Everyone Has a Story To Tell

Not seeing the wood for the trees.

A fair amount of posts over this two year blog journey has been about my past. It has been a way to tell my story. Recalling the past creates a variety of emotions. Positive ones like excitement at the memory of ‘good times’. Thankfulness for people and family. Those that have brought leadership, joy and friendship to me at various stages of life. Opportunities and experiences that have been a blessing.  

There can also be darker feelings which may or may not be true. Regret at ‘what might have been’. Sometimes a sense of failure to grasp opportunities. Suspect I am not alone in this light and dark view of what’s gone before.

My story is more than just a collection of experiences. Like looking at ‘old fashioned’ picture albums (suppose that ages me). Each photo showing people, places or times that elicit memories. The question the photo can’t relate to me is ‘what was I thinking? what was I feeling?’ at the time? 

For a long time I have been in the habit of writing a journal. Most of it is fairly mundane. Details of my day, people met, chores done. Maybe something I have learnt or experiences. Occasionally some notes are more insightful. Maybe something of what I actually thought or felt years ago.  However it’s not inspiring to find some struggles appear much the same as back then! 

The temptation is to regard life merely as something to be built and developed. That more experience will somehow add value or meaning to my existence. More experience of course comes naturally with age. No effort required! It seems to me that in today’s world experiences, in and of themselves, can often be ‘used’ and discarded. Much like we consume goods and services and then put in the trash. To be forgotten in the deepest sense. There is an irony in the term ‘bucket list’

Reflecting on my story should not be an exercise in trying to ‘make sense’ of things. Life is messy and filled with mystery. Neither should I view the past nostalgically. Some vain attempt at re-creating ‘good times’ in the past. It is an attempt at recognising that all of my past is part of who I am today. We are all searching for meaning and significance, to be part of a bigger story. 

One way of defining the spiritual life is to see it as a life in which we keep making connections between God’s story and our own….. The story of Christ is therefore not “the greatest story ever told”, but the only story ever told. It is the story from which all other stories receive their meaning and significance“. 

Henri Nouwen, The selfless way of Christ p.71, 75.

Life is unique and rich. We all have stories to tell but may not always listen to each other. What is important to us might not be shared. Your story is different from mine. A word that comes to mind is incomparable. Stories honestly told are not to be compared, ranked with others. As such they can inspire others and give hope.

The Art of Conversation’ by Elisabeth Grant**

Every life is a gift. Given by the Giver. It may have been spoilt or misused. The good news is life can be redeemed. That is worth celebrating.  

“The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” ‘But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate.” 

Luke chapter 15 vs 21-24 NIVUK

** elisabethgrantart.com

A Bigger Picture

Dunes

Several of my blogs concern a role I once had which was commonly known as ‘line up’. Briefly the job involved making all manner of preparations (‘line up’) required for the floating bookship MV Logos to visit ports. The vessel was crewed by a diverse group of 140 volunteers from 25 nations. It was owned and operated by an international Christian organisation. Click this tag ‘line upif wish to read other blogs which concern this role. 

In the following story the main character is LUM (‘line up man’ ). 

LUM had had some previous experience lining up for the ship in a number of ports in various countries. He had now been asked to get involved in another country and port. It would mean a new culture, foods and people. An enriching learning experience to which he was looking forward to. That the country was in a state of emergency due to recent happenings did not seem to figure much in his thinking. In retrospect perhaps this should have been considered more.

Once he arrived in the country LUM was partly based in the capital city trying to secure government permissions for the ship to come. This included getting access for the general public to come onboard. However he still had to make fairly regular trips to the coastal city where the ship was due to visit. This involved some hours bus ride through the desert. Endless sand dunes piled like waves in the sea. Sunglasses were essential. Sometimes needing pain killers to ease headaches from the bright light. Usually there was one stop in the middle of nowhere in particular. Most passengers then piled out to follow the call to prayer. It was a dramatic scene to watch. People bowing down on their prayer mats in the desert. 

