Middle Space

No, it’s not something from Star Trek or a book by Terry Pratchett.  I was recently introduced (thanks to Ally Gibson of WEC International) to this aspect of phenomenology.  It’s the concept that when you and I sit down to talk, the space in between us is not empty – it is full of emotions that both of us put into it, but the other does not see.

So I may come to a meeting full of expectation, hope, anticipation and enthusiasm, together with a mental agenda of all the things I want to talk about.  You might bring your fears, anger and desperation.  Neither of us knows about what the other puts into the Middle Space, but unless we make each other aware of them, our meeting risks being dissatisfying.  If I don’t know about your fear, and you are reluctant to introduce the subject, I may go away from the meeting thinking it went well, but you will leave dissatisfied.

So how do we deal with the things in Middle Space?  We need to be aware that there may be things in it we don’t both know about, so we must discover them.  In a more formal context, such as counselling, we may be used to hearing “What would you like to talk about?”, but we need to find informal ways of doing the same thing.  “How are you feeling?” would be a good start.  A good friend of mine often asks “How are things with your soul?”, which drills a little deeper and leaves a simple “I’m fine” looking a little evasive.

Failure to address what is in Middle Space can have a huge impact on our relationships:

  • In any team meeting we may not communicate about the things that are really of concern to us.
  • In cross-cultural teams some of us may bring expectations about honour, respect, permission to speak which are not understood by others.
  • In cross-cultural marriages we may bring our own cultural expectations of a partner which are completely different in our spouse.
  • In member care we may miss issues which are bubbling away under the surface causing stress to our mission partners.

So let’s be intentional in putting our thoughts and feelings openly on the table, to improve communication, reduce misunderstanding and help our mission workers thrive!

 

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)

Investigating ourselves

Conflict resolution? (source: www.freeimages.com)

Six months ago we commentated on incidents of ‘Friendly Fire‘ in our agencies.  Occasionally Syzygy comes across mission workers who feel they have been bullied by someone in leadership in their agency, and the agency didn’t take the issue seriously.  The situation has resulted in them leaving the mission field laden with negative emotions after they felt the agency has closed ranks against them when they raised this issue with management.  Such stress and attrition should be avoidable.

Perhaps these people were viewed as troublemakers.  Perhaps their perception of how they have been treated is not accurate.  Perhaps the agency didn’t think it was worth rocking the boat – we have occasionally heard it alleged that a particularly powerful individual within the agency was not worth challenging.

So how can agencies manage such situations well?

Principally, they should have a grievance procedure, and be committed to following it.  (A ‘grievance’ is the English term for the formal making of a complaint against an employer.)  The details of a grievance prcedure may vary from country to country according to local laws, but there should always be a procedure clearly laid out for mission partners to follow if an informal discussion with their leadership doesn’t resolve an issue to their satisfaction.  Unfortunately some agencies don’t have grievance policies, and confusion about whether mission partners are members/employees/self-employed can mean that processes like this which are mandatory in many countries are overlooked by agencies who like to think of themselves as a ‘family’.

A grievance procedure should outline a clear process which contains the following steps:

  • If a mission partner feels their complaint is not being taken seriously, they can put it in writing to their immediate leader (or their leader’s leader if the complaint is about the leader);
  • The mission partner is invited to make their complaint in person to someone who will investigate, having the right to take someone with them for moral support;
  • An investigation will be carried out with impartiality;
  • A written response will be given to the mission partner including information about how to appeal against the decision if they are not happy with it;
  • An appeal will be dealt with by a senior leader not directly associated with the field the mission partner is working in, or an independent third party if that is not possible;
  • External mediation is the final step,
  • If a grievance is made in good faith, but not upheld, the mission partner will not suffer any organisational backlash.

Throughout this process, the mission partner should be given confidentiality, and although complete anonymity may not always be compatible with a thorough investigation, the existence and investigation of the grievance should not be made known to people who are not involved in it.  It may be possible to offer the mission partner a temporary reassignment or leave of absence to remove them from a tense working environment while the grievance is being heard.

But as well as having a robust process for dealing with issues, the values of the agency should clearly include treating people well.  We claim to be a family, but we don’t always treat each other with the love that brothers and sisters deserve.  Whatever has happened, we must remember that all our mission partners are children of God, doing their best to fulfil the great commission, and that in line with biblical teaching we need to treat others with respect and deal with conflict in a godly manner in which the goal of any grievance should be the restoration of relationship.

