Thursday 6 December 2018


When I think back, I can now remember that I never thought I would see old age.  I can’t put my finger on why but I didn’t.

Perhaps I was influenced by the immortal line in the film Blade Runner where the creator of the rogue replicants says to him “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and you have burned so very very brightly.”

I was aware that I had been blessed with so many wonderful experiences of God, beyond anything I could justify. I have heard God speaking to me in many and various ways from my childhood. I experienced things on a regular basis which many Christians longed for just once.  God had been so good to me and his light had indeed burned so very very brightly.

This gave me a kind of fearlessness which embraced racing around the streets of London on two wheels, or sharing bunk beds with a recent triad ex–addict without question.

When I really needed God to speak to me, I knew where I could go and how to wait to hear from God.  I didn’t always get a direct answer to my questions, but I always received the next piece of the puzzle.

I had been so blessed and God’s light had burned so bright for me, perhaps I could only ever expect to live half as long.

That is not so unusual amongst the young, of course.  Being old seems such a very long way away, and so incomprehensible when you are in your teens and your twenties.

As I grew older however, other people came into my life – wife, son, daughter. Priorities change.  Plans change.  Whereas once I could be ready to pack bags at a moment's notice for a new experience in life, there were now other people to think about.  Other considerations.  Growing old starts to become more attractive as the time of life when I could relax with my wife after our children had flown the nest.

Mel and I had planned to retire to Oban on the west coast of Scotland.  I would buy a second hand Rib and explore the channels and islands.  We would hold hands and watch the sun setting over the sea.

I forgot about my younger premonitions.

Now of course, we know that will never be. After another few weeks of struggling, I was admitted to hospital last week for more scans.  They showed that my cancer has now spread to my liver and lungs. That’s a full house for the major organs which are monitored for Prostate Cancer.  It is travelling at will around my body.  I have reached the limit of treatment for radiotherapy.  There is no chemotherapy available.  My cancer is resistant to the standard chemo and I am not well enough to even contemplate the only stronger alternative.

The  consensus is that I have entered my last few months of life on this earth.

And so to timing.

Recently, I shared my ambivalent thoughts on retiring (Broken Vessels) and it just so happened that on the day of my official retirement last Friday, I was transferred from hospital to our local hospice in Dorchester.  The timing was poignant to say the least.

I should only be here for a few days this time to get my meds on an even keel and control my pain to give me some quality of life for the time I have left.

Which brings me to one positive thought tonight and the opportunity to express it.  As I face this shortening fuse, at least I get the opportunity to prepare for my death – a luxury which many do not enjoy - and I want use it to ensure that, wherever possible, I am at peace with others.

So to anyone I have hurt over the years, I humbly ask your forgiveness. And to anyone who knows they have hurt me, may I assure you of mine.

In the last few moments of Blade Runner it is the android, the replicant who is about to die, that displays the greatest humanity.  Built to destroy, he chooses to save a life as his last act before the curtains come down on his own – and he saves the life of the person  who has been sent to kill him.

There is nothing so dramatic in my life, but I have often found myself in conflict with others during my ministry and conflict almost inevitably leads to one or both parties being hurt.

Neither is this a death-bed confession (I've got a few months to go yet and nothing to warrent such hype!) but setting things straight is given a high priority in the Gospels.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says,

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
(Matthew 5:23;24)

In the Lord's Prayer, our own forgiveness is inextricably linked with our willingness to forgive others.

"Forgive us our sins
as we have forgiven those who sin against us."

Forgiveness shared and exchanged is the only way in God’s kingdom and I both offer and seek this as part of my preparation for what lies ahead.

Beyond that, I would ask for your continuing prayers for my wife Mel, son Isaac and  daughter Iona. They are uppermost in my thoughts and prayers at this time and I would be grateful if you could spare a moment for them from time to time.

For myself, I have found encouragement in the words of Psalm 16 recently:

I keep my eyes always on the LORD.
With him at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest secure,
because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
nor will you let your faithful one see decay.
You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

Sunday 25 November 2018

Breaking the Law

I have struggled to decide whether to include this in ‘Crossing the Line’. 

On the one hand I promised not to speak about it.  

On the other, government policy in China today has not changed and if anything, it has become even more aggressive towards people of faith. Many things have changed beyond all recognition over the last 30 years but the continuing arrest and imprisonment of Christians and the latest “Re-education Camps” for Muslims, show that intolerance for religious freedom remains as strong as ever in the Peoples Republic.  

Indeed, religious persecution is alive and well across the world.  It is often systematic, well-established and long term.  Each small story shared builds the picture so in the end I have decided to include it here.  I hope it will be a reminder of the lengths to which regimes will go to suppress religious freedom and the risks which people of faith live with day by day...

