Where is home?

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

This week’s guest blog is from Agnes Bruna, a lifelong mission worker who is a volunteer with Shevet Achim in Jerusalem.  Here she discusses her own experience of that classic challenge for long-term mission workers: an increasing confusion about what ‘home’ is!

Soon I will be spending a month in the UK on vacation.  I’m looking forward to it, though it will be the first time I’ll be in the UK without having a fixed address to stay. Weird!

It got me thinking about where home is.  Jerusalem, where I live and work, has a surprising number of Dutch people and when people ask me where I’m from, I confidently say: from The Netherlands.  After all, I have a Dutch passport to prove it, right?  Actually, not so confident.  My Dutch is slowly but surely disappearing.  I have no idea what goes on in The Netherlands – I haven’t lived there since 1973!  When I talk to Dutch groups about our work here, I get indulgent smiles at the mistakes in my Dutch.

So, do I identify with the UK?  After all, I lived there longer than I lived in Holland.  My English accent is (according to my wonderful American friends and co-workers) distinctly British.  My children and grandchildren live there.  And this is where I go, of course, for my holiday.  The church I consider my “home church” is in England.  On the other hand, less and less people respond to my blogs.  I don’t know what is going on in my friends’ lives unless they’re faithful Facebook posters.  I am very blessed that my children are good in staying in touch, through Facebook and Whatsapp, and some of my grandchildren are getting old enough to occasionally contact me on Whatsapp.

Or does the Middle East increasingly feel like home?  I feel privileged to live in the historic city of Jerusalem.  The Old City walls are very much a part of my daily life whether I go for a coffee at Christ Church café, try to find bargains in the souks, meet up with friends, or simply go to church.  I know more about the workings of the Israeli government or the Palestinian Authority, I can now more or less confidently navigate Iraqis and Syrians (and the odd Iranian) through Israeli and Jordanian border crossings and airports, I have been several times in northern Iraq.  My fluency in Hebrew has come back, I understand and speak more and more Arabic and Kurdish, and the culture here feels normal.  Whatever normal is!  Hey, I even found a reliable dentist here just behind the Arab Souk.

So what is home?  To me home is where I find Jesus working in wonderful and mysterious ways.  And where I find fellowship.  And to me it doesn’t matter whether I discuss visas in Hebrew so we can save children’s lives, live in a predominantly English-speaking Christian community, worship in Arabic, pray for and with each other in multiple languages and styles, or back in the UK worshiping and praying with you all in English.  As it says in Hebrews 13:14, John 18:36, and several other places, God’s Kingdom is not of this world.  We do not belong here, even though Jesus has put us here for a time.

Where you go, I’ll go

Where you stay, I’ll stay

When you move, I’ll move

I will follow you

Who you love, I’ll love

How you serve, I’ll serve

If this life I lose, I will follow you, yeah

I will follow you, yeah.

(Chris Tomlin)

 

No one is an island

1112138276The recent news of a pastor beheaded by ISIS in a central Asian republic brought to me by a trusted friend reminds us of the continual challenges faced by our brothers and sisters in parts of the world where living openly for Christ really does mean putting their lives on the line.

The writers of the New Testament letters frequently referred to suffering when they wrote to encourage their flocks.  They regularly stressed that it was normal, that we had been warned in advance about it, and that it’s all part of the cosmic conflict in which we are on God’s side.  Jesus said that the world would hate us because it hated him first (John 15:18ff).  We in the West have been mostly insulated by the ‘Christian’ nature of our culture from the normality of suffering which is only too familiar to people in Asia, the Middle East and north Africa.

The Apostles’ teaching did not deny the tragedy of their suffering, but placed it into a larger context.  We read of Peter and John rejoicing that they had been considered “worthy” of suffering shame after they had been flogged (Acts 5:41)!  Paul talks about “momentary light affliction” (2 Corinthians 4:17) and says that the suffering of this life cannot be compared to the glory of the next (Romans 8:18).

For millions of Christians around the world, but particularly in the 10/40 window, their faith means that life is a daily struggle to get served in shops, find jobs, be treated fairly by police, and avoid government oppression or mob lynching.  We in the West can help them by funding agencies like Open Doors which work among our persecuted family to protect, empower and advocate.  We can keep informed about their sufferings by following websites like persecution.org, and we can pray using resources like the World Prayer Map.

It can be so tempting for us just to shrug our shoulders and think it’s just another person we don’t know in a country far away.  But let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is our family, we will meet them one day in heaven and rejoice in the stories of their faithfulness even to the point of death (Revelation 12:11).  But until then we are parted from them, and as John Donne wrote in his poem No man is an island:

…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.

A Gothic horror?

No, not those Goths!

No, not those Goths!

In the spring of 376 AD, thousands of hungry, weary Goths arrived on the northern bank of the Danube, in what is now Romania, and asked the Romans permission to cross the river into safety.  Displaced by war and violence in their homelands further east, they had migrated to what they believed was safer territory behind the Roman frontier.

For Rome, it was a wonderful opportunity.  Thousands of new citizens who could become workers, soldiers, farmers, taxpayers and consumers could breathe life into the old empire.  But it was also a threat.  Such a large influx could disrupt lifestyle, change culture, bring unhelpful new influences and potentially crime and violence.

The Romans prevaricated, and by not being decisive, lost the initiative.  The Goths forced their way in but instead of being settled and absorbed, they remained a separate cultural (and military) identity within the empire.  Within a few years war broke out, the Goths had inflicted on Rome its biggest defeat in centuries and killed an emperor.  For decades they migrated around western Europe looking for a home, and became the first invaders to sack Rome in nearly a millennium.  They destabilised the empire and contributed to the collapse of the western half of the empire.

