They had been with Jesus

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

Why does Jesus call us?

Perhaps we’ve never really pondered that question before.  We might initially think of reasons such as he needs us to be witnesses, to serve him, to worship him, to pray to him on behalf of others.  And all these would be valid activities and not a waste of our time.  And some of us have particular callings to these activities.  But they’re not the primary reason why Jesus called us.

In Mark’s gospel we are told that Jesus called twelve of his disciples “to be with Him” (Mark 3:14).  Granted, it goes quickly on to say that he also wanted them to preach, and to cast out demons – in other words, the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel.  But the key part is that he wanted them to be with him.  Relationship, not function.

Jesus has angels to serve and worship him.  The Holy Spirit intercedes with the Father.  Jesus can reveal himself to people directly without needing humans to help.  He doesn’t need us to work for him; he wants us to hang out with him.  Jesus is a social being.  He wants to walk, talk, be listened to and be involved.  But many of us relate to him in exactly the opposite way.  We don’t want to be with him; we’re much more comfortable doing things for him.  Or if we do, we’re usually too busy to make it happen.  A bit like Martha & Mary.  Which, paradoxically, makes it much harder for us to do the busy stuff well, because we haven’t been with him in the first place.

In the book of Acts, Peter and John get hauled in front of the religious authorities, who are unhappy that someone has been healed by them.  It’s obvious to everyone that they haven’t studied the law to an exceptional degree, and they’re not well-educated.  But as the Council members listened to what Peter has to say “they recognised they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).  That is their prime qualification for ministry, not their background, education, abilities or resources.  It was the fact that they had spent time with him, understood his teaching, picked up his expressions, learned his demeanour, understood his values, received his approbation and had their lives utterly transformed by being with him.  Why do we think we need anything less if we want to see the kingdom spread in anything like the way the first generation church did?

Why don’t we all, even now, just stop what we’re doing and go and hang out with Jesus?

“Up” into the light

004When trees are planted close together, they often don’t waste energy growing outwards into the familiar bushy shape we know of a mature solitary oak. This is exemplified in plantations, where they are deliberately placed close together so that they will quickly grow tall and straight to provide good timber. Think pine or gum tree plantations.

The proximity of the trees to each other encourages them all to grow upwards, towards the only source of light. This too should be our goal in life – to grow ‘up’ towards God.

Many of us involved in mission lose sight of this in our enthusiasm to reach out to those who do not yet know Jesus. We organise campaigns, strategies and church plants and in our busyness of keeping the whole thing on the road we somehow forget the real goal of life. David Pawson once said something like “God doesn’t need servants – he’s got plenty of angels.  But he is looking for a bride for his son.”  That does not mean that there is no need for service in the Christian life.  That’s the partnership that results from a growing relationship with God and leads to an ever-deepening intimacy as we see God at work in us and through us.

Last week we considered the proximity of others a source of protection for us, but it should also be a source of spiritual stimulation. If our teams, churches or supporters are not inspiring us to grow towards God, we should be challenging them to.  We are called to be part of a worshipping community, and even though some of us are pioneer workers who are physically separated from others, we still need the encouragement and inspiration of those who support us.  We need to consciously develop deeper relationships in which it is natural to talk about God, what he has done in our lives and written in his word, so that we help one another to grow.

While our mission may be to reach out, our calling is to reach up.  As Alex reminded us a few weeks ago, we should be fixing our eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:2). Paul exhorts us to press on towards the upward goal (Philippians 3:14). Maintaining our heavenly perspective enables us to endure the many hardships which we undergo in the course of our mission. Knowing that we suffer for Christ helps us to endure. Understanding that there is glory on the other side of this life frees us from working for glory now… or it should do.

Yet many of us are far more like Martha than Mary (Luke 10:28-42). We rush around doing stuff for Jesus in preference to being with him. For some of us, ministry may even be therapy rather than worship – striving to find identity, meaning and purpose in what we do rather than Who we are doing it with. Mary, on the other hand, contentedly sat at the feet of Jesus listening to what he has to say. I wonder how many of us choose the better part? Or are we simply too busy?

