The Least of These

MMay the weak say I am strong,

May the poor say I am rich

May the blind say I can see

What the Lord has done in me.

This is the song that for me shows the extent of God’s love for the whole world and reveals the need everyone of us has for Christ, no matter where we are from.  Where ever we live and where ever we go, God calls us to join Him in reaching out to other people, even when the needs are overwhelming and we feel our contribution is inadequate.  I love that God has called me into the third world to serve and I love that God has called me into my home town to serve.

I see the mother, ravaged by AIDS, with a nursing baby and five-year old daughter lying on a bed in a remote Papua New Guinean hospital.  No support.  No help.  Waiting to die.  What of her children?  Who will help them?  Truly these are the weak and the poor.

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A suffering  mother and her 5 year old daughter.  Gulf Province, PNG.

I see the woman nursing an ailing husband at home.  There is oxygen tubing running to his nose, morphine liquid by the bedside, ready to be given when the desperation for breath becomes too much in a body fighting lung cancer and emphysema.  A palliative care team comes each week.  A well equipped hospital is nearby.  Still, this cannot keep at bay the heart sickness of a woman who will soon lose her best friend and life companion.  This is right here, in my neighbourhood, my everyday work.  The weak walk beside me.

I see the mother struggling to carry her six-year old son, concussed, drowsy back to our clinic.  I met the father earlier – proud of his family, eager to get his children immunised.  He is prone to rages and threw his eldest boy from the window of their hut on stilts. Across the field I see a woman struck to the ground by her husband with a heavy stick.  She makes no cry, simply gets up and walks away.  This happens frequently enough that no one takes any notice.  This is the ugly side of beautiful PNG.

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Transporting a 6 year old boy with concussion to hospital.

I see a mother, struggling with lightning pain shooting from her neck to her fingertips as bone and disc press on nerve.  I see her shadowing her grown schizophrenic daughter, dreading the harm she could do herself if left alone, fearing a call from the police, patiently accompanying her to appointments and hospital admissions where improvement is painfully slow in coming.  The daughter begs mum for alcohol and seeks comfort from men who only abuse her.  This is the pain of a mother in my home town.

I see myself struggling with what I can do to help in a world where so much is wrong.  I too am weak.  I can’t do much by myself.  But, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Phil 4:13).  I can’t supply Papua New Guinea with a health system where all can receive treatment and welfare is provided to support the poor.  I can’t cure cancer or schizophrenia.  Yet I can do a little.  I can listen, pray and learn more.  I can bring some physical and emotional comfort, using my medical skills.  I can go to PNG and teach on health and health care.  I can encourage someone with suspected tuberculosis or AIDS to go and get tested…and treated…and perhaps their life and livelihood will be saved.  I can be part of a team bringing the love of God to people in remote areas by providing health care.

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Doing clinics in a hut.  Babaguna village, PNG.

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Women’s health talk. Demonstrating the birth process with the model placenta. This produced lots of giggles!

Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me (Matt 25:40).  Where ever we live and where ever we go, we will encounter the ‘least of these’, the poor, sick, lonely and grieving.  We may find ourselves becoming the least of these when our own circumstances become desperate.  The wonderful thing about being a part of God’s family is that we can share the love He has given us in very practical ways.  God’s blessing is released through people willing to be His hands and feet in a hurting world.

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New friends – Irimuku village, PNG.  Elizabeth (white and blue shirt), age 16 wants to be a nurse.  She shyly watched me all day before I went to chat with her at the end of clinic.

 

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The Miracle of the Amazing Dust Particles

Noah: Mummy, Mummy!  Where are you Mummy?

Me: Here I am.

Noah: Come quickly.  See something AMAZING!

Me: What is it Noah?

Noah: The dust is swirling round and round!

