The growing Syzygy network

Source: www.freeimages.com

The world of cross-cultural mission in the UK is in transition at the moment as churches and agencies all look at our practices and processes and try to find new ways of sending mission workers which will replace the outmoded model originally developed in the 19th century.  This is given added urgency by the financial challenges many churches and agencies are experiencing.

In this climate, there is a severe risk that mission workers will suffer due to lack of member care.  Small agencies are not able to devote sufficient resources to it.  Larger agencies are looking to reduce central costs.  Agencies are expecting churches to do more to support their mission workers, but the churches struggle to find the vision, capacity and expertise to deliver this competently.

Syzygy is uniquely placed to ensure mission workers continue to be effectively supported during this upheaval.  We have already entered into arrangements with several sending agencies, both large and small, for us to provide member care for their workers.  We also are able to support churches to develop the vision and capacity to do more to support their mission partners.

In order to provide this level of service we have been expanding our own capacity and have developed a network of  member care professionals across the country who are conveniently located for the mission workers we hope to support.  The Syzygy representatives are able to carry out one-to-one pre-departure training, ongoing member care for mission partners in the field, and home assignment debriefs.

For more information contact Syzygy on info@syzygy.org.uk

Is anybody listening?

Source: www.freeimages.com

Blogging can be a frustrating activity.  I can spend days mulling over a good idea, hours finely crafting my prose, and finally release my most earth-shattering blog onto the internet, only to be met by the deafening sound of silence.  No comments.  No shares.  Not even a like.  Nothing.  It’s deflating.

Just like that deflating feeling most mission workers know when asked by some innocent church member back home “How many people have you baptised this year?”.  Most of us know the embarrassment of squirming a bit, thinking of some excuses (“that’s not really my role”) before reluctantly admitting the truth – none.  And for many of us, it was none last year, or the year before.

Our sending churches seem to expect a vast harvest, or at least a regular crop, of souls for the Lord.  When did mission become subject to arbitrary productivity statistics more fitting to a factory?  And why are these standards not applied to those working on the home front?

The reality is that western mission workers seldom produce significant numbers of ‘converts’.  We sow a lot of seed but seldom see the harvest, even though we continue to hope for a harvest.  Unlike Isaiah, who was told by God at the start of his long ministry that he would see no fruit.  We often hear sermons on the powerful call of Isaiah, his vision of the Lord in his temple, his enthusiastic response, but we seldom hear sermons on the passage which immediately follows:

Then the LORD told me to go and speak this message to the people:

You will listen and listen, but never understand.

You will look and look, but never see.

The LORD also said: Make these people stubborn!

Make them stop up their ears, cover their eyes, and fail to understand.

Don’t let them turn to me and be healed.

 

Would you have gone into the mission field if you’d known that was your mission?  Small wonder that within minutes of his enthusiastic “Here I am, send me!”, Isaiah’s response was “How long do I have to do that?”  No prophet wants people to ignore his message, as no mission worker wants her words to fall on deaf ears.

I am sure many of us can identify with this frustration.  We have spent years, sometimes decades, working hard in the mission field, with little harvest to show for it.  But we are not called to be successful.  We are called to be faithful to him who sent us and to the work he has called us to do, and we are called to bear fruit in our lives.  The obedient mission worker, persevering in adversity, has far more in common with Isaiah than with Jonah, who preached and an entire city repented immediately (Jonah 3:10), or the rare contemporary outbreaks of revival we hear about, but seldom experience in our own ministries.

So, if you have reaped little harvest, take courage.  Jesus told his disciples “Others have laboured so that you can reap.” (John 4:38)  Perhaps it is your role to plant the seed.  In impacting the culture, demonstrating the gospel by your lifestyle, encouraging and equipping local believers, softening a harsh spiritual environment through your prayer, and being a faithful witness, you are planting an immense crop for others to reap.  In many of the places we are called to, mission is a long-term, multi-generational enterprise.  Like a worker on a production line, you may weld the chassis but never see the car roll out of the factory.  But the car wouldn’t be any good without your humble and unlauded work.

