October 2013: It Starts.
I need to record some of the things that have been happening because God is making himself known in remarkable ways in Ipswich at the moment. I think I need to just blurt it all out without structure, because otherwise I will make a dozen or more separate blog posts!
In July, I wrote:
The Kingdom of God is breaking-in to the street culture of Ipswich. Changes are happening! Those who are mixing with the street culture will now inevitably encounter the Christian hope as they move around town. Increasingly, individuals in that scene are getting up the courage openly to associate with us and to declare themselves “the Lord’s”, which immediately implies a radical change of priorities and behaviours.
In September, a men’s group began. It consists of the men whom I have met through the time I have spent in the Mall, and arose because I could see that I had a number of men that I was mentoring individually and I was running out of bandwidth for them. The solution was obvious: form a group, and to some extent allow them to support one another. Importantly also, the solution was to gather the group in Jesus’ name, and he becomes the mentor of us all.
These men are from the criminal underclass of Ipswich, the drug scene, the ex-cons, the homeless… in other words, they are individuals who bear the image of God, and whom God has determined to transform and to redeem. They have come to know Jesus Christ as their hope. They are, in short, God’s men.
The Men of God in Ipswich
About six of us were in the park. I was talking (ok, I was preaching), and a chap came and joined us. He said, “I looked over and saw this fella talkin’, and I thought, ‘Them fellas ain’t hoods’.”
He shared his story and reminisced with us. He was a bit drunk, and had been away from Ipswich for a long time, bearing a lot of hurts. He joined us in prayer, thanking God in tears for his salvation some twenty years earlier. He got a lot of stuff off his chest that night.
One of the lads I knew from the mall walked past with friends, and came back to join us. It turns out that he is the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle – there is now one representative from each of the four feuding Indigenous family groups in Ipswich represented in our little group. This is huge for them! Just sitting and praying together is enormously symbolic for them and gives great hope for reconciliation and healing in the community.
This caused me to recall that I, and one of the Indigenous men with us, had met in this very park some eight or none months earlier, and had prayed specifically for the Indigenous community…
One of the guys is living in a squat. He is undergoing a spiritual detonation at the moment and is constantly amazed at God’s faithfulness. Previously he had been talking about leaving town to get away from the street culture. Now he has found that his presence in the squat actively promotes peace there.
Jesus, in prayer: “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.”
– John 17:15
The topic this night was “forgiveness”. Most of the men had enduring difficulty with the concept of forgiveness, and we reluctantly broke up the meeting 2.5 hours later because one of the guys had to pick up medical equipment before a certain time. Everyone left wanting more. The lesson:
- If you find a valid reason why someone did what they did, you are excusing them.
- If someone is excused, there is nothing to forgive.
- Forgiveness is what happens when there is no excuse for what they did.
- This is why people become angry when you unilaterally forgive them: By doing so you are actually stating that what they did is inexcusable, and that you are extending grace to them.
Prophetic words were given, much healing happened…
That’s tomorrow. We will be talking about “anger”… I can’t wait to see what Our Lord has to say about that!
While that has been going on over the last few weeks, the spiritual temperature in the Mall has been rising.
Today we had groups mixing with us who are so active in the drug scene that they were discussing drug deals right in front of me. I conclude from this that I am now “part of the scenery” in the Mall, in the same way that a new rock feature in the fish tank takes a little while to be accepted, and then the fish simply swim in, around, and through it. Either that or, at least in one case, it was a kind of “test”: had I reacted it would have singled me out as an outsider.
I am told by some of my more regular companions that other people ask them about our group, and about me in particular. An Aboriginal man asked one of my companions about us, and he replied, “That’s our mob” (meaning, ‘those are members of our own extended family’), pointing out various people in our group as relatives. The enquirer then pointed at me and asked, “But who’s that fella? He always wants to talk to me when I’m stoned. It’s shame.”
It is important to note here just what he meant by “that’s shame”. He meant, “I feel ashamed”. More fully, he means, “This man is some kind of church leader, speaking to me while I’m stoned. I feel ashamed to be talking with him in that state”.
My friend responded, “Get used to it. That’s what he’s like”.
