Delhi blog – day 5

I woke up this morning with the ankle feeling much better, but still not able to put a great deal of weight on it. However, as the day has gone on it has improved significantly, and although it’s now swollen and a variety of shades of blue and purple, it doesn’t feel nearly as bad as it looks, and I was able to walk home from school this afternoon without difficulty or pain. God is faithful!

Since I wasn’t really up to walking to school this morning, I stayed home and worked on a training session on report writing. When I finished that, I was able to shut myself away and have some much needed time alone with God. I rather hit the ground running when I got here, and apart from snatched moments of being consciously present to God during the day, and about 15 minutes at the start and end of each day, I have been “doing” rather than just “being” since I got here. So I shut myself away with the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10.38 onwards and just reorientated myself towards God. It felt like an oasis, and maybe it took a sprained ankle for me to slow down enough for God to get my attention.

This afternoon I went to the school in the apartment block, and again I take my hat off to the teachers there. None of them has had any teacher training, so they have missed out on all the tips, shortcuts and behaviour management strategies that trained teachers are taught at college. I think they do as well as any teacher, but they have to work twice as hard at it. The head teacher has been up late all week setting exam papers, or typing up ones written by her teachers.

I spent the afternoon with the girls doing more of the embroidery that you’re all going to come and buy on November 29th. Despite their traumatic backgrounds, and although many of them have a long way to go yet, it’s clear that the home here is a place where real healing takes place at a steady pace. The only sounds as we sat sewing were the inevitable giggling and the sweet singing of Hindi songs.

I’m writing this tonight after our afternoon chai and before dinner, but after the meal, as it’s a Friday, instead of studying until bedtime they’re going to watch an inspirational movie. I can’t believe it’s nearly the end of my first week here. The time is flying past, and I think I’m definitely going to have to come back again in the future!

blog – day 4

Before I came away, Paul Matthews (from Udaipur) prophesied over me that I wouldn’t have any kind of sickness while I was in Delhi. So I have faith in God and in His prophets, and I receive that word. So it was not in the plan when Delhi belly struck last night. But I had just come hot-foot from Sanjiv’s teaching session in which (besides the quantum stuff) he had spoken about the Shunammite woman who, even when the worst of disasters struck, would only say, “It is well” and didn’t make any negative confession.

So I retained my faith in Paul’s prophecy and confessed “It is well”, and it turned out to be the shortest-lived gastric upset I’ve ever had, I’ve been fine all day today.

Then on my way to see Sanjiv and Sushila this morning, I stepped of the kerb, my ankle went right over and I’ve been hobbling round on a very swollen ankle all day. Sushila gave me a bandage to strap it up, and once or twice today I’ve had to use autorickshaws because I couldn’t manage the walk, but if anyone asks me how it is, my reply is “It is well”, and I’m expecting to see a significant improvement in the morning. I intend to be able to come home with Paul’s prophecy fulfilled.

This morning I sat down with Sanjiv and Sushila and worked out a plan for exactly what I’m going to be doing – autism training with the teachers this Monday, and training on diagnosing learning disabilities and writing SMART IEPs to improve and track learning the following Monday. Training for all the project leaders on report writing, and towards the end of my stay a creative writing workshop with the church on writing for worship. This is in addition to classroom observation of the children I saw on Tuesday and an English lesson.

This afternoon I helped to man a stall selling crafts made at the various projects. Trade had been reasonably steady in the morning before I arrived, but in the afternoon it was practically dead. This was partly because a lot of Americans were expected, but the American School held its parent-teacher appointments this afternoon, so they all went to that instead. These sales involve a huge amount of work for the staff concerned – not only making and selling the items, but they are stored in boxes on the upper floors of apartment blocks and it takes a lot of effort to bring them all down and load the cars, and put them all away afterwards. So I was disappointed to see so much effort for a relatively small return. There is another such sale on Sunday evening, so please pray for a much better turn out, and punters willing to put their hands in their pockets.

