Sunday, 8 April 2018

The Light of the World

Hello! It's been a while since I've written anything here - not without reason! I've been taken up with writing other stuff such as essays. Speaking of which, I've recently had an essay on a very interesting topic, which I thought I might share here... (my apologies for the text highlight, couldn't figure out how to get rid of that)

What was the setting in which Jesus said he is ‘the light of the world’ (John 8:12, 9:5), and what does the phrase mean?

John’s Gospel is unique, in that it is the only Gospel to include the words, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’ (John 8:12)[1]. A close examination of the two settings of Jesus’ declarations of being the ‘light of the world’, and the ancient context of them, help us to better understand what he intended to convey by his use of the title, and how it applies both then and now to our understanding of Jesus’ identity. The first occasion on which Jesus declares he is ‘the light of the world’ draws upon many Old Testament passages, leading an audience familiar with the Old Testament accounts to important conclusions about Christ’s identity and the weight of his claims – especially in the immediate context of the declaration. The second occasion further elaborates on the first, and goes on to apply the statement in an engaging and convicting way to both his immediate audience, and to us as modern readers. What may seem like an abstract and whimsical phrase is in fact bold and tangible, demanding a personal response from the audience.

By looking first at the Old Testament context behind Jesus’ statement, it becomes clearer how the simple statement draws the audience to conclude that Jesus is referencing that he is the very presence of God in the world, and hence is making an enormous claim.
The concept of light throughout the bible starts at the very beginning, setting the ancient scene of which Jesus’ statement is a climax. It begins at Creation in Genesis, when light was separated from darkness and declared to be ‘good’. Then, later in Exodus, the Israelites were led through the wilderness by the presence of God resting upon the Tabernacle, shown physically in a cloud by day, and the fire by night - a visual reminder that God had never left them. The prophet Isaiah later calls on Zion to ‘arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you’, and goes on to speak of a day when ‘the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory’[2] – an image we can now see is referencing the Messiah and speaking of the constant presence of God in the new Earth, respectively. The association of God and his glorious presence with light is again concretely illustrated in the visions of those such as Ezekiel, when the prophet describes a figure on the throne who ‘looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him’[3]. Thus, from the beginning light has conceptually illustrated the presence of God in a very concrete sense for us as God’s people; and in John, Jesus’ statement leads us to understand that he is claiming to be the tangible presence of God, not only this time for Israel as in the Exodus, but now for the whole world.

It is in understanding this Old Testament context that we can also begin to understand the immediate setting in which Jesus first delivered the statement, and the reactions it provoked. The Jewish Feast of Tabernacles[4] (at the end of which Jesus made his declaration) lasted for a week, beginning on a Sabbath and ending on a Sabbath, and was a celebration of God’s provision. The Israelites would live in temporary shelters[5] in order to remember the shelters they lived in when God brought them out of Egypt. On what was probably the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles (or the day after), Jesus was teaching in the temple courts. It was here that he made his claim of being the light of the world, and his authority was heavily questioned – evidencing that he was making no small claim. His promise that ‘whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’, in the context of the Feast of Tabernacles, would have reminded his audience of how God’s presence went with the Israelites in the Exodus[6]. They would have heard him as suggesting that he himself was the light guiding the way of the people of God, so they would not walk in darkness but be led to their promised home – he was the pillar of fire, the embodiment of God’s presence in the world. In John’s gospel, his statement is the second in a series of seven ‘I am’ statements[7], hinting at his true identity - not only referring to God’s presence in the Exodus, but also to the very name of ‘I AM’ that God declares as his own, in Exodus 3:14. All this drawn together leads us to see that Jesus’ claim to be the light of the world was not just an abstract idea, but was gently hinting towards his very divinity.

The second occasion on which Jesus said he was the light of the world further developed the themes of God’s presence and Jesus’ own divinity that he had alluded to on the first occasion, grounding his words further in Scripture and in practicality, and necessitating a personal response from his audience both then and now. It was a Sabbath, quite possibly about a week later, and Jesus had just avoided being stoned by the Jews for his bold statement that ‘before Abraham was, I am!’[8] – evidently developing in a less subtle way his earlier hints at his divinity, as stoning was the Jewish capital punishment for blasphemy. And as he went away from the temple, he came across a man born blind. It was in this setting, after correcting his disciples that no one had sinned to cause the man’s blindness, that Jesus said that ‘as long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’[9] Jesus went on to heal the man, making mud with his saliva and sending the man to wash in the pool of Siloam – interestingly, healing the man in a such a way that the he would know Jesus’ name, but wouldn’t have actually seen him. It was reminiscent of words of the prophet Isaiah, when a servant of the LORD was spoken of who would be ‘a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind… and to release from the dungeon those that sit in darkness’[10], and where the LORD promised that He would ‘lead the blind by ways they have not known’ and‘turn the darkness into light before them’[11].

It is from this point that Jesus develops his deeper message concerning spiritual blindness. The Pharisees interrogating the healed man were indignant at the fact that Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, and could not accept any version of events that didn’t show Jesus to be at fault[12]. Jesus addressed their spiritual blindness, saying that it was ‘for judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind’[13] Thus, the setting of the healing of the blind man illustrates a vast contrast in the two responses to Jesus’ claim to be light of the world, and in concrete terms. The healed man who could now see believed in Jesus and worshipped him; while the spiritually blind Pharisees rejected him and, as Jesus declared to them, ‘now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains’[14]. Jesus had said that ‘whoever follows me will never walk in darkness’, but the Pharisees in their rejection of Jesus had also rejected the light, and remained in spiritual darkness. The beginning of John’s gospel also makes mention of this, saying of Jesus that ‘in him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood it’[15] – the Pharisees could not understand the light in front of them, and so turned away. This spiritual blindness is reflected in many instances in the Old Testament where the stubborn, hard hearts of Israel are lamented, such as in Isaiah 42:18-20. Those who were meant to be God’s light to the Gentiles, and indeed the world, were instead walking in darkness and had turned away from God in their blindness. In Matthew,  Jesus called his followers to be what Israel failed to be when he said, ‘you are the light of the world’[16], calling on them to let their light shine in order that God would be glorified. Just as Jesus is the light of the world, his followers are also called to walk in the light, and reflect that light to all around them. So, by better understanding the meaning behind the phrase ‘light of the world’, and in seeing the responses to Jesus’ light play out, the reader is left with a challenge of whether they will follow Jesus, walking in the light, or remain blind, walking in spiritual darkness.

Jesus’ declaration that he is the ‘light of the world’ was not simply meant as an abstract or poetic phrase; it has a much deeper meaning, and contains an innate challenge to both the immediate audience and the modern reader. When we look at the context behind the phrase in the Old Testament and see how it is applied in the immediate context of the Feast of Tabernacles, we can see that Jesus is gently hinting at his own divinity - that he is the very presence of God in the world, just as God’s presence was shown in a pillar of light that guided God’s people through the wilderness to their promised home. Then, when Jesus again repeats his claim of being the world’s light as he heals a man born blind, we see how he is also tangibly demonstrating how he brings light to those living in darkness, and how those meant to be a light are in fact living in spiritual darkness. His statement leaves a challenge to his followers – will you continue to walk in darkness, and reject the light of life, who is God in the flesh? Or will you follow Jesus, and walk in the light?

