Living out of grace and peace

logo2000Christmas is one thing, New Year is quite another.

Which one do you prefer?

This year, with Gus home for Tory’s birthday on a surprise visit, I loved putting up the tree and watching the kids hang their memories and treasures on the tip of the branches. We went to bed late that night but happy. That was the 16th December – still over a week to go – and there was much to do, much to get ready for, much to organise.

And on the day itself, for us as a family, with Tory’s mum down to stay, finding it hard to ‘say no to a crisp’ and commenting amusingly on ‘call the midwife’, we took our time and let things emerge. Of course, now Angus and Hebe are older, the pace has changed and the conversation has deepened.

The weather’s been variable and it’s on days like this that it’s both good and bad to have a dog. They get you out – no matter what the rain is like – and it’s not unusual to find the walks strangely refreshing.

For me, I find praying, listening and sitting still hard at Christmas. At other times too, but especially at Christmas. Too many things to do, conversations to have, miles to travel. In my ideal version of Christmas I find God again and again, I rest in him, I read about his son, I still myself. In reality I find myself distracted by countless things – mostly screens.

Christmas is one thing but as the week passes and we approach New Year a whole new set of issues arise. Already tired from the getting ready for Christmas, I find myself staying up a bit later than I ought and I find it hard to refresh myself. And then, ‘Crash!’, in comes New Year – not just another late night but a whole set of concerns and thoughts and resolutions.

Jesus Christ may not be at the centre of our cultural life but we find it hard to completely shake off the religious and spiritual behaviours that seem hardwired into our DNA. At Christmas time countless thousands find themselves contradicting their normal belief and behaviour, singing ‘Glory’ to the son of David and, ‘Hosanna in the highest heaven’. At New Year the talk is all about resolutions, making a new start, turning the page. Every paper, every radio station, every magazine has something to say on the subject. We are all longing for more, for better, for thinner.

The Christian word for resolution is repentance – thinking again, rethinking everything, turning around – and although that is not such a popular word, that is what we all engage in.

At New Year everyone has a go at reviewing their lives. We can’t help it. We rethink our eating, our bodies, our time management, our goals, our ambitions, our money, our relationships, our work. And of course, all this thinking is hard for any of us whose life is hard, or bleak, or difficult, anyone whose life is unlikely to ‘just improve’. Christmas covers over our concerns but New Year brings back into the light all over again and sometimes this can be as overwhelming as coming out of the cinema one afternoon. It is no wonder that doctors report that depression is highest in January, because January is the month of honesty and review, and when things aren’t all that good depression can be a natural response.

For some, I guess, New Year is a moment of freshness, newness and optimism. This year, they hope, things will get better. This year I live the way I want to. This year I will lose a few pounds, make a few pounds, lift a few pounds. This year I will get the balance right.

How is New Year for you? Have you been caught up in the narrative of reflection and renewal once again? And if so, how has that left you feeling?

As Christians, as beloved children of God, as followers of Jesus, as Spirit filled sons and daughters, as disciples, we live our lives in a good story, a story that gives us much hope, much joy and much peace. And it goes like this.

I am loved
I am chosen
I am forgiven
I am filled
I am equipped
I am safe

God has loved us, chosen us, forgiven us, filled us, equipped us, and saved us. As we approach a new year we must let this story fill our minds and hearts. We must let this worldview direct our thinking and dominate our feelings and emotions.

In response to every worry, every dream, every doubt, every fear, every task, every conflict around the corner, every plan, every complexity, every hope, every turn, God says to our hearts the same things, again and again.

You are loved I love you
You are chosen I choose you
You are forgiven I forgive you
You are filled I will fill you
You are equipped I will equip you
You are safe I will protect you

Why do we find these things so hard to hear?
Why do we find it hard to rest into this story?

