Taking it personally

This week I have come to Thun in Switzerland, which looks just like the illustration on the front of a Milka bar.  Here in the foothills of the Alps I have been submerged, you might say rebaptised, into the strange world of professional Christian poverty-fighters.

We’re an odd bunch: an eclectic mix of 320ish people, of more than 50 nationalities, gathered daily around tables with our regulation conference bag and some strong Swiss coffee.  The Micah Network.

At the beginning of these events I often look around and wonder “how has this become my world?” (After 8 years, I figure I need to own up to it, to some degree).

But then in amongst the strange lingo, the hodge-podge of language and culture, and the complicated schedule (which really has to run on time or the Swiss get anxious), there are moments of transcendence.

One morning we heard from a Russian former-communist who shared his experience of becoming a Christian and being sent to prison camp in Siberia.  One night his teeth were punched out individually while a Muslim was made to read him the verse in the Bible commanding him to turn the other cheek.  He told us that the ability to love and to forgive does not come naturally, but is a miraculous gift of God.

Compassion, in this man’s mouth, was not pity or soft-heartedness.  It was a costly and painful transplant that stopped the fist of the guard: “Stop LOVING me”.

Another women shared how many years ago her husband had left to look for work in anther country, never to return, and she had so little to offer her children she was on the verge of having to feed them grass.  Her pastor told her that her suffering was brought on by her own sin.

Amazingly she was able to start a small business with other women in her community, and was supported and trained by an international organisation, and years later was able to love and support her pastor’s family when they lost all they had.  She had held nothing against him.

That is compassion that costs us our perceived rights to grudges and retribution, at our hands or anyone else’s.

At its best moments, this conference has not been about my professional work.  It has been a gathering that has spoken of hearts and asked something deeper and more significant that my conscientious efforts from 9-5.

Even today, as I chatted to a wonderful, anarchic Aussie friend, I was struck by the reality that this depth of compassion is never something that can be transmitted fully by an organisation or programme.  It is necessarily personal.

I love the line in the film ‘You’ve Got Mail’ when Meg Ryan’s character criticises the company who put her out of business for saying “it’s not personal, it’s business.” “What’s so wrong with being personal?” she asks. “Whatever else something is, it ought to begin by being personal”.

And maybe it should stay personal too, somehow.

You can probably tell that it’s personal stories that have struck me most deeply this week. They humble me.  And I realise how much they have changed me in the last eight years. This strange group of people have, in that time, re-shaped and anchored the way I see the world. Not just this particular group of conference delegates, but the wider family of which they’re a part.  And my challenge is not to let these people, these truths and experiences, settle slowly like sand on a seabed into a generalised attitude or posture in the world.   It has to become more personal, not less.

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I love Paris in the Springtime, especially when people get healed.

“I love Paris, oh why, oh why do I love Paris? Because my love is there..” sang Ella Fitzgerald, and she was right – here he is!

Last week I got to travel with the husband, which was exciting, and not just because Paris is the city of love, or because it was also the city of brilliant sunshine during our stay (both of which helped)…but because of what we were there for.  We spent three and a half days at the L’Eglise Reformee du Marais, a beautiful old church right by Place de la Bastille where there is some amazing and beautiful work afoot.

We were invited by our friends Bob and Gracie who are living there for a year.  They’re an inspiring pair themselves.  They used to live in community in rural Honduras alongside campesinos, where they taught sustainable farming, preventative health and led Bible studies. Then they’ve mainly lived in Washington State since then, working with Central American Immigrants, prison inmates and people who are homeless. (Check out Bob’s excellent blog) But they’ve moved to Paris for a year because they’ve been so inspired by what Gilles Boucomont and his team are up to at the church.

I love France.  I love the wine and the cheese and the baguettes.  But I have rarely heard anything especially exciting or inspiring about the modern day church in France.  There is of course the amazing priest Jean Vanier who set up L’Arche (people living in community with those with a mental disability). but after him I get stuck for inspiration.

But what we experienced was amazing.  And I’m trying to work out how to describe it because it’s totally un-pc and irrational.  They pray for people to be delivered from all kinds of things that lock them up. Addictions. Cancer. Abusive relationships. Generational patterns. Curses. And they have incredible stories of people’s lives being completely changed. We met people who had been healed of brain tumours, and others from deep emotional wounds which were defining their whole lives. The team pray out evil spirits, like in the Bible, but not in a hyped up, scary kind of a way; or a ‘quick, he’s gay, he must have a demon, cast it out’ way; more in a compassionate, unforced, down-to-earth ‘we think this stuff is real and so we’re going to confront it’ kind of way.  And starting with the Jesus-like question – do you want to be free?

I’ve been around some of that stuff in poorer parts of the world; I’ve heard it shouted about a lot by Americans; but in Western Europe, the heart of rationalism and secularism, it was more unexpected.

This is a bit different to previous blog entries.  It’s easier to write about less controversial or overtly spiritual things.  But these things we heard and saw in France genuinely give me hope, even in spite of knowing plenty stories about how this kind of thing gets twisted and misused.  I think that there’s more to humans than our appetites, our education level or even our relationships, and I think profound change affects more than just individual lives, it affects families and communities and societies.  I’m not about enforcing something spiritual on people, but I can’t write off the enormous change I’ve seen in people which has come about through seemingly inexplicable supernatural means (well, I guess it’s only inexplicable if you don’t believe in God).

I don’t think just praying for people is the answer, any more than I think just feeding them or giving them computer lessons is.  Change is  complicated. But I think the French team we met, and the thousands of Christians working in similar ways, are seeing extraordinary and wonderful things happen – things which have left me feeling more full of hope and faith than anything else for a long time.

“Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”   John Wesley