Which one are you?

Which one are you?

Karl Dahlfred’s recent blog on Why missionaries can never go home’ prompts us to introduce you to another missiological breakthrough from Syzygy – the Confectionery Theory of Cross-Cultural Adaptivity.This is our version of the excellent Pol-Van Cultural Identity Model[1] which provides a way of understanding how people fit into the culture around them.  In this model we use sweets as a visual aid – and the best bit is that you can eat the visual aids while doing the presentation.  The drawback is that our model is still culturally-embedded: you may have different sweets in your country!

Most of us will grow up as Maltesers*.  They look the same on the outside and are the same on the inside.  Every Malteser is alike.  So as we grow up in our home culture, people who meet us will see the way we dress, and hear how we speak, and assume that since we’re the same on the outside (more or less), we’re the same on the inside – we share common cultural assumptions about the way the world works.

But when we first go abroad into the mission field, no matter how much cross-cultural training we’ve had, we’re like Haribos.  On the outside, they have different shapes, and they taste different.  In the same way, on the mission field, we probably look and sound different to the nationals, and we think differently, which is why it’s so easy to assume (erroneously, of course) that people from another culture are ignorant/stupid/uncivilised  – because they think differently, and we don’t understand why they can’t see things the way we do.  That’s why we can so easily suffer from culture shock – because we can feel like a fish out of water.

But slowly, over the course of time, we begin to understand our host culture, and start to think in the same way as the nationals.  That’s when we become M&Ms – still looking different on the outside, but the same on the inside.  So nobody looking at us would think we’re a national, but we’ve learned to think and behave like them.  Which is really good when you’re in the mission field.

Then we go back to our ‘home’ country.  But we’ve changed on the inside.  So although we look like everybody else on the outside, we’re different on the inside.  Everyone assumes we fit in, but we feel displaced.  ‘Home isn’t home any more.  This is when we can get reverse culture shock.

Sweets

So what do we do about it?  Some people would suggest that our goal is to try to become a Malteser again.  But that’s not possible unless we can forget our experiences abroad and unlearn every lesson.  That’s why returning mission workers can never really go ‘home’.  Trying to be a Malteser will only lead to frustration and disillusion.

The alternative is to try to thrive as a Revel.  They look reasonably similar on the outside, but inside they’re different.  It’s notoriously difficult for mission workers to do this, because everyone around them expects them to be Maltesers and can’t understand why they’re not.  So they try hard to fit in, even when they don’t feel like they do.  This can be dispiriting, and Revels can even end up leaving the church in frustration.

Syzygy’s response to this situation is to create Crash Landing, a day workshop for returned mission workers experiencing the challenge of life back in a ‘home’ country that doesn’t feel like home any more.  We’ll explore these issues, look at questions of our identity, and try to identify strategies for thriving.  Contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk for more details.

* Other types of confectionery are available.

  • [1] Pollock DC, Van Reken RE (2009). Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
Paul's Macedonian Vision

Paul’s Macedonian Vision

Paul’s vision of a Macedonian man (Acts 16:10) asking him and his co-workers for help initiated Paul’s ministry in Europe.  It is also an excellent paradigm for modern global mission.

It is at the invitation of the local believers, not the instigation of the mission workers.  Today, except in frontier missions where we have no knowledge of local believers, we should be seeking to partner with indigenous churches, agencies or believers.  How often do we go to a local group with a good idea and sell it to them, and they are too polite to say no even though they don’t want it and they know it won’t work?  It is much better for us (and more empowering for them) to go and sit at their feet, and ask them ‘What do you want for your community, and how can we help you achieve it?’  We need to seek their guidance and advice, respect their decisions, submit to their leadership, and be ready to leave when they feel that we’ve done what they need us to do.

We are invited to help, not take over.  It seems that we often marginalise the local believers and do all sorts of things for them, when they may be capable of doing things for themselves.  We turn up with our education, technology, and Biblical understanding, but leave our respect behind.  A genuine partnership asks ‘How can we do this together?’, and seeks to release everyone into the ministry that God has for them.  In many cases we may bring skills and resources which they do not have, but that does not entitle us to take control.

What does genuine cross-cultural partnership in mission look like?

What does genuine cross-cultural partnership in mission look like?

Our work should be inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Paul hadn’t even thought of going to Macedonia.  He and his friends had tried several times to go into different parts of what is now Turkey.  In this vision, God expanded their boundaries.  He took them into something different.  How willing are we to contemplate doing something different rather than doing the same old thing in the same old way?  Let us be open to the Holy Spirit guiding us into God’s appointed ministry for us.

God is already at work and lets us join in.  The spread of the gospel in any country will have started before we get there.  Paul didn’t bring the gospel to Europe; there would have been several small communities of believers which may have traced their roots back to the crowds of Jewish worshippers who had flocked to Jerusalem for the feast of Shavuot (Acts 2:10).  God was already on the move and gave Paul and his friends a chance to join in.  Let us not be so arrogant as to assume we are taking God in with us.

West isn’t necessarily best.  In large parts of the world Christianity is seen as a western faith.  Yet this incident reminds us that the gospel was originally brought to Europe by people from the Near East.  Europeans would still be pagans (and in many respects we still are!) if mission workers from another continent had not come to teach us.  Let’s remain teachable.

