It rained this week. As myself and a colleague walked a slightly disorientated Australian lady back to her hotel the storm swept in and turned the streets around us into rivers. We ran, gasping with laughter through the downpour, cheered on by the revellers taking shelter in the bars. We’ll get a wheelchair ready, yells one of our PR friends taking cover under an awning. Cheers mate.
For us, life in Ibiza is always full of surprises, full of contradictions, full of paradox. We’re never allowed to stand still, never encouraged to stagnate. Complacency is dangerous out here; there is no formula, no rule book, no troubleshoot. No one expects it to rain on the Sunshine Isle and yet as the windows of the prayer room steam up and various bedraggled team members drag themselves back through the centre doors, I’m reminded about how unpredictable things can be in this mission and how often God’s way are so divorced from our tiny mind sets and limited ideologies.
Where you expect darkness there’s light, when you anticipate closed doors there’s open windows. Maybe it’s just the strangers stopping to offer genuine concern and help to people we’re assisting, donating their time and muscles into putting broken individuals into wheelchairs or more dignified positions. Perhaps it’s the gospel enthused house music that I hear leaking out of the doors of the strip clubs as we walk past, lyrically more powerful than some of the contemporary worship songs I’ll choose for a Sunday morning. Elsewhere it’s the guy who’s quite happy to admit he’s rushing on ecstasy and yet is utterly committed in singlehandedly carrying his friend to the ambulance in a superhuman display of strength and compassion. A knock on the door of the apartment at 4am reveals a girl we’ve never met before. I’m a sinner, she says, no waver in her voice. Can I please have a bible?
One minute the team are praying for a couple of guys and one of the recipients feels the weight of the Holy Spirit on his shoulder, a sudden tangible experience of love that he can’t put into words. Dazed and thoughtful, he sits on the step and watches as the team, in the next instance, deal with a lost guy who vomits with glorious ferocity and appears to have picked up a cockroach or two on his travels. Again and again I’m reminded that we live in a place where there is no norm, no protocol and where 180degree swings of purpose and agenda are commonplace. Another pair find themselves in the middle of the West End, holding hands with two girls, one of whom is a cheerful atheist but nevertheless knows the Lord’s Prayer and, as the madness crashes around them, has herself suggested the four of them declare it together. In a circle and with absolute sincerity, this spontaneous and distinctly unorthodox prayer team intercede for the streets beneath their feet.
Time after time, this work has demonstrated to me that the Kingdom of God is an inverted, unrecognisable parallel universe when juxtaposed against my own experiences, my own rationale, my unconscious lines in the sand. It pays no heed to how things should be done according to worldly principles and instead ploughs it’s own furrow across the field of my expectations and opinions. And yet, somehow, it remains uniquely personal, rooted in intimacy and perfect in it’s connection with humanity. Stereotypes and judgement are dismissed without a backward glance yet never at the expense of our human reality. A holidaymaker asks one of the team for Rizla and instead is offered a bible. Which he immediately takes. And possibly smokes. But who cares? Regardless of the motives, the fact that the word of God now sits in the hand of a man in place of a rollup is, in itself, an act of God that is possibly more significant than we’ll ever realise. Even if he does choose to inhale a few chapters of Mark’s gospel over his next pint.
God’s ways are just not our ways. As the storms pass and the skies brighten there’s time to muse and ponder amongst the pine coated hills of Ibiza. Sa Talaia is the highest place on the island and is, in itself, a beautiful example of the contrast we experience here. From this vantage point, the land extends below, carpeted green, sparsely populated, embraced by the seas. The peace is audible up here, decibels of emptiness interrupted only by the rattle of a cicada and sleepy birdsong. It’s a rare, unfamiliar moment of tranquility; precious and captivating, a watchtower of serenity that allows us to gaze down upon the charcoal white patches of civilisation, the throb of San Antonio’s pulse lost in the breeze. This transient moment of stillness, as elusive as it is, is not confined to the hills. I’m reminded of how Jesus, the Prince of Peace, manages to deliver the individual to such a place in the midst of the melee.
John* is asleep in the hotel lobby. He wears one shoe, a pair of shorts and appears to have nothing else. His tattooed body rises and falls with every deep breath, black lines and obscure symbols stretching rhythmically under the weight of heavy sleep. The details are unclear but it would seem he has no passport, no hotel, no money and no friends. He may not have slept for days, an hour or two on the beach perhaps before the heat or the authorities force him on. At some point, probably during these snatches of sleep, someone has taken a can of graffiti spray paint and cruelly daubed the entirety of his back in black, permanent swirls. The police aren’t interested in helping, his only tenuous contact who is staying in this hotel, wants nothing to do with him, firmly shutting the door in our faces. There is nothing we, or he, can do. So he sleeps in the chair and we wait. As long as we’re with him, the hotel will tolerate his presence and rest seems to be the best idea right now.
There is no happy end to this story. We know it within an hour of meeting him. But as I watch him sleep in the chair, listening to God tell me about this son of His, how much He loves him, how He wishes he’d come home, I’m struck again by the paradox of peace in the midst of chaos. Where there should be anxiety and confusion, God has found a moment of refuge for this man. Where the storms that no one expects have sought to isolate and destroy, God has reached out and rebuked the winds. It gives me hope as the hotel receptionist, who has done everything he can to help, reluctantly wakes John up. We drape him in a kindly donated blanket, find an odd shoe and give him some water. And that’s when I notice the bible in his hand, left for him by the previous team that night. It’s pretty much all he has. We leave him on the steps as dawn begins to break, a lonely figure, full of questions and yet holding all the answers in his hand, adrift yet grasping the anchor, in chains but brandishing the keys, in the dust but only steps away from the summit. I thank God for paradox as we walk through the mud left by the rains. Instead of despair, I can see hope.