[1] All Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011
[2] See Isaiah 60:1-2 and 19-20
[3]Ezekiel 1:27
[4] See Leviticus 23:33-43
[5] The Hebrew word here for ‘shelters’ is also the word translated as ‘tabernacles’
[6] See Exodus 13
[7] The other of Jesus’ seven ‘I am’ statements recorded throughout John are ‘I am the bread of life’; ‘I am the door of the sheep; ‘I am the Good Shepherd; ‘I am the resurrection and the life; ‘I am the way, the truth and the life; and ‘I am the true vine’.
[8] John 8:58
[9] John 9:4-5
[10]Isaiah 42:6-7
[11] Isaiah 42:16
[12]Indeed, the beginning of their persecution of Jesus had been when he had healed a man on the Sabbath, and Jesus had named God as his Father, ‘making himself equal with God’ (John 5:18). They had never been able to accept that Jesus could be free from sin if he had healed on the Sabbath, and hence they could not accept his testimony that he was from God, and the light of the world.
[13] John 9:39
[14] John 9:41
[15]John 1:4-5; many translations render the last phrase as ‘the darkness has not overcome it’ and footnote the ‘understood’as an alternative translation
[16] Matthew 5:14 

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Growing in Grace and Knowledge

Hello! It's been about two months now since I was in Vanuatu, but I think it's time for a few more stories. When I spoke about my time in Vanuatu back at church afterwards, I was asked to talk about 'preparing the way', or how God had used this time in Vanuatu to prepare me for what's next in my life (the sermon that week related to John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus, so it just happened to fit in too). I am now about to leave home, to a city where I know very few people, and don't entirely know what to expect. But the one thing I do know, is that when we don't know what's going on, we can rest in God, and He is always faithful. That's something I learned every day in Vanuatu, and it's a lesson I hope stays with me for the rest of my life. 
I last left off on Day 4, when we had celebrated the 150th anniversary of Scripture Union. Then the next two days, as I wrote them at the time - well, you'll find out below...

DAY 5 - Tuesday 21st November 2017
The music next door (from an ongoing revival meeting type thing) started at 4:30am again this morning, but this time it was not so unpleasant to be woken up so early by it. The classic Island bass bobbed around, and a cool breeze blew through our open windows. I eventually went back to sleep until about 6am. Today, we will be running a kids' holiday bible camp, with songs and games and stories. What a privilege, to share God's word with these children as they grow in grace and knowledge. 
After devotions and breakfast (I tried vegemite, for possibly the first time I could remember!) we hung around (literally - in the trees) until the kids arrived. Then they played a game involving stacking tins (which I never quite worked out how to play). We all then came into the hall, and the story of Zacchaeus was acted out. Then we all sang the memory verse, 1 John 4:16 ('God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them'), and did some craft. I talked with a young woman called Naomi. She had two kids, 3 and 5, but they hadn’t come today. She seemed a little sad maybe, or distant, when I talked with her. She said she reads the bible at home when it is dark and quiet; she is a stay-at-home mum and is 26. She spends all day playing with her kids and looking after them. She said her dream was to one day see the Sydney Harbour, maybe on New Year’s Eve. She struck me as a woman of great strength and sorrow, who perhaps had a lonely and difficult path to walk. I could only guess, though, what the rest of her story was. I asked what some things to pray for her might be, and she wrote this in my notebook:
“My Name it’s Naomi... I would like for you to pray for me to be Strong. Love, Kine, Humble, My Mine to be Strong in the Lord to use it Knot people.”

After the craft the kids played a game we called ‘Jesus is coming!’ (our variation of the game ‘Captain’s Coming!’) very enthusiastically. We came back into the hall for the acting out of the Mary and Martha story, then sang some variations of the memory verse song. It was time for some more craft after that, making some chatterboxes, and then we played ‘what’s the time, Mr Wolf?’ and ‘44 Home’. The kids had sandwiches for lunch, and I kicked a soccer ball around with one of the little boys for a while. I had a nap on a mat, and then I saw the lady I had chatted with yesterday, Daisy, weaving mats out of palm branches. I came over, and then she taught me how to weave them too. When everyone went down to the beach I made another mat down there, and Daisy made a basket. She looked at me for a moment and said something to the effect of, ‘you are no longer an Australian. Now you are from Vanuatu, because you know how to weave palm mats!’ What a tremendous compliment!

So, what is it like here in Vanuatu? Down here on the beach, there is a cool, refreshing seabreeze; the sun sparkles on the clear water. The sweat and salt dry on your skin, and the little orange ants run all over your feet but never bite. Even away from the beach, the distant roar of the ocean is always present. Today, the breeze is filled with the melody of children laughing and playing on the beach. Smoke is carried through the humid air, sweet fragrant wood smoke. In the sand, which has a habit of sticking to your skin, there are many special treasures; there are little sticks of coral that can be used like chalk to draw on the rocks, and hermit crabs that try desperately to escape when you pick them up (owing to the fact they are commonly used as fishing bait!). Here, the campsite’s pet dogs come and sit on your feet; spiders dart through the grass, colourful beetles buzz around your head, and coconuts litter the ground.

And speaking of coconuts, this is how you open one, Vanuatu style (thanks to Albert)...
1.     Take a machete and sharpen two ends of a stick about a metre long, one end on an angle; stab one end in the ground.
2.     Find a coconut from the ground about the right colour and age, shaking it to make sure it has milk in it. Spear the coconut near the top of it on the stick, in order to peel it. Peel off all the fibres until you have the generic spherical coconut you see in the movies.
3.     Take the machete again and poke the three dots until you find the ‘mouth’. You can cut a hole here and drink it.
4.     Alternatively, you can tap the side of the coconut on something solid (eg. a rock or block of concrete) until it starts cracking, turning it around so the whole circumference is tapped. Then you can pull it apart into two halves and cut out the flesh to eat.

After Albert demonstrated how to crack coconuts properly, we spent some time relaxing and cracking coconuts and sharpening sticks with machetes. Then it was dinner time. After some delicious food, we brought the machetes back to Albert’s house. Then we all went through the program for tomorrow, and wove some more palm mats. Then, finally, it was time for bed.

