I know a chapel recently vacated by a group of nuns, who took with them the large cross which had been nailed on the wall behind the altar for many years.  Although the cross has now gone, it is still possible to see the outline of where it used to be, which reminds me that even where the cross has been removed, its shadow remains.  This can lead us to mistakenly believe that the cross is at the centre of our lives, when actually we are looking at its shadow.  Where is the cross missing in our lives and communities, even though its shadow remains?

If we do not return continually to the cross, and remind ourselves of our complete need for that one moment in time when Jesus dealt with the price for our shortcomings and excesses, and realign our lives to live out the impact of that great cosmic event, we can end up with an empty outline of Christianity which may appear structurally, liturgically and ethically Christian but lacks the authenticity of a truly redeemed lifestyle.

And this lifestyle starts with how we treat others.

In Europe today we are seeing the rise of intolerance.  Some groups are feeling threatened by other groups.  Some think their needs are being marginalised.  Some fear a loss of their cultural identity.  As a result, these people express themselves vocally, sometimes violently, against those they perceive to be different.  Similar fears can arise in missions teams around the world too, where one particular group or culture becomes dominant.  Others can easily feel marginalised and overlooked.

For example, singles can feel their needs are not addressed where those of families are prioritised (or vice versa).  Or where teams operate using English as their common language, those who don’t speak it well can feel they don’t have the ability to express themselves.  In other circumstances people who come from a culture where it is courteous to wait to be invited to speak often have no opportunity for their voice to be heard if others are accustomed to speaking their mind loudly and  frankly.

Fortunately these issues seldom boil over into rioting!  But they can lead to an undercurrent of discontent and add to stress and attrition.  Which is why we need to make sure that the cross isn’t absent from our missionary communities.  The shadow of it may be there, but sometimes the reality of it can be startlingly absent, particularly in the way in which we treat one another.

The New Testament is full of counter-cultural teaching on relationships.  Some examples are:

  • Love your neighbour as yourself (Matthew 22:39)
  • Love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34)
  • Regard one another as more important than yourselves (Philippians 2:13)
  • Submit to one another in Christ (Ephesians 5:21)
  • If God so loved us, we ought to love each other (1 John 4:11)

It might be a good idea for us to start our meetings with readings of such scriptures, and reflect on how we can live out those commandments, in order to remind ourselves to “Be excellent to each other.” (William S Preston, Esq.)

Source: www.freeimages.com

Why are we still shooting our own people?

‘Toxic leadership’ is a phrase which buzzed around the mission world a few years ago, and then went away.  I haven’t heard it mentioned in a member care context for some time.  Perhaps we got bored with the issue.  Perhaps we thought talking about it for a bit resolved the problem.  Yet a number of incidents that have recently been brought to Syzygy’s attention remind me that, like Chernobyl, the fallout from one critical incident continues to have a devastating effect for many years.

  • Broken and hurting mission workers dealing with the pain of bullying and abuse, often for many years after the original incident.
  • Agencies losing good personnel for utterly avoidable reasons.
  • Churches grappling with supporting wounded mission partners who can’t easily be ‘fixed’.
  • People dismissed from their roles in circumstances that would count as unfair or constructive dismissal if they were UK employees.
  • Mission workers who have original or different ideas being victimised for challenging the status quo.

One influential member care agency uses the tagline “Because we don’t separate the Great Commission from the greatest commandment”.  Yet it seems that all too frequently in our eagerness to do the first, we don’t adequately care for our people, particularly if they have strong personalities or are not afraid to express their opinions.

A misguided model of leadership seeks to impose unity on a disparate group of mission workers  by demanding conformity, rather than building unity by valuing and affirming diversity.  Weak leadership imposes authority through domination rather than winning followers through serving.  Reluctant leadership abdicates, leaving the team without direction.  And people who speak out, complain, or even make constructive suggestions can be tagged as rebels, unfairly targeted, and removed from service.

In most cases, these situations result from structural weaknesses in our organisations rather than merely one or two poor leaders.  Often it’s not the result of deliberate;y abusive leadership but more to do with neglect of mission workers’ needs, lack of support or failure to intervene in difficult situations.   As Rob Hay wrote in 2012, “Mission is full of specialists and empty of trained, skilled and experienced leaders and yet up to 80% of people who go into mission not expecting to lead end up in some kind of leadership position.”  Sadly, it seems nothing much has changed in the last 5 years.

How do we resolve this situation which seriously impedes our efforts to fulfil the Great Commission?  First, sending agencies have to be committed to valuing the people they partner with.  Mission partners need to be seen as valuable yet often fragile people  who need to be nurtured and developed.  They are not an expendable commodity to be exploited.  Agencies invest so much money in the early years of mission workers – recruitment, training, support, language learning – that it is also economically foolish to ignore these issues.  If the agency were an international business, high attrition levels would not be tolerated.  These need to be monitored closely as they are often a sign that something is wrong.

Second, churches need to understand the difficult dynamics of cross-cultural mission and be proactive in supporting their mission partners and working with agencies.   They need to be willing to ask difficult questions, and challenge agencies when problems arise.  One of the most encouraging things I ever saw was a group of church members haranguing an agency leader at a public meeting because they felt the agency was letting down their mission partners.  I thought “I want those people on my support team”!