The world around us tells us another story. It tells us, again and again, that we will not be loved unless we succeed, be beautiful, achieve, win, or impress. It tells us that only the best are chosen, only the slim, only the good, only the perfect. It tells us that only the good are forgiven, only the deserving. It tells us that there isn’t enough to go around so we’d better take stuff when it comes past, grab it, drink it, eat it, spend it, indulge it. It tells us that we need to work harder, train harder, push more, rest less. It tells us that we are vulnerable, in danger, that a crisis is just around the corner.

Jesus’s existence, his birth, his life, his death, his resurrection, his ascension, his spirit sending and his return all tell us that there is another place to live from – a place of acceptance, of calling, of forgiveness, of plenty, of blessing and of security. The New Testament calls living in this place, “living in Christ”. In Christ we have everything we need for living joyful, peaceful, anxiety free, content, loving, beautiful and fruitful lives. Everything. Everything.

If you don’t believe this you will know. You will be searching for the answer somewhere else. Searching for love, for significance, for forgiveness, for satisfaction, for strength and for refuge, somewhere else, someone else, something else. It may be your work, your role, your family, your money, a relationship, a place in church life. It could be anything. For we are desperate until we find these things.

The good news we have to offer, the good news we have the chance of experiencing, is that this life is available to us in Christ.

Repentance isn’t just feeling bad about the old way of doing something, it is about feeling attracted to a completely new way of living. That’s why Jesus always linked repentance and belief. “Repent and believe the good news,” he said. Because to live in Christ means believing that Christ really is the source of all grace and all truth. Living in him means completely trusting him with everything. Seeing him as the source of all good things and the end to which all good things point.

This is what we have on offer to us every day! Life in Christ.
Again and again and again and again.
Every new year Christ comes and offers us this life once again.
His love is endless, his forgiveness complete, his desire is limitless.

Of course trusting Jesus means rethinking everything. Everything.
It means letting him be the way, the truth and the life. It means letting him direct our behaviour, our language, our emotions, our way of thinking, our approach to food, to sex, to money, to power, to relationships. It means really letting him shape us, mould us, hold us, define us. It means letting his will be done on earth, in us, as perfectly as his will is expressed in heaven.

This New Year, Jesus comes and stands in front of us and offers us himself – completely. He offers us his life, his hope, his peace, his love. He offers us his strength, his courage, his determination. He offers us his power in weakness, his contentment in poverty, his joyfulness in the midst of pain. He offers us his life. Right here. Right now. No matter the circumstances, the present reality of your life, Jesus comes and says I can offer you life, my life, right here, right now. You don’t need to go anywhere, say anything, do anything, pretend anything, look good, act good, sound good. You don’t need to do anything other than believe. Rethink your life again this year! Yes, rethink it, resolve to live differently – but not out of fear, but out of grace, out of love – my love for you. Repent and believe the good news which is available for you, and your family, and your heart, right here, right now. Rest. Stop. Trust.

Listen to Paul’s words to his precious family in Ephesus. Written from a prison cell Paul is not confined by the walls that surround him. Instead he is caught up in what it means to be alive in Christ.

14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. (chosen) 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen (strength) you with power through his Spirit in your inner being (filling and equipping your heart and mind), 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith (trust). And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ (loved), 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us (filled and equipped),21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

We need to live our lives out of this love, out of this place of acceptance and forgiveness and calling and security and purpose. We need to live our lives out of the life of Christ.

And as we do this individually we will do this collectively, communally, corporately. We will be the body of Christ, the bride of Christ. Together we will be a sign and agent and a foretaste of the kingdom of God that is coming.

Jesus is not dead. He is alive.
And he offers alive-life to us today, right here, right now.

He calls us back out of fear and into a place of love
Out of work into a place of grace

How shall we respond?
Let us believe. Let us trust. Let us relax again into this love. Let us remind our souls that we are indeed loved, chosen, forgiven, filled, equipped, and safe. Let us agree with these truths.

And then let us co-operate with these truths.

