Mourning is something that many western cultures don’t do well.  Unlike our Mediterranean neighbours, or more expressive people from tropical climes, we think holding our feelings in check is a Good Thing.  “Stiff upper lip, old boy.”

Christians are often even less inclined to mourn than others, because we have a sure and certain hope that our departed have gone to be with Jesus.  We use terms like “promoted” to express our positivity.  I was even once told by a family member at a funeral that we were not going to cry, because it was a happy day of celebration for our friend who had gone to a better place.  Which left me with a lot of grief and no outlet for it. Sometimes we need to express our emotion and have a good wail.

Mourning is healthy.  Expressing our grief is part of how we cope with loss, and being real about our emotions is important.  People who can grieve unreservedly can come to terms with their loss more effectively.

But this blog is not just about confronting our bereavement.  It’s about loss in every sense.  And we mission workers have to deal with an awful lot of loss in our lives.

We often don’t recognise as loss the things we have sacrificed, because we’re serving the Lord and the joy of being faithful servants more than compensates us.  But sometimes our perspective of willingly laying down our lives in service to Him who laid down his life for our salvation can be a bit like refusing to grieve at a funeral: we never come to terms with our loss because we’re always trying to be positive.

Recognising what we have lost, and mourning it, helps us to continue in emotional health and be resilient, as well as being realistic about the cost of following our call.  So let’s look at some of the things we might want to mourn:

  • Close friendships we are unable to continue with in person as we move to a foreign country
  • Places that were once familiar haunts which have changed beyond recognition while we were abroad
  • The spouse or children we never had because we couldn’t find a suitable partner willing to serve in the remote location we felt called to
  • The physical health we could have had if our illnesses had been treated in a modern western hospital
  • Relatives we never had a chance to say goodbye to because they died unexpectedly while we were on the other side of the planet.
  • Professional skills which have grown out of date due to lack of opportunity to develop them
  • The sense of belonging in a certain place that we’ve come from and will one day have to go back to and feel like strangers
  • Grandchildren we don’t have a chance to get to know well because they’re growing up in a different country
  • Friendships in the field that always struggle because our home assignments never coincide
  • The house which the whole family calls home and our adult children can still come back to stay in their childhood bedroom
  • The wealth and security offered by a good career
  • The formative years of our children which we miss a large part of because they’re away at boarding school.

Most mission workers I know will look at such a list dismissively and say “It was a small price to pay for the privilege of serving God”, and in one way they are right.  Paul wrote for all of us when he said “all those things I have lost count as nothing to me” (Philippians 3:7).

But all of us should take time to think about the things we have lost, recognise them and grieve appropriately rather than spend our lives in denial.  David rightly said “I will not give God something that cost me nothing.” (2 Samuel 24:24).  Recognising and mourning the loss helps us to give God something of value, rather than something that wasn’t important to us anyway.

 

Happy New Year to all our readers!

At this time of year, it’s popular to do a bit of self-review, and set out resolutions and changes that we’d like to make in our lives.  It’s also a good idea to take a bit of time (maybe on retreat) to review what happened in the last year and learn lessons from it to apply in the coming year.

So in keeping with that spirit I’d like to encourage you to reflect on your sense of calling and ask yourself some fundamental questions about it.  Calling, as you will recall from a previous blog as well as our Guide to Going, 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.

If you are a mission worker in the field, you must have had a sense of calling at some time in the past which impelled you to get up and go, and encouraged others to send and support you.

But do you still feel that sense of calling?  If not, what has happened?  Have you taken on other tasks and responsibilities which seemed like a good idea, or which you thought needed to be done, but which have ended up taking you away from the service you felt called to?

If you do still have a sense of calling, how are you protecting it?  Are you testing against it the various tasks, relationships and opportunities that come your way, to ensure you don’t get dragged off course?  And how are you shaping and refining it?  Are you regularly praying into it to get more clarity and definition about where and what you are called to?

In the interests of being a good team member and supporting the aims of our agency, there will inevitably be times when we are asked to lay aside our own sense of what we have been called to in the past to take on something new.  Maybe it involves a change of ministry, or a different town (or even country).  As our own circumstances change, this might actually be a new calling which supersedes the original one.  Who are we consulting and praying with to make sure that the decisions we need to make are a team effort? 

Wandering away from our sense of calling puts us into a dangerous place.  We have no conviction to hold us in place when the going gets tough, we may well find ourselves doing things that God doesn’t want us doing, and operating for a significant amount of time outside our sense of calling can sap our energy and do long-term damage to our resilience and well-being.

So I encourage all of us to set aside some time at the beginning of what will inevitably be a busy and challenging year to reflect on our sense of calling and ensure that we are convinced we are the right people in the right place doing the right thing.

