A new perspective

A recent skiing trip reminded me that many years ago, I was taken by an instructor to an extremely steep slope in order to learn how to ski safely down the steep stuff.  Another learner went first, and ski-ed about a metre before falling over and sliding halfway down the slope on his back.

Somewhat intimidated by his failure, I managed a string of quick, scruffy turns, scrubbing off speed and managing to stay upright till I got to the instructor waiting halfway down, feeling pretty pleased with myself.  But the instructor sternly reprimanded me for not putting into practice what I already knew how to do.  So I tried again, and found myself skiing at breakneck speed, but under more control than I’d ever had.  I had learned how to ski on steep slopes.

A decade later I returned to that resort, much improved as a skier, and went to look for this terrible precipice to see if I could now do it better.  After a morning of trying every piste in the area, I could find no steep slope at all.  It was only later that I realised what had once seemed steep, was now easily skiable.  My perspective had changed.  What had once seemed hard, was now easy.

Young king David had the courage to face a giant who intimidated even the greatest of Israel’s warriors, because he had a different perspective.  “I’ve killed a lion and a bear,” he told Saul, “why should he be any more dangerous than them?” (1 Samuel 17:36). Elisha was not afraid of the armies of Aram, because he could see God’s army camped around the city (2 Kings 6:17).

How are we taking our experience of God’s provision, care and protection, and applying it in faith to our current situation?  Many of us face struggles daily: for funding, security, work permits, health, and many other challenges that are endemic to life as a mission worker.  Sometimes each challenge seems bigger than ever before, but constantly reminding ourselves of what God has done for us in the past is an excellent way of stoking the fires of our faith for what God can do for us in the future.

We should never forget that when we are weak, we are strong, because it gives God opportunities to show his power (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).  That awesome power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead is at work in us (Ephesians 1:18-23).  Let us change our perspectives, so that we look not at the size of the problem, or our own weakness, but the greatness of the living God.

“Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

(2 Kings 6:16)

 

Building a cairn

Source: www.english-heritage.org.uk

Every morning when I log on, Facebook greets me with “We care about your memories” and an offer to repost a photo from yesteryear.  It is evident from the reposting that goes on that some people enjoy using this utility, though I look in vain for the ‘go away and leave me alone’ button.

We like to remember.  We have photos of long-dead relatives on our bookshelves.  We hang pictures of our favourite places on our walls.  Our conversations are peppered with “Do you remember when…” as we laugh about situations we’ve been in.  Individuals and families do this well.  Countries build war memorials, or statues of great leaders.  Hikers build cairns.  But the world of mission is generally not good at remembering, and we certainly don’t build memorials or statues, because we want the glory to go to God, not people.

The first thing the ancient Israelites did after crossing the Jordan was to set up a memorial.  They built a cairn (Joshua 4:1-9).  One person from each tribe was selected to carry a rock from the bed of the dried-up river and build a cairn on the bank so that the people would always remember God had parted the river for them to cross over.  They turned memory into something physical so that they wouldn’t forget.

We need to remember because not only does it honour God to recount the things He has done (Psalm 145:4), it builds our faith to be reminded of his provision for us in the past.   David built his courage for fighting a giant by remembering that he’d already killed a lion and a bear (1 Samuel 17:36).

As we enter the Promised Land of 2017, how are we making arrangements to remember what God has done?  Here are some of our suggestions:

  • Have a photo gallery of previous co-workers in our agency.  We often honour the founders of our mission agencies, but do we remember the others who made a sacrifice to pass the founder’s baton on to us?  Do we honour the ones who gave their lives in service to God?
  • Celebrate anniversaries, not only of the founding of the agency, but peoples’ ‘birthdays’ in the mission field, the founding of a church or ministry.
  • Have pictures, artefacts or ornaments which meant something significant at one time, and make a point of telling newcomers why they’re important.
  • Keep an “on this day” diary, reminding you of when God spoke, or did something significant for you.
  • Make a point of reminding old friends and colleagues of situations you’ve been through together.  Ask older co-workers about their memories of people and places.
  • Research and write biographies of people who’ve inspired you – not just the great saints who are well documented but the unknown saints who laboured in obscurity to lay the foundations of where we are now.
  • Use ‘Blue plaques’ or a suitable equivalent on your property to remind yourselves of who was there and what they’ve done.

Remembering the past doesn’t mean living in it.  We remember it to give context to today and help us move into the future.  Not long ago, as a visiting speaker I got a (somewhat bewildered!) church to build a cairn in their meeting room.  I provided enough rocks for them and encouraged everyone to pick up a rock and build with it, each rock representing a commitment to tell a story to someone who hadn’t heard it, ask a question of someone who had been in the church a long time, and celebrate what God had done – so that they could build on their past as they embrace their future.

Let’s all find ways of doing something similar!

Diverted?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace and calm in the midst of danger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep roots

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you to when someone throws a spear at you?

