At this time of year, many mission workers are back in the UK to reconnect with family and friends.  Many of them will stay for a few months, and some for up to a year as they take their home assignment.

For many of them, the biggest uncertainty and cause of stress is arranging accommodation.  There is just so little accommodation available.  Hotels are obviously too expensive; getting a short-term let of less than a year is nigh-on impossible.  One well-known Christian charity has just withdrawn from making homes available to mission workers.  Some mission workers own their own home in the UK and could evict their tenants, but then they may be using the rent to provide them with income, so that’s not a viable solution.

Occasionally mission workers may get an opportunity to house-sit for someone who has gone abroad, or to stay in someone’s holiday home, but those often aren’t in the right part of the country.   Many people have to make do with poor arrangements.

I’ve known people stay in empty student accommodation at a Bible College which is three hours’ drive from their family and supporting church.  I’ve known a family of 5 staying with parents in a 2-bedroom bungalow.  Those sort of arrangements do not provide the rest mission workers need.

For many years Syzygy has had the dream of having houses in various parts of the country that we can make available to mission workers.  It’s a big dream, which would meet a need centrally, but recently I’ve been wondering if a missions support agency should actually be doing this, when we’re really wanting the church to be more effective at supporting their mission workers.  Shouldn’t the church be doing this?

The church you ask?  Isn’t that impossible?  Impractical?

Let’s just imagine a typical church for a moment.   It might not be very big, and many of its members may be unsalaried or living on pensions.  But a gift day can still raise a significant amount.  Two or three gift days, supplemented by fundraising activities, could bring in enough funding for a deposit on a small house or flat, allowing a mortgage to be raised using the value of a church building as collateral.  Voila!  A home for mission workers.

But there are still mortgage repayments to make.  Given that for much of the time the mission workers won’t be using the house, it can be rented out on a yearly tenancy arrangement which will cover the mortgage.  Or, if more flexibility is needed, it can be let short-term on AirBnb.  Alternatively, it can be used to house a church worker short-term, or made available to local charities or the council to provide emergency accommodation for homeless people or refugees.  And if you’re worried about all the administration involved in managing this, why not set up an arrangement with a local letting agent to do it with you?

We recognise that not all churches will be able to do this.   We don’t know your existing commitments and the extent of your resources.  But we want to plant the idea and show that it is possible.

Some years ago I came across a church which had bought a small development of six flats.  Four of them were let commercially, one was made available to a caretaker, and the sixth was kept ready for the church’s mission workers to use whenever they needed it.

Could yours be that church?

 

Syzygy knows of one or two places available for mission workers to use when they are back in the UK.  Contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk for more information.  Alternatively see the Accommodation page on the Oscar website.

During the difficult lockdown days that many countries (especially in Europe) continued to endure this spring, my organization required us to take at least a half-day retreat somewhere in our city, find a bridge and reflect on its significance.

As I found my bridge in a beautiful park in my city of Genova, Italy, I made the following observations about bridges:

  1. Bridges are often used to cross or overcome an obstacle
  2. Are often the fastest means to get from point A to point B
  3. To cross a bridge can often be scary (water, fear of heights, high winds, instability, etc.)
  4. Crossing a bridge also involves trust, not only in the engineering, but also in the foundation
  5. Bridges require maintenance and attention
  6. Bridges can be diverse and innovative
  7. And finally, bridges add perspective, allowing one to see things from a different point of view

So how do bridges relate to Member Care? In the past year, I have debriefed numerous people working in dynamic and often volatile teams of both married and single people. The thing that everyone had in common was that first of all, they all have struggled in some way or another during the Covid-19 pandemic, and second, all felt that others on the team have failed to understand or acknowledge their life situations.

Some who are single talked about feelings of loneliness and isolation during the pandemic and frustration that their organizations and teams didn’t offer more support during difficult lockdown days. In contrast, other singles felt that because they are used to managing on their own, they were better equipped not only to deal with government restrictions and quarantine, but also available to offer support and care to those who needed it the most during lockdown. But what the singles DID have in common was that all felt that their married colleagues need to learn more about how to be sensitive to the needs and struggles of singles.

One young single woman (permission granted to share her story) serving in a closed-access country offered an interesting example of the conflict and misunderstandings that can occur between single and married colleagues. During a mandatory hostage training course that her team participated in, her team went through a simulation in which kidnappers asked for a person to be offered as ransom. This particular woman was both hurt and shocked that her team said she should offer herself up as ransom in order to save the other members of the team because she is not married and doesn’t have to look out for a family. Moreover, she was shamed into thinking she was selfish for not offering herself voluntarily. Clearly her team had a lot to unpack, debrief, and reconcile.

Other single inter-cultural workers have often talked about how their married counterparts often ask them to babysit because “obviously being single means you have more time on your hand,” or “don’t lose heart, God is your husband,” to which a close friend of mine says, “No, God is not my husband, He is my Lord and Saviour!” And finally, singles often hear not only from teammates, but also supporters and churches, “we are praying for you to find a spouse,” to which singles might say, “that’s funny, I never asked for you to pray about that.”

But what about teammates who are married? Many married people have shared that this past year added a whole new level of stress on their marriage. Why? Because they were forced to spend 24 hours a day together with no break. I have heard one married person say, “Although I love my wife, I envy those who are single during Covid who at least get some time to themselves.” Cases of domestic abuse have also been on the rise during the pandemic due to added stress and married people feeling that they are living on top of each other at times.

I have also heard married people express that single people often fail to recognize the individuality and/or unique personality of each spouse. Simply put, Sarah and Abraham, while a unit, are clearly also two different people and personalities.

Interestingly, I have heard singles and married people both complain about a particular rule married people may have, albeit from different perspectives.  Many of us know of married couples who have a rule not to ever be in a room together alone with someone of the opposite sex.  I have heard married cross-cultural workers complain about their single teammates who they feel have not respected or perhaps have interfered in this rule.  However, I have heard singles address this same rule by saying, “married teammates who have this rule need to understand how such a rule inadvertently affects single people.”

Perspective!

Finally, I personally have seen both sides of the bridge, so to speak, because both my wife and I spent half of our adult cross-cultural life as both single and married.  We both have heard teammates and other Christian workers say to us AFTER we got married, “you have finally arrived” or “your spouse really completes you.”  It makes one think, geesh, what did they really think of me when I was single?  And no, it is not correct to say “My better-half, or my husband or wife completes me.” We need to all think about what are words mean and their impact, and even more so, their theological ramifications. No, our spouses don’t complete us (though they certainly can and should complement us); we are ALL COMPLETE in Christ.

What is needed and what is the Member Care lesson? Build a bridge, cross the bridge, and look at life, experiences, and the view from the other side. Building and crossing that bridge involves trust, innovation, creativity but offers our teams stability, perspective and efficiency. Both Married and single teammates suffer from loneliness, being misunderstood, and feeling frustrated. But if they are willing to build a bridge and work together, beautiful things can be done collectively for the Kingdom!

