Archive for April, 2010

// shock and awe

Last night at the youth group that I’m involved in running, we watched Louie Giglio’s DVD “Indescribable”. Maybe you’ve seen it. It’s quite a famous talk, with pictures of stars and everything. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend that you go and watch it now or at least as soon as possible, by clicking here. It is breathtaking.

It is the sort of thing that breaks your brain, though. You literally cannot get your head around it, and it explodes large parts of your theology if you try. It just can’t be done. It’s kind of scary, really. I think it’s what people say when they talk about how God is awesome, because it leaves you kind of stunned, a bit fearful, like you don’t know where to go next.

We sat on the yellow sofas that are getting more and more stained at the year goes on, seven of us in total maybe, and we asked the question to our youth, so, what did you think?

Some people talked about how huge God was. Some talked about how small they were. One guy said that he read Psalm 8 and it said in his bible how many stars they estimated were in the known universe so he calculated the energy that God had when He spoke the world into being. But nobody knew what to do with it. The thing is, that kind of knowledge isn’t the sort of thing that you can just carry around in the abstract. Your brain doesn’t have the words for it.

Every word you could imagine, all the terms that you would ordinarily use to describe God – “good”, “all-powerful”, “omnipotent”, whatever – they all fall apart when it comes to something like that. Your only response is praise, and even then it’s praise in ineloquent, inarticulate words. It’s a little like trying to express the beauty of someone you love – you can try, and there are words that exist to do that, but they all fall short. You can tell the girl in front of you that she is beautiful; you can tell her that she is the most beautiful woman you have ever seen, even. But it still falls short of expressing what she actually is and what you actually want to say…

It’s like when Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey and the disciples cry out “blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” and the Pharisees tell him to shut up, and then Jesus says, “I tell you, if they were silent, the very rocks would cry out.” There are some things so incredible that you just can’t stay silent about them, that the only response is an inelegant cry and a changed life. Where praise – both in words and actions – are the only choice, because staying silent will destroy you.

Last night we asked our youth what they would do with what they had seen. The question was hard, and nobody answered. They stared at their feet and changed the subject. It’s not surprising. Because something so shocking, so awe-inspiring, it breaks your theology. If you see it, you can’t go back, and that means that you can’t go back to the place where things are comfortable, where things are easy and they make sense and you can go on in the same way that you have always done.

Meister Eckhart once wrote, “that which we cannot speak of we must leave in silence.” Peter Rollins disagrees. He wrote, “that which we cannot speak of is the one thing about whom and to whom we must never stop speaking.”

We either refuse to process what we have seen of God and we go on in the methods, structures and ideas that we have relied upon for some time, or we continue on into greater awe, greater wonder, greater mystery. The awe is a place of real fear, where the ending is uncertain and we do not know what will come next or how we will deal with it. But it is the fear of God, and I believe that is the beginning of wisdom.

I will never understand God completely – but I know enough of Him to know that He is incredible, and He is good. That is not an endpoint, it is just a starting point. I am excited to know more of Him, and the more I see the ways that He is at work the more amazed I am. I am less interested in knowing all the attributes of God in abstract than I am in seeing them stretched across the world, in those heavens that display the glory of God. My praise is inadequate, but I will keep praising Him nonetheless. I have spent too long trying to decipher God, and not enough time trying to know Him.

I hope I am still able to change.

// psalm 1

This term at the youth group i’m involved in running we’re studying the Psalms, and we’ve been trying to come up with some more creative presentations of the Psalms in order to keep people from simply disengaging from what’s being said the moment we pick up the Bible.

One way in which we’re doing this through short videos, small enough to put on an ipod, where the Psalm will be read with some kind of illustration or appropriate location. You can see the first one here, and although it’s not wildly imaginative, it seemed to be pretty effective when we played it on Saturday. You should be able to download it for the next week by right-clicking here and selecting “Save Link As”, or via the Vimeo site itself.

I’d also love any of your suggestions on what this could look like across this term – we’re filming another one later this afternoon on Psalm 8 and are hoping to get more and more creative as the term goes on. The only real constraint is that the Psalm in question has to be read somewhere, but other than that, feel free to let your imagination run wild.

Fingers crossed i’ll be posting them here for the next term, so watch this space.

On a similar note, somebody put me onto Jonny Baker’s magnificent alternative worship blog a couple of weeks back and there’s something really exciting about seeing the range of creative presentations of this stuff that’s out there – i never realised that there’s such a growing community, but some of the stuff that’s going on below the surface of mainstream church life is really exciting, so keep your eyes peeled for that too…

// happy birthday, and thanks

A little over a year ago, I started writing thoughts about God, or challenges that He was throwing at me at that particular time, on this site. It started during a revision period for my final exams at Oxford (where I was studying English literature) and it was partly designed to force me to think about something other than English during that period. But eventually it ended up outlasting the degree, and now I’m a year on, and I honestly never thought it would last this long.

