to letNot so long ago Syzygy was contacted by a mission worker who had spent several decades overseas in ministry.  With little remaining support from his ageing friends, and a regular contribution from a church he had been part of a long time previously, he had been able to survive in the field on his small income.  But now forced by ill health to return to the UK, he found himself homeless.  He couldn’t afford the rent on a flat until he qualified for benefits, and had no remaining money to buy somewhere.

There are many people in similar situations, whose time serving abroad has cost them everything, and with no remaining support are unable to find a home once they come ‘home’.  So somebody (probably Myles Wilson but I can’t find the quote in writing) has observed that:

The single best thing a mission worker can do to plan for their retirement is to buy a house before they go abroad.

Simple!  Buy a property, let it out, and use the rent to pay off the mortgage.  If you stay abroad for the 25 year life of the mortgage, you have a free home when you get back.  If you come back sooner, at least you have somewhere to stay while you get settled.

But letting is not without its challenges, and anyone considering it should read our Briefing Paper which looks at the pitfalls as well as the benefits.  One of the greatest challenges is actually getting a mortgage.  These days, banks are so risk averse that overseas mission workers, with no regular salary and no fixed UK abode, may find it hard to qualify for one.

So we’re delighted to be able to tell you about Kingdom Bank, run by Christians who understand the situation of mission workers.  Because of their knowledge of the missions world, they’re willing to be a little more flexible than other banks in considering how they secure the value of their investment in your property.  And they are actually keen to support you in your ministry by helping you get the right buy-to-let mortgage terms that work for you.

If you are interested in exploring this option, you can contact Kingdom Bank on 0115 921 7250, visit their website or email them at info@kingdombank.co.uk

Please remember the value of your investment can go down as well as up!

Disclaimer: please note that Syzygy is not recommending Kingdom Bank, merely pointing our readers in the direction of this service which may or may not be right for them.  Please take financial advice from a qualified advisor.

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!

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?

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.

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.

 

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.

 

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

We are all familiar with the concept of blocking.  Many of us grapple frequently with roadblocks.  Occasionally we have blocked drains.  Some of us suffer from blocked arteries.  A block stops something happening, and is generally considered a bad thing.  Particularly when they show up in our meetings, where sadly they are far too common.

I was on a course recently when the subject turned to people who block progress in meetings.  Much laughter ensued as we all regaled each other with stories of the different types of uncooperative individuals who, whether intentionally or simply as a by-product of their character, stop all progress at meetings.  And then this awful thought dawned on me – which one am I?

If so many of the meetings I’ve been chairing have been disrupted by someone, how often have I disrupted somebody else’s meeting?  How often have you?  And once you’ve realised which one you are, what can you do to make sure you avoid blocking behaviour?  In the missions world our meetings are often complicated enough – possibly led by people with no training or aptitude for chairing, many of the participants not speaking in their heart language, different cultures expressing themselves in different ways – that it can be hard enough to be effective without us bringing the unhelpful aspects of our personalities into the room too.

There are probably an endless number of the different types of blockers but here are a few you might recognise:

  • Diplomat – a person who’s so keen to avoid upsetting anybody that they end up talking a lot but not really going anywhere with it. Solution: You have an opinion, it does no harm to share it!
  • Reluctant participant – if we don’t really want to be in a meeting, we let people know. We may not be paying attention, using social media, or answering emails.  Solution: Pay attention and it will be over quicker!
  • Butterfly – this sort of mind happily touches down on the matter in hand for a few moments, before fluttering off to somewhere else. They continually throw out random suggestions which may take the meeting off on a completely different trajectory.  Solution: Concentrate!
  • Unprepared participant – these people come to the meeting without having bothered to read the sheaf of briefing notes. Solution: Respect others by not wasting their time explaining things to you.
  • NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”!) Nimbys are very defensive of their own territory, and will block developments that are of value to the agency if they adversely affect the Nimby’s ministry/team/personal opportunities.  Solution: Learn to see the bigger picture!
  • Campaigner – sometimes we have a fixation that there is only one thing that needs to be done to put the world to rights, and we bring it up at every opportunity even if everyone’s heard it before. Solution: Get over it!
  • Joker – some people can’t resist using humour, and the right amount in the right place can be just what is needed to lighten the atmosphere. But too much simply becomes a distraction.  Solution: Keep quiet!
  • Show off – some people love an audience, and a captive one is even better. But this may not be the right place to grandstand all your achievements.  Solution: Stay humble!
  • Bully – belittling and demeaning others in order to get your own way is not negotiating – it is bullying. If other people leave a meeting hurt by what you’ve said about them, you’re a bully.  Solution: Deal with your personal inadequacies somewhere else!

