I believe I can fly…

On Friday I jumped out of a plane. Twice.

You have no idea how fantastic it feels to be able to write those words. Four years ago one of my friends told me I should think about skydiving and I thought about it for 30 seconds and said ‘No fear,’ or words to that effect.

But this friend mentioned it again and again on a regular basis and while I was still saying no in my head, my heart was already thinking about flying above the earth. I saw his pictures as he trained to be a skydiver, secretly looked on YouTube at other people’s skydiving efforts and wondered whether I should – literally – take the plunge.

He stopped mentioning it and I stopped thinking about it. Until the summer when an e-voucher dropped into my inbox, offering me the chance to do an indoor skydive. I looked at it for a moment, bought it without thinking and booked to do it on my birthday. My head was saying ‘This will prove once and for all whether you want to do this thing.’ My heart was saying, ‘Yeh, yeh, yeh…’

I did my two minutes at the centre in Basingstoke. As I went in to the vertical wind tunnel, I felt a thrill of excitement. As I came out I booked another six minutes. And then some more after that. And then – after being put in touch with a skydiving instructor by my friend who was really encouraging me – booked some more time with with him in the tunnel.

And in between all this tunnel time I booked a skydiving course in Spain. I lost weight. I worked hard to master the position that my skydiving friends were telling me would keep me stable in the sky. I booked the course for October. Those three months between the summer time and heading out to Madrid seemed the longest of my life.

From my previous blogs you’ll know that for the first six days I was at the dropzone where the skydiving course was held, we were all grounded by the weather. It wasn’t until Friday, two days before most of us were due to go home that the weather was anywhere near good enough to jump.

I was assigned to an instructor and waited my turn to go up in what seemed like a very tiny plane considering the eight or nine bodies stuffed into it. Slowly we climbed into the sky until at last we reached 13,000 feet. An alarm sounded to let us all know that the door was opening and I watched as the others in the plane – the more experienced jumpers – disappeared.

By now I had a real understanding of fear. I’d have given anything to get off that plane. In fact I’d have given anything for someone to shut the door and tell me the whole thing was just a joke and we could all go home now. If I’d not been warned that’s exactly how I would feel, I’d have felt ashamed. As it was, I crawled to the entrance, lingered for slightly too long but finally pushed myself out of the door and into what felt like an abyss.

I have no idea what happened for the first few seconds as I fell out of that plane. That’s common too. Your brain is refusing to recognise what has happened and you are experiencing what’s called sensory overload. I was aware of the two instructors either side of me, holding on and sorting out my position in the air. I tried valiantly to do all that I had been told to do but my brain was refusing to believe that I was falling through the sky at 120mph.

I was checking my altimeter every five seconds and looking into the horizon as I’d been told. At six thousand feet I knew I needed to pull my parachute. I couldn’t find the pull for it, despite having practiced several times on the ground. I kept searching but knew I was running out of time.

Just as I thought that, I was suddenly pulled away from the two men either side of me and realised it was my canopy opening and that one of them must have pulled it for me. Forgetting for a second what I was supposed to do, I realised that my falling had stopped and then remembered what I was supposed to be doing and looked up. I’ve never been so pleased to see a piece of material in my life. It was orange, but more importantly it was big and symmetrical and – when I moved the steering toggles – it was controllable. As those were the things I’d been told needed to happen, I was able to take more of an interest in the things around me.

And then it hit me. I was flying. Flying six thousand – no, now five – thousand feet above the earth, with my feet dangling and a smile as big as the canopy over my head. To nobody in particular, I announced that I rather liked this game and sang several choruses of Oh What a Beautiful Morning.

Not for long of course. I had my instructions and looking down, identified where I was supposed to be heading to begin my pattern of descent. Pulling myself around so that I was heading towards the olive trees where I’d been told to hold on until it was my turn to come down, I was quite pleased to hear the voice of my instructor asking me to do a couple of pull downs on the steering toggles (known as flares which cause the canopy to brake) so he knew I could hear him.

