How many times have you listened the news recently and thought, “Surely, we have never, ever, had to face anything like this before?” And we haven’t. Each disaster is unique. They impact different people in different ways, in different places and for different reasons. It could be for reasons of fire, or flood, or hurricane, or earthquake, or tsunami, or violence… or epidemic.
The Cluster System
But around the world, whenever there is a major disaster, a well-oiled machine of equipped and experienced people and processes moves rapidly into action. It is far from an exact science, but amidst the utter chaos and despair, certain principles and practices come into play which do, eventually, help the impacted community see the wood from the trees. Coordinated by a UN ‘cluster system’, governments, agencies and civil society prioritise and work through the chaos, from disaster onset through to a reconstruction or development phase, saving lives, restoring equilibrium, and creating a platform for a new post-disaster norm.
Response, Recovery, Reconstruction. These are the fundamental stages that follow major disasters. We could also discuss a Pre-Disaster Stage, but we’ll leave that for another day.
The Response Stage
The Response Stage can be thought of in terms of initial search and rescue, and by other emergency responses needed to ensure survival, such as triage and medical response, food security, WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), security and protection, shelter, logistics and distribution, telecommunications, camp coordination and education.
This is all well and good, but surely it is only really relevant to tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes in far-away lands – the ‘over there’ stuff that pains us for twenty minutes or so when we see it on the news? We may have a massive Covid-19 crisis on our hands, but this is different. We’re the UK.
Well, no. Let’s take another look at that list of clusters, and this time add some brackets:
The Recovery Stage
Depending on the nature of the disaster, after maybe 3-8 weeks the Response Stage makes way, gradually, messily, to a Recovery Stage. This will last a lot longer, maybe 18 months to 2 years. Early recovery is a time when temporary accommodation is built, when children return to makeshift schools, when wells are cleaned, and when access to markets is re-established. Medium to long term recovery does similar things, but when more robust winter-proof shelters, permanent schools and polyclinics are rebuilt, and the beginnings of normality gradually returns. The priorities and the strategies are different. The urgent makes way for the important.
The Reconstruction Stage
The third phase is often called the Reconstruction Stage. It is a time for aid to give way to development, and for local people to be empowered and properly established on their own two feet. Aid gives things away, but holds onto the power, or control. In the Reconstruction Stage, the opposite applies. Things are no longer given away, but the power is. Activists become facilitators; doers become enablers. This is about ensuring that the impacted community owns and becomes responsible for its own destiny.
This is all well and good in a practical sense, but what about the emotional state of those caught up in disasters? In UN’s rather technical and clunky terminology, they like to talk about this (cross-cutting sub-sector) as “Mental Health and Psycho-Social Support”, or MHPSS. Let’s look at this under the same framework of Response, Recovery and Reconstruction.
The Response, or ‘Safety and Stabilisation’ Stage
In the emergency Response Stage, many people (but not all) are exhibiting a very wide range of intense emotional reactions. Fight, flight or freeze. While some remain in denial, and others have fled, we also find in the first few days - maybe weeks - after the event, some heroes emerge. These are people fuelled by altruism - and often by adrenaline. They are high on activity (although often low on productivity). They are wonderful temporary role models, but their judgements are often impaired. So look after them when they crash, as some of them will. There is also a honeymoon period that quickly follows – another emotional high when one might least expect it. With great optimism we declare, “We can do this!” All our previous squabbles are forgotten, and our community is bound courageously by an urgent and common purpose. In trauma terms, I would call this the Safety and Stabilisation Stage, and as for appropriate responses, I would regard the key words to be listening and accepting. It is not a time for giving advice. Listening is a gift, and it takes energy.
The Recovery, or ‘Remembrance and Mourning’ Stage
Then comes the Recovery Stage. Motivation plummets as the cameras leave, our limits are realised, exhaustion sets in, conflicts re-emerge, and a noticeable gap starts to grow between those impacted and those who were not. A sense of abandonment sets in. Re-traumatisation can happen when new events trigger off memories of the disaster. This is often called the disillusionment stage. But here is the good news. It might be tough, and it might feel like it’s lasting for ever, but this is reality and, gradually, and not without a few setbacks, another phase is on its way. In trauma terms, I regard this as the Remembrance and Mourning Stage. It is a time to grieve, to give honour, a time of ceremony and memorial. To summarise the key words of appropriate response, I would say ‘ask questions, and keep your eyes open’. Look out for signs of resentment, blame, self-blame, guilt, regret, irritability, unpreparedness to trust or to commit. These are inevitable and natural, but should not become the bedrock of a person’s worldview. The questions you ask will help the traumatised person to articulate and work through their thoughts. Celebrate small successes and milestones, be prepared for setbacks, and introduce some light and sensitive humour. Diary key dates and anniversaries, as a reminder to yourself to contact grieving people accordingly.
