A Place of Welcome [By Tammy]

“If you’ve ever been homesick, or felt exiled from all the things and people that once defined you, you know how important welcoming words and friendly smiles can be.” –Stephen King

In early April Tim and I celebrated our 23rd anniversary of living in England. Having spent the first 21 of those years on the southeastern edge of the city of Birmingham, the move to this area found me struggling to define my new ‘patch’: the place to begin building connections and making a home.

What exactly IS my community? Simply labeling it Birmingham felt too fuzzy and impersonal; I craved a hook on which to hang my hat: a distinct sense of place where I could discover the heartbeat and begin making my own contributions. After a casual remark provided me with the Summerfield place name, I began searching for opportunities to make friends.

With so many years spent in the same location, I was a bit rusty with the whole developing friendships in the new community thing. When our children were young we depended heavily on school-gate conversations and Parent Association gatherings to form relationships. As empty nesters without those natural opportunities, I was at a bit of a loss. Chance encounters were frustratingly brief and lacked substance. Let’s face it: there is a limit to the depth of friendship you can create talking about the weather!

When I learned about the Summerfield Place of Welcome, I was eager to visit. Introverted by nature, my first step through the door was a bit daunting. I needn’t have worried; I was warmly greeted and soon found myself enjoying a cup of coffee and being welcomed into conversation like an old and treasured companion. Having entered as a stranger, I left with some newly forming friendships. This Tuesday morning place of unconditional welcome has now become a happily anticipated part of my week.

The Place of Welcome meets a variety of needs for those of us who gather: a weekly respite for otherwise lonely days; a kind word and warm hug during a challenging season of life; a renewed sense of purpose and belonging while working with others on the community garden; the opportunity to buy good food provided by The Real Junk Food Project Brum on a pay-as-you-feel basis. And others like myself have found this a place where friendships can develop and grow. And the times of meeting together are helping me to more clearly hear the heartbeat — and deeply appreciate the rich diversity — of my community. MY community. Those two simple words speak volumes to me.

Please come join us! All are welcome.

Bus Stop Café

Last year we started experimenting with meeting neigbours and passersby in the form of our Bus Stop Café. We’ve been at a couple of locations down the road from the prison in Winson Green and at the Visitors Centre across from the prison. On our first occasion, we were welcomed almost immediately by a mum of unknown African descent. Coming from a road opposite was a man with a big smile, who I learned is a Kurdish Iraqi that was waiting for a lift to his job in Solihull where we used to live. A few minutes later I watched an inebriated eastern European man speak with Sam and when offered a coffee snatched Sam’s coffee out of his hands! This man came for another coffee after a stop for some tins of beer at the local off-licence shop. And then there was a Somali Muslim woman with five children under the age of six. All in all on that first morning we talked to about 15 men and women who embraced their tea or coffee in the cold weather whose ethnic origins were other than this country!

Over the summer we combined the Bus Stop Café with work on a community garden at the Prison Visitor’s Centre. During the summer we had some regulars whom we met when they were getting off work from the prison or from the local industrial site. Others we introduced to each other, like these two French speaking men from the Congo (Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – two different countries). And then there was the time we were treated to an impromptu concert from The Choir with No Name who were going into the prison to sing; all of them who are or have been homeless.

We launched work on the community garden in front of the visitors centre with a team of students from Cincinnati Christian University (just like last year). Sam led the work on preparing the bedding and soil, and planting flowers to make that space attractive and inviting. Though the flow coming and going between the prison and the visitors centre is comprised of people who are all over the map emotionally and behaviourally, bringing a cup of coffee and a touch of care to this place is appreciated by locals. We’re glad we can do a bit to help.

We’re now thinking together as a Companions for Hope team about where we site our next Bus Stop Café. We have some ideas, and we’ll be sure to share some stories about what we learn and who we meet.

Exclusion or Embrace?

I have the book by this title (Miroslav Volf) but I confess I haven’t read it though it has been on my reading list for a few years. But I have often thought of the passage Embrace one another, just as Jesus embraced you; this is to God’s glory  because of the posture of welcoming and belonging it calls for in a follower of Jesus (Romans 15.7; personal translation).

This morning I read a portion of daily prayers that comes from the free iOS app Common Prayer  (click here for more). It reads as follows:

We are happy to be your children, O Lord, make us happier still to extend the table. Lord, help us to welcome every guest as if we were welcoming you, delighting in their presence and ready to learn what good news they bring to us. Amen.