I listened as he guided me to where I needed to be next, marveling that this piece of material could respond so sensitively to my pulls. Dropping slowly to one thousand feet and turning left, dropping gently to 500 feet and turning left so that I was facing the wind seemed easy. I watched the ground come closer and closer, listening intently to the instruction from the man on the ground who told me when exactly to put my brakes on to land. It was a perfect text book landing. Or would have been, if I’d not put my feet squarely onto muddy ground and stood uncertainly upright for a second before the squelchy mud inevitably pulled me over so I landed in an undignified heap causing my instructor to laugh through the radio while he asked me to raise my hand so he knew I was uninjured.

As I stood up to collect up my now collapsed canopy, I realised that I was crying. Crying because I really could fly. Crying because I could actually throw myself out of a plane. And crying that someone who wouldn’t even climb a ladder when she was 19, had descended through 13,000 feet of space.

I hope I never forget the day that the earth was spread out under my feet. I hope I’ll never forget the moment that I brought a parachute canopy down to earth. I hope I never forget what it truly means to live life to the full.

Epilogue

I did go up and do a second skydive but for various reasons was unable to continue the skydive course after this one. Sometime in the future I hope to return to the accelerated freefall course, but until then, I shall hold the memories in my heart and smile from time to time as I remember the day I believed I could fly.

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Tomorrow’s another day. Seriously.

I don’t think I’ve ever been as obsessed with the weather as I have been over the past few days. I’ve become addicted to the websites and apps that claim to give accurate forecasts for Ocana – where the dropzone is that I’m currently hoping to skydive at. Clouds suddenly become of great interest. The trainee skydivers can often be spotted staring into the horizon hoping the low cloud will go and blue skies will follow. We’ve all got cricks in our necks and a slightly maniacal look in our eye when we mention clouds and their formations and why they should shove off somewhere else.

Yesterday there was real hope and optimism that the conditions might be good enough for the level 1 students like me to actually get into a plane and then drop out of it. I was issued with my jumpsuit, goggles, helmet and altimeter – this last one an incredibly important piece of kit that tells you how far away the ground is. You look at it every five seconds because that’s – roughly – how fast it takes to fall a thousand feet. Suddenly I felt sick inside with nerves and excitement. It’s taken me about four years to get to this point and the possibility of this life-changing skydive actually taking place really began to hit home.

The first plane went up with the experienced jumpers and instructors keen to have a look to see what the conditions were like. The rest of us rookies paced about and watched the skies as this group came out of the plane and then gracefully landed on the ground. I watched slightly enviously of the perfect landing that one skydiver executed and was reminded with a wry grin of the previous trainee who’d described his efforts as ‘falling like an anvil.’

My ambition was simple. Get up in the plane. Get out of the plane. Try to get through all the drills that my instructor in Spain Phil and my coach last week in the UK, Stu instilled in me. Heading. Alti. Arch. Toes. Land without breaking anything of my own or other people’s. How simple it all seems. I was more than ready for it.

Then I saw one of the instructors who’d been up to test the conditions, shaking his head gently during a conversation and my heart sank faster than an anvil falling out of a plane. The winds were too strong further up in the sky for people like me who’ve never got out of a plane before. And that, it transpired, was that. The clouds returned with a vengeance, the patches of blue sky grew fewer and no-one was surprised when the instructors, the pilots and then the rest of us left for the day.

It doesn’t matter how much planning and forethought goes into our schemes. The weather can put paid to it all.

Today we were back early at the dropzone, staring up at the bright blue skies and all hopeful that this was the day we’d all get to do our first skydive. Impatiently we waited for the various people to arrive who would make the decision. My instructor Ryan remained doubtful. The trouble is, he said, that the winds are strong and likely to blow inexperienced people away from the area where it’s safe to land . Given that there are trees, aircraft hangers, railway lines, power cables and a very busy motorway to contend with, I was happy to listen to him and take his advice. It didn’t make it any less disappointing, but I’d rather be alive than have to scraped off a road or power cable.

