prayHere at Syzygy we receive lots of prayer letters – which is great, because we love to pray for mission workers.  In fact, we set aside time every week specifically to intercede for mission.  Sometimes, the letters we receive encourage us to ‘redouble our efforts’ or ‘pray seriously’.  While such expressions may express the sense of urgency the mission worker is feeling, what do they actually imagine we’re going to do?  Grit our teeth as we pray?  Sweat?  Shout at God, as if he can’t hear us otherwise?  How do we, in fact, prayer harder?

In recent blogs we’ve looked at the Protestant Work Ethic, which in simple terms can drive evangelical Christians to work hard in an attempt to ‘pay God back’ for the salvation they’ve received as a free gift.  We’ve seen how that can contribute to stress and overwork among mission workers, and we have considered how the Protestant Work Ethic might have affected our interpretation of the Parable of the Talents.  Today I’ d like to look at how it might affect our attitude towards prayer.

Despite what Jesus taught us about prayer, it can very easily become an exercise in works rather than faith.  We can fall into the temptation of thinking that by making our prayers longer, more verbose, louder, or emotionally more intense, they somehow work better.  They may work even better if they are accompanied by fasting, or getting up early.  These days we find that wearing sackcloth or beating ourselves is a little too uncomfortable, but we still buy into the same principle: we can make prayer more effective by working harder at it.

Jesus taught us that this is manifestly not the case.  He told us not to be like unbelievers who suppose we will be heard for our many words (Matthew 6:7).  He clearly said that God is not like the judge who answered a widow’s pleas only because she nagged him till he got fed up with her (Luke 18:1-8).  He compared God to a loving father who delights in giving good things to his children (Matthew 7:11).

912758_hand-holding_1What does that look like in practice?  It means having a relationship with God.  It means coming as a little child, unencumbered by doubt or unbelief.  We ask daddy for what we want because we know he cares for us.  Sometimes daddy says no, because he knows it’s not good for us, or because he’s got other plans.

Some of the most effective prayers in the Bible have been the simplest.  Physical healing in response to a simple expression of trust: “Lord, you can make me clean, if you want to.” (Matthew 8:2)   Salvation effected not by a complex statement of faith but a simple statement of trust: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” (Luke 23:42).

These Biblical examples continue to this day.  I have seen God provide miraculous healing in response to a simple request: “Father, please heal this woman.  Amen”.  Once in Zambia I spend half an hour trying in vain to start a car which had an electrical fault.  At the end of this time the Zambian pastor who was travelling with me had finished speaking to the assembled villagers, got into the car, slapped his hand on the dashboard and simply said “Father, we need this car to start NOW!”  It started first time.

Effective prayer is simple prayer.  Just ask.  If you don’t get the answer you want, don’t nag God.  Assume God has given you the answer he wants, and learn to live with the situation God has put you in.  Sometimes the answer is not a change of circumstances, but a change of heart in the midst of those circumstances.

Syzygy maintains a network of intercessors to pray into the needs of mission workers.  You can find out more by looking at The Syzygy Prayer Network.  To join it, or to send us your prayer requests, email prayer@syzygy.org.uk.

 

NThe ISIS insurgency in Iraq has hit the headlines in the last few weeks as this Islamicist group has rapidly gained control of territory and prompted a mass-movement of refugees by its extreme persecution of minority religious groups, prompting many Christians to show their solidarity with the persecuted church by changing their Facebook photo to the Islamic letter ‘n’, which ISIS have been writing on the doors of the homes of Christians so that they can be easily identified.  It stands for ‘Nasrani’, the Arabic word for Nazarene, the local term for Christian.  Many people will not however have heard of the obscure Sykes-Picot Agreement which ISIS has vowed to overthrow.

ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is the successor to a number of Al-Qaeda-linked organisations which emerged in the aftermath of the Western invasion of Iraq, and which gained ground as an insurgent group in the Syrian civil war.  It has gained sympathy among Iraqi Sunnis marginalised by the pro-Shia regime of the recently-deposed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and it aims to impose a Sharia religious state (or Caliphate) throughout the Levant.

Sir Mark Sykes (left) and François George-Picot

Sir Mark Sykes (left) and François George-Picot

Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot were diplomats, British and French respectively, who in 1916 drew up a secret treaty agreeing how Britain and France would carve up the remains of the Ottoman Empire, which they confidently expected to be defeated in the First World War.  When this happened, The League of Nations gave Britain and France a mandate to run the countries we now know as Syria and Lebanon (France) and Israel-Palestine, Jordan and Iraq (Britain) as part of their Empires while creating independent countries.

Sykes and Picot drew lines on a map with little consideration of ethnic, religious and tribal affiliations, rather as the European colonial powers had done in Africa a generation previously.  The two countries subsequently imposed their own rule on these countries, overthrowing local arrangements which had emerged following the collapse of the Ottomans and reneging on previous agreements, particularly those made with local potentates by British soldier T E Lawrence in exchange for their support in fighting the Ottomans.

1112138276

Ongoing persecution for the church in Iraq?

This meant that local groupings had no opportunity to work out their own spheres of influence in the region.  In fact, since the arrival of Islam in the mid seventh century, the entire region has been in the hands of large empires (the Abbasid Caliphate, the Mongols, the Mamelukes and the Ottomans) which have artificially kept a lid on this turbulent region.  Centuries-old tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims are now erupting  in what experienced Middle East observers, including Lord Ashdown, have pointed out could be their equivalent of the Thirty Years’ War, as rival religious/tribal/ethnic groups vie to carve out their own polities.

The challenge for the Western world, which for the last century has continually tried to keep the lid on tensions in the region through a policy of appointing and supporting local strongmen like Bashar al-Assad and Saddam Hussein, is whether we step into this carnage and reimpose order (at what cost to ourselves and the locals?) or let the conflict that might have resolved issues a hundred years ago play itself out – at incredible cost of life and the ongoing persecution of minorities.

The dilemma is whether the Sykes-Picot Agreement should be overthrown, and if so, can we justify the consequences?

Many Christian agencies are working to help our brothers and sisters fleeing from the conflict in Iraq.  Open Doors is one of them.   Christian Today has some very practical suggestions on what individuals can do to help.

1354359_fifty_pounds_2The western church has traditionally interpreted the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 19:11-27) as an encouragement to use wisely the gifts that God has given us, though we usually play down the bit about the wrath of God poured out on the servant who doesn’t.  As we observed two weeks ago, this fits in neatly with our protestant work ethic – our performance demonstrates our salvation, and God is looking for a return on his investment in us.  But are there other ways of interpreting this parable when seen through the eyes of other cultures?

