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This is the story of my journey through South East Asia as a young fundamentalist Christian. It details exciting stories and wonderful people and cultures, and then goes into the breakdown extremism caused me. The book is about finding a way to passionately practice your faith without falling into the extremes of fundamelntalism. View table of contents...



Submitted:Nov 25, 2008    Reads: 181    Comments: 3    Likes: 2   

Chapter 1 - An Exciting Beginning
"I slept in the 'ollow of a tree. 21 days 21 nights without food,"
spat the ragged, dreadlocked man with impassioned eyes. The ship's heavy tables, bolted into the floor, had been laminated in a blue and white gingham pattern to soften their effect in the dining room. Fitted with curtains and carpets the room approached a measure of comfort for the 350 permanent residents. Laco looked for all the world like there was nothing out of place about his staff and tattered robe.
We all adored him of course. How could we not? A group of driven young Christians far from home on the mission field. Here was a man who had given up a lucrative career and all its trappings, donned rags, grown impressive dreads and fasted in the wild for 3 weeks to begin the life of an itinerant prophet. Now he can be found stamping the streets of rural New Guinea proclaiming his message and performing miracles on street corners.
Laco was typical of the outlandish breed of extremists I have never met the like of in England and that we stumbled across in every port we landed at. But this is not the right place to start the story….
The plane was banking sharply above the Hong Kong skyline, circling in its waiting pattern. Poor Hogun Yo, one of my fellow initiates into the world of international missions, was looking decidedly queasy. The plane finally straightened up and dropped sharply, but no landing would be quick enough for Hogun, who was scrabbling for a bag and quickly settled for filling a strip of cellophane. With the heightened sense of embarrassment his culture fosters, he held the bulging sac in front of him as if it didn't exist, and my sympathetic tap on the shoulder went unacknowledged.
Landing in Hong Kong airport in its 1996 state was something of a shock for the uninitiated. One moment you are in a healthy state of being in mid-air, surrounded by clouds and blueness and such, and suddenly you are passing remarkably close to the windows of high rises built all the way along the approach and runway, toes to the line. You can see people in their windows as you steeply drop below them. The sensation is of a runway coming up hard to bury itself in your belly but after a quick bounce or two you are down and safe. It was an auspiciously exciting start to my two-year trip into the unknown.
We were staying in High Rock hostel; a series of tin shacks surrounding a basketball court in urban Kowloon. Situated on a hill, High Rock commanded sprawling views of low-lying tumbledown structures sprinkled with the reds and golds of Buddhist temples. High Rock was a fomenting ground for a Romantic bent and I remember standing beneath the tin porch of a barracks-like bunk room with sheets of hot rain streaming off all three sides of the roof just inches from my skin, the heaviness of a tropical storm magnified to immensity by its booming on the thin mettle above me.
My thoughts strayed back to the plane flight where we were allowed a midnight view from the cockpit as we flew over Delhi. Indian cities carved in light lay like giant diamonds below us, emulated by brother and sister cities all over the broad curve of the earth. The massive sprawl of black sky was dotted with tropical storms, 10 or 20 of them notable by rapid bursts of lightning striking over and over in an unmatchable display. Stars hung above in uncountable millions in a scene at once surreal and inspiring.
On the dry porch under the heavy storm my thoughts again filled with the thrill of adventure and the unknown, my left hand tingling almost painfully as it does when excitement and joy mingle unimpeded. What amazing sights would I see, as we go out bravely to minister love to the loveless?
I was passionate about my mission. My motivation was entirely my own, derived from personal spiritual experience and the love of God I knew to be real, but it allied itself closely enough to those around me to create a kind of cohesive identity between us - that is I and a few other extremist fellows. My closest companions were Oyvind Birkeland, a huge gentle guy from Norway, and a beautiful Swedish girl called Katarina Skogh. Oyvind was strong, determined, humble and self-sacrificing with an underlying joy and humour to him, and Katarina was fiery, unstoppable and unpredictable. She was also a deeply compassionate soul, though this side of her was often missed by others too distracted by the fireworks.
