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On April 13th 1919 protesters had gathered in the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, India.  Several thousand people in all packed the public gardens.  The British Army officer in charge of the city, Colonel Reginald Dyer, assembled a unit of 90 Gurka soldiers under British command and proceeded to the gardens.  He ensured that the exits were blocked and ordered his troops, armed with Lee-Enfield rifles, to open fire.  They continued to fire for ten minutes until their ammunition was expended.

The official death toll, according to the British, was 379 dead and over a thousand wounded.  The report issued by the Indian National Congress claimed that more than a thousand had been killed.  The alleyways leading to the garden were too narrow for Dyer’s armoured cars and so he had to leave them behind.  At the inquiry he testified that he would have used them, and their machine guns, if he had been able to.

I visited Amritsar on my way from India to Pakistan in 2009, ninety years after the atrocity.  I vividly recall visiting the Jallianwala Bagh and walking around the memorial site which felt very much like sacred ground for the Indian independence movement.  Bullet holes in the walls were still visible.  The well, down which many people threw themselves to avoid the bullets, is still visible.  120 bodies were later removed from its depths.

Yet the impression which is seared most powerfully onto my memory is the reception I received from Indians visiting the site.  I wanted to hide away, to go incognito, to avoid being connected with the massacre.  I am British, after all, and although even my grandparents were not born in 1919 I nevertheless feel a sense of regret and grief at what happened.  While not personally responsible for it I am nevertheless connected, by dint of my passport if nothing else.  I tried to avoid people, to avoid getting into conversations, and yet Indian people are so welcoming that this was impossible.

A group of Indian students came over to say hello.  I explained what I was doing and told them about my impressions of India and of Amritsar.  Eventually I couldn’t hold it in any more, and I blurted out:

“I’m so sorry for what happened here”.

The students smiled.  Oh please, do not worry.  It was a long time ago.  These things are in the past.  You should not worry about it.  You are welcome.  You are most welcome.

“You are most welcome in India”.

We shook hands and departed, and as I walked back to my hotel in the searing May heat my footsteps were oddly light.

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The mega-church was huge.  A semi-circle of comfortable seats faced a large stage backed with three large TV screens.  Cameras were positioned in the centre and on either side, relaying live images to the screens.  The worship was led by a Malaysian man with several backing singers, both male and female.  There were well over a thousand people in attendance, almost entirely young Malaysians.

I have an instinctive dislike for mega-churches.  The kind of slick, prosperous message which they often pump out often seems to be at odds with the humility and simplicity of Christ: rather too much money lavished on TV screens and sound systems; perhaps it would be better spent on serving the poor.  Yet this one didn’t seem especially prosperous, just large and energetic.

The preaching was good, Biblical, and honest.  The worship was passionate.  As a first-time visitor I was encouraged to stand and was warmly applauded by everyone.  Outside, in the lobby, there is a bookshop and a free café serving iced coffee to anyone who wants it.

Yet here is the thing that struck me the most: the overwhelming evidence demonstrating that God is doing something remarkable in the world.  The English-language congregation has an average of 1,500 attending every week.  They also have a congregation for Bahasa Malay speakers.  There is also one for Tamil-speaking Indians and Sri Lankans, another for Nepalis, and one for people from Myanmar.  The Myanmar congregation meets at midnight.  Most are restaurant workers, busy until the restaurants close at 11pm, at which point they head to church.  Hundreds of them, every week.

After the service I met some of those attending: Malay Chinese, mostly first generation believers who have come to Christ in the last few years.  I met an Iraqi Kurd, two Iranian couples, a family from southern India, an Indonesian student, a lady from Bangladesh, a group of Chinese students.  People from all nations, tribes and tongues, coming together to worship God.  The vision from Revelation is coming true in front of our eyes.

In all our talk about refugees and immigrants we focus on security, on national identity, and on the economics of immigration.  We are missing the point.  God is moving people around the world for his own purposes.  Let us, as a church, not miss the opportunity to see Biblical prophecy fulfilled before our eyes.

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Technique B: Sincerity

The taxi pulled up outside our front door and the children and I piled in.  We were going to school by cab as our own car was having one of its regular trips to the mechanic.  The driver was a young man, perhaps in his mid-twenties, with gentle eyes and a luxuriant beard.  He watched as the children misted the windows with their breath and drew pictures in it.

“Praise God, your children are wonderful” he said kindly.  He enquired where we were from and expressed surprise at our Urdu.

“I can’t believe you would come to live in Pakistan” he said in amazement.  I told him that I loved Pakistan and felt very privileged to live there, which made him smile with gratitude.

We spoke about faith.  Most conversations in Pakistan head in this direction sooner or later.  I told him that I followed Jesus and he nodded with pleasure and admiration.  He loved Jesus too, he said.

He said that he drove the taxi only in the mornings, since he had a full-time job which started later in the day, but since he always went to the mosque for the first prayer of the day he had several hours to fill and would rather spend it working than sleeping.  He was humble but devout.  I liked him very much.