That said, I’m glad it did. The discipline of trying to observe and articulate how God relates to us and speaks through this world has been so worthwhile, and has forced me to look at the world with new eyes. I’m almost invariably amazed at what I find, and life with that continual sense of meditation and wonder is a gift that I wouldn’t have believed that I deserved. Of course, I don’t deserve it – that’s why it all comes down to grace anyway.

But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m very glad for it – and I highly recommend it.

And the same goes for everyone who’s been reading over the past year, too. You guys are great. Thank you for your feedback and for your constructive criticism. Thank you for not mocking me for writing a blog (people always spit that word with such disdain), or, even if you mocked me, for reading it anyway. I’m consistently surprised that people do read, because much of the time I don’t know that my thoughts are that fascinating or articulate, but I’m thankful that you do…

Finally, a huge thank you to all the guest contributors to whom I gave access to this site recently – it has been a joy reading what God is doing in your lives, and a pleasure reading the way in which you have expressed that. I will undoubtedly appeal for contributions again, but if you want to post something before that then feel free – just please let me know, and ideally identify yourself as not me when you do.

This is not as articulate as it could be – I could try to be cleverer, I suppose, but basically I just wanted to say thanks, and to spin that out would take another few days. So, thanks.

Let’s keep talking. I would love to hear your stories too, and if you have something that you want to share, whether that’s thoughts, testimonies or creative ideas on faith, then send me an email at tjcarlisle87@gmail.com and I’ll see what I can do.

***

By the way, below are a few of my favourite posts from the past year – well, the ones I enjoyed writing, at least, or that people told me that they liked. If you missed them, here they are:

// law, grace and running

// this is what love looks like

// the reason we live and the reason we sing (5-part series, starting here)

// broken church

// madness and civilisation

// india – people

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth and final day of recollections of an intern mission trip to work with Asha Bhawan, the Indian incarnation of the drug rehab charity Betel, in early April 2010. Day One and Introduction can be found here, Day Two can be found here, Day Three here and Day Four here]

(courtesy of Ben Osborne)

Our team of six – the intern guys, plus Owen – arrive in Guwahati after 27 hours on a train, set our bags down in the room and then are almost immediately told that we have to leave for church again. So we pile back into a jeep and a few minutes later we are at the room that passes for church, painted in the standard Betel colours (white and blue), and with flags displaying the phone numbers of Betels worldwide all around the room. Another ceiling fan, another battered guitar and another group of maybe 60 former drug addicts who have obviously been waiting just for us to arrive.

We take our seats together at the front of the room and a man steps up to the lectern and says something in Hindi, and then the room stands up around us. Evidently, he is a worship leader, then, and this is a time of worship.

And then he launches into an animated rendition of a song called “Jesus is the winner man” that promptly reduces a number of us into suffocating fits of laughter. The lyrics go something like this:

Jesus is the winner man, the winner man, the winner man

Jesus is the winner man, winner man, all the time!

CHORUS:

Winner man (x8), winner man, all the time!

It gets even better when the second verse, “Satan is the loser being”, kicks in, and I look across at Owen and Ben, whose shoulders are shaking as silent tears roll down their cheeks. We just about last until the final verse, “We are on the winning side”, and then I think someone picks up a guitar and plays Chris Tomlin instead, and so we’re safe.

***

(courtesy of Ben Osborne)

At the Guwahati house we meet Hazarika, who shakes all our hands enthusiastically – and for a second too long – as he introduces himself to us. He is an ex-alcoholic and maintains some of the habits; his speech is slightly slurred, his manner slightly off-balance and he keeps wiping his mouth with the back of his hand as though violently thirsty. Some of this comes from an accident he had twenty years ago whilst working on a tea plantation, which has left him with metal plates in his legs and with some slight brain damage. All that said, though, he comes from a well-respected Assamese family and it shows; his hospitality, albeit rather odd, is second to none, he is easily the best-dressed resident of Asha Bhawan we meet and he is a top-quality translator.

He is also now addicted to one rupee boiled sweets. Jez goes out to sell calendars for a day with him and returns with twenty or so, which he scatters across the table. He is ever so slightly mad, but as Ben comments at one point, “put him in an Oxford lecture hall and he’d be sorted”.