1640 years later, is Europe now in the same position as the Romans were?  Faced with a massive influx of people from different cultures, desperate for safety, jobs, a home, will we make them into friends or enemies?  How are they going to influence Europe?

This is the background to next month’s EEMA conference on refugees.  Refugees in Europe – a Fence or a Bridge? will consider what the church in Europe will be doing in the face of the current refugee crisis/opportunity.  How do we show we care about refugees?  What changes are going to be forced on the European church as a result of this?  Is it legitimate to take this as an opportunity to evangelise displaced people, and if it is, how do we do it?  What does this mean for mission from, to and in Europe?

For more information on this key conference, which will be held in Bucharest (in Romania, where the Goths arrived) from 21st-24th June, go to the EEMA website.  We’re going – we hope to see you there!

What van Gaal is getting wrong

Goal? (Source www.freeimages.com)

Goal? (Source www.freeimages.com)

It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it that counts.

The long-drawn out death rattle of Louis van Gaal underperforming season at Manchester United prompts us to revisit this old maxim.  While Syzygy does not have much of a track record as football pundits we came across an interesting statistic in a newspaper recently: despite Man U having a whole string of terrible statistics this season, there is one in which they are top.  They have the highest percentage of possession in the Premiership.  A solid achievement, which means absolutely nothing without the ability to convert possession into goals.

Which prompts us to ask our readers, what do we possess that we are not converting?  We can suggest three things that, we may need to put to better use for the kingdom as we reflect on our lives and values during the current season of Lent.

The Gospel.  We have mentioned before the prevailing western philosophy of Moral Therapeutic Deism, in which our Christian belief is merely there to meet our needs, help us be nice people and feel good about ourselves.  But the Gospel shouldn’t stop with us.  It is meant to be shared.  What kind of selfish people keep good news to themselves?  St Paul wrote “Woe is me if I don’t preach the Gospel (1 Corinthians 9:16).  OK, perhaps he was a bit too driven for us to feel entirely comfortable with him, but at least he was motivated.  When are we going to go and tell somebody the Good News, whether we go to the other side of the world or the other side of the street?

Our relationship with God.  We have unprecedented, open access to the throne room of the Almighty Creator of Heaven and Earth, and we use it to ask God to bless people, which God is probably going to do anyway, because that’s what God enjoys doing.  We have the power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead at work in us and we use it to pray for a parking space.  When are we going to realise that through prayer we can change nations?  Can we get a little bit more ambitious with our prayer?  How about praying for a resolution of conflict in the middle east, freedom and peace for the oppressed church, or global revival.  Let’s get a little more ambitious with our prayer.

Significant wealth.  Yes, significant.  Since the finanical crisis of 2008, many of us in the west think we’re poor, yet in comparison to nearly half the world living on less than $2.50 a day [1], we’re filthy rich.  And even if we aren’t sure how we’re going to pay the bills or put food on the table, as William Carey pointed out “even the poor can give.”  Jesus commended not the rich putting their gold into the temple coffers, but the poor widow putting in two small copper coins (Mark 12:43).  When are we going to pour our wealth into something more precious than house extensions, foreign holidays and new cars?

So this Lent, do please consider going (or at least helping someone else to),  make a commitment to pray for mission, and put some serious funding into mission.  Syzygy would be glad to help you!

[1] http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats

The refugee issue

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

The migrants who have so spectacularly been coming into Europe from Africa and the Middle East are already having a huge impact on Europe which will last for generations.  Whether this impact is revealed in the vast numbers of new residents taken into countries like Germany and Sweden, or the huge fences that have gone up around other countries’ borders to keep out even people only wishing to pass through those countries, the entire continent is being affected.  In the UK, the first of the refugees taken from camps in Syria are beginning to arrive, and across the continent politics is being affected by the argument between those who say we should show more compassion to our fellow humans, and others who say our countries are already full and charity begins at home.

These issues are so huge that many individual Christians are feeling disempowered, despite caring deeply about the issue.  They feel they can’t change anything, have no impact on government policy and don’t know what they can do to help.  So here are some of our suggestions.

Pray – It goes without saying that refugees, whatever their religious beliefs, need our prayers.  So do the charities, churches, government officials and individuals working with them.  Many refugees have seen their loved ones killed, and have lost their homes and communities.  They are traumatised, and so are many of the overworked counsellors trying to help them.

Donate  – Many of the charities working with refugees could do so much more to help if they had more resources, to help them feed and clothe people in refugee camps, provide education and healthcare, and help to welcome and settle immigrants.

Be informed –  Many mission agencies are working with refugees – find out which ones they are through their websites.  The European Evangelical Alliance has an excellent webpage, and the latest edition of Vista addresses the issue of migration.  The Refugee Highway Partnership has a major role to play in this and the European Evangelical Mission Association is hosting a conference in June focussing on refugee issues and the church’s response.  Find out if your network or denomination has a policy, spokesperson on refugee issues and get involved.

Help – Volunteering to help a charity might seem like a huge challenge, but they may need people to sort through donated clothing, distribute food packages and do other tasks which their own staff may be overworked with and would value some help with.

Do – Find out if any refugees are coming to your town, get in touch with whoever is coordinating care for them, and ask what you can do to help.  Over 50 local authorities have been helping to settle refugees so there are probably some near you.  They will need practical support, help understanding your country’s dominant culture and language, and friendship.  You don’t have to be particularly skilled to show them around your community, or drive them somewhere, or go with them to meetings with benefits officers to make sure they understand.

