The refugee issue

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the road to Jericho

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

There is one small but significant word which is often overlooked when reading – and preaching – on the story of the Good Samaritan: ‘down’.  In Luke 10:30 Jesus makes it perfectly clear which way the traveller was going: down.  ‘Down’ is repeated in verse 31 – the priest was going down the road too.

This does not immediately come to the attention of English speakers since we customarily use the expression ‘down the road’ to mean ‘along’.  But in this instance it is topographically specific: ‘down from Jerusalem to Jericho’.  And that road is indeed a downward route, which drops over a kilometre from 754 metres above sea level to 258 feet below.

Yet it is not the topography which is the point being made in the specific use of the word ‘down’, it is the spiritual implications.  Why were the priest, and by inference the Levite too, going down?  At that time, it was common for many of the priests to live in Jericho, with its abundant water supply, warmer climate and good supply of fresh fruit and vegetables, than in Jerusalem.  They would go up and stay in Jerusalem while it was their turn to serve in the temple, and then return home.  So these two had just finished whatever their ministry called for them to do, and were returning to their ‘normal’ life.  They were off duty.

The unspoken criticism of them is that their religious activity had not had any impact on their relationship with their fellow human beings.  They should have had compassion, but it took an outsider who wouldn’t even have gone to the temple to show them how to live with compassion on those less fortunate.  And ‘compassion’, in Biblical usage, does not mean the bland sense of “oh, what a shame” that it conveys in contemporary English, but means “to be gutwrenched”, so eaten up with feeling that we get a physical response to what we see and hear.

This speaks to those of us who find beggars coming to our church premises, or trip over the homeless sleeping under the lych-gate.  If our relationship with God counts for anything, it should be working itself out in our compassion for the needy.

And so it does, in many cases.  Churches are largely the impetus behind food banks in this country.  Many people working for overseas development agencies are Christians.  Many of those agencies have Christian roots.  And many of us give sacrificially to these agencies, making up the lion’s share of emergency donations in the UK.

But we can easily become weary of doing good.  Particularly when it hits closer to home.  How compassionate am I when a homeless person starts sleeping in the lobby of my block of flats?  How much do we care about the plight of Syrian refugees if compassion means Britain letting into our country hundreds of thousands of them like Germany has done, and having to build more homes, schools and hospitals (at taxpayer expense)?  When push comes to shove, our compassion hardens.

Next week, we’ll be looking at some Christian responses to the current refugee crisis, but in the meantime let us remind ourselves of the words of St Paul:

Let us not grow weary of doing good.

(2 Thessalonians 3:13)

Featured Ministry: Open Doors

hist_beetle_driveIn 1955, a young Dutchman went to a youth congress in communist Poland carrying hundreds of Christian tracts to distribute.  During his visit he discovered an isolated evangelical church struggling to retain its morale in the face of communist persecution.  The young man, now known throughout the world by the name ‘Brother Andrew’, embarked on a life travelling to difficult and dangerous places, smuggling Bibles to a needy church, inspired by the words of Revelation 3:2 –

Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die.

Driving his battered VW Beetle all over the Soviet bloc, Brother Andrew smuggled Bibles into communist eastern Europe.  But his exploits did not stop there.  He pioneered work into China, and then the Middle East and parts of central Africa.  Open Doors, the organisation he founded, has gone on to print Bibles, broadcast the Gospel by radio, coordinate international prayer ministry, keep the church informed about persecution  and become well-known for delivering practical support to the suffering church.  They also advocate on behalf of the oppressed, and their annual World Watch List is a must-have for Christians seeking information about how to pray for countries where Christians are oppressed.

60 years on from Brother Andrew’s first journey, Open Doors has become a worldwide agency working in over 60 countries through nearly 1000 workers – most of them national partners, because in the places they work people who are obviously foreign can’t always be effective.  Many of them work in challenging and dangerous places, training up new generations of church leaders and equipping the church to survive in the most hostile places on the planet.

All this is true to the adventurous spirit of Brother Andrew, who is famous for pointing out that there are no countries which are closed to the gospel.  There are of course countries from which it may be hard for Christians who preach the gospel to come back alive, but Brother Andrew has proved throughout his escapades in places like Palestine, Iraq, China and the Soviet Union, that God really can shut the eyes of the authorities and open doors.

Today tens of thousands of suffering Christians are supported and encouraged by Open Doors’ campaigns of aid and encouragement.  You can read more about these on their website, where you can find more details on how to pray for them and to join in the ministry.  As the UK CEO of Open Doors, Lisa Pearce said at a recent celebration of 60s of Open Doors’ ministry:

There isn’t a persecuted church and a free church – there is one church.

Or as St Paul put it: “If one part of the body suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).  Let’s be inspired by the example of Brother Andrew and his many colleagues to relieve the suffering and pray for the parts that suffer.

The Parable of the Oppressors?

1354359_fifty_pounds_2The western church has traditionally interpreted the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 19:11-27) as an encouragement to use wisely the gifts that God has given us, though we usually play down the bit about the wrath of God poured out on the servant who doesn’t.  As we observed two weeks ago, this fits in neatly with our protestant work ethic – our performance demonstrates our salvation, and God is looking for a return on his investment in us.  But are there other ways of interpreting this parable when seen through the eyes of other cultures?

