Thursday, 13 December 2012

A time to say sorry (and a time to not....)

When I was a teenager I went through a stage of saying sorry too much. I would say sorry for existing if I could (and in a serious way rather than a soREEE sort of way). This wound other people up, and my vocabulary became less diverse (as it would if every other sentence contained the word sorry). I don't do that any more, perhaps I got bored with it. 

Or did I? Maybe now I do it more in my mind. I wonder if sometimes I am too apologetic for being me. Somebody is grumpy and I spend time wondering what it is that I have done to upset them (when I know when I am grumpy it is because I am - not always because of someone else). If I argue with someone I want to apologise, even if it is them who needs to apologise. I will leave a conversation with someone and worry that I might have said something I need to say sorry for. It's not a confidence issue, it's a keeping peace issue. I try not to break too many eggshells for fear of making too loud a noise. 

If this advent period is a time for reflection and confession (which I think it probably is) then I need to say sorry to God for being sorry too much. I need to say sorry for those times when I have not been bold in saying what I really think is right for fear of upsetting others. I need to say sorry for those times I have not confronted a wrong situation for fear of upsetting those who I am going to confront. 

I am me. I am not going to become one of those people who stands up and makes my opinions heard above everyone else, but I am trying to be one of those people who is honest about what I really think and believe. My ideas and thoughts may or may not be the same as others. They might irritate or challenge, affirm or placate, but this is me, and these are the things I want to say and feel right in saying. 

So, I am sorry if I say something to make you grumpy or say something really stupid when I am tired. I'm going to try not to dwell on it and I'm going to be the person who God has called me to be when he made me me. 

"Search me, God, and know my heart, test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting." 
                                                                                              Psalm 139:23-24 TNIV

Monday, 3 December 2012

That quiet moment of amazing change

Suddenly it's Advent. Suddenly I am able to stop, anticipate and look forward. Yesterday we lit our first advent candle reminding us that Jesus came to bring light in the darkness. We had a great church community morning where we talked about hope, inspired by the covenant promise signed with a rainbow by God after the great flood that brought hope to humanity. This hope is brought to a climax in the Christmas story as we anticipate the mystery of the incarnation - the Word made flesh - God with us. 

November has been a month of thinking, anticipating and actively being part of the creation of change. In Baptist Union Council and in college we have been thinking about big change - the future - where next, what next, where might God be taking us. When we think about the changes that happen we are constantly seeking the Holy Spirit... acknowledging the fact that we are holding very tightly to what we know and realising that sometimes we need to let go. I love change, but I also love hanging on. I'm inspired by change but sometimes change stresses me out! I look for signs to motivate change and walk past them when I see them, just as much as I notice them and recognise the way in which there are pointing. 

When we are busy, sometimes change just happens and we don't notice it until it has happened and we realise it was good. It comes in the little things and the unexpected. Sometimes it all happens at once, and seems like the highest mountain until we get to the other side and realise how far we've come. 

The anticipation of advent is the anticipation of that moment that quietly changed the world forever. I love this poem, written by U A Fanthorpe that speaks of the awesome quiet change that we anticipate at this time of year. 


This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future's
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms. 

This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.

This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.

And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of the obscure Persian sect

Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven. 

U A Fanthorpe - from Selected Poems, 1986, Penguin Books

Friday, 16 November 2012

More equal than everyone else

I've been listening to Radio 4. Partly to learn how to listen better, partly because I am one of the over 30's who have 'shuffled away from radio 1' (when the news told me that was what they were expected us to do I put on my slippers and shuffled, mainly because I was so irritated by the notion of me being a shuffler that I decided to live up to expectations) and partly because my ace sister tells me it's great. 

I must be learning how to listen better because I actually remember some of what it said. I knew when my lecturer on Wednesday afternoon almost directly quoted what he had heard from radio 4 that afternoon..... and I keep wanting to tell people what I have heard. Maybe radio 4 is OK, and all my reluctance to listen was unfounded. Perhaps I was scared of the Archers. 

I drove down to the Midlands on Monday (it's when I drive to the Midlands I realise how far north I am) and listened to radio 4 all the way. I heard the story of Russia in the 19th Century (I think) where one of the leaders wanted to try and bring equality to Russia by making everyone equal..... apart from the peasants.

The thing is that 73% of Russia was made up of peasants. 

Sounds shocking that someone might say that. Sounds shocking, but then we remember that it was in the past..... no-one would think like that today would they? 

A while ago I read this tweet from Vinay Gupta (as in many tweets I like I have no idea who he is!):

"A fair world is one in which you live in the same conditions as the people who make your coffee and your jeans. How could it be otherwise?"

When we seek equality, where is our equality limit? Is equality everyone being treated with respect? Is equality making sure that there is space for people who are different to me in decision making? Is equality everyone having the chance to education so that they might bring themselves out of the situation they are in? Is equality as described in the tweet above?

If it is anywhere similar to the last it brings huge challenges to people like me. If I am really seeking equality and liberation for all, I need to give up much so that others can have more. 

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

All By Myself

There was a point, when I was 11 or 12, that I felt I did not belong anywhere. I had started secondary school, the only girl from my primary school, and was put in a form with people who knew each other, but with nobody who knew me. That wasn't a bad thing, because I didn't get on with those who went to secondary school with me and I needed a new start. I wasn't good at making friends and I was different - I was the daughter of a minister (that makes you weird) and I wanted to work hard. I loved learning and I was not cool. 

