March News Easter 2005
Dear Friends and Family,
A recent lecture given by a Church Historian to a mixed Evangelical / Catholic audience concluded with the following "Lord of the Rings" inspired analogy;
"We have gathered here today as people who not so very long ago looked upon each other as orcs and elves, and were as repelled by orc-speech and elf-speech as it was possible to be. Today, it is more like ents and hobbits, not yet speaking the same language, but nonetheless getting quite a charge from hearing the other tongue and actually getting along quite well together."
[Read the whole text of Mark Noll's lecture]
[Read the whole text of Mark Noll's lecture]
Noll's lecture makes for startling, encouraging and uplifting reading. He believes that we have entered into a new era in Evangelical / Catholic relations. He points to many examples where co-operation and partnership are now the order of the day. It is a wonderful picture of what I truly believe to be the future.
However, for those of us "in the trenches" such changes in attitude are only intermittently experienced. Just this month David and Diane Bjork have had their main supporting church announce its intention to withdraw from the financial support of their ministry. This at a time when David is being invited to have input at Archbishop level within the Catholic church! There is still a lot of elvish-ness and orc-ness around!
Please join with us in praying this Easter that this new era in Evangelical / Catholic relations would continue to grow and to develop. May we, as part of the wonderfully diverse Church of Jesus, begin to appreciate, value and celebrate the richness of the diversity which exists within the various Christian traditions. May we learn to see our differences as riches to be shared, rather than as barriers to keep us apart.
News Update:A brief weather update - Temperatures of -17°C and snow for the past three weeks have put aside any thoughts of spring! However a borrowed toboggan has brought us tremendous fun, spectacular crashes and a new awareness of the best slopes around the village!
We asked you to pray for us as we sought to find ways to encourage the spiritual lives of our friends. Sharon felt God's prompting to suggest starting a Lenten prayer group in our village. After much prayer we approached the priest and he was very favourable and announced it in church. So during Lent we have been meeting Mon. to Fri. from 17:30 to 18:00 for prayer. We were not sure what the response would be, as I don't think there has been a prayer meeting held in the village in the past 30 years! However, I am delighted to report that the group has been between 5 and 8 people each evening, with the priest himself taking part regularly. We read a Psalm and then spend time in prayer and quietness before the Lord. We praise God for the desire of the people to meet for prayer and we pray that, come Easter, there will be interest in continuing the group on a weekly basis.
With regards to David and my search for a publisher for our book, we have still had no success. However a "chance" contact with someone who works in the library of the University of Chicago led to the idea of writing a summary article based around the central idea of our book. The goal is to try and get this published as a means of generating interest in our manuscript. I have just about finished the article and I will be presenting it to some US journals in the Evangelical / Catholic field. Please pray, as I do believe this "chance" contact has been sent by God to encourage David and I to persevere in this endeavour.
Thank you also for your prayers about my weekend visit in January to our church in Burton. I was asked to give some teaching input on Natural Church Development as the church was just about to do a church health survey. It was a really enjoyable time and I have since been able to give some input to the church leadership in helping them as they interpret the results of the survey and respond to them. It is great to be able to do something for the fellowship that does so much for us! We are excited already at plans to share in their tenth anniversary celebrations in December.
We also asked for prayer about our accommodation in view of the school development and the consequent loss of our garage (i.e. our only storage area!). The proposed works have now been put back from March to May, but we still have had no word about what this will mean for us. There are no alternative rental accommodation possibilities within the village. Also a recent visit to a UK financial advisor made it clear that no company would give us a mortgage, so it seems that we just have to be content where we are until God opens up some other possibility. Please continue to pray.
As I mentioned previously, David Bjork has been invited to be a part of the Archbishop of Dijon's 'think tank' to propose a strategy for evangelism for the diocese for the next 5 to 10 years. In his preparation for this involvement David decided to attend the Alpha Course training conference in Paris in January. He invited Sharon and I to attend this as well. It was a really encouraging time in many ways. It was very exciting to see 600 people training to run Alpha courses in their churches in France. About two thirds of them were Catholic and one third Protestant. For us it was very helpful to hear other people describe their experience of running Alpha in a French Catholic context. David will recommend to the Archbishop that Alpha is run on a trial basis in several churches within the diocese. Please pray that this will be a tool for evangelism that God will greatly bless in Burgundy, and that our availability would lead to involvement, if that is God's will for us at this time.
