Corona, Olive Oil and Christian Hope

I remember once visiting the local library of the town I used to live, in Buckinghamshire, England. I was curious to see the new library that had moved to a newly built shopping centre. I walked across the entrance hall and proceeded to the lifts. It was the beginning of summer and sunny, which in England is not always the case, so I was in good spirits. It is amazing what light and warmth does to our mood. Anyhow, in the lift I started making conversation with the man who was making the short trip to the third floor with me.

— ‘Are you here to study?’, I asked. The rude reply which followed shocked me.

— “I have a PhD! I’m a lecturer and could teach you about everything you know!”

I was in disbelief! How sad that in his learning he did not learn about goodness. Politeness had, obviously, also been bypassed by his research. A few years later I still think it was some kind of bad joke on his part.

As children we grow up being told to be good. If you are good, you will have this or that, if you are good you will be liked. By being good we hope to get what we expect, therefore at an early age, we understand that successful human interaction is based on met expectations. What are wars, political crises, family break-down, anger after encounters in library lifts, and even depression, if not reactions to unmet expectations? 

As our unmet expectations materialise before our eyes, we enter into the dark and colourless realms of hopelessness. The knowledge encountered in our disappointment drains away any hope we may have. Indeed, in times such as ours, when the world lives through an unprecedented pandemic which threatens not only human life, but also the very economic and political systems we have devised, our expectations of a happy, healthy and affluent life vanishes. 

Where is God? Why is this happening? 

Just yesterday, talking to an American friend, he told me he had just lost his job. Something he prayed about and came as a blessing now gone, directly linked to the impact of Covid19 on the economies and  businesses worldwide. Another friend in England posted an emotional text on social media on how the small business she has worked so hard to start is at risk. Why?  

In answering, and its my most common answer: I have no idea! What I do know, however, is something I learned in the most painful times of my life, when the ideal of the perfect marriage never came, when parenting was impossible, when I found ministry hard, or I felt hopeless. The truth I learned is this: God (often), does not meet our expectations.

To understand this truth (it is at least a truth to me), we must look at the life of the poor carpenter from Nazareth.

First century Jews had hoped for their messiah for a long time. They expected him to arrive in the likeness of a king who, being the Anointed One, would free them from their rulers and reestablish an independent nation, sitting on David’s throne. In the manger, in a lowly, smelly and poverty-stricken stable somewhere in Bethlehem, their expectations were shattered.

Years later, when Jesus starts his public ministry, he begins preaching not the political liberation message people desired, he spoke of what people needed. His message was controversial, subversive of the system, and focused on an all-together different kind of liberation. The liberation from self and sin, and reconciliation to God and others.

As for me, the last thing I want to hear in hard times is that I need to accept God’s will. I want to know and understand, and I want answers! In difficult times I want to fight back, action is required, force be used if needs be, and a stand must be taken. As an activist, ashamed as I am to admit, in times of hardship, it irritates me when people tell me to pray. What will prayer achieve in times such as ours? I do not need to pray! God knows it already.

Then, if we take the time to look at Jesus in his darkest moment, which starts in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46) and explodes with the joy of Easter Sunday, that is exactly what he does – he prays. For him, it is not about knowing, it is about hope. Because hope, the powerful thing that moves humanity and summons greatness into existence, is a child of the unknown.

“The ages of great terror are also the ages of great hope; it is to the captivity of Babylon that we owe, with the second part of Isaiah, those pictures of the future which have not yet ceased to charm the of man; Nero’s persecutions gave us the Apocalypse of St. John, and the paroxysm of the twelfth century the eternal Gospel.”  (Life of Francis of Assisi, Paul Sabatier, p. 81, Kindle Edition)

There is no hope in what is known. Hope is a treasure buried deep in that which cannot be fathomed by the human mind. It is a mystery which compels humankind to worship and submission in hope for the Day of Revelation, when the kingdom of God fully comes. It is in the ‘here but not yet’ that the gift of hope is given. That is faith.

You know, in times of crisis as Christians we can react in three ways: (1) we can fall asleep, negating the seriousness of the situation like the disciples with Jesus that night in Gethsemane; (2) we can attack, like Peter, taking up our weapons and go about cutting a few ears; or (3) we can pray and submit to the Father, not knowing but hoping, after the example of the Nazarene.

The word Gethsemane is deeply significant. The word in its original is believed to mean: “oil press”. The place where olives were brought in sacks, stacked up and pressed by a heavy beam. The more pressure, the more oil. Do not the current times feel like we have all have been stacked together and placed under a huge beam? It is a time of huge pressure as it was for Jesus in that lonely night.

The ‘Garden of Pressing’ places before Jesus a very hard choice: Will he submit to the will of the Father or do something else? The “Garden of Pressing” shatters our expectations of a glorious king, it breaks away the ‘terms and conditions’ we have asked God to submit to, it challenges our human scales to measure goodness. It reveals the the anointing of the the Anointed One is forged in the pressing of hardship. The ‘Garden of Pressing’, the Holy Cross, and in fact the invitation to submission, is not what our minds perceive as liberation or hopeful. 

It only takes five minutes browsing through social networks to see so many either sleeping and denying the gravity of the moment humanity is facing, or cutting ears off left, right, and centre. But if we are to learn with our Lord, the stand we need to take is one which requires us to drink, in prayer, from the bitter cup of submission. Not submission to fear and passivity, but to the will of God himself.

Jesus in Gethsemane, to use Paul’s terminology, unlike the first Adam (1 Corinthians 15), does not chose to eat from the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ (Genesis 3). It does not seem important to him to ask question such as the ones I ask: why? Unlike the the first Adam, he does not lean on his own understanding – he leans on the hope which God gives to those who trust and believe.