I was thrown into a world of established groups of friends, who despite falling out at times were fundamentally strong units that it was hard to break into. I was not always treated in a way that was great and it was easier to spend time on my own or in the library. In looking for friends I looked to those who I recognised as being able to deal with life and who did not need the intensity of 11 year old best friendship. The people of my age at school were not that bothered about me - those like me were trying to be like everyone else, and those unlike me appreciated me as someone to talk to when no-one else was around. 

That feeling did not last long, and I made friends as I grew up through school. Friendship groups evolved, people tried less hard to fit and I became less uptight. I remember those days of not belonging as difficult and sad though, and I never want to be there again. I've now learned to deal with the fact, that when I go to new places and meet new people that I am different and that is OK. I have learnt that there are times when I want to belong that I need to push myself into situations that aren't necessarily ones that I feel comfortable in - situations that challenge me and surprise me. Today, although finding it difficult and frustrating at times, relish those challenging and surprising times. When I was 11 I couldn't do that, but now I can, and I love being me. I'm not normal (what is normal?) and I am happy to be different. 

There is a need, though, in anyone to belong. Belonging helps create a sense of identity. Our identity is not only in ourselves alone, but in who we are when we are with others. Falseness should never come into it. When we truly belong we can expose our weaknesses without fear of breaking ties, we can be really stupid, yet still loved. This was modelled by Jesus - who loved the tax collectors and the prostitutes and the disciples who asked stupid questions......

Why is it then, when belonging is so important, that we make it so difficult for people to belong? We expect them to be like us, to change. We avoid difficult issues just in case they might come between us. When obvious differences are exposed we use them as an excuse to move away and try and belong somewhere else. For me, belonging has changed because I have learned to deal with the things that meant I didn't belong. Those things are still there though, they don't go away. The need to be the same, the need to conform.

It makes me sad, in particular, when people feel like they are not welcome to belong to a church community. They are 'not good enough' or they have 'issues'. They are too different to anything the church has seen before. If you are the only one of something then groups of people who are the same find it difficult to relate to you. Why should someone who has learning difficulties find there is no place for them in church to learn? Why should someone who is single find there is no place for them in church unless they can be paired up? Why can someone not be accepted with the health issues they have without people trying to fix them? We would like to say that we are an inclusive church - that anyone could come and be welcome, be treated equally, but is that what we really do? 

To become a person who was able to belong, I had to change the way I approached things, but not everyone is able to do that. Why should the one who wants to belong nearly always be the one who has to change? Surely the group of people the person wants to belong to need to change too? 

Jesus said 'love your neighbour as yourself' not 'love your neighbour as they change'. 

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Hope, Anger and Courage

"Hope has two lovely daughters, anger and courage. Anger at the way things are, and courage that they need not remain as they are." - Augustine

I've been really frustrated lately because it's often so difficult to translate words into action. I am deeply passionate about those for who life is unjust, yet the problem is so huge it's often seemingly impossible to see where to start. 

The BBC has a new series on called 'Welcome to India'. While I watched it I considered the things that I saw while I was in Kolkata and it reminded me of how big the task seems when we see so many people who live in the most appalling of conditions and do the kind of jobs we wouldn't dream of doing in the west. As these kind of living conditions and jobs are normal, it's quite easy to accept the idea that it's OK. It's not though, and that is what makes me feel both angry and helpless. 

The quote attributed to Augustine reminds me that anger is good - anger is right when it is righteous anger - anger at injustice, but that without the courage to do anything about it the anger is lonely - it sits and waits but there is no outlet that is for the good. 

So, I want to grow stronger in courage that things don't need to remain as they are, that I can do something that challenges injustice and changes situations and I pray that God will show me and lead me to the places where I can do that. 

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Education, Learning and Community

I love education - I love learning, I love thinking about how we learn, I love discovering new ways of learning. I love maths (no secret) and I love learning new stuff - theology - totally different way of thinking to maths, answers to questions create more questions and thinking is more important than solution. 

I was talking to my nephew about learning maths. He is bored in maths lessons. He doesn't like being told what to do and doesn't like repeating the same thing over and over again as once he knows how to do it, he knows how to do it. I understand his frustration, but for me, doing the same thing over and over again is therapeutic and I like being able to do and get the right answer. I love logic puzzles and the feeling of completeness when one is finished. The problem with maths is that not everyone feels like that - and that is where the general feeling of dread and hatred of maths come in. Maths is apparently boring. I told somebody yesterday that I used to be a maths teacher and he asked me if I had repented. 

The thing I think that conventional Maths lessons too often miss out on is that light bulb moment of discovery. We are too often trained in methods and don't understand the reasoning. When I was teaching the most fun moments were when the students discovered things for themselves, when Maths made them excited..... Those light bulb moments of realisation are part of the beauty, for me, of learning. 

Discovery is so much better than spoon feeding. Discovery gives moments in learning that are not forgotten. While the current Government talks of going back to a method of education that leaves little space for discovery, the delight of those light bulb moments seem too far away. We are given choices, but only regulated ones. There is no space for thinking outside a box containing only what one particular group of people thinks is important. 

I am part of a learning community. I love that title. It expresses the place I am in as a place of discovery, a place of new, a place to journey. It is not a place where knowledge is boxed, but is a place where knowledge is discovered. Space is made for light bulb moments that are unique to the discoverer. This afternoon, I am an educator being educated by an educator about education. A learner learning from a learner about learning. The interchangeable position of educator and learner in a learning community makes me excited (and baffles my mind sometimes). 