What we can learn from daffodils

DaffodilsAt this time of year, daffodils are bursting into flower all over northern Europe.  In parks and gardens, fields and verges, their bright yellow heads bring cheer, and the promise of warmer, sunnier days after a cold, dark winter.  Year after year they poke their heads up, sometimes through snow, sometimes into golden sunshine.  Always welcome, they bring some joy into everyone’s life, whether in a drift of colour by a lake, or in a simple vase on the windowsill.

They flower for just a few weeks each year, but no gardener begrudges the space they take up.  Nobody thinks about what the daffodils do for the rest of the year, but most of their lifetime is spent underground, unseen and inactive.  In the summer their soil is parched by long hot days.  In the autumn they are drenched by rain.  In winter the soil around them freezes hard.  Yet despite these demanding conditions, they come up again in the spring and do their thing.

The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that life is rhythmical in the famous passage that starts “For everything there is a season” (Eccl 3:1).  The daffodil has a season for flowering, and three seasons for dormancy.  It seems to me like the farmer in Mark 4:26-29, who works hard during the season of sowing, then waits patiently for harvest, when he again works hard.

Which is completely at odds with our western, protestant work ethic view of fruitfulness.  We expect to be hard at work day after day, week after week, with little time taken to recharge the batteries except the occasional, scrambled holiday – when we’re often keeping up with work by email or social media.  Small wonder that many of us are stressed!  Spending nine months of the year sounds unproductive even to the laziest of us, but there is a good principle of regularly stopping and resting, to gain strength and vision for the next stage.

At Syzygy we advocate the practice of cultivating a rhythm of life.  It helps us to break the domination of a work-orientated mindset and allows us to restore the relationship with God which we may have lost through our business – rather like Martha beavering away in the kitchen for Jesus, when she could have been with Jesus.  So we suggest you look at the following areas:

  • Regular prayer.  Whether you consciously turn your face to God once an hour, or every three hours at the traditional monastic hours of prayer, it’s good to take active steps to remind ourselves of God’s presence with us throughout the day.
  • Sabbath.  How much do we make of the one day of rest each week?  Do we use it for worship and family?  Is the computer off?  Do we leave the emails unchecked?  And if we have to work on Sunday, as many of us with church responsibilities do, do we take a day off in lieu during the week?
  • Day of prayer.  Have you thought of taking one complete (working) day out every month to rest, reflect and pray.  And we don’t mean taking one Saturday off a month!  We mean in addition to other rest days, but this one has the specific purpose of reconnecting with God.
  • Retreat.  We’ve talked a lot about retreat before.  Every three months it’s good to take a few days away, to let go of the busyness which wraps itself around us, tune our hearts in to God and hear what he has to say to us about our relationship, and not our work.

Practising regular times of rest may seem crazy when we have so much work to do, but I am sure that the daffodils would not be so spectacular if they found themselves forced to flower all year round!

Middle-aged mission workers in crisis?

Souce: www.sxc.hu

Souce: www.sxc.hu

50 can be a challenging age for anybody.  On reaching half a century, we have to start coming to terms with ageing, knowing that most of us are now over halfway through our lives.

Perhaps we are no longer able to play 5-a-side with the teenagers, or we are starting to have to make regular nocturnal visits to the toilet or coming to terms with the fact that our body tells us we can’t have children.  We may need varifocal lenses or hearing aids.  At the same time, we may be dealing with the drama of our children leaving home, or confronting the tragedy that we might never get married, and dealing with the pain of caring for elderly parents.  So there is a lot for us to take on board.

At the same time, we are rising to the peak of our professional responsibility.  We may be in senior management positions, elders in a church, pillars of our community, trustees of various organisations.  We are expected to mentor younger people, act as consultants and advisors, and start ‘paying something back’ into the community.  People expect our behaviour to be better than when we were teenagers (“You’re old enough to know better!”) and there is less tolerance of our mistakes as we are assumed to be more mature.  But there’s also that nagging doubt that we’ve built on shifting sand.  Will our life’s work last?  Have we devoted our lives to something worthwhile?  Will our children thrive?  Or in others words:

The pressure of responsibility and expectation on us rises, just as our energy levels are starting to fall. 

50s crisisA simple graph can demonstrate this.  The red line indicates the rising burden on us; the blue line the declining energy levels.  And the point where they cross is where disaster is waiting.