We roamed out into Kowloon and into Hong Kong itself with wide-eyed nervous determination, anticipating our first encounters with the poor and broken we had come all this way to help. But Hong Kong was only our sanitised entry point into SE Asia, and an affluent place, and we soon reconciled ourselves to the fact that Hong Kong was more for sightseeing than ministry, with a few notably exceptional forays into some truly dark places.
One of these was an evening where a team of us went deliberately into a drug den in a subway, where we mingled with dealers, addicts and prostitutes alike, speaking of love and forgiveness and the power to be different, and getting people connected to local ministries that would help them. I remember having absolutely no fear at all at this time, and quite happily turned my back on a group of dealers while trying to help one of their dependants break out from their captivity. Whether this was faith or ignorance I can't say, but thankfully nothing bad happened to me, and perhaps it is true that the protection of God was over me at that time.
We moved from High Rock to a strange, Lego-like complex called Breakthrough Village. Set in the sub tropical scrub of the Kowloon hills, and surrounded by startling clear blue views of land, sea and sky, this bright blocky structure was in most ways an upgrade from High Rock. Though I must confess Breakthrough Village never evoked the powerful sense of travel and exposure in me that those few days in High Rock's tin barracks managed to.
It's important to understand that I was a very focussed individual at this point. Though surrounded by good people to get to know and have fun with I was 100% motivated by my mission, which was to share the love and knowledge of God with everyone around me. I was very serious and though sometimes stumbled into having fun I promise it was purely accidental. I wish I'd been more relaxed and taken the time to get to know people who have proven themselves to be absolute stars in the years since. Never again will I be in a situation with them where we are working and playing together in the kind of constant proximity that produces lifelong buddies.
Sean Fry was one of these missed opportunities. Sean is one of the brightest, funniest, most engaging and light-hearted people you could ever wish to meet. He is skinny and boyish with a flop of blond hair and a lightning fast grin. Despite being a total scream he is always self-effacing and down to earth, and I should have been exploring Hong Kong with him and his best friend Andy Hicks instead of constantly hatching new schemes to show something profound and life-changing to people. Of course I could have done both, which would no doubt have been the most balanced solution.
Having said that, I did manage to have some fun with Sean and co. at Breakthrough Village. One day he suggested we follow the narrow river, which passed by the complex on its way to the coast. We got into swimming gear and slid into the river, scrambling uphill through rock pools and little waterfalls. The brush closed in over our heads at points and we were in a steep green tunnel with the water rushing against us. At points the water had smoothed the rock to slickness and we found some natural slides into deep pools. Afternoons like this were fabulous in the sub-tropical heat. It was exhilarating to be out in the open exploring the wild and exotic foliage and waterway in just shorts and some shoes. It was the granddaddy of smaller scale adventures with my older brother in the meeker days of Welsh and Scottish holidays with my parents.
I usually turned down invitations to this type of adventure however, as I felt I had my work cut out for me in Kowloon. We had 4 weeks together and I had to first of all influence that entire group of 60 people from 15 different nations to pursue God with greater fervour. Miracles and powerful, tangible encounters with the Holy Spirit were really important to me then (and in some ways still are to me today), and let's just say that it seemed to me then that some of the people in that pre-ship group needed a touch from above, a refreshing drink from the Ghost with the Most. I spent the majority of my time reaching out to these people in one form or another.
Let me explain something about Christians to you. They come in all different shapes and sizes and though core beliefs tend to be somewhat comparable the approach and reaction to those beliefs can be so different it can seem as if they are worshipping different Gods. Some Christians are serious as a stone and some so frivolous you wonder that they don't float away on a breeze. And there are a million grades in-between.
