Self-care

I have written in this blog many times about the need for mission workers to be actively supported by their church, agency, family and friends – all of whom are very important for the resilience and fruitfulness of the mission worker.

However, the provision of intentional, pre-emptive, supportive care does not absolve mission workers from caring for themselves!  With millennials in the mission field, who are accustomed to more attentive parenting, workplace nurturing and personal mentoring, there may be an expectation of higher standards of support than were previously considered appropriate.  We need to lovingly remind mission workers that they are not children, they have been selected for their ability to thrive in the mission field, and have been trained to withstand the challenges of life in demanding places.

We must therefore resist the attempt to treat them as fragile, wrap them in cotton wool and run around looking after them.  Instead we need to encourage them into self-care.  This covers every aspect of who they are:

Physical self-care – They need to be paying attention to how their diet, exercise and sleep are healthily maintained to keep them well.  They need to be aware of their own biological cycle, how they adapt in their body to changing months and seasons, the amount of heat and daylight available to them, and how they plan their life around their natural strengths.  At what time of day are they at their best, and can they adapt their working time around that?  Taking the full holiday entitlement, Sabbath days and weekends (where possible) will be part of this.

Mental self-care – maintaining mental well-being has two aspects to it: allowing the mind to unwind from stress, and stretching it to enable it to cope with more.  So regular academic study, distance learning on practical or theological issues to keep people’s skills up to speed is important.  As is the need to create downtime to give the brain a chance to switch off, particularly at night to allow more chance of good sleep.  Developing a physical hobby, perhaps a craft or a sport, will go a long way towards facilitating this.

Spiritual self-care – mission workers are selected for their ability to feed themselves from the Bible and thrive in hard places, but regular times of retreat, seeing a spiritual director and being helped through podcasts or discussion groups can contribute to their spiritual well-being.  So too can keeping regular hours of prayer, journaling, or using a personal liturgy to help with prayer.

Emotional self-care – often we find ourselves too busy to stop and reflect on how well we are relating to those around us: family, friends, church and co-workers.  How do we intentionally deepen our accountable relationships?  How do we live in ongoing repentance and stronger commitment to others?  This can be complicated by being in cross-cultural teams, churches or families – can we identify the facets of the culture we live in which cause us the most stress, and find ways of coping better, even to the point of thriving in them?

In considering all these different things they need to do to care for themselves, mission workers may want to consider inviting a friend to be an accountability partner, to ask searching questions about what they are doing to look after themselves.  Some people may feel that the idea of looking after oneself does not fit well with ‘laying down one’s life’, but like a good marathon runner, we are in this race to finish well, and in order to do that we need to pace ourselves rather than run the race like a sprint!

Living in Cyberia

C T Studd and the Cambridge Seven demonstrate their cross-cultural adaptability

C T Studd and the Cambridge Seven demonstrate their cross-cultural adaptability

A long time ago, before global telecoms were invented and when post took months to get to the other side of the world, intrepid mission workers went abroad not knowing if they would ever see family and friends again.  While some stayed in the coastal cities where they could get newspapers from ‘home’ (albeit a few months old) and mix with people from their own country, others went to new fields in the interior, far from their home culture.  They learned the local language, adapted to the customs, and often dressed in indigenous clothing to help them integrate.  Many of them adapted so well that they became more like the locals than their own people.

Some would look back on that as a golden age.  But technology came.  Once people could fly to their fields relatively cheaply, they could maintain better contact with their ‘home’ and family.  They could start going back more frequently than every five years.  People could come and visit them.  Phone calls became possible, and then faxes.  And mission agencies recognised that, while better communication could enhance the mission worker’s sense of wellbeing, they also realised that it could be a distraction from becoming embedded in the culture.  Some agencies discouraged frequent returns, or restricted visits from family, particularly during the first year.  They imposed limits on contact with the sending country to help people bed down in their new culture and learn the language well.

Gen Y - excessively connected?

Gen Y – excessively connected?