And if you can’t say that with conviction, do something about it!

This photo shows the quote on the board outside a church near my home last week.  Once I had overcome my initial shock that a church would prefer to run with a common misquote rather than the real biblical text, I wondered if it was actually true.  Is it really better?

At this time of year, many of us are in the habit of giving presents to express our love and generosity for our nearest and dearest.  Some of us give charitably to the needy.  This is a custom that has its roots in the Roman midwinter festival of Saturnalia and only has tenuous links with the Christmas story.  Yes, the wise men brought ‘gifts’ to Jesus – but they weren’t presents for the baby shower!   More about that later…

From a financial point of view, it’s unlikely that it is better to give than to receive.  After all, you would be worse off, unless your lavish generosity inspired an even greater reciprocation.  You’d also have spent a lot of your time shopping for presents, and most of us have too little time to do everything we’d like to, particularly at Christmas.  You might have expended a lot of emotional energy on thinking about what presents to get people.  Granted, these last two problems would have been overcome if you decided simply to give money, but then you’d have the guilt of not giving people a ‘proper’ present, and possibly their resentment that you didn’t care enough to give one.  Given all these dilemmas, perhaps it really is better not to bother giving anything at all.

So back to the misquote.  The original quote is from Acts 20:35 where Luke records Paul quoting Jesus: “It is more blessed…”  ‘Blessed’ is not the same as better.  ‘Blessed’ (in this case, the Greek word makarios) can mean happy, fulfilled, spiritually wealthy, joyful, in God’s favour).  ‘Blessed’ may be applied to unenviable situations – like the poor, the persecuted and the grieving in the Beatitudes.  Even if it is better, it probably doesn’t feel better at the time.

The greatest gift of all, which we celebrate at this time of year, is God’s gift to humanity of Jesus.  Our response to his incredible generosity is to give back to him all that we have in worship.  And we bless God.  And in our giving, we too are blessed.

The gifts brought by the magi were presented to Jesus in the context of their worship of him, the word ‘gift’ being  used in the Septuagint of Levitical sacrifices, and also by Jesus in the same context (Matthew 5:23).  So really, if we do want to give Christmas presents, we should really be giving them to God!  But in fact giving them to one another in the name of God may be as good – but only if we expect nothing in return.

May you and all your loved ones be truly blessed this Christmas!

“Christmas is for families.”  How often have you heard that said in the last few weeks?

The prevailing narrative is that of a perfect family opening presents, eating together and playing games.  This of course completely ignores the reality of feuding cousins, rebellious children, struggling parents, failing marriages, senile grandparents and hundreds of other ways in which families can be divided, and which make even the idea of Christmas a nightmare to many.

Additionally there are all those people who face Christmas alone.  Sometimes they are mission workers, far from their loved ones.  Perhaps there are elderly widows or other singles who have nobody to be with.  Maybe there are sick people who can’t get out, or foreigners who have no connections.  And the homeless.

There are many ways in which we can do our small bit to address some of these needs:

  • We could volunteer to help with a soup kitchen or homeless shelter
  • We could befriend an international student (Friends International has a great way of doing this)
  • We could help with refugee resettlement programme
  • We could open our church or community centre to be a place of welcome for those who have nowhere else to go.

Perhaps the key to this is stretching our understanding of the word ‘family’.  As I remarked in a previous blog, Western individualism has impacted our understanding of this term, and indeed even the concept of the nuclear family is a uniquely Western model.  Other cultures (including the Biblical ones) often understand family in a way that the West would more likely think of as ‘neighbourhood’ or ‘community’.

This Christmas, instead of shutting ourselves behind our doors, why don’t we involve the marginalised, disadvantaged, lonely and distressed by extending our family to include some of them?

 

 

 

We have already blogged on several occasions about the people who have been hurt by their own sending church or agency, either by the impersonal approach of its policies “We’re withdrawing your support for you because we have changed our strategy” or by the actions of individuals within it.

Sadly such situations continue to occur and what we haven’t yet consider how people in a church can support their mission workers who are wounded.

First, you will need to pay attention.  Most mission workers will not readily spill the beans, partly out of loyalty to their church or agency, and partly for fear that if the truth comes out their supporters will encourage them not to go back.  So you’ll need to watch out for signs of stress when they talk about their situation, reticence about their working relationships, or a lack of enthusiasm in their presentations.  Dig into this with questions like “what are you going to be doing when you go back?”, “How are you feeling about going back?” and “How do you get on with the people in your team?”

Once you’ve realised that something has gone wrong, encourage them to talk confidentially about it to one of their supporters, or maybe an independent debriefer.  Again, they might be reluctant to, but remind them they may need to get things off their chest.  Maybe find a retired mission worker they could open up to.