 

This is a guest blog by Mihai Lundell, a member care worker with OCI serving in Italy who is also on the Board of Member Care Europe.  It first appeared on the Member Care Europe website and is reused with permission.

 

 

*Recommended Reading:

  1. Redeeming Singleness: How the Storyline of Scripture Affirms the Single Life by Barry Danylak
  2. Single Mission by Debbie Hawker & Tim Herbert
  3. Married in Mission: A Handbook for Couples in Cross-Cultural Service by Alexis C. Kenny

 

As we are now well over a year into Covid-19 and for some of us the disruption and turmoil seem no closer to ending, I’d like to share some observations on our joint experience as  I draw to an end this extended series on our Covid 19 experience.

It seems to me (to make a subjective observation that is not robust or scientifically-based) that mission workers have, on the whole, coped with the challenges of the last 15 months with less obvious trauma than the average Christian, despite the difficulties of often being away from home for extended periods, not being in the same country as their children, or grappling with the fact that our comparative wealth gives us more options than the local people we work with.

If we have fared better throughout this crisis, what are some of the reasons?

Mission workers are already accustomed to change and turmoil.  Many of us will have had to move country rapidly for security or visa reasons; some of us live with an evacuation bag already packed.  We’re used to not seeing loved ones in person sometimes for years at a time.  And some of the challenges faced by the rest of the population, like home schooling or working from home, may be things we are doing already.

We have a sense of vocation which pulls us through difficult times.  Our activities may have been disrupted but we still have a sense of calling to a particular place, people group or activity which provides us with a sense of purpose and direction in difficult times.

We expect life to bring challenges.  Whether we were trained to expect difficulties, or have simply got used to dealing with them along the way, we have a theology of suffering.  We have experienced the doors closed to mission and know first-hand the risks of international mission.  So when we encounter another major challenge, it’s more like a huge pothole than the road ahead being completely destroyed.

We have good support mechanisms.  Most Christians do not have their own support groups, churches praying for them regularly, or prayer groups.  Most people don’t circulate a monthly prayer letter.  They don’t have a member care department checking in with them regularly.  We are blessed to have so many people actively praying for, supporting and encouraging each of us.

We have constructive working relationships (most of the time!)  Part of our role in being a ‘professional’ Christian is that we pray with our co-workers, expect discussion of our spiritual growth to be normal, and regularly study the Bible or discuss theology as part of our work or fellowship.  This means we are constantly engaging with God, or with others about God, in our daily lives.  Our leadership is expected to take an interest in our spiritual wellbeing and may even be proactive in supporting us or holding us accountable.

It’s easy for us to forget that most Christians live and work in a largely secular context devoid of the sort of support and encouragement that we receive.  So how do we, who continue to receive so much in the midst of the current difficulties, help the rest of the church benefit from the structures, supports and relationships that are so important for helping us thrive through the adversities we experience?

It would be helpful to have feedback from our readers who are mission workers, to know what has worked to help you during Covid-19, or what help you would have liked but didn’t receive.  Email us on info@syzygy.org.uk or engage with us through social media links.

 

Other blogs in this series on dealing with issues thrown up by Covid-19:

Episode 1: Who am I?

Episode 2: What do I do?

Episode 3: What is my calling?

Episode 4: Coping with loss of control

Episode 5: Building on firm foundations

Episode 6: Following the Shepherd

Episode 7: Drawing on spiritual resources

 

Following on from my previous blog about Drawing on Spiritual Resources, one of the phrases I referred to as not being particularly helpful is ‘waiting for the Lord’.  After all for busy people with the demands and pressures of 21st century life on them, just sitting and doing nothing, even if they’re doing it prayerfully and expectantly, is not going to go down well.

The day after publishing that blog, quite independently, two people emailed me quoting that expression from Isaiah 40:31 as an encouragement.  So I thought I’d better delve a bit more deeply into its meaning.

But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength;
They shall mount up with wings like eagles,
They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

It turns out that the Hebrew word qavah can indeed be translated as ‘wait’, often with a sense of hope, eagerness or anticipation, perhaps like a child whose birthday has arrived but who hasn’t been given the presents yet.  It is used several times in the Old Testament in this sense.

But it has another meaning – to bind together, to twist.  The imagery is of making a rope, which by twisting many strands together makes the finished rope stronger than each individual strand would have been by itself.

So these two meanings amplify each other, and active, eager waiting for God also involves us binding ourselves to God.  Reminiscent of the verse in Ecclesiastes “ a cord of three strands is not quickly broken (4:12).  Since this verse is in the context of ‘two are better than one’, it is a small leap of imagination to think of that period of impatient waiting when two lives are being merged into one couple – engagement.

And waiting for the Lord is rather like that.  There is the eager anticipation, whether of healing, or a permit coming through, or support-raising hitting the critical threshold, but while we prayerfully wait and cannot move forward without the Lord acting, we can take the opportunity, like an engaged couple, to intentionally start getting to know each other better.

People preparing for the big day hopefully realise they are planning for a marriage and not just a wedding.  They ask each other searching questions: ‘What do you think about…  how do you do this… which do you prefer…’ with a view to understanding each other better.  They might seek advice and mentoring from more experienced Christians.  They might do a marriage preparation course to help them prepare.  And they do things together so they can find out who likes what, and whether it’s an activity they could share.

So a period of enforced waiting isn’t necessarily a time of inactivity.  We can be actively drawing closer to God and twisting our life together with God’s.  Then we will renew our strength.  Or will we?

The Hebrew word chalaph which is translated as ‘renew’ in this context means to gain something different, in the same sense that Joseph changed his clothes when he came out of the prison (Genesis 41:14, also chalaph in Hebrew).  He didn’t just wash his prison uniform.  He put on clothing fit to meet Pharaoh in.  It must have been given to him, as an imprisoned slave is unlikely to have owned glad rags.

Likewise this new strength that we get isn’t ours, it’s God’s and it comes as a result of us intentionally interweaving the strands of our life with God’s life so that God’s strength flows through us.  Or, as God explained to Paul why he was waiting for his healing, “My power is perfected in your weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

At a time when we have to continue digging deep into our spiritual resources in order to keep going, how exactly do you do that?

We might often talk about having deep roots (Psalm 1), abiding in the vine (John 15), experiencing streams of living water (John 7:38) or even waiting on the Lord (Isaiah 40:31), but the spiritual language used in such cases doesn’t give us much advice on what we practically do to achieve this when we’re trying to disciple people on Zoom, support the children in their homeschooling, and deal with our own emotional needs.

Some of our usual spiritual practices such as going on retreat, sitting in silent prayer in a church building, or walking in the countryside with God have not been available to us for a long time, and perhaps in some places still won’t be for a while longer.  What can we do instead to help us intentionally draw near to God and receive strength, grace and whatever other resources we need?

