Monday, 18 May 2015

Reflections from Papua New Guinea - part 2

As I said in my last post, I wasn't expecting to be writing from the relative comfort of the UK so soon and I'll share a little here about what led to my return so that anyone who's interested can read. After spending a couple of days at the lovely Mapang Missionary House in Port Moresby for a couple of nights and being hosted brilliantly by local United Church members, I flew the 90 mins or so internal flight to New Britain Island and Rabaul Airport where I would be greeted by my former colleague Garo (pictured) and his wife Dada.

Many people have asked about why I ended up in PNG in the first place. Well, for a number of years, Garo served in the UK church in Lancashire, while I was stationed there, even serving in the same circuit for two years. As I was planning my sabbatical I wanted to test a call to theological education as well as experiencing Christianity in a different culture. Garo, now back in PNG, serves as Principal of the School of Theology & Mission at Rarongo - the primary training college for Ministers in the United Church - and so this contact provided an opportunity both to teach and see a different cultural context.

As I arrived Garo informed me that there had been a few earthquakes in the area, likely linked to the increased activity of Mt Tavurvur - an active volcano on the island of New Britain. Having never experienced an earthquake I was a little apprehensive but was unsure what was really in store.

We headed to a local foodstore, as Garo and Dada were concerned for me to have as western a diet as possible - their constant thoughtfulness and care to me from the word go was quite remarkable - and it was there that the fun(!) really began. After a while in the store I heard a loud rumble and instinctively assumed it was thunder, it was the fact that the whole building was shaking and the shelves emptying their contents to the ground that made me realise in that this was something quite different. We ran from the building, still shaking at this point, as some of the ceiling fixtures came down around me, being one of the last to leave the building with the ground still shaking violently outside. It soon transpired that this was a significant earthquake - of greater magnitude than the recent ones - and one of the largest that Garo & Dada had experienced. It was significant enough to make international news but thankfully there were no reports of casualties. A tsunami warning was issued but no major problems occurred.

For me this was a frightening experience. I've never experienced an earthquake before, let alone one that was so sizeable and I was shaking from the ordeal. Even recounting it now, nearly two weeks on, makes my heart race and the adrenaline kick in just a little.

We proceeded on to Rarongo, considering my options as I went. It was our guess, and no more, that this latest quake marked an escalation in the activity of the volcano - something that would pose a threat to many of the communities on the north of New Britain island.

On the basis of the information at the time and in the context of a frightening earthquake it seemed the most sensible decision to head back home fairly quickly in order to make sure I was safe and my family back home could be assured of my well-being. It was my guess that if the earthquakes continued, and if the volcano did erupt, having me around and needing to get me out of the province would have been a burden that the local people didn't need to have and so, it was thought best for me to return initially back to Port Moresby and then home. A couple of weeks on and that decision seems somewhat ridiculous. The earthquakes have continued but seem not be escalating and their scale is considerably diminished from the one I experienced. The staff and missionaries at the college are continuing as normal so it feels somewhat a considerable opportunity gone to waste. On the flip side, what I didn't want to happen was for the college to spend considerable resources on feeding and looking after me only for all this to go to waste just a couple of days later.

Nevertheless, my brief overnight stay at Rarongo enabled me to see the college, its beautiful setting- a rural village on the coast, just paces from the beach - and to meet some great people, however briefly. The care and love given to me by some of the staff of the college and Garo & Dada was quite something.

So this stay in PNG was a lot briefer than expected. My family are relieved I'm home, the love and affection from my two lovely children seem to bear this out! Im left with mixed feelings. Im glad to be out of the heat, I'm glad to have modern comforts again, but I am reflecting on my propensity to panic rather than to pray. My honest reflection (and my critique is of myself solely) is that I made quick, even possibly positive decisions quickly & decisively, (something I'm not prone too!) but I what I didn't do is to pause, pray and seek the mind of my Creator and Master. Unanimously Ive been reassured by godly and caring friends in the UK that my actions were entirely reasonable and I'm coming to terms with that, but how can I continue to encourage others to lean on the Lord even in the most severe of trials and to know His peace and wisdom if when push comes to shove Im unable to do so. If I had my time again, I may not necessarily have a different outcome, but I would hope to take a breath, pause, pray and seek the guidance of One whose will and wisdom can only ever be for my eternal good, whatever the earthly circumstances.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Reflections from Papua New Guinea - Part 1

As many of you will be aware by now, I'm not in the Papua New Guinean bush teaching student minsters but back home in the UK largely feeling sorry for myself. I'll say more about that in my next post, but I wanted to share some brief and fairly simple reflections from my travels over the last week or so.