I am finding that asking myself a few simple questions before opening my big mouth can help contribute to a better meeting experience for everyone.  Asking myself questions like: “Is what I’m about to say going to move the meeting on?”,  “Have I already had my share of time?”, “Am I going to unnecessarily exasperate people?” can lead to me talking less, but saying more.

Those of you who know me will be looking down this list saying to yourselves “That’s him, that’s him….”  But let me ask you a more important question: which one are you?

prayJ O Fraser, missionary to China with OMF in the early part of the 20th century*, learnt much about prayer while reaching out to the Lisu people, coming to realize the vital part that the prayers of those back in the UK had to play in seeing fruit in his labours. To his main prayer support team he wrote:

I am not asking you just to give ‘help’ in prayer as a sort of side line, but I am trying to roll the main responsibility of this prayer warfare on you. I want you to take the burden of these people upon your shoulders. I want you to wrestle with God for them.

We are currently on ‘home assignment’.  One of the highlights has been visiting 3 prayer groups which are so kindly praying regularly for us.  We’ve been touched, humbled and blessed meeting with them. One of these groups has met in some form for 60 years and another for 40 years!  Two of the groups adopted us after we’d left the UK and met us for the first time recently.  They have faithfully followed our news and when we met together asked us great questions and prayed fervently.  They were precious times.  Reflecting back over the last two years we’ve become more aware of the spiritual battle we’re in and recognize more than ever the need to have people interceding both for us and the people we’re reaching out to.

If you’re in a prayer group or praying regularly for cross-cultural workers be encouraged that your prayers really have an impact.  Keep going!

If you’re not in such a group, could you join one or start one up?  Many mission organizations have prayer groups scattered around the country.

If you’re a mission worker make sure you’re sending specific prayer requests to your church or prayer groups regularly and let them know of answered prayer, something we’re often prone to forget.

OMF have a helpful booklet, ‘How to Pray for Missionaries’ and this blog post also gives some great points for prayer: http://seagospel.net/seven-things-to-pray-for-missionaries/

One final word from J.O. Fraser:

Paul may plant and Apollos water, but it is God who gives the increase; and this increase can be brought down from heaven by believing prayer, whether offered in China or in England. . . . If this is so, then Christians at home can do as much for foreign missions as those actually on the field. . . . What I covet more than anything else is earnest, believing prayer.

pray

IMG_20160805_091801Over the summer, I had a curious and (for me) unusual experience: I got lost.  No, it wasn’t the occasion when I was on a mountain in low cloud, when I had compass, map and GPS and was able to navigate the terrain easily despite not being able to see the landmarks.  It was on a lowish moor, under clear skies, when I could see the nearby lake and the town beside it.  But the path had disappeared.

Soon I found myself wading through bog, scrambling up rocks, pushing through heather, and fording streams to try to get to my destination.  Yet the whole time I knew where I was, but couldn’t find the way to where I wanted to be.

I felt on later reflection that the entire situation was symbolic of what we have been discussing in the last two blogs: it is possible to know exactly where you are, while being equally unsure whether you ought to be there.  Lost and not lost.  Which raises an interesting question: is it possible to be lost with God?

If we are walking with God, doing our best daily to put our hand in his hand, our feet where his feet have trod, to listen to his voice and follow the sound, can we ever really be lost?  Even in the midst of transition, when all we know is that we’re leaving one place and moving to another, possibly completely unknown, we cannot be truly lost.  God knows where we are, which direction we are facing and where we are going.