If it’s you who is they are opening up to – be prepared for a torrent of emotion!  They may have long pent-up feelings about this which they’ve struggled with for a long time and once they are released they may take a while to settle down.  Emotional discharge can be good for the person involved but alarming for you.  Once they’ve dealt with the emotion, they might be able to find a practical approach to resolving the situation.

If relationships have completely broken down with someone in their church or agency, offer to act as an intermediary, or to support them in a face-to-face discussion to resolve the situation.  That too may take up a lot of your time but having an independent observer present at discussions may calm any potential confrontation.  But remember not to take sides!  While you may be keen to support your mission worker, staying impartial helps you help them.  After all, you’ve probably only heard one half of the truth and they person they are in dispute with may have an entirely different perspective.

And if they have been bullied, abused or manipulated by a leader, have no qualms about helping them whistleblow!  Take it up with them at the highest levels you can.

You may like to give them resources that will help them process what’s happened.  We particularly like Honourably Wounded and A Tale of Three Kings.

Help them understand how personality traits can often complicate communication, and also language barriers.  Even if people speak the same language, they may speak it differently.  Some cultures are far more direct at speaking than others, while some will talk in circles to avoid confrontation or giving offence.  When they go to a foreign country your mission partners will be helped a lot to understand the culture they’re in – but they might learn nothing about getting on with each of the 22 different nationalities on their team!

And if all of your listening skills and wisdom get you nowhere, don’t give up!  Talk directly to the leadership of the church or agency, and bring in an outside arbitrator if necessary in order to resolve the situation.

Your mission partner may well be in a situation which could jeopardise their place with their agency, their missionary calling, and in extreme circumstances even their faith.  You might not feel qualified, but you can help them.

The festive season is fast approaching and here’s a quick reminder to get your shopping done in good time, if you haven’t done it already.  In doing your shopping online you have two wonderful opportunities to help Syzygy.

First, you can shop with Amazon Smile.  With Syzygy listed as your registered charity, we will get 0.5% of what you spend buying through Amazon*.  In effect, it’s money for nothing.  And if, like many of our friends, you use Amazon a lot, we could be in line to benefit significantly.

All you have to do is register by going to https://smile.amazon.co.uk/ and selecting charity number 1115354.  Then shopping in your normal way.  But remember to use the smile.amazon portal every time, because if you just go to the regular Amazon website it won’t pick up your link to Syzygy.

Secondly, if you use Everyclick as your search engine and choose Syzygy as your nominated charity we’ll also pick up some donations for every search you make and a percentage of your spending on any website you access through their website.

Happy Christmas Shopping!

 

  • Other online retailers are also available

The latest Syzygy car

Ever since the early days of Syzygy, I have prayed regularly “Lord, please give us more money”.

Sometimes it’s been a question of not being able to pay for essentials like car insurance, at other times we’ve needed to invest in new assets.  We’ve seldom had more than a few hundred pounds spare, but we’ve always trusted in God and he has always provided for us.

On one occasion I had a week to get find a new car, but had no money at all.  Several of us prayed and someone gave us a car.  Our car ministry has seldom given us an easy ride, though we strive to make sure the mission partners who borrow our car get just that.

So in the last few months as our bank balance has built up (for no obvious reason), I began to wonder if God wasn’t giving us this money because we’re going to need it.  And it turns out, we did.

Two weeks ago one of our cars was involved in an accident.  Fortunately nobody was badly injured but the car was clearly not going to be repaired quickly, and we needed a car urgently as the next mission partners are due to have one this week.  So I bought one.  We had enough money to get a good one.  Blessed be the name of the Lord!

Last week I learned that not only was our crashed car not worth repairing, due to an error in the insurance, the insurers wouldn’t pay out the write off value.  So I scrapped it.  We got next to nothing for it.  Blessed by the name of the Lord!

So the excess in the bank account has been used up and not replaced.  It’s back to business as usual: “Lord, please give us more money!”

You can read more about the Syzygy car ministry on this page.

Caring for ourselves can seem selfish but if we don’t then we can’t sustainably serve those around us.  Self-care should in no way negate Jesus’ call to self-denial nor be an excuse not to work hard, rather it helps maintain our resilience and perseverance in the midst of the challenges of serving others.