We are saved by grace, not by works, through faith – trust. But faith without works is dead. Faith that doesn’t express itself in some kind of action lacks meaning, lacks reality. After we believe, we need to co-operate with the life of Christ in us, with the Spirit of God that lives with us. We need to let him rule over our thoughts, our actions, our words and our beliefs. We need to let him renew our minds. We need to let him determine the shape of our lives.

This means submitting to him, relaxing into him, letting him own us. Becoming his slave, not out of fear, but out of choice, out of love. Letting him govern us. This is repentance. Not resolution, but repentance. This is letting him have everything.

These two things are needed for us to have his life.
Repentance and belief.

Why not let’s give that a go, not just today, but every day this year.

Seven Sacred Spaces

sacredspacesOver the next few months our church is going to be exploring our community life together by reapplying lessons learned in the Monastery.  The idea was inspired by a time of prayer we had together as a church at the end of the year and by a retreat day where i found myself reflecting on the monastery as a way of thinking about the various ways we express ourselves as a church.

Here are some initial thoughts:

The Cell is a personal, private space. It reminds us that our personal relationship with Christ is vital. In our cell we participate in personal disciplines of solitude, secrecy, silence, prayer and rest

The Chapel is a communal, social space. It reminds us that our life in Christ is always as part of a wider body. In the chapel we pray together, listen, learn and reflect together, worship and sing together.

The Cloister is a place of transition. It is the space in between others where we journey with others, meet, chat, walk, befriend. It is a social space where we are connected to others.

The Garden is a place of work, of production, of labour. It is a place where we solve problems, work in teams, steward our resources, sow and reap. It is a place of growth.

The Refectory is a place of sharing, of hospitality, of eating and celebrating. It is a communal space where we are human together, equal.

The Chapter is a place of decision making and discussion. It is where the community come together to find a common mind and to listen to each other. It is a place of unity, planning and organisation

The Library is a place of study, of reflection, of learning and exploration. It is where the community go to deepen their understanding of things.

Six reasons why SEND A COW works

I’m back in the UK. I’ve had a trip of a life time and I’m so grateful for all that I have received! Thank you especially to David and Wondwossen for making it all happen for me!  I can’t thank you enough.

It’s going to take a while for the thoughts to filter down and to begin to make shape but I here are todays six reason why the SEND A COW approach works and changes lives:

  • Dramatic Impact – even in a short timescale
  • Focussed on Mind-set change – giving people hope, purpose, direction and a new way of thinking
  • Quality People - such amazing staff, full of passion and commitment
  • Highly Accountable – every penny counts and makes a difference. Complete financial integrity
  • Empowering Community approach – helping individuals as a group maximises growth and change
  • Transformational Training - passing on skills that make a tangilble difference that can be shared with others

To all at SEND A COW – here in the UK and in every country in AFRICA – may God continue to bless you in all you do!  It’s amazing to see the results of your hard work changing families lives for ever.

Everything matters

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A lot has happened in the last few days. Joy, sadness, feasting, laughter, crying, questions, hope, longing, dreaming, stillness, tiredness, sleep, sharing, stories, walking, playing, singing, celebrating, smiling, photos, listening, waiting, hellos, goodbyes. I can’t recall feeling as rich as I do right now. I am so grateful.

Mountains are significant places in the story of God’s people and I feel that, like Moses, I have had my own mountain-top experience. And I don’t think I am alone in this. I was not the first among our team to talk about being in Katoba as being on ‘top of the world’. Something amazing and deep and rich has been happening to us.

Our bodies are tired. Our minds full to the brim of stories of hope and transformation and stretched to breaking point as we try to make sense of it all. Our stomachs are full of rich food, pulled from the earth and so lovingly served by the humblest of the world. The campfire, the darkness, the stars, the rain, the earth, the friendship, the smiles. These things are etched in my memory and I feel emotional just mentioning them.

But perhaps one of the best gifts I have received from it all has been the way that this tour has reconnected me with the faith, the bible, the Christian narrative.