A successful outcome would include:

  • reconciliation between the parties
  • recognition of sin on both sides, where appropriate, including structures within the agency
  • support for both parties to grow in followership and leadership skills

However, with the best will in the world, we may end up not being able to agree over an issue, and parting company, but if that is the case let us make every effort to ensure that people’s time in the mission field ends well, so that they do not nurse hurt, and can continue to be a good ambassador for our agency.

As an independent third party, Syzygy is happy to help any agency develop its grievance procedures or carry out a review of them.  Likewise, we are willing to listen to and support anyone who feels that their grievance has not been addressed.  For more information contact info@syzygy.org.uk.

Because even as we fulfil the great commission, we must remember to keep the greatest commandment.

Footprints in your soul

Anyone who has done any amount of walking in the hills will be aware that many footprints leave a mark on the landscape.

The least trod paths are denoted by shorter grass.  Those used a little more have grass worn away into bare soil.  More use starts to wear away the soil and form ruts, and this is where real erosion starts.  Water seeping down the mountainside finds its way into the ruts and runs more easily downhill, eroding the remaining soil.  Stones are exposed and come away, leaving a great gash in the mountainside which becomes an impromptu stream and needs repairing before irreparable damage is done to the landscape.

Mission workers may be less aware of how words can cut channels into their souls in a similar way.  Each negative comment can leave a footprint behind.  Repeated often enough they can become a rut which begins to shape our thinking.  Innocent words will run into that rut causing even more damage.

So a child who hears “You’re stupid” will be hurt.  If it’s said often enough she will get used to hearing it, and start to believe it.  Continue hearing it and even a casual comment like “We don’t do things like that around here” will be heard as “You’re stupid”.  The child will either become completely crushed, expecting people to realise she’s stupid, or she’ll fight back, and try and prove them wrong.  Both responses are unhelpful to her ongoing psychological health and the relationships she forms.

In the transactional analysis method of psychotherapy, expressions such as “You’re stupid” are known as scripts.  Like scripts for a play, they are written for us by an author, usually an authority figure like a parent, pastor or teacher.  We then repeat them in an inner monologue, reinforced by others repeating them, until we play the part that someone else has written for us.

Syzygy meets lots of mission workers who are acting out scripts.  Expressions like “You’ll never achieve anything”, “You should hurry up” and “You should work hard” have left a deep imprint in their soul.  Many of them have burned themselves out in the mission field trying either to live us to the scriptwriter’s expectations, or to prove the scriptwriter wrong.  Perhaps you’re one of them.

Recognising a script is half the battle to releasing yourself from it.  Realising that you don’t have to repeat it is the other half.  Just reading this blog has probably made you aware of the existence of a script in your life.  It may take some time to get the second half right, but at least you are now free to exercise some choice in whether you believe the script or not.  Now you can decide not to believe it, not to follow its instructions.

“It was for freedom Christ has set us free” wrote Paul to the Galatians (5:1).  Why wait to live in the fullness of freedom?  Free your mind now from the harmful effects of the negative words spoken to you!

 

Tim speaks about this and other issues affecting our identity in Christ in retreats and workshops called Managing the Stress of Mission.  The next one will be held at Penhurst Retreat Centre in August 2017, and they are available for use as part of team conferences and staff training days on request.

The sheep on the other hill

Source: www.freeimages.com

One of the challenges that faces church leaders, particularly when attempting to focus on world mission, is the extent to which their time and attention is demanded by their loudly bleating sheep.  The pastoral needs of church members are very high on a minister’s list of priorities, and many of their sheep will complain loudly if the pastor isn’t seen to be meeting them.

And very often it has to be the church leader personally, even though the church may have a fully-equipped pastoral team.  We may talk about the value of team ministry, but so often people want the top person to be personally involved in meeting their needs and are upset if she isn’t.  I often think of a story I heard about a woman who had been in hospital, and subsequently complained to the pastor that “Nobody  had visited her”, when in fact she’d had several visits from church members, some of them multiple times.  What she meant was that the minister hadn’t visited her!*

This dynamic forces the church leader into meeting perceived needs, in addition to all the genuine crises going on in the church.  The minister’s approval, and sometimes his actual employment, can be dependent on how well he is seen to be meeting these needs, so it is understandable if they take up a lot of the minister’s time and attention.  But what about the sheep in other folds, on other hills, whose bleating isn’t so easy to hear because they’re further away.

Overseas mission workers have pastoral needs too.  Although they may be members of an agency, that doesn’t mean those pastoral needs are met.  And some people don’t serve through an agency anyway.  But they are still part of their home church, with a reasonable expectation that the church (whether it’s the pastor or a team) will meet their pastoral needs.