I still keep being asked if I’m shocked, and the answer’s still no, not really. I’m starting to feel a bit guilty, as if it’s callous of me not to feel shocked. I’ve been thinking about it. Maybe it’s to do with the fact that my parents worked all their lives for organisations that cared for the world’s poorest in far flung places, and I grew up accustomed to harrowing pictures and stories and was taught to pray about them from an early age. I don’t think it has made me inured to it, exactly, because my compassion is still in tact. I’ve also seen Ellen go through some pretty extreme suffering behind the doors of a hospital room. I hope it hasn’t so much made my heart hard as put some mettle into my backbone. I can certainly say that I’ve fallen in love with the children and young ladies I’ve met here.

Delhi blog – day 3

I went to bed last night with an immense sense of joy and relief. My biggest fear about this trip was that I would come out here, get in people’s way and not be any use. But in the 3 children I met yesterday I found something I could offer which was actually needed, and heaved a sigh of relief.

I spent this morning typing up my notes from yesterday, producing reports on the 3 children I had seen, with suggestions for strategies that might be successful with them, and trying to put together some useful material for the teachers, to help them diagnose other learning disabilities that they might come across in future, and make action plans for successful learning for such children. At some stage I hope to observe the 3 children myself in their lessons, and then to sit down with their teachers and help them to draw up IEPs for them.

I spent the rest of the morning writing a lesson plan for an English lesson I’ve been asked to take, on creative writing. My brief is to stimulate children who aren’t accustomed to using their imagination, so I hope what I’ve prepared will take them by surprise and make them see the world from a quirky angle they hadn’t thought of before.

After lunch I again went to the school in the apartment, and spent the afternoon doing some embroidery with the girls, making bookmarks which I hope to sell at the Karuna Action Christmas Craft Fair on 29th November at the King’s Centre, High Street, Aldershot. Now you have the date and venue, so no excuse not to be there.

Tonight I went along to an evening of Bible teaching at New Generation Church, where Sanjiv shared what the Bible teaches about wave-particle duality and quantum entanglement, thought-provoking stuff. But seriously, it’s exciting to see how science is discovering principles that have been in the Bible all along, and how we really do have the power to change the things that are not in alignment with God’s will, and by our words and actions cause His Kingdom to come in the place where He has put us.

I haven’t said much so far about Delhi itself but today I’ve walked its streets a fair bit, so maybe it’s time to describe some of what I’ve encountered. Firstly, there are only two kinds of pedestrians in Delhi, the quick and the dead. At every turn you are likely to be mown down by a motorcycle or autorickshaw, or have your eardrums exploded by a car creeping up behind you and sounding long blasts on the horn. As there are no pavements (and indeed no road surfaces) and everyone walks up the street, it makes for interesting outings. There are lovely spicy smells drifting in the air, and if you like people-watching, there is much to fascinate: so many people, some rushing around, some standing chatting, some hollering up the street in Hindi for who knows what reason.

The streets are always full of puddles of water, and since it hasn’t come down from the sky I assume it must have some up from the drains or out of someone’s waste pipe. That said, although the city is dusty, it doesn’t smell dirty.

There is much building work going on in this part of the city and rather than using hods like builders in the UK, builders carry their bricks on their heads. I was cheerfully assured today that there are a thousand ways to die in India and one of them is having a brick dropped on your head from a partially completed building!

My father used to say that wherever he went in the world, he never saw any more elegant female dress than the Indian sari, and I can second that. The ladies here are beautiful; they carry themselves with poise and grace, and their clothes are a glorious riot of well-matched colours.

For someone who hates cities, and worried that I was going to struggle being confined in one, I have to say I am loving this place so far, although I do think I shall be longing to walk barefoot through some green grass by November. And here’s the biggest mystery of the city so far: there are stray dogs roaming everywhere, you can hardly walk 3 paces without nearly falling over one. And yet you never see a single piece of dog poo. How does that work?