On our second night in Guwahati, Jez, Roland and myself head out with him on a pastry run, an attempt to build relationships with the guys in the house. It starts badly when we jump into the van half an hour late, having eaten dinner later than planned, and so the whole thing takes on a slightly manic approach as we attempt to get around before the pastry shops all close. This is evidently a nightly routine. Got to have your morning samosa, after all.

Tonight, though, we are being driven around by Sunil, a moustachioed former addict who only arrived from Asha Bhawan Calcutta a week ago and doesn’t yet know the roads. He also drives like they drive in Calcutta – that is to say, like a lunatic, weaving in and out of traffic at high speed and terrifying any cyclists who dare get in his way.

From the back of the van, Hazarika yells instructions at Sunil as we head down main streets at high speed. “Go! Here! Turn! No, back! Turn around! Down there! Yes!” Every now and again the van slows to around 10mph and one of us is ordered out by Hazarika. Once, we slow down and Jez is ordered out of the van. “Here!” Hazarika says firmly, handing me a bucket with one hand on my arm. “This is important! Don’t forget! This must go to the men!” He jumps out of the van and races into a shop, and when they re-emerge he tells me that the bucket in my hand is going to the children’s house. I am bewildered, but when I question him, he tells me, I am wrong, why do I not listen? We drive off, and he hands me a boiled sweet – by way of apology, I think. I look at the buckets for the men’s, women’s and children’s houses at our feet. They are identical.

Thanks to Sunil’s mad Calcuttan driving skills, we hit nine or ten pastry shops in an hour and a half and fill our buckets with a whole range of pastries. “Come come! We must go! Down here!” Hazarika shouts at Sunil from the back. “Do you like pastries? Here we will get the best pastries!” We stop and I clamber out of the van so Hazarika can introduce me to his cousin. (Although, as far as I can tell, there are no pastries involved.) Still, each to their own – when they go out to sell calendars in the next few days Owen and Jez each receive a packet of Assamese tea that does look distinctly like cannabis.

And then amidst the chaos, Hazarika stops and asks, “would you like some chai?

We stop, and for five minutes, drink some tiny shots of tea by the roadside without a care in the world. And then we jump back in the van and get more pastries. Of course.

***

(courtesy of Hannah Tenbeth)

When I first meet Mouscan in the Delhi children’s house she has just been taught to blow raspberries by Hannah Tenbeth, and proceeds to demonstrate this new talent at every available opportunity, drenching me with spittle as she clings onto my shoulder. She is three years old and, in spite of myself, I fall in love with her instantly. She is such a tangible story of hope; Asha Bhawan started an orphanage in the first place because women kept coming off drugs, recovering to a certain level and then leaving, and in the process leaving their children at the houses. I never saw her when she came in, but to see her now, praying prayers of astonishing maturity and climbing into bed to comfort a sick Charlotte Webb, it’s clear that what is happening here is something pretty incredible…

A week later we return briefly to the Delhi children house before being driven to the Grand Hotel, and I chase her around the house and dangle her upside down by her ankles. She screams with delight (I hope) and I feel… paternal. Perhaps it’s just an unexpected consequence of this intern year, though. Alarmingly, it’s not even the first time it’s happened.

In my time in India I have probably spent fifteen minutes around Mouscan, but the memory of her sticks with me even as we head back home.

***

(courtesy of Ben Osborne)

In Guwahati we also meet David, a high-school teacher from a Christian family who speaks incredible English. He has, in fact, been an English teacher, and we chat about Macbeth and his love of Othello before he tells us about how he got into drugs. This is his fourth time in Asha Bhawan – he has been in the programme in Calcutta twice, and once in Delhi, but keeps going back. “But God just won’t let me go!” he tells me. “This time it’s for real.”

I hope he lasts. In the lounge he tells us his story, and it’s hard to know what to say to it. I have no experience of drug addiction and anything I have to offer in the way of advice sounds pretty trite. I mutter a prayer and hope that God will communicate something just through my being there. After all, Paul claims in 2 Corinthians 4 (the passage that I was meditating on throughout this trip) that

What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said “let light shine out of darkness”, has shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

I guess we were never in India because we had all the answers, or even because we are especially good at this stuff. That was never the case, even if some of the guys we met here may have treated us like that.

So much for saving the world…

***

In the evenings we gratefully eat our over-salted vegetable stew on top of its mountain of rice and we watch terrible films on TV as a house – although at least they are terrible English films this time round. I am gutted when the story of Al Pacino’s lecturer, who has 88 minutes left to live in 88 Minutes, cuts out after only sixteen owing to a power cut, but I man up and get over it – we all have to make sacrifices for mission, after all. Instead we light candles and talk into the night.