Crossing the Line - part 28

While I was working with drug addicts in Hong Kong, I also came across a different Christian group who were on a mission.  Their mission was just as committed, just as dynamic and required just as much courage.  They supported Christians in mainland China who were being continually persecuted for their faith, risking arrest and practising their faith in secret because of the Communist government’s policy.

For Chinese Christians in the latter half of the 20th Century, life was difficult.  From the beginning of the Cultural Revolution until 1976, all religious expression was banned in China, but churches continued to meet in secret and if anything grew in number.  In the early 1980’s a different tactic emerged, with Christians being invited to register and join the newly resurrected (and state-controlled) Three-Self Patriotic Movement.  Although this might have appeared to be a welcome relaxation, it was a way to monitor and control those who registered, while anyone who did not would still be liable to arrest and imprisonment if caught practising their faith.  This could be for attending unauthorised meetings or having Christian possessions.  Bibles were classified as pornography in China and being found with one was a serious offence.

While some Christians registered, most did not and the greatest desire among underground Christians in China was for Chinese Bibles.  The group I came across smuggled Bibles into China and I volunteered for a trip into the Peoples Republic.

All of this sounds very brave and exciting, but for a westerner, it wasn’t really brave at all.  Such was the desire to keep the persecution of Christians an internal and hidden issue, foreign nationals caught with Bibles were merely given a telling off and then allowed to continue their trip without the Bibles they brought.  The authorities would even give receipts to foreign nationals for any Bibles confiscated which could then be used to reclaim the Bibles when they left the country.  The people who took the real risks were the Chinese nationals who received the Bibles.  For them, the future could be very bleak if caught.

This in turn created an opportunity however.  Foreign nationals could be useful in smuggling Bibles across the border from Hong Kong into China, reducing the risk for Chinese Christians at the border.  I volunteered, booked a few days off, and waited for instructions.

The day came and I was paired up with another English man (let’s call him Andy) who had also volunteered.  We were given 2 back-packs full of Bibles, along with travel documents, tickets and verbal instructions for where and when to hand over our precious cargo.  We found ourselves on the express train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou with our heavy backpacks and hearts beating a little faster than usual.

It was only a short journey – just over 100 miles – but looking out of the train window as we crossed the border into China revealed a very different world.  It felt like travelling back in time as famers came into view, ploughing with water buffalo or working their way across the paddy fields in long human chains.  Rural life in China was just the same as it had been for centuries and I wondered what these rural people made of our sleek, modern express train cutting its way through their landscape.

Andy and I both knew that crossing the border was the easy part.  There were no formalities on the train.  All the document checks would take place at the station in Guangzhou, along with the x-ray scanners for all baggage.  Everyone would disembark and be processed before being welcomed as foreign guests into China.  Foreigners were very welcome in southern China because of the foreign currency we brought.  At that time, visitors could only exchange their dollars or pounds for Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC) rather than regular currency to ensure that the government received it all.  What is more, FECs could only be spent at authorised shops and restaurants which were owned and controlled by the state, so it was a win-win for the Communist party.

We had our FECs along with our visas but getting through the station in Guangzhou would be the challenge.  To ensure no undesirable foreign material came into the country, every bag was scanned, and then opened if anything suspicious was seen. 

There were only two tactics which could enable Bible smugglers like us to get through. 

The first was to pray, and we had been told how many times this had worked with scanner operators distracted just for a moment when bags went through or technical problems blacking out the screen at the crucial moment.

Secondly, if you were one of first passengers to reach the border controls, there was a chance that the bag scanners were not yet being monitored, as the security staff only started getting themselves ready once the train arrived.  The quick passenger might just get to the scanners before they were fully functional or before the operative had focused on the job in hand. This wasn’t easy however, because the sight of someone with a heavy backpack running from the train through the crowds would look more than a little suspicious.  Drawing attention to oneself was not the way to get through!

So inwardly we prayed and practically we took our places at the train doors as we approached Guangzhou, hoping to be the first out.

When the train arrived, I got off first and couldn’t believe what I saw.  As I stepped onto the platform, there was a Chinese state guide meeting a small group of American tourists in the next carriage.  She was shouting at the small group. “Quickly, quickly, follow me to miss queues!” and immediately led them off at high speed through the station to the border control!  I tagged onto the back of the group and found myself being led by a state official and waved through all the preliminary checks until we reached the final obstacle – passport stamping and the scanners.  I was there in record time and without arousing any suspicion! 

