Monday, 11 April 2016

Awesome God

Awesome ... it’s a word, rather like ‘wonderful’ or ‘dreadful’, that was originally brimming with meaning and now filtered out by modern usage. No doubt you’ve heard expressions like, ‘That film was awesome!’ 

Originally, it would describe, ‘an otherness’, something outside the familiar, eliciting a mixture of fear, wonderment and a sense that we are out of our depth in terms of our human experience; we are entering or have entered the unknown and we can only respond ‘in awe’.  

I’ve recently read the story of a most unexpected visitation in the book of Judges: an angel of the Lord visits an ordinary, nameless and childless woman and tells her she will have a son. What next? Her husband, Manoah, and she offer a goat in the angel’s presence and the angel ascends in the flame of the altar and disappears. How awesome is that? Manoah and his wife fall on their faces to the ground. Wouldn’t you? They were encountering something truly awesome, something ‘wonder-ful’. When disciples of Jesus, Peter, James and John, saw Jesus, Moses and Elijah, clothed in splendour from another world on a ‘high mountain’ they were overwhelmed - awe-struck. The Bible is full of stories of people encountering awe-inspiring happenings.

But let’s bring it down the earth - with me, actually. I’ve never seen an angel, a burning bush, entered a cloud dense with the divine presence or heard an audible voice from Heaven for that matter. Yet, countless people like me have had one of those moments, let’s say extra-ordinary, God-charged moments, when He appears to have stepped into the ordinary -  unexpectedly, perhaps momentarily, and life has changed. 

I first had a moment like this when I was around twelve or thirteen; it was just before ‘reporting time’ for bed in the boarding school I attended; I was sitting alone, by the window in an upstairs classroom, reading the New English Bible which had been recently published and had been given to me as a Christmas present. Starting at the beginning, I had only reached Matthew 5 when I began reading:  “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

It is hard to describe this moment: it was charged, it was the weightiest moment of my life; it probably lasted only a second or two but the memory of it has remained impressed on my mind ever since. In a moment, I decided, I knew, that this was the way I would live, to love and not to hate, to follow this teaching. There was no sinner’s prayer or moment of conviction of sin but yet a radical turnaround, a moment of repentance, a decision to follow the Great One; it was a divine moment.

Was it awesome? Well, not scary as some awesome moments are. Yet, it was electric, impregnated and completely unforgettable.

I have known similar moments since: they have come unexpectedly and often in a time of great need. Some would use the jargon, ‘God showed up’. God doesn’t show up; He is present all the time. But, He does choose His moments ... and perhaps part of His awesomeness is that He is God of the unexpected. Often, again ‘the interruption’ has been but for a moment but how weighty the content and, after, I have seen my life situation quite, quite differently. 

Truly there are God-encounters described in the Bible that are truly awesome, to use modern jargon, ‘enough to blow your mind away’: Moses encountered the divine presence in the burning bush and on Sinai, Ezekiel saw the moving throne of God, Daniel had awe-inspiring encounters of angels and Christ Himself, Mary had a conversation with the angel Gabriel. My experience at school was nothing too awesome perhaps, but enough for me! God had broken into my little world and that has made a massive difference ever since.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Calais Refugee Camp - Enjoying Eritrean Hospitality

“If you come to the UK and to Coventry, come and see us! You’ll find us at the Jesus Centre!” We’re in the Calais refugee camp this week, dropping off some socks and blankets from the Centre - and making some new friends. As a teacher of English, many of my students were former residents here. They all know about Calais ...
Outside, long stretches of high fences and curvy barbed wire line the highways and flashing blue-lighted police vans are parked in nearby laybys. Inside, we step into a different world – one of undulating dunes and puddled, muddy tracks, a sea of make-shift shacks and tents and quickly erected shops – Europe’s most notorious township. A cool off-shore breeze ruffles the remaining strands of straggling grass.