Can I suggestion taking communion at home?  Obviously that won’t work if your church teaching is that you need an ordained minister to consecrate the bread and wine (unless you are an ordained minister).  But you could still trying eating your own bread and drinking your own wine at home, watching a video of a priest presiding over communion, as has been encouraged in many denominations while we are unable to take communion corporately.

Those of us from a church persuasion who are accustomed to lay people administering specially prepared but ‘unconsecrated’ elements might like to try communion at home.  Set aside just ten minutes for some peace and quiet, to approach communion with an unhurried mind, and time to collect your thoughts and feelings in a busy day.

A clear objection arises immediately: communion is a community activity, not a domestic one.  The clue is in the name; it means sharing, having in common.  And after all: ‘we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread’ (1 Corinthians 10:16–17).  It can’t be done in a domestic setting.  Unless you want to think of the ‘one body’ as being the one body of Christ universal, rather than the one body of a local expression of church.

However, Jesus introduced communion in a domestic setting.  Although he was with his followers – the church, if you like – the Passover was always intended to be a celebration held at home, not in the temple or synagogue (Exodus 12:3-4, 46).  And the main point of the communing in the Lord’s meal is the communing not with other congregants, but with Jesus.  His instruction was to ‘do this in remembrance of me’ (Luke 22.19).  Paul underlines this: ‘as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death, until He comes’ (1 Corinthians 11:26).

Whether you take communion at home with your whole family, your housemates, your partner or just on your own, the act of communion reminds us of Christ’s essential provision for each of us.  It gives us an opportunity to stop and remember that no matter how hard we try we can’t do this on our own, and that in his death, resurrection and subsequent sending of the Holy Spirit we have ‘everything we need for a godly life’ (2 Peter 1:3).

 

Other blogs in this series on dealing with issues thrown up by Covid-19:

Episode 1: Who am I?

Episode 2: What do I do?

Episode 3: What is my calling?

Episode 4: Coping with loss of control

Episode 5: Building on firm foundations

Episode 6: Following the Shepherd

Episode 8: What have we learned?

Source: www.freeimages.com

You’ve probably heard this phrase: ‘The safest place to be is in God’s will.’

No it’s not.

The safest place to be is probably on the couch in your living room minding your own business.

Though even that depends on where you live. Safety isn’t the priority for the Christian. God’s glory is and living for God’s glory isn’t the safest thing to do.  In God’s will is the right place to be. The best place to be. The most God-honouring place. We see wonderful things happen as we follow Jesus but it’s not the safest thing to do.

Following Jesus is not the safest option. There’s risk. There’s possible danger. We could avoid various challenges, hardships or dangers by fleeing from God’s will.

Daniel. Joseph. Esther. Stephen. Paul. They were faithfully following God’s leading and it got them into risk-filled, dangerous situations. Then there’s Jesus who was perfect, fully obedient and went to the cross. Then there’s countless believers throughout history who suffered precisely because they were following Jesus.

God never guarantees his people safety in every situation. Passages that tell of God rescuing and delivering show that people had encountered great trouble and danger up to that point. There are so many verses about afflictions, trials and suffering in the Christian life. ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14:22). ‘Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.’ (1 Peter 4:12). ‘For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him but also to suffer for him.’ (Philippians 1:29). Hebrews 11 tells us about people who were all commended for their faith – some were delivered, some were killed. They were all faithful. Faith is no guarantee of earthly safety or health.

Suffering is normal. There are all kinds of risks in obeying God. God knows the future, we don’t. He can’t risk. We can. As followers of Jesus we embrace risk, we don’t turn from it. Many others have suffered greatly and lost their lives when they were exactly where God had sent them to be. They knew the risks but they did it anyway.

We are ultimately safe – guaranteed the perfect rest and security of God’s Kingdom. That confidence helps us take risks for the gospel’s sake and face danger where necessary.  When people see us endure, persevere and trust God through challenges, dangers, illness, persecution, it’s a really powerful witness. It tells people we value Jesus above even our own safety. He is so worthy that we’re willing to suffer for his sake. It’s reasonable risk. Not foolishness.  Reasonable because of the results that it can bring: glory to God, people led to Christ and spiritual growth in our lives.

May God strengthen us to take risks in His name. To live out the faith He’s called us to live. To live a life for God’s glory, whatever happens.

 

This week’s guest blogger is Alex Hawke, a Country Team Leader with Interserve (www.interserve.org) in South East Asia where he serves with his wife Ellie and their two sons. 


Photo by Maxim Hopman on Unsplash

The sight of one of the world’s most respected and influential women sitting all alone at the funeral of her husband is a stark visual reminder that every bereaved spouse grieves alone.

Unlike Queen Elizabeth, they may have the support of family, church and friends who are part of their bubble, and may be able to sit next to them, but few friends and relations fully comprehend the searing emptiness that comes from losing a beloved life partner, or feeling that part of your soul has been ripped out and the pain will never heal, and that you cannot imagine you will find the strength to continue living without the support of your other half.

Nearly half of the married people on the planet will experience this trauma personally.  Most of them will be in their retirement years when the loss, though not unexpected, comes.  Just at a time when one’s need for company and practical support may be increasing and one’s ability to adapt to change may be decreasing.  But given the fact that bereavement is so common, it is shocking that so few of us know how to support people through it.

Even churches, which are supposedly known for their compassion and love, will often only bring round meals and offer a helping hand until the funeral.  It seems as if for many people the funeral marks the end of the transition, and life goes back to normal.

Not for the bereaved partner, who now has to cope on their own.  They have to tackle all sorts of tasks their spouse might have habitually done.  They may be lonely, as they have nobody to talk to about their day.  The other side of the bed is empty.  And yet at this time friends may be absent, not knowing what to say, or fearing that the newly-bereaved will become an emotional burden to them.  It’s sink or swim for the bereaved.

At times like these, friends and family need to be present.  We don’t necessarily have to do anything other than be there to share in the sorrow.  It’s often overlooked in all the criticism of Job’s comforters that the thing they got right was turning up.  They sat in solidarity with Job for seven days.

Many of us fear saying the wrong thing.  I think it’s an overstated fear unless you have a significant ability to be tactless: “I didn’t like him much but I know you did”.  If you’re not confident of saying the right thing, just shut and and  make a cuppa,  or help tidy up.  If you’re a bit bolder you can try giving some pastoral support.  For example, I find that the grief/loss cycle is a useful tool for helping the bereaved.  It helps them understand that they are on a journey adjusting to loss, that many others have been on before them.  It explains why their emotions can be erratic.  It gives them hope that they can survive.

God is at work in the life of the bereaved and we have a wonderful opportunity to be part of that.  He wants them to understand that his love for them is so much greater than the love they have lost.  He wants them to know that their life hasn’t ended too; in fact he still has plans and purposes for them.  He wants to pour his Holy Spirit into their lives to bring them strength and consolation.

Bereaved people may feel alone but they don’t have to be lonely or isolated.  We should be there for them.

