The smell caught me off guard. I had already brushed off the powdery residue of toxic raindrops on my bear arms and wiped the crud off my cheeks as I came in off the streets. And now a fume that carried a sickening sense of forgottenness was scraping at the back of my throat as I crossed the threshold. This dilapidated orphanage in some backwater industrial zone of Suceava was nothing short of shocking. From no fault of its own, what once stood as a life giving infant sanctuary was now debased; spoiled by an arrogant death that smugly showed off its stench to any good intended visitor.
P%$* and s*!& came to mind before the fact I was in the company of motherless children. I felt like a bloody tourist.
I was 16 and had signed up for a Christian mission in Romania to build a church and do some street evangelism. In the summer of 1992, before the cotton wool world of risk-aversity emerged, I spent a few weeks with a Romanian family in a block of flats that overlooked the city. From this height I was expecting to see a city scape or maybe even the ominous Carpathian Mountains to the west, but instead nothing other than the thick layer of smog that covered everything. Pollution had saturated the clouds and whenever it rained it bubbled like a fizzy lemonade on the pavements. The smog acted as a oppressive reminder that nothing had really changed since the fall of communism and the assassination of Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989, well at least not yet anyway. The country’s economic system had collapsed entirely, barely getting by with a GDP growth rate of -12.4%, the lowest in Romania’s recorded fiscal history. Money had no real value anymore, so many people paid with items that had a much higher value, like milk, potatoes and beans.
I had arrived in Romania as part of a mission team that carried aid like clothes and medical supplies. We also had kid’s toys, lots of kid’s toys. The UK had reacted with a knee jerk and there were lots of aid trips going over with all sorts of donations.
After spending a week digging out a trench for a new sewerage system for the church build, the team decided to take our donations to a nearby orphanage in Suceava. Aside from the smell which was just simply impossible to ignore we were told that there were 10-12 nurses on staff at any one time, for the 400+ children that were accommodated. Children from new-borns to teenagers were separated on each floor of the concrete multi-storey complex.
I remember the building feeling more like a prison than a hospital, but it had a similar layout to both. Long corridors with rooms off each side. Large windows in each door allowed you to look in on the desperate occupants. Some rooms had larger windows beside the door, so you could check more carefully without the need to enter. Light switches were on the outside of the room.
As we toured the corridors I began to feel increasingly more uncomfortable with my own life at home. I felt embarrassed that we had thought to bring toys, and even ourselves. Mickey Mouse and I were about as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike.
The smell was getting worse.
We were led up the stairs to this first floor dedicated to children aged 2 to 4. We passed a room filled with cuddly toys and unwrapped gifts, we paraded passed another containing cot mattresses. Then after a few more paces we stopped outside a room with two children in cots. One, a girl, seemingly dead, still, pale and eyes wide open, the other a boy. If it weren’t for the other boy’s crying lament I would have thought it was a morgue. The nurse checked the girl and reassured us she was breathing. The boy wouldn’t stop weeping.
I didn’t know who this boy was, what his name was, or where he was from; but at that moment I had never felt more connected to anyone else. His tears were my tears. I don’t mean in some westernised empathetic sense, the kind that signals to the virtue before the humanity, but in a sense that i was feeling lost, entirely lost. I don’t know why I did what I did next. Maybe I just felt compelled to do something, to prevent this 'feeling of being lost' entirely overwhelming me. Maybe it was the combination of the soiled mattress, the cold walls, the crying, the smell of urine catching the back of my throat, the girl laying lifeless, and Mickey Mouse in the room next door. I was nothing, I was lost, and yet I had to do something.
As the nurse turned to leave the room, I walked over to the boy and held out my hands to offer an embrace. He reached over the cot side bar and I lifted him up and out. His arms clung to me like a limpet on a jagged rock. His head rested in my neck, shaking and convulsing, hyper-ventilating. His body had resorted to a kind of physiological revulsion over the circumstance and his surroundings. He wouldn’t let go.
This was my conversion experience. The day that death died. I had come to Romania to share the good news, but I had at times slipped into thinking that I had brought Jesus with me. That I had something that others needed and wanted. The truth is I had nothing. I was lost. I hadn’t even contemplated the idea that Jesus might have already been there.
Yes, I was a Christian. I had a sense of mission. I wanted to do good and share the message of God’s love. I knew Jesus was light of the world, and that his Church was like a prism refracting his light in the darkest of places. Yet, in this orphanage I was lost, I had nothing. I couldn’t even say Dumnezeu te iubește, God loves you.