When workers’ groups in Latin America looked at this parable they came up with a very different interpretation, because their perspective is different.  In Europe, theology has traditionally been done by wealthy, white, educated men.  But the worker’s groups were the opposite: poor, uneducated, marginalised people who recognised in this story a situation only too relevant to their own situation.  They pointed out that in an agrarian economy anybody who was returning 1000% profit (Luke 19:16) was clearly exploiting someone, and was therefore a bad guy.  Only an evil and corrupt king would commend him.  By their reckoning, the only person who comes out of this story with any credit is the one who buried his talents – because he didn’t oppress anybody.

No pressure then...

No pressure then…

Most Europeans find this interpretation hard to accept, but possibly this is only because we are so accustomed to our traditional interpretation – that God has given us certain talents and expects us to make the most of them… or else.  Which, when you think about it, doesn’t really square with our idea of the totally unmerited grace of God.

The marginalised South Americans who developed their own understanding of this parable would be far closer to the culture of Jesus’ audience than we are.  And while there may be flaws in their interpretation (is Jesus really telling us it’s good just to bury our treasure and do nothing with it?) there are also flaws in ours – is God really an exacting man, reaping where he did not sow, and punishing those who don’t perform well enough?

We also face the challenge that the word ‘talent’ has a double meaning in English.  We understand it to mean a gift or ability, which is stretching the original text too far, as a talent was in Bible times an enormous sum of money.  Luke uses the equivalent word ‘mina’ (an ancient middle-eastern currency unit), which emphasises that there is a financial context to this parable.  A mina was worth about 9 months wages for an agricultural worker – a phenomenal amount of spending money for the sort of people Jesus was talking to.  A talent was the Greco-Roman equivalent.

Jesus is in fact basing this parable on a real life incident involving the king of Galilee, Herod Antipas.  When his father Herod the Great died shortly after Jesus was born, his will had to be confirmed by the Emperor, so all his sons scurried off to Rome to persuade Augustus to grant their claims.  The Jewish people also sent a delegation asking the Emperor to get rid of Herod’s dynasty altogether!

Which raises a relevant question:

Would Jesus really use Herod as a metaphor for God?

We naturally assume that the authority figure in any given parable – a king, a judge, a landowner – stands for God.  But that’s not necessarily so.  There can be the very odd occasion when the authority figure is an anti-type of God – see for example Luke 18:2-8 where the judge is clearly contrasted with God.  This parable is designed to contrast the oppressive behaviour of the king with that of God.  The king commends his stewards who exploited the poor by saying “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

SheepIt is interesting to note that immediately after this parable Matthew places the judgement of the sheep and the goats, which also features a reward for performance.  But in that story, the slaves are not expected to make a huge profit out of the people, but to be generous to them.  They were expected to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and visit the sick and imprisoned.  Is it possible that Matthew has set up a deliberate contrast between two ways of behaving – a worldly way embodied by an evil human king, and the heavenly way following the righteous God-King?

This understanding frees us from the pernicious pressure to perform in order to earn our salvation (or at least our reward) and allows us to love generously and freely, in a way that brings hope to the marginalised.  Over history, faced with the choice of being the oppressor or siding with the oppressed, the church has at different times done both.  Institutional church has often been the oppressor, while many courageous, counter-cultural individuals like Francis of Assisi and Mother Theresa have met Christ in the poor and downtrodden as they served them.

Which course will you take?

Cooking with Poo

img-poo_04Most of us are pretty adventurous when it comes to food, and often have stories to tell which shock those who’ve not had the opportunity to have their culinary preferences stretched to the limit on a bush tucker trial.  So Syzygy is proud to be promoting an event which will attract a lot of interest for the exquisite food.

We have talked before on this blog about the remarkable ministry of Urban Neighbours of Hope in Klong Toey, the largest slum in Bangkok.  One of the people whose lives has been affected by their work is Poo, who ran into financial difficulties when the small catering outlet she ran from her home couldn’t make money due to rampant inflation.  The UNOH team helped her start a cooking school which has subsequently become what TripAdvisor has called

One of the best-rated activities in Bangkok

Which is quite an accolade when you think of all the exciting things you can do in Bangkok!

PooNow you have the opportunity to taste this remarkable Thai food for yourself without leaving the UK, to learn how to cook it and to hear more about the amazing work of UNOH at the same time.  We are running two events, both on 4th April at Rowheath Pavilion in Birmingham.

Starting at 10.30 am and running through to 3.00 (ideal for people picking up kids from school) there will be a cookery school taught in person by Poo.  This is an opportunity for up to 50 people to cook genuine Thai food for themselves.  Then at 7.30 in the evening there will be an interactive cookery demonstration by Poo, which will also feature stories from Klong Toey, an opportunity for people from the audience to join Poo in cooking a dish, and an open Q&A time.  The cookery school costs just £30 per person, and the cookery demonstration is £10.

You can find out more about Poo on her own website.  If you can’t make it to Birmingham to meet her, there are events in other parts of the country listed here.

We speak from experience when we recommend Poo’s cooking: the intrepid Syzygy team went all the way to Thailand to sample it, and came away delighted.  We can’t wait to find out how she does it!