Watching other more experienced skydivers coming into land was an education. Their twists and turns, sharp drops and fast landings were a lesson in how to make tricky things look easy. One of the Spanish instructors was sympathetic as he saw me watching the jumpers land with a wistful air.

‘One day it will be your turn,’ he said, ‘But we can’t take risks just to take that sad look away.’

Tomorrow is, after all, another day. And I would like to experience it.

Waiting for the plane that never comes…

Skydiving isn’t all Top Gun and Point Break. It isn’t all piling into a plane and then pouring out of it again at thirteen thousand feet, experiencing an adrenaline rush that exceeds all others. Sometimes it’s just about sitting around and waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

One of my fellow trainees here in Spain remarked that he had a tanned face and stiff neck from staring up into the sky, hoping for that magical break in the clouds that would see him – after ten days of waiting – finally make it into the sky to do his first skydive. The weather conditions here aren’t right for seasoned skydivers, much less the new kids on the block.

It’s a long wait. You soon make friends. But the wait for the clouds to disappear can cause even the sunniest countenance to darken a little with despair. This is, after all, Spain, not England. The rain in Spain falling on the plane here has put paid to our chances of taking to the skies. Again.

Yesterday I finished ground school which takes you through all the drills and techniques you need to know. This morning I passed my ground school exam and found myself in a practice harness, suspended six feet from the floor and experiencing what it’s like in an emergency when the parachute opens but doesn’t open well. As I was shaken around in the harness while trying to reach for the cutaway clip that would release the troublesome canopy and then to the reserve parachute clip that would save my life, I suddenly realised how much I wanted to be in the air for real.

There is no point whatsoever in getting stressed about things that you have no control over. I can’t make one cloud move. I can’t make one tiny patch of blue big enough to hold a plane with my new friends and me in it. It’s humbling to be reminded that it doesn’t matter how much planning we might do, how much we think we’ve got everything sorted, we have no real way of controlling the planet or its weather.

This morning as we all arrived in glorious sunshine, the mood was upbeat. The instructors themselves were optimistic, getting ready and briefing the first students who are due to jump. The students who’ve been waiting far more than the three days I’ve been hopefully looking skyward, began to have a spring in their step. But within an hour it started to become clear that the cloud of yesterday had made an unwelcome comeback and they had retreated to the bar for copious amounts of coffee (no beer allowed before skydiving) or to the hangar to play ferocious games of table tennis.

By this afternoon, the instructors were apologetically telling us there would be ‘no further activity for today.’ One of my new friends who is training with me looked as sad as I felt, as she hugged me goodbye until tomorrow. I have to admit to feeling a little downhearted too. It isn’t the end of the world of course, but once you’ve got the skydiving itch, you really need to scratch it. And you really, really, REALLY can’t do that from the ground.

Some of the friends I’ve made here are already having to leave, despite having made no jumps at all. Their time has run out. Their other life is calling them back. Some have managed to extend their stay to cover the hopeful period on the weather forecast chart which has rumours of wall-to-wall sunshine. My deadline of Sunday night is approaching and I was touched that some of those who’ve managed no jumps were generous enough to hope I would get at least some of mine.

We are all waiting. Some of us more patiently than others. It is what it is and can’t be switched on and off like a kettle or a TV. But just because we know all that, doesn’t actually make it any easier.

On one of my exam questions, it asked, ‘What does the instructor ask you just before you exit the plane?’ The answer I put was ‘Are you ready to skydive?’ It was correct. The answer to the question is a resounding Yes. Yes. Yes. Yessssss, of course I am.

Skydivers have a special wish and greeting for each other. I’m beginning to understand it far more than I did a few weeks ago.

So I wish you all – particularly those who have the urge to jump out of perfectly good planes with the equivalent of a bedsheet on your back – ‘Blue Skies and Happy Landings…’

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Chin up and believe in yourself

If I had a pound for every time someone’s said, “Ooh, learning to skydive, that’s brave,” I could probably buy a complete new skydiving rig. Especially if I had a pound for all the other times that people have asked me WHY I’m doing it.

