God the Master Craftsman

A month and a half into my time in South Central Asia, standing by my door ready to go to work and looking at the snow covered trees and the crisp blue sky, I knew, with a heavy certainty, that my life would never, could never, be the same again. My whole view of the world had shifted. I can’t put my finger on what exactly prompted the shift but the epiphany was profound and would endure through a range of experiences.

In the weeks and months that followed, I was evacuated twice to different cities. My little house was rocked by a bomb blast and gunfire reverberated all around my compound. I heard stories of fellow workers gunned down. I saw my long-term colleagues grapple with the death of friends and the genuine security threat it heralded, but more so, with the implications of having to leave as all non-essential personnel were evacuated. What would happen to the men and women they employed? What would happen to local families? What would happen to the people being served through various projects? What would happen to their friendships? The minds and hearts of my colleagues were for the people they love and serve.

I was privileged to see some of the work being done. I visited a hospital that had served the country through some incredible regime changes. Not only had the hospital brought healing to thousands, locals were equipped and empowered to take over the hospital’s management. I had seen groups of women meeting together in homes learning, for the first time, to do basic mathematics and to read. I saw hope and dignity in their eyes as they too were empowered to use their gifts and talents to run their own businesses and help their families. I saw university students and professionals alike, learning to speak English and engaging with global issues in a country that had been sheltered from the outside world for years. I heard stories of prison ministries and classes on hygiene and parenting. Work was being done amongst counselors and psychologists to help a generation traumatized by years of war and by the mistreatment of women in particular. This is just a sampling of the work being done.

“I don’t understand. I heard that none of you get paid. You are volunteers. You leave behind your comfortable lives in the west and come here to work with us. Why would anyone do that?” It was a question one of my students asked me and it was a sentiment I heard echoed in various ways. After the second evacuation and when I settled into the new city where I would see through the remaining two months, I had the opportunity to run literature circles with a range of professionals and businessmen. Together, we studied a graded version of Les Miserables. It was fascinating to see them grapple with the extraordinary acts of kindness and forgiveness and grace as presented in the text. Self-sacrificial acts of grace were considered “utter foolishness”. It made no sense to them whatsoever and yet there was something undeniably life-giving about not only the actions but the people practicing it. Why do people do this? Because they are compelled by a greater love.

I imagine it was primarily this love which made it difficult for some of the long-termers to leave. Ultimately, this love comes from above and since our trust is in a God who is not swayed by circumstances, we can rest assured that He will complete the good work He has begun.

In addition to the tangible love I saw being practiced by our brothers and sisters, I was honored to get a little glimpse into the incredible and powerful way God works in us and through us in the world that He loves. The way God protected His people during a bomb attack targeting believers was incredibly humbling and awe-inspiring. Little moments of apparent serendipity illuminated God’s hand, such as the fact that I could stay in country to see out my four months since I am a teacher and a teacher was needed in another city when people were being evacuated. Even the fact that I studied philosophy, arguably one of the most useless of degrees, opened doors to have conversations with people about the problem of evil and sin, grace and forgiveness, the nature of God and other powerful and fruitful concepts.

Although it is hard for me to see it, since I am living it, one of the startling things about my experience there was the reaction of long-term workers to the very fact that I exist. I know that sounds strange and it is strange for me, but you see, I was born in South Central Asia and the emotional connection is still there. My family left when I was two years old and came to Australia. How this all came to be is another story; a story that again illuminates God as a master craftsman of destiny.

As I grew up and saw year after year of war, and later, of oppression as girls were forbidden to go to school, I felt so incredibly privileged to have the indulgent opportunity to study for the pure enjoyment of studying –for the intrinsic value of learning. There was a very real sense that my life could have been so very different. It was encouraging for me to be back in my birth country, to see the genuine progress being made and the years of love and toil that brothers and sisters had poured into the country. There was an understanding too, though, that much remains to be done. The country still has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, especially amongst women. While the rate of children in school has risen markedly, there is much to be done within the education sector.

The love that has been modeled for me by long-term brothers and sisters over there; the love for the locals and the country that in some sense is mine; and the incredible life-giving love that I have experienced from above, all compel me now to explore ways to serve long term in this place.

The author served On Track with Interserve in South Central Asia

Pressing on toward the goal

A good football coach understands that they are not just coaching a game, but coaching life. They recognise the need to develop the whole player. As in the journey of discipleship, what we learn on the football field touches all areas of life and community.

An Interserve Partner and football coach reflects on his role: shaping young players into people who can receive, apply and spread love and grace in every aspect of life.