Just getting into the port authority area took half a day as various passes were required. Many dealings such as this seemed to take much time. As far as passes were concerned they also needed renewing every week. Slowly LUM awakened to the fact that most things could get done much quicker by ‘greasing the palm’ of whoever was in authority. This way of getting business done seemed to reach into every service required. There were also times when both officials and other contacts changed their minds. Sometimes people were very positive about the ship coming. On other occasions the same people were, at best, ambivalent. LUM was told that on a previous visit of the ship a number of officials were annoyed by not being ‘rewarded’ enough. Maybe this explained the fluid nature of some people’s views. Asking for written permission for things was not always straightforward. LUM recalls offending one official by pressing for more than verbal assurances. Did not LUM see that he (the official) was an honourable man? That his word could be trusted.

This period in LUM’S life was in the days long before mobile phones. You could spend half a day or whole evening trying to make an international phone call. First of all you had to visit the telephone exchange. Then fill in a form to book the number and destination country with the operator. Then wait, and wait, much like you might in a doctor’s surgery. Eventually the operator beckoned you to go into a booth. At last you would be put through. 

As with port entry the process of phoning might be speeded up if extra money was involved. For LUM it presented a moral dilemma. It seemed that for large parts of the economy people in jobs were paid very poorly. In order to make a living there was an expectation that a job would also be an opportunity to get tips. When does a tip become a bribe? 

LUM’s time in the country coincided with the annual fasting period of the majority religion. He felt awkward not abstaining from food or drink during the day when most of the population was doing so. There is something about eating that is a communal and shared activity. He felt very antisocial eating out in public when others were not able to eat. Once he recalls eating in a restaurant in the early evening. Everyone else was sitting at table with untouched glasses of water. All patiently waiting for the signal when the day’s fast would be over. For LUM it was not pleasant to have a roomful of hungry, perhaps resentful, eyes watching him eat. He concluded it would be better to avoid such embarrassments and eat at more suitable times. 

Due to security issues the contact LUM had with colleagues living long-term in the country was very limited. LUM felt quite isolated. Any engagement with others often meant surreptitiously visiting houses. Usually one by one entering and leaving at widely separated times. Done ostensibly so as not to arouse suspicion. LUM was not sure such precautions meant much. On one occasion a colleague living in the country pointed to an apparently crippled beggar. He was sitting on the ground across the road from the house they were meeting in. LUM’s colleague said the man was often there. At the end of the day he would leave and walk away. His lameness miraculously healed. LUM was told the ‘beggar’ was employed to watch their house and report on comings and goings. Probably any precautions taken pandered more to the need to feel careful. 

Maybe LUM had led a sheltered life but one unpleasant experience was the awareness of being followed. One occasion whilst out walking comes to his mind. It was chilling to look over his shoulder and keep seeing the same person behind him. To confirm he was being followed he took random turns through the streets. Yes it was same person some distance behind. Whether LUM was slow or fast or whichever way he turned LUM appeared to be shadowed. Strangely once LUM accepted he was being followed he put it out of his mind.

After a number of weeks preparations the ship was due to come. Due to other commitments LUM had to leave the country some days before the actual arrival. However all preparations seemed to be in order. Other line up people had come and they would be around for the ship’s visit. 

The ship duly arrived in the port and the gangway lowered in anticipation of being open to locals. Within just a few hours the shipping agent gave a distressing message. He said the vessel had to leave port immediately and anchor in international waters. Apparently there was a threat. What really was going on LUM has never come to understand. The door to stay was firmly closed. What was clear was that the ship had nowhere to go for weeks with a crew of 140 sitting many miles offshore.

For LUM personally it was also disconcerting that several of the foreigners he had contact with were deported shortly after. 

This crisis of a ship with nowhere to go opened an unforeseen opportunity. In a matter of days a colleague was able to get permission for the ship to visit another place. Somewhere that up till then had not been thought possible.

Many years later LUM reflects on this whole experience. He believes there is a bigger picture. Behind well intentioned plans that seem to come to nothing God is working out his purposes.

The Big Picture** by Elisabeth Grant

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

‭‭Romans‬ ‭8‬:‭28‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬

** elisabethgrantart.com

Coming, Going and Enjoying the Journey.