It’s not just a means to an end though; God simply loves us and our well-being matters to Him.  So, here are 10 resolutions to help us stay well and stay faithful plus some suggested verses to meditate on:

1. I am a child of God.  I am unconditionally loved.  My identity does not lie in my achievements.  I will rest in God’s love and not strive for other’s approval. (1 John 3:1, John 1:12, Romans 8:15-16)

2. I am sent by God.  God doesn’t make mistakes.  My life has purpose.  I will trust Him when I’m not sure what’s going on. (John 20:21, Romans 8:28, Ephesians 2:8-10)

3. I don’t have to hold it all together; that’s Jesus’ job.  It’s OK to not always feel OK.  I will get help for my spiritual, emotional and practical needs. (Colossians 1:17, 1 Corinthians 1:26-29, 1 Samuel 23:15-16)

4. Rest is good.  Jesus rested.  I have permission to rest.  In fact God commands me to rest.  I will plan to rest. (Matthew 11:28-30, John 4:6, Exodus 20:8-11)

5. I was made to enjoy a relationship with God.  I will daily spend time reading the Bible, worshipping, praying and whatever else helps me to connect with God. (Psalm 63:1-8, John 15:1-8, James 4:8a)

6. I am also made for relationships with other people.  I will intentionally invest in friendships, be honest and give and receive support in my church, small group or team. (Proverbs 27:9, 27:17, 1 Corinthians 12:12-20)

7. Prayer support is vital.  I will regularly share prayer requests with my friends and supporters. (2 Corinthians 1:8-11, Colossians 4:2-4, Ephesians 6:19-20)

8. My body is a gift from God and useful for the work He’s called me to do.  I will look after my body by exercising regularly, eating well and sleeping enough. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Proverbs 14:30, 3 John 1:2)

9. I am allowed to enjoy life.   I will regularly engage in activities which I enjoy. (Proverbs 17:22, John 2:1-2, Nehemiah 8:10)

10. There are always reasons to give thanks.  I will reject the temptation to grumble and give thanks instead. (1Thessalonians 5:18, Psalm 118:28-29, Philippians 4:6)

 

 

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

I recently came across the expression “to practise resurrection”.  Not in the sense, presumably, of the  film Flatliners, a 1990 film (remade unsuccessfully in 2017) in which Julia Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland and Kevin Bacon attempt to artificially create near-death experiences.

The suggestion I was reading about is that since we know we will be resurrected with Christ, we should endeavour to bring as much of that experience from the future into the present, rather in the same sense that the Kingdom of God is here and now and not just future.

So how do we practice resurrection?  We could start with Paul’s remarkable comment in Galatians 2:20:

I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life that I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God…

So if I take Paul at his word, I’m already dead.  The life of Christ is being lived out through me.  How this works in practice is further expanded in Colossians chapter 3, which tells us we have been ‘raised with Christ’ and gives lists of the attitudes and behaviours we should intentionally adopt, or avoid.

Dead people have no possessions, no hopes and dreams, and no desires.  If I am truly dead, I too will have laid all those things aside and kept only what Christ has given back to me.  As many mission workers through the centuries have discovered, abandonment to Christ alone sets us free from the shackles of our own ambitions, wants and property.

Dead people also are invulnerable to temptation.  The flesh has no control over them.  Shortness of temper, gossip, gluttony and lust have no power over them.  If I am truly like the dead, I will master the many temptations to sin that come my way daily.

It is not as easy to be a living sacrifice as a dead one.  While my death with Christ may be metaphorically true, my ego still lives on in this body he has chosen to live his life in.  And that is actually good, because we are not called to be zombies for Jesus, reanimated bodies with no life of their own.  For the time being we are in symbiosis, as I pointed out last month.  The object of the Christian life is not, like a Buddhist, to annihilate the self so that it gets consumed by the divine, but to attune myself so to the divine that we can operate as one without extinguishing my identity.

So we live on in the flesh, daily practising what it means to die to self and live in Christ.  How does that impact on our leadership style, as we learn to lead humbly and accountably?  How does it impact on our followership as we learn to set aside our own pride and ambition?  And how does it affect our daily witness as we live out our love for our brothers and sisters while working in a multi-cultural team?

As we lay aside our old way of doing things and put on the new way (Colossians 3:9-10), we bring some of the future Kingdom of Heaven into the present.  Maybe we’re trying to create a near-death experience after all?

For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

Colossians 3:3

The astute among you will have noticed that I have been following the October readings in the Northumbria Community’s Celtic Daily Prayer, which is a valuable resource for those of us wishing to cultivate a devotional life drawing on ancient traditions.

The readings have been quotes from the influential 20th century poet and mystic Evelyn Underhill.  In one passage, she writes about what today we would call resilience:

If we desire a simple test of the quality of our spiritual life, a consideration of the tranquillity, gentleness and strength with which we deal with the circumstances of our outward life will serve us better than anything that is based on the loftiness of our religious notions, or fervour of our religious feelings….  This is the threefold imprint of the Spirit on the soul surrendered to God.