One thing we learnt at the conference was that nationally, Burgundy is seen pretty much as a spiritual "black hole" in France - we were four people representing the whole region! Now we think we know one of the reasons why God brought us here! However, in the midst of this picture of gloom a recent article in Christianity Today (USA) brought some light and hope. Called "The French Reconnection - Europe's most secular country rediscovers its Christian roots", the article spoke of a new open-ness amongst French people towards the Christian faith. You can read the text yourself at the Christianity Today website.
Thanks to those who prayed for our friend from Zimbabwe. He has been granted full refugee status and in February was delighted to be reunited with his wife and three children here after two years apart. Please pray that they will settle in, especially his wife who doesn't speak any French at the moment.
We want to also invite you to praise and thank God for a new addition to our family. "Shadowfax", a grey Ford Mondeo joined our family in the New Year! The provision of this 3-year-old car has been a real miracle! We praise and thank God for His provision and we thank you for your prayers and gifts which have enabled us to replace our 17 year old Renault. Sharon particularly appreciates the CD player. Being able to listen to her praise and worship CD's has dramatically helped her calmness as she travels between schools! Please pray too for some difficult pupils - death threats are pretty hard to hear, even in a foreign language!
One thing that we would particularly value prayer for in the near future is the boys' baptism. They will be baptised on Easter Saturday evening at the watchnight service for our whole parish in Vitteaux. Please pray that this will not only be a very significant time for each of them in their walk with Christ, but that it would also speak very powerfully to those present - for many it will be the first adult baptism that they have ever seen. Pray also for protection for the boys and for us over this significant time.
We look forward to a visit in March from our former Moorlands' College Principal (and fellow Burton church member) Dr Derek Copley. Derek is a great guy currently working as a peace-maker for the E.A. bringing together evangelical groups within Asia- a dangerous and difficult activity given the political instability, crime and Islamic fundamentalist forces at work. Happily Derek has a relaxing pastime - cultivating orchids! Dijon is hosting an international orchid congress in March at which Derek, as Chair of the UK's largest orchid society, is due to attend. We look forward to taking him away from the flowers for a day! But seriously, Derek has been a great inspiration to us, a man who brings his Christian faith to everything he does. For him the orchid society is no less a part of his Christian ministry than helping set up Evangelical Alliances in Eastern Europe. He is a man of great faith, great humility, enormous courage and commitment. It will be a privilege to have him visit our home. Please pray for Derek and his globally significant ministry.
May the Lord reward you. Grace and peace.
Stephen, Sharon, Benjamin, Joshua and Caleb
JUNE 2005Dear Friends and Family,
In my daily Bible reading this week I came across the following text from Psalm 28:14;
"Wait for the Lord;
Be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord."
Be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord."
This idea that much of life involves waiting is not just true for Christians, I remember way back in the 80's that the Rolling Stones' drummer, on being asked what a 25-year rock and roll career had been like, replied that there had been only about 5 years of playing, the other 20 years had been spent waiting around!
With all due respect to the Rolling Stones, I do believe that Christian waiting has a more positive value. In the Christian life waiting is "active". It is an expression of trust and of faith and of a determination to await God's time and to let him be the master of our lives. It is also an acknowledgement that by ourselves we can achieve nothing of spiritual value. Our best efforts can only make us into clear channels through which the Spirit's power may flow, according to the good pleasure and hidden purposes of God. Anyone interested in thinking more about this often-forgotten aspect of Christian discipleship is welcome to download my study of Psalm 40 entitled "Waiting but Trusting".
The reason that I mention this subject is that in the past month or two we have seen some long-prayed prayers answered, or at least have had encouraging signs that answers are on the way. May we continue to wait actively for God's answer to the many outstanding prayers that all of us have. Be strong. Take heart. Wait for the Lord.