It was towards the end of a bright day this past summer. Our west facing windows are open. I am watching the sun as it blazes through the clouds. The view is punctuated by a plane every few minutes on final approach to Glasgow airport. Their flight path is a few miles away. The planes as well as the sun are low on the horizon. Their sound is muffled, more of a distant hum than a roar. Not the harsh noise that airliners make when you are right under their flight path. Observing these heavy machines defying gravity yet slowly descending is strangely enjoyable. A smooth and steady end to travel. The end of a day merging with the conclusion of people’s journeys. 

I wonder about the occupants of these planes arriving from many places. Is this their first visit to Glasgow? What are their initial impressions? Are some returning after years away to a new, uncertain future? Who, if any, are meeting those anonymous passengers? A family, a friend or a business contact? Maybe the more faceless, formal greeting of a sheet or board held by a driver with your name. These descending aircraft contain the hopes and fears of many.

In arrivals everyone wants to get out of the airport as quickly as possible. I don’t know anyone who savours hanging around in arrivals. There might be the joy of meeting a loved one but even then you don’t linger. You leave as soon as practicable. Yet to arrive one has to leave from somewhere. Going through departures is usually slower and encourages use of shops, cafes etc. In spite of decades of increased hustle, bustle and security the departure hall of today’s airports still hold a vestige of excitement. In the 70s and 80s it was different. For the most part air travel felt more special and luxurious then than today’s typical budget airline experience. However, even nowadays, once through check in, customs and immigration, the departure experience is usually not that bad. Yes you are in limbo waiting for your flight but not feeling you are in a queue. There is also the prospect of leaving one world to emerge a short time later to a different one. The reason for a journey of course determines how one feels about the whole experience. In that there may be a multitude of joys and sorrows. Saying goodbye to home and family, starting a new life or job, facing up to responsibilities.

I notice how much more often we ask “When do we arrive?” than “What can I see on the way?”

Disguises of Love p34. Eddie Askew

Commercial air travel however does not lend itself to savouring the actual journey. Travel in an aluminium tube is not very aesthetic. Any ‘in journey’ experience for me nowadays is more likely to be internally, in my head. Of course it may be different if you were flying the plane. However I speak here about a ‘seat 21E in a crowded 737’ experience. 

Here is one personal recipe for a more absorbing journey. Become a passenger, not a driver, in a car travelling slowly through quiet countryside. It’s a bright day with clear views. There is little or no other traffic dictating your speed. No rush to arrive anywhere. The destination may even be the same place as the trip’s beginning. Happy even to just stop the car on occasions and take a closer look at something. Especially helpful to have knowledgable fellow passengers/ driver who know the area and its people well. Small villages, isolated houses and the occasional walker passes by. Fellow travellers have stories to tell with each passing scene giving a sense of connection to what or who you are passing by. “So and so’s building has a new fence round it.” “‘Mrs. ‘X’ passed away last year but her son now lives in the house.

What’s around the corner?

Of course enjoyable journeys do not need modern means of transportation. We live in a restless world. I guess air travel can sometimes be a symptom of that malaise. One of the things that Covid lockdowns brought to me, a city dweller, was a better awareness of what is in my neighbourhood. This was through the simplicity of leisurely daily walks or cycles in our neighbourhood. Even in an urban environment there are things of interest and beauty on my doorstep. Lots of wild raspberries and blackberries (to eat) growing along hedgerows. Herons and ducks on their daily movements up and down the canal. Hidden streams in local parks, wildflowers by the roadside. These scenes were always there but I often did not have eyes to see. It took a pandemic for me to be less distracted. To become more aware of the rhythms of life that are always around me. 

“The Lord will keep you from all harm – he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and for evermore.”  

Psalms‬ ‭121:7-8‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬

Endings and Beginnings

Cherry blossom

After 2 years in Japan my wife and I felt our time there was coming to an end. Our task had been to represent Operation Mobilisation (OM) in the country. OM was the Christian organisation we worked for. The work engaged us with people, churches and other groups throughout the land.