He who has ears, let him hear.

Processing….

Source: www.freeimages.com

You are probably no stranger to that moment when you hit a button on your computer and nothing happens.  Perhaps a little icon rotates, or a dialogue box pops up that says “Processing…”  And you just sit there, uncertain whether to press the button again, or go and make a cup of tea.

Often the reason is the processor is overloaded with demands.  Perhaps it has to sort through a lot of junk to find the information it needs, or maybe you’re running several programs at once.  Sometimes there is a huge automatic download in progress (it’s usually Windows).  Whatever the reason, the demands on the system exceed its processing capacity.

It’s just the same with humans.  We don’t like to think we have limited processing capacity, particularly in a world where multi-tasking is so valued, but for mission workers there are often a lot of things going on at the same time.  Our heads are busy with the demands of operating in a foreign language, navigating traffic, managing family needs, planning for meetings, preparing sermons and liaising with co-workers.

Some of us are not equipped temperamentally to balance so many competing demands for our attention, and struggle to concentrate on any one of them because others keep surfacing at the same time.  In such circumstances it’s good to have times when we allow ourselves to close the office door or switch the phone off so that we can minimise the demands on our attention.

There may also be a lot more going on behind the scenes than we are aware of.  The pressure of living cross-culturally creates a lot of circumstances which we may think we are able to handle, but all add small amounts to the daily stress we suffer.  Did that person misunderstand me because my language is limited?  Did I fail to pick up subtle cues that I’m not used to?  Why do I have to wait so long in this queue?  Why do people drive like this?  Often these uncertainties create ‘feedback loops’ – situations that we keep mulling over, whether consciously or not, that also demand part of our processing power.

In order to deal with these issues which keep running in the background, we need to have a look at the task manager to get a better grip of what’s going on.  As we’ve remarked on previous occasions, regular retreat is an excellent way of doing this.  Even if we can only manage a day away at a quiet or spiritual place to reflect, we can still ask ourselves questions like:

  • How am I coping in this culture?
  • What are the stress points for me?
  • What are the ongoing issues in my personal life, team relationships and engagement with the local community?

This then equips us with a bit more knowledge so that we know which thought processes we can shut down.  We do that by reflecting on these issues and asking ourselves:

  • Why am I upset by this?
  • What can I do about it?
  • How is God equipping me to grow in this situation?

Many of these issues can be quickly dealt with once exposed.  One practice that is helpful to get into is to do a mini-reflection each night before going to bed.  We can ask ourselves simple questions like:

  • What upset me today?
  • Why?
  • Who do I need to forgive, or ask forgiveness from?
  • How do I resolve this?

But let’s not finish with the negatives!  We can also finish the day by reminding ourselves what brought us joy, what we can be thankful for, and where we saw God at work in, through and around us.

Just like our computers, a little bit of regular maintenance will help us to operate a little more effectively.

Lost

IMG_20160805_091801Over the summer, I had a curious and (for me) unusual experience: I got lost.  No, it wasn’t the occasion when I was on a mountain in low cloud, when I had compass, map and GPS and was able to navigate the terrain easily despite not being able to see the landmarks.  It was on a lowish moor, under clear skies, when I could see the nearby lake and the town beside it.  But the path had disappeared.

Soon I found myself wading through bog, scrambling up rocks, pushing through heather, and fording streams to try to get to my destination.  Yet the whole time I knew where I was, but couldn’t find the way to where I wanted to be.

I felt on later reflection that the entire situation was symbolic of what we have been discussing in the last two blogs: it is possible to know exactly where you are, while being equally unsure whether you ought to be there.  Lost and not lost.  Which raises an interesting question: is it possible to be lost with God?

If we are walking with God, doing our best daily to put our hand in his hand, our feet where his feet have trod, to listen to his voice and follow the sound, can we ever really be lost?  Even in the midst of transition, when all we know is that we’re leaving one place and moving to another, possibly completely unknown, we cannot be truly lost.  God knows where we are, which direction we are facing and where we are going.

