(apologies to the purists. Yes, of course, Mike Smallbones' future, but Google doesn't care for the apostrophe!)
So we are into the middle of February already! Not much has happened in terms of what you are accustomed to reading from me, yet the time has gone and I am exhausted!!
Let me bring you up to speed (not a very fast one!)
Right now, I expected to be in Lagos, Nigeria for an Orientation course for the sub-region. You will no doubt have heard of the troubles in that country, on-going religious violence in the north of the country as well as the strike action sparked by the huge increase in the fuel price. The latter seems to have been defused for the moment, but the religious motivated violence in the north, while a little quieter at the moment, is a constant worry. Scripture Union ministry has certainly been affected. The Director, Emmanuel Akbo told me that there have been days when staff have been unable to get to the office, and he has given orders for them to stay at home on some days, even to stay indoors. You can imagine the disruption and the anxiety. While there was little fear of any harm coming to the SU Conference centre in Lagos, there was a lot of apprehension about travelling to Nigeria from outside the country. In the end it was our staff in the north who asked for the Orientation to be postponed as they were unwilling to leave their families and travel to the south. So here I am, in Pietermaritzburg! To be honest, I am not sorry about this as I felt a little apprehensive too, but I did not want to be the one to change things. No new date has been set for the Course yet.
10-20 March: The next French Shaping for Service Course will be run in Madagascar, and I with my colleagues, Emmanuel Todjo and .Leonidas Ninybuka will be joining forces to facilitate the course in Antananarivo. Do pray with me that nothing untoward happens in this politically troubles country to cancel this.
And that’s it!!
Well, no, not really! But the end of March does bring me to the end of my contract agreement with Scripture Union Africa. I am already between 2 and 7 years over my official retirement age (depending on who is doing the counting!) So 31 March will be my last day officially with Scripture Union, after over 42 years! Rather sad.
I am not too sure yet! I have, however, offered myself to SU Africa for specific projects or tasks, should I be considered to still have something to contribute, and we are in discussion about one particular project. During the last 8 years I have written an enormous number of Bible Studies for groups, training programmes relating to a variety of skills and topics. I have been asked to ensure that these are now put into a format that can be easily used but others. This is a HUGE task and one I foresee taking a good few months. But I will make sure that there is plenty time for family, especially grandchildren and to spend in my workshop and garden! Not to mention, giving time to my church, preaching and music especially which I do enjoy a lot. But before I commit myself to do anything I need a good break!
Frankly, I am exhausted. 9 years of extensive travel with the inevitable strange food, accommodation, travel arrangements, mosquitoes, etc, have been an enormous privilege (Yes I REALLY mean that!), but they have also have taken a toll on my health. I suffered from a chronic sinus problem before I started. This was exacerbated by the frightful air pollution of the big cities I have lived in and travelled to, leaving me with a dreadful cough which so far the doctors have been unable to cure, in spite of tests for all sorts of nasty things. I also feel pretty drained . Please pray for physical and spiritual renewal.
This is definitely not a moan! I have LOVED what I have done, and have met some of the most incredible people all over the continent as well as in the rest of the world. I feel really humbled that God called me to this role, one I had not even the slightest hint of a dream that I would eventually be doing. Both Elaine and I regard our stay in Nairobi as one of the highlights of our 41 years together.
One of the greatest lessons, has been seeing God’s constant and abundant provision. I would remind you that when I said yes to the job offer, I was then told that there was no salary! This threw Elaine and me into a bit of a flurry, as we both really felt that moving to Nairobi so that I could take this position was the right thing – what God wanted us to do. Crazy! Even more crazy, was that Elaine had to take early retirement from the Education Department. I asked a group of friends to please pray with us about this. They all agreed that what we “heard” from God was right. Many then and there committed themselves to supporting us in that call financially as well as in prayer. And so it happened that in the last 8 years we have never once gone without our monthly income. We have always had what we needed, and often some of the extras thrown in as well! We can only praise God for his faithfulness and provision, generally through a small group of people who saw to it that we were cared for and enabled the ministry to happen. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
Of course, Elaine is key to this. She was willing to move and take the risk with me. When we left she did not have a job and we knew that that would make things very tough. But God provided amazingly, with a really good post in a totally secular school. She enjoyed her teaching very much and loved the challenge of proclaiming the Kingdom of God without saying anything about it. Elaine has started a new teaching post this year, at Heritage Academy, and independent Christian school. She is a head of department with special responsibility for the maths teaching and also staff development.
I have started a “story” of our time in SU Africa. It will be a bit longer than this, I will include photographs as well. Will let you know when it is ready. I hope you will enjoy it and also be encouraged in your faith as you read it. Oh yes, that’s another thing I have set myself to do after March. I think life will continue to be fairly full!
When I started the SU Africa job, Elaine gave me a small travel Bible and wrote this verse in the front:
Psalm 121:8 the LORD will watch over your coming and going, both now and for evermore. He certainly has! I have had some rather scary experiences, yet arrived home safely. Only once, right at the beginning did I come home with an illness. In spite of many trips to “the white man’s grave”, a reference to malaria in West Africa), I have not had it. There have been some very “interesting” (read “terrible or VERY scary travel experiences.) But I have never lost my luggage, never had anything stolen, never missed a plane or a connection. Sometimes late, but never seriously. That’s The LORD’s answer to Elaine’s faith and prayers.
Thank you for your prayers, your support and encouragement.
Mike and Elaine
At the end of March my initial contract with Scripture Union Africa officially ended, and I thought retirement would start! But that is not the way it happened! The next day I began a two year contract at the request of Scripture Union Africa. It promises to be very busy two years too, although I did ask for a reduced time commitment with a bit less travel. But it also looks exciting too!
