Source: www.freeimages. com

Source: www.freeimages. com

I recently came across the above title as a headline in a well-known Christian magazine.  I prepared to be impressed.  I thought that if God can speak the entire cosmos into being in just six days, give the Deity a decade and something pretty spectacular should result.

Sadly, I was underwhelmed.  A church had grown, bought and renovated a building, and started meeting there instead of in a school.  Just an average decade for many churches.  Which set me thinking, why does God do things so slowly?  The answer is that God works with the celestial equivalent of one hand tied behind his back: he partners with humans.

Alone, God can speak revival into being, self-reveal to millions, heal the sick and raise the dead.  But God doesn’t like doing things alone.  God prefers to be in partnership with family, working in community.  Which is why God is so keen that we humans get involved.  In working with God, we learn about God, get to know God, and start the long process of becoming like God.  It’s a bit like letting your kids help you with weeding the flowerbed.  You know some weeds are going to survive and some flowers are going to get pulled up, but doing stuff together builds family.

The problem, of course, is that humans work slowly, and often get in the way.  We don’t do what we’re told to, either because we’re not listening or we’re not willing.  We don’t go where we should or give what we ought.  We don’t step out in faith, speak out boldly, or believe God will do amazing things in us and through us.  So what looks like God’s inactivity is really our inactivity.

18 months ago we introduced you to the Syzygy theology of symbiosis (if you haven’t read this blog, click here!).  It stressed the fact that our partnership with God is so total and complete that it is like we are in a mutual relationship, modelled on the one Jesus had with the Father.

Do we have the courage even to aspire to this sort of relationship?  Do we look at the risks, the challenges, the ‘sacrifices’ involved, or do we embrace the huge privilege of being able to work alongside the Creator, allowing the ‘power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead’ (Ephesians 1:19) to work in and through us?

May God shrink our fears and enlarge our faith, and then maybe we really will see what God can do in 10 years!

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you may know what is the hope of his calling, what are the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power towards us who believe.

(Ephesians 1:18-19)

andrewSt Andrew may not be the most obvious choice for a missionary hero.  Eclipsed by Peter, his more famous brother, often left out of the Gang of Four (Jesus, James, Peter & John) but occasionally included, without significant participation in the gospels, he’s not the most obscure of the disciples, but he is certainly not prominent.

Yet what is unique about him is that every time we are told about him in the gospels, he is bringing people to Jesus.  First, and most significantly for church history, he brings his brother Peter (John 1:40-42), using a phrase of unparalleled faith so early in Jesus’ ministry: “We have found the Messiah”.  Then, it is Andrew who finds the boy who gave Jesus his lunch (John 6:8) – and we know what happened after that!  And after that Andrew is found introducing some Hellenistic Jews to Jesus (John 12:22).  Later on, tradition tells us, he preached the gospel in eastern Europe, including in what is now Ukraine and Russia, both of which honour him as their patron saint.  He is also credited with founding the Patriarchate of Byzantium.

What can we learn from Andrew?

  • As already stated, he is regularly bringing people to Jesus. In all that we do, we must not forget that this is a key objective, whether we do it directly ourselves or facilitate others doing it.
  • He does not appear to have sulked. As one of the first disciples to have followed Jesus, he might have had a claim to be part of the inner circle, but when he wasn’t, there is no evidence of him becoming upset, and he certainly didn’t walk out.  He just got on with the job.
  • He wasn’t afraid to go beyond the boundaries of his world. Although Greece, Thrace, Byzantium and Romania would have very different cultures from what Andrew would have been used to in Judea, they were at least part of the Roman Empire.  As he worked his way round the Black Sea and up the Dniester River as far as Kiev, and possibly even going as far as Novgorod, he would have been in the territory of ‘barbarians’.

Legend tells us that Andrew when he was crucified, he asked to be tied to a diagonal cross, as he was unworthy to die on the same sort of cross as Jesus died.  May we also be as passionate about serving, representing, and (if called to) dying for Jesus.

Chefoo 1970A few weeks ago I had the privilege of being at a school reunion.  Not a regular one, but one with a difference – some of the people hadn’t even been to the same campus.  They were alumni of the old CIM/OMF Chefoo schools in Malaysia and Japan, and some of them had stayed at boarding houses in the UK during school holidays from their boarding schools in the UK.

It was interesting to observe their interactions as some of them had never met before but clearly shared a sense of camaraderie.  Some were old friends who hadn’t seen each other in decades, and all were thrilled to be reunited with former dorm parents and even an ex-head teacher.

Further investigation revealed that they all felt happy/fulfilled/privileged to have been part of a boarding school education while their parents were overseas mission workers.  Yes, they admitted that being parted from their families wasn’t great, and the times they didn’t get letters in the post were particularly hard to deal with, but they clearly felt they hadn’t been handicapped or disadvantaged by their school arrangements.  Granted, this was a self-selecting group in that any adult TCKs who had anger, resentment or loss of faith as a result of being at a boarding school would have chosen not to be there, but it was encouraging to hear so much positive feedback.

2015-07-04 15.46.21A generation on and despite the advances in local education and homeschooling options, many parents still send their kids to boarding schools.  For many it’s a great experience, although aspects of it can be hard for them.  But it’s interesting how many people say “I would never send my kids to boarding school” while they’re preparing for the mission field, but then later do so, recognising that it may be the best educational option in some places.

So what does Syzygy recommend?  Well, whatever works best for the child’s overall development (which includes spirituality, socialisation, and mentoring as well as ‘just’ education).  We recommend careful prayer, and discussion with the child as to what works best for them.  And here are some options:

Local schools – mission workers often overlook the fact that local schools may have very high standards.  The advantage is that the child will gain language fluency and local culture quickly, but may not get an internationally recognised certificate at the end of it.

International schools – there are good international schools in most major cities these days, usually teaching in English.  They may be run by Christians and usually teach to an internationally recognised standard like GCSE or IB.  They may have high fees, but are often willing to negotiate so don’t assume you can’t afford them.

