A few years ago, at a writer’s group, I sat on a sofa so low that it felt as if my knees came up to my chest. Someone handed out ‘Stories of Life’ fliers, saying, ‘A writing competition looking stories of faith and testimony.’ It could have been Mark or James, I forget, but what I remember is that I felt no compunction whatsoever to enter the competition.
I had been living in Australia for about eighteen years, but grew up in Malaysia. One of the things I sensed soon after I moving here was that it was impolite to talk about God or Jesus – unless I happened to be in the company of Christians. I felt people didn’t mind what I believed, as long as I didn’t talk about it too loudly. Well, some of the winning stories would be broadcast on radio in Adelaide. Talking about faith doesn’t get much louder than that.
The Malaysia I grew up in had a different spiritual mood. Almost everyone, from prime minister to street sweeper, revered God. I attended a government school in Malaysia, established and still run at that time by an Irish Catholic nun, whom all the girls loved. At school assemblies, staff and students of different faiths – Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu – would pray to God, all of us bowing our heads in reverence.
I become a Christian when I was 12 years old, in this very school. Christian women from Navigators or local churches used to conduct Bible Study classes, open to any non-Muslim girl who wished to attend.
I was the first person in my immediate family to become a Christian. Soon after my conversion, my family faced a crisis. There were terrible dramas, private dramas. I was not in any physical danger, but the nature of the crisis created for me a private bubble of woe. I spent many days and nights in that bubble, unable to speak to anyone about what was going on at home.
In this aloneness I found great comfort in God. In my bedroom each evening before dinner, as I read my Bible and prayed, I would look out to hills covered in rainforest. All those years ago, the hills had not yet been denuded and built over with highways and high rises and squatters and shops. Many evenings, I admired pink and gold sunsets against deep green hills, and thanked God for such lavish calm beauty outside the house, a foil to the dramas unfolding inside. One particular evening, as I read Psalm 91:14 – because he loves me says the Lord, I will rescue him – the words leapt out as if God had spoken directly to me. In the privacy of my bedroom, my faith was becoming something precious and deeply important to me.
In Australia, I was in my mid-thirties when I started attending Adelaide Writers Week, and later listening to interviews of famous writers. As I strove to learn how to write well, I hung on to their words. I admired their skill and craftsmanship. But sometimes some of them would talk about the religious worlds they had left behind. Sometimes they mocked Christian religious traditions, people within those traditions, and, on occasions, God himself.
Reflecting on my initial disinterest in Stories of Life, I think I was afraid to even consider writing a story of faith. It would require me to bring my private faith into the public sphere. What if people laughed? It would be as if they saw into the privacy of my heart, upon which God’s word had been inscribed, and found me ridiculous.
|Sue Jeffrey, one of the 2016 winners|
Some months passed. I was driving to a friend’s house when I heard one of the Stories of Life broadcast in Adelaide on Life FM. It was a story by Sue Jeffrey. In the story, she had just moved to Canberra. I don’t have her story with me, but I still remember she described how she was feeling very low. She spoke of a puppy that slowly drew her out. I arrived at my destination before the story finished, but sat in my car, with the engine running so invested was I in the story. It was so real, so relatable, with no clichés. I felt drawn to the story, not because of my Christian faith, but because of my human vulnerabilities. I identified with Sue and loved the wholly surprising idea of deliverance in the form of a puppy.
When I turned the first pages of the 2017 Stories of Life anthology, The Gecko Renewal, I read of the improbable rescue of a young female prison officer, by a violent inmate with ‘heavily tattooed arms … biceps the size of my thighs’. The writer, Amy Ireland, credited it to God. I had been writing non-fiction stories of asylum seekers. My interviewees had described to me the hopelessness and bleakness of detention centres. But Amy’s story said: God is present and working, even in these places.
Further on in the book, I read ‘When Andy met God’ by Ester de Boer. When Andy, born with an intellectual disability, has a sudden change of behaviour, he tells everyone it’s because God has shown up. If Andy’s angry now, he just talks to God about it and he feels better.
The beauty of both stories is that the specificity of detail and authenticity of dialogue makes me think: Amy really worked in the prisons, Andy really is intellectually disabled, God really is there.
Where these two stories touched my intellect, ‘Not Alone’ by Glenda Austin helped me through a tough week. I was in Melbourne, helping my son settle in to university. I was in the guest bedroom of a friend’s house when I heard Glenda read her story in an audio file that I was uploading to the Stories of Life webpage. Glenda described how she saw her son, part of the Australian force in East Timor, on TV as John Farnham sang, ‘You’ll never walk alone’. Right then, I had the sense that God was assuring me that my son, too, would not walk alone.
I’m grateful to Sue, Amy, Ester and Glenda for being brave enough to share their stories with the public, because I wouldn’t have heard their stories otherwise. I’m grateful to them for taking the time to craft their stories well, so that the stories could be included in the anthology, and broadcast on radio. There are many other stories in the anthology, which I believe have touched many other people.
There are stories that were submitted that did not win prizes, and were not selected for the anthology, or for on-air broadcast. But the very act of telling a story to a child, a spouse, a neighbour, or writing it down, is an act of bearing witness. When we tell or write a faith story, we are acknowledging God’s work in our lives. I think God is pleased with that. This makes me think of Jesus’ commandment in Luke 8 to the person he healed. The man pleaded with Jesus to be allowed to travel with Jesus but Jesus said to him, ‘Return home and tell how much God has done for you.’
The faith that Jesus called me to was never meant to only be a private faith, a faith only for me to draw strength in times of trouble. There is a public aspect that I overlooked. If those women hadn’t come to my school to tell the entire class about God and Jesus, where would I be?
If you have a story of how God showed up in your life, do consider writing it up and submitting it to either the short category (up to 500 words), or the open category (1000 to 1500 words). The Stories of Life competition runs from 1 April to 31 July this year. If you would like help to craft your story, register for our free writing workshop that will run on 12 April at Tabor Adelaide, that will also be live streamed on our Facebook page. There are also resources on our website on how to write a good story, including video presentation of last year’s writing workshop.
Your stories matter. We would love to hear from you.