15 December 2017

Don’t Take Care?

Canon Andrew White was the key note speaker at the final rally of Bangor Worldwide Missionary convention in August. The church was packed to capacity and the congregation sat enraptured as Andrew spoke candidly of his background, his calling and his notoriety as ‘The Vicar of Baghdad’. To really appreciate what he had to say, required you to be there, because he is so captivating, inspiring, spontaneous and unpredictable. One cannot convey the cadence or timbre of his voice, or his gestures and expressions which are so much a part of how he communicates. One minute you are laughing at his self deprecating manner and the next you weep for the needs of the people. Thankfully you can enjoy the presentation in full, if you have internet access, by following this link : https://vimeo.com/48681457

raWhen Andrew was a boy of ten his teacher asked his class what they wanted to be when they grew up. “I want to do anesthetics and be a priest,” was his reply, to which his teacher said, “You can only do one thing, and you can’t be a priest anyway because you’re strict Baptist crossed Pentecostal – and they don’t have priests!” What neither of them knew was God’s plan was for Andrew to become an Anglican! While Andrew is humble, modest and self effacing, the fact that he is very able academically can not be hidden, therefore it is no surprise that he did end up working as an ODP (operating department practitioner) at St Thomas’s hospital in London. One day while working there, he was outside in the garden praying, thanking God for his perfect job when, to use his words, he prayed something really dangerous: “What next Lord?” The reply was really clear, “I want you to go into the church of England,” to which Andrew’s response was, “…but they’re not even saved!” God always gets His way in Andrew’s life so off he went to Cambridge to the ‘vicar factory’, where you go in an ordinary person and come out a minister!

Andrew’s rise to his current position with Coventry Cathedral, where he is the President of the Foundation for Relief and reconciliation in the Middle East was very rapid, and today Andrew is best known in his role as Anglican Chaplain to Iraq. This is the country about which he is passionate, both in terms of its biblical history but also for the plight of its people and how to show them the love of God in a practical way. A large portion of the evening was given over to biblical references to Iraq as Andrew educated the audience, in a highly entertaining and informative manner, about how Iraq can be found throughout scripture, from the second chapter of Genesis to Revelation chapter eighteen. The Bible has a lot to say about Iraq, though it does not call it that. For example the Garden of Eden was in Iraq. Many of you will know that Abraham started out in Iraq, but did you know that Job was also from Iraq. Daniel is the biblical character from Iraq who Andrew respected most. “Daniel was where God wanted him to be, which is one of the most important things for any of us – to be where God wants us to be. In chapter 2 Daniel prays that God will reveal to him the King’s dream. We need need to ask God to give us what we need. I ask God all the time to give me what I need for my work in Iraq – and I need a lot. Asking God gives Him the opportunity to show you His love by answering your prayers. We need a budget of $177,000 a month. I never know where that money is coming from, but every month God sends the money. So when you are in the place where God wants you to be, ask! That’s what Daniel did. How did he live a fulfilled life in Babylon? He asked of God, and God replied! Wherever God has you now is where He wants to use you mightily.” Interestingly Andrew pointed out that when Cyrus sent the people back to Israel, Daniel stayed. The point he wanted to make was that being where God wants you to be, is how you will have the abundant life that Daniel had. “Expect great things, ask great things and God will do great things.”

Currently there are 4500 members of the Anglican church in Baghdad which amazed a lot of the congregation, however what was even more amazing was the fact that they all come from the same town in Iraq, Nineveh. You have to hear Andrew tell this story of how, as he put it, “God sent to us a really miserable evangelist, via a submarine. He specialises in sending miserable people to Iraq. 700 years after Jonah, God sent another miserable guy called Thomas who stopped off at Nineveh on his way to India and when he told them about Jesus, they all believed. To this day Nineveh is still Christian. Everybody should know that Nineveh is alive with the Spirit of God. This is amazingly good news that 2700 years after Jonah, Nineveh still believes in the true God. That should give us hope, if God can do that, He can do anything!”

