Source: www,sxc.hu

Source: www.sxc.hu

Syzygy exists to support mission workers.  Our mission is to maximise the effectiveness of mission workers and prevent their avoidable departure from their place of service.  We do this by providing training, debriefing, pastoral care and practical support.  For more information click here, or scroll down for the latest blog.

doodleIt’s been a while since we provided any technical updates, so here’s some information on three products you may find useful.

Doodle – this is an incredibly useful programme for helping you to schedule meetings and it’s surprising that not more people use it.  It is free and simple to use.  You don’t even need to set up an account!  You just enter into a table a number of dates and times for a potential meeting, and send a link to the invitees who then fill in the table to indicate their availability.  You are notified when they’ve done it, and then you can look at the results – it’s easy to see which is the best time for the meeting.  Just visit http://doodle.com/en/ to get started.

MailchimpMailchimp – Those of you needing to upgrade communications with your supporters may find this helpful.  It presents your news in a much clearer format than the more basic programmes you may be using, and creates a more professional impact with little effort from you.  Over 4 billion emails a month are sent using Mailchimp!  It gives you a number of templates to choose from, or you can drag and drop pre-formatted text or picture boxes into your own message space.  It can import mailing lists from your current database, and allows people to unsubscribe independently – no more embarrassing emails asking not to receive the monthly bulletin!  It also allows you to see who has read your news, so you can offer to stop sending it!  To sign up for a free account, go to http://mailchimp.com/.

moodscopeMoodscope – Many mission workers suffer from mood swings or depression, and feel there is little they can do to counter this.  It makes them feel vulnerable but this simple program can help them feel back in control.  It helps them to monitor their feelings, share them with trusted friends for support, and understand what causes the fluctuations in their moods.  It’s been compared to dieting: it works best when you measure the results, chart your progress, and receive encouragement.  Moodscope is currently free and has received a lot of positive comment.  Each day you play a simple card game to record your score.  Find out more at https://www.moodscope.com/.

Triumphant entry by He Qi

(He Qi)

The problem with the Palm Sunday story is that we think we know it.  We find it hard to pay attention, because we’re familiar with it.  We’ve heard it at least once a year throughout our Christian lives.  We’ve still got last year’s palm cross on the dressing table.  But what is really going on here?

The pilgrims who have come up to Jerusalem from Galilee are at fever pitch, full of enthusiasm.  Unlike the residents of Jerusalem, who are asking “Who is this?” (Matthew 21:10), they’ve seen Jesus in action in Galilee and along the road through Jericho.  He’s been demonstrating his credentials and their expectations are high.  Is this the time when Jesus is going to confront the Romans and liberate Israel like a Messiah is expected to do?

Jesus initially indulges their enthusiasm.  He arranges a donkey to ride on.  Why?  Jesus usually walks everywhere (sometimes even on water!) but on this occasion he’s deliberately stoking their anticipation.  They all know Zechariah’s prophecy which Matthew quotes:

Say to the daughter of Zion ‘Behold, your King is coming, gentle, and mounted on a donkey.’ (Matthew 21:5)

Triumph

(Unknown artist)

Jesus is making a visual demonstration of his identity.  He is answering the question they had asked him on his last visit – “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” (John 20:24).  They recognise his answer as such, and treat him accordingly, throwing their coats on the ground in front of him and forming a cheering honour guard as if he were a homecoming king.  Luke even reports that they changed the wording of the traditional greeting ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ to ‘Blessed is the King…’ (Luke 19:38).  Mark points out that they expect the kingdom of David to be restored (Mark 11:10).  No wonder the Pharisees told him to shut them up – they knew that the Romans would not tolerate sentiments such as that (John 11:48).

So this ‘King’ rides triumphantly up into Jerusalem at the head of a rejoicing multitude… and then confounds them.  He goes through the gate and turns left.  He doesn’t head straight for the Roman fortress to force a confrontation with the occupying army.  He goes to the temple.  His priorities are different.  He’s already answering the question that Pilate will ask him a few days later: “My Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).  And in doing so, he disappoints thousands of followers, one of whom was Judas, who was probably hoping for great things from Jesus, but felt he had been let down.  Those thousands were not there to support him when he was on trial for his life.  As far as they were concerned, he was already just another failed pretender.

(Sadao Watanabe)

(Sadao Watanabe)

With 2000 years of perspective, we can see that Jesus was right.  He stuck to his mission and did not let the crowds divert him.  But it would have been hard for those in his enthusiastic following to have appreciated that.  Even his own disciples do not appear to have understood what was going on even though he had spoken to them plainly about his imminent death (Matthew 16:21).

What do we do when Jesus appears to let us down?  Those of us involved in world mission know only too well how wrong things can go.  We find our visas revoked with only 48 hours to leave the country.  A colleague is killed in a car crash.  A loved one is kidnapped.  A pastor swindles money from the church.  Our children lose their faith.  We are constantly ill, or stressed with overwork.  The ministry ends in defeat.  Did Jesus fail us?  It can feel like that at times, and we can be very tempted to respond like the crowds in Jerusalem.  All deserted him.  One betrayed him.  Another denied knowing him.  Others fled for their lives.

Yet, a few days later, Jesus returns (John 20).  Not to the religious leaders, nor to his own family.  Not to his best friend, or to the men who would lead the Jerusalem church.  He comes to a grieving and confused woman.  A woman who remained faithful, even though he had not turned out to be the Messiah she expected him to be.

Jesus doesn’t mind our confusion and grief.  He isn’t upset by our lack of understanding.  He seeks our faithfulness.  Even when all appears to have gone very badly wrong, he is still there for those who trust him.  In the midst of our pain, sorrow, trauma and confusion, let us hold on tightly to the one person who is constant, Jesus Christ – the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).

avatarThe movie Avatar which came out a few years ago was a milestone in cinema history, not merely for the technology developed specially to produce the effects, but because it was one of the first blockbusters to reflect a postmodern view of the world.  We’ve blogged before about Generation Y, the first postmodern generation, but following a recent conference at which I addressed these issues I thought it would be good to revisit how Generation Y is entering the mission field and impacting their agencies, and to do it using a suitably postmodern metaphor.  To refresh your memories, Baby Boomer represents people born from about 1945-64, Generation X: 1965-1979, and Generation Y those born from 1980-2000.  Obviously, these are extreme generalisations and individuals each have their own personality and giftings which may not collate precisely with these generalisations.

Avatar, if you haven’t seen James Cameron’s epic film, is based around two groups of people, one a tribe – the Na’vi – living on their traditional lands, and group of human invaders who prize the mineral wealth beneath the land.  Its central characters have the vision to reach out to each other across the divide.  While this story has been filleted already for its postcolonial, anti-racist, pantheistic and environmentalist metaphors, it can also be seen as a representation of the potential conflict between Baby Boomer leaders and Gen Y recruits as Gen Y start to enter the mission field in significant numbers.

Gen Y, is this your leader?

Gen Y, is this your leader?