Then I simply peeled off from the group, went to different booth and presented myself to the border guard.  He checked my papers and asked me the purpose of my visit.  I pointed to my backpack and said “Back-packing!”  He stamped my passport, and signalled for me to put the backpack onto the conveyor belt.  I did this with my heart in my mouth, but as it moved through the scanner I realised there was no one sitting in the scanner monitor’s chair yet.  My bag came out the other side.  I picked it up, swung it onto my back, and walked slowly into the crowd of people waiting to meet friends and relatives on the other side.  I had done it – or rather, God had!

My colleague Andy was not so fortunate.  We had deliberately planned to exit from different doors of the train and he hadn’t seen the group I latched onto.  Not knowing which way to go, he ended up being swept up in the crowd making their way slowly to the controls.  As soon as his bag disappeared into the scanner, the belt stopped, and two police officers appeared at his side.  He was led away into a side room where his backpack was unpacked slowly before his eyes in silence.  The intention was intimidation rather than threat of action, but it felt like one and the same.  After what seemed like an age, a more senior officer entered the room and spoke to him in English, asking him why he was bringing pornography into China to corrupt the people.  Then he was shouted at, photographed and left on his own for a while.  After another long period in lonely silence someone else came in, gave him the empty back-pack, passport & a receipt for the Bibles before letting him go.

Meanwhile, waiting in the station my initial joy and elation was changing to worry.  As the last passengers emerged from security I knew what had happened. Andy had been caught.  As I stood in the crowded station getting increasingly anxious, I found it hugely ironic that people kept coming up to me, openly trying to sell me drugs in broken English.  Some contraband was clearly less important than others in China.

When Andy finally emerged, He saw me but headed off in a different direction.  He and I had both thought the same thing - was he being followed?  Were the police checking to see if he was on his own?  For about half an hour he and I wandered separately around the huge station square outside, looking at stalls, consulting guidebooks, and looking for a tail.  Only when he was sure there was no one following him, did he come over and tell me what had happened.  He was shaken but his greatest concern was for the people who would be let down, and that he didn’t compromise their safety. 

Our rendezvous to pass on the remaining Bibles in my backpack was not until dusk and as it was now late morning, we had a most of the day to fill so we decided to carry on with the day as planned. We had been told of an amazing restaurant for foreign visitors and had a map of tourist sites in Guangzhou, so we pressed on, hoping that the drama of the day was now behind us.

Making our way to the restaurant was a crash course in true Chinese culture.  Hong Kong could feel like it was Chinese, but in the 1980’s it was very different to the reality of the People’s Republic.

The first thing we noticed was that everyone seemed to dress and act the same.  Chinese tunics, baggy trousers and sandals seemed to be compulsorily with only slight variation in colour, age and condition.  Then there were the bicycles which were everywhere!  The only cars we saw were taxis for the tourists which ironically, had to drive at the same speed as the bicycles because there was no other way through the throng.

We also became aware of older ladies sitting at the corners of each road junction.  With their red armbands and Mao’s Little Red Book overtly sticking out of their tunic pocket, they simply sat there with inscrutable faces and watched.  These were the committed party members I had heard about, who were paid a token to watch their neighbourhood every day and simply report back anything which was out of the ordinary.  In China, it was ‘Big Sister’ who was watching you!

But the thing that really caught us out was very practical.  

Every sign was written in Chinese characters – street names, directions, information – everything was in a language we could not read.  It may sound obvious, but this came as a completely disempowering shock.  While I was learning spoken Cantonese, I had no idea how to read.  In Hong Kong, all signs were bi-lingual, appearing in Chinese and English; here in China, trying to read a language with no alphabet left us lost. I remember thinking that I now knew something of what it must be like to be illiterate in a strange place.

As a result, we were totally unable to find our way around and after giving up trying to find the restaurant, we finally flagged down a taxi.  We pointed to it on our tourist map and were there in no time.

When we entered the restaurant, we saw yet another side to China.  Sheer opulence.  Inside the ornate doors of the restaurant, we found ourselves in a 3 story lobby with a huge ornamental waterfall cascading down rocky pools with exotic birds perched on the intertwining vegetation.  Around the waterfall, a double marble staircase curved its way up to the main restaurant, which was sumptuously filled with lacquer furniture and traditional carved screens embedded with jade.  The waiters were immaculately turned out in white uniforms and all spoke English. 

It was such a contrast to the ox-ploughing farmers, the throngs of bicycles, and the clothed uniformity of their riders outside.  This was the China which the People’s Republic wanted to showcase to visiting tourists spending their FECs and ordinary Chinese people were not allowed in.  We felt immediately under-dressed in our trainers, jeans and tee-shirts, but without hesitation we were welcomed and shown to a table with its own bamboo tree growing beside it.

The greatest shock was yet to come.  As we were handed the menu which was more like a book with its 30 or so pages, we opened it up to the first page.  After being relieved to find it printed in both Chinese and English, we looked down the list of dishes.  They were all priced in both FECs and US dollars, and to our horror, none of them cost less than $100 per dish!