Third, mission partners need to be honest with their churches and agencies about the real issues.  Misguided loyalty to failing leaders and leadership structures needs to be exposed, or it will merely be covered up and somebody else will get hurt further down the line.  People who have been hurt by an agency can be tempted to slip away quietly and lick their wounds – but they need to be supported and helped to fight their corner so that they expose bad leadership and force organisational change.  And agencies need to determinedly debrief workers (preferably with the involvement of a third party) and be committed to frank exit interviews – the ostensible reason people give for leaving is often not the whole story.

Finally, agencies need to be committed to addressing the problem Rob raised, by committing to proactively developing the character development, leadership ability and management skills of all their leaders.  Often they appoint people to leadership who have strategic vision and fruitful ministries but little interest in pastoral care.  They don’t have to be pastors themselves, but do need to understand the need for in-field member care and take steps to facilitate it.

Resources that Syzygy recommends for dealing with the fallout from toxic leadership issues include:

  • The books A Tale of Three Kings and Honourably Wounded for mission workers wounded in action.
  • A personal debrief for mission workers still struggling with injuries inflicted in the field.  Email info@syzygy.org.uk for more information.
  • Space to rest and reflect while receiving love and acceptance.  Syzygy can provide several options for this, and also recommends Ergata and Le Rucher.
  • Mentoring by Rick Lewis for leaders in mission.  A completely confidential, personal service aimed at developing godly character at the highest level in churches and agencies.
  • Reading Rob Hay’s 2012 paper on the Global Connections website and the associated reading list.
  • Bespoke consultancy aimed at identifying specific issues within an organisation and tackling the causes of it.  Email info@syzygy.org.uk for more information.

Being shot by one’s own side does not necessarily mean the end of a life of mission.  Given the right support, many people make a full recovery and are able to resume their lives and ministries, as I have done.  But wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t wound our own mission workers in the first place?

 

Life as a single mission worker can be a vibrant and thrilling experience.  Too often though we can experience more of the loneliness and vulnerability of being single.  It’s a bit like flying by yourself: challenging and a little bit risky, but great fun.

As we’ve remarked before in previous blogs about being a single mission worker, it can be only too easy for us to become lonely and isolated, and start to focus our attention on the one thing we haven’t got (a partner), and start to think that if only we could get one, everything in our lives would be great.  When we think about it sensibly, we realise that one frail, selfish, fallible human being can’t possibly be the answer to all our problems, and it’s actually unfair to place such an expectation on one human being.

So where do we find the answer?  Well it’s in God of course, and if there’s one thing we enjoy doing at Syzygy, it’s pointing people in God’s direction to get the answer to all their needs.  And that’s what we’ll be doing in Gloucester on 22nd April.  We’ve teamed up with Redcliffe College to bring you a day of discussing  the theology of singleness, the practicalities of living a single lifestyle on the mission field, and how we can be completely fulfilled as singles by finding our identity in Christ.

You can find out more (and register!) by clicking on this link to the Redcliffe website.

 

 

“God will provide.”

Those were my words as I explained to the two rather doubtful young men I prayed with each week that one of the Syzygy cars had died, and we needed a replacement within two weeks or we’d let some mission workers down.  “God will provide.”

I tried to sound more confident than I was as I asked them to pray.  I was aware this was an opportunity to teach them the value of faith, but I wasn’t sure I had enough.  But God, indeed, is faithful, and before the two weeks were up, somebody had donated a car to us and the mission workers were thrilled with it.  And God has continued to provide for the Syzygy car ministry, to such an extent that we now have three really good cars and our service has become so popular it is often booked up two years ahead!

And now we are looking to God to provide again.  We need another car to meet the growing need of large families, and we have plans to raise £10,000 to be able to buy a 7 seater like our Toyota Previa.

So just as I asked those two young men to join with me in faith for God to provide, I’m now asking you to join us.  Will you pray with us for the money for the new car?  Will you ask God if your donation might be part of the finances we need?  As we have remarked before, God is generous, but he keeps his money in other people’s pockets.  So to get this money raised, those people need to be listening to God, and willing to join in his generosity.

We are confident we can raise this money in time to be able to bless another family coming back to the UK this summer.  Please help us make their Home Assignment easier by helping us get another car!  You can find instructions on how to give at our Get Giving! page, or email info@syzygy.org.uk for more information.

It’s a while since we did a Tech Notes blog, and a new app which you can use to follow our prayer updates is a great reason  to update you.

PrayerMate is an app which allows you to sort your prayer commitments like an online version of file cards, and you can create your own as well as follow those of others.  Some major mission agencies are already on there, so Syzygy is part of a select group feeding you our prayer requests.

We are posting new prayer requests online as part of our plans (which we talked about last week) to develop Syzygy’s influence over the coming year.  We’ve often asked our friends to pray for mission workers, but not for ourselves, so this is an exciting new step for us.

Every day we’ll be posting new prayer requests, sometime generic ones for our funding, activities and ministries (like the cars) and sometime specific ones relating to people or places we’re working with.

So please follow Syzygy at http://praynow4.org/syzygy and join us in prayer as we ask for God’s blessing on all that we’re doing!

Source: www.freeimages.com

A crisis has been brewing in member care for nearly a decade, which is still widely unacknowledged and has not yet begun to take effect, but when it does, mission workers across the globe will feel the impact.

