BY EMMA, A PIONEERS UK FIELD WORKER
Arua, a bustling town in the north-west of Uganda, has one of the best fabric markets in East Africa. Shelves of colourful, fun rolls of cloth (called ‘kitenge’) lie stacked up, begging to be sewn into smart shirts and cute dresses. On the market floor, amongst the mud and dirt, lie discarded scraps of fabric, unused and unwanted.
The sounds of laughter and chatting ring out. It’s Thursday evening and we’re meeting for our card project, ‘Arua Home Crafts’. The card project was started over a decade ago by another missionary who saw a need, an opportunity and a market.
Our small card business uses the unwanted scraps of fabric and fashions them into beautiful homemade cards, with fun African animals and colourful, eye-catching designs. The card-makers stain the card with cold tea, and carefully cut round stencils to create the shape, meaning each card is unique.
There are currently six members of the card project. Two of the ladies are named Peace and Grace, which I find so apt for the heart of the project. The aim of the project is not only to provide an honest income – that the members can work in the comfort of their own homes, but also an opportunity to walk together in discipleship as we study the Bible and look at how it relates to our everyday life.
Peace is a widow with two sons, and one of them is Type 1 Diabetic. Because of the income provided to her through the card business, over the last few years, she has been able to buy a year’s supply of millet flour to send to his boarding school so that his diet is supplemented and his blood sugar levels stay healthy. In the last few years, the card project members decided to all contribute from their end of year bonus so they could afford to bulk buy essentials and then share them amongst themselves and their communities.
Grace is another widow with numerous dependents. The money she has earned through the card project has enabled her to pay their rent, pay for medicine for her epileptic daughter, pay for school fees, and for basic food. Through the encouragement of the project, Grace testifies to knowing God’s timely and personal provision.
The annual profits for the project are shared amongst the card members at the end of the year, and the card members receive a lump sum bonus, as well as being paid per card made throughout the year.
Like many businesses, we have had our past challenges, such as distrust amongst previous card members, slow markets, plagiarised designs, and maintaining quality control, but working together to overcome each challenge has helped us to grow as a team, and depend on God more.Our latest challenge has been a dwindling market due to lockdown, and Uganda’s borders being closed, which has meant none of the usual sales through tourists.
Yet we remain hopeful and prayerful that the project will continue to bless the card makers and their families, and in turn bless and bring hope to the wider communities.
As the unwanted kitenge scraps become an integral and beautiful part of each handmade card, so we pray that the project is a symbol of the good news of hope to the marginalised and down-trodden in society, that they too will become transformed into something beautiful and valuable in the Kingdom of God.
Photo by Annie Spratt
My People, My Country, Myself
Our world is constantly changing, and field workers in ‘creative access’ countries have to be flexible and innovative to find ways to stay on the field. Stacey* has been with Pioneers for several years and has been involved in a variety of ministries, but her calling has remained the same: sharing the love of Jesus with the people of Asia. We recently asked Stacey to share with us about life in her country, and some of her highlights and lowlights of serving there.
MY PEOPLE, MY COUNTRY
The people in my country welcome you in such an honest raw way. Not just a polite, “Hello how are you”, but they make you feel truly welcomed – like a friend you haven’t seen in a long time. They are so happy to see you and they are delighted to spend time with you. The amusing thing is that many of the other cultural norms are so different, loud, and sometimes seemingly unsafe that it causes a foreigner to want to run away. Turns out that friend who has been dying to see you also has smelly armpits, a visible bogie hanging out of his nose and sits way too close! Yet, once you let go of your own cultural norms and start to see the world from their perspective you realise that the offensive smelly one with the bogie hanging out isn’t them but you! It is cringe-worthy to think of how I unwittingly broke their cultural norms and ideas of politeness yet despite this they chose to embrace me anyway!
I love so many things about this Asian culture: the food, the history, the depth and eccentric nature of life, but most of all what has touched my heart is the community way of life. One Sunday after church we went home to my pastor’s house. There were several of us there. We played Uno, joked and laughed together, ate together and then all napped ….. together. It felt so normal, but then as I was lying down trying to sleep the thought came to mind that this would never happen back home. In that moment I was lying in the same bed with the pastor’s wife, the pastor, his kids and another person from church, with everyone else sprawled around the floor in close proximity. That would never happen back home – it would be too weird – cross too many boundaries. But here those boundaries don’t exist. The strong community values have stopped any individualist notions like personal space (or private bedrooms!) from becoming a concept or desire.
One challenge of ministry, though, is that lack of mature leadership in some of the churches has meant that there are some fundamental issues. This is especially true in the villages. Some of the local pastors were telling the ladies who work with us that since they were working for a business whose leaders were Christian they also needed to change their beliefs and be baptised, even though they weren’t yet believers. This was not the message that we want to communicate to our ladies or the community. When we tried to address this issue with the pastor we could not get on the same page. There have been so many other things done and said by this local church that we don’t feel comfortable associating with them anymore. We seek to work alongside the local church as much as possible, but this has proven to be rather difficult, and we have found ourselves having to distance ourselves from some of them.
However in the city it has been a bit easier. I work with national partners from amazing church communities. I wouldn’t be able to do this work if it was not joining in on what they have already been doing.
The lowpoint of life here has been seeing the persecution of my brothers and sisters and feeling helpless. It can be hard to believe that we have the victory when you are losing the battle. Cruel injustice can roar against those seeking to see His Kingdom established, the enemy doesn’t fight fair and even goes for blows against vulnerable children. It can be a battle to keep the eternal perspective in mind. But the highpoint for me has been seeing the reality of what I have hoped for. I have longed to see the kingdom of God come into and transform vulnerable communities. I never dreamt that I would be able to see this happen, yet before God called me to be a part of this it was something he was already doing. I’ve been able to visit communities that have come to know Jesus in the unlikeliest of places, even in the midst of Asia’s biggest red light district.