He wanted me to know more about Islam.  It was not everything the media portrayed it to be, a point which I certainly agreed with.  I should take the opportunity of being in Pakistan to learn more about it.

He was happy to listen to me in return and seemed to appreciate discussion.  Having dropped the kids at school we arrived back home and I found myself wishing that I had more time to spend chatting to him.  We exchanged contact details and shook hands kindly.

As a Christian living in Pakistan I am regularly invited to convert to Islam.  I have no problem with this in the slightest.  Why should Muslims who feel strongly about their faith not invite me to be part of it?  Surely this is part of religious freedom.  And when the invitation is presented in such humble and sincere terms, by people who clearly take their faith seriously, it is much more appealing than when the topic is presented aggressively and arrogantly.

I imagine Muslims feel the same way about Christians…

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Technique A: Aggression

He recognised me straight away.  As I walked into the photocopy shop he instantly saw that I was a foreigner and beckoned me over.  Ignoring my enquiry about whether I could get some documents copied, he sent for chai.

“Ah, British!” he said, smiling to himself.  “The British really messed up Pakistan, didn’t they?”.

I didn’t know what to say.  It was partly true at least.  It was also very un-Pakistani to begin with such hostility.  His smile was thin and insincere.

“Are you a Christian?  I see.  Well, you ought to convert”.

I smiled and considered my response.  Everyone in the shop was looking at us, eager to see where this would go.  As I opened my mouth to give an answer he jumped straight in again.

“If you converted, you would be so successful in life.  So wealthy, so happy, everything going right for you.  Why don’t you think about it?  All you have to do is recite the creed”.

This was odd, like an Islamic version of the Christian Prosperity Gospel.  I opened my mouth to respond once more, but to no avail.

“Hold out your hand” he barked in command.  Dumbly, I did so.  He smiled again.

“Just as I thought” he said.  “Your palm says that you are a good man.  But you could be so much better if you turned to Islam.  Why continue wasting your life?”.

I wanted to say something back, to engage in dialogue, but he clearly had no intention of letting me speak.  He outlined in rapid-fire Urdu the benefits of conversion and the dangers of hellfire.  It was not a conversation; it was a monologue, a verbal assault.  Finally, with an abrupt gesture he cut it short and bid me farewell.

“Think about it, won’t you?” he said, his eyes glinting.

The whole experience felt hostile.  Oddly, I felt as though I were a schoolchild again and had been told off by the Principal, subjected to a verbal grilling about my failings in life and how I might improve.  The man was not interested in dialogue, only in knocking down my beliefs.  Frankly I failed to see how this approach could conceivably lead anyone to a greater interest in Islam; it only succeeded in making me feel small and foolish.

I then wondered how many Christians use this approach with non-Christians.  It is so much easier to make speeches, to engage in monologue rather than dialogue!  No tricky responses, no difficult questions to answer, just empty air to fill with arguments.  It is easy.  It is also pointless.

 

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Near our house is the visa office for most Western countries.  Anyone living in Pakistan who needs a visa for the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands, Australia or a range of other destinations makes a pilgrimage here, armed with application forms, documents, flight bookings, and a face of grim determination.  Every morning I see them queueing up, hopeful and perhaps just a touch desperate.  They are eager to leave.  Many people are.

One of the many contradictions of which the nation of Pakistan is constructed is that people here feel both a fierce sense of national pride and a strong tendency towards self-criticism.  Many Pakistanis love Pakistan deeply and proudly, and yet criticise it without hesitation.  Many would leave, given the chance.  Many have already left, setting up colonies in Toronto and New York, London and Birmingham and Melbourne.  Even the fundamentalists who scream hatred of the USA would give their right arm for a chance to live there.

We have done the opposite, moving from the West to live in Pakistan, and everyone thinks we’re insane.  At first I did too, wondering exactly why it was that we had chosen to swap reliable electricity and sensible governance for the myriad eccentricities (if I’m being kind) and baffling illogicalities (if I’m not) of the Land of the Pure.  The electricity comes and goes.  Corruption is rampant.  The police can’t be trusted.  It’s hot and dusty half the year, cold and dusty the other half, and everyone stares at me whenever I walk outside.

Yet it would break my heart to leave.  Why?  What would I miss?  The straightforward kindness of the people, for one thing, who have every reason to resent a British man and yet never seem to do so.  The kindness and generosity of Muslim people.  The smell of rain on dusty ground.  The epic monsoon thunderstorms which split the sky asunder with a terrifying roar.  The mountains of the north.  The chance, the wonderful chance, to do something positive in a place of need, to praise Pakistan, to honour its people, to promote education, to bring peace between Muslim and Christian in a time of great fear and mistrust.  The opportunity to see God move in the lives of others, to see him mould and change and refine us, to experience his love precisely when we most need it.