Who is today’s Macedonian?  Who today is calling us to go and help them?  We looked at some of the options a few weeks ago – and they include remote unreached tribes, people in the 10/40 window, and urban slum dwellers.  Are we open to the possibility that there are people hungry for the gospel who we haven’t even considered?

Paul’s vibrant and controversial ministry opened up a new mission field right across Mediterranean Europe.  He was driven by the desire to preach the gospel where it had not been preached before (Romans 15:20).  Let’s follow his example and seek out new frontiers for the kingdom!

Cracked wall

A crack in the wall (Source: www.freeimages.com)

A few weeks ago we celebrated the Fall of the Wall.  For much of the latter part of the 20th century Berlin was divided in two by this physical barrier, which also by allusion applied to the Iron Curtain which divided much of central and eastern Europe from the west.

Walls don’t necessarily create division but they certainly perpetuate it.  They keep people apart.  They stop trade and traffic.  They divide families, prevent the exchange of ideas, and contribute to misunderstanding.  The Berlin Wall did all those.

The Wall only stood for 28 years but its shadow continued to hang over Europe much longer.  For a whole generation after its demolition, it continued to exist in the mind of churches, agencies and mission workers.  It was, in effect, a stronghold, even though it no longer existed, because it affected missional thinking on both sides of the boundary.

In the west, many mission workers viewed eastern Europe as a new mission field.  They ignored the rich religious tradition, the oppressed but faithful churches, the many heroic believers who continued to be a witness to Jesus throughout the communist times, and assumed that the lack of Bible colleges and seminaries meant that the local believers were immature and biblically illiterate.  They moved in with money and programmes and sidelined locals who didn’t get on board with their projects.

But it wasn’t only the westerners who made mistakes.  Often the believers in central and eastern Europe resented the intruders and refused to work with them.  They let them get on with making their mistakes rather than helping them.  They looked down on the westerners who had money and programmes but were not interested in important things like relationship and culture.

Chain bridge

The Chain Bridge in Budapest (source: www.freeimages.com)

Therefore much mission in eastern Europe was characterised by division and mistrust.  Granted, this was not always the case, but it was the dominant theme which emerged at the conference of the European Evangelical Mission Association as it took stock of the last 25 years since the Fall of the Wall.  Yet the same conference heard much good news.  We met leaders of many thriving churches from a dozen countries in eastern Europe.  We heard stories from eastern European mission workers to several Asian countries.  Mission leaders from all over Europe got together to discuss strategy, training, education and member care.  And most of all we were greatly encouraged to hear of a new paradigm that has begun to emerge.

In her opening presentation, Anne-Marie Kool cited the example of the Chain Bridge in Budapest, the city where she has lived and worked since 1987.  She pointed out that it was built through cooperation between east and west and at the time was a symbol of progress and unity.  Inspired by a Hungarian nationalist, it was constructed by local builders and engineers consulting with an English designer and a Scottish chief engineer.  It brought together the two diverse communities of Buda and Pest for the first time, and stopped the great expanse of the Danube preventing traffic flowing easily from east to west and back again.

This could be the dominant image to emerge from the conference – that having demolished a wall which kept us apart, Europe is now in the process of building a bridge to bring us all closer together as we reach out to take the gospel to diverse communities across Europe and beyond.  A new spirit of genuine humility and cooperation, based on mutually respectful relationships, is starting to emerge.  At Syzygy we welcome this strategic development, and look forward to the result becoming even more elegant, beautiful and functional than the Chain Bridge.

Souce: www.sxc.hu

Souce: www.sxc.hu

50 can be a challenging age for anybody.  On reaching half a century, we have to start coming to terms with ageing, knowing that most of us are now over halfway through our lives.

Perhaps we are no longer able to play 5-a-side with the teenagers, or we are starting to have to make regular nocturnal visits to the toilet or coming to terms with the fact that our body tells us we can’t have children.  We may need varifocal lenses or hearing aids.  At the same time, we may be dealing with the drama of our children leaving home, or confronting the tragedy that we might never get married, and dealing with the pain of caring for elderly parents.  So there is a lot for us to take on board.

At the same time, we are rising to the peak of our professional responsibility.  We may be in senior management positions, elders in a church, pillars of our community, trustees of various organisations.  We are expected to mentor younger people, act as consultants and advisors, and start ‘paying something back’ into the community.  People expect our behaviour to be better than when we were teenagers (“You’re old enough to know better!”) and there is less tolerance of our mistakes as we are assumed to be more mature.  But there’s also that nagging doubt that we’ve built on shifting sand.  Will our life’s work last?  Have we devoted our lives to something worthwhile?  Will our children thrive?  Or in others words:

The pressure of responsibility and expectation on us rises, just as our energy levels are starting to fall. 

50s crisisA simple graph can demonstrate this.  The red line indicates the rising burden on us; the blue line the declining energy levels.  And the point where they cross is where disaster is waiting.