And what about ‘me time’? Going outside can be an exhausting experience, with the sweltering heat and lots of noise. When I need some down time, it involves me alone in my room with some music or Netflix, and lots icy cold drinks. Sometimes I go out and find a café but mostly the idea of travelling out in the very hot and sweaty weather is too exhausting, so I keep indoors. Where I live is very conservative – I can’t wear sleeveless tops or expose my legs – even showing my ankles would be a bit risqué! So if I have some down time I like to stay indoors and chill, and with curtains pulled, wear those banned items of clothing (shorts and a tank top). Being able to do this makes me ridiculously happy!
To read more about the ups and downs of life as a Pioneers field worker, have a look at the latest edition of Reach Magazine online. Or if you’d like a print copy, just email us at email@example.com.
*Name changed for security
BY KERRY, A PIONEERS UK FIELD WORKER
Thoughts on Spirit Walk, by Steve Smith (2018, 2014 Ventures)
Oh no, not another book about the Holy Spirit! This was my initial thought when I saw Spirit Walk, but having become somewhat students of Steve Smith, my team decided to read what turned out to be his final book. Steve died of cancer, aged 57, and went to be with Jesus in 2019; I can only imagine the huge homecoming celebration there was for this humble man of God, a faithful, fruitful servant of the gospel and his Lord. Our team first became aware of Steve’s experience as a teacher of Disciple Making Movements (DMM) and Church planting around 12 years ago when we read his book, co-written with a colleague from Asia, ‘T4T: A Discipleship Re-Revolution’. This book, along with other teachings from DMM circles, was used by God to radically change the course of our team’s strategy in reaching Muslims with the gospel in Central Africa and encouraging them to be disciple-makers themselves.
It’s only in the last couple of years that we have begun to glimpse some fruit from these changes but we are excited to see what we pray and hope are the beginnings of a greater turning to Christ among the people group we are working with. It has been a steep learning curve and a rather exhausting process as we tried out different approaches in ‘getting to the gospel’ in our conversations and sowing the seed widely, using discovery Bible studies as our friends engaged with Scripture, and training any and all who would listen to Jesus’ call to go and take the gospel to those who have not yet heard. Steve’s writings have helped us enormously. So when he published Spirt Walk we just had to read it to hear what he had to say.
One of the hardest things I have discovered in discipling new believers in Jesus from a Muslim background is how to teach them to develop an intimate, personal relationship with Jesus and awareness of the Holy Spirit. It’s difficult to teach others to love Jesus deeply as it is something that grows within us as we learn more about him. Essentially, it is the work of the Holy Spirit to teach us, lead us and draw us to fall more and more in love with Jesus, which then enables us to live a life of submission to the Spirit and be controlled by him. Spirit Walk shines a beautiful light on this process and was a refreshing reminder for me that we all need more of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives — daily.
When the river of living water that is meant to flow out of our born-again hearts has run dry, then it will inevitably have a life-sapping impact on our ministry. After our church planting methods have become obstructed with all kinds of obstacles and our discipleship processes have broken down, it does not necessarily mean it’s time to go home and say ‘It was too hard, but I did my best’. I confess, this thought has often plagued me. When another new sister in Christ tells me that it is impossible for her to tell her family about Jesus because she is too afraid of the consequences; or a brother in Christ is facing persecution to the extent that one of his children has been killed because he follows Jesus; when a new contact ceases to come to read the Bible, or a pastor criticises us for not bringing the new Muslim background believer to the church service then the thought of packing it all in and going home feels quite appealing at times.
But then I hear the voice of Jesus reminding me again that ‘It’s not about you, Kerry; it’s all about me’. Gently, again, as I choose to spend more time with Jesus, the wonderful presence of the Holy Spirit calms my thoughts, helps me to remember that he is with me always in order to give me the mind and heart of Jesus, kindly leading me to repentance, opening my eyes to the ripe harvest fields and giving me renewed strength and purpose to press on. I acknowledge that this has to be a daily occurrence as I can so quickly revert to my own agenda and strength. Walking with the Spirit is not a natural reflex for me but when I do it I recognise that I would rather be there than anywhere else at that moment. Steve encourages us, ‘Only the Spirit can move you through the standstills in life and ministry. He is the Spirit of breakthrough.’
For all others who are prone to wander away from the presence of Jesus and do things in their own strength and for their own purposes, like me, then I propose another delve into the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Steve Smith helps us to do this with Spirit Walk. As we drink deeply from this well, then we can offer a drink to those we are discipling. He encourages us to ask ourselves again, ‘Do I clearly understand what the Bible teaches about how to be filled with the Spirit repeatedly, and am I walking it out daily? If there is any lack of clarity or resolve, this book is for you.’
Having grown up in what Christians commonly call ‘charismatic circles’, I have enjoyed and expected the gifts and power of the Spirit as commonplace in my Christian walk. I can pinpoint several key times when I have particularly experienced a deeper work of the Spirit in my life, all of which have played a significant part in my journey with Jesus and getting me to Central Africa as a disciple maker. Equally though, I can testify to very arid times in my Christian life, when the presence of Jesus seems to have left me and I have become parched, longing for a deep drink of the Spirit again. When I find my way back to Jesus’ arms I tell myself that I won’t let my wanderings happen again, but, yes you guessed it; it does happen again! Spirit Walk, though, is not a book for ‘charismatics’, as the author emphasises his own background from the Southern Baptist branch of the US church. It is, rather, for all who want to abide in Christ, all who long for the word of Christ to dwell in their hearts, and all who thirst for the ongoing filling of the Spirit.