Who do the characters represent?  The humans, particularly their leader Colonel Quaritch, represent Baby Boomer senior management, supported by their Gen X workers.  Their lack of compromise in their pursuit of results and their willingness to ignore the needs both of their own people and particularly of others in order to achieve results can represent the uncompromising approach of certain types of mission leaders, fixated on an end goal.  The Na’vi, on the other hand, represent Gen Y, and have many typical Gen Y traits: they value community, are connected not only with each other but with other lifeforms and the planet they live in a harmonious relationship with.  They are clearly spiritual and have a desire to work things through rather than fight things out.  The hero of the movie, Jake Sully, represents an old-style leader who has the courage to change and learn new things, and his love-match Neytiri represents Gen Y who don’t simply give up on old ways but collaborate with Baby Boomers to create a better future.

Gen Y: feeling a bit out of place in their agencies?

Gen Y: feeling a bit out of place in their agencies?

What is the outcome?  The humans are defeated and driven from the planet, not merely because the Na’vi unite and fight back, but because the planet itself turns against them.  This is a metaphor for the unsustainability of the old way of life, but we know the humans will be back.  Whether they will come with more troops or a trade agreement is not made clear – the future is left deliberately uncertain so that we can decide it for ourselves.

What does this mean for us?  In the mission world the situation is reversed – Gen Y is invading (peaceably) the world of the Baby Boomers.  They may well receive an uncompromising welcome, and be told “Things have always been done this way.  Deal with it.”  Their likely response will be not to deal with it but to move on to a more adaptable agency.  This is bad news for the first agency:

any agency unable to welcome significant quantities of Gen Y is ultimately doomed to being unable to recruit new workers.

Jake Sully represents the Baby Boomer/Gen X leader who has the courage to realise that the organisation’s values and processes need to be adapted if they are going to welcome Gen Y.  This means recognising that values different to their own are valid, and that Gen Y can quickly make a significant contribution to the agency’s mission if they are welcomed, listened to, mentored, and allowed to learn and grown through their experiences.

Generation Y are by nature collaborative.  But they too are uncompromising.  They will not wait around to earn the right to participate in the decision-making process.  If the prevailing culture excludes them, they’re not going to wait 20 years till they’re senior enough to change it.  They’re going to start something new.  Some of the newer mission agencies will be inherently more adaptable, while older ones may have more resistance to change.  We have already seens some exciting mergers between old and new (e.g. AWM and Pioneers), and this may be the way forward for other agencies too.  Some form of change is inevitable.

The mission leaders who want to lead their agency into a fruitful future will be bold enough to make room for Generation Y now, before somebody else does.

cv_logo_webWe’ve mentioned Christian Vocations a few times on this website before, but it’s worth stopping to draw your attention to this excellent ministry.  CV (as it’s known to its friends) has been active for many years helping people get into the right place in mission.  Its focus is on helping people to understand themselves, know their giftings, and find the right opportunity for ministry.

STS2014_cover_165x215Probably the most well-known product is the Short-Term Service Directory, which is the best place for anybody thinking of doing short-term mission to start.  It lists agencies which provide short-term opportunities, and tells you where they work and what they do.  No church should be without it.  How else are you going to know where to send people when they tell you they’re thinking of doing some short-term mission?

In addition to the thousands of opportunities for short-term service listed in the directory, CV also maintains a huge online file of vacancies in the mission world both at home and abroad.  A simple search engine on their website will help you identify roles that might be appropriate for you if you’re looking to serve God in mission.  In the event that you don’t find anything appropriate, they also have a registration service where you can tell CV what you’re looking for, and if anybody registers a vacancy that matches your requirements, they email you.

68547_10151597577244603_1250709866_nAnother CV ministry which Syzygy has been involved with for quite a while is the Vocationzone, which is a major feature of events such as Spring Harvest, Word Alive and Keswick.  Drawn by the opportunity to complete a simple computer questionnaire to help them identify their giftings, hundreds of people each week are helped by CV advisors to explore God’s plan for their lives and consider how God might be calling them to serve him.  As a result, many people go away enthused with a new vision and purpose for being used by God in mission.  If you’re at Spring Harvest this year, drop into the Skyline and check out the Vocationzone, and you may even meet a Syzygy representative helping out.

reignite_green_500x175CV is also behind the renowned retreat called re:ignite, which is designed specifically for mission workers on home assignment in the UK.  The well-planned programme balances time to relax and reflect with input on issues like transition, stress and communication.  There are still spaces available on this year’s retreat in May.

Other reflective exercises are available on the CV website which can help people understand their gifts and role in church and mission more effectively.  For those who want to explore this more thoroughly, there is an excellent personal advice service called designate, which uses professional advisors to help people gain a clearer picture through one-to-one mentoring.  While there is a nominal charge for this service, we think it’s excellent value and people we know who have been through it speak very positively of it.

MM2014_cover_180x250CV also produces the very helpful magazine Mission Matters.  This contains articles, testimonies, stories of mission from around the world, and a sample of the vacancies CV advertises.  This is an ideal resource for sharing with a youth group, giving to people considering a vocation in mission, so make sure you have a good stock on your church bookstall.

In addition to all this, the CV website also has a collection of guidelines, articles, and other resources which all contribute to CV’s goal of helping people find the right place for them in God’s mission.

PopeOne doesn’t have to an expert on church history to know that relationships between the Roman Catholic Church and the protestants have seldom been genuinely fraternal.  Even though we don’t burn each other at the stake any more, we don’t always get along comfortably.  This may be set to change as Pope Francis makes an impassioned personal appeal for Christian unity.

Syzygy’s friend Tony Palmer, a bishop in the Anglican Celtic tradition, has for many years lived in Italy mentoring charismatic Roman Catholic priests and has built up many influential links as the Holy Spirit brings renewal.  Recently he had a private audience with Pope Francis, at the Pope’s request, during which they made a short video together.

christian unityIn this video Tony first explains why the worldwide Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic Church have agreed that the reformation is now over and that both churches agree that the theological basis for our salvation is grace alone.  The Roman Catholic Church has officially agreed that Luther was right!  Tony briefly explains the details of this before showing an emotional personal appeal for ecumenical unity from Pope Francis to his protestant brothers and sisters in Christ.  This historic and inspiring video is a ‘must-see’!  You can view it by clicking here.  Syzygy recommends that you watch it all the way through to get the full effect.

This whole topic of course will raise questions in the minds of many evangelicals about the theological difference between protestants and Roman Catholics, particularly over some doctrines and practices which protestants have issues with.  There may be doubts about whether there is a real desire for unity at grass-roots level, and questions about openness and integrity.  This is likely to be a particularly painful issue for those Christians who have suffered in the Roman Catholic Church but have found a home in protestant churches.  But it is important for us to recognise that this is not the end of a journey, but the beginning.

Tony Palmer comments: “What has changed is that Pope Francis wants to simplify the basis of unity.  If you note Pope Francis mirrored Jesus’ theology when a lawyer asked Jesus what was necessary for eternal life:

And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  He said to him, “What is written in the law?  What is your reading of it?”  So he answered and said, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbour as yourself.’ ”  And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.” (Luke 10:25-28 NKJV)

The bottom line is that Pope Francis has reduced his basis for inclusion to those suggested by Jesus to the lawyer quoted above: ‘To love God, above all, and to love our neighbour, because he/she is our brother/sister’.

body of christIn my Italian and Celtic culture, we get to know each other while we share life together.  Friendship precedes the deeper understanding of each other’s beliefs; I get to find out what people believe AFTER I have offered them unconditional love and friendship.  This is what we need to do with each other.  When we learn to trust each other, only then will we be able to hear each other without prejudice.”