We couldn’t afford that!  We had less than $100 dollars in FECs to see us through the entire trip.  What were we going to do now?

Hurriedly we turned the page and found the dishes on page two were a little cheaper, if still beyond our means.  Page three prices were a little cheaper again and this continued as we made our way through the menu until finally, on the very last page were a list of dishes in small print, priced only in FECs.  At last there was something we could afford!

But now the issue was that they were too cheap.  Each item on the last page cost just pennies, the most expensive being the equivalent of less than £1 sterling.  Surely these must be tiny side dishes, given the prices in the rest of the menu.

So when the waiter came to take our order, we ordered from this last page, and we ordered lots of them, eight I think, to make up for the bite size morsels we expected.  For just a moment, the waiter looked at us with some surprise breaking through his professional, inscrutable expression but he wrote down the order and returned to the kitchen.

A few minutes later our food arrived, or rather a procession emerged from the kitchen.   The first person in the procession was carrying a table; the second, clean table linen to place upon it; the remaining waiters were each carrying the food we had ordered which were not tiny morsels, but rather silver serving trays piled high with each dish on our order.

To our great embarrassment, the food we had ordered filled both tables!  It was a banquet which would have fed a dozen people and here we were, sharing it between the two of us!  There was food everywhere and it was excellent!

As we tried to sample at least some of each dish, we wondered how on earth this could be, but then noticed that there were a few Chinese eating in the restaurant.  They were smartly dressed.  They had an aura about them, as you would find in someone of high status.  We watched the way in which the waiters served them, with even greater deference than they gave to the tourists.  They also had dishes like ours.  We realised that they must be senior Communist Party officials from the city, who were allowed by virtue of their party rank to eat there, but would not be able to pay the prices aimed at foreign visitors.  By working our way through the menu, persevering out of necessity to the page we could afford, we had stumbled on the page for local Communist Party leaders and dignitaries.

It was the biggest, cheapest meal I have ever been served in my life.  The whole bill came to less than $10 and our only shame was that we couldn’t eat more.  I hope the food did not go to waste.

Emerging from the restaurant an hour later feeling very full, we could see in the distance the high-rise White Swan Hotel, which was another place on the tourist map.  It was in the old diplomatic and trading quarter of Guangzhou where, in colonial times western nationals lived under their own laws rather than Chinese law.  It was an enclave of western power and culture when Canton (as it was known) was the only foreign gateway into the huge Chinese trading market.  The tree lined avenues of colonial style buildings were still there, and it was a peculiar contrast to the rest of the city, even in their shabby dilapidated state.  We decided we would walk off some of our lunch, heading towards this landmark. 

It was during this journey that we realised that we were not alone after all.

As we made our rather hap-hazard way through the blocks of streets towards our distant but occasionally visible goal, we realised that one man was making the same turnings we were.  We tested our suspicion by sitting in a park for about 20 minutes.  He seemed to disappear, but then when we set off again, he re-emerged behind us.  

A chill went down our spines.

Had he been there right from the railway station?  Had he been dispatched because Andy had been caught with Bibles?  Did he suspect that I still had a back-pack of Bibles and would be meeting someone to hand them over?  That would be an enormous risk for the local contact we were due to meet.  We couldn’t lead our follower to the rendezvous or else the consequences would be catastrophic for the local Chinese Christian.

In a rather more sombre mood we continued to make our way to the White Swan Hotel and sat down for coffee in their spacious lobby.  He didn’t follow us inside but a cursory glance through the front doors half an hour later revealed him still to be outside, waiting for us to leave.  There was no mistake.

Somewhat nervously, we hatched a plan.  We would carry on as normal, visiting the tourist areas and using the White Swan as a base until the time approached for the handover.  If he was still there we would swap over the Bibles to Andy’s back-pack and split up.  He could only follow one of us, and our hope was that he would follow me because I was the one who was not caught at the railway station.  If this happened, then Andy would make the rendezvous as planned as I led our follower in the opposite direction.  If it didn’t work and he was still being followed, we would take the Bibles back to Hong Kong with us.  The risk would be too great.

As dusk started to fall, we transferred the Bibles in the toilets at the hotel.  We walked out of the front door, exchanged a short conversation, and went our separate ways. My heart was in my mouth and we were both silently praying for him to follow me.  To begin with, I couldn’t see him as I walked away.  Had we called it wrong?  Or was he hesitating, trying to decide what to do?  After about five minutes I stopped by the Pearl River and sat down at a viewing point.  As I looked around at the boats, the buildings along the waterfront and the continuing throng of cyclists behind me, I saw him leaning against a tree.  It had worked!