Saul and DavidThis is the attention-grabbing tagline of a book with a much milder name, A Tale of Three Kings by Gene Edwards.  Written in 1980 to counter the threat of authoritarian leadership in the church, it has become a minor classic which has proved highly therapeutic for victims of domineering leaders.

We have mentioned before in these blogs how some mission leaders can be ill-equipped for their leadership role, which is why Syzygy is committed to leadership development and mentoring, and are looking at other ways of supporting leaders.  Sadly, many Christian workers have been hurt by leaders who, uncomfortable in their role, resort to domineering or manipulative leadership styles to enforce their authority, brutally crushing ‘rebellion’ and marginalising the ‘rebels’.  We know, because we’ve been there.  And reading this book was part of the recovery.

A Tale of 3 KingsA Tale of Three Kings traces the life of King David, first as a young man working for a tyrant, and later as a king overthrown by his ambitious son, Absalom.  These are the eponymous three kings.  Edwards uses them as types – Saul as an insecure leader who wrongly feels threatened by anyone competent, Absalom as a proud, ambitious achiever quick to claim power that is not his, and David as a humble, broken leader who will not fight to take what is not his, nor to keep it.  He argues that despite the great suffering caused to him by both Saul and Absalom, David is the only one of the three who acts righteously throughout.

The answer to the opening question is “You get stabbed to death.”  Because in the brokenness, the dying to self that pain brings, you kill the Saul within you whose fleshly response is to retaliate.  That is what helps equip you to become a leader.  The minute you pick up the spear and throw it back, you become another Saul, Edwards argues.  Moreover, he argues that it was David’s suffering at the hands of Saul that equipped him to become a great king, because he saw first hand how a tyrant destroys.

Saul’s response to the challenge he perceived from David was to destroy.  In doing so, he revealed his own character weakness.  As Edwards puts it,

 Outer power will always unveil the inner resources, or the lack thereof.

This book is not to everyone’s taste, and its literary style takes a bit of getting used to, but for the Davids among us it brings great comfort, and to the Sauls and Absaloms, a thought-provoking challenge.  Many people who think they are Davids will be brought up short to discover how much Absalom is in them!  The book deserves its subtitle A Study in Brokenness because that is exactly what it is, as it aims to help us study the brokenness (or lack thereof) in our own lives.  A helpful section at the back makes this specifically personal by asking such questions as:

  • Who throws spears at you? How does God want you to respond?
  • What needs to happen to put your own inner Saul to death?
  • Sauls see only Absaloms. Absaloms see only Sauls.  Neither can recognise a David.  How can we distinguish the one from the others?
  • David considered the throne to be God’s, not his own to have, to take, to protect, to keep. Could you say the same about what God has given you?

You can read more of the story behind A Tale of Three Kings here, and buy the book online at Seedsowers or other online retailers.

With God in the desert

The Wilderness of Judea

The Synoptic Gospels all record that Jesus went out into the desert and spent 40 days there in prayer and fasting prior to the commencement of his ministry.  That is a significant retreat, but going into the desert was not an uncommon thing to do in his day – John the Baptist had lived in the desert, and various Jewish monastic communities thrived there.  Later on, Christian ascetics would move there, and eventually many Christian monasteries started.

The desert is a place of transformation.  It represents the end of human existence.  Hunger and thirst, heat and cold render it inhospitable to humans, and the existence there of wild animals and outlaws makes it dangerous.  Yet here at the extremity of human survival, we meet God.  Both Moses (Exodus 3) and Elijah (1 Kings 19) had powerful experiences of God in the desert which equipped them for future ministry.

But why go into such a place where survival is difficult?  What drew them there?  Surely it’s about more than just getting away from it all?

For the ancient Israelites, their first corporate experience was in the desert, and as they wrote their Scripture and told their stories that experience embedded itself in their cultural assumptions.  Yes it was dangerous – “were there not enough graves in Egypt?” they asked Moses (Exodus 14:11) – but in their extremity, they met God.

Water from the rock

In the desert God provided them with food, water, protection and guidance.  With their human existence hanging by a thread, they learned that with God, the desert is a safe place.  Most significantly, it was in the desert that they heard the voice of God (Deuteronomy 4:22-27).  It is not a coincidence that one of the Hebrew words for desert – midbar – can also be translated “He speaks”.

Today we don’t need to go into the desert to meet God.  We can meet God anywhere.  When we are at the end of our human endeavour, God provides.  When we have run out of strength in battling our human nature: controlling our tongue, managing our sex drive, mastering our temper – whatever our personal challenge is, that’s when we can turn to the grace of God to help us.  Perhaps that’s one meaning of Jesus’ teaching “If anyone wants to follow me, let him take up his cross…” (Luke 9:23).  It’s when we finally admit we can’t make ourselves better people, or do a better job, and allow the Holy Spirit’s transforming power into our lives instead.