Featured ministry: Koshish Nepal

KoshishMatrika grew up the youngest of 3 brothers in a small village in the hilly Nepali district of Gorkha.  He attended a mission school and by the age of 15 had shown himself to be one of the top students, with a bright future ahead of him.  Then he was struck by illness:  pounding headaches, pains throughout his body, choking sensations, and constant tiredness.

As months passed, even writing became an overwhelming task and by the time he took his high school leaving certificate he barely achieved a passing grade.  Despite suffocating feelings of hopelessness and failure, including an impending sense of death, Matrika pressed on to take a 2 year certificate in forestry.  His mother was very religious and as he struggled through his illness, Matrika often considered what lay after death, but he found little appealing in the options presented by his mother’s Hindu faith.  By then in his early twenties, Matrika remembered his missionary teacher and a missionary doctor whom he knew, and how they had endured many difficulties living as foreigners in Gorkha.  Speaking with the doctor, and later reading a Christian pamphlet, Matrika found the comfort he was looking for and turned to Jesus Christ with his life.

Souce: (www.sxc.hu)

Despite his new-found faith, Matrika continued to struggle with his illness.  His sense of hopelessness and extreme anxiety led to his isolation from friends and neighbours who saw him as a lazy, good-for-nothing youth who would do better to pull himself together and get a job.  It was only when a neighbour  suggested he might see a psychiatrist at the nearby mission hospital that Matrika finally got an explanation for his crippling illness.

10 years after it first struck him, Matrika was diagnosed with unipolar depression.  He spent the next 5 years coming to terms with his illness and investigating treatment options as he tried to cope with the heavy side-effects of anti-depressants.  Matrika prayed fervently that God would heal him so that he could become independent of these medications, but that did not happen; in his own words “it is good, it reminds me of my true situation”.

While starting work as a forester, Matrika continued to ponder his situation and that of the many other people he encountered in daily life whom he could see were also struggling with mental illness.  He had a vision from God in which he saw a channel of water carrying love to dry, desert banks, but wondered how God could use him when he himself was so weak in his own mental health.  He now understands that “having this pain in my own life allows me to have not sympathy, but empathy from my heart” for others with mental illness.  After a few periods of working with mental health NGO’s, Matrika enrolled for a Bachelors in Social Work.

photo_98706From the earliest days of his own treatment, Matrika has made an effort to respond practically to the needs of those with mental illness.  Keshar was such a person: a young Christian man with a steady job at a hospital, he became ill with schizophrenia and, like so many, ended up living alone on the street.  He was distinctly recognizable, expressing his mental isolation in the wearing of layers and layers of stinking rags so that he looked like a perverse Michelin man.

Matrika, armed with the dual confidence of his training and God’s calling, as well as the financial support of a woman involved in Keshar’s childhood, stepped in with appropriate legal measures to have Keshar taken into residential care for the administration of his medicines.  Several years on, Keshar lives a simple but contented life as part of Matrika’s family.  A member of the church choir in his youth, he now writes folk songs that raise awareness about mental illness.

In August 2008, one month before he passed his final exams, he established and registered Koshish Nepal, a national mental health self-help organisation.  “Koshish” is the Nepali word for “making an effort”; the organisation works in advocacy and awareness-raising to have mental health recognized as an essential element of overall health, to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness and to have treatments included in the country’s primary health care system.  A defining feature of the organisation is its inclusion in its governance and membership of those who themselves are living with mental illness.

awareness1Koshish continues to be involved in the rescue of mentally ill persons who are imprisoned by their families or living homeless on the street.  In 2011, Koshish opened a transit home for homeless women with mental illness, where they receive treatment and are stabilized before efforts to reintegrate them back to their families and communities.  Koshish continues to advocate for people with mental illness and last year Matrika won the prestigious Dr Guislain Award as recognition for his efforts.

You can read more about the work of Koshish on their website – http://koshishnepal.org/ – and donate to the charity through the website of the United Methodist Church.

This article was written by Deirdre Zimmerman, a long-term development worker in Nepal.

What is a ‘calling’?

He Qi: The Burning Bush

One thing that all sending agencies agree on is that before serving God overseas long-term, there must be a sense of calling.  We may make exceptions for short-term trips as they are sometimes seen as exploratory, rather like putting a toe in the bathwater to see if it’s too hot, but before making a long term commitment, there has to be some sort of calling.

But what exactly is a calling, and how do we know when we have it?

A sense of calling  is the deep-seated conviction that God has a task for you, or a place for you to be.  It is essential if you’re going to be effective in your ministry; it motivates and energises you, and sustains you through the difficult times.  Yet it’s also something that’s extremely hard to agree on.    It varies from person to person, and depends on how they relate to God, and on the type of church they’re part of.  Some people feel they have prophetic words spoken to them, others have a vague sense that something is right, or a deep empathy for a place or a people.  Who is right?

Well, they all are, because a calling is as unique and personal to you as your relationship with God.  But let’s look as some of the Biblical models of calling and see what we can learn from them.

Abraham (Genesis 11:31-12:3) is given a cryptic call in which he is told to go, but is not told where, although it appears that they originally had the intention of going to Canaan when they set out from Ur.  Cross-referencing to Acts 7:2-3 it appears that this is the renewal of a call originally given in Ur, and that Abraham had got stuck in Haran – possibly because his father did not want to move any further.  Sometimes we need to hear our call again as circumstances can cause us to lose sight of it.  Sometimes a call is on our heart for many years before we can fulfil it.