In the middle of our scriptures we hear God speaking through a prophet called Isaiah. Not told in one voice, or at one time, or in one tone, the words of God through Isaiah have been resonating so loudly, so beautifully, so perfectly in me and my heart is alive.

The outline of this story was sown into my heart by Tom Sine when I was aged 18 (some years ago!) as he wove together the mountain peaks of Isaiah’s vision into one compelling narrative and it goes like this.

One day, says God, all things will be restored, all illness will be banished, all injustices will be righted, all wounds will be healed, all tears will be wiped away. On this day bad things will be sorted out, once and for all. Evil will be conquered and death defeated. And on this day, people from all nations of the earth will come together, leaving behind their broken pasts, their wounded histories, their stories of loss and grief and hurt, as they begin to climb the ‘Holy Mountain’. Streams of people, from all corners of the earth, children of the same heavenly Father, will leave behind the wilderness, the desert and the parched land of their pasts and walk into the beauty and joy of their eternal inheritance.

And on this day everything will be new. The way things have been, the bad way, the broken way, will be reversed, put right, and restored to its original purpose.

Isaiah puts it like this:

The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

It is an amazing picture of hope beyond our imaginings – impossible, other worldly, beyond comprehension – but so compelling that Isaiah can’t help but announce it, shout it, preach it, again and again;

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine — the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth.

The Lord has spoken.

In that day they will say, “Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.”

And here;

The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendour of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendour of our God.

Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way, say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.”

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.

And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it. No lion will be there, nor any ravenous beast; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, and those the Lord has rescued will return.

They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

And then finally here;

“See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more. “Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; the one who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere child; the one who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed. They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands. They will not labour in vain, nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the Lord, they and their descendants with them. Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.

At the top of the world this week, in Katoba, among the poorest of the poor, at the top of the mountain, high up in the cloud, these images, these beautiful and hope-filled pictures have come alive to me once again. They tell a story of our future, the future of our world, the future of the world God loves so much and aches over with such compassion. A world made new, a nature restored, a people born again.

These images make sense here, out in the wild, in the open, in the countryside of Ethiopia. This story needs no translation. It fits. The earth, the sky, the animals, the mountain, the water – these things that make up life in Kotoba – these are the ingredients of the story. And I am so grateful for being able to see it now.

But no matter where we live, all of us ache for renewal, for a world made new, for justice, for life rather than death. Here in Ethiopia, on every corner, on every street, we see the world out of kilter, out of sorts, out of line. There really is such brokenness, such pain, such poverty, such slavery, such injustice, such ugliness, such abuse, such disorder, such inequality just in front of us. Admittedly the longer I stay here the more I get used to seeing it, but it’s all so visible here, from the young girls offering themselves on the corner of the street, to the blind girl begging, to the mother carrying a child on her back, to the family fetching water with the donkeys, to the mother hoping that her daughters might have a better opportunity than she did, to the father worried about his wayward son. It’s all here. Story after story, person after person, life after life.

And I am a part of it too. I can’t escape. I am not outside it looking in. I am inside it all, just as much a part of it as anyone else. I am responsible for my own responses, my own decisions, my own choices, my own actions, my own life. My influence matters. My actions count. My words make a difference. The way I use my money and gifts is not neutral. Everything matters.

Like you, I believe that life matters, that a child’s health matters, that economics matters, that issues of gender equality matter, that how we share the resources of this beautiful planet matters. Life is not just a series of random events lacking ultimate meaning – we live, we die, nothing more, nothing less. No, I believe that our deepest longings, our strongest and most powerful emotions, point us to a deeper truth about life and its purpose. My empathy for a deserted mother, my joy in playing with a child, my recognition of beauty and my anger at injustice, all point to a deep truth about life – that it all matters.

Matter is not just matter. It’s way more significant than that. Matter matters.

