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.

I have already written about Angels on the Walls on Day 66, so I’ll say nothing more on it here.  I want to focus on Crossing the Divide by Owen Hylton.

In Crossing the Divide, Hylton sets out his understanding of God’s will, revealed in scripture, for his people to unite across divides of race, age, education, language and other worldly divisions. He is a British born son of Jamaican immigrants and so the book focuses mainly on the issue of racial division in the world and in church in the UK, where many churches comprise of only one race or language group (homogenous church). He believes there are three main challenges to homogenous churches: first, the increasing number of hetrogenous churches (accidentally or deliberately ethnically diverse with shared faith and identity as Christian believers); second, the troublesome issue of diversity in the world at large; third, the biblical witness of the work of the gospel in uniting all things under one head, who is Christ.

The book divides roughly into two parts. The first part focuses on the history and legacy of racism and the continuing active or passive racism which divides cultures. Woven into this overview is the biblical challenge from the doctrine of the creation of man, male and female, and the nature of all believers as one in Christ. Hylton carefully explains that cultural diversity is part of the world which God made for his purposes in the church, and so different cultures should be celebrated. But we are not to celebrate at a distance. Understanding one another across the divide and learning to love and live with one another is part of God’s plan for the growth of his people and as a powerful witness to the gospel of the reconciliation of a world divided by sin. Hylton gives biblical insight after insight for ways in which Jesus or his followers crossed racial, gender and class barriers.

The second part is pragmatic. Owen Hylton has a rare insight to church culture and racial difference. As someone who grew up in the first generation of Britain born children of Jamaican parents, then as an elder and a pastor of a diverse churches and, lastly, as the husband of a very English wife, Hylton has lots of experience to draw on.  Pauline, his wife, was brought up in Kent and barely knew anyone who was not like herself as she grew up. Their cross cultural marriage has taught them vast amounts about the difficulties of understanding and living together with different cultural backgrounds, with single minded determination to stay together. Chapters 7 to 10 are filled with practical advice for church leaders and members to develop truly diverse church, where faith in Christ unites and all races are acknowledged, celebrated and accepted and where deep fellowship is encouraged and developed.

Hylton believes that the leadership of any church must be convinced that God’s will is to unite all things under one head and so lead the church in that way. Members need to be willing to lay down ways of life which have been precious to them and invest in new and different relationships, without pretence or fear of upsetting others. God’s grace is sufficient for us. Hylton also believes that there is no church which he has seen where true unity in diversity can be seen today and that we might not see it in reality until we stand before the throne of heaven in perfect unity.

So how did God speak after I read these two books? First, God assured me that the cross cultural experience of being a Scotsman married to a very English woman combined with our 6 years in Asia were for the purpose of serving in West Browmich, for now. Second, when we returned to Christ Church Dorset Road on Sunday, where I preached at the 8am Tamil service, 11am contemporary bi-lingual service and the 5pm English language service, I was overwhelmed by the number of people who had stories of how God had used Amanda and me to either bring them to faith or establish their walk with Christ. At the time, 14 years ago, it was impossible to really tell what fruit was growing in the church but God revealed lots of that fruit two days ago. Third, I felt a real and genuine fellowship with every one who came to share their stories. We experienced the deep fellowship which Owen Hylton writes about. People not only from a different race, Tamil, but also from a broad spectrum of educational backgrounds and levels of employment or profession, from manual workers to doctors and teachers. We had truly shared our lives for over three years, not just in worship and at events, but by eating and sharing together in our homes. Amanda and I left Christ Church on Sunday with a delight that Jesus had strengthened and established the people we loved, just as he had strengthened and prepared us for ministry in the UK, during the time we had been part of God’s people in Singapore.

Christ Church has grown significantly. It has added a contemporary service, which is multicultural, a Malayalam service and a Tamil migrant workers service to their three services.

One thing struck me on Sunday evening. I had met with Rev Steven Asirvatham before the 8am service to pray. He asked me about my sabbatical and the background to it. I shared about what I had done during my 10 weeks so far and about the events which made the timing of the sabbatical perfect.  I spoke about various griefs and, as I did, old emotional wounds reopened and I realised that my 10 weeks away have not brought complete healing. There is still work for me to do in with the Lord in prayer to heal the wounds of last year.

The next morning, my memory verse for the week sprang up on my phone:

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. (James 1:12)

The Lord seems to have been preparing me to persevere and in this verse, He spoke deeply to me.

On Monday I met with Denesh Divyanathan, who overlapped with us in Singapore. Denesh is now senior pastor at The Crossing, a church he planted in 2009. He is also one of a team setting up a new theological college in Singapore.

Denesh shared stories of how the Lord closed doors and opened others and how, since it started in 2009, the church has grown and they have sent many future leaders and teachers to train at Moore College, Sydney or Oak Hill College in London. The church has nine pastoral staff and an administrator! This growth mirrors the growth at St Mary’s Cathedral, Kuala Lumpur, which we visited the Sunday before. Rev Andrew Chia, with whom we had dinner with as families on our last Friday in KL, also trained at Moore College, Sydney. As a Malaysian, he returned to KL, with his very Australian wife, Judy, and started in the Cathedral as a church planter in 2005 and is now dean of the cathedral.

So the gospel is bearing fruit in Singapore and Malaysia. The Anglican Church, Emmanuel EFC and The Crossing are all in good heart.  I look forward to meeting with Rev Jonathan Wong and his wife Karen tonight.  They have been wonderful hosts, sharing National Day and their empty parsonage with us. I hope we’ll have time to pray for one another.

I love SE Asia. I love our friends here and the food! This visit has made me wonder about returning to SE Asia, but I know that the Lord has called me, in his great plan for his church, to serve in West Bromwich for now. As we come to the end of our stay in SE Asia, it feels a bit like repatriation rather than the end of a holiday. We have lived here for four weeks with friends and shared meals, houses and stories. It is hard to leave. But the Lord is strengthening my heart for the next stage of ministry and his tests. I know that, wherever I serve, one day I will receive the crown of life.

About neilrobbie

I am a 6'6" formerly ginger Scot, in a cross cultural marriage to my lovely Londoner wife. We've lived in SE Asia and since 2005, I have served as an Anglican minister in Wolverhampton and West Bromwich.
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