Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Refugees in Stoke

We moved house! Again! OK, so I started writing this a couple months ago.  So, in case anyone is confused, we haven't moved house again, again! We moved just before Christmas and the delay in getting this blog finished only underlines the point that moving is hard work!

It's the 20th time we have moved in five years.  Hopefully it is the last for at least the next couple!! Despite the fact that we haven't lived in our own place in the UK for five and half years and have spent a considerable amount of that time overseas, we have accumulated quite a lot of stuff.  At least in our culture, attracting material things as you move through life, like magnets moving through iron filings, seems like a fairly universal experience.  And like barnacle encrusted ships, the extra drag created from all that baggage doesn't make sailing any easier.

Hello, is it me you're looking for?

Packing took longer than we thought as we found more and more boxes of things we'd put in storage back in 2011.  We probably spent about a month packing.  Then the actual move took place over 10 days, with a tail lift van, five trailers loads, and I don't know how many car loads making the 30 minute trip to our new house each day.  And since we've moved in, we've had a plumber come, a painter, a builder, a gasman, a carpet fitter, bed makers, folks from the council, and countless deliveries from local supermarkets, retailers, appliance shops and the like.  It's felt like quite a logistical operation as we've all been camping on various 'beds' surrounded by boxes of every shape in various stages of unpacking.  At times my emotions moved from surprise and delight at finding things I'd deemed lost, to consternation and confusion at how many things I hadn't lost, to shame and embarrassment at things I wish I had lost.  I realised that my possessions included such oddities as an inflatable Millenium Falcon, old wigs, a rope ladder, a broken cricket bat, dried insects, boxes of old comics, flight logs, old number plates and a dingy.  I never considered myself a hoarder, but such odds and ends could hardly be considered essential... What is even more remarkable is that they survived the first cull when we moved out of our old house! Oh, did I mention the mechanical cow?!

Trailer number five
It is a picture of moving that couldn't be more different from the experience faced by millions of people around the world who are being displaced by conflict.  I had thought to comment on the recent executive orders issued from the White House or the Dubs amendment that our own government recently scrapped.  But regardless of the attitude of government institutions, relocating 18 miles has reminded me that moving is tiring and stressful and it has made me consider the plight of those moving much further afield.  Of course it has been exciting for us too - choosing where to live, imagining our future life, decorating and buying new things and settling into our new space.  But for those fleeing persecution, or war, or famine, although there might be a measure of hope in their journey, it will likely not be exciting, empowering, or comfortable.

Delivery number eight

These refugees will not have the luxury of packing up their possessions in carefully organised boxes.  They will not have the time to sort out the essentials from non-essentials, to make sure important documents are kept safe, or to protect special items of emotional meaning.  They will not be able to round up friends and family to help them move their belongings and help share the load and stress of the move.  They will not be able to take their time over several days and weeks, sorting out utilities and logistics.  They will have often fled with little more than the clothes on their backs and perhaps have given all their savings to arrange insecure transport.  Their experience will be desperate and frightening.  

And the one thing that stood out to me above all in our exodus to Stoke, was the difference that human kindness made. The support and aid of old friends, especially to help move the piano! But even more striking, the friendliness and generosity of new neighbours to us, as 'strangers' and 'migrants' to Stoke.  This made such a difference to our outlook on life in our new home.  According to the UNHCR there are approximately 65 million forcibly displaced people worldwide and about 16 million refugees.  According to the Red Cross there are an estimated 117,234 refugees living in the UK (that's just 0.18% of the population), so, if you happen to meet one or find one moving into your neck of the woods, I'd urge you to entertain these strangers in our midst with real love because I guarantee it will help them feel less like refugees.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Following Jesus where the need is greatest

Charities have rightly been on the receiving end of some bad press in recent years, and so a blog praising one of them written by a new employee might not sound like the best reading material in the world... But bear with me! Although I have only recently finished my induction with Tearfund and am not fully versed with all of the organisation's ins and outs, I am already convinced that it is doing something remarkable.  (I should state here that this is not a pitch for money in any way).