DAY 6 - Wednesday 22nd November 2017
After devotions and breakfast this morning, the kids began arriving. We played outside for a while, and some little girls sat in the hammock with me. Then we went into the hall and acted out the story of Jesus calming the storm – an amazing experience. Some of us Australians were the actors in the story, but all the kids had to make the noise of the storm, gradually getting louder and louder with each new sound effect added – rain, lightning, thunder. Eventually the noise in the hall grew deafening. And then, when the guy playing Jesus said ‘Quiet!’,  suddenly everything was dead silent; you could have heard a pin drop. Everyone was a little awestruck, and the silence continued for a moment before the story went on.
After the story we all sang ‘He died upon the cross’ and the memory verse song. Then for the craft, the kids put together paper jigsaw puzzles of the verse, and drew pictures of Jesus calming the storm. I helped a few of the younger ones, and ended up drawing pictures for them to colour in. And all the while, as the kids sat colouring, they would sing the memory verse song under their breath, even sometimes all in unison. It warmed my heart!

Most of the kids finished their drawings and went outside to play ‘stuck in the storm’ (ie. stuck in the mud), all the while a real tropical storm getting closer. Daisy and I stayed inside, singing the memory verse and dancing to it and making the kids still left inside giggle. Then I went outside and joined in the games with a group of little girls, who then braided my hair until it started to rain and we all headed back inside. We did some more singing – ‘Jesus is the mighty mighty king’, and then the memory verse, having a competition between the two halves of the room to see who could sing loudest or quietest. 
Then one of the leaders told the story of the Great Banquet with balloons, making the kids giggle, and then prayed. There was another craft, and then an attempt to play musical statues (which worked for a little while, although most of the kids seemed too shy to dance). Some kept colouring in, or wrote their names on balloons. Daisy said that it really was the ‘most fun day ever’ for the kids, and they really did enjoy singing and dancing (from what I understand, they don’t often get the opportunity to just play and be silly and be kids all that often). All the kids kept chanting the name of one particular boy to try and make him dance, but he flat out refused to get up. The dancing died down eventually, and most of the kids went back to colouring. Then it started really raining outside.
To our surprise then, some of the older boys (including the one they all chanted the name of) performed a dance for everyone; some kids watched while others kept colouring. Then one of the older girls started doing the dance that the kids had performed at the Scripture Union celebrations, and then all the kids joined in.
“Your love has taken over me, Father I depend on you... I have confidence in you; in you, O Lord, I put my trust... Under the canopy, you give me security; I am the righteousness of God.”
Here is the song, by the way; in fact it is actually a Nigerian song, but apparently it is popular in Vanuatu as well!

Then it was time for lunch, after some more colouring in and singing. I learned a bit of the story of Raymundo, a sweet little boy with a lovely singing voice. He is one of six kids, and his 2-year-old brother was even here today. His father died last year, but the community has been doing their best to look after his family, even though the community themselves do not have much. His shirt is too small for him though, and he wore the same one both days. 
The other kids call him Rose, I think, because he likes to hang out with the girls who are less rough-and-tumble than the other boys his age. Earlier, when most of the kids were playing outside and only a few stayed inside to finish colouring in, I walked past and heard him singing the memory verse in a funny opera-voice impression. It made my day. It has been a privilege to get to know these kids and share God’s love with them, watching them smile and laugh and play.
We all went outside and played ultimate Frisbee and then tug-of-war. The kids went swimming down at the beach again, and I sat on the sand and painted a few pictures – one of the ocean, and one of a boy who found it hard to sit still, and soon wanted to run off and join his friends (as most young boys would I guess!). It had been a long time since I painted anything, and I suspect the portrait doesn't bear a whole lot of resemblance...

After the beach we all hung around back at the campsite, and some of the kids went home on the first bus while the remainder played soccer. I helped a little girl open a coconut, and sang the memory verse song with her and her friend while they sat in the hammock. Eventually the bus came back, and the kids giggled as they said goodbye and ‘awinene!’ (whatever that means... we asked Albert and he said it must have been a kids’ slang word because it wasn’t Bislama. The kids told us it meant goodbye...)
Now it is suddenly very quiet at the campsite. The kids loved all the songs; throughout the day I’ve heard them singing softly to themselves, especially the memory verse song. It has been raining gently most of the afternoon; earlier in the day the humidity had been building up even though there was a breeze cool enough that the kids said it was cold. They felt the cold a lot more than we Australians did, especially after they went swimming and there was a cool wind; the little ones were all shivering. To me it still felt warm and humid.
After the kids left, we hung around; some of the others borrowed the paints I had brought and did some random origami. Then we all walked down to the villas where the camp cooks were staying. The others went snorkeling down at the beach, but I sat on the verandah while the rain continued gently. I read a book and had a nap, and then when everyone got back we had a barbecue dinner and icecream. Everyone else played cards until it was time to walk back; but I wasn't feeling well, and got a ride back in the truck because I was too exhausted to walk any further.

And so that was the last day of the kids' camp, but as it turned out it wasn't the last time we got to hang out with these lovely children. I think these two days of the camp, and the day after (which I will hopefully write about fairly soon!) were surely the highlights of my time in Vanuatu.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Celebrating a special day... Vanuatu style

Hello! It's been a few weeks now since I went to Vanuatu - in fact nearly a month since I got back. But, as promised, I have a few more stories to share yet! And just at Christmas too. The story as I wrote it at the time last left off on a Sunday, when we had gone for a walk to the local church down the road. We were clued in to what would be going on the day after when, as we finished dinner that night, we saw some ladies we didn't know sitting in the backyard trees, picking armfuls of frangipanis. They were picking these flowers to use as decorations, for the celebrations taking place in big blue marquis tent the next day - a tent which had sprung up on the grass, it seemed, in the few minutes we had been distracted. So after bringing all the chairs we could find over to the tent, we called it a day, ready for the next day to come...

DAY 4 - Monday 20th November 2017

It has been a privilege in Vanuatu to see God's provision at every turn, to know more deeply just how faithful our God is. Our God is the God who saves, and every day I see this in beautiful ways; I see God providing for His children, whether for us or for our family in Christ here in Vanuatu. We all love and worship the same God; it is an honour to meet strangers who love God as I do and be able to talk with them and hear their stories.

This morning, after the usual routine and breakfast, people began to arrive for the 150th anniversary of Scripture Union, the celebrations of which were being held at the campsite (Scripture Union is a Christian ministry that began 150 years ago in the UK and today is worldwide).
We headed down to the beach for a while, and some of us climbed trees while others went swimming. We learned the names of some of the kids who had come along to the celebrations and hung out with them at the beach. Then when the guest of honour arrived, it was time to head back up to the big blue marquis tent pitched at the campsite. Just as we reached the grass, a man screamed and ran out in front of us. We all looked a little startled as some more men yelled and blew shells, then realised this was all part of the plan when Albert asked us to sing 'This Little Light of Mine' as we walked up, over the traditional song the men were singing. Then the men did a traditional dance for everyone, singing at the same time. We later found out they were the dance troupe who usually performed at all the tourist hotels, but they had kindly agreed to be part of the celebrations for free I think.