Noah has noticed dust particles, highlighted by the sunlight streaming through a window.  The dust particles are moving in circles, caught on invisible currents of air, just like the eddies we see in the water of a stream.  I pause to watch and wonder – a beautiful moment, perhaps occurring everyday and long escaping my attention.  I pause to laugh – this boy!  This boy who could barely put two words together two years ago.  This boy who has struggled to speak.  This boy who proudly told everyone just 12 months ago, “Merry Tismas e-ry body!”  This boy who is expressing his thoughts and showing me the world he sees.

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Noah, Coolum Beach 2015

This boy.  His name is Noah.  He is five years old.  He was born with severe Childhood Apraxia of Speech, a neurological condition that impacts on his brain’s ability to send messages to his speech muscles.  He has long struggled to communicate and has now completed three years of speech therapy.  We have celebrated new words, two word phrases, the first sentence, the first lie, the first whys, the first stuttered stories.  And now, Noah has moments where he speaks like the little boy in my dreams so long ago, the little boy who chattered without difficulty, clearly and easily telling me about his day.   The little boy who caused my heart to leap with joy, only to be crushingly disappointed when I awoke to the reality of a toddler who could only cry over his frustrated attempts to talk to me.

This boy.  Noah – you are amazing.  You persevere.  No one I know has worked as hard as you to speak.  You get better everyday.  You are finding sound combinations more easily.  We are moving into the territory of grammar.  You speak your sentences as best you can with the words you have.  Slowly we are working out the intricacies of language – how to phrase questions versus answers, personal pronouns, plurals and tense.  I correct you as we practice, “She is climbing.  She climbed.”  You try again and say, “These sounds are tricky.”  You are right.  I hug you.  You try so hard and we push you more.  You’ve been corrected more on your speech than any child of your acquaintance, but you take it so well.  You accept our efforts to help you speak more clearly.  And it makes we want to cry sometimes.

I want the journey to be over.  I want to say apraxia is behind us.  But it’s not.  You’ve gone from severe to moderate and I am elated.  I can’t wait to announce that you are mild, one day in the not so distant future.  Each step forward in communication reveals a new challenge…and another…and another.

Let’s not dwell on that for now.  After all, there are dust particles to admire.  There are Santas to talk to. There are stories to be told.  Stories of helicopters, pirates, Papua New Guinea boats, space ships, police and robbers and more.  There are songs to sing – the ones you make up so beautifully.  You praise God in your own sweet voice, making up words that express your love for him. God is good.  We’ve prayed and hoped for so long to see you come to this point of freely communicating and we have seen those prayers answered.

Miracles do happen.  Mostly these are not spontaneous healings where the touch of God is like a bolt of lightning.  Most miracles unfold slowly, like the petals of a beautiful rose.  These miracles are only revealed when we pause to reflect on a long journey, appreciating the touch of God that has helped us to persevere through times of seemingly little progress, looking back to see how far we have come and celebrating what has come to pass.  For nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37).

In just two months, Noah’s speech has greatly improved.  I couldn’t believe the difference in Noah’s speech in a video I took about 2 ½ months ago compared to one I took a couple of weeks ago.  Here he tells us about some of the Lego helicopters he has built up.  Below I repost the original video for comparison.  I hope you enjoy it as much as we did!

Noah – September 2015 (video 1)

Noah – November 2015 (video 2)

Finding Noah’s Voice: The Carpenter

Jesus was a carpenter.  Before he began his ministry, this was his trade, taught to him by his earthly father.  Noah was amazed to hear that Jesus was a carpenter.  When I first told him this he looked excited and said,”Really?” Noah is five years old and loves tools.  He always has, ever since he could pick them up.  Early presents of toy tool boxes and a tool bench have been his favourite toys.  He takes every opportunity to siphon off tools from Daddy’s toolbox to add to his own collection and is often found undoing screws with a real screw driver.  Bunnings is his favourite shop and he is always asking for another toolbox – the bigger the better.  When he grows up, he wants to be a ‘tool-man’. Recently, Grandad got a new shed.  Noah is very impressed with his new structure.  This Grandad has never really been a big handy man; more a potterer.  However, in retirement he has realised a dream – a man cave, a place to play with tools.  Noah has already been over to help construct his very own mini tool bench out of scrap wood, old nails and finished with a coat of white paint.  He couldn’t be happier with the result.  As long as he can swing a hammer, line up a ruler and draw a line or screw something together, he is happy.

