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.

Sunday 14 October 2018

Tai Tam

Crossing the Line - part 26

The house at Tai Tam was an old colonial relic.  It was built as a small family house for the manager of the reservoir system which dominates that area of Hong Kong Island – a series of dam walls, reservoirs and catchment channels which provided water for the island before the population explosion after the Second World War.  The house was beautifully situated by the sea with its own small shingle beach.  On the other sides it was surrounded by semi-jungle on steep banks which led up from the shoreline towards the main road to Stanley.

By the 1980s it was well past its former colonial glory and the Hong Kong Government offered it to Jackie on a peppercorn rent, as a First Stage House for heroin addicts.

Downstairs there was a lounge which acted as our meeting room, a dining room, small kitchen, and a tiny office.  Upstairs, all the internal doors had been removed along with some of the stud walls to cram in as many bunk beds as possible forming a dormitory.  It was here that all the men at Tai Tam slept, recent ex-addicts and helpers alike.  Each of us had a top or bottom bunk bed, a small cupboard for clothes, and fan to keep us cool at night.  There was no air-conditioning, except in the office downstairs (and that was rarely used) and we slept with the windows open every night – even in winter!

There were also some outbuildings, which provided a small dormitory for our female helpers, along with a shower & toilet block and our ‘new boy room’.   This was where new brothers spent their first 10 days with us, withdrawing from heroin, methadone, opium, and whatever else they were addicted to.

When I arrived from Walled City it was late in the evening and everyone was already asleep apart from the single figure on night duty, sat at the top of the stairs.  I was told to leave anything valuable in the office and shown to the first empty bed upstairs to get some sleep.  I remember lying there thinking that I was sleeping in a room with around 15 ex-triads who had probably committed more violent crimes that I could imagine, but I was so tired that I soon went to sleep anyway.

Next morning the daily routine at Tai Tam started early.  Wake up was at 6:45am each day and everyone gathered in the lounge by 7:30 for Quiet Time – an hour for individual prayer and Bible study.  The beginning of this Quiet Time was anything but quiet though, beginning with 10 minutes praying out loud in tongues – the prayer language which everyone there had received.  It was a strangely harmonious cacophony of sounds as we all prayed out loud at the same time, but not unpleasant.  In time I learnt to value this as a time when I abandoned all my own thoughts and agendas, learning to turn myself over to God’s agenda for the day.  For me it became a kind of corporate meditation which enabled me to attune myself to God for the day ahead.  I don’t think I was alone in that.  After about ten minutes, the audible gaggle of prayer would gradually fade out and there would be quiet as we read out Bibles, prayed for our families and each other, and listened for anything which God might want to say to each of us.

Then it was breakfast.  It would be fair to say that this never became my favourite meal of the day.  Overall, I loved the food there.  We lived as any Chinese family did.  Fresh food for the day was bought cheaply from the open market in Chai Wan early every morning and we ate rice three times a day.  Lunch and dinner were fine with freshly boiled rice and a variety of meat & vegetable dishes to tuck into.  But breakfast was usually congee which I never became accustomed to.  For those who don’t know, congee is yesterday’s left over rice left in a slow cooker overnight until it turns into a kind of glutinous white soup.  There would be a small amount of finely chopped meat (a little like spam) sprinkled onto it and a super-hot chilli sauce available for the brave to take the taste away, but I hated it!  Occasionally, if there wasn’t enough left over rice from the day before, we would get fried noodles instead and these were red letter days in my book to be enjoyed to the full!

After breakfast, there would be some free time to chat and ‘drink tea’ (yam-cha) before work at 9:30 which consisted of household chores, painting & decorating, general maintenance, and keeping the grounds around the house clean and tidy.  For many of our brothers, this was the first ‘work’ they had done in years and was not universally popular.  For most addicts in the Triads, work used to be dealing or transporting drugs, beating up your opposition, or standing guard at the entrance to some illicit premises.  Picking up a paint brush, a rake or a vacuum cleaner was a whole new experience.

