Sabbatical Day 72: Christ Church Singapore and leaving SE Asia

There are times in the Christian life when various things fall in place and the Lord’s love and will is revealed in unexpected ways. The past week has been one of those times. Through two books, a whole Sunday at Christ Church, Singapore, and this weeks’ memory verse from Desiring God’s Fighter Verses, God has spoken to me about my return to the UK.

The two books were Angels on the Walls by Wallace and Mary Brown and Crossing the Divide by Owen Hylton. Through the honesty of the first God has shown me that pain and struggle are normal in ministry, that my experience is far from unique. Through the vision, theology and wisdom of the second, God has confirmed that working in the context of racial and cultural diversity in West Bromwich is exactly what he has prepared me and Amanda for. Continue reading

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Sabbatical Day 66: Feet up

This is the first day the Robbies have put our collective feet up since leaving the UK. We have either been travelling, sight seeing, eating with people or visiting church projects. It’s been a brilliant, busy and totally distracting trip but now it’s very good not to have to do anything but read, relax and swim at very easy going Melina Beach Resort.

I brought a few books with me, to help reflect on urban ministry: Tim Keller’s Shaped by the Gospel, Roy Joslin’s Urban Harvest and Wallace and Mary Brown’s Angels on the Walls.

Keller’s book was most helpful on “three ways to live” (religious, irreligious and gospel). I’m not convinced that his highly rational, post-modern approach to proclamation works outside the urban elite or suburbia. Roy Joslin advocates a concrete rather than conceptual gospel proclamation for the working class, where reasoning is less linear and more intuitive, anecdotal and observed. Awareness of the difference has been helpful for me.

Wallace and Mary Brown’s book was given to me by a friend back in 2007. I have only just got round to reading it but the timing was perfect. In fact, I am glad I didn’t read it before now. Wallace and Mary Brown tell stories of church vandalism, middle of the night hoax calls, dangerous brick-wielding vagrants and arson attacks which traumatised them and their young children. They tell these stories in a caring, deeply immersed way, but like many tourists tell tales of visits to foreign countries, the Browns assess the culture and behaviour of the locals as outsiders (though the Browns admit that their middle class values influence their view of life on the estate). I know I am guilty of the same slightly incredulous story telling, when with fellow outsiders. The Brown’s stories resonated with our experiences but it was the way that they handled life on the estate which encouraged me.

Wallace is open about the related sense of failure as a vicar, husband and father. He speaks of the distance and greyness of God and of trying to keep going when on the inside he is emotionally drained and feeling isolated. The similarity of ministry, as an outsider and Anglican, made my sense of isolation reduce. Books like Joslin’s Urban Harvest or Mez McConnell and Mike McKinley’s Church in Hard Places are excellent biblical theories of ministry in the estate. The theory, however, can leave the reader with a sense of inadequacy, as reality is often miles from the theory. Angels on the Walls give a healthy and refreshing dose of reality. Through the balance of theory and reality in the books I brought with me, God has given me increased strength to persevere.

Two lessons have emerged from Angels on the Wall. First, Wallace learned though suffering about God’s work in him. Through perseverance in suffering for the gospel, God grows character in his children and character produces hope. I have always been aware that God uses ministry to sanctify the minister, as he does in different ways in all true Christians. God has used the set-backs at Holy Trinity West Bromwich to make me lay down the desire to be successful in the eyes of the world. The duration and pain of the lesson shows what I slow learner I am!

Second, Wallace learned to tell the people their sins (Micah 3:8). Powerlessness and lack of opportunity creates a sense of victimhood for anyone trapped in an estate. Wallace learned to be direct with anyone whose life was a mess so that they would take personal responsibility for the mess. One man was suicidal. He’d been told that his domestic violence, estrangement from his kids and inability to hold down a job were not his fault, but a product of his poor upbringing. This counselling had trapped him. He felt powerless to change. Wallace told the man his sins, that he had been rebelling against the God who made him. Suddenly the man asked what he could do to be saved and to change. The man gave his life to Christ and ended up in full time Christian ministry.

The ministry of a middle class vicar in an estate can be hampered by a sense of privilege. I can tell myself that I have a “better” life because of my upbringing and that I have no right to minster from a position of privilege. But this is a lie. Sin is sin and needs to be named, owned, repented of and forgiven in Christ.

Now, where’s my snorkel and flippers?

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Sabbatical Day 60: Delayed publication

I wrote this post offline on day 60, but we have either not had the time or reliable wi-fi since then (even now I can’t upload pictures!)

We’re taking an afternoon rest in Taman Negara after a sweaty jungle trek and canopy walk which we finished with a refreshing swim in the river. Amanda and the joker stumbled upon a read headed snake. It was either the venomous blue-banded coral snake, an equally dangerous red headed krait or a harmless pink headed reed snake (I’ll upload a photo when the wi-fi permits).  The first two are deadly but thankfully the only biting injury one of suffered was caused by a close encounter with a pesky leech.

