Saturday 6 April 2013

Learning, love and wide-eyed wonder

Tuesday evening and I ask my hosts, "Papa Bishop" and "Mama Bishop" as Bishop George and his wife Florence are known here, to explain why the girls in school found something I said so funny. It is always nice when people laugh at your jokes but when they roar with laughter at something normal you do begin to feel a bit self conscious.

Today we have been visiting schools. It has been fantastic to see the provision for the young people made by the diocese in various forms. It is simple, almost basic, and yet thorough, careful, full of hope and promise, and fantastic in its provision. A quick sum tells me that I have seen a couple of thousand young people being educated today, and that is a small selection of the work that the diocese does in this area. The schools, right from what we would call Junior age offer boarding, and by the time you get to secondary age almost everyone would sleep at school.

In every place, whether younger or older the pupils have sung for me in a manner which has been as moving as it is hauntingly beautiful. The expression of joy and hope is palpable as they join in with voices and clapping in an impromptu concert that would put many of our prepared musical offerings to shame. I have spoken to them of far-off places and the snow that has fallen and I can see them wondering what kind of place this can be, and yet we are in the same family when we belong to Jesus. This evokes smiles and evident joy and I think the broad familial culture here lets them understand this unity more clearly than I do even when expressing it.

In the girls secondary school I began by telling them that I had a daughter, too, a daughter who was the same age as some of them and also at secondary school. I told them that, to me, she was the most beautiful girl in the world because this self evident truth has taught me more than I can express about the love of God. If a feeble human father like me can know love like I do for my children, how much more powerful is the love of God?

And that's when it happened... "to me, she is the most beautiful girl in the world." was followed by giggles which grew to proper laughing from the whole school. What had I said? Did my words have a meaning of which I was unaware? This is a very proper culture, at least in public, so I could not imagine I had said something rude or the girls would have been uncomfortable not amused. Besides, their laughter was innocent and kind, not mocking or crude.

So, at the table tonight I ask and I am told that fathers do not tell their daughters that they love them here. They do not say that they are beautiful. Fathers are often away and they don't express emotion. My exposing my heart was a shock, which was so out of kilter with experience it was funny.

We can think what we will in response to that, but this has made me reflect deeply, for it is not only those girls who do not know that they are loved. It seems to me that the same is so often true of us as Christians. Deafened to the Father we interpret life through lenses that appear at hand and come to our own conclusions about His love... and often our laughter is very different to that which I experienced today.

Friday 5 April 2013

Need that verges on the overwhelming

Monday afternoon and I have met with the staff and students at the college, which was fantastic. By western standards they have so little and yet what they are doing is fantastic. They have been asking themselves how we might partner with them and here we come to what might seem like the predictable part of the trip... And yet I have been touched by the thoughtfulness of the team here.

As we talked it is very evident that they know the danger of becoming reliant on others who are rich. "Donors come in and think they know what we need", I was told on a number of occasions. "We need to build something that can support itself." And the plans they have are impressive; a model farm, kitchens, schools, much of which is already started. Life is hard but the level of commitment is high.

And yet, this wise commitment and caution about becoming reliant on aid which can dry up at any time does not take away the real need which is here. The person who cleans the houses in which I am staying has a wife with cancer and they cannot afford treatment. The 32 trainee readers have 11 bicycles between them. (Incidentally, the diocese is divided into 70 parishes and 600 sub-parishes. Sub-parishes which are the main local churches are run by lay readers, and of the 600 lay readers only about 70 are trained.) when I taught the readers this afternoon there were only a out 8 Bibles in the room. The college library has fewer books in it than my children own. Feeding a student at the college costs about £1 per day, and yet they struggle to find that. And these are simply the needs I have seen this afternoon... The need goes on and on.

Obviously we can and will try to help, but the key question for me is how we offer friendship and humanity and not simply write a cheque to salve some aching guilt at our own profligate richness. How do we partner in a way which brings sustainable life here and through training readers to work in every community in this huge diocese share something of that with countless others? This is vital and is a question we shall look to address as we build friendship and cooperation in the Lord's Name. And it is furthered tomorrow when the first of my students begins a placement here.