The week Andrew arrived in Coventry he realised he was ill. His wife was also pregnant at the time, and five weeks after being admitted to hospital they gave him a diagnosis. In the morning he learned he had multiple sclerosis and that evening his wife had their second child. Some would think this a disaster but Andrew’s view is that God was showing him exactly what his life was going to be like, joy and tragedy, both together! As time has progressed, so has his condition yet he has not allowed it to keep him from serving the Lord in the place where he has been called. Far from it in fact. With his medical background one of the first things he did in Baghdad when God told him not only to preach but to meet the needs of the people was to open a hospital in the church hall. This has grown and developed over the years to the point were today he has a number of doctors, dentists and pharmacists all working at the church. A doctor from the university hospital took a special interest in Andrew’s condition and with his permission carried out ground breaking stem cell therapy on him by harvesting stem cells from his own blood. As a consequence Baghdad is now the leading centre in this therapy and people from the USA and UK are going there for treatment, whereas in the past the locals all wanted to travel to hospitals abroad.

Andrew has been working in Iraq since 1995 with a break in 2003 because of the war. When they reopened the church the only sign of life were the pigeons and half of them were dead! The first week 100 people came, next week 200 then 300 and then 400 and Andrew thought that this was rather good church growth, considering he was unable to go out on the streets to invite people in. The first Alpha course they ran had over 600 people signing up on the first week, well over 1000 on the second week, so by the third week they quit with signing up and just got on with it. They had 2700 people attending. Running a course for that many, Andrew describes as being interesting!

Life in Baghdad is far from normal. Andrew shared the sorrows and the joys of the situation. “We are surrounded by devastation. We have bombs and rockets all around us, all the time. We have constant threats and the church is surrounded by razor wire. I have about 35 security guards from the police and army, provided by the Iraq government. In the last 3 years, I have had 279 members of my congregation killed. Yet our church is the happiest church I have ever had, because we have lost everything, and when you have lost everything, Jesus is all you have left. He is everything. He who became nothing has become our everything.” In the midst of such adversity he says his is the best church in the whole world and while many laughed I know exactly what he meant.

Andrew feels really called of God to meet the needs of the people and in response to this call the first thing the church did was feed the people. After Sunday morning worship everybody gets a bag of groceries for the coming week. Another of the many practical ministries the church is involved with is running the Mother Teresa home in Baghdad. Most of the children have no arms and no legs and have really suffered. Many have been affected by the depleted uranium which was dropped in 1990/91 but as Andrew visits the children he says it is wonderful, because they say they need nothing because they have everything, because they have the Lord.

Despite living in a war zone Andrew says, “We do not fear for the spirit of the Lord is with us, we never fear because perfect love casts out all fear. I have received that perfect love from the children.” This comes across in his book “Suffer the Children”, which is not just Andrew’s story but has the children telling their stories of how Jesus has changed their lives, how He is central to their lives, and how they do not fear because Jesus is there with them. While everything in Baghdad may be desperate and things are so terrible, yet as God’s people they are so happy. Andrew’s testimony is that God makes sure that everything works for Him and for His glory. He exhorts people not to be miserable, because God isn’t like that. He describes God as the type of person who can send you to Babylon if you’re not good but He is also the type of person who will do miracles for you, all the time if you need them, as Andrew confesses he does.

I know everyone went away inspired with something memorable to treasure from what Andrew shared of his ministry. His injunction not to ‘take care’ but to ‘take risks’ spoke powerfully to me. He is a living example of what this means, being Jesus to the people of Iraq. It was his favourite scripture, Job 42:5, that I will treasure most, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” What a transformation this could bring to so many of us, if we could, with the eye of faith, see Jesus rather than just hearing about him. May this be our prayer in the days ahead as we remember Andrew and our brothers and sisters in Iraq before the throne of God.