Noah at work in Grandad's shed

Noah at work in Grandad’s shed

We appreciate the ability our little chap has with his hands, a wonderful strength when contrasted with his speech difficulties.  He is still working his way through the challenge of developing clear speech and working out the rules of expressive language.  Noah was born with Childhood Apraxia of Speech which means that his brain has trouble planning the precise movements that are needed for speech.

Over the last three years Noah has been a work in progress as we gradually accumulate the tools and skills needed to help unlock his voice and ability to communicate. This is a complex process because this is a severe speech disorder that affects the ability to produce every sound and every sound combination.  Each sound has to be separately learnt and practised – in isolation, then in combination with other sounds, moving onto words, short phrases and finally sentences.  A sound that is mastered on its own may be lost when Noah tries to say it in a word or a sentence.  We painstakingly practice each word and then through hand signals and touch cues help him to say it in a phrase or sentence, gradually removing the cues until he can say it on his own.  Noah has gradually added more sounds to his repertoire, but is still missing some key sounds.  These get substituted which makes it difficult to decipher what he is saying at times, especially with longer words or sentences.  This can lead to frustration because Noah has so much he wants to ask and say now.  Even though I understand him better than anyone, I still get stumped.  But Noah is resourceful and can find other ways to get his point across.

For example, yesterday we had this conversation.

Noah: Show me pi-ture of tar-tle?

Mummy: Turtle?

Noah: No!  Tar-sle.

Mummy: Dark Stool?!!

Noah: runs to get a piece of paper and draws picture of castle.

Mummy: Oh – castle!

Noah: Yes, with tur-et!

We then googled pictures of castles and discussed turrets, battlements, moats, royalty and knights.  He has been fascinated by castles lately.  Today we built one in the sandpit using broken bricks for turrets.  I got to be the princess! Noah and I have to be patient with one another as we continue to work on his speech.  I have to listen and reflect back what I hear and help him correct his articulation.  Noah has to try again and again to communicate if I don’t get it the first time, or second or third time. The work for Noah is not yet done.  The final piece will be amazing, no doubt.  He is learning to speak his mind.  We are learning to listen and rejoice because he is talking, imperfectly but beautifully.  Beautifully because we waited so long to hear his little voice.  He will grow up to work with his hands and take his place in this world.  So I finish with a prayer Noah recently offered up, simple but beautiful.

“Dear Dod (God),

Help me make things when I grow up.

Help me be dood (good).

Amen.”

Noah is in the hands of the ultimate carpenter who is able to do a work in each of us more amazing than a physical healing because His work lasts for eternity.

Jedus Die Cross – Sam, Noah and Jesus

One of our biggest desires as parents is to see our children realise that God loves them and to know Jesus as their Saviour.  Sharing our faith with our children is a big responsibility and a privilege.  It’s also an adventure as we laugh at their theological insights and delight in seeing them discover God is real.  But how do you know when they have chosen Jesus for themselves?

Sam’s Story

Little Sam is six now and we know he loves God with all his heart.  Sam wears his heart beating outside his body and ready to envelop anyone who crosses his path in a big hug.  Even when he was two years old, Sam was asking questions about God.  I think he accepted Jesus as his friend when he was three years old.  There was no defining moment that I can remember him coming to that point.  It just kind of happened.  He knew the gospel and understood it.  We’d had talks about how our hearts got dirty from sin and how only Jesus could wash us clean.  We talked about how God made everything and Sam would go through everything in the garden saying,”God made that.”  Sam simply accepted Jesus as his friend.  He went through a phase of always choosing Jesus dying on the cross as his Bible story every night.