When workers’ groups in Latin America looked at this parable they came up with a very different interpretation, because their perspective is different.  In Europe, theology has traditionally been done by wealthy, white, educated men.  But the worker’s groups were the opposite: poor, uneducated, marginalised people who recognised in this story a situation only too relevant to their own situation.  They pointed out that in an agrarian economy anybody who was returning 1000% profit (Luke 19:16) was clearly exploiting someone, and was therefore a bad guy.  Only an evil and corrupt king would commend him.  By their reckoning, the only person who comes out of this story with any credit is the one who buried his talents – because he didn’t oppress anybody.

No pressure then...

No pressure then…

Most Europeans find this interpretation hard to accept, but possibly this is only because we are so accustomed to our traditional interpretation – that God has given us certain talents and expects us to make the most of them… or else.  Which, when you think about it, doesn’t really square with our idea of the totally unmerited grace of God.

The marginalised South Americans who developed their own understanding of this parable would be far closer to the culture of Jesus’ audience than we are.  And while there may be flaws in their interpretation (is Jesus really telling us it’s good just to bury our treasure and do nothing with it?) there are also flaws in ours – is God really an exacting man, reaping where he did not sow, and punishing those who don’t perform well enough?

We also face the challenge that the word ‘talent’ has a double meaning in English.  We understand it to mean a gift or ability, which is stretching the original text too far, as a talent was in Bible times an enormous sum of money.  Luke uses the equivalent word ‘mina’ (an ancient middle-eastern currency unit), which emphasises that there is a financial context to this parable.  A mina was worth about 9 months wages for an agricultural worker – a phenomenal amount of spending money for the sort of people Jesus was talking to.  A talent was the Greco-Roman equivalent.

Jesus is in fact basing this parable on a real life incident involving the king of Galilee, Herod Antipas.  When his father Herod the Great died shortly after Jesus was born, his will had to be confirmed by the Emperor, so all his sons scurried off to Rome to persuade Augustus to grant their claims.  The Jewish people also sent a delegation asking the Emperor to get rid of Herod’s dynasty altogether!

Which raises a relevant question:

Would Jesus really use Herod as a metaphor for God?

We naturally assume that the authority figure in any given parable – a king, a judge, a landowner – stands for God.  But that’s not necessarily so.  There can be the very odd occasion when the authority figure is an anti-type of God – see for example Luke 18:2-8 where the judge is clearly contrasted with God.  This parable is designed to contrast the oppressive behaviour of the king with that of God.  The king commends his stewards who exploited the poor by saying “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

SheepIt is interesting to note that immediately after this parable Matthew places the judgement of the sheep and the goats, which also features a reward for performance.  But in that story, the slaves are not expected to make a huge profit out of the people, but to be generous to them.  They were expected to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and visit the sick and imprisoned.  Is it possible that Matthew has set up a deliberate contrast between two ways of behaving – a worldly way embodied by an evil human king, and the heavenly way following the righteous God-King?

This understanding frees us from the pernicious pressure to perform in order to earn our salvation (or at least our reward) and allows us to love generously and freely, in a way that brings hope to the marginalised.  Over history, faced with the choice of being the oppressor or siding with the oppressed, the church has at different times done both.  Institutional church has often been the oppressor, while many courageous, counter-cultural individuals like Francis of Assisi and Mother Theresa have met Christ in the poor and downtrodden as they served them.

Which course will you take?

WW1

Troops in the trenches

Exactly 100 years ago today, Britain entered the First World War.  All year there have been documentaries, dramatisations and memorials, and no doubt these will continue.  Much has been reported about the military, political and social consequences of the war, but few commentators will have discussed the theological outcomes.

The outbreak of war brought to a close an unprecedented period of peace in western Europe – La Belle Epoque – and was the first pan-European war since the end of the Napoleonic wars 99 years earlier.  During the 19th century a belief in universal progress had emerged.  People prospered, and science, technology, medicine and industry advanced.  This high point of modernism fostered a belief that given enough time and money all humanity’s problems would ultimately be solved.

War gravesWorld War I blew a Dreadnought-sized hole in this optimistic outlook.  As the realisation began to dawn that the old world had been blown away by the war, and that killing millions of brave people in battle was not a glorious sacrifice but a tragic mistake, people began to realise that all technology had brought them was a way to kill each other more rapidly and effectively.  During the war, 8 million people died and 37 million were injured making it one of history’s worst conflicts.  Small wonder then that the 20th century turned out to be the bloodiest in human history – so far.

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

This crisis of belief took hold first in artistic and philosophical circles.  War poets became celebrated as contemporary prophets rather than vilified for their lack of patriotism.  Within a decade of the end of the war, Martin Heidegger was teaching nihilism in German universities.  A generation later existentialism emerged.  God was, in philosophical terms, well and truly dead.  It takes a few generations for new ideas to permeate society, so the soldiers who had endured so much trauma and suffering during the war did not immediately stop attending church services, though privately their trust in God may have been shattered.  But their grandchildren, in the 60s, led the exodus from churches.  Established religion began to lose its grip on society as people abandoned any pretence of a belief in God.  Churches closed down, and their buildings were converted into bars, apartments and gurdwaras.  People believed Christianity was finished.

Ironically, the children of that generation took a different approach.  Many of them realised that in abandoning organised religion, their parents had also surrendered any belief in spirituality.  Recognising that humanity has spiritual needs, some of them began searching for meaning in esoteric religions, paganism and New Age beliefs.  Turning their backs on the discredited scientific materialism of their forebears, they were free to embrace belief.

Young people at the Christian festival Soul Survivor

Young people at the Christian festival Soul Survivor

Their children, Generation Y, has become western Europe’s first largely unchurched generation since the start of the Dark Ages.  They are the first European generation in 1500 years who have absolutely no understanding of Christianity, no knowledge of biblical stories, and no awareness of the Lord’s Prayer or the Ten Commandments.  Paradoxically they are also history’s most open generation to Christianity.  With none of the disillusion of their parents and grandparents, or the preconceptions of their forebearss who thought Christianity had failed, they are willing to explore faith, spirituality and belief.  To them, Christianity is one facet of that exploration, and they have no prejudices against it.  Small wonder then that the church once again is starting to grow, as a new generation turns to Jesus in increasing numbers.

A century on from the most destructive conflict in European history, the European church is just beginning to recover.