In Guwahati there are far fewer dramatic happenings, although we do see a couple of elephants, which is fairly dramatic (Owen and Roland still insist that they saw people playing polo on elephants in Delhi, although I’ll believe that when I see it). But that’s okay, I think. Bethel, from which we get “Betel”, means “house of God” – it’s what Jacob called the place where he wrestled with God, when he declared that “surely God was in this place, and I was not aware of it.”

And God is here, sure he is. His people and His stories are amazing, wherever you have to go to hear them. But as I write this on a train back to Oxford, they all seem a very long way away, too. There is more to say, and more stories to tell, but, although reflection is important, tomorrow work starts again, and there are plenty of stories to hear (and live out) here as well.

Completely different issues and completely different contexts, but still God’s people – in all their hilarity, with all their quirks, hang-ups and issues.

For all the challenges that India posed, meeting those people and hearing their stories counts for a lot, and I’m inclined to keep it up. Because, like I’ve said a few times, this has only just begun.

And, mostly, I’m excited to see where it’s going next, too…

// india – mission and self-pity

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth day of recollections of an intern mission trip to work with Asha Bhawan, the Indian incarnation of the drug rehab charity Betel, in early April 2010. Day One and Introduction can be found here, Day Two can be found here, and Day Three here]

I lie on the bed in a thin shirt, languidly watching the ceiling fan with one hand on my stomach. The board that passes for a mattress above me is allegedly “termite-proof”, I note as I try to get some sleep in the suffocating midday heat, while, on the other side of the room Anil, the farm’s resident cook, snores like a man being strangled.

It is day five of our time in India, and I want to go home.

My stomach has been killing me for the past couple of days, and working in the chicken shed hasn’t exactly helped matters – when we arrived on the first night the residents told us that our job would involve “cutting” the chickens, and we soon found out what they meant. Actually, most of our job so far has been gutting the chickens (we lack the skills for killing, evidently) but this, coupled with the infamous Delhi Belly, hasn’t so far made for the most pleasant mission experience imaginable.

(courtesy of Sarah Pearmain)

Maybe it would be easier if we were visibly doing some good, I think. It’s easy to feel like we are dispensable here; during our time in Delhi four people leave the community, and they are replaced in the chicken shed the next day. Anybody could do this job, and so why have we flown across the world and paid for the privilege of doing it? We can’t even talk to most of the guys we live and work with, at least about things that are non-chicken related, and so much of this week has been spent talking to Roland and Owen – mostly about how much we hate working with the chickens. Are we really having any impact at all?

I can talk a good game, I realise, but what I really want is effect without effort. I want to see the world transformed without any work, or at least with minimal work on my part. It doesn’t matter who does the work, God or other people, but at the end of the day I think I want to be involved without getting my hands dirty.

(courtesy of Ben Osborne)

When your stomach hurts, when you’re covered in mosquito bites and when you can’t focus on your Bible because of the heat – when you can’t hear the voice of God – what then?

What do you do when you go halfway around the world and God goes silent? When people cut you open, do you bleed integrity or cowardice?

We start well in Delhi, admittedly, attempting to build relationships from day one – but it is exhausting, especially when the men we speak to know so little English and we know no Hindi. Small talk is hard enough at the best of times. And the job is hard, seriously hard. Much of our effort, mental and physical, simply goes into surviving each day. Every morning we trudge more and more slowly down the path to the shed, preparing ourselves for the mingled aromas of chicken blood and natural gas that we’ll be breathing for the next three hours. As we step in there are thousands of flies covering the room, and we start by clearing them, and then after half an hour or so the work proper begins when the chickens are brought in and executed above a bucket that we come to call the “Bucket of Death” (for obvious reasons). We pluck and gut them before handing them onto other men who chop and slice them for sending to the Korean restaurant where they will be sold.

For dinner, we are given the bits that can’t be sold. Mostly necks. And entrails.

Throughout, we are shamed by Owen Gallacher’s concrete altruism, always willing to go the distance, to sacrifice himself and work at building relationships with the other guys – even though he must be every bit as exhausted as us. We claim to be people who will go wherever it is that God calls us, but when God calls us to places that are dull, mundane or just plain hard, it turns out that what we really want is the glamour, after all.

By the end of the week, I want to assert that our time at the farm has been a failure. But then circumstances conspire to prove me wrong, as by the final night, after a week of graft and living as part of the community, each of us sit with residents of Asha Bhawan Delhi and have real (if stilted) conversations. Owen teaches the 15-year old Jonah, now an expert chicken-catcher, how to play the blues – and “What If God was One of Us?” – on the guitar; Roland and I sit with Michael, Aslam and Muhammed Ali and talk about life around the fire using charades; and much as I might have liked to argue otherwise, it turns out that this kind of community living actually really works.