 

Outside my window is a lanky cherry tree.  As much as I like trees, this one is somewhat scrawny and unprepossessing.  For much of the year it looks more like a dishevelled broomstick than a tree.

Yet for two weeks in April, it is glorious.  It shines in the sun with a pale pink iridescence that makes me wonder how it can achieve so much.  In this one fortnight it earns its place on the street.

Many mission workers I know would identify with the broomstick image.  They are often toiling away in dark places, seeing little fruit, no change in their community, and wondering if it is worth carrying on.

Like the tree, which has endured dry periods, cold spells, and long dark periods of inactivity, they have been through much and may have little to show for it.  But they are still there!  They haven’t thrown in the towel; they have persisted and endured, and remained faithful to their calling.  Who knows if their chance to shine may be just around the corner.

In these days when there is so much loss, uncertainty and fear at large in the world, we who have faith in the risen Lord Jesus have an excellent opportunity to proclaim the reason for our hope, and to demonstrate the impact our faith has on the way we live in difficult times.

In the past year, some of us have literally walked through the valley of the shadow of death.  We have lost loved ones, tried to help the dying, ministered to the bereaved, and conducted more funerals than we can count.

Others who are not personally touched by death have walked in the shadow of fear.  We have not socialised (or been permitted to) for fear of infection.  We have not been able to travel.  We’ve had to deal with falling incomes and can’t do the face-to-face work to maintain our support levels.  We’ve seen our children struggle with home schooling and isolation and we wonder if they’ll be scarred for life.

Through all these experiences the Shepherd is still as close as you want Him to be.  He has not got lost or missed the right path.  He has not forgotten you.  He knows the path seems frightening and dangerous to you.  But he has chosen to bring you this way, though we may never know why.

The Shepherd is not in the habit of explaining everything to the sheep.  There is an agreement between them: the sheep trust him to care for them, and the Shepherd expects them to trust and obey.  When they fail to do that, they risk getting lost, but he will still come and look for them.

The Shepherd is bringing us on this route for a purpose, even though we don’t know what that purpose is, and probably never will.  We are tempted to wonder why He’s taken us away from the green pastures, but He’s not so cruel that he will take us on an unpleasant path that isn’t necessary.

Yes, there is danger.  Yes, it’s scary.  This is the time for the sensible sheep to stay close to the Shepherd, listen for the sound of his voice directing them, and close enough for His rod and staff to be there for them should they need them.

In walking the path through the valley our trust in the Shepherd is strengthened.  In future, we will know that if the Shepherd brings us this way again, we have nothing to fear, not because it’s not scary, but because the Shepherd has looked after us well before.

Mission workers are no strangers to risk.  We often go to or live in places which make people at home purse their lips and say “Are you sure it’s safe?”  No, we aren’t sure, but we go anyway, because we’re obedient to the call of the Shepherd and we will follow him wherever he leads.  As Jonah found, it’s safer to be with God in a scary place, than to run away from God.  Even at times when common sense tells us to go in the opposite direction.

The sheep who has stayed in green pastures knows nothing of this depth of trust.  That sheep is scared of a child with a stick, but the sheep who has trodden the valley road with the Shepherd has seen the eyes of the hungry wolf in the darkness, and knows the Shepherd will protect it from the wolf.  That sheep knows a new confidence, a new boldness, not because of anything it has achieved itself, but because it has witnessed with its own eyes what the Shepherd can do.  It emerges from the experience with a new, calm assurance.

That’s not to say it wants to walk the valley road again.  But it knows, not just theoretically but from experience, that if it has to go that way in future, it can trust the Shepherd.

 

Other blogs in this series on dealing with issues thrown up by Covid-19:

Episode 1: Who am I?

Episode 2: What do I do?

Episode 3: What is my calling?

Episode 4: Coping with loss of control

Episode 5: Building on firm foundations

Episode 7: Drawing on spiritual resources

Episode 8: What have we learned?

 

In the cold dark days of winter there’s nothing I like more than getting a good log fire going in my hearth.  I often sit in front of the fire and work on my laptop in the warmth.  I guess many of us like wood fires, even if we live in countries where we don’t need them very often.

Many centuries ago, a famous contemplative observed that when we come to extended times of prayer or meditation, we’re very much like a log that’s just been put on the fire.  Initially it is cold, and it hisses as the moisture in it evaporates off.  As it warms up, any sap or resin remaining in it catches fire and the log starts to spit and crackle.  Only after a while does the log get really hot and surrender itself to the flames without struggling.

That describes my experience of sitting down for a time with the Lord.  At first, my head is filled with thoughts of all the things I have to do, and I need to be patiently disciplined at putting them all on one side for the time being and remind myself that I am not here to think about them now.

Then, as my soul starts to settle, I notice all the distractions around me: the ticking clock, the traffic, a voice from the house next door or birdsong in the garden.  These too I have to lay aside and remember that they are of no concern to me at this moment.  Only after what seems a lengthy time of preparation do I succeed in stilling my heart and becoming attentive to the Consuming Fire that is my God (Hebrews 12:29) as I seek to surrender my thoughts and attention to him.

To do all this in the space of a 20 or 30 minute devotional time at the start of our busy day is not always practical.  Some of us take longer than that to really settle down and get our hearts in a peaceful place.  To really tune in to God we need to set aside a significant amount of time for contemplation and prayer.  But how is that possible in our busy lives, when family, church and ministry have so many pressing demands?

Some of us are working from home and have little opportunity to withdraw.  Others are homeschooling and our children need constant supervision.  And even if the children could go to school, and we could go to the office, our favourite retreat centres and church buildings are closed.

So we need to find other ways of setting aside time and space.  For some of us it may mean getting up before dawn so that we get time while the house is quiet, finding a time during the day when we can go for a walk with God or sit quietly in the garden.  Some people I know have negotiated alternating days off with their partner so they can find a lengthy period of space.

In these times, we need more than ever to find creative ways of making the time to really settle into the presence of God.  A short time may be a quick fix, but the long, steady warmth of a burning log gives more heat than the quick fix of a brightly blazing twig.

 

 

“On every world, wherever people are, in the deepest part of the winter, at the exact mid-point, everybody stops and turns and hugs, as if to say, well done. Well done, everyone. We’re halfway out of the dark.”  (Kazran Sardick, Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol)

Light is a significant theme running through Christmas celebrations, whether in the form of electric lights on the tree, candles on the windowsill, or the star shown on the cards we send.  For those of us living in the dank and dark of a northern hemisphere winter, this represents a boost to our flagging midwinter morale, but the theme of midwinter light wasn’t invented by cold and wet Europeans.  It precedes us by millennia.

The highlight of many Christmas services is the first 14 verses of John’s gospel, including the key incarnation verse:

The true light that gives light to everyone came into the world.