These needs are often not addressed by agencies, who rightly do not see pastoral care as part of their responsibility (unlike member care) or by the local church which the mission partner serves through, which may not have the capacity to understand and minister to the issues going on in the mission worker’s life, as these issues may be very different from those of the indigenous church.  This lack of pastoral support can add to stress and contribute to burnout and attrition

Syzygy has a guide for churches which can help them understand the needs of their overseas sheep.  We also offer advice to churches who would like to support their mission partners more effectively, and bespoke training for those churches who would like to develop the skills of their pastoral team to care effectively for mission partners.  Contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk for more information.

The fact that the sheep aren’t in your fold doesn’t mean you’re not their shepherd!

* Story found in Love, Acceptance & Forgiveness by Jerry Cook with Stanley C Baldwin (Regal Books 1979)

Processing….

Source: www.freeimages.com

You are probably no stranger to that moment when you hit a button on your computer and nothing happens.  Perhaps a little icon rotates, or a dialogue box pops up that says “Processing…”  And you just sit there, uncertain whether to press the button again, or go and make a cup of tea.

Often the reason is the processor is overloaded with demands.  Perhaps it has to sort through a lot of junk to find the information it needs, or maybe you’re running several programs at once.  Sometimes there is a huge automatic download in progress (it’s usually Windows).  Whatever the reason, the demands on the system exceed its processing capacity.

It’s just the same with humans.  We don’t like to think we have limited processing capacity, particularly in a world where multi-tasking is so valued, but for mission workers there are often a lot of things going on at the same time.  Our heads are busy with the demands of operating in a foreign language, navigating traffic, managing family needs, planning for meetings, preparing sermons and liaising with co-workers.

Some of us are not equipped temperamentally to balance so many competing demands for our attention, and struggle to concentrate on any one of them because others keep surfacing at the same time.  In such circumstances it’s good to have times when we allow ourselves to close the office door or switch the phone off so that we can minimise the demands on our attention.

There may also be a lot more going on behind the scenes than we are aware of.  The pressure of living cross-culturally creates a lot of circumstances which we may think we are able to handle, but all add small amounts to the daily stress we suffer.  Did that person misunderstand me because my language is limited?  Did I fail to pick up subtle cues that I’m not used to?  Why do I have to wait so long in this queue?  Why do people drive like this?  Often these uncertainties create ‘feedback loops’ – situations that we keep mulling over, whether consciously or not, that also demand part of our processing power.

In order to deal with these issues which keep running in the background, we need to have a look at the task manager to get a better grip of what’s going on.  As we’ve remarked on previous occasions, regular retreat is an excellent way of doing this.  Even if we can only manage a day away at a quiet or spiritual place to reflect, we can still ask ourselves questions like:

  • How am I coping in this culture?
  • What are the stress points for me?
  • What are the ongoing issues in my personal life, team relationships and engagement with the local community?

This then equips us with a bit more knowledge so that we know which thought processes we can shut down.  We do that by reflecting on these issues and asking ourselves:

  • Why am I upset by this?
  • What can I do about it?
  • How is God equipping me to grow in this situation?

Many of these issues can be quickly dealt with once exposed.  One practice that is helpful to get into is to do a mini-reflection each night before going to bed.  We can ask ourselves simple questions like:

  • What upset me today?
  • Why?
  • Who do I need to forgive, or ask forgiveness from?
  • How do I resolve this?

But let’s not finish with the negatives!  We can also finish the day by reminding ourselves what brought us joy, what we can be thankful for, and where we saw God at work in, through and around us.

Just like our computers, a little bit of regular maintenance will help us to operate a little more effectively.

Permission to fail

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

“Give it a try.  If it doesn’t work out, come back and we’ll try something else.”

How many of us have heard those words from the leader of our sending church or mission agency?  Likely very few, because the possibility of failure is usually the elephant in the room, carefully tiptoed around as we discuss prayer, faith and strategy.  We talk with due diligence about exit strategies in the event of a disaster, but seldom address the stark fact that our mission may go spectacularly belly up (as my first assignment did).  That’s why I like the casual optimism of King Saul’s son Jonathan: “Let’s go and pick a fight with some Philistines.  Perhaps the Lord will be with us” (1 Samuel 14:6 – my translation!).