This boy. In my arms. He was like Christ to me. I’d read about Jesus appearing to Paul on the road to Damascus, I had heard about the fisherman being called out of their boats, and how Thomas had seen the wounds of Christ and believed. I didn’t think it would happen to me.
This boy was Christ to me. I had nothing, and he held on. I was lost, and he found me. Most of the time humanity hates and attack what it has good reason to love. I hated poverty, I hated the stench and my lostness in it. And yet, in a worldly sense, this boy I held and every other child in that orphanage was more lost than I will ever be, and more hated than I will ever be – hated so much that their lives are seen as burden. But in that embrace and my conversation to really let Jesus into my life, I remembered that hope is not some vague belief that all will work out well, but as Richard Rohr puts it, ‘biblical hope is the certainty that things finally have a victorious meaning no matter how they turn out.’ Now I believe in generous justice, a God who met us in the poverty of Christ and spoke to us in the terminus between dark and light.
I have always wondered about that boy, where he is now, what he's doing. In my searching for him, I keep finding Christ.
If you want to know how to respond. Speak to your nearest Christian about Jesus, and/or lookup www.whitecrossmission.com
Revd Jeremy Putnam
Before I get on to the question at hand I have to pin my colours to the mast. I think Britain should stay in the EU; and I will be voting that way on the 23rd. I’ve come to that decision not because of any financial, political or economic evidence but because I want to be part of something bigger, not smaller; something that draws people together, not apart. I want this country to be proud of its history of participation, collaboration, membership and unity, rather than seeking virtue in independence, or to defend the notion we are better off on our own. I like the fact that I can call myself English, British and European, and that the latter unites me with 508 million other people.
Our politicians haven’t really been that helpful to be fair. There’s a lot of infighting and negativity at the moment, rather than actual leadership and facts. It feels like the country is trying to keep warm by a fire made with live wood, soggy tea-towels and rotten cabbages. There’s a lot of smoke, it spits a lot and lets off a really bad smell. For every politician saying that the EU is good for us there is another saying the opposite. No matter what the issue is, whether it be immigration, trade, security or sovereignty, the rhetoric is the same. They can’t all be right. If I base my decision on what politicians say then it simply comes down to who I trust more – David Cameron or Boris Johnson, George Osbourne or Michael Gove, Sarah Newton or Derek Thomas. Who wants to be left with that choice?
Instead, I’ve gone with my gut, and I suppose, with a rather idealistic notion of unity. Do I want Britain to be a part of something bigger? – yes I do, even if it means that some of the decision making is done in Brussels instead of London (Westminster feels just as far removed from Cornwall than Brussels does anyway – and I don’t just mean geographically).
So what’s all this got to do with Jesus? Well, over recent weeks I’ve been searching for some wisdom in the words of Jesus that would help me vote in the right way. Don’t get me wrong I am not about to say that I’m voting to stay in the EU because I think Jesus said I should. My thoughts were more like: if Jesus was around today then maybe he would have something to say about the in/out debate. Or maybe he wouldn’t.
I think there are a couple of passages in the New Testament that come into play here (I’m sure there are many more). The first is Matthew 22:15-22, often subtitled as ‘Paying Taxes to Caesar.’ It turns out that in my anxious hope of finding some helpful advice from Jesus, I find I am no better than the Pharisees and Herodians, who came to Jesus with a similar in/out question. ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?’ they ask him, or in other words, are you one of us, or one of them? Do you honour the Romans, or do you honour the law of your ancestors? To the outsider, it was a no win situation. If he’d said he didn’t recognise the authority of Caesar then it would’ve meant a premature arrest and imprisonment, and probably would have led to social and political unrest too. If he said he honoured Caesar, then those he was called to speak to would’ve shunned him, dismissed his shallow pomposity and, even worse, stoned him for blasphemy. So where does he go with this? The tension I’m sure was palpable, the bigwigs had got him cornered. But Jesus, in a flash of wisdom and certainty simply says, ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’
In many ways Jesus had no time for man-made political ideologies. He didn’t care for empires, structures and bureaucracy – and although he speaks of the temporary nature of all these things (Luke 21:5-7), he doesn’t feel it’s his mission to bring them down just yet. Probably because he knew that when one institution is brought down another would simply come in its place. Instead, he chose to work within and without these structures. He spent his time IN and OUT of political and religious circles, negotiating courts, scribes, scholars, lawyers, the police, the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Herodians, the Sanhedrin, as well as the public. So in some ways Jesus has nothing to say about the EU in/out debate. It looks like Jesus would have bigger concerns. And in fact, we ourselves might say that there are indeed more important things than the EU referendum today!