The crisis can take a number of forms: a stress-related health incident, ministry burnout and resignation, moral failure, crisis of faith, divorce – and all these hazards lurk out there waiting to trip up the unwary mission worker.  For no obvious reason an apparently exemplary worker will suddenly crack under pressure and fall to pieces, injuring many others with the fallout.  Lives are damaged, churches shattered, faith rocked.  Broken and hurting people return to their sending countries haunted by words like failure and defeat.

So how can we prevent this happening?

Mission workers can:

  • Ensure you maintain a vibrant relationship with God, taking time off work if necessary to devote time to God.
  • Remember to say no to additional responsibilities if you do not feel called to take them on.
  • Take time to reflect regularly on your identity.  Are you a Martha or a Mary?  Which way round is your dynamic triangle flowing?
  • Have a frank relationship with an accountability partner or mentor.
  • If you’re married, make sure you take regular steps to invest in your relationship.  If you’re not married, make sure you learn to thrive in your singleness.
  • Learn to delegate effectively so that you don’t have to cope with excessive busyness as well as excessive responsibility.
  • Rejoice that though we are physically decaying we are growing more godly (2 Corinthians 4:16)
  • Take a break at the first sign of stress-related illness.

Churches and agencies can:

  • Take active steps to ensure their mission workers are not overworked and take regular holidays and study leave
  • Use regular appraisals to ask challenging questions about spiritual, emotional and physical well-being
  • Encourage mentoring
  • Organise training to help mission workers understand what makes them tick and why they may be tempted to overwork.
  • Ensure mission workers are sufficiently well-funded to be able to take holidays.
  • Have a good member care team in place
  • Send out family and friends to support and encourage.
  • Ensure that mission workers take regular and sufficient home assignment and have regular healthchecks
  • Recognise that cross-cultural living can take its toll on people’s health and spirituality
  • Provide practical support to help reduce the pressure on mission workers
  • PRAY!!!

Here’s a simple yet creative idea for a mission prayer meeting.  Don’t just do the same old boring thing of praying through each paragraph of a newsletter.  Do something a bit more original.  Take a selection of common items you’d find about the house.  Ask yourself what they represent, and if it might look different from your mission worker’s perspective.  Pray into it.  Here are some simple examples you could use.

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

Mobile phone – this represents their ability to communicate.  Whether writing or phoning home, communicating with locals in their language or dealing with colleagues in a third language, mission workers often have difficulty in understanding and making themselves understood.

Toilet roll – we don’t need to go into details but life in a country your immune system didn’t grow up in can be full of nasty diseases.

Car keys – in many parts of the world roads are even worse than Devon’s!  Vehicles may not be up to safety standards and there are no working time directives limiting the hours professional drivers spend behind the wheel.  Travelling, whether by car, bus, motorbike or cycle can be hazardous.

Bottle of water – we take utilities for granted but many mission workers live in parts of the world where the power can go off for days at a time, or there is no running water.

Family photograph – many mission workers are separated from loved ones.  Children may be at boarding school, or elderly parents may be left behind at home.

IMG_0715Chillies - the food is often very different from back home, and can take a lot of getting used to.  Some people may have allergies to particular types of local food, or may be unable to get food they need such as gluten-free.

Fan - many mission workers live where the weather is extreme, and for some seasons of the year almost unbearable.

Bible - the reality of life on the mission field is that mission workers can become spiritually dry.  They may be engaged in spiritual battles and face great opposition, or the spiritual dynamic of the dominant religion may have an impact on them.

Wedding ring – marriages come under great strain on the mission field, as one partner may have a vision for being there, and the other is tagging along, or perhaps one does better with the language with the other lagging behind.  Conversely, there are also pressures of a different kind on singles in the mission field.

Bowl – in many countries beggars are everywhere, and foreigners can stand out as targets.  It can be easy to get compassion fatigues, or to be worn down by the constant high profile.

Dictionary – mission workers usually need to learn a second language, and sometimes a third.  This can be time-consuming and daunting for those who are not naturally gifted at it.

(Source: www.sxc.hu)

Source: www.sxc.hu

Passport - paperwork is a continual problem.  Visas, work permits, driving licences, residence permits all have to be obtained (without resorting to corrupt expedients) and periodically renewed.  This can be emotionally demanding, with many repeat visits to crowded government offices where you can queue for hours to find that the person you need to talk to is not there.

Credit card – money is frequently a source of stress for mission workers.  Most of us rely on the divinely-inspired generosity of a small group of supporters to provide for the often quite substantial ministry costs we have.  Sometimes we have to leave the mission field for financial reasons alone.

Book - many mission workers use their professional skills as theologians, medics or educationalists, and need to keep their knowledge and qualifications up to date.  Yet finding time to read academic journals, let alone take CPD courses in the midst of a demanding role can be very difficult.

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

Toy - children can suffer in the mission field, and that has a huge impact on the parents.  Without support, children can easily become the mission worker’s Achilles heel.

DVD - mission workers need to relax too!  Yet often they find they have too much work, or feel guilty if they stop to enjoy themselves.

Office ID card – for many mission workers, the single biggest source of stress is their colleagues.  Often coming from a variety of cultures, with a common language that they aren’t all gifted in, and with a variety of church backgrounds and missiological viewpoints, it can be extremely hard to form a team in which everyone gets on well.  Arguments and even personal disputes can become commonplace.