Moses (Exodus 3) of course received a most spectacular call, involving a fireproof shrub and a lengthy conversation with God, of the type for which he would become famous.  Yet the key to it all was his own curiosity – on seeing the burning bush, he went to investigate.  If we are aware of what is going on around us, and are open to inspiration, God can get our attention.

Isaiah (Is 6:1-8) made a devotional response to God.  He did not have any idea what God was planning, but out of his profound awareness of being forgiven, his worship overflowed in a desire to serve.

Elisha (1 Kings 19:15-21) had a call which was adoptive.  God sent Elijah to anoint him and Elisha accepted.  He started out being a manservant to Elijah (2 Kings 3:11) but due to his zeal took over his mentor’s ministry and became one of Israel’s greatest prophets.

Saul & Barnabas (Acts 13:1-4).  Someone in a leaders’ meeting had a prophetic word telling them to consecrate Saul and Barnabas for ‘the work to which I have called them’.  There seems to be no further divine direction, so we must conclude that they were already mulling over the idea of a mission to Cyprus and this was confirmation.

Ezra (Ez 7:6, 9-10) went to teach in a Bible college.  It seems that he went out of a sense of personal conviction, yet it is clear that ‘the good hand of his God was upon him’.

Nehemiah (Neh1:2-5) received a call which was both locational and vocational – he had a specific task to do.  But his call arose from his compassion for a specific locality.  We should not underestimate the significance of how concerned we may feel for a particular people, group or place.

Philip (Acts 8:26-40), an accomplished evangelist, is told by an angel to go to somewhere specific.  When he gets there, he is prophetically given further instructions.

Paul and his team (Acts 2:6-10).  After experiencing some sort of closed doors to widening his team ministry, the nature of which is not exactly clear, Paul has a vision of a Macedonian man asking for help.  The whole team responds.

So we can see from the above that a calling comes in many forms.  It can be circumstantial, revelatory, prophetic, general, locational, compassionate, vocational, devotional, educational, adoptive.  It can be a call to a specific task or place, or something more general.  Many times there is some form of direct communication from God, but not always.  Of course, the most all-embracing call of all is the one found in Matthew 28 – Go and make disciples of all nations – which was originally given to the eleven but is commonly understood as applying to all believers for all time.

It is certainly one commandment of Jesus that the church has not yet completed.

Other aspects of discerning a calling can be found in our worksheet on this subject, which is part of the Syzygy guide on how to prepare for going.

What’s in a name?

“What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet”.  So lamented Juliet, reflecting on the fact that Romeo’s surname was a barrier to their relationship.  She felt his name should not be a significant issue.  True, the fragrance of the rose would remain unchanged if we had named it stinking bogweed, but we might not be so fond of it.

Jesus says something very interesting in his prayer recorded in John 17 – “I have shown them Your Name” (John 17:6).  We often overlook it, but which name does he mean?  They already knew the sacred name YHWH even though they might not know how to say it, because it was considered too holy for a human to pronounce.  They used the words ‘King’ and ‘Lord’, which rightly expressed that God was their ruler.  But these are not names, they’re titles, and there were many other titles which they used as well, but not names.  So what does Jesus mean?

There is one word which he used more than any other to talk about God – Father.  Not just our Father, as the Hebrews frequently prayed, sometimes the Father, but usually my Father.  This was utterly unheard of.  There is no record of anyone in the Old Testament being so presumptuous.  Indeed, the phrase only appears once on the lips of a person in reference to God, and that’s in Psalm 89 where it talks of the Messiah using it.  John records that the religious types understood exactly the implications of Jesus using it.  They accused him of blasphemy, for making himself equal with God.  And this would indeed be blasphemy, if it weren’t true.

So how does ‘my Father’ come to be considered a name?  Many of us call one of our parents ‘father’ but we recognise that it is a title and that he has a personal name as well.  But in Hebrew, ‘name’ doesn’t merely mean a label we randomly place on something.  Names are significant.  They are often prophetic, as Jesus made clear when he gave Simon the new name of Peter (Matthew 16:18).  Sometimes they reflect people’s hopes and dreams – just look at the names Leah gave her sons (Genesis 29), showing that she hoped her husband would love and value her because of her fertility.  Names encapsulate the essence of someone – Barnabas, son of encouragement (Acts 4:36), or James and John who were nicknamed ‘Sons of Thunder’ because of their fiery temperaments (Mark 3:17).  So Juliet was wrong – a name is highly significant, whether prophetic or causative in shaping the destiny of an individual.

So when Jesus chooses to say ‘My Father’, he is not merely making a statement about his own divinity – which was not lost on his contemporaries.  He is primarily making a statement about the essential character of God.  He used imagery showing how God is a good father (Matthew 7:11).  His most famous parable is about a father who loves his lost son so much that he breaks all the rules to have him back again (Luke 15).  He asserts the compassionate nature of a God who cares for his children (Mark 10:14).  By applying this name, he emphasises that God wants to be our Dad.