Since the financial crash of 2008 mission agencies have experienced a significant drop in income which has required them to rethink their approach to doing mission.  This often takes the form of questioning whether structures and processes designed in the 19th century are still relevant today, and if not, how we can reimagine the future of missionary sending.

A major feature of this is the argument (which to be fair, precedes the financial crisis even though declining income has given it more urgency) that sending mission workers should be the responsibility of the local church rather than agencies.  This is a valid perspective, but for more than a century agencies have effectively told churches to give them their people and their cash, so that the agency can send them.  Now they want churches to engage more, but the churches do not always know how.

What is the impact for member care?  Over the last couple of decades member care has made great strides in putting the care of mission workers on the map.  Most sending agencies are fully committed to member care, and many have full-time members of staff coordinating it, even if they don’t always do it as well as they’d like to think they do.  But pushing the sending responsibility over to churches means that agencies are discreetly, possibly even unintentionally, looking to shuffle off their responsibility for member care too.

Churches, meanwhile, are in a similar situation to the agencies.  While many churches already do member care well, others are extremely challenged to care for their mission partners.  Falling church incomes mean fewer staff while longer working hours for church members mean fewer volunteers available to serve.  Yet the church members demand higher quality services and the public are generally more needy of the practical help churches provide.  Add to that, many churches have not been actively involved in providing the member care that will start to come their way.  How are they going to develop the vision, capacity and skills to deal with this situation?

Syzygy is uniquely placed to assist with this challenging situation.  We are able to:

  • help churches develop member care capacity by providing training, mentoring and partnership.
  • work with larger agencies to help them continue to provide member care well should they choose to do so
  • assist smaller agencies which are unable to do their own member care by partnering with them and providing member care ourselves

Over the coming months we will be actively promoting these services so that we are able to provide support to all parties in this situation, with the ultimate goal that mission workers are more effectively supported than ever.  Should your church or agency be interested in finding out more, contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk.

 

 

Source: www.freeimages.com

Multicultural teams are a key feature of global mission, and so too is the conflict and misunderstanding that they can bring!  In the past we’ve looked at different aspects of teamwork but today we’re going to look at some different characteristics that we can consciously look to develop in ourselves to help us contribute to the smooth running of the team.

When we think of multi-cultural teams it is often tempting to focus on nationality or heart language, but there are also many other factors that contribute to the cultures that individuals bring into a team, like ecclesiology, socio-economic background, gender, marital status, level of education and generation.  These all affect the often-unconscious assumptions people bring to how things should be done, and what is valued.

1) Humility.  Many, if not most, cultures bring up their citizens to have national pride.  This is only a small step away from a jingoistic belief that we are better than all the rest.  Which is patently not true – just look at how every four years the English think this is their year to win the football World Cup when in fact their team usually struggles to get past the first round.  Too often European and North American mission workers have been guilty of thinking “West is best” or “White is right”, but other cultures can also fall into the trap of denigrating others.  Humility helps us recognise that while our home culture may bring some strengths into the mission field, we have much to learn from both our host culture and our co-workers.

2) Self-awareness.  We build on our humility effectively when we understand the extent to which we operate within a culture we have grown up in, which subconsciously affects our values and thought patterns.  Armed with self-awareness we are better equipped to understand why somebody else’s choices and preferences annoy us so much, and why ours do the same to them.  It helps us to treat people as individuals and not stereotype them according to the culture we see them as belonging to.

3) Inquiry.  I am frequently amazed that some mission workers can complain loudly and frequently about the behaviour of others without stopping to inquire what drives that behaviour.  For example, when I lived in Africa I heard many (white) mission workers complain that “Africans are lazy”.  Anyone who has seen a grain lorry overturn in the bush and seen hundreds of people appear from nowhere and squirrel away tons of spilled maize into bags and chitenges will know that Africans most certainly are not lazy.  But those mission workers who think so have probably never tried to align their objectives with those of their employees, or motivate them effectively, with the result that the Africans don’t work hard – for them.

4) Love.  It covers a multitude of sins, and should be put on over everything else like an overcoat.   With genuine, sacrificial love like Jesus had, we are able to value individuals as Christ-redeemed brothers and sisters, inquire into their cultural norms and help them to feel honoured and valued.  Love helps us accept people for who they are, rather than simply trying to correct them for being wrong.

So next time we are tempted to grumble about tensions in our cross-cultural communities, let’s ask ourselves first how much more vibrant they would be if only we were able to let go of our own culture a little bit more.

For a few years a major mobile phone network ran an award-winning campaign called “Be more dog”, encouraging people to get more out of life by being adventurous with their technology.

Dogs don’t get very good press in the Bible.  Goliath sneered at David “Am I a dog, that you come out to me armed with sticks?” (1 Samuel 17:43).  Dogs are grouped together with harlots in Deuteronomy 23:18 and used as a term of abuse in 2 Samuel 16:9.  Dogs were clearly not held in great esteem.

It’s the sheep who are the good guys in the Bible: boring, vulnerable, somewhat dim sheep.  The most popular psalm was written by a shepherd who realised that his relationship with God mirrored his relationship with his sheep.  Which is fine, but most of us these days know so little about keeping sheep that we have to read books by Philip Keller to fully unpack the imagery.

So dog lovers everywhere will agree that it’s time to rehabilitate humanity’s faithful friend.  After all, it’s estimated that 24% of UK households have a dog, and that’s a much higher percentage than those of us who own sheep.  If we don’t have a dog ourselves, we’re likely to have come across other people’s dogs, equipping us to understand our relationship with God in such terms.

