Hinani

Many of us will be familiar with Isaiah’s enthusiastic response to the revelation of God he received: “Here I am; send me!” (Isaiah 6:8).  You may well have used it as an appeal for mission workers.  But the first part of his sentence, “Here I am…” merits a little more unpacking.

This unremarkable statement acquires weighty significance when we look at it more closely.  “Here I am” seems a somewhat redundant response to a God who knows where we are.  But it is not a mere statement of location.  There’s a different expression in Hebrew for that, which is equivalent to saying “Present!” when the school register is called.  In this instance, hinani  in Hebrew indicates readiness and willingness.  It indicates being present, here and now, not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, but fully in the present, available to God for him to use.  It’s like a soldier snapping to attention and replying “Yes, Sir!” when an officer calls his name.  He instantly stops what he’s doing and listens for orders.

It is used notably by Abraham (Genesis 22:1, 22), Moses (Exodus 3:4) and Samuel (1 Samuel 3:4) when God speaks to them.  Each time it marks the beginning of a new faith journey.  Abraham is called to make a significant sacrifice.  Moses is commissioned to lead his people.  And Samuel commences a significant prophetic ministry with words of doom to his predecessor.

Each of us had a hinani moment when we committed our life to follow Jesus, and most likely another one when we followed him into world mission.  Some of us may be able to identify several of them.  Sometimes they are obvious, like a clap of thunder in our consciousness (John 12:29); at other times they are much more subtle, like the still small voice after the storm (1 Kings 19:11-12).

But I wonder how many of them we have simply missed, by being busy, preoccupied or stressed.  Listening to God is an art which needs to be practised – in the present, in stillness of soul.  I was struck recently by something Elisha said – “the Lord has hidden it from me and not told me why” (2 Kings 4:27).  We might expect the opposite, that God would reveal something to us.  But Elisha, admittedly an anointed prophet, had practised listening to God so closely that he felt it was normal for him to have a prophetic perspective on what was happening (2 Kings 6:16).

Sometimes God shouts, but more often whispers, and if we’re not in a place where we can hear the still, small voice, we may risk not moving on when we should.  God doesn’t always set a bush on fire to get our attention, so we’d better be giving it readily.  Let’s make sure we create the time in our busy schedules to be able to do this.

Leonard Cohen drew on his Jewish roots as he used hinani in his powerful final album You Want it Darker as he readied himself to meet God.  He translates it as “I’m ready, my Lord.”

Are you ready?

Make me an instrument of your peace

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offence, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.

 

This much-loved text, often attributed to St Francis of Assisi, is an inspiration to many.  Yet once we look beyond its beauty we find a brutal challenge to our fleshly and soulish ways of doing things.

As we go about our lives, work, relationships and ministry this week, energised once again by the thrill of the resurrection we have just commemorated, let us bear this challenge in mind.

As mission workers, church planters, member care workers, church leaders and agency employees, how do we conduct our relationships with one another and those we are reaching out to in the light of the sacrifice this calls us to?  A sacrifice which mirrors the one we celebrate as bringing us new life?  How do we communicate that new life to others?  Is our transformation deep or only superficial?  How do we tap into the grace which allows us to respond to every challenge with love and forgiveness?

As we are transformed by the grace of God, we offer the same hope to others.  He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:30)

Walking with Jesus during Holy Week

As we start Holy Week – the name traditionally given to the week coming up to Easter, let us take a moment to pause and reflect.

For many of us in ministry, it’s a busy time of the year.  We have to plan services for Thursday, Friday and Sunday, perhaps several for each day, including multiple sermons seeking some fresh revelation using scriptures thoroughly familiar to our congregations.  We might even have to get up early on Sunday for a sunrise service.  One of the challenges we face at this time of year is that we are so busy trying to ensure the church has a positive experience of Easter that we can miss out on that experience ourselves.

It’s also a highly emotional time of year.  We’ve just got past the excitement of Palm Sunday with its crosses, and soon will face the awkward embarrassment of a foot-washing ceremony.  We have to balance the solemnity of Good Friday with the exuberance of Easter Sunday, with just that rather cumbersome ‘normal’ Saturday in between.

Wouldn’t it be great to just stop?

Stop and have time to read, reflect on and inhabit the Bible stories about Holy Week.