The Reconstruction, or ‘Re-connection and Integration’ Stage
In the Reconstruction Stage, green shoots are reappearing. We feel some sense of achievement. We have survived, even though there were many times when we didn’t think we would. Motivation starts to return, we gain new skills, establish new support networks, and roots begin to go down again. It will never be the same, but we are coming to terms with post-disaster life and, in some ways, we are changed for the better. We appreciate the little things more, we value relationships, we adjust our priorities, we built new trust. I call this (in trauma terms) the Re-connection and Integration Stage, when the traumatised are ready to look upward, outward and onward once more. Our key responses to traumatised people at this stage should be encouragement and empowerment. Encourage some shape, framework; and plan some simple new initiatives. Seek to build locally owned social structures and communities. Ensure nothing you do or say builds dependency, and seek to re-build a strong work ethic.
It’s messy. We don’t move seamlessly from one stage to another. Steady state is a goal, a phase and a process. You will need a lot of patience, forbearance, and mercy. But let’s be honest; when it comes to the milk of human kindness, we could all do with an extra pint.
Last week I was invited to speak briefly at a church service. To say a few words. It happens from time to time. Quite a lot, to be honest.
But this one was a bit special. In fact, it was quite extraordinary.
Today’s invitation was particularly fascinating to me, because it was at the church I had planted back in 1983, and had led until 1994. Until recent years, I had thought that pastoring this church would be the best thing I would ever do.
And today was unusually poignant, because this was to be their final service before closing down the church, for ever. Times had been hard of late, so I’d been told, and numbers were dwindling.
It was a one-hundred-mile journey, and I drove it thoughtfully. What would it be like? We’d seen so many miracles here, and so many people had come to Christ. But I hadn’t been for many years, and now they were closing. Shutting up shop. What would the mood be like; the atmosphere? Would they be weary? Would they smile bravely but feel crushed and defeated? Or would they feel relieved? And what should I say?
Well, I decided to say what was sincerely in my heart. I wanted to bless and to honour the leadership, and to thank them for their faithfulness to God. I wanted to bless the flock that they had shepherded over many years, many of whom were still serving Christ around the world.
I wanted them to know that to end well can be very, very special and timely in God’s eyes. In the same way that Psalm 116:15 tells us that ‘precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints’ so, if we end well today, our merciful heavenly Father can regard the closure of this congregation of His people to be equally precious.
I wanted to tenderly ask them what they did with their disappointments, and if they really knew how to baptise them into more of God’s mercy and goodness. I wanted to remind them that, in the Kingdom of God, there is no such thing as death, without there being a resurrection. I decided that one of my favourite scriptures would be appropriate for today: Unless a seed is sown into the ground and dies, it remains by itself alone. If it dies, it bears much fruit.
I wanted to express that even though today might seem like an opportunity for nostalgia, it was really all about looking forwards, upwards, and outwards, to a better country, as with the those who got a mention in Hebrews 11. I wanted to urge them not just to fizzle out but, as it were, to die in faith.
All that sort of stuff. And I did.
As is my want, I arrived obsessively early, not even sure that the place would even be open yet. But a buzz of vibrant life hit me as I opened the door and was warmly welcomed in. Instantly, this was both the most surreal, and yet the most natural thing on earth. The building itself looked crisp and clean and welcoming, but equally it also looked just as I had left it in 1994. I knew every brick in this building; had project-managed its design and renovation, had my office here; for years and on my own would come here by six o’clock every Sunday morning to pray over every chair and every moment of the coming day’s proceedings.
As well as the present-day congregation, the vast majority of whom I did not know, at least fifty people had come from all corners of the UK; people I most definitely did know. People I had loved, and laid my life down for, but whom I hadn’t seen for decades. They had come especially for today, from Cornwall, from Manchester, from Norwich, to bless God for His faithfulness, to bring encouragement to the church and its leaders, and to speak words of kindness, of prophecy, of powerful testimony, into the occasion.
The worship was wonderful, and the presence of God was, well, weighty. This was no Ichabod. The couple who led the church, and its final meeting today, were teenagers when I was there. Now, almost fifty, they were magnificent. They spoke with a calm confidence and authority, with generosity and humility; with a sparkle in their eyes and a Christ-filled radiance in their words.