Faith boarding schools – there are a number of these around the world serving the faith community and while the principal drawback is that your kids are away for the whole term, they can get a good education in English, in a faith-based context.

UK schools – if your child is going to be away during the term, you may wish to consider leaving them in the UK where they can get free education.  The challenge is to find an uncle, aunt or grandparent willing to foster them!

UK boarding schools – although you may think that’s an expensive option, there are many schools which will give generous bursaries for mission kids, so you may end up paying less in fees than you would at an international school

Homeschooling – this has the option of keeping your kids at home, which is also its disadvantage.  One parent must stay home full time to teach and supervise, and being a teacher may change the nature of the relationship with the child.  There are a number of good programmes you can use which include online curricula.

For a fuller discussion of the options, and lists of various school and other education providers, we recommend you take a look at Oscar’s helpful page.

On the road to Emmaus

On the road to Emmaus

The Message translates Jesus’ words to two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus as sympathetically as it can, but it is still a clear rebuke for their lack of understanding.  Which is not unreasonable since the Gospels all make it clear that Jesus had done his best to explain to them in advance that he would be killed, but would rise again from the dead (Luke 24:6-7).

In Luke 24 (verses 13-35) we are given a picture of two traumatised disciples.  Just three days before, their Messiah had been crucified, destroying their hopes of national redemption.  And now they were confused by rumours of him appearing to people.  Confused, Cleopas and his companion were heading home despondently to Emmaus.  They talked things over on the way, trying to make sense of what had happened.  But a stranger meets them on the road, and the ensuing discussion is an excellent example of how to do a debrief:

  • He asks them what the problem is.  He asks open questions, allowing them to tell their story.  He listens.
  • When they have had their full say, he leads them back to scripture.  He explains it to them so that they can understand.
  • In the process he clearly encourages them (verse 32).
  • In the final revelation, they are inspired to return to where they were supposed to be, and tell their story.

In this story, in a matter of a few hours two discouraged disciples regain their vision for ministry.  Sadly in our world it often takes a lot longer.  But this story reminds us that for all the skill and ability of professional debriefers, there is no substitute for letting Jesus do the real work in the lives of his wounded followers.

We accomplish this through prayer, and there is no substitute for many people to be praying into the debriefing situations of burnt-out mission workers.  Syzygy runs a prayerline so that we can mobilise prayer for the people we meet with.  You can read more about it here.  We really need your help in interceding for Jesus to work in people’s lives.  If you would like to partner with us please let us know by emailing prayer@syzygy.org.uk.  We sent out updates two or three times a month, and they are usually just a couple of sentences, so the work is not onerous!

We are grateful to Pastor Neil Le Tissier for the thoughts on Luke 24.

keyboardI recently ran into a mission worker (let’s call him Bill, which is not his real name) who had been a mission worker in a foreign country for a couple of years, together with his wife.

Since the language of that country is somewhat complicated, I asked how he was getting on with learning it.  His reply was one I have never before heard:

We didn’t bother with language lessons; we have a full-time interpreter.  If we want to phone out for a pizza, it’s easier to get her to do it.

Many of you will be involuntarily cringing at the very thought of this.  Honestly, it happened.  Bill had been in country for two years and couldn’t even order a pizza.  Do you think that’s right?

At Syzygy we think learning the language serves a number of purposes:

  • it shows respect for the people we have come to serve
  • it opens up communication with those who don’t speak English
  • it helps us understand their culture better
  • it creates missional opportunitiess as we practice
  • it equips us to read road signs, magazines and books and understand TV and radio
  • it helps us share the gospel with everyone around us
Pick a language!

Pick a language!

Yet many independent mission workers don’t take language learning seriously, if they bother at all.  Most agencies require their mission partners to make a significant effort, and it’s not uncommon to do a year of full time language study, gradually reducing that as ministry takes over.  But even with discipline, it can take many years to achieve fluency, and many of us settle for adequacy.

The British by and large have a poor reputation for language learning, and we are fortunate that the global prominence of our transatlantic cousins means we often don’t need to bother, but most of us feel it’s important to make an effort.

I frequently hear Brits say that they’re not very good at languages, but when they have to haggle for a chicken, or negotiate their way through the visa office, their need focusses their attention and they do a pretty good job.  Their attention is focussed even more effectively when their mission agency requires them to speak the language to a certain standard within a given time, and threatens to send them home if they don’t achieve it.

But how much effort is really necessary?  Is it appropriate to rely on interpreters all the time?  Or just hope that there’ll always be somebody around who speaks English?  While such attitudes may have overtones of neo-colonial arrogance, we seem to be entering a postmodern era world where many mission workers will only stay a few years in the field before moving on.  If that is true, do we really have time to invest a year in language learning?  Do we really need to strive for proficiency like the old-time lifelong mission workers did?

These days, there is little excuse not to try to learn at least a little of the language.  With online courses and dvds so cheap, and even online translation apps available, it’s possible to pick up a few words easily, and lay a good foundation even before you get on the plane.  It doesn’t really take a lot of effort to make a good start, and once you are in the field being able to speak just a few sentences in your target language will generate such goodwill in your community that people will be much more willing to listen to the message you’re trying to communicate, whichever language you end up using.

A typical meeting of a mission team? (source: www.freeimages.com)

A typical meeting of a mission team? (source: www.freeimages.com)

I don’t know if you’ve ever stopped to think about what a disparate group Jesus’ 12 disciples were.  We don’t know about all of them, but we can infer things about them from what we know of their professions and what they are recorded in the Bible as saying.  As we know they included the fishermen Simon Peter, Andrew, James & John (Matthew 4:18-21) as well as a tax collector (Matthew) and a revolutionary freedom fighter (Simon the Zealot*).  Peter was larger than life and James & John clearly had short tempers (Mark 3:17, Luke 9:54).  Thomas possibly had a more cynical nature (John 11:16).  The fishermen, while not necessarily poor (they owned their means of production), were probably what we would now consider skilled labourers, as was Jesus himself, while Matthew would have been significantly wealthy, at least prior to joining the disciples (cf Luke 19:1-10).