I have been thinking about my experience in my neighbourhood over the recent fortnight, and the diversity of people and food and neighbours we are enjoying. One night last week I had a lamb tikka masala takeway of Pakistani origins followed the next night by curry goat reflective of the Jamaican / West Indian presence locally. On another day we popped by with home made banana bread to neighbours from Iran and invited them to our Companions for Hope community ‘bring and share’ meal we’ve started. They gave us a box of sweets mum had brought back from a recent trip to her home town south of Tehran.

We met another new neighbour whose package was delivered to us. Victor is Hungarian; his wife is Romanian. He apologised over and over for bothering us, then rang the doorbell a second time to give us a box of chocolates from Romania. This afternoon I popped into the shops on the high street near us. I bought pickled gherkins and mixed vegetables from Poland and sunflower seeds in the shell from Turkey. Two days ago we had a skype course on Transformational Leadership with participants from Ecuador, Ohio, and England.

On Sunday afternoons we meet up with our Eritrean brothers and sisters. We spend 90 minutes with teenagers. We lead an English worship service once a month. We eat dabo or ambasha (types of cake and bread) with coffee seasoned with cinnamon sticks that have been boiled in water. Next week we are having a dozen of the post university / young professionals in their 20s for breakfast in our home. We’ll be preparing a typical English breakfast (which always includes beans!).

And what an amazing and interesting day it was when we made our pledges and received British citizenship two weeks ago. We made some new friends and are looking forward to meeting up with two sisters-in-laws in the days ahead; I cheekily asked them to invite us around for a curry and they were excited at the prospect! Have we given up our American citizenship? Nope, would never do that; but we will be dual citizens from here on in. While it was an ‘easy’ process for us, I was humbled as I thought of all my friends and of those people who have suffered and sacrificed through deserts, over seas and oceans, at the hands of people smugglers, and made their way to a place they have now made home. We didn’t have to give anything up to become British citizens like some of our friends, but our gain is great.

There are currently a plethora of views and news reports in Europe and America about immigration, refugees, asylum seekers, and expatriates. I am not going to start a debate here. I will only say that my experience of the last 18 months since moving to this area has been full, rich, diverse, blessed, and one of embrace and being embraced. I want people to know the abundance of life that comes in following Jesus and being embraced by Jesus. I can start by embracing others, and having a heart that says: We are happy to be your children, O Lord, make us happier still to extend the table. Amen.

Being Thankful in an Ungrateful Season

We recently organised the youth we are discipling at a local Eritrean church to lead an English language worship service. We focused on the theme of thanksgiving and leading up to the service I meditated and prayed over a variation of Jeremiah 33.11; this is repeated in various forms in other Old Testament texts and Psalm 136:

I will give thanks to the Lord Almighty, For the Lord is good; His love endures forever.

We live in a day, a season, when many people think they are owed something or deserve what they have. It’s an ungrateful season. Or, there are those times when one when one does not feel grateful and cannot find anything for which to be grateful. It’s an ungrateful season.

A little over four years ago we were stateside with Tammy’s dad in his last weeks of life as cancer took its toll on his body. While he was in hospice, my mum passed away unexpectedly with a heart attack. Ten days later my father-in-law died. We were numb for the four weeks during that time, and another four weeks after we returned to England.

Early in those weeks a friend wrote to encourage us, and suggested we keep our eyes open for the ‘little blessings’ along the way. I am so glad we listened to her, because we found multiple reasons to be grateful to God in a difficult set of circumstances.

I concluded the message for this English worship service with the following suggestions for being thankful in an ungrateful season.

  • be humble – don’t use the language of gratitude as a means of bragging or manipulating God (see Luke 18.9-14)
  • be specific – name the act, feeling, circumstance, or person for which you are grateful
  • be personal – go and express your offering of thanks in person; or, if that person is at a geographical distance then hand-write a card or letter
  • be bold – even if there is some tension or distance in a relationship, express gratitude to that person in person even for something that may be insignificant; it may lead to reconciliation
  • be grateful together – corporately expressing thankfulness together is powerful, encouraging, and transformative


Scarcity or Abundance?

We sometimes thought when we lived in Shirley and after starting Dickens Heath Village Church that there was an international feel to the place. We had Irish and Scottish neighbours, and South African, American, Polish and English friends in the church family. Since our move into Winson Green, we have had a new set of experiences that has made us re-define what we understand as ‘international’ and multicultural.