It is clear that this is not going to be an easy journey for anyone, but before protestants start getting hot under the collar about issues in the Roman Catholic Church, we should remember that none of us are perfect, and we would do well to respond with the same generosity of spirit as Pope Francis, in lowering the bar and minimising the essential requirements for Christian unity.

And let’s pray for this radical Pope, that he will be able to complete the reforms he has started.

st patricksToday is St Patrick’s Day.  A visitor to this planet could be forgiven for thinking Patrick is the patron saint of green wigs and black beer, but the Irish national festivities bring colour to a celebration of the life and work of a highly influential missionary without whom the history of Europe might have been very different.

Little remains in verifiable fact about Patrick’s life.  He was born in late fourth century in Britain in the dying days of the Roman Empire, though the date and location are unclear. Even his given name is uncertain – Patrick may actually be a nickname given him by his captors – ‘posh kid’ – as in the Roman Empire a patricius was the opposite of a ‘pleb’, a commoner.  Nearly all of what we know about him comes from two documents which are believed to have been written by him, one a ‘confession’ which was written towards the end of his life.

Despite this, modern mission workers can draw inspiration from this brave man who was so used by God:

ShamrockCross-cultural mission.  One legend is that Patrick used the shamrock as a means of explaining the Trinity, its three-lobed leaves representing the godhead with each lobe distinct but part of the whole.  In fact, the shamrock was already a sacred symbol of rebirth in Ireland, and the Morrigan was portrayed as a ‘trinity’ of goddesses in pagan Irish religion.  He picked up on features within Irish culture which would help him communicate his message.

The role of suffering in our lives.  When he was 16, Patrick was captured by pirates and taken to Ireland where he was sold as a slave.  He spent six years there before escaping and returning home.  He later claimed that this experience was critical to his conversion to Christianity.  Although he grew up in a Christian family, he had never personally accepted Christ.  He felt that through his capture was God disciplining him for his lack of faith, and as a result he became a Christian while working as a shepherd.

A sense of calling.  Having returned home, Patrick writes in his confession that he became a missionary in response to a vision calling him over to Ireland, rather like Paul’s Macedonian vision.

Perseverance in adversity.  As a foreigner, Patrick did not enjoy the protection of Irish kings like some other British missionaries did.  As such he knew beatings, imprisonment and theft.  He also was accused of financial impropriety by other Christians, possibly jealous of his success, and he also felt lonely.  He commented “How I would have loved to go to my country and my How_the_Irish_Saved_Civilizationparents, and also to Gaul in order to visit the brethren and to see the face of the saints of my Lord!  God knows that I much desired it but I am bound by the Spirit.”

Patrick planted churches, baptised thousands of converts, and as bishop appointed church officials, established councils, founded convents and monasteries, and laid the foundation for Christianity to take root in Ireland.  He was also, notably, the first great celtic missionary, unlike others at the time who came out of a continental catholic background.  As such he was the direct ancestor of that great missionary movement which came out of Ireland to take the gospel to the Scots and from there to the pagan Anglo-Saxons.  And as we all know, the Irish missionaries didn’t stop there but went on to save the whole of Civilisation .

govt office

Who’s next?

Today I decided to tackle one of the jobs that had long been on my “To Do” list: convert our UK driving licences to local ones.  The website states that this is a simple process.  So with that in mind I headed down to the Ministry.

It is possible to pay someone to go and convert your UK driving licence for you, but the going rate is about £55 so I decided that I would do it myself.  As the only female and the only foreigner in the area I was somewhat of an oddity (no change there!).  But people were very helpful in pointing me to the correct queues to stand in.  The process requires a number of steps, all of which can be expedited by paying a middleman extra money to push your paperwork to the front of the queue.  But I decided that I did not want any special privileges - I am often uncomfortable with the way a foreigner will/can queue jump while nationals are expected to patiently let them through.  So I dutifully joined the line.

The man with the key has gone...

The man with the key has gone…

There were many different steps in the process, which involved various trips up and down the stairs of the building and into different offices to get my papers stamped.  At one point there was a little confusion as to whether my husband had to be present for his medical to be signed off (he didn’t) and as to whether we needed to take a driving test (phew, we didn’t).  All went smoothly, if at a rather pedestrian pace, and I made friends with the others in the queue alongside me, until I had to head upstairs for the Big Man to sign off my licence.  I presented him with all the paperwork required and he asked me questions about what we were doing here and then demanded letters from the different hospitals I have worked in and from our local employer, all of which I knew were not really required.  When I left his office (with unsigned papers) the man next to me explained that he had been wanting me to pay a “facilitation fee” to complete my licence.

This is something we do not do.  I was rather unsure how to proceed after this.  However, the doctor who had completed my medical form was affronted on my behalf at being asked to pay more than I should and he decided to act as an advocate for me, stating that I would not get the licence without his help.  This basically involved him escorting me back to the Big Man’s office and speaking up for me – to a somewhat humbled official!  As a result after a further 5 different office visits (a total of 12 different stages) and 4 hours later I left with two new driving licences.

The official handshake

The official handshake

This it was an important lesson for me – the feeling of helplessness in the face of power and bureaucracy and even though I knew I was in the right, I was powerless to change the situation.  My naivety at trying to be treated just the same as locals when unfortunately in this country my skin colour affords me both privilege and extra hassles!  The realisation that the lower down office workers helpfully completed their jobs, with no fuss or demands, however, those with the power often use this to their own advantage and abuse their position.

I was so thankful to the kind young doctor who spoke up against this for me.  Without him I think I would have left empty handed.  Indeed many of my friends have since told me of their 5 day efforts to get a licence or being made to take a driving test  - all because they too would not pay a bribe.  This situation is a sad reality replicated across many countries in so many situations.  Those in power often wield it unevenly.  The services they should provide equitably often become only available to those with a friend in the right places or with the money to pay, leaving those who are low down in society, the poor and uneducated, without a voice to speak out and needing someone who will advocate for them.

An interesting ebook on Bribery and the Bible is available from www.missionarycare.com

empty church

Can an empty church afford an investment in world mission?

Many churches are not interested in global mission.  Sometimes it’s just a lack of exposure to it, or sometimes they’ve got their hands full with keeping Sunday services going and balancing the books, so they think they’ve got no time for what they see as optional extras.

This can be terribly frustrating for mission-minded people who are part of such churches, particularly if they’re not in a position of leadership and have little or no opportunity to speak into the direction of the church.  We’ve met people like this.  But before you jump ship and go off to find a church with a mission vision, ask yourself whether God has put you in that church to help them become more mission minded.  Here are some suggestions for things that the average lay person can do to help their church develop a passion for world mission.

praying handsPray.  While praying for mission workers yourself, pray also for your church to catch the vision.  Seek out key prayer partners in the church and ask them to pray with you.  If intercession is part of your church tradition, supply specific prayer requests for inclusion, so that people get used to praying for mission.  Attend church prayer meetings and always take the opportunity to pray for mission workers.