Most interestingly, in the politically-charged environment of the occupied Levant, Matthew would have been considered a traitor, collaborating with the occupying power by collecting outrageously high taxes.  Every nationalistic Judaean would have hated him, particularly Simon was a Zealot, a fanatic agitating for radical overthrow of the oppressors.  How on earth did those two manage to get along living alongside each other for three year?  Of course there must have been arguments, but they stuck it out.  And that was before they were transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost!

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

I believe there was one crucial factor that drew them together more than their political views would have divided them:  they wanted to be with Jesus.  They wanted to be where he was, and do what he was doing.  And the price they paid for that was to learn to live together.

In many multi-cultural mission teams today there are disagreements over many things: theological, cultural, and social.  They may include questions of missiological practice, ecclesiology, or basic assumptions about what Christian culture is.  These disagreements are significantly exacerbated where there is a clash of personalities, and in any randomly-allocated group of twelve people, there is highly likely to be one person that you don’t get on with.  Dealing with such people can lead to significant levels of stress.

So when we find ourselves in a similar situation, what can we do to make it work?  Here are some simple steps:

  • 1) Look to the bigger picture and recognise that we are all a small part of a large plan
  • 2) Recognise and accept our differences, acknowledging that other people’s different attitudes and values are not necessarily wrong
  • 3) Admit our own sinfulness and self-centredness and ask God to help us become more like him
  • 4) Work hard to understand those we have tension with, learn their story and find out what has made them who they are.

St Paul gives us some helpful hints on our attitude towards those with whom we disagree in Romans 14:

  • Accept one another and do not judge (vv 1, 3)
  • We are all answerable to God for our own attitudes and behaviour (vv 4, 10)
  • Our attitude can cause others to sin (v 13)
  • We are supposed to be building one another up (v 19
  • The Kingdom of God is more important than our disputes (v 20)
Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

I was greatly encouraged when one couple reported to me recently that they were having some difficulty in relating to their co-workers, and ask for prayer not that the colleagues would change, but that they would!  This is a godly attitude which recognises that if we want to be with Jesus, and do the things he is doing, we’re likely to find ourselves with co-workers that we wouldn’t naturally choose.  We can make an issue of this or we can get on with the process of adapting.  I have found myself in a similar situation, working alongside people I would not naturally have chosen to be with, but by getting to know them better they have become good friends.

We don’t know the end of the story of Matthew and Simon.  Perhaps they became the best of friends, or maybe they simply learned to tolerate each other.  Maybe Jesus knocked their heads together a few times before they got the message.  But we do know that they stayed together in the same team for at least three years, and even after the death of Jesus they stayed together for at least 40 days (Acts 1:13).  That is because what united them was greater than what divided them.

* There is much scholarly debate about this term.  Some say it may simply mean that he was enthusiastic, but the Zealots were named by Josephus as a sect of Judaism which advocated armed uprising against the Romans.

Hudson Taylor

Hudson Taylor

150 years ago this week, on 25th June 1865, Hudson Taylor started the China Inland Mission, now OMF International.  It had (and still has, though slightly adapted) the goal of “the urgent evangelisation of China’s millions”.

Taylor was greatly concerned that the Chinese were dying without Jesus.  This prompted the sense of urgency which pervaded not only the CIM but other 19th century missions too.  They were motivated to take the message of Jesus to people who  were being lost, consigned to hell for eternity.

These days, hell is an unpopular and rarely mentioned concept in much of western Christianity.  We feel it is distasteful, incompatible with the idea of a loving God, and disrespectful of those who choose not to follow Jesus.  We certainly don’t use it in our outreach, preferring instead to tell people of God’s love for them rather than focus on divine wrath.

Whether you agree with downgrading hell to a theological optional extra or not, the disappearance of hell from the evangelistic agenda has removed the sense of urgency.  We recognise that telling people they’re going to hell if they don’t repent is not the best way to build a bridge towards them.  And while we may not be sure what happens after death to those who don’t follow Jesus, we trust God to be fair and sort something out.  Rob Bell infamously flirted with universalism in his controversial book Love Wins, which was welcomed by many people who can’t stomach the idea of God condemning millions of his creatures to burn for eternity for the simple crime of not worshipping him even though nobody had told them to.

Today we prefer to take our time to woo people into the kingdom of God because we’re not in a hurry any more.  But that doesn’t mean people have stopped dying without Jesus.  In the time it’s taken you to read this blog, thousands have died before being told the message.  Whatever you believe happens to them after death, it can’t be as good as spending eternity with Jesus.  So go and tell them.  Quickly.

Beatles

The Beatles: all you need is love

We were represented at a recent International HR Forum in London.  As 60 people representing sending churches and agencies discussed selection and recruitment criteria, one of the speakers introduced us to this quote which he had found on the internet*:

The only required characteristic for being a missionary is that you have complete and utter faith in the Lord.  God does not choose the equipped… he equips the chosen.”

On the surface, this might seem very reasonable.  Surely that is all we need.  After all, most of the people we read of in the New Testament seem to have had very little formal training, if any, and Jesus actively discouraged his disciples from being too thoroughly prepared (Luke 10:4).

On the other hand, as Gentiles started joining the Jewish church in Antioch (Acts 11:22-26) Barnabas appears to have sought out Saul for his cross-cultural experience.  Although Jesus did send his disciples out lightly equipped, they had already spent quite some time in his company, watching him heal and hearing him teach.  They had been mentored by him.  And we wonder if John would have headed home early from Pamphylia (Acts 13:13) if he had been better prepared for the experience.  Perhaps he was homesick, or maybe he had culture shock.  Or was Paul too hard a taskmaster?  Some better member care may have helped him.