The Boys' baptism- On 26th March, during the Easter watchnight service, Ben, Joshua and Caleb were baptised. As a family we were delighted to receive many cards, verses of scripture, books and small gifts for the boys from our friends and family in the UK. This meant a lot to all of us and we do thank you for your thoughts, gifts and prayers. The baptism was a very moving and significant experience for us as a family, but also for many of the 200 or so people that were present for this service. For many it was the first adult baptism that they had ever seen.
We were quite surprised at how many people in the village were impacted by the event. Several people in the village came up to us beforehand to tell us that they would be praying for the boys. The organist for the service was so moved by the event that he broke into a rendition of "God Save the Queen" in the boys' honour at the end of the service! Almost certainly the first time that that tune has been played in the church!
On the following Sunday an old man came up to us at church and said that like Simeon he could now die happy having seen an adult baptism in his parish - he is 74! We had no idea that this act of obedience to Christ by the boys would have such an impact - but that is ever the way with God! Keep praying for the impact of this to lead to real spiritual renewal.
To visit the webpage dedicated to the boys' baptims CLICK HERE
Generally speaking the boys are all doing well. Caleb won a medal at judo and also passed his assessment to get his next belt - we now call him 'Young Dragon'! Joshua is doing well at school and, after the successful theatre run is now already looking forward to next year's rehearsals! Ben is enjoying Scouts and has had two overnight camp-outs already. Please keep praying for the boys, both for their spiritual growth and for God's direction for their lives.
The Archbishop's Think Tank- David Bjork's input into this group has been very positively received. In fact all of David's suggestions have been accepted - to the degree that David said it was almost embarrassing! Please pray that this evangelical input into the Catholic church will lead to real positive growth in spiritual health and vibrancy.
David and Diane's Support- We asked you to pray about the fact that David and Diane's home church had decided to withdraw from their financial support. We are delighted to be able to say that this amount has almost entirely been made up through other supporters increasing their giving - for this we praise the Lord.
David and Diane have also been delighted to celebrate the birth of their new grandson, Nathaniel. He will be baptised in France this summer and Sharon and I have been asked to stand in for the American godparents who cannot be here for the ceremony.
The Church Choir- A young girl (10) asked Sharon recently if she could join the choir. Although her parents are not at all religious apparently her whole life she has had the desire to sing in a church choir. We hope and pray that this is something the Spirit has put into her heart and we will pray and seek to encourage her as she attends church now with us. Generally speaking Sharon has had a lot of positive appreciation and encouragement recently from people about the church music. We do believe that this is something really significant in the life of the church.
New SOSF website- David Bjork asked me if I would design a new website for Servant of Servants Foundation as he had no time to do this himself. I have managed to do this now and I would encourage you to visit it and to find out more about the foundation of which we are associate missionaries, and to read some of David's interesting papers on the subject of relations between Catholics and Evangelicals (sosf.marchsite.com). Encouragingly, our own site (www.marchsite.com) has now had over 20,000 visits!
School Building- As we shared with you last time, the school below our flat is about to undergo extensive development in a £200,000 extension programme. When they do begin this work it will, as you can well imagine, have a major impact on us - not least due to the fact that we are to lose the use of the garage which currently serves as our only storage area. Please pray that an alternative place to store our 'stuff' will be found, and that we will be gracious and helpful tenants during the stress, mess and noise of the building works.
One positive things in this is that the council have agreed to replace the remaining single-glazed windows in our flat with new double-glazed units. This will be of real benefit to us in the coming winter.
Summer Hols- We are looking forward to two weeks' holiday this summer. One week in July with Douglas and Lynda (Sharon's sister) and family, and a week in August shared with our old friends from Moorlands (and even before!) Chris and Pauline Jones and their son Joshua. Specific gifts have enabled us to be able to do this, for which we are very thankful.
Finance- Regular readers will know that we rarely mention money in our newsletters. Perhaps we might be allowed to do so in this issue as we have recently filled in our French tax returns and the figures are still in our heads. Generally speaking our income has remained stable over the past few years for which we praise the Lord and humbly thank those of you who have given so faithfully to us. However, inflation and exchange rate changes have meant that in real terms our income has declined over the past few years by about 10%. We have also noticed that teenagers are more expensive to run than little boys! In addition we have opted to contribute monthly to the British National Insurance scheme in order to qualify for a pension, since we have no other provision for our old age - should either of us make it! Please keep our finances in your prayers.
