Be excellent to each other

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

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

And this lifestyle starts with how we treat others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be more dog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps it’s time to start reimagining scripture:

The Lord is my Master…

 

 

A new perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(2 Kings 6:16)

 

Strategic thinking?

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

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

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

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

Other Biblical examples of divine involvement determining strategy include:

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

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

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

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

Personal integrity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rick Lewis

 

Circumcision

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

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

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

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

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

 

Building a cairn

Source: www.english-heritage.org.uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s all find ways of doing something similar!

Crossing the Jordan

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

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

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

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

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

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

The price of peace

Source: www.bbc.co.uk

Source: www.bbc.co.uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

* The Zygon Inversion, new series 9, episode 8

Talking about Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing beyond the picture frame

Seeing beyond the picture frame

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 55:9

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

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

 

Onward and upward!

img_20161028_104636Walking in the Lake District last week inspired me with this final blog in a series examining how we react when it seems God’s plan for our lives isn’t working out.  That’s the experience of most of us who have tried to walk up a mountain.  The path doesn’t go where the map said it should.  It disappears from time to time.  Sometimes it’s rocky; sometimes it’s boggy.  Our legs ache, our feet are blistering and our boots are leaking.  The fog comes down and we can get no objective sense of where we are.  We can get cold, wet, frightened and confused.  Just another October day on Helvellyn!

Yet we persist!  There is something in our desire to get to the top that propels us onwards no matter how hard it gets.  Only injury or safety issues would make us quit.  Why?  What motivates us to slog, exhausted, up a steep rocky path?

For some of us it’s the sense of personal achievement, or the glory of the selfie on the summit.  Perhaps it’s the prospect of an incredible view, or another mountain ticked off the to-do list.  Or the gulp from our hip-flask which is our reward.  But it might just be that it links us in to something bigger than ourselves.

Christians too keep on slogging forwards even when the going gets tough.  Something draws us onwards and upwards and we can’t stop no matter how hard it gets.  St Paul wrote about this impulse, in a very dynamic passage reflecting his love of sport:

I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus

Here, in Philippians 3:14, he expresses the same drive as the fell-walker not to be deflected by the challenges in his life, as he makes progress in his spiritual life.  He has a goal in sight and he is determined to get there.  It’s not dissimilar to his focus in the famous passage in Hebrews 12, which also references sport.

I once drove in a Swiss tunnel which took a road up a mountainside in a novel way.  It was constructed inside the mountain and was a spiral.  Drilled with precision, every 360 degree rotation raised the driver a few hundred meters until three complete rotations took the car to the top of the pass.  Sometimes this is what is happening in our spiritual lives while our circumstances seem unchanged.  So next time you feel like you’re stuck in a tunnel going round and round in circles, remember you may actually be going up!

When we don’t know what God’s plan is…

Walking in God's footsteps?

Walking in God’s footsteps?

Last week’s prayer from Thomas Merton seems to have resonated with a number of our readers, so I thought I would follow up with an exploration of the confusion and doubt that sometimes runs beneath the surface of our otherwise confident exteriors.

Many mission workers exhibit an unwavering confidence in their sense of calling, and are utterly convinced that they are doing what God wants them to, and are where God wants them to be.  We rejoice in their faith!  They are people sought out by churches and agencies for their sense of calling.

But they also intimidate many of the rest of us who lack such confidence, who are prone to self-doubt and wonder if we are really supposed to be spending our lives doing what we currently do.  For many of us, life is less of a confident march of triumph into the Promised Land, and more a meandering wandering in the wilderness in the hope that somehow we’ll stumble on an oasis.  I suspect that there are many more of us in the latter group than in the former.

My own journey has reflected this division.  Apart from one or two occasions when I have felt very clearly guided, most of my ‘choices’ have been based on opportunities that have cropped up, to which I have responded by thinking “I’ll give this a go.  Maybe God will be in it.”  And invariably, God has been in it.

As Thomas Merton observes, it’s more the desire to please God than the actual doing of God’s will that is critical.  Despite Merton’s uncertainty he continues to walk on, trusting in a God he can’t see.  Echoing the words of the 23rd Psalm, he places his trust in a shepherd who knows what he is doing even though the sheep doesn’t.

For many of us, we don’t hear a voice saying “Go this way” very often, if at all.  It often comes afterwards, confirming for us that by godly instinct or divine happenstance we have stumbled on the right path.  As Isaiah said: ‘Your ears will hear a word behind you saying “This is the way, walk in it” whenever you turn to the right or to the left’ (Isaiah 30:21).  Sometimes it’s not even a word, just a retrospective recognition that God has been with us and things do seem to have worked out according to his plan.  Or as a friend of mine recently put it:

Just because I don’t know what God’s plan is, doesn’t mean he hasn’t got one.