Now, with social media available even in the most remote villages, people are seldom out of contact with friends and family.  They can have regular face time with people on the other side of the planet, remotely attend birthday parties, and give people virtual tours of their homes.  They can upload videos and share blogs.  It is so much better for maintaining their support, the strength of their ongoing relationships.  But it raises another point – do people ever really leave?  Do they become embedded in the local culture any more?  Do they find their supportive relationships with their new local friends, fellow mission workers in the field, or with people in their home country?

So technology has solved the problem of isolation, but possibly at a price.  In a world where mission workers can come ‘home’ every Christmas, and host visitors on a regular basis, are they preserving a little island of their home culture and not becoming enculturated in their host country?  What does it do for their relationships with locals?

It has often been observed that Generation Y, having much more understanding of themselves as global citizens than previous generations did, are able to engage much more readily with other cultures, and may not even recognise the dichotomy between leaving and joining.  They can connect equally well in several cultures.  But it remains to be seen whether they will build up the wealth of socio-linguistic understanding that previous generations who spent decades in the same field.  Can we afford to wait while all that corporate knowledge leaves the field as baby boomers retire?

CT Studd, founder of WEC International, famously spent the last 18 years of his life in Congo, leaving his wife in London running the support network.  They only met again during her one brief visit to the Congo.  I wonder what he would have made of how technology has changed the world of mission.

In memoriam

WW1

Troops in the trenches

Exactly 100 years ago today, Britain entered the First World War.  All year there have been documentaries, dramatisations and memorials, and no doubt these will continue.  Much has been reported about the military, political and social consequences of the war, but few commentators will have discussed the theological outcomes.

The outbreak of war brought to a close an unprecedented period of peace in western Europe – La Belle Epoque – and was the first pan-European war since the end of the Napoleonic wars 99 years earlier.  During the 19th century a belief in universal progress had emerged.  People prospered, and science, technology, medicine and industry advanced.  This high point of modernism fostered a belief that given enough time and money all humanity’s problems would ultimately be solved.

War gravesWorld War I blew a Dreadnought-sized hole in this optimistic outlook.  As the realisation began to dawn that the old world had been blown away by the war, and that killing millions of brave people in battle was not a glorious sacrifice but a tragic mistake, people began to realise that all technology had brought them was a way to kill each other more rapidly and effectively.  During the war, 8 million people died and 37 million were injured making it one of history’s worst conflicts.  Small wonder then that the 20th century turned out to be the bloodiest in human history – so far.

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

This crisis of belief took hold first in artistic and philosophical circles.  War poets became celebrated as contemporary prophets rather than vilified for their lack of patriotism.  Within a decade of the end of the war, Martin Heidegger was teaching nihilism in German universities.  A generation later existentialism emerged.  God was, in philosophical terms, well and truly dead.  It takes a few generations for new ideas to permeate society, so the soldiers who had endured so much trauma and suffering during the war did not immediately stop attending church services, though privately their trust in God may have been shattered.  But their grandchildren, in the 60s, led the exodus from churches.  Established religion began to lose its grip on society as people abandoned any pretence of a belief in God.  Churches closed down, and their buildings were converted into bars, apartments and gurdwaras.  People believed Christianity was finished.

Ironically, the children of that generation took a different approach.  Many of them realised that in abandoning organised religion, their parents had also surrendered any belief in spirituality.  Recognising that humanity has spiritual needs, some of them began searching for meaning in esoteric religions, paganism and New Age beliefs.  Turning their backs on the discredited scientific materialism of their forebears, they were free to embrace belief.

Young people at the Christian festival Soul Survivor

Young people at the Christian festival Soul Survivor

Their children, Generation Y, has become western Europe’s first largely unchurched generation since the start of the Dark Ages.  They are the first European generation in 1500 years who have absolutely no understanding of Christianity, no knowledge of biblical stories, and no awareness of the Lord’s Prayer or the Ten Commandments.  Paradoxically they are also history’s most open generation to Christianity.  With none of the disillusion of their parents and grandparents, or the preconceptions of their forebearss who thought Christianity had failed, they are willing to explore faith, spirituality and belief.  To them, Christianity is one facet of that exploration, and they have no prejudices against it.  Small wonder then that the church once again is starting to grow, as a new generation turns to Jesus in increasing numbers.