The cup from which he must drink is not made less bitter, the cross not less painful, but Easter Sunday is particularly sweet. When we choose to believe God’s promises and, in hope, prayerfully endure the Via Dolorosa, we experience the joy of resurrection. In times when we are threatened by a worldwide pandemic, as Christians let’s choose Jesus’ stance in his dark hour. It may require that we bend our knees, though.

The Darkest Darkness

How does a missionary (person) get back to the centre?

How and why do we sometimes lose sight of God, even when we are meant to be the people closest to him? How can we get so far away from him, that we lose sight of ourselves, our purpose and the first love which compelled us to follow him?

Well in all honesty, I haven’t got the faintest idea! All I know, however, is that walking this path/journey away from the One who started the whole thing, and from oneself, is a very tiring affair. Not only is it exhausting but it will lead to pain, hurting others, and it can lead to never being the person God intended you to be, worse still for those of us in full-time ministry, never fulfilling your divine calling.

I am the third of three and grew up in a female dominated home. In school I was teased for being camp/soft. Extended family members would reprimand me, telling me to man up and stop being such a crybaby. It did not help that I was born in Brazil, with its “macho” football fuelled culture and chauvinistic approach to life, I was a bully magnet.

I wanted to sing, play piano, write and looked for beauty wherever I could find it. As a result of this misfit between me and the world around me, my young sensitive and creative soul was often crushed, as I felt that I fell short of what I was meant to be. I did not accept myself.

I recall standing by the bedroom window of our top floor apartment most afternoons watching the “normal” boys play football outside. I longed to be like them. However, watching them was somehow a distraction. Whilst I watched them I would have day-dreams about another life, about a more stereotypically masculine Levi who was good at football, who fitted in. In doing that, I avoided dealing with my own pain, the questions I had about my sexuality, the bullying I was suffering at school, the lack of a father figure after my father’s tragic death. I was avoiding living my own life, escaping to a different existence.

Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes we find ways to avoid looking at our own mess in the eye. So we look the other way. We find something else, another approach to life that will help us survive our own hurting. In Christian ministry, if that applies to you, we sometimes find distractions to cope with the pressures we come under and the state of our own soul. After-all, what would happen if people knew the true state of our soul?

The pressure to be good all the time, being the perfect Christian, parent, spouse and leader is not only tiring, it’s impossible! I will repeat that… it’s impossible! So we distract ourselves with things, people or thoughts that take us away from the heaviness of it all. This will obviously look different to each of us, but it may include sexual sin, pornography, addiction (this may include Netflix), workaholism, perfectionism, consumerism and others. 

The subtle and hidden nature of these distractions means that we can continue playing the role, doing the deeds, being available to others, surviving… but it also means that we are not living the life we are meant to live. The issue here is that we are not called to survive. We are called to live. And to live in abundance.

In the blog posts that will follow over the next few weeks I will explore how I (we) can stop surviving and start living. I will look to the Bible for help, and be vulnerable about my own brokenness and struggles with mental health issues, anxiety, self-doubt etc. I would like to invite you on this journey with me. You can send me your questions, comments and suggestions bellow. Be kind!

I will start in David’s Palace.

The Roof Top

In 2 Samuel 11:1 we read:

“In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the King’s men and the whole Israelite army. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem.”

After years of persecution under a mad king, David had finally reached a comfortable place. He had subdued most of his enemies, built a new Capital for the nation, and brought his own people together by making Jerusalem the administrative and religious centre of Israel. He had achieved so much. He had done so much. He was now finally in the place he was anointed to be in – the throne.

Then, out of the blue, something happens. After the long winter and the hardships of the journey to the throne are done, a shift happens. It is interesting that the writer tells us it was spring. As it is often the case with the Scriptures, I believe this is mentioned intentionally. When life seasons change we can sometimes struggle to adjust. Changing seasons can sometimes reveal what was hidden before.

Like thawing snow reveals what is underneath it, so in our lives changing seasons can uncover what is under the surface. Spring is a joyous season. New life springs up everywhere, flowers bloom, and the landscape is transformed. The whole of nature bursts with scents and colours.

The writer in the text, I believe, mentions the season to make clear that it was a new season, a season of growth and life. However, David seems to be frozen somewhere back in winter. 

When he should have been on the battle field enjoying the new season, doing what he was called to do, being the king, he decides to pass on his responsibilities to someone else (Joab) and stays at home. In the season for growth he was unable to be the person he was made to be.

I wonder what happened inside of him that led him to that place? I wonder if the weight of the crown became too much? Maybe he was just tired. He had worked so hard to be king and now that he got his crown, perhaps he just did not know what to do with himself. Or maybe the quest for the throne defined his whole existence for so long that arriving to his destination, meant he lost his stamina. Maybe he just felt he was better as a king “wanna-be” and inadequate to step into his calling.

In chapter 7 verse 18 we see a glimpse of his feelings of inadequacy: “Who am I, O Sovereign Lord, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?”. Perhaps he was more comfortable being someone who displayed “potential”, rather than actually doing the job.

This can also be true in our lives. In my own life, when seasons change, I sometimes struggle to do that which God had been leading me to be and do. In those times I can often feel a very strong urge to just hide. For many years now I have been hearing from people in the church and those around me that I have huge potential. Those words, although intended to encourage me, have often made me freeze with fear.

What if I am not good enough? What if the so-called potential is never realised? How can I keep the high standards I set for myself? It is in the fog of these questions and crippled with self-doubt that we can sometimes look for coping mechanisms. We take our eyes off the course set for us and end up searching for something else.

David was in Jerusalem, and he was frozen. He was not doing what he was meant to be doing. More importantly he was not ‘being’ who he was made to be. His ‘potential’ was not being realised. In this restless moment he hides. He finds himself on the roof top.