Dr.-BrantlyThe news this week that Kent Brantly, a doctor working with Samaritan’s Purse in Liberia, and Nancy Writebol, an SIM mission worker, are both seriously ill with the Ebola virus has resonated round the Christian world as tens of thousands are moved to pray for their recovery.  Both have received emergency care and Dr Brantly has now been evacuated to the United States for ongoing medical attention.  Please pray for their recovery.  They were both involved in treating others at a medical facility and Franklin Graham, President of Samaritan’s Purse, commented: “Their heroic and sacrificial service—along with the entire team there—is a shining example of Christ’s love in this crisis situation.” 

An overview of the Ebola virus outbreak (www.samaritans purse.org)

An overview of the Ebola virus outbreak (www.samaritans purse.org)

Sadly it took the illness of two western development workers to draw the church’s attention to this outbreak which has already killed nearly 1000 Africans since it broke out in February in Guinea before spreading to Sierra Leone and Liberia.  The virulent Ebola virus has been a persistent threat since it was first identified in 1976, yet despite the speed at which it kills its victims, good quality containment has prevented it becoming the global pandemic that is often feared, and the current outbreak is the worst on record.

Ebola spreads easily through exposure to bodily fluids, and since its principal symptoms include diarrhoea and vomiting is is hard for those caring for patients to avoid infection without access to protective clothing, which can be difficult to obtain in the early stages of an outbreak.  Ebola can take two to three weeks to develop, and in its early stages many victims may not be able to distinguish it from malaria, which means it can easily take hold of a community before it is identified.

Ebola-careAs well as the tragedy of the deaths of its victims, Ebola can traumatise survivors.  The need for isolation to contain the outbreak means that relatives cannot touch patients or say proper goodbyes.  Bodies need to be disposed of rapidly and hygienically, which in parts of the region where the culture involves sitting grieving over a body for several days, can lead to a feeling that the victims have not been accorded due respect in their deaths, and may lead to fear of reprisals by the departed spirits.

There is no cure for the Ebola virus, but patients treated with rehydration therapy may fight it off for themselves.  Ironically, for such a virulent virus, it is relatively easy to eliminate outside the body, with regular handwashing with soap and water being sufficient.  The Foreign & Commonwealth Office has updates on the situation in all three affected countries and advises against all non-essential travel to some parts of Liberia.  You can read further health advice on the outbreak here.

Mission workers in the region should:

  • avoid contact with infected people, corpses and bodily fluids wherever possible
  • if the above is not possible, use protective clothing
  • wash hands thoroughly and regularly
  • avoid contact with uncooked meat or wild animals
  • wash and peel fruit and vegetables carefully
  • seek medical advice at the first signs of a fever

Please pray for:

  • the rapid recovery of those who are infected
  • the families of the deceased as they come to terms with the trauma
  • government, medical and development agencies as they struggle to care for those affected
  • the protection of all medical workers from infection
  • churches to be able to demonstrate and proclaim God’s love in the midst of this tragedy
Max Weber (1864-1920)

Max Weber (1864-1920)

Early in the 1900s, the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) was pondering why some European countries had evolved into industrial powerhouses while others still had largely agrarian economies.  He realised that the former group were the Protestant countries of northern Europe, while the latter group largely comprised the Mediterranean and Balkan countries where the predominant denomination was either Roman Catholic or Orthodox.  He concluded that some aspect of Protestantism must be responsible for industrialisation, and the idea of the Protestant Work Ethic was born.  Weber concluded that the teaching of the protestant reformers, reinforced by later writers like Benjamin “time is money” Franklin, placed an ethical value on hard work, diligence and frugality as the outward evidence of salvation.  The negative value Protestants placed on ostentation meant that many of those who had wealth, particularly the non-conformists, re-invested it rather than spent it, resulting in the build up of capital and the start of capitalism.

Much discussed and frequently discredited, particularly with the decline of organised religion in Europe (see next week’s blog), the PWE has been nevertheless an interesting indicator of an economic dividing line across Europe which continues to this day.  As a current example, what do the countries which suffered most in the Eurozone crisis have in common?  They’re all in the non-protestant group: Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Greece.  Or, as a more irreverent commentator put it, they’re countries where people work for less than 20 hours a week.

(with acknowledgements to Rob Cottingham)

(with acknowledgements to Rob Cottingham)

That commentator’s corollary was that in the Protestant countries, we live for less than 20 hours a week.  And that is a perceptive observation.  Because the PWE means that people in the protestant countries, even those who are not active believers, unwittingly subscribe to the view that work is a moral imperative, that one ought to work, and work hard, to use the gifts that God has given us wisely.  We have even interpreted the parable of the talents to reinforce this view, and we will comment on that in a blog in two weeks’ time.

The PWE is still alive and kicking in the western church in the form of hard work and responsibility.  It seems that Christians today in the west, while on one level fully buying into the idea that our salvation is a free gift of grace which we can do nothing to earn, spend the rest of their lives working hard for God to pay off the loan which they’ve taken out.  This creates in us the drive to continue serving even when overwork is squeezing the life out of us.

Souce: (www.sxc.hu)

Souce: (www.sxc.hu)

Mission workers often typify this situation.  Overworked into a joyless drudgery, they continue to drive themselves dutifully while drying up on the inside.  They call it ‘laying down their lives’.  But it is in many situations an unnecessary and unrequired sacrifice.  Syzygy believes that the PWE has contributed significantly to the overwork and stress that cripples mission workers, leading to burnout.  They carry the weight of their responsibility heavily, and feel guilty if they stop to enjoy themselves.

One of the questions that we at Syzygy frequently ask mission workers is:

Would God love you any less if you never did anything for God again?

The answer, of course, is always no.  So why do we live our lives as if our salvation depended on our works alone?  Max Weber knows.

Robert Jermain Thomas (1839-1866)

Robert Jermain Thomas (1839-1866)

On the face of it, Robert Thomas has to be one of the world’s worst missionaries (sorry Jamie!).  He had hardly set foot in the country he was called to before he was martyred, while according to some accounts, pleading with his murderers to accept Christ.

Christianity had come to Korea, been accepted and then harshly suppressed a couple of times before Thomas, a Welsh Presbyterian serving in China felt the call to Korea, then a closed country, and embarked with a consignment of Bibles on the General Sherman, a heavily-armed US trading ship which was hoping to open up trade (by force, if necessary) with the isolationist Korean kingdom.  As the ship sailed up river towards Pyongyang, Thomas apparently threw Bibles ashore to the Koreans.

Accounts differ of what happened next, and who started shooting, but an incident flared up and the US ship was set on fire.  The fleeing crew were fired upon but Thomas stayed on board till the last minute, still throwing Bibles ashore.  Leaving at the last minute, he was killed as soon as he swam ashore, while offering a Bible to his killer.