Serve –  Many of us have skills which we don’t think about using to help mission workers.  We can cook, drive, and speak the dominant language of the host community.  We have many connections we can utilise to help.  Many of us have professions like hairdressing, nursing, or teaching which we could use to help refugees.

Advocate –  In a world where much in the media is openly hostile to the idea of taking in more refugees, write letters to newspapers, local counsellors and members of parliament advocating for them.  Sign petitions and use social media to keep the issue in peoples’ minds.

The issues of refugees in Europe is not going to go away quickly.  It will change our societies, our understanding of community and the ways in which we go about mission.  Churches have a huge part to play in this transformation and have a wonderful opportunity to be on the cutting edge of change.

Peace and goodwill to everyone?

Is this peace? (Source: www.freeimages.com)

Is this peace? (Source: www.freeimages.com)

What a barmy army time of year to talk about peace!  With trees to be bought and decorated, a seemingly endless round of Christmas parties to be part of, nativity plays to prepare for (and endure), the right number and quality of presents to be bought, a perfect meal to prepare, often with critical relatives to impress, all while avoiding tempers flaring, tantrums from over-excited children and taking out a second mortgage to pay for everything.  Call that peace?

I think we’ve missed the point.

Peace is usually defined negatively in our culture – as the absence of something like war, noise, people, or work.  When we think about it, we often think about ‘getting away from it all’ and imagine a deckchair on a golden beach, or beautiful mountain scenery.  What does that have to do with peace in our daily life?

The birth of the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6) was announced by the angels as bringing peace to the world (Luke 2:14).  Yet Jesus himself said he did not come to bring peace, but a sword (Matthew 10:34) – and that is closer to the experience of many of us, particularly believers living in North Korea, Nigeria or many parts of the Middle East.

Yet Jesus the peacemaker told his disciples “In this world you will have loads of trouble, but don’t worry – in me you can have peace…  My peace I give to you.” (John 16.33, 14:27)  He clearly didn’t mean the Hebrew meaning of Shalom – wholeness, health, calm, serenity, blessing, prosperity – because he knew the next day he was going to be flogged and nailed to a cross, and his followers would be hiding, discouraged and demoralised.  There’s no way that counts as peace.

But the incarnation heralded a new era in God’s dealing with humanity.  An era in which we can know peace with God through being reconciled in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:19).  The power of Christ and the Holy Spirit at work in us enables us to make peace with ourselves, confronting our inner demons and knowing freedom from everything that has happened to us that prevents us becoming who God wants us to be.  It also gives us the ability to make peace with our enemies through forgiving them and seeing relationships restored.

Too often we don’t actually make peace; we try (and fail) to keep it.  Peacekeeping can prevent the outbreak of open hostilities but the wounds and injustice still simmer below the surface, and occasionally erupt out, hurting everyone around, including innocent bystanders.  That’s why peacemakers are blessed (Matthew 5:9) – because in making peace they demonstrate they, like Jesus, are children of God.

May all our readers know real peace amidst the turmoil of Christmas!

Sykes-Picot and the ISIS dilemma

NThe ISIS insurgency in Iraq has hit the headlines in the last few weeks as this Islamicist group has rapidly gained control of territory and prompted a mass-movement of refugees by its extreme persecution of minority religious groups, prompting many Christians to show their solidarity with the persecuted church by changing their Facebook photo to the Islamic letter ‘n’, which ISIS have been writing on the doors of the homes of Christians so that they can be easily identified.  It stands for ‘Nasrani’, the Arabic word for Nazarene, the local term for Christian.  Many people will not however have heard of the obscure Sykes-Picot Agreement which ISIS has vowed to overthrow.

ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is the successor to a number of Al-Qaeda-linked organisations which emerged in the aftermath of the Western invasion of Iraq, and which gained ground as an insurgent group in the Syrian civil war.  It has gained sympathy among Iraqi Sunnis marginalised by the pro-Shia regime of the recently-deposed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and it aims to impose a Sharia religious state (or Caliphate) throughout the Levant.

Sir Mark Sykes (left) and François George-Picot

Sir Mark Sykes (left) and François George-Picot

Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot were diplomats, British and French respectively, who in 1916 drew up a secret treaty agreeing how Britain and France would carve up the remains of the Ottoman Empire, which they confidently expected to be defeated in the First World War.  When this happened, The League of Nations gave Britain and France a mandate to run the countries we now know as Syria and Lebanon (France) and Israel-Palestine, Jordan and Iraq (Britain) as part of their Empires while creating independent countries.

Sykes and Picot drew lines on a map with little consideration of ethnic, religious and tribal affiliations, rather as the European colonial powers had done in Africa a generation previously.  The two countries subsequently imposed their own rule on these countries, overthrowing local arrangements which had emerged following the collapse of the Ottomans and reneging on previous agreements, particularly those made with local potentates by British soldier T E Lawrence in exchange for their support in fighting the Ottomans.

1112138276

Ongoing persecution for the church in Iraq?

This meant that local groupings had no opportunity to work out their own spheres of influence in the region.  In fact, since the arrival of Islam in the mid seventh century, the entire region has been in the hands of large empires (the Abbasid Caliphate, the Mongols, the Mamelukes and the Ottomans) which have artificially kept a lid on this turbulent region.  Centuries-old tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims are now erupting  in what experienced Middle East observers, including Lord Ashdown, have pointed out could be their equivalent of the Thirty Years’ War, as rival religious/tribal/ethnic groups vie to carve out their own polities.