A dog sees its owner as its pack leader.  It is loyal and faithful, often defending its owner, and doing its best to please the owner.  It looks to its owner for affection and affirmation, and of course food.  It likes to be close to its owner, often wanting to sleep on the bed.

If a dog has been well-trained, these instincts are finely-tuned.  The dog will come immediately when called, walk obediently at its owner’s heel, and will not eat its food until given permission.  Dogs can perform valuable tasks for emergency services, disabled people and farmers and they provide companionship for old and young alike.  Not everybody likes dogs, but there is no disputing the value of their role in human society.

So, if dogs have such a positive role in our culture, isn’t it about time we started thinking of the Christians as the faithful hounds of the Master?  Are we quick to obey the slightest command of the Master, looking eagerly into his face to interpret the slightest frown, smile or wink?  Do we crave to be close to Him, going where He goes, following closely at His heels, or do we need a leash to stop us running too far away?  Do we look to him to provide our sustenance, or give us commands?

Perhaps it’s time to start reimagining scripture:

The Lord is my Master…

 

 

A recent skiing trip reminded me that many years ago, I was taken by an instructor to an extremely steep slope in order to learn how to ski safely down the steep stuff.  Another learner went first, and ski-ed about a metre before falling over and sliding halfway down the slope on his back.

Somewhat intimidated by his failure, I managed a string of quick, scruffy turns, scrubbing off speed and managing to stay upright till I got to the instructor waiting halfway down, feeling pretty pleased with myself.  But the instructor sternly reprimanded me for not putting into practice what I already knew how to do.  So I tried again, and found myself skiing at breakneck speed, but under more control than I’d ever had.  I had learned how to ski on steep slopes.

A decade later I returned to that resort, much improved as a skier, and went to look for this terrible precipice to see if I could now do it better.  After a morning of trying every piste in the area, I could find no steep slope at all.  It was only later that I realised what had once seemed steep, was now easily skiable.  My perspective had changed.  What had once seemed hard, was now easy.

Young king David had the courage to face a giant who intimidated even the greatest of Israel’s warriors, because he had a different perspective.  “I’ve killed a lion and a bear,” he told Saul, “why should he be any more dangerous than them?” (1 Samuel 17:36). Elisha was not afraid of the armies of Aram, because he could see God’s army camped around the city (2 Kings 6:17).

How are we taking our experience of God’s provision, care and protection, and applying it in faith to our current situation?  Many of us face struggles daily: for funding, security, work permits, health, and many other challenges that are endemic to life as a mission worker.  Sometimes each challenge seems bigger than ever before, but constantly reminding ourselves of what God has done for us in the past is an excellent way of stoking the fires of our faith for what God can do for us in the future.

We should never forget that when we are weak, we are strong, because it gives God opportunities to show his power (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).  That awesome power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead is at work in us (Ephesians 1:18-23).  Let us change our perspectives, so that we look not at the size of the problem, or our own weakness, but the greatness of the living God.

“Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

(2 Kings 6:16)

 

We conclude this series of blogs on the successful occupation of the Promised Land by thinking about strategy.

This is a word that is often on our lips.  We need it to make sure our organisation is heading in the right direction.  We use it as a plumbline to check whether new ministries add value to our mission or distract us from it.  We think about it when we start a new endeavour.  Without strategy, we may be doomed to sleepwalking into obsolescence.  But do we overdo it?  Is our missional thinking dominated by secular management theory rather than Biblical values?

In the book of Joshua there is clear evidence of strategy: the Israelites crossed the Jordan, conquered the largest city in the river valley, went up onto the hills beyond and secured a bridgehead, then carried out an offensive to subdue the south before a final campaign to take the north.

Yet nowhere is there any evidence of the Israelites strategizing.  There are no war councils, no boffins, no new weapons.  Their strategist is clearly God, who tells them which city to attack, and frequently even determines the tactics (Joshua 8:2) and took part in the battles (Joshua 10:11-13).  The one time they make a strategic error is when they don’t consult God (Joshua 9:4).  Divine prompting is the key to their success.  Which brings us back to where we usually start each year: prayer.  Because only through consistent, intentional seeking of God can we discern God’s will for our organisations and determine strategy which is often radical, innovative and unorthodox.

Other Biblical examples of divine involvement determining strategy include:

  • Philip preaching the gospel to the first African gentile (Acts 8);
  • Ananias taking the gospel to the enemy (Acts 9)
  • Peter taking the gospel to the first European gentiles (Acts 10);
  • Barnabas and Paul being set aside for their first missionary journey (Acts 13);
  • Paul being led in a dream to take the gospel to Europe (Acts 16);

You can probably think of others.  There are also numerous examples of modern mission workers who just went, not knowing where they were going, following the prompting of God, like Jackie Pullinger.

So if our missionary endeavours are to have the impact in the nations where we work that the Israelites had on taking the Promised Land, let us devote ourselves to prayer.  Our words will be more effective if they are dropped into our hearts by God.  Our attitudes will be more compassionate if they mirror more closely the character of God.  Our actions will be more effective if they are guided by us being ever more sensitive to the Holy Spirit.