I’m not sure I could have lasted another week, though.

***

After our 27-hour train journey to Assam, I am conscious of the fact that I no longer want to be a part of this team. Everything in my body cries out that it wants to go home.

(courtesy of Ben Osborne)

Because of the lack of seats when we were booking the train, we have been scattered throughout one carriage, in amongst Indian families who, variously, steal our beds, attempt to talk to us for the entire journey and stare at us for whole hours on end. The bunks are three high on either side and food is thrust upon us for the whole journey – for most of us, the best we’ve eaten in the past week (although we do at one point make the mistake of ordering the “Non-Veg Continental” option and open it to a suspicious-looking lump of chicken…) Notably, though, during our time in India, and specifically on this train journey, a number of people report their minds being filled throughout with voices whispering persuasive lies. And by the end of it, I am convinced that my fellow interns hate me, that they think I am a freak, without worth or value, and that they wish I would leave immediately – that life would be better without me.

There is nowhere to run here, and no one to turn to in a plea for help. Thang, one of our guides in Delhi, even told us that we should be careful in reading our Bibles – just in case we happened to meet any religious fanatics. I take mine out at one point and the family opposite glares at me. What is clearly spiritual attack is rebranded in my mind as “self-pity” and I hide in my bunk and turn my face to the wall, hoping that sleep will make it all stop. By the time we arrive in Guwahati I am exhausted and at my wit’s end, with literally nothing left to give. As we eat dinner, Owen asks, sincerely, if I am okay. It is evident that I am not.

I mumble, “it’s a long story.”

I don’t know how much of self-pity is spiritual attack and how much is just temperament; I don’t think that there are demons lurking around every corner, but I do notice something different in the spiritual atmosphere of India, and I don’t entirely like it. We drive past giant statues of Shiva, staff in hand, on the way from the church to our house in both Delhi and Assam, and I wonder what is coming against us here, just how much of mission is derailed by forgetting that this is a battle…

Yes, mission starts abroad, and it also continues when you get back home. Any short-term mission is arguably simply the beginning of life as a missionary. Are we a missional community, or are we in fact on mission to our communities, bringing God wherever it is we end up – whether that’s India or Pembroke St?

That is to say – are we all missionaries, all the time?

And if so, is it any wonder that sometimes it feels like we’re at war – with each other, with society, and with whatever spiritual forces exist in this world?

***

On my second day in the Grand Hotel, I have a semi-breakdown. I am simply no longer able to go on, and every bit of anger, doubt, frustration and exhaustion comes out in a seething, barely coherent yell at the Almighty that leaves me reeling on the floor of that black marble bathroom I mentioned. I hate that I am not able to enjoy this, that life by its very nature seems like a fight much of the time – that I can’t even enjoy the joyful bits, or rest in the restful bits.

(courtesy of Ben Osborne)

Maybe this type of self-pity is necessary for real mission, though. Mission has to shake something, and if you’re so targeted and idealistic in your aims of what’s going to happen and what your end result will be then, one way or another you’re going to end up disappointed at the end. You need to be shaken enough to re-evaluate, to accept that your old ways of processing or dealing with the world just don’t cut it anymore. And you need to acknowledge that it’s hard, that it is a fight, and that some days you just don’t have it in you to go on – and when you get there you need people who will stand by you in that.

I am so grateful for those friends who stuck by me in all of this, who have endured my self-pity so that I can process it into some kind of useful form, who are my support in prayer when I really need it. There aren’t many of you – maybe not enough, as it’s hard to take that risk that makes it possible – but you are so valuable, and you reflect God to me. Thank you for that. I couldn’t – can’t – live this life alone.

Back at home I spend much of my time drained, and in some cases I feel angry or defeated. My parents worry about me, and ask me if I’m depressed. I wonder, too. But the conversations I have refine those experiences into plans, things that can be put into place back in the polished world that is the West. Because mission is just a beginning. As those who have been there will know, your first mission trip is just the start of being missional for the rest of your life.

Once a missionary, always a missionary…

***

In A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Don Miller quotes Steven Pressfield, who says that

every creative person, and I think probably every other person, faces resistance when trying to create something good. He even says resistance, a kind of feeling that comes against you when you point towards a distant horizon, is a sure sign that you are supposed to do the thing in the first place. The harder the resistance, the more important the task must be…

I don’t know whether I agree entirely, but I can’t help but see where he’s coming from. Because for the most part, India was a fight to even survive, and for a few days back here it left me so beaten that I carried that attitude right back home. This fight seemed too hard, and for too little gain. Like we were still on the losing side, and like it was a battle that wasn’t even worth fighting anymore. But that’s a lie, persuasive as it may sound.