The challenge for the Western world, which for the last century has continually tried to keep the lid on tensions in the region through a policy of appointing and supporting local strongmen like Bashar al-Assad and Saddam Hussein, is whether we step into this carnage and reimpose order (at what cost to ourselves and the locals?) or let the conflict that might have resolved issues a hundred years ago play itself out – at incredible cost of life and the ongoing persecution of minorities.

The dilemma is whether the Sykes-Picot Agreement should be overthrown, and if so, can we justify the consequences?

Many Christian agencies are working to help our brothers and sisters fleeing from the conflict in Iraq.  Open Doors is one of them.   Christian Today has some very practical suggestions on what individuals can do to help.

Persecuted for their faith in Iran

captiveWe have blogged on numerous occasions about the suffering church worldwide but a visit to hear two young women from Iran talk about their experience of being imprisoned for sharing their Christian faith prompts us to consider the heroism of the many millions who struggle daily just to stay alive, let alone actively share their faith.

Maryam and Marziyeh both grew up in muslim families in Iran, and independently met Jesus while still in their teens as a result of their search for more meaning.  Within weeks they had led family members to Christ, and then shared the gospel with friends and strangers.  Boldly they spent four years handing out New Testaments around Teheran, or leaving them in restaurants, or posting them through people’s letter boxes.  In four years they were able to distribute 20,000 before the authorities finally caught up with them and imprisoned them.

Held in detention in a notorious prison, they continued to share the gospel with guards and prisoners, leading many to Jesus.  When challenged by interrogators, they said it was the fault of the authorities for putting them there!  They pointed out that it was natural for other prisoners to ask why they were there, and they had only answered truthfully, which led to people asking what Christianity was all about.

Which for us at Syzygy raises a rather uncomfortable question: how can two young Iranian believers be so bold in their faith when we in the west feel embarrassed to mention Jesus even to members of our own families?  Many of us will excitedly travel halfway round the world to take part in the latest outbreak of Holy Spirit revival but we won’t walk down the road to share the gospel with our neighbour.  We talk about being persecuted at work when colleagues tease us about being Christians and never have to face a life-and-death choice.  How did we get our values so upside down?  Why can’t we say, with St Paul:

I do not consider my life dear to me, in order that I may finish the course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God…. For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

(Acts 20:24, Philippians 1:21)

Subsequently cleared of the charges, freed, and allowed to emigrate to the United States, Maryam and Marziyeh now devote their time to reminding the church of the plight of believers in Iran, where many Christians are still in prison, and those who are not face significant discrimination and active persecution.  They are currently on a world tour telling their story to help Open Doors raise funds for a much-needed project.  We strongly recommend going to one of their remaining events, which you can find out about here.

Please pray for the suffering church in Iran, particularly those in prison.  You can find out more at the Open Doors website.

Is it time to move on?

Countries of the 10/40 window, in blue

Countries of the 10/40 window, in blue

Which are the countries which have the smallest proportion of Christians?  Most of the candidates are debatable because it is hard to collect accurate statistics in them, and many believers will be keeping their heads down for fear of persecution.  But the answer is probably:

  • Western Sahara
  • Afghanistan
  • Somalia
  • Yemen
  • Maldives
  • Morocco
  • Mauritania

All of these countries have fewer than 0.5% Christians, and are closely followed by Tunisia, Algeria and Turkey.*  Many other countries in north Africa, central Asia and the middle east have fewer than 1% Christians.  None of these countries are places where it would be easy to be a mission worker, and in many of them, it could be fatal.  As it can be for the believers.

1112138276You might expect the bulk of the church’s mission work to focus on countries like these.  Even if it’s not easy for us to go as mission workers, it’s possible to go and start missional businesses such as teaching English or computing, introduce the nationals to Jesus while they are studying abroad in a more open country, and train locals remotely to witness to their own people.  We can broadcast the gospel into their countries – see the work of TWR Europe, FEBA or Sat 7 for example.  We can pray.  We can go on holiday there and try to be a subtle witness or engage in prayer ministry.  Some agencies, to be sure, are trying to get people into countries like these, but of course we can’t tell you who they are in these pages, though we salute the faith of the few who engage in such a dangerous calling.

Yet a list of the countries to which the UK sends most mission workers tells a different story.  We actually invest most of our missionary effort in countries where Christians are already in the majority.  The top five receiving countries are:

  • Kenya (79% Christian)
  • Brazil (91%)
  • France (68%)
  • Zambia (85%)
  • Spain (68%)

In total there are over 10,000 mission workers in these countries from all over the world.  It is perfectly legal to witness to people and to start a new church in each of these countries (though occasionally very difficult!).  Although many of the ‘Christians’ contained in the statistics may be nominal, with the exception of France and Spain they have strong evangelical churches which are able to shoulder the burden of mission, and in France the church, though still small, is growing strongly.

While there are nearly two billion people living in the 10/40 window who have never heard the gospel, thousands of completely unreached people groups elsewhere, and hundreds of ethnic minorities who have no access to the Bible in their own language, does this seem an appropriate use of our resources?  Ok, perhaps the Christians in those countries do not follow our particular brand of Christianity, but wouldn’t it be better for us to let the local church take over the task of witnessing to the lost?

Is the continuing presence of overseas mission workers in those countries actually preventing the indigenous church taking on more responsibility for evangelising their own people?

Time to move on?

Time to move on?

I know a lot of mission workers reading this will already be angry with this suggestion (thank you for making it this far!) and I recognise that there may be many people working in those countries who will be doing tasks the local church may not currently be equipped to do:

  • providing theological education
  • discipling a young and inexperienced church
  • using those countries as a base for reaching out into other less evangelised ones
  • working with unreached minority people groups
  • providing vital technical support such as bible translation.