Some distance away, Andy made the rendezvous and handed over the Bibles without a hitch.

The only thing remaining for us was to get back to Hong Kong.  We were booked on the overnight ferry which made its way down the Pearl River to Hong Kong at its estuary.  As we prepared to board the boat, we had to go through passport control once again. Then as we boarded, we saw the Red Ensign flying from the stern and realised that we were now technically back in British jurisdiction.  The feeling of relief was palpable and we both broke into spontaneous nervous laughter!

As the boat made its way slowly out of Guangzhou we began to relax, and then to reflect on what it must be like to live under that kind of tension all the time.  For our Chinese brothers and sisters who would be receiving those Bibles, they would carry with them the possibility of being discovered every single day.  For them, this was not some day trip with minimal personal risk.  This was a costly way of life.  Being found with a Bible would have grave consequences for them and their families – and yet having a Bible meant so much to them.

In that short journey I learned so much about the commitment of Christians around the world who live in countries where it is not safe to be a Christian.  Despite the threats of governments, lynch-mobs and terrorists, Christians today in countries like China, Pakistan, and Egypt face so many untold dangers alongside the few we hear about in the West. It is not just Christians who suffer this of course.  Rohingya and Weija Muslims are both being persecuted by different secular regimes in different countries with different motives.  Sikhs and Christians are both being persecuted in India according to UK Members of Parliament who raised the issue with the Indian president this year.

What is remarkable is the steadfast faith of those who are persecuted.  I was deeply inspired by Chinese Christians who chose to risk their freedom by having a Bible.  I bet they read it more than we do in our comfortable western democracies.

They love it enough to live their lives in a constant state of breaking the law, aware of the consequences and wholly dependant on God.  They are the real heroes and this story is for them.

Tuesday 30 October 2018

Broken Vessels

I have just agreed my retirement date with the Church of England.  It will be the 30th November.

This is not because I have reached retirement age of course.  I have been granted ill-health retirement as a result of my cancer.  Having been unable to work since I was in hospital in August and seeing no prospect of returning in any meaningful way, I put in my application for retirement soon afterwards.   My early retirement will also allow the Diocese to begin looking for my successor so all in all, it is the best solution. 

But it leaves me with an uneasy feeling deep in my bowels as intertwining strands of relief and sadness weave their way through my body and soul.

When I was first diagnosed, I decided that I would keep working for as long as possible.  “What else would I do?” was a phrase which I often used when asked, and I profoundly disliked the idea of just sitting at home waiting to die.  “I’m not giving up yet” was another mantra I employed which begs the question “Am I giving up now?”

From my diagnosis in August 2017, I continued to work full time until I started chemotherapy in the Autumn.  Even then I just took two days off around each chemo infusion and worked from home when I was most prone to infection.  It was still pretty full on.

As time went on though, things started to get more difficult.

Towards the end of my 5 months of chemotherapy, I found that I wasn’t recovering as quickly after each cycle and began working 10am-4pm each day.  A little later this had to reduce further to working Monday, Wednesday and Friday, allowing me days in between to rest and recover.  The one hour drive to and from the office also started to take its toll.

Then I began to notice that God was giving me hints.

The first came in February this year.  I was due to see me oncologist for results of a CT scan.  The results would show how successful my treatment had been so far.  Before we set off for the hospital, I settled down to my morning prayers with the appointment very much in mind.  When I got to the gospel reading in Celtic Daily Prayer, I found it was a single verse.

 “Lord you now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation.” (Luke2:29)

These were the words spoken by the old prophet Simeon when he saw the baby Jesus and knew that God’s promise to him had been fulfilled.  Now he was ready to die in peace.

I was taken aback. What did this mean?  What was I about to be told? 

At the appointment I found that the scan results were mixed.  Some mets (tumours) had shrunk, some had grown and there were some new ones.  It wasn’t what my oncologist had hoped for but it wasn’t disastrous.  I knew it didn’t signal the end in my fight with cancer, so what was God trying to tell me?  Was there something else which was coming to an end?

The second hint was less subtle.  In July, I was on my way to celebrate Communion with a group of young people who were spending a year in the diocese exploring vocation.  It was always a joy to meet with them and a privilege to celebrate Communion, yet while driving there I felt so tired.  I prayed, “Lord, please, if you want me to keep working, I need some energy!”

At the end of Communion, I packed my communion set away as usual and set off for home, still feeling dreadfully tired.  At home I got the pottery pattern and chalice out to clean them properly only to find the chalice in pieces.  I had stored and carried it in the same way for years without any incident and yet somehow, this time, it had been broken.