Failure is the unwelcome guest in our discussions because we fear failure.  And that fear has many unintended consequences which can make a difficult situation worse.  We can put a brave face on things and not let people know how hard we find things, thereby depriving ourselves of encouragement and member care, which only increases our stress and risk of burnout.  We can be reluctant to admit in our prayer letters that things are not going well, so we don’t mobilise effective prayer into areas where we’re challenged.  And we’re reluctant to hit the ‘panic button’ to mobilise extra help before it’s too late.

So what is it about failure that makes us so fearful?

We fear failing because of our own character weakness.  Many of us nurse inadequacies we’ve held since our earliest childhood: driven hard by overachieving parents who expect nothing less than excellence, or conversely trying to prove wrong the teacher, parent or pastor who told us we were useless or would never achieve anything.  This underlying motif drives us forward compulsively even though we’re not even aware it’s there until somebody points it out to us.

We fear failing because we might lose support.  Our friends and churches have poured their prayer, encouragement and finance into our mission.  How do we tell them we messed up?  Will they stop supporting us?  If fact that’s highly unlikely.  Most of them will be committed to you because of relationship not performance, and those who withdraw their relationship when you don’t perform were not really supporters in the first place.

We fear failing because of the impact on our faith.  Why did God send us?  Was God not with us?  Why was our work not blessed?  The reasons for any given failure are frequently complex and inscrutable, but what we can be sure of is that Jesus promised he would be with us even though life would be hard (Matthew 28:20, John 16:33).  St Paul, no stranger to unexpected outcomes, reminded the Roman church that nothing can separate us from the love of God, acknowledging in the very same sentence the reality of bad things happening to us (Romans 8:39).

This perspective that things don’t always work out quite as we intended is a very helpful way to start our mission.  And even when things go badly wrong, there are still ways in which God can use it for good even though the journey has been painful for us (Genesis 50:20).  Often the greatest work that God does is not through us, but in us.  This needs to be an understanding which we share with our agency, church, family and friends so that we feel we have permission to fail, because we recognise that in a fallen and damaged world, not everything works out as we hope.

Syzygy regularly helps mission workers coming to terms with failure, and we’ve experienced it ourselves.  One of us even wrote a blog about it.  So if you’re struggling in this area, do please get in touch for a confidential discussion by emailing info@syzygy.org.uk.  We’re confident we can help get you back on track, or find the alternative role for you.

Failing isn’t fatal.  Not starting again, is.

Load-shedding

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

Those of us who live in developing countries will be only too familiar with one of the major sources of stress and disruption in our lives – the regular power outages which mean that unless we have invested in our own generator or solar panels, we frequently have no electricity for several hours of the day.  When it comes on there is a mad dash to recharge every battery, do the cooking and laundry while the equipment works and catch up with all the emails before the power goes off again.  Just mention load-shedding to a group of mission workers and there will be sighs, groans of frustration and a long litany of tales of woe.

Yet, seen from another angle, load-shedding is a regrettable occurrence which is better than the alternative – total unplanned blackouts.  Load-shedding happens when the demand for power exceeds the available supply.  Sometimes a power station breaks down, or the water supply is too low for the hydro station to operate.   Load-shedding protects the power distribution system from wider failure caused by trying to run too many appliances, which can lead to substations failing and major damage to the distribution system.

Most mission workers are not good at doing load-shedding in their own lives.  Often their available supply of energy is insufficient for all the things that they have committed to.  They keep going resolutely, unaware of the damage that they are doing to their systems while they run on with an permanent emotional or spiritual brownout.  Often this can continue at a low rate for years until a major stressor occurs and there is a system wide failure.  This can vary in what it looks like – lack of emotional energy to invest in family, loss of faith, stress-related illness, emotional outbursts, moral failure – but they are all symptoms of the same underlying problem: the mission workers are doing more than they are able.

The short-term response to overload, as power companies realise, is to cut the demand.  In the same way that the electricity company simply cuts off the supply to a given area, so the mission worker needs to lay down some responsibilities so that the drain on their emotional, spiritual and physical energy is reduced.  The longer-term solution is to balance the supply and demand more effectively.  There are a number of effective ways you can do this:

  • review the range of responsibilities you carry and prayerfully consider how sustainable it is
  • look at your personal strategies for rest and retreat to ensure you are taking enough time out of your ministry to recharge your batteries effectively
  • consider how effective your prayer support is
  • review the level of stress you are operating under and restore it to appropriate levels
  • work with your co-workers to rebalance your team structure and activities so that they are sustainable for everybody
  • work out whether you are an introvert or an extravert and adapt your lifestyle accordingly
  • review your eating and sleeping habits to make sure that they work well for you

Load-shedding is a short-term fix not a long-term solution.  Mission workers opting to load-shed may keep things going for a bit but if they fail to implement a permanent solution may find themselves at risk of a major power failure in the form of burnout.