Then we sat down in the tent and sang 'Lord We Lift Your Name on High' with Albert. The tent, despite being just a hired tent, was beautifully decorated. It was artfully strewn with with flowers, colourful bolts of material, and even small trees in pots in true Vanuatu style. An older pastor gave a short devotion on John 15, and then a few different people gave speeches. We heard the story of how the new campsite had come to be - it had been largely destroyed by Cyclone Pam in 2015. But even after everything had been destroyed, the owners still had joy in the hearts, knowing God would provide. People from around the world sent support to help rebuild; a friend from Australia happened to be an architect and became the planner for the rebuilding process... God was moving. Some friends in New Zealand also sent over a shipping container of timber, before the plans had been made, saying 'we're sure it will come in handy'. Now the new buildings are built from this timber, all made to withstand a category 5 cyclone!
The love of these people for God and their community is an inspiration; in everything they say 'to God be the glory'.
After the speeches, the kids did a dance for everyone; then some gifts were given to the people involved in running Scripture Union things. Some gifts were, for example, woven mats - traditionally, these mats seat the family as they share food or teaching or fellowship, so the mats were given as symbolic gifts on behalf of the children of Vanuatu who have been blessed by the work of Scripture Union. Then some woven baskets given as gifts; traditionally you would fill this kind of basket up with water to bring back to your village - but here they were a symbol to 'fill up with good things and the love of God' to bring back to the recipient's 'village'!

A ribbon was cut to officially open the new buildings, after a speech in which they were dedicated to God. That was the end of the official program, and we played games with the kids for a while. Then it was time for a delicious lunch! We also learned the story behind how the celebrations came to be now. They were supposed to be back in July, but that hadn't worked out - but since it ended up being in November it meant us Australians were able to be there too. Then it was raining yesterday, and those organising it began to wonder whether anyone would come at all. But, as Albert said, even if no one came, the glory would go to God. 'We may have plans, but God has the last say!' And in the end, the tent was full.

After talking for a while with various people, including a pastor from the Solomon Islands, we all went swimming down at the beach with the kids and looked at coral. I sat in the shallows for a while, talking with a teenage girl named Jovanna. When the two of us started walking back, we found lots of hermit crabs! I hadn't seen hermit crabs in years. Then I sat on the beach again with Jovanna and another girl named Lilian and talked for a while. All the kids were originally from another island, but lived in Vila. Then the girls started listening to music on their phones, so I began talking to a lady named Daisy. She is 29 and has two daughters, both of whom were there today. She only studied up to year 7; her parents couldn't afford the school fees. She went to sit her final exams in year 7, but they sent her outside because her fees hadn't been paid. She left with tears streaming down her face, and that was the last time she ever went to school. She was married when she was 15. Now she is a cook at a local community school that is partnered with a sister school in Australia; many kids there have their fees paid by the school in Australia. She says being a cook is hard work, but she loves her job because she can talk to all the kids.

She cares very much for her two girls; they are her heart. I asked what would be some things to pray for her and for her community. For herself, she asked prayer for her daughters' education; she didn't want them to end up like her, and she works hard and encourages them to stay in school. For the community, she asked prayer for unity between the churches. Sometimes people in the community have small disagreements that come to stand in the way of unity between brothers and sisters in Christ. So, if you would like to join our brothers and sisters in Vanuatu in prayer, you might pray for love and acceptance between church communities.

After coming back from the beach, I watched everyone else play a game of soccer; then it was time for all the visitors to go home. We had afternoon tea and talked for a while, and then it was time for an afternoon bible study. After discussion groups, encouraging each other as sisters and brothers in Christ, we had dinner (and a cake for the birthday of one of the leaders!). We prepared some of the activities planned for tomorrow, and played a round of the card game Mafia. Then it was time for bed.


The next days were to be filled with much joy and laughter and small giggling children, as we had the privilege to be part of running a bible camp for these same kids over the following two days.
Hopefully I will continue the story soon... not that anyone really reads all of these posts haha :P But it's nice to relive the memories while transcribing it all, and I needed a digital copy anyway in case something were to happen to the little starfish notebook I took around everywhere (it's now covered in lots of dirt and the covers are warped from the salty sea air and occasional light rain that fell while I was scribbling things down).
And lastly, I'd better say the obligatory
Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Hymns in the Seabreeze

Hello! I've recently come back from a short trip to Vanuatu, so as promised, I've got some more stories to share. I last left off at the end of the second day of the trip, which was spent getting to know the culture and character of Vanuatu a little bit more. The third day was a Sunday (hey, that's randomly coincidental! Jesus rose on the third day, which also happened to be a Sunday...), and we would get to visit a local church down the road from our campsite. So without further ado, here is pretty much what I wrote at the time (I took a notebook with me everywhere and would always be scribbling things down so I wouldn't forget. I'm pretty forgetful, and I wanted to remember this time away, so I wrote pages and pages of haphazard notes at all angles all over the page. Anyway! Getting to the story...)

DAY 3 - Sunday 19th November 2017
Mercifully, I was able to have eight hours sleep. The music next door (from an ongoing revival crusade type thing) only begun at 5.30am, and I was already up and having a shower by then. Today we will be going to the Presbyterian church down the road; it is a beautiful day today.
We sang some songs together at devotions in the morning, and had breakfast (with frozen milk). We packed some things, and then it was off to meet our dear brothers and sisters in Christ in Vanuatu.
The church was a smallish, white rendered building, simply but beautifully decorated on the inside. A screen up the front showed the order of service, and we would soon see the similarities and differences between here and our home churches (each of us on the trip came from different cities and kinds of churches).
The service began on 'Vanuatu time' - in other words, when everyone got there! Eventually, to get people inside someone rang the church bell which hung on a pole somewhere outside (maybe it was a bell, or a gong, or an old metal fuel can; I don't remember exactly. All these options are commonly used as bells in Vanuatu). I think the whole village knew then it was time for church!
We wandered inside, and sat down.
After a while, a single voice rang out, singing the first line of a song. Then suddenly the whole church joined in, acapella style in beautiful harmony. It took a while, but I managed to figure out what the words were. It was a bible verse:
'Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father in heaven.'
The song ended, and there was silence for a moment. Then another voice began a new song.
'Praise him, praise him; praise him in the morning, praise him in the moonlight...'
After that I couldn't make out the words. No one was reading from anything; they all knew the songs off by heart. When I could figure out the words, I sang along; otherwise I just sang the tune wordlessly.
After a few songs, it was time for the service to start. Someone began the age-old call and response:
"God is good!"
"All the time."
"And all the time?"
"God is good!"
Then I saw that the order of service listed on the screen had begun.

1. Doxology
As it turns out, this was the singing. One person would start the first line of a song, then the rest of the church joined in like a spontaneous choir. There were a few more songs, I think.

2. Call to worship, and
3. Welcome
Someone read a psalm from the bible and said a few words of welcome. The pastor and his family came in, and they sat at the front of the church, facing in from the side.

4. Prayer of forgiveness and supplication
This was amazing to me, and so unlike anything I have ever seen before. I had heard of churches where this happened, but never seen it for myself. Everyone simultaneously burst out into prayer, speaking out loud, having a conversation between God and themselves, talking as though face to face. Sometimes the pastor's voice would rise above the rest, and it seemed people would pray with him, then continue their own private conversations with God. The voices gradually grew quieter, until they all faded away.