Powerful Prayer!- The second of our Scottish prayer groups will be held in Kilsyth at the home of June and Gordon Bell over two evenings in June - Monday June 27th and Thursday June 30th. Many thanks to them and to those who are committed to supporting us in this way.
The Book Project- Part of the 'promotional article' that I wrote to try to generate interest in our manuscript has been accepted by the UK Christian magazine 'Third Way'. They have told me that they will print 'The Parable of the Road to the Father' in their next issue.
Two Sundays ago we met some acquaintances at church. In talking about our book project they recommended that we approach a Canadian publisher who just happens to own a second home in this area! I sent him some sample chapters and he is sufficiently interested to want to see the full manuscript. We will meet with him during his summer vacation here. Please keep praying for this project.
Employment- In the light of our finances and the precarity of Sharon's teaching work, we had been praying about whether Sharon should seek other employment, and/or if I should try to get a job. After Sharon laid this specifically before God, the very next day she received a letter from her boss saying that there will be some teaching work for her next year, although exactly how much is still not clear. Sharon felt, however, that this was confirmation from God that she should continue in her teaching, we will just have to trust God to sort out the details!
Vegetables- I am busy with my vegetable gardening again. I now have 'plots' in two neighbours' gardens, as the priest, in return for my mowing his grass, insisted that I grow some vegetables in his garden! We do thank God both for the opportunity to reduce our food bills (three growing boys - 'nuff said!), and also to meet with people in the village and deepen friendships with them.
May the Lord bless you.
Grace and peace.
Stephen, Sharon, Benjamin, Joshua and Caleb
"God instructs the heart not by means of ideas, but by pains and contradictions." (from "Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence" by Jean-Pierre de Caussade)
Dear Friends and Family,
The above quote comes from the writings of a famous French spiritual director of the 17th century. Whilst I have long been aware of God's use of pain and problems in our lives (see James 1: 2-4), I had never before thought of God as using "contradictions" to teach our hearts. Yet as I reflect on this I can identify more and more examples of God allowing apparent contradictions to occur.
To give a current example from our own lives, the book project that David Bjork and I have been pursuing over the past year or so now seems to be a 'non-runner'. No publisher believes it will sell enough copies to be financially viable. How can I explain this seeming contradiction? David and I definitely felt it was God's will for us to undertake this project. We researched and studied and put a lot of time and effort into writing and re-writing our manuscript. But now, at least from a human perspective, this project now seems to have been a waste of time. How do we as Christians cope when visions we believe are from God don't work out? How do we cope with such seeming contradictions in our Christian lives?
From my experience there seem to be three options. The first option is to talk up what has been done. Following this option, we try to "spin" ourselves out of the confusing, painful and embarrassing situation. We emphasise the work done, the lessons learned etc. and try to "positivize".
The second option is to quietly walk away. We just say nothing. The original dream is silently dropped and the ripples close over it and no-one ever mentions it again.
Neither of these options seem to me to be either completely honest or very helpful. I think as individuals and as fellowships we need to have a further option. An option in which we speak honestly about our confusion, our hurt, our embarrassment and to courageously admit - "we don't know why things happened this way."
The Bible warns us that God's thoughts are not our thoughts and that God's ways are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8f). Perhaps one reason God uses contradictions in our lives to test and develop our faith - to give us the opportunity to learn to trust God "in the dark?" Whatever the secret motivation of God may be, may the Holy Spirit enable us to respond to our "pains and contradictions" in such a way that they enable us to grow deeper in our relationship with God.
SchoolIt's that time of year again - back to school! This is Benjamin's final year at this school (collège), and is quite busy, with the emphasis being on deciding what he will do when he leaves in June (to go to lycée). He seems to be quite 'scientific', but has no clear idea yet of his plans for the future. Joshua is one year behind, and of course Caleb moved up to join his brothers at this school in September! So no-one comes home for lunch now, and there is lots of homework for us to supervise!! Please pray that the pressure would not be too much, especially for Ben.
