With the mission team’s day off, I was leaning back against trunk of a massive elm tree. The shade of its vast canopy was slowly creeping across lawns that extended between the car park and the beach, as families relaxed on picnic blankets or indulged in energetic bursts that wryly exposed parents’ newly-discovered lack of stamina.
Against an industrial backdrop of ships discharging or reloading their cargo at the wharves, I could see people swimming out in deeper water, and kids splashing around in the shallows or building sandcastles. I could others squealing with delight as they stretched in to touch hands from opposite ends of the tunnels they had clawed out of the sand.
Seagulls added their brief squawks to the relaxed holiday sounds as life went on unaided by me or the rest of the team. We were half-way through our twelve-day beach mission with Scripture Union, and the balmy mood invited some reflection on how God enjoys starting from small beginnings.
Scripture Union missions had an inauspicious start in 1868, when Josiah Spiers was holidaying in Llandudno in North Wales. While strolling along the beach, he paused, stretched out his cane and drew the text ‘God is Love’ in the sand. He invited some nearby children to decorate it, and when they had finished he told them a bible story. A beach mission was born - to develop a momentum that has since spanned the globe.
I thought back to our own arrival at the park; greeted with great anticipation from the kids and great relief from their parents - for “I’m booooored!”, moans had started producing their own tedium. We were eager to start sharing and living out the gospel through our planned stories, craft activities, serials, songs, games and plays that all throw fresh light on God’s grace.
Experienced team members were also anticipating those moments when God would invade some unexpected interruption with yet another un-plannable, spontaneous solution to an unforeseen interruption.
Happily, our team day off coincided with a circus visit, reassuring us of God’s providence, for the kids’ loyalties would not be divided. Still, one boy’s response had blown me away. “Oh no,” he said, “we don’t like circuses!” I learned later that his dad was pastor of St Anaesthesia’s, a church whose members were trained to be so narrow-minded that they could look through a keyhole with both eyes – at the same time!
Here in the park we had seen whole families warming to the gospel, and a day off gave us time to recharge and to reflect. Tomorrow would see us building on a positive foundation...
My reverie suddenly shattered, I opened my eyes to see a large dark shape leaning in from my left. An original Neanderthal Man, and a little too close for comfort. I turned towards him.
Neanderthal’s curiosity leaned him even closer, thus enriching my oxygen intake with alcohol fumes. “You’re one o’ them Scripture Union fellas arncha?”
It’s hard to resist such persuasive interrogation, so I nodded. His features screwed up into something that resembled a grin: “Yeah. Me an’ me bruvver useta go to that. And we sing all them old songs whenever we get drunk!”
“Fantastic!” I couldn’t help but smile, “because God loves you as much now as he ever did.”
“Yeah, I s’pose he does,” Neanderthal murmured and shuffled away. Then, half-turning, he called back over his shoulder: “But thanks for comin’ again for the kids. Ya doin’ a great job.”
That brief encounter in the park sits higher in my memory than many of our programs, as it invites me to try visualizing the fun God has in fulfilling his promise from Isaiah 55:11 - that his word should not return void, but accomplish the task he set for it – because “all them old songs” that Neanderthal and his “bruvver” remembered were straight scripture quotes!
God’s word has been sown invisibly, like the kids linking hands through their tunnels, and I pray that a sober Neanderthal mind and heart will one day connect with God’s grace and step into new life.
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