Saturday 14 October 2023

Where ten years has taken us

My husband and I recently celebrated ten years of marriage. It's been a busy decade - we've lived in four different places spread out across two countries and added three children to our family. When we married, we both had a desire to serve long term abroad. My husband had already gone to Bible college and was working as an assistant pastor ahead of overseas ministry. If you'd told us then, as we dreamed of the future in the little yellow kitchen of our first house, that we would go and we would come back after five years and end up 30 miles away from where we started, I'm not sure we'd have believed you.

And yet here we are.

Seven and a half years ago, my husband and I sold that house, packed up our lives into a few suitcases and took our ten month old son to a country on the edge of Central Asia. We planned to stay a long time - we thought fifteen years would be a good stretch before our children's educational needs would probably require a move back to the UK. We were committed to serving and supporting the young church in that country. We, who were never large city people, went first to a very large city for language and culture learning. After a couple of years, we moved to a city of 'only' a million people and where creative access was needed to get visas. And then after a while the rules changed and our creative access route didn't work any more. Our local pastor in that city asked us to move back to the UK and come and visit as much as we could, which avoided all visa requirements. So (cutting a long story short) we did. We only spent five years in that country that we planned to spend so much longer in.

From the biographies I devoured as a child and teenager, I absorbed an idea that the longer you went to the 'field' for, the better a cross-cultural worker you were. The ideal was to go without a return ticket but with your coffin, although a few decades was long enough to be respectable. There was Adoniram Judson's letter to John Hasseltine asking not only permission to marry his daughter Ann, but that John would agree to "see her no more in this world". There was James Calvert's (unverified, as far as I can find) quote, said in reply to the ship's captain who told him he would lose his life by landing on the islands of Fiji, "we died before we came here." There are stirring calls not to be half-hearted, not to waste our lives, not to invest in what won't last. If that seems too nineteenth century, I've met people who tell me that they plan to live the rest of their lives in the country they have gone to, with visits back to their passport country every now and then.

Cross-cultural workers throughout history, from the Apostle Paul to Hudson Taylor to Amy Carmichael to current workers, have left behind a lot and willingly embraced a whole heap of hard things for the sake of the Gospel. Many have died or been martyred for the Gospel. Others have sacrificed their health (physical, mental and/or emotional), comforts, freedoms and opportunities. Their families have sacrificed too. We rightly honour the work that God has done through them and in them and praise God for them.

But when your standard is Jim Elliot and Gladys Aylward, what do you do with the cross-cultural workers who, for a whole host of different reasons, return to their passport country after just a few years? If the unspoken but pervading church culture around us prizes faithfulness through long years of service (perhaps with little fruit), what do those whose years of service were cut short for one reason or another think? When we've made our historical heroes ten feet tall, no average height human will ever compare. I wonder what my nineteen-year-old self, who had the words of the hymn 'Facing a Task Unfinished' pinned up above her desk, would make of me now.  

Perhaps there's a bigger issue here - that while we might outwardly reject a sacred/secular divide, we admire the exciting and exotic more than we do the boring and mundane. Even living abroad, it's certainly easier to mention earthquakes, terrorist attacks and coup attempts in prayer letters than bureaucracy and getting your boiler replaced when you don't understand how the system works. Maybe it's more glamorous to love your neighbour when they're an unreached people worshipping idols than to love your neighbour when they're your child or elderly parent needing your physical presence in your passport country.

Maybe there are many more issues at play here. Issues of God's leading and guidance, of Christian heroes and sometimes idols, of not despising small things, of pride and shame.

But here's what I know. Jesus said, 'Go and make disciples of all nations'. He didn't say that you have to go abroad to make disciples of all nations. He did not say that if you go to serve cross-culturally, you must go for a minimum of ten years and the longer you go for, the better. He didn't say that you have to pick a country and go spend the rest of your life there.