5. Opening hymn
Everyone stood up and sang a hymn together in Bislama (the local language, a kind of pidgin English), reading out of the hymnbook Niu Laef Buk 4, like a choir in perfect harmony. There were no other instruments; it was only voices. Some ladies sitting behind us kindly lent us their hymnbook so we could sing along too.

6. Children's talk
All the young kids came and sat on the woven mats out the front of the church, and a man very animatedly told them the parable of the talents from the bible, in Bislama. Then a few teenagers and young adults came out the front with two guitars and sang the song 10 000 Reasons (a popular church song in English, well-known around the world) for the rest of the church.

7. Offering
Woven bowls were passed around for the offering, and someone started a song which everyone then joined. After that was done, everyone burst into simultaneous prayer again, this time for thanksgiving and confession.

8. Announcements
An old man stood up the front and welcomed everyone, including us Australians visiting. Then he read out some announcements to the church for a while (I think it included things like the rosters for who was helping with what etc, since most people probably don't have internet and such).

9. Second hymn
We stood up and sang another Bislama hymn, from Niu Laef Buk (New Life Book) again. It went like this:
"Mi, mi wantem folem
Ol fasin blong yu nao.
Yu we yu ded blong sevem mi,
Yu tekemaot ol sin blong mi."
It was called 'Jisas, Mi Wantem Save Moa', and was based on an old English hymn called 'More About Jesus Would I Know'. From my limited understanding of Bislama, here is a rough translation (if you read the Bislama out loud phonetically, you can probably see the connections):
"I want to follow you
All my ways belong to you now.
You died to save me;
You took away all my sin."

10. Bible reading
The bible reading was from Matthew's gospel, the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30).
After the passage was read out, the pastor prayed, and then began his sermon.
I took lots of notes on the sermon, although since it was mostly in Bislama, I wasn't always exactly sure what the pastor was saying; I think we managed to get the gist of it. It was about giving the gifts God has given us back to Him, and multiplying them. It was about being faithful with what God has entrusted us with, and investing in what God has given you. 'God has given us each according to our ability; He has given a wealth of salvation, wisdom and knowledge. The fear of the Lord is our treasure.' A few more verses from the bible were mentioned, like 1 Peter 4:10 - about using the gifts you have received to serve others - and Romans 12:4-6, about how in Christ it is like we are all members of the same body, and in Christ we are all one but have different roles (according to the gifts God has given us).
The pastor appealed to the congregation to be faithful servants of Jesus Christ, to hear Him say 'well done, good and faithful servant' like in the parable. He urged them to 'be faithful unto death' (Revelation 2.10), and urged everyone to really believe in Jesus Christ. When you are sick you go to the doctor - likewise, when you are lost in your sin, you need Jesus to save you. 'Come before him. Do not be afraid. Be faithful servants, until Jesus comes back, or you meet him in heaven.'
He encouraged us all to be faithful, because God is faithful. God is always faithful, in all the situations and trials we are given.

11. Third hymn
We all sang a hymn in the local language of Efate, the island we were staying on (it was very different to Bislama - this one was the ancient language that existed before Europeans came, which most people still speak). The ladies behind us again kindly lent us the other hymnbook it was from. Then a man stood up and said the blessing; the service ended officially.

We Australians were asked to leave first, and then asked to line up outside the exit of the church. Then, to our surprise, the whole church shook every one of our hands as they walked out! Afterwards, I talked to some women outside. There was a lady named Alina, and another lady Tusia and her little daughter Carlina, who wore matching purple dresses. Alina studies architecture in Papua New Guinea for 10 months a year, and only just got back a few days earlier to see her own little daughter again.
Then we talked to a pastor, not the man who had preached but a younger pastor (maybe the youth pastor). A tiny little girl clung to his side; she was his daughter Alana.
I asked if there were things we could pray for their church; he told us a few things. Young people didn't always come much anymore, finding entertainment and distractions in the new technology available now in Vanuatu (much like in many Australian churches!). As the young pastor pointed out though, it may be a changing world but God doesn't change. He really longed for the young people to know God; he really deeply cared for them and wanted them to know God in the same close way that he and the older people did. However, it is difficult for him and the older church leaders to understand the new world and values that the youth have found by way of the internet, especially the older leaders who have grown up in a traditional Island culture; so he asked us to pray for the next generation, and the leaders in the many challenges they face in helping lead the youth to  deep and meaningful relationships with Jesus.

We said goodbye and began a pleasant walk back to the campsite, a walk of about half an hour or so. I had a good chat with Ed (one of the trip leaders) on the way back, and although the clouds were growing darker it didn't rain just yet. After getting back we went to the beach not far from the campsite, although I only dipped my toes in.
Then we came back and had sausage sandwiches for lunch, and hung around and chatted for a while. The others played cards, and I got my paints out and sketched a frangipani I found on the ground. I went back to the cabin and had a nap, then later came back up to discuss the children's program we would be running in a few days' time. We were discussing the bible memory verse and trying to think up a way to help the kids remember it, and I had an old kids' song stuck in my head. Then I realised that the words of the bible verse just happened to perfectly fit the tune! Everyone else seemed to like the idea as well.
"God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 1 John 4:16..."
After writing out the verse on about 30 little origami hearts, I went with some of the girls on a sunset walk along the beach (I went barefoot, as anyone who knows me could probably guess :P). Then it was time for a dinner of chicken and rice and vegetables, and we chatted for a while. After helping bring over all the chairs we could find to the big tent pitched on the grass for the 150th anniversary of Scripture Union celebrations tomorrow, the others had their own makeshift church service in English up in the hall. I went to bed early, however; after all the early mornings I was pretty tired.

It was really a blessing to stand before God alongside our brothers and sisters in Vanuatu. We didn't always understand the language, but we Christians have a universal language - love. We were welcomed in love, and farewelled in love. We knew that we were a part of their family, and they were a part of ours.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Long God Yumi Stanap (In God We Stand)

Hello! I'm back in Australia now, so as promised, here's some stories from Vanuatu - starting from day one, as I wrote it at the time...

DAY 1 - Friday 17th November 2017
"Ah, the things we've seen, and it's only eight in the morning!" - quote from a Disney movie I rather like...
I set myself two alarms for 4.30am this morning. I got up, had breakfast, got ready... then I checked my emails.
'Flight delayed!'
The flight to Sydney was delayed. I was supposed to be in Sydney at around 8.30am to check in for the flight to Vanuatu. My flight to Sydney would be leaving at 9.10am, instead of 6.30 am.
We all ran around like headless chickens for a while, making phonecalls to the airline and the people organising the trip, trying to see if I would miss the flight to Vanuatu because of the delay. Eventually we (hopefully) sorted something out, so I had a nap after reading some of Mark's gospel. After all, what would my first overseas trip alone be without a little excitement?
An adventure in trusting God, just as it has been from the beginning!