So is it really true that we can go into complex, different and often dangerous situations without some sort of preparation?  Is it still a world in which the likes of Jackie Pullinger can just get on a boat and do effective mission wherever it stops?  Or is it a more prudent, risk-averse world in which churches and agencies will stop us doing anything risky because they have a duty of care? (See our blog from two weeks ago for more on this issue)

We asked some mission workers what they thought were the qualities mission workers really needed.  Here’s what they said:

  • A sense of calling
  • Patience
  • Humility
  • Stamina
  • An ability to laugh at themselves
  • Recognition that God is more interested in what he can do for them than what they can do for him
  • Realistic expectations
  • Ability to cope with disappointment
  • Realisation that who they are is more important than what they do
  • Understanding that God has called them to be faithful, not successful
  • Resilience
  • Flexibility
  • Experience of coping with hard times at home before you leave
  • Compassion
  • The ability to ask for help

We don’t disagree with any of these.  They are all really valuable qualities, which most of the mission workers we asked are recommending with the hindsight of their own experience in the field.  What interests us most is that without exception all these qualities relate to character and life experience.  Not one of them is a skill, qualification or competence.  Nothing that was learned in a school, management development course or Bible College.  And we didn’t specify that we were looking for character qualities.  It seems that, as one of them commented, it really is more about who you are than what you do.  And as we concluded in our HR forum, the most important character quality is Christlikeness.

So perhaps the anonymous author of this dubious quote is right, in a certain way.  Perhaps God does equip the chosen.  But it would appear that God equips them before they are chosen, as well as after, using the difficult times we have encountered throughout our lives to make us look more like Jesus.  That, perhaps, is all we really need.

* It has been observed that you should never trust anything you find on the internet.  Except on this website, obviously.

William Blake: Job's vision of God

William Blake: Job’s vision of God

As we bring to an end this series looking at suffering which has taken slightly longer than was originally anticipated, it is appropriate to leave the final word with Job.  This ancient story is celebrated for its exploration of the theme of suffering, and for challenging the idea that bad things only happen to bad people, which is a persistent theology that has its current manifestation in the prosperity doctrine: if you are dedicated to God, God will bless you.

Job endures unparalleled loss, and his friends insist that it must be because he has done something to deserve it, while Job proclaims his innocence.  Clearly traumatised by the sudden loss of his family, health and possessions, he wishes he had never been born (3:3).

What we must note from this event is not the lengthy discussion (which frankly few of us ever read in full) but something that we often miss – Job did not have the opportunity of reading chapter 1.  He had no idea what what was going on, or how God was using him to demonstrate faithfulness under pressure.  All he knew was that he had done nothing wrong, yet he was suffering.  That is a condition common to most of humanity – we generally have no idea what God’s purpose is, we can only endure.

We must also remember that even in the midst of his pain, Job comes up with one of the greatest statements of faith in God found in the whole Bible:

I know that my redeemer lives, and at the last day he will stand on the earth; though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh will I see God.

Neither did Job get any answer.  There’s no indication that he ever found out what was behind his suffering.  But he did receive a revelation that put it into perspective.  For four chapters (38-41) God speaks to Job revealing God’s power and wisdom through the whole of creation, which puts Job firmly in his place.  He retracts his complaint, recognises the awesomeness of his creator.  May our suffering lead us into similar revelation of the majesty of God!

Not a bad place to play football

Not a bad place to play football

By the time you read this, Tim will be in the air somewhere over Europe on his way to Albania.  Together with some friends from Pavilion Christian Community he is going to be part of a football team working to support a church in Tirana by doing outreach in schools and prisons, building bridges by playing the beautiful game.

It may be that kicking a football around is one of the most effective ways of connecting with people, but we hope this visit will be about more than just having fun together.  We’re hoping that we’ll encourage the Christians and build up the profile of the church in this Moslem country.  We’re praying that we’ll have opportunities to share what Jesus means to us with people who don’t yet know him.  And we would like to be effective ambassadors for Christ among a people who probably have a very misguided understanding of what Christianity really is about.

So please pray for us till we get home again next Friday:

  • Pray that we’ll communicate the message effectively in word and deed
  • Pray that we’ll quickly bond together as a mission team as well as a football team
  • Pray that we’ll have the energy to play a match at least once a day in 30 degree temperatures
  • Pray that we’ll be healthy enough to do all that we need to
  • Pray for grace to cope with situations we may find unusual

Falemnderit!*

 

* Thank you!

NHSThis is just a quick update to alert mission workers to the fact that the ORT has now been published.  The purpose of this is to help UK health authorities to work out whether they should be charging patients who live abroad for the cost of their hospital treatment.  You can read the background to this important issue on our briefing paper on the subject of Accessing NHS Services.

You can access the ORT at the government website and you can see the questions you will be asked if you have been living abroad.  How you answer them will determine whether the hospital thinks you are entitled to free treatment, so we suggest you plan your answers carefully.

 

ClashKnowing when to leave is always one of the biggest challenges for mission workers, particularly when a crisis occurs.  A topical application of this issue would be the earthquakes in Nepal, as a result of which some mission workers have left the country, whether by their own choice or because their church or agency chose to withdrawn them.  Other mission workers stayed.  Who has made the right decision?

A few years ago, in a discussion facilitated by Emma Dipper, a group of HR managers were asked how risk-averse they had been when they were living abroad.  Most of us were so un-averse that we could be considered irresponsible, gung-ho mavericks.  We were then asked to think through how risk-averse we are when we think about the mission workers in the field for whom we currently have responsibility.  As we thought that through, we realised we would hit the panic button much quicker.  We would pull people out quickly because we had health and safety responsibilities, issues concerning ‘due care’, and trustees with legal responsibility holding us accountable.

red buttonGiven the litigious nature of western culture, it’s not surprising some churches and agencies would pull their people out of Nepal.  Suppose a mission worker were killed in the second earthquake, or one of the 200+ aftershocks, and the agency were sued by an angry relative.  We would be unable to mount an effective defence, knowing there had been a risk but not having done anything to mitigate it.  So it seems prudent to pull our people out, even if they don’t want to leave.  We have to consider the agency’s reputation.  But this will also give the mission workers huge guilt issues – they’ve had the luxury of going to a safe place while their local friends have to sleep outdoors and hunt for clean water.  Have they run away, or deserted their posts?  What will their Nepali neighbours think when the Christians run away at the first sign of trouble?