Hmmm.. what kind of mission did you think it was Luke?

I have been aware of Tearfund for many years, as have probably most people reading this.  My first direct encounter came when I was 20 years old and went on a month long trip to visit the Masai Mara in Kenya.  

The Great Rift Valley

It was my first experience of Africa; of children running after out jeep shouting "mzungu" ('white man'), of bucket showers (with water kindly heated over a fire by the caretaker!), of breathtaking night skies that revealed the Milky Way in all its grandeur, of mieliepap and cabbage (fare that, I'm ashamed to say, was, on its own, insufficient for my newly converted vegetarianism to cope with), of the delight balloons can bring, of men who talked casually of encounters with lions, of strong women in bright fabrics and beads balancing goods on their heads, and of congregations breaking into spontaneous song and holding the most fun FUNdraiser I've ever been to.  (Forgive the grainy shots, but this was back before digital).

A different way of life 

A different landscape

Adolescent Masai men are sent out into the bush to tackle lions and become men  

Our host was an engaging and committed Pastor who on one occasion, whilst talking to a village community under a tree, lifted a man up on to his shoulders and drew the following analogy.  He said that Community Development was not about relying on overseas donors to carry you, as he was carrying the man.  This approach would only lead to the man becoming increasingly dependent on help, to the point where his legs would eventually be wasted, he was no longer familiar with his surroundings and would never be able to walk on his own.  

Community development on the side of a 4x4

He put the man down, held his hand and explained that it was rather about someone who loved you choosing to walk alongside you until you no longer needed their support.  I never forgot the powerful image.

When helping hurts

I loved Wycliffe's ethos because by giving minority language groups God's word in the their own tongue, it was enabling them to develop an indigenous theology.  A knowledge and understanding of God that was unique, authentic, and vibrant.  Tearfund are enabling communities in a similarly indigenous way, empowering them to take charge of their own context.

Nairobi - is CocaCola the best promise of life in its fullness?

They start with the premise that there is more to poverty than just material poverty...

We are all broken, in different ways, and Tearfund aims to help us in our brokenness reach out to others in their brokenness.  It's about more than humanitarian aid.  It's about releasing people from a cycle of poverty through courageous giving, determined connectedness and long-term commitments to desperately vulnerable communities.

Having as your tagline, 'Following Jesus where the need is greatest' is quite a statement! But I honestly believe Tearfund are qualified to use it.  If you want to be encouraged today, I'd advise you to check them out and seeing some of the great things God is doing through them and their local church partners.  Whether that be the fact that in the last two years, across six countries they are working in, there has been a reduction of one million children being trafficked (which goes against the trend of it being the fastest growing crime worldwide).  Or the fact that in the 11 years they have been working in the context of HIV/ AIDS, there has been a reduction in the incidence of babies born with HIV from 1 in 3 to 1 in 100 across 10 countries.  Or the fact that they are enabling communities across the Sahel in the midst of terrible drought and famine, (the worst to hit N. Africa for 50 years), to reclaim their farmland and produce a harvest, even a surplus in their harvest! 

This type of transformative work, delivered through the local church, tackles the root causes of problems rather than merely their symptoms, helping release communities from poverty.  And in doing so, those very communities come to understand that God hasn't set them up to fail, their lot is not hopeless, and their only hope is not simply to rely on aid, but to appreciate that God has given them skills, resources, and brothers and sisters to help them walk into the future with hope and confidence.  