Make connections.  When mission workers you know are on home assignment, ask them to visit you, and invite friends round for a meal with them.  That way, people will begin to get to know mission workers for themselves.

Use resources.  Many mission agencies publish leaflets or online materials for you to use.  See for example OMF’s page How to pray for mission workers.  Get copies and give them to friends.  Share links on your favourite social media platform.

Take people out.  If you’re going to a mission event, and you think it’s not going to be boring, take a couple of friends with you so maybe they can get enthused.  A good example would be GOfest or Passion for Mission but there are many others organised by agencies.  Or go to one of the big conferences as a church group, and invite people to visit the mission seminars or display areas.  Keswick is a great example of doing this well – and you get to enjoy the Lake District at the same time!

Serving as SendersGet some vision trainingOscar runs an excellent course called Serving as Senders.  Your church may not be ready for a full course, but how about organising a fundraising dinner and getting Oscar along to talk about it?  It’s a good way to get the ball rolling.

Tell your own story.  If you’ve had a powerful experience of mission, tell people.  Be careful not to do it, as people will become deaf to it if you’re the person who’s always going on about how great it was in Uganda (or wherever), but when it’s appropriate, take the time to explain what a life-changing experience it was for you.

Link into the church’s vision.  It can be hard trying to get the church interested in something it hasn’t got a vision for, but if they’re already running with something, join in.  So, for example, if they run a food bank, they’ve got a vision for helping the hungry.  Remind them that there are plenty of hungry people in other countries and they could get involved in that too.

Do a short term trip.  Invite people to pray for you while you go, show them photos when you get back.  Take somebody else with you, preferably an opinion-former within the church community.

Sadly, many churches fear that losing some of their best volunteers to global mission, coupled with the need to commit time, money and effort to supporting them is a drain on the church’s limited resources.  We prefer to see it as an investment which will feed back into a vibrant missional life of the church.  Pardoxically, giving people into world mission

You can find more resources for church’s on the Global Connections website.  Syzygy is always willing to work with church’s to help them develop a mission focus.  For more information please email info@syzygy.org.uk.

jonahWe all know the story of Jonah.  It’s taught in churches and religious schools, partly because it’s a graphic and exciting story that appeals particularly to children.  Well, at least the bit with the storm and the big fish is exciting.  We don’t always tell the second part.  While theologians may argue over whether it is a true story, a parable or an allegory, this exquisitely crafted play in four acts has much relevance for the 21st century church, and we’re going to consider four contemporary applications of its lessons.

Jonah was a reluctant mission worker.  This is the bit of the story we’re most familiar with, how Jonah ran away from what he knew God wanted him to do, and was boxed in more and more till he got on and did it.  Most of us who have been Christians for a while will know this sense of how hard it is to run away from God, though we’re not usually boxed in as dramatically as Jonah was!  Yet our own experience of God tells us that God knows best how to run our lives.  To what extent are we still trying to run away from what God wants us to do?

JonahJonah was a frightened mission worker.  He knew that the Ninevites were a cruel and dangerous people.  What were they going to do to him when he told them to change the way they lived?  These were the people who invented crucifixion, and an earlier form of execution, impaling on a sharpened stake.  Faced with those two alternatives, we might have been buying a ticket to Tarshish too!  But to what extent are we afraid of telling people the good news today?  What’s the worst they can do to us?  Granted, we have to be careful not to lose our visa, endanger local believers, or damage the reputation of our agency, but let’s be bold!  Let’s risk the ridicule, criticism and bullying that might result.  Are we prepared to take the good news to people even at personal risk to ourselves?

jonah2Jonah was a judgmental mission worker.  He didn’t think these people were worthy of being forgiven.  They were foreign, cruel, evil.  Only nice people deserve to be forgiven.  He was blinkered by his racial supremacy of being one of God’s chosen people.  The other people obviously weren’t chosen.  But God had bigger plans.  We might laugh at such narrow-minded bigotry these days, but who are the people we don’t think are worthy of forgiveness?  Benefit cheats?  Illegal immigrants? Arms dealers?  Drug pushers?  Rapists?  Paedophiles?  But in God’s eyes, we are no better, but Christ died for us when we didn’t deserve it (Romans 5:8).  Are we prepared to take the good news to people we don’t think are worthy?

Jonah was a successful mission worker.  We often admire the philosophy of Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill, or the harvest of Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost.  Yet 120,000 people responded to Jonah’s message!  When Jonah was faithful to his calling, God delivered the results.  It’s not rocket science.  God does not want anyone to die, but wants people everywhere to turn to him (2 Peter 3:9).  So why would we not want to tell people?  The US illusionist and comedian Penn Jillette, who is a vociferous atheist, commented in a blog about how much he respected a Christian who gave him a Bible:

How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?

That’s a harsh statement, which strips away the cosy multicultural fudge that we are used to.  We might like to think we don’t tell people about Jesus out of respect for their faith choices, or because it’s a private matter, but surely love overrides those and demands that we tell people the good news.

trainingMuch of the pastoral skills development of the Syzygy team over the years has sprung from a commitment to training, and we’d like to alert you to one specific resource which can help anyone develop their listening skills effectively and acquire a basic understanding of some psychological models which will help us understand the behaviours and attitudes of people we are called to help as part of our ministry.

Most people will know St John’s, Nottingham for its role in preparing people for the Anglican priesthood, but in addition to the full-time residential training, they provide other courses aimed at developing the wider Christian community.  One which we found most helpful is Counselling Skills for Pastoral CareIt is a very accessible course, open to people from all walks of life, which is taught in a relaxed and friendly manner by qualified counsellors.  No academic qualification is necessary and there is no need to have previous counselling experience.  While the course can be taken as a stand-alone module, it also forms part of a broader Certificate in Christian Studies.

Stjohn'sStarting and finishing with residential schools at St John’s delightful campus on the outskirts of Nottingham, the rest of the study is conveniently home-based.  Course materials are provided and students work through them at their own pace, submitting a short assignment each week, reflecting on what they have learned, their own experience of the week’s topic, and how they have applied their new-found skills.  The whole course takes only 7 months from start to finish, making it an ideal means of ongoing professional development between the short introductory courses which are readily available from a number of providers, and the two-year diploma courses which require a great commitment of time and funding.  A tutor is available for advice by email, and students can also work together as a cohort to encourage each other.

StJohn'sThrough Counselling Skills for Pastoral Care, students not only develop their listening skills but also grow in their own self-awareness and understanding, helping them to move on both in their professional life and their walk with God.  Syzygy thoroughly recommends this course which will be useful for anyone in a caring role as a pastor, listener, personnel officer or member care provider.

For more information, see the St John’s Nottingham website.

img-poo_04Most of us are pretty adventurous when it comes to food, and often have stories to tell which shock those who’ve not had the opportunity to have their culinary preferences stretched to the limit on a bush tucker trial.  So Syzygy is proud to be promoting an event which will attract a lot of interest for the exquisite food.

