It’s an interesting feature of life that the things we fear most often turn out to be much more bearable than we imagined. Whereas the events which never even crossed our minds can creep up on us and with the advantage of surprise shake us and challenge us.

A week ago I was asked in an interview for BBC Radio Norfolk, what I was most worried about as I prepared for the Great Yarmouth Advent Sleepout. I hardly had to think about my answer, it was obvious – the cold. So no wonder that when I finally got into my sleeping bag in the chilly porch of Great Yarmouth Minster, surrounded by 4 other brave / foolish sleep-outers, I was wearing 16 items of clothing! 

I won’t deny that at 1 a.m. it was a bit nippy. However it wasn’t the temperature that kept me awake. My predominant feeling wasn’t cold, but vulnerability. In the run-up to the Advent Sleepout, I had talked to a number of local people about their experiences of being homeless, and several had mentioned the physical and verbal abuse which had been directed towards them, as the worst part of sleeping on the streets. Now I was beginning to understand. Not that anyone attacked me, yelled at me or even came anywhere near me – we were safely behind locked gates away from the public gaze. But as I saw the flashing lights of countless police cars whizz past, listened to the noise of people coming out of the pubs, and heard a very nearby aggressive altercation filled with shouted threats of violence, I felt exposed and defenceless. I can only imagine how it must feel for those who have suffered real abuse and yet had to go straight back onto the streets, alone and physically vulnerable, with nowhere to retreat to for safety.

And then I had another realisation. That this was the life that Jesus had chosen for Himself. A life of vulnerability. I protected myself behind metal gates. But Jesus gave up every protection and defence which was rightfully his, as well as His kingdom, when he came to earth. Born in a stable and living at least some of his life nomadically, even homeless: “Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”” (Luke 9:58). Surely part of this was because Jesus wanted to be fully part of the frailty of human existence – not just to know how it feels to be cold – but to know how it feels to be vulnerable. And just as I experienced how it feels to be part of Great Yarmouth in a way I never had before, so too Jesus identified fully with our humanness because he experienced our weakness.

But that is not the end of the story. Jesus didn’t come just to identify with us, He came to be our Saviour, to set us free from our weakness, and to give us refuge. As His church He calls us to do the same.

Before we settled down to sleep in the porch, one of the team told us how historically the porch of the Minster had been used as a place of refuge. What an appropriate place for us to spend the night! And what a fitting place to ponder vulnerability human and divine, and the Church’s calling to not only find refuge but be a refuge.

The Advent Sleepout was a fantastic experience for me, not least in the generosity which has poured forth from the remarkable people of our town. Thank you to all who were part of the team, who encouraged us and supported us with their presence beforehand, and gave food and with donations. We have raised over £2000 which we pray, with God’s blessing, will help the Church to move forwards in offering refuge to the homeless.