We are nearing the end of two months at a mission hospital in West Africa. It has been an astonishing time, in many ways. If I were to summarise the whole experience, I would quote Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (Chapter 3 v20-21):'Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.’
I could list many answers to prayer – how we came to be here in the first place, the ‘doors’ that were opened to make that possible, God’s provision and timing, and then, on the field, incredible awareness of God at work. Several patients made incredible, unexplainable (in medical terms) recoveries following prayer, others were asking ‘the’ important questions of life and death. But that would be a post for a Christian Medical website perhaps.
What I want to write about here is an unexpected encouragement, relating to the involvement of the whole family in ministry. I’ve written about this before, but there have been times when I have felt a bit as though I hold to an ideal that might not really be possible in practice. We have endeavoured to keep our children together with us in worship as this seems the most ideal and biblical pattern – to worship the God we love with our family, and then to walk home discussing the things we have heard, the questions we have asked ourselves, the prayers we will make. Deuteronomy Chapter 6 seems to describe this when the nation of Israel was commanded, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down and when you rise up.’ (Deuteronomy 6:5-7) It has taken time, but now aged three, the older boys do sit and listen, do ask questions, do remember what they have heard. Yes, they have times when they fidget or get distracted. I must confess, I do as well! But by and large, we are together as a family. We have been encouraged during our time here that others have been blessed by their childlike enthusiasm and attentiveness. As they are able to stay in the main service, they get to hear daddy preaching from time to time, and can hear that it is the same message, the same lessons that we are learning at home. And when we were prayed for by the church here on our final Sunday, they were also very much a part of that, whereas had they gone out with the Sunday School class, they would not have been included.
But more than that has been the encouragement of how the children have blessed others. I have been tempted to worry that looking after lively children impedes ‘important’ ministry. It is difficult to have an intense and deep conversation whilst running in several different directions or having multiple conversations at once, perhaps needing to interrupt a friend to take a boy to the toilet or to discipline them. But deep, intense, one-on-one conversations are not the only way in which you can serve God. We had not realised it, but we came to work with a team who were exhausted. Some members were close to ‘burn out’, there had been a number of difficult and heavy issues to face within the team, and there had been a fair bit of discouragement. The children brought some light-hearted relief to many tired missionaries who enjoyed chasing around the garden, going for walks through the village to the river, seeing their fresh excitement at every day African life. Without children, conversations may have been heavy, talking around complex issues with no clear resolution, whereas what was needed more was an injection of energy and freshness. Another benefit of being there with a family was that our home was always open. Whilst one parent was working in the clinic, the other was based at home. We were there over Christmas, and often bake together both mainly for fun, but with an awareness of theeducational opportunities arising. And children need to eat regularly, so we would often have visitors for meals or drinks several times in a day. Left to my own devices, I might not be keen to invite others to my home so often – tired after a long day at work, I would prefer to curl up with a book or spend time in reflection. But if we are sitting down for a meal anyway, it is no extra work to invite a few others and sometimes a welcoming home is just the thing that is needed for a weary soul. We just did what came naturally and shared our lives. The thing that was telling was at the end, when we were given some feedback, our home and family life was mentioned more as an encouragement than the work in the clinic (and between us, we were covering for 70-80 hours per week, so the work was not trivial). Our medical work was useful, but the role that encouraged and blessed others more was simply living our lives as we do anywhere in the world, and inviting others to join us. A couple of times a day we would walk in the village – in the mornings to buy bread and go to the market, and in the afternoons down to the baobab trees where there is cool shade and beautiful birdsong. We did our best with the local languages (and once more I was astonished at how well children pick up new tongues). As we did this, we would often greet those we passed by, and came to know where most of the church members lived. They remarked that this encouraged them by showing interest in their lives; again, we had not set out to ‘encourage the church membership’, but rather had simply lived our lives as a family.
I am encouraged because our current society, and even quite a few voices within the church, tend to dismiss children. It is better to keep them in a separate box, somewhere you can control them, somewhere they won’t disturb us from the ‘real’ business of worship or ministry. Whilst I have not agreed, there have been doubts in my mind. I have been told that I am too idealistic. I have been actively discouraged in what we have been seeking to build as a family. And so, these couple of months have been a great encouragement to us. We did nothing different here than what we seek to do in the UK, but God has blessed and refreshed us here. We did not come here with great aims or expectations, but rather prayed that every conversation and relationship would give Him honour. It is not often that you receive such clear encouragement, and so I wanted to post here to encourage others. If you are seeking to serve God as a family, take heart!