We have talked before on this blog about the remarkable ministry of Urban Neighbours of Hope in Klong Toey, the largest slum in Bangkok.  One of the people whose lives has been affected by their work is Poo, who ran into financial difficulties when the small catering outlet she ran from her home couldn’t make money due to rampant inflation.  The UNOH team helped her start a cooking school which has subsequently become what TripAdvisor has called

One of the best-rated activities in Bangkok

Which is quite an accolade when you think of all the exciting things you can do in Bangkok!

PooNow you have the opportunity to taste this remarkable Thai food for yourself without leaving the UK, to learn how to cook it and to hear more about the amazing work of UNOH at the same time.  We are running two events, both on 4th April at Rowheath Pavilion in Birmingham.

Starting at 10.30 am and running through to 3.00 (ideal for people picking up kids from school) there will be a cookery school taught in person by Poo.  This is an opportunity for up to 50 people to cook genuine Thai food for themselves.  Then at 7.30 in the evening there will be an interactive cookery demonstration by Poo, which will also feature stories from Klong Toey, an opportunity for people from the audience to join Poo in cooking a dish, and an open Q&A time.  The cookery school costs just £30 per person, and the cookery demonstration is £10.

You can find out more about Poo on her own website.  If you can’t make it to Birmingham to meet her, there are events in other parts of the country listed here.

We speak from experience when we recommend Poo’s cooking: the intrepid Syzygy team went all the way to Thailand to sample it, and came away delighted.  We can’t wait to find out how she does it!

Chris Chataway with the Sports Personality of the Year Award.

Chris Chataway with the Sports Personality of the Year Award.

Sir Christopher Chataway, who died last month, may not have been a household name, but had many achievements in the fields of business, broadcasting, politics and athletics.  Together with Robin Day he was the first newsreader on ITN, and he was the first person to win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award.  He was a Company Director, public servant and Chair of development charity ActionAid.

Chataway was also an accomplished runner, competing in the 1952 and 1956 Olympics and winning a gold medal in the 1954 Commonwealth Games and a silver in the European Championships.  Yet one of his most significant achievements was running in a race he didn’t win, and never intended to win.  In 1954 Chataway was one of the two pacesetters for Roger Bannister, when Bannister became the first person to run a mile in less than four minutes.

Bannister crosses the line in 3:59:4

Bannister crosses the line in 3:59:4

My friend Bob, the Vice-Principal of Springdale College, mentioned to me recently that in a seminar when his students attempted to define leadership, one of them chose the word pacesetter.  I think it fits well.  The pacesetter helps others win.  He initially keeps up a good pace to ensure momentum while helping his followers not to tire too soon.  He has the wisdom to know when to move aside and let others take over the running.  He has the humility to let them finish well while he ends up possibly not even finishing the race.  He has exhausted himself so that others can achieve their best.

It seems so obvious that this analogy also applies to a leader that the point hardly needs to be made.  The leader is not there to take the glory but to help others to do better.  She serves them, not the other way round.  She may be completely forgotten by history while her followers go on to become famous, but if that is what God has called her to do, she has done well.  Jesus, of course, the greatest leader, clearly did that.  He came not to be served but to serve.  He laid down his life for others.  We are all beneficiaries of his sacrifice.

Bannister (centre) thanks Chataway for his support

If you are a leader, please take the opportunity to ask yourself how good a pacesetter you are.  Are you committed to helping your followers achieve, or are you competing with them?  Are you sacrificing yourself so that they can do what God is calling them to do?  And do you know when it’s time to move over and let them run their own race?

In a delicious piece of historical irony, the year in which Bannister broke the four minute mile was also the year in which Chataway won Sports Personality of the Year.  Bannister came second.

images (1)An interesting case came my way recently: a mission worker returning to the UK is unable to work due to ill health, and has been denied full Employment and Support Allowance due to not having maintained enough National Insurance Contributions (NICs) while serving abroad.  This person commented to me:

Right now I’m feeling somewhat miffed that I wasn’t warned of this possible complication on my return should I need benefits.

The sadness of this case is that the mission worker had been paying NICs, but not the right class, and it would have been easy to make up the difference had this person realised.  Which raises the point that churches, sending agencies and mission workers need to be aware that there are implications for failing to pay not only the correct amount of NICs, but also the right class, since there are four different types of NICs.

A quick recap: National Insurance Contributions were designed to be the method by which British citizens contribute towards the cost of a variety of forms of social security (e.g. state pension, the National Health Service, and financial support for the sick and unemployed).  Failure to pay NICs can compromise or limit a citizen’s right to receive these services.  Below is a table (copied from the HMRC website) indicating the different classes of NICs and what they entitle the contributor to:

Benefit Class 1 – paid by employees Class 2 – paid by self-employed people Class 3 – paid by people who want to top up their contributions
Basic State Pension Yes Yes Yes
Additional State Pension Yes No No
Contribution-based Jobseeker’s Allowance Yes No (except for volunteer development workers employed abroad) No
Contribution-based Employment and Support Allowance Yes Yes No
Maternity Allowance Yes Yes No
Bereavement benefits Yes Yes Yes

(Class 4 National Insurance Contributions – paid by some self-employed people – don’t count towards any state benefits.)

1354359_fifty_pounds_2NICs are notoriously complicated and we can give no more than an overview here, while encouraging everyone to make sure they are paying the right amount and the right classes.  We strongly suggest that everyone who has worked abroad should check exactly what your current entitlement to state pension is and what you need to do to preserve your pension rights.  To do this you should arrange a pensions forecast.  You can only do this while in the UK and you can find out about a pensions forecast here.  If there is a shortfall in the contributions you have made to date, you can top them up.

With any other queries about your NICs and entitlement to benefits you should contact HMRC who have a specific unit for people working overseas.  Click here for further details.

If you are fortunate enough to be involved in humanitarian or development work, and your sending agency or church has registered with HMRC, you may be entitled to make Voluntary Development Worker contributions, which are levied at a lower rate.  Click here for further details.

It will also be useful to have your residency status resolved as this can also affect rights to benefits.  Many mission workers are keen to be classed as non-resident, but this is one situation in which it may be helpful to be resident!

More information is available on the HMRC website and a particular clear overview is given by the Citizens’ Advice Bureau.

KoshishMatrika grew up the youngest of 3 brothers in a small village in the hilly Nepali district of Gorkha.  He attended a mission school and by the age of 15 had shown himself to be one of the top students, with a bright future ahead of him.  Then he was struck by illness:  pounding headaches, pains throughout his body, choking sensations, and constant tiredness.

As months passed, even writing became an overwhelming task and by the time he took his high school leaving certificate he barely achieved a passing grade.  Despite suffocating feelings of hopelessness and failure, including an impending sense of death, Matrika pressed on to take a 2 year certificate in forestry.  His mother was very religious and as he struggled through his illness, Matrika often considered what lay after death, but he found little appealing in the options presented by his mother’s Hindu faith.  By then in his early twenties, Matrika remembered his missionary teacher and a missionary doctor whom he knew, and how they had endured many difficulties living as foreigners in Gorkha.  Speaking with the doctor, and later reading a Christian pamphlet, Matrika found the comfort he was looking for and turned to Jesus Christ with his life.

Souce: (www.sxc.hu)

Despite his new-found faith, Matrika continued to struggle with his illness.  His sense of hopelessness and extreme anxiety led to his isolation from friends and neighbours who saw him as a lazy, good-for-nothing youth who would do better to pull himself together and get a job.  It was only when a neighbour  suggested he might see a psychiatrist at the nearby mission hospital that Matrika finally got an explanation for his crippling illness.