There will be other valid reasons for mission workers to be there.  Or are these countries simply ones where we like to be mission workers?  But if 90% of us moved on to minister to an unreached people group or a country in the 10/40 window, that would mean an extra 9000 people freed up to reach the world’s least evangelised people.  That’s over 150 new mission workers in countries like Tajikistan, Laos and Algeria.

Of course it’s risky.  Even today mission workers are being martyred in the 10/40 window.  But that’s part of following Jesus, and despite the western world’s risk-averse policies, Jesus didn’t shrink from paying the ultimate price to show God’s love for the lost, and neither did the early church.

Maybe it’s time for us to move on to somewhere more needy.  Or is that a bit too uncomfortable for us to consider?

* This article has drawn heavily on Operation World for its statistics.  Find out more about this essential guide to prayer for the world at www.operationworld.org

Jonah – successful mission worker?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who are the real believers?

The Injil (New Testament) is a Holy Book of Islam

The Injil (New Testament) is a Holy Book of Islam

We mentioned previously the conference on contextualisation held last month, and I’d like to follow up by wading into the debate on what happens when muslims find faith in Jesus.

In parts of the world where there is a dominant non-Christian culture, notably but not only Islam, it has become common in recent years for some people who find faith in Jesus to stay within their socio-religious communities.  They may still attend the mosque and call themselves muslims (or muslim followers of Jesus).  This is not necessarily because they fear persecution (they may well get that anyway) but because the community is so tight and hostility to Christianity so strong, that they would lose family, friends, social networks and the ability to earn money or even buy food.  By remaining within their community, even though they hold unorthodox beliefs, they maintain their support structures and, crucially, the opportunity to witness to their families and neighbours.

Some Christians think that these ‘insiders’ cannot possibly be real Christians, and that if they were, they should leave their communities, join a church, call themselves Christians and take the resulting persecution.

Church and mosque - mutually exclusive or is there an overlap?

Church and mosque – mutually exclusive or is there an overlap?

A biblical case study of relevance would be the early Jerusalem church.  While clearly self-identifying as followers of Jesus (or The Way), they still considered themselves Jews, attended temple services and kept the law.  They were, in effect, a Jewish sect.  They didn’t stop being Jewish just because they followed Jesus.  While relationships with other sects like the Pharisees and Sadducees were occasionally violent, mostly they co-existed for nearly forty years.  The split began when the Jesus followers didn’t take part in the war against Rome (68-70 AD) and fled en masse to Pella, so their loyalty to Jewish nationalism was impugned.  Eventually, around 85AD the Jews developed a curse on those who split the faith, which forced the Jesus followers out of the synagogues where it formed part of the liturgy.

In other words, the Jewish believers were happy to remain within Judaism until those who rejected Jesus pushed them out of it.  It was the same in the churches Paul visited – they always started with the synagogue until they were expelled.  It may well be the same with muslim-background believers – only time will tell.

crossRecent research among one particular group of muslim-background believers in Jesus found some startling results.  390 believers in 118 communities (ekklesia) were interviewed.  83.9% met together with other believers at least once a week, mainly in homes.  Most of them are in groups of fewer than ten people and their activities include Bible-reading, prayer, worship and fellowship.  41% of them had come to faith through experiencing dreams or visions of Jesus, or miraculous healings.  57% of them had found faith after being witnessed to by other believers.  Perhaps the most staggering statistic was that 92% of them had shared with non-believers the message of salvation through Jesus alone.

Until the church can match statistics like that, we don’t have the right to claim that they are not ‘proper’ believers.

Contextualisation

Contextualisation?  A 19th century church building in Malawi  (Source: Wikipedia)

Contextualisation? A 19th century church building in Malawi (Source: Wikipedia)

Most of us have heard stories of how mission workers of the past often took their native culture with them in the well-meant but misguided view that it was ‘Christian’ to wear clothes, worship in a certain style or meet in a building whose architecture reflected the mission workers’ culture more than the local one.  Sadly today we often make similar mistakes, although there is generally a greater awareness of the need to contextualise.

Contextualisation is the word we give to how we adapt our presentation of the gospel so that it is culturally relevant to the people we are talking to.  It involves understanding their location and culture so that we don’t say things they won’t understand or even worse be put off by.  So there’s no point in using the verse “Though your sins are scarlet they will be white as snow” in the tropics, where people haven’t seen snow.  Better to replace snow with cotton.  And don’t tell a Buddhist she must be born again – that’s the very thing she’s fed up with doing!

The early apostles – particularly Paul – used contextualisation in preaching the gospel.  When addressing Jews, Paul quoted extensively from Jewish scripture and tradition (e.g. Acts 13:16-41), yet in his famous address to the ruling council in Athens (Acts 17:22-31) he made no mention of either, but argued with them out of their own culture and tradition.  Yet at the same time he was committed to the unadulterated truth of the gospel – “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

Contextualisation or blasphemy?

Contextualisation or blasphemy?

In recent years there has been an ongoing debate over what is optional and what is non-negotiable, as with the recent high-profile controversy about references to Father and Son when talking to people of a Moslem background.  Contextualisation affects our language, as in the case of one English church which has stopped using the word Father to describe God, since that word has such negative connotions in the minds of local non-christians.  It also affects cultural and self-identification issues: should a Moslem who comes to faith be called a Christian?  Or a Moslem-background believer?  A follower of Isa-al-Massi?  Should he be encouraged to leave the mosque and be part of a church?  Or continue being part of his community as a secret believer?