Please use this information to pray into the situations of the mission workers you support.  The advantage of this method is that you can use it to pray anywhere, anytime, for your mission workers.  For example, if you’re waiting for a bus, look around you and seek inspiration.  What do you see?  Cars – pray for your mission worker’s safe travel in a world where roads and transportation may not be as good as ours.  A dog – pray for safety from being bitten by rapid dogs, or mosquitos, or lions.  A pillar box – pray for their good communication with family, church and friends back home.

Try this way of praying for mission workers and your prayer life may never quite be the same again!

Cracked wall25 years ago today, the Berlin Wall was breached.  Few of us alive at the time can forget the emotional scenes of Germans from both sides of the barrier greeting each other freely, without risk of being shot.  The Wall had divided the city since 1961 and was a symbol of the Cold War division of Europe into two ideologically distinct halves.  The fall of the Wall was a dramatic change in European geopolitics which had been unthinkable only a few months before.

Berlin was a microcosm of global issues and the fall of the wall was a turning point in modern European history.  It brought down with it the Iron Curtain, and shortly afterwards the Romanians overthrew their dictator, and other communist regimes fell in eastern Europe.  Within a few years, The Czech Republic and Slovakia had parted company, Yugoslavia had violently fractured and the Soviet Union broken up.  The impact of those events still affect millions of people today – just think of the current conflict in Ukraine.

Berlin itself wasn’t the start.  The roots of the popular overthrow of communist regimes across eastern Europe began with the election of a Polish pope in 1979, which gave a new legitimacy to the Roman Catholic church in Poland.  The trades union Solidarity stood up to the communist government.  Gorbachev introduced glasnost and perestroika.   Prayer meetings started in East Berlin.

Gods_smuggler_headerChristians played a significant part in this movement and continue to do so.  New liberties allowed Christians to meet freely and take the gospel to their neighbours.  Western mission agencies and churches could enter countries freely where only a few years before Brother Andrew had been smuggling in Bibles in his battered VW.  Protestant churches were planted where previously there had been no evangelical witness.  Church buildings were reconsecrated and put back into use.  Eastern Europe began to send its own mission workers to other countries, and today it provides the world with significant theologians and leaders.

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

At this time there will be many retrospectives.  The current issue of Vista has an excellent review.  Syzygy is proud to be helping the European Evangelical Mission Association run a conference called Revolutions in European Mission, which will take place in Bucharest in two weeks’ time on the anniversary of the Romanian revolution.  Not only will it review the successes and failures of the last 25 years of mission, but it will ask important questions about how we do mission in the future.  You can read more about it here.

Today a million tourists have taken away most of the Berlin Wall, though its location is remembered in the paving on the Berlin streets where it once stood.  On this important anniversary we rejoice with the people of central and eastern Europe, recognise what it cost many of them to gain their freedom, and pray that they will use it well.

Saul and DavidThis is the attention-grabbing tagline of a book with a much milder name, A Tale of Three Kings by Gene Edwards.  Written in 1980 to counter the threat of authoritarian leadership in the church, it has become a minor classic which has proved highly therapeutic for victims of domineering leaders.

We have mentioned before in these blogs how some mission leaders can be ill-equipped for their leadership role, which is why Syzygy is committed to leadership development and mentoring, and are looking at other ways of supporting leaders.  Sadly, many Christian workers have been hurt by leaders who, uncomfortable in their role, resort to domineering or manipulative leadership styles to enforce their authority, brutally crushing ‘rebellion’ and marginalising the ‘rebels’.  We know, because we’ve been there.  And reading this book was part of the recovery.

A Tale of 3 KingsA Tale of Three Kings traces the life of King David, first as a young man working for a tyrant, and later as a king overthrown by his ambitious son, Absalom.  These are the eponymous three kings.  Edwards uses them as types – Saul as an insecure leader who wrongly feels threatened by anyone competent, Absalom as a proud, ambitious achiever quick to claim power that is not his, and David as a humble, broken leader who will not fight to take what is not his, nor to keep it.  He argues that despite the great suffering caused to him by both Saul and Absalom, David is the only one of the three who acts righteously throughout.

The answer to the opening question is “You get stabbed to death.”  Because in the brokenness, the dying to self that pain brings, you kill the Saul within you whose fleshly response is to retaliate.  That is what helps equip you to become a leader.  The minute you pick up the spear and throw it back, you become another Saul, Edwards argues.  Moreover, he argues that it was David’s suffering at the hands of Saul that equipped him to become a great king, because he saw first hand how a tyrant destroys.

Saul’s response to the challenge he perceived from David was to destroy.  In doing so, he revealed his own character weakness.  As Edwards puts it,

 Outer power will always unveil the inner resources, or the lack thereof.

This book is not to everyone’s taste, and its literary style takes a bit of getting used to, but for the Davids among us it brings great comfort, and to the Sauls and Absaloms, a thought-provoking challenge.  Many people who think they are Davids will be brought up short to discover how much Absalom is in them!  The book deserves its subtitle A Study in Brokenness because that is exactly what it is, as it aims to help us study the brokenness (or lack thereof) in our own lives.  A helpful section at the back makes this specifically personal by asking such questions as:

  • Who throws spears at you? How does God want you to respond?
  • What needs to happen to put your own inner Saul to death?
  • Sauls see only Absaloms. Absaloms see only Sauls.  Neither can recognise a David.  How can we distinguish the one from the others?
  • David considered the throne to be God’s, not his own to have, to take, to protect, to keep. Could you say the same about what God has given you?