This little boy managed to teach me a few lessons about faith and forgiveness in his own innocent way.  He was about two years old.  I remember being mad about something he had done, scowling at my little Sam and telling him,”Mummy is cross.  Do you know why Mummy is cross?”  I can’t even remember why Mummy was cross!  He looked cute.  He looked perplexed.  Then he said earnestly,”Jesus died on the cross.”  That shot an arrow straight through my heart and reminded me that I just needed to let go and forgive.  And he continues to teach those lessons.  That’s a whole post in itself!

Sam befriending a baby during a trip to China (2012).

Sam befriending a baby during a trip to China (2012).

Noah’s Story

Noah is four and as many of you know has severe apraxia of speech.  He has understanding of what we say, but has much difficulty producing speech.  For a long time I struggled with not knowing whether he had any understanding of who God is or who Jesus is.  This was because Noah simply couldn’t tell me verbally what his thoughts were.  He couldn’t ask questions.  He still can’t ask questions.  Each night we read him a Bible story and pray for him.  The first time I actually felt like Noah was able to participate in prayer was when he started to get more words, around age 3.  We would begin our prayer time by thanking God for blessings in our lives.  I asked Noah,”What would you like to thank God for?”  He smiled and said,”Trucks.”  I laughed.  It was so cool to have him participate in prayer in a small way.  He has since thanked God for everything from tools to kindy, Mummy, Daddy, Sam, Nanna, Grandad, Earle, Bec and Jedus.  Of course, we know that you don’t have to be able to talk out loud to pray – God hears the unspoken.

When ‘Jedus’ started to show up in Noah’s thanks night after night I knew he was beginning to have some understanding of Jesus beyond a storybook character.  Jesus was becoming real to him.  I was trying to find ways to talk to Noah about faith in God and in Jesus that he could understand.  It was hard to gauge his understanding as he can’t speak in full sentences yet.  But Noah was picking things up through Bible stories – he knew Jesus was kind and loving and that he could heal people.  His favourite story was the parable of the Good Samaritan and we read it over and over again.

Noah and me

Noah and me

My first attempts at explaining the gospel to Noah fell flat.  I didn’t really think about how my explanation would sound to a little three year old.  I tried to explain how sin makes our hearts dirty and that sin was all the bad stuff we do.  I asked Noah if he would like Jesus to wash his heart clean.  This was met with a loud resounding,”NO!”  I imagine he had visions of his heart being pulled out of his body and put through a washing machine.

As Easter approached this year, I had a great desire to help Noah more fully understand the gospel.  We read the Easter story quite a few times.  One night I again explained that the bad stuff we do makes our hearts dirty.  Jesus died on the cross for us so that we could be forgiven for all the bad stuff we’ve ever done or ever will do.  Jesus will always love us, no matter what we do.  And we will get to be his friend while we live on earth and forever in heaven one day when we die.  This time I asked Noah if he wanted Jesus to always be his friend.  He smiled sweetly and said,”Yes.”  So I prayed for him and watched my little boy fall asleep with the most beautiful smile on his face.

How do I know for sure that Noah accepted Jesus that night?  I can’t know for sure, but I’m pretty certain.  Since then he has asked again and again for the story,”Jedus died cross.”  Just like his brother Sam did when he first trusted Jesus.  Ever since Good Friday service at church, Noah regularly crosses his arms and simply tells me,”Jedus died cross.”  And I ask,”Did Jesus stay in the tomb?”  And Noah says,”No! Alive!”  Everywhere we see a cross, Noah pipes up with,”Jedus die cross!”  Jesus has become real for him and is a true friend to him.