Challenges such as these affect mission to people of other beliefs, particularly in Asia where we come into contact with people of radically different worldviews, and in post-Christian Europe where many are ignorant of even the most basic Christian terminology like ‘sin’ and ‘redemption’.  Which is why many evangelists now use terms like ‘Do you want God to help you?’ in preference to the less accessible ‘You must repent!’

The European Evangelical Mission Association is holding a conference in September (in Majorca!) to discuss these issues.  Representatives of denominations and mission agencies will be there to debate the limits of contextualisation, the future of the insider movement and the relevance of the C1-C6 model.  The speakers will be renowned exponents on these topics: Rose Dowsett, Beat Jost, and John Travis.  To find out more go to http://www.europeanema.org/conference-2013/.  It promises to be a challenging debate!

Update on the Arab Spring

Is this the future for Middle Eastern churches?

Is this the future for Middle Eastern churches?

Two years on from the outbreak of the Arab Spring, it’s worth pausing to take stock of what has happened so far, particularly since recent the military conflict in Mali against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the ongoing civil war in Syria have drawn attention to the region once again.

Readers will recall that early in 2011 a democratic uprising in Tunisia, largely facilitated by the use of social media in organising, communicating and publicising, triggered a number of popular uprisings in the Near East/Middle East/North Africa (NEMENA) region.  Since then, not a single county in the region has been unaffected by some form of protest, and the ongoing conflicts continue to destabilise the entire region and threaten to spill over into west and central Africa, the Caucasus and central Asia.  Several countries have experienced major unrest and the results have been mixed – certainly not the democratic success that liberals were hoping for!  Here’s how they stack up:

Successful change of government: Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen

Top down change in response to the uprising: Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia

Civil war: Libya, Mali, Syria

Authoritarian crackdown: Bahrain

The key questions for us at Syzygy are not so much about the politics but about the impact of these disturbances on a) Christian mission and b) the national church.  It should be remembered that most of the countries in the NEMENA region were not particularly hospitable to Christians before the Arab Spring, and many of them had no significant Christian population.  Overt Christian mission was not possible in any of these countries.

1112138276The breakdown of law and order in the Arab Spring uprisings caused many mission agencies to withdraw their teams from most countries in the region in 2011.  The risks of becoming inadvertently caught up in the conflict, or of being specifically targeted by extremists were considered too great.  In many of these countries the overseas mission workers have still not returned, or if they have, their actions are hampered by the need to take security seriously.  This has an impact not only on their Christian witness, but on the vital humanitarian and development work they have been doing.

The prospects for the national church have been even worse.  The possibility of Sharia law being introduced (in Egypt for example) is a major threat to their ability to meet together openly and have their minority rights protected.  In the event of civil war the Christians are more vulnerable because often they are not able to rely on support from a wide family network (who may have ostracised them), or because they may be seen as covert allies of western democracies whose influence is opposed by Islamic extremists.  In Syria, where the minority Alawite regime has in the past been reasonably tolerant of Christians because they too were a minority, the rebels can even see the Christians as the enemy, particularly as they have not taken sides in the war.  There is nobody to protect the believers from extremists who want to lynch them and burn down their buildings.

Here are some recent headlines about what is still happening to the suffering church in the region:

  • Church burned, Christians stoned by Egyptian villagers (17th February)
  • Christians sentenced for (allegedly) proselytising in Algeria (13th February)
  • Christians in Sudan face victimisation by the Government (12th February)
  • Internally-displaced Christians in Mali face starvation (11th February)
  • Iraqi Patriarch claims Arab Spring resulting in bloodshed (9th February)
  • 200,000 Syrian Christians have been displaced by war (1st February)

Yet God continues to do amazing things throughout the region.  There are reports of miraculous protection of Christians and church buildings.  Many people are finding Christ through the internet, or satellite tv and radio broadcasts.  We reported last year on ‘The Beautiful One’ who meets people in their dreams.  Nevertheless, as we observed on this website in 2011, these are precarious times for the church throughout the NEMENA region.

  • Pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters, that their faith will be strengthened and they will be comforted in their suffering.
  • Pray that mission workers will feel assured of God’s protection, have wisdom in avoiding detection, and be able to get on with their ministries unencumbered.
  • Pray that revival will break out as people commit their lives to ‘The Beautiful One’.
  • Donate to Christian relief agencies providing humanitarian aid in the region.

The Beautiful One

For a number of years, Christians have been amazed at the stories coming out of the Moslem world of people coming to faith in Christ as a result of having seen Jesus in a dream.  They call him ‘The Beautiful One’.  Many of us may have been sceptical at first, but in recent months the number of reports has increased significantly.

Although accurate reports are hard to get hold of, I heard of one church in a central Asian republic where 80% of the believers had come to faith following a dream.  There are stories of Imams having a dream and leading the entire congregation of the Mosque to Christ.  Just visit a well-known video hosting website and key in ‘dreams of Jesus’ and you will see numerous testimonies.  Some reports suggest that Moslems are turning to Christ in greater numbers now than at any time in the 1400 year history of Islam.

Muslims of course are not ignorant of Jesus.  He is one of their great prophets, and it is taught that it will be Jesus who comes back at the end of the age to receive the faithful and inaugurate global Islam.  But they do not expect to find salvation in Jesus.  It should of course be emphasised that receiving a dream about Jesus does not automatically make someone a Christian, or to be more accurate, a Moslem-background believer.  This is only the start of their journey of faith, which may lead them deeper into their Moslem beliefs, as Jesus is revered within their own religious tradition.