You can read more of the story behind A Tale of Three Kings here, and buy the book online at Seedsowers or other online retailers.

Source: NASA

Source: NASA

‘Re-entry’ is a term that is frequently used for mission workers returning to their ‘home’ country.  It conveys the sense of a spacecraft coming back into the earth’s atmosphere, which is the most risky part of the whole voyage into space.  This imagery was used successfully in Marion Knell’s book Burn Up or Splash Down which talks about how to re-enter successfully.  We’ve also got a section on re-entry in our Guides to Doing Mission Well.

There are also courses to help people manage their re-entry – notably the All Change/New Directions courses run by our friends at Oscar, and Penhurst Retreat Centre’s New Direction retreat.

But what happens when it goes wrong?  Instead of a gentle, parachute-assisted splashdown it feels more like a crash landing.  Many mission workers experience a profound sense of disorientation when they return.  They feel like they don’t belong in the place where they always used to.   They no longer fit in.  They’re not at home.  And this is profoundly unsettling, because it’s the place they feel they really should fit in.  It’s rather like being in that 1960s sci fi film in which a spaceman finds himself on a duplicate earth by mistake – it looks just like home, but it doesn’t feel right.

With appropriate support some people adapt successfully after a few months.  But many don’t, and they continue to struggle with a sense of alienation.  They can become angry, frustrated or disillusioned.  Their churches don’t really know how to help them move on.  They feel isolated, unable to connect with family and friends.

These can be entirely normal reactions to re-entry, but unaddressed they can become unhealthy.  But where can people with these problems turn for help?  Syzygy has produced a one-day workshop called Crash Landing? which is specifically tailored for returned mission workers who have struggled to feel at home in their ‘home’ country.  It helps to answer such questions as:

 Where is home?

How can I thrive when I feel I don’t belong?

Why don’t I fit in and what can I do about it?

How do I relate to a church which doesn’t share my values?

Crash Landing? will equip people with the skills and resources needed to be able to begin the process of adapting to living in this in-between world and help them to find a way forward.

Crash Landing? will be held in Birmingham on Saturday 21st February 2015.  It is available at a cost of just £25 including lunch and refreshments.  To register for Crash Landing? click here.  For further information email info@syzygy.org.uk

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

The recent case of a friend on a visit to a country in west Africa whose bag was stolen (ironically, inside the Ministry of Justice!) prompts me to write about some simple steps we can all take to enhance our security as we travel.  This particular case was a perfect storm of coincidences which made my friend unusually vulnerable, but taking some precautions will help minimise the risk of serious problems.

Country-specific advice - look on the UK government website for specific information about security and health risks before you go – https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.

Embassy – make sure you know where the nearest embassy/consulate of your country is and have its phone number in your phone.  If there isn’t one, make sure you know which country handles your country’s affairs and have their details.

Phone numbers – memorise or have a handwritten list of the numbers you can’t afford not to have with you, such as your office, the airline, your hotel , the embassy and your mum/husband.

Documentation – keep a photocopy of your passport (the information page and the visa page) and tickets in a safe place in case you lose the originals.  Sometimes people will tell you to leave the originals in a safe but in many countries it’s illegal not to have the original documentation on you at all times.  If your passport is stolen, report it to the embassy immediately and get a police report.  The embassy can issue a replacement, and if there’s no embassy where you are, you can get a permit to travel to get you to the nearest one.

Insurance – take a copy of your insurance certificate with you so you can contact your insurer easily if you need to.

Power of Attorney – make sure somebody in your home country has a power of attorney registered with your bank so that they are authorised to cancel your credit cards and ask for replacements to be issued.

Marriage certificate – If you are a married woman, make sure all your documentation is in the same name, or carry a certified copy of your marriage certificate with you.  A passport has a handy space for an ‘also known as’ name which is worth using.

Expensive jewellery and gadgets – don’t take anything you can’t afford to lose, unless you really need it.

Mobile – don’t take an expensive smartphone unless you need the screen.  If you’re just planning to phone and text, take a simple phone which will be less attractive to thieves.

Medicines – if you have important medication, make sure you know where it is.  Have a copy of a prescription so you can get some more if you need to.

Money – have small amounts of cash in different pockets and bags so that if you lose some, you don’t lose it all.  Carry a dummy wallet with a few notes, an old credit card and some photos so that you can hand it over if necessary without losing everything.  Keep the important things in a money belt.

Laptops – these are particularly vulnerable to theft.  Have a password and some sort of encryption for secure documents.  Keep a full backup on a memory stick in a separate place.

Luggage – it’s a good idea to pack things like money, medicines and data sticks in separate bags, so that if one bag is stolen, you haven’t lost everything.  Keep things in pockets too in case all your luggage goes missing.