Delhi blog day 2

Everyone rose early and breakfasted, and the girls were escorted to school. Once they had gone, it was my turn to go to school. On the way we stopped at an apartment where a workshop had been set up with a sewing machine in the main room. However, I learned that cooking was more popular than sewing, and I was shown a cupboard full of jars of many different kinds of pickle. Some ladies had asked for help to earn their living, and so this project had been set up, making and bottling pickles to sell. They are expected to sell well in the run-up to Christmas.

Next it was off to the first school. A truly heroic head teacher, J, was supervising a small team of teachers and classroom assistants educating 70 children in a 3 bedroom apartment. Please pray for this school. They are doing an amazing job, educating children to National standards. Today some were doing revision and some were doing internal exams as preparation for the external exams they will be doing later in the academic year. But some of the neighbours are not happy about a school in the apartment block, and J had been shaken by a torrent of abuse from one of the neighbours shortly before we arrived. The landlord has increased the rent by more than for the other apartments in the block, which is also making things difficult for the school. J asks us to pray for better relations with the neighbours, but also that larger, more suitable premises will become available for the school.

A couple of students were pointed out to me who have undiagnosed learning disabilities and I arranged to meet them individually with their class teacher in the afternoon. Of which more later.

After this we went to the Bengali Basti slum area, which many of you will remember was ravaged by fire earlier this year. As a result many families have moved to the other side of the road but their children still cross the crazy dangerous road to come to school. School is a framework of bamboo poles covered in corrugated tin, overseen by B, another wonderful young lady. Today was pleasantly warm with temperatures in the upper twenties, but when the temperature hits the forties in the summer, it must be unbearable inside.

I have been asked several times today if I was shocked – people thought I ought to be, and maybe I should. I don’t feel I saw anything unexpected today, though. I’ve taken an interest in the work in this area for a long time, and I’ve seen the pictures Karuna Action have posted of the Bengali Basti, and so it looked as I expected. I saw impish children and earnest students at work today – some things are the same the world over. I do, though, have the most profound respect for teachers who are accomplishing miracles in the hardest working conditions imaginable.

Inside the school building, 12 students sat cross-legged on the floor in 2 classrooms taking a written exam. In the other two classrooms younger children were being taught. This again is a school in urgent need of new premises. They would like to be able to provide a lunch for the children, but with no running water they have no means of cooking or washing up, so they are restricted to giving them snacks. A possible building has been identified, so please pray that everything works out smoothly.

This afternoon I went to the church building and wrote some notes on diagnosing learning disabilities and on strategies for teaching and learning with disabled children. My own knowledge could only take me so far, but a laptop was made available for me to do some research online. By the end of it, I had a list of diagnostic questions, some information on teaching strategies with slow learners, some material on writing social stories, some useful teaching strategies, and information on writing and implementing SMART IEPs. Teachers will know what I mean by that – Individual Education plans can be written for children with additional needs, setting SMART goals for them – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-limited. I’m hoping to help some of the teaching staff to do this for some of the children I’ve met today.

I looked up from the computer to a pleasant sight – the pizza delivery man bringing lunch. Among all the things I’m loving here, the food is definitely high on the list – again tonight the girls here cooked a really delicious dinner.

My first student was J, a girl who had no education until she was 16 and a traumatic background of abuse. She speaks and can now write her alphabet, but beyond that, can’t read or write. She seems incapable of remembering any instructions she is given. It’s hard to know what will help this student – for children with cognitive disabilities early intervention is often a key to success, and so a window of opportunity has been lost. Very cleverly, rather than put her in a class with far younger children, or in a class of her own age where she’ll be laughed at, they have made her a teaching assistant in the nursery class, in the hope that she will imbibe what the nursery children are learning. It seems to be working – I saw some maths work she had done today, and it showed that she had picked up what I saw the nursery children being taught.

The nursery class teacher is one of the girls from the home – she teaches the children by day and studies at home in the evening. She wants to train as a teacher. I think she will achieve it – she seemed a natural today, with lots of eager hands going up every time she asked a question.