Local care for babies
The injury to my neck may have cut short my overseas service, but I am thrilled that God has opened the door for me to be involved in overseas development work with Tearfund.  It can be tempting to view other people's problems within the matrix of 'how can I fix this'.  There is a Maasai proverb that goes along the lines of 'Emoro enkoitoi namunyak, neisiriri enkoitoi naitarrorrisho' which roughy translates as 'Zigzag is the way to success, but the straight path leads to failure' [Wisdom of Maasai by A. Ol'oloisolo Massek ad J.O. Sidai].  It means that, to the uninitiated, cutting a path straight up a hill may seem the most efficient route, but it is far more effective to take a zigzag approach.  Tearfund has learned the lesson that treating local problems with Western answers isn't the path to long term success.  Local vehicles can't make it up the hill using such a path, the path will soon degrade and be unrepairable, and what seemed like a solution was simply a well-intentioned but misplaced waste of resources that if anything, left the community more dispirited than before.  

Helping local people with their priorities

When we come alongside others, and help them to identify their own God-given solutions to their problems and walk with them in seeing these wrought, we leave them enabled and encouraged to overcome other challenges.  Wherever we are and whatever our circumstance, our calling is to do what we can to "untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free.. to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter.." (Isaiah 58 v 6-7).

Friday, 9 September 2016

"What is on Your heart, show me what to do..."

'I want to serve the purpose of God in my generation' was an anthem of our university Christian Union.  I can't remember how many talks we had on how to find God's will for your life.  Those days are long behind me of course, but at this post-overseas missions juncture, do I need to revisit that niggling question of how to be in God's plan? Was I wrong to think I had been called to be missionary, now that my recent injury has impacted my ability to continue as one? Maybe I was never 'called'... Maybe I still am yet to discover my 'true calling'...

A timeline of 'calling'?

Growing up, I associated calling with people entering into ‘full-time ministry’.  Called to be a missionary overseas, an evangelist church-planter, or called to be a minister and to bible college.  And then after that, I thought of the term more broadly, thinking that people can be called into the police force or called to be a secretary or called to be a cleaner, though with perhaps a little less conviction in my heart that those callings were quite as significant or as spiritual.

But if one looks in the New Testament, the word is almost exclusively used to denote one's common calling.  It is hardly ever linked to a job or vocation but is almost universally used in the sense of being saved, such as in Luke 5v32, John 15v15, Romans 8v30, Galations 1v6, Ephesians 4v4-5, Philippians 3v14, Colossians 3v15, 1 Thessalonians 2v12, 1 Timothy 6v12, Hebrews 9v15, James 2v7, 1 Peter 2v9, 1 John 3v1, Jude 1v1, Revelation 17v14 - "These will wage war against the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, because He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful." 

Called = invited

To be 'called'.  It’s something we especially associate with missions and has become a part of our Christian vocabulary.  Perhaps some of you believe you know your calling and are preparing yourselves for when you ‘step into’ it.  Maybe some of you think you are living it out now.  Maybe others would love to know what theirs is.  Others still might wonder if they have 'messed up' too much to be used in the calling God had for them.   
If one looks at contemporary Classical Greek writing, the word had three uses: ‘a call’ e.g. to get someone’s attention,‘a summons’ e.g. to court, or ‘an invitation’ e.g. to a party.  Similarly, as the verses before indicated, the regular and frequent meaning of the word in the NT is that of a religious call/ summons/ invitation from God to salvation.  Not a calling to an event or office or job, but to faith.  The calling of the early church was to be God’s and be like God.  Yes, that's our universal calling, Luke (you might say)! What about the calling of the priest, the pastor, the apostle?! Well, let's briefly look at a passage where one might conclude that this 'higher' calling is being modelled:

"Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."  1 Corinthians 1v1-2 

Paul here refers to himself as “called to be an apostle”.  Why does he do this?  In his earlier letters of 1 & 2 Thessalonians (they were written first even though they come after Corinthians in our Bibles), Paul simply states his name before addressing the church.  So why does he use these extra words here?  Well, the Corinthian congregation was being torn apart by quarrelling, and dissatisfaction had arisen regarding Paul’s authority.  In using the words of verses 1 & 2, Paul starts his letter with a theme that will run through it.  God wants to point his readers to the fact that God is the ultimate author of this letter, albeit via Paul, and to the fact that they share a common calling as God's people.  Paul isn’t telling the Corinthians that he has a title (and they better not forget it!), but is rather emphasizing that it is God who is using him.  