 

Onward and upward!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The long and winding road…

img_20161014_144243Many of us will be familiar with the tortuous roads which wind up and down the hillsides in the mountainous countries where much of our mission work takes place.  We seem to spend a lot of time zigzagging up and down to get relatively short distances, often going in completely the wrong direction.  Once when in Nepal I took several hours to walk little more than a mile (on the map) going down a precipitous route into a gorge, and slogging wearily up the other side to a village which was within sight of the place I had set out from.

Changing the metaphor this week from rail to road, this is an image of the lives some of us are having to lead right now.  Appearing to go in the wrong direction, taking the long way round, burdened by our heavy load, instead of finding a cute Alpine cable car to take us across the valley to where we want to be.  In our busy, purpose-driven lives, we focus on the achievement, the goal, or the destination and feel frustrated.  Yet we often lose sight of the fact that the journey has a value of its own.  Like many of us who travel a lot, we don’t enjoy the travelling so much as the arriving, yet the journey itself has much to teach us.

In the Bible, roads feature a lot.  People are often travelling and we find that the stony, winding tracks of ancient Israel were places of encounter with prophets, wild animals, angels, armies, muggers, or estranged family.  Battles, funerals and processions took place.  Roads are places of revelation and teaching.  Many of Jesus’ recorded conversations took place as they were walking somewhere.  Just the phrase “the road to…” can be followed by Emmaus, Damascus, Jericho or Azotus for widely differing experiences.

At the moment, those of us who can’t get back to our designated field may feel rather like the traveller on the road to Jericho: beaten, confused, frightened, or vulnerable.  Not unlike the two discouraged disciples on the road to Emmaus, and we know what experience enthused them so much that they went seven miles back to Jerusalem in the dark.  They met Jesus on the road.

Have you met Jesus on your particular road?  What is Jesus explaining to you that you didn’t understand?  What revelation do you have that can transform your mourning into joy?  And if you can’t answer those questions, what time have you made to listen to Jesus, even as you continue walking?

One of my favourite road events concerns a widow about to bury her only son (Luke 7:11-17).  As the funeral cortege leaves the village on its way to the graveyard, it meets a procession coming the other way.  It’s Jesus and his followers.  They, no doubt, are a happy crowd, telling stories of the amazing teaching and healing they have received.  For a moment both crowds stop, unable to pass each other without breaking formation.  An awkward quietness falls over the disciples, who shuffle to the side of the road.  Then Jesus steps forward, and with one sentence transforms the situation.  Joy triumphs over grief.  Life over death.  One journey is no longer necessary, and the procession suddenly has a lot more disciples as they flock joyfully back into the village together.

How is Jesus transforming your journey?

Diverted?

Where next? (Source: www.freeimages.com)

Where next? (Source: www.freeimages.com)

As a follow up to last week’s discussion (Derailed) here is a further reflection on the challenge of feeling that somehow we are no longer on the mainline.  This is a challenge for most of us mission workers who are more like Martha than Mary, because we have an urgent desire to be getting somewhere in our ministry.  Such is the impact of the Protestant Work Ethic on our thinking.

Even though we may wish to be thundering at full speed down the mainline, pulling a prestigious express full of significant people, God may have extremely valid reasons for wanting to stop us for a bit.  We find the experience frustrating, but we need to remember that it’s not all about us, and there may be other parts of the rail network having an impact on our personal journey.  So here are some reasons why trains unaccountably stop from time to time (other than to let Edward Thomas write a poem about it).

  • Filling up. Trains need to refuel and while it’s normally done at specific times (such as home assignment) it occasionally needs to be done at other times too.  Take the opportunity to go on a longer retreat than you might normally have time for, or have an extra debrief to make sure you’re ready to go when the signal changes.
  • Collecting other carriages. Sometimes the train I’m on waits at a station for another train to come in behind it and be coupled up to make one longer train.  Is this an opportunity for you to take new supporters on your journey with you?  Spend more time investing in your sending church and building relationships.  Maybe you can recruit some new team members.
  • Waiting for the line to clear. Sometimes the signal is at red because there is a blockage down the road that needs to be cleared.  I have experienced times when other things have needed to fall in place before I can get on with what I feel God has given me to do.  Or perhaps another train is coming through and we need to get out of its way or it would damage us.
  • Taking an alternative route. How often does God take us down a branch line for no obvious reason?  Maybe it’s just to enjoy the scenery, and pootle along at a gentler pace.
  • Routine maintenance. Well, now you’ve got the time, go and see the doctor, dentist, optician, counsellor, life coach…  Make the most of your pause and check all the moving parts are properly greased!