We’re  met by warm ‘hellos’, and smiling friendly faces; people stop to talk and immediately we’re offered a meal, barbequed on an open fire. Graciously we decline; we’re heading first toward the Eritrean church. Yes, the wooden cross stands tall and stark against the greying winter sky that canopies this ramshackle city ...

Yes, here’s the church in a little compound of its own, beautifully clean in contrast to the heaps of rubbish strewn around, often discarded by those now moved on.

We enter the tent-shaped building and quietly join the circle of fervent prayers, so intent they hardly seem mindful of us. ‘Let’s pray for the government,’ says one. ‘Which government?’ I think? Ours? The Eritrean? The French? Perhaps all, it’s certainly needed. The tide of prayer is amazing, ebbing and flowing, rising crescendos, falling diminuendos. We leave some mince pies and home-made flapjack – the pray-ers are still lost in prayer and hardly notice as we creep out ..

We walk down the main street – at times impassable because of late rains and walk up the steep incline of the bank to avoid the puddles. Everywhere, there are tents or little shacks, some painted, others covered in graffiti. Shops have sprung up selling food, one even advertising hot showers. We pass l’├ęcole, I put an ear to the door; something is going on, I’d best not go in. I see a sign for free English classes (now that’s my field) but it is closed today (it’s Saturday). Shame ... I would love to have gone in.

Everywhere people are smiling at us and saying ‘hallo’. I keep forgetting I’m not En Angleterre but I still hear more English than French. There are Africans ... Afghans ... Syrians ... and nearly all men, some riding by on bicycles. 

 I say ‘hallo’ to a couple of young Africans and quickly we are invited back to one of their shacks. Let’s take our shoes off, stoop through the door, this is someone’s home. The floor is swept clean, blue sleeping bags, a huge Barcelona football flag and children’s clothes line the walls. A large candle is lit and two mattresses lie on the floor. The hospitality here is awesome! We are offered a quilt to line our back and an orange blanket to cover our legs. It’s certainly cosy. The gas primus is lit and an old can is placed full of water to boil; at intervals a spoon of coffee is put in and stirred... this is coffee Eritrean style.

Twenty minutes later a pan of hot food is passed through the door. There are no plates but we are given bread and together dip it in the one pan and share the meal of vegetables. It’s delicious; this is African hospitality and it is wonderful!

Our host tells us of his adventures: the harsh government; escaping army conscription; his walk across the Sahara and  arrest by bandits wanting money; being given a handful of food, passed down into an underground hide-away and that only  every other day; his eventual release and later being shot at by Daesh (IS) when sadly some of the party were killed; the flight across the Mediterranean; up through Europe to the camp and now the repeated attempts at reaching the UK – night visits to the train station, the entrance to the tunnel, the port – with always the fear of arrest; a violent attack in Calais by someone with a strong dislike for ‘unwelcome refugees’ and, deep in the heart of this ‘Jungle’ there is theft – the poor steal from the poor. We pray for our new-found friend, who, despite all, still manages a brave and cheery smile and warm goodbye. We wish him well and tell him we hope to see him again!

A young man passes me and offers me a chocolate. I can’t get over the generosity; there is no begging, asking for anything in return, everyone smiles and calls me ‘mama’ (must be the grey hair and grandmother look.)

Back to the church ... o no! Flames are licking the outsides of the nearby mosque. The  pastor rushes over with an extinguisher and people are running. It’s out! The mosque is saved. Fire is a real hazard round here - naked flames in tiny spaces.

Yes, we glimpsed a darker side of Calais too; one of my students tells me of a near knife-attack – there are religious and racial differences and sometimes the little one has is stolen. As everywhere on this troubled planet, the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, exist side by side.

We take a final walk through this little township. The smiles, the generosity and hands held out for friendship are something I will never forget.

Back now, through the tunnel and time to stop at the M25 services; slick shops selling expensive computer accessories and luxury gadgets. What a contrast! Not a single smile greets me here; not a gesture of hospitality; no chocolates held out in an act of generosity; I could be here hours and no one would even say hello, let alone invite me to share a coffee with them. Each to its own; I have seen real poverty today but who really is poor?