I've been reading* about the church as a learning community - one of the key parts that the church plays is that of discipleship - discipling one another. We don't focus enough on the quality of our education in churches. Some churches educate in doctrine - 'you must believe this' and in contrast some churches education is so vague no-one is really sure where they are going. They pick up bits and pieces but they are not sure how it fits together. A good education system looks at the bigger picture to influence the smaller pieces and the smaller pieces to influence the bigger picture. It creates space for discovery as well as space to be told. 

Psalm 119 talks about God's word being a lamp to our feet. It's not in a box, as light gets everywhere. It's not dotted around, it's focused on our feet... guiding us on our way, giving space for discovery of new things. That's what learning needs to be like - with space for discovery and with guidance for where the knowledge is to enable that discovery. It needs to overall have a common purpose - guided ultimately by God - not vague, not so strict there is no space for exploration, but focused on truth and providing the most beautiful and exciting light bulb moments bigger than we can ever imagine. 

If church is to be a learning community, we all need to be prepared to get stuck in. We all need to be reading, exploring and discovering. We all need to be talking to each other and spaces need to be made to do that. If we are not prepared to read or talk about God's Word, and about the impact it has on our lives we'll miss out big time. 

*R W PazmiƱo  Foundational Issues in Christian Education: An Introduction in Evangelical Perspective - liking it so far!

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Journey From Old to New

I'm enjoying the last few weeks of working part time before I get back to college by trying to make sure I get some time off more than the one day I normally have off. I've lost the guilt complex I had at the beginning of the summer about working too little and have begun to relax and have more time to just enjoy what is going on around me. I love lazy days when I can sit and watch and just simply be. 

I've been thinking a lot about the journey from old into new. On Sunday we had 'Pie and Praise' - partly inspired by somebody in the congregation who told me how much she valued the old hymns as they helped shape her faith when she was younger, and partly inspired by the people who are so passionate about the history of the Baptists and Methodists in Ramsbottom. We looked at some things that had been stored by people in the church including many many old photos. As a family history geek I love knowing where things came from - where I and the people around me originated from and what made things happen to become what or who they are today. 

Today I went to Hardcastle Crags. There is an old mill that sits above Hebden Bridge. It is the only National Trust property that is self sufficient in terms of creating its own energy and dealing with its own waste. It is a beautiful place. What fascinated me most was the journey that had happened to get that place to where it is today. Once a mill, and when there was no need for it to be a mill it became a tourist destination with tea dances and shops and camping in the area. It then became derelict before it was made into a museum and beauty spot for people to enjoy today. The museum takes you through the history of the building, but also takes you into the future as you see how it has been made self sufficient. The historical use of water to generate power is combined with solar power to make electricity to serve the mill as it is today. 

History doesn't stop at a point where we think that it has stopped being beautiful. We don't stop at the point when the hymn writers died because we like their music, or at the point when the mill stopped producing cotton because we liked to use it...... history continues and we begin to make new history for the future. If our ancestors could see us now, worrying that in thinking forward we are moving too far away from the history that took us to this place, they would tell us just to get on with it and not worry about taking risks and doing things differently, because they did, and although they did not necessarily like it at the time, they see that now it was a good thing as history evolved and we became who we are today.

God has the power to turn where we are upside down and to make beautiful what was once ugly. We've got to let go, stop clinging onto the pew in front for dear life and let him do it - the time is now, not tomorrow. That's why we are where we are today - because throughout history, pioneers of faith have let go and let God.

I want my journey to be a journey. I don't want to be in a stagnant pool where the surroundings might be familiar, but the future is the same. I want my journey to be to places where the future is uncertain, yet is filled with the blessings of God. I want to be able to look back and learn, but I don't want that to stop me from looking forward and seeing God do new things. If I ever stop and look too comfortable I would hope that someone would kick me and remind me that the time for change never goes away..... keep journeying. 

"So we are not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There's far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can't see now will last forever."                  2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (MSG)

Friday, 31 August 2012

Overwhelmed by Lists?

I've become I writer of what some people call 'To-do' lists. I don't call them to-do lists. They are just lists.

Todays list includes:

Unhappy face
Coffee Morning
Doers of the Word
What is the Godly Response to situations?
Sort out sound effects
Giant Hand
Video clip

The problem with my lists is that I cannot always pin down what I mean (you might look at the list and think, well, yep!). My list is not something I can always tick off, but is a guide for my thoughts. Perhaps that's why I don't call it a to-do list. 

It would be so much easier if life was a clear cut list of easy solutions that could be ticked off..... but it's not. New things bring new decisions to make, new directions to go in. We cannot package life into programmes and moments that have clear boundaries because other people work outside of the boundaries we imagine and when we look to God he is so much bigger, wider and greater than any boundaries we put up.

When you are working within non-existent boundaries the challenge is not to become overwhelmed. The easy response would be to walk away because the task is too big..... and sometimes that it is really tempting. Another response is to set boundaries that you wouldn't step over, but then we forget to take risks. The best (and sometimes most dangerous for our own limited vision) response is to dream dreams, take risks, don't be afraid to add more to the list or to not tick things off, trusting that God will walk with us....