Which are all things we may be uncertain of.  Yet in our confusion and doubt we must trust the shepherd, whose gentle voice we have come to know, and even if we have no idea where we are, trust that he knows.  He is quite capable of turning us around, moving us in a different direction, or rescuing us should we really need it.  Just as Thomas Merton wrote:

Therefore I will trust in you always, though I may seem to be lost.

 

Podcasts for single mission workers

IMG_20160812_084512One of the (many) challenges single mission workers face is finding resources to help them in their challenge to live a rich and fulfilled life without a life partner.  Sometimes their perception of a huge hole in their life where their life-partner should be can become so overwhelming that it dominates every aspect of their life, and often there is little in the way of resources to help them refocus their attention on the amazing possibilities and opportunities of being single.

Now Syzygy has partnered with Member Care Media to produce a series of 5 short podcasts which include some essential teaching for single mission workers.  We hope that these introductions to material shared more fully in our regular retreats for singles at Penhurst Retreat Centre will help single mission workers thrive in their singleness and learn to see it as a blessing rather than a challenge to be overcome, or even better, ended.

The podcasts can be found on the singles page of Member Care Media, and the subject matter includes:

  • An introduction to singleness and why it is a challenge for so many mission workers
  • Biblical characters who were successfully single
  • A Biblical perspective on why singleness isn’t intrinsically bad
  • Unpacking the ‘gift’ of singleness
  • Strategies for a fulfilling single life

It is our hope that these resources will be used by single mission workers worldwide, to help them get the most out of their singleness.

Another resource we produced a couple of years ago is the book Single Mission, which we believe is the first book by single mission workers about single mission workers for single mission workers.  Many agencies have used it as part of their training and orientation – and not only for their singles!  It has been greatly appreciated by married people too, who have used it to learn about the challenges of being single later in life which they may not have experienced.  Why not try it out?

 

Mo Farah

RioMo Farah is not a Christian, yet in Rio on Saturday night he demonstrated something that we all could learn a lesson from – he got up again and carried on.

We all know what it is to fall.  We make mistakes ourselves, or like Mo, we get innocently tripped up by life.  Sometimes somebody deliberately trips us up.  But however it happens, we find ourselves on the floor.

Dazed, confused, hurt, our instinct can be to give up, thinking it’s all over.  Maybe we lash out, to try to regain some pride by implicating others, or look around for sympathy to make us feel better.

But Mo showed us what the Christian’s discipline should teach us: don’t mess around, just get up and start running again.  In a 100m race that would not be possible.  But in a distance race, there is time to make up lost ground.  And the Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint.

The Bible is full of people who fell.  In a temper, Moses killed a man.  Out of fear, Peter denied he even knew Jesus.  Abraham, the man of faith, took events into his own hands rather than trusting in God.  But that isn’t what they’re remembered for, because they didn’t let failure become the final word.  They carried on.  There are many others who tripped up, but finished well.  Falling isn’t final.  It has been rightly observed:

Falling isn’t failure.  Failure is not getting up again.

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.

A personal comment on resilience

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

I am going to end this series of blogs on resilience with something very unusual in five years of blogging – a personal testimony.  Late in 1999 I returned to England in a badly damaged condition after five years of mission service in Africa.  During the previous decade I had suffered overwork and stress, emotional and spiritual abuse, unresolved grief, and frequent illnesses culminating in hepatitis.  And now I had chronic fatigue syndrome!  Unable to care for myself, I moved in with a friend who took care of me as I slowly recovered.

During this time a strange thing happened: I became filled with joy in a way that was completely new to me.  I would spontaneously burst into songs of praise even when walking down the street or in the shower. My prayer life became characterised by gratitude.  I was puzzled that this was at odds with my material state: poor health, no money, no hope of getting a job, the frustration of long-term illness.

And then I realised the essential truth that my spirit was rejoicing in even though my mind was slow to catch up.  Everything really important in life was already taken care of!  God loved me unconditionally.  Christ died for me.  My eternal salvation was secure.  So what if the rest of my mortal life was illness and poverty?