It is hard to accept that I have been in Christian ministry with Scripture Union for over 40 years, and that now I am really in the last phase of life as I have known it. Yes, there are a few “if only’s” and “what ifs”, but mostly Elaine and I look back with a tremendous amount of gratitude to God and also to many people along the way, who have made our lives so rich and rewarding. To be able to continue with the task of equipping others is a wonderful privilege. I find however, that my understanding of so many things has changed (and that does create some problems!) I wish I knew then what I know now! Actually, a lot of what I always thought I knew so well, and had all the answers for, I now am less sure about! But I suppose that is what makes the journey of life so interesting. I find that I am still learning – a lot! I am exploring new ways of looking at life, at the Bible, at worship, and discovering more about Jesus than I ever knew before. This is both exciting and challenging and not a little scary!
In May we celebrated my mother’s 90th birthday with a lunch with some of her old friends (not too many around anymore), and those family members who were able to make it. (We are rather scattered – US and UK.) Sadly, Mom’s memory is virtually gone now, except for past events. But she seemed to enjoy the day.
Orientations are I think the training I most enjoy! Enthusiastic and energetic young (mostly) staff, eager to learn and ready to be challenged. Bible Studies encouraging radical thinking on what really is a Christian and the real nature of the Good News Jesus brought form the basis of the preparation for ministry. An in depth and creative study of the Good Samaritan usually leads to some rather uncomfortable realisations of who we are to allow to be our neighbours. Practical sessions on what Scripture Union is and our ethos, methodology follow. The training went well, but the travelling there from South Africa was marked by long delays in Airports due to storms and who-knows-what!
At the end of this year I will have completed 40 years of ministry to children and young people with Scripture Union. I have in fact already reached the official retiring age for Scripture Union Africa, but my contract runs till 31 March 2010.
Just when I thought my time with SU was coming to an end 6 years ago, and I was approaching the retiring age stipulated by Scripture Union South Africa, I was offered the position of Children’s Ministry Coordinator for Scripture Union Africa. I was really surprised at this, as I thought that I would be considered to be too old, not to mention the fact that I was a white South African male! But this was not the only surprise; the position was on condition that I raised my own support for salary etc. Personally I thought I had little hope of raising this money. (Faith has not really been my strong point, I am sad to say.)
But God thought otherwise and I feel rebuked at my lack of faith because in spite of it, God provided! Within the space of three months, a number of people had offered to contribute towards this support and by the time we left South Africa for Nairobi, my full support for the first year was committed. I was amazed to say the least! This support has continued to come in over the last 5 and a bit years. God has seen to it that we have had what we have needed month by month.
I am deeply grateful to each one of you who have supported Elaine and me as we made the very painful transition out of the beautiful surroundings of Glenhaven in Underberg, and moved to Nairobi, Kenya to what we believed God was calling us to do 6 years ago. Some have made contributions on a regular basis, while others have made “one offs” from time to time, all of which have enabled us to live! Thank you.
My years in Scripture Union Africa have really been the highlight of my career. While both Elaine and I are very glad to be back living in SA, we really enjoyed our 4 ½ years living in Nairobi. We were enriched by the friendship of so many people from all over the world, not to mention the interesting challenges and experiences of living in a foreign country and a very African country too!
My work in SU Africa started out being mainly related to ministry to children. I soon realised however, as I visited SU movements on the continent, that many staff had little or no training at all in their time with SU, apart from a short New Staff Orientation which sometimes happened two or three years after starting their period of service. Some were in fact going to training courses offered by other organisations. And so I started to become more involved in this area, developing a Training Policy Statement for SU Africa as well as running more and more training courses myself in areas beyond my original brief. I have been really encouraged to see how this has been appreciated and to see how more and more training is now being done around the continent. I have been able to draw on my experience in various positions in SU in South Africa to provide training across the ministry spectrum, including some admin and staff-related matters.
I have also been involved in the development of a Global Training Strategy together with the International SU staff. We had a Pilot Course of training flowing from this in Nairobi in November. This included a very important Training of Trainers segment as well. The idea is that we should now run similar courses at strategic points through out the continent.
At the present time I am very involved with two key tasks at the request of SU Africa:
These tasks have not really been completed yet.
More recently I was asked to develop programmes for children and young people (Bible Studies, etc) concerning the Christian and the environment. I have not started with this yet!
My contract with SU Africa was for 6 years, this ends at the end of March 2010. I recently received a request from the SU Africa Regional General Director, David Gichung’wa to consider staying on in my position for another one or two years to assist him and the Africa Regional Team to continue the process of implementing the strategic directions we decided upon four years ago, which include the two areas which I mentioned above.
After considerable thought and prayer, both Elaine and I feel that it is right that I do continue, but at the same time attempting to have a reduced travelling schedule! (The last 5 years have been pretty hectic and demanding.) A major issue relating to this is of course, the support to go with it. I would need both financial and prayer support, as in the past. Some of those who have supported me over the last years are themselves retiring and for this reason (and some for other reasons) have indicated that they will no longer be able to support me as they have in the past. (Some have already stopped their contribution.) I will therefore need to raise the income needed from new sources.
I write this letter for two reasons:
Oh, and if for whatever reason, you do not want to continue receiving my newsletter, please let me know. I will not be offended! I know that one can just get too much stuff coming by email, and your interests and concerns may well lie elsewhere. Thank you for reading this rather long letter. Your interest in SU in Africa, and in my role especially is much appreciated. May God bless you as he has blest us – incredibly!
47 Steele Road
3201 South Africa
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Mike Smallbones FUTURE