When I was in Kolkata, I looked around and saw the city around me, and the task of transformation for those on the edges of society seemed almost impossible. The solution is hidden, the ideas unthought of........ yet when I looked harder I saw people taking risks, dreaming dreams, moving forward with boldness, relying on God to enable them to make a difference, to change lives. We too often limit ourselves by our own capabilities... but anything is possible. 

'The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It's our handle on what we can't see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd. By faith, we see the world called into existence by God's word, what we see created by what we don't see.'                         
                                   Hebrews 11:1-3 (The Message)

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Another Year

I just finished watching 'Another Year'. I don't why but I thought it might be a comedy. It wasn't, and if I had thought about it I would have known that it wasn't.... the end of the film came at a point I wasn't expecting but contained a glimmer of hope in the unhappiness of one of the characters lives.

It tells the story of a happily married couple and their relationship with family and friends. The couple are very much a unit who love one another and who are the sort of people who you want to spend time with because they radiate that love and make you feel good about yourself just by being with them. They attract and look after people who need to be loved and who need to be wanted and treat them with great gentleness and care.

It was one of those films that felt like it could be real life, because I have met people who are both like the couple and their unhappy friends, with similar problems and difficulties in life. I've met people who care for people so much they deal with any intrusion on privacy, rarely showing their irritation. It was like real life because you ended up not knowing what happened to some of the characters the couple met, but you knew that by knowing the couple that they had had some sort of light brought into their lives. It was like real life because you knew the story hadn't ended - that there was still stuff to work through, but there was something to look forward to, even for the most unhappy of characters. 

The title, 'Another Year', implies normality - this year isn't unusual for the couple, different things happen, but it feels very normal. Sometimes life can feel a bit like that - another year, another day the same, same old same old. 

Life can sometimes make us tired, yet this couple showed that despite tiredness and same old same old, the impact that loving the lost can make is longer lasting and penetrates deeper than we can ever imagine, and in ways we often don't notice. 

When Jesus calls us to love our neighbours as ourselves, it's this kind of unconditional love he calls us to. Love that makes a difference, love that crosses all irritation, love that provides a glimmer of hope in the darkest of situations. 

"If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don't love, I've gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I'm bankrupt without love. Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn't want what it doesn't have. Love doesn't strut, doesn't have a swelled head, doesn't force itself on others, isn't always "me first", doesn't fly off the handle, doesn't keep score of the sins of others, doesn't revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end. Love never dies.'
                                                                                          1 Corinthians 13:3-7 (The Message)

Monday, 30 July 2012

The same but different

I've probably read somewhere that your 20's and early 30's are the time of the biggest change in your life. You leave school, go to university perhaps, get frustrated about not knowing what you are going to do next when everybody is asking you what next... The expectation, particularly in Christian circles of finding a husband or wife and beginning a family is huge and totally over-emphasised in too many places and if you are not one of the ones who gets married off quickly you become unusual and people feel sorry for you (when there is nothing to feel sorry about). 

Ten years ago I was finishing my time working with UCCF (Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship) as a relay worker with the CU at York St John's College. It was a strange year, a year when lots of stuff happened, but a year that I really valued and came out a stronger and more determined follower of Jesus. 

Life has changed abundantly since then. I've grown up, a lot. I've become more confident. I am more outspoken (in a quiet, Claire like way) and I'm totally sure of my identity in Christ. 

Last week I went to Keswick Convention for the first time, just for a couple of nights... don't want to push it! We went to a question and answer session, I didn't really want to go. I was reminded of a question and answer session in a Biblical Evangelism Conference before I went on to be a relay worker where we were told that of course, male headship was a given even if we do let women speak..... 

I was expecting it to be like that. But it wasn't. Although the views of the panel on the issues they were asked about were generally clear, and I didn't necessarily agree with them all the time, there was a huge amount of grace and understanding that real people were involved and that people need to discover the way forward for themselves and we need to support them as part of Christ's family. 

When we are listening and answering one another we should never make assumptions about where anyone is coming from, perhaps we should always expect to be surprised. 

Would I go to Keswick again? Probably. I was disappointed that it was very male dominated, but I was only there for two days. I disagreed with almost everything one of the speakers said, but that's OK. I loved the commitment to Young Adults and being part of something bigger, the commitment to Scripture and the focus on the cross. In some ways it was like going back to the stuff I used to do ten years ago, but I've gone back with a different attitude and a more thoughtful mind..... so that makes it very different to what I was doing ten years ago. 

So yes, I've changed a lot. I'm doing my second degree, embarking on a totally different way of working, living in the smallest place I've ever lived in on the rainy side of the Pennines where life is very different. God is changing me, transforming me, but he stays the same - unchanging, awesome, loving, gracious, creator God.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Looking beyond the obvious

I've always been quiet, but I'm not shy. I don't say much sometimes, but that's not because I lack confidence. So many times throughout my life, however, my natural tendency not to talk in people's faces or to push myself to fit in with the 'in-crowd' has left me on the side lines. I had a conversation with someone when I was a teenager about celebrity Christianity. Some people go out of their way to mix in the 'right' circles to make sure that they are first on anyone's list for anything - to comment, to speak, to be known.... 

I don't want to be one of those people (otherwise I would just become one of those people I get frustrated with) but I also don't want to be overlooked. Why do we so often take the easy route and go with what is jumping up and down in our face rather than look beyond the obvious to see what is happening behind, and at the sides, and below, and above? God's love and empowerment stretches much wider, much higher, much deeper than what we can see straight ahead, yet too often we look at who or what is straight there instead of turning our heads. 