We also spent time with Japanese of many ages and backgrounds through teaching English. The cost of living compared to Europe was very high so we needed the extra income. It was an opportunity to meet and engage meaningfully with people we would not ordinarily meet. I have written a bit more about this in Japan – Anyone for English

Our commitment to working in Japan was coming to an end. The thinking was that we would establish some things but then hand over the work to Japanese and others who would lead the work longer term. Other groups with more experience had said it was difficult for a westerner over 30 to master the language. We had therefore decided when we first went to think of a 2 year commitment. And so it was. We then passed on the baton, as it were, to others to develop things further. It is heartening today to see how the work there has grown over the years. It was a privilege to be a part of the story. There had been challenges and difficulties. Our main memory though was of an enriching, rewarding time which we look back on fondly.  

On the practical side we either sold or gave away most things. One family kindly took us for a night to a spa hotel in the mountains which was a real refreshment when our home became very primitive (i.e. no chairs, tables or bed!). It also reminded us that there are places of solitude and quiet in Japan! Our last few days in Nagano were enjoyably spent in our landlady’s home…May 10th, the day of our departure, came. Tears were shed. It had been one of the hardest times of our lives but these thoughts were lost in an overwhelming sense of God’s grace. Left to ourselves we’d have left prematurely. He had taken us through the difficulties and given the strength to persevere when all seemed lost. We were able to leave with a sense that God’s hand would continue to be on what we had been initiating. Japanese were becoming more involved which had long been our prayer. We know not when or if we can visit these distant shores again but we do know that we have left a part of our lives there. It seems that in God’s work our hearts often seem to be broken only to be mended and enlarged again. —Extract from letter to friends Sept 1994.

Our next steps after leaving were uncertain. Initial plan was to return to Europe. Then probably settle in either of our home countries, Sweden or the UK. Flying in to London in the spring of 1994 felt a little strange. We had got used to crowded living. It sounds strange now but flying from Tokyo to London seemed like being transported to a rural idyll. So much less traffic and far fewer crowds of people. From the air at least there seemed plenty green fields. So much space! It definitely felt less stressed. 

On our initial return we were part of a 10 day leadership course held by our organisation. It took place in West Watch, a country house on the outskirts of London. There were 11 of us, a comfortable number. Most participants we knew from previous times on MV Logos, India and Europe. A very welcome time of renewing friendships, spiritual refreshment and learning. It was just what we needed – a kind of buffer as we reoriented back to the west. 

We then spent the summer of ‘94 with each of our families in Sweden and the UK. All the time wondering what our next steps would be. Changing environment was nothing new but was still not easy. It was one thing as a single person to live a somewhat itinerant lifestyle. To sustain that as a couple was different

My 17 years with OM had taken me to live and work in about 70 countries. The last ten of those years was as a married couple. When we left Japan my wife and I had lived in 8 homes on 3 continents. We had experienced many blessings. Absolutely no regrets. However as the Bible says ‘there is a time for everything**’. We needed some stability. Moving home as well as adjusting to a new country or culture takes up much energy. Maybe it was our time to be more settled. 

In September we attended OM’s annual conference looking for fresh direction and inspiration. None came. Sometimes doors close. There were several possibilities within our organisation (at one point 12!) but none seemed right. We took it as a signal to step into a new time of life.

Sometimes the way ahead is not clear

In one sense this was saying goodbye to a way of life we had become accustomed to. Also it was a farewell to many colleagues around the world we had come to know over the years. However in another way our commom faith in Jesus’ promises meant there would be no permanent goodbyes. Bonds formed through working together for a common purpose would remain. A precious hope that transcends time and our life circumstances. 

So in the autumn of 1994 we moved to Scotland. We had no direction as to what to do next or where to live. An uncertain, difficult time. For the first time in 5 months we stayed on our own for 2 weeks, house sitting for a couple on holiday.

It was around then that a couple we were friends with got in touch. They had been supporting us in our work with OM. He was a trustee with Prison Fellowship Scotland. Would I be interested in working with prisoners, ex-offenders and their families? Wow, that certainly came as a bolt from the blue. Up till then I had virtually no experience of this kind of work. My initial reaction was no. I was still emotionally attached to OM. However after a short time realised that this was the next step. Another friend arranged for a flat we could initially stay in. It was the beginning of a new chapter in life, work and home for both of us. Maybe the subject of a future blog.

** Ecclesiastes 3 verse 1a