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

Strangers and Pilgrims – Coming Home

For some weeks in 1979 I visited what was then Western Samoa in the South Pacific. An independent state it became known in 1997 simply as Samoa. Not to be confused with the American territory of American Samoa which lay to the south east! W. Samoa consists mainly of two inhabited islands in the midst of a vast ocean. I first visited on my own and was doing the job of ‘line up’, preparing for the visit of the ship MV Logos. See ‘line up’ tag links if interested to know more. Before going I had been given the name of one man that would introduce me to people who could help me with accommodation and contacts. Problem was that I only had the name and no address or phone number. This was before the days of mobile phones and social media so it wasn’t clear how I would find him. On arrival at the airport in the capital Apia I decided to take the airport bus which made a tour of the island’s hotels dropping people off. Money was very tight so was a bit anxious about taking a hotel but couldn’t think of any other plan. Anyhow got off at I think the last hotel on the route and went to reception to book a room for the night. While signing the visitors book whose name should I see but the one contact I was looking for. His room was next door to mine! What an answer to my prayers.

It was arranged for me to stay with an extended Samoan family. Their gracious hospitality was in accord with their culture and traditions. Three generations all slept on the floor in one room but I was given the privacy of my own room. At mealtimes I would eat first, watched by the father of the family. Then it was his turn to eat, followed by the boys. Then the mother and womenfolk. Finally, the poor girls ate whatever was left. I felt honoured but also the responsibility not to eat too much so as those following had enough to eat.

Western Samoa lies near the international date line. It is no mistake that this rather crooked line between north and south poles weaves its way through the most remote and sparsely populated areas of the earth. Mainly between remote islands and ocean. Imagine the chaos if the date line went through the heart of Greenwich, London instead. In 1979 W. Samoa was just to the east of the dateline** and was proud of its status of always having the last sunsets of any given day. Not to be outdone I noticed that the local newspaper in Tonga (west of dateline) had the strapline ‘where time begins‘.

Living and travelling near the dateline plays havoc with your diary. On one occasion I flew from Western Samoa to Tonga which was on the western side of the date line. Diary entry says I left Apia at 3:15pm on Sunday 28th October 1979 and arrived Tonga 4:50pm on Saturday the 27th. It was weird having 2 Sundays that week! About a month later I was on board the MV Logos. We set sail from Western Samoa on Sunday night at 11:10pm on the 25th November. Our destination was Fiji to the west of dateline. My diary has the words ‘NO MONDAY’ scribbled for the 26th November.

Such novel (to me, not to locals!) cultural and geographical experiences were of course exciting. However living for some months in such remote parts and often alone did leave me feeling vulnerable and lonely at times. One of W. Samoa’s most celebrated visitors of a bygone age was Robert Louis Stevenson. He was a Scot and a famous writer who spent his last days on Samoa. He was the author of much loved and world renown classics including ‘Treasure Island‘ and ‘Kidnapped‘. His writing never impressed me as a boy. It might have had something to do with his works being prescribed English reading for most Scottish school children at the time. My interest however was awakened during my stay in Samoa. Despite dying over 90 years previously I was intrigued that his memory was still revered by locals. Known in Samoan as ‘Tusitala’ (‘teller of tales’) he had been buried in Samoa.

So while there I resolved one day to visit his grave. It was reached by climbing Mt. Vaea. Stevenson had written an epitaph as a poem which was inscribed on his tomb. Reading the last few lines spoke to me profoundly. Poetry can give space to feelings in the journey of life you can’t describe, awakening longings you are scarcely aware of. 

Home is the sailor, home from the sea, 

and the hunter home from the hill. 

RL Stevenson

About a year after my visit to Samoa I flew back from the Far East to the UK. After 30 countries and over 3 years away my thoughts were much on coming home. Although I’d had many separate travels during these 3 years there was also a sense of having completed one long journey. When leaving the UK in Sept 1977 I had no idea how long my time away would be. Here are my notes then of the return trip back to UK…

The journey to the U.K. was interesting: From Bangkok I flew via Delhi, Bombay and Rome to arrive somewhat weary in Frankfurt, West Germany to discover the airline had lost all my baggage. Truly forsaking all was becoming a reality – thoughts of returning home after over 3 years away with a Bible and a few notes as sole possessions filled my mind. I spent a night at the Int’1 HQ for both MV DOULOS and LOGOS in Mosbach, West Germany. The next day saw me travel luggageless on to London via Paris. In the air approaching London I was awakened from slumbers by my name being called on the plane’s tannoy system — surprise luggage was on this plane: False alarm as it didn’t materialise on the airport’s conveyor belt. Eventually it came on another plane — it was all quite a test as in 3 years of travelling no such thing had happened. Nov’ 1980

These experiences evoked a variety of contradictory emotions. The following is a short poem I wrote during that homebound journey. Like Stevenson’s poem it helped give expression to my feelings at the time.

In Christ we are always coming home

As coming home is our hearts meeting the object of our treasure

For we who love Him what joy to know this daily experience

Of meeting the One who is the same yesterday, today and forever

At whose feet our hopes are never disappointed

However many ‘homecomings’ I have in this life the true calling is that ‘here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come’ (Hebrews 13 vs 14).

** At midnight on 29th Dec 2011 Samoa moved west of the dateline and missed out on 30 Dec in the process. It was said to help trade with Australia and New Zealand.

Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled

Crowds visiting the on board book exhibition on MV Logos in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic – Jan 1987

In early 1987 Elisabeth and I were living on board the MV Logos. For both of us it had been our home previously before we got married. This latest period we had spent nearly 2 years travelling around the Caribbean, Central and North America and the north coast of South America. As I look at my diary of the time it was probably the most intensive time of our lives so far. Constant travelling and adjusting to many cultures it was also rewarding. My job involved coordinating onboard and onshore programmes as well as the advance preparations for future ports the ship would visit. It meant a mixture of being on board for some time and then travelling ahead of the ship to other countries and ports. Then return to the vessel, usually in another port from that I had left**. In the meantime Elisabeth’s job involved personnel responsibility for the women on board. 

Our cabin was tiny. Once when ship was in Puerto Rico we had a few days off shore in the home of an American couple. When asked how big our cabin was we said it was about the size of their walk in wardrobes. However it was our home. The 140+ crew of Logos were split up into different ‘families’ as a kind of smaller grouping to celebrate birthdays and other social occasions. They were led by a married couple and so we had a ‘family’ of about 10 singles of various nationalities. We would usually meet in our little cabin.

In our cabin with our ship ‘family’ on MV Logos (1985-87). Photo taken from cabin door.

My on board ‘place of work’ was also very small. Porthole-less, it had enough floor place for a swivel chair and a small desk. Entire office reachable from chair. I shared this space with the Chief Steward Mandy. The room was dominated and divided by the forward mast, almost like an unwanted guest. Mandy on the port side and I on the starboard. Being far forward on the ship the area was prone to pitching if there were rough seas. Elisabeth also had a little cupboard like space as an office underneath the main internal stairway.

Mandy and I, and mast, in our shared office

In January 1987 we were berthed in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. I had visited several times previously organising the ship to visit. On one occasion Elisabeth and I were able to do so together and stayed at the home of an American missionary couple. They had a beautiful, tropical garden. The husband was a real romantic. Every day he picked a fresh hibiscus to put on the breakfast table. 

Anyhow back to life on board Logos. One evening in our cabin I stretched for something on a shelf and was literally floored by an intense chest pain. This was followed by difficulty breathing and moving. The ship medic didn’t know what it was but gave me pain killers. After a few days I was still in pain and very breathless. It was decided to admit me to a local private hospital where they told me I had pneumonia. There they put me on a drip for 2 days. However no one could say what was the problem. After hospital I was back on board but was told to rest. 

I was discouraged by my situation. All the more as no one seemed able to diagnose and thus treat me. Some were saying it was my heart, others my lungs.  An X-ray seemed to show that I might have pleurisy or pneumonia. One time lying in bed my gaze fixed on the small poster on our cabin wall. It was the words of Jesus to his followers…

Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God ; believe also in me.”  John 14:1 KJV

My pain or my fatigue did not disappear but at that moment I felt Jesus had spoken to me. In context he was speaking to those who were fearful of their future without him. Yet for me his words of comfort to a troubled heart had both an emotional and literal meaning. 

Over the subsequent weeks my pain slowly eased and gradually I got a bit stronger. I returned to my previous tasks and travel. However it was clear that to fully recover Elisabeth and I needed to take things at a slower pace onshore. Elisabeth was also experiencing frequent migraines.

And so it was that in March 1987 we said goodbye to shipmates in the lovely island of Aruba in the Netherlands Antilles. Friendships had been forged through living and working together. Leaving such a caring community was not easy.

As we flew back to an unknown and unplanned for future in the UK we received a double blessing. No extra charge for our 80kg of luggage as we shared our situation with the airline. These were possessions from our home of 2 years and not from some exotic 2 week Caribbean holiday. Then as we waited in the departure lounge our names were called to the flight desk. Thinking there was some problem we were asked…

“There had been a mistake and the plane was very fulł. Would we mind if we were put in first class?”

Think you know the answer to that. 

Back in the UK my condition remained for some months. I was checked out by two doctors and a cardiologist. They gave assurances that whatever I had had it was not pleurisy or pneumonia and could not detect any problem with my heart. Maybe it was some kind of physical reaction to stress. Some things both then and later in life do not get explanations. It’s at times like that I need reminding of Jesus’ words on our cabin wall many years ago. 

POSTSCRIPT Little did we know that March 1987 would be the last time we would see this vessel that had been our home on and off over a 10 year period. On the 4th of January 1988 the ship ran aground. She had struck a submerged Chilean rock in the Magellan Strait in the very south of South America. Miraculously no one was lost and all the crew were safely rescued by the Chilean navy***. Today she is a rusting hulk resting on the same rock, half in and half out of the water with our cabin home submerged. However I would rather remember Logos as a tool that was utilised. It took people to welcome and serve the 6.5 million who walked up the gangway in 108 countries over 17 years. God had used the simple faith of a bunch of largely young and inexperienced people to touch many lives. That story continues to this day with other ships.

MV Logos, as I remember her.

** In another post I recall a visit to Haiti ( Poignant, Hopeful, Maybe Even Joyful ) where I detail more of what this advance work involved in the region. Similar work in other parts of the world can be found by clicking the tag ‘line up’ on this site.

*** You can read an interesting article here by Kathy Knight who was on board when the ship ran aground