February 2012


I had the privilege of spending this past weekend in Singapore, getting caught up with old friends and new.  Marli Spieker, the Global Ministry Director and founder  of Project Hannah was there as part of a tour of several countries in the region.  We spent many fruitful hours talking about the accomplishments, hopes, dreams and prayers for the women whose lives are impacted through the broadcasts, prayer calendar, mercy ministries and the awareness of the issues that this important ministry brings.

My friend Serene, who heads up the Women’s Ministry Team in Singapore, was also able to join us for tea and discussions about future plans for the work in SE Asia.  We had a wonderfully encouraging time together and left with some research and planning to do before we meet up again in the US in May.  Please pray with me for Marli and Serene, for safety and wonderful meetings with co-workers and listeners as they travel together over the next few weeks.

The most enjoyable part of any trip to Singapore, is a visit in the home of our friends Blossom and McDaniel and some home made apple pie doesn’t hurt either.  They are currently hosting new appointees, Daryl and Gaynelle who have just arrived to assume the position of Director of the Asia Resource Center.  I was very happy for the chance to get to know them and to establish a working relationship with them.

There are always IT issues that need to be addressed so I was very grateful for the help of the IT guys  so I can finally access the global resources available on line. There are many changes in the leadership structure and the roles of some of the staff which I was able to get caught up on in the office on Monday.

 

With Daryl now on board, the new leadership team is complete and very much in need of prayer as they plan for the future of TWR in South and SE Asia.  Although both Andrew and Freddy have a long history in TWR, they have each taken on completely new areas of responsibility with some significant challenges ahead.

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One of the great joys of this past year was reconnecting with Rosalind, my cousin, who did us the honour of traveling all the way from the south of England for our daughter’s wedding. Shortly after her return to England she was struck with labyrinthis and was unable to work for a time. A devout and deeply committed Christian, she struggled to make sense of her illness, and the Lord’s purpose in it. I have asked her permission to print her her reflections on that journey through her illness in order to encourage those who are going through physical trials that tax their spirit and sap their strength. This is her story:

Labyrinthitis.  Ten weeks ago, I’d never heard of it.  I’m now in the eleventh week of living through it, knowing it intimately.  As intimately as God knows me. Day after day, needing to be well and get back to work, I awoke giddy, sick, and fatigued.  I wanted to get on with my life, but all I could do was rest.  Without rest, the virus directly triggers ME, which would mean a long illness.  And I already knew of someone who’d had labyrinthitis for ten months.

Rest.  Sounds enviable? Yes, but not when you lose interest in everything – television, dvds, music, knitting, needlepoint, writing, reading, cooking – are too ill to go for a walk, and are not allowed to drive.  

Usually, I’m a very busy person.  Doing nothing, feeling useless and often tearful because of the virus, gave me a revealing glimpse of old age.  I couldn’t use my skills.  I felt a burden to those around me.  Isolated.  Purposeless.  Futile.  Each day seemed endless, yet passed far too fast.  All that wasted time – days of my life – slipping past, out of my reach, beyond my ability to use to the full.

Such emptiness forced me to reflect.  Events I’d resolved and forgotten surfaced from my past.  With nothing else to do, I dwelt on them, and became convicted of my unworthiness and sinfulness.  Incidents, words, thoughts, that at the time hadn’t seemed particularly regrettable, let alone sinful, revealed themselves in all their ugliness and horror.  How could I have done such things?   They weren’t trivial, but unacceptable to God.  Why hadn’t I been kinder, more thoughtful, less self-centred, better for God, and more reflective of His beauty and grace?  I loathed myself, and repented, over and over before Him, of all these unwitting errors.  Things left undone; other things not done well enough.  Even things I’d long ago received forgiveness for, I was pricked by as if they’d only just happened.

I was so sorry, and so unworthy.

Into this desolation our Father came, with love and comfort.  As I sat in forced idleness, feeling giddy and unbalanced and sick, I felt Him very near.  He revealed himself in a beautiful, intense, loving, comforting presence, which never left me.  He dwelt in me, and – most precious! – I was allowed to dwell deeply in Him, drawn unimaginably close.    

Then, one morning, repenting again of a sin, I had an astonishing revelation.  I no longer needed to repent of it.  My Father had made me new.  The person I had become, through His grace, had been totally forgiven.  The past belonged to the “old Rosalind”.  My sense of forgiveness and renewal was so strong it was as if the old me was sitting at my side, separate from the new me that God had brought into being.