Those who stayed in Nepal are having a huge impact, channeling relief funding, facilitating reconstruction, organising counselling and debriefing for traumatised Nepalis, and demonstrating the love of God in their commitment to staying.  Many Nepalis will be encouraged that they cared enough to stay when they could so easily have left.  But the price is the trauma the mission workers will suffer, and their fear for their children.

The Bible leaves us with no easy answers either.  Jesus walked determinedly into Jerusalem knowing that he would be killed but on an earlier occasion slipped away from a mob in Nazareth that wanted to lynch him.  Noah built a boat to escape in, and must have been traumatised by the cries of those trying to escape the flood whom he didn’t let in.  No wonder he took to drink afterwards!  Paul was bundled unceremoniously out of Damascus to save his life, yet on other occasions showed uncommon bravery.  Yet the general tenor of the New Testament is that we should expect to suffer.

Perhaps our best hope of a making an appropriate decision is to ask the local church.  They will be much more aware than we are whether our ongoing presence in their community is likely to bring danger or protection, or to help clear up or be a hindrance.  At least one agency I know of makes all their personnel responsible to the national church leadership, so that the decision to evacuate is taken out of the hands both of the mission worker and the church/agency.  Perhaps that’s a new paradigm for missions – trust the locals to make good decisions!

9781841017310-l“Much of our spirituality is geared toward relieving our pain and finding ways to ensure happiness, success and well-being… Those who face struggles in their walk with God are accused of unbelief or dismissed as lacking in faith or strength of character…”  So writes our favourite author Tony Horsfall in his latest book, Deep Calls To Deep.

So when we are suffering, where in the Bible can we turn to for encouragement?  To Job, who rails against his situation and receives a revelation of God which silences him but brings no understanding of what actually happened?  To Paul, who seems to brush suffering off as “momentary, light afflication” (2 Corinthians 4:17)?  Or to James, who tells us to be glad because it’s worth it in the long run for our character development (James 1:2-4)?

Tony suggests we should turn to the Psalms to find authors who really understand what we’re going through.  He reminds us that many of them were conceived in pain, whether in David’s fugitive years or the subsequent exile in Babylon.  In Deep Calls To Deep, Tony effectively uses Walter Brueggemann’s observation that the Psalms contain psalms of orientation (when all is right with the world), disorientation (when everything has gone wrong), and re-orientation as the psalmist reconciles the difference between the world he experiences around him and the worldview which he holds.  Tony selects some psalms which show evidence of these characteristics to unpack and expound, looking for the encouragement even in the dark places that God deliberately takes us into for the sake of our own spiritual formation.

Tony taps into the honesty and emotion we find in the psalms in a way that helps us to engage with the writers and realise that they shared the feelings that we struggle with, yet held onto God in the midst of pain and confusion.  Tony comments:

We can never squeeze human suffering into a box where we can understand it, analyse it or fathom it. And recognising that God uses the difficulties of life to shape and mould us is not meant to trivialise suffering or offer a simplistic solution to the pain we face. What the Psalms teach us is to trust in God even when we don’t understand, when there seems to be no reason for our pain, and indeed our suffering seems disproportionate. They teach us to be content with mystery and not-knowing. This is part of the work of formation that God is doing in us in the darkest of nights, and the only way that faith can come to maturity is through the path of suffering.

Tony HorsfallIn a unique innovation, Tony accompanies every chapter with a letter from someone who has been through their own darkness and soul-searching, among them the pastor suffering from depression, a young couple with a severely ill baby, and a couple who have both suffered from long-term illness for 20 years.  These are not necessarily fairy tales in which they all lived happily ever after, but show how ordinary people grapple with suffering and come out the other side.

Deep Calls To Deep is short, well-written and easy to understand.  We thoroughly recommend it to anyone struggling to come to terms with the suffering they have undergone or witnessed.

Deep Calls To Deep can be bought direct from the publishers BRF Online.

pastoralMany people in the mission world are exposed to significant levels of suffering.  Whether it’s walking past vast numbers of the destitute on the streets of Asian megacities, watching people die of diseases that could be cured in the west, or supporting the millions of people worldwide living in refugee camps, mission workers witness a lot of suffering.  Sometimes it’s a passive experience which can be part of life in their field of ministry, or sometimes an active one as they devote themselves to providing relief.

Others of us experience suffering ourselves, perhaps through the car accidents which are all-too-frequent in the sort of places we work, robbery, kidnap, assault, or natural disaster.  We may experience broken relationships, spiritual abuse within toxic agencies, or exploitation by those we are aiming to serve.

Such exposure to suffering can have a variety of impacts.  It can lead to compassion fatigue, with people becoming uncaring as they steel themselves to withstand the suffering around them.  It can lead to burnout as they strive compassionately to personally meet the needs of everyone they come across.  And it can, in extreme circumstances, lead to severe theological doubts or even a loss of faith as people struggle to come to terms with the presence of suffering in a world created by a loving God.  Not to mention conditions like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

How do mission workers suffering from such trauma find relief for it?

