Richard Smith was named ‘New Zealand’s most inspiring teacher’ in September. He shares his journey back to faith.
Salvation Army officers go back three generations in my family, so God featured large in my home life. As an eight-year-old I accepted Jesus as my Saviour, but my early faith was rocky. Although I asked for God’s forgiveness and understood he loved me, I was acutely aware of my own sin and failing and often felt condemned.
As a late teen and young adult, I grew to understand that God’s love for me was unconditional, but by 28 I was disillusioned. I judged churches to be largely devoid of compassion, culturally exclusive and self-serving. But this criticism was self-serving, too—closely related to despondence with my own faith and a desire to pursue my ambitions.
I left the church and my understanding of God was reduced to a few abstract ‘ultimate values’. It was during a holiday in Rarotonga that I became more acutely aware of my spiritual poverty. In a backpacker’s lounge I picked up a book that helped bring Jesus back into focus as the son of God. I found myself really praying for the first time in years.
About two years later I met the love of my life, Kirstie. After our marriage, I began to attend church with her from time to time. Once again, I encountered God as I was reminded of his love for me. I could only respond with wonder and gratitude, asking him to become my Lord and Saviour. Since then, God has been gently renewing me. For lack of a better metaphor: new sap, new shoots and new buds in branches long dead.
I’d been dragging around anger and grief for years: a shadow cast by dashed hopes, loss and deteriorating family illness. Earlier this year, I laid it all out before God. In that moment I knew his presence—his love. I stood there dumbfounded, my cheeks wet with tears. I wasn’t hearing voices or convoluted arguments; I simply knew the presence of God and a sense of complete peace.
Reflecting on this, I’ve thought of Jesus’ grieving disciples who gathered after the crucifixion in distress and disarray, and then the risen Jesus says, ‘Peace be with you.’ I know that peace. I now have an understanding of what the Psalmist might have meant when he described being given ‘beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning and the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness’. The result is I’m talking to people about my faith, about God.
Christian friends in the ‘life group’ I attend have helped me approach my work as a teacher differently. To see it as mission: by serving my students, I’m serving God. This sense of service and mission has grown.
A few months ago I became aware of something my wife has known for years: God’s prompting for overseas mission work. In January we will travel to Cambodia to work as teachers. For Kirstie, this will mean working with young girls rescued from prostitution, while most of my students will be children of missionaries. We are now in the process of raising support and preparing for the shift and are excited about what God has in store for us.
by Richard Smith(c) 'War Cry' magazine, 14 November 2015, pp 9.
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