 

A prayer from Thomas Merton

My Lord God,

I have no idea where I am going.

I do not see the road ahead of me.

I cannot know for certain where it will end.

Nor do I really know myself,

and the fact that I think I am following Your will

does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please You

does in fact please You.

And I hope that I have that desire

in all that I am doing.

And I know that if I do this,

You will lead me by the right road

although I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust You always,

though I may seem to be lost

and in the shadow of death,

I will not fear, for You are ever with me,

and will never leave me

to face my perils alone.

Come, follow, go

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

These comforting words are said by Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30) as he calls all society’s outcasts to him: the hungry, the weary, the sick, the stressed.  Those who are needy, marginalised and downtrodden.  He offers them relief, comfort and provision.  When John the Baptist asked him to authenticate himself, Jesus responds by telling him how he has met people’s needs (Matthew 11:3-5).  This continues today.  Many of us initially responded to Jesus when we found him meeting specific needs.  Some of the fastest growing churches today are the ones getting their hands dirty: they run foodbanks, debt advice centres, street pastors, pregnancy advice clinics, healing ministries.  Not just because these are effective evangelistic tools; they are places where Jesus meets needs.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there.  Once our needs are met, he starts to move us on.  “Follow me” he says (Mark 1:17), asking us to leave behind family, homes and finance to begin a pilgrim life on the move, walking in his footsteps, going where he goes, often in some fairly dubious or dangerous company.  That’s not always easy to do.  Some of us figure we have too much to lose (Luke 18:23).  Others give up everything and follow Jesus (Luke 5:28).  Where else can we go? asks Peter after everyone else had found Jesus’ teaching too difficult (John 6:68).  As Jesus plainly says, what is the point of gaining everything, and losing one’s soul? (Matthew 16:26)

But following Jesus isn’t the last word.  There comes a time when he sends us off.  As he sent out his disciples (Matthew 10:5), he sends us.  It’s not that he is no longer with us, but that we strike out from the safety of the nomadic community which has become familiar to us, to take further risks, to leave more behind in the task of spreading his word.  For some of us this means going to the other side of the world, and for some it’s the other side of the street.  But the going is there for all of us as we go on in our journey with Jesus.  Failing to go is not only disobedient, it means missing out on a key stage of our development in Christ.

Come-follow-go is not a consecutive sequence of events in the life of a believer, but three interwoven strands that feed into each other.  As we follow Jesus he sends us into a given situation and we come to him with our needs in that situation.  It’s a daily ebb-and-flow of coming, following and going that meets our needs, develops our souls and gives our lives in service.  Many Christians will not practise all three elements.  They will come but not go, wanting needs met continually.  Others are only too keen to go, but burn themselves out by not coming.  And those who do not follow do not stay close enough to Jesus to avoid becoming self-indulgent or legalistic.

Only by balancing the three do we truly become his disciples.

Peace and calm in the midst of danger

Llangollen“He lets me laze in green meadows, stroll alongside babbling brooks, and it refreshes my soul.”

A slightly loose rendering of Psalm 23 sounds positively idyllic.  It’s something that we all long for, that place of peace and rest where we can truly relax and recharge our batteries. Whether it’s a tropical beach, a snow-covered mountain or a green meadow, we know we need it.

So why is this sheep’s experience of God so different to ours?  Most of us have lives and ministries full of arguments, crises, funding gaps, regulatory demands and enough stress and turmoil to make a postcard on the fridge door the closest we get to experiencing the soul-restoring work of the Good Shepherd in our lives.  Has he led us on the wrong path?  Where did it all go so wrong?  While we may long for the pleasant experience of the green pasture, the truth is so very different.  Or is it?

The ‘sheep’ writing this Psalm also had times of terrifying darkness.  He knew that there were enemies out there trying to get him.  Life is difficult, dangerous and short for a sheep on its own.  In those challenging times we need to stay close to the protection and provision of the shepherd.  We need to trust that no matter how bleak things look, there always remains the possibility of the green pasture.  The Shepherd doesn’t banish the danger and threats, but protects us in the midst of it.

What does that mean to us in practical terms, as we battle through the Cairo traffic, face up to the threat of insurgents or try desperately to meet the needs of our church from our limited resources?  We do ministry in places where it seems peace is impossible to find, yet we know that without it we face the risk of burnout and having to leave the field.  How can we maintain our resilience?

We need to learn to take little pieces of the green pasture experience with us into the darkness.  One example is to pause for regular times of prayer.  As I am writing this the alarm on my phone struck 9.00, so I stopped work and went to a peaceful place to pray, just for a few minutes.  I bring the peace back with me into the workplace.  Another example is that I often find myself driving through a post-industrial area of my city which as scarred by derelict warehouses, railway viaducts and graffiti.  I could choose to see it as soul-destroying, but instead I look out for the poppies that bloom defiantly in the wasteland, and allow my soul to be refreshed.