The second child I saw was R, a small boy who is very bright, good at maths and fond of books, but his behaviour in school is a problem. It quickly became apparent that he ticks most of the boxes for a classic autism spectrum condition. That is the area where my own knowledge is most secure, and I feel sure I’ll be able to pass on some useful behaviour management strategies that will be helpful.

Next I was introduced to a little girl, N, who appeared to be about 3, had just started to walk, and doesn’t yet speak. I was surprised to learn that she is 8. She was a tiny premature baby and has serious health problems. Teaching her is going to be a challenge, but I thought back to how we used to break down every learning task into its tiniest components for Ellen and teach her to master them step by step. I hope this approach will help her to make progress, because her guardian couldn’t name anything she has learned yet in school, other than to become a bit more sociable with other children.

So – lots of challenges, and I feel that at best I may be offering sticking plasters for broken limbs. But then I remember that I’m here along with One who could use a handful of bread and fish to feed 5,000 men and their families, with twelve basketfuls left over. So I offer Him the little I have and trust Him to multiply its effect beyond anything I could hope to achieve.

Delhi blog – day 1

I arrived in Delhi after an uneventful flight. I expected to sleep on the plane as I’m famous for being able to sleep through any amount of noise or light. I hadn’t bargained for how cold it would be on board! I was too cold to sleep, but excited enough on arrival that it didn’t really matter how tired I was.

S met me at the airport, expertly conducted me through the Delhi traffic to the girls’ home and introduced me to E who runs it with her, and they made me very welcome. The home is in an unprepossessing building down a dusty track into a very crowded block of buildings – but once you step inside the door of the large apartment, it’s like an oasis of peace and light in the middle of a stressed-out city.

The girls (9 of them) came in from school between four and five pm, and I can tell you I’ve heard more giggling and jollity in one evening than previously in a month of Sundays. After a really delicious dinner cooked by the girls, I gave one of them an English lesson and was impressed at the high standard she’s expected to achieve, and the hard graft she was prepared to put in. With 11 names to learn and not having slept since Saturday, I think I’ve done reasonably well to have mastered 6 of them so far. Let’s see if I can still remember them in the morning!

Tomorrow I’ve been asked to see some of the school children who clearly have intellectual disabilities but whose problems have never been diagnosed. While not an expert, I do have some experience to draw on, both as a parent and a teacher, and they’ve asked me to assess each child, give my best opinion as to the nature of the disability, suggest strategies and resources that might help them, and set learning goals for them. I’m praying that some of the training I’ve prepared and brought might be appropriate as a help to the teachers.

On a personal note, despite smothering myself in a deet-based insect repellent, I’m being eaten alive, and if you want to pray for me, I would like it to stop!

The thick darkness where God is

It’s been a harrowing week for Ellen and those who love her. We finally finished sorting through her father’s effects and, as she has asked me weekly since he died, I gave her his collection of cassettes and CDs. But music is Ellen’s main way of communicating with, and understanding, the world. Every one of those music tracks reminds her of something about her father. She has been hit by a torrent of grief so overwhelming that her self-harming almost landed her in hospital and the doctor has had to prescribe tranquilizers. The bewilderment on her face betrays an emotion all the more crushing because she lacks the vocabulary to articulate it, and so cannot tame and constrain it in the way that words do.

I’ve spent today with her and, unable to restrain my own tears, I have found a curious relief in the discovery that my heart is not so calloused that it has become inured to her pain. I have had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the things God has promised me for her. It’s almost thirty years since God spoke to me unmistakeably clearly about her physical healing, that it would be in the land of the living, not in the sweet by-and-by.

I grew up in a very conservative evangelical tradition that would have denied the possibility of God even speaking to me like that, and would have dismissed it as a misinterpretation. This tradition took a fatalistic approach to life which, while it acknowledged that God could in theory heal if He chose to, had no expectation at all that He ever would, and was more likely to view a sudden healing as a demonic counterfeit than a divine miracle.