How does he show them God’s name?  This doesn’t really make sense in English until you’ve realised that ‘name’ is more than a label.  He could as easily have said “I’ve shown them your nature”.  And he makes the point that he hasn’t simply told people; he’s demonstrated it.  He has lived out the message, as St Francis encouraged his followers to:

“Preach the Gospel at every opportunity.  If all else fails, use words.”

Jesus encapsulated the message.  He demonstrated in his lifestyle who God is.  John gives evidence of this when he records Jesus saying “He who has seen me, has seen the Father” (John 14:9).  His incarnation, life and death showed the love and holiness of God, and the extent to which God is prepared to go to rescue his lost sheep (Luke 15:7).  What should be our response to this revelation of God’s nature in Jesus?  Go and do the same (Luke 10:37).

I am the vine, you are the branches

Jesus introduces this highly symbolic teaching in John chapter 15 by comparing himself to a vine. Not a vineyard, notice. That was an Old Testament image used of Israel, frequently with reference to Israel’s faithlessness (Isaiah 5:1-7, Jeremiah 2:21, Ezekiel 15, Hos 10:1, Luke 20:9-18).  He clearly places himself within Israel’s religious tradition, but emphasises his distinctiveness as the true vine, the genuine one, faithful to God’s original plans for Israel.

Each individual believer is a branch. Vine does not refer to the plant, but to the woody ‘trunk’ of a cultivated vine, which remains every year while the fruiting branches are pruned off. The vine is independent of the branches, and continues without them if necessary, but not the other way around. The purpose of each branch is to bear fruit.

We are given four different types of fruit: no fruit, fruit, more fruit and much fruit. The goal of each branch is to bear much fruit and so glorify God (v8), who tends the whole plant with this purpose in mind. The branch doesn’t produce its own fruit (“apart from me you can do nothing”) but it bears fruit which the vine produces. God prunes the branches. A grape plant will of itself produce long, trailing branches which have vigorous growth but small grapes. A skilled horticulturalist will prune back the growing shoots to prevent them producing shoots and leaves, and bear fruit instead. The purpose of pruning is to produce more fruit. The more mature the branch, the more vigorous its growth, so the harder it needs to be pruned.  Even though it may be painful and frustrating, the result is an improvement in the quality and quantity of fruit.

So what is this fruit that Jesus expects us to bear? He calls it “fruit that remains” (v16), so it is clearly something that is of lasting value, even into eternity. There are three specific types of fruit that we find in scripture. The first is character development. This is often known as fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23). It is something that the Holy Spirit grows in us as we cannot of ourselves develop these characteristics. The second is numerical growth. In John 4:35-6 Jesus says that the fields are white for harvest, in a clear analogy of reaping lives for eternal salvation. The final type of fruit is a transformed life (Luke 3:8-14).  John the Baptiser links repentance to generosity to the poor, integrity in business and self-restraint in the use of power.

So how does a branch bear fruit? The unhelpful Biblical expression abide/remain/stay is somewhat opaque. Some have suggested that it means going to church, but experience shows that just going to church doesn’t necessarily produce good fruit. There has to be more to it than that.  Jesus gives us some clues. The first this is to let his words remain in us (v7). This means that we should not merely be dipping into the Bible, but devouring it in lengthy and regular times of study, meditation and memorisation. He then tells us that we should remain in his love (v9). The intimacy and commitment of our relationship with Jesus should directly reflect his relationship with the Father. And finally he tells us to keep his commandments (v10). There is a reciprocal relationship between the love, which feeds our obedience, and our obedience, which lives out our love. In John 14:15 Jesus said “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

The branch’s primary responsibility is to maximise the point of contact with the vine. Only then can it receive the life-giving sap that produces the fruit. This should be reflected in our utter dependency on Jesus, bearing fruit by the action of the Holy Spirit in our lives as we invest time in our relationship with him. We may find it hard to find the time to do this, but without doing this, our works are futile and nothing with think we have achieved will last.  Our motivation is what Jesus tells us in verse 8: “In this is my Father glorified: that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”

We love because…


"He had compassion... go and do the same"

…He first loved us (1 John 4:19).  I never really understood this verse until a woman I hadn’t really noticed began to pursue me.  Slowly, I responded to her persistent overtures until I realised she had provoked in me a sentiment that resonated with the love she had for me.  And then I understood that I do not love God out of my own resources or efforts; I simply respond to God’s lavish love for me.

In his first letter, John writes a lot about love.  For him, it is proof of how genuine our salvation is.  An ancient story tells that he endlessly repeated his injunction ‘Little children, love one another’, to the exasperation of some of the younger members of the Christian community.   The Apostle of Love had come a long way from being a Son of Thunder (Mark 3:17).  I am sure many of us working in the mission field often feel more like calling down fire from heaven (Luke 9:54) on those who don’t receive our message than persisting in faithful love for them.

And therein lies our challenge: we are called to love the unlovely, the hostile and antagonistic, the corrupt, the uninterested and indeed all the different types of people that we come across in the police stations, immigration offices, shops, schools, farms and churches where our work takes us, yet we so frequently run out of love.  We give so much that the well runs dry, and a relationship is damaged as a result.  We end up breaking down from exhaustion.