True soul-refreshment is found not only in getting away from the stress and burden of everyday life, but also by intentionally bringing peace into it.

They had been with Jesus

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

Why does Jesus call us?

Perhaps we’ve never really pondered that question before.  We might initially think of reasons such as he needs us to be witnesses, to serve him, to worship him, to pray to him on behalf of others.  And all these would be valid activities and not a waste of our time.  And some of us have particular callings to these activities.  But they’re not the primary reason why Jesus called us.

In Mark’s gospel we are told that Jesus called twelve of his disciples “to be with Him” (Mark 3:14).  Granted, it goes quickly on to say that he also wanted them to preach, and to cast out demons – in other words, the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel.  But the key part is that he wanted them to be with him.  Relationship, not function.

Jesus has angels to serve and worship him.  The Holy Spirit intercedes with the Father.  Jesus can reveal himself to people directly without needing humans to help.  He doesn’t need us to work for him; he wants us to hang out with him.  Jesus is a social being.  He wants to walk, talk, be listened to and be involved.  But many of us relate to him in exactly the opposite way.  We don’t want to be with him; we’re much more comfortable doing things for him.  Or if we do, we’re usually too busy to make it happen.  A bit like Martha & Mary.  Which, paradoxically, makes it much harder for us to do the busy stuff well, because we haven’t been with him in the first place.

In the book of Acts, Peter and John get hauled in front of the religious authorities, who are unhappy that someone has been healed by them.  It’s obvious to everyone that they haven’t studied the law to an exceptional degree, and they’re not well-educated.  But as the Council members listened to what Peter has to say “they recognised they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).  That is their prime qualification for ministry, not their background, education, abilities or resources.  It was the fact that they had spent time with him, understood his teaching, picked up his expressions, learned his demeanour, understood his values, received his approbation and had their lives utterly transformed by being with him.  Why do we think we need anything less if we want to see the kingdom spread in anything like the way the first generation church did?

Why don’t we all, even now, just stop what we’re doing and go and hang out with Jesus?

Thine is the Kingdom?

Source: www.sxc.hu

Source: www.sxc.hu

Few would argue with the view that mission workers are sacrificially serving God.  They move far from their homes, often to work in uncomfortable, unstable or unhealthy places.  They risk health, career, family and wealth to follow their call into world mission.  Thousands of mission workers worldwide work selflessly for the God they love and the people God has sent them to.

Or is it selflessly?

On the surface, it certainly looks that way.  But start to dig a bit deeper and in some cases we find that the altruism is not pure and unadulterated.  There may well be an element of self-seeking underlying the sacrifice, maybe the desire to prove that we are the better Christian by making the greater sacrifice.  But for some among us, ministry is more therapy than service.  It may well have our glory as its goal, not God’s, even though we don’t realise it till someone points it out to us.  But it can be betrayed by excessive use of phrases like:

I want to…

I need…

My goal…

While these expressions may not be wrong in themselves, frequent use of them may in fact be an indication that another agenda is being followed – that of the mission worker.

Some of us may have gone into mission to prove that we could achieve something, even though this motivation is subconscious.  In a society that is always desperate to achieve some sort of significance – be it academic, career-focussed promotion, or wealth creation – it is hard not to acquire a streak of competitiveness during our upbringing that we find hard to shake off in later life.

So our ministry (even that expression is a bit of a giveaway!) can be a means to us demonstrating that we can actually achieve something.  While any readers who have read this far into this blog may be incredulous at what I’m suggesting, I see it all too frequently in my ministry (whoops – I mean Syzygy’s ministry!).  It can often be traced back to a childhood authority figure.  A grandparent who said “you’re useless”, a teacher who doubted your capabilities, a church leader who thought you had nothing to offer the church.  And even though they may be long-dead, we’re still trying to prove them wrong.  You can read all about this in a previous blog.

Jesus did not select many high achievers to be his followers.  Matthew possibly was one; he would certainly have been wealthy, but he walked away from it all (Luke 5:28).  The others were probably simple tradesmen.  Even the Biblical characters who had something going for them, like Moses, Joseph or Paul had to be broken, exiled or humbled before God could use them.  God loves to use the insignificant to shame the proud (1 Corinthians 1:27), but that doesn’t mean they become significant.  In fact, they start to delight in being nobodies.

Paul starts one of his earliest letters, Galatians, with “Paul, an apostle not sent by humans but through Jesus Christ”.  His career progression leads to him becoming “least of the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:9) and ultimately “greatest of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15).  He ends his life writing “I am being poured out as a drink offering” (2 Timothy 4:6).  Was his career going backwards?  Was he morally deteriorating as he aged?