One of the goals of my sabbatical has been to investigate how the church is reaching the next generation with the gospel of Christ in SE Asia. I have met with over a dozen church workers, visited projects in three countries, been to three Sunday church services and talked about the political and social context in which gospel work is being done.

There are four main observations and lessons which have come from discussions.

The seedbed of primary and secondary education is crucial for inter-generational continuity.
The UK church long ago handed education over to the state and then grumbled about the secularisation of education. There are lessons to learn from the SE Asian church, which is opening and building private schools in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, offering high quality education as well as biblical instruction and worship. The schools are designed in the context of each community, from squatter camps to middle class areas. Christian and non-Christians parents choose to send their children to these schools. SE Asian Christian youth have impressed me with their relatively high spiritual maturity, which seems to stem, in part, from church-led school education.

Good Theological Colleges are vital for the future of the church.
The church in the UK has been working hard for 20 years on reforming theological education in the face of liberal and secular attitude in society and the church. Liberal attitudes to social ethics, and so to scripture, are creeping into the church in SE Asia. Local media is culturally conservative, but the internet has opened the door to secular European and North American social and theological attitudes. The establishment of consistently high quality, biblical, local theological education is vital for SE Asia. And the UK church must not rest on the achievements of the last two decades but continue to work toward the reformation of college education.

Work with the poor and homeless
SE Asian Christians work hard to provide resources, such as schools, access to healthcare and legal assistance, out of love for the poor and by doing so win the favour of the people (Acts 2:47) including various authorities. Opportunities in the UK for genuine care for the poor or homeless are increasing and the local church should follow the example of the SE Asian church: love the poor and as a result, not a goal, provide a witness to the authorities.

The need for self sacrificing outreach across social and ethnic boundaries.
The Anglican church is growing in Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos and Myanmar as the Diocese of SE Asia gives sacrificially to the work in these places. The church seems to be slower to make sacrifices locally, where migrants have arrived in Singapore and Malaysia, but my sample of churches is small. The Lord has brought many migrant workers to the Diocese of SE Asia. The global mission field is shifting. In the UK, there are similar, even greater opportunities to make disciples of all nations, grow multi-ethnic churches and make personal links with churches all over the world. Churches in first and second world countries need to make a priority of self sacrificial local outreach to all nations as opportunities arise.

Keep it simple.
Quality education, care for the poor and cross cultural mission are bread and butter stuff for the church, but they are costly in terms of resources and energy. At the simplest level, one to one evangelism and discipleship grows the church. More than one person here has reminded me to keep it simple. The bigger stuff comes as resources and energy increase and Christians act as salt and light in the work-place and community.

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Sabbatical Day 48: 14 years but just like yesterday

We spent the day with two lots of dear friends in Singapore today. The photos below tell the stories.

I spent a bit of time in the library this morning and at tea time reading the ACNA catechism and writing part 2 of the study guide for communion. The TTC library is on the right of the photo.  The study desks occupy a triple-storey glazed atrium facing the courtyard, which makes reading relaxed.

Trinity Theological College Singapore - the courtyard from the walkway outside our apartment. The library is the blue glazed building on the right.

Trinity Theological College Singapore – the courtyard from the walkway outside our apartment. The library is the blue glazed building on the right.

Cambridge and Singapore connections with the Supramaniams.

Church in Cambridge then a chance encounter in Singapore in 1999 led to a lovely reunion with Mrs Supramaniam today.

Cat, Gideon and Chris, the musicians and key members of the English Service at Christ Church Dorset Road in our time there.

Cat, Gideon and Chris, the musicians and key members of the English Service at Christ Church Dorset Road in our time there.

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Sabbatical Day 47: The Church of the Good Shepherd, Queenstown, Singapore

The Robbie family all made it to church together this afternoon, for the 4pm English Language service at The Church of the Good Shepherd, Queenstown, Singapore. We made the mistake of trusting Google Maps to guide us there by foot from the MRT Station, so walked a sweaty circular route, past a Baptist church, primary school and a couple of HDB apartment blocks before ending up at the church, 200 yards from our starting point!  Rev Jonathan Wong used our failure as an illustration for the need to raise the profile of the church in the community. The way the church plans to make itself more visible (amongst other reasons) is to demolish the vicarage in the church compound and replace it with a multi-storey worship centre.

Holy Trinity West Bromwich can’t be seen from neighbouring streets either. I wonder what the Diocese would think if I proposed knocking down the vicarage and building a multi-storey worship centre which would be visible from the M5? Just in case you’re wondering, this is not a proposal.

The service was fantastically familiar, the Singapore Service Book 1995 follows the ASB. I spoke on Luke 5, “Leave your nets to win the nations.” Probably two sermons worth of material as I preached Christ from the OT (Gen 1:28, Isa  and Jeremiah 16) and then what it meant for Peter to leave his nets (Acts 10, 1 Peter 1:1 and 2 Peter 1:1). I hope the congregation found something useful.