The more loathsome my state, the more precious His love.  How gracious a God – so great, so lovely, so pure – to see worthiness in me!   Grim weeks of illness were being turned into a wonderful opportunity to know Him more and more.  Now there was a glowing jewel embedded in my dull days: His companionship, understanding, and overwhelming love.

During my walk with God, two things have been difficult to understand.  His love for me (I had a loving father who routinely abused me physically) and the idea of Him having a plan for me.  His love, His care, His passion for relationship, became abundantly obvious.  I felt loved as never before and, at last, I was able to accept His love fully, knowing I was made new in Him.

As for God’s plan: that, too, became clear.  I could see it mapped out for me in the significant events of the past few years, in the illness that claimed my present, and in His promise for my future.  Our Pastor once said, “Lay hold of God – and he’ll lay hold of you” – a truth I have experienced more than once.  But the way God laid hold of me this time, revealing His plan, was astonishingly powerful and absolute.  I personally discovered that when He decides to do something, no-one, nothing, will stop him.  Feeling His resolute force in my small life would have been terrifying if it hadn’t been so marvellous, awe-inspiring, exciting.

The time of illness showed me something else.  We are all too busy.  We know it, as we awake each morning – with God, but powerless, most of us, to resist the pressures, stresses, treadmills, of work and daily routine.  Every day, confronted by people’s expectations, we push ourselves further, or are forced into exhausting, spiritually draining busyness.  Not many of us have the leisure and tranquillity to meet Him as totally as we aspire or long to, every day of our lives.  We’re tired; we’re worried; our minds are churning with all the things we need to remember for the day ahead, or the next day, in which there is never enough time or energy.

God grieves that our lives, in this society, are so overwhelmed with worldly demands and concerns.  He wants to lead us by still waters, to restore our souls, and our understanding, love, and knowledge of Him.  He is there, at our elbow, even in front of us, waiting.  Our God, our heavenly Father, has to wait in our world, for us to see Him.  He wants us to recognise him, in all his beauty and majesty – and in the humility that sent Him to earth as one of us.  He loves us.  He yearns to know us all, individually, as fully as possible.

We need to struggle against the things that prevent us from dwelling in Him, and Him from dwelling in us.  He is our priority.  How can we make more time for Him? Trust Him.  Nothing can stop God’s work in our lives.  We may not always understand, but we can always trust. By opening ourselves to Him in total trust, we can find Him.  The more we open, the more He can lay hold of us, and help us to lay hold of Him.  Trusting in Him, we dwell in Him.

All aspects of life are lived out in the presence of God, who cares about every one. Realising that the whole of life belongs to God is essential if we are to serve him effectively.  Give every aspect of your life to God, praying that you may experience his presence in it all. The blessedness of God is waiting for us, even in the dark days of our lives. Whether we can see Him or not, he is there: He sees us.  He freely offers us forgiveness, redemption, the chance to renew ourselves in Him, to consecrate ourselves to Him.  Let’s pray to Him to open our eyes to His presence!

 

 

Coffee Bean, Sunway Pyramid: This might be one of my favourite spots in Subang Jaya, where we live. It has a nice view of the mall and the skating rink and is both spacious and protected. I can see the world going by without being obtrusive. It has comfortable chairs, internet access and electrical outlets to keep my computer charged while I am working. There is a clean washroom close enough that I can leave my stuff at the table for a minute without having to wrap everything up. The soy lattes are the best in Asia and I can sit all day for the cost of one, which is about four bucks. It also gets me out of the apartment, which although is undoubtedly ‘cosy,’ can seem a little confining at times. What is not to like?

There is never anything that my allergy regime will let me eat in such places, so I always carry a couple of allergy-friendly granola bars. Although I miss Pam (she is in Singapore meeting with her head of mission), I recognize that she does not have the patience to just sit in such places for extended periods of time. She would be off ‘shopping,’ which for her – as she spends very little money – simply means cruising the mall until I feel inclined to leave. So there is always the pressure of knowing that she wants to be somewhere else.  When I am by myself I can dawdle as much as I like, which given the daily pressure to perform that I am under, pleases me a great deal. I like to dawdle; it is how I decompress.