We have mentioned before in these blogs the habit of St Aidan and the other Celtic monks who brought the gospel to the Anglo-Saxons, balancing their ministry with their prayer.  Based on a small island cut off from the mainland at high tide, they retreated to the island and slept, prayed and ate while it was isolated.  When the sea receded enough, they crossed to the mainland and ministered to the locals.  Less activity and more prayer made them more effective.  How counter-cultural would that be if we made it our practice today?

If Satan wanted to take you out of ministry, how would he do it?

This week we’re going to skip the Jericho success and march straight on to the battle of Ai and the sin of Achan.  I guess we could have made a blog on how if you keep going round in circles making a fool of yourself long enough eventually God will give you a spectacular breakthrough, but I don’t think that’s the experience of most of us.

To cut a long story short, the Israelite army was beaten – thereby endangering God’s reputation – because one man had a secret sin.  One man’s moral failure risked the whole invasion as the Israelites were demoralised and their enemies learned they that their God was not invincible after all.  With our Christian emphasis on grace and forgiveness, it’s easy for us to tolerate similar small shortcomings in our lives, but this incident makes it clear that God takes our personal integrity seriously.  And in case you’re thinking that’s just an Old Testament paradigm, remember Ananias and Sapphira (Acts chapter 5)?

So our behaviour is still important, even if we think nobody can see.  And when we talk of personal integrity, moral failure and secret sin, most of the time there’s an implication that we mean sexual sin.  But it’s more than that.  In both the biblical cases mentioned it was about covetousness.  It could also be anger, resentment, greed, secret drinking when we’re supposed to be teetotal on the field, or many other personal problems which we like to tell ourselves we have under control, but in fact, we don’t.  And wouldn’t it be terribly shaming to us and dishonouring to God if those sins were discovered and our entire ministry collapsed?

So what do we do about it?  Most of us know the answer already, but we tell ourselves sweet little lies like “it’s not harming anyone”, “it’s my way of coping with the pressure” or “it could be a lot worse” which blind us to the truth that we are putting the entire ministry of ourselves and our colleagues at risk, as well as God’s reputation.

In order to deal with this we need a radical awakening (which sadly sometimes only comes with downfall).  We need to ask ourselves whether we really are “walking in a manner worthy of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:12).  Or, as a friend of mine put it:

If Satan wanted to take you out of ministry, how would he do it?*

Satan knows our weak spots, and we need to recognise them to and take steps to defend them.  Some practical steps we can take to do this include:

  • go on retreat and specifically pray about how God wants to develop our character and lifestyle;
  • have an accountability partner with whom you can be totally honest and confess sin;
  • keep a prayer diary – of successes and failures – to chart progress;
  • make a point of reading Christian books that directly address your weaknesses.

If a confidential discussion about any issues in your life would help you, get in touch with Syzygy by emailing info@syzygy.org.uk.  We’d be pleased to help you get walking in a worthy manner again.

Rick Lewis

 

A flint knife of the type the Israelites may have used (Joshua 5:2)

After first sending in the priests instead of storm-troopers, and then stopping to do the bronze-age equivalent of posting selfies on social media, the Israelites are still not going to carry out an invasion in the normal way.  They next thing they do is put every single one of their soldiers out of action for a couple of weeks following elective surgery.  It would have been a great time for the Jericho army to have attacked them.

In some ways, the circumcision of the Israelite men was like the consecration we have already talked about – it was an outward sign of dedication to God, reminding them of the covenant with Abraham.  The Israelites invading the Promised Land were far from being foolhardy in having surgery which would incapacitate them for a fortnight or so.  They were in fact demonstrating their trust in God to protect them and to fight for them when they couldn’t fight.  Much as we would talk about walking by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).  And this group went on to trust God for their victories over the coming years, notably in the conquest of Jericho which they would soon go on to take without even needing to land a blow.

What would be the equivalent for us of being circumcised just as we enter a war zone?  What would that look like in the context where we work?  To follow God with a little more unpredictability rather than always trying to play it safe?  Hudson Taylor pointed out that if there is no risk in our ventures, there is no need for faith.  Yet in our increasingly risk-averse and litigious culture, it can be hard even to entertain the concept of risk when we feel we should be minimising it.

Life involves risk, mission more so.  The places where people don’t know Jesus can be some of the most dangerous places on the planet for us to go.  It’s not that we deliberately seek out danger, as if we were seeking a thrill to enliven meaningless lives, but if following in the footsteps of Jesus takes us into dangerous territory, we proceed in faith rather than turning back because the risk is too great.  We trust God daily for our income, our safety, our visa renewals (just about!) and many other things.  Let us reflect at the start of another year what else we can manage without organising for ourselves but by trusting God to take care of it for us.

 

Source: www.english-heritage.org.uk

Every morning when I log on, Facebook greets me with “We care about your memories” and an offer to repost a photo from yesteryear.  It is evident from the reposting that goes on that some people enjoy using this utility, though I look in vain for the ‘go away and leave me alone’ button.

We like to remember.  We have photos of long-dead relatives on our bookshelves.  We hang pictures of our favourite places on our walls.  Our conversations are peppered with “Do you remember when…” as we laugh about situations we’ve been in.  Individuals and families do this well.  Countries build war memorials, or statues of great leaders.  Hikers build cairns.  But the world of mission is generally not good at remembering, and we certainly don’t build memorials or statues, because we want the glory to go to God, not people.