“One evening David got up from his bed and walked around the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful. […] Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him and he slept with her. (She had purified herself from her uncleanness.) Then she went back home.” 2 Samuel 11:2,4

When we read this we may ask: What happened to the shepherd boy who worshiped in the mountain plateaus? What happened between the mountain top experiences of the sheepherding days and the roof of the palace? Whatever happened, David changed. Something shifted and it took him down a road that caused him and others so much pain.

Gene Edwards, in his classic ‘A Tale of Three Kings’, writes about David’s shepherd days:

“The first seven sons of Jesse worked near their father’s farm. The youngest was sent on treks into the mountains to graze the family’s small flock of sheep. On those pastoral jaunts, this youngest son always carried two things: a sling and a small, guitar-like instrument. Spare time for the sheepherder is abundant on rich mountain plateaus where sheep graze for days in one sequestered meadow. But as time passed and days became weeks, the young man became very lonely. The feeling of friendlessness that always roamed around inside him was magnified. He often cried. He also played his harp a great deal. He had a good voice, so he often sang […].

At night, when all the sheep lay sleeping, and he sat staring at the dying fire, he would strum upon his harp and break into a concert of one. He sang the ancient hymns of his forefathers’ faith. While he sang, he wept, and while weeping he often broke forth in abandoned praise […].” (The Tale of Three Kings, Gene Edwards, loc 54-63, Kindle Version)

Somehow, in the lonely nights of the palace, praise was not an option. He was no longer attentive to the audience of One that shaped his heart after His own. Instead of looking to God for answers, he looked at his neighbour’s backyard. The moment David forgets who he is, and whose he is, he does the unthinkable.

What happened to the David that spared the mad king’s life? What happened to the man who danced undignified when the Ark of the Covenant finally came home? What happened to the shepherd boy who worshiped in the green plateaus of Bethlehem? Well, we don’t know how or why, but that David had been lost somewhere in the bricks and mortar of the the splendid castle he had built.

Have you ever felt like that? When the sweet experiences of worship, the certainty of the calling received, the clarity of God in all of life, just goes. And you look at everything you have built and achieved and you feel as cold and grey as the stones you used to build it?

In that moment of dark and deep loneliness we can react in two ways: We either walk towards God and ourselves, or we walk away from both. David hid, he walked away… in fact he walked out onto the roof. There he found another David and another god. There his disconnection was revealed and he did the unthinkable. He sleeps with a married woman and arranges to have her husband killed to cover up the unwanted pregnancy.

It goes to show that even people after God’s own heart can all do the unthinkable if we neglect God and ourselves for long enough. Our disconnection will eventually show its ugly fruit. We go down the wrong way, we hurt people, we scheme, we lie, we hide, we waste away. About this time in his life, David writes:

When I kept silent,

my bones wasted away

through my groaning all day long,

For day and night

your hand was heavy upon me;

my strength was sapped.Psalm 32:3-4

At nearly 35, I can climb up to the roof of the things I have built. Looking down from my palace I see many things. But the one thing I see clearly is: somewhere along the way, somewhere in the process of building, I disconnected. I was so busy in the quest to reach my “potential” that I forgot who I was and God became a foggy figure in a the distant past.

Like the people of Israel in the desert, I could see the pillars of fire and cloud, forgetting why I had left Egypt in the first place. For me the palace roof revealed my fear of dealing with sorrows and the difficult things in my life. I built a palace but in the process neglected the inner man. In my busyness to achieve, I left no room in my heart to allow God to build His palace in me.

You see, thrones reveal the innermost intentions of the heart. A throne, power or authority, reveal what a man or woman are made of. The beauty of it all is that God is in fact in all of it.

As you stand on the roof of what you have built, what do you see? What does your throne reveal about your heart? My throne revealed my fear of not being important. After arriving in Brazil, I began to miss the small amount of prestige my ministry in England had afforded me. My throne revealed that I, for most of my life, have lived negating how unimportant I felt by creating things that made me feel important. In this, my ministry became a great way to massage my own ego, giving me the sense of importance I lacked.

Being in a new place, in a new context where I was no nobody, shook me to the core. My crutch was gone. I crumbled. Depression set in. As I stood on my palace roof I realised I was feeling very lonely, not unlike the young boy staring out of the window. Levi, the “self-confessed” popular guy, who loves people and is loved by many of them, surrounded by crowds of people, was finally reckoning with his greatest sin: the need to create opportunities to feel important.

In the last few months, which I have called “The Darkest Darkness”, I realised that one of the greatest thing one can build is the ability to look at their own darkness in the eyes and let God shine his light on it. It has been the most painful thing I have ever done.

It is not easy. There are no palaces in view. But it has been strangely and may I say, bitterly, liberating! When we hide behind what we do (or anything else) to conceal our fears, we also hide massive parts of our hearts from God. We need to look at the ugly bits of our lives and face them. A poem by Carol Bieleck explains it well:

“Breathing Under Water” 

I built my house by the sea. 

Not on the sands, mind you; 

not on the shifting sand. 

And I built it of rock. 

A strong house by a strong sea. 

And we got well acquainted, the sea and I. 

Good neighbors. 

Not that we spoke much. 

We met in silences. 

Respectful, keeping our distance, 

but looking our thoughts across the fence of sand. 

Always, the fence of sand our barrier, 

always, the sand between. 

And then one day, 

—and I still don’t know how it happened— 

the sea came. 

Without warning. 

Without welcome, even 

Not sudden and swift, 

but a shifting across the sand like wine, 

less like the flow of water than the flow of blood. 

Slow, but coming. 

Slow, but flowing like an open wound. 