The truth is, I’m not exactly sure. Except that over the past three or four years I’ve listened to a friend who’s enthused about it and I’ve seen the pictures and film footage of this mad man jumping out of perfectly good planes and wondered what it might be like. But like all these things, I felt I always had a good reason for not being able to do it. Or rather made excuses to put it off…

It was only in the summer of this year that I made the decision that it was time to go and find out once and for all if skydiving is as much as an adrenaline rush as I fear it will be. Firstly though – as it isn’t cheap – I took advantage of an offer to experience indoor skydiving at a wind tunnel in Basingstoke to see whether I really thought I might actually want to do it.

I have to admit as I stood at the door, I felt like every single nerve was singing at the top of its range. Ten seconds later my breath was quite literally taken away as all the oxygen appeared to be sucked out of my nose. My arms, legs and stomach felt like they were going several rounds with a Force Ten gale. I watched my instructor, tried to do what he said and discovered simple instructions like ‘arch’ (to get your best body position for freefall) and ‘relax’ can be really difficult to put into practice.

And yet, as I left, I found myself booking another one. A few days later and I was booking the full Accelerated Freefall course to do it all in the skies over Spain.

Two days ago I was receiving coaching at the indoor skydiving centre from a great guy who’s an AFF instructor and very experienced skydiver. Stu’s enthusiasm and ability to teach in a way that’s both lively and very educational left me equally enthused and far more confident about taking to the skies than I was this time last week.

If I tell you that I can turn circles, flip myself over and move backwards and forwards, it might not seem that much. But after ten minutes of tunnel time it felt an immense achievement. I worked harder than I’ve done in a long time and the following day I had aches in places I didn’t even know I had…

But I’m still grinning. Tomorrow I fly out to Spain and start the AFF in earnest. And I’m more excited than a six-year-old on Christmas Eve. Goodness ONLY knows how I’m going to sleep tonight.

And that’s what really matters. The enthusiasm and encouragement of my skydiving friend, the patience and praise from Stu at this week’s coaching session means that suddenly yes, I really do believe I can fly. And – what’s more – it’s going to be the most fun since one of my friends turned up at a pub Christmas lunch dressed as a nun. (Long story for another day.)

The last entry in my indoor skydive logbook says that I should keep my chin up and believe in myself. The first is actually a physical thing really but I’ll take it in both senses of the word. And as my coach Stu remarked in an email to me yesterday, ‘Remember that above all else, it’s meant to be fun…’

I have no doubt that my nerves will be singing an almighty chorus while I’m in the plane working its way up to skydive height. I have no doubt that I will say some very rude things in my head about the people who encouraged me to get this far as I stand on the ledge. And I have absolutely no doubt at all that when I land I’ll be pleading with my instructors to let me go up and do it again…

One of my friends gave me a card which says this, ‘Life isn’t a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways used up, worn out and shouting “Wow! What a ride.”’

Or as someone else once put it slightly more succinctly: “I have come that you might have life and live it to the full…”

There’s only one answer to that: ‘Gerrrronnnnimmmmmo…’
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The uncomfortable truth…

(Based on a talk given at Christ Church, Bath on Sunday 5th October)

And he (Jesus) told them this parable: ‘The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, “What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.” Then he said, “This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy, eat, drink and be merry.’ Then God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich towards God.
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This story Jesus tells in Luke 12 is a challenge and an uncomfortable reminder that we need to get our priorities right. We need to be rich before God before anything else. This is a hard few verses to speak about. As I was thinking about what to write, I was feeling a bit embarrassed about having to even mention it. And I felt uncomfortable as I began to think about how these kinds of verses shine a light into bits of our lives that we’d rather other people didn’t see.

It’s a bit like when you vacuum under a bed or behind a cupboard – you kind of get most of it, but a few bits remain. It’s only when you pull that cupboard out and expose it to the light that you see the bits of dead spider, the dried up woodlice and the dustballs that have collected there.