Many of the people who receive dreams are not searching for Jesus, and are perfectly content Moslems.  Reports of the dreams make it clear that the dreamers are in no doubt that it is Jesus they are seeing.  They describe him as beautiful, dressed in a white robe and glowing with light.  This figure will be instantly recognisable to Christians familiar with the book of Revelation.  If the Beautiful One talks, he may tell them to follow him, or that their sins are forgiven.  I was given a first-hand report of a mosque in a middle-eastern country where everyone had received a dream.  Yet if you ask them who it was, they will answer ‘The Prophet… or maybe Jesus’, as the risk of openly confessing Jesus is very high.

So why are these visions coming now?  It cannot be a coincidence that in recent years, just as concerted and committed prayer for the countries of the 10/40 window has been coordinated, it has become very hard for outsiders to get into Moslem communities worldwide to preach the gospel openly.  Although many still go undercover, their ability to spread the message is severely restricted.  With the rise of militant Islam, pressure on indigenous believers from Palestine to the Philippines has become heavier.  Church buildings are being burned and believers being martyred.  So the Spirit of God does a new thing, and speaks to Moslems directly when his human followers can’t.  Together with the rise of Christian satellite TV and the internet, the Moslem world has never been so technologically open to the Gospel.  Those who have dreamed of Jesus may find it hard to meet fellow believers, but they can watch TV and surf the net.

How can we help Moslems find Jesus their Saviour?  Above all, prayer.  Prayer opens the way into the darkest places and softens the hardest of hearts.  If you meet a Moslem, you can ask him if he has had a dream of the Beautiful One (don’t say Jesus!) or if he knows of anyone who has.  Gently (remember that persuading someone to change their religion is a crime in many Moslem countries) ask who he thinks it might be.  What does he want to say to the Moslem?  What does he want of him?  Why does he appear now?  Respectful questions will open a channel for the individual to reflect on the dream while not imposing our beliefs on him or disrespecting his traditions.

Please pray:

  • that Jesus will reveal himself to Moslems in all nations, and that they will see him for who he really is;
  • that the faith of Moslem-background believers will be strong despite the persecution they may face;
  • that Christian mission agencies will be effective in spreading and broadcasting the Gospel and following up.

Chief Rabbi defends Christians

We have mentioned a couple of times in the last year the precarious situation of indigenous Christians in North Africa, and the Middle East, and recently the House of Lords debated religious persecution in the region.  In a wide ranging debate featuring several high profile speakers including the Archbishop of Canterbury, one notable intervention was from Lord Sacks, the Chief Rabbi.  We thought it worth reproducing an extract from his speech.

It was Martin Luther King who said ‘In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends’.

That is why I felt I could not be silent today.  As a Jew in Christian Britain, I know how much I, my late parents and, indeed, the whole British Jewish community owe to this great Christian nation, which gave us the right and the freedom to live our faith without fear.  Shall we not, therefore, as Jews stand up for the right of Christians in other parts of the world to live their faith without fear?

And fear is what many Christians in the Middle East feel today.  We have already heard today about the plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt, of Maronite Christians in Hezbollah-controlled areas of Lebanon, of the vast exodus of Christians from Iraq and of the concern of Christians in Syria as to what might happen there should there be further destabilisation.  In the past year, we have heard of churches set on fire, of a suicide bombing that cost the lives of 21 Christians as they were leaving a church in Cairo, of violence and intimidation and of the mass flight of Christians, especially from Egypt.  I believe that we must all protest this series of assaults – some physical, others psychological – on Christian communities in the Middle East, many of which have long, long histories.  I, and I hope all other Jews in Britain, stand in solidarity with our Christian brothers and sisters, as we do with all those who suffer because of their faith.

I have followed the fate of Christians in the Middle East for years, appalled at what is happening and surprised and distressed by the fact that it is not more widely known.  We know how complex are the history and politics of the Middle East and how fraught with conflicting passions, but there are two points that I wish to make that deserve reflection.

Is this the future for Middle Eastern churches?

First, on the Arab Spring, which has heightened the fear of Christians in many of the countries affected, we make a great intellectual mistake in the West when we assume that democracy is, in and of itself, a step towards freedom.  Usually, that is the case, but sometimes it is not.  As Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill pointed out in the 19th century, it may merely mean the ‘tyranny of the majority’.  That is why the most salient words in the current situation are those of Lord Acton, in his great essay on the history of freedom, who said: ‘The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities’.

That is why the fate of Christians in the Middle East today is the litmus test of the Arab Spring.  Freedom in indivisible, and those who deny it to others will never gain it for themselves.

Secondly, religions that begin by killing their opponents end by killing their fellow believers.  Today, in the Middle East and elsewhere, radical Islamists fight those whom they regard as the greater and lesser Satan, but earlier this week we mourned the death of 55 Shia who were killed in a terror attack in Iraq.  Today, the majority of victims of Islamist violence are Muslim, and shall we not shed tears for them, too?  The tragedy of religion is that it can lead people to wage war in the name of the God of peace, to hate in the name of the God of love, to practise cruelty in the name of the God of compassion and to kill in the name of the God of life.  None of these things brings honour to faith; they are a desecration of the name of God.

May God protect Christians of the Middle East and people of faith who suffer for their faith, whoever and wherever they are.

We are grateful to CFI for bringing this speech to our attention through their magazine ‘In Touch’

Islamic Democracy

TurkeyIn recent months there has been much discussion about the form of government that will ultimately evolve in the countries that threw off their despotic leaders during the Arab Spring earlier this year – so far only Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.  One term which is frequently mentioned is Islamic Democracy. Some western leaders are keen to point out that Islam is not necessarily incompatible with democracy, and frequently cite Turkey as a good example of a secular state in an Islamic country.  In November US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even promised that the US would not oppose Islamic political parties which emerge in the new democracies.  But then the Obama administration is keen to demonstrate that it is not inherently anti-Islamic, unlike its predecessor.