And I thought of flight 

and I thought of drowning 

and I thought of death. 

And while I thought the sea crept higher, 

till it reached my door. 

And I knew then, 

there was neither flight, 

nor death, nor drowning. 

That when the sea comes calling 

you stop being neighbors 

Well acquainted, 

friendly-at-a-distance, neighbors 

And you give your house for a coral castle, 

And you learn to breathe underwater.

(from “Breathing Under Water: Spirituality And The Twelve Steps” by Richard Rohr)

Instead of flighting, dying or drowning we need to choose to be acquainted with our pain and fear. We need to come out of hiding. We need not to see our sin, pain and grief as good old neighbours but to allow God to redeem our character. Jesus, in order to deal with our sin, had to look pain and grief in the eyes. Isaiah writes of him:

“He was despised and rejected— a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care.” Isaiah 53:3

Jesus faced his cross allowing God to deal with our sorrows and sin. He is familiar with our grief. It is a mystery, but he will use it for his Glory too. His objective, in inviting us to face the darkness in us, is not to expose our pain and leave us adrift. Neither to enable us to be defined by our fear or pain. God’s desire, and the cross is the landmark which guides us here, is to take us into his own being.

Overwhelmed by his love, immersed in his kindness, we can then breathe again. Like breathing under water. We will not forget the the pain, it will not be like the sea across the sand but God will help us be people who are whole. With our pain, with our defects, with our need for importance, with everything we carry, we will also be everything that God wills us to be. We will be one with Him. For that we need repentance. We need to turn around, face our sin and pain, and run back home to Abba, warts and all.

If you are facing darkness I want to leave you with the words of the Psalmist:

“even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.” Psalm 139:12

Prayer:

“Lord, I am on my palace roof. Meet me here, as you met me on the mountain tops and the deep caves. I give you my striving. I give you my pain. I am ready to be made whole. Warts and all. But yours.”

The Stretcher Community

We always have very interesting encounters with people. I remember one particular morning, when we did our coffee walk, we met a number of people under some palm trees. Some were still asleep (we never wake them), but around 15 people were awake and happy to see us with hot coffee. After some time chatting and getting to know them, we decided it was time to move on. So as we started saying our goodbyes we were interrupted by a young man in his twenties. “What about the Word? Will you not share the Word of God with us, so we can have hope for the rest of the day?”

“Of course! The Word!”, I thought to myself slightly ashamed.

You know, it is so easy to try and deal with what meets the eye, but it is so much harder to meet real need. Need of the deepest kind often goes unseen. Here we were, trying to confer dignity to people through speaking to them in a loving and caring way (all wonderful stuff), but what they really wanted was hope for the day. This reminded me of the passage in Mark 2:1-12, where we read about a man who is carried by his 4 friends to meet Jesus. 

The man in the passage could not get to Jesus on his own. He needed the help of his friends. When they lower the stretcher from the roof, the reader is in eager anticipation for what Jesus will do. Of course, the reasons for going through all that effort are obvious. A quick look, just a glance, at the man on the stretcher would have made any of us realise that what he needed was to be healed… he needed to walk again. He needed to be included in society. His healing would allow him to hold down a job. He would have a normal life. The obvious need, however, was not his greatest need.

His greatest need was his need for forgiveness. To the reader this seems strange though, a man who so clearly needed physical healing was at first just forgiven. Just. Isn’t it funny that we place so little value on what is truly important? But Jesus sees past what meets the eye and provides the man with what he really needed. Shocking the religious people who were watching them. That man’s greatest need was not his inability to walk, it was his need for forgiveness. His need for inclusion. His need for the Word made flesh. His real need was met at the feet of Jesus, and then physical healing took place.

Sometimes in the work we do we are motivated by a sense of urgency, trying to meet needs as we see them. However, we can sometimes miss the point. Jesus offers something much deeper. Something that truly transforms. Something that lasts. By forgiving that man, Jesus frees him from the stigma that he was bad and sinful. The widespread belief was that people were sick because of something they or their parents had done wrong. By speaking forgiveness over him Jesus frees the man from the social prison he found himself in. Jesus places him in a new paradigm of freedom.

Another important thing. We need to be the people who, like those four men, carry people to Jesus. Jesus will meet their needs, but our job is to carry them. Those four men faced the multitudes. They had to devise a plan to overcome the physical obstacles to get that man to Jesus. Many around us, cannot get themselves to Jesus. Our job is to carry them to Jesus, even though that may mean facing challenges. Like those four men were a community of care to the man on the stretcher, we need to be the stretcher community to many. We need to be those who choose a life style of mission that will allow many who are prohibited, by their own condition, to meet Jesus. Then Jesus himself will meet their need. Our job is just to carry one end of that stretcher. We need to be the Stretcher Community.

The greatest need is often not the most obvious. I wanted to offer coffee and friendship to people on the streets, but they needed me to take them to Jesus… they needed hope. May we be those who dig through roofs to give them access to the One who forgives and heals.

Questions to ponder:

Who are the people in your community who prohibited, through their own condition, to meet Jesus? What can you do to help them get closer? This passage is a rich reminder of our obligation to those who are excluded by default because of their own condition, can you identify them in your community? What could God be calling you do about it?

Assassin’s Grace

In our work in Brazil we have tried to walk the streets as much as possible. As part of this we take coffee once a week to the homeless, pray for them and offer ways to help them to start a new life. In these walks we encounter all sorts of people. From travellers, who have been robbed and end up living on the streets temporarily, to assassins.