Although the need is massive it is thrilling to imagine what might be done as we step forward in time with Jesus and see what He has in store for us.

Thursday 4 April 2013

On call

Sunday afternoon and my phone starts ringing. This is no problem as I have left an automated voice mail response explaining that I am out of the country but I tend to check to see who is thinking of me nonetheless. This call was from the duty line for college.

Let me explain: there are four of us who have overall responsibility for the whole college and at any one time one of us is on duty so that we can be called if there is a crisis. The system, though, cascades so that if one of us can't be reached the next one is called and so on. Now my phone is ringing and I am two days journey from college in rural Uganda...

Or at least it feels like rural Uganda to me. We journeyed for 8 hours down roads that make English side streets look like motorways and arrived in Soroti which is one of Uganda's significant towns. I am staying just outside it down a dirt track, with goats, hens, and pigs running around the building. At nights the dogs are let out and they roam the compound. The view from my window is entirely green and the main building I can see is a barn. However we are 500 yards from the state prison and a mile from the Cathedral. Familiar and well-used categories don't always transfer well between cultures.

Anyway, the phone was ringing and that meant there was some kind of crisis in College. I tried to process the correct response and decided my best course of action was to ignore the call. If I had answered I could not have done anything from here and the phone would not cascade to my colleagues. You can imagine that this was hard (particularly as I have no Internet access so I won't be able to discover what has happened for days) and despite it being the logical thing to do it left me with a rotten taste in my mouth.

There is something in us that is hard wired to respond when people are in need, part of the image of God in us perhaps, which diminishes as we ignore it. However we cannot help in every situation as the evident need around us demonstrates. Learning when we can and when we can't help is vital, but I suspect that it should never stop hurting when we can't hold out a practical hand of love.

Wednesday 3 April 2013

Love and Anger

Sunday morning and we have done the first service of the day. It started at 0630 and went on until after 9. I was bleary, but the worship was wonderful; joyful, heartfelt, thoughtful and packed. There are still more services to go, but the next one is entirely in the local language so we have popped back for breakfast and theological discussion before returning for the end of that service and the next one which will be in English.

Over breakfast the conversation turned to the wrath and love of God. This was particularly interesting since we sang Stuart Townend's 'Before the throne' at the enthronement on Thursday, which song has been rejected by some because of its line 'the wrath of God was satisfied'. Both at the time and subsequently as I journeyed my mind has turned to this apparent conundrum of love and wrath. I do believe that our own brokenness and that of others who love us clouds the issue for us and makes us see these things as mutually exclusive. This morning I found myself expressing again the truth, as I see it, that God's wrath arises from His love, is due to it, and serves only to increase it. As a father, even a fallen one, my love for my children leads me to anger when they are self-destructive, and even though I will get cross at other things as well, this fallen selfish anger does not negate the love-driven anger that all parents know.

I cannot see that we can remove God's anger from the truth of the Gospel (or the Bible more widely) but I do think that there are two equal and opposite dangers of which we must beware as we consider it.

The first is the danger of wrath that overwhelms love. Such a picture of love is not the mighty, conquering, embracing and forgiving love that we see in God. It reflects our broken-ness and a fear of authority besotted with retribution, with power or with vengeance. This is not how the God who came as Christ to live and die and rise for our sins acts or is in his being.

The second danger is a view of love that is unable to know anger. We might wish for this, but love like this is shallow and powerless. Love that cannot anger is love that will not protect or govern us. We may well need to reconsider what we mean by anger, but clearly love of those for whom we care will arouse us to protect, guard, guide, and sometimes get cross. If this is true for us, how much more for God?

The key question in this theological minefield then is what does love look like when it is angry, and how long does that anger last. Here the Scriptures themselves answer; his anger lasts a moment but his love for ever. This is remarkable, but seems to reflect both our experience and the Bible. We live in love, we receive from love, we do not fear because of love. Remember always that it is love, not wrath, which is the nature of God; His anger, like so much else is only ever an expression of His nature. These things, arising as they do from Him are good, wholesome and healthy because they are always held in love, and love that is occasionally and necessarily angry looks very different from our first view of anger.