Here's something else that I know. In all things, God works for the good of those who love him. The last ten years have incorporated a lot of uncertainty and change. Our life plan was completely turned upside down when we came back to the UK. But the Lord knew that would happen, and before we had even moved to our second city abroad, when we were still planning to be there many years, he was setting in motion the events that would bring us to our current church and town. When we came back, we had absolutely no idea why God had worked things out that way but believed that God is good and in control. Two and a bit years later, we now know that a health condition of one of our children would almost certainly have required us to relocate back to the UK had we still been abroad.

We would never have predicted that we'd be in this town, in this country, ten years after getting married. But we can say with confidence that the Lord is good. He does not make mistakes or waste experiences. His ways are not our ways - thankfully. We can say with faith and with gratitude that the boundary lines have fallen for us in pleasant places.

Monday 24 April 2023

Growing plants and meeting people

 Last July, I turned up at a community gardening volunteer session with my three children in tow. I'd been told about the sessions by a Muslim friend. The local council has a small site filled to the brim with a couple of polytunnels and raised beds and containers as well as a little market garden down the road. They invite members of the public to volunteer, helping to grow fruit and vegetables, and donate the produce to a local foodbank. I was intrigued as I'd long wanted to get involved in food growing. Not only that, but the site was close to our church. I wondered if this would give me a chance to get to know non-Christians and offer opportunities to share the Gospel.

Fast forward nearly a year, and we are still turning up one morning a week. I help with a variety of tasks such as planting out seedlings, weeding, re-creating 'no dig' beds and harvesting, depending on the time of year. We home educate our three boys (aged 7, 5 and 3) so they come along with me and get as involved as they want to - sometimes they are eager to get involved with tasks (trundling empty wheelbarrows back to compost bins and soil sieving are favourites) and other times they prefer to play by themselves. Looking back at the last year, the community gardening has been one of the most worthwhile activities that we've got involved in.

It is helpful in several different ways for us to get our hands in the earth and to work hard together at something physical. We are formed from the dust of the ground and it does us good to get out into the fresh air and remember that our daily bread is literally coming from crops growing up out of the muddy ground. We've learned about patience waiting for seeds to sprout. We definitely learned something about resilience when we planted out onions in the pouring rain. Watching kale continue to grow through the frosty winter, scrabbling around in the earth harvesting potatoes and marvelling at the most enormous parsnip showed us God's goodness and led us to worship. Isn't it amazing that the tiny seeds we plant grow up into large plants that we can harvest and eat? Watching plants grow still feels a little bit magic to me. Then, depending on the plant, we might be harvesting the root, the tuber, the stem, the fruit, the flower or the leaves! In amongst the goodness, there have been other truths to see in the garden too. When the entire pumpkin patch fell victim to an early frost, when the slugs gorged themselves on the lettuces, when the carrots were suffocated by weeds we tasted the bitterness of fallen creation.

More importantly, it has been a fantastic way to get to know local people who, I think it is fair to say, are very unlikely to have just turned up at church or come along to a church event. The number of volunteers at each session varies and there is often significant turnover but gradually I've been able to get to know some of the people who, like us, turn up most weeks. One recent history graduate shared her story of growing up Hindu and then embracing Zen Buddhism with me over a vegetable bed. As we talked about how we practised our different faiths, I was able to share with her about Christmas and why it matters for Christians. Chatting while working together on a job gives surprising opportunities for listening to people and learning about them, as well as sharing appropriately ourselves. My other realisation has been just how many people are lonely and need to work. The natural demographic for a weekday volunteering session is those out of regular paid work - whether those looking for work, unable to work, retired or not in paid work for some other reason. We know that we were made to work and some people seem to have come along for something to do and someone to do it with. Jesus' ministry focused on the poor and needy and it is great to be able to get to know some of these people in a context where we are working with dignity alongside each other as equals to help others. An older gentleman who came along for a while gave my boys a telescope. He told me that he had been saving the telescope to pass down to his own children and he had realised he had passed the age of having children. He told me that my children were the only children he knew and so he wanted to gift the telescope to them.