Of course, not every story we hear can be taken very seriously. We have met people who claim to be secret agents, who break secrecy just to tell us they need some money to go back to Secret Services HQ. We have met “millionaires” who choose to live on the streets because they love to sleep under the stars, as well as people who claim not to have drunk in days, whilst struggling to stand on two feet. The streets are full of stories… 

Some stories are heart breaking. We hear of people who were abused from day dot and found the streets safer than home. People who had a good life but after trying crystal went down a downward spiral that landed them there. We certainly meet many victims. But we also meet people who have killed and hurt others.

Today I met Clayton, a short man with a serious expression. His face, covered with scars from fights a few moons ago, tell me he is not always as calm as he is now as he talks to me. As he sips his coffee he goes on to tell me that the most important thing in life is to have faith in God. I of course agree and tell him that this faith leads us somewhere and changes us. He nods. He then goes on to say that he needs to change because of the things he has done. In trying to answer my question as to why he has ended up on the streets of Goiania, he goes on to share some of the most chilling and disturbing stories I have heard to date.

This short and hurt looking man has killed many people. Sometimes he killed to defend himself or his honour. He said, ‘I rather have his mother cry than mine’. But he acknowledged a pleasure for killing, smiling as he described how he killed. The most upsetting tale was the time he killed because the man was wearing his t-shirt without consent. Details are too graphic, but he said with a smile how he enjoyed feeling the man’s heart stop at the end of the knife.

To my surprise he wanted prayer. To my surprise he me called friend (which was a massive relief!). To my surprise, there I was, in the middle of a public square disgusted and appalled by what I had heard and yet I was invited to extend grace. What to do?

You know, it is so much easier to help victims. It is so much easier to extend grace to those who seem to deserve it. And as I stood next to this assassin and murderer I knew this grace was also his. The word tells us in 2 Timothy 1:9, that:

“He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time”

It was before the beginning of time that this grace was given to Clayton, even before he committed any of heinous crimes. Not because of him or his actions. But it was his, the whole of it. The assassin’s grace was the same that was offered me. The assassin’s grace was the same as mine. As I prayed for him I realised that he and I shared the same condition… we were both underserving of grace but it had been offered to us both in equal measure. So I did what I should do, I shared in that grace which seems so unfair to the human sense of justice. I prayed blessings over him. I prayed God’s grace would change him.

When we finished praying he said, ‘I think God has a plan for my life, I should be dead.’ I went on to tell him that he needed help and to let God in. He said he was going to try, we said our goodbyes and we parted.

As I walked back to the office still shaking from our encounter, I was reminded that on the cross Jesus forgave a man who was hanging on the cross next to him. Pure grace expressed. Yet I always saw it as a beautiful thing, read through rose-tinted lenses. It was only today that I fully understood how radical, gritty and real it was. The other thing I learned afresh was that this grace was also expressed to me.

Ignorance is a good thing…

“He alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea. […] He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted.” Job 9:8, 10

It is scary to think that we have been in Brazil for one whole year. Looking back, we see how much has happened in that time, how much we have learned and how much we have done. We have seen the beautiful and the ugly, felt good things and bad. But in everything we are thankful for what God has done in and through us.

At the end of July we went to Southern Brazil to visit fellow CMS mission partners Jimmy and Katia (Rocks) and their lovely children, and to get to know that region. It was a lovely break. On our first day in Florianopolis we went for a stroll on the beach. And though it was cold on that day, the sheer beauty of the place refreshed us. Nicolas ran towards the sea across the sandy beach and, as any parent would, Levi followed close behind. When Levi caught up with him, he realised that Nicolas was not going into the water but instead began shouting at the sea! He was shouting: “Oh waves, oh wind, oh sea… take me away, take me away!”

Nicolas crying out to the wind…

While Nicolas is a child that lives life to the full and can have both the best and worst days of his life within a single day, his words stroke a chord. The boy had no real understanding of what he was requesting. All he knew was that he needed more. All he knew was that he somehow wanted to go beyond the sand. His heart, probably full of awe and wonder, just cried out for the unknown. He did not take into account that the sea is a dangerous thing. He did not take into account that the wind can take you places you wish it hadn’t. He did not understand that waves can get out of control. He just wanted more.

That moment, which we managed to register with the camera, was profound. It struck a chord with us because sometimes we don’t know what we are asking for; we just know that we cry out to the sea, waves and wind. Take us! At the heart of mission there is this impulse, a cry to be taken where Jesus is. A cry to be swept away beyond the shores where we find ourselves, sometimes in total ignorance of what that will actually mean.

On the beach

Ignorance in this case is not a bad thing. The truth is that we will always be ignorant when it comes to God, as in the Job passage: “He stretches out the heavens and treads the waves of the sea.” He is great and mighty and yet he chooses to reveal himself and performs miracles and wonders, doing these for both his glory and our benefit. So ignorance in this context is okay, because we are in the hands of a good God. And this has been our journey over the past 18 months.

If you are crying out, asking God to take you anywhere he wishes, it is a silly thing to do but the most wonderful one too. For God will take you beyond your shores to where you were born to be, for such a time as this. We need to be ignorant more often; like a child asking the sea, waves and wind to take him, we need to be courageous to cry out to God in the same way. It will change everything. For our God is good. All the time.

Street work

We continue to visit the streets on a weekly basis. We are known as “the coffee people”. We take coffee and use it as a way to start conversations. We often pray and sing on the streets as well. It has been great to develop relationships with so many. We have also formed a team of people that are committed to this work, and beyond the camp visits we continue to offer people the opportunity to go into rehab.

It can take a whole day with one single person to get them into rehab, sometimes two. It is draining work. Since December we have taken 12 men to rehab, and only one is still in treatment, and we are told that this is good. The rate of success in rehabilitation stands at less than 3 per cent apparently (although we haven’t confirmed these stats). We are arranging meeting with the relevant agencies again to check whether what we are doing is aligned with widespread good practice here.

