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I stopped the car by the side of the road.  There was no fruit at the bazaar; the festival of Eid means that everything shuts down and there are as few supplies in the shops as there would be on Christmas Day in England.  The fruit-seller at the end of our street somehow had his cart piled with apples, peaches, bananas, and the last of the summer mangoes.

He greeted me warmly.  We chatted about prices for a while and then he started to put fruit into the set of scales on one end of his cart: first crisp red apples, then peaches, then mangoes which he said would be the last this year; they seem to disappear with the summer heat.  A kilo of each, plus a dozen bananas, came to about £4.

My daughter, five years old, climbed out of the car and came to stand by my side.  She watched the fruit-seller closely, then whispered in my ear:

“Why is his arm broken?”.

I hadn’t noticed, but his left arm ended below the elbow.  I asked him what had happened.  He told me how he was born in Kashmir near the Line of Control.  One day, as a child, he found a round, metallic object in a field near his house.  He picked it up, and it – a landmine, perhaps, or a bomb dropped from the air – exploded, taking off his left hand.  He told all of these things in the painfully straightforward, unemotional manner in which Pakistanis seem to relate extraordinarily tragic and painful things.

I translated for my daughter and she looked at him, wide-eyed.  He smiled and tickled her on the cheek.

“Praise God, you have wonderful children” he said, smiling.

We drove home in silence.  We stopped outside our house and I turned off the engine.  My son’s voice broke the silence.

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a war-stopper” he said.

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I turned the key.  The engine chuntered, whirred…and stopped.  I tried again, and again.  Same result.  I sighed.  I was stuck by the side of a back street, somewhere in Pakistan, with an immobile vehicle.

This is not an ideal situation.  Before coming to Pakistan we received thorough safety and security training, and much of it seemed to revolve around attempting to avoid precisely the kind of situation in which I found myself.  Alone, stuck, on a hot day.  Diplomats in this position would be calling their emergency contact number and having a helicopter buzz in to pick them up, but people in my position don’t have access to that kind of thing.  The day was hot, and getting hotter.  A trickle of sweat ran down my back in a particularly insidious manner.

Suddenly a taxi approached.  It is always easy to tell when a Pakistani taxi is approaching.  It makes a sound like two pounds of rusty screws inside a tin bathtub being thrown down a flight of stairs.  The rusty bathtub approached and I hailed it with enthusiasm and not a small amount of panic.  I explained to the friendly driver what my predicament was, though no explanation was really necessary: clueless foreigner, immobile car – breakdown.  It’s not as though I was stopping to enjoy the view, which consisted of a few half-dead shrubs, a rusty dumpster, and a great deal of dust.

“No problem” said the taxi driver.  “Push it, it’ll start ok”.

I went to the back of my own car and started pushing, regretting almost immediately my decision to buy a black car.  The taxi driver was in the front seat.  I pushed, and sweated, and my palms sizzled audibly, and the car started moving.  After a few seconds I broke into a slow jog and the engine chugged into life.  The car drove away, slowed down, turned round, and came back to me.  I never once entertained the notion that the taxi driver would do anything else.  Pakistan is rather wonderful in that way.

I thanked him and offered him some money.  He refused, of course.  I insisted, of course, and of course he refused again.  I smiled and stuffed it into his top pocket.

The next day I got the battery changed.  Fewer breakdowns, hopefully, but also fewer opportunities to be blessed by an unexpected person.

Our work in Pakistan is self-funded.  This means that our salary comes directly from donations from other people.  This, in turn, means that we spend a lot of time raising funds.

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This is a problem, since most people don’t like talking about money.  It is one of those things – like political opinions and questions of religious preference – that most people in the West want to relegate to the private sphere.  Yet by the nature of what we do we have to drag it out into the open.  Everything we have – our furniture, our home, our clothes, the food we eat – comes from the giving of others.  I don’t like it.  For one thing it reminds me of the televangelists who are constantly banging on about money to fund their private jets and their mansions.

Yet I also love this situation very much.  There is a personal connection between all of our possessions and the people whose giving made them possible.  A friend recently donated £200 to us.  A day later, our washing machine broke down, and the replacement cost £200.  Now, whenever I do the laundry, I remember her generosity with gratitude. Another friend once posted us some books when our son started to read, and every time they come down from the bookshelf I think of him.

Our situation also fosters frugality.  When we left for Pakistan one elderly lady told us that she couldn’t afford much, but had worked out that she could reduce her pension by £5 a month and give it to us instead.  When your income comes from sacrifices like that you really start to consider whether you actually need that TV, that takeaway pizza, that fancy cappuccino.  And generosity, too.  I keep careful track of our own giving and it is significantly higher, as a proportion of our income, than it ever was when we had “normal” jobs.

