By Ian White

Surprise in Afghanistan

Rachael Phillips
Rachael Phillips says all her life she has been drawn to people in need.

As a captain in the British Army, Rachael Phillips wandered into church in a remote patrol base in Afghanistan – and had the surprise of her life.

Rachael had decided God wasn't for her. He was like the sheets of wallpaper sometimes found lining old chests of drawers: curious, but irrelevant to her modern generation.

"Christians were nice people," Rachael says. "They were constant. They were part of the fabric of my country. But let's face it – they were a bit odd. I couldn't help but feel a sense of smugness when I heard Christians talk of their belief in God, because I knew something they didn't: I knew it was irrational to believe in God.

"My attitude towards religion could be summed up as intense apathy, so you can imagine my surprise when, on my second operational tour of Afghanistan, I found myself walking towards a makeshift church where a service was being held by a visiting padre."

An extraordinary decision for Rachael, but then it hadn't been an ordinary day.

"The things I'd seen and had to do weighed heavily on me. As a Pashto-speaking female, trained to be a team medic, I'd been required to help treat civilian casualties who'd turned up at our base looking for help.

"That evening I stood at the back of the cold metal church feeling like somewhat of a hypocrite."

But the next 20 minutes changed the course of Rachael's life forever.

"Padre Robin Richardson told me about a God who loved me deeply and without condition," she remembers. "A forgiving, understanding God who loved me even more than my own parents did, and even despite my failings. I didn't have to shoulder the responsibility for the things I'd seen and done or for those I'd failed to do.

"Tears streamed down my face and were wiped away in embarrassment."

Rachael confided in the padre afterwards that she "might actually believe in God" and went on to complete a course exploring the Christian faith, before making a full commitment to Christ back home.

Sensing a "call" to ordained ministry, she realized "the reason God had packed so much into my first 29 years was because He was preparing me for a very challenging role".

"All my life I've been drawn to people in need, from my work in Malawi as a teenager to my work in Sri Lanka following the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, to the particular roles I've undertaken in the army," she says.

Rachael left full-time army service last year and is doing a theology degree part-time.

The 30-year-old is now working at a church in a role designed to encourage a culture of generous giving.

"My job is to work with villagers in places like Bosnia and Afghanistan, learning about their culture and social dynamics, explaining what role the army plays in the area. It is similar to the work I plan on doing next, learning about the needs and dynamics of the community and explaining how giving generously is part of our Christian faith."

Royal Engineer-trained Rachael is certainly happier working with people than with equipment, but that is where the comfort ends.

"To say my life has been turned upside down would be quite the understatement!" she says.

She believes in the sentiment of the words of a well-known hymn: "Lord of all hopefulness, Lord of all joy" – but adds her own line: "Lord of massive surprises".

"My life is so very different now, yet in a strange way I've never felt more secure," Rachael concludes. "There's something wonderfully liberating about giving up your own choices and just following Christ. I don't feel the same pressure to make the right decisions based on meticulous planning, calculations, and pragmatism.

"I'm just saying, 'Let's see what God wants'."

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