And now I’m back at the Jesus Centre; it’s Monday morning. I greet my students again – many of them have come through ‘Calais’. I know a little more about what they have endured and the pain that often lies behind their cheerful smiles and warm handshakes. Sometimes I notice a distant look in their eyes, today they seem withdrawn. I understand, now, yes, just a little better ...

My hope – that I, that we can display a little of that overflowing generosity that I experienced – the Jesus Centre, our church, my city, my country. Jesus said, “When you give a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your rich neighbours—for they will invite you back, and in this way you will be paid for what you did. 13 When you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind; 14 and you will be blessed, because they are not able to pay you back. God will repay you on the day the good people rise from death.” Luke 14: 12-14

Friday, 25 December 2015

Go! Go! Go! Come! Come! Come!

Echoing Jesus’ call

“Have you friends?”

“No, no friends in England.” 

It’s Sunday morning, a new visitor has arrived at the drop-in (we call it the Bridge because we want it to be a bridge from loneliness to friendship, hopelessness to hope, faith and a future). The visitor pulls his phone from his pocket and shows me some grainy, grey footage he has taken of himself, lying uncomfortably in the darkness in the back of a lorry, in transit from the Middle East.

He looks around at the rough faces of many of our Bridge visitors: hard times, hard lives, sometimes years of alcohol abuse, are etched on the contours of their worn faces. Others are just passing through, seeking work and finding the UK is not the land of opportunity they had hoped for or perhaps have failed asylum claims. In broken English my friend explains, “My country ... nothing like this  ... it's go, go, go.”

Language is limited. Our shared words are few. I attempt to explain: “With Jesus it’s ‘come, come, come'. That’s what makes the difference.”

I think he understood.

My friendless friend may well get moved on to another city. “Find the Christians,” I said! “Find a church where they say, ‘come, come, come!’”  

Saying ‘come, come, come’ is echoing the Master, after all: “Come to Me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” We know, too, Jesus has many friends. My friendless friend, we can be yours too!

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Refugees' Prayer - Exciting Times

There’s excitement in the air! We have international Bible study every Tuesday at the Jesus Centre and last week two members are soon to be baptised.  One had had a night-time dream; the other came to faith two weeks ago after he sensed an image of a man with a heavy load being unburdened as he found Jesus.  Yes, it's exciting to see first-hand the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit! We live in Acts 29,30, 31 ... the Acts of the Holy Spirit.

Coordinating a Bible study with several different languages present is not always easy! People often pray in their own languages and we all say ‘Amen ‘ at the end. But, you know, there is a great sense of unity and most people linger at the end for a chat. I feel we are on a journey together, learning and growing as one band. 

A little while ago I asked the five guys present to write a prayer. They’re all refugees and when they finished I combined their prayers into one! The above is what it looks like! One of them read it out before our gathered church at Sheffield ... Yes, we live in exciting times!

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Do You Mind If I Tell You My Story?

It’s Tuesday, its International Bible study at the Jesus Centre ..

 A refugee comes in, unknown to me, and sits attentively and quietly, taking in everything. At the end of the session, she says, “Do you mind if I tell you my story?” 

“Of course not, let’s wait for everyone to go ...” and Betty, my assistant, and I sit down to listen. 

Shyly and a little haltingly but with good English, she begins:“A little while ago I had a dream. A Man stood before me, dressed in white: He spoke to me: “My daughter, why don’t you come to My church?”

 At the invitation of the Man in white, our new friend had gone to a church in the town and someone  directed her to our International Bible Group.  

Some call it the refugee 'crisis'. I call it 'opportunity'. If Jesus is issuing invitations to refugees to join His church, I only hope we are one with Him in that invitation!  Let’s be friendly, let’s be family ... 

 Church, let’s open wide the doors of our hearts! Jesus is issuing His invitation and we must be ready!

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Listening is Magic: Migrants at Coventry Jesus Centre

Another new ESOL student ... so many young men from overseas have arrived in our city over the summer months ... and he lingers after the class has finished. It’s time to pack up but he wants to stay ... and, sensing this, I sit down and listen.

