The Gospel according to Hollywood sometimes nails it.
In the film City Slickers, starring Billy Crystal and the late Jack Palance, they are riding slowly across the range on horseback, discussing life and love. Palance plays a wily cowpoke, while Crystal is a tenderfoot from Los Angeles who has paid for a two-week dude ranch vacation. Of course, he gets more than he bargained for, and in the process, Crystal learns something important about himself. Listen carefully to their slightly edited conversation:
PALANCE: You city folk. You worry about a lot of $£%@!, don’t you? CRYSTAL: $£%@!? My wife basically told me she doesn’t want me around. PALANCE: How old are you? Thirty-eight? CRYSTAL: Thirty-nine. PALANCE: Yeah. You all come out here about the same age. Same problems. Spend fifty weeks a year getting knots in your rope then . . . then you think two weeks up here will untie them for you. None of you get it. (Long pause) Do you know what the secret of life is? CRYSTAL: No, what? PALANCE: This. (Holds up his index finger) CRYSTAL: Your finger? PALANCE: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean $£%@!. CRYSTAL: That’s great, but what’s the one thing? PALANCE: That’s what you’ve got to figure out…
I recently finished speaking at a family holiday and Bible-teaching week at Lee Abbey in Devon, which we now do every year. It’s a fabulous place if you ever wanted to join us. So over the next few weeks, I’ll put out one talk at a time, if you fancy listening. The theme of the week was ONE THING, and this first talk was ‘One Thing I Ask/One Thing is Necessary’
This is me: 17th century, Brother Lawrence 1614-1691 writes of a person who was full of good intentions but ‘wants to go faster than grace allows’.
A.W. Tozer: “We take a convert and immediately make a worker out of him. God never meant it to be so. God meant that a convert should learn to be a worshipper, and after that he can learn to be a worker. The work done by a worshipper will have eternity in it.”
“These are days of much activity in the field of church and mission work, but no amount of activity in the King’s service will make up for neglect of the King Himself. The devil is not greatly concerned about getting between us and work; his great concern is getting between us and God. Many a Christian worker has buried his spirituality in the grave of his activity.” Duncan Campbell during the Hebrides Revival ‘49-53.
Smith Wigglesworth gave this challenge to Christians: “Be filled with the Spirit; that is, be soaked with the Spirit. Be so soaked that every thread in the fabric of your life will have received the requisite rule of the Spirit – then when you are misused and squeezed to the wall, all that will ooze out of you will be the nature of Christ.”
“Simon, we can’t send our children back to school this Monday because we have no money to buy the uniform and school book and pencil. We go without food, sanitary towels, everything, but still can’t make it. It’s often the children of parents in ministry who are the first to drop out. Please, please help my team, I beg you!”
Charlotte cried as she pleaded with me – she wasn’t just desperate for herself but for her staff at the life-changing ministry she runs and which GLO supports. And as my three children prepare to start at a beautiful school next Monday with all their needs met, her plea haunts me: “It’s often the children of parents in ministry who are the first to drop out.”
If you’re a parent, it probably never crossed your mind that your children wouldn’t go to school. What would I not do for my kids? It’s so unfair.
September is the hardest month of the year for folks in Burundi, because it’s back to school for the kids – or not, as the case may be.
So what do I say to her? I love her, her gospel ministry, her faithful colleagues working for a pittance.
Will you hear Charlotte’s plea through me? One of my roles is as a voice for the voiceless. “Please, please, I beg you!”
GLO supports 15 local partners in Burundi and that’s about 600 salaries all in. We would love to give £30/$35 to each of these families to help them get their children back to school next Monday morning. (There are an average of six children per family. The price of a couple of coffees per child could make a lifetime of difference, keeping them in school instead of dropping out.) Could you help 1, 3, 5, 10, to make this happen?
PS The summer outreach campaign was amazing yet again. I’ll share more once all the results and stories are in. I also have great news of Theogene, the orphan from Ciya who grew aubergines to pay for school fees and wanted to start a rabbit farming business with his brother. He is going back to school next week too, with your support. I’ll also write more soon on how he is getting on…
Should this become a book? That is the question I’m wrestling with. Maybe your honest feedback will help me make my decision.