Take for instance the fact that there are currently 38 million people who have been forcibly uprooted from their home and displaced within their own country. And that there are another 20 million people who have been forcibly uprooted from their home and our now refuges in other countries (UNHCR: Facts and Figures on Refugees).
And the fact there is currently 27 million people in the world today who have been trafficked for sex and slavery, the average cost of a slave in today’s market is $90 (dosomething.org & polarisproject.org - The Facts).
What about the fact that in the UK we waste about 7 million tonnes of food each year, and the world wastes about 1.3 billion tonnes (fao.org), which is a third of what the world produces as a whole, all whilst 795 million people struggle without enough food to be healthy, that’s 1 in 9 people worldwide.
So maybe the question is not whether Jesus was an innie or outie, or whether being in the EU is better for us; maybe the question is whether or not it’ll make any difference to what really matters. And so here is the other passage that helped me – Luke 10:25-37 otherwise known as ‘The Parable of the Good Samaritan,’. The story is well known, and is powerfully punchy, the best stories are those that give you a good hard punch in the gut and get you looking at yourself, rather than just at others. In this story, we learn that the person least likely to help (politically speaking – the Samaritans and Jews didn’t get on) was actually the one who did help. It’s a shame that the UK is being seen more and more as the one country in the EU that is less likely to help with humanitarian matters (despite the figures for foreign aid). So I’d like to think that the Parable of the Good Samaritan is an opportunity waiting for us. That this island just off mainland Europe will be the Samaritan of our time. If being in the EU helps us do that then great. If you think otherwise, then that’s great too. Because what really matters is not whether a man in a grey suit makes decisions from London or from Brussels, it’s not even about whether being in the EU is better for me; it’s more about whether the man at the roadside sees us as the one who walks by on the other side and who does nothing, or the one who stops, attends and cares.
Thanks for reading - Jeremy
God of truth, give us grace to debate the issues in this referendum with honesty and openness. Give generosity to those who seek to form opinion and discernment to those who vote, that our nation may prosper and that with all the peoples of Europe we may work for peace and the common good; for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
There are times when scripture has to linger and loiter in our minds until we learn its timely relevance. Indeed, there are passages that we know well and have been faithful companions for much of our lives, until that is, we receive a divine nudge that provokes a new perspective, and a sudden change of thought. It was therefore my delight to have such a nudge last week as I prepared for our Sunday service. Psalm 1 ‘…those who delight in the Law of the Lord, are like trees planted by streams of water, yielding much fruit and whose leaf does not wither.’
This passage has always had an element of the prosperity gospel about it. If we trust in the Lord then we will be blessed, in health, wealth and faith. It was often thought that Christians who flourished in practical ways, i.e. nice job, big house, and good health, must have a strong faith in God, since scripture says that those who delight in God are like trees planted by streams of water. I have been guilty myself of thinking that faith in God equals good times.
What we forget is that God’s blessing falls on the faithful and unfaithful alike, he pours his grace upon the righteous as well as the un-righteous. And there are many examples of this in the bible.
During morning prayer this week I’ve been reading about the Exodus and the struggle of God’s people in the wilderness. Despite the lack of faith shown by early Israel God provided manna which fell with the dew on everything and everyone. It reminded me that the sun rises for all; the rain covers the rich and poor; and mercy is shown to the just and unjust alike. So what does the passage from Psalm 1 mean?
It seems that today it is blatantly obvious that we live in an unfair world. Too many still live in extreme poverty, too many still persecuted, too many still at the hands of dictators. Nearer to home, too many need foodbanks, need hand-outs and too many are on waiting lists for life saving surgery. Where’s the manna?
I turn back to Psalm 1, and I am also drawn to John 10:10, to Genesis 1 & 2 and Revelation 21, and I am reminded of the nature of God’s abundant and creative blessing. The tree described in Psalm 1 is the tree of life Jesus Christ, that is planted in us. Despite our physical condition, or what the world throws at us, or where life leads us or what our bank statement looks like, faith in Jesus Christ and accepting him as our Saviour, means we are planted – in the strongest terms for all eternity, like a tree by streams of water. Irrespective of our years, of our mistakes, of our successes, in Jesus, we find a place in the new Eden, as Paul puts it, we are a new creation (2 Cor. 5). So look for Jesus in all things and you will be eternally blessed.
Yours in Christ
A collection of thoughts and reflections from the people of All Saints.