In 2011, I was fortunate to be able to attend a 2 week coach education course in Spain, along with 30 other coaches from Australia. We had lectures from coaches involved in the youth programmes at some of the biggest and richest clubs in the world – clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Espanyol, Malaga to name a few. And without exception, these coaches all started their lecture with the same line: that they “first develop the person, then develop the player”. The biggest football clubs in the world know that having players with good character and behaviour, who can work well together in a team and be role models to the community are a valuable asset to the club. They are beneficial both for its on-field success as well as for its reputation and economic success off the field.

Can we also develop people as we develop players?

More recently, I attended another conference in a nearby country, this time for like-minded young coaches of many sports. The focus of this conference was not just on improving coaching ability, but on how coaches can become role models for the young people in their care.

At this conference, some recent research was presented which showed that sport itself has a neutral effect on players. It can be used to positively influence a person’s life, but it can also be detrimental. If the coach adopts a “win at all costs” attitude, then sport has negative impacts on the moral fibre of the players. Their behaviour off the sporting field is eroded by the messages they receive at training. When winning is everything, being honest, respectful, loyal, humble and fair are disregarded. When winning is all we focus on, self-centredness, greed, pride, violence and bending the rules all take centre stage.

But, as the teams in Spain prove, it is possible to adopt a winning attitude without abandoning our moral accountability.

Combating negative influences

There are many negative influences that we need to counteract as we strive to teach our players positive personal characteristics and attitudes. After all, we live in a fallen world. I will highlight two:

Firstly, there is the lack of positive role models for youth, especially fathers. This applies especially in the countries where we serve. Due to many factors, fathers are absent from young people’s lives. While coaches can’t become a new father, they can certainly become a new positive role model in the players’ lives.

Secondly, there is the effect of poverty. A newspaper editorial about World Humanitarian Day this year stated that, “poverty kills solidarity and dehumanises people. When I have less and feel insecure, I am less inclined to associate or support others.” In poor communities, it said, people have “lost the mechanical sense of cohesion where people help one another without thinking.”

The effect of poverty

Poverty causes people to abandon any thoughts of working together and instead adopt a survival attitude: you must look after yourself or you will go without. No one else will look out for you. Poverty is a very real factor in many countries where we serve.

I had a glimpse of how that plays out in real life in 2004 when I first came to my adopted country and spent some time at an orphanage. One of the activities I did with the kids was to play a variation of baseball, using a football and kicking instead of batting. Sounds simple enough. There was a fielding side. There was a batting side; all sitting and waiting their turn. Well, almost. Whenever it was time for the next “batter”, every one of the batting team was up and fighting for position and I had to pull them apart. Waiting in line wasn’t an option. Was it just because they were naturally self-centred and greedy? Or did their lives condition their behaviour? When you realise that they are amongst the poorest of the poor, and waiting for anything means missing out, then it is easy to understand that they didn’t want to miss out on an opportunity to play.

Training to win – on and off the field

When you look at the way a team plays sport – in my case football – you can learn a lot about the culture and society of the players. Football is just a microcosm of life. When I watch the local games here in my country, I see the same problems arising from poverty and lack of positive role models, the problems that hinder community spirit and development in the society, all played out before you on the football field.

So why use sport as the vehicle to combat these effects? Sport is a natural bridge between the coach and the players. As we coach, our focus is not just on making better players, but on making the players think about the concepts and attitudes involved. Concepts like teamwork, serving others, forgiving others, encouraging others, helping the weaker members of the team, helping others to score goals, planning ahead, making good decisions, respecting others, being loyal, humble, working together for a common goal, overcoming challenges, and working hard to improve ourselves are all important for a successful team. They are also all important in a successful and caring society.

By giving the players a tangible example of these principles in action, we hope that they can understand their value and apply them within their families, communities, and their future work. In so doing, they may ultimately transform the communities where they live.
Transforming lives and communities

And there is more. A wise man once said that we only need to do two things. The second was to love our neighbour. How do we love our neighbour? By doing what’s best for them, and putting their needs above our own. We do that in a team environment by doing what’s best for the team;

By serving the team.
By respecting the coach, the opposition, the referee.
By being loyal to our teammates.
By accepting responsibility for our mistakes; admitting them and not blaming others.
By being honest.
By working hard and improving ourselves so we can better serve the team.
By helping others to score goals, especially when they are in a better position to do so.
By being honest, and not stealing from others: not their belongings, their opportunities, or their worth as people.
By being humble in victory and gracious in defeat.

All of the things that we want to encourage in our players go to the very essence of loving our neighbour. As we encourage our players to obey this second command for the sake of their present lives, we ask and hope that it will lead them to understand the very nature of the One who gave the command, and then to their understanding and obedience of the first.