Then there was lunch which I always enjoyed.  That is, I always enjoyed it once I knew how to recognise the dishes I liked and the dishes I didn’t.  There was always a whole fish or two which was good as long as you managed to avoid the honour of eating the eyes or the challenge of eating the head!  Things I was less keen on included deep fried chicken feet which were both cheap and plentiful; cow’s stomach which was so rubbery that it often had to be swallowed whole; and cubes of congealed blood, which (even though I love black pudding in England) never quite managed to win me over.  Alongside these delicacies however, there was always food I loved.  Prawns and spring onions, beef or pork in oyster sauce, pak choy and nuts were just a few.

I quickly learned the art of eating quickly with chopsticks.  While in polite company you leave your rice bowl on the table and delicately lift the chopsticks to your mouth, in a family setting you pick up your bowl and put it to your mouth to shovel in the rice at speed!  Essential knowledge if you didn’t want the food to disappear in front of you.

The afternoon would be spent getting lots of fresh air and exercise.  In the cooler months, that meant walking the trails around the reservoirs, up into the mountains.  In the summer, we would swim each day from our little beach or go kayaking in the inlet.

After our evening meal, we would meet for worship and ministry.  For an hour or so each evening, we would sing songs of worship, share something from the Bible, and pray & minister to each other with gentle words of prophecy, healing and care.  These were often wonderful times with songs being sung with heart and soul, God tangibly present and tears of joy from hardened men whose hearts were being melted by the love of God.

Then after some more free time for showers, yam-cha and relaxing, we would all gather for brief Night Prayers in the dormitory before lights out and sleep at 9:45pm.

All of this sounds idyllic, and many aspects of being at Tai Tam were, but that is only half the story. 

The other side of our day to day life was extremely challenging.  Anyone who has lived in close community with others will know just how challenging that can be.  Different people, with different norms, different priorities, different likes and dislikes, different cultures and assumptions can be a powder keg even among people who choose to live together in community.  At Tai Tam we were a community of very recent ex-heroin addicts, triad members, older brothers and western helpers.  In one sense, helping them physically withdraw from heroin was the easy part.  It was learning to live a new life together which was the real challenge.

Many had been on drugs since they were 10 or 11 years old.  They had never experienced adolescence.  Now, free from a drug induced haze for the first time, we would see and experience middle aged men going through the tantrums of adolescence for the first time, having to come to terms with raw emotions and how to live with them.

Almost all of our brothers had spent time in prison and many of them had bounced in and out of prison for years.  They were skilled in the tools of manipulation to get their way from those in authority.

When we were out walking, we had to be vigilant for what was being picked up from the pathways. In coming to a First Stage House, it wasn’t just heroin which our brothers were expected to give up.  It was everything addictive, including alcohol, cigarettes, and coffee.  This was going ‘cold turkey’ on a grand scale and while the physical withdrawal through prayer was often miraculous, old habits die hard. Scanning the public pathways for discarded half smoked cigarettes, or cans of beer with a little left in the bottom were common place for our eagle-eyed brothers.  If they found something, it wasn’t the quantity which was important, it was the temptation to stray from the new life they were trying to commit to, and temptation always starts small.  If we give into it, it then grows and grows until even the occasional shot of heroin would be ok, wouldn’t it?

Then there was trust.  Sleeping as we did, alongside the brothers required trust.  Almost all had a violent past and some would have killed for their Triad ‘di-loh’ (Big Brother).  If a confrontation had occurred during the day with a particular brother, we knew that we would be sleeping in the same room as them that night. There were a number of occasions when I faced aggression and threats during my time there after having to challenge a brother about his behaviour or attitude.  We all had to trust that this would not lead to revenge in the small hours of the night.  Ironically, living so closely together in community actually helped in this.  It begged the question among the brothers, why would the helpers make themselves so vulnerable?  The only answer was because we loved and cared for them with the love of God who was even willing to go to the cross for us all.  That love kept us safe, but it didn’t eliminate the stress in difficult times.

In the office we had a Garfield postcard pinned up on the noticeboard.  It read “One day I will look back on all this and laugh!” At times we all drew inspiration from that postcard.  Each helper got one day off (24 hours) each week with an overnight stay back at Hang Fook Camp if we wanted it. We also attended the weekly helpers meeting each Thursday morning and went to the Church service every other Sunday, but apart from that we were there at Tai Tam 24/7.  It was very demanding and led most helpers to conclude that a month in a first stage house is like a year anywhere else!