Perhaps it seems morbid that little children would have a fascination with a story about a man nailed to a cross, especially as a bedtime story.  But they know that’s not the end of the story.  That man was the Son of God.  By the power of God he was raised to life again and calls each of us into relationship with him – life changing friendship that will last our whole lifetime and beyond.  They see in Jesus total acceptance, no matter what.  They see a friend who put his life on the line for them.  They see that this friend will always be with them, whatever happens.  They remind me of the wonder of salvation and that sense of coming home that I had when I first believed in Jesus.  And I remember that He is preparing a place in heaven for each of us even now.

Not a Scratch! The story of a barefoot doc in PNG

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Alita – this lovely lady helped me up the steep slope behind her village to visit the fruit and vegetable plantation.

Feet are important.  Footwear equally so.  Especially for a clumsy white girl doc like me visiting remote villages in Papua New Guinea, a tropical country just north of Australia.  I expected to learn a lot from this trip, volunteering with a medical ship providing health services to communities where health care is not easily accessible.  I didn’t expect my feet to be a source of revelation.  But then, God uses all sorts of everyday objects to teach us things about himself.

I had been to PNG before.  During my previous trip it was dry and the ground relatively flat.  Flip flops (or thongs to us Aussies) had sufficed, especially in the humid climate.  And so I packed my flip flops once again, ignoring the tiny voice in my head that suggested reef shoes would be a good investment.  Gulf Province, PNG is remote.  People travel via the network of rivers and waterways in dugout canoes, or a dinghy if fortunate enough to own one.  It rains.  Everyday.  Even when it’s not the rainy season.  You can imagine what this does to the landscape.

Each day we would load up our gear for clinics into the zodiacs (inflatable motor boats) and head out to a village.  The most challenging part of each day was getting out of the zodiac onto a muddy shore or steep embankment and helping to move huge backpacks and boxes with all our gear.  The embankments were muddy.  The trek to each village was muddy, rocky and sometimes quite steep.  I have never been a mountain goat and have always felt anxious on unsteady ground.  Nerves make my balance even worse.  Bulked up in raincoat, lifejacket, personal back pack and medical back pack, I was an accident waiting to happen!

Flip flops are great, if you want to get stuck in the mud.  Mud sucks voraciously at your foot as soon as you plant it.  Attempts to lift the leg pulled down by the maudlin mud results in a tug-of-war which invariably results in the strap giving way and the base of the flip flop dangling uselessly from a suspended foot.  Very elegant.  Thus I took to strapping my flip flops to my back pack and only donning them when we made it to our clinic area.  Meanwhile, my team mates all sported the latest in reef shoe design – streamlined shoes that fitted snugly to their feet, grips that really gripped on all sorts of terrain, water resistant breathable materials.  Have I convinced you to buy a pair yet?  Oh, how I wished I had a pair!

Mud slide!

Mud slide!

One morning we arrived at the village of Babaguna.  I stared in consternation at the hill we had to ascend.  It was very steep and smooth.  For now it was damp mud.  I resigned myself to the fact that I would probably take a tumble on my way down at the end of the day.  The village houses were built on the side of this very steep hill.  The locals had no problems scrambling up and down.  Their balance is perfect.  They never miss a step and make it look so easy.  Our clumsiness on their turf provided a few laughs.  Luckily there was usually a group of eager young men to grab out gear and hoist it up the hill wherever we went.  Sure enough it rained that day and as I slowly made my way barefoot down the slope, I took my first mudslide resulting in lovely mud smears to my cargo pants and backpack, bruising to my bum and wounded pride.

Muddy ground everywhere, the result of daily rain.

Muddy ground everywhere, the result of daily rain.

Over two weeks we went to ten different villages.  Each time I went barefoot – across shores where sharp shells were embedded in the mud, up slopes where rough stones and rocks jutted out of the mud, over rickety walkways constructed from palm branches and slippery with mud and rain.  And would you believe it, I didn’t get a single scratch to my feet.  Not a sprain, not a cut, not a bruise, not a mark.  Amazing.  I thanked God for his care and protection and reflected on this verse.