To imagine walking with Jesus in Jerusalem, listeningf to the discussions, watching the healing, pouring ointment on him as a symbol that we understand what he’s about to go through.

Try and understand what it feels like to be various characters in the stories.  Are you Mary, Peter, or Judas, or one of the many other nameless ones who have a walk-on part?  As you think about them, what do you have in common with them?  What would you do if you were in their situation?  How do you feel?

And what is Jesus going through, knowing all that is in store for him?  How does he feel?  What could you do to help him if you were there?

In the midst of this hectic and demanding week, let’s pause for 15 minutes in each day, just to reflect on some of these things.  Perhaps we will meet with Jesus.

Struggling to grow?

Recently, while on retreat, I came across a rocky headland where a wide variety of plants was struggling with grim determination to grow.  Grass, heather and trees all struggled to thrive in the rocky soil.  Not in their natural environment, deprived of good soil, they were undernourished, stunted and vulnerable.  Not unlike a few mission workers I know!

Mission takes nearly all of us out of our normal environment.  It also takes us to a context where we may find it hard to thrive.  Sometimes we are isolated (emotionally, spiritually, culturally, physically) with little encouragement, fellowship or input.  This is why Syzygy started publishing devotional blogs, so that we can help to provide a little input into the lives of isolated mission workers.

If the plants I mentioned above were in my care, I might consider moving them to a new location where they are more suited to the growing conditions.  While some of us may be aware that we are called to endure in tough places, others may be wondering if we’ve made the right choice.  And there’s no shame in relocating to a place where we can thrive better if we feel that’s the right choice before God.  After all, if our life is more shrivelled up and stunted than it is abundant (John 10:10) it would be good for us to reflect on how positive our Christian witness is likely to be.

Alternatively I might try to change the growing conditions of the plants I were caring for.  I’m a great believer in manure and (although we might joke that most of our agencies are good at giving us that) like plants we need to make sure that we get sufficient nutrition to thrive.  Eating well is obviously an important part of staying healthy, but we also need to make sure that emotionally and spiritually we are taking in more than we give out.  Where are the supportive relationships we need?  Is social media sufficient, or do we need to arrange for more team members to join us in our location?  Are we able to sustain ourselves from our own private Bible study or do we need to access podcasts, books and commentaries?  Do we need to schedule more time away from the mission field in order to recharge our batteries effectively, or make plans for more retreat?

When looking at struggling plants on that rocky headland, while having sympathy for their challenge, I also felt huge admiration for their tenacity.  Being plants they obviously had no means of simply moving to a location more conducive for growth, so they just stubbornly got on with it.  Like many of the mission workers I know.  Like it says in Matthew, those who hang on by the skin of their teeth will be saved (Matthew 24:13).  If you’re in that situation, we salute your tenacity.  Keep on keeping on!

A lingering fragrance?

A while ago I picked some delightfully fragrant flowers which I left in a vase in the kitchen for quite a while.  They filled the whole room with a sweet smell which was almost like incense.  It lifted my spirits every time I entered the room.  But after a short time the flowers, unsurprisingly, withered.  Yet the fragrance remained for a long time after.

I wonder what remains of us when we move on to somewhere else.  Is it a sweet fragrance or a bitter aftertaste?  Do people miss us or are they glad we are gone?  Paul suggests that this can work both ways.  He says in 2 Corinthians 2 that we are the “sweet aroma of Christ”, but points out that while the aroma is attractive to those who are being saved, it is repulsive to those who are not.  In the same way, the presence of Christians, the expression of our belief, and the tolerance of our faith are obnoxious to some.  And sometimes they have a point – our behaviour can actually repel people if we are too judgemental or outspoken.

A better approach is softly softly.  It is wise not to get drawn into arguments with people like this but simply to let them see our behaviour at its very best.  Proverbs 15:1 says “a gentle answer turns away wrath” and Peter encourages us to:

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

(1 Peter 2:12)

Actions, as is often pointed out, speak louder than words.  They echo long after we have gone.  I wonder how much of aroma of Christ we leave behind in other people’s hearts.

Preach the Gospel?

What does Good News look like to them?