And all that fails to mention the other core business of a First Stage House – helping our new brothers withdraw from heroin in the first place.  Jackie Pullinger was famous all over the Christian world for praying addicts off heroin without the kind of withdrawal pains and sickness which normally accompany going ‘cold turkey’.  As her ministry grew, this part of the ministry became the role of the First Stage Houses.  We would get a new brother almost every week, and for 10 days someone would be with them, praying with them, 24 hours a day, in four hour shifts.  The ‘someone’ would be a Western or Chinese Helper, or one of the brothers who was ready to move on to Hang Fook Camp.

This was the part of being in a First Stage House which terrified me.  I had visions of starting my first 4 hour shift with our new brother happy and pain free, only to find that by half way through he was writhing around in agony!  After all, I had never done this before.  I didn’t know how.  Why would God answer my prayers?  I was no expert.

It was on my second day at Tai Tam that I had to face my fear.  I went to the new brother room to start my 4 hour shift.  The new brother I was going to spend the next four hours with was the same person we had brought back from Walled City when I arrived.  He spoke very little English and I spoke very little Cantonese.  I tried not to look too nervous. He was in good spirits, 48 hours into his withdrawal.  For the next 4 hours, I sat with him while he slept and prayed with him every 15 minutes when he was awake.  I walked with him around the house and garden when he was bored and he showed me how to make Chinese tea.  Despite all my misgivings, he didn’t deteriorate into a sweaty, clammy, gibbering wreck and I discovered something vitally important. 

It wasn’t all about me.

My fears were all about me.  I was frightened that my prayers wouldn’t be good enough; that my faith wasn’t strong enough; that I wasn’t up the task before me.  It was all me, me, me! 

What I had failed to realise was that it was not about me at all.  As I joined this rota of prayer, I became part of something much bigger than me.  I was being swept up into a ministry that had been blessed by God over many years, as was the new brother I was praying with.  As my 4 hours drew to a close, I remembered his words when we left Walled City about why this time would be different: “Before, no Jesus. This time, Jesus.”  Together we were both experiencing the love and grace of God at work – a grace which flows in spite of our own shortcomings because they are God’s riches poured out freely upon us and they are nothing we can earn or deserve.

It wasn’t about me – it was about him and God.

During my time at Tai Tam, I had to remind myself that we were witnessing a miracle almost every day in praying for addicts as they got clean.  Not everyone came off without symptoms of withdrawal.   Generally, most new brothers (around 8/10) did have a little discomfort coming off their drugs, but nothing like the aches, pangs and cravings which they had experienced before, when they had tried to do it on their own.  1 in 10 suffered nothing at all, bouncing with energy and eating normally, and 1 in 10 did go through the pangs of withdrawal.  I never came to any conclusions about why that was, although it did remind us of what we could expect to experience without the blessings of answered prayer!

After 7-10 days as a new brother, they were welcomed fully into the community at Tai Tam with a celebration.  They were now washed clean from the drugs which used to enslave their lives.  We would share celebration cake together and he would be given a bunk bed in the main house.  We would sing songs of praise and the real work begun - the learning of a new pattern of life which would not lead them back into slavery again.

Not everyone made it through and on to Hang Fook Camp, of course.  We had people who ran away as new brothers, or later on when we bumped into some area of their life which they were not willing to open to God.  But most made it through, and for those who didn’t, there was always another chance when they were ready to take it.

I had made it through my first few days at Tai Tam.  Apart from discovering what an egotist I can be, I had come through unscathed.  As I became accustomed to the routine and got to know our brothers and other helpers, Tai Tam became my home.  It would remain so throughout my time in Hong Kong. 

I settled into a top bunk at the far end of the dormitory in what was originally a dressing room.   It now slept ten of us.  From my bed at night, I could often see the mountains silhouetted against the sky by huge but silent thunderstorms in the far distance over China. When I got to bed each night, I was so ready for sleep that I would be well away within minutes.  I didn’t get everything right, and made lots of mistakes, but then getting everything right was not the be all and end all. 

God is bigger than that.