As an adult I parted company with that religious tradition and threw myself into the life of a church that encouraged a much more real and living faith – a faith that took God’s promises seriously and expected Him to live up to His word. I found this a much more satisfying approach because it lacked the gulf between faith and practice or belief and reality which had marked the religion of my upbringing. (I still belong to this same church, thirty-five years later, a mark of the fact that the church has also not remained static but its corporate journey has mirrored my individual one.)

The problem is that neither of these ways of relating to God can confront and deal with the unanswered question, the question that would receive a glib answer from either of them: what happens when a promise remains unfulfilled for thirty years? The beliefs of my childhood would say that I was wrong to claim such a promise, and that is the end of the matter. I should resign myself to Ellen continuing to suffer as she does, and go on believing in God despite it all. The beliefs of my early adulthood would blame my inadequate faith or lack of prayer.

But both these answers are cop-outs. They are different ways of denying either God’s desire or His ability to heal Ellen. What is more, both are counsels of despair. If God is powerless or unwilling to help Ellen, there is no hope of change. If it depends on my mustering more faith, I have already scraped the bottom of that barrel so often that I’m through to the bare ground.

It might seem that this leaves me no alternative but to doubt the goodness of God. Certainly that’s a stage I have passed through (I remember once saying to my pastor that the Romans had it right, the gods are capricious), but I’m thankful that it never became my resting place. I am still expecting God to fulfil that promise; I do believe He spoke to me, and I don’t believe the passage of time negates His word. But there is still no sign of the promise’s imminent fulfilment.

I know this is a journey; who knows where I will be a month, or a year, or a decade from now? But here’s where I am today as I witness Ellen submerged beneath a tsunami of sorrow, and desperately will her not to drown. There is a place in God where questions are unanswered. He is silent. The lack of any response from Him is the most deafening sound of all. And in that place is the immense relief of discovering that God is beyond my control. Nothing I do or fail to do can manipulate Him into acting in a particular way just because I want it. Which means that He is big enough to hold my most insistent, unanswered questions for me, and vast enough to sustain and embrace me in the middle of any storm.

A God whom I could command to do my bidding would be no God at all. Richard Dawkins has taught us to fear, or at least despise, the idea of mystery. But what would God be with no mystery? A God who was small enough to be comprehended within the little limits of my mind would be no God at all. I stand dumbfounded in the presence of an impenetrable and silent mystery. I feel I have an inkling of what Moses must have experienced when he encountered God in thick darkness.

It’s like standing, some moonless night, on a deserted beach before an arch of rock, and stepping through the arch, expecting to find the cold sea lapping at one’s feet, the wind chilling one’s bones and the vast emptiness of a dark ocean stretching away for an infinite distance; but finding instead that one has stepped into a light, warm, soft-lined and homely room where the richest fragrance and the sweetest music permeate the air. Sometimes it’s in the bleakest of silences that God is found.

The Glory of Christ

This post was written for Through the Roof (www.throughtheroof.org) and is reproduced here by kind permission.

Worldwide web watchers may have noticed recently that there has been some fresh controversy regarding a particular brand of “prosperity Gospel” coming out of America. In this particular version, at least according to its critics, God has been portrayed as being rather like an over-indulgent grandparent whose offspring have only to name a wish for it to appear in front of them. If it fails to appear, there is something wrong with the way they are asking, the words they are using or their levels of faith. The focus of this type of spirituality appears to be our own happiness rather than God’s glory. (I’m choosing my words carefully because the speaker in question claims to have been misunderstood and misrepresented; although the original words were, at least, ill-chosen.)

The problem with a version of the Gospel which emphasises God showering material blessings on us is not that there’s no truth in it, but that it isn’t half (or even one-tenth) of the story. I certainly know there have been occasions when God has blessed me materially. There have been times when praying for things has been answered by those things happening. There have been times when speaking out the truth of God’s word has changed situations. There have also been times when I haven’t received what I prayed for, for reasons known only to God, and other times when I haven’t received what I prayed for, because I wasn’t really asking in faith. I am also convinced that, for the most part, when God sees me happy, it gives Him pleasure. But these things form only a tiny part of my Christian experience.