The crisis can take a number of forms: a stress-related health incident, ministry burnout and resignation, moral failure, crisis of faith, divorce – and all these hazards lurk out there waiting to trip up the unwary mission worker.  For no obvious reason an apparently exemplary worker will suddenly crack under pressure and fall to pieces, injuring many others with the fallout.  Lives are damaged, churches shattered, faith rocked.  Broken and hurting people return to their sending countries haunted by words like failure and defeat.

So how can we prevent this happening?

Mission workers can:

  • Ensure you maintain a vibrant relationship with God, taking time off work if necessary to devote time to God.
  • Remember to say no to additional responsibilities if you do not feel called to take them on.
  • Take time to reflect regularly on your identity.  Are you a Martha or a Mary?  Which way round is your dynamic triangle flowing?
  • Have a frank relationship with an accountability partner or mentor.
  • If you’re married, make sure you take regular steps to invest in your relationship.  If you’re not married, make sure you learn to thrive in your singleness.
  • Learn to delegate effectively so that you don’t have to cope with excessive busyness as well as excessive responsibility.
  • Rejoice that though we are physically decaying we are growing more godly (2 Corinthians 4:16)
  • Take a break at the first sign of stress-related illness.

Churches and agencies can:

  • Take active steps to ensure their mission workers are not overworked and take regular holidays and study leave
  • Use regular appraisals to ask challenging questions about spiritual, emotional and physical well-being
  • Encourage mentoring
  • Organise training to help mission workers understand what makes them tick and why they may be tempted to overwork.
  • Ensure mission workers are sufficiently well-funded to be able to take holidays.
  • Have a good member care team in place
  • Send out family and friends to support and encourage.
  • Ensure that mission workers take regular and sufficient home assignment and have regular healthchecks
  • Recognise that cross-cultural living can take its toll on people’s health and spirituality
  • Provide practical support to help reduce the pressure on mission workers
  • PRAY!!!

Start the year with prayer

SpurgeonPrayer pulls the rope below, and the bell rings above in the ears of God.  Some scarcely stir the bell for they pray so languidly.  Others give an occasional pluck at the rope, but he who wins with heaven is the man who grabs the rope boldly and pulls continuously with all his might. (C H Spurgeon)

As we start out on a new year, what better way than to begin with prayer?  It is only through prayer that we discern God’s direction and purposes, and while the secular world may preoccupy itself with new year resolutions for a week or two, each of us engaged in a mission for God needs to follow God’s instructions for the important steps we have to take.

praying handsPrayer is at the heart of all our activity.  We know that Jesus spent time alone in prayer at importance stages in his ministry, and yet so few of us follow his example.  My church, like many others, is starting January with a week of prayer, and I intend to take the opportunity to set time aside to listen to God for the future of Syzygy, and I invite you to join me to do the same for your ministries.

How often do we make a significant amount of time for prayer?  Most of us spend a few minutes at a time, or some emergency prayers for help when we find ourselves in difficulty, but how often are we, like Mary, to be found at the feet of Jesus listening to his words – even to the distraction of some of our colleagues who think we do not do enough work!  We are far more likely to be like Martha, toiling away diligently for him, which in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t actually take us away from Jesus.

Spurgeon’s great quote above reminds us of the need for determination, persistence and energy in prayer.  How can we achieve this when our church, work and home lives are all demanding time and attention of us?  Surely, not all of us have the luxury of setting aside great chunks of our lives for prayer?  I think few of us would think that Jesus did not have pressures and demands on his time and attention, yet he seemed to make time for it.  Perhaps it’s because we’ve lost the understanding that prayer is crucial to the effectiveness of our ministries and the fruitfulness of our lives.  Here are some of Syzygy’s top tips for developing a prayerful life:

  • firepanStart and end each day focussing on God.
  • Pray before you start your work, and invite God into your busyness.  Focus your attention on God and remind yourself that He’s the reason you’re in this ministry.
  • Two or three times a day (more if you can manage it) pause in your work to remember God, ask for his help, and thank him for equipping you to do your work.
  • If you have colleagues, meet together regularly for a short time of prayer.
  • Create at least an hour a week for a time of unhurried prayer.
  • Set aside a significant time each week, month and year to get away and be alone with God.  Arrange for others to cover your responsibilities so you can get away.
  • Don’t be slow to communicate prayer requests to others.

Prayer is the boiler room in which we stoke the great fires which power our ministry.  The more we shovel, the more energy we generate!

