Letters and learning

In the latest in our occasional series of article on 'The Office Calling', link materials editor Jonathan Self shares how his job has widened his perspective of mission.

Where would civilisation be without letters? We wouldn’t have most of the New Testament. We wouldn’t have the intimate stories available to biographers.

And we wouldn’t have the archives showing the rich history of Church Mission Society since its beginnings in 1799. From the barren mountains of the Himalayas to the deserts of North Africa, from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the estates of Bradford and Hull, letters give us a window into mission life.

There are nearly 200,000 missionary letters in the CMS archive in Birmingham. In my time at CMS over the past 12 years, I have edited over 2,700 letters. I have read a lot of letters penned by a lot of mission partners. Each letter is a beautiful example of what God is doing, and they form part of a heritage of missionary letters. Prior to joining CMS in 2007, my journey had been far from straightforward.

Although I grew up in a Christian home, I had no desire to be a Christian. However, I look back now and see that the Lord was fighting for me. As a four-year-old, I was seriously ill and nearly died, but was miraculously healed. Yet by my early 20s, I was lost at sea, drifting about without the anchor that only God can provide. Following periods living in New York and then India, I ended up giving my life to the Lord at 28. I started working in book publishing, though I really wanted to work for a Christian organisation. But I had never seen a job that was right; then this position came up and I had a real peace about it.

Although I had travelled a lot, I knew very little about what God was up to in the world. Reading link letters has helped me see a bigger God than the one I had previously known and certain areas are now firmly placed on my heart. Before I came to CMS I wasn’t really interested in North Africa or the Middle East. I have seen how God is really moving in those regions, especially among Muslim people.

It’s so exciting to see and read about. CMS mission partners are at the frontline, sharing news through the letters they write. Their link letters highlight that no one is out of reach of God’s mission and everyone can be an agent of change. On a practical level, reading letters from mission partners working with refugees in and from the Middle East and North Africa has inspired me to start volunteering with a local charity supporting refugees in my area.

It’s such an honour to do this job and help share mission news. Every link letter shows something of God’s kingdom. We publish over 200 letters each year and read of births, deaths, tears, laughter, hardships, wonderful examples of God moving, prayers answered and stories of the local church throughout the world. These letters bring to life the breadth of contexts where our mission partners are part of the dynamic picture of God’s mission.

One mission partner, Judy Acheson, worked in DR Congo for more than three decades through a time of intense conflict and was awarded an MBE for her work. Her letters conveyed both the serious and the hilarious, and she wrote one of the most memorable letters I have read:

“On one occasion, our Bible study on Isaiah 41:10 (‘You will not be afraid, they will not terrify you’) came alive as a few minutes later the house was surrounded by three different militia groups fighting each other. We sheltered in the corridor. The verse from Philippians 4:7 ‘The peace that passes all understanding…’ came into my mind as I realised that I was totally calm and could help the others to stay quiet and wait. After the fighting, the Lendus arrived at our house with machetes and iron bars. God had forewarned me and so I did not cower and the 23 people were protected.”

Reading this made me immensely grateful for people like Judy, responding to God’s call despite the risks.

I follow in the footsteps of many predecessors who transcribed missionary letters by hand, which were then sent by boat and arrived in London many months later. Today, it’s dealt with almost exclusively via email, word processing and photo software. I am aware how easy I have it compared to those 100 years ago (or even 40!). I have learned that letters are a part of all our personal biographies and histories and they shape our theology and our thinking.

Published 24 June 2019
Europe, Middle East and North Africa

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