This is the eternal perspective that Paul was able to tap into when enduring his “momentary, light afflictions” (2 Corinthians 4:17).  This is what happens when we have roots that run deep into God so that we can survive the tough times.

It was five years before I was restored to health, and the lessons I learned during that time have been life-transforming.  They enable me to thrive because my essence is focussed on my being, not my doing, and is rooted in God’s acceptance of me in Christ.  They help me even at times of extreme busyness to live as a Mary, not a Martha.  They also provide the experience which now equips me to help others find peace in the midst of their busy and stressful lives.

I pray for each of you reading this blog, that you will also know the sense of heavenly trajectory and peace that comes from having deep roots.  If you don’t, please contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk for a confidential discussion.

Resources on resilience

008In this series on resilience, we have made the point that resilience is essential for our survival as mission workers.  We need to develop it before we go, sustain it when the going gets tough, and restore it when things get easier.  Today we’re going to look at some resources to help with this, several of which we have already referred to in other blogs because they’re so good, but it does no harm to bring them together in one place.

Books

The best single resource we have come across on this subject is a small booklet called Spirituality for the long-haul, by Tony Horsfall.  It is a simple, practical and accessible way of making sure you have everything you need in place, and you can buy it online from Kitab for just £3.  Tony is also the author of Working from a Place of Rest, which helps us combat overwork.  Gene Edwards’ A Tale of Three Kings and Marjory Foyle’s Honourably Wounded are both classics in helping people wounded by their own leaders and colleagues. And Laura Mae Gardner’s Healthy, Resilient & Effective is a great handbook for leaders of agencies and churches in helping develop resilience in their mission partners.

Online resources

There is now a vast number of websites dedicated to supporting mission workers, and out of them all you might like to look first at Member Care Media with its vast array of podcasts on a variety of topics.    The Headington Institute has a variety of fascinating articles about self-awareness, stress and resilience.

Retreat

We frequently talk about the importance of retreat to restore our inner peace and create a space to reconnect with God.  While there are many places across the world providing retreat for mission workers (see our retreats page) we particularly recommend Penhurst Retreat Centre in East Sussex for its cosy, informal atmosphere, effective debriefing and focus on mission workers.  Those of you in extreme stages of burnout or trauma may find a visit to Le Rucher helpful, and of course there are similar resources in other continents.

“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?

Deep roots for dry times

005 (3)Have you noticed that mission workers are often expected to be spiritually self-sufficient, able to sustain themselves by feeding on God’s word alone, with little or no access to relevant church or fellowship groups? Curiously, the people who assert this are often those who tell Christians that they cannot survive spiritually without regularly attending church meetings, Bible studies, home groups…. Why are mission workers expected to be so different?

The truth is that most of us are not different. We struggle to maintain our spiritual vitality without friends around us. Our spiritual disciplines can fail under the pressure of demands on us. We can become discouraged when we labour long in the mission field with apparently little result. We dry up inside, and our relationship with God can be little more than going through the motions.

So how can we, as mission workers, put down deep roots into the dry and dusty spiritual soil in which we’re planted? Often there is no easy answer – Psalm 1 might seem like a good place to start but who wants to Bible study night and day?

For most of us, it’s simply a case of hanging on and not giving up. And that’s ok. Because trees don’t put down deep roots when the drought comes. That’s the time to pause and wait. Deep roots are not developed during the hard times but in the good ones. When things are easier, perhaps we’re on home assignment, or a retreat, or at a conference, we can experience times of refreshing to see us through the dry periods.

This is such an important part of our early spiritual life, our training in church and Bible College, and our pre-departure preparation: building up spiritual stamina through regular Bible study, prayer and worship. These become habits that sustain us through the times of challenge.