This book provides some very practical pointers to encourage a daily walk with the Spirit; it is also translatable and usable so we can pass on what we have learned to those we are discipling, whatever culture they are from. I want to leave the precious people I have been able to introduce to Jesus with a map for their spiritual daily walk, so they can live in the Spirit and under his control. I want to equip them to be disciple makers, which requires intensive mentoring and training. Alongside this though, there must be the infilling and empowering that can only come from walking with the Holy Spirit. If they only learn strategy and methods from me then they will be like the pre-Pentecost disciples. It was as they learned to live in the Spirit that the strategies and methods they had learned from Jesus became fruitful. As I point people to Jesus then I must also model and encourage a daily welcoming of the Spirit-directed life.
This book certainly provides more than a nudge in the right direction and I pray that you will find it a great encouragement too, wherever you serve and whatever your role is. Where would we be without the Holy Spirit breathing upon us and powering us forwards? I know I would have come home to the UK a long time ago, discouraged and dissatisfied. But… thanks be to God who never gives up on us and gives us the Spirit of Jesus to fulfill his purposes on this earth.
Photo by Nico E. on Unsplash
How is Your Inner Life?
BY DR DAVID SMITH
Readers of this blog may know that I have spent a lot of time over the past couple of years writing a book on the biblical tradition of the prayer of lament. But in addition, I recently worked on a set of Bible reading notes dealing with Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, which of course includes Jesus’ teaching on the subject of prayer.
So let me begin with the words of Jesus. At the very heart of what might be called the ‘manifesto’ of the kingdom of God, Jesus deals with three aspects of what we can describe as ‘spiritual disciplines’: giving to the poor and oppressed, prayer and fasting. A friend of mine told me recently that he avoids using terminology about ‘the soul’ because, he said, it has become a kind of jargon that few people really understand. Instead he will occasionally ask colleagues, ‘How is your inner life?’ He reports that when phrased in this way, even non-Christian friends respond to a sensitive enquiry, recognising that there is more to being a human person than what appears on a surface level.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Jesus’ teaching on these subjects is precisely his repeated insistence on the private, internal life of his disciples and, conversely, repeated warnings about parading religious devotion in public in order to enhance one’s esteem with other people. He talks about ‘acts of righteousness’ and immediately says they should not be performed (an appropriate word!) ‘before men’. The sharing of resources is to be done in secret, never as a means of gaining honour; the discipline of prayer is a matter for your own room with the door closed; and fasting (which Jesus clearly regards as a regular spiritual discipline) is to be directed solely to ‘your Father, who sees what is done in secret’.
The connection between this teaching of Jesus and mission has nothing to do with effectiveness in evangelism, as though this is a kind of method to achieve greater success. The concern of Christ is
instead with the kind of people we become and the manner in which that then challenges the normal values of the world in which we live our lives. In 1937 the English missionary Charlie Andrews sailed to India for the final time and received a letter on his arrival from a Hindu friend who said, ‘During all these twenty years I have never asked you about Christ, for your own personality has been more than enough for me’. He went on to request Andrews to write a life of Christ in simple English and added: ‘You are the only person who can write this book, for you have lived like Him all these years in India’. Before his death Andrews wrote a small commentary on the Sermon on the Mount which he described as ‘an amazingly perfect description of the Christian character at its highest point’.
What though if your inner life is in turmoil? Is prayer possible when we experience crisis, whether personal tragedy or some larger catastrophe which shatters our hope and shakes the very foundations of our faith? This, of course, is the point at which the biblical tradition of the prayer of lament is so crucial. The Bible does not tell that when our hearts are breaking we have to say, ‘Praise the Lord anyway’. Praise and lament are closely connected in Scripture, and both form part of a normal relationship with God. The conclusion we draw is that biblical prayer is not only crucial for the inner life of the Christian, but also that it must be honest before God, unafraid to admit failure, doubt and struggle. As someone has said, the questions ‘Why?’ and ‘How Long?’ are as authentic in the Bible as the cry ‘Hallelujah’.
Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash
This article was originally featured in the April 2020 edition of Reach magazine. To subscribe to Reach, or any of Pioneers UK’s other digital publications, click here.
Reflections on the Coronavirus
BY SARAH*, A PIONEERS UK MISSIONARY
In The Psychology of Waiting Lines, first published
in 1985, the author David Maister found that uncertain waits felt longer than known, finite waits, and that the uncertain waits created more anxiety. He used the example of a doctor’s waiting room. If patients arrived half an hour early for their appointment then they would wait placidly during that time.
However, as soon as even a few minutes passed after their
appointment time then their irritation and anxiety levels would sky-rocket. Furthermore, Maister found that if patients were given a time estimate, for example “the doctor is running late by twenty minutes”, then they would be more able to wait patiently. If no time estimate was given then their waiting would be filled with nervous apprehension.
This article has some interesting parallels to what we are
experiencing now with the coronavirus, and in particular, the indefinite waiting of the lockdown restrictions. It is easier to wait and put up with something if we know how long it is going to last for. At the moment though, it seems like there’s no real idea of how long the lockdown will continue, and in what form. This uncertainty has the potential to create a lot of anxiety, which
in turn can have a detrimental effect on our health, our relationships with those around us, and our relationship with God.
This time of waiting reminds me a lot of our own time of indefinite waiting when we were trying to adopt a child in our country of service. When we first started the adoption process in 2015, we had a rough expectation of how long things would take, and we were able to be quite calm about the whole thing. Also, to a large extent, the wait was under our control, because we were the ones putting together the relevant documents and compiling our adoption portfolio (with the help of many friends and family). In August 2017, after we had submitted all our documents and homestudy checks, we were given the green light and officially placed in a ‘queue’ waiting for a match, which we had been told would take up to a year.
A few weeks after being placed in the queue, it was our ninth wedding anniversary. I woke up that morning and wrote excitedly in my diary that this time next year we could have a child. That afternoon we were emailed by a representative from the government’s adoption department and told that the adoption process had slowed down dramatically, and that it would now take three to five years for a match. (This affected other families in the process too, not just us).