A century on from the most destructive conflict in European history, the European church is just beginning to recover.

Becoming less human?

trigger

Trigger the philosopher

In an episode of the classic British comedy “Only Fools and Horses” Trigger, a roadsweeper, claims to have used the same broom for 20 years, though he adds that in that time it has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles.  His friends clearly doubt that it therefore qualifies to be considered the same broom.  This is a modern variant of the ancient paradox called the Ship of Theseus, a philosophical debate over whether the identity of the original object can be said to be continuous over time when all its original parts have been replaced.  A bit like the Sugababes after the three original members had all left.

e_Coli

Alien – but friendly?

A similar question can be raised about being human.  It has been estimated by several authoritative microbiologists[1] that bacteria and fungi living in and on the human body outnumber the human cells by an incredible 10 to 1, with over 500 different species living in the gut and 500 more living on the skin.  Less than 10% of the cells in your body are human!  While these fellow-travelling cells are blatantly parasitic and can cause disease, they can also significantly help our existence, helping us digest food and absorb energy, stimulating our immune systems, breaking down waste and acting as a protective barrier on the skin.  Some of them even defend us, attacking invading bacteria of the wrong sort.  One microbiologist has said of this prolific microbial infestation: “they truly represent another arm of the immune system.”[2]

All of this has a huge impact on our understanding of what it means to be human.  Babies are born free of microbes, and we acquire more throughout our lives with every drink, touch, or kiss.  So as we move from 0% to over 90% microbe throughout our lives, life itself is a journey into becoming less human!

Sugababes: same, same or different?

Sugababes: same, same or different?

Or is it?  To be human is to be in community.  Way back in the days of the Garden of Eden, God concluded that ‘It is not good for the human to be alone’ (Genesis 2:18).  The human needed community of its own kind, and ducks, fish and elephants weren’t quite up to the job – fortunately!  This need for community reflects the community inherent in a Trinitarian understanding of God: three persons in perfect harmony, love and unity within the One being.  Historically, human life has thrived in community.  The aggressively assertive individualism of 20th century Europe is a historical anomaly, which is already showing signs of being redressed as postmodern youth are more aware of their connection to the global village and of their need for community, even if it’s expressed mostly through their technology!

In the same way as we enjoy a symbiotic relationship with other life forms at a microscopic level, we also enjoy one at a macroscopic level – with God!  Jesus teaches a lot about this in John’s gospel but we are not accustomed to thinking about our interaction with God in this way, largely because our thinking has become so individualistic.  But consider the impact of the following verses, all from John when viewed from the standpoint of a committed, interacting, mutual relationship with God:

I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you (14:20).  Is Jesus really in us in the same way that he is in the Father?  Linking these statements in this way makes it appear he believes so.  Does it really mean that being ‘in Christ’ effectively invites us through him to participate in the nature and essence of the Trinity?

Abide in me, and I will abide in you… apart from me, you can do nothing (15:4-5).  Jesus’ teaching on the vine makes it clear that unless the branch stays connected to the vine, it can’t hope to survive, let alone bear good fruit.  Branches don’t dip in and out as they choose.  They are intimately and permanently interconnected, allowing the sap to flow continuously, not just when they feel the need for it.

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him (6:56).  Eating and drinking is a reference using physical sustenance as a metaphor for spiritual life.  It parallels the sap from the vine.  It’s not about the need to take communion regularly so much as the constant communion of looking to Jesus as the source of our being (Acts 17:28).  Compare the English idiom ‘that’s meat and drink to me.’[3]

Whoever believes in me, from his belly shall flow rivers of living water (7:38).  This verse has echoes of the river seen in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 47:7-12) and foreshadows the one in the new Jerusalem (Revelation 22:1-2).  It is not a pathetic trickle or an intermittently dripping tap, it is a powerful, life-giving and permanent watercourse which symbolises the interconnectedness of our life with the Holy Spirit.