In the world of mission there is a continuing debate of whether we should demonstrate the gospel, preach the gospel, or do both (often referred to as “wholistic” mission)*.  Advocates of the first argue that there is no point in preaching the gospel to people who are going to die of hunger, while advocates of the second say there is no point in giving people hope in this life if they have no hope for the next.  Proponents of wholistic mission try to find a mid-point and do both.

The picture is muddied even by the example of Jesus.  One the one hand it is clear that Jesus had compassion on people because they were needy (Matthew 9:36), yet the previous verse said he proclaimed the gospel and healed people.  His famous mission statement in Luke 4 says that he came to preach good news… and then proceeds to focus on the poor, the imprisoned, the blind and the oppressed.  In other words, the socially disadvantaged.  Then later in the same gospel he says “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10) which sounds profoundly soteriological.  In Acts 11 Peter calls Jesus a man who went around doing good and makes no mention of him preaching the kingdom.

One way to square this circle is to ask ourselves what Good News actually is.  Evangelical Christians would customarily describe it as “Christ died for your sins”, but of course before Jesus died, Good News must have meant something else.  In Luke 9, Jesus sent the Twelve out to proclaim the kingdom of God (Jesus’ usual message) and heal, but in verse 6 we’re told they ‘preached the Good News’ and healed.  So the Good News is not merely the Kingdom even though it includes a call to repentance (Mark 6:12).  For some people, Good News looked like healing.  For others it was food, or deliverance from demons.  Good News embraced their immediate needs as well as their eternal needs.

What does Good News look like for the people we meet?  Seen from their perspective, it may not primarily be salvation.  They might have more immediate concerns.  These might be a bed for the homeless, a meal for the hungry, a community for the refugee, healing for the sick, comfort for the bereaved, friendship for the lonely.  This is why so many Christian compassion ministries exist in the UK and abroad.

Christmas is a time of year when Christians invite their non-Christian friends and neighbours to church services, or send them overtly evangelistic Christmas cards.  But if we’re not showing them what Good News looks like throughout the year, our preaching might seem to them a bit shallow.

* There are of course many facets to mission including discipleship, social action, advocacy, creation care….  but the ‘show and tell’ model is a simple one to use.

Suckers!

Those people who have roses in their gardens may occasionally come across a new vigorous growth coming from low down in the plant.  They may well rejoice at the new life in the plant, but they would be wrong to.

It’s most likely a sucker.  These are shoots coming off the wild root onto which a cultivated rose has been grafted.  If allowed to grow it will take all the energy from the roots and gradually starve the rose, which will wither and die, leaving a wild rose in its place.

What has this to do with mission work?

Common to all Christians are the habits and thought patterns we got into before we were saved.  We may have had struggles with addictions, an exaggerated tendency to despondency, fear of failure or a possessive need to be loved.  When we become Christians, in theory our life has been transformed.  St Paul talks about us being ‘dead to sin’.  He tells us we have been buried with Christ through having been baptised into his death, so that we can walk in newness of life (Romans 6). But he also writes: ‘Lay aside the old self… be renewed in the spirit of your mind… and put on the new self’ to people who were believers and who presumable had already been baptised (Ephesians  4:22-24).

So there is still something for us to do to facilitate our transformation into being a new creation (Galatians 2:20).  Sometimes those old habits come creeping back, like the sucker on the rose.  Many of us make the mistake of thinking that a given negative action in our lives was an isolated act of sin, repent of it, and move on.  But the same ‘isolated’ act then occurs over and over again, becoming a weakness, and eventually a gaping hole in our armour.

In the same way, a good gardener will cut off the sucker as soon as she identifies it, but it will grow back again and again and again.  Because the problem is not the sucker, but the root it grows from.

Changing the metaphor slightly, Christians are wild olive branches grafted into the cultivated olive tree (Romans 11).  But just as with the rose, there is a tendency for the old wild plant to reassert itself.

For mission workers, often under great stress and feeling isolated or lonely, it can be very tempting to fall back into old habits.  They bring us short-term comfort even though we have the challenge of the guilt we carry with us.  They become our secret sin, and we lie to ourselves telling ourselves it’s alright because it’s just a method of coping with the stress.  But sin grows, like the sucker, sapping the life of a beautiful rose.  And one day it will be seen by everyone for what it is – bringing down our ministry, our family, possibly even our own walk with God.