But what do we do if we’re already in the middle of the drought and we didn’t take the time to develop deep roots before? How do we survive when it feels like we’re all dried up inside? That’s when we need someone to help water us! Make plans for a retreat or a conference. Invite someone to visit who can refresh you. Try a new church or a new version of the Bible that will bring things alive in a new way. Download some sermons or visit a cyberchurch. Hold a skype prayer meeting with friends once a week.

If you’ve tried all of these and you’re not getting anywhere, it’s time to re-evaluate your position – are you being effective if you’re that dry? How can you be a witness to the good news if it’s clearly not good news in your life?  Many of us are frightened of withdrawing from the mission field in case we’re seen as a failure, but what army doesn’t execute a strategic withdrawal when it realises it’s in an unsustainable position? It is better to leave the mission field than to lose your faith, which is what can happen if we just hang on grimly getting drier and drier without meeting God in the midst of our drought.

Safety in numbers

Chanctonbury ringWe all know the idea of safety in numbers, whether it’s herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the Serengeti, or shoals of mackerel avoiding predators like tuna.  But we might not have noticed that trees do the same.  A few tree species produce winged seeds that catch the wind and fly far away, but most, like the oak, produce heavy ones that don’t fall far from the parent tree, so that they can build up a forest around them for protection.

Whether it’s a naturally-occurring forest or a human-made plantation, trees tend to flourish in groups.  This can be best seen in some of the Victorian plantations that still stand on the top of some of Britain’s hills.  Trees seldom grow alone on the top of exposed hills, and if they do, they don’t always grow big and strong.  The wind breaks off their tender new growth resulting in squat, bent trees.  This still happens on the windward side of hilltop woods.  The ones that bear the brunt of the wind still struggle, but in doing so, they provide shelter for the downwind ones.  The further away the trees are from the force of the wind, the taller and straighter they grow.  In other words, the upwind ones take a hit for the others.

Mission workers are too often like lone trees struggling against the elements.  They leave the safety of their natural environment to go somewhere more demanding.  They might persist but they don’t thrive.  Which raises the obvious question – where is the community?  Who is taking the hit for you so that you can grow big and strong?

It doesn’t have to be one supporter who suffers greatly bearing this burden, but a number who share it between them.  Part of raising support before we go is finding the members of this team who not only provide the money (and that’s what we focus on getting, right?) but can provide practical and pastoral support, communication and prayer.

It’s also about being part of a team in the field which supports us in our challenges.  Whether they are specialist member care workers, supportive colleagues or understanding team leaders, we need to make sure that we have a team which takes the hit for us (and vice versa).  We must also remember not to overlook the provision that God has given us in the local believers.  Too often we come to the mission field with a mentality of serving the local church which is at best paternalistic if not neo-colonialist, and we don’t even entertain the fact that they might be able to serve and encourage us.  But perhaps we serve them best when we show that we are not strong and invincible but fragile and vulnerable and allow them to help us in our need.

Few of us are called to be a lonely pine on a hilltop.  Most of us are intended to be mighty oaks of righteousness, planted together in groups which will bless and encourage others.  So take a look around and see where the other trees are, and whether you can’t actually start growing closer together.

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.

Today I am…

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

You may have come across our series of Easter tweets “Today I am…” This is not a pun on the name of the everlasting God, but an invitation to reflect on who we might be in the Easter story. Are we a bystander, a disciple, a Pharisee or a Roman? Or someone else altogether?  What role do we play?

This is not a new technique for bringing to life an episode in the Bible, but it is not common in evangelical circles. Yet placing ourselves within the story, and not merely reading it, can help to bring it to life in a new way. Asking ourselves what we did or said, or how we felt can help us become players in the drama. For example, imagine you are Peter, sitting by a fire in the courtyard, and for the third time somebody accuses you of being with Jesus, which you vehemently deny. A cock crows, and Jesus looks at you. How does he look? Angry, disappointed, sad? How do you feel? Ashamed, embarrassed, frightened? Asking ourselves to use our senses to imagine the sights, smells and sounds in the story unpacks them in a new way.