10 years after it first struck him, Matrika was diagnosed with unipolar depression.  He spent the next 5 years coming to terms with his illness and investigating treatment options as he tried to cope with the heavy side-effects of anti-depressants.  Matrika prayed fervently that God would heal him so that he could become independent of these medications, but that did not happen; in his own words “it is good, it reminds me of my true situation”.

While starting work as a forester, Matrika continued to ponder his situation and that of the many other people he encountered in daily life whom he could see were also struggling with mental illness.  He had a vision from God in which he saw a channel of water carrying love to dry, desert banks, but wondered how God could use him when he himself was so weak in his own mental health.  He now understands that “having this pain in my own life allows me to have not sympathy, but empathy from my heart” for others with mental illness.  After a few periods of working with mental health NGO’s, Matrika enrolled for a Bachelors in Social Work.

photo_98706From the earliest days of his own treatment, Matrika has made an effort to respond practically to the needs of those with mental illness.  Keshar was such a person: a young Christian man with a steady job at a hospital, he became ill with schizophrenia and, like so many, ended up living alone on the street.  He was distinctly recognizable, expressing his mental isolation in the wearing of layers and layers of stinking rags so that he looked like a perverse Michelin man.

Matrika, armed with the dual confidence of his training and God’s calling, as well as the financial support of a woman involved in Keshar’s childhood, stepped in with appropriate legal measures to have Keshar taken into residential care for the administration of his medicines.  Several years on, Keshar lives a simple but contented life as part of Matrika’s family.  A member of the church choir in his youth, he now writes folk songs that raise awareness about mental illness.

In August 2008, one month before he passed his final exams, he established and registered Koshish Nepal, a national mental health self-help organisation.  “Koshish” is the Nepali word for “making an effort”; the organisation works in advocacy and awareness-raising to have mental health recognized as an essential element of overall health, to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness and to have treatments included in the country’s primary health care system.  A defining feature of the organisation is its inclusion in its governance and membership of those who themselves are living with mental illness.

awareness1Koshish continues to be involved in the rescue of mentally ill persons who are imprisoned by their families or living homeless on the street.  In 2011, Koshish opened a transit home for homeless women with mental illness, where they receive treatment and are stabilized before efforts to reintegrate them back to their families and communities.  Koshish continues to advocate for people with mental illness and last year Matrika won the prestigious Dr Guislain Award as recognition for his efforts.

You can read more about the work of Koshish on their website – http://koshishnepal.org/ – and donate to the charity through the website of the United Methodist Church.

This article was written by Deirdre Zimmerman, a long-term development worker in Nepal.

trigger

Trigger the philosopher

In an episode of the classic British comedy “Only Fools and Horses” Trigger, a roadsweeper, claims to have used the same broom for 20 years, though he adds that in that time it has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles.  His friends clearly doubt that it therefore qualifies to be considered the same broom.  This is a modern variant of the ancient paradox called the Ship of Theseus, a philosophical debate over whether the identity of the original object can be said to be continuous over time when all its original parts have been replaced.  A bit like the Sugababes after the three original members had all left.

e_Coli

Alien – but friendly?

A similar question can be raised about being human.  It has been estimated by several authoritative microbiologists[1] that bacteria and fungi living in and on the human body outnumber the human cells by an incredible 10 to 1, with over 500 different species living in the gut and 500 more living on the skin.  Less than 10% of the cells in your body are human!  While these fellow-travelling cells are blatantly parasitic and can cause disease, they can also significantly help our existence, helping us digest food and absorb energy, stimulating our immune systems, breaking down waste and acting as a protective barrier on the skin.  Some of them even defend us, attacking invading bacteria of the wrong sort.  One microbiologist has said of this prolific microbial infestation: “they truly represent another arm of the immune system.”[2]

All of this has a huge impact on our understanding of what it means to be human.  Babies are born free of microbes, and we acquire more throughout our lives with every drink, touch, or kiss.  So as we move from 0% to over 90% microbe throughout our lives, life itself is a journey into becoming less human!

Sugababes: same, same or different?

Sugababes: same, same or different?

Or is it?  To be human is to be in community.  Way back in the days of the Garden of Eden, God concluded that ‘It is not good for the human to be alone’ (Genesis 2:18).  The human needed community of its own kind, and ducks, fish and elephants weren’t quite up to the job – fortunately!  This need for community reflects the community inherent in a Trinitarian understanding of God: three persons in perfect harmony, love and unity within the One being.  Historically, human life has thrived in community.  The aggressively assertive individualism of 20th century Europe is a historical anomaly, which is already showing signs of being redressed as postmodern youth are more aware of their connection to the global village and of their need for community, even if it’s expressed mostly through their technology!

In the same way as we enjoy a symbiotic relationship with other life forms at a microscopic level, we also enjoy one at a macroscopic level – with God!  Jesus teaches a lot about this in John’s gospel but we are not accustomed to thinking about our interaction with God in this way, largely because our thinking has become so individualistic.  But consider the impact of the following verses, all from John when viewed from the standpoint of a committed, interacting, mutual relationship with God:

I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you (14:20).  Is Jesus really in us in the same way that he is in the Father?  Linking these statements in this way makes it appear he believes so.  Does it really mean that being ‘in Christ’ effectively invites us through him to participate in the nature and essence of the Trinity?

Abide in me, and I will abide in you… apart from me, you can do nothing (15:4-5).  Jesus’ teaching on the vine makes it clear that unless the branch stays connected to the vine, it can’t hope to survive, let alone bear good fruit.  Branches don’t dip in and out as they choose.  They are intimately and permanently interconnected, allowing the sap to flow continuously, not just when they feel the need for it.

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him (6:56).  Eating and drinking is a reference using physical sustenance as a metaphor for spiritual life.  It parallels the sap from the vine.  It’s not about the need to take communion regularly so much as the constant communion of looking to Jesus as the source of our being (Acts 17:28).  Compare the English idiom ‘that’s meat and drink to me.’[3]

Whoever believes in me, from his belly shall flow rivers of living water (7:38).  This verse has echoes of the river seen in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 47:7-12) and foreshadows the one in the new Jerusalem (Revelation 22:1-2).  It is not a pathetic trickle or an intermittently dripping tap, it is a powerful, life-giving and permanent watercourse which symbolises the interconnectedness of our life with the Holy Spirit.

As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you (20:21).  In this, John’s version of the Great Commission, Jesus links his sending to the Father’s.  As the Father sent, Jesus sends; as Jesus went, so do we.  We are united in ministry with the Trinity.

imagesThis gives us a new view of the intimacy and togetherness of our relationship with God.  What does it mean for each of us as we go into meetings, hold conversations, shop and eat?  It means that God is with us in everything that we think, say and do, not just in the times of prayer and ministry.  We face those difficult situations together with God.  Into every situation we take with us the love of the Father, the grace of Jesus, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 13:14).  Let us reflect on how that knowledge may change our sense of isolation and disempowerment in difficult situations.

To become more human means to become less human!



