Sowing in hope

Shoots of hope?

Officially, winter starts next week in the UK.  Yet at the end of November, when branches are bare, flowers have died, and leaves are turning to mud in the gutters, it feels like it’s already here.  Days are short, temperatures dropping and our moods drop too as we brace ourselves for the cold and damp.

But even in the midst of such gloom we carry out small acts of hope.  Autumn is the time for planting bulbs.  In November, before the ground freezes, we plant the bulbs which will start growing roots ready to burst into flower in the spring.  We know that in a few months our hearts will be lifted by the snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils and tulips which will turn our drab winter gardens into a riot of colour.  We plant in hope.

Mission workers are no stranger to this feeling.  Most of us work in environments where we see little response, yet we carry on sowing the seed of the word of God.  As Alex reminded us a couple of weeks ago that this can often take years to come to fruition but we keep sowing it in faith anyway.

Sadly our supporters sometimes expect the harvest to come quickly.  “How many people have you led to the Lord this year?” they might ask.  Churches may threaten to withdraw funding if there is no evidence of people turning to Christ as a result of our labours.  This can put us under pressure, make us worker harder, pray harder, preach harder, even succumb to the temptation to coerce people into coming to church.

There is a short parable in Mark’s gospel which can encourage us in this situation.  Tucked away between the more famous parables of the sower and the mustard seed, this one is about the growth of the seed.   It’s short enough to repeat in full:

This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground.  Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.  All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.  As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.

(Mark 4:28-29)

He does not know how.  The growth of the seed is not dependent on the farmer.  He plants it, waits patiently, and reaps the crop in due time.  Let us not worry about the mechanics of what is going on in people’s hearts.  That’s God’s job.  We plant the seed, he makes it grow.  And we are privileged, in partnering with him in his mission, so be called his fellow-workers (1 Corinthians 3:6-9).  So let’s concentrate on our part of the work, and leave him to do his bit.

Suckers!

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

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

What has this to do with mission work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Matthew 7:18)

Pruning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Re-potting – unpleasant but necessary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Psalm 46:1-2, 10)

 

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