  • They need to get away. People working in traumatic contexts should withdraw regularly for rest and healthcare, to make sure they stay well enough to do their jobs.  In the process they’ll need to feel helped not to feel guilty for leaving those who need their help.  By withdrawing to recharge their batteries, they will in the long run be able to be help more people.  Fortunately there is a growing number of retreat centres worldwide where mission workers can get a break and, if they want, also find debriefing.
  • They need to engage spiritually with the situation. Where is God to be found in this mess?  What is God saying to them?  How is the Holy Spirit empowering them to do their ministry?
  • They need to have a proper debrief. It’s important with people engaging with trauma that they don’t merely have a brief chat with a colleague, but meet with professionals as part of a process of unpacking their emotions.  Ministries like ARREST, Healthlink360, Interhealth, and Le Rucher specialise in providing such focussed support.
  • They need a supporting church that can care for them when they come “home” for a break, by providing hospitality, love and support, and an opportunity for them to talk if they want to, while respecting the fact that they may want to keep silent and think things through in their minds rather than verbalising everything. They need to feel involved without having lots to do, as they will need space to work through what is going on inside them.
  • They need to be accepted for who they are at this moment. One of the big challenges for mission workers with doubts about their faith is that there are few people they can talk to honestly.  They are frightened to tell their agency that they are constantly tearful and feel guilty of their relative wealth and security for fear of not being allowed to go back.  They fear they will lose the support of their church if they say that after what they’ve seen, they can’t believe in a God of love any more.  An accepting, non-judgmental environment in which mission workers can express such doubts can go a long way towards their healing, though sadly what we hear most from mission workers is that they have nobody who understands.

In order to prevent the build-up of stress in a mission worker to an unhealthy state, they should have a good understanding of a theology of suffering, recognise their own physical responses to stress so that they can take appropriate action, and have supportive relationships where it is safe to talk openly about the challenges they face.

Far too many mission workers are invalided out of the field because they weren’t properly supported and cared for… by church, by agency, and by themselves.

Tardieu: Joseph recognised by his brothers (1788)

Tardieu: Joseph recognised by his brothers (1788)

Last week we introduced the theology of suffering with the general idea that the Bible, far from promising us the unlimited blessing of success and prosperity that some have found in isolated verses, has a dominant theme of preparing us to expect suffering.

While this emerges most strongly in the New Testament, with its context of a minority church resisting attempts by both Jewish and Roman authorities to make them submit to anything other than the kingdom of Jesus, the Old Testament has plenty of suffering too.  While much of this is interpreted by the Bible writers as God’s just punishment for Israel’s failure to follow God faithfully, much of the suffering is undergone by the faithful through no fault of their own.  We only have to think of Abel, Joseph, David, Job, Jeremiah and many of the prophets to realise how many were persecuted for their faith.

Let’s examine the case of Joseph.  He seems to have been an arrogant youth, bragging about his dreams, so it’s no surprise that he earned the hostility of his brothers.  But he didn’t deserve to be sold into slavery or to be falsely accused of attempted rape by a rejected woman.  Yet the outcome of his misfortune was the survival of the Egyptians through an unprecedented famine, the rescuing of his own family from starvation, and character growth in himself and his eldest brother Reuben, who took responsibility for the youngest son of Jacob, when he had not been able to save Joseph some decades previously (Genesis 42:37, cf 37:22).  And after the brothers had been reconciled, Joseph comments:

You meant it for harm, but God meant it for good.

(Genesis 50:20)

Does that mean God caused all that suffering?  We in the West hate such an idea, because it implies that we are merely pawns in God’s game, to be moved or sacrificed as God sees fit.  It affronts our sense of democracy, individualism and personal sovereignty.  If however, we came from a number of other cultures across the world, we wouldn’t even be asking this question.  It wouldn’t even occur to us.  We would simply assume that God has the right to do anything God chooses with God’s creation.  We would have a far less inflated impression of our own importance.

But since we’re not from such a culture, we have to deal with that question.  We don’t believe that God is an unfeeling, distant despot, but rather a loving Father who wants the very best for us.  This is certainly what Jesus teaches us in his parables (Matthew 7:9-11, Luke 15:11-32).  But we also believe in the forces of evil, whether at work in selfish or malevolent humans or personified in Satan.  We believe in God’s law of cause and effect at work in this world, and the freedom for all of us to choose to do harm or good.  This creates a world when it becomes very easy for bad things to happen to people, whether accident, abuse or sickness.  Does that mean God causes these things?  No!  But it does mean that God didn’t stop them either.

The plain fact is that God allows suffering to continue in this world.  Why?  While we cannot determine what is going on in each individual case, we can find in the Bible some reasons why suffering might have a purpose.

  • For some, suffering might drive us towards God, perhaps for the first time, and we know of people who have found God because a believing community reached out to support them (2 Corinthians 1:9).
  • For others who observe suffering, it is an opportunity for them to show compassion and develop their own character
  • It may be an opportunity for the victim to develop character and grow more like Jesus (James 1:2-4).
  • For some it is their chance to demonstrate to a watching community the grace of God at work in their lives as they suffer (2 Corinthians 4:10-11).
  • We can encourage others who suffer, turning our experience of hardship into a resource (2 Corinthians 1:4).

Many of us who have suffered and come out the other side will say that it was worth it for what we learned of God and ourselves in the process.  That doesn’t mean we deny the pain of it, or even understand why God allowed it.  We simply recognise that the benefits outweigh the cost.  As Jesus himself did (Hebrews 12:2).  In this life we will probably never know the reasons why God allowed our particular suffering.  What we can know however, is that one day every injustice will be righted, and we will be comforted:

And He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there shall no longer be and death, there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying or pain – these things have passed away.

(Revelation 21:4)

62 - Anna with PalomaHearing about the terrible disaster in Nepal last weekend reminded me of a time a few years ago when I led a short-term trip to Peru.  We landed just one hour after a major earthquake and after some discussion changed our programme to travel to the disaster area and help feed people, and start clearing up.

Shortly after we arrived, a young Peruvian girl carrying a crying toddler came up to one of our team members and, saying nothing, handed the toddler over to her.  Somewhat surprised, our team member set about comforting the toddler, and while the rest of us went about our work, she spent the rest of the day playing with the toddler and encouraging her to eat.  By the end of the day she had one happy child with her.

Later on, when we had all returned to our base, she said to me “I don’t know what that accomplished”.  What she didn’t know until I told her, was that the toddler had lost both parents in the earthquake, and hadn’t stopped crying for seven days.

It underlines one of Syzygy’s mantras for world mission: it doesn’t take much to make a difference – you just have to be there.