Eventually, we made it! We got to our own town's airport in plenty of time. The flight left at 9.15am, and the dad of one of my friends just happened to be on the flight as well. I sat next to a guy who looked like a backpacker, but he quickly put on his headphones. I was amazed once again to see my town from the air - I even saw our house. There was a logging farm somewhere far below, and the logs looked like piles of matchsticks from the air. Crop circles, trees and dams dotted the plains before they disappeared behind impressive clouds. Then, finally, we reached Sydney.
I quickly got off the plane and ran across the tarmac, then met one of the ladies organising the trip inside. We sprinted to the baggage carousel, and waited impatiently for my bag to arrive. The second I saw it I grabbed it, and we started running again. We found the train platform (the ticket was already bought) and jumped through the open doors of the train just before they closed. After a short train journey, we ran through the international terminal until we reached check-in, puffing and panting. The officials had to turn the desk back on again, because we were late; but they had been told to wait for me, so that was all good; we had made it just in time, with minutes to spare. When I got to passport control later, I had to leave the lady looking after me because she wasn't actually going on the trip, and I was on my own. The express gate wasn't working, so I had to go with the ordinary line (I had been given an express pass on account of my flight delay). At customs however I was able to go through the express line, and managed to get through with only the loss of a tube of toothpaste. After being randomly checked (maybe I looked pretty sus, being so tired and puffing :P) I met with Samara, another organiser/leader on the trip, and from there it was a bit more relaxed. When we got to the gate, the same two officials from check-in were there, and congratulated me on making it on time! I talked to some of the fellow trip-goers for a while - they had all been there for hours I think - and then it was time to board the plane.
All day long, I had an old Colin Buchanan (a famous Australian country music/Christian kids singer songwriter) song stuck in my head:
"My God is so BIG! So strong and so mighty, there's nothing my God cannot do. That's true!"
God is so faithful. Today I have had a peace, knowing that God willing, I would get there. And I got there.
God is good! I have had a good lesson in trusting God today. And now, I look forward to Vanuatu...

We flew over new Caledonia, then finally landed in Port Vila. The airport was surrounded by green fields with cows and palm trees. The combination of humidity and smoke made me feel like I was back in South India. After we got through customs, we were welcomed in the corridor by a band playing joyful Island music. They smiled at us, and I took a photo (what a tourist, haha). We loaded our luggage into the truck, and found our 'bus', the ubiquitous vans that are everywhere, in every shade of the rainbow. I leaned out the window as we drove through Vila and couldn't wipe the smile off my face. God is faithful!
We eventually reached the campsite and had some afternoon tea. Then we sat out on the grass and the campsite's pet dog, Nino (named after the cyclone), took an immediate liking to me - laying his head in my lap just like our dog back home. Ed, one of the leaders, talked to us about the itinerary and prayed for us all. Then we set up our beds, and I played the ukulele for a while.
Vanuatu is a beautiful country; it is a privilege to be here.
We had a barbecue for dinner and played some get-to-know-you games; then we had cold showers (surprisingly lovely) and went to bed under our mosquito nets. Our first day in Vanuatu.
It feels like a holiday with family; it's like we have all known each other forever. Vanuatu is beautiful, with character. There are signs of rebuilding here and there after Cyclone Pam in 2015, but people are resilient, welcoming everyone with a smile. As we drove through Vila we saw everyday life; I watched a guy grab his friend's hat and run off, and they both chuckled. Kids played games in the dusty fields and walked around on their own as they pleased; the island is their family. All are welcome.

DAY 2 - Saturday 18th November 2017
"Long God Yumi Stanap." - the motto of Vanuatu, 'In God we Stand'
I was woken up at 2.30am by a rooster next door persistently crowing, and the geckos chirping in our room. Then, at 4.30am the church next door (who were having some sort of several-week-long revival crusade) began singing very loud, out of tune (but joyful) songs... it was already light outside, I guess. But it was difficult for us to appreciate their praise and worship, because I at least had only managed to get to sleep at past 11pm and someone else in the cabin was snoring. So when the tinny old piano started, my first reaction was closer to 'please Lord, not now...'
Although ashamed of my cynicism, I also remembered an old proverb (Proverbs 27 verse 14 to be exact). But you can look that up if you really want to!
I prayed that I would have the grace to bear it joyfully, and keep going even if I was tired.
'Lord, help me not to complain but to be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, constant in prayer. Even in exhaustion, I will praise you...'
Since the roosters and geckos continued, and the music intermittently so, I eventually got up around 5am (it was light outside anyway) and had a cold shower in the dark (the lovely seabreeze made it seem quite cold too). I had a vague urge to find the rooster and strangle it, as it is one of those roosters that sound like they are dying horribly whenever they open their mouth. But surely it is one of God's good creations...
I had a bit of a nap for a while, then played the ukulele. Then it was time for some much-needed time with God.
Feeling a little more refreshed and cheerful, it was time to meet up with everyone else out on the grass. We sang songs and had a bible study, and then had breakfast. After that, it was off to town.
In town, we went to the ATM first (I had changed my money already at the airport, and realised then how much I was ripped off :P) then went to some tourist shops. We went down to the markets, where some of the girls got their hair braided into cornrows. I bought a few things, mostly presents for my family. I talked lots to the ladies at the stalls and sometimes a kid would call out 'halo!'.
We met up at the Jungle Cafe and had some icecream together, then went for a walk along the waterfront. Eventually we sat down in a shady pergola area in the park and played cards. When it was time to meet back up, we found the leaders at the back of the markets, and had a traditional markets' lunch - beef stew and rice and cassava.

Then it was off to the Blue Lagoon; we reached there and put our swimmers on. There were a few rope swings, but I didn't go on any. After getting used to the water and paddling around for a while, I got out and watched people on the swing. Then I noticed a bunch of kids standing up in the overhanging trees, and followed them out, climbing through the slippery branches. I jumped into the water from a low tree branch, which was great fun, and then did it again. I asked one little boy his name, which was Junior. He lived in Vila but had come here with his family for a fun day out. I jumped in a few more times, having fun climbing the trees. In another tree one of the branches broke and I think a boy fell into the water (he was fine).
Eventually we got out and ate cassava chips and had a reflection time. Our group, consisting of four girls and Samara, each shared our testimonies of how we had become Christians and talked for a while. Eventually, it was time to head off back to the campsite.

