Posted by: Catherine Weston | January 22, 2016

Crossing Cultures with Jesus

When we first began our journey welcoming international students we struggled to find books that spoke to the issues we were facing. Yes, there were lots of books about mission and about crossing cultures for Christ. But they were all geared for helping people who are planning to go or who have already gone ‘overseas’.

And it’s all very well reading something that helps me relate to Chinese culture, but what if, next week, I meet someone from Peru? Or Madagascar? What if my seekers’ group includes Vietnamese and Eastern Europeans? Traditional missionaries have the opportunity to be embedded long term in one place and to get to learn one language and culture well. I am in my own country, relating to a wide range of backgrounds and understanding of the gospel. How can I share the gospel with people from such different cultures and worldviews? How can I effectively make disciples who will sustain their walk with Jesus and make a difference when they return home?

Thankfully a book has just been published which fills the gap. I wish it had been around when we first started. The author, Katie Rawson, has had long experience of working with international students in the US and has penned a thoughtful, comprehensive guide using Jesus as our model. Giving the reasons why she wrote the book, the author describes researching conversion patterns among East Asian students.

“Some of the testimonies of the twenty-eight converts I interviewed disturbed me. Their conversions seemed shallow; these students had not changed at the worldview level. Additional years of observation led to the conclusion that helping people understand how the gospel affects them culturally is critical for conversions to be deep and transformative. The crosscultural part of crosscultural evangelism must not be ignored” (p 14).

Chapter headings include:

The challenge and opportunity of crosscultural evangelism; keeping in step with the Spirit; developing trust relationships; examining worldview lenses; understanding value systems; communities that draw in; communication that connects…

This book marries a deep understanding of scripture with insights from cultural anthropology. It is an engaging read, with many real life examples and stories. Each chapter ends with questions for reflection and discussion, so it could be used in a team-learning context. I’d like to think that every international student worker reads this book. It’s my new ‘go to’ book to recommend.

Crossing Cultures with Jesus: Sharing Good News with Sensitivity and Grace

By Katie J Rawson, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL: ISBN 978-0-8308-4438-8

Available here in print or for Kindle.

Posted by: Catherine Weston | November 2, 2015

A Brit’s Eye view of American Halloween

So we’re in the Midwest, staying with friends in suburban Michigan. The neighbourhood has spacious homes on generous plots of land. The many trees are shedding leaves in rich shades of orange, yellow and red, carpeting extensive green lawns, or piled into order by industrial size leaf blowers. At the very least, homes have colourful pumpkins on display, stacked on the porch steps for all to admire.

Some homes, however, have front yard displays to celebrate the macabre. We’re beginning to see that a little bit in the UK now, of course, but here it’s in a different league. We’ve spotted fake graveyards (raven optional), enormous spiders with their fake cobwebs draped across bushes and ghoulish figures hanging from trees. At one house there’s even a gigantic inflatable black cat leering at us, its head swivelling from side to side.

Fake graveyard

Fake graveyard

In the local elementary school, the children have a fancy dress parade at Halloween, which the parents go to watch. Our hosts’ kids took part, but there’s nothing spooky or scary here. The 10 year old and her friend were waitresses, complete with aprons, trays and menus. The 8 year old was an owl, proudly swooping around in her feathery wings. The 5 year old didn’t want to wear the Iron Man outfit, preferring a superhero of his own devising. In the end, after some negotiating with his Dad, he became a Random Number Generator with a costume constructed from two cardboard boxes.

Random Number Generator

Random Number Generator

The superhero fancy dress theme was in evidence at a local restaurant where we went on Friday for breakfast (pancakes, cream cheese, strawberries and blueberries if you’re wondering) and were served by ‘Miss America’. Batman and Superman were serving tables as well.

Halloween was a Saturday this year and unfortunately it poured with rain all afternoon and evening, which meant the carefully prepared costumes for trick or treating were somewhat submerged under raincoats, rain boots (= wellies) and umbrellas. The cardboard boxes stayed at home! Two other families joined us for an early supper and 8 excitable children in assorted costume, accompanied by three dads (normal rainwear) and two people dressed as a middle aged British couple with umbrellas braved the elements and set out on a hunt for free candy.