In Kolkata a lot of the work was about empowering those people on the margins - those people who are overlooked by society as society progresses without them. The New Hope School's vision was not to bus in the best teachers from outside but to enable those with skills within the community who would be overlooked by society generally to teach. These teachers from the community were helping to enable the children to go to high school at a higher grade than they were expected to. The leadership are not looking for elitism or for those who shout the loudest or for those who are part of the 'in crowd' but are looking to empower those who are so often overlooked - the children and the women who live on the edge of a symbol of the 'progression' of India (the IT district - celebrated, desired, wanted). A tiny school, easily missed, in a small community, easily missed, but living out the Kingdom of God in more ways than we can possibly imagine. Real progression?

Friday, 13 July 2012

Never be without love

The last day of 'work' in Kolkata. Tomorrow we rest, Sunday we go to a Bengali speaking church and then Monday is home. Second weeks are always the fastest..... Good news today - I had FRESH toast WITH butter for breakfast (instead of cold toast without yesterday) and our air conditioning was mended so I might sleep tonight....! The small things make a huge difference. 

We spent another day with freeset today - this time we were putting waterproof covers at the windows so that the screen printers stay dry in the crazy rain (the area around the freeset factory flooded knee deep earlier in the week - there was a picture in the newspaper of a boy swimming in the water). We heard more of the vision for the future (which was very exciting - they are praying that if it is God's will he will create a way for it to happen) ..... and learned of the UK distributor of their bags - checkout 

As our time in India comes to a close we've been thinking about how we might have changed, what has inspired us and what it might prompt us to do or change when we get back home. We've seen a lot, much of it still needs time to sink in and be processed. As we were praying tonight I was very aware of how God created each one of the group beautifully different and brought us all to India for different reasons. My brain still needs more time to work through all of this, but these verses from Colossians sum up what we have seen and experienced in action through the projects we have visited in the past couple of weeks and through our time together as a team.

'So - chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive and offence. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It's your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without love.'
                                                                                          Colossians 3:12-14

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Living Hope

Driving through Kolkata we enter Salt Lake - the up and coming IT district of Kolkata. All around us are shiny office blocks and new build flats in different colours. Hundreds and hundreds of young adults head for work. We drive on, through more building work, glimpsing lives that feel the closest to the UK cities that we have been since we've been here... Between the office blocks and high rise we have a glimpse of another world - old Kolkata - where people live in traditional small houses made of brick, mud and corrugated iron. Living in the shadows of the commercial future.....

We cross a bridge over a small stretch of water and we enter that world that lives in the shadows of the shiny new. As we walk down the mud path we pass through a settlement of small houses. These are brick maker's houses and the houses of people who collect useful rubbish to make stuff from or sell on - their poverty is clearly evident. We attract the normal stares that a group of white westerners attracts and the silence contrasts with the busyness of the Kolkata traffic jams we have just left. 

At the end of the track is a small building, built by the villagers themselves - the New Hope School - a school for local children. Set up by a visionary couple who are hands on in running the school alongside two young men from the local community it gives the children opportunity to learn where they might not have before. It is a place where they can hear about the Gospel and see people actually act out the Kingdom of God Jesus talks about. Some children are encouraged by the school to go to high school so that they can take their education further and their lives can be transformed from the poverty they now live in. It focuses on the development of the community.

There were four sewing machines in the room - strange for a school of young children. it was explained that they were trying to reach out further into the community - giving women the opportunity to stand on their own feet by teaching them a skill. Again the women are taught about the love of God and that love is demonstrated through the actions of the people who are teaching it. 

Of all the schools this one spoke to me most - working in the community, for the community and with the community, embodying that community with the love of Christ. Sometimes it is easier to take people out of where they are familiar with to change lives. This was about changing from within - transformational love. 

After visiting the school we made a surprise visit to William Carey's church. It was established in 1809. We got a chance to stand in the pulpit where William Carey had preached from. It was exciting to see some of our Baptist history right in front of our eyes. William Carey has inspired me from when I first heard about him as a teenager and when you see the impact he had in Kolkata and around it inspires even further. 

Inspired, humbled and probably slightly overwhelmed we were taken out for dinner to a Chinese restaurant. We couldn't help but see it as a sign of the contrast of our abundant wealth compared to what we had seen earlier in the day. 

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Thunder, Maths and Whirlwinds

Somebody said that the second week would go much faster, and it has so far. Can't believe it's Wednesday already! Today we have experienced some dramatic thunderstorms - the thunder just kept coming and coming... very loudly! It then rained very hard for a while, I even had to get my rain coat out that I bought to deal with the weather in the North West. It means the roads are covered in puddles and my shoes that must not be named squeak as I walk.

This morning we went to visit the Divine Fellowship School for the Blind. The School was set up by a visionary man who saw how blind people were not accepted in Indian society as having any sort of future (they couldn't work, they couldn't get married....) to provide them with an education so that they could have a future. He started small but the school now has about 100 pupils.

We arrived to the sound of drums as the school assembly began and then we sang with them and acted out the parable of the sower (I was the seed that fell on rocky ground - I wasn't as good as the seed who fell on the path who got very scared by the birds!). We then had a tour of the school. 

