Sunday, 10 December 2017

Bringing Hope to Lincoln Christmas Market #LCM2017 #LincolnChristmasMarket

Arriving by train at TCM Baptist church, Lincoln, on Thursday evening, one of the first things I saw on the wall was the verse: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.” Psalm 127 vs 1. It was a good way to start the mission and an important reminder for all of us.

I recognised a number of the faces of those who had gathered for the open-air mission. Braving the freezing temperatures and icy wind, we set out on Friday for the town centre. A few diverted to the market itself primarily seeking to engage the traders, and to give away Bible text calendars and tracts.

It quickly became evident that two pairs of socks and thick tights weren’t going to be enough to stop my toes falling off. Obviously an exaggeration, but it was only possible to stand in the cold for around an hour before the numbness set in. Once that happened, walking back to the church felt like I was being supported by the bones in my feet rather than my actual feet, surprisingly uncomfortable. Still, the cheeriness of the team, and urgency of the task, despite the conditions, helped us persevere!

On the Friday, I first approached J, an elderly lady. She declined my offer of an Ultimate Questions booklet initially, but when I suggested that it might be important, she stopped and put her bag down. She looked at me pleadingly and said, “Can I read it at home?” Of course I said yes, so she took the book, dropped it in her bag and went on her way. Afterwards, I realised that the poor lady had probably thought that I was expecting her to stand in the street and read it in front of me…

A similar thing happened on day two with another elderly lady and a tract. It made me start to wonder what I could do to make myself look less intimidating to elderly folk. I was by this point wearing a woolly hat with ear flaps, a hoody with hood up, and a big jacket, also with a hood. There wasn’t much face left. The rest of the team looked similarly ridiculous, though, and as I had long since abandoned any attempts to make myself presentable, I decided not to worry about it.

Another somewhat louder Christian group were out with microphones in the same area. Their printed banner read, “Definition of a Hate Crime: Letting people go to Hell without first warning them.” Having been confronted with the Christian message wherever they tried to turn, we heard a number of people commenting, “these people are everywhere!”

My second opportunity for personal witness was with K, a seventeen year old girl with blue hair. She had been listening to one of the preachers trying to engage passers by with a Christmas crossword. I asked her what she thought of what was being said and she replied that she hadn’t known any of the answers. After reassuring her that it didn’t matter, I was able to share the Gospel and give her some literature to take away. Later in the day, I spoke to T and L, two youngish girls who weren’t sure yet what they believed. They were happy to take literature and promised to think about what had been said.

One of the preachers, from Liverpool, was getting an interesting response from members of our team as he suddenly directed his, at times confusing, questions to each of us in turn. Things like, “How do you know what you know?” and “What is the difference between a fact and an opinion?” His questions kept us on our toes as we searched for the answers that he was looking for in order to allow him to continue his talk. Passers-by looked stunned when he addressed them directly. It was difficult not to laugh. His approach, whilst unusual, was generally effective and resulted in some profitable conversations.

M had been standing against a lamp-post near to the open-air board listening to a number of the messages whilst also fiddling with her phone. One preacher tried to give her a John’s Gospel but she declined. Her body language suggested that a “softly softly” approach would be needed in order to connect. I wasn’t sure if I was really cut out for this judging by the reactions I had already had from the older ladies. However, as I was the only female there at this point, I knew it was up to me.

I approached her carefully after one of the talks finished and asked her what she thought. She said that she was happy just to listen. The sub-text being “please leave me alone.” I felt, though, that it was more of an automatic defence mechanism so I tried again. I asked her whether she had heard the message before. She replied, and from there we got into a long conversation. Her first question was along the lines of, “Why does God want worship for Himself, isn’t that vain?” I’ve heard this question and versions of it before. I answered by explaining Who God is according to the Bible, and that it’s wrong views about Him that result in this type of thinking. That we tend to think of God as just a bigger version of ourselves which is clearly wrong.

I was encouraged by M’s genuine questions and when she said that she would now like a Gospel of John to read part of the Bible for herself. She also took Ultimate Questions and then looked me in the eye as she sincerely thanked me for coming to talk to her, shook my hand and went on her way. I was reminded again of the sovereignty of God in this work, as he connects the different people with members of the team.

Friday evening was a struggle as unbelievably it got even colder and many people were drunk. An abusive heckler almost managed to dominate one of the talks but he was eventually encouraged to move aside for private conversation and ended up apologising for his earlier behaviour. I spoke briefly with B, a young lad who looked like he had taken drugs although he assured me he hadn’t. He took a tract and then wandered off. One of the team had a good chat with J, a man who had been leaning against a lamp-post and listened to several talks.

M had also been standing next to a lamp-post when she was listening. It was almost as if the post gave them some sense of security or meant that they were not completely exposed and having to stand in the open where everyone could see them. Perhaps, we should carry posts and place them at strategic locations around the open-air boards!