Tammy has begun volunteerinBirmingham Mail 2015-09-15bg at the local Foundry school which has students speaking over 40 languages (42 currently). I will begin volunteering at the local Boulton primary school this term and they have identified at least 30 languages spoken by their students. Across the street and to one side of Newbigin House (what our team calls the vicarage we live in) we have Sikh and Muslim neighbours. At the local iron monger run by an Indian Hindu family I observed a Jamaican man speaking to a white English man who had a Black Country accent. The other day at the local gym I met and spoke to two Sikh men whose workout regimen was amazing; I learned they live down the road from us. My next visit to the gym I met a woman from Bulgaria and another from Poland. Just before Christmas a man recently released from Winson Green prison knocked and the door and asked for a jacket. He had been homeless and had smashed a shop window just to get a break from living on the street; he may be from Brum but culturally he is very different!

8aade48f-b369-4aea-9a89-f2cf8284956cOur teammate Sam and I decided to start offering teas and coffees at the bus stop outside the house once a week through the half-term on Thursday mornings from 8.00am to 9.00am. We were welcomed almost immediately by a mum of unknown African descent. Coming from a road opposite was a man with a big smile, who I learned is a Kurdish Iraqi that was waiting for a lift to his job in Solihull! A few minutes later I watched an inebriated eastern European man speak with Sam and when offered a coffee snatched Sam’s coffee out of his hands! This man came for another coffee after a stop for some tins of beer at the local off-licence shop. And then there was a Somali Muslim woman with five children under the age of six. All in all we talked to about 15 men and women who embraced their tea or coffee in the cold weather whose ethnic origins were other than this country!

I also learned this past week that two groups of roads around us are in the bottom .01% and .02% of the deprivation tables in England. Not the bottom 10% or even the bottom 1%; no these residents are desperately poor and the most poor in our country. Many are immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers who have left their country of origin due to circumstances of persecution, poverty, and war for a better life here.IMG_0518

The whole process of our move from Shirley and new life and ministry in Winson Green has had me thinking and reflecting on the themes of scarcity and abundance. Our global world is consumer-driven and inter-linked in ways previous generations never experienced. Friends and family members experience the loss of work and jobs that have been outsourced abroad or because a migrant worker or refugee given residency status will do it at lower recompense. How is one to view the upset and chaos and difficulty being experienced by so many on so many levels on both sides of the immigration debate? Personally, we have friends amongst all these groups!

There is a story from the life of Jesus in the Bible where his followers are confronted with a situation of feeding thousands with five loaves of bread and two fish. Do you know that story, found in John chapter six? There is scarcity. Jesus provides abundance of bread and fish, then instructs his followers to collect the leftovers so they are not wasted. In his Kingdom, he seems to be saying, “There is more than enough, but don’t waste the ‘more than enough.'”

All of which is to say that my mindset, perspective, or frame of reference has significant impact on my view of God, of people, of myself and my response to the opportunities and challenges before me. This is more than a ‘glass half full / half empty’ view of the world. It’s about more than being a pessimist or an optimist. It’s about who I believe God to be and the values which permeate my life and are expressed in the way I live. So I leave you with a question: For you, is God a closefisted mizer or an openhanded giver? And,what kind of person does that belief lead you to be?

Of Hairballs and Hubris

Moving Van CroppedWe’ve moved house. As alluded to in previous postings, we made some necessary endings and some necessary beginnings. And so we have transitioned from life in the suburbs to an inner city area of Birmingham that is incredibly diverse ethnically and culturally. By way of illustration, a local junior school has 230 students speaking one of 44 different languages. The Home Office places asylum seekers here, and it also attracts other immigrants who have somehow made their way into the UK.

And so, we have moved. At least, all our stuff is moved. Our brains seem to be travelling through several geographical areas between Shirley and Winson Green. Between painting, cleaning, and unpacking boxes, we find ourselves starting one thing, turning around to see another thing that needs to be done, and before we know it we have started five different tasks and completely forgotten the first one we started! Hysterics are not uncommon, including a little tension as we debate the placement of household goods amidst the adjustments to a new place, new people, new team, new culture(s), and new responsibilities.

gre_hairballNot to be left out, Destiny and Angel have decided to contest the move by competing to deposit the largest hairball in the most inconvenient of places. I suppose they might be trying to match the paint scheme of a few rooms the previous residents had painted the colour of cat sick. We are hastening to paint over these with something more digestible! We hope the girls calm down a bit and groom themselves and each other a bit less and stop the throwing up noises at 5.30am. We don’t need that kind of consistent alarm each morning!

IMG_5687 cropped

The excessive grooming, we surmise, is a way of comforting themselves and each other in the tensions and discomfort of losing what was familiar and being forced to embrace the unfamiliar. I wonder, as both cats somehow manage to occupy my lap while I tap my computer keyboard, what ways I am accomodating to my unfamiliar surroundings which will result in coughing up the human equivalent of a hairball? Hardly worth imagining and certainly not appealing.