Finally, if you feel you’re stuck in the station waiting for the light to turn green, why not take the time to look around and see who else is in the station?  Maybe it’s time to make some new friends.

We can’t always tell why God shunts us into a siding at times.  Why did Jesus have to wait until his 30s?  David sitting in the desert on the run from Saul must have thought his calling would never happen.  Moses had to spend 40 years in the wilderness thinking he’d missed his opportunity.  What was Paul doing with his life before Barnabas brought him to Antioch?  But if we can learn one thing from this experience is that it’s God who is in the signal box, not us, and we have to learn to trust him to pull the right levers at the right time.

Derailed?

Sderailedeveral of my acquaintances in the mission world are struggling to return to their field of mission due to difficulties getting visas.  It prompts me to reflect on how people are facing the challenges of not being at home, having to homeschool children, not being able to do their work, and trying hard to support their colleagues remotely.  Often these people have also overstayed their welcome in family homes, inadvertently found they’ve become liable for UK taxation, and had to hand back the Syzygy car they’ve borrowed because somebody else had already booked it.

This situation has led to many feelings of frustration and confusion.  Some people struggle to connect with God, and some are angry with God, because they know they have a calling to do a specific work and God has not opened the door for them to do it.  They feel as if their life and ministry has been derailed, and the longer it goes on, the more confused they become:  “Why is God stopping me what he has called me to do?”

Paul appears to have experienced this problem too (Acts 16:6-10).  He and his team were trying to move on and couldn’t figure out where to go next.  It appears that they were prevented from going to several different places.  Yet at no stage does Luke attribute the blockages to demonic activity or human opposition – it is always God who has stopped them going somewhere.  One gets the sense that God was shutting doors that they were tempted to take in order to get them to take seriously the new one he was about to open.  That was immediately prior to the Macedonian vision which took Paul into Europe for the first time.

Some years ago I participated in a security briefing where hostage negotiator Phil Harper pointed out that our mission to reach out to other people with the gospel never ceases, even if we are kidnapped!  Many of us think in the narrow terms of our specialist focus, rather than broader calling we all share.  If you have a calling (for example) to Nepal but can’t get back there, why not think a bit broader?  What about seeking out a Nepali community in the UK and working with them?  Or going to India where there are many Nepali economic migrants?

Sometimes God shuts doors before he opens new ones.  Mission workers of the China Inland Mission, ejected from China after the communist revolution, realised for the first time that they could go to the Chinese diaspora instead, in cities like Bangkok and Singapore.  Then they realised that other Asian peoples needed the gospel too, and OMF came into being, now working in many east Asian countries and with diaspora groups globally.  This might never have happened if they’d all stayed in China.

If you know people with visa problems, please pray for this specific area of their lives, that God would open doors for them that nobody else can shut.  Even if they’re doors they didn’t expect.  Pray that they would experience clear guidance.  Pray that they will not feel ‘derailed’ but will take the opportunity to do mission work wherever they are.

 

Treasure in broken vessels

kintugiMany of us in the West will share an attitude to damaged pottery – it’s ruined.  A chipped plate, a cracked mug – throw it out.  Not only is it now worthless, we wouldn’t want others to see us using it.  They might think a little less of us if they did.

In Japanese art, however, the attitude is completely different.  The broken pieces are carefully gathered and pieced back together with gold seams where there are cracks.  The restored vessel is considered more beautiful, because of the care that has gone into mending it and that fact that its healed body tells its story.  Instead of rejecting the flawed and damaged, the Japanese embrace it.

Most of us in the mission world have been badly damaged.  We try to cover it up, act as if nothing has happened, think that others will think less of us if they find out.  But pots that are in everyday use get damaged – it’s only the ones that are locked away in a cupboard that stay pristine.  Life takes chips out of all of us, some more than others, and none of us is in mint condition.

In rejecting the damage, we deny some of our history.  We overlook the fact that God is gently but intentionally putting back together a valuable and much-loved possession, pouring his attention and effort into making it whole again.  The gold in the cracks is the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and it makes us even more beautiful than if we were pristine.  God loves these damaged goods so much that he keeps on using us, keeps on repairing us, until more and more of him shines through our shabby and battered exteriors.

Allowing others to see the cracks also allows them the opportunity to see God at work in healing our lives.