Sharon's WorkSharon has ten classes to visit this year, having lost two. Thank you to those who prayed when it looked as though she was going to have only five classes. She is looking forward to meeting new pupils, having replaced some of the more 'unruly' classes from last year! As you know, she is not paid until well into the term - in fact last year, her first salary arrived in time for Christmas!! Please pray that things would be less complicated this time around.
FinanceWe had a great testimony for the boys who had asked us how we were going to make it through the months of September and October without Sharon's salary. Right at the beginning of the month the SOS Foundation contributed half a month's salary! And when our monthly SKI money arrived, we were astonished to see that we had been gifted the equivalent of September's salary - and that it had been paid in weeks previously, arriving at us just in good time!! Praise the Lord for his provision - more than we would have received normally - and for his immaculate timing!! And THANK YOU to those who gave.
Church InvolvementCatechism has restarted and Sharon is teaching Caleb's group this year. No coincidence!! A boy in the group has asked to be baptised on Easter Saturday (does that remind you of anything?!?) and Sharon will help him prepare for the various stages involved. Praise the Lord that the boys' obedience earlier in the year has already borne fruit in the parish!
VegetablesTalking of 'fruit', we are reaping the benefits of all Stephen's hard work vegetable growing. We are enjoying our potatoes, onions, carrots and parsnips (which the French couldn't figure out at first but later assured us were fed to rabbits in the war!!) and we are almost fed up of tomatoes and green beans! Stephen's produce has been the topic of many a discussion, and it is common knowledge that his vegetables appear to be 'blessed'!! But seriously, we feel that time spent with folks 'down at the allotment' has been profitable. For example… Stephen spent the last week of August on another Sapeur-Pompier training course - which he passed with flying colours! But this meant that he wasn't around to dig up our pounds and pounds of potatoes before the rain came. One afternoon that week, when it was thirty degrees in the shade, our two neighbours rolled up in front of the house with ALL of OUR potatoes in two very large wheelbarrows! We were overwhelmed by their kindness, and when Sharon asked them why they had done it, they said, 'we're so grateful for all you do for the village'. We don't feel like we 'do' very much, certainly in the traditional ministry sense, but we praise the Lord for their words and pray that God would continue to guard our testimony here.
House and HomeThe new school building is scheduled to begin in March. The past weeks have seen us busy down in the cellar - even Sharon was emptying buckets full of earth as Stephen spent back-breaking hours digging it out. Stephen has also installed lighting and power sockets so that we may eventually be able to put a freezer down there. We now have a lot more space in which to store some of our less perishable belongings and have had a good clear out in the garage too.
ContactsWe have been able to share in small ways with many people over the summer. Jacqueline's holiday house in the village saw quite a few English-speaking visitors over the summer and we were able to share our testimony with them all! We feel this has helped us get to know Jacqueline and her partner better too. We also drove a four-hour round trip to go to lunch with English people who rented in the village last summer and invited us to keep in touch. We were also delighted to be able to give a Bible to a new baby in the village and look after him for a short while one day whilst Mum and Dad were busy! Some of our closest neighbours are seriously ill and we will of course be praying for them. The population here is ageing, and it is noticeable that even the priest next door is slowing down. Please pray that we would be available to do what we can for these older people.
Sharon Back in BurtonOne highlight recently was Sharon's visit to Burton. She felt very blessed to be able to spend time with English-speaking people with whom she is free to share. We all really miss these opportunities. It was lovely to spend time with a group of ladies. Make sure you are appreciative of those Christians you have around you!!! We miss such fellowship!! We praise the Lord for this church and their missionary vision, their constant support and interest in our lives. And we are all looking forward to going back again in December to help celebrate the tenth anniversary of the church we helped plant!!
ResidenceOctober 13th will mark the fifth anniversary of our arrival in France, although this hardly seems possible! Having been resident for five years we now have the possibility of applying for dual nationality. We have decided to do this as it will probably make some things more straightforward, particularly for the boys. Please pray that our application will be successful.
PassionOur final, but greatest prayer request, is that you would pray that we would all keep growing and developing in our love for God. That our spiritual fire and passion would burn bright and that we would all be in a place with God, and each other, so as to be available to God for use in His Kingdom work.
Again our heartfelt thanks for your prayers, giving and encouragement.