This is not to say it's been easy. I urgently called my boys out of the way when an argument between two volunteers looked like it was going to come to blows. While my children are usually the only children there, one of the volunteers occasionally brings her similarly aged son in the school holidays. She has a female partner and I wonder when and how I tell my children that their new friend is probably going to talk about his two mums at some point. One gentleman who comes has occasionally been slightly (and understandably) frustrated at the children sometimes getting in the way. The man who gave us the telescope also shared conspiracy theories with my seven year old. Sometimes the boys are bored and want to go home and sometimes I want to go home as well. And then I think what a privilege it is that we get to meet people from all walks of life and we see God's common grace and the brokenness of sin in each and every person.

When we moved to our town, I desperately wanted to put roots down in the local community, to teach my children about how to plant seeds and trust God to send rain on the righteous and the unrighteous, and to get to know non-Christians. Volunteering in our community garden is enabling me to do exactly that.

Friday 1 July 2022

Ministry starting at minus five

“Imagine that you want to share the good news about Jesus with someone. Most people start at zero. They might have heard about Jesus a few times in school assemblies or religious studies lessons, a smattering of knowledge picked up by living in a country that sometimes still thinks of itself as Christian. But they’ve probably never really looked at the claims of Christ properly or read the Bible for themselves. When you meet a Muslim, typically they’re not at zero. They’re at about minus five already. Most Muslims already believe that Jesus never claimed to be God and that the Bible has been changed. You’re starting in a completely different place.”

This is the story that we used to tell about ministry amongst Muslims. The part about Muslims is still true. But after Whatsapp group drama ealier this week, the truth has finally sunk in. Many white British people are now in negative territory when it comes to Christians and the Gospel.

In one of the quirks of home educating (homeschooling) in the UK, we end up mixing with a lot of liberal families – mostly atheist or non-religious, with a few Christians, pagans and Buddhists thrown in. When somebody shared that they were going to see the film Lightyear, someone else was quick to poke fun at the Christians who were avoiding the film (for reference, the film features a same-sex family in an “intentional attempt to normalize LGBT+ relationships as just as wholesome and natural as the married couple in Up”). Christians who disagreed with the film were quickly characterised as extremist, homophobic and bigoted. Quite a few messages, another Christian leaving the group, and at least one apology later, the result was clear. It wasn’t that people were entitled to different views. The consensus among those non-Christians who chimed in was that even though a small minority of extremist Christians disagree with the film, obviously most Christians are not homophobic and extremist (read: tolerate, accept and are absolutely fine with the normalisation of same sex families), so let’s not tar them all with the same brush.

The bit that was the most telling was the implicit assumption that if you were a Christian who disagreed with the film, then of course you were bigoted. That part was not up for discussion. The assumption that followed was that while calling all Christians homophobic was to be avoided (because, of course, various people knew many LGBTQ-affirming Christians), if you did disagree with the film then not only were you bigoted, but there was absolutely no problem with labelling you as extremist and bigoted. People were not worried about offending Christians who didn’t want to take their children to see a film that was aiming to normalise same-sex relationships. The only offence to be taken was if you were lumped in the same category as those Christians.

When one Christian mum did choose to leave the group, I considered leaving as well. I think that the Christian mum who left chose a valid option. And in all honesty, it would be easier to leave the group. It would be easier to just hang out with the Christian mums in the area. Ironically, it would be easier to hang out with my home educating friends who are Muslim – we at least have very similar family values and they are more outraged at the relationships education in schools than I am.

In many places and for many years, outreach amongst Muslims was considered uncomfortable. They were just so different. And it was hard to even get to a position where you could meaningfully share the Gospel because of all the assumptions that were already in place.