 

Peace and calm in the midst of danger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A personal comment on resilience

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

I am going to end this series of blogs on resilience with something very unusual in five years of blogging – a personal testimony.  Late in 1999 I returned to England in a badly damaged condition after five years of mission service in Africa.  During the previous decade I had suffered overwork and stress, emotional and spiritual abuse, unresolved grief, and frequent illnesses culminating in hepatitis.  And now I had chronic fatigue syndrome!  Unable to care for myself, I moved in with a friend who took care of me as I slowly recovered.

During this time a strange thing happened: I became filled with joy in a way that was completely new to me.  I would spontaneously burst into songs of praise even when walking down the street or in the shower. My prayer life became characterised by gratitude.  I was puzzled that this was at odds with my material state: poor health, no money, no hope of getting a job, the frustration of long-term illness.

And then I realised the essential truth that my spirit was rejoicing in even though my mind was slow to catch up.  Everything really important in life was already taken care of!  God loved me unconditionally.  Christ died for me.  My eternal salvation was secure.  So what if the rest of my mortal life was illness and poverty?

This is the eternal perspective that Paul was able to tap into when enduring his “momentary, light afflictions” (2 Corinthians 4:17).  This is what happens when we have roots that run deep into God so that we can survive the tough times.

It was five years before I was restored to health, and the lessons I learned during that time have been life-transforming.  They enable me to thrive because my essence is focussed on my being, not my doing, and is rooted in God’s acceptance of me in Christ.  They help me even at times of extreme busyness to live as a Mary, not a Martha.  They also provide the experience which now equips me to help others find peace in the midst of their busy and stressful lives.

I pray for each of you reading this blog, that you will also know the sense of heavenly trajectory and peace that comes from having deep roots.  If you don’t, please contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk for a confidential discussion.

Resources on resilience

008In this series on resilience, we have made the point that resilience is essential for our survival as mission workers.  We need to develop it before we go, sustain it when the going gets tough, and restore it when things get easier.  Today we’re going to look at some resources to help with this, several of which we have already referred to in other blogs because they’re so good, but it does no harm to bring them together in one place.

Books

The best single resource we have come across on this subject is a small booklet called Spirituality for the long-haul, by Tony Horsfall.  It is a simple, practical and accessible way of making sure you have everything you need in place, and you can buy it online from Kitab for just £3.  Tony is also the author of Working from a Place of Rest, which helps us combat overwork.  Gene Edwards’ A Tale of Three Kings and Marjory Foyle’s Honourably Wounded are both classics in helping people wounded by their own leaders and colleagues. And Laura Mae Gardner’s Healthy, Resilient & Effective is a great handbook for leaders of agencies and churches in helping develop resilience in their mission partners.

Online resources

There is now a vast number of websites dedicated to supporting mission workers, and out of them all you might like to look first at Member Care Media with its vast array of podcasts on a variety of topics.    The Headington Institute has a variety of fascinating articles about self-awareness, stress and resilience.

Retreat

We frequently talk about the importance of retreat to restore our inner peace and create a space to reconnect with God.  While there are many places across the world providing retreat for mission workers (see our retreats page) we particularly recommend Penhurst Retreat Centre in East Sussex for its cosy, informal atmosphere, effective debriefing and focus on mission workers.  Those of you in extreme stages of burnout or trauma may find a visit to Le Rucher helpful, and of course there are similar resources in other continents.

“Up” into the light

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep roots for dry times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep roots

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

Last week I introduced our series on resilience by quoting Paul’s attitude to his “momentary, light afflictions” (2 Corinthians 4:17).  As I pointed out, these included arbitrary arrest, attempted lynching and transport accidents.  Things which would drive most mission workers to head for home on the first flight, if they hadn’t already been recalled by their HR departments.  So how come Paul was not perturbed by these challenges?  How could he be stoned and left for dead one day, and the next day go to the neighbouring town and carry on preaching the gospel (Acts 14:19-21)?

Paul had deep roots.  He was utterly convinced of God’s love for him despite such trials (Romans 8:38-39).  He was completely persuaded of the need for humanity to hear the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:16), and death held no fear for him because he knew what would happen to him after he died (Philippians 1:20-24).  This enabled him to keep his suffering in perspective – it was nothing compare to what Christ had suffered for him.

How do we develop these deep roots?  To use a sapling as an analogy, trees develop deep roots by going through hardship in the first place.  We know that we need to stake a young tree to stop it blowing over in the first place, but what most of us do not know is that if we stake it too tightly, it is stable and will not develop deep roots.  Only if it’s allowed to wave in the wind will its roots go deeper into the ground to provide more stability.  The more it shakes, the further the roots will go seeking rocks to hang onto.  For us, those rocks are God, and the great truths of our salvation.  When the storm strikes, our response should not be to doubt our calling, or to wonder why God did not help us when we needed him.  It should be to confess our trust in him despite our outward circumstances, as many of the psalms do.