Allow me to quickly define core Christian belief for you so we at least have a reference point. The absolute centre of Christian belief is about the life and Ministry of Jesus. Christians all over the world differ on what method and timescale God used to create the earth, the personality of the Holy Spirit, the importance of baptism, and pretty much everything except for this one core focus. Jesus lived his life as God in human form, helping the poor, loving the loveless, healing the sick and bringing personal revolution and freedom. Ultimately he died a gruesome death, as humankind has a price to pay for its short-fallings.
Rather than punish mankind God chose to take that punishment on himself, and on the cross Jesus experienced far worse than physical pain. He suffered the spiritual, emotional, mental torment of becoming all the evil of the world and being judged by his own Father and totally cast off. The finale is that after paying this price for all of us Jesus couldn't be contained by death and broke out 3 days later into life again. The offer to us is that by embracing this and welcoming the Holy Spirit to come and live in us we start a new life, confident you are forgiven and given a new freedom to live as God intended, and to live with the permanent companionship of the most loving, affirming, wise Person who has ever existed. I can't say much about other specific doctrines at this point. All I can honestly say is that this bit, the whole Jesus thing, has been great. It's wonderful to know that I am loved and accepted, forgiven and empowered to live my life to the fullest. Most of all I appreciate the company.
I mentioned before that Christians can be serious as a stone and frivolous as a summer breeze. Well the faith of my childhood was of the stone variety: all duty, reverence, repentance, awe and responsibility, spiced with a keen awareness of sin. It was a world where the intellectual, eloquent male was king and anyone who had the misfortune of being simple, shy, or female had little voice. I had quite naturally reacted against this at the age of 20 and sought out a more exciting way to relate to God. I began attending "spirit-filled" or "Charismatic" churches where the emphasis was one of encountering God in a miraculous way there and then in the service. There were frequent demonstrations of prophecy, laying hands on the sick, speaking in tongues, and a powerful sense of God actually being there and deliberately accomplishing something in the middle of us.
Despite the constant boasts of God's miraculous intervention in our lives through these services, if the truth be told most of the "miracles" seemed to be of people falling over, crying or shaking a lot. I'm not entirely sure that these things should be allowed into the bracket of miracles, as I could do each of them right now without any help from God at all. I'm not saying these are useless activities, and have had at least one significant experience of this type myself, but I've had many more meaningless ones, where a close association with the carpet brought nothing more than the smell of dust. The power of suggestion, hypnotic technique and crowd mentality can all reproduce these experiences and it is my suspicion that a large proportion of what is seen in these meetings is more hype than divine encounter. Not all of it by any means and I wouldn't suggest any kind of percentage.
At the time I utterly bought into the whole encounter mentality, with each meeting attended being a chance to see God working up close and personal. My highest aim was to be one of those doing these miracles and confidently dispensing the Grace of God. I fervently believed in an initiating encounter with the Holy Spirit called "Baptism in the Holy Sprit", and that all believers needed to go through this experience to enter into greater communication with God and experience the power to do miracles on other peoples' behalf.
The journey of the believer was then to develop gifts and abilities to perform the works of the Holy Spirit and ultimately to become a sanctified conduit for Divine Love. A noble aim I have no doubt, though I can say with all honesty that in my case there was a mixing of very good and very selfish motives for wanting to fulfil this role. How needed, how respected, cherished and admired would I be if I were to be the one that brought the power of God into someone's life? With little effort I could imagine families sitting around the dinner table with tears in their eyes raising their glasses to Duncan, the Founder of the Feast. Though I never would have admitted it at the time, I truly was that self-obsessed and in need of feeling valued, and what better way to accomplish this than to be the agent of divine change?