Credit cards – have a written note of the card numbers and the phone numbers you need to call to cancel them.  Don’t even take them with you if you don’t have to.  Carry a spare out-of-date credit card to serve as a decoy in a robbery.

Obviously, taking these precautions won’t prevent theft, accident or illness, but they should help you deal with it better!

A Roman soldier leading captive slaves.

A Roman soldier leading captive slaves.

In Romans chapter 6, Paul uses strong visual imagery to ram home a theological point – slavery*.  This would have made a lot of sense in his day when slavery was a significant part of the Roman economic structure and everybody would have been fully aware of the issues.  Many of the early Christians would have been slaves; a few were slave owners and most of the rest would have aspired to own slaves.  At the time Paul was writing, possibly a third of the population of Rome were slaves.

Everyone knew that slaves had no freedom to choose.  They were quite literally the property of their owners and were not legally recognised as people.  They were assets which could be bought or sold.  They had to do exactly what they were told, or they were punished.

Imagine then a slave, let’s call him Maximus, who has recently been sold by his former owner, Brutus.  One day his new owner sends him out to do some shopping, but on his way to the market he meets Brutus, who tells him to go off on an errand for him.  What is he to do?  He knows he shouldn’t, but he’s afraid of Brutus who is a violent man, so he goes.  Of course, when he gets home late, he’s in trouble and his new owner wants to know where he’s been.  What can Maximus say to defend himself?  He’s a pawn in a power struggle who has ended up satisfying nobody.

"You have been set free from sin"

“You have been set free from sin”

Paul uses an argument just like this to put us in the place of Maximus.  Why are we still obeying sin when we have a new master?  Sin used to control us (Romans 6:17) but then we were bought (the Greek word exagorizo, which is usually translated ‘redeemed’, literally means “bought from the market”).  So we no longer have to obey our old master.  In fact, when he turns up, demanding obedience, we can tell him where to go, because we have a new master.  And Paul encourages us to obey him, so that we wholeheartedly belong to him (6:19).

All of us struggle to break the habits of our former lifestyles.  We learned sinful thoughts, attitudes, words and behaviour from our old master, and even though he now has no power over us, we’re in the habit of living in a way that would please him.  The new master has different standards, and we should make a strenuous effort to live in a way that shows we are now living according to his standards.  So the next time the devil comes knocking, remind him it’s a done deal and he’s not in charge any more.

Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, for sin shall not be master over you.  Though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.

 (Romans 6:12-18, edited)

 

 

*Health warning – it never does to take biblical imagery to extremes.  Certain aspects of the slavery motif can be problematic (e.g. did God do a deal with the devil to ‘buy’ humans out of satan’s control?  Are we slaves or free people?).  The Bible writers used imagery like this to convey a general example, not an exact parallel.

AchillesSending a mission worker out into the mission field is rather like sending an army into battle.  You don’t just stroll out and pick a fight.  It pays to be well-prepared.  Plans are laid.  Training is given.  Strategy is developed.  Support is put into place.  Scouting is done.  Weapons are provided.

Yet we all know only too well that no matter how much preparation is done, there can always be a chink in the armour.  Like King Harold’s woefully inadequate eye protection, or Achilles’ badly-designed army boots.  One small weakness which can result in a devastating defeat.

For many mission workers, their Achilles’ heel is their children.  Most of us go into the mission field prepared to make sacrifices for God.  Few us of want to think of our children as those sacrifices.  It’s all very well for us to risk everything for our beliefs, but to ask our children to risk everything requires a whole new level of faith, and many of us struggle to get there.  I’ve known mission workers pack up and go home not because they couldn’t cope with getting malaria regularly, but because they couldn’t cope with their children getting it.  It’s not uncommon for mission workers to return to their sending country because they can’t get the right education for their children in the mission field.  Or because their kids are not adapting well to living abroad and want to go home.

I’m not criticising them for those choices.  It’s right to look after the kids.  At the other end of the spectrum we’ve all come across TCKs (Third Culture Kids) who’ve been completely messed up by being brought up abroad and struggling to fit in.  Some have even lost their faith as a result.  That’s a tragedy.

So whether we stay or go, we need to be aware of the potential impact of serving in world mission on the kids, and take steps to remedy it.  Mission workers, agencies, churches and family all have a part to play in this.  Here are five things that we can all do to make sure that TCKs are part of the army not part of the problem.

Pray – many of us forget to pray for the kids when we’re praying for the family.  So it’s not surprising they can become the Achilles’ heel.  Pray for their health, happiness, education, sense of identity, safety and most of all their own personal, genuine walk with God.

Be informed – read books like Families on the Move or keep in touch with websites like:

Find excellent resources from the TCK Forum.  Ask sending agencies what they’re doing to support your mission workers’ kids, and keep the pressure on them to deliver.

Education – this is always an issue of great concern.  Despite the British tendency to assume that education abroad is significantly inferior to ours, some countries have extremely high standards of education.  There are also international schools in many cities, Christian boarding schools in many countries and even boarding schools in the UK willing to make very generous scholarships to TCKS.  There are also a significant number of Christian and secular home-schooling programmes available.  You can read more about this on the Oscar website.

Healthcare – nobody enjoys the thought of a child being sick.  Good health insurance is vital, one which pays for medical evacuation to a first-world country if necessary.  However TCKs may be no less safe in the field than they would be in the parents’ sending country, the risks may just be different.