Ever since the beginning of time humanity has understood the deep inner morality and meaning of life and ached over the brokenness of it all and we have looked inside ourselves and noticed that that the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart, as someone once said. We are all guilty. We have all missed the mark. We have all damaged the image of God we carry in our being.

And this matters too. It matters to the child, to the mother, to the farmer, to the elder. It matters to the animals, to the earth, to the water. It all matters. Every drop of pollution matters. Every broken promise. Every sin. Every miss-directed choice, whether it was through ignorance, through weakness or my own deliberate fault. It all matters.

This is what Isaiah’s announcement presents us with too. Injustice matters to God. Economic decisions, sexual decisions, worship decisions – they all matter, they all demand a response from this God of compassion, faithfulness, integrity, and truth. And that’s why Isaiah reminds us just how much YHWH hates the festivals, the symbols, the rituals that his people participate in while at the same time oppressing the poor or ignoring the voice of the widow. YHWH has grown tired of his people’s darkness, his people’s blindness. It’s time to switch the light on.

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be upon his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.

The Creator of this world, wants his world back and his kingdom, his will, established on earth, as it is in heaven.

Isn’t this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter, when you see the naked to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry from help, and he will say, “Here am I”.

It all matters. Every life, including ours. And because of this God acts, out of love and out of justice, fired up by passions too deep for words, and anger to strong to bear, coming finally and perfectly to judge the world so that it might finally be put to rights and have every wrong righted. And so this day will be a day of perfect truth and perfect reconciliation. His zeal will accomplish this.

When Jesus says, “I not come to condemn the world, but to save it” he doesn’t mean that judgement is unnecessary or has been superseded by love. He is telling us, rather, that the the purpose of his mission is not simply to act against sinners but to act for them and to rescue them from the judgement that is necessarily coming. The justice that Jesus brings, as God’s anointed one, foretold by Isaiah, is a justice that is so perfect that its consequence is not condemnation but liberation and vindication. God acts justly in faithfulness to his covenant.

The cost of this redemption, however, is not paid by the sinner, the unjust, the ignorant or the weak. Remarkably and undeservingly the price is paid by a suffering servant who carries the debt in our stead like a sheep being taken to slaughter.

This is one part of the story I am so excitedly connecting with again as I get ready to leave Ethiopia. Reflecting on all that I have witnessed, the good and the bad, I have come to see once again the beauty of this pure and exacting love of God revealed in Jesus. The story tells us that everything and everyone matters to God so much that not only will every act receive appropriate judgement, thus dignifying every victim on the receiving end of someone else’s sin or rewarding every act of generosity and love, but also at the same time that no-one is beyond the scope of his forgiveness, redemption, rescue and reconciliation.

This is the power of the cross. Jesus’ undeserved death acts as the place of ultimate judgement for our failures and sin while his resurrection assures us of God’s vindication. All we do is attach ourselves, by faith, to his radical generosity.

Every spiritual blessing is ours in Christ. His debt paying sacrifice and his victorious vindication. All is ours!

The story of Jesus is such good news for the poor in the world because it takes seriously the scale of the wrongs they are suffering while also offering undeserved reconciliation and salvation for sinners. We no longer need to justify ourselves. We are justified by faith and it’s all free.

Such love. Such justice. Such good news.

If anyone of you is still reading this and it makes no sense I apologise. But know that inside me, even if I haven’t been able to put it into words in the best way, a fire is burning again about this story that I have known since I was a child. And it has been this trip that has re-ignited it all for me. I am so grateful for this for it is such a brilliant thing.

I’m on my way home now. Ethiopia is left behind and my family and life in the UK lies ahead. I will continue to reflect and think about it all in the coming days and you are very welcome to join me.

Sodo – a snapshot of Ethiopia in transition

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Every day is a different flavour and texture. The sun may shine for 13 months of the year here, but every day of our journey has been and has felt very different. Perhaps partly because we have been on the move, seeing different places, meeting new people, experiencing a different aspect of modern Ethiopian life and culture, but also because, individually and as a group, we have been growing in confidence day by day, gradually feeling more at ease in our particular African environment.