People underestimate the value of dawdling; of downtime. This is when the mind, heart and spirit bind the many multicoloured experiences of the past days or weeks into a coherent whole. Socrates – if he in fact lived and wasn’t simply a philosophical/literary construct in Plato’s Dialogues – said that an unexamined life is not worth living. Erik Erikson in Identity and the Life Cycle said that integrity or despair were the two alternative outcomes at the end stage of life. I prefer to work on integrating my personality, rather than wallowing in despair, and value the time to examine what I am doing and “knit up th’unraveled sleeve of care” in order to make sense of this crazy life. Chilling at the Coffee Bean does that for me.

Along with blogging the experience, I am also charging my camera, reading in my Kindle, browsing news sites on my laptop and absorbing the ambience of one of Kuala Lumpur’s busiest malls on a crowded Sunday. The sheer scope of ethnic diversity in such a place is cause enough for several hours of reflection. I find the noise and bustle more of a shield than a distraction, one that allows me to drift through the deitrus of a distracted week and find some order in the chaos. It may look like I am vegetating, but I am actually cogitating. I would welcome your company, provided you allowed me time to reflect. Soy latte, anyone?

One of my colleagues at Taylor’s conducted a toy drive at Christmas. The response was overwhelming; in fact so much material was collected that even after all the good stuff had been distributed to the refugee centers that we help support, the staff room has been stocked with the overflow. Last week I bundled up all the excess items and took them off to our church’s outlet in a nearby neighbourhood. It was an unexpectedly humbling experience.

USJ, or Utama Subang Jaya, is the district right beside our own. There are some nicer homes and a good restaurant quarter, but beyond that not much to offer. However, in behind the main street and out of view of the travelling public is a seedy and rundown part of town. The condos are essentially tenement slums, overwhelmingly Muslim, and desperately poor. Washing – if such tatty rags can be considered clothes at all – hung from hundreds of balconies. On the broken asphalt dozens of children – all covered in the stifling dress that is required for religious conformity – played with sticks and deflated balls among the refuse. We don’t often get into such places in our neighbourhood, and it was a stark reminder of the daily reality for many Malaysians. It is to such people that the current government appeals when it trots out its ‘Malays First’ policy that ensures the survival of its regime in the face of the forces of accountability and modernity.

In the heart of this urban jungle is a Christian mission; the only compassionate feature in the midst of acres of squalor. Of course it dare not call itself Christian; that would be an offense to the ideologues that rule this country, so it has to adopt the simple sobriquet ‘J** Station.’ Even within this broken community itself there is opposition to the good it does. M**, who runs the mission with the self-effacing humility that is characteristic of the Asian Christian community, warned me not to park too close to the shop front to offload the donations I had brought, otherwise my car would be hit with the bottles that are routinely thrown at the vehicles that park there by residents above.

This did not keep many hands from helping me to offload my donations once I had found a safe place to park. Nor did it keep the residents who visit the shop regularly from coming out to greet me with their shy smiles of gratitude. I was embarrassed by the meager goods I had to donate in the light of such a visible abundance of need. In addition to distributing goods to the families that live in the tenement – divorced and single-parent families pay nothing, others pay a nominal fee – the mission will also pay the rent for needy families that cannot afford to do so themselves. They also pay for medical and dental treatment for the children of such families, and seek to sponsor students at better schools if one of their children show academic promise. All of this good work is paid for by the tithes and offerings of our church, a church that was recently raided by the religious police for daring to sponsor a community lunch which sought to honour those in the community who were seeking to bring relief to the poor, regardless of religious affiliation.

The ironies and injustices of this country abound. But beyond all the persecution of the entrenched elite and the arrogance and sometimes outright hostility of those who condemn all who profess a faith in the Divine, the Christian church in this country caries out a campaign of compassion to all, regardless of race or religion. Normally I shrink from even oblique contempt for my faith. To witness the perseverance and dedication of the Christians in this country, who face daily persecution in the service of the poor and needy, is a salutary exercise in humility, and one that my Westernized and overly timid soul needs to expose itself to more frequently.

My co-worker, Sharon wrote an update on our community visits for their prayer supporters that captures our experience very well so I will share it here.

“The theme of the conference in Manila was, ‘Challenges of the City and the Urban Poor’ and the use of Asset Based Community Development, which is based on looking first at the assets rather than the needs. All 50 of us went into the slums where CHE is actively making an impact, even in the community living on the garbage dump. We found resourceful, resilient people able to salvage and make incomes and build homes from anything (even make them “cute” as one woman described the shack she lives in!).