After the service we had fellowship in the open air, just as we had done in Sydney last Sunday. This is a very good way of being more visible to the community. Our refreshments could be served in the church yard at Holy Trinity when the weather allows (about three Sundays a year).

Jonathan and his family, who we knew well from our days in Singapore, took us out for banana leaf, and we were joined by Jonathan’s parents.  Canon James Wong is retired now. He and I once shared a taxi and he gave me some advice as I was about to head home to the UK to begin training for ordination.  He said “Neil, never be afraid to be generous with the resources God has given you. Shovel as much as you can into ministry, release your best people and give all you can. As you shovel these things out, God will shovel them in and God has a bigger shovel.” I told him that I had always remembered this, but not that I have occasionally quoted him in sermons. We spent the evening exchanging stories of national and church life in Singapore and the UK.

No photos.

It has been a good day. Thank you Lord.

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Sabbatical Day 46: Batam, Indonesia

We took a 45 minute ferry ride with Rev Dr Timothy Chong from Singapore to Batam, a neighbouring Indonesian island.  Timothy is Dean of Indonesia and he is creating many inspiring projects to serve the people of Batam and other islands in the archipelago. We spent the ferry journey swapping stories of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the UK, including the discovery that we have a number of mutual friends.

Anglican Community Centre

Anglican Community Centre

We visited a school and community project in a squatter camp behind an unlicensed graveyard and met the staff and some of the children in the project. I was very impressed by the enthusiasm and commitment of many Singaporean Anglican youth who travel to the centre to do work with the children at the centre. The long term aim of the work is to bring an end to the cycle of deprivation through education and discipleship.

St Andrew's School

St Andrew’s School

Our next stop was another school, which is now under construction.  It  will be an amalgamation of two existing smaller schools and will house a sports hall, gym and chapel as well as classrooms for 500 pupils. This school aims at the other end of the spectrum from the slum as it will be selective and, like many areas in the UK, the construction of a good school is affecting house prices in the area! Teachers are recruited locally and from Singapore.

Church of the Good Shepherd

Church of the Good Shepherd

We stopped for a delicious lunch before visiting the local Anglican church which meets in a two-storey shop-house, just like the Evangelical Free Church where Amanda and I were members in Kuala Lumpur (imagine a church in a shop on West Bromwich High Street). Pastor Agong and Agnes who accompanied us on our visit (pictured) serve at this church. Our sons played “In Christ Alone” on drums and keyboard then we prayed for all the work and people in contact with the projects before heading home.

The Robbies with Agnes and the church minibus

The Robbies with Agnes and the church minibus

Batam is clearly a developing place. Lots of new cars reveal a growing affluence. Roads are crowed and without markings. Packs of 50cc motorbikes with three or four passengers are forced to ignore the normal rules of give way, because size goes first, unless you are nimble.  The smell of open drains and mounds of litter reminded me of our life in Pakistan in 1994, India in 1995 and Malaysia in 1997. All this tugged missionary chords with Amanda and me, but not our kids. They may take some time to come round to the heat and smells.

There is clearly much to do in Batam. The work of the Anglican Church is embryonic.  It was less than 30 years ago that the only Anglican community in Indonesia was the post-colonial international congregation in Jakarta. My day with Timothy Chong, Pastor Agong and Agnes left me glad to be Anglican and wondered how today might change things in West Bromwich, Lichfield, Singapore and Indonesia.  I also found my sparse Bahasa Malayu came back and allowed me to make a little conversation with the children and our hosts.

I wondered about whether I had a call to mission again.  Then I reminded myself that there are many opportunities for global mission in West Bromwich and, apart from last summer’s flooded basement, we don’t have the smell of open drains.

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Sabbatical Day 45: TTC and Singapore

Trinity Theological College in Singapore is our home for nine days. We have a comfortable two room apartment in the student accommodation. I made use of the spacious college library this morning to continue my sabbatical studies. When I heard the students chatting at coffee and wandered down to the cafe. I asked three of the more senior students if I could join them and one asked if I used to attend Christ Church. His name was Moses and we worked out that he was 11 years old when we first met!

I then met with Rev Jonathan Wong, who I served beside at Christ Church for six months. Jonathan and I had 14 years of to catch up on and I’ll be speaking at the church where he serves, Church of the Good Shepherd English Service, on Sunday.

In the afternoon, the Robbie family went for a bum boat ride in the bay and shopped in China Town. We stopped for some juice (see photo).  Anyone want to guess the flavours?

Singapore has changed massively since 2002. New MRT (underground lines), lots more high rise apartments and the CBD (Central Business District) has doubled in size, now stretching into the bay on reclaimed land and stilts. Chinatown is unchanged, almost, and I even managed to find my old tailor, though her shop has moved.

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