(John 1:9)

This is the mystery of the incarnation: that God who is light himself (1 John 1:5), who created light in the first place (Genesis 1:3), and who will be forever the only source of light in the new Jerusalem (Revelation 22:5), came into the world he created, to bring us the eternal light of his presence.  We no longer need to pray the ancient collect “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord” for he has already done it!  We people who walked in darkness have seen a great light! (Isaiah 9:2)

And he continues to do it, even in the darkness of this present age.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it (John 1:5).  Bringing his light into our lives, Jesus enables us to shine like stars (Philippians 2:15).  He makes us the light of the world (Matthew 5:14), as we blogged about nine Christmases ago.

At this time of year, we often send cards and greetings to one another, praying for the light to come into each other’s lives or commending the light to them.  Perhaps a more appropriate prayer would be that we would shine the light so brightly that those living in darkness will be attracted to it.

May the light of Jesus be in you, and shine out of you, this Christmas!

 

As we’ve been exploring over the last few weeks, this year has been tough in so many ways, and not just the obvious Covid ones.  But one of the saddest things for me has been how so many Christians have struggled with their faith as a result of these issues.

To me, this is a challenge for churches and agencies as we deal with a lack of fundamental discipleship.  The pressures imposed by Covid 19, its impact and the chaos it has caused have revealed huge flaws in the character of many of us and shown that, far from our lives being built on Christ and rooted in the gospel, we gain our basic rootedness and self-worth through our employment, our social activities (including church) and our material and emotional wellbeing.

The result of this is that when something goes wrong, our faith is shaken because it is not built on the right foundations.  Those of us with any responsibility for leadership need to be directing the church back to basics to give us the resilience we need to thrive during hardship, and in this blog I want to look at the life of St Paul to investigate that.

In view of the very long shadow Paul casts over the church as a key apostle into Europe and author of a significant part of the New Testament, it can be easy to overlook the challenges and hardships he faced along the way.  He summarises it very simply in 2 Corinthians 11:

Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes.  Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep.  I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren;  I have been in labour and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.  Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches.

 

Paul, like most of the New Testament believers, was no stranger to the hardships of life, and not only the physical ones, but also the mental ones caused by the pressure he refers to above.  At the start of 2 Corinthians he writes “we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life..”

Yes, Paul knew what suffering was, so what was the secret of his ability to remain unshaken in his faith, so much so that he elsewhere in the same letter calls his suffering “momentary light affliction” (2C4:7)?

The one verse that I think sums up Paul’s attitude to his life is Philippians 1:21 –

For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

 

In other words, he was free to live a risky lifestyle because he knew that the end of this life is not the end of our existence, and what we have to look forward to in eternity is infinitely better than anything we could dream of in this life.  This heavenly perspective gave the whole first century church the ability to withstand persecution and to grow in numbers despite the challenges they faced.  I wonder how many of us are busily making sure we’re comfortable in this life instead.

And while he was waiting to die, Paul got on with living for Christ.  For him life was not about self-gratification, enjoyment of leisure opportunities or building his personal financial security.  It was about serving Christ by building the church and sharing good news with the lost.  He was very much aware of his role as a servant of the Lord and appears to have devoted his time and energy to God’s work.

If Paul were part of the 21st century church, I think he would be reminding us to build on the firm foundation that is Christ, not on the shifting sand of wealth, comfort and security.

 

Other blogs in this series on dealing with issues thrown up by Covid-19:

Episode 1: Who am I?

Episode 2: What do I do?

Episode 3: What is my calling?

Episode 4: Coping with loss of control

Episode 6: Following the Shepherd

Episode 7: Drawing on spiritual resources

Episode 8: What have we learned?

Photo by Keppens Toon from FreeImages

One of the major challenges we have faced this year is uncertainty.  Events have been rescheduled, re-rescheduled and moved online.

Flights have been booked, rebooked, cancelled.  Churches have been open, closed, partially reopened, re-closed.  And so on.  I don’t need to tell you how unsettling the uncertainty is.

Many mission workers I talk to have found the inability to plan ahead has been particularly hard to deal with.  It has been costly, as they have paid for flights at short-notice but then not been able to get entry to the country.  It’s been emotionally demanding as they wrestle with enrolling their kids in the local education system or not bothering because they might be returning home soon.

One of the reasons this is a challenge is that we live in a structured world that doesn’t facilitate spontaneity.  I once heard a story (probably apocryphal) about a western mission worker in Tanzania who was on a bus to Dar-es-Salaam which had broken down.  As the delay grew longer he grew more and more nervous until the calm African man sitting next to him asked if there was a problem.  “Yes”, replied the Westerner, “I’m booked on a plane this evening”.  To which the African replied “Isn’t there another plane tomorrow?”  But of course, it doesn’t work like that.  Tickets aren’t transferable.  In so many ways, we are locked into planning.

A deeper and more disturbing reason for our discomfort at being unable to plan is that we like to be in control.  Or at least to have the comforting illusion of being in control, which has been completely stripped away by recent events.  Very few of us are naturally comfortable being tossed on the rough seas of life with no means of navigation, even though most of us normally have no more control than a cork in the ocean, comforted by the mere fact that we are still afloat.

Deprived of control, we are confronted with our own feebleness.  How do we respond?  We may become, like Job, angry at God because this isn’t the way things ought to be, thereby proving the faults in our own theology.  We may, like Saul, succumb to tyranny as we struggle to maintain control by our own authority, masking our weakness by bullying others.  Or perhaps, like Belshazzar, we use avoidance techniques to convince ourselves that the problem isn’t really there.

And if you think those are rather extreme examples, consider what they might look like in our day-to-day lives.  Job may represent the person who is giving up on God because God didn’t stop all this happening and has let our friends and relatives die.  Saul is the Myers Briggs J who, valuing order and stability, tries to bring order into her world by creating rules and regulations which others feel are aimed at control and repression.  And how many of us, like Belshazzar , are drinking more wine or gin than usual, or reverting to the comfortingly familiar foods of our childhood?

So how do we face the reality of living in a world in which we have no control, and continue to thrive?  Firstly, we know the One who is in control.  We may have robust debate among ourselves about how direct and extensive that control is, but few of us will believe in the ‘absent watchmaker’ of the Deists.  We believe that the incarnation and crucifixion prove that God is intimately involved in this world, and the many daily miracles and intimacies prove his ongoing concern for it.

Second, we have to learn to ‘freewheel’ a little more.  Does everything have to be so neatly planned, deftly coordinated and well-organised?  Or can we share the love of God through a chance encounter, a spontaneous act of kindness, or an expression of comfort.  How hard is for us to learn to go with the flow for a bit?  Many of us are missing the gift of the present by becoming overly concerned with the future.

Third, we need to be listening to the Holy Spirit a lot more.  We’ve already blogged about Paul and his team being frustrated in their plans.  We need to learn the difference between a good idea and the moving of the Spirit, to pray intently into everything we plan, asking not for God to bless it but whether God is telling us to do it at all.