Brother, Sosthenes, was the chief ruler of the synagogue at Corinth, who was seized and beaten by the mob in the presence of Gallio, the Roman governor, when he refused to proceed against Paul at the instigation of the Jews (Acts 18 v12-17).

It would be erroneous to conclude that Paul is saying that the Corinthians are called to be "holy people" and that he is called to be an apostle, and that poor brother Sosthenes has no calling! is making the point that they have all been spoken to and invited to faith by God.  They are all to be holy and they are all to bear apostolic witness.  The Corinthians share a common faith, lifestyle and tradition “with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” v2.  "For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?" (1 Cor. 4 v7).

Believers are fundamentally called to a relationship.  I do not want to undermine anyone’s perception of what God has spoken to them or condemn anyone who has used the word “calling”.  But, perhaps changing the way we use this word can help us better appreciate God’s love for us.  We live in a world that values us based on what we have and what we can do. But in Kingdom terms, God doesn’t value us by this criteria of what we have and what we can do. He doesn’t rank us like the world does. If we’re not careful, by putting “calling” on a pedestal as something unique and tailored that a world-changing Christian should have, or by hankering after our own individual “call” from God, we can start to value ourselves in the church according to what we think God wants us to do.  But God calls us into relationship.  God calls us children.  That is our calling, and what makes it so special is that God is the one who does the calling.  You are not what you do.  

Am I just saying we need to change our language a little? No, it’s more than that.  You see, God loves us all the same.  Whether we are Bible translators, whether we are unemployed, whether we are housewives/ househusbands, whether we are doctors, whether we are retired, whether we are bankers, whether we are living with long term illness, whether we are toddlers, whether we are teachers, whether we are elders, or whether we are brand new believers.  God's character is expressed through each one of us as we live in all our different circumstances.  God isn’t like a manager who gives us a job description and then once every so often comes to check up how well we’re doing at it.  God is our Parent and has committed the Holy Spirit to us, so that we can't be separated. 

I don't need to worry about my calling.  The truth is, I was never called to be a missionary.  I didn't go overseas because I believed that was my calling; I went because I felt compelled to express God's heart for the poor and marginalised and had the skills and means to do so.  Just because I am no longer healthy enough to work in remote contexts doesn't mean my calling to be God's and express God's love has changed.  It wasn't "a good call while it lasted" (as someone consoled me with); whether I spend my time working for the Woodland Trust or Wycliffe, my call is still the same; to love.  

Are the trees calling?

Calling is less like a job title, and more like an attitude to working.   It is less like a recipe and more like an approach to eating.  It is less like a set of map directions and more like a way of journeying.  It is less like a sheet of music and more like an improvised jazz number.  It reminds me of the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, in that, like children, we are drawn to a melody that urges us to move in step.  Although crucially, there is no deceit in God's music, and whilst we abandon our lives in following Jesus, it is done with wild exuberance and not under a hypnotic stupor.  

The following words are from one of Hannah Hurnard's books that Laura set to music that expresses this more beautifully than I could hope to -

Please forgive the sound quality on the recording; you might need to turn your speakers up!

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Five years as a missionary - What have I learnt?

Becoming a missionary takes a huge amount of work.  Planning, praying, logistics, fund-raising, researching, networking.  It isn't entered into lightly (at least it should't be!), nor is it ended lightly (at least it should't be!).  So comes the end of our (second) missionary journey! Our first was in Papua New Guinea and our second was in the Philippines.  We haven't made a third (sorry, Paul!).

Believe us when we say, there has been much thought, prayer, and work in making this so.