“We’ve always been a sending church,” they began. True, I thought, recalling the times when the mother church would groan in labour and almost die in childbirth as it gave away its best, time after time after time, only for God to heal it, and woo it, and grow it once more. In this way eight churches were planted out of these very roots. Musicians were released to join Delirious, Graham Kendrick, Iona and the like. Missionaries were sent all over the world. “But one day we realised that God wasn’t replacing people with the ones we’d sent out. We made it a determined matter of prayer, and sought advice, and slowly but clearly and simply we came to the understanding that God was saying that this time it would, and should, die. It should actually die. It was time to lay this expression, this most precious, wonderful, testimony-filled expression of His bride, down.”
And so, they have. Of course there is pain. Of course there is sadness. Of course there are question marks still in some people’s eyes. And there will almost inevitably be a few dark nights of the soul to come, where mature and responsible people think lonely thoughts to themselves; “What on earth have we done?” But they were simply seeking to obey God’s voice, in exactly the same way as they had sought to obey God’s voice at every turn for the last twenty-plus years. He gives and takes away. Blessed be His name.
Big respect to them. God bless them, protect them, and raise them all up again, in whatever format He chooses. Any old fool can start something, but it sometimes takes a prophet to end it.
Answering a knock on the door last Saturday morning, I found what were almost certainly two Jehovah’s Witnesses standing on the doorstep. Either that, or two people who needed help having broken down outside my house, whilst on their way to a funeral.
My guess is that they were father and son. The lad was probably thirteen or so. Their opening question was something like, “Do you believe that there is life after death?” From the nature of the question, I guessed they could still have been on their way to that funeral, but I was fairly convinced that they were indeed from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Or the Joses Witnye, as one of my sons used to call them, when he was not much more than a toddler.
“Do I believe that there is life after death? Yes, I certainly do!” I replied. They expressed polite encouragement and surprise that here, at least, was a person of faith in God. We had quite a comfortable chat, really, listening well to one another and offering plenty of respect. We didn’t get into any serious dogma or even theological nuances, and exchanged invitations to visit each other’s places of worship before shaking hands and saying goodbye.
Whilst father and son went off to knock on my neighbour’s door, I prayed. I do feel the necessity to ask for God’s cleansing and protection after encounters like this, however pleasant or congenial they appear to have been. And I was intrigued by three scriptures that I immediately found myself reflecting on.
“The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8
“Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, I will make three tabernacles here, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”” Matthew 17:4
“They said to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?”” Luke 24:32
Why these three scriptures? Well, whatever our theological differences, what always makes me sad when I encounter JWs is just how clinical, systemised, almost robotic, their 'gospel' is. Plug into some training, some instruction, some theories, and use this as a manual for what to believe and how to live. I even find this with some ‘mainstream’ Christians as well. Now I love order, and can provide ample evidence as to the amazing amount of structure and peace God has mercifully crafted in my life, out of my confusion and dysfunctionality.
But that’s only half the story. He hasn’t brought me into a system, but into a relationship. A relationship with the Son of God Himself. We walk together, talk together, agree together. We trust one another. We laugh together and we cry together. We like being with one another. He has brought so much peace and order to my heart. And yet that relationship can sometimes be turbulent, as the twelve disciples could testify. And at times, it is meant to be. It is dynamic, as in dynamite. It’s not just all about me and my well-being. There is work to be done. There is a Kingdom at stake, and He has a plan. “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Just when I have finished combing every hair precisely into the place I think God wants it to be, then the Holy Spirit comes and tousles it all up again.
I’ve often chuckled at Peter’s reaction to when Jesus was transfigured. When Jesus’ face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light, and while Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus, surely Peter would fall on his face and lavishly worship God in the face of this little taste of heaven itself? No. Rather than enjoying the glorious chaos, he suggests building them some sheds! He was one of the more wacky disciples, but right now, even he just looked awkward, odd, and out of place, and attempted to run back into his comfort zone of structure, order and correctness. We are very keen on singing about The King of Glory, 'who turns our chaos back into order’, but not so keen on stepping out of our orderliness in the face of His chaos. Sometimes, just sometimes, we can be a little too clinical for our own good.
And the third scripture that came to my mind was what the disciples said when they had encountered the risen Lord Jesus on the road to Emmaus. “Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?” It’s our hearts that need to be impacted by the Word of God, not just our intellect.
So “Yes and amen!” to the scriptures that talk about God’s order coming into our lives. “God... has made an everlasting covenant with me, ordered in all things, and secured. For all my salvation and all my desire, Will He not indeed make it grow?” (2 Samuel 23:5). “All things must be done properly and in an orderly manner” (I Corinthians 14:40). “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains” (Titus 1:5).
But please don’t kid yourself that God always lives in a nice neat ordered box. Or shed. Sorry Peter.