As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you (20:21).  In this, John’s version of the Great Commission, Jesus links his sending to the Father’s.  As the Father sent, Jesus sends; as Jesus went, so do we.  We are united in ministry with the Trinity.

imagesThis gives us a new view of the intimacy and togetherness of our relationship with God.  What does it mean for each of us as we go into meetings, hold conversations, shop and eat?  It means that God is with us in everything that we think, say and do, not just in the times of prayer and ministry.  We face those difficult situations together with God.  When we walk into a room, God walks in with us.  Into every situation we take with us the love of the Father, the grace of Jesus, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 13:14).  Let us reflect on how that knowledge may change our sense of isolation and disempowerment in difficult situations.

To become more human means to become less human!



[1] references are available on request as they are too numerous to quote!

[2] Gary Huffnagle, University of Michigan Ann Arbor

[3] Oxford Dictionary: be a source of great pleasure to; be a customary matter for – “but the high balls to the front two were meat and drink to the big Partick defenders, and Thistle soon hit back to deadly effect.” (The Sun, 2002)

Moving Staircases?

Recent years have seen much change in the world of missions, and for nearly all of us it feels like the change is relentless.  Factors affecting this include the current financial situation, the changing relationship between agencies and churches, new paradigms of mission, technological innovation, the rise of Generation X and now Y, the decline of the West and the change of the centre of the global church’s gravity towards the south/east, and indeed many more.  It feels stressful just to list these things!

Many of us don’t feel at home in this fast-paced and rapidly developing world.  It shakes our security in the way we’ve got used to doing things, and it can be disturbing when the mission field becomes flooded with people who do things very differently.  Some of the changes afoot at the moment threaten our own long-term futures in mission unless we are able to adapt, and even the survival of some well-established mission agencies may be in doubt if they cannot embrace the necessary change.  This is, quite frankly, alarming.

It reminds me of the scene in the first Harry Potter movie (is it ok to reference Harry Potter in a Christian blog?) where the children discover the staircases can move by themselves.  All of a sudden, they can’t get back to their rooms, and have to find a different way.  They have to duck quickly as several tons of hardwood comes flying over their heads to a new destination.  They have the challenge of working out how to get to their lessons by a new route.

‘Keep an eye on the staircases – they like to change!’

For some of them it is a, well, magical experience, full of awe and wonder at this marvellous spectacle, but for others  it must be bewildering and frightening, as they find their security challenged and their assumptions about life questioned.  I wonder if you can sympathise with them as you see the change going on around you in the mission field.

Yet, when the staircases have settled down, it’s still possible to find your way to your destination.  It may take a bit of time to explore, experiment, and come back from dead ends, but in fact many of us will already be experienced at doing that.  For most of us, that’s part of life, and part of our calling.

The church, despite often being conservative, and preserving many practices and traditions handed down from its earliest days and even before the time of Christ, is no stranger to change, and the first generation of believers must have had the hardest time of all, adapting their worldview to believe first that Jesus was the Messiah they were waiting for even though he wasn’t what they were expecting, then having to cope with his suffering and death, followed by his resurrection and ascension.  Then they had to face ejection from the synagogues and hostility from Rome.  Just when they thought they had it figured out, and that he’d return within their lifetimes, he didn’t come to rescue them when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans.

A picture of the church – migrants not settlers?

So what might they have to say to us about change?  Peter tells us that we are aliens and sojourners (1 Peter 2:11), not citizens or residents, but migrants who won’t be staying around.  John warns us not to get attached to anything in this world (1 John 2:15) because it’s only temporary – and so are we.  They were very much aware of the transient nature of our existence, and chose to focus instead on our eternal heritage.  Peter reminds us that we are looking for a new heaven and a new earth (2 Peter 3:13).  Paul tells us that our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20) and the Hebrew writer challenges us to emulate the saints of old who lived by faith, and walked away from all this world has, seeking a better country (Hebrews 11:16).

In the midst of their changeable, temporary, transient world, they looked to the One who is the sole source of stability, Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8), who will one day take us to a home of unchangeable glory.  We cannot do better than to follow their example.