It has been a long and somewhat winding road that has been an unforgettable experience for us to walk down, but we feel that this seven year odyssey has reached its end.  Partly as a result of my recent injury and partly as a result of us simply not being able to find accommodation in Daet, despite all our searching.  And so in waving goodbye to Wycliffe, we felt it fitting to finish with a little reflection upon the things that we have learnt from these last five years of service, for "there ain't no journey that don't change you some" (Cloud Atlas).  So, here goes...

The new neck...
1. Frodo says to Sam at the end of the Return of the King "You cannot always be torn in two".  Living in transition when you spend significant periods of time in two different countries is not easy, particularly so for missionary kids.  It is a hard life, and whilst is wonderful to have friends in and from different places, there is no special grace to ease the eternal fibres in us that long for a preservation of relationships and love.  (No more LOTR allusions, I promise!)

2. Everything is spiritual.  It may be tempting to believe that putting one's 'ministry' ahead of family is praiseworthy, especially if that 'service' is so needed.  But family is a sacred space where love is worked out and those whom we have been entrusted with should not suffer because our (even very good) work 'has to get done'.

Not a burden in the way, but a treasure on it.
3. People are people are people.  They may have different colour skin, speak a different language, live in a completely different way and hold a very different worldview but "everybody poos" (a truism that Penny particularly likes) and they all (consequentially) get hungry, need somewhere to sleep and want to be loved.  If you really live with other people and walk around in their shoes, you can even start to become consciously unaware of some of those differences listed above.       
Is there an odd one out?

4. There are fewer 'essentials' to the Christian faith than I previously thought or would have been comfortable in standing by.  I'm less convinced of non-negotiable doctrines by which we mark out our camp and judge those who stand with one foot beyond the boundary.  God has been at work in different ways throughout history with different peoples and this tailored approach continues in the world today.  The Bible is a complex book written over a vast time period by very different authors for different purposes in different ways.  It is interpreted in manifold ways by different clans and tribes.  It can be both arrogant and damaging to try and claim one's own handle on the truth is the only valid one.  What does it mean to be a Christian? To love God and love each other.  That should be the litmus test.  Judging isn't something we're qualified to do.  Loving is, and we need all the help we can find to do it.  Dr Greg Boyd puts it like this:
"This, I believe, is part of our legacy of eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 3:1-7).  In our fallen delusion, we feel it our right, and within our capacity, to declare unambiguously who and what is "good" and who and what is "evil". We are not omniscient, but having eaten from the forbidden tree, we have a fallen misguided impulse to judge matters as though we were.  We have difficulty accepting our finitude and the massive ignorance and ambiguity that necessarily attached to it".   
5. People who actively listen, take genuine interest, faithfully give, and support in imaginative ways are an incredible gift.  We have literally relied on this kind of person.  Not just for food in our mouths and clothes on our backs, but for warmth in our bones and refreshment in our souls.   (Be that person for somebody!)

The senders
6. Culture really is HUGE.  You cannot ignore your own culture when thinking about God or how you understand faith and you can't ignore someone else's culture when you consider how they might think about God or how they might understand faith.  Everyones worldview is affected by their culture.  It shapes one's concept of community, of forgiveness, of the fall.  It even influences which paradigm of salvation is most meaningful personally.  It isn't just a case of being culturally relevant, but rather of imagining how a culture might be represented when it is fully inhabited by the Holy Spirit.  There is no one 'heavenly culture'.  Love is the living culture of heaven that is poured into a manifold plethora of earthen vessels.  I believe there will be glorious multi-cultural colour in heaven, brought by different tribes, tongues, races and species.  Culture isn't a temporary ailment (at least it shouldn't be).  I don't know how it will work and how the likes of Abraham will interact with the likes of Mary or how she will interact with the likes of St Cuthbert or how he will interact with the likes of Mother Theresa or how she will interact with the likes of Bear Grylls.  I just know that God was/ is at work in all of them and was manifesting something of the Divine character, and that mystery is amazing!

