Friday 13 July
Nicola Neal and her husband served as church leaders until 2009 when they followed God's call to Uganda. Together they set "Every Life" which has grown into a team of 40 people working to bring lasting change to broken communities. Nicola spoke at the final evening celebration at #Sligo18. Read a summary of her powerful message here:
Reading from Proverbs 3: 3 - 6. I have been in ministry for around 20 years. We moved to Uganda in 2009 and we have now moved back to the UK. When we were living in Uganda, I remember a particular year when it felt like we were seeing quite an increase of violence in our city. The British embassy would send a “text” message and it was called a “stay in place” warning." It was a bit unnerving but you got used to it.
Then my nine-year-old daughter came home from school and said, “We did do terrorism drill today.” I tried to be calm and just said, “What’s that then?” She answered, "We had to practice what we would do if men armed with machine guns and hand grenades broke into our compound. We had to practice hiding in the cupboard and locking ourselves in and breathing quietly." And then she said, “Can I have a snack?”
We were at church and the guy who was leading the meeting got up and said, “I want to run through our terrorism drill with you...” I remember standing there thinking that if men burst in, barring a miracle there was nowhere for us to run to and hide. I was unnerved. I was concerned for our daughter, our teams and our country. I began to pray and I said, "Lord, can you help me?"
He took me to the story where Peter walks on water. Basically, these guys are in a boat and the boat is bouncing around in the water. And suddenly, they see a figure of a man and he is walking towards them on top of the water. What is happening? Is this a ghost? Peter stands and says, “Lord, if that is you, tell me to come to you.” And the Lord says, “Come.” It is an amazing miracle. Peter walks on water towards Jesus.
I used to think that the most remarkable thing about this story is the walking on water but that day something changed for me. The most remarkable thing is that when Peter saw Jesus and heard His voice, he climbed out of the boat and his complete focus and attention was given to Jesus, over the voice of the circumstancs.
When it feels like the wind and waves of life are all around me, how many times am I able at that moment to fix my attention onto Jesus and His voice and anchor myself there, rather than in my circumstance? Can I trust in the truth of who God is and what He is saying and what He is doing?
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
The communities where we work in Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and London are very challenging places. We work with the poorest of the poor. I was on a Skype call with a young woman who is pioneering our projects in Rwanda. She wanted to talk because it was Genocide memorial week. She was invited to visit five families. They told her their stories. I’m not going to tell you those stories but it was harrowing. And then after she had listened, they took her to the church that was in the village and it hadn’t been touched since the day of the massacre. There on the floor were the bones of the children and she just stood there looking at that place.
She went to the new church and had to sit as victims of the genocide recounted their story and then the perpetrators stood up and said, “I was there. I did that to your family.” It was hard.
It would be so easy to look at a community like that, and its depths of brokenness and pain, and write it off. We work in slums in Africa but we also see it in London. We could so easily say, it is hopeless. You only need to turn on the news to hear of terrorist attacks. You can listen to the news about war torn areas or humanitarian crises in Yemen or south Sudan. You can hear about the biggest refugee crisis since world war two. You can hear about mass shootings and gun crime in the US. It would be easy to say, “The world is just too broken.” If we choose to believe that, we would take away from who God is.
Our circumstance does not get to define who God is. Who God is defines our circumstances.
When all around us is shaking, He is not shaken. When everything is changing, He does not change. We need to learn as the church, how to anchor ourselves in that reality. The truth of who God is above the truth of our earthly circumstances. Otherwise we will be buffeted by the storms of life and unable to stand when things get tough.
In John 16, He said, “You WILL have trouble but take heart because I have overcome the world.” Trials and challenges will always come our way. It is not a question of whether they come but how we will respond to them when they do! The Bible is clear that we cannot bury our heads in our hands. We have to go out and get involved.
Don’t just pray for hands to heal the hurting. Pray with hands that are healing the hurting. Don’t just pray for someone to do some, be someone who does something. Don’t just prayer for an answer, be the answer...
Francis of Assisi's prayer says, "Make me a channel of your peace. Where there is hatred let me bring your love."
Jesus' heart for the poor
Last year, I was heading off on retreat and driving down beautiful country roads. The sun was shining and I was singing to Jesus. Suddenly, I heard the Lord speak to me and His voice was so clear. It was almost like He was sat in the passenger seat. And He said, “Nicola, tell the church, the poor are not a fashion accessory that they get to wear around their necks.”
I was so shaken that I pulled my car over to the side of the road and asked Him to repeat it and He did. And then I asked Him to explain it to me.
He spoke to me about how we have fashions and trends in how we run our meetings and in our worship. We see a church over here and we all start doing things like that. We hear about the latest “sexy” social action project and we get involved until the next year, when a new one comes along we drop the first one.
Jesus told me, “Tell the church don’t ever treat the poor like that. They are not there to ease your social conscience. They are at my very heart. I run into the areas of deepest darkness and pour our my love on the poorest of the poor.”