On the way back I got to sit in the front, so I had a nice chat with the driver, Marcel. He had always been a bus driver, he said, and was 19 when Vanuatu gained independence. We talked about a lot of things; Cyclone Pam, the economy (supported mostly by tourism and plantations/agriculture) and a few other things. He explained the role of chiefs in different areas of Vanuatu in the modern day (in the Northern islands I think the role of Chief is earned by the number of pigs killed; in the Southern islands it is hereditary). He pointed out the house of the chief (the chief of the area we were staying, at least), who was an old man now. The chief's responsibilities included making sure young people didn't pick up bad habits, and being someone that people could bring their problems and disputes to. Marcel also told me the story of the ancient chief buried on Eratap Island. When he died, his 100 wives were made drunk on Kava and buried alive with him! Marcel laughed when I looked a little worried, and assured me it wasn't like that anymore!
On our way through the embassies in Vila he also pointed out the main Nakamal (meeting place), where chiefs from all over Vanuatu would meet to discuss matters.
Eventually we got back to camp, after passing a giant upside-down tree ripped out of the ground by Cyclone Pam. The road was very potholey, and Marcel explained that the government was meaning to fix the roads soon, and a lot of the roads on the island were like this.
When we got back, we managed to (sort of) crack open a coconut with a rock and a sharp thing (although we would later learn the proper way to do it!), after our dinner of the classic Australian spag bol, or spaghetti bolognese. (Okay so technically it's Italian. But it's a pretty classic meal in Australia, and the cooks at the camp were also Australian :P)
At dinner I had a nice conversation with one of the cooks, Kristyne, who had served with YWAM for 8 years including on Mercy Ships. After dinner, we played the card game Mafia (an old favourite of kids everywhere in Australia, especially on bus trips or excursions). Then it was time for bed, the end of our first full day in paradise, a.k.a Vanuatu! The revival music next door was still going strong...

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Recipe for an Adventure:

1. Sign up for an overseas trip that sounds cool
2. Realise, the day before you leave, that you don't know anyone else going or what you will actually be doing the whole time
3. Trust God!

Well, I'm going to interrupt my stories about India from last year, to bring some news of the more current sort. Tomorrow, I'm heading off to Vanuatu! And I thought I might tell the story of how I came to be going there; I reckon it shows the faithfulness and the love of God.

It all started back in September, when I felt the need to leave the country again and was plotting how I could go to Singapore for a week after my exams (yes, I guess Singapore and Vanuatu are pretty different places). Maybe I should be a travel agent, I do love plotting overseas travel... anyway, I had the whole thing figured out, and then I realised - I wasn't old enough to legally stay in a hotel on my own. Hmmm! So I tried to see if I could convince anyone to come with me, but without success. Just as I finally accepted I might not be able to go overseas this year after all, I realised my mum was looking at something on her computer. It was the ad for a trip which I had considered earlier in the year but dismissed because the dates clashed with other stuff... a trip to Vanuatu! It was sort of half mission trip and half post-exam relaxing holiday. The idea immediately took hold of my travel-plotting brain and wouldn't let go. So I looked into it more. I had this strange feeling that God was giving me a nudge.

So I asked God whether I should go to Vanuatu. I asked for a sign, I asked that His will be done. I asked to be willing to give up the other thing which the trip clashed with; both the trip and this other thing were once-in-a-lifetime things, so I was a little bit conflicted, as if I wasn't sure whether God would really come through for me again like He always has. I applied to our church presbytery for financial help. I told them how much the trip cost, but not that I was $500 short. We received a message a few days later from the church council. They could not make the full amount of the trip, they said, but they could give some. And the most they could do, they said, was... $500! God is good :)

Then I decided I would speak at church about the trip, with the congregation who have become my very dear family in Christ. I decided that, God willing, I was going to Vanuatu. I prayed and I prayed and I prayed, and I listened. I felt a voice urging 'Go, I am with you'. I let go of my possessions; they belonged to God anyway. They were a gift from God, so I would offer them back to Him... having empty hands brought me a great solace, something I didn't expect. Before I had been so worried about keeping all the money I had, but when it was gone, I felt a kind of relief. (As a bit of a joke, ages ago when I had to make a name for my bank account, I called it 'God's money' in Hindi, to remind myself that it didn't really belong to me. Then, when I had to make the decision of whether to go to Vanuatu, I was struggling with my usual indecisiveness... and then I saw that name. That helped.)
I registered for the trip, I paid the deposit. I felt a great peace, letting go of my fears and wants.
"This will be an experiment in trusting God," I thought. I was reminded of words from a song that I like very much: 'Nothing left to hold on to... I'll raise these empty hands to you.'
I looked at photos and videos from previous trips that had gone (it's run each year for students finishing their final exams). I saw the people, the places, and my heart yearned within me as it hadn't done for some time - not since India. I remembered my faith. I remembered my hope.

A little while later, I was still a little bit short of the cost of the trip - by $15. I knew God wouldn't let me not go for such a small amount. After church (I think on the day the final balance of the trip was due), someone came up and gave me a handful of gold coins - $10. Then I remembered someone had given my mother an envelope for me, and she had put it in my bag. I opened it - $5.
I smiled at God's provision. Then later a very dear old friend of mine very generously gave $50, and even in the weeks afterward people have very generously given small amounts here and there.
Jesus is always enough. My God is the God who provides for His children!
I am so thankful for the generous and loving church family I have been blessed with. So many people have prayed for me, not just during my exams, but for many years. Many people have come up to me after church to let me know they are praying for me, and even that they will be praying for me on this trip I will be going on tomorrow. I feel so loved, so supported.
I also realised something amazing just a few weeks ago. I had been confused that the church presbytery still wanted to give the $500; I thought the church had already given it. Then finally I understood - they both wanted to give $500. The church and the presbytery (I hadn't realised that they were separate things). God's wonderful provision never ceases to astound me and fill me with hope!

So, that is the story behind how I came to be going to Vanuatu tomorrow! When I get back I will hopefully share some stories from there.
This morning it kind of hit me that I really was leaving tomorrow. I seems incredible to think that tomorrow I will be in another country. I will not know anyone else going; I still don't even know what the itinerary is! But it will be an experiment in trusting God, as it has been from the very beginning. I know that my God is utterly trustworthy; He will never leave me nor forsake me, no matter where I am in the world. As I wrote in India a few times, "I will not be afraid, because my God goes with me."  It is time for another adventure with Jesus! And it is my prayer that His love will shine on my face for all to see, and that He would use my life to bless other precious souls around me, to show his love in practical ways to my brothers and sisters in Christ; it is my prayer that I will appreciate every breath and every day God has given me, and use all of it for His glory.

"Bring to God your bread and fishes, and He will multiply them how He wills."

Monday, 13 November 2017

Meeting our World Vision sponsor child - 4

Last year I went to India. This is part 4 of the notes that I wrote back then, while I was over there, and since I wrote them to be shared with others, I thought I might share them here! Also, if you're interested in reading the previous posts, they complete the story so it makes a bit more sense :)
After a few days being just two more foreign tourists in the tourist hotspots, it was time for a journey off the beaten track, starting in Delhi and reaching to a tiny uncharted village in Northern India, only an hour or two from the Nepal border. The reason? Meeting a young boy and his family, a family supported by the amazing work of World Vision. We had had the privilege of being involved in supporting this family through World Vision for several years, and now would have the great privilege of finally meeting them. (For privacy reasons, I can't show pictures of the family, but I'll do my best to tell as much of their story as I know!). Also if the writing is in [square brackets] these are things I have added as an afterthought as I am transcribing it now. So without further ado, here is the story, starting from the day before...