[1] references are available on request as they are too numerous to quote!

[2] Gary Huffnagle, University of Michigan Ann Arbor

[3] Oxford Dictionary: be a source of great pleasure to; be a customary matter for – “but the high balls to the front two were meat and drink to the big Partick defenders, and Thistle soon hit back to deadly effect.” (The Sun, 2002)

SpurgeonPrayer pulls the rope below, and the bell rings above in the ears of God.  Some scarcely stir the bell for they pray so languidly.  Others give an occasional pluck at the rope, but he who wins with heaven is the man who grabs the rope boldly and pulls continuously with all his might. (C H Spurgeon)

As we start out on a new year, what better way than to begin with prayer?  It is only through prayer that we discern God’s direction and purposes, and while the secular world may preoccupy itself with new year resolutions for a week or two, each of us engaged in a mission for God needs to follow God’s instructions for the important steps we have to take.

praying handsPrayer is at the heart of all our activity.  We know that Jesus spent time alone in prayer at importance stages in his ministry, and yet so few of us follow his example.  My church, like many others, is starting January with a week of prayer, and I intend to take the opportunity to set time aside to listen to God for the future of Syzygy, and I invite you to join me to do the same for your ministries.

How often do we make a significant amount of time for prayer?  Most of us spend a few minutes at a time, or some emergency prayers for help when we find ourselves in difficulty, but how often are we, like Mary, to be found at the feet of Jesus listening to his words – even to the distraction of some of our colleagues who think we do not do enough work!  We are far more likely to be like Martha, toiling away diligently for him, which in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t actually take us away from Jesus.

Spurgeon’s great quote above reminds us of the need for determination, persistence and energy in prayer.  How can we achieve this when our church, work and home lives are all demanding time and attention of us?  Surely, not all of us have the luxury of setting aside great chunks of our lives for prayer?  I think few of us would think that Jesus did not have pressures and demands on his time and attention, yet he seemed to make time for it.  Perhaps it’s because we’ve lost the understanding that prayer is crucial to the effectiveness of our ministries and the fruitfulness of our lives.  Here are some of Syzygy’s top tips for developing a prayerful life:

  • firepanStart and end each day focussing on God.
  • Pray before you start your work, and invite God into your busyness.  Focus your attention on God and remind yourself that He’s the reason you’re in this ministry.
  • Two or three times a day (more if you can manage it) pause in your work to remember God, ask for his help, and thank him for equipping you to do your work.
  • If you have colleagues, meet together regularly for a short time of prayer.
  • Create at least an hour a week for a time of unhurried prayer.
  • Set aside a significant time each week, month and year to get away and be alone with God.  Arrange for others to cover your responsibilities so you can get away.
  • Don’t be slow to communicate prayer requests to others.

Prayer is the boiler room in which we stoke the great fires which power our ministry.  The more we shovel, the more energy we generate!

Syzygy has a number of intercessors committed to prayer for mission.  If you would like them to pray for a particular issue, or if you are willing to join this band of heavenly bellringers, please email prayer@syzygy.org.uk.

2010000393024_Cover-9702013 has been an exciting year for Syzygy as we have built upon the hard work of recent years to expand our ministry in a number of different ways.  Below is a brief synopsis of the ways in which Syzygy has been helping in mission.  Just click on the orange hyperlinks to find out more about the issues involved.

Singles Ministry.  The most high-profile change in direction for us this year has been the start of the Syzygy ministry to single mission workers.  This aims to help singles focus on their calling, get their singleness in perspective and have a healthy single lifestyle.  In September Tim led a retreat for single mission workers, and this will be repeated this year, and together with our associate Dr Debbie Hawker edited Single Mission, a book for single mission workers which was published in November.  This has led to invitations to speak at conferences helping mission leaders be aware of issues they need to address so that their agencies are better places for singles to thrive.  More events are planned.  We also blog regularly about singleness as an issue in mission.

trainingTraining and debriefing.  We’ve continued to provide training to several mission partners preparing to go into cross-cultural mission, and for the first time we’ve developed a training module called Staying Healthy for the Long Haul which addresses underlying issues that can cause mission workers to suffer from stress and burnout.  This has been well received and we hope to roll it out more.

Pastoral support – in June Tim went to Mozambique to visit mission workers and spent some significant time providing training and member care.  We’ve continued to support several mission workers suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  We’ve helped over 20 mission workers in direct one-to-one debriefing and advising, including providing information on issues ranging from tax to accommodation.

GalaxyWebsite – throughout the year traffic on our website continued to grow as we redesigned it  to make it easier to read, and it’s now been seen by people in over 130 countries!  We blogged regularly about a variety of issues of interest to mission workers, notably on stress, which continues to be an ongoing challenge to the entire missions sector.  As well as a regular devotional blog to help address the lack of spiritual input mission workers can suffer from, we also regularly provide informative updates and this year started a series of briefing papers about practical challenges about which we find mission workers are often seriously uninformed.  We also do an occasional book review.

Car ministry – this year our car ministry grew significantly.  We were given two cars, sold one and are just about to buy another to replace our ageing Galaxy.  Donors gave generously to the costs of providing vehicles for mission workers on home assignment, and we started an ongoing sponsorship programme called Keep a Missionary Mobile to help meet the ongoing costs of the ministry.  How about making a donation?

Collaborating with others – we have had the opportunity to work with a number of different agencies and forums over the year to provide training for them and additional support for their mission partners.  We also helped to organise a conference for the European Evangelical Mission Association on Contextualisation in Mission, which was a fascinating event.  We were also involved in coordinating a response to UK government legislation which will make it much harder for British mission workers who’ve married overseas nationals to move back to the UK with their partner.

Finally, we’d like to thank all our Trustees, volunteers, donors, contributors and prayer partners for helping Syzygy continue to help support mission workers worldwide, and of course we’d like to give glory to God for all that he has accomplished through this ministry.

Family ChristmasAccording to contemporary mythology, Christmas is the happiest time of the year.  A time for giving, celebrating, and enjoying being with family.  Many seasonal songs perpetuate that myth.  Yet for many people it is far from that.  Coping with the various personal tragedies which can afflict humanity, Christmas is merely a mirror of the joy they don’t have.  So often church only seems to make it worse, enthusiastically buying into the seasonal activities while blissfully unaware of the isolation this can cause.  Christmas can be the most unhappy time of the year.

It can be an extremely difficult time for those who have been bereaved, divorced or abandoned, particularly if that has occurred in the last year.  For them this celebration will be a mockign memory of former happy times.  Other people will be lonely, having no special person to share it with, and it’s interesting to reflect on how many popular Christmas songs indicate that the presence (or absence) of a key loved one is a crucial factor in whether Christmastime is happy or not.  Some people will have no children but will be longing for their own children to treat, and they burn with pain each time somebody says ‘Christmas is all about the children’.  With so much activity centred on the children, those who want them can feel that it just makes their lack harder to bear.  Christmas can be the most lonely time of the year.

crackerWhile the celebrations of many who do not have family, or have a key part of their family missing, are overshadowed by their lack, many of those who do have family will also be suffering.  Perhaps loved ones are estranged, or relationships are tense, with a threat of arguments or even violence over Christmas.  Others are weighed down by the burden of expectation, needing to get along with in-laws or deliver a perfect Christmas experience of food, presents and decorations, perhaps while lacking the time or the finances to do it properly and fulfil everybody’s Christmas dreams.  Christmas can be the most uncomfortable time of the year.