I was most fascinated by the teaching of writing (in Braille) and Maths (of course). The inspirational methods of teaching to suit the pupils needs are fantastic. For Maths to write out a sum they had a metal peg that must have been a dodecagon with a line across it which was turned 36 degrees to represent each different number which placed in a peg board. The operator signs were done in a similar way but with the other end of the metal peg. I then just wanted to know how they took Maths further and regret not asking.

The school fits in with the theme that keeps coming back - that of transformation. These are people who might not have had a future, but given this opportunity to learn are able to get jobs (and so often are welcomed back by their families) and go to university. All of this again motivated by the love of God. 

I was reading again when Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment is. He says love God and love your neighbour as your yourself. The Divine School is an example of a vision motivated by that love for neighbours, seeing the potential in all, using that love to change lives.

The school has expanded a lot since the beginning... from a few small classrooms to a new two storey with the potential to be three storey building. The vice principal was very aware of and blessed by God's provision.

This afternoon we went shopping with Rebecca, who has come back to India for a second time after coming with a BMS Action Team. This was a totally different experience to the market. We were sat down as we looked around with a cup of chai..... less pressure, more browsing time! The shop looked like a whirlwind had hit it after we left - I think they showed Louise every top in the place.....but it was nice to be looked after and see another bit of Kolkata shopping.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Big Life continued....

The second day out in the villages with the Big Life Ministries. This time we went south and it was a much shorter drive with less pot holes. It rained for most of the day on and off so it was much cooler but a lot more muddy!

Walking through the village was a surreal experience and felt like a dream. There were palm trees on every side, the road was too narrow for a normal car (but could fit an auto-rickshaw, just about !), there were green pools and brown pools surrounding us, goats and cows and chickens that were not concerned about human company. It was beautiful.

We began at the local Big Life House Church, which was mostly women, a few men and a couple of children. We sang songs and shared testimony. The testimonies of the women were ones of blessings through the small things when life is really hard. We were told that for some of the women, as they had converted to Christianity, their husbands resented it, and as a consequence their home life became difficult. I really felt for these women who had all sorts of other troubles, around poverty and family life but who could still testify to God's greatness. We spent some time praying for the women before they left to go further into the village. 

The rest of the day was taken up by going to homes to which the church had been invited to pray for the house and to talk to them about our faith. This kind of thing seems alien in a western culture where we keep our selves to our selves in our houses and don't like being intruded on. In this situation, however, it felt natural and welcomed, even when the householders disagreed with the people from the church. Most of the conversations were conducted in Bengali, but it was interesting to watch and listen to the conversations to try and understand what was happening. 

It has been really interesting to be part of Big Life the last few days and to see how they work. Their passion and commitment sets a great example and is something we all commented on. There is so much we can learn from that at home......

Monday, 9 July 2012

Big Life

Sunday - Church - arrived in a hall rented from a Methodist building to the Big Life Church. It was an English speaking service and felt very familiar. The chairs were out when we arrived, but the rest of the setting up was still going on (reminding me of setting up at Junction in Derby every week). At first we thought the service looked a bit empty but the congregation gradually trickled in and by 10.35am the church was reasonably full. The preacher was Brazilian, but am not sure where from, and preached for a long time! We had that dreaded 'will the visitors please stand up' moment but after that we were handed a welcome pack with a pen, a bookmark and a tract along with some other stuff..... the service finished and then we joined them in a small cup of chai, which as sweet tea goes was very nice! Sunday was finished with rest and watching Andy Murray lose in the tennis with a picnic tea in the boys bedroom.

Monday - we travelled north out of Kolkata to a small village on the border with Bangladesh. The village was in the middle of human made ponds where we could see people fishing for shrimps and crabs between the brick works. It was like being by the sea side in smell (most of the time) and breeze, which made things feel good!

When we arrived at the village the Big Life Ministries were serving the community through a health clinic and then through distribution of medicines. The queues for the clinic were huge but the crowds got bigger as we arrived! There was a football match going on in the pond next to the building we were in (yes, IN the pond) which was very interesting.... 

It wasn't long before we were approached by a woman who wanted us to go and pray in her house. We walked with one of the Big Life Pastors down to her house - a mud hut about 10 minutes walk away - and gathered children on the journey fascinated by our cameras and our strange hats I think! On arrival in the house we told some stories, sang some songs, and then Rosemary gave a short message which was continued by the Big Life Pastor who continued to preach in Bengali. It was an honour to be inside the house and view the relationships being built. We were offered a cup of chai and biscuits and felt like honoured guests. 

After leaving the house we walked back up the road and there was a shout from the back. A  man had asked Andrew and Louise into his home as his daughter had a fever. He wanted prayer. It was an honour to be standing at the back and be part of that and as we read the story of Jairus' daughter tonight that experience brought a different view point on that story. The Father later went to get the doctor from the clinic and we prayed for her again tonight that God would answer our prayers and work through the medicine. 

We spent some more time with the children, although the heat was getting to me (it was HOT), so I missed some of it. The people in the village were very open to the visitors and appreciated hearing what they had to say.

Let's see what tomorrow brings. 

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Tourists in a city of contrasts

Today we were proper tourists with the look of proper tourists. Here is Andrew looking like a tourist.