Support – from simple things like remembering birthdays and Christmas to making sure that TCKs get an opportunity to connect with each other through events like reconnect or websites like those listed above, make sure the family knows what support is there for them.  There are also plenty of TCK specialists around who can provide care or counselling if necessary.  Contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk for further information.

TCKs don’t have to be sacrifices.  With appropriate care and support, they can thrive and make the most of their international experience as global citizens.

PiperGod is pursuing with omnipotent passion a worldwide purpose of gathering joyful worshipers for Himself from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. He has an inexhaustible enthusiasm for the supremacy of His name among the nations. Therefore, let us bring our affections into line with His, and, for the sake of His name, let us renounce the quest for worldly comforts and join His global purpose.

(John Piper)

CBPSome of us will only just have come back from a summer trip abroad, but for others it’s already time to be thinking about what to do next summer, as it can take a long time to find the right agency and programme, get accepted, do the training, raise the funding and go.

One of the many dilemmas is how to determine which agency to go with, and as one way of narrowing down the alternatives Syzygy recommends you only pick an agency that complies with the Global Connections Code of Best Practice for short-term mission.  You can tell them because their publicity will carry the Code logo, and they’re listed on the Global Connections website.  They’re also highlighted in the Short-Term Service Directory, which is produced by Christian Vocations and is an invaluable resource for anyone considering a short-term trip.  While adherence to the Code is not necessarily a guarantee that your trip will be perfect, it does demonstrate that the agency has submitted itself to a peer-reviewed process checking how well its practices match the Code.

The code was developed nearly a decade ago in order to find a way of ensuring that agreed minimum standards are adhered to by agencies organising short-term trips.  The code was produced as the outcome of a number of consultations involving experienced practitioners and is a valuable statement of the values and practices the short-term mission world thinks are important.  It is kept up to date by the Short-Term Mission Forum on which Syzygy has a voice.  The Code includes a number of factors including:

  • Genuine partnership with local churches or mission workers that is driven by the local need, not our desire to send teams
  • Careful contextualisation of activities and accurate publicity
  • Authentic care for the team member reflected in careful selection, training and debriefing
  • Ongoing commitment to local partnership
  • Seeing personal discipleship as a key outcome for the team member
  • Careful monitoring of results in order to deliver continuous improvement
  • Adherence to meeting all legal obligations
Short-term mission can be great fun and make a huge difference

Short-term mission can be great fun and make a huge difference

The Code is regularly reviewed to ensure it reflects current standards, and a biennial review process checks that agencies which wish to be seen as operating under the Code do in fact comply with it.  That’s not to say that agencies which do not have the Code logo aren’t delivering great results – but there’s nobody out there checking up on them to confirm it.  Agencies using the logo will have procedures in place to deliver a well-rounded short-term mission trip and we recommend that you use one of them.

You can see the full text of the Code of Best Practice here.  Syzygy recommends that if you’re thinking of doing a short-term trip you read our Guide to doing short-term mission well first!

passing the batonWhile retiring may be a fairly flexible concept when one is fulfilling a God-given calling, there comes a point in the life of most ageing mission workers when they consider whether they continue in their work or return to their sending country.  Some may be involuntarily retired, as a result of the policy of their sending agency or church, financial pressure or failing health.  Others may take the opportunity of reaching a significant birthday to review their future.

Whatever stimulates it, retirement is a major transition and Syzygy has taken the ground-breaking step of publishing a guide to retiring.  We don’t think there’s anything else quite like it on the internet.  There are many links to our own and other websites and resources, so just click on the orange hyperlinks  to follow them.

While the decision to retire will rest with the mission worker(s) seeking prayerfully to determine God’s will for their lives in old age, we encourage them to make this decision in the context of a supportive discussion involving a community of their agency, sending church, receiving church, family, friends, colleagues and member care professionals (where appropriate).

In our guide to you can find our thoughts on questions like:

  • Why retire at all?
  • Why not stay on?
  • Why is it hard?
  • How do I plan for retirement?
  • How do I leave well?
  • What will I do with my time?

You’ll also find another document in our occasional series 101 things to do…, and obviously this one’s called 101 things to do on retiring.  It’s a helpful tickbox list of all the things you need to think about before and after retiring.

Retiring can be a stressful transition for anybody, even those keen to give up working.  It can involve a loss of identity and purpose, a diminishing of profile in society and a lack of self-respect.  Yet we continue to be beloved children of God, with a calling on our lives and a way to use our time serving our Saviour, even if it’s in a different way.  Good preparation can help smooth the transition and lead to a fruitful and productive retirement.  So, if you’re planning to retire in the next few years, please take a look at our guide.  And if you’re not planning on retiring, please forward this blog to anybody who is, so that they can benefit from it.

 Even to your old age and grey hairs I am He, I am He who will sustain you.  I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.

(Isaiah 46:4)

Source: www.sxc.hu

Source: www.sxc.hu

In our recent mini-series exploring the impact on mission of the Protestant Work Ethic (PWE), we’ve considered why mission workers can be tempted to drive themselves to overwork, and how the PWE can affect our prayer life and how we interpret the Parable of the Talents.  Today we’re going to look at another way in which mission workers can put themselves under unnecessary pressure to deliver results – overwork.