And now I need to start asking for more money.  The plummeting value of the pound has caused a significant rise in our living costs.  I need to go to our supporters, to the ladies who send us £5 from their pension, and ask for more.  It feels as though our lives are on hold until we can figure out where the supply is going to come from.

Yet that’s the wrong way to look at it.  Think about it: if Moses had waited for the supply to fit the need, the Israelites would never have left the Promised Land.  Better, surely, to wait for a supply of food and water before taking 40,000 people into the desert, no?  Well, no.  They went in faith, and then the supply came.  Or take Nehemiah who went with a handful of men and a few letters to rebuild Jerusalem, trusting that God would provide the workforce and the tools.

Time to step out in faith, again.  God is not in the habit of leaving his people in the lurch.

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I finished speaking and sat down.  I took a long drink of water; public speaking always seems to leaves me parched.  The lady next to me turned to me with a sad look in her eye.

“5 years in Pakistan!” she exclaimed, shaking her head.  “How do you manage to live in such a terrible place?”.

I must have looked as astonished as I felt, because she felt the need to clarify her comment.

“You’re a Christian, and Christians in Pakistan are always living in fear from the Muslims.  How do you cope with it?”.

I thought for a second, then replied.

“I cope with it by remembering that what you’ve said is not true”.

I was at an event in the UK speaking alongside other people working with the church in different parts of the world.  I had shared a bit about working alongside the church in Pakistan and about what it’s like in general to live there.  I had shared some anecdotes of Pakistani life and about what it’s like to live among such hospitable, warm people who go to such lengths to welcome us.  I also spoke of the pain experienced by many people – Christian, Muslim, and other groups – in Pakistan as they cope with instability and difficulty.  Apparently nothing I said registered with this particular lady, who was more than ready to condemn Pakistan as a hotbed of fanaticism and suffering, despite never having been there.

I am coming to realise that this narrative of a brutal, terrorised Pakistan is more widespread than I had thought.  Everyone, it seems, is perfectly ready to accept that the portrayal of Pakistan in the media as a place of cruelty and oppression is accurate, and as so few Westerners ever bother to travel to Pakistan to have this crude stereotype challenged, it obstinately persists.

What really bothers me more than anything else is that Christian organisations are involved.  There is no shortage of organisations which exist to support the persecuted church – and yet more often than not, this support goes no further than highlighting instances of persecution and then asking for money.  There are Christian organisations out there which directly benefit from publicising the worst things about Pakistan.  It’s practically an industry, and it sickens me.

Bad things happen in Pakistan.  Of course they do.  After five years there I could hardly fail to notice it.  Yet by focussing only on the negative aspects of Pakistan and sparing not a moment’s thought for the good aspects – the astonishing hospitality, the kindness, the warmth, the selflessness of so many Pakistanis, the many Muslim leaders I know who go to great lengths to support inter-faith dialogue in Pakistan, the many Muslim friends who call me to apologise whenever Christian suffer in Pakistan, the taxi-drivers who refuse my money on the grounds that I am a guest – when we ignore this side of life we are not being truthful, and we are not being fair.

I spoke to the lady for a few minutes, giving her a few examples of the beauty of Pakistan and of the kindness of its people.  She seemed surprised, but happy.  Then she added a question which is still resonating with me:

“Why don’t we hear more about it?”.

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The last time I was in the UK was over a year ago.  I flew in from Bahrain, stayed with my parents for one night, then flew to the Netherlands for a conference.  I haven’t spent more than a single night in my “home” country for two years.  That’s rather odd.  I grew up here, went to school and university here, all my family live here, and yet in the last two years I have spent more time in the northern areas of Pakistan than I have in the land which my passport tells me I am from.

Everything here is both instantly familiar and completely foreign.  I can tune the car radio from memory because, somehow, I know the frequencies of all my favourite stations.  I can navigate around the south of England without a map.  I walk into a pub and the barman says “Alright mate, what can I get you?” and it feels entirely natural, as if I never left.

And yet it also feels foreign.  My nephews and nieces are older, bigger, and there are more of them.  Many friends from church have moved away; at least one couple are now divorced.  At church yesterday I saw a friend’s son for the first time in two years and when he was asked if he remembered me, he shook his head and ran off to play.