We were not told the reason for this, but at the time the political situation was declining rapidly, with increasing persecution against minority groups and also a move towards cancelling visas and removing foreigners from the country. We guessed it was something to do with all this, and it seemed entirely plausible that the adoption might not even happen at all. And there was nothing we could do about it except wait.
Here are four lessons that God taught me during those anxious, uncertain months of waiting. I write them here because it is a testimony to God’s faithfulness, and because I need the reminder, and because also they might be of some relevance to people in this time of lockdown who are also
wondering how to wait.
Lesson 1: Growth happens in the waiting
In the indefinite wait of the adoption process, it felt like our lives were on pause, or worse, stagnating, even though we had plenty of other things to be getting on with. For me as I waited to adopt, my fear was that I would deteriorate so much in the endless waiting that by the time we were given a child there would be nothing left of the original me; it would be a faded version of myself, someone who had become sad, weary and embittered.
But God spoke to me about this specific fear of stagnation, using this metaphor of a fallow field:
“A fallow field is never dormant. As dirt sits waiting for things to be planted and grown, there is work being done invisibly and silently. Microorganisms are breeding, moving and eating. Wind and sun and fungi and insects are dancing a delicate dance that leavens the soil, making it richer, better, readying it for planting.” (from Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren).
It was a promise that God would be at work in me as I waited. He wouldn’t let me stagnate; he would use the waiting to grow me and
transform me. A visible and tangible reminder of this promise was my
houseplants; as I tended to them each day, watching their leaves unfurl and their flowers bud and bloom, I was reminded that growth was happening.
I started noticing more agricultural metaphors in the Bible,
particularly this verse in Ephesians 3:17, about our roots growing down deep into God’s love. This is Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians:
“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to -”
To do what, exactly? It is interesting at this point to fill in the blanks here, to guess how Paul would end this prayer. Paul is a type-A personality, a high achiever, so it would be natural to assume that he wants the Ephesians to have power to be better church-planters, or to be a bigger and better church.
When I read this during our adoption wait, I thought that maybe God would use the waiting to make me a better Christian. Then I would be a more effective witness for him, more willing and able to share the gospel with people. He would use the waiting to make me nicer, more patient, more understanding… Just, better. Those were my blanks that I filled in for myself.
But this is how Paul finishes that line:
“… to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ
and to know this love that surpasses knowledge –
that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
It is significant that Paul wrote this whilst facing his own
uncertain and indefinite wait in a Roman prison. He didn’t know if he would be freed, or if he would be executed. And yet his prayer throughout the book of Ephesians was for them to know Jesus better, that they would truly grasp with their heads and their hearts how much Jesus loved them.
And this is what God did with me. He used my own time of waiting to show me, in so many different ways, just how much he loved me.
Lesson 2. Hope won’t lead to disappointment a.k.a How to wait when the thing I am waiting for might not even happen
In this time of lockdown, we don’t know how the world will look when the restrictions are lifted and the coronavirus is gone. Our lives, our society and our world will not be the same. So how do we wait when we are not even sure what we are waiting for? How do we have hope when the life we are anticipating post-lockdown might be worse than the life pre-lockdown?
When Tim* and I were given the “three to five years” estimate for our adoption match, we were doubtful we would be able to stay in the country for that long. The government was making it harder and harder for foreigners to stay, and it seemed increasingly unlikely we would even be able to stay in the country for another year, let alone up to five years.
So we waited, unsure if there would even be a child at the end of the waiting. And I wondered – how was I supposed to look forward to something that might not even happen? How was I supposed to prepare for it? What was I even hoping for?
Despair is the opposite of hope, and in that Autumn of 2017, I came very close to despair. Even though I am a natural optimist, and come from a family of rampant optimists, I was ready to take on Tim’s motto of “hope for nothing and you’ll never be disappointed”, also known as “not getting your hopes up.”
As I pondered the nature of hope during that Autumn, a friend happened to send me a whatsapp voice message from a car park in America. She didn’t know what I had been thinking about, but she felt that God had something he wanted to tell me. (This was an experience I had again and again throughout the whole adoption process. God used people to deliver divine messages when I most needed it and when I least expected it).
She said God wanted to give me this verse:
“I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow
with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13).
She told me bluntly that I believed that hope led to disappointment, which was a pretty accurate assessment. She went on to say: “That verse says that the Father is the source of hope. So if hope is sourced out of the Father then it can only be a good thing, and it is only going to a good place, a place that will be good for us.”
She quoted Romans 11:33 – “How great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible is it for us to understand his decisions and ways,” and said that even though the Father’s decisions and ways seem hard and difficult, they will always lead to a place of peace, hope and life, because this is what the Father does.
And then Romans 15:4 – “And his word gives us hope and encouragement as we wait patiently for God’s promises to be fulfilled.”
Therefore, my friend concluded, even if there was no child at the end of the adoption process, I could have hope that whatever happened would bring life, peace and fulfilment, in the fullness of what the Father wanted to do. It would not lead to disappointment.
However, my idea of life, peace and fulfilment looked like a
biking holiday in neighbouring Thailand over Chinese New Year, and a trekking holiday in the Scilly Isles for our tenth wedding anniversary, both of which were planned, booked and paid for and both of which had to be cancelled when Tim broke his leg quite badly playing football a few months later. They were my consolation prizes for not having a child, but God was telling me that all I needed was Him. He would be enough for me, whatever happened, and it was dangerous to place my hope in anything which was not him.
Which brings me to lesson three:
Lesson 3: Don’t let your circumstances shape your view of God
This was probably the most valuable thing that God taught me
as we waited. During that Autumn of 2017 I was assailed by a lot of doubt – about my convictions, about God’s character – and I began to let what was happening dictate my view of God.