During our year of travel, I started with writing a book as my intention, and below is what I’d begun with. But then a few months in, a few key folks said I should drop it and live in the present, rather than sharing our lives too publicly. So I dropped it. But the kids thought it was a good idea. And then a number of folks have written asking me to. So, what to do? I don’t know, but here’s the introduction, for your perusal. Feel free to share any thoughts you have…
If it ever came to fruition, the title might be
Nuts to be Normal
Subtitle – A Normal Family’s Nutty Adventures Around The World
It’s the eve of our departure. Lizzie, my remarkable lady, has whittled down our luggage to 45kg/99lbs for the whole of the coming year between five of us – hand luggage only. Josiah, our youngest, has just expressed yet again his displeasure at this adventure we are about to undertake. I’m feeling daunted, excited, and impatient to get cracking. Many questions and feelings assault my over-active mind. Are we nuts to be doing this? Will we only last a few weeks and come back with our tails between our legs? Is our marriage strong enough to endure what will undeniably be plenty of stressful situations in multiple different scenarios across the continents?
Well, in these coming pages you’ll find out how long we lasted, how our marriage fared, and much more. I’ve always placed a high value on authenticity, so I won’t sugarcoat, photoshop, or airbrush my/our deficiencies, idiosyncrasies, or plain cock-ups. And there are plenty of them.
I’ve written a number of ‘spiritual’ books, but this one is very different. It’s more of a humorous travelogue for you to enjoy as you wince, sigh, guffaw etc. at our collective highs and lows. If you’re a parent, maybe you’ll sympathise with us as we struggled to get things right. If you haven’t had kids yet, it might put you off ever doing so! As a human, there’ll be plenty you’ll relate to, I’m sure. Whatever your own life situation, maybe in some way hearing of our escapades will stir a desire in you to do something a little ‘outside the box’.
As I snuggled up with my darling daughter Grace at bedtime a few weeks into our adventure, I whispered in her ear: “Do you think we’re nuts doing this round-the-world trip?” Quick as a flash, she replied: “No Daddy, it’s nuts to be normal!”
It’s nuts to be normal. I thought that could make a good title for this book.
So meet the crew:
I’m 45-years-old. I’ve just completed 20 years of living in Burundi, Central Africa. It was the most dangerous country in the world when I first arrived there, and I genuinely thought I’d die before the age of thirty. Well, I didn’t die, although others I cared about did, and people tried to kill me. I ended up starting an organization called Great Lakes Outreach. That story is told in another book called Dangerously Alive – African Adventures of Faith under Fire. Wonderfully I found a fabulous lady to share the journey with, and in due time three children came along. For their educational needs, and having found a truly exceptional local leader to take on the running of GLO in Burundi, the time seemed right to leave the country and transition back to the UK. Our kids have experienced gunfire and such like, but are thankfully not traumatised. This year on the road is a dream for us, and their ages make it the perfect time as they are old enough to remember, engage with and appreciate what we will do, but young enough that it won’t mess up their long-term schooling. I’m a terrible sleeper, which means that often before the others even wake up, I can be working on the laptop, as I continue in my role as International Director. So essentially this year I’ll be juggling work around travel, and doing plenty of speaking, networking, and fundraising along the way. That doesn’t make for very interesting reading, so I won’t refer to that side much, unless something particularly noteworthy happens.
Lizzie is my wonderful wife. I don’t think many women would have been willing to raise their children in a conflict-zone, and likewise not many would be willing to undertake this coming challenge. She’s feisty and fun. She’s gentle and firm.
She’s chalk to my cheese.
Whereas I’m all about the big picture, she’s about the detail. Whereas I love speaking to crowds, she hates being up front. Whereas I’m happy to leave an AirBnB rental the following morning, knowing we’ve paid the cleaning fee, she’s intent on getting the hoover out and leaving it cleaner than we found it. Whereas I stuff everything hickledy pickledy into my travel bag, she has bought everyone else colour-coded packing cubes for their rucksacks – I kid you not! In fact, before agreeing to my proposition of this crazy year, she laid down three non-negotiable stipulations:
1. Zip up bags (it’s a weird dysfunction of mine that I always leave things unzipped, apart from my flies on most days)
2. No bungee-jumping (I’ve done ten in my life and was keen on A.J.Hackett’s one in New Zealand, but have ‘sacrificed’ that desire now)
3. Walk with us, not a mile ahead of us (this has caused a fair amount of tension in the past, striding through airports or out on a date and losing her or the kids in the process)
I often quote the African proverb: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.’ Well, I entirely agree, it’s great wisdom. Sadly, I simply can’t not do ‘fast’, and as you’ll see, it only took a few weeks before I lost her for the first time, presuming she’d kept up with me! But I really do hope we go far, and go together.