Sport provides a unique bridge between the coach and the players, but it also touches many others in the community who enjoy participating or watching it. It has a levelling quality that gives us acceptance in the community. Because of this, it is also a unique opportunity to reach into and share the lives of the people we live amongst, allowing us to reveal the hope we find in following the One who lets us share in His victory.

There are many opportunities in the countries we serve. Find out how you can be part of His team in these countries. Don’t wait on the bench, but get involved in the game.

The author is an Interserve Partner in the Arab world.

Bright neon flashing signs

Teaching five-year-olds does not often allow for quiet time. They just love to talk! About their families, their friends, their new toys, a wobbly tooth, just about everything! But what I love is when they talk to God. Their prayers are so honest and they are not afraid to ask God to supply their needs and to thank him for what he does for us. I must say it is hard not to smile when they pray for their teacher’s plane to stay away from eagles in the sky, or, “thank you Jesus that it’s summer soon because I can’t wait to have milkshakes.” Their honesty and thankfulness has made me think about prayer and its importance in our mundane day-to-day lives.

Prayer has always been something that I have done, but it wasn’t until coming overseas to serve, that I have found the importance of and daily reliance upon prayer. It started about a year ago when I was devoutly talking to God – nay – pleading with him to show me in “bright neon flashing signs” where on earth I was supposed to go after returning from two years away in an exotic location; England. He had planted Nepal in my heart months before, but I was having an inner wrestling match to properly accept my calling. I think the idea of going appealed to me more than the physical aspect of moving halfway across the world to a foreign, dusty, third world country. However, like many times in my life I have found that when I pray for leading, I imagine him smiling, leaning back and with a flick of his wrist or a blink of his eye, he answers our prayers in mind-bending ways.

So once again at the beginning of 2012, I found myself willing to follow God’s leading but not really sure where that was. But, as in so many instances before, God has allowed these prayers and pleas to be answered when and how he wants them to be. I had been home from London for a few months and things were starting to get a little desperate. I needed an answer, I needed funds, and I wasn’t quite sure which way to turn. However I made a decision to make sure that whatever I decided to do, that I would completely consult God in prayer on every decision I made. So I tried to subside the panic that was slowly brewing inside of me, like a good cup of green tea, and just hand it over to the Big Guy! So I did! And he was faithful.

I remember that day well. I was fiddling on the computer, organising things (not really organising, more agonising over future plans), when my friend Marilyn popped online to answer my questions about Nepal. I had been liaising with Marilyn because she had been in Nepal for two and a half years and it was she who initiated my interest in serving at KISC for the 2012/2013 school year. Marilyn asked if I had done anything in regards to finding funding for the year ahead. I hadn’t. So she said to me, “I will email a couple of my friends because they know how important it is for us to find teachers out here. You can start to write letters to friends and family, and that is at least a start.” We organised to talk again later once her friends had responded.

Not even half an hour later, she called me back and said, “Honey, stop writing those letters; I think you’re covered for the whole year!” A friend of hers had read the email and replied instantly with “I think we should be able to cover that!”

BAM! I was numb with shock, and fear, and disbelief. If that wasn’t a neon flashing sign, then I’m not sure what is! Later, I learned that the staff at the school had gathered to pray for me that very day about my finances and direction for me to come to KISC. My sponsor also informed me much later on that he gets hundreds of emails across his desk every day and doesn’t commit to helping others unless their message speaks out at him. But if he feels led to take it up, he does so without any hesitation and accepts immediately. Even in a season when business was quiet, he still decided to step out in faith and support me financially for the year. God has blessed his faithfulness abundantly with a business year so full that he has had to outsource to meet the demands. I was so humbled to hear this, and grounded in my calling to serve the year at KISC.

Since arriving on the dusty roads of Kathmandu, prayer has been a method of survival, necessity and comfort. Adjusting to a new culture, a new climate and a new school has not always been easy. At the beginning of the school year I had a few significant problems with my class and there are times when the pain of homesickness trickles in and little things like the crazy traffic, or no electricity can almost be the end of you. But I have experienced and witnessed things here that have changed me forever. The school that I have been working at has just finished 40 days of prayer and fasting for the future development of the school and seeking God’s leading. I have enjoyed being a part of a community where if there is a need, a problem, or even success, we turn to God. Sometimes during a lesson or lunchtime, we pray for the needs of a staff member or the school, taking everything to him in prayer.

The mother of one of my students came to me last term to explain her husband’s sudden-onset battle with a brain tumor and to ask if we could pray for healing. After many months of prayer and medical treatment the doctors found no tumor remaining. It was a miracle!
But despite the many miraculous times when he says “Yes”, sometimes God’s answer is “No”, and some sad and disappointing results this year have led me to ask him, “Why?” Yet, despite his occasional “No” answer, I have learned that his plans are bigger, his ways are higher and he is always faithful.