Which are all things we may be uncertain of.  Yet in our confusion and doubt we must trust the shepherd, whose gentle voice we have come to know, and even if we have no idea where we are, trust that he knows.  He is quite capable of turning us around, moving us in a different direction, or rescuing us should we really need it.  Just as Thomas Merton wrote:

Therefore I will trust in you always, though I may seem to be lost.

 

Walking in God's footsteps?

Walking in God’s footsteps?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My Lord God,

I have no idea where I am going.

I do not see the road ahead of me.

I cannot know for certain where it will end.

Nor do I really know myself,

and the fact that I think I am following Your will

does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please You

does in fact please You.

And I hope that I have that desire

in all that I am doing.

And I know that if I do this,

You will lead me by the right road

although I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust You always,

though I may seem to be lost

and in the shadow of death,

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

and will never leave me

to face my perils alone.

IMG_20160812_084512One of the (many) challenges single mission workers face is finding resources to help them in their challenge to live a rich and fulfilled life without a life partner.  Sometimes their perception of a huge hole in their life where their life-partner should be can become so overwhelming that it dominates every aspect of their life, and often there is little in the way of resources to help them refocus their attention on the amazing possibilities and opportunities of being single.

Now Syzygy has partnered with Member Care Media to produce a series of 5 short podcasts which include some essential teaching for single mission workers.  We hope that these introductions to material shared more fully in our regular retreats for singles at Penhurst Retreat Centre will help single mission workers thrive in their singleness and learn to see it as a blessing rather than a challenge to be overcome, or even better, ended.

The podcasts can be found on the singles page of Member Care Media, and the subject matter includes:

  • An introduction to singleness and why it is a challenge for so many mission workers
  • Biblical characters who were successfully single
  • A Biblical perspective on why singleness isn’t intrinsically bad
  • Unpacking the ‘gift’ of singleness
  • Strategies for a fulfilling single life

It is our hope that these resources will be used by single mission workers worldwide, to help them get the most out of their singleness.

Another resource we produced a couple of years ago is the book Single Mission, which we believe is the first book by single mission workers about single mission workers for single mission workers.  Many agencies have used it as part of their training and orientation – and not only for their singles!  It has been greatly appreciated by married people too, who have used it to learn about the challenges of being single later in life which they may not have experienced.  Why not try it out?

 

RioMo Farah is not a Christian, yet in Rio on Saturday night he demonstrated something that we all could learn a lesson from – he got up again and carried on.

We all know what it is to fall.  We make mistakes ourselves, or like Mo, we get innocently tripped up by life.  Sometimes somebody deliberately trips us up.  But however it happens, we find ourselves on the floor.

Dazed, confused, hurt, our instinct can be to give up, thinking it’s all over.  Maybe we lash out, to try to regain some pride by implicating others, or look around for sympathy to make us feel better.

But Mo showed us what the Christian’s discipline should teach us: don’t mess around, just get up and start running again.  In a 100m race that would not be possible.  But in a distance race, there is time to make up lost ground.  And the Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint.

The Bible is full of people who fell.  In a temper, Moses killed a man.  Out of fear, Peter denied he even knew Jesus.  Abraham, the man of faith, took events into his own hands rather than trusting in God.  But that isn’t what they’re remembered for, because they didn’t let failure become the final word.  They carried on.  There are many others who tripped up, but finished well.  Falling isn’t final.  It has been rightly observed:

Falling isn’t failure.  Failure is not getting up again.

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hudson Taylor

Hudson Taylor

“God’s work, done in God’s way, will never lack God’s supply.”

This quote from Hudson Taylor (1832-1905, missionary to China, founder of the China Inland Mission, now OMF International) is highly likely to be quoted in any discussion about raising funds for mission, and is usually used to trump any other argument.

It is generally taken to mean that if you’re doing what God wants, the money will appear.  But even worse than its overuse and misapplication is the fact that this striking quote is never challenged.  It is given the status of a verse from the gospels.  Hudson Taylor said it, so it must be true.