After five years overseas I feel as though I belong everywhere and nowhere.  If you stuck me in a random country, anywhere in the world, I could probably manage fine.  If dropped into a Pakistani valley I could find accommodation, food, and transport home without a problem.  But the ticket queue at Basingstoke train station, or the self-checkouts at Tesco, are suddenly daunting.  I’ll need to get petrol later today and I bet I’ll have to stand there scratching my head and wondering if someone fills it for you, like in Pakistan, or if you do it yourself with a pre-authorisation from the credit card, like in Canada, or whether I have my supermarket loyalty cards any more to get a handful of points from the purchase.  Probably not.  I hope I don’t create a queue.

Perhaps this is not a bad thing.  Christians have a home, and this is not it.  Thanks be to God for that.

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A bill arrived the other day.  I tore it open and read it.  It was straightforward enough: a single page with a figure at the bottom, for services provided by a local hospital.  When I paid it, I did so with reverence and gratitude, for the services rendered by the hospital had saved the life of my baby son.

He came down with a fever a couple of weeks ago.  It grew steadily worse and was not reduced by any medication we gave him.  Eventually we took him to hospital where he was diagnosed with meningitis of a particularly virulent strain and put on a course of IV antibiotics.  The fever came down, his mood improved, and after a week he was sent home to finish his treatment there.  The strain of meningitis which he had is close to 100% fatal if not treated.  The difference between him dying and being alive is the treatment he received, which is translated, by means of the invoice, into a precise sum of money.  The number at the bottom of the page is the price we are paying for him to be alive.

I am pro-life.  This is usually interpreted as being anti-abortion but I see it as a much broader topic than that.  I see life as a gift, as a thing of immense beauty and worth, as something given by God who, as his first act in the Bible, created life in all its variety.  Being pro-life means that I am opposed to war, to the death penalty, to deaths caused by malnutrition and dirty water, to anything which causes life to end.  Life is immensely precious and ought to be protected.  That goes for my son – clearly, I am particularly keen to keep him alive – but it also goes for every human being on the planet.

And yet, at the same time, Christians are encouraged to hold their lives lightly.  Our earthly existence is, in a theological context, a temporary affair, a brief interlude, a half-hour spent in the waiting room of eternity.  We cling onto it with such tenacity, so desperate are we to rage against the dying of the light, and yet the Bible constantly tells us to put God first and our own lives second, if at all.  “To live is Christ, to die is gain”, as Paul puts it.

I paid the bill with gladness and gratitude.  I would pay it again, a hundred times over, for a chance to cuddle my son, to see him clap, to hear him gurgle with laughter.  And yet a deeper joy awaits, one day, somewhere down the road, in a place where sickness is defeated and where the only tears are ones of joy.

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Our son came back from his Sunday school class at church.  He was beaming from ear to ear and ran up to me as though burdened with some great secret which he just had to share with someone.

“Daddy, do you know what?” he said excitedly.  “Teacher said that if we ask Jesus for anything, he will give it to us.  Anything at all!”.

I smiled at him.  I knew exactly what he was going to say next and, duly, he did.

“I’m going to ask him for three Lego sets”.

I took a deep breath and prepared to shatter his first elementary steps into the world of theology but stopped, for the simple reason that the Bible does indeed say that.  Don’t believe me?  “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” – from Mark, chapter 11, verse 24.  This verse, which set my son’s imagination aflame with the glorious possibility of an infinity of Lego, also appeals to followers of the Prosperity Gospel, that appalling betrayal of the Christian faith which states that health, money and happiness are but a prayer away if you have sufficient faith.  Tell that to my friend Fi who prayed incessantly for her premature daughter to survive, only to watch her wither and die eight days later.  So here we have a problem: this verse is in the Bible, which to an evangelical Christian like me means that it is true, and yet it doesn’t always happen.  Many prayers go unanswered.  Dealing with this inescapable truth is the first step on the path to Christian maturity.

So where do we go from here?  We could look at similar verses such as 1 John 5: 14, which says “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.”  The key words, of course, are “according to his will”.  An infinity of possessions are not his will for our life.  More challengingly, health may not be his will for our life either.

I am inclined to go further and say that the prayers we make are indicative of our life’s priorities and of how much our faith reflects the personality of Christ.  If our prayers are in line with the priorities of Christ then our will reflects his.  Should we pray for money and possessions, or for his kingdom to grow in the world?  For promotion at work or for greater wisdom in tackling the challenges of life?

God is not some cosmic slot machine whereby you insert a prayer and out pops a big bank balance or, sadly for my son, a new Lego set.  If we stop viewing him as a heavenly version of Santa Claus and start viewing him as a loving, sovereign creator in the light of whose glory our present world is a temporary inconvenience then we may find our prayers are changed.

Try explaining this to a 6 year old, though…