A favorite verse during my time in Nepal is, Phillipians 4:6: “Don’t worry or be anxious about anything, instead pray about everything, and don’t forget to thank him for his answers.”

If you had told me when I was a little girl that in 2013 I will be living in Nepal, working at a mission school and sharing God’s love with the people of Nepal, I would not have believed you.

I am thankful that God had a different plan. Stepping out in faith to follow his calling this year has been one of the most fulfilling experiences, and I will not leave the same person I was when I arrived. I have learned that prayer is not just part of our routine before bed, but a constant source of support and comfort, as God cares for us in every mundane and major detail of our lives.

Tara is an OnTracker serving on a one-year placement in Nepal.

Teaching English Showing Jesus

Fresh thinking on how to show God’s love through teaching English By Damian, an Interserve England and Wales Partner.

All of us are able to remember a favourite teacher, someone who stood out, someone who left a lasting impression on our lives. Would it be fair to say that we often learned as much from who that teacher was than what they actually taught? It is both exciting (and daunting) to ponder how our presence in the classroom interlinks with our spirituality and the way we teach. The way in which we live out our belief system, the Jesus way, has the potential to touch our students as much as the content of our lessons.

That is why teaching English is very precious – to kingdom work, ourselves, and the people around us, the reason being that teaching English should be all about relationship. Every time students are asked to turn to one another and practise an aspect of language, there is interaction, dialogue and exchange. The way we treat our colleagues, local staff and family will be noted by onlookers. The measure of love and concern for our students (even disruptive ones) will be remembered by at least some. When the photocopier is in a bad mood, you can be guaranteed our reaction will be recorded in someone’s memory. People notice kingdom qualities in the everyday events of our lives and relationships. We embody His love, forgiveness, reconciliation and relationship by doing just that – persevering, loving, giving, forgiving, hoping and praying – even when there is no encouragement or apparent response.

It is incredible that an estimated two billion people are learning English in the world’s education systems and as independent adults. We have been given a (limited?) God-given opportunity to meet this huge need for language skills and improve the quality of life for individuals, families and communities. It could be limited because English has become a ‘basic skill’ in many of the world’s education systems and millions are gaining proficiency in the language. As early as 2010, it is predicted that the number of English learners could begin to decrease with demand for teachers accordingly. For now, though, it is enough to know that a third of this world is learning English and there is a harvest that needs diligent and committed teachers for an intense and complex task. Moreover, the demand for English teachers is significantly greater in the least evangelised parts of the world.

It is true that teaching English has allowed legitimate access for my family into a region that has often been hostile towards believers, as well as flexibility and the potential to interact with people from all walks of life – at work and in the community. There is a bewildering mix of children, monks, students, doctors and foreign business people in my class. We see these people around town every day. Being vulnerable has had a profound effect on interdependency. They help us with our electrical problems. We visit their shops and eat in their restaurants. They come round for pot-luck parties. Their children play with our child in the garden. They come to sample English tea. They take a Scripture portion and talk about spirituality. My wife helps them with their homework. Being a teacher in community has profound relationship potential, especially when the role of the non-teaching spouse and children is seen as a precious part of that teaching witness. Why study about English food and not actually try some especially cooked by the teacher’s wife?

Teaching English, however, is so much more than a means to an end, so that one can do a socalled greater spiritual task. Limiting Christian witness to direct and explicit forms of evangelism would be a great loss – for teaching is precious in itself. Rather than being ‘missionaries in disguise’, we should see teaching as part of the evangelistic witness of our whole lives (cf. Rom. 12:1). Moreover, in the midst of difficulties and discouragements, it is good to be reminded that the quality of my teaching is a vital way of sharing God’s love with my students. In meeting their most immediate and pressing need, that is, helping them out with their English, the diligence with which I offer my expertise is a ‘visible and credible’ measure of my concern. The way in which we teach also makes one of the ‘strongest and clearest’ statements of what a Christian is like – and indirectly the One we follow.

Ponder the reflection of this thinker: The work expresses and agrees with our word of testimony; the word explains the witness of our work. Work is not just a means to an end, a necessary activity so that we can love and witness. Work is a part of that witness.

I am convinced that many students think deeply about the reasons behind quality teaching, commitment to the task, a caring attitude, an ‘as for the Lord’ work ethic (cf. Col. 3:22) and clear moral standards.7 All the more so when they realise that many of us are volunteers who have left family and put aside career opportunities back home. This had led quite naturally to some questions and opportunities to share – with discretion. Relying on His power and wisdom, we can only trust that our efforts in and out of the classroom will do more than improve grammar but also have eternal impact in this difficult country. May the reflections continue.