The Thomas Memorial Church

The Thomas Memorial Church

A local Korean took the Bibles and used them for wallpaper.  Some years later other mission workers brought Christianity once again to Korea, and local believers discovered the wallpaper and flocked to the house to read it.  The church continued to grow steadily and in 1932 Korean Christians built a memorial church on the riverbank near where Thomas died, but it was later destroyed during the communist revolution and the site is now part of the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.

Today it is not known how many Christians there are in North Korea, but they are the victims of the most anti-Christian government on the planet.  Most of the believers are in labour camps.  South Korea, on the other hand, has embraced Christianity.  Nearly a third of the population are Christians, the highest proportion in Asia, and they are one of the world’s leading missionary sending nations.

What can we learn from Robert Thomas?

  • He was keen to open new frontiers to the gospel.  Even though there were so many unevangelised Chinese, Thomas was led to go to a closed country where he knew the risk.  Today, when there are so many unevangelised countries in the 10/40 window and 41% of people who have not heard the gospel live in the thousands of neglected people groups, many British mission workers go to safe countries which already have strong indigenous churches. (You can read more about this in our blog Is it time to move on?)
  • He was zealous to propagate the gospel even when his own life was threatened.  In our risk-averse world, how many of us would even have gone to Korea, let alone offered a Bible to the soldier about to kill us?
  • There are dangers of being too closely involved with non-Christians.  If Thomas had not gone with armed traders, his reception may have been different.  We need to be wary of joining forces with those who do not share our aims and values.

Today, many thousands of South Korean pilgrims visit Wales to visit the birthplace of Robert Thomas in Rhayadr and the manse which was his childhood home.  The Christians in North Korea cannot, of course, even leave their prison camps leave alone their country.  Please pray for them.

captiveWe have blogged on numerous occasions about the suffering church worldwide but a visit to hear two young women from Iran talk about their experience of being imprisoned for sharing their Christian faith prompts us to consider the heroism of the many millions who struggle daily just to stay alive, let alone actively share their faith.

Maryam and Marziyeh both grew up in muslim families in Iran, and independently met Jesus while still in their teens as a result of their search for more meaning.  Within weeks they had led family members to Christ, and then shared the gospel with friends and strangers.  Boldly they spent four years handing out New Testaments around Teheran, or leaving them in restaurants, or posting them through people’s letter boxes.  In four years they were able to distribute 20,000 before the authorities finally caught up with them and imprisoned them.

Held in detention in a notorious prison, they continued to share the gospel with guards and prisoners, leading many to Jesus.  When challenged by interrogators, they said it was the fault of the authorities for putting them there!  They pointed out that it was natural for other prisoners to ask why they were there, and they had only answered truthfully, which led to people asking what Christianity was all about.

Which for us at Syzygy raises a rather uncomfortable question: how can two young Iranian believers be so bold in their faith when we in the west feel embarrassed to mention Jesus even to members of our own families?  Many of us will excitedly travel halfway round the world to take part in the latest outbreak of Holy Spirit revival but we won’t walk down the road to share the gospel with our neighbour.  We talk about being persecuted at work when colleagues tease us about being Christians and never have to face a life-and-death choice.  How did we get our values so upside down?  Why can’t we say, with St Paul:

I do not consider my life dear to me, in order that I may finish the course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God…. For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

(Acts 20:24, Philippians 1:21)

Subsequently cleared of the charges, freed, and allowed to emigrate to the United States, Maryam and Marziyeh now devote their time to reminding the church of the plight of believers in Iran, where many Christians are still in prison, and those who are not face significant discrimination and active persecution.  They are currently on a world tour telling their story to help Open Doors raise funds for a much-needed project.  We strongly recommend going to one of their remaining events, which you can find out about here.

Please pray for the suffering church in Iran, particularly those in prison.  You can find out more at the Open Doors website.

BrazilBeing defeated 7-1 in a football match is an unmitigated disaster, particularly when it’s at home in the semi-final of a world cup.  Recently Andy Murray crashed out of Wimbledon after apparently being upset in the locker room just before the start of the match.  Mark Cavendish crashed on the finishing straight of the first stage of the Tour de France.  And we won’t even mention the Ashes.

All of these defeats have a profound impact on those involved.  As well as having to cope with the huge personal disappointment, they have to relive the event as they comment on it over and again in television interviews.  Some of them will lose their jobs as a result, and possibly even their livelihoods.  All of this is worked out in the shame and humiliation of the public eye.

But what happens when mission workers have to face a disaster of their own causing?  Perhaps they thought that because they’re working for God they were exempt from complying with local regulations and a hefty fine threatens to close down their ministry.    Maybe they trusted people and didn’t put in place adequate checks on their integrity, resulting in malpractice in their church.  Or through pride, arrogance or stubbornness they fell out with their own colleagues and split the team in two.  Perhaps they have failed to maintain their car properly, resulting in a fatal accident.  Maybe they’ve failed to look after their own health, or their marriage.  Sadly such occurrences are far more common than you might think, and often the mission workers have nowhere to turn to for help.

Nobody like accepting responsibility for failure.  We try to blame someone else, and if there’s no obvious human, Satan is always a useful scapegoat.  Mission workers fear that if they own up to their own faults, their agencies and churches might stop supporting them, and they may lose their funding.

In mission, we don’t tend to handle defeat and failure well.  We often don’t face up to it, or we try to sweep it under the carpet.  But, unlike banks, mission workers are not too big to fail.  In fact, a timely admission of error can be appropriate and healthy.

Agencies and churches should work to create a supportive and honest environment in which failure can be admitted, repentance made, and lessons learned.

Syzygy provides confidential debriefing and pastoral support for mission workers, particularly those who feel they have nobody else to talk to.  For more information email info@syzygy.org.uk.

Countries of the 10/40 window, in blue

Countries of the 10/40 window, in blue

Which are the countries which have the smallest proportion of Christians?  Most of the candidates are debatable because it is hard to collect accurate statistics in them, and many believers will be keeping their heads down for fear of persecution.  But the answer is probably:

  • Western Sahara
  • Afghanistan
  • Somalia
  • Yemen
  • Maldives
  • Morocco
  • Mauritania

All of these countries have fewer than 0.5% Christians, and are closely followed by Tunisia, Algeria and Turkey.*  Many other countries in north Africa, central Asia and the middle east have fewer than 1% Christians.  None of these countries are places where it would be easy to be a mission worker, and in many of them, it could be fatal.  As it can be for the believers.