People often ask me which my favourite country is. Others phrase it a little differently. “Where’s your favourite destination?” There’s only one answer to this, and that’s ‘Home’. For one who is such a traveller, I always love putting the key into the lock of my own front door. If travel were ever to become an escape from the reality of home, then something would be very wrong.
I love the same sort of household that Jesus loved – the one where Martha, Lazarus and Mary lived. We read about it in John chapter 12, when Jesus was invited to dinner in celebration of the fact that He’d just raised Lazarus from the dead.
It was actually a very attractive environment – really good friends celebrating an amazing event together. A bit like the parties that beautiful people apparently go to, and which much of the world jealously watches on music videos and Martini adverts. A place to which, we are told, we would all like to be invited, accepted, gathered up, included.
Imagine Martha. Sleeves rolled up, she’s in the kitchen. OK, she can get a bit wound up at times, and she remembers with a coy smile the day that Jesus had a word with her about that. She’d listened well, and His word had been transforming. As a result, tonight she’s in her element. She’s been working away all day in order to prepare the very best food for the dinner party, and she’s loved every minute of it. She would really like to be mingling with the guests too, but tonight Martha knows she has a job to do and, despite the sacrifice, and refusing to feel left out, she joyfully accepts the responsibility. She brings out another plate of food and places it near to Lazarus, who is reclining at table with Jesus.
Lazarus gets up, takes the plate, and begins meandering around the room, networking, relating; oozing with radiant joy out of his massive gratitude for the miracle of life. At the same time he listens attentively to his guests, expressing genuine interest in the comparatively mundane anecdotes of their week. “More orange squash, anyone? Quiche? Cheesy dips?” (Well, it is a Christian party remember).
Imagine a latecomer, tumbling in straight from work, hastily removing his coat, rushing into a deep conversation with someone he knows, and absent-mindedly grabbing a fistful of food from the passing tray. “Oh cheers mate.” Then he looks up in mid-sentence, sees Lazarus and, utterly stunned, stops in his tracks. “Blimey, Lazarus, I thought you were dead.” Recovering a little, he adds, “Hey mate, I’m sorry I didn’t make the funeral. I was so busy. You know how it is. I’d just bought a field and had to go and view it. I’d just bought five yoke of oxen and had to take them for a test drive. Oh, and I’d just got married as well. Anyway, how did it go? Although I suppose you wouldn’t really know, would you? Err, feeling any better now?”
Precisely at this moment an incident takes place that radically transforms the evening. Mary, spontaneously, shockingly prepared to break with the cultural norm for the greater good, takes half a litre of pure nard [Himalayan plant: a perennial aromatic plant of the valerian family. Flowers: pinkish-purple. Native to: Himalayan range. Latin name Nardostachys jatamansi], costing the equivalent of a year’s wages, elegantly kneels down, and simply pours it over Jesus’ feet. The buzz of conversation plummets like a stone and, in the deafening silence, the whole building instantly fills with the amazing fragrance of the perfume. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife.
Undeterred, unhurried, and with such grace, Mary then loosens her hair, stoops even further down, and wipes Jesus’ feet - with her hair! Guests involuntarily place their hands over their mouths and faces, totally shocked and embarrassed. They exchange panicked glances at one another, wondering just what on earth has got into the normally sweet and modest Mary. These were the flagrant and suggestive actions of a prostitute, and yet she seemed totally oblivious of the fuss she was causing. There was nowhere for the guests to hide. This was just so wrong, so un-cool, such a cultural faux pas. So embarrassing.
It was Judas who broke the silence. He was angry. “Why? Why wasn’t this perfume sold, and the money given to the poor?” And with deep frustrated rage, he clasped his hands together behind his neck and shouted into the sky, “It was worth a year’s wages!”
He didn’t say this because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief. As keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
Every one of the disciples had had their suspicions about Judas, but at this moment of time that just didn’t matter. They weren’t thieves, but on this occasion they actually all completely agreed with Judas. There wasn’t an Englishman among them, but even these flamboyant Middle Eastern guys were just too cultured, too conventional, too ordered, too functional even to dream of accepting that such a thing could be happening right before their eyes.
Because she was in the kitchen, Martha didn’t actually witness the incident, but she clearly sensed the sudden change of atmosphere, and came through to see why the strong aroma. And Lazarus? Well, he was just happy to be alive. He thought his younger sister’s gift was just brilliant. His head buzzed with praise, joy, laughter, awe. But of their guests, no one could even begin to cope with this ridiculous, overwhelmingly lavish act of celebratory worship that Mary had innocently poured out onto the Son of God.