I feel like outreach into the (mostly white) non-religious, post-Christian groups is now similarly uncomfortable. Just in the last couple of weeks people I know have openly labelled those of us who might identify as conservative evangelicals as extremists and religious zealots. Whereas once our worldviews touched and maybe overlapped, now they feel so far apart that I wonder how they can come close enough that I could even shout the good news across the gaping chasm to them.

But the reassuring news is this: this is not new and God is still at work. The early Christians were just as far apart from the majority Roman view. The Gospel upsets the social order of the day, whether in second century Rome or in twenty first century Britain. And as we know from work with Muslims, it is hard and slow and laborious and it may feel like the starting point is well below zero on the scale, but it bears some fruit. The same is true of the non-Christians who seem so far from accepting the Gospel. No matter how many negative assumptions of Christians they start with, God is mighty to save my Muslim friends and my non-religious friends.

Monday 3 January 2022

I quit reading the Bible in a year

It's the time of year when the Christian internet is awash with Bible reading plans for 2022 and especially the type of reading plan where you read through the Bible in one year. 

So here's my confession: I gave up on my read-the-Bible-in-a-year plan last year. It was the Murray M'Cheyne plan that works through the Old Testament once and the New Testament and Psalms twice in a year. I made it to the end of November and was basically on track, minus a few chapters in Acts. I only had one month to go and I would have been able to complete it within the year.

Let's be totally clear here: Bible reading plans are great and reading through the Bible in a year is a fantastic way to structure spending time in Scripture. It puts into action the principle that all of the Bible is God-breathed (even the minor prophets) and gives a breadth to reading and familiarity with the whole Word of God. Reading the Bible in this way has helped me to spot connections between books and passages that I wouldn't have otherwise seen.

But completing the assigned reading for the day was becoming more important to me than meeting with the Lord through his Word. When my time was limited, I would prioritise getting all of the reading done and ticking the box than reading less and making time to pray as well. And then the pride started to creep in. I must be doing well - I was going to complete this ambitious reading plan in what had been a crazy year and with three small children at home. These are dangers that Robert Murray M'Cheyne identified and they are real dangers. M'Cheyne thought that the advantages of reading the Bible in a year outweighed the disadvantages. I realised that for me, the disadvantages were outweighing the advantages. (This says more about me than it does about M'Cheyne.) So I stopped my plan and curled up in a Gospel instead.

If you follow Christ, you'll want to spend time reading the Bible. It's literally God's Word! It's our daily bread, it's the story of God's redemption plan, it's how we grow in our knowledge of and love for Christ. It is the authority for the Gospel we speak and the way we live our lives. Please, read the Bible. Read it through in a year if you want to. And as an aside, if you're a mum of small children, don't listen to the lie that you have no time to read the Bible. I'm very grateful to a friend who, several years ago, first showed me it was even possible to read through the Bible in a year when the days are full of small people and the nights are broken too.

But know this: you are not a better Christian because you read the Bible in a year. Jesus does not love you more because you completed your Bible reading plan. He does not love you less because you failed to complete the Bible reading plan, or took longer than planned. Ticking a box every day does not guarantee that you are growing in your walk with God. Reading the Bible in a year doesn't bring some extra-spiritual level of insight. Your salvation was fully achieved through Jesus' death on the cross and no completion of a plan, no streak on your Bible reading app, no sense of achievement at making it all the way through to Malachi, can ever add anything to Jesus' finished work on the cross.

A Bible reading plan is a great tool to read the Bible regularly and systematically. But it's only a tool. Don't make the mistake I did and confuse the tool with the end goal.

Tuesday 16 November 2021

Are you still praying for Afghanistan?

It was easy to remember to pray for Afghanistan when it was on every news headline. When there were pictures of cargo planes crammed full of refugees, stories of those desperately trying to flee the country and a looming deadline, we prayed.

Afghanistan doesn't make the headlines every day now. The Taliban takeover is not breaking news. 

The situation in Afghanistan is still heartbreaking though. Maybe even more so now, with news reports of families selling their children to buy food.