1112138276You might expect the bulk of the church’s mission work to focus on countries like these.  Even if it’s not easy for us to go as mission workers, it’s possible to go and start missional businesses such as teaching English or computing, introduce the nationals to Jesus while they are studying abroad in a more open country, and train locals remotely to witness to their own people.  We can broadcast the gospel into their countries – see the work of TWR Europe, FEBA or Sat 7 for example.  We can pray.  We can go on holiday there and try to be a subtle witness or engage in prayer ministry.  Some agencies, to be sure, are trying to get people into countries like these, but of course we can’t tell you who they are in these pages, though we salute the faith of the few who engage in such a dangerous calling.

Yet a list of the countries to which the UK sends most mission workers tells a different story.  We actually invest most of our missionary effort in countries where Christians are already in the majority.  The top five receiving countries are:

  • Kenya (79% Christian)
  • Brazil (91%)
  • France (68%)
  • Zambia (85%)
  • Spain (68%)

In total there are over 10,000 mission workers in these countries from all over the world.  It is perfectly legal to witness to people and to start a new church in each of these countries (though occasionally very difficult!).  Although many of the ‘Christians’ contained in the statistics may be nominal, with the exception of France and Spain they have strong evangelical churches which are able to shoulder the burden of mission, and in France the church, though still small, is growing strongly.

While there are nearly two billion people living in the 10/40 window who have never heard the gospel, thousands of completely unreached people groups elsewhere, and hundreds of ethnic minorities who have no access to the Bible in their own language, does this seem an appropriate use of our resources?  Ok, perhaps the Christians in those countries do not follow our particular brand of Christianity, but wouldn’t it be better for us to let the local church take over the task of witnessing to the lost?

Is the continuing presence of overseas mission workers in those countries actually preventing the indigenous church taking on more responsibility for evangelising their own people?

Time to move on?

Time to move on?

I know a lot of mission workers reading this will already be angry with this suggestion (thank you for making it this far!) and I recognise that there may be many people working in those countries who will be doing tasks the local church may not currently be equipped to do:

  • providing theological education
  • discipling a young and inexperienced church
  • using those countries as a base for reaching out into other less evangelised ones
  • working with unreached minority people groups
  • providing vital technical support such as bible translation.

There will be other valid reasons for mission workers to be there.  Or are these countries simply ones where we like to be mission workers?  But if 90% of us moved on to minister to an unreached people group or a country in the 10/40 window, that would mean an extra 9000 people freed up to reach the world’s least evangelised people.  That’s over 150 new mission workers in countries like Tajikistan, Laos and Algeria.

Of course it’s risky.  Even today mission workers are being martyred in the 10/40 window.  But that’s part of following Jesus, and despite the western world’s risk-averse policies, Jesus didn’t shrink from paying the ultimate price to show God’s love for the lost, and neither did the early church.

Maybe it’s time for us to move on to somewhere more needy.  Or is that a bit too uncomfortable for us to consider?

* This article has drawn heavily on Operation World for its statistics.  Find out more about this essential guide to prayer for the world at www.operationworld.org

SuarezThere can be little doubt that Luis Suárez is an excellent footballer.  With a career tally of 40 international goals for Uruguay he is their all-time top scorer,  and he has 220 more in club football.  He has scored six hat-tricks for Liverpool, holding the Premier League record.  In April 2014 he won the PFA players’ player of the year award.  He spectacularly scored both Uruguay’s goals against England in the 2014 world cup, virtually eliminating them.

So it is  disappointing that his skills did not feature at all in Uruguay’s first match of the knockout stage, which they lost 2-0 and exited the competition.  He was already suspended for biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini, the third time he has been punished for biting an opponent.  All of which goes to demonstrate that character is more important than ability.  You can’t score for your country while you’re in the sin bin.

jawsIn the Bible, we don’t find the 11 disciples selecting candidates to replace Judas Iscariot on the basis of their leadership ability, organisational gifiting or mentoring skills.  They looked for men who had been with Jesus (Acts 1:21).  When Paul tells Timothy what the qualities necessary in church officials are, not one of them is a gifting.  They are all character qualifications (1 Timothy 3:1-10).  If Jesus had picked his disciples on merit, he probably would not have accepted any of the twelve, except perhaps Judas Iscariot, who appears to have had some potential.

Which causes us to consider how we select our mission partners.  Are we often so dazzled by the ability of applicants that we are blinded to their character flaws?  Do we focus on the skills we need in the field rather than the character of the person wielding them?  And in the process, are we sending the wrong people, or putting them in the wrong team, and inadvertently damaging the work of the kingdom and causing mission partners to return prematurely because of the excessive stress caused by having the wrong players on the team?  And are latent character flaws in each of us threatening to bring the whole thing crashing down about us as we are accustomed to seeing when a prominent televangelist or famous church leader falls into sin and loses their ministry in the fallout?  As Gerald Coates once said:

What a man builds with his gifting, he can destroy with his character.

William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army

William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army

‘Not called!’ did you say?

‘Not heard the call,’ I think you should say.

Put your ear down to the Bible and hear Him bid you go and pull sinners out of the fire of sin.  Put your ear down to the burdened, agonised heart of humanity and listen to its pitiful wail for help.  Go stand by the gates of hell and hear the damned entreat you to go to their father’s house and bid their brothers and sisters and servants and masters not to come there.

Then look Christ in the face – whose mercy you have professed to obey – and tell Him whether you will join heart and soul and body and circumstances in the march to publish His mercy to the world.

William Booth, (1829-1912)

pastoralMany cross-cultural mission workers return from an assignment overseas, whether a two-week visit or 40 years abroad, with a multitude of conflicting emotions and impressions which, if unaddressed, can cause them ongoing problems.  Whether they are back in the UK for good or for a short visit, they may well be struggling to deal with the experiences they’ve had abroad while trying to cope with reverse culture shock, and debriefing is part of helping them to come to terms with their experiences.  In research conducted by Dr Debbie Hawker, one returning cross-cultural worker commented:

Debriefing made me aware of possible reactions to expect and it was reassuring to know there was further help if needed.

Debriefing provides returning mission workers with:

  • a safe place to reflect on their experiences
  • an opportunity to help normalise their feelings
  • help to identify issues of concern

Another cross-cultural worker commented:

“My organisation offered no help when I returned. I felt I really needed help from people who really understand the pressures of ‘re-entry’ and the symptoms of burn-out. How vital is support and debriefing in the period following return.”

 

How do we structure a debrief?

It is important for the debriefer to have in their mind an idea of how the debrief is going to pan out.  It should ideally take 2 to 2½ hours – any less may not provide time to get to the bottom of issues and any longer may be emotionally exhausting for the mission worker.  One mission worker observed:

“My organisation offered a 45-minute debriefing appointment.  I was conscious of the time limit right from the start.  It made me feel ‘unrelaxed’ and all I could think of was ‘how can I fit in all I’d like to tell someone?’”