Working with Generation Y

While many of us are still coming to terms with Generation X, Generation Y sneaks up on us unawares!  Leaders in missions will be starting to encounter this generation, and they’ll be starting to realise that Ys aren’t quite what they expected.  People working in short-term have been dealing with Ys for quite a while now, so will be coming to terms with the fact that they do things differently to previous generations, but these people are now coming through into doing long-term where their differences will be rubbing their leaders up the wrong way.

Generation Y is the unimaginative name given to the generation following on from Generation X, and consists of those born (roughly) from 1980 to 2000.  They’re also called Generation Next or Millennials, but I’ll stick to Y as it’s easier to spell.  These people grew up connected, having mobile phones and computers from their youngest days.  Their families may have been broken, leading to a highly important need to belong, but their parents will have invested heavily in them so they are used to getting feedback and encouragement.  They also grew up after the end of the cold war, so they were promised peace, but now find that their lives overshadowed by the war on terror.  This can lead them to distrust authority and value honesty, authenticity and integrity.

What are these people going to be like as your co-workers? Their workplace expectations are not that different from those of previous generations, but they are far more reluctant to toe the line in the way their parents or grandparents might have done.  Older people might think of them as lazy, uncommitted, overconfident, disrespectful and impatient, but those are the flip side of great strengths:

Lazy?  These people are digital natives.  Because they grew up in a multi-media world they are able to surf Facebook, send text messages, listen to music and get on with their work at the same time.  But they don’t live to work.  They’re flexible and will be more concerned about getting the overall task done than by being at their desk at the right time.  They might be working at home at 10pm, not because they’re workaholics, but just because it works better for them.

Uncommitted?  Well, they’re not committed to things just because you think they ought to be.  Duty is not a word that features frequently in their vocabulary.  But they will be highly committed to things they believe in, even though it may not look like it to older generations.  Their desire for authenticity leads them to reject much that is latently hypocritical, but when they find something genuine, they will embrace it.

Overconfident?  Because they’ve had a lot of positive parenting, Ys believe in themselves, and because they’ve seen through authority structures, they won’t tolerate spending ten years doing the filing before they’re allowed to have an opinion.  They believe they have a contribution and they don’t understand why they can’t make it now.

Disrespectful?  They respect people, not positions, so if you aren’t confident as a leader and hide behind your position, they’ll see through you.  They respect people who show that they care, make wise decisions, and don’t try to give them corporate flannel.  If they speak out of turn, it’s only because they can see a problem and haven’t had a good answer for it.

Impatient?   Ys were born connected.  They get the answers they want off the internet in seconds.  They instant message their friends.  They just want to get on with things without being held up.

So as Ys become your partners in mission, how do you need to treat them?

Teamwork.  Their whole life is made up of connections, so the idea of working alone doesn’t exist.  They’ll share problems, bring in specialists, and network with anyone they need to.  So create a flexible team structure in which they can thrive and don’t tell them they can’t talk to someone in another office just because you have a territory dispute with another manager.

Managing.  Top-down hierarchies don’t work.  These people have had positive parenting.  Create for them an environment in which they can learn and develop skills.  Feedback to them regularly.  Don’t impose rules, explain reasons.  Don’t manage the process, mentor the person.

Communication.  Give them all the facts and explain why you’ve made a decision.  They need to know the reasons before they can believe.  Your answer doesn’t have to be 100% logical; you can bring in emotions as well.  Let them ask challenging questions.  When they see you communicate openly and honestly, and allow them to be part of the solution, they will trust you and become committed.

Fulfilment.  In the secular workplace, Generation Y is more concerned to find a job they can believe in than one that pays well (although they expect to be fairly remunerated!).  This is true in the Christian world as well.  You need to ensure that they believe in what they’re doing in order to get the best out of them, and try to make sure they feel they’ve been treated fairly.

Obviously, these are huge generalisations, and individual personalities differ greatly, but this information may help to explain to you why people under 30 seem to think and act strangely at times.  These generational characteristics may not be so pronounced in Christians, since they have also been subject to the unique influences of Christian discipleship and training in church, community and possibly Bible College.  However, they grew up in the same conditions as non-Christians, were educated together with them, and used the same media, so will demonstrate similar generational characteristics.  Get to know them better, and you’ll all end up working better together.