7. Who needs hot water? When you don't have something, most of the time, it turns out you can make do without it.  It's easy to spend your life getting more attached to more things and it's tough to shake that habit despite any 'abstinence periods' you may have had.  Most people in this world don't have much.  Rubbing shoulders with a few of them can help remind you to keep "using things and loving people, not the other way around" (as BJ Thomas sings).

8. Love can be spoken in any language, though it may sound a little different.  Paul wrote that he became "all things to all people, that by all means I might save some" (1 Corinthians 9 v 22).  I remember reading a particularly moving story about how love instinctively made a husband change the position of his lips in order to kiss his misshapen wife after she had suffered an injury/ illness.  Sometimes you need to contort yourself a little to fully embrace another.  God is the master at this!
My heroine
9. Faith needs to evolve.  It isn't a list of rules and statements of truth that is learnt when one becomes a Christian.  It is the beginning of a relationship with God, God's children, and God's world.  Being willing to change one's mind and traditions, feeling free to develop new gifts and perspectives, being encouraged to ask questions and acknowledge doubt, feeling open to new revelation and different interpretations, being humble to learn from others and admit limitations, and feeling safe to wrestle with uncomfortable passages of scripture and life events is essential in this journey of faith.

10. Every season can be beautiful.  Powdered UHT milk can be a pleasure to enjoy.  There can be a time for short shorts.  Cold showers can be a gift.  New turnip recipes can be exciting.  Tupperware can be a prized possession.  A fellow Briton, (any Briton), overseas can be sweet company.  Going to ASDA can be like riding with Aladdin "wonder by wonder, over sideways and under, on a magic carpet ride".  I don't mean every single part of every single day should be amazing.  Just that each season is different, with its own challenges and wonders.  Comparing them is unhelpful and whilst it's ok to have favourite seasons, it's good to try and be present in the present.

Washing with clothes on, in dirty water, without soap, with other people... can be fun!
11. People who open other people's mail really are joy-stealers.  Getting parcels with a packet of empty M&Ms or a half-eaten chocolate bar is devastating (regardless of whether it has been nibbled on by human or rodent teeth).  It is not so devastating that you throw the remainder away however...

12. Administration in the Church or in para-church organisations shouldn't be a dirty word.  It isn't a job done by folks who value rules overmuch (hopefully).  It isn't something that gets in the way of the important stuff.  It is the way we make sure people are properly cared for.  It is a beautiful service and should in essence represent our holy duty, our only duty, which is to love. 

'Rice' or 'Pitong Gatang' by Nestor Leynes.  Is this what good administration looks like?

13. Sometimes things just don't turn out like they should.  Sometimes Churches, Christian organisations and Christians make mistakes.  Everybody does.  Sometimes events beyond our control land us in terrible circumstances.  Sometimes Satan manifests with horrific consequences.  But God doesn't make mistakes.  God doesn't land is in terrible circumstances.  God doesn't manifest with horrific consequences. So it isn't good to try and cover up mistakes,  brush aside calamities or say something like 'God's ways are higher than ours'.  It doesn't seem fair to vaguely gesture that there must always be some amazing purpose behind someone else's failings/ your own bad decision/ or life's tragedies.  Sometimes things just aren't what they should be and it is healthy to grieve, (and forgive and be forgiven where appropriate), rather than blindly paint everything with a 'God's-sovereignty-brush' thinking that this is what faith requires or the Bible shows us (in my opinion).

14. We live in an increasingly interconnected world.  We are part of one race, one world, one creation.  I can no longer live in such a way that pretends those statements are not true or that my own behaviour has does not have direct consequences for others.  And being in that kind of relationship brings a certain kind of responsibility with it.  We get to be on the side of love and live in such a way that does not harm others.