Mission to North Africa

Getting there had its surprises and challenges, such as being escorted off our flight in Dubai by two Emirati policemen, but our recent short-term mission trip to a Muslim-majority North African country was very successful.

We had been invited back (after a similar outreach last year) to teach conversational English at a university in the country’s secondlargest city. Three of the team made it into the country without any problems, but when Mitch and I tried to fly out of Dubai, after being assured by the university that our visas were waiting, we hit a snag. The airline wanted to ensure that our visas were in order, so we confidently gave them the university’s contact details, then talked our way onto the plane. And were promptly escorted off again when it was discovered the visas hadn’t yet been issued.

On our first evening there, we went for a walk after dinner through the vegetable market. Grace was enthusiastically taking photos when three policemen demanded her camera. When we refused, we were taken to the police station for questioning. We called the university who contacted the vice-chancellor who rang the Chief of Police, who then released us. Surprisingly, the incident had a positive outcome, as it raised our profile in the community, and we received cheery waves from the police wherever we went.

Over 70 took part in the course we taught, including the faculty from several universities and Masterslevel students. The course, called ‘Understanding, coping with, and implementing change’, was highly participative, and included stories from the Bible, connecting them with the concept of change. The team members established links with their students outside of class, visiting them in their homes or going out on trips or sharing meals with them.

These were opportunities for deeper sharing, talking about personal and spiritual issues. We prayed for some of our students at different times and the scriptures were shared.

In my speech at the closing ceremony, in the presence of the Vice Chancellor and the Dean, I told the students, “Over the past week and a half, we’ve heard stories of change in the lives of the prophets: Adam and Eve, Noah, Joseph, David, and Jesus. What was common in all these stories was the power and grace of God. These are not just historical stories of people who lived long ago – they are just as true for us today because God is alive and working today. It is true that as Christians and Muslims we will understand God’s work differently, but we can also declare that we all seek to serve and worship God as we best understand Him.”

There was a real sense of spiritual openness amongst the people, and it seems that widespread Sufism has softened some of the hard edge of the way Islam is practised. Our prayer is that God will continue to open up doors and hearts in this country.

Welcome to Australia

It was a big gamble, but it got their attention. Fifteen hundred pairs of Muslim eyes focused on me as I walked up to the speaker at the podium, kissed him on both cheeks in the Arab style and said, “Welcome to Australia.”

The speaker, a big bushy-bearded Texan and well-known convert to Islam, had been pillorying Christianity for several hours in these widely-publicised lectures for Muslims at Melbourne University. At the end of his talk he asked for questions, but specified that they could be written only – no verbal questions were allowed. However, when he received the questions – most of them written by us, the small handful of Christians occupying the front row – the Texan simply shuffled the papers and ignored their contents.

Exasperated, we in the front row held up sheets of paper with big letters: Please answer our questions! He took the hint, began to read some of them, then laughed and said, “Funny, these are all in the same handwriting, but I can’t understand them.”

The audience laughed too. That’s when I seized the opportunity, walked up to him and kissed him. “Welcome to Australia. I wrote these questions. Let me help you read them.”

The audience laughed nervously as the big Texan took the initiative back. He leaned over and whispered to me, “If you don’t sit down right now, I’ll have you escorted out.”

Seeing his minders ready to pounce, I announced to the audience: “Well, I tried to help him, didn’t I?”

Some clapped. The Texan turned to his cameras: “Can you make sure that is erased from the final take?” Disappointed, I sat back down. The Texan continued to drone on, ignoring us and our questions. It seemed the gamble had not paid off.

As we filed out of the lecture theatre, a young Muslim man was waiting for me. “Are you a Christian?” he asked. I nodded. “I want to learn about Christianity. Could you teach me?”

Javed hadn’t been in Australia for very long, having recently entered on a student visa. Over the next few months we met regularly, and he began studying the Bible seriously. He seemed very grateful for my time, and didn’t raise any objections to what I was teaching him. But then one day I received a text message from him: “I’m in big trouble. I must see you soon.”

We met at the university and Javed showed me a court order: he’d been in a fight with a flatmate, and was being charged with causing grievous bodily harm. I helped him find a solicitor and a barrister, and at the court case several months later I was a character witness for him.

When Javed pleaded guilty and received a four-month prison sentence, I committed to visiting him regularly. He was grateful.

“I’m reading the Bible every day,” he told me, but then added, “and I’m finding it agrees completely with the Qur’an.”

He became involved with the prison Islamic group, praying regularly with them and even preaching at their weekly services. He had decided that Jesus was just a messenger, like all the other messengers of God – it looked as if he was going nowhere spiritually.

At the completion of his prison sentence, the Department of Immigration decided to deport Javed for not fulfilling the requirements of his student visa.