Many Christians, both Nepalese nationals and foreign mission workers, will be making a difference in the aftermath of the earthquake as they help to clear up and comfort the afflicted, even while suffering with their own fear, uncertainty and grief.  Please pray for them to be effective and for the Nepalese people to see the love of Jesus at work in their communities through them.

If you want to donate money to help, why not avoid the uncertainty of the international bureaucracy and mass appeals, and give directly to a Christian charity which has been working in Nepal for over 60 years – INF.  You can give through their website at www.inf.org/earthquake-appeal-europe.

1112138276This week we begin a 5-week mini-series on the theology of suffering.  We referred to this some weeks ago when we considered For the Good of Those that Love Him.  As we said in that blog, there is a prevailing attitude in the west that largely assumes things will go well for us, God will protect us, and we will succeed.  So when a major disaster strikes, it can cause us to question our beliefs if we do not have a good understanding of how and why suffering occurs.

This is what is known as a theology of suffering, and churches, bible colleges and mission agencies are all keen to ensure that their members appreciate that things can go very badly wrong in the mission field at times and that they are prepared to deal with some tough questions.

Many of us will know of people who have lost a close relative, suffered serious injury or disability, been kidnapped or unjustly imprisoned, or suffered spiritual or emotional abuse in the mission field.  Others have been persecuted for their faith, as Christians are even today in places like north Africa, the Middle East and west Africa.  Many have questioned aspects of their faith as a result, or even lost it completely.  So how does this come about?

Has God been caught off-guard?  Was God busy with more important issues?  Has Satan outwitted God?  It can certainly feel like that when we’re looking for answers but God HAS to be bigger than that.  Suffering bothers us because it affronts our desire to be in control of life.  It reminds us that life – and God – is much bigger than we are, as Job found out when he complained that God wasn’t keeping up his side of the bargain: I’ll worship you as long as you deliver health, blessing and prosperity.

Suffering contradicts our sense of entitlement in a way that would seem absurd to many in developing countries who know only too well that life is hard.  The reality is that life is messy and bad stuff happens.  Whether you believe it to be the consequence of the Fall or just the impact of human greed and selfishness at work, the world is full of harm and hurt.  And that is a normal aspect of human life.  Christians suffer just like others.  Christian refugees have recently been drowned alongside Muslims crossing the Mediterranean.  Christians have been killed in Iraq alongside Yazidis.  Christians have probably died in the Nepal earthquake alongside Hindus.  Being a Christian does not give us a ‘get out of jail free’ card.  Jesus pointed out that the sun shines on those who try to follow God and those who don’t (Matthew 5:45), and when asked if people killed in a disaster somehow deserved God’s judgement, he pointed out that we all deserve judgement and should take the opportunity to get right with God (Luke 13:1-5).

Moreover, the Bible is realistic about the existence of suffering.  The writers of the New Testament clearly thought it was normal to suffer, and particularly to be persecuted for being a follower of Jesus.  Jesus talked about it a lot (see Matthew 5: 10-12, Mark 13: 9-13, Luke 21:12, John 12:24-26 among several other verses).  And what can Matthew 16:24 mean if not to communicate Jesus’ teaching that he expects us to suffer?

If you want to follow me, forget about yourself.  Pick up your cross and follow me.  If you want to save your life, you will destroy it.  But if you lose your life for me, you will find it.

And of course, Jesus knew what he was talking about.  He understood that it was God’s plan for him to suffer and die on the cross.  And although it was hard (Luke 22:42), he embraced it with determination.  And he expected us to follow him.  Joni Eareckson-Tada, a well-known quadriplegic woman who has had a prominent ministry bringing encouragement to suffering Christians commented that “Suffering drives us down the road to Calvary where otherwise we would not be willing to go.”

So when suffering strikes, no matter how terribly painful or unjust it feels, the best way to deal with it is to follow Jesus to the foot of the cross.

To find out more about a theology of suffering, check out these links:

  • Dr Ken Williams has put together a very helpful study with a huge quantity of Bible verses
  • Smallgroups.com has a helpful 5-session Bible study for groups on this issue.
  • Many authors including D A Carson, C S Lewis, R C Sproul and Philip Yancey have written on this subject but we particularly recommend Is God to Blame? by Gregory A Boyd.
How hard is enough?

How hard is enough?

Pelagius was the first British theologian that we know about, and although he is little known today he has provided the British church with one of its favourite heresies.

In the late 4th century Pelagius went to Rome and was dismayed at the prevailing view, taught by people like Augustine, that the fall of Adam and Eve affected the whole of humanity to the extent that we are all terminally corrupted by it and unable without the grace of God to turn from evil and accept God.

Pelagius thought that the sin of our forebears affected only them, and that God’s grace had given us the Bible, freewill, and intellect, so that we are perfectly capable of living righteous lives should we so wish.  After all, why would Jesus tell us to be perfect (Matthew 5:48) if it is not possible?  In essence, his message to humanity was “Must try harder”.  Surely he has a point?

Though the views of Pelagius were quickly denounced and eventually condemned as heresy by the followers of Augustine, they persisted, particularly in Britain and Gaul, because they seem so natural.  In fact they have even been referred to as the natural religion of natural man.  But the basic idea is humanity trying to make itself acceptable to God.

Pelagius - hero or heretic?

Pelagius – did he have a point or was he completely misguided?

Pelagius of course missed the whole point.  It is completely impossible for humanity to make itself acceptable to God.  Though we should aim to live out our salvation through a transformed life that is pleasing to God, we achieve this through the grace of God at work in our lives, not by gritting our teeth and trying harder.  If we’re doing that, we haven’t learned from the mistake of the Pharisees.   Living right is not a prerequisite for salvation, it is a response to it.