In such circumstances (indeed, as in most every circumstance I can imagine) hubris is not appropriate. hairballDefined as ‘excessive confidence or arrogance,’ hubris in this new environment would effectively block learning, growing, effectiveness and fruitfulness. Hubris as a means of self-comforting might bring temporary relief, but produce hairballs none would find attractive. Destiny and Angel might not care about such things, but our local and wider team certainly would be put off, not to mention those we are seeking to befriend and influence.

Newbigin Keys

Necessary Beginnings

prayOver the weekend we helped organize a gathering of leaders from churches and networks connected to the Fellowship of Churches of Christ. We were hosted by Canvas, members of CMF’s campus ministry team who did a great job with music, room arrangements and logistics, and food. While we were scheduled to meet from 11.00 – 1.00, many people arrived early, and even more stayed later, with the last of us leaving at 2.45pm. The conversations, prayer, and networking were so delightful and encouraging it was hard to leave!

I didn’t anticipate it, but the theme of Necessary Endings, Necessary Beginnings really struck a chord with the 30 leaders who had gathered. A number of Canvas workers are concluding or transitioning their current roles to the States or elsewhere with new works on other University campuses. Church leaders are experiencing change and challenges in their local ministries. Others are navigating decision-making processes which hold great promise and opportunities, as well as possible criticism and detractors.

Those acquainted with us know we have been working a process to discern next action steps in lovingly obeying Jesus. A year ago we had just concluded three months of travels to see churches and families that support our life and ministry as CMF church planters working with the Fellowship. Immediately after our return and while recovering from these travels, health concerns with a family member required Tam’s travel stateside yet again. When this had passed, we realized we needed to hear from God about our focus and future.

keep-calm-and-lets-pray-togetherWe dedicated a day to laying everything before God at a local retreat venue. We set up an easel, and recorded questions we wanted to ask God. Over a period of five hours we prayed (talking and listening), had Scripture passages come to mind, worshiped, and submitted ourselves to God’s purposes for us and service in his Kingdom. We then shared what we discerned to trusted teammates, colleagues, and friends and received very helpful feedback. Among that feedback was the suggestion we should read Dr Henry Cloud’s Necessary Endings. Some thoughts about that book can be found in an earlier posting.

While Dr. Cloud doesn’t write so much about ‘necessary beginnings’ it struck me as I was preparing for the leaders gathering that strategic beginnings are as crucial as intentional endings. I recalled a single powerful moment in 2001 with God when it dawned on me, over five years before ending our role in planting Dickens Heath Village Church and a year before launching public worship services, that I was not ready for whatever God had in mind for my leadership and passions afterwards! With that spiritual lump in my throat, I agreed with God that I would make some ‘necessary beginnings.’ It led to my work at Fuller Seminary commencing in 2003 and finishing in 2011 with a DMin degree. I am still feeding off the resources of courses with Terry Walling, Dallas Willard, Bobby Clinton, Archibald Hart, and an independent study experience with Tom Jones (Stadia). Significant friendships and current opportunities in church planting and disciple-making that we are making decisions about today can be traced back to necessary and intentional beginnings which seemed small at the time.

Transitions that come with necessary endings and necessary beginnings are always a new adventure to navigate! The old, familiar, and comfortable have to make way for the new, unfamiliar, and uncomfortable necessary beginnings. Of course, the transitions that come between seasons can be quite messy, chaotic, and topsy-turvy. Failure to strategically conclude certain activities and commitments only increases that messiness. Failure to strategically initiate different activities and commitments likewise increase the messiness.

How about you? What first, small step(s) can you make now to leverage the necessary beginning you need to make toward greater focus, fruitfulness, and effectiveness?


Necessary Endings

Necessary EndingsVarious friends, seeing that we are in a time of transition, have been encouraging us to read Necessary Endings by Henry Cloud. Having read Cloud and Townsend’s Boundaries a few years ago, I anticipated a helpful and insightful read. And while I am still navigating the latter half of the book, I have not been disappointed, finding many personal applications. Not only that, but as I’ve been reading I have also been thinking of other people I love who would find Cloud’s wisdom encouraging and inspirational, and possibly life changing.

Amongst the principles (and practices) I am processing for personal benefit are these (framed as questions): What are you pruning toward? Is there a ‘season’ coming to a close that allows for a new season to begin? Who is helping you discern the pruning and traverse the current season of change?