Because it wouldn’t have been that hard if it wasn’t worth it.

And, as one good friend often puts it in times of struggle – “awesome; that means that breakthrough is coming.”

Amen to that. I couldn’t agree more.

// india – outreach

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the third day of recollections of an intern mission trip to work with Asha Bhawan, the Indian incarnation of the drug rehab charity Betel, in early April 2010. Day One and Introduction can be found here and Day Two can be found here]

In Spain, there is a marked difference between the drug camps and the bulk of the city. As you get closer and closer to the dump, the quality of houses changes, the European atmosphere melts away into something altogether more desolate. There is less and less evidence of civilisation, and the contrast is shocking when you stop; emaciated bodies standing starkly apart from the well-fed locals that you have left earlier that day. It makes it easy to see how far people have fallen.

(courtesy of Ben Osborne)

In India, there is no such luxury, and the distance is far less concrete. On the first site we visit in Delhi, addicts line the wall alongside market sellers; the tents of prostitutes sit next to people selling ragged saris and blankets. The drug areas could almost be another rural Indian main road, and nobody pays the addict families that much attention – but then apparently 85% of Indians live below the poverty line anyway, so their condition just seems less visible. It sounds terrible, but they look a bit like everyone else.

But by the walls there are families, most with as many as four or five children and a woman rocking a baby, and we meet Sami, a nine or ten-year old glue sniffer. He’s been in Asha Bhawan before, a few times, but his family have either left or been asked to leave after stealing from the houses, and so now when people come on outreach he’s sure to take as much time with them as possible. He is clingy to the point of violence (our guide tells us he is high), pushing other children out of the way to get closer to the guys who are handing out flyers.

(courtesy of Ben Osborne)

Owen Gallacher looks like an aid worker from a film today, having loaded his pockets with lollipops to hand out, and he is almost immediately mobbed by children with arms outstretched demanding “chocolate!” As children hang off him, he sticks firmly to his policy of one lollipop per child, and a few of his entourage peel off to try me and Roland, standing one side. “Chocolate?” they ask, and I turn out my empty pockets and shrug. My Hindi isn’t up to any more complex explanations, sadly…

I have never felt scared on drug outreach before, but here I do. A filthy, practically skeletal man with a greying beard stumbles towards me and Owen, batting children out of the way with a wiry arm, and physically threatens us when we tell him that we have nothing more to give, shouting “NO!” at us as we walk away. As we head back to the jeep, another man sticks his head through the back window, grabs my shoulder and half-growls, half-pleads that we help him. He holds my gaze through the back window as we drive off. There is fury in his eyes.

We drive to another site, addicts sat outside a needle swap clinic, sat amongst the rubble of the construction industry of which India is so proud. There are the same old vacant stares and pinhole pupils, the same sense of lost hope – here it’s just expressed differently. Elsewhere, in a park, evidently off-limits to the public, addicts shelter from the midday sun beneath the trees – Thang, our guide, tells us that they sleep during the day in order to steal at night. One man shoots up while Owen offers his two-year old child, naked from the waist down, a lollipop. A group of addicts offer me and Roland something from a carrier bag full of brown liquid – which looks like liquid heroin to us, but later turns out to be tea.

In the jeep, a well-dressed Indian who speaks amazing English sticks his head through the window and asks Owen if we’re here to “do business”. He looks blankly as the man gets more and more agitated. “Are you here to buy?” he eventually asks.

We finish the day beneath a bridge where addicts and families come all year round, sheltering from the sun – or the rain. Traffic piles past, oblivious to it, and Thang tells us that this is where the rickshaw drivers come between shifts to smoke marijuana (I make a mental note not to ride in any rickshaws while I’m in India). After talking for ten or so minutes, at the last minute one man decides to come with us, and his mates laugh at us, but he jumps into the back of the jeep anyway and Thang shakes his fist in satisfaction. He is silent as we drive him back to the central Delhi house.

For the most part, so are we.

***

(courtesy of Ben Osborne)

The next day, we sit with Ivan (the director of Asha Bhawan Delhi) in one of India’s coffee shops and he explains the Indian drug culture to us a little. Hinduism sells people the lie that you are doomed to your status in life, he tells us, and if you are doomed to be nothing, then why fight it, why not take drugs? The challenge starts with changing people’s very viewpoint, he says, helping them believe that God has a purpose for them and that it is possible to be different. Even this is a huge victory.