But Jesus is making a very good point here. He’s asking us to shift our focus back to what really matters. Making a pile of money to make sure we’re secure for the future isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is a foolish thing if we put all our hopes and dreams into that stockpile of cash. I remember someone a man I used to work with in local government many years ago. He was full of stories of all that he was going to do in his retirement and how his pension was going to make sure he could do all of those things. Within a year of retiring he was dead. His pension was worthless to him.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting security. But there is something wrong if that comes before everything else. Jesus is reminding us of what really matters. To get things in perspective, we need to put God at the top and let the rest fall into place underneath him. Money doesn’t last. Possessions are worthless when we’re dead. It’s right to plan for the future, but it’s wrong to put all your hopes in a materialistic answer to the future. Because it isn’t going to be a secure one.

When we take God’s perspective of things rather than our own, things fall into a better place. When we say I am no longer mine, but yours, all that is mine is yours… God takes those gifts we offer him and uses them in an amazing way. When God’s people are generous, it’s more than matched by him. His abundant amazing grace and blessing pours out when we step out in faith or we give in faith.

The little boy who gave up his lunch to help Jesus must have been astounded to see how far that lunch went. He could have kept it to himself and got the benefit himself. But instead he gave it away and God blessed it – I should imagine the lad got far more back than he gave away. The givers are blessed. Their gifts are blessed.

But it’s never easy to step out in faith. And I think we have to be careful about what God does and doesn’t ask us to do. Sometimes it will be about selling everything we have and following him somewhere completely new. But sometimes he’ll ask us to stay where we are, using our gifts and resources to benefit the local community. Mission is anywhere and everywhere. It’s on our doorstep and also across the world. God doesn’t say we shouldn’t have wealth. He just says make sure you get in perspective and use it in the right way.

Canon J John points out that while money can buy a house it cannot buy a home, it can buy medicine but not health. It’s also true to say that it can buy seed but not a great crop. The man in the story Jesus told had put all his faith in his own efforts and his own possessions and money. And God just looked at him and said, ‘You are a fool.’ It’s interesting that this man appears to only have himself to talk to – there appears to be no family and no true friends because that’s something else money can’t buy. I wonder just what he sacrificed in the pursuit of money…

As Christians we’re called upon to be good stewards of all we have. That doesn’t mean we necessarily have to sell up everything and go and live in a shed somewhere, but it might mean we’re called into other forms of sacrificial giving. Mission calls for some form of sacrifice, sometimes money, sometimes time. And mission isn’t just in one form. We should never lose sight of the fact that mission is often meant to be practical and spiritual. The gospel in action tackles HIV stigma in Zimbabwe, domestic violence in Zambia, provides healthcare in Burma, mosquito nets in Malawi, maternity units in Lesotho. And in all these practical solutions, Christians like you and me are leading the way, showing the love of Christ and being rich towards God.

But it isn’t easy. The truth is that we want to be comfortable. We like our homes. We like to be secure. We like that little nestegg for a rainy day. We like the thought of being comfortable. And yet the Gospel isn’t comfortable. How can it be? Our Saviour was crucified, dying a horrific death. How can our Gospel be a comfortable one in a rotten, broken, dark, selfish and violent world?

I was reading a report about one of the hospitals in Gaza that is run by the Diocese of Jerusalem and supported by Us. Its mission statement says The Al Ahli mission is to glorify God and bear witness to his love as manifested in the life of Jesus Christ. Shining the light of Christ in a dark place, often at terrible cost. A nurse died in a bombardment. Three ambulance workers died as they drove patients to hospital and came under attack. Doctors perform surgery in the dark because there’s no power. We received an email from them listing all the repair work that needs to be done just to bring the hospital back up to normal. It’s a long list. And yet, they carry on certain in the knowledge that God has called them to do what they do. They’re poor in human terms, rich in the terms that matter – God’s terms.