Some years ago we here at Syzygy realised that many mission workers are overworked, not merely because there are not enough resources, people or money, but because there’s an extent to which they choose to be, at least subconsciously.  Our studies led us to believe that there is often something in their background, probably in their childhood, which is driving them on to deliver results.  Perhaps it was a parent who continually demanded excellence, a teacher who was never satisfied with the effort made, a performance-fixated church leader or some other person who regularly said something like “You’ll never achieve anything!”

Learned behaviour in childhood is notoriously hard to unlearn as an adult, and even a Christian who is absolutely convinced of the unconditional love of God may still exhibit behaviours which were originally adopted to appease the demanding authority figure, because they’ve never been openly challenged.  We see this effect quite frequently in mission workers: although the original person who gave rise to that behaviour may have been dead for years, the victim is still trying to prove them wrong.  And those responses subconsciously affect their work for God – they’re trying to achieve in order to earn approval.  Unaddressed, this situation can lead to significant stress, burnout, and possibly even mission workers leaving the field.

Dynamic TriangleIn the 1950s a Christian psychologist called Frank Lake came up with a model to explain this.  We’ve adapted it somewhat to make it a little more accessible and we call it The Dynamic Triangle.  It’s very simple.  It starts with the assumption that we are accepted, in Christ, by God.  God loves us and cares for us.  From that flows our identity in Christ: we are children of God; friends of God; co-workers with God.  That awareness creates a security out of which we can achieve things for God.  Our achievement underlines the fact that we are already accepted.

Frank Lake observed that in many cases, the triangle flows anti-clockwise.  Building on our learned childhood behaviour, we try to achieve something in order that we can establish our identity.  Our identity in turn reassures us that we are accepted.  Though we may not intellectually agree with the proposition that God loves us because we achieve things for him, that’s what our behaviour shows.  So we drive ourselves harder and harder to achieve more and more so that we can feel secure in God’s love… even though we say we don’t have to!  And because our sense of security and identity is dependent on our performance, we drive ourselves hard in order to demonstrate our salvation.

fishingBehaviour which conflicts with beliefs can lead to significant inner tension and can play a key part in mission workers burning out.  Syzygy runs a day workshop to help mission workers, agencies and member care workers understand this dynamic.  For more information see our page Staying Healthy.

So why, if God loves us unconditionally, do we do any work at all for God when we clearly don’t have to?

Healthy, well-adjusted children are motivated by their supportive and accepting relationship with their parents and know they do not have to achieve to earn it.  But they want to be with their parents.  They often copy what their parents do, and adopt the same mannerisms and expressions.  We too, have the same opportunity: to be with God, to start to become like God, and to see what God is doing and want to join in.

That is why we do mission.  We’re not trying to earn God’s love, we’re trying to express it.  We follow the model of Jesus, who said and did what the Father did (John 5:19-20, 8:28).

IMG_1216We have previously featured the remarkable ministry of Great Lakes Outreach and this month we’re happy to bring you their report from their summer outreach for your encouragement.  GLO National Co-ordinator Simon Guillebaud writes:

I asked you to pray for our incredible annual summer outreach for the first two weeks of August and the results are in.  They’re awesome, as ever!

  • We sent out 1010 evangelists in 42 teams around the country (554 from our group, Harvest for Christ, and 456 local church folk who could learn on the job alongside our guys).
  • 11,366 people made professions of faith, including 62 witchdoctors and 55 Muslims.
  • There were119 miraculous signs, including two blind people recovering their sight, two deaf people hearing, 13 paralysed people being healed.
  • 40 separated couples were reunited, 4 people intent on committing suicide were rescued.

A few stories:
Our team found a naked vagrant madman under a tree.  He couldn’t speak at all.  They prayed for him and he was healed, in his right mind now and able to speak.  When his family members heard he was no longer mad and running naked in the streets, they gave our team all the objects of witchcraft they’d used to try to set him free, and made a fire to burn them all, at which point the family gave their lives to Christ as well.

Karenzo, a young child, had lain paralysed in bed for two years.  The evangelists prayed for him and he was healed.  All his family and neighbours immediately gave their lives to Christ, and the miracle opened up the whole village to welcoming the team in to minister to them.

At Giheta, two of our team were arrested as they preached, and thrown into prison.  Whilst in their cell, they preached their hearts out and led four fellow prisoners to Christ.  They got to meet the head of police and other senior dignitaries.  Once it was established they hadn’t committed any crime, they were released and continued to preach further to a large crowd who were all the more impacted by their willingness to suffer for what they believed, and a large number responded.

Praise God, for these and many other stories of Him setting people free!  Thanks so much for your prayers.  Keep praying for the follow up too, that it would be lasting fruit as these new believers are built up into disciples, not just converts.

To see over 11,000 people saved, as well as all the other fruit produced, the outreach (bus tickets into the bush, minimal food, etc) cost us $32,000.  Please help us do it again next year by clicking here to contribute.  Do also check out our beautiful new website in the process – www.greatlakesoutreach.org

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.