The city authorities decree that trick or treating only takes place between 6 and 8 pm, so if you don’t want to take part you can just switch off the lights and retreat to the back of the house or basement. So the kids look for the homes which have a porch light on – many homes had a lit pumpkin in their windows, or orange fairy lights – and gather in an excited bunch to call ‘trick or treat’. The householder maybe calls ‘Happy Halloween’, admires the costume and awards them a small candy bar each (think fun size Snickers or KitKat). No tricks here – only treats!

After half an hour of rain, we beat a retreat, and the younger children came home early too, but the lure of free candy was too much for the nearly 12 year old and his friends. After two hours scouring the neighbourhood they arrived home, dripping wet but triumphant, with full plastic buckets whose contents were then tipped out onto the living room carpet.

Of course this isn’t the full story of Halloween in America – some friends mentioned that in some places there is more of the dark aspect of trick or treating we’re familiar with in the UK. Exploring the macabre side of Halloween is a subject for another time – see for example this helpful post from J John. But it’s worth reflecting about what is going on under the surface even with the innocent candy feast we experienced. My theory is that, no matter what their origin (and that’s another subject, too) folk customs such as the American Halloween trick or treat are reinterpreted in every generation to meet an ongoing need or give opportunity to express a value deeply held. If they don’t meet that need they die out.

So what does Halloween say about American values? My tentative suggestion is the indulgence and positive affirmation of children together with a focus on plentiful supply. There’s something deep in the American psyche, forged from the pioneer spirit and the overcoming of tough obstacles to build a new nation, which affirms that abundance of food is a good thing. Not only abundance, but excess – full and overflowing.

Only a small percentage of the evening's haul

Only a small percentage of the evening’s haul

Posted by: Catherine Weston | May 2, 2015

British Identity?

Just before Christmas, I visited the National Portrait Gallery in London where I saw two contrasting images of Britain. It made me think about what stories we tell ourselves about our identity.  The first was a large oil painting: a confident depiction of Queen Victoria, at the height of the British Empire, offering a gift to a bowing visiting diplomat from East Africa. The gift is a Bible and the title of the painting is ‘The Secret of England’s Greatness’. You can see the picture and read the gallery description here.

It provokes thought at all kinds of levels. As a Christian, I can affirm strongly that the Bible has had a profound positive effect over centuries in shaping many of our cultural values and institutions. To imply that it was the prime mover in creating the empire is quite another matter. The scene depicted is in fact based more on wishful thinking and propaganda than a real event, so while I can rejoice at the idea of an African gentleman receiving a Bible, I am profoundly uneasy at the underlying message.

The second artwork, part of a temporary exhibition, is a contemporary piece by Grayson Perry, entitled ‘Comfort Blanket’. It is a large tapestry designed like a banknote with an oval portrait of the Queen. It’s a vibrant, funny and thought-provoking piece that pays close inspection. It was a bit like looking at a visual depiction of ‘Watching the English’ by anthropologist Kate Fox.

Each colourful section, mimicking the detailed segments and patterns of paper money, puts together names, words and phrases to sum up our ‘Mongrel Nation’. So, for example, laid out in a shape like the Union flag are Offa’s dyke, Titanic and Ceilidhs rubbing shoulders with Tom Jones, William Wallace and Seamus Heaney. Elsewhere Cricket, The Rolling Stones, Margaret Thatcher and the North South Divide were juxtaposed, near a prominent ‘A Nice Cuppa Tea’. Curry is there, along with Fish & Chips and Cheddar. One of my favourite sections has Marks & Spencer, Eric & Ernie, Feet & Inches, Pie & Mash and Posh & Becks. I could go on, but you get the picture.

I’m not sure where ‘Comfort Blanket’ has moved to since the exhibition closed in March, but I hope it has found a home where many more can enjoy Perry’s take on the identity we British give ourselves.

You can see a picture and read a bit more here.