The first thing the ancient Israelites did after crossing the Jordan was to set up a memorial.  They built a cairn (Joshua 4:1-9).  One person from each tribe was selected to carry a rock from the bed of the dried-up river and build a cairn on the bank so that the people would always remember God had parted the river for them to cross over.  They turned memory into something physical so that they wouldn’t forget.

We need to remember because not only does it honour God to recount the things He has done (Psalm 145:4), it builds our faith to be reminded of his provision for us in the past.   David built his courage for fighting a giant by remembering that he’d already killed a lion and a bear (1 Samuel 17:36).

As we enter the Promised Land of 2017, how are we making arrangements to remember what God has done?  Here are some of our suggestions:

  • Have a photo gallery of previous co-workers in our agency.  We often honour the founders of our mission agencies, but do we remember the others who made a sacrifice to pass the founder’s baton on to us?  Do we honour the ones who gave their lives in service to God?
  • Celebrate anniversaries, not only of the founding of the agency, but peoples’ ‘birthdays’ in the mission field, the founding of a church or ministry.
  • Have pictures, artefacts or ornaments which meant something significant at one time, and make a point of telling newcomers why they’re important.
  • Keep an “on this day” diary, reminding you of when God spoke, or did something significant for you.
  • Make a point of reminding old friends and colleagues of situations you’ve been through together.  Ask older co-workers about their memories of people and places.
  • Research and write biographies of people who’ve inspired you – not just the great saints who are well documented but the unknown saints who laboured in obscurity to lay the foundations of where we are now.
  • Use ‘Blue plaques’ or a suitable equivalent on your property to remind yourselves of who was there and what they’ve done.

Remembering the past doesn’t mean living in it.  We remember it to give context to today and help us move into the future.  Not long ago, as a visiting speaker I got a (somewhat bewildered!) church to build a cairn in their meeting room.  I provided enough rocks for them and encouraged everyone to pick up a rock and build with it, each rock representing a commitment to tell a story to someone who hadn’t heard it, ask a question of someone who had been in the church a long time, and celebrate what God had done – so that they could build on their past as they embrace their future.

Let’s all find ways of doing something similar!

Happy New Year to all our readers!  It has become traditional in this blog to start the year with an appeal to join us in prayer for world mission, but this year we’d like to do something different – we’re going to invade the Promised Land!

Not in a literal sense, but we’re going to start the year with some meditations in the book of Joshua, with a view to motivating us for world mission and bringing more people into the Kingdom of God.

So when the time comes for the Israelites to cross over the river Jordan after 40 years in the wilderness (and many of us mission workers can identify with that experience!), the Israelites do a number of things very differently from the way we might, and these can be a model for fruitful mission.

First they sent out some spies – and I’ve never been quite sure why they did this since 40 years earlier they’d done this and it hadn’t worked out well.  But it is analogous for us to a vision trip, pre-departure research and training.  In other words, know where you’re going.  Don’t just jump in blindly and assume you’ll find your feet.  Careful preparation helps minimise the risk of culture shock, committing cultural offences, and disorganisation which can end a mission almost before it’s started.

The next thing that they did was to consecrate themselves (Joshua 3:5).  This is a technical term for making oneself ritually pure, an activity that in those days involved ritual baptism and clean clothing.  The whole point was to be made clean before God – not the sort of behaviour one would expect before an invasion!  We have lost much of this concept of ritual purity in the west but the purpose is so that one can be fully right with God before claiming God’s assistance in our enterprises.  As we start out on a new year of mission, how are we consecrating ourselves to God?

And then they sent the priests ahead of them.  They carry the holy chest which signified the presence of God with them, and all the people follow it.  During the wilderness years this chest had become a totem which brought the Israelites success in battle, but the significance for us is paramount – the people follow where God is going, a lesson they had learned in the wilderness when they were led by a pillar of fire and smoke.  For me, the key lesson from this for us is that so often we get on with something and ask God to bless it, rather than seeing what God is doing and asking if we can join in.  How can we follow God more closely in the coming year?

Source: www.bbc.co.uk

Source: www.bbc.co.uk

At this time of year there is a lot of talk about peace.  It’s almost as if we’re thinking of a blanket amnesty like the football played in the trenches of the First World War in 1914.  We may not have resolved all our problems, but for a day at least we can put them aside in a spirit of goodwill to everyone.

Yet the world will continue to have plenty of places where peace will not prevail this Christmas.  Conflict in central Africa and the middle east will not cease.  Oppression of Christians in Islamic or communist states will continue with a vengeance.  And of course even in Christian households and churches there will be strife and discord.

We’ve not previously quoted Doctor Who in this blog before, but one thing the twelfth doctor says is apposite for this occasion:

The only way anyone can live in peace is if they’re prepared to forgive.*

This is the motivation behind God’s incarnation.  Creating an opportunity for reconciliation, God chose to forgive so that humanity can live at peace with God.  But it’s not merely for us to enjoy, to indulge ourselves in, or to congratulate ourselves for.  It might be a free gift but it’s not a cheap one – it cost Jesus everything to create it, and it costs us every time we choose to forgive someone.  It means letting go of our right to justice, to hatred, to revenge.  Just as God let go of his rights and forgave us.

The gift that keeps on giving needs to be passed on.  In fact, it gets better if it’s passed on, which is why Jesus taught us to pray “Forgives us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”  So give generously this Christmas, and give the gift of peace to those who don’t yet have it.