Meanwhile, we have continued to organise larger events, the last one on 22 June. We served food, provided showers in partnership with a local hotel, prayed for people and offered haircuts. It was great to help over 60 people on that night, one of whom is now in rehab and doing well. We have formed a steering group of around 10 individuals who will be involved in setting up a charity for our work. It is a little scary but we feel that this is the next step in making things become more established. We do not want this ministry to be dependent on Debora and Levi; we want it to be sustainable way beyond our being here and setting up a charity in Brazil seems to be part of achieving this sustainability.

Debora cutting hair during the event

Hairdressing…

Debora has successfully completed her hairdressing course. She loved the course and had a great time but is happy to spend more time with the kids during the day now the course is finished. She has already done some haircuts on the streets, but in the coming months we will be exploring how she can do that more regularly, in a safe and constructive way.

Healing conference – New Wine

Through our relationship with Jimmy and Katia Rocks, we had the opportunity to have the New Wine International team with us to run a healing conference at IV Baptist Church. We had 207 people attending over two evenings from various churches, learning more about being naturally supernatural and seeking after the gifts of the spirit. It was the first New Wine conference in Goiania and many healings were reported, one of them quite incredible. A young man had torn a knee ligament and could not move it, but during the conference it was completely restored and he is back to his normal activities. An amazing testimony of what our God does, and what he can also do on the streets.

At the New Wine conference (with Rod Green and fellow mission partner Jimmy Rocks)

Through the conference, a strong relationship formed with the leaders of a large network of churches including Comunidade Boas Novas (the Good News Community Church) and in 2019 a training weekend will be organised. This will be to equip the leaders better in desiring, encouraging and fostering the ministry of the Holy Spirit within their own settings.

Partnership with the local school and CREDEQ

We have another bit of good news. The school that is located within our target geographical area has finally opened up to us. The principal called Levi in to say that only God can change the school, and in the coming weeks we will run workshops there and Debora will be working with vulnerable girls through her beauty ministry. This is a huge answer to prayer.

We continue in conversation with CREDEQ (Centro Estadual de Referência e Excelência em Dependência Química), a rehabilitation hospital set up for the treatment of addictions. They are looking to run the Alpha Course and establish a chaplaincy there and Levi has been invited to be part of the group that will make sure it happens.

Nicolas and Olivia

Our children continue to struggle with health here and there, but on the whole they have been doing fantastically well. Nicolas received an amazing report from school with very good grades. He continues to be inquisitive and extremely quick to understand things that should really be beyond him. Olivia is running everywhere and keeping us on our toes; she is normally the centre of attention wherever we go, and we think she knows it.

Needing to move…

Our place, while wonderful, is a tiny apartment with only two bedrooms. For those who know us well, you will know that we love hospitality and that has been a huge missing ministry for us. We would love to have more space and also be close to school etc. Please pray that we will find a solution to this.

Thank you all so much for your partnership in this ministry; we could not do this without your prayers and friendship.

Much love

Debora and Levi, Nicolas and Olivia

Santana’s Update May 2018

Our News

We feel that we are more settled in Brazil. The last year has been very intense and we still feel we need to recover. However, we also feel excited about the opportunities God has given us here and begin to get used to the way of life here. The slower pace and the more relational approach to life has its perks and we are making the most of it!

Levi has had some opportunities to preach in different places and is beginning to get into the network of pastors and churches in the city. In May he will running a workshop at Vocare (vocare.org), a conference in Southern Brazil for young adults exploring mission. There will be hundreds of people there and Levi will be speaking about planning a missionary career, helping young people to make their mission dream happen.

Debora continues to enjoy her hairdressing course and has had the opportunity to provide hair treatments and cuts to people during community events organised by her college. She finishes the course in July and is looking for opportunities to bless people through her skills in rehab centres around the city.

Health Update

Since January we had many bugs and viruses. Levi had the flu twice and had the awful experience of being another Zika Virus victim. He is better now but the virus has left him very tired. The kids have had breathing issues ending up in A&E 5 times between them. Olivia, recently recovered from pneumonia and is doing well. We are now all bug free! Praise the Lord. Please continue to pray for protection over our health.

School Bullying
As some of you may know, Nicolas suffered bullying at school. We want to thank you all for praying and for your response on social media etc. He is doing really well now in a new group and is proving this by getting really good grades. He continues to be a blessing to us! Thank you for praying.

above Nicolas and Olivia and church lunch selfie.
Street Project Update

We continue to be committed to our street work on a weekly basis. We go out with coffee and spend time chatting, praying and singing with those we meet. Through this work we have met around 50 people on regular basis and 8 of whom have been sent to rehab, 3 remain in treatment.

Recently though, we have caught the attention of the local drug dealers who have sent people to monitor what we do. They have now stopped attending which, we hope, means they must be happy we are not a threat. Recently, we helped a young girl who had been kicked out from home by her mother. She is 15. When we were talking to her and taking her to the police station a drug dealer, Ron (not his real name), came up to Levi and offered to help by shooting the family. Levi, unsurprisingly, declined the offer. Ron then said we can count on him and that when he leaves the life of crime he will go to church.

We have formed a growing team that is really passionate about our work. This has really excited us and in a way confirms God is in this, not that we had any doubts. There will be larger event on 22nd June when we hope to provide showers, underwear, food and haircuts to around 150 people. This event will have a team of nearly 50 people from 3 different churches.

Chaplaincy at Credeq 

We have been asked to be Christian Chaplain at CREDEQ (Reference Centre for Addiction) – it is a state hospital which specialises in the treatment of addiction. We will form a team to run Alpha there and build relationships with patients and staff. We are excited about this as it will ground us within the established provision here.

