An open invitation to the safest place in the world

Have you felt safe this week? I have to confess that, living 2.5 miles from the scene of the biggest terrorist attack the UK has seen in the last ten years, I haven’t felt safe at times.

On Tuesday, as the tales of the horror began to emerge from the scene of the blast, helicopters whirred overhead, sirens and blue flashing lights ran circles round my neighbourhood. As I sat having coffee in my local bakery, a suspect was arrested less than half a mile away. Controlled explosions were carried out. A couple of schools were closed.  Today another road close to my home has been closed as police investigate reports of suspicious activity. My son’s school are having indoor playtimes, telling the kids that it’s ‘too hot’ to play outside.

It was difficult not to let anxiety creep in. It IS difficult not to let it creep in. I am human. I’m a human who doesn’t particularly enjoy air travel and I’m off on holiday via our city’s airport next week. I’m a human who worries about my kids  when they’re away from me all day.  But actually, deep down, that is not my truth. The anxiety (however real) is surface level. I have nothing to fear, however close I live to these unspeakable atrocities. What about you ? 

What will you do differently this weekend? How will you feel safe? A morning radio phone-in asked callers this question. Many were determined. They would go shopping to one of the biggest malls in Europe, they’d line the streets with the rest of the crowds watching a major sporting event in our city’s calendar, they’d be going to upcoming gigs at giant stadiums. They wouldn’t let fear get in the way. Others were less sure. They’d stay home. They’d be with their family. They wanted to feel safe.

I asked myself the same question. We were planning to visit friends in Wales this weekend. It’s been on the calendar for weeks. And as events have unfolded this week, a small part of me has been relieved that we can escape the city.

But as I listened to the phone-in, to the anger and fear and hurt and sadness, I’ve decided to delay our departure. Because there is no safer place than meeting with my Manchester church family on Sunday morning. I want to be there.

And I want you to be there too.

Hang on a minute, you might say… Are you not using our raw emotion to manipulate us, to persuade us to your particular brand of religion? Isn’t religion how all this mess started in the first place? The suggestion might make you angry… how dare you cash in on this crisis? Or, maybe you think it’s nice for me to go there, to feel safe, to pray and feel at peace. But it’s not for you. Or maybe you have been up close and personal with sheer terror this week. Maybe you were at the gig. Maybe your family were. Maybe you’re part of the emergency and front line hospital staff who have seen and heard things this week that no human should have to. How can there be a God who cares in all of this?

Hear me out.

Firstly, I gain nothing if I persuade you to follow my beliefs. I will be pleased for you. Overjoyed in fact, because I know that the love and peace that will enter your life if you get to know my Jesus is second to none. That it’s something you don’t want to miss out on. But I already know Him, my life is safe in Him. I don’t get a better seat in Heaven if I talk you into coming to church or getting to know Him.

Religion is the root of all this hatred? I would say that people made this mess. God did not. I’m pretty sure if God didn’t exist in all of this (and you may not believe that He does), people would still find ways to blow each other up and commit horrendously evil acts. But my God is love.

It’s not for you? But maybe it’s exactly for you. You won’t know til you try it. If evil is raging all around us (and it is, even if you’ve got your head in the sand about it). If there is fear, anxiety, worry, carnage… If I know a safe place that you can go in all of that, I have to invite you in. If I have a peace that passes all understanding, I want you to have it too.

You were there, your family was there, you have literally picked up the pieces, dug shrapnel out of the wounds…  Come and let us comfort you. I don’t have the words to express my sorrow at what you have experienced or to express my thanks for how you have served. But I know someone who does.

My church is a safe place for you to ask questions. We don’t have the answers. I didn’t have the answer for my six-year-old son when he asked me why a man blew himself and all those people up. We don’t even pretend to have answers to the questions that this heinous crime throws up. Read my church leader’s thoughts on that here. But I guarantee that your questions will be met with love. By us and by the God that we serve. Whoever you are. Really. Black, white, asian, gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, muslim, jew, agnostic, atheist. This is a safe place for you to work out how you feel, what you think and what you believe. We will tell you what we believe, but you’ll have nothing rammed down your throat. Come along, scream at God, cry… He can handle it. He might even want to hear it from you.

But is it literally safe? In light of specific threats to Christians communicated by the perpetrators of this shameful attack, I’ve had loving warnings from several friends and family members who know we belong to a large and well-known church. You guys may be a target. Yes, we may be targetted. That is true. It’s something I’ve thought about even before the dreadful events this week, and before the declaration by the perpetrators that more attacks on Christians are planned.  My response to this possibility is deadly serious. I am not being flippant in any way. I am not being blase. I very much mean every word I am about to type.

I am safe there because ‘there’ is not really a place. I’m not into church buildings. I understand they are a source of comfort for many people. But for me, church is family. It’s hard for me to explain how closely bonded I am to my brothers and sisters. I am safer in those relationships than you can imagine. But yet we are not exclusive. We are eagerly anticipating the next person to join our tribe. There is space and you are welcome to come and experience depth and quality of friendship, fellowship. And a lot of fun. Because family should be fun.

The main reason I am safe is because I know how the story ends.  Have you ever seen the movie Big Fish? The main character is a guy who as a young person at the start of the movie is shown how his life will end. You’d think that would be a bit scary for a kid. But the reality is that it frees him. The result is a life of extraordinary stories, lived to the full and dreams realised as a result of the risks he was able to take once freed from the fear of death. I don’t fear death. I can say that with confidence because I’ve looked it in the eye and faced with the real possibility of imminent expiry. And I was okay with it. That is a safe place to be. And I can take it out and into the world with me and hope to share it with you.

So come along, see who we are, what we do and (best of all) who our God is. With all this metaphysical chat about safe spaces though, you might actually want to know where it is and what it looks like. My particular group meets in a warehouse, we have a brew beforehand, we chat, we sing, we listen. There’s awesome kids work so bring your small people. Details of service times and places below and here. If you’re not in Manchester, let me know and I’ll help you find a friendly place near you.

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