Posted by: Catherine Weston | April 2, 2015

Fire and politics

Wild fire on Table Mountain: view from Tokai

Wild fire on Table Mountain: view from Tokai

A few days before our arrival in Cape Town last month, much of the Table Mountain National park was engulfed by wildfire.  At the end of a dry summer, it doesn’t take much to set the whole mountain ablaze, but this was the biggest fire in at least 10 years. It took several days and the concerted efforts of fire crews, volunteers and helicopters to contain. We could still see plumes of smoke as we drove in from the airport, although by then the worst was over.  The photo shows the view from friends’ bedroom window at the height of the fire, burning only 1 km from their house.

Thankfully, we have heard of no loss of life, although some homes were destroyed and, while the fires were raging, some of the mountain roads on the Cape peninsula were closed.  This had an interesting knock on effect for us. The 38th Cape Town Cycle Tour – a popular annual race – took place the weekend we arrived and would normally involve the main road south on the peninsular being closed to normal traffic. So we planned instead to travel by train to the church we were visiting on Sunday. However, with the mountain roads so badly affected, the race was curtailed to a much shorter route and we ended up driving to Fish Hoek after all.

Actually, fires are a good thing for the fynbos, a vegetation type that is unique to the Cape. It’s part of the natural lifecycle of the plants, which can only regenerate after fire.  However, given the devastation and challenge of the latest fires I asked a South African friend if the SAN Parks authorities considered controlled burning.  Oh yes, was the reply, but they need a permit to do so from the national government, which won’t grant it.  You see, he explained, national government (ANC) doesn’t like the fact that the Western Cape Province is governed by the Democratic Alliance.

So a sensible decision to carry out a sustainable environmental practice that would benefit everyone concerned is thrown out because of political rivalry. This is emphatically not a political blog, but with a general election just launched here in the UK, this story is a good reminder to pray for all politicians everywhere to seek to serve their people first for the long term good of all.

Posted by: Catherine Weston | December 1, 2014

What is a missionary? Finding categories that fit!

Goheen missionYears ago when we were in training at All Nations Christian College, we were given the task of speaking at a local church about being a missionary.  I remember struggling with the concept, because the term doesn’t actually appear in the Bible.  I recollect that we spoke about being Christ’s ambassadors (from 2 Corinthians 5:20). Back then (in the mid 80s) I wasn’t aware of discussions about the nature of mission/s. Back then we all ‘knew’ it was about proclaiming the gospel to the nations!

Mission (so we understood) involved crossing a cultural frontier, and the usual way in which that happened was to ‘go overseas’ (usually somewhere exotic where the weather was hot).  That was the legacy of the 19th century understanding, when the ‘West’ was ‘Christian’ and everywhere else wasn’t! The only trouble was, Richard and I never made it beyond the UK (see why here). Were we proper missionaries?  Members of the UK church we subsequently joined didn’t seem to think so.  Or at least many didn’t quite know how to place us.  We knew we were crossing cultures with the gospel as we sought to tell international students about Jesus, but we were living at home! We weren’t working for an established missions agency, nor were we working for a church. We never fitted into anyone’s known categories.

I wish I’d had access, back then, to some of the books available now – though maybe I wouldn’t have been ready to appreciate them, being so green and untested in cross-cultural Christian ministry. I’m just coming to the end of Michael Goheen’s new volume ‘Introducing Christian Mission today’, deeply appreciative of the breadth and depth of his thinking in this area.

He has an interesting section on making distinctions in terminology.  So for him: ‘Mission is the whole task of the church to witness to the whole gospel in the whole world…[it] is a comprehensive term that is synonymous with the way many use the term “witness” ’.

If that’s the case, then we are all ‘missionaries’ and we were right all those years ago to speak about being ambassadors for Christ.  It’s for every believer in any and every context in which God puts us to witness in word and deed to the coming reign of King Jesus. On the other hand ‘Missions [with an s] is one aspect of the broader mission of the church … to establish a witness to the gospel in places or among peoples where there is none or where it is very weak’. It doesn’t have to be cross-cultural, though it often is.  It doesn’t have to be away from one’s own country, though it may be.