In the psalms we read the thoughts of people going through great trials.  David on the run from a man trying to kill him (Psalm 7), or people taken into exile to a country where they find it hard to worship (Psalm 137).  Yet in many of the psalms which honestly cry out “Where are you God?” there are also great statements of faith and trust, such as in Psalm 13:

How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?

…but I have trusted in your love and my heart will rejoice in your salvation.

Even the 23rd psalm, a great favourite of many who suffer,  acknowledges the existence of the valley of the shadow of death, something to be afraid of, and enemies close at hand, at the same time as trusting in the comforting presence of the shepherd.  Indeed, if all were well, the sheep would not need the shepherd – it’s the very presence of danger and hardship that reminds the sheep of her vulnerability and makes her stay close to the shepherd.

This is why the psalms are a comfort for so many going through hardships – they do not ignore the tragedies and injustices of life, and confess God’s glory and faithfulness as a way to make sense of suffering.  In doing so, the psalmist reorientates himself back to trusting in God as he reconciles his belief in God with his difficult circumstance, either by confessing faith in the midst of adversity or by turning his accusation into a prayer for deliverance.  Having done this, he puts down deeper roots, finding greater stability and life-giving nutrients which will sustain him when the next disaster strikes:

He will be like a deep-rooted tree growing by a river:

It bears fruit in season and its leaves do not wither when there is drought.

What we can learn from daffodils

DaffodilsAt this time of year, daffodils are bursting into flower all over northern Europe.  In parks and gardens, fields and verges, their bright yellow heads bring cheer, and the promise of warmer, sunnier days after a cold, dark winter.  Year after year they poke their heads up, sometimes through snow, sometimes into golden sunshine.  Always welcome, they bring some joy into everyone’s life, whether in a drift of colour by a lake, or in a simple vase on the windowsill.

They flower for just a few weeks each year, but no gardener begrudges the space they take up.  Nobody thinks about what the daffodils do for the rest of the year, but most of their lifetime is spent underground, unseen and inactive.  In the summer their soil is parched by long hot days.  In the autumn they are drenched by rain.  In winter the soil around them freezes hard.  Yet despite these demanding conditions, they come up again in the spring and do their thing.

The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that life is rhythmical in the famous passage that starts “For everything there is a season” (Eccl 3:1).  The daffodil has a season for flowering, and three seasons for dormancy.  It seems to me like the farmer in Mark 4:26-29, who works hard during the season of sowing, then waits patiently for harvest, when he again works hard.

Which is completely at odds with our western, protestant work ethic view of fruitfulness.  We expect to be hard at work day after day, week after week, with little time taken to recharge the batteries except the occasional, scrambled holiday – when we’re often keeping up with work by email or social media.  Small wonder that many of us are stressed!  Spending nine months of the year sounds unproductive even to the laziest of us, but there is a good principle of regularly stopping and resting, to gain strength and vision for the next stage.

At Syzygy we advocate the practice of cultivating a rhythm of life.  It helps us to break the domination of a work-orientated mindset and allows us to restore the relationship with God which we may have lost through our business – rather like Martha beavering away in the kitchen for Jesus, when she could have been with Jesus.  So we suggest you look at the following areas:

  • Regular prayer.  Whether you consciously turn your face to God once an hour, or every three hours at the traditional monastic hours of prayer, it’s good to take active steps to remind ourselves of God’s presence with us throughout the day.
  • Sabbath.  How much do we make of the one day of rest each week?  Do we use it for worship and family?  Is the computer off?  Do we leave the emails unchecked?  And if we have to work on Sunday, as many of us with church responsibilities do, do we take a day off in lieu during the week?
  • Day of prayer.  Have you thought of taking one complete (working) day out every month to rest, reflect and pray.  And we don’t mean taking one Saturday off a month!  We mean in addition to other rest days, but this one has the specific purpose of reconnecting with God.
  • Retreat.  We’ve talked a lot about retreat before.  Every three months it’s good to take a few days away, to let go of the busyness which wraps itself around us, tune our hearts in to God and hear what he has to say to us about our relationship, and not our work.

Practising regular times of rest may seem crazy when we have so much work to do, but I am sure that the daffodils would not be so spectacular if they found themselves forced to flower all year round!