As I held its broken pieces in my hands I felt immediately overwhelmed.  I knew what God was saying.  Central to the ministry of any priest is the celebration of Holy Communion.  It was time to let go.

Being a good Charismatic Evangelical however, I knew that I should never rush into anything, but wait for a third and final confirmation of this word to me.  I talked with my spiritual director and we agreed that I would wait to see what my oncologist said when we next met.

I didn’t have to wait long.  In August I was unexpectedly admitted to hospital feeling very poorly.  After yet another scan, my oncologist appeared at the bottom of my bed with the news that the treatment was not keeping pace with the development of my cancer.  Things would only get harder from now on.  I knew the time had come to set work aside.

Looking back, I had been preparing for it at work.  Over the last 12 months, I had been working to make my role more sustainable without me; putting together teams of people who could carry on the important work of identifying and encouraging people who God is calling to Christian ministry.  Some areas were now strong enough and ready, but others were not.  Couldn’t I have had a just few more months, to future-proof everything?

As I reflected on this, I have realised that it would always have felt this way.  It would never have felt that I had done enough so the feeling is irrelevant.  ““Lord you now let your servant depart in peace” is all I have to rely on, that God feels I have done enough.

And yet the sadness remains.  In the end it all feels very sudden.  I first felt God’s call to ordained ministry over 40 years ago when I was just 14 and being obedient to that call has been at the very centre of everything for me, and subsequently for myself, my wife, & family, ever since.  Now, suddenly, it is over.

After I found my broken chalice, my wife Mel suggested we repair it and told me about the Japanese art of Kintsugi where broken pottery is repaired using lacquer infused with gold, making the result much more beautiful and, indeed valuable.  I wasn’t in a place where I could hear this at the time.  The broken pieces went into the bin

I regret that now and wish I had listened to her (how many times do husbands say that?!)  God is in the business of binding up the broken after all, and bringing beauty out of brokenness.  I was too hasty with my chalice, perhaps because the truth its broken pieces revealed to me was too uncomfortable to accept at that time.

Broken Vessels by Leila Mather
But then in September, one of my friends shared on Facebook a piece of art which she had created.  Leila entitled it “Broken Vessels”.  I cannot guess at what she saw in her each element of her painting, but I know how it spoke to me.

The lines of gold in the chalice speak to me of a broken vessel restored in that ancient Japanese tradition.  Each one showing an element of brokenness and yet also celebrated and valued as the cup returns to useful service.  The dove is the Holy Spirit still descending on this broken cup with God’s blessing and anointing.  The blue lines around the dove’s head speak to me to the waters of life still flowing into the chalice, or flowing out to the world around it.

Perhaps God isn’t finished with me yet.

The Bible verse quoted in the painting reminds us that “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7)

My sadness comes from the realisation that I am a jar of clay, and one which is breaking a little more each day, but I can also be thankful for the treasure which God has placed inside.  My calling to be a priest continues of course, irrespective of whether I am working in the church or retired.  Perhaps God may yet have some things for me to do, broken as I am.

I retire from ministry on 30th November, but my calling carries on.

Sunday 21 October 2018

Growing in confidence

Crossing the Line - part 27

As the weeks and months at Tai Tam went by, I began to grow into the pattern of life there.

I developed my own kind of harmony with the routine of day to day life.  I discovered my niche in our ever changing community of brothers and helpers. I discovered the things I liked to do on my day off each week and the things I didn’t. 

My fellow western helpers were a wonderfully mixed bunch of people, drawn mostly from the UK, USA, & New Zealand.  I got used to being called ‘Beenie’ by my Kiwi colleagues and ‘Ah Bey-neigh’ by the Chinese brothers.  We were also blessed with 2 or 3 Chinese helpers at any one time, themselves ex-addicts who had stayed within the ministry to help others.  They understood 10 times more than us westerners of what was being said around us and had the wisdom to share with us the things we needed to know, without telling us too much.  Sometimes, in difficult moments, it was better not to understand what was being said to you in Cantonese, making it easier to remain calm & collected!  One of them also acted as translator for us in meetings and in 1-1 chats with individual brothers – a role which was very demanding.

Living in a Cantonese speaking world with 20 teachers, (all the brothers at Tai Tam) the basic Cantonese which my vicar back in London had taught me came into its own.  What had felt unnatural and incomprehensible in London, now felt very natural and I started to learn quickly without making too many mistakes.  In a tonal language it is easy to get things wrong without realising.  In an airport for example, the same words with different tonal inflections means ‘to catch a plane’ or ‘hit the waiter’.  One of our helpers got confused between the words for sorry (Dur’me ju) and praise the Lord (Jan’me Ju) and wondered why people looked at her strangely when she bumped into them on the busy Hong Kong streets and immediately exclaimed “Praise the Lord!”

