When I teach a lesson on Canon Andrew White I start with my favourite picture of him, the one from the cover of his book ‘Faith Under Fire’, a story of what the Middle East has taught him about God.
And the lesson gets off to a good start. It’s not the dog collar that wins their attention, it’s the bullet proof vest. After all these children know from the past that my stories of faith usually end in a violent death: Oscar Romero, Manche Masemola and Martin Luther King. I have found: the story is always a winner if it ends with a gun.
But this story does not end with an assassination and still they love it.
I’m telling the children the story of how Andrew White had achieved his dream job of working as a paramedic at the prestigious St Thomas Hospital in London when he experienced, out of the blue, God calling him to become an Anglican priest. So he puts his medical career on hold and took himself off to theological college, where despite his impatience with some of the more formal parts of his training, he grew in faith and developed a deep love of the ancient places of the Bible world, a passion for the Middle East, its people and their diverse faith; Christians, Muslims and Jews.
He was soon working out of one of England’s great cathedrals, heading up an international work of peace and reconciliation, a special envoy of the ABC, motivated and sustained by a love of the gospel of Jesus, Prince of Peace. Young, successful, full of energy, driven by passion for God he became the Vicar of Baghdad, the pastor of Iraq’s only Anglican church.
And then at thirty he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. On the day that his second son was born the medics told him that his symptoms were the first signs of an illness that he is destined to struggle with as he continues in his work in some of the world most dangerous war zones.
He wrote this,
“One afternoon a doctor came to inform me that I had multiple sclerosis. It was devastating news. That very afternoon Caroline (my wife) went into labour and was admitted to the same hospital. That evening I was taken by wheel chair to the delivery suite and witnessed the birth of my second son, Jacob. I have often since described that day as one of both tragedy and splendour. In many ways it was indicative of all that was to follow, my life frequently swinging between grief and exhilaration.”
My surprising RE class, pre-adolescent, moody, restless, un-churched and largely anti-God are completely charmed by this man, not because of his faith, or his ground-breaking work in the Middle East peace process, but won over because he is ill and he perseveres in his work despite debilitating illness. Many of my pupils come from chaotic home lives, many are the new poor of modern Britain, some will become the NEETs, pregnant before they leave school, in trouble with the police over soft drug habits and alcohol problems that will lead to them not finishing school. But it seems they are maybe more acquainted with one aspect of his life that I am. Could it be possible that they have seen a higher than average incidence of illness and disability and it has hit them hard? They watch a video and hear him speak; not one person laughs or even comments on the defects in his voice caused by the MS. They listen as if he is one their own.
Anyone who follows Canon Andrew White on social media cannot help but form an impression of the heart and soul, a small empathy for the place he has been and the people he has known. His love for Iraq and its people has rubbed off on those of us who have heard his stories.
So how can we not pray when ISIS are at the gates of Baghdad and Andrew White has enough internet to message home that the streets are empty and people are afraid. At home in war torn Baghdad for nearly twenty years, accompanied by military and body guards wherever he goes. Canon Andrew White tells us that the people are afraid.
On Monday morning I checked the news pages before I read my daily Psalm.
The news story form the BBC has not changed since the day before. It is difficult to follow the course of events: ISIS 50 miles from the city, five miles from the city, one mile form the city, at the gates of Baghdad. The news sources are failing and I think of Abraham and how he prayed,
Then Abraham approached God and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?
Does God, in His great power fail to stop the stop the hand of violence because we failed to pray? Is God really asking that I bend my knee and lend my voice in some unrehearsed prayer for a far of people who, for all I know, could already be dead?
The God of my poor evangelical heart, He answers all my prayers, yet I am nervous in the face of the world’s cruel sufferings and wars. Confident words of the Psalmist they stick in my throat. This happy saved soul, this seeker of truth, with a nose in a book and a worship song playing on repeat, finds her heart laid bear to a dark world that can only be faced with the help of God.
The Psalm for the day is Psalm 16,
Keep me safe, my God,
for in you I take refuge.
Keep him safe Lord, for in you he has taken refuge.
Keep his people safe Lord, the children, the women, the Christians of Iraq, all the people of Iraq, all those who call on your name and all those who hardly dare.
Keep the enemy form the gate, in you they have taken refuge.
Let us be brave and pray, with all the prayers we can muster.
On Wednesday the Canon is encouraged. ISIS are 50 miles away and his mind is now on pursuing his work in the north of Iraq where the people have suffered so much.
I have a copy of Andrew White’s book, Faith Under Fire, to give away on the blog today.
All you have to do to have your name entered into the draw is like or comment on the blog, like or comment on Facebook and please share this post with your friends.
I would like us to cover this man and his work in prayer, I’d like us to surround, saturate and overwhelm him with something that is beyond anything we could ever ask or imagine because, the stark truth is I’m not a great prayer warrior and I know precious little of that secret place, but I think that this week something amazing happened in Iraq against all expectations happened in Iraq.
And for that I thank God.