Picture by Mike Kiev

15. So in summary, loving is what it is all about!  Spend your time loving.  The rest is chaff.

And if there was a postscript to this season of our lives, I'd have to say how proud I am of Laura. Of the way she has carried herself, the way she has grown, and the things that she willingly sacrificed; giving up a family home, carrying two babies in different foreign countries, and often taking a back seat in all aspects of work and ministry due to cultural sensitivities.  I'd also have to say how proud I am of Penny, who in her short life, has already gone through more transitions than many of our peers, let alone hers, and yet is a ray of sunshine in our lives.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

A Testimony or a Story?

An old feeling cropped up the other day.  Feeling fearful.  It's kind of a shame that I sometimes still feel fearful about the future after following Jesus for so long.  It's a rather awkward testimony.  Or is it?

(despite desperately needing a haircut!) 
The word 'testimony' is found throughout the Bible, though when it is used it almost universally refers to a formal written or spoken statement, especially one given in a court of law; the testimony of an eyewitness.  In the New Testament, it is most often used in the context of proclaiming a truth about God.  Even in Revelation 12 it seems equally valid to interpret the "testimony" spoken by those who triumphed over the "accuser" as a proclamation about Jesus' divine identity, as it is to interpret it as a recitation of personal conversion.  It's hard to know when the tradition of using stories of personal conversion as a means of teaching, interpreting and defending the truths of Christianity began.  We see Paul weaving elements of his own history and conversion into his preaching in Acts.  And this, perhaps, has been the basis of the way we think about sharing one's testimony.

Kenneth Sheppard traces it back, at least as far as the late 17th century, to the anti-atheist apologetics in early modern England (Patrol Magazine).  I wonder if that history, and the way we apply Paul's behaviour, now means that we primarily see our stories of conversion as either an apologetic tool in overcoming the enemy or convincing the unbelieving.

Googling 'Testify'... not quite what I had in mind, but, Phil - what a (middle-of-the-road) legend!

I am not denying that personal testimony to the work of God in one's life is not a powerful tool in declaring God's wisdom and grace, both to others and to the spiritual powers.  And I'm certainly not suggesting that there is anything inadequate about Paul's style of teaching and evangelising.  But, I wonder if that slant has encouraged us to emphasize the 'when' and 'where' aspect of our testimonies in an almost legal fashion to the detriment of other elements.  Looking up the word in the dictionary yields these results:

  • [ mass noun ] evidence or proof of something: his blackened finger was testimony to the fact that he had played in pain.
  • a public recounting/ declaration of a religious conversion or experience.

The latter is certainly in line with what I am describing and it perhaps unwittingly causes us to think of a testimony solely in black and white changes with no room for shades of grey.  The 'conversion experience' is often seen as the climax of the account and so it can be difficult to justify or accommodate any negative behaviours or personality traits exhibited after this event.

Shades of grey... "A Sith only deals in Absolutes" - Obi Wan Kenobi

What is wrong with this, you ask? A good testimony which narrates a life lost in the darkness to a life most remarkably liberated into the light is moving, encouraging, and exults in God's saving work.  These kind of testimonies have a power to demonstrate the strong saving arm of God, reminds us all of how hopeless we all are without Christ, and communicates the wonder of real repentance and 'Christ in us' victorious living.  Well, if this is the definition of a good testimony, then we perhaps unwittingly cause many folks with 'ordinary' lives to relegate their own boring or awkward testimony to the sidelines.  If one isn't a great expositor of the Bible or hasn't had a 'sensational' (and permanent) change in lifestyle in committing their life to Christ, is there anything really worth hearing?

Perhaps there is there more to a testimony?  When I was in Papua New Guinea and I learnt that the word used for testimony is 'stori' (story).  To be fair, the word, like most in the language of Tok Pisin, is very versatile and can mean numerous things in different contexts.  It did however, make me think more deeply about whether a testimony could be more like a story than a legal/ public recounting.  In most peoples' minds, a story would be far less reliable, less credible and less weighty.  But a story is also often more engaging, more unpredictable, more character based, more memorable, more like a picture or song.

Everyone likes a good story!