In my experience, too many cross-cultural mission workers are trying too hard to do more than they can or to be someone they’re not.  It drives many of us to burnout as we reach the limit of our ability to keep on striving.  That’s when we need to abandon ourselves to God to care for us.  We need to stop gritting our teeth and carrying on, and start letting God work in us and through us.  We need to let go of the illusion of strength and competence we project around us, and allow God to move through our brokenness and vulnerability.

The Spring of En-Gedi

The Gospels record that Jesus was in the habit of regularly going off by himself to pray.  That’s how he expressed his total dependence on the Father to teach him what to say (John 8:28) and show him what to do (John 5:19).  His entire ministry flowed from this dependence.  It is a ministry model we would do well to implement for ourselves.  We can’t always make the time to get away for an extended retreat, but we can take steps to do a retreat in daily life, and I’ll detail some of these in a future blog.

It is thought that David wrote Psalm 23 while hiding from Saul at the spring of En-Gedi, in the Judean wilderness.  It is a beautiful, refreshing stream in the desert (Isaiah 35:6).  Only when we are in the middle of the wilderness will we truly appreciate how God “leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.” (Psalm 23:2-3)

The need for good followers

fishThere has been much paper expended over the years on how to be a good leader, and it’s an important subject.  Without secure, conscientious, compassionate, visionary leaders, our churches and agencies can easily become stressed, fractured and ineffective.  But even the best leaders cannot lead an effective ministry without good followers, and since most of us are destined to remain followers rather than become leaders, it’s good to put some time into discovering how to be good followers rather working on developing leadership potential which may only end in frustration.

Being a good follower used to be equated with not rocking the boat, doing what you were told and not speaking out, but I suspect this definition was peddled by insecure leaders who interpreted every query as a challenge to their personal authority and slapped such ‘rebels’ down hard.  These days the leader/follower relationship is a lot more complex and subtle, with less power being wielded and mentoring and envisioning the order of the day.  So what key values do the followers need to develop in themselves in order to excel at it?

Serve leaders as God’s anointed people.  As mission workers, we often talk about working for God, but then don’t accept the people he appoints as our supervisors.  If they’re his representatives, we should honour them as such (Colossians 3:22-24).  Although that verse technically refers to slaves, it makes the point that inward obedience to those in authority is a godly attitude.

Don’t complain about the problem without being willing to be part of the solution.  We’ve all heard this before, but from a leader’s perspective it’s so much harder to work with someone who says “This isn’t working” than someone who says “I’ve got an idea for how this could work better.”  That person becomes a co-worker rather than a critic.

Following is not transactional.  Too many of us make our following conditional: we follow if we agree.  The Bible doesn’t make a case for blind obedience to godless or foolish commands (Daniel 6:10) but it does make it clear that we should obey and submit to leaders (Hebrews 13:7) and respect them (1 Thessalonians 5:12).  The minute we start thinking “I’ll be a good follower when he’s a good leader” we have stepped outside our God-given brief as followers

YouBeing honest is not being rebellious, but the context and manner of our honesty can be.  There are inevitably going to be times when we disagree, but we can handle it well.  If you feel with all integrity you have a harsh challenge to make, do it in private like Nathan did to David (2 Samuel 12:7).  David’s response could have been ferocious, but he knew Nathan’s love and support for him despite the fierce rebuke.

Leaders need prayer.  It’s easy to believe we’d do a better job than our leaders, but how many of us actually help them to a better job?  Yet as the most prominent members of the community, they have to cope with pressure, demands and spiritual attack (2 Corinthians 11:27-29).  Praying for them helps them (1 Timothy 2:1-3).

Buy into a bigger vision than your own personal one.  If you’re going to be an effective follower, you sometimes have to subordinate your own plans to those of the leader.  For 40 years in the wilderness Caleb dreamed of owning the land he had seen when as a spy he had sneaked into Canaan, but he didn’t make a rush for it as soon as the invasion started.  He waited a further five years until the invasion was over before he asked for it.  He had helped secure other people’s inheritance before he gained his own. (Joshua 14:6-15)

elephantsIf you have to leave, you leave alone.  There may come a time when it’s right to leave, but that doesn’t mean leading a rebellion.  When David had to leave Saul’s court for the sake of his life, he didn’t take his friends with him or make an announcement, he just quietly slipped away. (1 Samuel 19:11-18)

Much effort has gone into analysing the leadership style of Jesus, and devising universal rules of management from the results.  Yet the management gurus always overlook the fact that Jesus, too, was a follower.  The perceptive centurion observed that Jesus was a man ‘under authority’ (Matthew 8:9), and Jesus said he didn’t come to do his own will, but the will of ‘him who sent me’ (John 5:30).  He even said he didn’t speak on his own initiative (John 12:49).

The more closely we follow in the footsteps of the world’s greatest follower, the more we will become better followers of God, and the leaders he appoints over us.

In a future blog we will discuss how to act righteously when dealing with a destructive of manipulative leader.