Resilience is a characteristic much-prized in mission workers, but one that is hard gained.  Much member care is focussed on supporting people through trials and tribulations so that they grow more resilient with each test and are able to grow.

Yet resilience is not acquired through Biblical knowledge or professional skills, which are often the properties which commend themselves initially to church and agency as they mobilise and send us.  Resilience is acquired through prayerfulness, time spend in the presence of God despite the demands of family, church, ministry and community.  It comes from choosing, like Mary, to sit at the feet of Jesus when we know there is work to be done.

I discovered this resilience in my own life many years ago when I was struggling with long-term sickness, living on state benefits and finding it hard to live a ‘normal’ life.  Yet at the same time I experienced an inner joy and lightness of spirit that was in complete contrast to the circumstances surrounding me.  I concluded that what helped me was a heavenly perspective: God still loved me; Christ had still died for me; my place in heaven was secure – so what if the rest of this life is misery, sickness and squalor?

Yet many mission workers, far from experiencing such joy, are mired in what Mrs Underhill calls “the inequalities of family life, emotional and professional disappointments, the sudden intervention of bad fortune or bad health, and the rising and falling of our religious temperature.”

If your experience is more like that, it’s time to stop, take a holiday or go on retreat, before your stress levels lead you into burnout.  It’s time to lay down some responsibilities and make time to sit and hold hands with God.  As a result, we don’t necessarily get on top of the material circumstances of our lives, but we can transcend them.

So many Christians are like distracted onlookers at a concert.  They study the programme carefully, believe every statement made in it, speak respectfully of the music, but only really hear a phrase now and again.  So they have no notion at all of the mighty symphony which fills the universe, to which their lives are destined to make their tiny contribution, and which is the self-expression of God.

Evelyn Underhill, quoted in Celtic Daily Prayer Book 2, from the Northumbria Community

 

Many of our readers will have had items of luggage not join us as we travel around the world.  It can be a disorientating process, particularly if something we need or value doesn’t turn up.  Some of us may also have got lost in transit ourselves, perhaps physically, or even emotionally.  Often, as we move from one location to another, it can feel like something inside us hasn’t yet turned up.  So we start to get on with life in a new place, with something important missing, perhaps not to arrive for a long time.  It’s our sense of belonging.

When we go to a new mission field, we’re often engaged by a sense of calling, some excitement at a new start, and the enthusiasm of starting a new work.  This can sustain us through the culture shock.  But when we return to what was once our home, there is often nothing to help us with the reverse culture shock, particularly if we are going ‘home’ to retire, or we’re not sure what is coming next.  We have a sense of endings rather than new beginnings.  We may have a feeling that we’re being forced into this move rather than called.  Fear may replace anticipation.

I find it helpful to think of this as a wilderness experience.  Think of the Israelites going through the desert.  They were going out from somewhere they knew and understood.  They were going to somewhere that was rumoured to be special.  But their current experience was of going through a place they didn’t belong in or understand.

They missed the food; now they didn’t know where their next meal was coming from them.  They had been used to a plentiful water supply; now they never knew if they’d get water at all.  It’s not surprising they grumbled, just as we can be prone to grumble during our re-entry process.

What we, like them, need to do is focus on what we do have – the presence of God with us in the wilderness.  God led them through it.  God provided them with security.  God fed them and they heard the voice of God.  They learned to walk with God in the wilderness, so much so that deserts became for them not a place of death but a place of retreat and spiritual activity.  One of the Hebrew words for desert (they have several!) is midbar, which can also be translated as “He speaks”.

If you are going through your re-entry wilderness, be encouraged: it won’t last 40 years!  Sometimes it can take a couple of years to be able to function in the new environment, maybe more if there is not much support for you in this process.  But the really good thing about it is that our feelings of disorientation and alienation can actually spur us into a greater reliance on God through the transition.

Don’t die in the wilderness!  Put your trust in God, and come out the other side like Caleb and Joshua did.

Oscar Romero, pictured shortly before he was killed

Yesterday, Pope Francis presided over a ceremony in which Archbishop Oscar Romero was canonised, to great rejoicing from thousands of Salvadorans and other Latin Americans who already consider Romero a saint.

Canonisation does not mean much to most evangelicals, since we are an egalitarian group, who believe that we have free access to pray direct to God and don’t need the departed to intercede for us.  Moreover, we believe that we are all saints.  But we do have people we consider worthy of respect and emulation for their lives and character, though with few exceptions we prefer to keep these roles for Protestants rather than Roman Catholics.

San Romero, however, is one of these exceptions, whom we may laud for his courage in speaking out against extra-judicial oppression of priests and the poor in his country.  At a time when politics in El Salvador was heavily polarised between the left and the right, death squads would routinely attack, torture or murder priests, nuns and civilians who put themselves on the side of the poor, and in his regular radio broadcasts Romero would denounce the latest incidents, which would also be listed in the diocesan newspaper.  Reflecting later on the death of his close friend the priest Rutilio Grande, Romero observed: When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, “If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.”

