Yesterday I was asked to give a talk about the time I spent in Uganda. Five years ago I spent a month on placement at Kampala cathedral. It was the first time Dr Ruth and I had really travelled together and we didn’t know what to expect. I bought a new camera and took a notebook. I’m glad I did as preparing for this talk made me dig it out and rediscover some of my memories of our big adventure.
On the page after I had written the profound statement “[expletive deleted] a rat just came into my room”, there was this:
There is a vicar staying at the hostel whilst he is studying. He just said something that made me think.
“People come to church not because of what they have heard but because of what they have seen.
People think there are four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. If they read them they probably won’t do it in-depth but they may read them and think that is it. They forget about the fifth gospel, their lives”
9 years ago I went to a baptism service to see an 83 year old lady take the plunge. She had decide to make the leap of faith and start following. Before she was baptised she stood up and gave her testimony. She told us exactly how she had come to believe in Jesus and why she wanted to follow him.
She explained that she had started coming to church after a conversation she had with her landlord a few months earlier. He was the caretaker at the church and also owned the small flat that she lived in. Her landlord had come around to visit to check that she was alright. The weather had been atrocious for a couple of weeks with heavy snow all over the North East. She explained to him that everything was alright but she had locked herself out of the flat a couple of days ago. She had left her little terraced flat and the latch was on as the door closed behind her. She was stuck in the deep snow until her husband returned.
She explained that the young kid next door had arrived home and asked if she was OK. They had never spoken to each other before but he wondered if she would like to come inside to the warmth and wait. In the conversation it transpired that the landlord knew the young kid because they both went to the same church.
The thing is, I had no idea who was being baptised that day. I was flabbergasted. From my perspective, I knew the other side of the story.
In my third year at university I was sauntering through the thick falling snow back to the little flat I shared with Dr Ruth after a hard day’s slog through a Johannine literature lecture. There was an old woman standing in the snow next to a flat door. When I asked her if she was OK she said yes but she wondered if she could just stand inside my door. Of course I said yes. In fact, I struggled to convince her that it wasn’t too much trouble for her to sit on the sofa and watch my TV. I actually had to pretend that I wanted a cup of tea so that she would have a hot drink. I wandered back around to her flat next door a couple of times to see if her husband was back. When he was she left.
No blinding lights. No miraculous healing. No talking about “religion”. Just a cup of tea with no strings attached.
What does it mean for me to become that fifth gospel?