Moan, our house leader, later tells us that his favourite bible verse is 2 Corinthians 5:17 – “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: the old has gone, the new has come!”

I’m not surprised. It offers a chance to be made new, to escape all that you once believed you were destined to be…

Doing nothing is the drug, Ivan tells us. People are addicted to doing nothing, to being passive, and changing this is a hard fight. In Asha Bhawan, half the fight is just encouraging people to work, full stop. Michael, one of the guys who we work with at the farm, later tells us that they work him too hard. His job is “gate duty” – he sits at the gate eight hours a day in case any cars arrive!

When we look around at the guys on the farm, you get a sense of just how incredible the change in them is – how far they’ve come, but also how hard a task there is here.

There are around 100 people in Asha Bhawan Delhi.

Delhi is a city of 10 million people.

***

A week later in Assam, Lalboi, the director of Asha Bhawan Guwahati makes us all breakfast and then takes us on a boat trip. All sixteen of us sail around the Brahmaputra, one of the five biggest rivers in the world. We take photos and we tan and then walking back to the van through a market of saris, a whole convoy of white faces, we turn off onto some train tracks and walk straight into hell – cameras, money, flip-flops and all.

By the side of the train tracks there are some makeshift shelters made out of corrugated iron, from which emerge more ten-year olds sniffing solvents out of handkerchiefs. They shake some of our hands without removing the handkerchiefs from their mouths. One man, naked to the waist, is covered in what I think is human faeces, black gunk smeared across his chest, arms and face. He too offers us his hand. The smell is horrendous, and most of us recoil. Our white faces draw quite a crowd, but it is immediately apparent that we are utterly, utterly useless. We look like voyeurs, poverty tourists.

(courtesy of Ben Osborne)

Almost certainly, Lalboi should not have taken all of us – should have briefed us, at least, or taken us in smaller groups – but I’m not so sure that it wasn’t intentional, or at the very least brilliant. What it did serve to do was to show just how profoundly useless we were; how big the need was and how inadequate and out of place we were standing amidst the horror on those train tracks.

One kid with a handkerchief dangling by his side wears a T-shirt with the world “I’m proud of who I am” emblazoned across it. Walking back into the city, I look over my shoulder at what is we’re leaving.

He is waving us off.

***

(courtesy of Ben Osborne)

There is a kid covered in horrific burns, across his face, arms and torso, who follows us back to the mall, tugging wordlessly at our shifts with a hand outstretched for donations. I show him my empty pockets and wonder if I would have given even if I’d had money. Probably not. Charlotte, too, wonders aloud what Jesus would have done – whether Asha Bhawan couldn’t buy him a sandwich, or get him a home. But Asha Bhawan is meeting a need where it can, and to change India requires something else entirely.

It either requires top-down change, with total cultural and religious upheaval starting in central government, or it requires a group of intentional, deeply motivated (and possibly rich) individuals to go into that society with specific aims to work together in the alleviation of poverty and the addressing of structural problems on a large-scale. The potential effectiveness of the latter is admittedly dubious, too. The tragedy would be to do nothing, as the need is too great. But outreach here nonetheless convinces you that there is a lot still to be done, and we have just barely scratched the surface.

That night, as we sit alongside the former addicts back at the house, it occurs to me that this is some kind of outreach. We show these guys that we’re not too good to work in a chicken farm plucking and gutting chickens; we show them that they are worth the effort, that God cares for them and we care enough for them to come halfway across the world to hear their stories. Maybe it sounds patronising – maybe it is – but these guys are incredible, and it is a gift to even be around them, irrespective of how useful we are to them.

I know people who would assert that what we did in India was not real mission; there are 10 million people in Delhi alone, and even walking down the street telling everyone you meet about what Christ did for them would arguably communicate more of the gospel than what we did. With respect, I think they are wrong, and although I admire their idealism in insisting that it’s that easy, that if everyone just ‘got it’ then the world would be instantly transformed, I wonder if anyone would actually hear – really hear – the gospel at all.

No, if we’re going on mission, or if we’re going to be missional, it’s going to be really hard. It’s going to cost us time, effort, energy, thought and comfort (among others) as we seek to engage with cultures and to communicate the crucified Christ and the risen Christ wherever we find ourselves. It’s not an easy task.