Lizzie is an absolute trooper. We were both awarded MBEs a few months ago for services to Burundi, and she wanted to decline hers, saying she didn’t deserve it. In the end she agreed to accept it, and hopefully not just because it meant three more family members could attend the fancy ceremony at Buckingham Palace. Without her, my life would look very different. She was the hostess with the mostess to gazillions of guests in Burundi. She was an encourager and a confidant, and loves being part of a team. She has shaped me and released me. She’ll admit to being a tad tetchy one or two days per month, but in general is rock-solid and level-headed. I have usually described ours as a great marriage, whilst she would call it good, so generally she sees things in less bright colours than I do. I definitely wind her up sometimes, and I know we’ll blow a few gaskets over the coming months, but that’ll all be part of the richness of family life on the road.
Zac will become a teenager during the trip. He’s spent most of his life in Africa, away from pop culture, screens and sarcasm. This makes him beautifully devoid of cynicism and negativity. He still sticks out his hand to hold mine as we walk down the street – which surely won’t last much longer, but I love it every time he does so. Like me at his age, he’s very small, and will mature late probably, but it will hopefully mean we don’t have a grumpy teenager with mercurial moodswings to navigate throughout the year. He’s fiercely competitive, and hates losing to the point of tears. He’s earnest and yet playful, loving kicking a ball around at any opportunity. He’s intelligent but doesn’t like the idea of us home-schooling this coming year. Like his sister, he wants to be with people the whole time.
Grace turns eleven in a few months. She’s got bags of energy, a strong sense of justice, and is very sociable. She’s got a lot of love to give, and I’m sure will end up doing something impactful with her life. She’s conscientious and thorough. She’s up for any challenge, and loves scoring goals against boys when they’ve discounted her on the basis of her gender. Her danger is bossing the boys around, and sometimes they can exclude and gang up on her, which we’ll need to watch out for.
Josiah is nine-years-old. He will do anything to get out of working, so we anticipate home-schooling being a challenge with him. He’s got bags of emotional intelligence so reads the room very well in terms of detecting if someone is stressed or angry, and diffusing the situation with a cuddle or a joke. As you will see, he comes out with the most hilarious comments, and is an entertainer with a winsome cheekiness that we have no doubt will get him far in life. Unlike Zac and Grace, Josiah is happy to play by himself. He’s also the one we are most concerned about. Last Christmas, we spent two weeks in South Africa, and when we returned to Burundi, he walked along the corridor of our home, kissing the walls and exclaiming: “I’m so glad to be home!”
Jos is most similar to me, whilst Zac and Grace take after their Mum. Jos and I are natural rule-breakers, opting to ask for forgiveness rather than permission before doing something, whereas the other three are rule-keepers. That can cause tension at times.
So that sets the scene a little. Anyway, the fact is, if he (or any of us) hate the experience, we’ll quit, because life’s too short and we don’t want to mess up our family. But I really hope we can make it.
Before deciding definitively that we would go for it, we wanted to see how the family coped with a challenging road trip. So we decided to drive to the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. We would stay in cheap accommodation anywhere along the way, without booking ahead, and eat local food, and see how it went. I love the freedom of the road, and not knowing what a day will hold. Lizzie was amused by my saying each day: “I love it that we don’t know where we’re staying tonight, and that nobody in the world knows where we are right now!”
Once we’d left Burundian territory and entered Tanzania, the roads became horrific. The worst kind of road is one where there has been tarmac in the past, but now there are two-foot deep potholes, so if you hit them unsuspectingly, the whole vehicle slams into them mercilessly and bounces up and over. We didn’t have a local Sim card, so were relying on Maps.me, which is an offline downloadable map that uses the phone’s GPS. It works well, except that it doesn’t differentiate between a hamlet and a town. Thankfully that first night, we asked and were completely re-directed away from any number of hamlets that wouldn’t have any lodging to a town where there was a hotel. Maybe not so thankfully, it was Saturday night, and shortly after we went to bed, the hotel’s nightclub music started pounding through our walls and kept most of us awake for a long bleak night of non-sleep.
