many of these women are hungry for God and the good news is truly good news to them.  Changing their way of surviving is not however easy. ‘Their confidence is completely broken’, they struggle to trust others as they have been so abused and they struggle to trust themselves. 

Is there any other church for them?  Would they have the confidence to go if there was?  Would they be welcomed if they turned up? Or judged?  Which of us ‘is without sin’ John 8v7 and yet we still go to church.

So I think, on balance, this small gathering is church for them. Aesha and her team are leading this very unusual church.  Their part is to encourage, love and sometimes challenge these precious women, who are made in the image of God.

*All names changed for privacy.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

What am I doing in a red light district with a biscuit on my forehead?  The short answer is that I am trying to move that biscuit over my eyes, down my right cheek and into my mouth, all without using my hands.  It’s a good challenge and great fun.  And, despite having played the game before recently, the biscuit slips and falls to the floor.  This is much to the amusement of the women and children in the room.

Later on I am asking myself a different question.  I am listening to Kavita*, a lady wrapped in a colourful sari but who speaks little and rarely looks me in the face.  How did a girl from Bangladesh wind up here in Mumbai, making a living from sex work?  It wasn’t her intention, this wasn’t how her life was meant to work out.  But the aunts she trusted sold her and people she didn’t know trafficked her.  So now she’s here in a seedy slum with just one way to survive.

Or is there another way? Aesha thinks so.  Aesha has a one year old daughter but when her pastor told her about a role helping bring freedom to sex workers she took a deep breath, prayed and applied.  She’s gifted.  I watch as she skilfully leads this group of ten sex workers and their children in the biscuit game to relax them, then in singing, a health message and prayers.   She believes in these women, that they can have a different life, that they can have a hope and a future (Jeremiah 29v11).   The initiative also provides help to support children through schooling and Aesha and her colleagues work hard to build the women’s confidence and skills so that they can find alternative work.

It’s not an easy journey for Aesha.  Some people in her church misunderstand her and the work can, at times, be deeply disappointing.  One colleague came into work recently in tears having heard that one sex worker, who had been making great progress, had slipped back again.  ‘Sometimes we slowly build relationship and gently begin to challenge these women about change but get rejected’.  But Aesha has a vision that keeps her going.  It’s the inspiring vision of her organisation, Sahaara, a vision of ‘gifting dreams’ to those who’ve forgotten how to dream.     

*All names changed for privacy.
I saw a man smeared on the top of a giant water pipe.  His dark skin and ragged clothes were the same black as the pipe so he blended in, like a camouflaged moth.  I think he was sleeping.  What does he look like?   I don't know.  What is his name?  I don't know.  What are his hopes and fears? The same answer.

I don't know the answers because I was driving past in a taxi.  I was heading into Mumbai city in India.  But I guess this is the story of this man's life.  He lives a life largely unseen and unknown.  Do you have people who live at the edge of your community and the edge of your vision?  I do.    

But what happens when we do see, when we do stop?  One day Viju passed such a homeless man in the street.  When he got to his destination he found out that three of his friends had passed the same man, all without stopping.  That might have been the end of the story but that day was different.  That day God challenged Viju that it was time for him and fellow Christians to do something to help.  So Viju got stuck in to working with the poor and started a journey which resulted, in 1973, with setting up the Association for Christian Thoughtfulness (ACT).

Yesterday I joined this journey.  I spent the day in some of the slums of Mumbai hearing story after story of how God's people are bringing hope to 'invisible' people.  As I sipped coke from a flimsy plastic cup Pastor Rahul* and his wife Aruna shared how their small church has come alongside Vasu. 

Vasu is a boy of 12 who is very mentally and physically challenged and his mother had been struggling to cope with all the emotional and financial pressure.  Noone had been caring about them until the church started to.  Church people are now using the little they have to help with food, medicene and the costs of hospital visits and, most importantly, are standing alongside as friends.  

Many people in India (as elsewhere) are dazzled by a materialistic dream. They dream of being the handsome people with sharp clothing and perfect lives on the giant billboards.  People with mental health conditions don't fit this image and are often rejected.    Yet to Jesus they are precious.  They will only know this if God's people practically live out Jesus' love for them.

So this leaves me wondering.  Who are the invisible people in my life that I need to really see?  And who are they for you?  

*All names changed for privacy.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

As Vladia tells me about Jean Carlos you can see the warmth of the memories on her face.  Vladia used to play with Jean Carlos when she was a child in her grandmother's garden in Brazil.    You and I will probably never meet Jean Carlos and yet I think we have an opportunity to learn from this enterprising young man.  