Firstly, Papua New Guinea (PNG) is so very far away from the UK! It looks far away on a map and on plane tickets when the relevant timings are set out before you, but it is quite another thing to spend  nearly 2 1/2 days travelling to the place one is headed to. Nothing quite prepared me for just how long it would take to get there and back, but I made it courtesy of Singapore Airlines!

Secondly, PNG is hot & humid. The temperature was around 30* celsius while I was there and its a heat that comes with a high degree of humidity too that makes it feel even hotter than it is. For someone who naturally prefers the cold, it was something of a shock to exit the plane at Port Moresby and be confronted with the sheer wall of heat that is the pacific climate.  

Thirdly, PNG is a land of contrast. Although my experience was confined to the capital Port Moresby, and a brief stay on New Britain Island, the gap between rich and poor is immediately evident. There are brand new 4x4 and SUV's driving the same streets that naked children live and scavenge on. The streets are dirty and sometimes unkempt, while pristine office blocks and high end hotels line them. This contrast is even more noticeable the further out from the capital one gets. The rural communities living in increasingly primitive conditions, yet each with cell phones - an essential point of connection to the rest of the world and essential services.

Fourthly, PNGers are lovely people! Although I must confess to being intimidated at first by the cultural differences, my experience of PNG people is overwhelmingly positive. In my brief time in PNG I met church officials and local church members and found them to be a delight. The small band of church members who looked after me for a few days in Port Moresby were a wonderful tribute to their church and nation as they ferried me left and right and looked after me with incredible generosity. Once again, the kindness and hospitality of the local people left a lasting impact on me.

Lastly, PNG is often referred to as the 'Land of the unexpected'. My last post was about the need to relax into God's purposes whatever they may be. I didn't anticipate being back to soon, or experiencing an earthquake - Im unsure as to what God's purpose in all of this is still - but the laid back culture of the pacific once again challenged my need to be in control at all times rather than go with the flow a little more. In the next post I'll share some more reflections about living in a vulnerable situation and the challenges faced by communities whose infrastructure is far less reliable than that in the west.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Don't Panic!!!

Although it wasn't planned this way, the increasing theme of this sabbatical seems to be around the area of trusting God. I guess the whole theology of sabbath and sabbatical is fundamentally an issue of faith and trust. Right at the foundation of the world we are set an example of sabbath - of rest - by God himself as though He wanted us to know right from the beginning that non-stop frantic activity is not how God wants us to be or how He wants us to live.

Im not good at stopping and being still, not good at resting and so perhaps my faith and trust levels are not as high as I would like them to be. Its as though frantic activity, the need to be doing doing doing says to ourselves, to others, and ultimately to God that we are indispensable, He cannot do with out our doing. I remember a wise college lecturer saying to us that a day off was an act of faith - a statement that even when we are not exerting energy the world will not stop turning, for it is Gods work anyway not ours.

I think of all the people I have worked with who thought time off was almost a sin, a sign of neglect of God's work, rather than a statement of faith that says there is One bigger, greater and more able than I.

I write all this in the context of a week for us that has been full-on with frantic activity. I am due to fly to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea in a matter of hours (writing this from an airport cafe) and although we had planned to have all our preparation done well in advance to enable us, maybe naively, to have a relaxed family week, we have been rushing from pillar to post to get VISA's sorted, borrow all sorts of things from friends, pack, re-pack, buy last minute essentials, collect items that need to be taken to missionaries stationed in PNG and etc etc. This has hardly been a week of rest and relaxation. I would love to tell you how I have quietly trusted God all along and rested in His peace amidst the various upheavals! Nothing could be further from the trust, as I have panicked, panicked, panicked!

I'm reminded of Corporal Jones in the sitcom 'Dads Army' whose catchphrase of 'Don't panic' was almost always accompanied with frantic activity as he, yes panicked!

So to return to the beginning, this sabbatical is increasingly about learning to trust God when the plans I make seem to take another direction, to remember that I am dispensable and that He is big, is great and is Eternal. In the context of ministry, I need to learn that God is ultimately in control, and ultimately He is responsible for the outcome of His work. My task is to be regularly available, willing and faithful, and to have enough faith not to try to grasp the outcome for myself but to trust Him in all things.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Awe-some architecture

Last week was mainly spent with my lovely wife being tourists in Barcelona. Its somewhere we'd always wanted to visit and a sabbatical was the perfect excuse to farm the kids off to the in-laws and hop-it overseas for the first time together.