Source: http://vineswingingartist.blogspot.co.uk

Source: http://vineswingingartist.blogspot.co.uk

The following structure for a debrief may be helpful to keep in mind:

  • Introductions.  Time to set ground rules, establish a rapport, and identify some positive features of their experience.
  • Identifying what was most troubling.  Ask the mission worker to identify up to three issues which troubled them.
  • Facts, thoughts and feelings.  Explore the issues one by one, working through the facts of the issue, thoughts (e.g. “He was wrong”) and feelings (e.g. “I am so angry”) before starting on the next issue.
  • Any other aspects you want to discuss?  Give the mission worker a chance to raise anything else.
  • Did you have any symptoms of stress?  During this time the mission worker may have been irritable or depressed, sleeping badly or experiencing dietary problems, all of which may be indicators of stress.
  • Normalising and teaching.  This is the time for the debriefer to talk, explaining where relevant that the mission worker’s feelings and reactions are normal, and providing help and guidance on a way forward.
  • Return ‘home’.  Explore the mission worker’s feelings about being back in the UK.  Explain about reverse culture shock and help them understand that it is a normal experience.
  • Anything that was positive?  It’s good to draw your time to a close with some positive reflections on their time abroad.
  • The future.  Ask them what their future plans are, and what help they need.
  • Close.  Finish off with prayer, and check any arrangements for follow up or meeting again.

However, we must also be aware that structure must not dictate to the debrief, and it is entirely appropriate to depart from this outline if the conversation naturally flows in a different direction.

 

What are we looking out for?

Coping with culture shock?

Coping with culture shock?

While some mission workers may have had a wonderful time and are giving glory to God for what has happened, certain negative issues commonly crop up and it is worth keeping an eye open for signs of them.

  • Isolation: The mission worker may feel a lack of supportive relationships either in the field or at ‘home’, they may not understand or fit in well to local culture, or be unable to communicate effectively.
  • Guilt – for being so wealthy, for leaving work unfinished, for leaving people behind in the field or not being there for family members at ‘home’.
  • Conflict – with other team members, with leaders, with nationals, within their own family.
  • Spiritual issues – loss or damage to faith, the challenge of suffering, weariness and burnout.
  • Unfulfilled expectations – dissatisfaction in ministry, sense of failure, where is God in all this?
  • Reverse culture shock – not settling, angry with church/culture/family, disillusioned with worldliness and materialism.
  • Stress.  We also need to watch out for symptoms of stress, burnout or even depression which may be present.

 

And finally….

Remember that this is all about the person being debriefed.  It is a way of expressing our love and esteem for them, and this time is available for them to use as they wish.  Hopefully, the experience will leave them feeling hopeful and refreshed, understanding their feelings about what they’ve been through, and not feeling so isolated and misunderstood.

I thought beforehand that it was going to be a waste of time, but I found that actually it was very helpful to be able to talk about everything, however small, that had happened.

 

Further reading:

Debriefing Aid Workers and Missionaries by Dr Debbie Hawker (2012) is the best work on this subject and has been used extensively in preparing this blog.  It is available online at:

http://www.peopleinaid.org/publications/debriefingaidworkersprinted.aspx either as a hard copy or a pdf.

This is an abridged version of a more detailed article in one of our Guides to Doing Mission Well which can be viewed by clicking here.

Redeeming SinglenessOne of the most challenging issues for single Christians, including mission workers, is the church’s seldom-questioned assumption that marriage is good.  The church rightly celebrates marriage, parenting and fidelity but the corollary to this assumption is the implication that singleness is wrong.  If married people are defined by what they have, singles are defined by what they don’t have, and that can be seen as an underlying deficiency.

This means that those who are married often fail to affirm and celebrate singles, while the singles can spend their lives feeling that they are somehow abnormal.  Unchecked, this negative attitude can undermine their spiritual wellbeing and come to dominate their thoughts and emotions.

Barry Danylak’s book Redeeming Singleness tackles this challenge head on.  It is one of the very few quality resources that Syzygy regularly recommends to single people at our events (along with our own Single Mission!).  At one such event recently, after we outlined Danylak’s proposition, one person in the audience commented “I feel really angry that these things are not being taught in our churches.”

We share that concern, which is why we recommend Barry’s book.  Academic without sacrificing readability, Redeeming Singleness propounds a positive theology of singleness that is absent from most churches today, despite the huge heritage of single people serving effectively in mission and ministry over the centuries.

David Hayward @ Naked Pastor.tumblr.com

David Hayward @ Naked Pastor.tumblr.com

Danylak starts by acknowledging the high importance attached to marriage in the Bible, particularly in the Genesis account where it is apparent that marriage has the duel function of companionship (Genesis 2:18) and procreation (1:28 and 2:24).  However he soon moves into explaining that it was important for people in the Old Testament to be married because they had no concept of the afterlife.  They lived on in their descendants (hence the significance of the genealogies) and in the land which they passed on to their descendants.

Thus, for an individual in Israel to be devoid of spouse, children, and land, such as Naomi on her return to Israel, was to feel the weight of divine judgment (Ruth 1:21-22).

Having established this base, Danylak shows how the prophets, particularly Isaiah, pave the way for a New Testament refocussing.  The woman who cannot have children is promised that she will have more ‘children’ than a mother (54:1-5).  The man who cannot have children (56:2) is promised something better – a lasting place and an eternal memorial.

Barry Danylak

Barry Danylak

Danylak then goes on to unpack Jesus’ frequently overlooked statement that, if you can handle it, it’s better to live a single life for God (Matthew 19:11-12) and then follows it up with an analysis of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 to demonstrate that there is significant esteem given to the single lifestyle by these two Jewish rabbis who, given their cultural background, might be expected to do exactly the opposite:

What is striking in Paul’s counsel to his Greco-Roman audience is that, while his perspective on sexuality and sexual ethics is so clearly rooted in the moral tenets of Old Testament law, his response on the question of marriage and singleness appears to be anything but a traditional Jewish perspective. 

goWhat happens to the blessing to Abraham?  It’s fulfilled in his ‘seed’ Jesus and in the ‘children’ of Jesus.  What happens to the blessing on Adam and Eve when they were told to ‘Go and multiply’?  This commandment is nowhere reiterated in the New Testament.  It is replaced by ‘Go and make disciples’, and in doing so, the followers of Jesus inherit the blessing.