Listen  ... listening is magic.

He tells me his story ... a close family member finds he is guilty of illicit activity and informs the police; his life is in danger, he flees to a neighbouring country; there he goes ‘underground’ and finds illegal work; he daren’t appear in public because ... what if he is found and deported home? Long hours labour, a pittance for pay, sleeping under the work benches of the factory at night; eventually he moves on, working his way across Europe until he reaches the UK.

He’s so relieved to tell someone ... listening is magic. Now he wants to volunteer at our centre: he wants to help others; he knows what it’s like to be homeless, stateless, hungry, afraid ...

I’m glad the tide has turned. One photo, a drowned little Syrian boy, has done more to awaken the world than a thousand headlines and set of statistics to the tragedy of our European maritime graveyard – the Mediterranean: thousands drowning on our doorstep. One picture has taken the tragedy to a new level – a human one.

Doors are opening; many arms are opening wide – at last.

Migrants at Calais, dark faces, usually blurring into the darkness of the night, voiceless, nameless young men jumping or creeping through fences, trying to make their way through the tunnel surrounded by tight security - caught briefly on camera. But the drama reaches a new level, an altogether human level, when they come – into the classroom: Sudanese, Ethiopians, Eritreans. They’re so bright, so full of life, half at least are professionals or university students; the smile on so many of their faces doesn’t give away the hideous things some of them have seen, experienced, and yes, they love England, they say.

From the Middle East they continue to come too, often in the back of lorries. Three barely escaped crushing or freezing to death, they
tell me. What of the ones who never make it? And what of the student who rolled up his sleeve to show me knife scars - the result of a frenzied attack in his country because he is a Christian. Albania, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Pakistan ... they are coming

Family is what they need, to feel they are useful too, despite the bar on work and people to listen – listening is magic. Why? Someone is heard, understood, unburdened, at least for a while – and me? My heart is melted, widened – and yet again I am refocused – on the things in life that really matter – people

Friday, 3 July 2015

Two Knocks on the Door: Coventry Jesus Centre

Its 11:55am, Tuesday, and I’m just getting ready for the international Bible study at the Jesus Centre when there’s a knock at the door of the training room and I see a  youngish couple standing outside; ah yes, I recognise the lady, she is an English student here and known to me. I have never met her husband.

“We want to find out more about Jesus!” the husband tells me as he explains the reason for their visit. “Well, come in!” I say, “You are most welcome!” The husband’s English is good and he ends up interpreting for me! 

I have often seen this couple since and now the husband tells me he wants to get baptised. 

A man of African descent knocks on the door and enters the training room; he tells me he wants to improve his English.

We talk about his English needs and he explains how he was once a visitor at our drop-in when life was very tough for him. That was several years ago. He left us and got a home, a job and most important, found faith in Jesus. Yes, he tells me, he has known his ups and downs as a Christian and has known a period of serious backsliding. Now he’s doing OK. He loves the Jesus Centre and what we do; it’s like home to him; we pointed him in the right direction and now he is a Christian. He works at present but, if the busyness of his working schedule allows, he would love to volunteer at the centre, a sort of repayment for what he received here from God.

“Let’s pray together,” I say, “let’s pray God so arranges your life that one day it is possible to volunteer here.” The man gets on his knees. I pray. He cries. He gets up from his knees. I find some tissue. The man is clearly deeply moved; what’s touched him, too, is that his mum had the same name as mine, ‘Julia’.

These encounters are touching, humbling and lead again and again to another, ‘Thank you, Jesus!’  The beauteous work of the Holy Spirit is going on here, there, across the world, often hidden, unseen. 

Indeed, His is a humble work for, it would appear, the Holy Spirit loves to work unseen, unnoticed, intending always, only, in bringing  glory to Jesus. 

I firmly believe that many of the things that happen at the Jesus Centre are unrecorded, unknown even to us. Our part is to live available and willing for the extra stretch; God does the rest.