These days El Salvador may have changed, but there are many of our fellow believers who need a Romero.  Recent crackdowns on independent churches in China have meant that millions of believers are unable to worship together in freedom.  Hindu nationalism threatens the lives of millions more in India.  And throughout the Middle East the remaining Christians who have not yet been displaced have no hope of a peaceful future.

Open Doors continues to advocate for the oppressed church through its World Watch List.  Let each of us stand up with Archbishop Romero to advocate for our brothers and sisters who are poor, marginalised and oppressed.  Support the work of Open Doors, engage with your MP, encourage local believers whom you know.  Let’s let our persecuted family know that we haven’t forgotten them.

 

 

I recently came across a commentary on the life of influential mystic and author Evelyn Underhill in which the author suggested that central to her thought and writing were two questions: who is God, and who am I.

Most of Syzygy’s readers will know God… to a certain extent.  We will know about God, have our understanding of the Trinity honed in good churches or Bible Colleges, we will have a personal relationship with God, and probably a sense of calling to what we are doing now.  Though none of us can say we really know God.  What mortal soul can truly plumb the depths of the infinite Deity?  We can only know what God graciously self-reveals.

We will probably know ourselves well.  We may have done Belbin, MBTI, Enneagram, Birkin and many other self-awareness exercises.  Hopefully we know ourselves well enough to tell which of our buttons are being pushed, and emotionally intelligent enough to respond in a measured and godly way when under pressure.  Yet few of us can truly know ourselves – we are so complex that when we think we know ourselves, we probably don’t.

Philosophers have spent lifetimes trying to answer these questions, but with respect to both them and  Mrs Underhill, those two questions only lay the foundations on which a third question rests.  This question is “Who are we?”  Who are God and I together, or – even better – who are God and our community, team, or family together?

We have blogged before on the concept of symbiosis, to illustrate the Pauline doctrine of Christ in me/I am in Christ(Colossians 1:27/2 Corinthians 5:17).  But what does it really look like for two beings, one eternal and omnipotent, and one transient and feeble, to combine in one frail body with the result that glory is brought to the One without extinguishing the individuality of the other?  This, surely, is the big conundrum for all of us in mission: how can we become so united with God that we are transformed sufficiently for the outcome to be striking to those we minister to?  How does ‘our’ ministry become God’s ministry through us?  How are we involved without interfering?

We see glimpses of such transformation in the lives of some of the Apostles, or later saints like Francis, or maybe even contemporaries like Mother Teresa.  What they show us is how to walk away from all worldly attractions so that we are truly free to abandon ourselves to the Lord.  As we do so, we are filled with him in a way that we cannot be when we keep our hands full.

Or to rephrase that in a more contemporary way: how can we live in such a countercultural way that those around us find their preconceptions about life and Christianity so undermined that they have to find out more about what motivates us.  Perhaps that is the key to 21st century mission: not changing the message but changing the messenger.

Single Christians are not allowed to have sex.  Not even with themselves.  They can’t even think about it.  Period.

That is the message the church gives us.  If we’re lucky, they’ll explain that sex is a gift for married people only because we believe strongly in marriage.  It doesn’t help those of us singles who live in a sex mad world which continually bombards us with sexually-explicit images and references.

It’s rather like handing round ice creams at a children’s party and then saying to some kid “You can’t have one.  Because.  Don’t ask questions.  Just be obedient.”

We are very seldom instructed how we can live in sexworld without sex.  We’re just told to do it.  Which is as helpful as those signs saying ‘Keep off the grass’.  It only makes you want to stray into forbidden territory.  And even if we don’t literally stray, we often can’t stop thinking about straying.  We’re not given support and encouragement.  We have to struggle on in silence, dealing with our own guilt and condemnation if we don’t get it right, because we know we won’t get a sensitive response if we ask for help.

Syzygy has developed a number of ways over the years to help single Christians in this predicament.  These will be part of our new resource for successful single living which we hope to publish over the winter, but here’s a taster.

One of the key tools is to get sex back into perspective.  We call it the relationship model, but you’ll probably recognise it as a counter from the board game Trivial Pursuit.  We use it to confront society’s lie that humans are sexual beings.  The problem with thinking you’re a sexual being is that if you are not able to legitimately have sex, who are you?  That can lead to significant identity issues for single Christians.

Syzygy believes that we are actually relational beings.  God is relational, expressing this in relationship within the Trinity and with creation.  Genesis 1 and 2 relate how humankind was created in the image of God to relate both to God and to one another.