At times like these I am thinking a lot about the Israelites in the wilderness.  They never knew when they’d have to pack up their homes and move, where they were going next, or whether they were pitching their tents for a stop of one night or three years.  All they knew was when the Pillar moved, they moved.  And in the midst of all that uncertainty and insecurity, they learned to trust God for their protection, their provision and their guidance.

The moral of the story: keeping watching the Pillar!

 

Other blogs in this series on dealing with issues thrown up by Covid-19:

Episode 1: Who am I?

Episode 2: What do I do?

Episode 3: What is my calling?

Episode 5: Building on firm foundations

Episode 6: Following the Shepherd

Episode 7: Drawing on spiritual resources

Episode 8: What have we learned?

 

Photo by Svilen Milev from FreeImages

 

Calling.  It is one of the most nebulous concepts in mission.  We all know we need it.  We all agree it’s an essential requirement for a cross-cultural mission worker.  Hopefully we all believe we have it.

Yet we find it very difficult to define it.

Calling, as you will recall from our Guide to Going, can be very personal and subjective, may vary from one person to another but can generally be defined as a deep-seated conviction that God has a task for you to do, or a place for you to be.  It is discerned both spiritually and practically by a community working together to determine what is right for you – a community made up of family, friends, church and agency who together confirm your course of action.

And every now and then, like the pillar of smoke in the wilderness, the calling moves on.  Sometimes it takes us to a new activity, or a new field, and sometime it brings us out of the mission field into some other form of ministry.  The problem for each of us at the moment, when we can’t be where we feel called to, or do what we feel called to, is knowing whether the calling has moved on or not.

So we begin a time of prayer and reflection, asking God for guidance.  We discuss with friends, church and agency what the nature of that call might be now.  Like a person lost in the mountains (I know plenty about that!) we retrace our steps to the last point we were confident of where we were, and we re-examine the map.  We do this by asking ourselves some deep questions:

  • What did I originally feel called to do?
  • How has that calling changed over the years?
  • Is what I normally do still true to that calling?
  • Have I taken on roles and responsibilities I am not called to?

In doing this, we can get back in touch with our sense of calling.  But that is only half the problem.  What if we are confident in our calling to a place we can’t currently be, or a role we can’t currently do?  Isn’t that part of the evidence that the calling has gone?

Not necessarily.  Calling doesn’t necessarily guarantee an easy journey.   Was David stilled called to be king of Israel while he was living in the wilderness on the road from a mad tyrant?  Was Paul still called to be an apostle to the Gentiles while stuck in prison in Caesarea?  Or was Moses called to lead his people out of slavery when Pharaoh kept saying no?  Let’s look further at his story.

Reading Exodus 3 we cannot doubt his spectacular calling, yet he experienced the doubts of the Elders of the sons of Jacob, the opposition of Pharaoh and his magicians, an impassable sea, rebellion among his leaders, jealousy in his own family, people who wanted to go back, hunger, drought, overwork and warfare, not to mention 40 years in the wilderness.  Had his calling deserted him?  Perhaps he wondered that in his darkest moments of despair and frustration.  But we know the rest of the story, and although Moseshe never actually completed the task of leading his people into the Promised Land, they still revere him as the man who brought them out of slavery, gave them the Law, and built them into a nation. Not a bad heritage.

So what about us?  We’ve already looked at who we are when we can’t do, and what we can do when we can’t do what we should be doing?  How do we fulfil our calling remotely?

We can pray for people and situations we know.  We can keep in touch via social media.  Perhaps we can pastor or teach remotely.  We can advocate for our host nation among our friends.  We can probably find people from our host nation in our sending country, and can get to know and support them.  We can support recruitment and training of new workers for that field.  So although we can’t actually be there, there is still a lot we can do to fulfil our calling.  Just because we are temporarily frustrated in our calling, it doesn’t mean our calling has been revoked.  It may just look different for a while.

 

Other blogs in this series on dealing with issues thrown up by Covid-19:

Episode 1: Who am I?

Episode 2: What do I do?

Episode 4: Coping with loss of control

Episode 5: Building on firm foundations

Episode 6: Following the Shepherd

Episode 7: Drawing on spiritual resources

Episode 8: What have we learned?

 

 

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.  [1]

This hymn, frequently sung at funerals, on Remembrance Sunday and (curiously) at Cup Finals, is often overlooked in other contexts because of its connection with death.  My mother told me she hated it because it reminded her of funerals, yet it needs some rehabilitation because of its wonderful words.

I once had it sung at a church service I led, with a largely older congregation, who afterwards said they really enjoyed it, unshackled as it was from its connection with lament, and freed to be a great statement of faith and trust in God, even unto death.

Loosely based on the words of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:29), it is said to have been inspired when Rev. H F Lyte visited a dying friend who kept repeating the first three words, and it was remembered many years later by its chronically ill author when facing his own death.

As inspiring as it is, I wonder if the prayer is not actually redundant. Since God promised never to leave us (Hebrews 13:5), and Jesus said he would be with us always (Matthew 28:20), are we actually praying for something that is going to happen anyway?

In one sense yes, but while we are aware that God is always with us, there are many times in our lives, perhaps particularly now, when he feels very far away.  Perhaps when we pray the words of this hymn, we’re praying for something more experiential – not merely that Jesus would be with us on the road to Emmaus, but that we would recognise him.

This is very much a prayer for our time.  But if the idea of our faithful Father abandoning us is ludicrous, we are very much aware of how we prodigal children so frequently stray from the presence of God and, whether intentionally or accidentally, we go off on our own ways.  At times when we feel far from God, perhaps we should instead not pray for him to abide with us, but for us to have the discipline and determination to abide with him.

 

 

[1] If you are unfamiliar with the words of this hymn, click here for the full version.

Source: www.freeimages.com

 

“What do you do?”

It’s a very normal question here in the West.  We ask it fairly early on in a conversation with a stranger.  Our doing defines us, as we looked at last week.  But in the field we might not introduce ourselves as “I’m a mission worker” for a number of reasons: security, misunderstanding, or just ignorance of what a mission worker might be.

So we probably say, at least at the outset ‘I’m a lecturer (in a Bible college)’, ‘I do admin’, ‘I run a business’, or ‘I’m a community worker.’  All of these could be true but they are drilling a bit deeper into what we do rather than who we are.  So who are we when we can’t do what we’re supposed to be doing?

Many of us have found creative ways around the challenges we are facing by not being able to meet people face-to-face.  We can lecture by webinar, we can pastor by Zoom, we can lead church using Youtube.  But for some of us, what we do can’t easily be done online, particularly if we’re not even in our host country or we’re locked down at home.

At times like these, we need to widen our focus and look beyond the field and project that we feel is our work.  How are church planters taking the opportunity to plant a church in their sending country?  How can Bible teachers help their sending church develop its biblical literacy?  Can we continue to do what we do in a different context?  St Paul was a good example of this: sitting in prison, unable to be in the market place telling people about Jesus, he simply carried on telling people – in this case the prisoners.  Why else would the prisoners not run away from the broken jail in Philippi (Act 16:28)?  Paul had already led them to the Lord and they followed his lead.  Also, unable to visit and care for the churches he was responsible for, he started writing them letters.  He found new ways of carrying on his ministry in different circumstances.