I started to think that maybe God didn’t care about me after all, or that maybe my longing to have a child was not really that important to him. I wondered if I was being taught some kind of lesson, and only when I had learnt it then God would ‘reward’ me with a child. Perhaps I had ‘heard’ God wrong, that he didn’t want us to adopt in our country of service, and all the signs from him were just coincidences. I became more and more confused. Gradually, I stopped talking to God because I didn’t trust who he was.
After a few months of this self-induced misery, I listened
to a sermon by Kay Warren (the wife of Rick Warren, who wrote The Purpose Driven Life). She was talking about her son’s suicide and how in that dark and confusing time, she had to find things from the Bible that she believed to be true, things that she could say with absolute certainty that she believed about God, that she could hang on to and be sure of.
After listening to the sermon, I wrote in my diary that I knew God was kind. That was my one thing that I could hang onto about him.
It was as if God was preparing me for what was to come, because the events that followed would have been a lot harder to deal with if I hadn’t believed that God was kind. In his mercy God surprised us with a son, and yet days after, as the arrests started, we also had to flee the country, leaving friends and possessions and everything behind, not to mention a life we had spent many years planning for and working towards. But because I knew God was kind, I also knew that he would help us. He was not playing games with us or being cruel, inflicting suffering to teach us a lesson. He cared for us. He wouldn’t leave us high and dry. He would provide for us. He had good things planned for us in England, and new paths for us to walk in.
In this time of the coronavirus, it would be so easy to let our circumstances shape our view of God. Every day, there are so many sad stories of suffering and injustice that one could start to conclude that God is not good, and that he is not in control. So we need to have a right and Biblical theology of God first; this is the lens through which we view everything that is happening around us. Not the other way around.
That wasn’t to say that I stopped questioning God, or getting angry and sad at him. But I did keep talking to him. The Biblical word for this is ‘lamenting’, and it brings me to the last lesson:
Lesson four: Learning how to lament
The Bible is full of laments. In these laments, there are no easy answers, no interpretations that make sense. The laments exist in the grey space, in the mystery, in the Easter Saturday which Pete Grieg in his book God On Mute calls the day of silence, the time of no miracles.
In those dark Autumn days, when Tim and I struggled to pray, we would read a Psalm of lament together, because it would echo the words that came naturally to us, but also reminded us of the One we were lamenting to. Some of those psalms were pretty long and I didn’t have the patience or focus to sit through the whole thing, so we would only read the first few verses and then skip ahead to the last verse – like in Psalm 13, which starts:
“How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?”
And ends :
“But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me. “
Of all the people who prayed with us and for us during the waiting and the uncertainty, those who helped us most were the ones who also lamented with us, who admitted they did not understand what God was doing, who were willing to sit in the Easter Saturday with us and yet also reminded us of truths about God’s character.
I wonder if, in this time of the coronavirus, we need to
rediscover, individually and in our churches and communities, how to lament. How to sing songs of lament and how to pray prayers of lament.
Those of you reading this will know how our adoption journey
ended. But these reflections are not about the ending; they are about the middle. In many ways, that time of waiting was just as precious as the little boy we adopted in April 2018.
So, as we wait together, not knowing how and when this coronavirus pandemic will end, “may God, the source of hope, fill us completely with joy and peace because we trust in him.”
*Names changed for security
On Petrol, Providence and Prayer
I was a
missionary in Africa once. In Botswana, to be specific. One summer, my very
best friend brought her Sunday School class from Texas for a mission
trip/safari. We spent the first week of their trip doing children’s camps in
the villages where I worked. For the second week, we were off to Chobe National
Park in northern Botswana and Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.
the morning of our departure the nine of us made our way to the airport with
our oversized piles of luggage and supplies. We arrived to discover that our
nine-seater rental van didn’t come equipped with a trailer hitch as we’d
assumed, so American ingenuity married the folly of youth and we crammed all
our supplies plus nine people (three of whom were great, strapping lads) into the
van: three in the front seat which was made for two, four in the middle seat
which was made for three, and two valiant souls who volunteered to ride, flat
on their backs in the 45cm space between the luggage and the roof.
(Incidentally, those two heroes—who hadn’t met before the trip—have now been
happily married for nearly 20 years!)
With our fearless leader—that was me—behind the wheel, we set off for the bush, eager to taste the delights of rural Africa. The journey was meant to take 13 hours, which to us Americans was a perfectly reasonable one-day drive. We travelled, happy and carefree along the A1 toward Francistown, breezing through villages and small towns along the way. At Francistown, we turned left and followed the less populated A3 toward Nata. At Nata we had a little lunch and carried on, now into the 200 miles of unbroken “proper bush” between Nata and Kasane at the northern tip of Botswana. What a delight for my passengers to be hurtling through this barren landscape, ever on the lookout for elephants and giraffes, even here, outside the national parks! What a delight to be so isolated, so alone, so empowered by youth and ambition and ignorance of the dangers that could so easily overtake us if not for the petrol in the tank and the water in our jerrycans.
And what a moment
of fear and trembling for me when, over two hours from our destination, with nothing
but empty bush for 100 miles in every direction, the petrol light came on.
Somehow in my youthful enthusiasm, I had neglected to fill the tank in either
Francistown or Nata. We had about 45 minutes of petrol left for a 2-hour drive.
My best friend, who was sandwiched next to me, shot me a look. I gave her one
back. We said nothing to the others, but both started praying silently. Suddenly,
our carefree adventure had become very, very real.
We flew on toward
our destination: seven of us enjoying the scenery, two of us growing our first
grey hairs. The minutes passed, the miles slipped by, the petrol levels
dropped. We had been below empty for about an hour when I became convinced that
we were driving on the power of the Holy Spirit. Then, at the two-hour mark,
joy! The outskirts of the town loomed, and at the crossroads, the promise of
petrol and salvation. Just as I spied the petrol station about 300 meters ahead
at the top of an incline, the engine sputtered and I rolled to a stop. We were
out of petrol.
everybody out!” I said, and told them the story of how far we’d come on no petrol.