We have an array of ways in which we can relate to each other.  Sexually is only one of them.  Others ways include socially, spiritually, physically, emotionally and intellectually.  Each of us will use a blend of several of these modes of relating to each other person.  So for example, we might relate to our mates at the rugby club physically and socially but maybe not intellectually.   With our college professor we’re probably being intellectual, with a bit of social.  We probably don’t use all these modes at the same time.  We don’t use some of them at all in some of our relationships.  We may use most of them in our closest friendships.  And although single Christians are encouraged never to use one of them, we still have five other modes to express our relating to other people.

By understanding ourselves in this way, we have removed the frustration that comes with seeing ourselves as sexual beings.  We are in fact relational beings, who have the capacity to relate sexually, but we don’t have to.  Investing in fulfilling relationships which are non-sexual is a way of finding fulfilment and focussing on the positive aspects of being able to relate constructively and accountably to so many other people.

Now, who’s still thinking about sex?

Memorial to the victims of the Manorom Crash (source: https://omf.org/thailand/

Over 40 years ago, several OMF mission workers and TCKs from Manorom Hospital were killed in a horrific road accident in Thailand.

Those of us who are part of the global missions community are no stranger to tragedy.  Even if a misfortune hasn’t happened to us, to our loved ones or our teams, we have all heard of mission workers who have died in car or plane crashes, were killed by tropical diseases, wild animals or armed militants, or who suffered unspeakable trauma in some way.

We can be tempted to think that such issues are a senseless waste of life.  We could easily be angry at God for not protecting them.  But those who serve in mission have weighed the risks, and found it preferable to face the danger with Jesus than miss their calling through fear.  After all, we have already died, and our life is hidden with Christ (Colossians 3:3)

A few years ago when I was in Thailand I had the privilege of hearing first hand a testimony from a bystander at the Manorom accident.  Apparently one of the survivors took the opportunity to preach to the crowd, despite the fact that his own family had just been killed.  His message was essentially that it didn’t matter that they’d died, as they’d lived for Jesus and were now with him.  The man telling me this story had been so impressed by this assurance of salvation that he subsequently became a Christian, and is now a highly-respected church leader.

When we glibly quote Romans 8:28 we can be tempted to infer that “all things work together for the good of me”.   Which makes it very hard for us to understand when bad things happen to us.  Perhaps the real truth is that “those who love him” are a whole community that reaps the benefit, rather than people individually.  We can never know what good will come from each individual tragedy, but we can be certain that “precious in the sight of God is the death of his saints.” (Psalm 116:15).

 

You can read David Pickard’s reflection on this tragedy on OMF’s Billions online.

Chambers, looking more like a matinee idol than a Bible College principal!

Those who follow Syzygy on social media may have noticed that every Friday for the last few months we have been publishing a quote from Oswald Chambers’ much-loved devotional My Utmost for his Highest.  Chambers is well-known for his inspiring writing but the man himself is not often talked about.  Which is just how he would have liked it!

Born in Scotland in the 19th century, he was an artist, pastor, and principal of a Bible College who had experience of short-term mission in Japan.  Passionate for the lost and oblivious to hierarchy and education, he ploughed his own furrow caring for the poor and ministering to anyone he came across.

While running the YMCA in Cairo during the First World War, he surprised everyone by cancelling entertainments for soldiers from Australia and New Zealand who were billeted there, and replacing them with Bible studies, which proved to be amazingly popular as he encouraged the troops to live lives totally sold out for God.

My Utmost for His Highest, published posthumously by his widow, contains numerous quotes about mission, which you can see if you trawl back through our feed.  Although Chambers was not an overseas mission worker like other heroes we’ve highlighted in the past, we nevertheless remain inspired by not only his passion for God but his absolute dedication to seeing God glorified through his life.

“The great word of Jesus to his disciples is abandon,” he wrote. “When God has brought us into the relationship of disciples, we have to venture on his word; trust entirely to him and watch that when he brings us to the venture, we take it.”

Which is good advice for any mission worker.

Source: www.freeimages.com

A while ago I heard this story from an elderly mission worker.  She had laboured long and hard in a church in the Far East, teaching children in particular the gospel.  She felt she had little impact on their lives, and eventually retired home to the UK somewhat discouraged that although she had been faithful to her call, she did not think she had really achieved very much.

After many years, she was contacted by a woman who had been one of the children she had nurtured a long time previously.  She was in England and wanted to visit.  So the day came, and the woman visited, and it turned out she was an active Christian.  The mission worker was delighted, and asked about other children who had been in the same group.  It turned out that one was a pastor, one an evangelist, another a worship leader and so on – they were all walking with the Lord!  The mission worker was delighted that her labour hadn’t been in vain.