I certainly wouldn't want to de-value anyone's testimony and I don't want to dismiss the importance of the 'before' in the tale.  There is a place for this kind of account.  But, I do want there to also be a place for the emphasis to be on the 'after' (how is walking with God different to walking without God?), and on the 'characters' (what has been the significance in God's promise to be actively with us for the remainder of the journey?).  Not just that you have hope after death; what are your hopes before death?  Not just how has the Holy Spirit's presence changed you, but how is it continuing to change you? Your ideas, your behaviour, your perspective, your disposition, your actions?  I see and hear how God changed you on a macro level when you 'made the decision', but how are you evolving on a micro level in the years since?

I remember someone asking me to share to a class of children around the topic of "how has Jesus changed your life".  I wanted to cover a concrete area of my life that was actually different (and could be identified with by children) because of God's influence (and not just talk in vague terms about abstract ideas like salvation and forgiveness).  

I ended up talking on the topic of fear and how God had helped me not to be overly afraid in the midst of some frightening circumstances, and in doing so, impact that part of my personality that is prone to anxiety.  Falling asleep on the beach and getting cut off by the tide whilst on holiday as a youngster.  Having a friend diagnosed with cancer as a teenager.  Being confronted by a 'ghost' whilst walking alone in the woods during my university years.  Taking on the responsibility of having a job, owning a house, being married to someone.  Living in the jungle where it got so dark you couldn't see you hand in front of your face.  I confess that I did once leap from my bed, machete in hand, run outside the house and shout in the most commanding voice I possessed, "Yu Husait?!" ('Who's there?!')... I quickly (and rather sheepishly) realised it was just an earthquake which had nearly shaken the bedroom door off its hinges and not an intruder bent on taking advantage of Laura! 

I recognise that dealing with fear is a journey I'm still on.  Living in a foreign city with a very visible sex trade with a little girl who is very conspicuous and very desirable brought this to light.  It's a part of my personality that I 'shadow-box' with (as Richard Rohr describes it); recognising it in ever more subtle forms and repenting of it.

It's difficult to K.O. a shadow...
Having been frustrated so far in our attempts to start an oral Bible language, and then returning home to four weary months of pain from a seemingly inexplicable injury with a recovery period that seems to be stretching far out in front of me, has again brought this  aspect of my personality to the fore.  Fear.  Anxiety.  At my first physiotherapy session this week, I was told that the damaged muscles would not heal in the timeframe I had been previously told (6 to 8 weeks turned into 12-16 weeks), and it would be longer before I could pick up either of my little girls.  I was told that the damaged nerves would take 12-18 months to heal and that I would have to be careful with lifting things from now on.  Will I ever be able to lift my daughter onto my shoulders or swing her above my head? Will my family be able to return to the Philippines? What would life be like there? What on would life be like should we have to relocate back to the UK? I feel a sense of anxiety over the future and that which is unknown and I don't think I can honestly ascribe it to being tired, stressed, in pain (or being on medication).  I suppose it doesn't matter why it is present, just that it is!

It is my hope that this part of my personality will continue to be thrust out into the light by circumstance and will continue to be changed and impacted in my journey with God.  I don't believe that God has put me through this to make me 'see' or make me change, (I don't believe that the Perfect Parent uses that method of parenting), but I believe that God can use these unfortunate circumstances to bring about some positive outcomes.  Philip Yancey relates how manufacturers put new products through the 'table-top test' (in his book, "How Good is God?").   Will a shiny new gadget survive everyday use by the consumer who may periodically knock it off the table? He compares this to the faith of a believer that experiences moments or seasons of difficulty.  Will faith survive? Will it need to be modified? I guess this has been a 'table-top' season for me and I'm figuring out how my faith has been and is being modified! I'm not sure I'd call it moving from one degree of glory to the next, but moving to a lighter shade of grey and boxing an ever more subtle shadow is the next chapter of my testimony I'm looking forward to hearing. 

"Peace I leave with you: my peace I give you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid."

In this, your story, when was the last chapter written? And who have you told?