My big Texas lads (and my little but hearty Texas ladies) weren’t daunted in
the slightest. “Let’s get this thing up the hill!” they shouted, and with me at
the wheel, the eight of them pushed that heavily laden metal miracle up the
hill and into the petrol station. We’d made it. Only just.
It was just
a matter of fuel. I didn’t have enough. I didn’t get it when I should have. I
didn’t respect the bush and the dangers it possessed, and I didn’t take with me
what I needed to get myself and my friends safely to our destination.
It has long
been known that prayer is the fuel of mission. Paul knew that his mission was
sustained by prayer, and urged the Philippians (1:9), the Colossians (4:3), the
Thessalonians (1 Th 5:25) and the Ephesians (6:19) to pray for him. If he knew
he needed prayer, how much more the rest of us?
field is a dangerous place, and our missionaries aren’t just in danger from
those who would oppose their message and cause them harm. They’re in danger
from spiritual forces, from disease, from natural disasters, from temptation,
from car accidents, from burnout, from relationship breakdown, and even from
running out of petrol in the middle of the African bush in the dead of summer.
possible that we’re sending our field workers out without the fuel they need?
We expect them to have hardships, yes. The Bible promises that things won’t
always be easy. But if we who stay home are claiming to be obedient to the
Great Commission, but are not praying for those who Go, we’re kidding
ourselves. Prayer is the fuel for mission, and it is our job to make sure our
missionaries have the fuel they need. Otherwise, they may end up having to push
their ministry up a hill in harsh and dusty conditions. Or worse, they may end
up stranded and in real danger.
very good to us that day in the bush of Botswana. It’s never been more than a
funny story about a silly 25-year-old American and a miraculous self-filling
petrol tank. But it could have been a very, very different story. All for lack
Let’s not risk our missionaries’ lives and ministries because of a lack of fuel. We have a responsibility and a call to pray. Let’s commit to pray for them and give them the fuel they need, not just to make it from day to day, but to flourish in even the most barren of places.
Photo by Jacques Bopp.
The Race Marked Out for Us
Manhattan is a special place any time of year, but it was particularly stunning on Sunday, the 3rd of November. The sky was blue and endless, the air was crisp and chilly, and the pavements were packed with bright-faced well-wishers, cheering their hearts out for the 60,000 runners who had made it into the New York City Marathon that day. My best friend is no marathoning novice—NYC was her fourth marathon, so she went into the morning confident. So confident, in fact, that she’d had no qualms about walking 11 miles the day before, taking in the sights with her husband and 17-year-old daughter, and me and my new hubby.
My husband and I had risen early on Marathon Sunday to catch her at mile 5, not too far from where I used to live in Brooklyn. She was running at a steady pace, and when she saw us at our pre-planned meeting spot, she threw her arms in the air and started talking a mile a minute. Her eyes were bright and her energy was high. A great sign of things to come.
She ran off, and we ran for the subway. We had about 90 minutes to get back to Manhattan, meet her husband and daughter, and make our way to the marathon route to catch her at our second meeting spot. She arrived not long after we’d settled in, and though she was still in good spirits, she looked tired. We gave her some food and a few hugs and sent her off again.
We didn’t have a planned meeting spot for our third rendezvous, but we told her we’d text her to let her to know where to look for us. We dashed for the subway again and ended up in Central Park halfway between miles 23 and 24. But by the time we settled on a spot, her phone had died and our texts weren’t going through. We were tracking her progress on the NYC Marathon app so we knew where she was, but she had no way of knowing where we were, or when (or if!) she would see us again.
We waited a long time for her to come. When she finally rounded a corner into view, we started shouting her name and waving our arms with glee. She ran to the side, but this time there were tears in her eyes and she dared not stop. “I just need it to be over,” she shouted as she passed us with heavy feet.
We watched her carry on around the bend and my husband looked back at my best friend’s 17-year-old daughter. Her face said it all: she just wanted to be with her mother. He said, “Shall we catch her?” She said, “Yes.” And before we knew what had happened, they sprinted off down one of the many winding paths of Central Park, leaving the rest of us behind. Neither of them was familiar with Central Park. Only one of them had a working phone. They barely even knew each other. But they took off with a common goal. They couldn’t let her run alone.
And they caught her! They cheered her on from the sidelines again and again the last three miles of the race—sprinting and cheering, and sprinting and cheering. They refused to stop until they could see the finish line.
As she was limping back to the hotel that evening, her finisher medal swinging from her neck, she said, “All I wanted to do was stop running. I wanted to walk. But then I saw those two running next to me and cheering me on. They gave me the strength to keep going.” She crossed the finish line 18 minutes earlier than she expected to.
If ever there was a real-life example of how we should be supporting our missionaries, I lived it in New York on the 3rd of November. You see, my best friend’s daughter was not a runner before that day. My husband is a runner, but he’s never (yet) run a marathon. But they saw an experienced marathoner struggling and they both upped their game to help her to the finish line. They didn’t make excuses like “I’m not wearing running clothes,” or “I’ve already walked 10 miles today,” or “I don’t know the way.” They just went. And their going not only helped my best friend finish the marathon; their going also inspired her daughter to start running. Now, back in Alabama, my best friend and her daughter run together.
So let’s get alongside our missionaries! Let’s not make excuses like “I don’t know them that well,” or “I don’t have enough spare cash to give,” or “I don’t have time to pray,” or “I couldn’t possibly do what they do.” Instead, let’s up our game and get running so that we can all cross that hard-earned finish line together.
Photo by Niels van Hattem and licensed by Creative Commons.
Is More Prayer the Answer?
Raise your hand if you understand how prayer works. Now look at your hands. If one of them is raised, I’d very much like to meet you, because I have a few questions for you. I just don’t get it. I know it does work; I have some ideas about why God has asked us to pray; but I haven’t the foggiest how it actually works.
