Christ-mas. A celebration. Jesus who brings ‘good news to the poor’. What is that good news? That God has sent a Saviour into the world who stands with us, in whatever our circumstances, transforming our helplessness into hopefulness. Thank you to everyone who has been willing to stand with the poor and most vulnerable this year, and alongside me too. The Spirit of Jesus be with you this Christmas time!
A disaster unfolds.
Viewed at a distance of 22,300 miles (35,880km) through the lens of a weather satellite in space, the super typhoon that hit the Philippines this week looks quite majestic, its swirling shape displaying a serene, mystical beauty about it. Viewed from ground zero in the eye of the storm, it could not have looked and felt more different. Zoom in now to Jasmin, a poor woman braced with her children, wind and rain battering their fragile home ferociously. Typhoon Rai is one of the strongest storms recorded on Earth this year with wind speeds of 150mph (240kph) as it slammed into the islands.
The wind rips off her house roof viciously, as if lashing out with a merciless knife, and the windows shatter, exploding glistening shards of glass everywhere. She runs downstairs with her family to hide under the stairs, praying hard to Jesus, Saviour, in the pitch blackness of night with the deafening, terrifying roar above and around them. As morning breaks and the winds and rain start to subside, the devastation around them emerges from darkness like a war zone. The house looks like an empty shell and everything she had owned has been destroyed. (The poor have no savings – and no insurance).
People are walking around, dazed and dismayed by what has just hit them. Power supplies are down and long wooden posts covered in tangled cables lay broken across the roads. Debris is everywhere. People’s homes and possessions are strewn around heartlessly on the streets, as if by some angry, deranged monster. Jasmin looks around for water. Nothing. People are fighting to get onto passing motorbikes to look for help in the city. The petrol price has leapt to £8 (US $10) per litre overnight and the bike fares have soared high with it. Banks are closed, ATMs down and shops broken. No cash.
Emergency vehicles with supplies can’t get through, even if they are available and want to. The roads are impassable and impossible. The village is the epicentre of a disaster zone. The floodwater from the storm risks overwhelming the fragile sewage system, contaminating any fresh water that remains and creating a dangerous public health hazard. Fears arise that corrupt officials may covertly divert relief to their own families, friends and political supporters. All infrastructure is wrecked – and desperate people can become dangerous. The poor are left to pray, hope and fend for themselves.
Jasmin calls me, briefly, with a weak and faltering phone signal. She urges me to be calm. ‘Jesus is with us’, she says, with a strength of conviction that makes my own faith feel weak and pallid by contrast. Her battery goes flat and the call breaks off. There’s nowhere to charge it and no access to cash to buy a top-up card. She’s still looking earnestly for water, her children are too, and there are long queues of scared and frustrated people everywhere. Her words are ringing loudly with me as I write this and await further news: ‘Jesus is with us.’ Light shines in darkness. Remember the poor.
‘Carpe diem. Seize the day. Make your life extraordinary.’ (Dead Poet’s Society)
I had total brake failure today – a near miss. I had bought a car at the weekend and the garage assured me it had been through all the standard safety checks. It turns out they hadn’t tightened a new brake pipe correctly. It almost cost me my life. Out-of-the-blue experiences like this can have a way of putting other people, relationships and things into perspective. What if I had died, or been seriously injured, or caused death or serious injury to someone else? Does my life matter enough that, to have lost it, would have been a significant-enough loss to the poor and most vulnerable?
I read a biography of Lord Shaftesbury, an 19th century social reformer in the UK known as ‘the poor man’s earl’, who worked tirelessly on behalf of the poor and most vulnerable in Britain. He was a passionate follower of Jesus who selflessly and relentlessly devoted his life, resources and influence to make a tangible difference. I can think of numerous other similar examples since including Martin Luther King, Teresa of Calcutta and, in the here-and-now, Jasmin in the Philippines. At Lord Shaftesbury’s funeral, the streets were lined with literally thousands of the poor.
By contrast, my own life is sometimes too shallow, too cautious or too self-serving. I can get too-easily distracted by people or things that, on the surface, I hope will make my own life easier or happier – yet invariably, over time, leave me feeling painfully empty inside. I get tempted to give out of my excess, out of what I tell myself I can afford after I have satisfied my own needs and wants first, rather than allowing faith to bite to the core. Perhaps today was a wake-up call, a near-death experience to be transformed by God into a more life-giving experience. I truly hope so.
On the edge of a New Year, social media accounts have been bombarded with messages about how terrible 2020 has been and how we can’t get out of it fast enough. Of course, 2020 has posed some significant challenges; most notably, on the global stage, the Covid-19 pandemic. The challenges in the wealthier countries, where we have tended to make the most emotional drama out of it, pale into insignificance when compared to the those faced by the poorest. We’re not used to this level of vulnerability, uncertainty and threat. It has freaked us out and, perhaps in some ways, that’s a good thing.