Are we still praying?

Wednesday 10 November 2021

Wonder, not boredom

In our house, Wednesday is nature group day. At the start of September, I launched a nature group for home educated children, in conjunction with our church. Every week a group of us meet in a large park (large by British standards of maintained parks, at least) for a nature walk, story time and activities linked to a weekly theme. When the weather is particularly bad, we hurry down the road to the church hall into the dry. The vast majority of those who come would not describe themselves as having a personal faith in Jesus or regularly attend church so I hope it will be a low-pressure way to just get people comfortable stepping into the church.

We've wandered around the park eight times now. Occasionally we'll venture into some open access public land at the bottom of the park but our routes are familiar enough that the children who come regularly can usually predict where we'll go next. I try to mix it up some weeks and start off in a different direction but there are only so many paths in the park so sooner or later we end up on one of our usual paths. 

After the first few weeks, I was worried that the children coming would get bored. Familiarity would breed contempt and they would just want to go somewhere new. But just a couple of months in and I see that the opposite is true. We might be treading the same paths in the same park but every week there's something new to see as we watch the seasons change in the park, from summer through autumn and now entering winter.

I'm more enthusiastic than knowledgeable about nature so every week sees me researching and learning about that week's subject. I hadn't really been particularly looking forward to last week's fungi topic and this week's mosses and lichen. But I read a bit about fungi and last week we peered into undergrowth and poked around decomposing logs and I was amazed at just how many varieties and the sheer quantity of fungi that we found. I'd just never really been looking for them before.

This week we didn't need to hunt down at the ground because the moss and lichen was right in front of us on the trees - and even lichen growing on metal. We meandered through the park and I marvelled at all the moss and lichen that I'd never really noticed before. In fact, I had wondered beforehand if we'd even find a particular type of lichen, convinced that I hadn't seen it before in the park. There were so many trees covered with this type of lichen I couldn't help but laugh at myself. I'd just not been looking closely enough before.

As we walk many of the same paths each week, I'm starting to build up a mental map of the park. I know where we can find a whole collection of ferns and where the horse chestnut trees are and the pine trees. I checked today the small patch of ground where I was astonished to find the famous red-with-white-spots fly agaric fungi last week, to see if they were still there (they were). I know that if I'm lucky, I'll find frogs in the fountain at the right time of year and that the wildflowers bloom longer than I expected and the leaves change colour later. And it's only November. I wondered if the children (and adults) would get bored in the park and now I'm starting to see that there's so much to explore, so much that I don't even know that I don't know. I'm not asking if there's enough to keep a group of children interested now, I'm wondering how we'll ever fit in everything I want to cover. There's so much to wonder at.

I hope my knowledge and experience of, and relationship with, God is like that park. After being a Christian for a number of years, it's easy to think that maybe the familiarity of the Christian life is just a bit boring. I've trodden the paths of listening to a sermon at church each week, reading the Bible, praying and taking communion for a while (although nowhere near as many years as others) and there's a risk that I might think that I've been here many times before and there's nothing new to see. 

But I want to watch in awe as the passing seasons and years reveal the never-changing God from slightly different angles. I want to learn more about God by digging around in the undergrowth of the doctrines that I hold firmly to in order to find the things I'd never paid much attention to before. I want to learn more about God by lifting up my eyes and realising that there's so much in plain sight that I'd never thought to look for before. I want to see that same landscape in all the different weathers, to see that the core truths of the faith are just as solid and real in the foggy weather of doubt as they are in the blazing sunshine of God's clear and unmistakeable answers to prayer. I want to walk those means of grace again and again knowing that the paths may be the same but there is always more to understand, more to see, more to experience. More to wonder at, more to thank God for, more to turn into praise.