Life was not easy for the people Jesus called to follow him. They had seen vast crowds fed, heard incredible teaching and one had even walked on the water. They had faced opposition and criticism.  And now they were in hiding, in fear of their lives. They had started out realising that Jesus wasn’t just a carpenter, but someone special. They accepted him as their rabbi. They came to believe he was the Messiah. Then they feared he was just another failed rebel leader, before finding out that somehow he had come back from the grave, the same but changed, and they came to trust that he was not only the Messiah, but God.  And nearly all of them were executed for believing that.

Likewise we mission workers have to deal with success and failure (“those two imposters”) and the challenges they present to our theology. We can easily be thrown into doubt or confusion when disaster strikes, or triumphalist when it all works out well. We can trust in our own abilities and giftedness or we can wonder whether we heard God right, or whether God has let us down. We can doubt our own calling, or even our own faith.

Paul was no stranger to being buffeted by the storms of a tough life. In 2 Corinthians 11 he lists stoning, beating, imprisonment and shipwreck among his “momentary, light afflictions” (2 Corinthians 4:17, NASB)!  But despite the knocks and hardships, he kept on going. He wrote:

We often suffer, but we are not crushed.
Even when we don’t know what to do, we never give up.
In times of trouble, God is with us,
And when we are knocked down, we get up again.

(2 Corinthian 4:8-9, CEV)

This quality is known as resilience, and it is in great demand. It is a current topic in member care as we all consider how to help people acquire it. Resilience is the rare ability not to be derailed by the challenges we face, and on the odd occasion when we get knocked down, to get up and keep on going. Over the next few weeks we’re going to be doing a mini-series of blogs on resilience. We hope they help mission workers everywhere to keep on keeping on and not despair. We hope to help them discover how, like Paul, they can suffer so much and think it insignificant.

Today, I am Paul…

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!

Guest blog: Keep on keeping on!

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

Today’s guest blogger is Alex Hawke, a mission worker in Cambodia. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexGTHawke.

At the 1968 Summer Olympics John Stephen Akhwari ran in the marathon representing Tanzania. Part way through the race he fell badly and dislocated his knee. He valiantly kept running as best he could and finished last. He was asked why he had kept going. He replied, “My country did not send me 5000 miles to start the race. They sent me to finish the race.”

As those serving cross-culturally we face a whole variety of things that can distract, frustrate, upset or disappoint us. At times we may feel really discouraged and be tempted to give up. Like you I’ve faced some disheartening circumstances and various challenges to my faith and call, even recently. I often return to Hebrews 12:1-3 where we find both stunning reasons to keep running our race and some ways to do that. Whether we’re doing fine or experiencing deep discouragement or uncertainty I hope this will be fuel for the journey, some help to keep us keeping on.

Jesus is worthy. He sits ‘at the right hand of the throne of God’ v2. We keep going because Jesus is worthy of praise, glory and honour that He’s not receiving from most of the people we see around us. If this doesn’t motivate me to keep going then I am definitely not here for all the right reasons. Ultimately what we experience in the course of our race, the trials, the risk-taking, the frustration is worth it first and foremost because Jesus is worth it. Other people’s lack of response to the gospel message must not take my eyes off Him. I can still worship; He is always worthy, always wonderful and faithful. Also, if we think this is about us then we’ll either be proud or feel defeated, both of which hinder us from running our race.

Jesus understands. v3 exhorts us to ‘Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.’ Jesus suffered way more than we ever will. It’s a huge comfort when I’m weary or discouraged to know that Jesus has been here and has ‘shared in our humanity’, Heb 2:14. Have we been lied to? Taken advantage of? Persecuted for doing what’s right? Misunderstood? Had our loving efforts rejected? Jesus knows. We follow the Suffering Servant and He’s promised to be with us. He understands both us and the broken people around us. This has a way of drawing us nearer to Him as we identify even a little with his sufferings and know he has identified with ours.

Throw off hindrances and sins. Athletes run or play with just the essentials so nothing gets in the way. Is grumbling hindering our teams? Is self-pity weighing you down? Are we neglecting private prayer and worship? Are we giving in to sexual temptation? If it’s pride let’s see Jesus as worthy and as the one who endured the cross. There’s no room left for pride when we’ve seen Jesus for who He is.