Day 5 - Wednesday 28th September 2016, Delhi/Lucknow
This morning, I was a bit sick. I may have been so in Asha's garden [okay, I still feel pretty bad about that. It was such a beautiful little garden...], but then I felt alright after that [because I was sick from the doxycycline, aka anti-malarial drugs, and thankfully not food poisoning. Turns out you're supposed to eat before you take malaria pills]. We had some breakfast (western style) with Liz and her boyfriend whose name I can't remember. Maya very generously gifted me with a red necklace to go with my salwar kameez [traditional Indian clothes], and Asha declared me an Indian princess.

Sunrise over Asha's garden...

We left for the airport and caught our flight to Lucknow. We sat next to Atul from Allahabad, who later in the flight was very sick... but before takeoff we had a nice conversation in Hindi. The man in front of me also kept turning around to stare at me when he heard me speaking Hindi; I think he was hoping I would speak to him in Hindi as well! The landscape changed as we flew towards Lucknow; there were more villages and farms, and they seemed greener, although the air was drier.

We landed in Lucknow. It was very bright and dry, and as soon as we stepped out of the airport with the driver we'd hired, the difference between Delhi and Lucknow became apparent. It seemed, perhaps, poorer and less 'polished' [this is the general stereotype of this state in India, at least]. Our driver had his shirt half-open and chest hair sticking out. The whole way to the Mohan Hotel I didn't see any other tourists or foreigners, just everyday life. Water buffaloes bathed in puddles, and tents made from tarps and old plastic bags occasionally rose from the dust on the side of the street. Children grinned and men chuckled; women and babies held onto men riding motorcycles (for dear life sometimes) and schoolgirls giggled as they walked past. We eventually reached our hotel (opposite some dodgy sounding shops... for the sake of politeness I won't mention exactly what their names were).

When we arrived, it turned out the lady from World Vision had called, and so we called her again to organise our visit tomorrow. I'm so excited! I've been dreaming of the day for so long, now that it's almost here I don't really know what to do. It is up to God, what happens. I will trust Him. He has brought us this far, and his love will carry us home...

Little villages in Uttar Pradesh from the air

We rested in the hotel for a few hours, and I watched people in the street go by from our window. Then, in the afternoon we went out exploring. It was nice walking down the street in the chaos and rubbish and crowds of people, walking past shops selling bags and old dirty-looking kurtas, and smelling the scent of incense and coconut lassi and cow poo and construction works. We went down an enclosed alley of shops, and I bought a salwar kameez from a shop run by a Sikh man and his assistant whom he called 'black beauty' (a short young man). He charged us what he said was an Indian price rather than a tourist price [which was true, too, since I got a patiala suit there for rs.750 or so, less than half the price of the one I found in Agra!] We said goodbye and then explored another alley of shops where Dad bought a new belt; then we came back to the hotel. We had dinner, watched a movie [King Kong, I believe. Not the best idea I've ever had, because it ran late and we were getting up early the next day...], and then went to bed.

 Looking out from the hotel window at the street below


And so ended the day of our travels to Lucknow - the next day would be the one we would meet a very special young boy and his family...

Day 6 - 29th September 2016, Lucknow/ Uncharted Village
I do not see poverty and dust and desperation, just beautiful souls, and giggling children and happy grins and approving smiles from dadis [grandmas].
We left the hotel at 8am with the lady from World Vision and drove for about an hour until we reached the World Vision office at Sandila. There we talked with the people working there and filled out some paperwork [they even offered me what I thought was chai. Turns out it was the first time I ever drank coffee - extremely sweet, Indian-spiced coffee, that formed a skin on top from the boiled milk!]. Then, a little later, we left Sandila and drove for another while until we reached the village. A crowd of children met us at the gate and we came to the house of Ankit's family - an extended family of 36 people! It was a house made mostly of mudbrick and was quite dusty. We sat down and met Ankit, who put some rose garlands on us and marked our foreheads with tilak [turmeric powder - a traditional Hindu greeting for guests, I think]. We met his mother and father and grandmother, as well as some of his father's six brothers and Ankit's many cousins. When we arrived, his sisters were still at school [the other kids had all been given the day off!].

Some of the family's water buffaloes

We ate some khoya (made from the family's own buffalo's and cow's milk) and talked with them for a while. The kids sang us a song, Ankit joining in a little reluctantly (I don't think he liked singing). Ankit said that he might like to be a soldier one day. The kids [cousins] there were one boy and several young girls. Two of the girls sung and danced another song, and I rather shyly did part of a dance for them [at everyone's insistence, apparently! I wasn't very good, and didn't have any music...] While Dad played cricket with Ankit for a while with the set we had brought for them, I sat down on the ground with the other kids and practiced my Hindi (much to their amusement and fascination and sometimes frustration). [I think they may have spoken a dialect of Hindi which was a little different, and I could only just understand what they were saying in my beginner's level Hindi!]

Later on they showed us their fields where they grew many different things like lemon, mango, corn, rice, peanuts (which I ate some of straight from the ground) and jamun [a type of berry]. They also had a few cows and water buffaloes. The kids would tug on my hand or sleeve saying 'Didi!', urging me to follow them, and then giggling mysteriously (when I asked why, they only said 'it's nothing!' and kept giggling behind their hands). We ate some roasted corn (and earlier we'd had some pakaudis, similar to samosas). We then gave some of the gifts we had brought for the family, and the family generously gifted us with a handmade pankha, an Indian fan made of bamboo and wool.

The village road outside their house

We [or rather I] took a long time to say goodbye. I didn't want to leave; one of the girls asked whether I liked it better there or in Australia and without hesitation I straightaway said 'yahan' [here]. I felt so welcomed and at home there; I was happier even than I have been in a long time. God is good. I told them I hoped to 'waapas aaungi' [come back], and they said 'zarur aana!' [come back, for sure!]. I hope I can come back one day. I said my final goodbyes, and then we left.

We stopped at a dhaba-like place for a late lunch [a dhaba is like the Indian version of a servo], and then stopped back at the office in Sandila. Then we filled out a little more paperwork, and had some interesting conversations with the staff there [we learned about the needs of the community, such as education to prevent malnutrition in children, because they have the potential resources but not the knowledge of how to feed their kids; and also the need for proper toilets, because I think only 7% of people in the area had access to a proper toilet. People otherwise go out in the open, which is not safe, especially for women, and poses hygiene issues to the community.]

Eventually we left and went back to our hotel in Lucknow, and had a bit of dinner and went to bed. I'm so thankful to God for the day we had, and the beautiful souls we met today. I felt, as we were driving back, that now my calling is surer. I love this country and I love these people; they are my heart. I need to come back, spend time with my 'family', and look after them in any way I can, with the love of Jesus.

A poster on the wall in the World Vision office of the area