We hope to run the Cherish Course there as well. The course, created by Erika Biscoe, is bring translated into Portuguese and will be a tool to minister to women about their worth and beauty through a study of the book of Esther. We will also run pilot courses in August/September in two rehabilitation centres.

above left our friends on the streets during one of our visits and
on the right Levi and Janari who went to rehab in May

New Wine Network Conference

In June Levi will be translating Mark Aldridge and team at a conference in Florianopolis. The team will then come to Goiania (18-19 June) for the first New Wine Network conference here. We are hosting and organising the event which will focus on healing. We expect 150 – 200 people to attend and are praying God will start a healing movement here through it.

on the left Debora’s work at college…
on the right (from left to right) Mayck going to rehab with Bruno and Thiago our team members.
As you can see there is lots going on and we are excited. Certain of your prayers and partnership we move forward! Exciting times ahead… there is no better plan than God’s plan A for us. Thank you!

Levi and Debora Santana

We need to see….

Monochrome Photo of a Homeless Man

‘Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”’ Acts 3:6

When Peter and John arrived at the temple gate called Beautiful, they were met by the a beggar who asked them for money. Something, as I have mentioned in a previous email, which is part of everyday life here in Goiania. Everywhere you go, there are people asking for money or trying to sell something to support their families or their addiction. It must be said that this intrusion is not always welcome by those being asked.

My guess is that the Beautiful Gate was called beautiful because of the beauty of the place itself. Maybe there was a view to be seen from there, or maybe the architecture was inspiring. We will never know for sure but I can imagine that for some the experience may have been spoiled by having to deal with the beggar. Wonder and faith would have been mixed with shame, guilt and anger. ‘If only this man could beg somewhere else’, some may have thought. But there he was. Spoiling the experience at the gate. Many may feel this way about those who beg on the streets of most major cities around the world and see them as those who ruin the experience for others. Others, however, may be heartbroken and wondering how to help people who seem to be so far beyond hope.

Since arriving in Goiania a recurring question in our minds, when faced with the huge challenge before us, has been: What do we have to offer?

Peter and John’s has helped us to start the process of reflection as we try to answer this question.

In verse 4 of Acts 3, Peter and John look intently at the man. They didn’t just look at him actually, they saw him. They did not divert their eyes to the view, they stopped and saw the man. This is the first lesson for us, we need to see. It is so easy, when faced with challenges, to look the other way. When we look but do not see we fail to respond. There is an old Brazilian saying that expresses this well: “What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t feel.” Peter and John though, they saw him and felt they needed to respond.

Having said that responding is not always that simple. What can one individual or group of people do when needs are so deep? How can we respond when anything we do is a drop in the ocean. Peter and John, recognised that they could not give him enough money to meet his need. He needed healing, dignity and transformation. Those money cannot buy. So, recognising what did not have, they gave him that which they did have. The power of the Holy Spirit! Only through that power can the deep needs of those we meet on the streets of Goiania be met. Only God. Only Jesus. So to answer the question of what we have to offer… well we can only bring Jesus with us. We need to rely on the power of Holy Spirit. So we pray he will fill you and us to bring that power wherever we go.

You are important… All because of Grace!

There are a few things that we take for granted. For most of us, although life, in general, is never easy and each of us faces challenges, growing up involved love and encouragement. A few of us may have had bad experiences, but most would say they had people who loved and cared for them in some way. Since starting our ministry here in Brazil, we have encountered people who are not just seen as untouchable and unloveable, they also see themselves as such.

Universe

We recently met a man named Gerson. He is 29. After being abandoned by his mother aged 6, along with his younger brother, they lived in an orphanage for a couple of years until his blood uncle gained custody. However, what was meant to be a homecoming, became their worse nightmare. They were brutally beaten and made to eat their own faeces on a regular basis. The abuse lasted a few years until the younger brother had enough and ran away from home, never to be seen again. After a while, Gerson could not take it anymore, and by age 14 found himself homeless dealing drugs to survive. When he was 18 he was arrested and sent to prison for 3 years. He has been on the road, walking from city to city ever since.

After a long time wandering, with the stars as his friends and the skies as his roof, we met him outside our church. He was greeted with a warm hug, offered a drink and some food while he told us his story.  He was begging to be sent to rehab. Crack had taken its toll, prostitution had become a way of surviving and he was tired. He wanted and needed help.

When we heard his story we could not help but help, so we filled in a form gathered his paperwork and found him a rehab place. Within 3 hours he was no longer homeless. God opened every door… it was amazing! This precious life had been wandering, searching for a home, from city to city across this vast nation, until he arrived here in Goiania that very afternoon. God brought him here.

One of the things God told us to do in our ministry in Goiania, is to treat every person we encounter as a long-lost friend. To treat each person with the same dignity Jesus treated everyone he met. So that is what we did, and as we did this Gerson kept saying: “Why are you treating me as someone important? I am not important.” We, of course, kept telling him how important he is to God and to us, and how Jesus died for him. He just could not accept it.

Blaise Pascal writes:

“Returning to himself, let man consider what he is in comparison with all existence; let him regard himself as lost in this remote corner of nature; and from the little cell in which he finds himself lodged, I mean the universe, let him estimate at their value on earth, kingdoms cities, and himself. What is a man in the Infinite?” (Pascal, Pensees, Loc 457, Kindle Edition)

Indeed, who is Gerson in the infinite? Indeed who are we in the infinite? Why help one person, while thousands of others remain without help? Why is he important? Why are we important?

The Psalmist writes:

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain.

13 For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
    when I was made in the secret place,
    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
    all the days ordained for me were written in your book
    before one of them came to be.” 