But is it really true?  It certainly doesn’t feel true to the many thousands of mission workers worldwide struggling to pay living expenses.  So if we believe this verse, we are then forced to conclude that either we don’t have enough faith to believe God for his provision, or that we’re getting something wrong.  This can inspire us to review our calling, our methods and our attitudes towards fundraising, or it can propel us into a spiral of self-doubt, lack of confidence and a crisis of faith leading to our unnecessary departure from the mission field.

If our funding isn’t coming in, perhaps we do need to question our calling.  When was the last time you sat down and really prayed over what God wants you to do with your life?  When did you last discuss this seriously with your church or mission leadership?  Are you conscious of a sense of calling to what you’re doing now?

It’s also worth reviewing how much money you really need.  Perhaps the funding is not coming in because our agency is asking us to live a Western-standard lifestyle where we could easily make do with less.  For example, we may not have enough money to buy an air-conditioned 4×4 to get us through the Cairo traffic in comfort, but we may be able to pay for a bus ticket where we can share the journey with crowds of people we can start to build relationships with.  But then of course we have to offset the stress of travel against our ability to survive in a foreign culture.  What would Hudson Taylor do?

In many circles today it is tantamount to heresy to question the aphorisms of the great Hudson Taylor.  But despite his phenomenal role in the world of missions he was still a flawed human who made mistakes.  Perhaps, as with many giants of the faith, he assumed that what applied to him in his relationship with God, also applied to others.  There is no disputing that he had an incredible gift of faith to believe for and pray in God’s funding.  But not all of us have that gift.  It is good to be inspired to faith by his example, but not to be crushed by failing to live up to it.

We should never forget that while God is theoretically able to provide for all our needs, he keeps all his money in other people’s pockets, which severely compromises his cashflow.  If the people looking after his money are not obedient to him in emptying their pockets for world mission, many faithful mission workers may not experience the fullness of his provision.

Taylor famously made a point of never asking for money.  But D L Moody, also a giant of the faith, was explicit in asking people to empty their pockets, and he is seldom quoted on the matter of fundraising despite his notable success.  Perhaps we should take him as a role model instead of Taylor, and take the liberty to qualify Taylor’s famous quote: as long as his people give faithfully.”

RetirementFollowing on from our last two blogs focussing on transition, today’s blog focusses on retirement, which is also a transition.  We already have a blog for mission workers preparing to retire, and in fact we have an entire guide to retiring for them, so today we’re going to focus on how church can understand the nature of retirement for mission workers and effectively support them through this transition.

Every day people retire.  It’s such a common event that like many other transitions in life – birth, starting school, graduating, marriage, divorce and being widowed – it is an experience so common to humanity that we often overlook the potentially traumatic nature of this transition.  People often need support through the retirement process to help them come to terms with feelings like:

  • I’m no longer a productive member of society
  • I’ve lost my identity
  • Nobody values me
  • I’m just waiting for God
  • How do I fill the emptiness?

These may equally apply to mission workers, who also have to cope with the challenges of becoming part of a society they may not have lived in for decades, and which can feel very alien to them even though they feel they ought to belong.  They may have to cope with living without a sense of vocation, and need to integrate themselves into a church for which overseas mission is an optional extra in their range of ministries instead of the driving passion that the mission worker feels.  They may be struggling with guilt over leaving behind a struggling church or a needy people group.  All these factors can contribute to spiritual or emotional challenges which can make a retiring mission worker quite dysfunctional.

So what can their supporters do to help?

  • Understand that they are not naturally unhelpful; they’re just struggling with a major life transition
  • Introduce them to mission workers who have already successfully transitioned into retirement
  • Find a way for them to have a significant role in the church, without overburdening them with responsibility until they feel ready for it
  • Make sure they have a thorough debrief
  • Listen to their stories sympathetically even when you’ve heard them many times over
  • Recognise that they’re not really critical of the church; they’re just struggling to adapt to a different way of doing things
  • Help them navigate the challenges of benefit/tax/housing bureaucracy
  • Pay for them to go on a ‘Finishing Well’ retreat at Penhurst Retreat Centre
  • Provide pastoral support/coaching/mentoring/counselling as appropriate
  • Encourage them to continue to support mission work through their sending agency
  • Be practical about providing assistance with daily living
  • Talk them through things that have changed in your country since they last visited

And above all, please try to remember that they are (probably!) not naturally difficult people.  They are grieving, hurting people who are struggling to find their feet in a culture they don’t feel at home in, who will need support for several years before they really settle in.  It’s rather like the reverse of the process they started when they first went abroad, and the patience and support we gave them when they first went to a foreign country is exactly what they need now.

