Sunday, June 22, 2014

Imitators

I am reading my way through the book of Ephesians.  As ever I am on catch up with my daily reading plan.  There are some mornings where I am a little more alert than others.  The intention of having a quiet time when I come home from work is often sabotaged by a combination of tiredness and TV.

Ephesians 5 begins with the phrase to “Follow God’s example”.  In other letters Paul tells his readers to imitate him or to follow him because he is following Jesus. I suppose that one way we can discover whether our faith walk measures up is to confidently invite people to follow us because we are following Jesus.

I remember very clearly a number of years ago saying to a group of young girls “Don’t look at me – look at Jesus”. 

I was working in a small private English school in Cyprus at the time.  I had come to faith five years before but I wasn’t a secure Christian.  I had spent two years in a Brethren Chapel simply because it had been among friends that were Brethren that I had given my life to Jesus.  I went away to university and attended a Brethren Chapel in the nearby town.  It was assumed that I would just slip into church life.  I had a letter of introduction.  Maybe they did try to nurture me, it was a long time ago.  It was the wrong kind of church for me – the whole women keeping silent played so perfectly into my natural shyness that I kept silent even during the tea and coffee afterwards.  The day I bought a Sunday newspaper into church, sat at the back and read it through cover to cover I knew I shouldn’t be there.

I had spent a few years in the Methodist Church in Chingford.  If I had been less Brethren at heart I might have gone into the ministry.  Methodists had women ministers and there were some in the congregation that believed I would make a good minister.

Anyway, the school was run by the Brethren Church.  I went not because I wanted to return to the Brethren Church but an Elementary Teacher’s post had been promised.  It never materialised and I ended up teaching in the high school.

The school had boarders.  Perhaps up to two or three dozen pupils – it was a small school.  Many of the pupils were from Saudi Arabia. Some of them were much older than the sixteen or eighteen years they claimed to be to avoid joining the Saudi army.  I seem to remember a couple of very bulky men sporting beards and moustaches.

Although it was a Christian school, we had a fair number of non-Christians and more than a fair number of Muslims.  Their parents, apart from the army avoidance thing, believed that Christian principles were good and the school had a reputation for strong discipline.

One year I was living in the boarding house with the boarders.  There had been an influx of quite radical Muslim girls.  The boys were usually no problem – school was better than the army – not much but better. The girls swung between the demands of their Muslim faith and the freedom that was Cypriot life – sun and sea and lithe boys, with smouldering eyes and sun-kissed skin playing beach volleyball.

Ramadan came and the girls made their stand. They wanted to keep the Ramadan fast.  The mealtimes they wanted did not coincide with the usual mealtimes and the cooks were long gone back to their village by the time sunset arrived.  I knew enough about Islam to know that there were get-out clauses when it came to Ramadan.  The Headmaster was not for bending – they ate when the rest of the boarders ate or they ate nothing.  He was not about to allow them to pile up their plates to eat later.

It was war!

There was a combination of prayer mats and tears and rants in Arabic and phone-calls home.  The parents sided with the school. The boys with their beards stood with the girls.  They snuck out through a window at night to go and buy kebabs so that no one starved. 

Being with the boarders I was responsible for their well-being.  Never one for confrontation I just wanted Ramadan to end.

The girls railed on me.  Wasn’t Christianity all about love? Where was the love in the school towards them? All I wanted from them, apparently, so they said, was conversion!  Every Sunday they went to the Brethren Church and listened to a gospel message.  They never responded to the altar call.  They had worked it out that they could get away with “asking Jesus into their heart” and just pretend they had changed their faith – just to get the Headmaster off their back.

“If I could see a genuine Christian life lived out in front of me and not the hypocrisy you parade in front of me…I might truly ask Jesus into my life,” said one Muslim girl folding her prayer mat away.

That’s when I said it, “Don’t look at me – look at Jesus”. 

I wouldn’t say it now.  I wish I hadn’t said it then.  I wasn’t the best advert for a Christian.  I was so not confident in my faith.  I was not like Paul.  I saw too many holes in my walk with Jesus.

But you know what? The next morning I determined that I would be that genuine Christian they were looking for.  I asked God to help me pray more, to love more, to challenge myself more. It was one of those turning points that people have.

The school Headteacher wasn’t enamoured with the change in me.  The kids loved it when I butted in at church meetings – yes, the ones where women were supposed to be silent.  I could not stay quiet – and I really tried hard.  I never spoke nonsense.  Even then an almost prophetic gift was breaking out in me.  I wasn’t asked to leave – but it became too hard to stay. 

Did the girls see Jesus in me?  I don’t know.  Ramadan came to an end and the girls came back to the dinner table.  The boys still climbed out the window to buy kebabs,

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