We were dropped off at the Victoria Memorial Hall. An impressive building that was built in 1921 in memory of Queen Victoria (which you'd expect!), driven by Lord Curzon. It suggested a British stamp of authority and grandeur on a city that was increasingly rising up against British rule. A man asked me if I was from the US, I said that I was English - he told me that I had built this, I was sort of embarrassed because of everything it represented....  It was interesting reading the history of the British rule and the uprising that led to India's independence. William Carey was mentioned as the compiler of the first Bengali dictionary, which was exciting as we are here with the BMS. 

We then tried to go to St Paul's Cathedral and Louise was up for doing a mock up of the occupy protest, but it was closed 12-3, so we were disappointed. We ended up eating our lunch beside a statue of Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1984. While eating our lunch an Indian family tried to take surreptitious photos of us as strange westerners but then stopped being secretive and asked us to stand with them for a photo. Slightly surreal.....

Our journey took us next to the Museum of India, after travelling through lines of mouth watering street food stalls which we avoided (for fear of illness) but I craved after. The museum of India is like across between the British Museum and the Natural History Museum, but smaller, hotter and less well looked after. A bit 'Night at the Museum' especially as the Cheetah's glass had cracked where it had clearly tried to get out. By this point we were flaking out and needed a rest (here are Andrew, Louise and John resting!).

We then braved a trip to New Market, where we split up into pairs to try and avoid being conspicuous. It didn't work as immediately on entering the market area Jon and I were followed by at least 3 'guides' who were working on commission. While Jon was buying presents one of the guides looked me up and down and said 'you need clothes' and proceeded to get out piles and piles of shirts...... an experience I was expecting but wasn't expecting at the same time. We caught an auto rickshaw home to Hotel Heaven, which had it's scary moments, but we wanted to do it to get a feel for a 'true' Kolkata experience after being driven around all week.

It was good to spend time seeing the sites and doing our own thing, but you still never get away from the poverty and the amazing varieties in people and what they have and what they are doing. We were dropped off outside a shiny landrover garage and then walked past people sleeping on the street as we went back to the hotel. 

A city of mind blowing contrasts..... 

I loved this image - at the gates of the Victoria Memorial Hall. It reminded me of the story of the Happy Prince which speaks of a self sacrificing care for the poor, very relevant for the things I have seen this week. 

Friday, 6 July 2012

Bags and Choices

It's Friday and I've been here five days. This morning the noise felt really loud.... you would have thought I'd got used to that by now! Was woken up by some loud bangs in the night (which can't have all been one of the team who got stuck in the bathroom and had to be broken out....!). 

A later start this morning, which was nice.... felt a little bit more human. A gentler day too, but also challenging in lots of different ways. We went to visit freeset. This business was set up by a New Zealand couple and their family who were called to India to work and felt led to work in the red light district in Kolkata - providing opportunities for women who would be on the streets to work to produce fair trade bags, and now t-shirts.... It's a huge factory, with lots of things going on. When we arrived they were having their morning devotions, which we joined in with by doing the actions to the Bengali songs..... before going to work on the hundreds of sewing machines, cutting machines, screen printing machines etc etc plus those who were finishing and cutting by hand. 

I spent the day sitting on the floor cutting the threads off bags to finish them off. It gave time and space to process what has been happening this week. 

Freeset is about women being given the choice to change their lives. They are not made to give up their former life, only encouraged to. There are still women who work on the streets for all sorts of reasons while working there (which makes me very sad), but freeset enables life transformation that might not otherwise be possible. I was surprised by the choice thing.... but if people are going to be free then they need to be free to make their own choices. 

Thursday, 5 July 2012


Today has been long..... we were picked up by bus at 8.10ish (same as yesterday so should be used to it....) by the Good News Mission School's bus which this time contained two extra adults so was full to overflowing. We let the children off at the school we visited yesterday and then stayed on with the babies and toddlers to head to the Good News creche. I was handing a crying girl for the journey, who later fell asleep as she settled on me. How she did that I don't know as the journey was to the outskirts of Kolkata down some of the most pot holed and narrow places I've seen a bus go down (encountering the normal Kolkata traffic).

We arrived at the creche and the children were undressed, washed, dried and dressed again in different clothes while their own clothes were put in the wash. They then settled down to some singing, praying and the story of Jonah (a story I've been thinking about a lot lately....!). These are street children who would, if they weren't at the creche would be spending the day on the streets. The Good News Mission gives them hope of getting off the street. Sounds simple, but is life transforming, and quite amazing. Those who are marginalised are given opportunity. 

We left the children with their breakfast and went first to the Good News School, which is about 17km out of Kolkata. The children there are from the local community where they are given space to learn in a free school. They are hoping to build a bakery beside the school so that they can provide bread for all of the Good News Mission Schools rather than buy it in. 

After that very organised school we then went to visit the Boys and Girls Hostels (separate Hostels). These hostels take in street children who live and learn as part of the community - girls on the site of the hostel and boys in the original mission school. The students are encouraged to value education and are being taught that there is life beyond the streets. Alongside they are taught about the hope that Jesus brings and how they can depend on God. The prayer times in both of these places was amazing - the children all prayed at once, loudly, and you could feel the faith and hope in their prayers. I have been part of prayer sessions like that, but these ones were particularly powerful. We were asked to bless the children as the prayed, which was a huge privilege. 

What we encountered today was a huge living opportunity for transformation. The vision for these children is much bigger than what we saw yesterday - it goes right from toddlers to hoping that people will end up going to university - in which the mission continues to support them. The impact on their lives is massive. The sad thing is that there are children who start on the programme but end up leaving to earn badly needed money for their family. How can those children's lives continue to be transformed?