You can find more recommendations on how churches can support their mission workers effectively in our Guide for Churches.

 

IMG_20160715_163854Recently I visited a village I had lived in when I was a child.  It was several decades since I had last been there, but I hadn’t expected much to have changed.  It’s a sleepy little village on the way to nowhere.  Our house was still there, though the big elm trees in the front garden had fallen victim do Dutch elm disease many years ago.  The two churches and my primary school were still there, the latter extensively rebuilt, the former completely untouched.  But everything else had changed.

The shopping parade had been converted into houses.  The post office had disappeared, together with the pillar box where I used to lean out of our car’s passenger window to post letters while my father drove past without stopping.  The large house at the bottom of our garden where the bank manager lived had become a housing estate.  Not even the village pub had survived.

I came away with the sad feeling that it’s a place I ought to have recognised, but didn’t feel at home in.  There were enough landmarks to orientate me, but not enough familiar sights for me to feel I still belonged.

This feeling may be familiar to many of us who have gone back to try to regain hold of the past, only to find it just beyond their reach.  This is what many mission workers feel when they return to their ‘home’ country, often after many years abroad, to find it has changed beyond recognition and they don’t fit in.  Many of us end up feeling more at home in our country of service, and wish we could go back – in fact some of us make so many return visits that we end up damaging our re-entry into our ‘home’ country, because we never really let go of the other one.

It’s an alarming feeling to be so disorientated, particularly because it’s unexpected.  We call this Reverse Culture Shock – and it’s a shock because we are often completely unprepared for it.  We prepare hard to go and live in a culture which is different to the one we grew up in, but we often fail to train to go and live in a culture which we think ought to be the same, but is different.

We have plenty of advice for mission workers in other blogs and in our Guide to Re-entry, but churches and families too need to understand this.  It’s not that returning mission workers aren’t delighted to see you, but so much has changed that they need time – often several years – to find their feet in their new ‘home’.  The reason they talk so boringly about where they used to serve is that it feels familiar to them, and they have a sense of belonging there which they haven’t yet found at ‘home’.  The reason they may be restless and grumpy is that they had a significant ministry there and haven’t yet developed one here.  And where they served, they were surrounded by other people driven by a passion for taking the gospel to the nations, and here they can’t quite understand why your new car, house extension or promotion are quite so significant to you.  Which can easily make them come across as arrogant, impatient, or judgmental.  They would hate to know you thought that, but it’s easy for them to create that impression.  So please be patient with them.  Friendship means sticking with them even when you don’t feel like it.  Allow them to talk.  Help them work out how to belong.  Connect them with other mission workers who’ve been through the same thing.  And please connect them to Syzygy, because we can help them – and you – battle through this to find a place where they can really feel at home.

Sadly, many mission workers struggling with re-entry lose friends in the process.  Some become estranged from family members and others end up leaving their churches and try, often without success, to find a church where they feel they fit.

We can never go back… but we can always go on.

Kate on a bridgeIt has rightly been observed that the only thing that doesn’t change in the life of a mission worker is the presence of change!  Our lives are constantly changing as we transition between different countries, cultures, roles, relationships, agencies, cities, ages, homes, family settings and churches.  Yet for all the frequency of change, most of us do not deal with it well.

Change destabilises us emotionally.  It removes the certainties that we rely on to maintain emotional equilibrium.  We don’t know where to shop.  We don’t understand the language.  We’re not sure if people are staring at us simply because we look different, or because we’ve done something terribly wrong.  Sometimes we recognise and prepare for the big things that change, but often it’s the little ones that trip us up.  We can cope with eating different food three times a day but really miss our favourite brand of coffee.