We are called to those places where it is crazy and scary and where it seems out of control. We are called to run into them and infuse them with life and hope and the transforming love of Jesus Christ. How do we go into those places and stand if we ourselves are not able to stand first? How do we stand alongside the poor and broken and not be swept away by the tide of their challenges? How can we go into places of great fear and carry His peace, if we do not carry His peace?
For my family, we are coming out of one of the most challenging season of our lives. It began in September when we had a break in at one of our mission stations in African. The thieves came, smashed a hole in the ceiling and took our safe with all our money and also all our title deeds to all the land. Because of the way the land law works in Uganda, he who holds the deeds, holds the land. All of our money was gone in a minute. It was devastating but it just seemed to be the beginning of a chaotic time. If felt like all hell broke loose. We went into months of incredible challenge. Staff members were facing serious medical conditions and we had no money to pay for treatment. We refuse to pay bribes and because of the break in we had to deal with the authorities. They wanted us to give them money and when we refused all they began to make accusations against us and against all our staff members.
And then we began to experience some deep betrayal by people we thought we could trust. There was a season of rioting and shooting. We saw a mass escalation of witchcraft activity . I had a phone call from a staff member about a little boy we had known for many years. She had gone to visit him and found that he had been hung by his father as a child sacrifice. She had to bury him because the police didn’t care.
Several years ago, my husband was very sick for seven months and we were not sure if he was going to survive. He had been well for five years and then in January, he woke me up and it all began again. I remember sitting in the hospital with the weight of everything on me. I sat there watching my husband in extreme pain and asked, Am I strong enough to walk this again? How do I phone my son and tell him what is happening? I knew I had a choice to make that day in that hospital. What am I going to do? As the head of our ministry? As the mum in my family? Am I going to go down? Am I going to decide that the cost is too high?
To walk away is so tempting. The voices of discouragement come from the most surprising places. Or am I going to lift up my head? I remember sitting there and saying, “I choose to lift up my head. Jesus, I am choosing to be rooted in you. You are my provider, my deliverer, my strength, and my source. You are good, faithful and trustworthy. And I choose to anchor myself there."
Psalm 91 says, “I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my strength. My God in whom I trust.” (NB My husband is actually doing fine now.) I would walk around my house and say these verse out loud.
I remember one day the Lord said to me, "I want you to believe fro your title deeds to come back. Call them home." So I began to call them home, I felt really dumb saying, “Title deeds come home in Jesus name.”
Then someone contacted us through a fake Facebook page. He asked, “Have you lost something very important. Would you like them back? I just found them at the side of the road.” He wanted us to meet him in a dark alley and to give him several thousand pounds. We said, "No, you will come to this place in the daylight and you will hand them back to us." And we got our title deeds back. It was an utter miracle!
Back to life
I want to tell you this story to finish and I am nervous about telling it. We have a staff member who she joined us a few years ago. Her brother became very sick and was dying. He went into multiple organ failure and they were feeding him through a tube. In the middle of the night, God woke her up and told her to buy two bottles of a special kind of milk for her brother So she did that and went to the hospital. But her brother was not in his room.
The staff told her, "Your brother is dead." She said, “Please let me see the body.” She walked into the morgue and in the middle was her brother, covered in a sheet. She said, "I felt God speak to me, 'Lay your hand on his leg and say, You will live in Jesus name." So she put my hand on his leg and it was very cold. And she I said, "You will live in Jesus name." The morgue attendant came in and said, "What are you doing?" and at that moment, her brother began to cough. The man ran out and locked himself in a cupboard.
The doctor walked in and he hurried her out of the room. He said, "You are in grief, your brother is dead." After a while, when nothing seemed to happen she went back into the morgue and she saw the doctor sitting curled up on the floor and her brother was sitting up on the bed.
He turned to her and said, “Give me something to drink.” So she poured out one of the bottles of milk and when he drank it, he said, “I need another one.”
Some nurses came and began to ask her to pray for other people in the hospital. She would simply ask, "Jesus what are you saying?" And would obey Him. And people all over the hospital were being healed. In the end, the doctor took her into his office and he said, "What is this power that you have?" She said, “I have no power. It is Jesus. What do you need Jesus to do for you today?"
The story doesn't end there. Her brother went home but started to go down hill again. This was confusing. The villagers start to plan a burial. But then Jesus told her, "Plan a thanksgiving service and celebrate the fact that your brother is going to have a long and health life." The villagers told her she was crazy but she went ahead. They carried her brother and laid him out on the sofa and then worshipped God for five hours. By the end of it, her was sitting up drinking chai. And the entire village saw the miracle.
What I loved about Ivy was her simplicity. Her question was, “What is Jesus saying?” Circumstance said her brother was dead but Jesus was saying something different. "He will live." Circumstance said prepare for a burial. Jesus was saying, "Prepare a thanksgiving." In her simplicity of faith, she followed His instruction .
Trust in the lord with all of your heart, lean not on your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.