I felt guilty for being relieved when it was time to pack up at just before nine. I was reassured by others that they felt the same as the cold was becoming unbearable. I was astonished to see scantily clad females and some men in shorts or with holes in their clothes. Sadly, I think the alcohol accounts for a lot of the cold tolerance by speeding up the heart.

On Saturday we set out again. Walking past the train station, I observed two homeless men, seemingly high on drugs, sitting on a wall at the edge of the crowds. I hoped rather than believed they hadn’t been there all night as they had sleeping bags.

Arriving in the town centre, It was obviously busier than it had been on the Friday. We had been beaten to our spot by an animal charity sporting various breeds of dog all obediently sitting on mats, and available for people to pamper as they walked by. Some of them were wearing little woolly jumpers. I watched, with a mixture of fascination and sadness, the numbers stopping and fussing over the dogs which contrasted sharply with the attempts to avoid our presentation, and the wide berth people had been giving the two homeless men. It seems that animal life has become more sacred than human.

I saw a Chinese lady across the street from us offering palm readings and decided to go and talk to her thinking that she would at least be polite due to her cultural background. She was, until she realised what I was talking to her about. She became very angry telling me in her limited English that the Bible is a load of made-up stories, she doesn’t believe any of it and eventually asking me to stop talking to her. I complied.

An Italian coffee shop probably got a little more than they bargained for as one by one they sent their staff out onto the street with an advertising board. The young girls, S, R and D, were right next to our presentations and I was able to share the Gospel with all three of them individually as they spent their fifteen minutes in the freezing cold. I gave each of them different literature and told them I had previously spoken to others of their number. They were all very receptive and said that they would probably be arguing with each other about the things we had discussed later on.

We finished the afternoon with some carol singing as our teeth chattered and the shivering set in. Not as many people joined us as I was hoping, but the lyrics were heard by all who passed. Carol singing seems to offend less than the preaching, probably because it falls within the “acceptable things to enhance the Christmas spirit”, or something equally nonsensical. I suppose we should be grateful that the words of the carols haven’t yet been changed to exclude Jesus altogether.

I haven’t been involved in witness at Lincoln before, but I was more aware of the hardness of people's hearts during this mission than on others. The expressions on some faces as they realised our message was religious. The shaking heads and the irritation that we had dared to try and bring them a message of hope but had, in so doing, interrupted their shopping experience. I was surprised as I had thought that people might be more receptive at Christmas and wanting to think about what they are actually celebrating. I have to remind myself that people are spiritually blind and therefore cannot see….and, perhaps on a deeper level, that I was like that before.

Fish and chips for dinner was a good way to round off the short mission and then handshakes, or in some cases enthusiastic hugs, all round. I was expecting to be back in Banbury just after 9pm but was warned that there were already long queues at the train station. That was a definite understatement as hundreds of us stood outside waiting to actually get into the station. Arriving at Derby, so far so good, I found that my train to Banbury had been cancelled several weeks ago due to the strikes. The station staff were unsympathetic as I “should’ve checked before travelling,” but a police lady was helpful.

I eventually caught a later train to Birmingham. I had just settled down with my laptop on the cold floor amongst the crowds of people when the waiting room suddenly emptied as a train arrived and I was left sitting opposite a drunk man who, of course, began talking to me. Torn between wanting not to be bothered as there wasn’t much I could do for him, and wanting to make the most of every opportunity, I waited until a few more people came into the room then closed my laptop, and went to talk to the man. T was very drunk and smelled pretty bad. He said he needed to get to hospital as he had a gangrenous foot, I didn’t want to check whether he was telling the truth. I couldn’t leave the station but suggested I could get a policeman to accompany him to the bus station if I gave the officer the money for his fare. He didn’t want to know. 

I tried to share the Gospel with him but he kept getting annoyed and telling me not to speak to him anymore. I complied but then he kept speaking to me, as drunk people do. He eventually showed me some food someone had given him so I matched it with some leftovers I had in my bag. He commented that he could see I was a good person, I kept my mouth shut rather than correcting him as it seemed pointless. The gift seemed to open the way for me to give him a Gospel of John and a tract which he took gratefully. As I left for my train he pulled me down for a hug and then kissed my cheek. I had to maintain my smile as, by this point, the waiting room had filled up again and there were loads of people staring at us!

Leaving the room, I had to run for the last train back to Banbury as I suddenly realised I was on the wrong platform. The train was jammed and I ended up squashed into a carriage with a load of very drunk people swearing, shouting and singing as they continued to drink. My only goal by this point was to avoid eye contact with any of them so they didn’t speak to me. I got back to Banbury at 1127pm wondering if my electricity would have run out as I only had a little when I left for Lincoln. It was okay. Phew!

Reflecting, I realised that the busy shoppers at the Christmas market, the kind-hearted people working for the animal charity, the Chinese lady reading palms, the drunken man at the railway station and the raucous bunch on the train are basically the same. They are all lost without Jesus this Christmas or any other Christmas. My prayer is that they realise this before it’s too late for them.

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