Syzygy has a number of intercessors committed to prayer for mission.  If you would like them to pray for a particular issue, or if you are willing to join this band of heavenly bellringers, please email prayer@syzygy.org.uk.

The importance of retreat

We have mentioned in several blogs the importance of retreat – to get away from it all, recharge the batteries, and seek God in prayer.   This is an important part of maintaining our emotional and spiritual health – to withdraw for a while from the busyness of our lives and responsibilities and to stand and stare:

What is this life if, full of care,

we have no time to stand and stare?

W H Davies’ whimsical poem Leisure cuts straight to the heart of our busy responsibility-laden lives: – if we don’t create time to re-connect with God, the natural world around us, our own emotions and the natural rhythms of our lives, can we really said to be living?  How come the very people Jesus has given abundant life to are running around like headless chickens offering abundant life to others but somehow failing to enjoy it themselves?

Saint Aidan and his seventh century co-workers (see our blog from July 2010) set up their monastery on a remote island, whose only access was via a causeway which was submerged at high tide.  Accordingly they developed a rhythm to life which was governed by the tides: time on the island which they spent in prayer and contemplation, and time on the mainland when they engaged in mission.  Many contemporary mission workers have forgotten the importance of this rhythm, and enthusiastically do mission work without making time to restore their spiritual resources.  Small wonder that they struggle with exhaustion and burnout!

We recommend that as part of a strategy for maintaining spiritual health, missionary longevity, and human wellbeing, every mission worker should develop a personal rhythm involving daily, weekly, monthly and yearly times of retreat, contemplation, prayer and reflection.  To help with this we have provided a page listing some good places (mostly in the UK) where retreats can be organised.  These can vary from space to find individual times of prayer to fully-led times of retreat.  They can be done silently or not, in groups (better for the extraverts!) or in solitude.

We realise that regular retreat may imply five days away once or twice a year, and for many people, particularly those with families, this is not always practical.  However it is possible for one partner to give another a free day once a month to spend time with God, or even for busy parents to grab five minutes of peace and quiet in the bathroom to read a psalm and say a quick prayer.  It is not the quantity of retreat that is important, so much as the regularity.

Whichever way of doing retreat works best for you, we strongly recommend that everyone makes sure that in their busyness they don’t squeeze out of their lives the God who longs to have more of our attention.  It was Mary who was commended by Jesus, not Martha.

I don’t want to feel guilty every time I have an ice cream!

The young woman who said this to me wasn’t talking about dieting.  She was talking about being a mission worker.  And some of us know only too well what she means.

We were exploring together the possibility that God was calling her to serve him abroad, and during the conversation, the issue of finance arose.  She was willing to save up to pay her way, but was hugely reluctant to ask friends to support her.  I don’t want to feel guilty every time I have an ice cream,’ she said.  She clearly felt that by taking other people’s hard-earned money to support her in mission, she had an obligation to use every penny of it on her vocation.

Such a burden of accountability, coupled with a consequently spartan lifestyle utterly devoid of treats, is a recipe for increased levels of stress and may possibly lead to burnout.  Yet so many of us, albeit subconsciously, have attitudes that demonstrate our tacit agreement with this woman.  Is it really wrong to eat ice cream bought with your support gifts?

No, it isn’t.  The people who support us expect to have small treats like ice cream, going out for coffee, or going to the cinema, as part of their normal lives, and they would be genuinely surprised if we didn’t do the same given the opportunity.  They go on holiday, and won’t begrudge us to do so too.  And we need to give ourselves these occasional treats to help us unwind and cope with the demanding life we have been called to.  In fact failure to treat ourselves would even be irresponsible if it results in us becoming unable to work efficiently, or having to take extended sick leave in order to recover.

But this is not just about the money.  It’s about a misplaced sense of accountability.  There’s nothing wrong with accountability: it focuses our activities if we have to report back to our senders on our use of time, finance and resources and the outcomes from them.  But to feel that we have to account scrupulously for every penny is coming uncomfortably close to having to fill in forms detailing how many people have given their lives to Jesus in the last month – it reveals a legalistic mindset that is overly concerned about results.

Jesus did not call us to that.  In fact, if his treatment of the dispute between Mary and Martha is anything to go by, Jesus want us to take time out rather than run around being busy and stressed.