We need to tackle the root of the flesh which makes us vulnerable to such sin.  We need to see it for what it is, expose the lie it is telling us, and root out the base desire.  Sometime we need help with that – prayer partners, accountability partners, even deliverance ministry.  If you would like to have a confidential discussion with Syzygy about this, email us on info@syzygy.org.uk.

A good tree cannot produce bad fruit; a rotten tree cannot produce good fruit.

(Matthew 7:18)

Pruning

Continuing the horticultural theme we started recently with ‘re-potting‘, today we’re going to think about pruning.  All of us who are mission workers will be no stranger to sudden losses in our ministry.  Whether we are being evacuated, losing a work permit, finding a key supporter withdraws funding, losing a key colleague or having a ministry closed down by our agency, we all know what it is to find our plans thwarted.

The feelings of doubt, anger, loss and confusion that can go with such events can be reminiscent of the grieving we feel at the sudden death of a loved one.  We had no time to say goodbye, prepare ourselves for the change in our lives, or to celebrate the successes.  It’s suddenly all gone, and we’re left with a gaping hole where there once was certainty and stability.

In addition to these feelings there may also be a sense that God has let us down.  He called us to do this, so why would he allow it to be stopped?  Why didn’t he answer our prayers?  And if we feel like this, we may also feel guilty that we have such feelings, because we know we’re supposed to have faith and trust God in all things.

Reading the Psalms can help us at a time like this, as many of them are written by people in similar situations, grappling with the injustice of the world and the apparent invisibility of God when most needed.  The writers work hard to reconcile the truth that they know about God with the world they see around them which doesn’t always reflect that truth.

It can also help us to think of these situations as times of pruning, although we often don’t recognise God’s intentional hand in them until many years after.  The farmer growing a vine has learned from experience that he has to ‘be cruel to be kind’, and that hard pruning leads to more, and better, fruit.  The farmer will be cutting off some of the strongest, most vigorous growth, in order to prevent it producing too many leaves and twigs.  We all know the result: more fruit.

But the individual branches probably don’t know this.  They’re probably thinking “Ouch” and wondering why that branch which was growing so long has been so brutally lopped off.  Their favourite bits are now missing.  Some of their most lovely green leaves have gone.  But they don’t know what the farmer is planning, and what great plans he has for them to produce much fruit.

So when your fruitful ministry has been suddenly stopped in its tracks, as well as grieving (which is healthy) and stopping to consider what happens next, pause also to reflect on how God is redirecting your fruitfulness to bring even more glory to him.

Re-potting – unpleasant but necessary

I’ve recently met with a lot of people going through transition.  Whether they are leaving a posting, parting company with their sending agency, closing a ministry, going to a new country… people in mission relocate frequently and are no strangers to change.

People going through change often notice their physical reactions.  They may be unusually tired (beyond the usual jetlag symptoms) or unduly emotional.  This disturbs them, as they like to think of themselves as self-controlled, focussed people who don’t fall apart easily.  But something about leaving has rocked their boat, and they lose emotional equilibrium.  And losing emotional equilibrium rocks their boat further.  So they get tearful, or angry, or sleepy.  It’s a perfectly natural response to a stressful situation.  And relocation is stressful.

It’s like being a plant that has its roots pulled out of a nice snug pot, teased apart a little, and planted back in new soil, unfamiliar soil.  We all know that this needs to be done periodically to help the plant thrive, but you can be certain that the plant doesn’t appreciate the experience.  Most plants wilt a little, or drop a few leaves, before bouncing back with new growth.  Transition is seldom enjoyable.

There is the stress of packing things up, deciding what to keep and what to do with the rest.  There is the endless paperwork involved.  There are emotional goodbyes with people we love.  There is grief at losing relationships, guilt at having the freedom to move on, and bereavement as we leave projects and people we have worked with for years.  If things haven’t worked out there may be a nagging sense of failure, and if our departure is forced, there may be fear, anger and disempowerment involved.

There is also uncertainty about the future – where we are going to live, be church, work and relax.  We may be going to a different culture with which we are unfamiliar.  And we know from experience that transition is seldom one clean step – there are many moves, new starts and restarts until we can feel settled again.  And just as we think we’ve got there, another change rocks our boat, or some innocent comment or event triggers a memory and throws us back into crisis.