“I’m too tired to appeal,” he told me when I went to visit him, thinking it might be for the last time. “I’m returning to India soon. You have been a great friend and a teacher. Is there anything you would like to say to me?”

“Yes, there is.” I replied. “Yesterday I was at a mosque in Maidstone, and the speaker was criticising Christianity. Afterwards I went to the front and asked if I could have the chance to respond to his criticisms, and this time they let me. I was there for about four hours, and it became very apparent that Muslims and Christians believe quite different things. Muslims say that Jesus was just a messenger; Christians believe that He is the Son of God. Muslims believe that Jesus did not die; Christians believe that He died for the sins of the whole world. Muslims believe that they will enter paradise by their good works; Christians believe that it is only by the grace of God. Javed, it seems that you think that you can be both a Muslim and a Christian at the same time. But I think that you have to choose between them.”

He went quiet, then he said, “Today I am choosing to follow Jesus and to become a Christian.” I was overjoyed. “But,” he said. “There is the problem of my family. They are strict Muslims. What will I say to them?”

I told him that his faith was a matter between himself and God, and that the right time would come for him to tell them. I told him the stories of other Muslims I knew who had made the same journey, and eventually their families were accepting of their decision, and some members had even joined the Kingdom of God themselves.

The next day, when we met to do some discipleship studies, Javed gave me two bits of news. He had decided to appeal his deportation order, since his prison sentence had prevented him from completing the studies required by his visa. He had also told his parents that he had become a Christian, and was heartbroken by their response.

“We will have nothing to do with you!” were his father’s angry words. “Do not ever come back home again!”

As I write this, Javed is still waiting in the Immigration Detention Centre for the outcome of his appeal. I visit him almost daily and he is growing in his faith in Christ. I am praying that he might become an ardent evangelist for Christ, just as he once preached Islam with passion and conviction.

Paul stated his long-standing ambition as “to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. Rather, as it is written: ‘Those who were not told about Him will see, and those who have not heard will understand’” (Romans 15:20-21).

In past times, such a plan involved a long physical journey by boat or plane. Today, with 100,000 Muslims in Melbourne, and 23% of Australia’s population born overseas, it simply involves a walk across the street or a ride across the town. This is all part of the sovereign work of God who “from one man made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live” (Acts 17:26). The Lord of the entire world is bringing people from all over the world to Australia, so they can hear the good news. May we always cooperate with Him in His work.

Bernie works with CultureConnect, an IS ministry to people of non-English speaking backgrounds in Australia, and is the guest speaker at our NZ Interserve Day on Saturday, 22 May 2010.

Opening Doors in the Arab World

It was almost midnight when the knock came at my hotel door. “The political security police are downstairs, wanting to question us,” my colleague informed me, looking very worried.

I was leading a team of eight Aussies, of diverse ages, occupations and ethnicities, and we’d been invited to teach at a university in this North African country. But it looked like we were now in big trouble, and I prayed silently as we walked down the stairs.

The plain-clothes policeman greeted us while his partner looked around. Then he asked (in Arabic), “Why have you come to our country? What are the objectives of your visit?”

My colleague, an Australian citizen who had been born in this country, answered him in Arabic: “We came to teach English at the university.”

“Is that all? What else have you been doing? Where have you been going?” the policeman demanded.

My colleague was very astute: “We’ve been sightseeing, and went out for dinner in your lovely town. Tonight we were the guests of the Dean of Engineering, Professor Ahmad.”

The policeman jerked backwards as though he had been hit. Professor Ahmad was politically powerful in this town, and we were clearly people not to be messed with. His attitude immediately changed. “Of course we are only concerned for your safety: we need to know your movements so we can protect you… we are sorry to inconvenience you.” He excused himself and they departed.

This event typified many aspects of our short-term trip. Every time we hit a dead-end or a crisis threatened, God opened up an unexpected door.

Even before we left Australia, the university that originally invited us pulled out, leaving us in the lurch two months before we were due to depart. A “chance” visit to a friend in another city in Australia landed me in the house of some Muslim friends of his. I mentioned my disappointment about having to cancel our trip. He immediately phoned his brother-in-law, who worked at a university in the country we’d been planning to visit. “They would love to have you,” he informed me, after he’d hung up the phone. A new door had opened.

Our two-week course, aimed at helping the university faculty teach English effectively, was very well received, and on the final day they held a celebration for us, and issued a heartfelt request for us to return. From the first day they knew that we were all followers of Christ, so we had opportunities to talk about our faith, and pray for course participants.

We also attended several churches, and were even able to bring a word of encouragement to some of them; however, it was mostly ourselves who went away encouraged. We visited various projects, including a medical clinic, a home for street kids, and a theological college, and were moved by the faith and courage of the Christians we met, both local and expatriate, who are serving Christ in very challenging and sometimes dangerous situations.