The following day, we continued on our way. My favorite memory of that journey was looking across at one stage, in the middle of nowhere, and seeing that Lizzie was waxing her legs! It seemed so totally incongruous. And then half an hour later, I looked again and there she was, acting out and memorizing her Bollywood dance routine from her iPhone for a performance she was due to take part in a few weeks later! We made it to friends of friends in Mwanza, who kindly hosted us for two nights. Then we blasted eastwards and entered the Serengeti. We were grateful to have our Burundi passports with us, so that instead of paying $60/person/day, it was $6, so we were literally saving over a thousand dollars over the few days. What with the boom in Chinese and Russian tourists, prices for accommodation had soared, and choices were very limited. The usual cost was $400- 800/night, with a few much higher. There was one place in the whole park for $30/night. That’s what we went for! And you get what you pay for, so it was extremely basic, but totally adequate. We went around the corner to eat some sketchy-looking rice and beans with the workers for $1 (instead of $20/head), and prayed that our guts would nuke any unhelpful germs. Thankfully they did.
The Ngorongoro Crater was another further day’s drive eastwards, but was a must-see, as it is a World Heritage Site, and the world’s largest inactive, intact and unfilled volcanic caldera (crater). On the way, we saw the unparalleled wildebeest migration, in which as far as the eye can see stretches out a long undulating line of wildebeest making an annual loop as they gauge the best place to be for munching tasty grass. They estimate that a staggering 1.5 million of them travel together – mind-blowing.
The Ngorongoro crater itself is 610m (2,000feet) deep, and covers 260 square kilometres (100 square miles). Its name is Maasai language for ‘Mountain of God’. Instead of $295/day, our vehicle cost a delicious $30 with our Burundi number plates. We hired a guide and spent the maximum allowed three hours in this area of lush and densely-populated flora and fauna. Windows wound down, we watched lions lapping water out of muddy puddles just six feet away (they don’t attack cars). We saw hundreds of zebra, gazelles, and flamingos, dozens of hippos and elephants, plenty of giraffes, a rhino, and only missed out on elusive cheetahs and leopards. It was stunning.
Then came the long drive back to Burundi. It took three days. I always had an underlying tension wondering if our trusty 4×4 Prado would break down because of the hammering it was getting on the diabolical roads. What on earth would we do, without knowing anyone within ten hours’ drive, in the thick bush, if something went seriously wrong? As it happened, it was just as we made it across the border back into Burundi that a huge clanking noise started up in the engine. We made our way gingerly back a further four hours to our home in the capital, and the next day the mechanics at the Toyota dealership handed me a painful $1,200 bill for repairs, so our dirt-cheap holiday instantly became a lot more expensive.
But we had made it! Due to the nature of a safari holiday, even the holiday part had been spent in the car. So during that week away, we had spent a total of fifty hours in the car, and – wait for it – the kids hadn’t complained once! That blew my mind. They had passed the test with flying colours. We’d stayed in cheap places, eaten cheap food, remained healthy, driven looooong daily journeys, and everyone had loved it. So yes, the trial run had been successful, and it was all systems go for me to start planning our around-the-world adventure!
‘We believe…’ series, ‘in the resurrection of the dead’ – Revelation 21:1-8
Do click on the above link to listen to a recent talk I gave at Holycross on Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina. Belief in the resurrection brings confidence, comfort and challenge. Below are a few of the juicy quotes I shared:
Dallas Willard: “We should not think of ourselves as destined to be celestial bureaucrats, involved eternally in celestial ‘administrivia’. That would be only slightly better than being caught in an everlasting church service. No, we should think of our destiny as being absorbed in a tremendously creative team effort, with unimaginably splendid leadership, on an inconceivably vast plane of activity, with ever more comprehensive cycles of productivity and employment.”
C.S.Lewis: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
Smith Wigglesworth gave this challenge to Christians: “Live ready. If you have to get ready when the opportunity comes your way, you’ll be too late. Opportunity doesn’t wait, not even while you pray. You must not have to get ready, you must live ready at all times.