There was much about Barcelona to love, the climate, the culture, the art but what will really stick in our memories was the visit to Sagrada Familia - the stunning cathedral, still under construction, designed by Antoni Gaudi. Im not a huge architecture person, I enjoy historic buildings as much as the next person, a beautiful stained glass window may take my eye, but on the whole I'm usually left fairly non-plussed by buildings. The Sagrada Familia was different - I was encouraged to go by friends, but little could prepare me for the incredible awe-inspiring experience of being inside this masterpiece, built intentionally for the glory of God.

Im guilty of cheapening awe. My language and vocabulary regularly describe things or experiences as 'awesome' when they are far from that, often just mundane or ordinary. But this cathedral was different. A description and even pictures don't do it justice, (I've posted some anyway), this was a place that literally took my breath away as I experienced what Gaudi had always hoped and prayed would be the case - a glimpse of the glory of God.

I like space and stillness and this building was crammed with tourists all snapping away, yet still the overwhelming sense of the heaviness of the presence of the Lord was not lost - rarely, if ever, has a building, architecture, imaginative and creative use of light and stone, imagery and craftsmanship drawn me to close to the God of heaven and earth.

So this led me to reflect in the last few days, have we lost a sense of awe and wonder? I was certain that it was the Maker of heaven and earth and cathedrals that I was in awe of, His creation, His creativity, His innovation, His light, His glorious colour, His presence. But I'm surrounded by these things every day, yet I embody little in the way of awe. When we gather for worship there may be reverence, there may be deep-rooted integrity, there may be a longing and hunger for more of the Lord in our lives, but its a while since I was aware of being in awe and wonder at the goodness and glory of God.

So for me the challenge in these next days is to live with an increasing sense of awe and wonder at the glory of God - glimpses of which are all around us. Maybe the church would be a more spectacular place too, if we were able to regain a sense of awe once again when we gather intentionally aware of the presence of the King of all Kings.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Easter Comings and Goings

I spent Holy Week and Easter in and around Bath, the home city of Laura and I. I had always hoped that having a sabbatical over the Easter period would enable me to experience the journey of Holy Week and Easter as a disciple again as having led Holy Week and Easter services for the last 11 years has left me often feeling as if I had 'gone through the motions' somewhat. So I spent time in a variety of church settings, morning prayer at Bath Abbey, time with All Saints, Weston, - a church we used to attend in our younger days - and the long walk of witness from Oldfield Park to Twerton Roundhill (see picture below), with all of them being opportunities to receive.

Perhaps though the most significant moment for me was during the Easter service at All Saints where a non-stipendary minister was sharing feedback from his own sabbatical. He shared that prior to his sabbatical he felt like he '...didn't know whether he was "coming or going"...' due to the combined pressures of his employment and his ministry. He went on to share that what he had realised was that ministry, indeed discipleship, is all about 'coming and going'. The contrast of coming to God for refreshment and renewal and being sent to 'go' to serve, witness and minister.

Im still pondering the significance of this idea for me and my own discipleship and ministry, but I do have a sense that it was a word from God for me to mull over. As I was reflecting and sharing a bit of this with someone this week they shared the observation that the Easter narratives are full of this contrast of coming and going. Jesus comes to Jerusalem, heads into the temple and then goes again. The disciples come to Jesus for the last meal, they go in fear at his arrest. Jesus' followers and friends come to the cross and go away in sadness in mourning. The same followers come to the tomb in sadness and grief and go sharing news of great joy. The same person I was speaking with went on to suggest that the tension of coming and going was also present within me - and I think they are right. I have the desire to come to God to find refreshment for my body and soul, to drink from the fountain  but equally it seems that often I would do anything to find a way of avoiding this, as though Im running away from the source of healing and strength that I need.

In the next few days Im going to try and balance these two aspects of discipleship which are complimentary. I hope to spend time drawing near to God, but conscious that any drawing near is about me being changed, filled, resourced for the going into the world that God calls each of us to.

Monday, 30 March 2015

An Irish Blessing

Last week I was due to take a tour of the Methodist Church in Ireland with a group called Inspire. (Inspire are about encouraging a missional discipleship based primarily around small group accountability groups that spur people on to enjoying a greater sense of the life of God. You can find out more about them here.) The tour was cancelled but due to a number of arrangements already in place I still went to spend some time in Ireland with the Methodist Church there.