In this part of the Arab world where, as recently as ten years ago, Christians were being crucified in the streets, the church is growing. Christ’s followers are taking advantage of the (relative) political stability to share their faith with those who persecuted them. In places where unspeakable atrocities are taking place, the word of God is taking root, and it is bearing good fruit. Please pray for this country and its people: it faces a very uncertain political future, and desperately needs the peace only Christ can give.

Risky Living

“We are targets. We ARE targets.” That phrase kept repeating itself in my mind after a terrorist attack that interrupted our lives for many months. The period of post traumatic stress that followed was an enriching time of processing our theology of suffering and risk.

My husband and I serve in a creative-access country where traditional mission work is not acceptable. We work with an international non-governmental organization in an English language teaching project. We minister wholistically through our lives and project work as we interact with the local population in class, in the market, and in our daily lives.

There are various reasons why our country is not an easy place. However, the harshness of our location does not take away from the effectiveness of witness. Rather, it seems to enhance it, in God’s mysterious and unexplainable way of working.

Our location is tough emotionally because of the security issues and the real physical danger we face. Explosions, fighting, kidnappings, murders, and robberies are part of life. We have security guards, security training, and security updates. Obviously safety is not the main motivating factor in our lives. We live and work among people whom God loves and who are lost and needy.

They also have security to worry about, and where do they go when they want to find safety and a refuge?

Secondly, we are in a spiritually hard place. We are in enemy territory. The majority religion has a strong hold on people, and there is little response to the good news. If there is some positive response, the enemy of our souls attacks. There can be threats to the Christian worker, with implications for his or her project and company. There can be threats against the local person who has made a profession. A local brother’s decision to change his faith might be with mixed motives of wanting help to leave the country or to have a better life. It can seem that all our work has no fruit, and discouragement and darkness prevail.

Living here is physically hard. It is a harsh environment. Our country is beautiful with breath-taking views of snowy mountains and vast barren deserts, yet the challenges of travelling and living in a developing country that lacks the facilities and infrastructure for convenient living are not in place. We would appreciate reliable electricity, clean drinking water, paved roads, responsible government, and dependable transportation. Many little things can go wrong in our daily lives and lots of energy is used in the effort it takes to live here.

It is also socially challenging because of the transience of colleagues with whom we serve and share fellowship. Many do not stay for long. When their aid or development projects are done, they leave. It can be wearing to keep saying hello and goodbye so often. Relationships and friendships can become superficial, and deep fellowship and the resulting edification of each other is hard to find.

All of these added together constitute for a life of unrelenting bombardment of feeling overwhelmed. Why stay in this place?

Yet for some reason there are many workers here who find it difficult to leave, especially if they have been here longer. Why? I think one reason is precisely because it is a hard place! It is a challenge to be here, and yet seeing how God undertakes and sustains and pours out His grace is an incredible joy. There is encouragement from the visible evidence of how our efforts in aid and in developing the country and people, helping bring them some hope in a bleak place. Things can improve, even if it is on a small scale.

Though there are seemingly unending challenges in a hard place, there are also many open doors. We serve to meet needs in a wholistic manner – physically, emotionally, spiritually and socially. At one Easter party we had for our English students, we were discussing how Easter is celebrated and why. In response to some students’ question, one of the students mentioned the Christian website in their language where they could find more information!

People are curious about foreigners and will ask questions. So we often pray for divine appointments, and God provides them. Peoples’ needs give us opportunities to listen to them and pray with them. We can share our message discreetly, in small steps, learning to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves. There are many times and places we can share about what God has done for us. Our testimony of “God moments” in our daily life (rather than comparing and contrasting our religious systems, like fasting or worship or sacred books) is easy to talk about with our local friends and neighbours. In our conversations we can give examples of how God has provided answers to prayer, how we are not afraid to live here, and how we keep learning about the local language and culture. These are simple things they can relate to in their life as well.

So we are targets but not like we think. We are noticed like salt and light. An example is our watchman asking us one day if in our culture husbands don’t beat their wives. Wife-beating is not uncommon in our host culture. Our character and lifestyle send a message.

It is a privilege to be unworthy servants in a hard place. We are nothing more than weak vessels with a message we are ready to share when the opportunity arises.”

23 years later

Bride stealers

Ainura walked down the street on her way to the village store, her mind occupied with how to persuade her parents to allow her to go to the capital city to study.

At 18 years old, she had finished school the previous summer, and had no desire to spend the rest of her life in the village, helping her mother run the house until her own marriage. And that marriage, she hoped, would not be for a long time yet!