Transition could be likened to crossing a wide river from firm land on one side to firm land on the other.  We might cross in a rickety raft or on a rope bridge, but we seldom cruise across on a concrete motorway bridge.  The journey feels scary and we become aware of our vulnerability as the safety of the familiar is swept away.

There are several things we can do to make this transition easier.  First, we need to recognise it for what it is – a big change that may well be uncomfortable even though it’s worth making.  We can express our feelings to our close supporters – partly so that we can acknowledge our feelings, partly so we can find prayer and support.  We can name our fears so that they have less hold on us.  We can discuss where we are in this process with other people making the transition with us, so that they know where we are on this journey, and why we can’t necessarily share their enthusiasm or sadness.

Second, we need to say goodbye.  Not only to friends, colleagues and community, but also places we won’t visit again: the bedroom where your first son was born; the church you founded; your favourite holiday destination.  And also say goodbye to the roles we once had, because we may be going from a place where we had significance and honour to somewhere we are just another stupid foreigner.  We need to leave well, not running away from unfinished business or leaving behind broken relationships.

Third, we need to be thankful for what God has done.  It may not have worked out quite how we expected, and there may well have been pain and disappointment on our journey.  But despite the challenging situations, we have also experienced God’s provision and blessings.  We have learned things and we have borne fruit.  We have started or maintained projects, or maybe closed things down, but each time we may have been part of God’s plan, even if it was only the part which makes us look a little bit more like him.

Fourth, we need some sort of ritual to embody the transition.  Research has suggested that people make transition more effectively when it is supported by rites of passage of some sort.  Some traditional societies make great importance of using ritual in transitions such as coming of age and marriage, coming and going, but we have lost much of this in western culture.  Having rituals of leaving and joining, such as commissioning services, goodbye meals, welcome ceremonies can be an important part of making as successful transition, so don’t avoid them out of embarrassment or false humility.  They also give old friends a chance to say their goodbyes, and new friends a chance to be welcoming.

And finally, let us remember that in all the changes of this life let us remember the One who does not change at all – our God!  No matter where we have been, he has been with us even if his presence has been hard to see at times, and wherever we go, he is already there.  Psalm 139 reminds us of this:

Where could I go to escape from your Spirit or from your sight?

If I were to climb up to the highest heavens, you would be there.

If I were to dig down to the world of the dead, you would also be there.

Suppose I had wings like the dawning day and flew across the ocean,

Even then your powerful arm would guide and protect me.

Or suppose I said, “I’ll hide in the dark until night comes to cover me over” –

But you see in the dark because daylight and dark are all the same to you.

 

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.

Getting to know you well?

Getting to know you well?

Last week’s reflection on the importance of being with Jesus can also be a reflection on our mission training practices.  When we look to recruit new mission workers we can so easily focus on their skills and abilities, but overlook their character, which is transformed by the amount of time they have been with Jesus.  It’s fairly easy to recognise what people can do, but how do we get to know who they really are when they’re not putting on their best performance at an interview?

Once upon a time some mission agencies invited candidates to work in their sending offices for a number of months before they go, so that they could really be known.  One or two agencies still do spend time with them immediately prior to departure, but often only a couple of weeks.  We may talk about journeying with them through the application process, but that’s often a series of short meetings, not real time together.  Agencies often rely on the Bible Colleges to be part of this process, but the multi-year residential model is increasingly under pressure so this is unlikely to satisfy.  References from churches can often help, but likewise, much of the time that a church leader spends with their candidates will be in a ministry context, or in meetings, and not necessarily getting to know who they really are.

As a sending team of churches, family, friends and agency we need to make sure we really get to know people.  Perhaps it’s not practical for our mission mobilisers to share their lives for three years with candidates, but can we move towards at least having people to stay for a weekend?  Churches – how much time are you spending with your candidates on a personal level, getting to know what really makes them tick?  And can we establish some intentional mentoring, whereby our candidates form relationships with mature believers, whether mission workers or not, so that their lives can be opened up to some critical influencing and constructive support?  How do we build around mission workers a sending community who really get to know them well, putting less stress on an agency to do all the decision making?  And ultimately, how can we together discern whether people really have been with Jesus?  Let’s really walk together through the application process.