For me it was a great privilege and a real joy to be with them. I was hosted by Methodist Ministers and their families who kindly transported, fed and watered someone they hadn't  met before, who essentially was on a glorified holiday. The welcome and warmth of the people was remarkable - this is something that, in my experience, seems to transcend the whole of the island of Ireland and is embedded in the culture, but was especially focussed in the life of the church. 

Hospitality & welcome is something thats been high on my agenda for a while. It was a large feature of a piece of academic work a couple of years ago, and more recently at my church in Derby where I serve, we have focussed on welcome and hospitality for the last few weeks and talked about its power in evangelism and mission. To be treated so well by people to whom I was a random stranger was a powerful statement of the life of God flowing through these people. 

St Paul in wrapping up His first letter to the Corinthians speaks of a visit of some fellow believers to the church in Corinth. He talks of what they might add to the Corinthians but goes on to say that 

 "...they refreshed my spirit and yours also." 1 Cor 16:18

Although I spent much of last week being a tourist, seeing Derry/Londonderry (including a tour of the infamous Bogside and 'Free Derry') the spectacular Causeway Coastline, Belfast City Centre and a bit of Dublin, what really left an impression with me were the Irish Methodists themselves. I was left with the conviction that the British church has so much to learn from the Irish! There was, across virtually all the Irish Methodists I met a quite trust in God that pervaded everything they were. They very much refreshed my spirit! I was left reflecting on my own ministry and lifestyle and those of others around me. So often we communicate action, busyness, even dynamism and/or charisma, things that are attractive and appealing and, most often, good. But I wonder whether I communicate, a sense of deep resting in God and a humility that realises that I am nothing but for His gracious choice to use me for some reason in His work? I rarely see these attributes in myself and rarely see them in others who are in 'professional ministry'. It pulled me up short and reminded me of the simplicity of ministry - the call to walk humbly before God and see some of His transforming life flow out through me. 

For this week, Im in Bath staying with family, but also trying to make space to humbly walk with the Servant King through this week of all weeks in the hope that once again my spirit might be refreshed and renewed as I gaze in awe and wonder at the Saviour on a cross who is risen again. 


Monday, 23 March 2015

Drinking from the Fountain

Last week saw the beginning of my long awaited sabbatical. Im in my ninth year of full-time paid ministry in the Methodist Church and as a gift the church grants us 3months paid leave for rest, reflection and recuperation. After a particularly intense 18months I have been counting down the days until this began, planning, dreaming and longing for a prolonged rest and space to draw breath and reflect on who I am and who God is calling me to be. 

Ive been asking God for a few weeks for 'word' for my sabbatical - an image, a phrase, a scripture verse that I can keep coming back to for renewed focus and purpose in a time where much of the normal structure and rhythm has gone. At our church prayer meeting a few weeks ago, I was humbled as the group of 30 or so faithful saints gathered around me and prayed for me and my family as I embarked on this sabbatical. Two things came to mind during this time - firstly someone shared a picture of a waterfall (I imagine it to be similar to the one pictured) and she prayed that the sabbatical would be a time of standing under the waterfall of God's refreshing and renewing love. Secondly, I was reminded (probably connected in my subconscious) of the verse from the Psalms

'For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.' (Ps 36:9).

 I think these two images are a reminder for me and others that the source of all things good, the source of joy, the source of hope, the source of peace, indeed the source of anything that gives life is God Himself. He is the One from whom life and goodness emanate. Ironically, this is something I so often forget as I plod the path of daily discipleship let alone seek to exercise ministry in His Name. It leads me to ponder what life and ministry might really look like if I was better at drawing deep from the one who is called the 'fountain of life' and allow His love and grace to flow through me rather than trying to do do do in my own strength.

So my hope and prayer for the next few months is that I will learn to draw close and to drink deep from the fountain of life. The One who is the source of anything and everything good so that my soul and indeed every part of my being, is refreshed and restored in the bounty of His love. 

For me, one place where I am able to sense God close, a thin place some may call it, is by the sea. Im so grateful to a generous church member who gifted me his beachside apartment for a week contemplating the view below. 

So I pray that whether you are experiencing a time of rest, or whether you are in the midst of an incredibly hectic season, you too will know the closeness of the One who is called the Fountain of Life - the One who is the source of refreshment and renewal, the One who gives life to all who thirst for it.