In the discussion preceding one of his most famous parables (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus makes it clear that we fulfil the greatest commandment by loving our neighbour as ourselves.  Our devotion to God is expressed in our compassion for humanity, of which the Good Samaritan was a prime example as he rose above racism and hostility to care for his enemy even at risk to himself.

The ability to live like this can only come from God.  As the Holy Spirit lives in us, so does the love of God, inspiring us and equipping us to love others (1 John 4:16).  It should not be something that we have to force or fake – since we are born of God, it is only natural that the children should bear the family likeness, and do just what they see the Father doing (1 John 4:7).

When we find ourselves ill-equipped to express this compassion, when our resources have run out and we feel we have given all we have left to give, then it is time to read again 1 John chapter 4 and remind ourselves how much love God has given us…. and then pass some of it on.

 

This is the first in what we hope will become a devotional series, aiming to provide some spiritual input to complement the practical and pastoral support Syzygy provides for mission workers.

 

Mission report: Brazil

The entertainment at a children’s party

In July we asked you to pray for the Soapbox short-term trip to Brazil which was being led by Tim.  Five very full but successful weeks later we’re happy to thank you for your prayers which made a huge contribution to this trip.

Two separate groups totalling 16 people, most of them teenagers, had an excellent mission experience, most of them for the first time, which will have a significant impact on their lives.  Discovering genuine poverty for the first time, taking responsibility for activities, and relating responsibly to underprivileged children were some of the positive outcomes.

Building under way

The teams were working in a home for children who have been removed from their families for their own safety or protection, which is run entirely by local Christians with very little outside support.  Although the children are housed, fed, clothed and educated, they do not have much else, so were really appreciative of the interest shown in them by others from overseas, who played with them, taught them some English, and took them out on trips.  Some of us also formed lasting supportive relationships with the children which will continue now we are back in England.

Also, the teams accomplished an immense amount of practical work:

  • Built, plastered (with professional help) and painted a wall to prevent children falling off the patio
  • Paid for a builder to complete the final section of the perimeter wall and concrete an area of waste ground so that the children can play on it safely
  • Painted the main hall of the building
  • Built a set of sturdy steps to give children safe access to the upper play area
  • Repaired damaged perimeter walls and cracks in the patio paving
  • Replaced the lock on the main door which wouldn’t easily open when shut, or vice versa
  • Replaced broken glass in windows
  • Fitted locks and handles to many doors and cupboards
  • Made numerous repairs to plumbing, furniture and lighting
  • Provided new furniture for the bedrooms
  • Provided new cups, plates and cutlery for the children
  • Bought a new DVD player and some dvds
  • Took out an amazing quantity of sports equipment, games, craft materials and clothes

Painters at work

Happily there were no cases of accident, tummy upsets, serious injuries, culture shock or homesickness, so praise God for watching over us!

This was in many respects the highlight of the year for these children who, while being well-cared for, lack people to take an ongoing interest in them, play with them, and help them develop.  The shelter at which they stay runs a ‘godparent’ scheme whereby local people are partnered with a child and take them out, give them presents, and potentially work towards adopting them.  However many children don’t have godparents to help them, and some are too old (12 or over) to be attractive to potential godparents, who generally seek younger ones.  Please pray that more godparents will be found.

We cannot publish any photos of the children, for their own protection.

Please continue to pray for the children, who will miss us as their lives go back to normal  routine until next summer when another team will visit, and for us too as we settle back into our UK lifestyles (or not!).

Short-term mission trip: Brazil

Brazil is a massive country which takes up half of South America and crosses three time zones.  Bustling cities give way to vast expanses of jungle, beautiful beaches, rugged mountains and endless plains.

Brazil is also home to some of the biggest cities in the world – and some of the largest slums.  It has a population of nearly 200 million and is one of the worlds biggest economies but it is estimated that there are also 8 million street children in Brazil.

This summer Tim is leading TWO short-term teams organised by SoapBox to Belo Horizonte, the country’s third largest city, to support a local Christian ministry which works with children with a variety of needs who can no longer live with their families.

The teams will be building walls, repairing a leaky ceiling and painting the living areas.  They will be staying at the same home as the children so there will be plenty of time to play with, teach, and encourage the children.  Please pray for them all as they undertake this expedition to communicate the love of Jesus to some of the world’s poorest  and neediest people.

 

KEY DATES

20th July        Team 1 leaves England

7th August      Team 1 leaves Brazil

12th August    Team 2 arrives in Brazil

25th August    Team 2 arrives in UK

 

TEAMS

Team 1 (A youth group from Ashwell, Baldock and Royston in Hertfordshire): Jen (co-leader), Amy, Callum. Kia, Millie, Rosie, Rufus, Tom

Team 2: Helen (co-leader), Jennie, Jono, Marie, Sam, Val

KEY PRAYER POINTS

Pray for:

  • the team to know Jesus working in them and through them
  • God to work in the lives of the many hurt children they’ll be helping
  • health and safety as they do manual work they’re not used to
  • protection and safety as they travel
  • leaders to be able to do an excellent job and work well together
  • team members who are under 18 to be able to cope well away from home
  • them all to be able to cope with the culture shock of experiencing a different world

 

This expedition is organised by SoapBox, a charity which provides opportunities for short-term mission projects throughout the world.  It has a childcare programme that operates in the countries where they have practical aid projects. They also work in UK prisons and schools.