This book is an excellent contribution to the well-being of single people.  It helps them overcome the implicit stigma of living a single life and be able to embrace their singleness through finding scriptural affirmation.  It fully demonstrates that while marriage may be normative in Christian culture, it is not the only way of living, and that singleness is equally, though differently, blessed.  Danylak concludes with:

Singleness lived to the glory of God and the furtherance of his kingdom testifies to the complete sufficiency of Christ for all things.  The Christian is fully blessed in Christ, whether he or she is married or single, rich or poor, in comfort or distress.

This clear, concise Biblical teaching needs to reach a wider audience, so that single Christians will be encouraged and the church will be equipped to bring balanced teaching to facilitate a Christian culture fully supportive of both single and married people.

 

Redeeming Singleness (ISBN 978-1-4335-0588-1) is available from all good online retailers both as a hard copy and ebook.

Workers at Tariro

Workers at Tariro

Regular readers of this blog will know we have spoken before of the excellent work of Tariro a technical college in Mozambique which provides high-quality vocational training.  Click here to read what we’ve said in the past as there’s no point in us repeating it!

Tariro are now in need of a new Commercial and Technical Director and have asked us to publicise this.  While we do not normally provide this as a service as there are other excellent sites that specialise in this such as Oscar and Christian Vocations, we’re happy to make an exception in this case in view of our long-standing relationship with Tariro.

Anyone interested in taking up this opportunity can read more about it by accessing this pdf, or reading the formal job description.

Please pray that God will raise up the right person for this key missional role!

Gene Kelly in "Singin' in the Rain"

Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain”

England has a reputation abroad for being an unnecessarily moist country.  Yet in some countries moisture is welcomed.  I have been in Africa when the rains break, and seen people stop their cars and get out and dance in the puddles because they’re so glad it’s raining.  That wouldn’t happen in Manchester.  Where people are still in touch with their farming communities, they recognise the need for rain.  No rain, no food.  So they are grateful for the rain.

It’s the same in the Bible.  Rain is generally used as a sign of God’s blessing (except of course, in the Flood).  It’s part of the covenant with Israel that if the people obey God, the rain will come (Leviticus 26:3-4).  When they don’t, it doesn’t.  And if you’ve ever been to Israel, you’ll know the value of rain.  It’s a dry land where every drop is cherished and irrigation systems are carefully designed to use no more water than is absolutely necessary.  Likewise the withholding of rain is a sign of God’s judgement (e.g. 1 Kings 16:29-18:1), and clouds without rain are the ultimate picture of disappointment (Proverbs 25:14).

rainThe English don’t like the rain.  Where we live, it’s usually cold, insipid and persistent, and it interferes with the cricket.  Unlike tropical countries, where there’s a regular cloudburst which clears up quickly, here it can go on dribbling for days with barely a centimetre falling.  Sometimes it’s even hard to know whether rain is falling or whether the air is just full of damp.  The moisture nags its way through our clothing and into our bones.  The only thing we enjoy about it is that it gives us something to moan about.

This year the English have had a lot to moan about.  Having just endured the wettest spring since records began, the whingeing Poms have had a lot of practice.  We’ve moaned about the weather so much that we’re now even moaning about people who moan about the weather.  How does this square with St Paul’s injunction to the Thessalonians to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)?

Enjoying the rainSurely we should be cultivating an attitude of thankfulness even when we’re cold and clammy and our barbecue has just been cancelled.  Can we here in England be thankful that we live in a country where the grass is green and we can turn on a tap without wondering whether water is going to come out of it?

We who are mission workers have many opportunities to moan.  We struggle with intermittent electricity and water supplies, the challenges of bureaucracy, the dangers of travelling, setbacks in our ministries and so much more.  A closer inspection of what Paul wrote reminds us that we’re not giving thanks for the circumstances, but we’re remaining thankful despite them.  The early church did not give thanks because they were persecuted, but because they had “been considered worthy” of suffering for Jesus.  James is no masochist when he tells us to count it ‘pure joy’ when we have trials – he’s encouraging us to look beyond the trials to the perfection that lies beyond (James 1:2-4).

Let us lift our eyes above our immediate troubles and give thanks to God for all that he has done in our lives.

prayMany mission workers have a desperate need for prayer – for their health in a part of the world their body didn’t grow up in, safety as they travel on dangerous roads, protection from those who object violently to their mission, the ongoing health of their spiritual life in a hostile environment, family relationships under great pressure, visas, the provision of more funding or co-workers, patience, cross-cultural adaptiveness, the success of their ministry, communication skills in a foreign language and so many more needs both chronic and acute.

They send regular prayer letters to their churches, friends and family, and often wonder if they’re read at all, let alone prayed into.  They seldom get a reply.  They don’t know how often people pray for them.  Sometimes being an overseas mission worker can feel like abseiling without being sure there’s somebody holding the other end of the rope.

912758_hand-holding_1Yet the desire to pray for them is minimal.  Even where prayer meetings for them are arranged, they are frequently poorly attended and are often deadly boring.  There is little originality, seldom use of videos or games to make them a little more lively.  Yet if St Paul asked for prayer, as he frequently did in his letters, how much more do our mission workers need it?

There are in fact plenty of resources available to help inspire us to pray for mission workers.  Most mission agencies produce them, and they’re more than simple prayer letters.  See for example OMF‘s ideas for prayer, or download their helpful guide How to Pray for Missionaries.  Alternatively see Eddie Arthur’s helpful booklet praying through the Lord’s Prayer for mission workers.  Most mission agencies also publish prayer diaries and other information to help you pray for their mission workers.

praying handsA couple of weeks ago we invited you to pray that the Lord of the Harvest will send out more workers.  But there are already over 10,000 British mission workers working hard to bring in the harvest.  They need prayer too.  They need our cooperation, our help, our partnership in their mission.  They need us to share their burdens.  And occasionally, when someone prays, a mission worker on the other side of the world feels the clouds of despondency lift, finds miraculous provision for their needs, makes a breakthrough in their ministry.  Prayer is the fuel which powers the engine of mission – without it the mission workers aren’t going anywhere.

Syzygy’s prayer helpline links those with needs to our group of intercessors.  You can ask for prayer at any time by emailing prayerrequests@syzygy.org.uk, and if you’d like to join our team who pray for mission workers, you can do so by emailing pray@syzygy.org.uk.

Don’t worry about anything, but pray about everything.  With thankful hears offer up your prayers and requests to God.

(Philippians 4:6, Contemporary English Version)

mosquitoSix months ago we told you about the possibility of a vaccine against malaria, which is now awaiting regulatory approval.  Last week news emerged of another breakthrough discovery which could help prevent people dying from one of the world’s most dangerous diseases.