* The Zygon Inversion, new series 9, episode 8

moneyGiving is not unique to Christmas.  Many other cultures give generously to others at the times of their major festivals, but of course what is unique for Christians is our message that God gave first – “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son…” (John 3:16).

Just as people give reciprocal gifts at Christmas, God’s generosity inspires us to give back to him – not out of obligation, or a misplaced desire to repay the debt, but out of sheer gratitude for the exuberance of his own generosity.  We can never repay this generosity and one popular prayer acknowledges this: “All things come from you, and of your own we do give you”, referencing 1 Chronicles 29:14.

At this time of year much of this generosity rightly overflows to those who have little: the residents of refugee camps; the homeless and destitute in our major urban centres; those fleeing from natural disasters; the elderly who may often be alone.  This year there is another group joining them – the overseas mission worker.

Not that they’re actually homeless (yet), but financial challenges in major donor countries over the last decade have reduced giving to mission workers significantly.  Rising unemployment has cut giving.  Financial uncertainty has cut giving.  Lower returns on pension yields have cut giving.  People in the west feel that they are not as wealthy as they were, and are worried about their future, so there is a tendency for them to cut back on giving, rather than “giving beyond their ability, despite their [perceived] deep poverty” (2 Corinthians 8:2-3).

This year the situation has worsened because of the fall in the value of the pound since the Brexit referendum.  Since this affects every penny sent by UK churches to mission workers overseas, each mission worker might have seen their income fall by over 10% in six months, depending on where they live.  This could be the difference between continuing in mission and returning home.  For a mission worker on an allowance, say, of £18,000 a year, that’s £150/month wiped out.

“Where is their faith?” you may ask.  It’s in your pockets (see our blog Was Hudson Taylor Wrong?)  So please give generously this Christmas to mission workers – and keep on giving generously throughout the year.

 

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

“Give it a try.  If it doesn’t work out, come back and we’ll try something else.”

How many of us have heard those words from the leader of our sending church or mission agency?  Likely very few, because the possibility of failure is usually the elephant in the room, carefully tiptoed around as we discuss prayer, faith and strategy.  We talk with due diligence about exit strategies in the event of a disaster, but seldom address the stark fact that our mission may go spectacularly belly up (as my first assignment did).  That’s why I like the casual optimism of King Saul’s son Jonathan: “Let’s go and pick a fight with some Philistines.  Perhaps the Lord will be with us” (1 Samuel 14:6 – my translation!).

Failure is the unwelcome guest in our discussions because we fear failure.  And that fear has many unintended consequences which can make a difficult situation worse.  We can put a brave face on things and not let people know how hard we find things, thereby depriving ourselves of encouragement and member care, which only increases our stress and risk of burnout.  We can be reluctant to admit in our prayer letters that things are not going well, so we don’t mobilise effective prayer into areas where we’re challenged.  And we’re reluctant to hit the ‘panic button’ to mobilise extra help before it’s too late.

So what is it about failure that makes us so fearful?

We fear failing because of our own character weakness.  Many of us nurse inadequacies we’ve held since our earliest childhood: driven hard by overachieving parents who expect nothing less than excellence, or conversely trying to prove wrong the teacher, parent or pastor who told us we were useless or would never achieve anything.  This underlying motif drives us forward compulsively even though we’re not even aware it’s there until somebody points it out to us.

We fear failing because we might lose support.  Our friends and churches have poured their prayer, encouragement and finance into our mission.  How do we tell them we messed up?  Will they stop supporting us?  If fact that’s highly unlikely.  Most of them will be committed to you because of relationship not performance, and those who withdraw their relationship when you don’t perform were not really supporters in the first place.

We fear failing because of the impact on our faith.  Why did God send us?  Was God not with us?  Why was our work not blessed?  The reasons for any given failure are frequently complex and inscrutable, but what we can be sure of is that Jesus promised he would be with us even though life would be hard (Matthew 28:20, John 16:33).  St Paul, no stranger to unexpected outcomes, reminded the Roman church that nothing can separate us from the love of God, acknowledging in the very same sentence the reality of bad things happening to us (Romans 8:39).

This perspective that things don’t always work out quite as we intended is a very helpful way to start our mission.  And even when things go badly wrong, there are still ways in which God can use it for good even though the journey has been painful for us (Genesis 50:20).  Often the greatest work that God does is not through us, but in us.  This needs to be an understanding which we share with our agency, church, family and friends so that we feel we have permission to fail, because we recognise that in a fallen and damaged world, not everything works out as we hope.

Syzygy regularly helps mission workers coming to terms with failure, and we’ve experienced it ourselves.  One of us even wrote a blog about it.  So if you’re struggling in this area, do please get in touch for a confidential discussion by emailing info@syzygy.org.uk.  We’re confident we can help get you back on track, or find the alternative role for you.

Failing isn’t fatal.  Not starting again, is.

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

Those of us who live in developing countries will be only too familiar with one of the major sources of stress and disruption in our lives – the regular power outages which mean that unless we have invested in our own generator or solar panels, we frequently have no electricity for several hours of the day.  When it comes on there is a mad dash to recharge every battery, do the cooking and laundry while the equipment works and catch up with all the emails before the power goes off again.  Just mention load-shedding to a group of mission workers and there will be sighs, groans of frustration and a long litany of tales of woe.