Vladia remembers Jean Carlos (film clip)
Jean Carlos as a boy

Jean Carlos is an inspiring example of someone who was making the most of the planet's resources.  His story is a small example of the Restorative Economy (link). Tearfund is working with others to encourage us to move towards this much more sustainable and fair way of running the global economy.

In this approach economies would move from being 'linear' that is extracting, making and wasting resources through to being 'circular', ie making the most of the natural biological cycles and constantly reusing non-biological resources.

Two others things strike me.  Firstly the way in which God often chooses 'men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses' (1 Corin 1v27) such as Jean Carlos and other 'litter-pickers' to gently challenge the rest of us. 

Secondly that the key ingredients for large scale change are a great idea (eg Restorative Economy (link)), great people (connected in a movement) and, most importantly, our great God 'who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine' (Ephesians 3v20).

So maybe it's time for you and me to learn from Jean Carlos.  We'll need to work towards and pray that the whole economy of the planet changes.  It's a big dream but our God is able...

PS And so what is Jean Carlos doing now?  Vladia recently got back in touch.  His enterprising skills are still bringing blessing to those around him. 

He has worked as an ambulance driver and recently used a public address system attached to his car to attract people to benefit from Operation Smile. This meant that more local people who were suffering from cleft palettes, have received an operation and can now smile with joy. 

Friday, 11 March 2016

At 3am last night the sound of snarling woke me up.  These angry sounds were coming from our garden. Something was not right. My wife shone a torch around and the beam lit up the eyes of a fox.  Foxes are one of England's largest predators.  They are no threat to people but to our small cat 'Tigra', they are potentially lethal.

There was Tigra, just 5m from the fox, all her fur raised in alarm.  She was standing her ground but hissing and snarling with fear.  Tigra and the fox can't use words to sort out their clash.  As people we can use words and yet I think sometimes we are just like Tigra and the fox.  Sometimes we snarl in fear rather than talking to understand 'the other' and resolve our conflict.

Before I went back to sleep I read some of 'India's Unending Journey, finding balance in a time of change'.  This is a thought-provoking book by journalist Mark Tully.  I happened to read this passage, where Mark quotes Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and it resonated somewhat with what I'd seen in our garden.

'Bad things happen when the pace of change exceeds our ability to change, when events move faster than our understanding.  It is then that we feel the loss of control over our lives.  Anxiety creates fear, fear leads to anger, anger breeds violence, and violence ... becomes a deadly reality.  The single greatest antidote to violence is conversation, speaking our fears, listening to the fears of others, and in that sharing of vulnerabilities discovering the genesis of hope' 'The dignity of difference' by Jonathan Sacks.

When we do choose to have the courage and humility to talk with people who are 'other' we often find we have more in common than we thought.  This is what my friend Chloe discovered in Burma/ Myanmar where Christians and Buddhists had been brought together through church and community transformation:

Film Clip 'Together we are strong'

The chief monk's words 'Division is weakness but together we are strong' strike a chord in my heart too.  Who do I need to reach out to who is different to me, perhaps from a group that I am naturally afraid of? Who do you need to reach out to?  Maybe you may have more in common than you think.

PS If you are worried about our cat, here's a photo of her this morning.  She's unharmed, just resting after an eventful night!


Tuesday, 26 January 2016

'My foot hurt every morning when I got up and throbbed when I tried to run'. This pain had gone on for 3 months.  But when we met a fortnight ago two of my friends prayed for this lady's leg.  'My leg tingled a bit and I felt it relaxing. Now it's better and I have even been able to start running again'.  

This happened in our ordinary home on an ordinary evening.  God's goodness broke into our lives again.  'I have come that you may have life and life in all its fullness' said Jesus (John 10v10).

We've been speaking blessings in Jesus' name for 9 months now for people and the community that we care about.  At times it's been hard and I've wondered whether we should carry on.  But when we look back we see so many signs of God's goodness breaking into our village.  A couple were released from substantial debt, a worthwhile business is now flourishing, there's a stronger sense of God with us and a greater openness in the community.

Our home is a 'local house of prayer' and part of a wider prayer movement helping bring transformation around the world.  As we seek to release people from poverty let's encourage the vital prayer that increases God's transforming power in people's lives.  Local houses of prayer are springing up all across the world.  Perhaps you could encourage them in the places where you work or live.  That all may know life in all its fullness...