It’s a classic strategy of Satan to accuse us and make us feel condemned. V2 says Jesus sat down in heaven. His great work of redeeming us from the power and penalty of sin was done and He’s alive to reign, live in us and work through us. So accept God’s forgiveness anew, remembering we’re free from condemnation and don’t have to carry the burden of sin and failure. I laughed out loud when I first read this from Martin Luther, “When Satan tells me I am a sinner he comforts me immensely since Christ died for sinners.” Ha! The simple fact of the gospel disarms one of Satan’s best tactics every time.

Some of our hindrances aren’t sinful but they’re distracting or have become idols, taking the place of Jesus in our priorities. Social media may be doing that for some of us. Or ‘ministry success’. To all these hindrances, temptations and sins I’m learning to say: ‘Jesus is better.’ The temporary reward I feel indulging in these things is like dirt compared to the infinite value of Jesus and the satisfaction he alone can bring.

Let’s regularly ask God what hinders us from running the race, confess and repent. Be ruthless and get help. I’ve seen sin lead to people leaving their field of service causing hurt and lasting damage and leading to less ambassadors for Christ reaching the unreached.

Stick together. The use of athletic imagery here and in Paul’s letters isn’t supposed to imply we run solo. ‘Us’ appears several times in these few verses along with ‘we’, ‘our’ & ‘you’ (plural). Clearly it’s written to a group exhorting them to do these things together. Having the support of other believers is crucial to staying on course. The encouragement Ellie and I get being a part of a small team and a house church here is immense. Praying together, sharing struggles, helping each other move house, worshipping together. Are you connected regularly with some supportive fellow runners? People with whom you don’t feel you have to pretend? Christian community is also where we remind each other of the glorious truths of the gospel and can confess our sins and get help with the things that are entangling us.

Pace yourself. That we are to ‘run with perseverance’ (v1) tells us that it’s going to be hard. And that this is a marathon not a sprint. Knowing this we need to pace ourselves. A number of mission organizations encourage their workers to work only 2/3 of the day. If you’re working in the evening, take either the morning or the afternoon off. Also one person’s rhythm is different from another’s. Things like having young children or living with a medical condition or being older also impact on what’s a sustainable pace for different people. Plan rest days or breaks into the coming months.

Fix your eyes on Jesus (v2). Staying focused on Jesus requires us to be intentional. Regular prayer, worship and reading of scripture are key as is fellowship with others who love Him. Rest, exercise, friendships, a healthy work/life balance will all help us keep going but none are as important as our ongoing, close relationship with Jesus. During the Hebrides revival Duncan Campbell wrote:

These are days of much activity in the field of church and mission work, but no amount of activity in the King’s service will make up for neglect of the King himself. The devil is not greatly concerned about getting between us and work; his great concern is getting between us and God. Many a Christian worker has buried his spirituality in the grave of his activity.

Our attention easily moves to ourselves, our organizations, our methods, our shortcomings. We wonder if our faith is big enough or how we compare to others. Problems can seem overwhelming. Regularly, intentionally gazing at Jesus brings right perspective and we start to see what could be instead of what is right now. And if we lose our focus on Jesus we have nothing of lasting value to give to the broken world around us.

Verse 3 indicates that if we ‘consider him’ we won’t lose heart. The recipients of this letter were facing trouble. We face trouble. It can push us toward Jesus. It must if we’re to keep going. It’s challenging to keep loving & keep serving. We’re not supposed to be able to do this without God. We’re going to need to get on our knees before that difficult meeting, about that awkward relationship, about that broken person who doesn’t seem to be changing.

We need vision to keep going. Ultimately Jesus is our vision, over and above whatever particular vision God may have given us for our various different ministries. He’s our source, our sustainer and the giver of our purpose. We can keep running because of who Jesus is and what He’s done. Our sin forgiven, a message burning in our hearts, carriers of His presence, secure in our identity. I’m sure also many of us would testify that ministry vision, ideas and inspiration have come when we’ve been seeking Jesus.