How about you? Where is your ‘mission field’?

Posted by: Catherine Weston | September 29, 2014

How to use up left over cooked rice

At this time of year there are thousands of students from around the world arriving and settling in to a new and alien home as they begin their studies in the UK. They are often excited by their new environment, but they miss the familiar tastes of home. A few of them found their way to our home on Saturday night.

As usual I had cooked generous quantities of rice. The spare rice cooker had come up from the cellar – along with the large catering pan – for our welcome supper for new arrivals. The food (Thai chicken, and a veggie alternative) was much appreciated but in fact even with 20 to feed there was plenty of rice to spare. By the end of the evening it looked somewhat unappealing, as it had congealed into glutinous lumps stuck to the bottom of the cooker.

As I prepared to scrape the leftovers into plastic tubs I found myself wondering how long it would take for the two of us to get through it all, even if I froze a lot of it. I couldn’t really serve up such leftovers at our next mass dinner! However I decided to ask if any of our guests would like some rice to take home. Immediately a Japanese girl’s eyes lit up. ‘Really? Can I take some home?’ Soon three Japanese students were ladling generous amounts of cooked rice into clean plastic bags to take away with them, hardly able to believe their luck.

Next time I have a lot of rice left over, I’ll know what to do.

This is what went with the rice

This is what went with the rice

Posted by: Catherine Weston | June 19, 2014

Telling stories

Peace childI enjoyed a couple of good books recently and thought you might too. Peace Child by Don Richardson will no doubt be familiar to many of you, at least by reputation. It’s been out at least 40 years, translated into many languages and made into a film. Finally I have actually got round to reading it for myself!

Briefly, if you didn’t know, it recounts the story of how in the early 1960s Canadian missionaries Don & Carol Richardson lived in a remote part of Irian Jaya with the Sawi tribe. For the Sawi people – cannibalistic head hunters using Stone Age technology – it was their first contact with the outside world. Richardson is an able storyteller who transports the reader into both the jungle environment and the treachery-honouring mindset of the Sawi people. How do you tell the gospel of Jesus to a people who think Judas is the hero of the crucifixion account?

The answer finally came in discovering a redemptive analogy already built in to the culture and worldview of the people – the peace child – which served as a bridge to understanding. Read the book for yourself or check out this 15 minute video recounting a return visit by the Richardson family 50 years on.


BurqasMy second book, In the Land of Blue Burqas, is much more recent. Again the author is a very good storyteller who takes you into a very different world. Kate McCord (not her real name) is a Christian who spent five years in Afghanistan working for an NGO empowering local women. She gave up many ‘freedoms’ Western women take for granted in adapting her dress and public behaviour in order to be accepted. She learned the language and spent countless hours in homes engaged in conversation with Afghan women.

As she listened to their stories she began to gain insights into the Islamic culture and worldview of the Afghan people and learned how to express her own (often opposing) values in ways that avoided offense. She had to disentangle what she understood to be Biblical values from what were simply those of her own, Western culture. She told stories about ‘the honourable Jesus Messiah’ in ways that connected with the women – who were often illiterate. Here’s a good example of how to communicate the gospel in a potentially very hostile environment with integrity, humility and grace. It’s a thought provoking and highly recommended read.

The link between the two books will be apparent. Both tackle the ongoing need to listen and understand the culture of those with whom you speak. I was encouraged in my journey with international students to listen well and learn about the stories that connect. Happy Reading.

Posted by: Catherine Weston | April 17, 2014

Walls that divide

Not far from where we used to live in North Oxford, a 1930s housing developer once decided that his new homes built for private residents would not sell if there were council tenants next door. So he built walls across two roads, thus dividing the new private houses from the neighbouring council estate (also new). Despite protests, and inconvenience for all residents, the Cutteslowe walls remained there for over 20 years. You can read the full story here.

Class divisions are one thing, but there have been other dividing walls with far greater impact. Last month we were in Berlin, twenty-five years after the Wall was pulled down, and were able to track down some of the remaining fragments and see the original line marked into the roads and paving.