Recognising how the uncertainties and stresses affect us is the first part of the solution.  Understanding how the transition affects us reminds us we need to take steps to treat ourselves to familiar things – if you’re going to a major world city it’s quite possible that your favourite chain of coffee shops or restaurants has got there before you!  Doing familiar things helps us cope with the unfamiliar, so we can take refuge in our favourite meals, music or hobbies, and take time to talk with loved ones who support us through the change.

But above all connecting with God is important.  In the busyness of transition God often gets squeezed out, when he is needed even more.  He is the one unchanging constant in our ephemeral lives, and when everything else is upheaval he is the same – yesterday, today and forever.  Many of the Psalmists in times of difficulty and turmoil wrote songs to him reconciling their trust in his unfailing goodness with their unpleasant experiences.  Reading them helps us to connect with him in the midst of our turmoil:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, and the mountains slip into the heart of the sea…

“Cease striving, and know that I am God.”

(Psalm 46:1-2, 10)

 

Anyone who is going through a transition and would like some support is welcome to contact Syzygy on info@syzygy.org.uk to arrange a conversation, either in person or via social media.

 

Is anybody listening?

Source: www.freeimages.com

Blogging can be a frustrating activity.  I can spend days mulling over a good idea, hours finely crafting my prose, and finally release my most earth-shattering blog onto the internet, only to be met by the deafening sound of silence.  No comments.  No shares.  Not even a like.  Nothing.  It’s deflating.

Just like that deflating feeling most mission workers know when asked by some innocent church member back home “How many people have you baptised this year?”.  Most of us know the embarrassment of squirming a bit, thinking of some excuses (“that’s not really my role”) before reluctantly admitting the truth – none.  And for many of us, it was none last year, or the year before.

Our sending churches seem to expect a vast harvest, or at least a regular crop, of souls for the Lord.  When did mission become subject to arbitrary productivity statistics more fitting to a factory?  And why are these standards not applied to those working on the home front?

The reality is that western mission workers seldom produce significant numbers of ‘converts’.  We sow a lot of seed but seldom see the harvest, even though we continue to hope for a harvest.  Unlike Isaiah, who was told by God at the start of his long ministry that he would see no fruit.  We often hear sermons on the powerful call of Isaiah, his vision of the Lord in his temple, his enthusiastic response, but we seldom hear sermons on the passage which immediately follows:

Then the LORD told me to go and speak this message to the people:

You will listen and listen, but never understand.

You will look and look, but never see.

The LORD also said: Make these people stubborn!

Make them stop up their ears, cover their eyes, and fail to understand.

Don’t let them turn to me and be healed.

 

Would you have gone into the mission field if you’d known that was your mission?  Small wonder that within minutes of his enthusiastic “Here I am, send me!”, Isaiah’s response was “How long do I have to do that?”  No prophet wants people to ignore his message, as no mission worker wants her words to fall on deaf ears.

I am sure many of us can identify with this frustration.  We have spent years, sometimes decades, working hard in the mission field, with little harvest to show for it.  But we are not called to be successful.  We are called to be faithful to him who sent us and to the work he has called us to do, and we are called to bear fruit in our lives.  The obedient mission worker, persevering in adversity, has far more in common with Isaiah than with Jonah, who preached and an entire city repented immediately (Jonah 3:10), or the rare contemporary outbreaks of revival we hear about, but seldom experience in our own ministries.

So, if you have reaped little harvest, take courage.  Jesus told his disciples “Others have laboured so that you can reap.” (John 4:38)  Perhaps it is your role to plant the seed.  In impacting the culture, demonstrating the gospel by your lifestyle, encouraging and equipping local believers, softening a harsh spiritual environment through your prayer, and being a faithful witness, you are planting an immense crop for others to reap.  In many of the places we are called to, mission is a long-term, multi-generational enterprise.  Like a worker on a production line, you may weld the chassis but never see the car roll out of the factory.  But the car wouldn’t be any good without your humble and unlauded work.

He who has ears, let him hear.

This is what we are about…

This is what we are about:

we plant the seeds that will one day grow;

we water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold promise;

we lay foundations that will need further development;

we provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our own capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.  This enables us to do something, and to do it well.  It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, and opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.  We are workers, not master builders; ministers not messiahs.  We are prophets of a future not our own.

Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Common Prayer – A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals

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