Psalm 139

He is important because God thinks he is. He is important because he was fearfully and wonderfully made. Because God knows his suffering and cares for him. He is lost in the infinite but has been found by grace. And grace, in turn, baffles us. As small as we are; the creator of the universe became small like us, lost in the infinite of the universe he created, to tell us that we are HIS. Thank goodness for Christmas! Thank God for Grace!

Gerson is important. We are important. You are important. All because of Grace!

 

P.S.: Gerson is doing well in rehab. He has been enjoying a roof over his head and is slowly getting to grips with forgiveness and love. Please pray for him.

I met Jesus today. His name is Rodrigo.​

Fear is part of life in Brazil. People are always looking over their shoulders. When a set of traffic lights goes red, your car will inevitably be approached by someone begging, selling or offering something. When eating out, it is common for famished beggars to approach your table, rudely bursting our middle-class bubbles. Sometimes though, people approach, not to beg or sell, but rather to steal. It happens all the time, so people are often afraid when approached. Since arriving in Brazil, we have been approached by at least two people each time we’ve been out. Thankfully, we haven’t been robbed but, each time we are approached, the fear that is so clearly present kicks in.

help1.jpg

Fear, at least here in Brazil, normally arises when one is approached by someone who looks rough. We don’t like to talk about this, but the reality is that the appearance of the person who approaches is normally how we judge whether we are safe or not. The reality is that people who are marginalised are often despised and avoided in society firstly because of their appearance. However, as Christians, we cannot follow this trend. We cannot avoid or despise the marginalised, precisely because we believe in the Despised one. The One who became despised, so we could be accepted.

Today the verse of the day in my Bible App was Isaiah 53v3:

“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”

Isaiah, writing hundreds of years before Jesus was crucified on a hill outside Jerusalem, describes the suffering Messiah as rejected and despised. Someone from whom people hide their faces. If our Lord and Saviour, was despised and rejected for our sake, we should love and care for those who are despised and rejected in our neighbourhoods and cities. In Matthew 25, we read that whenever we feed the hungry, help the poor and extend hospitality to strangers we are doing it for Jesus:

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

Today, as I was leaving church after the midweek evening service, I was approached by a young man asking for some change. As he approached, I could feel that fear bubbling up and sense my stereotypes kicking in. However, in that moment, I knew I had to deal with that situation as Jesus would have done. So I decided to at least listen to what he had to say. As he asked for money, I told him that I do not have the habit of giving cash and that I usually don’t carry cash on me, but that if he told me what he needed I may be able to help in some way. So he went on to tell me that he had been walking the whole day and that he had had no food since the day before. So I offered to take him to Walmart and buy him something to eat. He could hardly wait.

Walmart was just across the road, opposite the church. As we crossed I started asking him questions about his life etc. He told me his name: Rodrigo. He is 20, and from a city in North East Brazil, Sao Luis. He has been in Goiania for a month and has been living on the streets for the past 2 years. He was abused, his sister was abused, and then, after a difficult childhood, and turning to drugs, he was kicked out of home at 18. He has been wandering ever since. As we talked and as he opened up so readily about his story, I felt privileged to be able to spend time with him.

As we paid for some food, a drink, and a box of chocolate, we talked about the prejudice he suffers, and how people look through him or cross the road when they see him coming along the pavement. Like Jesus, people also hide their faces from him. He told me how he is afraid someone will set him on fire whilst he is asleep, like a few others in the city have (a disgusting act that has often made the news in Goiania). We talked almost as old friends and I told him about what I came here to do and that I would love to meet him again. He said he would like to come to church on Sunday.

As we parted I told him he is not rejected or despised, and that because of Jesus we are loved and accepted. I told him God has a plan for his life and that I would pray for him. He smiled and as I stretched my hand for a good handshake, he grabbed me and gave me a hug. He must have held me in that hug for at least 30 seconds, and as he held me tightly, the following thought from the Holy Spirit entered my mind:

“Levi, you met Jesus today. His name is Rodrigo.”

God’s timing is perfect!

pexels-photo-359989

Last year when we were selected for training as Mission Partners with Church Mission Society we embarked on the most challenging and exciting adventure of our lives this far. We had been in ministry for a few years and had experienced God’s provision in many ways. However, the challenge to leave everything to start a new ministry beyond the sea was a big challenge.

Raising support was the first challenge. Letting go of the false security a salary provides was the second. Then came many other challenges small and great, all of which meant we had to trust God completely. At times we lacked the ability to trust and felt like giving up. Secretly at times we sort of hoped God would not provide, so that we could retreat back to what we know. But God was working in us and giving us opportunities to grow in our faith.

This week, sitting by the river near where we have been camping in Oxford. With our hearts full of thanks, our minds were blown away by what we have seen and tasted in the last few months. Not only because of God’s financial provision for our ministry in Brazil, but also because of all the friendship, love and faith we have encountered in others.

In that moment we asked God to speak to us. “God, what would you like us to learn from all of this?” By the river as we opened the Scriptures the following verses came as an answer to our prayer:

“8 But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

2 Peter 3

We have learned that God’s timing is perfect… he is not slow in keeping his promise. Sometimes from our human perspective, it feels God is taking his time. That he is perhaps distracted… but we have come to understand that his word is yes and amen, and when he speaks, his words are words of command. His promises will ALWAYS come to pass. He is no man that he should lie and his plan A is worth the abandoning of any human plan B there is!

If you have had promises from God, remember this one thing: HIS TIMING IS PERFECT! It is worth the wait and in the process, our faith grows. This has been our experience… it has been uncomfortable, at times painful, but it has been the best thing we have ever done as a family. At the end of the waiting we will be able to join the Psalmist when he writes:

“I waited patiently for the Lord;
 he turned to me and heard my cry.”

Psalm 40:1