Today was so good, again, for new reasons. Today I worshiped with 2500 brothers and sisters with arms open wide and having time to think and reflect and pray. Today I sat quietly taking in some amazing waterfalls. Today I danced myself silly with about 25 kids in a beautiful traditional hut and sang boom chicka boom with my tongue sticking out. Today I had a ride in a tuktuk. Today I relaxed a little more, feeling at ease walking through the streets of the town and buying a drink in a rooftop cafe chatting deeply with Simon. Today I watched premiership football on a screen in a street-side cafe as if back home with Jackie and Wandwossen.

Sodo has been our base for the past three days and I am only just becoming acclimatised to it. It’s a sprawling, active, noisy, dusty town which has a mix of primitive medieval with 21st century. I found it intimidating at first and only felt safe to venture out in the safety of the group. But as the days have passed I have noticed my confidence grow. Finding the rooftop cafe with Simon was a key moment. We were out in the town on our own! We were buying a drink on our own! No minder, no translator, just us! It was great.

Not only that, but the elevated view was amazing. To our left, by the mosque with its massive loud speakers attached to its minaret that have woken us early each morning, the shanty town huts are being cleared and replaced with newer, still basic, tin roofed boxes. In front of us was a new high-rise, soon to be blocking the view south. To the west was our Hotel, football stadium and another block of shanty town. Down the middle of all this ran the high street with its new road surface lined by workshops and houses. To our right was Sodo junction – the main cross roads which has recently been given new tarmac and pavements. The town is a mess. It’s confusing. But it’s on the move.

From my eyes, Sodo is a town in transition. No doubt, the population will continue to grow at a rapid rate. No doubt the parcels of land currently filled in with huts will be gradually become filled with concrete houses or shops and they will be pushed further out beyond the university. Apparently even now this is happening as the urban sprawl of this smallest of cities is leaks outwards. The place is a snap-shot of Ethiopia in transition from rural to urban, from traditional to modern, from basic to technological, from earth to tarmac.

I can’t help myself wonder about it all. I am powerless, like everyone else, to change this direction of travel, for the powers that drive this world are not in the hand of men. They are unseen. It would be like me trying to change the direction of a vast ocean cargo ship while swimming in the sea. None of us can prevent what’s going to happen.

What we can perhaps do, however, is humanise this change, to make sure that the change helps everyone, not just a few, to enable and encourage sharing, to generate hope, to lift up the broken hearted and to give a hand to our neighbour.

Today I read the parable Jesus told about being a neighbour. The answer to the question is down to me. Who will I make my neighbour today? Who will I let be my neighbour today? Who will know me to be their neighbour today?

The blessed are not those with money. Blessed are those who hear the word of God and do it. And the blessing of God resides in such places and people as I have witnessed so many times on this trip. May Sodo, where 85% of the population count themselves as Christians, experience the blessing of God as they hear and act on the word of God planted among them.

And may Bath too.

Amen. Amen. Amen

Blessed

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It has been another really significant day of learning, listening and reflecting which I am so grateful for. It really is such a gift to be here experiencing what I am experiencing. I don’t take any of it for granted. Everything is a blessing right now – even when the electricity gets shut down in our part of town and we are thrown into darkness. I am so privileged to be able to connect with people here, sit in their homes and listen to their stories, that it doesn’t matter how unpredictable things are, I am still feeling so blessed by it all.

‘Blessed’ is an interesting word though, isn’t it. How do you respond to it? It’s not neutral. Sometimes I like the word and use it to indicate a gratefulness that I want to express for things that seem way bigger than me, things that come from outside me, things that I don’t control. Like hot showers. Even at home, when water supply and electricity is taken for granted, I rejoice in the shower almost every time I have one because of how they make me feel. I didn’t have a fitted shower in my first house and every shower since still feels like a small miracle. So you can imagine how I feel about having a shower here in Ethiopia having been out on the dusty road all day with farmers who have no access to running water. I feel very blessed.