Yet, seen from another angle, load-shedding is a regrettable occurrence which is better than the alternative – total unplanned blackouts.  Load-shedding happens when the demand for power exceeds the available supply.  Sometimes a power station breaks down, or the water supply is too low for the hydro station to operate.   Load-shedding protects the power distribution system from wider failure caused by trying to run too many appliances, which can lead to substations failing and major damage to the distribution system.

Most mission workers are not good at doing load-shedding in their own lives.  Often their available supply of energy is insufficient for all the things that they have committed to.  They keep going resolutely, unaware of the damage that they are doing to their systems while they run on with an permanent emotional or spiritual brownout.  Often this can continue at a low rate for years until a major stressor occurs and there is a system wide failure.  This can vary in what it looks like – lack of emotional energy to invest in family, loss of faith, stress-related illness, emotional outbursts, moral failure – but they are all symptoms of the same underlying problem: the mission workers are doing more than they are able.

The short-term response to overload, as power companies realise, is to cut the demand.  In the same way that the electricity company simply cuts off the supply to a given area, so the mission worker needs to lay down some responsibilities so that the drain on their emotional, spiritual and physical energy is reduced.  The longer-term solution is to balance the supply and demand more effectively.  There are a number of effective ways you can do this:

  • review the range of responsibilities you carry and prayerfully consider how sustainable it is
  • look at your personal strategies for rest and retreat to ensure you are taking enough time out of your ministry to recharge your batteries effectively
  • consider how effective your prayer support is
  • review the level of stress you are operating under and restore it to appropriate levels
  • work with your co-workers to rebalance your team structure and activities so that they are sustainable for everybody
  • work out whether you are an introvert or an extravert and adapt your lifestyle accordingly
  • review your eating and sleeping habits to make sure that they work well for you

Load-shedding is a short-term fix not a long-term solution.  Mission workers opting to load-shed may keep things going for a bit but if they fail to implement a permanent solution may find themselves at risk of a major power failure in the form of burnout.

 

Recently while reading an ancient devotional classic I came a passage where the author stayed up most of the night with some friends talking about Jesus.  Apparently they had a lovely time.  I don’t know about you but that sounds to me corny if not highly super-spiritual.  I cringed inwardly as I read it.

I’ve never spent as much as a quarter of an hour talking about Jesus, let alone most of the night.  Perhaps I’m alone on this, but that’s just not the way I think.  I might talk theology for a while, or ministry, or mission, but not Jesus.  You may be the same.

Yet if Jesus is my Lord, my saviour, my redeemer, my future bridegroom, perhaps I should be focussing on him more. Talking about his qualities, telling people what he means to me.  Discussing what he did and said.

A dear, departed friend of mine had the unusual habit of stopping in mid-conversation, sometimes fork halfway to his mouth, turning to me and saying “You know, I’m so in love with Jesus”.  Curiously, it wasn’t corny.  It was the natural overflowing of his love for Jesus, rather like a bride before her wedding.  Nobody expects a bride to be indifferent.  People are supposed to be excited about weddings.  How excited are we about our Beloved?

Perhaps if I talked more about Jesus and less about me, I’d end up loving Jesus more and me less.

Seeing beyond the picture frame

In our day to day lives, it can be a struggle to look beyond the picture that we see. There’s a framework of life we live within; often defined by our routine, job, commitments, ministries. This keeps us occupied and consumed; it’s what we see and know and experience. This framework is the same one in which we are tempted to box God into, and even then we often don’t see what he’s doing when it’s right in our very midst. Our view is narrow, partial, incomplete, limited by our eyesight and perspective.

While taking a walk at Killerton House, Devon, I came across this beautiful frame that had been positioned to capture the landscape ahead. It was strange how this frame didn’t obstruct or interrupt the view, but rather made it more striking, forcing me to take note of that which was within the frame, and that which was beyond it. The frame also had no influence on squashing or restricting the landscape beyond – it couldn’t contain the whole picture. This frame only tells part of the story.

The photograph above is equally inadequate at demonstrating the vastness of the surroundings. There is still so much beauty spilling out that doesn’t make it into the frame, or even the edges of the photo, and so much stretching further still beyond the horizon, faded by the cloud cover, and transcending beyond the reach of the human eye.

This prompted me to reflect on how God is always at work beyond what we see. In Ephesians 3:20, we read of how God is able to do ‘immeasurably more that we can ask or imagine’ (NIV) – ‘superabundantly’ (AMP). There are no limits to God’s power, goodness, and grace at work. He isn’t confined by a frame, there is no horizon, because there is no ending! There is always a ‘beyond’ that we can’t comprehend.

As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Isaiah 55:9

This is a humbling scripture to read – because it reminds us that we haven’t got much of a clue when it comes to God’s ways and thoughts – and the extent of our cluelessness is measured by how much higher the heavens are than the earth! And yet it is also deeply encouraging; we can rest in certainty that while we cannot see the whole picture, it is held in the hands of a God of unfathomable goodness, justice, mercy. A creator who breathes life, and has redeemed our lives.

This view gives us just a glimpse of his beauty and splendour, and we can rejoice in knowing that he is intimately part of the small picture that we see, yet his majesty and hand at work extends so far beyond this. This encourages us to rest in him and trust that he knows what he’s doing with our lives and with this world, both of which can overwhelm us at times. He’s at work in the seen and the unseen. For now, we know in part, but one day we will know in full. (1 Corinthians 12:13)