Be filled with the Spirit; that is, be soaked with the Spirit. Be so soaked that every thread in the fabric of your life will have received the requisite rule of the Spirit – then when you are misused and squeezed to the wall, all that will ooze out of you will be the nature of Christ.”
It was said of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, that she ‘loved the truth enough to live it’. Will we?
I’ve purposefully hardly shared about our travels this year – choosing to live in the present and not putting it all ‘out there’. So the focus of this blog has been largely on Burundi; but many of you have asked about our travels, so here’s one way of reporting back – and others have been asking about our summer plans, so I’ll paste details of them below as well:
43,000 miles in travel
1,700 new GLO supporters for our database
304 days away, of which…
284 days staying with people (so only 20 days in hotels or AirBnB)
$220 for my root canal in Poland instead of the £650 quoted by my dentist in the UK
102 speaking engagements
81 different beds slept in
63 dogs loved and played with, and then sadly parted from
51 friends from Burundi hooked up with
48 incredibly generous families/friends we stayed with
34 countries visited
27 airplanes flown
25 meltdowns (approximately), all but 5 of which were during home-schooling, and most of them by the kids!
24 total number of cars in the WHOLE of Albania in 1991 – my favourite weird statistic of the year – and we were hosted by the first woman driver in the country
21 days without a shower/bath – so Josiah claims – but surely not?! Maybe 9 days I reckon! Zac on a par with him…
15 boat trips
14 times Jos wrote in his journal ‘and we walked, and we walked, etc’ describing a 90-minute excursion down a hill on what was ‘the worst day of my life’!
9kg of luggage each, see photo below
10 times ‘You’ve ruined my life!’ howled during home-schooling – my favourite lament!
8 trains (highlight being 1stclass tickets in Myanmar costing $4 for 6 of us for a two-hour journey out of the capital)
I never thought I would be writing an email about sanitary towels and now it has happened twice (the first is here).
Thousands of girls in Burundi give up school every year because they don’t have any sanitary towels. They are simply too ashamed and embarrassed to go to school anymore, so they give up. But without education they are stuck in abject poverty.
Then along comes Eva, a local Burundian girl. If Eva were on Dragon’s Den she could be one of the most successful entrepreneurs ever.
Her brilliant solution is to manufacture re-usable sanitary towels from cloth and to distribute them at a very low price in schools, talking to girls to let them know how important it is to stay in school for as long as they can. She is battling the odds, and changing the culture by addressing one of the most crying needs of the day.
Last year we helped Eva get started. Already she and her team have made thousands of reusable sanitary towels for young girls, helping them stay in education, so that they have a hope and a future. She works in partnership with women’s organisations who also distribute the towels and promote education. Beautiful!
Now Eva wants to help thousands more girls over the coming year, in multiple schools, with a re-usable sanitary towel, also providing much-needed employment for those who make the towels. Eva has targeted the poorest provinces where very few girls have sanitary protection. She just wrote to let me know that she will have to stop her plans unless she gets the funds soon.
How can we resist helping her?
If you’d like to be part of this, giving even the poorest girls a hope and a future, please click here
Nobody would have ever believed it possible, but it has indeed happened.
There is always hope, even in the most apparently hopeless situations.
So I just wanted to share the joy of Freddy (formerly-melted-faced-beggar-now-graduated-with-distinction-from-university-and-married) and Floride having their first baby yesterday. Oli weighed in at 3.5kg and came into this world by C-section.
For your prayers, he’s trying to get set up with a new pharmacy business, but it’s hard to do it honestly, which is causing significant delays. May there be a breakthrough somehow.
Wishing them all joy and success in their new adventure together!
At the height of the crisis in the 1990s, when he was a student at university, someone threw a grenade into Leonidas’ dormitory. Nobody was killed on that occasion, but amongst his many shrapnel wounds, the piece that lodged in his eye has caused ongoing issues ever since. Yet he is not one to seek revenge or harbour feelings of resentment or bitterness.
Leonidas is one of our turbo-charged evangelists, preaching forgiveness and reconciliation around the country through Scripture Union. He’s been greatly used, and continues serving faithfully through many constant challenges.
I love highlighting stories of hope when so often all you hear is the bad stuff. Keep it up Leonidas and SU!