Or focusing wider still, we could pay attention to our more general activity rather than the specific.  We are mission workers – we do mission!  The word ‘mission’ comes from Latin and means ‘sent’, and is related to the words message and messenger.  In other words, we are people who are sent with the message of good news!  While we usually interpret this as being sent abroad, in fact we are sent into the whole world.  It is not important whether we’re sent to the other side of the world or the other side of the street – we are still sent!

So a question for each of us to engage with is:

If I can’t go to the country I’ve been sent to, can I be sent to the country where I am?

So how can you continue to bring good news into the lives of those around you, even under these challenging circumstances?  One family I know, forced to stay in their sending country due to lack of travel opportunities to their field, but given free accommodation by a church they don’t know, have taken the view that this is a time to serve that church, build links with it and invest in its ministry.  No doubt they will be a blessing.  And they are still doing mission.

 

Other blogs in this series on dealing with issues thrown up by Covid-19:

Episode 1: Who am I?

Episode 3: What is my calling?

Episode 4: Coping with loss of control

Episode 5: Building on firm foundations

Episode 6: Following the Shepherd

Episode 7: Drawing on spiritual resources

Episode 8: What have we learned?

Frank Lake’s dynamic cycle

In these days when Covid-19 continues to disrupt all manner of missionary activity, along with all the practical challenges which many cross-cultural workers are having to come to grips with, there are also some very deep existential questions about the nature of their life and ministry which are lurking in the background.

“Can I really call myself a mission worker when I’ve been living in my sending country for the last six months?”

“If I’m called to do something I can’t actually do at the moment, what is the nature of my calling?”

“How can I plan things when I don’t know what is going to happen?”

Today we’re starting a series of blogs which will help us address these issues and regain confidence in our identity and calling in the midst of uncertainty and disorientation.

We’re going to start with identity.  For many western Christians, what we do is paramount in establishing identity.  We get to know strangers by asking what they do.  We make knee-jerk assumptions about them based on the answers – about their social class, intelligence, voting intentions, economic status – even though we know we shouldn’t, and we may well decide whether they are worthy of our interest on that basis.  I myself once suffered the indignity of somebody just turning and walking away without a word when I answered “I’m unemployed”!

Perhaps some of us are ‘unemployed’ right now, in the sense that we’re not doing.  And that can be a very vulnerable place.  So who are we when we’re not doing?  For activists, as most of us are, this is particularly hard.  If you’re a Mary, you can be quite content doing nothing, sitting with Jesus, but Martha needs to be busy.

Here then, is a list of some of the things we are even when we’re doing nothing:

  • Salt and light (Matthew 5:13-14)
  • A child of God (John 1:12)
  • A branch of God’s vine (John 15:1)
  • A friend of Jesus (John 15:15)
  • A slave of righteousness (Romans 6:18)
  • A co-heir with Christ (Romans 8:17)
  • God’s temple (1 Corinthians 3:16)
  • A member of Christ’s body (1 Corinthians 12:27
  • A new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17)
  • A minister for reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17)
  • God’s co-worker (2 Corinthians 6:1)
  • A saint (Ephesians 1:1)
  • God’s craftsmanship (Ephesians 2:10)
  • A citizen of heaven (Philippians 3:20)
  • A living stone (1 Peter 2:5)
  • Part of a chosen people, a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9)
  • An alien and stranger on this planet (1 Peter 2:11)

 

You can probably think of more!  If you meditate on just one of those, and what it means, every time you’re prompted to wonder who you are, you will re-establish your identity quickly.  OK, I don’t advise you to introduce yourself to people as ‘God’s temple’ unless you want to be instantly labelled a religious nutter, but these are who we really are.

But all those things we are cannot be achieved through our own effort or godliness; they are a free gift of God’s grace.  They are not a reward for good performance.  We have referred before to the ground-breaking work of Frank Lake in this respect.  He observed that our identity is founded on the fact that God accepts us unconditionally.  This by his grace enables us to be significant in Him.  From our position of significance we are equipped to go and do things with God, and the harvest we reap points us back to the grace of God who accepted us in the first place.

Lake observed that in most Christians this cycle flows the wrong way round: we achieve in order to be significant, so that we can be accepted.  And if you doubt that is true, ask yourself how significant and accepted you feel when you stop achieving!  If your self-esteem is currently low, it may be because your dynamic cycle is flowing the wrong way round and your lack of achievement is having a negative impact on your wellbeing.

If this is the case, the remedy is simple – look to the cross!  Remember that no matter how hard you work you cannot repay Christ.  Receive gratefully his acceptance of you, acknowledge the truth about your totally-unmerited significance, and do what work you can in a spirit of thanksgiving.

 

Other blogs in this series on dealing with issues thrown up by Covid-19:

Episode 2: What do I do?

Episode 3: What is my calling?

Episode 4: Coping with loss of control

Episode 5: Building on firm foundations

Episode 6: Following the Shepherd

Episode 7: Drawing on spiritual resources

Episode 8: What have we learned?

 

Image courtesy of David Padfield at www.FreeBibleimages.org.

‘The LORD said to [Moses] “What is that in your hand?” “A staff,” he replied.’(Exodus 4:2)

Moses’ staff was among the few possessions he had. It was probably his shepherd’s staff and represents what he knew and what he already had. God took that and made it a tool Moses would use many times on the new journey that lay ahead.

All of us already have gifts, talents, resources and experience given us by God which we can use to glorify Him and serve others. He’s asking us to be faithful with what we’ve got; to bring it to the table. 1 Peter 4:10 tells us that “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” Whatever our skill set or gift mix, wherever we are and wherever we go there’s a place for us in world mission [or… we can participate in the mission of God.]

So, what’s in our hand, as it were, that God can use? How about doing an inventory of all the things God has provided? For example, a house or apartment, your vocation, your skills and gifts, a car or motorbike, your finances, your position of influence in your family or workplace, your time, even your dining room table (hospitality is a great way to participate in mission!).

For years I thought the story of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17) involved David making a totally unrealistic, impossible attempt at taking out Goliath with a few stones and that it was a total miracle. In fact, David knew how to wield a slingshot. Wielded by an expert, stones could be sent flying with great speed and accuracy. David was using what he had, what he knew. Unlike all the trained soldiers who stood in fear on the sidelines, he cared so much about God’s glory that he stepped forward combining his trust in God with his skills and took a risk.

David’s approach was unconventional; the other soldiers had swords, spears and armour. Maybe we’ve been sitting on something God wants us to use but we don’t think it fits with the norm or it doesn’t seem useful. Sometimes we let false humility keep us from using our gifts, talents and resources. Or we’re waiting until we’ve got more – more resources, more qualifications, more influence. Or we let a perceived limitation, including a disability, stop us. Moses hoped his limitations would get him out of what God was calling him to do. He told God he didn’t speak well (as if God didn’t already know!) and even said, “Please send someone else to do it” (Exodus 4:10, 13).