How is it possible that I can pray day after day for something—something God has commanded us to pray for in scripture, and something that I know He wants even more than I do—and yet, after years of praying, my very godly request still hasn’t been fulfilled? And yet sometimes, I can pray for something once…just breathing out a prayer…and it happens! The arithmetic just doesn’t add up. The system doesn’t work. It makes no logical sense.
I’ve been reading lately about some of our Christian brothers and sisters in a part of the world where becoming a Christian is dangerous, and where leading others to Christ is, if not always a death-wish, at least a prison-wish, an ostracism-wish, a disowned-by-your-family-and-everyone-you-know wish. Yet, even with all the very real threat hanging over their heads, they’re seeing spectacular things happen. Hundreds, thousands of people are turning to Jesus. Entire communities are leaving their old religious system and becoming Christians. And then those very new Christians are turning around and venturing into new places, hostile places and reproducing what they’ve experienced at home.
And how do they do it? You guessed it: prayer.
They pray and fast weekly for their friends and neighbours who don’t know Jesus. They gather monthly (if not several times a month) to pray ALL NIGHT, interceding for people in their communities. They gather every day at midday to pray as churches or ministry teams. They pray on their own for hours each morning. They regularly have family devotionals and prayer time.
Why? Firstly, because Jesus asked us to. But perhaps more practically, because it’s working! They’ve seen what happens when they pray. They know that God is at work when they pray. So they pray more. And God works more. It’s all very dramatic and obvious what’s happening in those dangerous places, and perhaps the results are more obvious because the risk is greater and the pray-ers are more willing to take that risk because, when you weigh it all together, the payoff is astonishing.
I don’t know how prayer works, but it is clearly part of God’s equation. Which makes me wonder…should we be taking a leaf out of their book? We want God to do amazing things like that here in the UK as well as around the world. We want him to push back our very Western brand of darkness—the apathy, skepticism, materialism and self-satisfaction that blind people to the light that Christ has to offer. Is what we might consider an extreme commitment to prayer the key to seeing God move in larger-than-life ways?
I’m going to stick my neck out and say no. It’s not following a particular pattern of prayer that enables miraculous things to happen. Our brothers and sisters in dangerous places don’t wake up in the morning and start ticking “morning devotion with family”, “midday prayer meeting” and “fast for two meals” off their daily to-do lists. They wake up in the morning hungry for God and desperate to see his love poured out on their friends who don’t yet know him. That passion drives them to prayer, to fasting, to bold evangelism, to selfless devotion to discipleship and mentoring. The supernatural element of prayer is undeniable—we’ve all seen prayer work in ways we can’t fully explain or understand. But following a prescribed pattern of prayer that “works there so it must work here too” won’t necessarily produce the same results in every situation.
What we need is a hunger for God and a desperation to see his love poured out on those who don’t know him. That passion will drive some of us to wildly committed prayer and fasting. It will drive others of us to give generously, even sacrificially, out of our abundance. It will drive still others to teach and encourage and spur God’s people on toward greater and deeper commitment to Christ. And still others it will drive to leave what is familiar and go to the next village or the next hemisphere to boldly share Christ’s love.
Our brothers and sisters in dangerous places don’t sit around praying all day. With the rest of their day they risk life and limb to share Christ with religious leaders, to bring the gospel to villages and towns where Jesus isn’t known, to encourage believers in far-flung and isolated places, to smuggle Bibles across hostile borders. Their passion for God fuels their prayers, and their prayers provide the shield and the power for their bold movements in spiritually hostile places.
So whether or not we ever find out how prayer works, let’s do it, and do it boldly and passionately. God uses it in ways we don’t understand to do amazing and miraculous things. But let’s also cultivate the kind of hunger for him that can only be satisfied by an all-night prayer meeting or a three-hour devotional. Let’s care so much about those who don’t know him that bold evangelism is the only appropriate course of action. That’s when our prayers grow hands and feet, and that’s when things start changing.
Photo by Lesly Derksen on Unsplash.
A Lesson in Community
I must’ve looked a bit funny, my bike crumpled beneath me, picnic-laden backpack askew, lying on my side in the middle of the road with one knee digging into the asphalt and the other in the air. But no one dared laugh. The people around me were all wide-eyed, mouths hanging open, stopped in their tracks, thanking the sweet Lord they hadn’t just witnessed the horror of a cyclist getting squished by a bus. It was only a skinned knee and a shattered ego, and all I wanted as I picked myself and my bike up off the road was to disappear into anonymity.
You see, on this particular day, I’d decided to be brave. My soon-to-be-husband, a keen cyclist, had been trying to get me to use my bike more in town, rather than walking or driving. He’d taken me on several bike rides on country lanes in the Peak District and in other parts of the country, and I’d followed him through Sheffield traffic plenty of times before. But whenever he suggested I meet him somewhere in the city on my bike, I always balked. I was too afraid to brave the traffic myself. I was too unstable, too road wary, and not very quick-thinking on wheels. So I’d always say no, forcing him to come to my house first before I would go anywhere in town on my bike.
But not this day. This day I decided to be brave. I was going to meet him at the Botanical Gardens for a picnic, and as my car was being fixed and the Botanical Gardens was close to his office, I knew what I had to do—I had to ride my bike on my own. My route took me through neighbourhoods and along little-used roads, and though I was nervous, things were going well. (Not counting the moment I had to stop at the top of a hill and instead of putting my feet down and putting on my brakes to keep from rolling backward, I grabbed a bollard and hung on to the bike with my knees—it was very unglamorous, and elicited a smirk from at least one passerby.) Unfortunately, my route also took me along one of the busier streets in Sheffield, and getting into the Botanical Gardens required a right-hand turn across oncoming traffic.
