Joelle Kenny, author of The Life I Now Live, talks to us about the life she now lives, as well as the life she once lived.
How would you describe your life growing up?
I grew up in a single parent household and we faced many challenges both relationally and economically. Although my mum did her best to provide for us, money was often tight.
There were times in my childhood that we were attending a church and we enjoyed being a part of a church community, but at home we were not reading the Bible or praying together. Our lives had not yet been changed by the Gospel.
We were still making worldly choices and living unwisely, despite showing an interest in God and sometimes going to church.
What were your impressions of God and Christians?
I had a positive impression of Christians. I had Christian friends at school and I could see they had an inner contentment that the rest of us did not have and I found that appealing.
I wanted God and all the things I had heard about him to be true and because of that, at times I even called myself a Christian—but I was not yet living in a ‘relationship’ with him; a relationship where I daily submitted my life to him, sought his counsel, and depended on him.
How did you come to know Jesus? How did that change your life and perspectives?
At University, I stopped thinking about God completely and just followed the crowd. We lived for ourselves, for the moment—getting drunk and fooling around with the opposite sex. It was ‘fun’ at first, but after a while it felt empty and meaningless.
I felt starved of deeper conversations, of value and purpose. When I left University, I was on a quest to find the ‘meaning of life’ and whether or not God was real. I was tired of sitting on the fence, showing an interest in God and yet not being fully committed to him.
I started going back to church and reading books aimed at those exploring the Christian faith. Hearing sin explained as rebellion against God, is what hit the nail on the head for me. Until sin was described as ‘rebellion against our own creator’, I couldn’t see its seriousness or why it deserved death.
Once I knew sin was rebellion and not just an ‘oops I slipped up’, I could appreciate more fully what happened on the cross and how kind God is to give us a second chance.
What are the ways that God has chosen to grow you since then?
First and foremost, I have grown through studying the Bible in weekly Bible study groups. Hearing a sermon preached on a Sunday was not enough for me.
I needed to discuss the Bible with others, ask questions, and wrestle with it. Bible study groups, where we delved deeply into the Word of God and wrestled with it together, made my faith much stronger, much truer.
Serving God overseas has also matured my relationship with God. Serving God in another language and culture is uncomfortable and challenging.
I had to learn to trust God to be at work despite my limitations and weaknesses. It taught me to depend on him in a much deeper and more precious way.
What made you realise that you were called to mission work?
I went to Cambodia initially to teach at an international school. Whilst I was there, I went to a Cambodian church and made Cambodian friends. Then I started a weekly Bible study group for these new friends and discovered I enjoyed teaching the Bible to Cambodians.
That made me think I should consider doing it more full–time. I decided to share the idea with my church—as I respected their opinion on this matter.
Their approval was the confirmation I needed to pursue missions, and after a few years of Bible training, I returned to Cambodia as one of their mission partners.
How did you cope with the cultural changes of life on the mission field?
I have always found other cultures fascinating, but that does not mean it was necessarily easy to live in another culture. I am not a linguist and I found learning the language difficult. I still miss being able to express myself fully, like I can in English.
When it comes to language study, it helps not to focus too much on how much you still need to learn, but how far you have already come.
There will always be things about the host culture that you find frustrating, but over time you adjust to those differences and the frustrations gradually lessen.
Could you describe a typical day in your life in Cambodia?
You don’t need an alarm clock in rural Cambodia, you are woken every morning at 4.00am by a chorus of cockerels cock–a–doodling!
We tend to clean our houses, sweep our yards and make food early in the morning, when it is cooler. My days then vary between preparing Bible studies at home or being out in a village teaching the Bible to either groups of women or youth.
In the evenings, I have fellowship with the six high school students living in my home. We eat together, sing, study God’s word, share, and pray. It’s our ‘family time’ together and a nice way to finish the day before heading to bed, as early as 8.30pm!
What’s been your funniest memory of your time there?
There are so, so many! Once I had some Cambodian friends from Phnom Penh come to stay with me in Ratanakiri (a province in the North east of the country). I was busy one morning and they kindly offered to go to market and prepare lunch. I left them to it.
When they called me to come for lunch, I was horrified to find the food had been served up in the dog bowls! I didn’t have the heart to tell them. Needless to say, it was not a meal I particularly enjoyed eating.
What was your greatest discouragement? And your greatest encouragement?
The greatest discouragement is when people you have invested in spiritually and who seem to be doing really well in their faith, then choose to marry a non–believer.
They gradually stop serving God, coming to church or weekly Bible study groups. They tell you the person they are marrying wants to become a Christian too—but it is never sincere. More often than not, the marriage is an unhappy one, as their partner either drinks too much, is unfaithful, or the relationship breaks down.
On the other hand, the greatest encouragement is when someone you have invested in spiritually does stick with Jesus. They choose to marry a believer and start teaching and leading the groups you’ve once led. And of course, they do it much better, because it’s their own language and culture!
What advice would you give to young people who are wondering if they should go into missions?
I would advise working or volunteering overseas for six months to two years. You could help home–school the children of missionaries, work at an international Christian school, or use whatever skills or training you have to serve a local church or organisation.
Settle there for a while, observe the missionaries around you and learn from them. Through that experience you will get a feel for whether or not you can/want/are called to do missions longer term.
What stories (books, films, TV) have you enjoyed recently?
Right now, I tend to watch TV series rather than films. When you live overseas it is nice to watch things that remind you of home and feel familiar. For example, Downton Abbey, or Poldark, or Sherlock.
It is nice to see people drink tea and eat cake! Plus, seeing all the British locations where they are filmed.
I mostly read Christian books that help me in my ministry, but the last autobiography I read was Boy and Going Solo by Roald Dahl. He is an entertaining writer of course, but his life as a fighter–pilot in World War II was particularly fascinating.
To read more of Joelle’s story, read her autobiography,The Life I Now Live.