No one, that is, except Jesus. There had been no hint of embarrassment from Him. In fact at that moment He decided that in the following days He would wash His disciples’ feet, knowing full well that once more they would react all over the place. He could just imagine it. “You’ll never wash my feet!” But here, tonight, at the dinner given in His honour, He comfortably received exactly this same treatment. It just didn’t matter that this was usually an act of extreme sensuality, or that the guests, to a man, had just been blasted further outside their comfort zone than they’d ever been before. Jesus relaxed, Jesus received, Jesus accepted, Jesus enjoyed. And Jesus replied. “Leave her alone, Judas. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
I love the way this family functioned so holistically together. In this story – in this family - we see task, team and individual. We see service, relationship and intimacy. Martha served, Lazarus related, Mary worshipped. Martha worked, Lazarus networked, Mary celebrated. Martha worked like she didn’t need the money. Lazarus loved like he’d never been hurt. And Mary danced like no one was watching.
But that’s my final point; people were watching. This family, this home church, this missional community wasn’t a clique, a members-only club, a gated neighbourhood, a party purely for the beautiful people or the socially acceptable. This family was prepared to live in the spotlight, welcoming into their home not only Jesus and a few close friends to celebrate with them, but also cynics and thieves and critics and crowds, and even persecutors.
I’d like to have a holistic life like that. I’d like to be a part of an integrated family like that. I’d like to be a part of a local church like that. I’d like to be a part of a local community like that, and - this one takes a lot of faith – I’d like to be a part of a nation like that.
Did you know that May 25th will be Geek Pride Day; that May 6th was World Laughter Day, and that Star Wars Day - yes you’ve guessed it - was on May 4th?
Of somewhat more value, hopefully, International Day of Families is tomorrow, 15th May. The theme for IDF this year is ‘“Families and inclusive societies” and will explore the role of families and family policies in advancing Sustainable Development Goal 16. SDG16 is all about ‘Promoting peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, providing access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels’ https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg16. Progress has been mixed and challenges remain, but today let me select just one of the statistics the UN highlights under SDG16. It concerns something as simple as the registering of births.
“While many regions have reached universal or near universal birth registration, globally the average is just 71 per cent, on the basis of available country data reported from 2010 to 2016. Fewer than half (46 per cent) of all children under 5 years of age in sub-Saharan Africa have had their births registered.”
However, if I live a very local life in a very informal community, does the registration of my child’s birth actually have any real significance? What’s the big deal, you might ask? Well, in the words of the SDG knowledge platform, “Birth registration is a first step towards safe-guarding individual rights and providing every person with access to justice and social services.”
I’ve been aware for a long time that a key role within Raising Families in Kyrgyzstan has been to help family members, new-born and elderly, to secure or to restore their registration documents. Often these families had been afraid to register with the state, or had lost their original registration papers due to drunkenness or other chaotic lifestyles. Without these documents, they are unable to access health services, education, legal support etc, and are unable to cross borders. When their papers are restored, these services and opportunities are available to them once more.
Access is a vital ingredient of community development. And yet it is such a simple concept that it may seem trivial, and one which we can easily take for granted. Until, of course, you lose your keys, forget your password, or find that the bank closed seconds before you got there.
So for International Day of Families, let’s celebrate the vital work done by RaFa practitioners to enable access to services for the vulnerable and marginalised. In the present programme in Kyrgyzstan alone, every single local church we partner with has invested a lot of time into this work. In the small village of Soznovka alone, five passports and 19 birth certificates have been secured. So far in total, Church Action Group members in the present programme have helped to secure a total 44 birth certificates and 42 replacement passport documents.
Joseph and Mary had to go from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register for the census. Bing maps tells me that to drive it is 97 miles, and would take me 1 hour 53 minutes. By foot, it is only 85 miles, and apparently takes 27 hours 22 minutes of walking, plus considerably more I guess for a mum-to-be, ‘great with child’. In Kyrgyzstan, RaFa church activists have sometimes driven two full days to the vulnerable family member’s place of birth and back, to help them register or restore their documents, to say nothing of the inevitable extra delays and frustrations caused by post-Soviet bureaucracy.
In fact this is a more intensely biblical process than one would first imagine. They enable
Romans 5:1-2 says “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.”
And we do need to remember that formerly we who are Gentiles by birth were previously separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus we who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, he has made us one, and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility. He has reconciled us to God through the cross. Through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit, and consequently we are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people, and members of his household” (Ephesians 2:11-19).
...started leading churches at the age of 18. With a team in the 1980's, planted eight churches in UK and Belgium. Has been teaching and training churches ever since.