It’s humbling isn’t it? I like my house, my garden, my life as it is. And yet, God can turn it all upside down in a second. For the second time in two years I’m facing an uncertain future as another job comes to an end with no indication of what the next chapter is. How can we put our trust in careers, money and possessions when it can all be taken away in a moment?

My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness, I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ the solid rock I stand – because believe me, all other ground IS sinking sand…

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Cats, contemplation and contentment…

Earlier this morning I was sitting in a labyrinth with a spiritual director who was rolling on his back, waving his paws in the air and asking me to rub his ears.

Err… perhaps I should explain.

Paws is a cat. He is a cat who owns a retreat called El Palmeral at Elche in Spain. There are also a couple of humans here called Julie and Mike, but – in truth – they are his fetchers and carriers while he gets on with the more important aspects of life here, like finding secret places to sleep and contemplate life.

I’m here because after a long summer working at summer festivals and conferences, I need some time out. And that’s exactly what El Palmeral has given me. Time to sleep, time to be silent, time to swim in the pool, time to have conversations with Paw’s general manager here, who is now also my pal Julie, time to explore life with my fellow retreaters.

But it’s also turned into a time to stop and think too. It’s no secret that my current contract at the charity I’ve been with for the past two years, is coming to an end and it’s time to move on and find something else. A new chapter is about to begin and I am closing the page on the previous one. It isn’t easy to do either of those things.

It’s harder to do it when you are – inevitably – surrounded by the noise and busyness of every day life. So, it’s providential that I’m here, listening to the gentle bubbling of the jet flows in the pool and the incessant chirping of cicadas as the day grows hotter.

Otherwise it is silent. Sometimes with prayer, sometimes with just listening. Silence is so important. As a person of faith, I genuinely believe that it is when we are silent that God can step in and do incredible things and say words we need to hear. I suspect that it is when we are silent that he can get a word in edgeways.

For those who don’t share the same faith as me, being silent is still important. Silence restores equilibrium, it quietens troubled thoughts and hearts and reduces the cacophony of noise that surrounds everyday life.

Lately I’ve taken to deliberately locking myself out of social media for a few hours a day. I still love it and the benefits of keeping in touch with those friends far and near who I value so much. But somehow even taking time out from that warm and friendly noise has also become more important too as I come to the end of another chapter.

I remain quietly confident that another chapter is coming, but I’m sure everyone reading this will understand that there are moments when I do have a thrill of fear about the old one ending. Mortgages still need to be paid, bills met and debts honoured.

This morning I wandered off by myself to the labyrinth at the bottom of the garden here. There’s a wooden bench there – much used – that I was intending to sit on and enjoy the early sunshine, while contemplating and listening in the silence. However, someone had got there ahead of me. On the ground in front of the seat, there was a warm wriggly cat, opening one eye to look at me, gently waving his tail with the joy of life and generally looking content.

And why wouldn’t he? Paws is loved and secure. He is fed and looked after. He is as much part of the family here as any human. Somehow this little cat knows that wherever he goes during the day, whatever he does, he is always going to receive the same loving warm welcome when he pokes his nose around the door politely inquiring about his supper later tonight.

As I knelt down to rub his ears as he was inviting me to do and played with him, I became aware of something. The silence was being broken by his purring, the involuntary sound of pleasure that cats give off in their happy place. He is happy and he shows it. Warm, fed, loved and looked after. Content in the place where he is.

Jesus once pointed out to his disciples that God sees and knows every sparrow. If that’s the case for sparrows, said Jesus, then how much more will he care for you? The same thought occurred to me as I looked at this little cat. Wherever I am, wherever I go, the same loving warm welcome always awaits me when I poke my nose around the door where God sits awaiting my arrival with a big smile on his face, ready to give me whatever it is that I need.

As I sat in silence, rubbing the ears of a cat waving its legs in the air in pure contented happiness, it became obvious this wasn’t a distraction from my spiritual contemplation but a gentle answer to the question I’ve been asking on and off for weeks.