Finally, keep an eternal perspective. Heaven is real. Knowing where we’re going changes how we live. Future glory outweighs present suffering for the sake of the gospel. We can face trials, hurt, discouragement, even persecution unto death because we know what’s coming. For the joy set before Him Jesus endured the cross, v2. He knew it was worth it: God would be glorified, we would be redeemed and with Him forever and that coming joy spurred Him on to endure the cross. May both the coming joy of being with Him and the desire that those we serve be there with us spur us on too.

The witnesses in verse 1 are the heroes of chapter 11, and maybe 1000s of others since, who have finished their race. It’s like they cheer us on: “Keep going, keep getting up; it’s worth it! Nothing done in Jesus’ name will ever, ever be in vain!” The sacrifices may be great but the reward will be greater.

KEEP ON KEEPING ON!

Alex

Alex Hawke

Resilience – learning how to bounce back

951860_stress_v_2This week’s guest blogger is our old friend Rick Lewis, an experienced mentor of Christian leaders.

In my work as a mentor of Christian leaders I regularly find myself in conversations with extraordinarily able people who are struggling with low energy levels as a result of becoming emotionally drained.  Of course, this is not a condition experienced only by Christian leaders – any one of us can become emotionally drained.  Yet I would contend that the nature of leaders’ roles within Christian organisations exposes them to vocational hazards beyond the normal range that not only bring them to exhaustion but also tax their ability to bounce back.  This has made the matter of resilience for Christian leaders one of the most critical issues for sustainable ministry and ministry today.

Even if you agree with this assessment of the special stresses and strains experienced by Christian leaders, you may still be wondering about the most constructive ways to address the problem.  Nobody I know is perfectly resilient, but some leaders I’ve mentored do seem to do better than others.  What can be learned from them?

Drawing from observations I have made and linking them with insights from the Bible, I want to suggest ten factors conducive to personal resilience.  These factors could be developed in the context of a mentoring partnership, or applied in some other process of support for leaders.  I want to stress that the resilient leaders I have in mind were not immune to becoming emotionally drained.  The point is that when they did become drained, they were able to bounce back in a relatively short period of time to a state of energy, hope and joy, making their ministries healthy and sustainable.

My top resilience factors, in no particular order, are these:

  1. Supportive relationships of love, trust and encouragement – “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labour: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10)
  2. Wise care of one’s physical health – “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—for he grants sleep to those he loves.” (Psalm 127:2)
  3. A metanarrative that provides a basis for hope – “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord ’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:21-23)
  4. Positive role models – “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” ( Hebrews 13:7)
  5. Realistic assessment of and confidence in one’s abilities & strengths – “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” (Romans 12:3)
  6. Willingness to develop and draw on others’ strengths – “But how can I bear your problems and your burdens and your disputes all by myself? Choose some wise, understanding and respected men from each of your tribes, and I will set them over you.” (Deuteronomy 1:12-13)
  7. Self-restraint to manage strong feelings and impulses – “Do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret —it leads only to evil.”  (Psalm 37:7-8)
  8. Capacity to construct and implement realistic plans– “The king said to me, ‘What is it you want?’ Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, ‘If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favour in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.’”  (Nehemiah 2:4-5)
  9. Engaging regularly in reflective practice – “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)
  10. Humility before God – “’God opposes the proud but shows favour to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.  Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”  (1 Peter 5:5-7)

Rick_LewisI have resisted listing renewal by the power of the Holy Spirit as a separate item because it is of a higher order than any of these factors. In fact, the ministry of the Holy Spirit to restore our inner being is behind all that I have presented and extends well beyond it. In the end, the resilience we need as Christian leaders comes from the Lord. Yet it is good for us to remember that there are wise ways in which we can cooperate with his grace at work in our lives to run the race he has marked out for us to the very end.

This blog originally appeared on www.anamcaraconsulting.com.au where you can read a full version.