The Cantonese I learned was rather peculiar though.  Within a few months I could talk about drugs, being filled with the Holy Spirit and receiving the gifts of the Spirit but couldn’t order a meal in a Cantonese restaurant.  I also learned when to speak Cantonese and when to speak English.  Given that most of my teachers were ex-triads, the Cantonese that they taught me was more like learning English from a mobster in New York.  Occasionally I was invited out to lunch or afternoon tea with some of the more respectable members of the Church congregation.  I soon learned not to try out my Cantonese there as I could see their eyebrows rise or their jaws drop at the street Cantonese which came out of my mouth – English was always the better option there!

On my days off I enjoyed doing 2 things – breakfast and walking.  The best place for breakfast was the YWCA in Wanchai.  Back in 1988 it was right on the harbour front and its restaurant had the most beautiful panoramic view of Hong Kong, Kowloon and the harbour in between.  Their international buffet breakfast was served from 7:30am – 11am and you could eat all you wanted for $20HK (less than £2).  I would go there to eat, drink coffee and write letters most mornings on my days off and then decide which district of Hong Kong I was going to walk around for the rest of the day.

I also found that my guitar was in demand after all.  I played for the evening worship time at Tai Tam most evenings, and learned to sing in Cantonese. Most of the brothers wanted to learn to play guitar too, so I would try to teach them as best as I could.  Soon I learned the fluid, effortless way of leading worship in English and Cantonese which fitted the sung worship at St Stephens Society.  When the time came for our worship leader at the weekly helper’s meeting to return to the UK, I was asked to take his place.  This was an immense and unexpected honour. 

The weekly western helper’s meeting was the only time all of the westerners came together from the different parts of the ministry.  There were between 30-40 of us and Jackie Pullinger would be there to lead the meeting as a whole.  It was a cross between prayer, praise and therapy as we could all let our hair down for a couple of hours, share the things which had been happening (good and bad) and support one another with a hug of empathy, a smile of encouragement or prayer ministry for strength or healing.  Sung worship would normally fill about half of the two hours we spent together so being asked to lead this was huge.  Soon afterwards I was also asked to join the Sunday worship group for church on the Sundays I was there.

I learned so much from both these experiences about what brings people close to God, and how to lead worship simply, without manipulating people’s emotions, while letting God do what he wants to do in their lives.  For all Jackie’s fame as a Charismatic icon, she was very down to earth, and hated seeing people manipulated by overly emotional songs or over-spiritualising everything.  I remember Jackie being prayed with at one meeting because she was feeling particularly low and tired at the time.  Someone shared a picture of a wide river which she was trying to cross, where the current was so strong that it almost swept her away.  Then a word of prophecy was shared which said, “Don’t worry Jackie – God is with you and you will reach the other side safely.”  After everyone had finished praying with her, she leaned over to me and whispered, “I can cross the rivers – it’s coming back to get everyone else that gets me down!”

Most of all though, I learned a different way of Christian life and ministry, one which would change my whole outlook and sense of calling for life.

Jackie Pullinger’s approach to ministry was simple.  Start with the poor.  Jesus always started with the poor, and if you minister to the poor, the rich will sit up and take notice.  So if you want to reach the world with the Good News of the Gospel, start with the poor.  This might not sound that radical, but it was completely different to my experience in the Church of England where anyone looking in on our congregations would assume that Jesus came for the educated middle class and little else!

Jesus’ first sermon at Nazareth sets the scene.  He read from the prophet Isaiah,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
Because the Lord has anointed me,
To bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted,
To proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
(Isaiah 61)

As he passed the scroll back to the synagogue official he said, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4)

Today this passage is often referred to as the Nazareth manifesto.  Jesus setting out his stall at the outset of his public ministry, and of all the thousands of verses in the Old Testament, he chose these as the heart of what he was about – good news to the poor - and here in Hong Kong, for the first time, that is what I was witnessing.  The poor were being put first.  The broken hearted, prisoners and captives being set free and healed, not as an afterthought, but at the very core of God’s plan.  I knew there were those in the UK who advocated this.  David Shepherd’s book “Bias to the Poor” made similar arguments in the early 80’s, but the Church of England is a slow and ponderous institution and there was also a backlash to the suggestion that God might have favourites (especially if you were not one of them!)

Here I saw the poor being put first and valued as I had never seen before.  I saw love transforming lives and began to read the Gospels afresh.  I saw that almost invariably the first people Jesus went to were the sinners, outcasts and sick; those on the margins of society; those who were looked down on by the religious and political classes. Why should the church of today be doing things any differently?  Perhaps because we have become the religious and political class of our day?