I attempted to balance there in the right-hand lane, waiting for a gap in the traffic. I’d signaled appropriately so that the people behind me knew my intention to turn—but the traffic kept coming and I became more and more unstable as I slowed down. Unbeknownst to me, a bus had come up behind me and decided not to wait. He silently crept up behind me and came around my left side, very close to me. The bus startled me, which threw me off balance and the world slipped into slow motion. I knew I was going to fall into the bus. I was getting closer and closer, and I was praying that God would hold me up until the wheels had passed me. And He did. As the back wheels drew even with me, I fell into the side of the bus and ricocheted off it and onto the road.
Everything came to a halt. Traffic on both sides of the road stopped. Pedestrians froze in their tracks. The bus, full of passengers, pulled over to the side of the road, and the trembling bus driver alighted, certain that he’d killed me. It took a substantial amount of reassurance to convince him and the others who stopped to help that I was indeed fine except for my skinned knee and my bruised pride.
I was shaky for a while afterward, and I’m certainly not keen to do any more solo city cycling just yet, but I learned an important lesson: We need each other, don’t we? I don’t just mean that I need other people to lead me through traffic on my bike because when I go by myself I get hit by busses. I mean, we need each other. We humans. We Christians. We obeyers of the Great Commission.
The fact is, I’m not road ready. I’m not prepared, mentally or physically to ride solo. Maybe one day I will be, but it will only be because I’ve been taught and guided and helped by someone who is more experienced than me. And even then, it’s generally better not to go on my own. We individualists place a high value on doing things ourselves. From the two year old who insists on pouring her own milk out of a jug that’s as big as she is, to the project manager who genuinely believes that to get something done right he has to do it himself, we are all victims to one degree or another of this belief—this lie—that we can do it by ourselves.
The fact is, we weren’t made to be individualists. We were made for community. Made to help and guide and learn from and bless each other. When it comes to our call to fulfil the Great Commission, it’s even more vital that we do it in community. The church was called AS A BODY to take the Gospel to those who haven’t heard, and it is a call that each one of us is meant to heed, according to our gifts.
My fiancé wasn’t with me when I got hit by a bus and ended up on the road with a skinned knee. But a lot of other people were there. The man from Sheffield council who stood with me, talking with me until he was sure I was ok. The women who stopped and offered to get me a drink. The bus driver who was prepared to kick everyone else off his bus and drive me home, or to the hospital. Even the drivers who managed to stop in time and not run over me as I lay on the ground. People were there. And had it been worse than a skinned knee, people would have looked after me.
The moral of the story is twofold, I suppose: 1) I should wait until I’m road-ready before I strike out on my bike alone in city traffic and 2) If I do get hit by a bus, it’s much better to do so in a crowded area, where people are ready to look after me.
And as for the Great Commission, let’s do it together. Let’s learn from and follow the people who are more experienced than us, and let’s make sure we have plenty of people to walk beside us as we carry the Gospel to those who haven’t heard. Then, when we bounce off life’s busses and skin our knees, we’ll at least have someone to help us up.
Photo by Carl Nenzen Loven.
South Asia: A Melting Pot of Religion
BY ALFIE, A PIONEERS UK WORKER IN SOUTH ASIA
Bells. Today, like most days, our day starts with the sound of bells.
This is not the sound of our alarm clock or our doorbell but of the puja** bells ringing in worship to the Hindu gods. As we step out of our flat, we see the now familiar sight of red and yellow paste mixed with a red flower carefully placed at each entrance to the house. We pass the remnants of the incense burnt earlier this morning in the potted plant by the gate.
Puja. Our landlord’s daughter-in-law has been busy, as she is every morning, ensuring she fulfils her duty of offering puja to the gods on behalf of the household. She carries the burden of the spiritual wellbeing of the family; if something bad befalls them, she simply must not have worshipped enough.
This mindset also pervades the Christians here. One morning a Christian driver let his children sleep instead of waking them in the early hours to pray with him before he set off. Only he and his wife prayed. That day, he was involved in a collision when a motorcyclist made a poor decision and cut in front of his car. The motorcyclist was injured but received no lasting damage. The Christian driver wonders whether the accident would have occurred if he had woken his children to join him and his wife for morning prayers.
Walking through our small town it is impossible to forget that we live in a predominantly Hindu area. There are constant reminders surrounding us – the temple at the end of the main road; the man offering worship at the shrine; the Hindu swastikas that decorate so many houses, calling for prosperity and good luck; the red and yellow paste that adorns the homes, the shop fronts, the shrines, the Hindu statues and the faces of the people we pass in the street – a tika on the forehead of the woman selling us fruit and vegetables or an intricate design on the face of the man walking by.
As we head out of town and travel to a village in the foothills of the Himalayas, we leave Hinduism behind and move into an area of Buddhism. Buddhist prayer flags hang from many houses, large flagpoles stand proud within the village. As we admire the stunning views, we can see them fluttering in the wind, offering up prayers on the householders’ behalf. Having been invited into a neighbour’s home and enjoying their generous hospitality, a peculiar object catches our eye – are goats sacrificed on this object by the head of the household, the witch doctor?
Christians, Buddhists, Hindus. Neighbours, colleagues, friends. All appears to be amicable but below the surface, tensions simmer. Legal proceedings when Hindu neighbours complain the church building is too tall or prevent access unless the church purchases more land at an inflated price; anger when a family member converts to Christianity; new Government laws designed to prevent conversion and prevent foreign influence. Persecution takes many forms. All is not harmonious. On Hindu festival days, most Christians remain indoors to avoid any involvement. Integrated yet segregated.
But there is hope. We met a man, a talented artist, creating beautiful, intricate paintings. He once painted mandalas and other Buddhist imagery but when he became a Christian he prayed that God would show him what he could do instead, as painting was all he knew. A few weeks later, a lady commissioned him to paint a Christian alternative – a mandala incorporating a Bible verse. He praised the Lord! God had given him back his art which he now uses to further God’s Kingdom.