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.

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)