Yet the attraction of Pelagianism persists.  Over a millennium later it re-emerged in the Arminians, in the teaching of John Wesley, and was embraced by some significant Pentecostal and non-conformist movements.  It still affects many of us today, particularly as many of us refute Augustine’s idea of original sin.  How many Christians believe that human beings are basically good, if somewhat marred?  That’s Pelagianism, or at least semi-Pelagianism.  How many of us believe that humans have a choice in their salvation?  That there is a little kernel of good deep inside of us that can make right choices?  That is Pelagianism.  Because even that ability to make a decision is making a contribution to our own salvation, and denying our total dependence on God’s grace.  Yet this heresy remains popular because we find it so hard to cope with the idea of a free gift of grace that we have done nothing to deserve.

Of course, Pelagius completely ignores some key Bible verses on the sinfulness of humanity such as Psalm 51, Romans 3:10, 3:23, and 5:12.  Yet the opposite error to Pelagianism is to fall into licentiousness, arguing that we cannot help sinning because we are totally depraved.  The correct way is to find a middle path, recognising both our sinfulness and the work of the Holy Spirit transforming our lives into the image of Jesus.

What do you think?  Did Pelagius have a point?  Or all we all completely affected by original sin?  How do you feel about this?  How do your answers affect a) your relationship with God and b) how you live?

R C Sproul wrote a very helpful article on this – read it at http://www.bible-researcher.com/sproul1.html.

C T Studd and the Cambridge Seven demonstrate their cross-cultural adaptability

C T Studd and the Cambridge Seven demonstrate their cross-cultural adaptability

A long time ago, before global telecoms were invented and when post took months to get to the other side of the world, intrepid mission workers went abroad not knowing if they would ever see family and friends again.  While some stayed in the coastal cities where they could get newspapers from ‘home’ (albeit a few months old) and mix with people from their own country, others went to new fields in the interior, far from their home culture.  They learned the local language, adapted to the customs, and often dressed in indigenous clothing to help them integrate.  Many of them adapted so well that they became more like the locals than their own people.

Some would look back on that as a golden age.  But technology came.  Once people could fly to their fields relatively cheaply, they could maintain better contact with their ‘home’ and family.  They could start going back more frequently than every five years.  People could come and visit them.  Phone calls became possible, and then faxes.  And mission agencies recognised that, while better communication could enhance the mission worker’s sense of wellbeing, they also realised that it could be a distraction from becoming embedded in the culture.  Some agencies discouraged frequent returns, or restricted visits from family, particularly during the first year.  They imposed limits on contact with the sending country to help people bed down in their new culture and learn the language well.

Gen Y - excessively connected?

Gen Y – excessively connected?

Now, with social media available even in the most remote villages, people are seldom out of contact with friends and family.  They can have regular face time with people on the other side of the planet, remotely attend birthday parties, and give people virtual tours of their homes.  They can upload videos and share blogs.  It is so much better for maintaining their support, the strength of their ongoing relationships.  But it raises another point – do people ever really leave?  Do they become embedded in the local culture any more?  Do they find their supportive relationships with their new local friends, fellow mission workers in the field, or with people in their home country?

So technology has solved the problem of isolation, but possibly at a price.  In a world where mission workers can come ‘home’ every Christmas, and host visitors on a regular basis, are they preserving a little island of their home culture and not becoming enculturated in their host country?  What does it do for their relationships with locals?

It has often been observed that Generation Y, having much more understanding of themselves as global citizens than previous generations did, are able to engage much more readily with other cultures, and may not even recognise the dichotomy between leaving and joining.  They can connect equally well in several cultures.  But it remains to be seen whether they will build up the wealth of socio-linguistic understanding that previous generations who spent decades in the same field.  Can we afford to wait while all that corporate knowledge leaves the field as baby boomers retire?

CT Studd, founder of WEC International, famously spent the last 18 years of his life in Congo, leaving his wife in London running the support network.  They only met again during her one brief visit to the Congo.  I wonder what he would have made of how technology has changed the world of mission.

C T Studd (1860-1931)

C T Studd (1860-1931)

Last week’s blog was a well-known poem from an earlier time, when Christian mission was marked by a zeal and an urgency which is not often seen today.  Zeal has been replaced by moderation, and urgency by a strategy of nudging people gently into the kingdom of God rather than pushing them.  Different times, different ways.

One striking feature of the poem for me was the desire to ‘burn out’ for God.  It meant something different in those days, rather like a candle continuing to burn all the way to the end rather than sputtering out halfway.  Today, burning out is the result of dangerous levels of stress and overwork and is to be avoided at all costs.  We might occasionally see a bumper sticker which says “It’s better to burn out than rust out” but in fact neither is good.  The best option is to last out.

‘Lasting out’ recognises that our life and Christian ministry is neither a sprint nor a stroll – it’s a marathon.  If we take it too slowly we won’t get very far, and if we take it too fast we’ll run out of energy.  We need to find a sustainable pace somewhere in between the two extremes.

Battery Charge IconIn order to avoid burning out, we need to identify strategies for ensuring that our inner reserves of energy are recharged as rapidly as they are drained.  Rather like a mobile phone with its battery logo flashing, we need to find some way of recharging it, and turn off some of the energy-demanding apps if we can’t.

So what does that mean in practice?  First, it means creating adequate space for ourselves.  Whether that means retreat, Sabbath, time out with friends, solitude to relax in the bath or on a beach, it is entirely appropriate for us to stop what we are doing from time to time.

Second, it means learning to say no.  Having the courage to refuse to do things we haven’t got time for, don’t have a vision for, or don’t have the ability to do well.  Having a clear sense of what we are called to do can help us filter out the distractions which may well need doing, but not by us.

C T Studd, who wrote the poem Only One Life, was notable for the hard work he put into serving God.  Many of his generation did the same.  While many of them achieved great things for God, there are also others who were plagued by illnesses and ailments which today might be diagnosed as signs of stress.  Often they left the mission field early and returned to their home country with broken health.  Many others died on the mission field.  We can only speculate how much more they would have been able to achieve if they had had the benefit of modern member care.

So, without denying the urgency of the task of bringing the gospel to countless billions who will die without Jesus, let’s recognise that we need to pace ourselves.  If we have a mission given to us by God, our prime responsibility is to keep ourselves fit enough to be able to carry out that mission.