Tuesday 2 April 2013

White men all look the same

Saturday evening and I am welcomed after two days of travel to the Bishop's House in Soroti. Even through weariness I am deeply honoured as many of the senior staff have waited to greet the Bishop and his friend from England. I am fed twice and try not to look rude as I eat only a little and wonder whether everyone's physiology reduces appetite while travelling for such long periods.

The Ugandan culture of hospitality is wonderful and has so much to teach a reserved westerner like me. We eat, we talk, we sing, and we pray, but the thing that makes me think is a comment made by one of my new friends as the team are introducing themselves in the gloom of a power cut. You might not be able to remember us all, I am told, when I see many white men they all look the same to me. The world looks so different depending on where you see it from. Here I remember to talk slowly, because it is my English accent which is the strange one. Here I am the guest, and I am overwhelmed with welcome.

So often we relax when we feel that we are part of the main 'crowd', when we are at home, and when we feel secure. There is a real discipline of welcoming others when they are not in that place, and I am grateful for it here. However there is another discipline, one which some of find harder, in allowing ourselves to be guest, to be welcome in another's territory. It is wonderful and delightful, but also unpredictable and unsettling. It is important, though, because it is only in being welcomed into another's place that we can truly begin to communicate love with them... and that surely is at the heart of the Good News that my new friends are so grateful to have received from UK missionaries a century ago.

Monday 1 April 2013

Building up resistance

One of the things I have remembered to do before my trip is to get inoculated. Our remarkable NHS, which I so often take for granted, looked through my records and determined which live bugs I needed injected into my system in order to build immunity to the full range of diseases that I should be facing in Uganda.

Mind you, all of this will be of no use if I don't do the simple things like watching any open wounds, washing my hands (further note to self - shop for alcohol gel), using bottled water and so on. It is so easy to work at the big things in life and overlook the simple.

Inoculation does remind me how amazing the human body is. A little exposure to a nasty thing like a bug and we develop the ability to survive without it affecting or debilitating us. It works with diseases but it also works with other things in life. Live in a city with people 'begging', or showing some kind of explicit need, on the streets and to start with it will be hard to ignore. As time goes by, though, we notice less and less as we decide how we will respond and then save ourselves the agony of engaging. Similarly when you live in a beautiful setting it takes a real effort to keep noticing the beauty.

All of this works if the 'thing' remains constant. When a bug mutates it can become resistant to our treatments. However strong our compassion fatigue becomes, a new situation has the power to wake us and evoke our humanity. A friend of mine who worked in a Christian school once confided in me that he worried about whether the school exposed the pupils to something wonderful about God or inoculated them against faith. It's a good challenge, but for me the heart of it is making space for God to be God in my life. He never changes and yet is always new, never fails and yet always surprises, is never absent and yet rarely predictable.

Archbishops and Samaritans

Well here we are: Friday morning and we are through security despite my 'see through bag' not being see through enough, sitting in the departure lounge waiting to board. This moment of calm gives me a chance to reflect on the remarkable journey from College to Airport.

I left Durham two days ago and drove, via an overnight stop to Canterbury to attend Justin Welby's enthronement as 105th Archbishop of Canterbury. This was a wonderful and moving occasion, with representatives from around the world and ecclesiastical bling that ranged from the sublime to the extraordinary. It was fantastic to see the range of prayerful support gathered from around the Communion and beyond, and something of a lovely surprise to turn round over the ensuing bunfight and find myself in conversation with Rick Warren about parenting teenagers. Archbishop Justin will need our prayers as he faces all that lies ahead.

Driving back to my overnight stop we pulled in for fuel and noticed a large car with a very flat tyre arriving behind us. The driver turned out to be a widow who 'thought the car was making a funny noise'. There are times when wearing a clerical collar rather commits you to act, so I changed her tyre and was then embarrassed as she demanded I 'took a small gift for my church'. Samaritans, even of the only-erratically-good variety are not supposed to be paid for it.

All in all, then a day of great joy and privilege in preparation for this trip. I shall take the gift and give it to the Church in Uganda, just a small symbol of the way The Lord weaves blessing down entirely unforeseen paths. He is good and His goodness lasts forever.