He will not let your foot slip – he who watches over you will not slumber;

indeed he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

Psalm 23:1

Yes, I slipped.  But my feet were not hurt the tiniest little bit.  God cared for my feet.  A tiny detail, but an essential thing for me to be able to go out each day and serve with this group of medicos in remote jungle villages.  A sprain could have laid me up.  A cut could have led to serious infection.  But I was okay.  However, I have vowed that whenever I return to these jungle villages along the rivers, I too will have the latest in reef shoe design!  (Another peril of bare feet – I did take a nice helping of albendazole on my return home in case of hookworms creeping into my body via my exposed feet.)

The Lord God is my strength.
He will set my feet like the deer.
He will let me walk upon the heights.

Habbakuk 3:19

An Ancient Promise – Immanuel

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Imagine 2700 years ago.  An ordinary man, waits, listening for when the Lord will next speak to him.  He is chosen by God to share His message with the living generation, and with all generations to come.  And this time God speaks to him of something that will happen, not during his lifetime, but centuries later.  His heart beats faster.  He feels that familiar heaviness as the Spirit of God rests on him and he writes down the words spoken to him.  His name is Isaiah.  He pauses in wonder over what has been revealed to him.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign:  The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel (which means God with us).  Isaiah 7:14

Seven hundred years later, the angels wait in anticipation of the fulfilment of God’s ancient promise, ready to announce the news to a chosen few.  Only a few citizens of Israel are truly aware of what is about to take place.  Yet all around them, their countrymen have no idea of what is about to happen.  People throughout the land are travelling to their home towns, long wearisome journeys on foot or donkey along dusty roads, hoping for a place to stay.  A census has been called.  All must return to the place of their birth to register.

A young couple are among those seeking a place to stay.  Only places are few.  All the inns are full.  People are disheartened and irritable as they are turned away…again.  A young woman rides on a donkey.  Her belly is heavy.  The child she carries is due to arrive any time.  She is tired and uncomfortable.  Her husband inquires yet again for a place to stay.  Only this time, the inn keeper pauses, about to turn them away.  He notices Mary and can see the weariness in her face.  Hesitantly he offers them shelter in his barn.  It’s not much, but it’s all he has to offer.  All the rooms are full.  Joseph looks at Mary, who nods.  He agrees and follows the inn keeper to the barn.  Joseph makes a resting place for Mary out of straw.  She sighs and lies back to rest.

Joseph reflects on the events of a few months earlier.  He’d been about to break his engagement with Mary.  She was pregnant.  But not to him.  He didn’t want her to suffer public disgrace and had it in mind to divorce her quietly.  At the time engagement was considered as sacred as marriage.  He remembered how God had spoken to him in a dream.  It wasn’t like his usual dreams.  This was so clear.  And he actually felt the presence of God.  The Lord had said,”Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will give birth to a son and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21).  After he woke, he was at peace and resolved to marry Mary.  It was as Isaiah had written so many years ago.

That night, Mary’s labour began.  By early morning she held a baby boy in her arms.  This was the child of whom Isaiah had written:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6).

This Christmas, 2000 years later, we once again pause to reflect on the fulfilment of God’s ancient promise: a Son who would give us the gift of forgiveness for our sin and restore our relationship with God.  It’s a promise that was made for each and every one of us.  I am always awestruck when I read these passages in Isaiah.  God spoke his promise to us many years before its fulfilment in the writings of prophets like Isaiah and Micah.  He spoke his promise again to Mary and Joseph, confirming to them that their extraordinary circumstances were part of his greater plan for all people.  He speaks it today through the pages of the gospels that record the birth of baby Jesus and the life, death and resurrection of the man Jesus.  And he speaks it into the hearts of all who respond to his amazing promise and receive the gift of Jesus, son of God, friend and Saviour.  I am thankful for the peace of God and for His presence in my own life, as real to me today as it was to Isaiah and Mary and Joseph.    God bless you this Christmas.