I do not want to leave, not yet.  There is so much good here, so much beauty, and we are almost uniquely privileged to witness it when so few Westerners ever come here.  I love Pakistan very much.  I rather suspect I always will.

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When I was a child the season of Advent seemed magical to me.  A time of anticipation, largely of the food and presents that would come my way when the Advent candle finally burned down to 25.  A time of joyous expectation.  It tied in with the decorations in the town centre, with the Christmas music on the radio, with all of the trappings of Christmas in a Western country.

The older I became, the more the glitter and magic of Advent wore off.  As I thought about the birth of Jesus it struck me that this was a rescue mission, a final and stunning act of lavish and proactive generosity on the part of a God who could not bear to be separated from his people.  My rejoicing was replaced with wonder as I realised just how much humanity needed God, just how much God longed to be reunited with humanity, just how extreme and astonishing the rescue mission was.

And now in Pakistan Advent seems more miraculous, more bizarre, more incredible than ever.  Most people here simply cannot believe that God would stoop to enter the world as a human: it would be beneath him, unworthy of his majesty.  I can understand the objection.  The incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ is a phenomenon not seen in any other religion, at any other time, anywhere else in the world.  How could a divinity lower himself to such a level?  It is unthinkable that God would require food, would stub his toe, would cry.  I understand the objection, though I do not agree with it.  The aspect of God’s nature which makes the incarnation possible is the unthinkable depth and breadth of his love.  He would do anything, anything, to be with his children.  What father would do less?

Apart from Pakistani Christians, nobody here marks Christmas.  Save for the gaudily-decorated lobbies of the expensive Western hotels there are no decorations, no Christmas songs, no Christmas adverts on TV.  We celebrate it quietly.  I enjoy this very much.  It is in keeping with the season of Advent: a secret rescue mission, a tiny baby delivered in a humble room in an irrelevant backwater of the Roman Empire, welcomed by lowly shepherds.  The baby who would go on to turn the world upside down after three decades in isolation.  Jesus, the ultimate sleeper cell.  Not many here know of him, but he is there, and his love is as broad and deep as it ever was.

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He died suddenly, over dinner.  Chest pains had been bothering him for a few hours but he disregarded them, saying that it was merely indigestion and that people should stop worrying.  He went out for dinner with friends and family at a restaurant and it was there that he died, collapsing suddenly as his heart stopped, his life vanishing as suddenly as the morning mist.

He was a Christian and had worked at the site manager for a church for several decades, earning a reputation for trustworthiness and kindness.  It was to that church that his body was brought.  A coffin was prepared, a thing of thin wood and black fabric, decorated with a single strip of silver fabric, and into the coffin his body was placed, smartly dressed in a clean shirt and trousers as though he did not want to disappoint God by slipping into eternity in old clothes.

The relatives all came.  In Pakistan burials take place quickly, usually within 24 hours, and no relative would want to disrespect the deceased by not attending the burial.  They came from all over the Punjab.  They left jobs and family life; no employer would begrudge them the day off.  Family networks are strong here, one of the few sources of support available to Pakistanis bereft of money or connections.

The funeral was swift: a Punjabi zabur (Psalm), sung from memory, and a reading from Scripture.  A simple but powerful message was given from the pulpit, one of strength and comfort drawn from the truth of the Bible and the confidence that Christians have in the eventual resurrection from the dead.  The congregation were invited to gather around the coffin.  A woman fainted.  Others wept, wailing openly over the face of their uncle or brother or father or friend, their grief made raw by the suddenness of it all: one minute ordering food and sipping Coke, the next dead, gone, a life ended.

The coffin was placed into a van and was driven to the cemetery.  Here are buried Christians from several centuries, from British imperialists to contemporary Pakistani Christians: he would share a patch of soil with the deceased “NCOs and Men of the Somerset Light Infantry, 1917-1919” and with his own wife, buried nearby after passing away a decade ago.

The mourners filed through the cemetery as dusk settled over the city, illuminating their path with the light of their mobile phones.  The coffin was nailed shut, his face seeing the light for the very last time, and was laid into the grave.  More prayers were said, spoken loudly over the sound of sobbing.  A bottle of rosewater was poured over the coffin and handfuls of soil were tossed in.  His son wailed, sudden and stunningly loud.  The grave was filled.  Lavish handfuls of rose petals were poured on top and candles and incense sticks were studded into the soil until the fragrant smoke rendered the fresh soil all but invisible.

Christians do not grieve as those without hope.  This does not mean, though, that we do not grieve.  The pain of burying a father still cuts deep.  The sudden disappearance of a human being, the vanishing of an existence, the final full stop at the end of a life’s tale – this is an event accompanied by pain and loss.  Yet there is still hope.  There is always hope.  More than that: there is assurance.  As the mourners made their way out of the dark cemetery, as the bats swooped and flitted around the streetlights, squeaking softly, hope still lingered, delicate and eternal.