 

Featured ministry – Urban Neighbours of Hope

Ash Barker seems like a really nice guy.  He looks cuddly, has a bashful smile, and a soft voice.  The sort of person it’s comfortable to be around… till he starts talking about his passion – the urban poor.  Then he starts saying things like If every Christian would take in a homeless person there’d be no homelessness. Awkward sound bites like these fall from his lips with ease, interspersed with equally uncomfortable statistics like 1 in 6 people in this world live in slums.

As if this isn’t bad enough, you know he’s talking from personal experience.  As a young man, he moved into a Melbourne slum in order to spread the love of Jesus to people the rest of the world was rejecting, and founded a missional order called Urban Neighbours of Hope.  UNOH has subsequently extended its work to a number of cities in Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand.  It helps to empower the poor to take ownership of their own problems, it advocates on behalf of the urban poor and provides training in mission to young people.

After ten years in Melbourne, Ash and his wife Anji moved with their two young children to Bangkok, to set up home in the infamous Klong Toey slum, where 80,000 people live packed into just two square kilometres.  Living in the same conditions as their neighbours, they reach out to the community, where drugs, crime and prostitution are endemic.  Through partnering with local people they have empowered them to change their situation.  One lady called Poo, who was a good cook, started a cookery school and has just published a book called Cooking with Poo, which isn’t such a humorous title when you remember that the sewerage in Klong Toey is pretty basic.  Another lady began a handicraft cooperative which now employs sixty people earning twice the minimum wage.  There are a number of other local catering businesses.  These small enterprises help people out of poverty and provide them with an alternative to prostitution and crime.

All this is run out of a local community centre, which is also the base for a school with 60 children, a youth centre with 200 daily users, a medical programme and a prison visiting ministry.  There is also a church, started not by outsiders but by a local man set free from drug addiction and gang membership.

Ash is clearly frustrated that there is so much work to do among the urban poor, and so little support from western Christians.  He points out that if you plot on a map the areas of greatest population density (south and east Asia, urban inner cities), and the areas where the greatest percentage of Christians live (north America, suburbs) there is hardly any overlap. However in recent years more churches and individuals are recognising God’s call to the poor and many are partnering with Urban Neighbours of Hope to bring hope to some of the most downtrodden people in the world.  You can find out more at www.unoh.org.

 

 

 

Featured Ministry – Project Gateway

The old prison in the South African town of Pietermaritzburg was a notorious place.  Its sturdy 1860’s construction spoke of a grim determination to detain the body and break the will.  During the apartheid years, not just criminals but many activists were imprisoned there, in overcrowded conditions, and many of them were executed.  When it was finally closed in 1991, few would have shed a tear.  It was a symbol of brutality and oppression.

But a group of local Christians had a bold vision – they wanted to turn a place of darkness into a place of hope.  Operating under the name Project Gateway, they took over the abandoned premises and began to restore them.  Using this place of darkness as a base, they began ministering to the needy.  In the two decades they’ve been working, things have gone from strength to strength.  They have set up feeding programmes, an orphanage, a women’s refuge, homeless shelters, sewing clubs, HIV and TB support programmes and many other initiatives which support and empower needy people throughout the region.

Keen not merely to help people in a crisis, but help them out of it, they have set up business empowerment initiatives, skills training workshops, and a primary school.  They also have a school of fashion supported by UK designer Karen Millen!

In an effort to make the project self-funding they are using the central cell block – which is a National Monument because of its architectural significance and its notable former residents – as a tourist attraction, and they even provide accommodation in the cells!  While the rooms are now comfortably decorated, the original doors and high, barred windows remain, and the resident often wonders who else slept in that room in the past, and why.

One former inmate of the solitary confinement block is one of the few men who escaped from the prison and lived to tell the tale.  Curiously, he came back – voluntarily – having become a Christian, and is now employed as the premises manager.  He takes great delight in showing people his former cell, which along with that entire block has been left unrenovated so visitors can see exactly what it would have been like when the cells were in use in earnest.

The dynamism behind this project is truly inspiring.  And, amazingly, the project is not sponsored by a narrow community, but by a very broadly-based coalition of over 20 different churches, from different backgrounds, and representing many different races.  The reconciliation and hope that has taken birth in this previously horribly location is a powerful witness to the transforming power of Jesus at work in South Africa.

You can find out more about Project Gateway by visiting www.projectgateway.co.za

Japan – how can we help?

When faced with such devastating destruction, what can we do?  On the one hand, it may seem that there is so much to be done, that we cannot possibly know where to start.  One the other hand, Japan is such a strong and capable nation that perhaps they don’t need our help.  We recognise that countries like Pakistan or Haiti cannot possibly rebuild on their own after a major disaster, whereas New Zealand and Japan seem so much more capable to us, and maybe they don’t really need our help.  Should we be giving our support to other, more needy nations instead?

An experienced Japan mission worker remarked recently that in many ways Japan does not need our help.  Technologically, there is no country in the world more capable of dealing with such a disaster; financially, they have a huge capacity for reconstruction even if it will significantly set their economy back; and organisationally they are unparalleled.  However, with donations to established disaster relief agencies significantly lower than those for Haiti at this stage, and the DEC not organising an umbrella appeal, immediate funding for emergency supplies such as blankets, food and water is in short-supply, and reports coming out of north east Japan indicate that there are many cold and hungry people still waiting to be cared for.