“We met and were welcomed into the homes of CHE trainers dedicated to teaching lessons faithfully every week, and Christians living joyfully and reaching out to their neighbours. A pastor living next to his church in the dump site told us how he managed to put two kids through university on proceeds from picking through garbage. We observed people living simply but using their skills to provide for their families, and mothers learning how to care for children in very unhygienic conditions through the CHE process.

“I was particularly fascinated by CHE volunteers working with TB-DOTS (Direct Observation and Treatment Strategy). They visit with their neighbours and watch for people exhibiting TB symptoms, accompany them to the clinic for testing and if positive, the volunteer functions as the TB treatment partner to get them to take their full course of treatment. In order to do this, the CHE delivers the medication to the home each day and accompanies the patient for follow-up testing for at least six months. Now that is a volunteer commitment to speak about.”

From my own perspective what we saw in these poor communities helped us to better understand our morning Bible study from Isaiah 61 and to put our own work into perspective. Isaiah states that those whom the Lord liberates will re-build the broken cities, not us. In Manilla we observed glimpses of that possibility, enough for all of us to leave with a different perspective on the “poor”!

With a population of over 16 million in an area of only 38.55 square kilometers, Manila is the most densely populated city in the world. The greater urban area of Metro Manila is the fifth-most populous area in the world with an estimated population of nearly 21 million people. I feel like I rubbed shoulders with a pretty good percentage of them on the MRT this week.

According to the United Nations, the percentage of urban dwellers living in slums decreased from 47 percent to 37 percent in the developing world between 1990 and 2005. However, due to population growth, and the recent rise especially in urban populations, the number of slum dwellers is rising again. One billion people worldwide live in slums, the highest concentration of them in Asia, and the figure will likely grow to 2 billion by 2030. According to a UN-Habitat report, over 20 million people in the Philippines live in slums, and over 11 million of them live in the city of Manila.

We spent two afternoons this week visiting with CHE volunteers and families in three different types of slum areas. One area was home for about 500 families who live at the base of a mountain of garbage and make their living by recycling trash from household garbage to electronics for a living, selling the occasional usable goods or stripping broken goods for parts and raw materials. They climb this man-made mountain at 4 a.m. when the city garbage trucks begin to roll in, in order to get first access to goods and food scraps. There is one source of water which is not safe for drinking, no toilets and a ditch flowing through with water that comes from the cleaning of pigs and garbage. This is gross beyond description or even comprehesion, I know, but that is the reality for millions in Manilla.

 
In another area, about 16,000 people are crowded into semi-permanent, one or two room homes stacked on top of each other in a sunken area which regularly floods with as much as five feet of water when the rains come. In the monsoon season that is a daily occurance. Families on the lowest levels simply moved in with families on the higher levels for the duration. That is life in the slums. We climbed a ladder to visit in a house with two rooms, each about 6 by 8 feet, home to a mother, her six children and newborn granddaughter. As I took this tiny baby girl from the arms of her 17 year old mom, I knew that very likely she would grow up to be the third generation of this family to live in this seemingly hopeless situation.

One of the books we were looking at in the training was City of God, City of Satan by Robert Linthicum in which he states “The urban church is not meant to be a shelter, it is meant to be a seminary! All members are to be equipped to effectively confront the structures and forces of their city” The Philippines claims to be the only Christian nation in Asia. More than 86 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, 6 percent belong to various nationalized Christian cults, and another 2 percent belong to well over 100 Protestant denominations. I couldn’t help but wonder how the church can even begin to meet the needs in their areas but I met a number of women who are doing their very best.

This week I am in the Philippines for an Urban CHE TOT1 followed by our annual South-East Asia and Pacific CHE Network Conference.

Much of my experience to date has been with the poor in rural communities but the first two days were spent examining various theories on the causes of poverty, the different types of poverty and the realities of life for the urban disadvantaged population. Unlike the rural population, urban neighbourhoods are often a complex mix of many different ethnic groups that are highly unskilled, often transient with little access to steady work. They lack green space, playgrounds, space to grow even a few vegetables and never experience the peace and beauty of nature.

They are often not from the city and hope to eventually return home, yet find themselves living in very crowded conditions, with many sharing one small space that lacks clean water and sanitation. With limited access to city services they face many health problems, have a high birth rate, and experience mental illness, drug and alcohol addictions often forcing them into a life of prostitution and crime. Inspite of all of these tremendous struggles, the poor build strong bonds as they tend to be very relational and they have many skills that enable them to survive and even thrive.

It is clear that a very different strategy is needed in order to reach out to those who are dwelling in urban slums and that is what we are here to learn.

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