Moreover, when God blesses us materially in these ways, we see it from our own perspective. We have a little need; we ask in faith; God meets our little need and sometimes even goes way beyond what we asked for. We are blessed, we feel really happy and we have a great testimony to share. But God sees it from a far larger perspective. He has only one real goal in everything that He does, which is, in Paul’s words from Colossians, that in everything Christ might have the pre-eminence.

The times of most transforming, lasting joys in my life have come when God has not instantly gratified my desire, even for things that might seem a really legitimate good to pray for. I remember sitting in the paediatrician’s office when my daughter Ellen was 11 and being told that her scoliosis was now so severe that it was crushing her heart, lungs and stomach and putting her at imminent risk of heart failure. She needed a very risky operation to straighten out her spine and insert a metal rod to support it. The paediatrician explained that the operation might kill her or leave her completely paralysed, but that without it she would certainly die. He concluded with the words, “We can’t leave it a year. She hasn’t got a year left.”

For complicated reasons which I won’t explain here, ten months went by before Ellen was able to have her operation, by which time her condition was critical. I was convinced that God can and does heal, and I could see no possible good to a child from having a painful and traumatic operation, so I confidently prayed for her healing. I confessed the word of God over her. The pastors from my church came round and prayed for her, and, in obedience to James 5. 14, anointed her with oil. (I remain convinced that they were right to do so.) I had every expectation that she would be healed. After all, James 5. 15 confidently asserts that “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up”.

Eventually she went into hospital, but still my faith never wavered. I believed she would be healed at the last minute, the operation would not be needed, and God would be glorified by her testimony. When they came to take her down to the operating theatre, I was reading Psalm 27 aloud to her.

Ellen had her operation, and it was traumatic. But she didn’t die and she wasn’t completely paralysed, although she did lose some physical function. We were told that the operation would take at least 5 hours, she would need at least 48 hours in intensive care, and would be in hospital for at least a month. In fact the operation took less than 3 hours, she went straight back to the children’s ward accompanied by intensive care nurses, and was well enough to be discharged 3 weeks later. I remained at her bedside day and night for 3 weeks, catching some sleep in a chair whenever she dozed. The thing that struck me was how much genuine, deep joy I experienced during those 3 weeks. I had an unassailable inner peace, and the presence of God in the ward was so real I almost expected to see Him with my eyes. My closeness to Him was deepened immeasurably, and the effects were lasting. It was an important stage in my spiritual development and, crucially, it revealed to me a glorious facet of the character of Jesus as the God of all comfort, which I would never have encountered if all my prayers had been instantly answered.

So to go back to the controversy about the “prosperity Gospel”, when God blesses us with answered prayer it’s not primarily for our own benefit (although of course we do benefit) but for His glory. And when He withholds answers to prayer, even to prayer offered in faith, it’s primarily for His glory, although we do benefit too. Any Gospel which misses this point has an incomplete view of the glory of Christ – and this matters because it’s the glory of Christ around which the whole of creation revolves, and towards which the close of the age will draw us.

In 1864 a puritan named John Owen wrote a little book entitled The Glory of Christ. If you can cope with 17th century language, or find a modern abridgement, I recommend it to you. In this book, he meditates upon different facets of Christ’s glory – the glory of His love, the glory of His mystery, His glory as mediator, His glory in the church, and the glory of His eternal being. He shows how beholding the glory of Christ with the eyes of faith in this life is preparing us for, and will be completely overtaken by, our sight of His glory face to face in the next. Any Gospel which has anything other than the glory of Christ as its chief focus is at best lopsided and at worst misleading.

As C.S. Lewis discovered, when he pursued happiness it eluded him, but when he encountered God he received joy as a surprising by-product. Yes, our happiness gives God pleasure. But only when our happiness is derived from our pursuit of God and His glory. Any other kind of happiness brings him sorrow because He knows it is a deceit that will ultimately leave us empty and unfulfilled. He has created us for relationship with Him, and it’s only in seeking to know and worship Him in all aspects of His character that we will find true and lasting goodness and joy.