This was my mindset going into the start of our pre-ship training in Kowloon. I had come straight from University in England, where I had become known as a spiritual person and people came to me for prayer and ministry for many different reasons. I was in the habit of laying hands on sick folk and performing miracles, as well as praying for and prophesying over those who came to my room for ministry. God had been kind enough to touch people through my efforts, and I was committed to continuing an unbridled growth in these areas when out in Asia. Going out on the mission field coincided with the moment of greatest momentum and expectation, and arriving in Hong Kong I had a combination of a need-to-be-a-hero mentality and a genuine heartfelt compassion for the suffering of the world, whether that suffering be physical, financial or psychological. The belief that we are free agents to bring God's power in the situations we find ourselves in put me on a highly pressured turbo charge that I fully intended to ride out to the end, whatever that may be.
The 60 people I felt God wanted me to reach out to in my pre-ship group were a diverse bunch: fat and thin, young and old, conservative and wacky. I began my career of influence among them by leading some of the worship times. This meant I recruited a bassist, keyboardist, drummer and backing vocalist and led the 30-minute singing sessions as guitarist and singer. It was here I discovered a wonderful privilege, and a lifelong passion; to sensitively lead a group of people through a time of worship, responding to the nudges of the Holy Spirit in what I say and sing. It was a fluid amalgam of singing and two-way conversation with God. The music would never totally stop through the whole event, but would sometimes drop to a whisper, gentle notes straying over a floating keyboard background, giving the worshippers time and space to interact with God in a unique and private way.
People unfamiliar with intimate worship will find this very hard to understand, but it is in my opinion the pinnacle of human experience. Amazing, overwhelming, profound, enlightening and intimate, there are moments you feel you simply cannot contain the joy of such face-to-face contact. A fellow life coach recently said to me that sex is the greatest form of self-expression, but wonderful as sex can be, there is just no comparison. Some would say intimate sex is a physical reflection of worship and this may well be true, but the shadow can never compare to the One casting it.
This was my first experience of leading worship, and it was somewhat disconcerting to be standing in front of a group of people which included a large proportion of disgruntled, suspicious individuals glaring at me uncomfortably with folded arms. My open, emotionally charged approach was nothing less than an affront to the more conservative of the group, and some of them were from churches who believed I was an example of the type of Christian they consider to be heretical and dangerous, encouraging sensible people to hunger foolishly after unsubstantiated, ungodly experiences. If to be godly was to be grave and solemn, then I was the epitome of ungodliness, and some in that group were convinced I was "of the devil". Of course the opposition was in some ways pleasing to me, as it was a form of attention, and it meant that those who followed me were all the more dedicated.
Mixed motives aside, those worship times were excellent, and as I continued to do them over the course of those 4 weeks, more and more people started to relax and enjoy the atmosphere we created, and many were experiencing real happiness for the first time in years. Starchy faces lost their stiffness, arms glued to sides lifted towards heaven in worship, faces upturned, and in the final worship session of the month, almost all the dissenters had undergone a remarkable transformation. With the exception of the 3 most stubborn and bitter fellows, the entire group was clamorously on their feet, arms stretching high in the air, palms upwards, and many folks had tears streaming down their faces as we sang "Nothing can separate us from this Love of God" over and over and over. As I said, there is no release like the release found in worship. The three fellows who remained opposed to this mini-revival sat on the front row, arms and legs crossed, staring flinty-eyed either at me or at the floor. Well you can't please all the people all the time.
All in all I viewed the month's pre-ship experience as a success. I felt, with some justification, that God had given me a group of 60 people and through introducing them to a freer, more loving experience of Him, there had been a uniform revival. How do I define revival? Grumpy people became happier, tense people more relaxed, closed people more open. Some of the dividing walls between cultures and traditions became less relevant, and overall the group was revitalised and had new energy to go out into our two-year adventure and make a difference to the needy of the world.
As we rode the buses to our new home, the converted passenger liner "MV Epsilon", I remember thinking
"Well God, you gave me a group of 60 people to influence, and now you're giving me a ship".
I pictured myself leaving the ship after two years and everyone on board coming out to wave me off, the ship listing in the water from the weight of people all on the one side. I could see people crying and thanking me as I humbly smiled and walked away. After all, I was just a servant, and what I had done was only my duty.


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