BOOKS | Anne Lim
Sunday 12 July 2015
When bestselling Christian author Naomi Reed agreed to write The Plum Tree in the Desert, she was feeling the emptiness of grief after a very close friend had died of cancer.
It was the end of 2012 and she and her husband Darren had just returned to Australia from their second term as with cross-cultural ministries in Nepal, where Naomi had started her writing career in 2005 with My Seventh Monsoon.
“At that time Darren and I were having a hard time because one of our very closest friends, who had been with us with Interserve in Nepal, was diagnosed with a brain tumour and he died that year, quite young, leaving teenage girls. It was just a very sad time for us … and we were struggling to keep going.”
So when Interserve International director Paul Bendor-Samuel asked Naomi to write a book of stories of faith and mission from the past 25 years in Asia and the Arab world, she thought it would be encouraging to find out how people in the field managed to keep doing God’s work even when times were hard.
“They trust in the same God that I trust in, so if they can keep going through their struggles, I can as well,” she remembers thinking.
She adds: “What’s so important about reading and sharing each other’s stories of faith in God is this lovely effect where you can be in a situation that is entirely different but you gain strength and encouragement because it’s a shared human walk.”
In her first email to prospective interviewees, the author asked the missionaries about the difficult experiences they had endured and was amazed by the litany of disasters.
“They’d been through bombings and health epidemics and near rape, rocket attacks, being held at gunpoint, death in the raw, being forced to leave the country, witnessed the murder of their colleagues – just a horrendous list of things.
“So my next question was ‘So what have you learnt?’ And it was all about the goodness of God and his kindness and what it means to persevere in mission, to trust him, to keep going even when life was hard and men were barging through the door. They said, ‘Even then, God is still God and we can trust him. We are all sinners, we are all hopeless but we are hopelessly loved.’ And I thought this is the book for me!”
Completing the project was a juggle for Naomi, with her oldest son in the last year of high school and her husband finishing a PhD, “but God does give you the enabling support you need in order to do it.”
It took her a year-and-a half to complete the interviews with ten missionaries in the Arabian Peninsula, Southeast Asia, North Africa, the Central Asian Republics and the Tibetan plateau. But the resulting stories were dramatic.
For example, Naomi spent two days following a dentist in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, as he visited clinics, community health centres and orphanages, and saw the training he had given to local dentists.
“Then he described that during the previous 10 years he’d had a brain haemorrhage, he’d had treatment back in Korea, then he came back to Bishkek and was assaulted and robbed in the carpark, and had to go hospital. Then he had a serious car accident, head-on at high speed, and he needed hospitalisation again.
Then his daughter had a reaction to a hot noodle and she had brain operations back in Korea. Then they came back to Bishkek and that was when two revolutions happened and they had to close their clinic,” she recounts.
“Then the dentist said, ’This is showing me that it’s not my work, this is God’s work and it’s in my weakness that he displays his immeasurable strength over and over again.’ ”
Another inspirational story concerned a woman living a very isolated life in a desert in North Africa. Her husband was a GP and she home-schooled their four boys.
“For 10 years she just felt her ministry was so small. She was in her house in the desert with her kids and she made one friend in that whole time. Over the years they just had a cup of tea together every morning over this green-and-white tablecloth. It was a police state, it was against the law to share the gospel, and she could have been kicked out of the country.
“But one time she just decided she wanted to read Psalm 139 with this local woman and the lady just responded, ‘Ah! Is that what God is like?’ And she wanted to know more, and so they started reading the Bible – and this lady became the first Christian in that entire country. After that, within a couple of years they had 200 believers and there was the birth of a local church in this time.”
For Naomi the most encouraging common thread as the missionaries looked back on their years of service was that “God works through our weakness and our grief.
“It’s so amazing that all of the stories had this sense of weakness, of hardship, and yet God at work in the middle of that somehow. I think it’s almost a mystery, we don’t understand it, but we can testify to that’s how God is with us as well, and I think that’s what engaged me most.
“I found it encouraging because in Australia, and wherever we are in the West, we can feel like we’re not doing very much compared to the people in the mission field, who are seeing miracles all the time. We’re all the same; we’re all just serving faithfully in the place where God would have us.
“It doesn’t matter where we are in the world. God uses us to spread his amazing message of love and forgiveness.”
The Plum Tree in the Desert is being launched today at St Peter’s Anglican Church in Weston, Canberra.