Visiting the city, now joyfully whole again and buzzing with life, it was poignant to note what impact that wall once had. In dividing East and West Berlin, it cut through the heart of the city, confined a church, blocked a triumphal gateway and terminated an underground line. And that is just the physical effect. Some say that for many of the Cold War generation the Wall mentality still remains.

On our tourist trail we stumbled across the Stasi museum and reflected on the lengths some people will go to cling on to power and limit the freedom of others. We saw the open-air exhibition at Bernauer Strasse where so many tried to escape the confines of the Wall. Some were successful; some died in the attempt.

However, the most important wall of all was catastrophically breached on that first Easter, around 2,000 years ago. The curtain in the Jerusalem Temple was torn in two from top to bottom: we are now free to come into the presence of our creator. The ‘dividing wall of hostility’ between Jew and Gentile (Eph. 2:14) has been destroyed: every nation can be reconciled with one another through faith in Jesus.

That is surely good news to share with those who are trapped by dividing walls of many kinds.

Happy Easter!


Good Friday

Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday


Posted by: Catherine Weston | March 17, 2014

A Cherry Tree

In the depths of rural Hertfordshire is a beautiful place that marks the beginning of our journey amongst international students. We were back there at the weekend to erect a memorial stone to replace a no longer legible brass plaque.

Back in the mid eighties we were studying at All Nations Christian College, preparing to go to South America, but the birth of our first-born Daniel changed everything.  He had a severe form of Brittle Bone disease and it was clear we needed to stay in the UK to care for him.

However, a door opened for us to work amongst international students in Cambridge, once we finished our two-year training.  We reasoned that if we couldn’t go to the world, the world could come to us.  Cambridge, like many university cities in the UK, is a magnet for students from all over the world and something of our cross-cultural training could be put to good use there.

It was somehow ironic, then, that Daniel was taken from us just three weeks after we moved to Cambridge. Yet something about the opportunities to share our lives and love of Jesus with these bright and openly curious students gripped us in a way that we’ve never been able to shake off. In time we came to realise that God had redirected us to a life’s path that we would never otherwise have chosen.  It certainly hadn’t been our plan to stay at home.

If you should happen to visit All Nations Christian College, near Ware in Hertfordshire, you will find a cherry tree outside the dining hall with the new memorial stone next to it.  We planted it almost thirty years ago to remember Daniel, who spent much of his short life in the college nursery nearby. How fitting that Friends International, our ministry family, has recently moved its Support Centre office to some college buildings just round the corner. IMG_2039

Posted by: Catherine Weston | January 17, 2014

New Year, new books

81fG2DErr8L._SL1500_I was given for Christmas Alistair McGrath’s excellent recent biography of C S Lewis, which was published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the author’s death. I haven’t been able to put it down. McGrath shares similar qualities with his subject, I think – definitely erudite, but clear, accessible and engaging as a popular writer.

Interestingly McGrath and Lewis share other similarities: both were born in Northern Ireland but came to England and pursued academic careers in Oxford. Both turned from atheism to Christianity and both have written significant works of Christian apologetics.  Perhaps that’s what makes McGrath such an empathetic biographer – he really understands the world which Lewis inhabited.

As a long time fan of the Narnia chronicles I found the story of Lewis’ life, previously known to me only a little, to be fascinating. Here’s a well researched and clear headed portrait that doesn’t shy away from the difficult bits, but shows a deep understanding for Lewis and his milieu.

Having just watched again the 1993 film ‘Shadowlands’ with some international students (it’s a great showcase for Oxford!) I was intrigued to discover (from the book) a far more nuanced account of Lewis’ relationship and marriage with Joy Davidman than the romanticised version the film would have you believe. For example, Lewis is not really the socially repressed English academic of the picture – by all accounts he had a wide circle of friends and was extremely convivial.  And he was Irish.  That said it’s still a great movie and good for introducing thoughtful discussion on suffering. Keep the tissues handy, though, and remember this: if you want a more faithful and rounded portrayal of C S Lewis, read Alistair McGrath’s book.


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