I've taken loads of photos today, particularly of the children who kept on asking for photos. I look like an explosion (my hair has done that crazy humid air thing), am very tired (the bus driver got lost in a bus with no windscreen wipers in the rain on the way home..!) and am ready for bed as I prepare for tomorrow....... I'll probably add some photos to this post tomorrow, but for now it will be just words! 

In writing this I have realised how huge today has been. God is doing big things....

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

A bus ride and a little bit of maths

So I caught up on sleep and am very grateful for air conditioning. I have learned the value of earplugs as a necessity, eaten good food and moved bedrooms so I don't have to share a double bed. There are the luxuries....

Before tea last night we had a briefing on what we are going to do in the next couple of weeks, alongside some really nice cake..... We met with a group of enthusiastic pastors and leaders of projects who told us about the things we will be doing.

It' just gone lunchtime here (the same as last night, veg curry, potato curry, rice, ice cream with the addition of dahl - but as Richard said, that kind of repetition is the kind of repetition we like..) and we are resting before we go shopping for suitable local clothes for some of the places we are going to be visiting in the next few days. 

This morning we had our first experience of one of the projects the BMS supports, and our first experience of having to get up and do stuff with a two second warning. 

We visited the Good News Mission School and I got to teach some maths (which took me back...). Children are picked up by bus (along with us for today and tomorrow) and taken to the school - a small hut which, when you thought about it, was not big enough for 50 students! It was about half as big as my classroom last year, which was not big enough for 35....! It was good fun and they clearly loved it, even the girl who didn't want to do hard take-aways was very happy to be there and even happier when I marked her book.... (she got them right).

It made me remember when I talked to my class at school about how they hated school and had to go and it wasn't fair. These children loved being picked up, being fed and being looked after, but not only that, clearly loved the learning and the opportunity they have been given.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Hotel Heaven

Sitting in the reception of Hotel Heaven, I have had two hours sleep in the last twenty five, travelled about seven thousand miles (I think) and am listening to the sounds of beeping horns which I'm sure I will forever associate with Kolkata. My first meal is cheese sandwiches and the spiciest crisps ever..... they actually hurt more than the spiciest ones I had before.

It's difficult to explain how it is here, apart from the fact it is exactly as you might imagine it. It's busy. It's noisy. It's hot. The air is so humid that I left my lovely air conditioned room and my glasses steamed up so I couldn't see until I got to another air conditioned room. The journey from the airport to the hotel took us through a lot of amazing and quite bizarre sites. People on mopeds with sandals and umbrellas, cows by the side of the road and being driven on the road. People pulled carts, bicycle pulled carts, motorized rickshaws, full to the brim buses and hundreds of yellow taxis all jostling for space on a road with no lanes. Yes, people do go in the wrong direction on the wrong side of the road, yet I did not see anyone crash or fall off their bike. 

I'm ready then to be challenged, to be surprised, to be disturbed even..... at the moment it all feels a bit unreal, but it is very real, I'm very here, very now.....

On with the adventure.....

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Generous Owners and the like....

I'm in the middle of packing for India, lists all over the place that can't quite be completed..... an element of confusion about what I really need to be taking. I'm a rubbish packer, but for this trip I'm trying to be a good packer. It's hard! I'd quite like somebody to pack fro me please. 

One of my problems with packing today is that I keep being distracted by this verse from Matthew, and it's niggling me:

".....are you envious because I'm generous?"  Matthew 20:15b

We thought about it a little this morning in the service. Do we sometimes get envious because we see God at work in places we don't go or with people we don't like.....? 

It's a hard question to answer, that one from Matthew. I'd like to say no, but then something niggles at me and says that sometimes, perhaps, I am........

The verse is from a parable about the Kingdom of heaven - the vineyard owner gives each worker equal pay, whether they started work at the beginning or end of the day. The ones who have worked harder believed they deserved more, but the generous owner believed everyone deserved the same. 

This week I have been amazed at God's provision, and I am feeling very blessed that God has given me the opportunity to go to India to see the work that the Baptist Missionary Society is doing in Kolkata. I'm praying that the team I am going with (Louise, Jon, Andrew, Richard and Rosemary) and I will be given new insight into what the Kingdom of God means in a situation and culture that is entirely different to our own. 

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Releasing and Trusting

I had a church related nightmare last night. I forgot something very important. I also forgot the thing that could help me remember the thing that I forgot that was very important.

Church related nightmares are different to teaching ones. Teaching ones always involved other people making your life difficult. Church ones involve you letting other people down. I don't get them very often, but when I do I wake up feeling disorientated and confused...... 

This morning I was reading Job 38. Job is reminded by God of his greatness. 

"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements - surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone 
when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?"
                                                                                              Job 38:4-7

There are so many times that we try to deal with things in our own strength when actually God is much bigger than that. When we pray we don't always expect real practical answers - God created the world yet we limit him to 'maybe' prayers. 

Over the past few days I've once again been reminded that God does things way beyond our expectations. 

In five days I go to India. I don't really know what to expect when I get there, so I haven't been worried about that. I have been more worried about the practical stuff. I often find it easier to trust God with the stuff I don't know than the stuff I do - stuff I can more easily control causes me greater worry. 

God has blessed me in the stuff I can control though, time and time again. It reminds me that so often I just need to let go of my grip and let God get on with it. Anything is possible.