So go ahead and treat yourself to an ice cream!

Harvest – festival?

Early autumn can be a beautiful time in England.  It’s often warm, and the golden sunshine lights the reds, russets and browns of turning leaves.  Fruit ripens, seedheads pop and dewdrops diamond the spiders’ webs.  In a tradition going back millennia before the start of their own religion, Christians take some of the harvest into their places of worship to honour the God who gives them food.  Yet in the midst of the rejoicing, there is hard work organising sheafs of wheat, displays of elaborately plaited bread, and vases of chrysanthemums.  One lady commented cheerfully to me, ‘I’m glad we only have to do this once a year!’

The feast of Passover is in essence a similar event.  Although six months removed from the English harvest, Passover is a celebration of the barley harvest as well as of the Exodus.  Joyful pilgrims went up to Jerusalem from all over ancient Israel to celebrate together.  The third day after Passover is called the Feast of  First Fruits, when they took their tithe of barley to the temple.  One Sunday nearly two thousand years ago, such a band centred on a rabbi from Nazareth.  With his twelve lieutenants, assorted women who funded his work, and possibly dozens of hangers on, he would have found difficulty staying in the crowded city, so they all stayed at the home of some friends in Bethany.

Martha and Mary remind me of Marilla and Anne in the book Anne of Green Gables. I can imagine Martha fussed with the responsibility of catering for so many: ‘Well, Anne, we’ll need to wash all the best crockery, and get some of my pickles out of the larder, and for goodness’ sake let’s have none of your daydreaming today!’  ‘Oh but Marilla, isn’t is SO exciting that Jesus is coming to our home!  I’m so happy that I could die perfectly contented even if the rest of my life were misery and squalor.’

It’s not surprising that Martha got stressed with the catering.  It would be a massive task hosting such a crowd.  Yet Jesus, who presumably ate the supper she cooked, said that Mary, distracted from her responsibilities by the joy of being with Jesus, had made the better choice.  It seems that Jesus is not looking for servants – he already has plenty of those.  Jesus is looking for kindred spirits.

Many of us active in ministry are so busy with the work we do for God, that we often don’t have the time to sit down and be with him.  We run around Martha-ing away, and seldom sit and Mary.  In order to combat the stress and busyness in our lives, we need to make time listen to what Jesus has to say to us.  One friend of mine has it in his job description to spend one whole morning in prayer each week.  We may think that’s a luxury we cannot afford with so much responsibility to carry, but if we asked Jesus whether he’d prefer us to be busy, what do you think he would answer?

Too busy not to pray?

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

I’ve recently been reading a biography of Saint Aidan, the founder of the Holy Island monastery and the man who brought Christianity back to Northumbria in the seventh century.  There were many impressive things about this celtic missionary to the pagan Angles, but what struck me most was his commitment to prayer.

He regularly spent hours in prayer, often alone on a small island.  He prayed as he travelled, and of course, as a monk, kept regular times of prayer throughout the day – and the night.  When he was first given the island of Lindisfarne to build the monastery, faced with the task of starting a farm to become self-sufficient in food, building a church, setting up a school and building shelter for the brothers from the bleak north sea weather, Aidan and his team spent 40 days in prayer instead.  They wanted to build on firm foundations.

I wonder if you are so committed to seeking God’s will for your endeavours.  I certainly am not.  When I set up Syzygy six years ago, of course I prayed, often, but not for 40 days.  I doubt that you did when you set out on your ministry.  We’re all too busy.  Yet Aidan realised that he had so much to do, he couldn’t afford not to pray.  Like John Wesley, who apparently spent three hours a day praying, and justified it by saying that he was so busy he couldn’t possibly pray less.  Like Jesus, who regularly withdrew to a lonely place to spend time with his father.  Time he could have spent teaching, or healing the sick.  He obviously thought it was important.

Perhaps our independent spirits lead us to be Marthas rather than Marys.  Of course, if it were left to Mary Jesus would never have got his dinner, but somehow I don’t think he’d have minded that much.  Are we so busy doing stuff for him that we don’t have time to sit and be with him?  Maybe that’s why so many of us are stressed and burnt-out.

I have decided to engage more in prayer, particularly in the workplace.  I pray at my desk before I start work, and  continue in prayer at regular intervals throughout the day.  Well, when I’m not too busy.