As Ainura walked along, she became aware of a car driving slowly behind her. She idly wondered if the driver needed help finding an address and turned to see. Suddenly the car stopped and three men she didn’t recognise jumped out and ran towards her. Ainura tried to escape but the men were too fast and too strong; they quickly overpowered her and forced her into the car. Ainura continued to struggle as they drove away – she knew the fate that awaited her at the destination: it would be the end of all her hopes and dreams. When the car pulled up outside a house, the youngest man’s family was waiting – holding a headscarf. If they managed to put the headscarf on her head and secure it, then Ainura would be considered married.

She cried and fought as they took her into the house but to no avail. The women gathered around her, all talking together about the time when they themselves were bride-napped; they tried to persuade her that she was getting a good husband and that it would be better for her if she just cooperated – after all, she really didn’t have any choice. Only one hope remained for Ainura – that her family would come and save her – so she continued to struggle until well after dark. Eventually, though, she accepted that her family had chosen not to come, and that by continuing to refuse she would bring shame on them. She also knew that even if she could escape, her family would now refuse to let her return home.

As she permitted the headscarf to be placed on her, she mourned the loss of her dreams. There would be no study, no university: her future was now contained within these four walls. As wife to the youngest son, she would now be responsible for running the household under the authority of her mother-in-law. Dazed, she wondered how her life could have changed so much since she stepped out of her house just that morning…

Ainura’s story is, sadly, all too common here in this part of Central Asia. Bride stealing (Ala Kachuu in the local language) is officially against the law, but has been increasing in the past few years, in both the cities and the villages.

One young believer was kidnapped recently on her way to her university class. A fellow student had jokingly declared he was going to marry her – except he turned out not to be joking. He arranged for his family’s help to bride-nap her, and took her back to his village. She is now unable to finish her university study, and is separated from her like-minded friends and fellowship.

Interserve partners in the south of our country are on to their third language helper, having had both their previous language helpers bride-napped – not a usual language learning problem! Fortunately, not long ago their third helper was able to talk her way out of the same situation and return to her home, where, just as fortunately, her family received her back.

This is rare, as all too often the girl is powerless to do anything but accept the situation. If she runs away, she brings disgrace on her family and is often turned out with nowhere to go. The family see her as a traitor to them and to society, and may disown her completely.

Frequently, the bride-napping is done with the agreement of the girl’s family, although the girl herself will know nothing about the plans that have been made on her behalf. In one such case, a young believer heard that she was about to be stolen by a non-believing man. She told her family that she would not go along with it. For her own safety she then had to flee the country, as the family could well have killed her if she persisted in refusing to marry the man.

The extent of bride-napping is not fully known but is probably great. In one village we visited, about 95% of the women said that they had “been stolen” and seemed to see it as a normal way of life. They all claimed to be happy, and for some this is probably true and the ‘napping’ possibly even happened with their consent. But for many the reverse is the case and they end up in abusive situations involving rape, beatings and other atrocities.

So why is bride-napping such a problem? Why do so many men resort to bride-napping as the means to get a wife? There are cases where it is done more out of tradition, and the girl will be involved in arranging it, along with her family. In these cases it is treated as a joke and part of the celebration. However, more often than not, the girl knows nothing about it, and sometimes does not even know the man involved.

Tradition demands that the youngest son marry so his bride can take on the running of the home and free up his mother to care for the grandchildren. Some men feel that the only guaranteed way to obtain the bride of their choice is to bride-nap her. Other men may be too poor to pay the expected dowry, which may be as much as five horses and other expensive gifts, to the girl’s family. Or – all too often – if the man is known to be involved in alcohol or drug abuse, no one is willing to marry him, and so bride-napping is seen as the only option remaining for his family.

So, if Ala Kachuu is illegal, why is so little being done to stop it? There is a maximum prison sentence of two years for men who are successfully prosecuted; however, this does not seem to act as a deterrent. Ala Kachuu is often ignored by the authorities due to corruption and the view that bridenapping is a family problem, and as such the police prefer not to get involved. In the rare cases where they do take action and are successful in sending the man to prison, the marriage is not declared void. The wife then has to live with the shame not only of being bride-napped in the first place, but also of her husband’s imprisonment.

Ainura now lives happily with her husband and two children but she still thinks wistfully of what might have been, and makes plans for her daughter’s future, plans that include university and a good job. It’s the kind of future that, sadly, was stolen from Ainura, and is stolen from many women in this nation. Ainura’s hopes for her daughter could become reality – but only if the perpetrators of Ala Kachuu come to recognise that bride-napping is not a harmless cultural tradition, but rather a violation of women’s basic rights to dignity and free choice.

The author has been living in Central Asia with her family for the past six years, and is involved in community health education.