IBoundaries think my age may help me be more aware of the concept of ‘seasons’ (as well as growing up in Minnesota where the seasons were very distinct from one another!). Growing older may have the attendant danger of growing less humble and more narrow in outlook, but I have been inspired by those men and women who have aged gracefully, becoming more who they already are, and remaining life-long learners. Asking questions like these and having helpful models encourages me to pay attention to my ongoing personal transformation into the kind of person who is wise, godly, focused, effective, and fruitful.

How about you?


Recently we suggested to some friends that they pray 23 minutes using Psalm 23 as a guide. Admittedly, a little gimmicky, but we called it “Prayer:23.” Popular at funerals, the psalm is not just for such occasions when grief assaults. Its sentiments speak to deep relational ties with God who like a shepherd protects and provides, rescues and releases, and guides and gives his sheep what they need. But the psalm can also be used as a guide to pray for others, and so with another set of friends we used Psalm 23 as a resource to pray for our community and people we met in the community while prayer-walking.Psalm 23 shadow

Prayer-walking may be something new to you. Essentially, it is a spiritual practice of praying while walking (eyes open!!) and asking for individuals, couples, families, and the community to know and experience what God has to offer. For instance, using Psalm 23, praying that the family we see playing in the park know the shepherding love of God, the couple having a cup of coffee to receive help and courage in difficult circumstances, or the lonely woman walking her dog to experience the hope and promise of dwelling in community with others who love God and care for people.

What does this look like in practice?IMG_4912 Well, it could be as simple as going in pairs down the high street and having a prayer conversation together with God about the well-being of the community. Or like what happened with me the other day while praying with some friends in Shirley.

With these friends we prayer-walked in five different locations over eleven days. On one of the days, on the Shirley high street, when the team was using Psalm 23 as a prayer guide, I purchased a card and wrote an anonymous message (from the Shepherd!) telling the recipient they were important to God, and that whatever difficult circumstances he/she was facing, they could be assured that the Shepherd was looking out after them. A few minutes later, I purchased two bunches of carnations, and then started looking for the person who should receive them.

Edie, with whom I was praying suggested we enter into one of the charity shops. There, I struck up a conversation the manager. I asked her if she met people during the day who needed encouragement and cheering up. She said yes, so I gave her one of the bunches of flowers, and told her they were for someone who needed them that day. I then gave her the other bunch of flowers and the card and said this was for her, and believed that it would be something she would want to read/hear.

Now, while there is much more one could say about this, the point of using Psalm 23 in prayer-walking is seeking the welfare and benefit of others. Other passages of the Bible can be used in this manner too, but instead of being cloistered in one’s home alone, the practical act of praying with a prayer partner in the hustle and bustle of human activity seeks God’s divine activity in the community. Such things bring the smile of the Shepherd to us and those around us.


Face Recognition

I’ve just been listening to a fascinating podcast put out by Radiolab titled ‘Strangers in the Mirror.’ In this podcast, two men are interviewed who have a condition known as ‘Face Blindness’; neither Oliver or Chuck can recall any person with whom they have been conversing. In fact, they forget and cannot recognize their own faces! One of them tells the story of having a conversation with another person only to realize the synchronous movements meant he was talking to himself in a mirror. Another story told is of the man preening his own beard only to realize the non-synchronous movements revealed he was preening another man’s beard!

I am on the other end of the scale. I tend to remember people’s faces for years, and have often been in a situation where I meet someone months or years later and have this recollection of meeting, and within a few minutes have sussed where we met and the circumstances of that meeting. What is more troublesome, for me, is that I am so visual in a first meeting with someone that I lock away an image of their face but have no clue of their name when we conclude the conversation!

There iIMG_3482s a famous blessing in the book of Numbers in the Old Testament of the Bible that goes like this: The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace. There is another in the second letter to the Corinthian church: For now we see only a reflection in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

Language of ‘the face’ and recognizing facial expressions are so much part of the human experience! And it’s also a way of speaking to one’s interaction with God. I remember moments when my sister, who is deaf, would turn away from my dad so she couldn’t see his face to read his lips or demeanor. It’s the same when someone puts up their hand and says ‘talk to the hand ‘cause the face doesn’t wanna know.’ There is something profound and intimate in a ‘face to face’ interaction, and I’m not speaking of lip-locking action! I’m speaking of the mutual gaze into another’s heart and the communion of communication that goes beyond words.

I hope you will bless someone with that kind of care and love today. It is as divine as God blessing you or me with his posture, his face toward you giving you deep serenity and the confidence to face whatever circumstances come your way today.