I also realised that it was the difference he made to people’s lives which resulted in them putting their faith in him.  He didn’t bombard them with clever arguments and then ask them to decide.  He simply poured out the Father’s love upon them and left the response to them.  In the ‘enlightened’ west, we focus on intellectual argument.  The church tries to convince people of the case for Christianity, of the historical evidence, of the philosophical integrity of the Gospel.  That is what most evangelistic sermons are about; putting together a case for the Christian faith, and hoping it will persuade people to sign up.  But the poor are not interested in intellectual arguments.  If you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, the intellectual integrity of a belief system is not your top priority – what you want to know is ‘Does it work?’!

I referred in Walled City to faith in a god called Jesus who helps heroin addicts.  When addicts came to our meetings in Walled City, they knew nothing about Jesus except this and just as we read in the New Testament, God poured out his love upon them.  They met with God within a few minutes of walking inside the door as they were filled with the Holy Spirit and chose to put their trust in him.  They were still heroin addicts but God poured out is Spirit on them.  They were still triad members, but God poured out his Spirit on them.  They would be going home from the meeting into their often horrendous way of life, but God poured out his Spirit on them.

This in turn challenged my unspoken understanding of how God works.  All through my Christian life, I had mistakenly thought that you could only experience more of God if you understood more about him and changed your life to be more like him.  Yet at Walled City and Tai Tam, I saw God pouring out his Spirit on people who knew nothing and had not yet changed!  On people who were drug dealers, pimps, enforcers, and thugs.  Why?  Because they knew their need of him.  They didn’t have to believe the right things before God would work in their lives.  They simply needed to open their hearts to him.

I saw this in many different ways.  There was one brother at Tai Tam who was always difficult and eventually he ran away.  As often happened when brothers ran away, he came to the next Walled City meeting regretting his decision to leave.  He was visibly high on heroin and he looked a mess.  We prayed with him, more out of duty than conviction.  Yet when it came to our time of worship, God used him to bring a message to the whole meeting.  It was one of the most beautiful words of prophecy I have ever heard, and as a result, half a dozen hardened men broke down in tears and asked for prayer to live a new life. He was used by God more powerfully than anything I did that night.

In the Gospels I began to realise that Jesus poured out healing and love on people unconditionally.  Whether they chose to follow him or shout “Crucify”, he healed, blessed, forgave and set people free.

I saw that when he called the disciples, he didn’t give them a lecture and a theology test before asking them to be his disciples.  He simply said follow me.  It was as they spent time with him, that they slowly (often very slowly) began to understand who he was and what he had come to do.  Now I was beginning to understand in a new way too.

I mentioned last week in Tai Tam to our evening worship time, when songs of praise were sung with heart and soul, but that didn’t always make me smile.  During a particularly difficult time with some brothers, I remember looking at their angelic faces during one of these times of worship and thinking, “You hypocrites!  An hour ago you were being manipulative, selfish and putting us through hell!  Don’t think you can simply put on your worship face and pretend it never happened!”  In the quietness a few minutes later however, God was gracious enough to speak to me and said, “When you see them praise me, you are looking at who they really are.  That is the real person I created.  And now I have given them new life and that is what you see in worship.  The person you see when they make life difficult – that is not them anymore.  That is their old life which is passing away.”  It was me that had jumped to the wrong conclusions, and it was my way of thinking which needed to be turned on its head!

When Jackie was asked about the success rate at St Stephens Society, she always said it was 100%.  This often puzzled the journalist or visitor who was asking because they knew not everyone stuck with the programme.  For Jackie however, success was not defined by the outcome in their addiction, because even if they dropped out, they went away with Jesus in their hearts and whenever they came back, she welcomed them as brothers in Christ, ready for the next step of their walk with him.

In Hong Kong I discovered a new God.  A God who is generous beyond our wildest dreams.  A God who loves the poor, the broken-hearted and the captive, and puts them first.  A God who uses the most unlikely people to bless others.  A God who doesn’t let go.  A God who pours out his Spirit on people according to their need, rather than as a reward.  A God who, having given everything on the cross, still gives more.

This God is called Jesus.  I knew him before, but much more dimly.  I thought I knew him well, but I
discovered that my understanding of him had such a long way to go.

After a few months, I finally got my hair cut; not because I was pressured or bullied into it; not because I was threatened with having my pony tail it cut off as I slept (although I was!)   It was because I came to realise that my long hair was a barrier between me and some of the brothers who found it hard to accept.  We made the event into a celebration at Tai Tam with everyone gathered around as the scissors did their work and a huge cheer went up as I was handed the hair, held together by a hairband.  We ate celebration cake together. 

I did it because I saw that it stood in the way of our relationship as brothers in Christ. We are all equal before God and all pilgrims on the road. 

Sometimes less is more.