But is this Islamic democracy necessarily going to be a good thing?  Forgetting its impact on western hegemony for the moment, and just considering what happens in the country concerned, let us examine the paragon, Turkey, and see what lessons it has for us.  Turkey is at the moment in the process of drafting a new constitution, and some proposals are causing great concern among minority communities.  There is the possibility that clauses guaranteeing citizenship to all Turkish-born people may be changed, allowing only Muslims to be citizens.

Although the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is self-consciously promoting human rights and equality in an attempt to join the EU, it is clear that many of the Muslim population have no sympathy for other religions and do not agree with the government policy of promoting equality.   Life is far from easy for Turkey’s various minorities, including Greek, Armenian and Syriac Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians as well as Kurds, Jewish people and Alevis.  As well as routine discrimination they suffer legal restrictions on internal governance, education, places of worship and property rights, although recent legislation has begun to affect the latter.  And of course, there are periodic persecutions and lynchings which, though not necessarily state-sponsored, seem neither to be prevented or investigated by the police.  Proselytising is not illegal, though people who change their religion may be subject to harassment.

So Turkey is not an example that would inspire confidence in our Christian brothers and sisters in North Africa.  How might such Islamic democracy develop there?  The question of Sharia law is the principal concern for Christians, since it would introduce a legal system which is clearly prejudicial to minorities.  For example, in Iran and Pakistan, which both operate Sharia, it is illegal for a Christian to testify in court against a Muslim.  So if only Christians are the witnesses of injustices perpetrated against them by Muslims, they cannot legally defend themselves.

The largest opposition group in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, is in favour of introducing Sharia law.  The Brotherhood, though not a political party, is a significant political force in most near- and middle-eastern countries, and inspires many of the largest Islamic parties.  While in Egypt it has public pretensions to non-violence, in Gaza it is the inspiration behind Hamas.  Life is, of course, unbearably hard for Christians under Hamas, and completely impossible for Jews.

Life is already becoming harder for Egypt’s nine million Christians.  In October Christians protesting peacefully against laws which restrict the construction of churches were savagely attacked by the army and police, who then tried to blame the unarmed Christians for attacking them.  26 died and over 300 were injured.  There are reports of stones being thrown at women in the street who are not wearing burqas.  This is a glimpse of the future should the Muslim Brotherhood win an election and introduce Sharia law.

For the sake of our brothers and sisters in Islamic countries, let us pray that Islamic Democracy does not live up to its worst potential.  We should remember that other secular democracies with majority Islamic populations include Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Indonesia, Syria and Azerbaijan.  All of these countries are high on Open Doors’ persecution index, and are not good places for Christians to live.

Opinion – democracy in Egypt may not be as good as it sounds

EgyptFollowing recent events in Egypt, many in the West are thrilled at the prospect of democracy emerging in this regionally strategic country.  There is a euphoria that keeps us watching the news updates, willing the demonstrators on.  We believe these are historic times.  There are, in fact, many parallels between the current popular demonstrations which have taken place not only in Egypt but in several other countries in the Near East/Middle East/North Africa (NEMENA) region, and the uprisings against Soviet rule in much of east and central Europe two decades ago.  There is a similar sense of hope and optimism that people power can unseat dictators and topple regimes.

Before we get too excited, we should remember that democracy has not yet broken out either in Egypt, where they have merely replaced an unpopular military dictatorship with an untried one, or in Tunisia, where individual government members have changed but the regime continues.  Other leaders in the NEMENA region may have reshuffled the government to make a show of listening to their subjects, but in reality may be more than willing to use force to crush opposition demonstrations and maintain their grip on power.

We should also remember what happened to those European countries in the post-Soviet era.  In the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union, 18 European countries gained independence or toppled a communist regime.  However, far from being rosy, their subsequent history has largely been squalid and violent.  While there have been some success stories, these countries are in the minority.  Some of the others have subsequently broken up, many have experienced civil war or open conflict with their neighbours, even undergoing genocide in some circumstances.  In several, democracy is far from stable, often compromised by military power or mafia dollars, and some experience little freedom of speech or freedom of religion.  Many are still cripplingly poor and life expectancy is short.  Even the former East German states are still significantly poorer than their West German counterparts.  It seems that in Europe, the democracy which we prize above everything else does not necessarily bring all the answers.

How then can we expect it to be any different in NEMENA?  Many countries in the region are already in circumstances similar to those outlined above.  Civil war, armed conflict, totalitarianism, corruption and poverty are no strangers to these countries.  Is democracy really going to be able to offer a solution to these problems?  Has the ‘democracy’ which the West imposed on Iraq made that country a safer, wealthier, fairer place to live?  The Christians living in Baghdad would not think so.

Toppling dictators who oppress their own people and enrich themselves at the expense of their countries’ poor cannot be a bad thing.  What replaces them can, however, be equally bad.  Into a post-dictatorial power vacuum can step ruthless forces, whether economic, military or spiritual, which can hijack a fledgling democracy for their own nefarious purposes.  Often the general public, having experienced years of corruption and poverty, are only too keen to vote for a strong man who offers peace, security, wealth and… salvation.  In this volatile region, the last thing we need emerging is a false messiah.

Let us pray for these countries: that God’s hand will be on them, for His will to prevail, and for the Christians to be bold in their affliction, and comforted in their suffering.