George Stott wanted to make Jesus known in China. Because he only had one leg he was turned down by several mission organizations. Hudson Taylor, founder of what is now OMF International, accepted him. When Taylor asked him why he would think of going to China with one leg, Stott replied, “I do not see those with two legs going, so I must.” He wanted to use what he had, do what he could, instead of coming up with excuses why someone else should do it.

One of our national offices wrote to me earlier this year about a teacher and his family interested in joining our team. He has rheumatoid arthritis. I love his willingness and courage for the sake of the gospel. Many healthy, gifted people are doing very little with what they’ve got. We’ve found there are workable solutions to managing his condition here and we’ll see how things develop. Examples like these challenge me to use what I’ve got, not lament what I haven’t got.

About our vocations, Charles Spurgeon wrote that “Every lawful trade may be sanctified by the gospel to noblest ends.” Maybe God is nudging you towards a new way of using your vocation or seeing how it connects with His mission where you are maybe in another part of the world.

Our team here is involved in a wide range of fantastic work. Some have started social enterprises and small businesses to create jobs and help families out of poverty. Some of us are serving vulnerable, exploited or abused children and youth. Others are discipling students and teaching at a university. A few of us are health care professionals. We teach the Bible and share the good news about Jesus, partnering with local churches as they witness to their local communities. Others of us provide vital support to the missions community through teaching at an international school, providing member care and running a language school.

So, calling all the artists, carpenters, teachers, engineers, accountants, techies, nurses or administrators! Calling singles, couples and families. Calling everybody who loves Jesus: bring your tools to the table; God will put them to use.

A prayer: Lord, I bring before you all the gifts, talents and possessions which You have so graciously given to me. I dedicate them for Your service that they will be a blessing to others and be tools in your hand to help others come to know You, experience Your love and the transforming power of the gospel. Amen.

This week’s guest blogger is Alex Hawke, a Country Team Leader with Interserve (www.interserve.org) in South East Asia where he serves with his wife Ellie and their two sons. 

 

I spent the first two months of this year working hard as part of a team planning a conference which takes place regularly every two years.  It was due in mid-March and we ended up cancelling it because of Covid-19 with just one week’s notice.

In the months that have elapsed since I have reflected on that, and the many other events, programmes and services that have been derailed by Covid-19, and the big question I have been left with is why a group of people who claim to be led by the Spirit, and together have the mind of Christ, were so blissfully unaware of what God knew was going to be happening.

In Genesis, God gave Joseph a dream which enabled him to plan for the famine which was coming.  God sent Jonah to Nineveh to warn them of impending destruction.  In Acts 11 God used a prophet called Agabus to warn the church of a coming famine, so that they could prepare.  Paul was regularly warned about the impending suffering he would face (Acts 20:23).  The unchanging God, who is the same yesterday, today and forever, warned people of the trouble that was coming.

I am sure such experiences still continue even though I’ve not experienced them.  I recall hearing a story, though I can’t find it online, about a church in central New York city which felt led during the summer of 2001 to buy in stocks of blankets and bottled water, with the result that on 9/11 they were able to be a resource to the injured and the rescuers of the Twin Towers.

Yet I have heard no story of any church or agency having any inkling at all that Covid-19 was coming, though I’m sure now I’ve published this that the reports will come flooding in.  Whether you believe in prophetic gifts, or Holy Spirit-inspired common sense, how come the millions of Christians on this planet who all talk to God daily didn’t have a clue?

Having reflected on this, I’ve come to a conclusion:

It’s not that God didn’t warn us, it’s that we weren’t listening.

For example, I never once prayed about whether we should organise our conference; we just did it because we do it every two years, and I asked God to bless it.  I suspect many of us were so busy asking God to bless our plans that we didn’t even question whether they were his plans.  Quite possibly most of our planning meetings are more like secular management meetings (topped and tailed with a prayer and maybe even a biblical reflection) than a discussion reminiscent of Acts 15 where different people relate how God is leading them and together they come to an agreement that “seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28).

Perhaps now would be a good time, instead of us asking God to ‘bless the work of our hands’ each day, to be asking ‘What are you doing today, God, and can I join in?’  It may result in havoc in our programmes, but an incredible Spirit-led involvement in the lives of random strangers.  I wonder if this was what Ananias was doing when God told him to go and pray for Saul (Acts 9:10).  We know nothing about Ananias – who he was and what he did – but he clearly was able to listen to God.

Perhaps now is the time to start dismantling much of our structures and become more flexible and spontaneous as we seek to lead people to the Lord.  Maybe it’s time for our churches and agencies to be led not by those who are good organisers or planners but by contemplatives and reflectives who are comfortable spending time listening to God, people who may have little knowledge of how to manage processes but great knowledge of what God is doing in this world.

Could the Age of Martha finally be ending, and the Age of Mary dawning?

Last year, as I was researching how Christian mission workers live, work and thrive with long-term sicknesses, one amazing lady reflected on years of living with an illness which could easily have knocked her flat.  Like many of us, she could have been wondering why God allowed her illness, but she made a more positive choice of using it to see God at work in her life.  Her conclusion?

God is more interested in my character than my comfort

The last few months have been a challenge for many of us, even those who are fully healthy.  Many of us have not had the opportunity to live comfortable lives: living perhaps in temporary accommodation in our sending country, seeing and ministering to those suffering around us, coming to terms with the death of loved ones, leading churches that cannot meet in person, adapting to preaching and pastoring through social media, and ourselves grappling with having to be confined in our homes.  Such situations could only be made harder for those already suffering from health challenges.

Many in the West seem to assume that we have a right to comfortable lives, and part of the trauma that we struggle with comes from the disorientation of thinking that the current situation is just not right.  And yet historically we look back and see how the majority of people have led lives which were “nasty, brutish and short” yet filled with faith in a loving God.

The apostles were familiar with this world as they prepared themselves and their congregations for oppression and death.  The whole tenor of the New Testament seems to assume that there will be suffering, mitigated by our joy in what Christ has done for us, and the comforting love and solidarity of the church.  James wrote: “Count it pure joy when you encounter various types of trials”, because it gives us an opportunity to become perfect (James 1:2-4).  Peter says the trials that distress us are proof of our faith that will result in glory and honour (1 Peter 1:6-7).

We are not promised an easy journey through this life, but each challenge we face is an opportunity to give vent to our fleshly frustration, or to grow in patience and Godliness as we endure.  As Scott Shaum pointed out in his book “The Uninvited Companion”, the question we should be asking when difficulties occur is not “Why is this happening? but “How do you want me to walk with you in this Lord?”  As we take this opportunity to walk more closely with the Lord, we will find our character shaped more into the likeness of Jesus.