Others will have no home at all, relying on shelters and hoping for mild weather, or will have no food to eat, or will be unable to afford to heat their homes.  Others will be refugees, wondering if their community can survive international conflict or natural disaster.  Christmas can be the most painful time of the year.

LonelyIt is no coincidence then, that the child whose nativity we celebrate was not born into a perfect family Christmas.  The were forced to be away from their home by a dictatorial empire, and quite possibly were ostracised by family due to the suspicions surrounding Jesus’ paternity.  With no place to call their own, they found rough shelter in a strange town and Mary gave birth in uncomfortable and humiliating surroundings.  Soon afterwards they were political refugees, on the run from an oppressive tyrant murdering innocent children who might grow up to overthrow him.

Yet Jesus came to bring hope and comfort to those who suffer.  In this age through his church, and in the future in heaven, he promises better for us.  For those of you who feel lonely, uncomfortable or in pain at this time of year, we offer some words of encouragement:

  • Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God; blessed are you who are hungry, for you shall be satisfied; blessed are you who are crying, for you shall laugh.  (Luke 6:20-21)
  • To those of you who can’t have children, don’t say you’re all dried up; I’ve got something better for you – a name that will last forever (Isaiah 56:4-5).
  • Look!  God has come to set up home with humanity… and he will wipe away every tear, and there will be no death, or mourning, or crying or pain any more.  These things all belong in the past (Revelation 21:3-4).

And for those of you who are fortunate enough to be enjoying a happy, festive occasion, maybe you’d like to spend a few moments considering how you can share your company, food and joy and with those for whom Christmas is a season to be endured rather than enjoyed.

40288_without_face___1One concept which can be helpful in recognising the differences between cultures can be the distinction between ‘guilt societies’ and ‘shame societies’.

A guilt society would be characterised by a strong sense of right and wrong, and the use of terms such as ‘ought’, ‘must’ and ‘duty’.  Individuals in such societies regulate their behaviour by reference to their own conscience.  There will be shame when somebody misbehaves, but the guilt is primary.  This society will be recognised by many western mission workers as their home culture, as this culture is often dominant in the Christian world.

Shame societies, on the other hand, will place less emphasis on abstract concepts of right and wrong and more stress on the need for social cohesion by maintaining the honour of the individual, family or nation.  Individuals will regulate their behaviour by reference to the shame that exposure would bring, and the risk of social ostracism or ‘losing face’.  There may also be a sense of guilt, but the shame of exposure would be primary.  Many of the countries in which western mission workers minister will be shame societies.

This distinction is useful for understanding why other cultures do not necessarily see things our way.  So if I come from a guilt culture, I will feel it is objectively ‘wrong’ for somebody to steal my bicycle.  But if I’m serving in a shame culture, it may be a bigger cultural taboo for me to challenge the thief, thereby exposing him to shame.  My emphasis on ‘correct’ behaviour may inadvertently have become a bigger issue than the original theft.  That is why western mission workers may perceive the people they work with as having an unacceptably low tolerance for theft, absenteeism or  bribery (for example), while themselves being perceived as being legalistically inflexible and irrationally intolerant of local norms.

Coping with culture shock?

Coping with culture shock?

The long-term impact of living in a culture different to one’s own can be stress, fatigue and even burnout.  Ethical situations may frequently tax the individual.  Some, for example, may wonder why so many people ask them for bribes, while others will be amazed that an apparently simple administrative transaction is complicated by the completion of paperwork when a simple facilitating payment would suffice.

This situation is made much more demanding for cross-cultural workers when they see Christians happily partaking in the culture they find it so difficult to understand.  Their natural inclination is to believe that their own values are correct and appropriate (and therefore Christian) and so the others are compromised.  Behaviour that is tolerated, albeit reluctantly, in the non-Christian locals is seen as unacceptable in the church.

How can we deal with such deep issues which can, if unresolved, threaten our emotional well-being and our relationships with the people we’re supposed to be serving?  Here are some suggestions:

  • recognise your own cultural preferences and try to understand those of your host culture.  Do your best to see that it’s possible that neither is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; they’re just different.
  • discuss your concerns with people of your own culture who have been there long enough to understand how the local culture works.
  • try not to be judgemental towards your host culture.  Recognise that there may be good reasons why they’re different, and acknowledge that they may likewise be judging you.
  • if particular issues vex you, look at what the Bible says about them, and be willing to recognise that your preferences might actually be no more godly than theirs.
  • be very sensitive in challenging the church with what you see as ungodly attitudes.  Don’t openly condemn but instead find a suitable Bible verse and ask them to explain what that would mean in their culture before explaining what it means in yours.

NelsonThe world is celebrating the life and mourning the death of one of the greatest people of the 20th century.  Lawyer, politician and freedom fighter, he became an unwitting poster boy for the anti-apartheid struggle during his 27 years in prison, but only became a truly global icon when the world discovered the extent of his magnanimity once he was released.

Eschewing violence and embracing forgiveness, possibly only his graciousness and leadership prevented South Africa descending into chaos as the apartheid regime was dismantled.  It is impossible to overstate his critical significance at this turning point in his country’s history, and in the many tributes people have been referring to him in the same way as they also talk about Gandhi.

Free Nelson MandelaBorn during the First World War and given the name ‘Nelson’ by a teacher in a time when it was thought normal for government employees to give Africans  new names that meant nothing to them, he embraced black South Africa’s struggle for freedom from white rule, and his activities resulted in his imprisonment.  Much has been made of his subsequent refusal to seek revenge or preach violence, and his determine to forge a new South Africa in which all races could find a place.

Some weeks ago as Syzygy was preparing a lecture which involved some reflections on healthy male sexuality, we conducted some internet research on who young men might choose as role models.  Some of the more disappointing results included wealthy industrialists, actors (more for their characterisations, one suspects, than for their personal qualities) archetypes such as cowboys, bodybuilders or famous lovers, and fictional characters like Indiana Jones and Dr Who.  Few politicians were even mentioned, and yet one name stood out from the crowd of mediocrities – Nelson Mandela.

Mandela rugby shirtMany single Christian men, including mission workers, struggle to know how to embrace their masculinity, since stereotypes like father or husband are not available to them, and many of the other examples cited above might not appeal to them.  Strong male characters are notably absent from many of our churches, and even the popular perception of Jesus as ‘meek and mild’ undermines the masculine strength he exuded which drew men to seek his company.  Perhaps it is the appeal of Mandela that he offers us a rare balance: strong but gentle.

Nobody would doubt his masculinity – he fathered six children – yet he reportedly even as President made his own bed and was courteous to his servants.  Those who met him frequently report that he seemed genuinely interested in him and he remembered details of their family lives at subsequent meetings.  He fought his battles courageously, respected his enemies, held high office with humility, was resilient in adversity and magnanimous in victory.

He was, of course, not a saint, nor a saviour, and certainly not a messiah.  Yet Christian men could do a lot worse than emulating Nelson Mandela.