My friend has experienced this first hand. I have turned up to find him quite drunk or stoned, and proceeded to accept him fully, and converse with him as normal, preaching and teaching, encouraging and discussing. On each occasion he claimed precisely the same “shame”, and I retorted along the lines of, “there is now no shame for those who are in Christ Jesus. You have no shame before God, and you have no shame before me. I love you. Don’t ever be ashamed of yourself around me. We are the same, you and me.” Saying this makes people’s eyes misty. It matters. It especially matters in a culture of honour and shame, that I honour people who are ashamed in the eyes of their community, and pronounce them to be honoured before God. That’s… what Jesus did.
… and this particular enquirer has only ever had one conversation with me!
I thanked him, a day later, for looking after a young girl who could not have been older than about 13 and who was vomiting up a bright, fluorescent pink liquid in the middle of the Mall because of the solvents she was sniffing. I had sat with her for a time, comforting her with affirmations that she didn’t understand, but she caught the sentiment. This fellow had come past and knew her, and she was feeling a little better so she was going with him. He wasn’t “looking after” her in the sense that I would have liked (she belonged at home or in hospital and he was taking her to hang with other kids, still sniffing), but thanking him the next day “for looking after her” gave me the opportunity to single him out in a crowd of his friends, and to congratulate him on being a hero. It seems to have had an impact on him.
Who do the crowds say that I am?
It is intriguing to hear from a number of my friends that I have something of a reputation on the street. Apparently “everybody in this whole [street] community knows who you are and what you stand for”, and their reaction to that varies:
- Some, presumably, are indifferent.
- Some are vocal about their disdain for Christianity, but that doesn’t last long. Those ones always end up hanging around and listening closely. Several have become Christians.
- Others spend weeks or months, circling in close to us but not making eye-contact, talking to those who sit with us but not joining us, and effectively placing themselves “in range”. I just wait those guys out. They eventually come and sit down. The enquirer above is one such person. He’ll be coming over real soon now. Watch this space.
- Still others come and sit and just wait for us to strike up conversation. They come with heavy burdens, and want to share them. They know who we are, and they come to share in God’s bounty of love.
I’m unsure how I feel about having “street cred”. On one level it’s great, because it means I have a “sphere of influence”. On the other hand it introduces a risk that what God is doing might mistakenly be attached to “me” in the popular mind. But there appears to be little I can do about it anyway.
The Men’s Group is, in spiritual terms, highly strategic.
This is the group which will spearhead the kingdom of God in the street culture. These men will carry the message of Christ into the heart of the street culture, and it will cost them dearly. One of the conversations we frequently have is to reinforce that their previous allegiances are now dead, and that they are now a band of brothers in the Lord. This is key to their very survival. They are being sent as lambs into the midst of wolves! Not that they must become “churchy”, but that they now are called-out men, holy men, and bearers of Christ’s name in the midst of their peers. They will be hated and rejected for it, but their presence is the very fragrance of the knowledge of Christ. Some will hate, and others will come enquiring. That’s how it works.
The street culture is defined by intimidation. The strong prosper at the expense of the weak. It is heartless and soulless, and those in control have no compassion. This is the world in which my “little flock” is to exist. For a glimpse, and for more of my rationale in focusing on men, see this blog post: Advice for living on the street: Don’t be female.
Just as they are now vulnerable in their newfound “weakness”, they also are powerful precisely because of it. God’s strength is made perfect in their weakness. I am able to show them constantly how this works, as they discover that the holy man, the gentle man, the man of God, is actually pervaded by the power of God. Each of these men has begun to experience the power of God being manifest in their relationships and in the situations they experience. They have barely begun to comprehend it, and they will certainly see greater things than this, too. I am quietly teaching them not to rejoice that the demons submit to them, but that their names are written in heaven.
These men carry light into the pit of darkness. They carry hope into a world of despair. They are speaking love in a world defined by fear. They bear on their shoulders the spiritual future of their whole city, in the eyes of God who has raised them up. I, being part of a different world, can only indirectly be involved. My role consists in preparing, sending, equipping, and encouraging them. They do what I cannot. They go where I cannot.
Please pray for these men. They do not yet know the enormity of what they have begun.
Though they walk through the valley of the shadow of death, may they fear no evil; God is with them.
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