My hope for 2021 is that this glimpse of vulnerability, of real fear and helplessness, will engender far greater empathy for those poorest people in the world who live with that anxiety every day. And not just empathy, but a greater resolve to do something tangible to bring about positive and sustainable change. I hope it will drive us re-evaluate our crazy consumerism that is pushing the world further into irreversible environmental disaster. I hope it will reveal, too, our fundamental interdependence; although reports of rich countries racing to buy-up Covid vaccines first fills me with near-despair.
Yet there have been, for me, silver linings in the midst of all this. I’ve been grateful to God for the opportunity to live with my parents all year, to support each other during the lockdown and to spend valuable, irreplaceable time with them. I’ve been grateful for free technology that has allowed me, and others, to do so much online that would otherwise have been impossible. I’ve been grateful for the chance, with others, to support the poor in the Philippines; an experience that has often brought at least as much richness and joy to my life as to theirs. What have been your silver linings in 2020?
At just 5 feet (152 cm) tall, this Filipina presents an imposing stature. She went out this week to provide emergency food and modest cash gifts to some of the poorest people in the Philippines, those who live at the roadside on zero income owing to the Covid-19 lockdown. She herself is very poor yet determined to share what she has for the benefit of strangers in need. She prays to Jesus, dons a face mask and heads out fearlessly. One family revealed they had barely survived until she arrived. They had been living on just boiled water with a little sugar stirred into it. No rice, and little hope.
One group surrounded her when she at first appeared. Some men grabbed the bags of rice that she carried with her, skulking away in an attempt to avoid being caught. At that, she lifted her mask and yelled assertively: ‘Bring that back now, or I leave here with everything I came with.’ Slowly…the stealthy thieves reappeared, with guilty expressions on their faces now, and handed them back. She explained, ‘We are poor, but this is no way to conduct ourselves. We need to learn to share what we have, like Jesus.’ She then held out the sacks and cash, and every family went home with something real.
I asked her if she had felt nervous, to be confronted and robbed like that in broad daylight. She was, after all, alone among strangers and anything could have happened. She said no, she wasn’t afraid, because she had prayed hard before setting out. ‘I know what it is to be poor, and I have lived my entire life among the poor.’ I reflected on how I might have acted defensively in response, annoyed by their attitude and fearful for my own safety. By contrast, she showed courage, empathy, faith and love. Question: When have you been at your most fearless? What made the difference for you?
We walked past this little girl each day. She had the most beautiful smile. She worked at the front of a shop in the Philippines in a poor area, hoping that someone might stop and buy. She was very poor but never asked anything. She simply…smiled. I asked the Filipina I was walking with if we could buy this girl something special for Christmas. We did, and then returned to hand it to her. ‘This is a gift from Jesus, to thank you for the gift of your smile!’ She looked stunned, bemused and amazed.
Her Mum, dressed in rags, teased us playfully. ‘Haven’t you brought me a gift too? Or are you saying my smile isn’t cute enough?!’ We all laughed. It was a moment of joy. We returned the next day and the little girl now ran up to us, brimming with excitement. She told us she had shared the chocolates with her younger brothers, but asked if it would be OK to save the baseball cap until Christmas. ‘I’ve never had a gift before, and I’d love to be able to unwrap a gift on Christmas Day!’ I almost cried.
Whatever Christmas means for you this year: Light shines in darkness. Remember the poor.
A ‘university for the poor’. The past 2 weeks have been an inspiring and humbling experience at so many different levels. A close friend invited me to train and facilitate students, faculty and staff at a college in the Philippines that supports young people who cannot afford university education. It’s based in the inner city, shares basic facilities with various other government institutions and backs onto a market that, at times, fills hot and humid classrooms with a foul stench of waste.
It’s my third time in the Philippines and I’m always struck by the wild, extroverted and, in some ways, quite crazy culture. Dance, song and loud music are everywhere (as are people with guns), intermingled with sounds of all kinds of passing traffic and street dogs barking. The students here greet me with wide-eyed enthusiasm. It’s unusual to receive a visitor from the UK and they are curious, intrigued and keen to learn. We run classes for 3 days and the energy in the group is exhilarating.
At the end of the week, the students first sing a song to me then, one-by-one, come forward with hand written letters and cards, beautifully coloured and designed. I want to cry and yet fight back the tears. They are thanking me but I owe them so much. We move to workshops with faculty and staff using positive psychology and appreciative inquiry. Like the students before them, they are passionate, playful and professional. We laugh, work, sing, dance and learn together.
These memories stay with me: Their faith in Jesus that shines simply and brightly without inhibition. Their vision for the poor that extends beyond academic theory to personal and social transformation. Their kind welcome and hospitality to me as a total stranger. The very special friend who worked so incredibly hard – yet so carefully avoided the limelight. The open-hearted generosity of students who said, ‘We want others to experience what we have experienced here.’
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