One area where they will clearly need help, however, is in dealing with the emotional fallout.  So many families have lost loved ones, and with the scale of the disaster many do not have a body to grieve over and cremate in accordance with their tradition.  The whole nation will have unanswered questions.  There will be nobody who is not personally affected by a disaster of this magnitude.  How do they grieve?  Who will comfort them?

While such disasters are an unmitigated tragedy which we wish had never happened, they do represent an incredible opportunity for us to reach out and support others.  The small number of Japanese believers, supported by the Christian family worldwide, has a chance to express love and compassion, and give an account for the hope that we have even in the midst of such trauma.  Demonstrations of support and sympathy will carry great weight in Japanese society and do much to counter any suspicion that Christians are viewed with.

In terms of providing immediate care there are already many appeals in place to help feed, clothe and house the refugees.  Syzygy recommends OMF’s Sendai Earthquake Relief Fund if you want to give financial support.  You can also find regular updates, including prayer requests on their Japan website.  OMF have a large number of mission workers who speak Japanese well and are able to get into places and communicate effectively where other foreign workers may not be so successful.  They are associated with a number of Japanese churches who provide contacts and networks that are already in place, particularly in Sendai where they have been operating for many decades.  OMF already have in place established procedures for transferring funds to Japan and communicating needs and prayer requests back.

Please pray:

  • for Japanese Christians, who have to deal with the burden of their own grief while consoling those who don’t know Jesus.
  • for the overseas mission workers, already coping with their own disorientation, who have to function in ways they are not accustomed to while ministering hope and comfort to others.
  • for the Japanese people, particularly the military forces and rescue workers, faced with the unpleasant task of clearing up the destruction while still bearing their own unresolved trauma.
  • for Mr Sato, Vice-Minister for Construction and Transportation, who is the only Christian in the government.  He is currently in charge of the response to the nuclear crisis and will have a key role in rebuilding the infrastructure.  Pray for his health, and that he would be an excellent ambassador for Jesus.

Featured Ministry – Tunari Treasures

In the poorest country in South America, young people have little hope for the future.  Over 80% of Bolivian children live in extreme poverty, and 80,000 of them are addicted to drugs.  Many children are abused, trafficked or simply abandoned by parents unable to care for them.  Tunari Treasures is a small not-for-profit Foundation   making a difference for the lucky few in the heart of the country, Cochabamba.  They are training up a group of disadvantaged young men, some of whom come to them through Compassion and others from an orphanage. Teaching them metalwork helps them stand a better chance of earning a living in the future.  As well as being taught practical skills, the students are also taught administration and life skills, so that they are more rounded and capable individuals when they graduate.

When the students finish the course, they will have the skill set to design, produce, work out the cost of products and sell them.  They’ll also know how to do some basic administration.  This will help them set up their own small business, so they’re not dependent on finding an (often abusive) employer. In addition, because they are mentored as well as trained, they will have personal integrity, respect for others and for themselves and, most importantly, a deeper understanding and knowledge of God.

Gray and Andrea Parker, who set up Tunari Treasures in 2004 after moving with their family to Bolivia to work with Latin Link, now employ a team of Bolivians to share the responsibility. Their aim is that one day Bolivians will take the project on.  Gray commented after six students recently graduated:

During the graduation ceremony I realised that this was the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done. I thought to myself “if I never do anything else in mission again, I feel I’ve made an important impact in the lives of these 6 lads”. It was brilliant. One of the lads, Wilson, gave an impromptu speech, saying to the other lads (who’ve only just completed half the course) that the certificate he had just received wasn’t just to be thrown away, but really meant something. Wilson was the one who 8 months ago nearly got chucked out of the course for breaking some ground rules. The leader of the Compassion project where he goes says Wilson is a different person!

Graduation isn’t the end of the relationship between the staff of Tunari Treasures and their students.  Even after the lads go on to get jobs, or start their own businesses, staff will continue to monitor and mentor them, to help them navigate the difficult path into self-sufficiency.  There are also plans to make private business loans to graduates of up to £600 in order to help them set up their own small enterprises.

The biggest problem facing Tunari Treasures is, unsurprisingly, financial.  The students are charged a nominal 20 Bolivianos per month (about £2).  The real cost of their training is twenty five times that.  Moreover, the programme has attracted such positive attention that Tunari Treasures has been asked to look at the possibility of opening more training centres in other cities.  This of course requires a lot more logistical support, premises costs and the training of new staff.

  • Please pray for the staff of Tunari Treasures to be able to effectively train and mentor young men, and help release them from the bondage of poverty and low self-esteem.
  • Thank God for the young men who have graduated and pray that they will find employment and take ownership of their lives
  • Ask God to provide more funding so that this valuable work can be expanded to help more people. They would really like to have their own premises so that they can be truly independent.

If you would like to donate to Tunari Treasures, go to http://www.latinlink.org/Donate.aspx and where it says “support a person or associated project” choose “project” and then scroll to “Gray and Andrea Parker: Tunari Treasures”.