My next chapter is coming and its pages won’t be empty…

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Unless you become like a child…

I made a grown man cry today. No, I didn’t stand on his toes. Nor did I fold up a map the wrong way in front of him. Nor did I bump his car with mine. All I did was tell him a story…

Perhaps I should explain.

I’m currently at New Wine. No, it’s not a Bacchanalian celebration of the skills of the vintner, but a chance for people of faith – particularly Christian faith – to get themselves a spiritual recharge. For two weeks, the Royal Bath and West Showground near Shepton Mallet in Somerset becomes home to thousands of intrepid campers and caravanners, all searching for that one common purpose – to meet with God and his people and see where that takes them.

In the Market Place where I am, there are many charities, all telling stories of despair, hope, transformation, challenges and injustice. Each one has its supporters, each one is hoping to touch people’s hearts with what’s being done in the name of God.

It’s intriguing to watch how different people come into the Market Place. Many are more than happy to exchange pleasant greetings, small talk and banter – while others keep their heads down and refuse to catch your eye. Their fear? The possibility that you might jump out at them, grab them in a headlock and refuse to let them go until they’ve signed up to a massive direct debit.

The truth is much more complex. I would be lying if I said that we didn’t go to New Wine hoping to get financial support. Christians have an uncomfortable relationship with money – particularly when asking for money from others. It’s the ‘dirty’ side of charity work – explain you’re a fundraiser and people eye you with the same suspicion they eye the taxman. Or the Bond villain.

So we are hoping that Us, the charity I work for, will gain new supporters and that more people will sign up to donate to us. But it’s more than that. One of the reasons New Wine is so successful is that people who come to it have a real heart for understanding God’s calling.

That might mean the spiritual equivalent of a kick into the middle of next week, or it might mean some sacrificial giving, or chucking in a job to go and work overseas. Who knows? As CS Lewis points out in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,’ Aslan isn’t safe to be with, but he is the  only King worth following.

The trouble is that we often put up barriers to listening to what’s going on around us. We can’t fail to be moved by what’s going on in Gaza, or the Ukraine or any of the other troubled parts of the world. And many of us will respond by giving generously to the emergency appeals that all too often grace our television screens. But giving in the quieter times? That’s more complicated.

As I have been walking around the Market Place, looking at other people’s stalls, I’ve been struck by the number that are offering incentives to give. In return for giving money, you get something in return.

I have to admit, I am a bit uncomfortable with that. But I also quite like the idea of getting a ‘free’ gift in return for something I’ve done or given. And yet, God calls on us to give without counting the cost. He calls us to be good stewards. And he calls us to look around us and care for those in need. He calls for us to care and give unconditionally, just as we have been loved and blessed by him.

It was a little girl who brought this home to me. She couldn’t have been more than about eight or nine years old. She was walking through the Market Place, when she stopped to look at the stand of the charity I work for, Us. She looked at the picture of the woman who’d survived domestic violence and she read the words, ‘Without your help, I would be dead.’ And as I watched her, she reached into her pocket, pulled out her purse and emptied the entire contents into the postbox which sits at the front of our exhibition space.

She didn’t want a free gift or incentive. This was just the girl who saw a need and wanted to help in whatever way she could. The lump in my throat wouldn’t go away. Childlike simplicity always brings me back down to earth with a bump.

When I told that story on New Wine FM – yes, they even have their own radio station – the presenter could hardly speak, he was so moved. I saw the tears come into his eyes and he swallowed hard before he could continue with his words. A grown man weeping for the heartfelt response to great need by a child.

It’s no wonder that Jesus told his disciples that unless they became as little children, they’d never see the kingdom of heaven. How right that is. I wonder sometimes whether we’re so busy trying to get our free gifts of spiritual maps and theological sat navs that we neglect to see the whacking great sign saying, ‘Kingdom of heaven. This way.’

Meanwhile, our children look up, see the sign and walk right in…

(Pic: Us postbox at New Wine, 2014)

 

Us postbox