But blessing suggests that all this comes from God – or at least that he is involved in it all in some way. Saying I am blessed is different from saying I am lucky. It’s not the same as being fortunate. Rather, it assumes that God is an actor in our story – blessing us, or not, as the case may be.

And so sometimes, with this in mind, I am not so comfortable with using it, or hearing it. Take my health, for example. Am I blessed to have good health? If so, what does this mean if I lose it, or for those around me who currently lack it? Is health really an indicator of ‘blessing’? And if I suffered from a terminal cancer would that indicate the absence of God’s blessing?

Or take wealth. I often hear people tell me that they are have been blessed by God financially. But does that mean if I am not financially secure – am I missing out on God’s blessing somehow?

So, what do you think? How do you feel about the word? Do you feel blessed? Do you like the word?

….

Today, you won’t be surprised to hear I am very aware of just how rich I am. I have health and very significant wealth relative to everyone I meet. But this is not the blessing I am feeling or rejoicing in. The blessing I feel today is about being in the centre of something important. The blessing I feel is about recognising the privileged position I have. The blessing I am experiencing is found in the smile of a face, the touch of a hand, the look in an eye. The blessings I am drinking in are those that are free – connection, friendship, being listened to, being heard, sharing a joke, being offered some coffee, sitting in the shade… the blessing of confidence, of peace, of security, of joy.

I am indeed fortunate. But I am also blessed. So blessed.

As Aklelu says, the question is not what do I need (or what don’t I have), but what do I have? Feeling blessed comes from recognising just how much of life is a gift – undeserved grace.

One final thought. I met Tariku today, a man of smiles and bright eyes. He had completely transformed his life by having implemented the training Send a Cow had provided him with and by maximising the blessing of 20 apple saplings SAC gifted him. Relative to his life 8 years ago, he was now rich. Over this time and through his hard work, patience, self control and persistence, his 20 saplings had become 5000 saplings! He was a rich man.

We chatted about his success and celebrated it with him. His pride was tangible and rightly so. Send a Cow talks often about passing on the gift so I asked him what it would be like for him to pass on 20 saplings to another Tariku to help him up as well. He smiled recognising that real wealth is being able to bless others.

So the question I have been asking myself is whether I will hold on to the gifts I have been blessed with, for myself, or if I will give away my seedlings to help those around me like Tariko, who I met today and whose smile was as wide as the Atlantic?

It is WAY more blessed to give than to receive

Woke early, again, and enjoyed the third or fourth version of pancakes on the trip so far and the first lot of marmalade. Our hotel is more Faulty Towers than Holiday Inn and we are beginning to wonder what will or won’t arrive every time we order something to eat, but hey, given what other things we are seeing, life in the hotel is a world apart. And it is certainly adding to our story bank : )

First stop was the ‘Defar’ Send a Cow office just outside Sodo. ‘Defar’ stands for ‘Developing Farmers’ and is a source of funding which SAC is delighted to have attracted. The team bustled with energy as they outlined their project work.

“We don’t develop farmers,” we heard. “We create the right environment for farmers to develop.”

This is a subtle shift of emphasis. Send a Cow is not a service provider, or an Aid giver. It is an enabler, a hope bringer, a vision shaper, a potential expander. In the presentation we were given there was much talk about defeating an illness called the ‘Dependency Syndrome’ – the curse of an idea that sometimes emerges in poor communities that one has become powerless and is therefore utterly dependent on others for the things needed in life. I heard the words Aklelu (The director of SAC Ethiopia) had spoken to me on day one. “We don’t ask, ‘What can we do?’, we ask, ‘What do you have?’… and only then ask, ‘What would help you build on this?’”. The projects we saw today are a testament of the power of such an approach.