According to a research article in the journal Science, a team of scientists based in the United States has identified a group of Tanzanian children who have naturally-occurring resistance to malaria.  Normally hard for the human body to combat, malaria parasites enter into the human blood stream by way of a mosquito bite and then invade red blood cells where they multiply, before bursting out in great number, overwhelming the human immune system and heading for new cells.  Their success consists of spending much of their time inside human cells, so the immune system cannot identify them except for brief moments.

Red blood cells infected by malaria

Red blood cells infected by malaria

The children identified in Tanzania produced antibodies which stopped malaria parasites leaving infected red blood cells, thereby limiting their opportunity to continue reproducing before the infected cells are destroyed naturally in the spleen.  The research was confirmed by checking against a survey of 138 Kenyan men and adolescent boys with the antibodies who were found to have a significantly lower number of parasites than those without.

One of the lead researchers explained that “Most vaccine candidates for malaria have worked by trying to prevent parasites from entering red blood cells.  We’ve taken a different approach. We’ve found a way to block it from leaving the cell once it has entered. It can’t go anywhere. It can’t do any further damage.

We’re sort of trapping the parasite in the burning house.

Effective prevention

Effective prevention

The research was tested on laboratory mice which were given a transfusion of blood containing the antibodies, and then infected with malaria.  The result was to cut by nearly 75% the number of malaria parasites infecting the mice, and to double their survival rate.  If these results are reproduced in the next stage of the trials – using monkeys – it is hoped that a vaccine will be ready for trials on humans within 18 months.

If successful, this research could go a long way towards reducing the 600,000 deaths from malaria each year.  But, as we said in our previous blog which also covered preventive measures, the best way to avoid dying of malaria is to avoid being bitten by a mosquito!

ThailandThe world woke up yesterday to the news that the three-day-old martial law in Thailand had suddenly given birth to a coup.  Justifiably fearful that yet another democratically-elected government had been been overthrown by a right-wing oppressive regime, and oblivious to the irony that the west has recently enthusiastically endorsed the overthrow of a democratically-elected government in the Ukraine by a popular coup, the ‘pro-democracy’ west is blind to the implications of what this might mean for Thailand.  Paradoxically, many Thai will be enthusiastic that the patriotic and impartial military will be taking steps to restore stability and governance to a political process which has been paralysed by intransigence and vested interests.

Former PM Thaksin Shinawatra

Former PM Thaksin Shinawatra

Our readers will be aware that the problem began some years ago when the populist leader Thaksin Shinawatra came to power in 2001 supported by rural masses lured by the promise of agrarian reform.  The elections were possibly the most open and corruption-free elections in Thai history.

Yet allegations of corruption and abuse of power dogged his administration, which was overthrown five years later in a coup.  Shortly after that, street violence between ‘red shirts’ (Shinawtra supporters) and ‘yellow shirts’ (an alliance of royalist upper and middle class Thai, and citizens of the southern provinces) erupted.  While the violence has died down in recent years, the underlying tension has continued to simmer, and the adverse publicity has had a massive impact on the lucrative tourist industy.

Thaksin’s younger sister Yingluck became Prime Minister in 2011, though widely seen as a puppet for her brother.  Protests against his influence continued and elections took place earlier this year which were boycotted by the yellow shirts who attempted to disrupt it.  Yingluck won, but of course had no popular mandate, and the constitutional court (under the influence of the yellow shirts) first declared the election invalid and then dismissed the Prime Minister for abuse of her power.

Shinawatra performs traditional public obeisance before a portrait of the King

Meanwhile there is little comment on the influence of the severely ill King Bhumipol, the world’s longest-serving monarch.  Highly revered, the King has such moral influence throughout his country that it is inconceivable the military would make a move without at least his tacit agreement.  There is little doubt that he is considering the best interests not of a class or party, but his whole country.

This has all gone on largely over the heads of the Thai church, a small group numbering less than 0.5% of the population, which consists largely of the poor and marginalised ethnic minorities who often have nothing to lose by becoming Christians.  In contrast, the dominant ethnic Thai people are uniformly buddhist and see that as part of their national identity, so it is hard for them to renounce their religion.  Yet the crackdown could have an impact both on church meetings and the activities of the many mission workers in Thailand.

While the issues involved are incredibly complex and difficult to follow, the essence is that the Thai political system is broken.  Instability, street violence and corruption have hampered Thailand’s economic development for years, and many lives have been adversely impacted in the process.  Fifteen years ago Thailand was an Asian tiger which was an example of good governance to its less effective neighbours, but it has stagnated significantly since then.

Let us all pray that this time an enduring and open political process will emerge from the crisis, which will provide a stable environment for the emergent Thai church to thrive.

Large harvest, few workers

Large harvest, few workers

The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.  So ask the Lord of the harvest to send out more workers.

This verse, recorded both by Matthew (9:37-8) and Luke (10:2) will be familiar to most of us involved in cross-cultural mission.  We are only too aware that there is a great need for more people to help with our work and yet so few people come forward.  We frequently use this verse in our prayers and in our appeals.  Yet our familiarity with it may blind us to one obvious point:

Why would the farmer not want to send out more workers?

The verse gives us a glimpse of life in an agrarian economy still relevant to many parts of the world but less so to the west.  In a society dependent on growing its own food a good harvest is of paramount importance, and getting it in quickly before it perishes or gets stolen is a top priority.  So here we’re given a picture of a farmer with a bumper crop in his fields, and not enough workers to reap it… and he doesn’t go out and hire more workers?

Camille Pissarro - the Harvest

Camille Pissarro – the Harvest

This farmer (who represents God in this instance) is not interested in mere hired hands.  He’s not a capitalist who sees labour as an expendable commodity.  He’s looking for partners who will not only work with him but share the rewards.  John’s version of this verse (4:34-38) says “he who is reaping is receiving wages, and is gathering fruit for eternal life.”  In other words, this farmer not only pays wages, he runs a profit-sharing scheme as well!  The result is that everyone is happy.

So it’s not merely a case of spending more money to attract new workers.  It’s about winning hearts and minds so that new workers will join a cause.  The best way to do that is to pray, because in prayer our hearts become aligned to the heart of God.

Enough workers?

Enough workers?

By encouraging people to pray rather than to go, we are helping them to enlarge their hearts for the lost.  As they buy into God’s mission to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10) they will be equipping themselves to be the answer to their own prayer – and go.

There is a huge multitude of people worldwide who are ready to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.  Of course God wants more workers to spread this news, but God wants them to join in of their own free will and not because they’ve been boxed into a spiritual corner and find themselves forced to go against their own better judgement.

All great moves of God start with prayer – let us redouble our efforts to rekindle another one by being obedient to this commandment.