Not, of course, that this makes it any less worthwhile…

// india – riding through Delhi on the backs of trucks

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the second day of recollections of an intern mission trip to work with the Indian incarnation of the drug rehab charity Betel in early April 2010. The first part and introduction can be found here]

The truck is a old white beast, its back uncovered with a metal bar providing what would presumably have once been support for a canvas cover – now it’s open to the elements and usually peopled by a whole crew of former drug addicts headed to some work assignment. For the past few days, our house leaders, Moan and Sassang, have insisted on honouring us by making us sit with them in the cab, but tonight the night is close and humid and there are lightning flashes off in the distance and nobody really wants to sit up front. They protest as I jump out of the cab and join the twenty-five or so men walking across the rubbish-strewn ground from the upper room where Asha Bhawan holds its weekly meetings, but I pretend not to hear them and clamber with the rest up to the back of the truck.

(courtesy of Sarah Littlestar)

In the back there are a cluster of familiar white faces clinging onto the bar in the centre, surrounded by ex-drug addicts who seem completely unfazed by the whole experience. Jez Taylor, to my right, tells me to stand on the tyre in the middle of the truck’s bed and, when I ask why, he points one-handedly to the lightning storm that is growing in the distance. “You know,” he says, “just in case.” I wrap my arm around the bar and, just as I might have reconsidered, the truck jerks to a juddering start and we’re off. It honestly feels like we’re driving through some kind of warzone – I feel like I’m in The Hurt Locker as we bounce across ditches and past cramped, dark streets on either side of us, the faces of children and adults peering out at the truck from darkened rooms. You get the impression that some of the locals aren’t all that keen on living next door to former drug addicts. Not all of the gestures thrown at us are welcoming. And they don’t seem all to impressed by our white faces, either.

The truck turns into a main street – well, what passes for a main street in the outskirts of Delhi, anyway – and picks up speed. The roads are potholed and crowded, with buses, cars, motorbikes, rickshaws and bikes all jostling for space and blaring their horns noisily. It seems to be the case that the heaviest vehicles win, and fortunately for us, at least, tonight that seems to be us. (We will later ride in jeeps and minibuses that are closer to the ground and infinitely more terrifying, though. Driving in Delhi takes a lot of nerve). To the side of the truck, lightning flashes overhead, huge, forked zigzags of purple light filling the sky to a chorus of “awesome!” from all around. Chris and Ben, of course, start arguing about the nature of the lightning, and where its charge comes from – naturally, the argument goes on for the next week but never gets much further than the original conclusion that what we’re witnessing is “heat lightning”.

Before long we’re travelling at maybe 60 or 70km per hour, which feels a lot faster when you’re standing with a bar rattling into your chest every time you hit a bump. And with lights hurtling towards you out of the darkness with no regard for lane discipline (or, for that matter, no lanes), and the occasional cyclist without lights emerging from the gloom, it strikes all of us at once that if we hit anything, all six of us will almost certainly die instantly. For a moment I think, if my mother could see me now, she would literally kill me.

And then another blaze of lightning fills the entire sky and I remember, she isn’t here – and anyway, life is too short.

When people talk about experiences on mission that will stay with them for the rest of their lives, most of the time it’s experiences like this – I can still tell you vividly about standing on a beach in Ukraine singing “my Jesus, my Saviour” in a huddle or sitting in a hastily-built 24/7 prayer room in the middle of a vicious storm in the mountains outside of Cape Town, for example – and I don’t think that’s as sad as it sounds. Experiences like this, the ones that take your breath away and make you feel alive in a way that can often be lacking in the UK, they remind you of just how incredible this life that God has given us is. You walk out of these experiences and find yourself inspired to live life with a fresh sense of joy, at least at the joyful bits – and yes, mission can be really tough (and make no mistake, this was), and we have to engage with the poverty and the pain, to mourn with those who mourn – but we also have to rejoice with those who rejoice.

“How many of us have learned too late,” writes Peter Rollins, “that our initial idea, that by serving the world we will help bring God to others, has eclipsed the wisdom that in serving the world we find God there?”

As huge, fat drops of rain start to hit out exhausted, overheated bodies, like water to a sun-scorched land (see Isaiah 58), I can’t help but think he has a point.

*

(courtesy of Sarah Littlestar)

A few days later, driving back to the farmhouse, Moan stops the truck at a crossroads and asks us if we want some lime juice. Slightly nonplussed, the three of us nod and say yes, we would love some lime juice. He smiles, crosses the road and brings us back some glasses – proper glasses, made of glass – filled with freshly crushed limes, pineapples, raw cane sugar and salt, like some kind of non-alcoholic Margarita.

It is getting close to 10pm, the temperature is still 32 degrees Celsius and there is a cow standing at the middle of the crossroads, causing rickshaws to swerve violently. Apparently the penalty for hitting a cow in India is instant forfeiture of your driving licence.

The cow stands there, idly chewing the cud without a care in the world, and we again remember that we are a long, long way from home.