Each of the families we met today, and the communities they live among, are without doubt some of the poorest people it possible to meet on the face of this planet. They live way below the UN poverty line of one dollar a day and they have access to so few resources that it is hard to imagine a poorer life and still be alive.

And yet, this fact, which at first overwhelmed me, is by no means the defining feature of their lives. In fact, what I saw today was one of the richest experiences of joy and delight I can imagine it is possible to have on earth. What I saw today in these people was power, hope, pride, strength, joy, humility, love, generosity, courage, perseverance, endurance, creativity, and so much more. What I experienced today, what I was a witness to and will bear witness of, was a richness that many of us would long for – faith, hope and love – of which the greatest is love.

It began with a game of catch with a homemade ball and an eery increasingly crowd of excitable children. We played the same variety of games I have played with Angus and Hebe on the beach. Using our hands as bats, throwing the ball up as high as possible and still catching it, headers, keepy-upy, tag, football. We experimented and played together as the adult community slowly gathered for what was going to be, unknown to us, a ceremony where one family who ‘passed on THE GIFT’ to another family.

Once again, we began by listening – hearing stories and asking questions. It is difficult to describe just how big the divide is between us and them – and yet how, at times, how united we feel to one another and how connected we become. We are not ‘other’, we are ‘sister’ and ‘brother’. Us sitting on the grass and while they say on the benches was our instinctive way of communicating this.

A year ago this small, isolated, rural community was in despair, and THE GIFT they were given was the sight to see what they had, more than what they didn’t have. Building on this, no matter how small the resources were, they began to save and learn and plant. Taught simple and achievable technologies for maximising the produce of the land that they shared, the brave among them began to trial the new methods. Encouraged and empowered by combining their efforts and sharing their resources they began to see the fruit of their hard work. What before were patches of flat earth were now fertile and productive plots of land producing a range of vegetables that few families in England would enjoy regularly for their breadth. With the additional value of chickens and other livestock that they began to acquire and share among themselves, the dreams of the whole community were being lifted right in front of our eyes.

And today was the climax of it all – a ceremony to mark the achievements of their work and to embed a new way of living and thinking. As we listened to the group, more and more people kept arriving – it was like church on Sunday morning with people drifting in for about half an hour. And chickens came too, for some reason.

I didn’t know, but looking back, Kindo’s smile would have told us that he knew exactly what was about to happen. Standing proudly to tell his story, Kindo and his wife came forward bearing six chickens, giving away three of them to one family and three to another. 300 eggs a year to two families – 600 of their eggs. Kindo had been given his own chickens by SAC and, along with all the other input, was now in a place where he could give some away to help enable another two families. His pride and joy was palpable as he let them go. He was no longer poor. He was giving from his wealth. He was rich.

And he was passing on THE GIFT.

And it all felt so good.

Songs and dancing are the only appropriate response to such generosity. Praise for a life transformed and a world made new and our songs filled the air. Among everything else it was a reminder that music and song in fact cost nothing to make and therefore as available to the poor as they are to the so called rich.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor for the kingdom of God is theirs.” This is so true! This was so true! This was the blessing Jesus was talking about, when the poor are no longer poor, not because they have vast wealth, but because they inhabit a kingdom that looks like Jesus. “It is more blessed to give,” Jesus said at one time, “than it is to receive.” Today’s experience confirmed this truth. In fact Jesus should have said, “It is WAY more blessed to give than to receive!” Is really is way better to be in the position to be able to give something away than it is to be trapped in a position of receiving and begging. Ask Kindo. The smile was biggest on Kindo’s face! He was no longer poor!

….

Later on, reflecting on it all, I remembered Jesus’ parable about a seed, a seed that dies but in dying produces such great fruit. This is the kingdom and from what I saw today, it seems that the poorest of the poor in our world today, are discovering this kingdom today, right now!

Watching Kindo enjoying the delight of life in the kingdom so much does so many things for me, but perhaps more than anything it whets my own appetite for such living, and dying, myself.

I only wish you could have seen it yourselves.