No.  Like John the Baptist, he knew that the essence of following Jesus is that “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).  Now would be a good time for each of us to reflect on our ministry, our success, and our achievements and ask ourselves if we’re building God’s kingdom, or our own.

“Up” into the light

004When trees are planted close together, they often don’t waste energy growing outwards into the familiar bushy shape we know of a mature solitary oak. This is exemplified in plantations, where they are deliberately placed close together so that they will quickly grow tall and straight to provide good timber. Think pine or gum tree plantations.

The proximity of the trees to each other encourages them all to grow upwards, towards the only source of light. This too should be our goal in life – to grow ‘up’ towards God.

Many of us involved in mission lose sight of this in our enthusiasm to reach out to those who do not yet know Jesus. We organise campaigns, strategies and church plants and in our busyness of keeping the whole thing on the road we somehow forget the real goal of life. David Pawson once said something like “God doesn’t need servants – he’s got plenty of angels.  But he is looking for a bride for his son.”  That does not mean that there is no need for service in the Christian life.  That’s the partnership that results from a growing relationship with God and leads to an ever-deepening intimacy as we see God at work in us and through us.

Last week we considered the proximity of others a source of protection for us, but it should also be a source of spiritual stimulation. If our teams, churches or supporters are not inspiring us to grow towards God, we should be challenging them to.  We are called to be part of a worshipping community, and even though some of us are pioneer workers who are physically separated from others, we still need the encouragement and inspiration of those who support us.  We need to consciously develop deeper relationships in which it is natural to talk about God, what he has done in our lives and written in his word, so that we help one another to grow.

While our mission may be to reach out, our calling is to reach up.  As Alex reminded us a few weeks ago, we should be fixing our eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:2). Paul exhorts us to press on towards the upward goal (Philippians 3:14). Maintaining our heavenly perspective enables us to endure the many hardships which we undergo in the course of our mission. Knowing that we suffer for Christ helps us to endure. Understanding that there is glory on the other side of this life frees us from working for glory now… or it should do.

Yet many of us are far more like Martha than Mary (Luke 10:28-42). We rush around doing stuff for Jesus in preference to being with him. For some of us, ministry may even be therapy rather than worship – striving to find identity, meaning and purpose in what we do rather than Who we are doing it with. Mary, on the other hand, contentedly sat at the feet of Jesus listening to what he has to say. I wonder how many of us choose the better part? Or are we simply too busy?

Deep roots for dry times

005 (3)Have you noticed that mission workers are often expected to be spiritually self-sufficient, able to sustain themselves by feeding on God’s word alone, with little or no access to relevant church or fellowship groups? Curiously, the people who assert this are often those who tell Christians that they cannot survive spiritually without regularly attending church meetings, Bible studies, home groups…. Why are mission workers expected to be so different?

The truth is that most of us are not different. We struggle to maintain our spiritual vitality without friends around us. Our spiritual disciplines can fail under the pressure of demands on us. We can become discouraged when we labour long in the mission field with apparently little result. We dry up inside, and our relationship with God can be little more than going through the motions.

So how can we, as mission workers, put down deep roots into the dry and dusty spiritual soil in which we’re planted? Often there is no easy answer – Psalm 1 might seem like a good place to start but who wants to Bible study night and day?

For most of us, it’s simply a case of hanging on and not giving up. And that’s ok. Because trees don’t put down deep roots when the drought comes. That’s the time to pause and wait. Deep roots are not developed during the hard times but in the good ones. When things are easier, perhaps we’re on home assignment, or a retreat, or at a conference, we can experience times of refreshing to see us through the dry periods.

This is such an important part of our early spiritual life, our training in church and Bible College, and our pre-departure preparation: building up spiritual stamina through regular Bible study, prayer and worship. These become habits that sustain us through the times of challenge.

But what do we do if we’re already in the middle of the drought and we didn’t take the time to develop deep roots before? How do we survive when it feels like we’re all dried up inside? That’s when we need someone to help water us! Make plans for a retreat or a conference. Invite someone to visit who can refresh you. Try a new church or a new version of the Bible that will bring things alive in a new way. Download some sermons or visit a cyberchurch. Hold a skype prayer meeting with friends once a week.

If you’ve tried all of these and you’re not getting anywhere, it’s time to re-evaluate your position – are you being effective if you’re that dry? How can you be a witness to the good news if it’s clearly not good news in your life?  Many of us are frightened of withdrawing from the mission field in case we’re seen as a failure, but what army doesn’t execute a strategic withdrawal when it realises it’s in an unsustainable position? It is better to leave the mission field than to lose your faith, which is what can happen if we just hang on grimly getting drier and drier without meeting God in the midst of our drought.