Friday 5 November 2021

God moves in straightforward and mysterious ways

I spent many evenings sitting at our white IKEA dining table in our small flat in Istanbul completing my homework from that morning ready for my Turkish class the next day. I spent a lot of time listening to the audiobook of the Turkish translation of 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe' on half speed while following along with a physical copy, trying to get my brain accustomed to hearing and understanding Turkish and pausing to look up words I didn't understand. I did my Turkish vocabulary flashcards on my phone and sometimes I even did them in the middle of the night while feeding the baby (although other times I scrolled through social media).

As we invested hundreds and hundreds of hours in learning Turkish, we didn't know which city we'd move to. We knew that we wanted to be working alongside a local church but we didn't know what exactly that would look like. But we knew we needed to speak decent Turkish. I imagined sitting on a sofa with a Turkish friend, sipping sweet, black tea and eating cookies, talking about the Gospel while our children played together. Or being able to understand a Bible study and contribute meaningfully without having to mentally rehearse exactly what I'd say. Maybe, if my Turkish got good enough, I'd be able to share at a ladies' meeting or do baptism lessons with a new believer.

Sometimes God moves in straightforward ways. I got to do those things in the city we lived in. Thanks to God, my Turkish was good enough, although it never felt good enough. And many, many times the ladies were gracious enough to overlook my grammatical errors, foreign accent and sudden realisation that I couldn't remember the vocabulary for a critical word.

In that city I met someone who would become a good friend. We met up regularly in parks for our children to play together and so we could chat. While I lived there, she was the non-Christian that I had the most Gospel opportunities with. One time our conversation turned to salvation and how we earn the right to enter heaven. I explained that the Bible teaches that we cannot earn our ticket to heaven through good works but salvation is only through trusting Jesus and his death on the cross. That both a murderer and the 'average' person who tries to do good things deserve God's punishment. That the worst sinner who puts their faith in Jesus on their last day on earth will go to heaven. And I knew she grasped it because her response spilled out immediately: "but that's not fair!"

That friend and I spoke English together. She was from another Central Asian country and her English was better than her Turkish. Hours upon hours of Turkish study and while I lived in Turkey, I got my clearest Gospel opportunities in English. That wasn't the type of opportunity I imagined when I was learning grammar and memorising vocabulary. Sometimes God moves in mysterious ways. 

Earlier this week I sat with eight other people around a couple of tables pushed together in our church hall for our church's monthly prayer meeting. Two of those there were Iranian, still in the early-ish stages of learning English. The person who usually acts as the church's Farsi-English translator was not there but I was there and the Iranians who were there understand Turkish better than they do English. So in line with our church's general language and translation philosophy of 'do the best you can with who is there', as the prayer points were shared, I translated them into Turkish, so that everyone in the meeting could join together in praying in as informed a way as possible. There were plenty of grammatical errors, vocabulary that disappeared out of my head as I reached for it and at least a couple of words and concepts I had no idea how to translate (though in my defence, we didn't exactly need to know how to pray about the distribution of church leaflets and for the church to have greater presence in the community in the conservative Turkish city that we lived in). 

In all the hours I spent learning Turkish, I never once imagined that I'd find myself using it in the UK with Iranians. I never imagined we'd be back in the UK after only spending five years in Turkey either. God moves in mysterious ways. 

It's easy to praise God when he works in the straightforward ways, when I can draw a straight line between effort and results, when I can see God's fingerprints over an outcome so obviously. But when the Lord takes my efforts, often feeble as they are and entirely enabled by him, and turns my plans, those plans I carefully constructed with good intentions and a true desire to see God glorified, upside down and inside out, will I still praise him? Will I give in to the temptation to believe the lie that my plans would have been better? Or will I humbly acknowledge that I am only human and that the plans of the eternal, all-knowing God, who loved me when I didn't deserve it, are infinitely better than anything I could dream up? Will I marvel at how God takes my ideas and experiences and investments of time and energy and hopes and dreams and does something so unexpected with them that my right and only response is to worship him?

Praise God that he moves in straightforward and mysterious ways.