Of course, our labour is never in vain if we are doing it for the Lord.  But many of us will not know what harvest has sprung from the seeds we have sown.  And although that may be very encouraging, it’s not really the point.  If we are doing faithfully what we believe the Lord has given us to do, we will one day hear his words of encouragement – “Well done, good and faithful servant”, even if we have been most discouraged in this life.

So, as Alex reminded us 18 months ago: Keep on keeping on!

Source: www.freeimages.com

Last month a blog (Where you go changes who you become) used a quote to illustrate how long term mission workers are changed by their experience of living abroad.  The same applies to short term mission workers.  In their case, the intention is slightly different and is in fact closer to the original context of the quote – encouraging people to visit different places in order to grow and develop.

Many short-term mission programmes are designed and marketed around the desire people have to stretch themselves through change and to see their own horizons broadened.  Although such programmes may be focussed on meeting the needs of a marginalised community abroad or supporting the ministry of long-term mission workers, they often intentionally address the desire of people to experience different cultures and to grow in character as a result.  Sometimes such programmes can degenerate into voluntourism, but many of them are well-planned, highly-contextualised programmes which introduce people to a world beyond their own experience with the hope of encouraging them into a life of ongoing missional engagement – whether as a long-term worker or a home supporter.

You’ve probably sat, as I have, in church on a Sunday when a returning team of short-termers has been welcomed back, and you’ve heard many of them say “Wow, I’ll never be the same again!”  Sadly, they often do remain the same.  Peer-pressure to conform, demands at work, the need to succeed academically and the worldly demands of lifestyle can all conspire to rob people of the life-changing impact of their mission experience.

As this summer’s short-termers return home from their potentially life-changing experiences, how can we help them develop their missional engagement, whether at home or abroad?

  • Help them realise the privilege it is to step outside one’s own culture for a bit.  If you hear them starting to become critical of church life, help them understand that others haven’t had the opportunity which they have.
  • Welcome them back by asking serious questions about how their experience is likely to impact them in the future: does this impact their choice of degree/career?  How will their prayer life change?  How are they likely to use their finances differently?  Might they take early retirement to be free to do more overseas mission?  Would they consider bringing up their family abroad?
  • Help develop a church culture where mission, whether at home or abroad, is a regular part of church life.  Then people who come back inspired can slot straight back into doing mission at home.
  • Encourage them to see this experience not just as an opportunity for themselves but as a way of service the church more effectively, sharing their thoughts with others and acting as an ambassador for the agency they went with.
  • Ask them what new skills or gifts they’ve used, and suggest they should try to find ways of using those in the church.
  • Make sure your returning church members get an opportunity for a professional debrief, which should be provided by the agency which sent them.  The church should also consider doing one, or asking Syzygy or another independent provider to help.
  • Be available to them to help them work through the challenges they now face.  Offer to talk over issues with them, and be available to mentor them.
  • Point them to our guide to coming home!

The period immediately after the exuberance wears off can be disorientating for people returning from mission.  We call it reverse culture shock.  People can make bad decisions as they go through a time of adjustment, but with support and encouragement they can turn a short-term thrill into a truly life-changing experience.

Source: www.freeimages.com

Together is a word many of us love.  We enjoy being together, doing together, talking together, worshipping together.  But our Western idea of together is a very individualistic understanding: a voluntary, non-committal, temporary association in a shared activity which doesn’t compromise our individuality.

The church, despite its language and possibly even its hopes, has a tendency to reflect this individualism, and so can mission training establishments and sending agencies.  As a result, our mission workers are often in the same mould, and may struggle to appreciate the community dynamics of some of the cultures where we minister, in which tribe, community and family are more important than the individual.

I have had several conversations with mission workers expressing frustrations at the demands local believers place on them – yet those demands often stem from their different understanding of the nature of church, which we encourage by our use of words like ‘family’ and ‘brother’, which can mean so much more in their culture than they do in ours.

In many ways, such cultures are far closer to the Israel of Bible times than they are to ours, and if we think more corporately as we read the Bible, we will see less of the western personal salvation which we are accustomed to, and more of a community being saved.  For example, Paul’s revolutionary theological revelation of the mystery of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).  As westerners when we read that, we tend to assume it means “Christ in me”, which is indeed compatible both with our understanding of our individual personal salvation and the subsequent verse 29 where Paul goes on to talk about God’s power working in him.

But the culture of that day, and the people to whom the letter was originally written, would have been far more likely to read that as “Christ in us”.  In those communities, where people were regularly in and out of one another’s houses (Acts 2:46), understanding themselves as part of a body (Romans 12), and experiencing profound love for one another (Colossians 1:4), an individual expression of their faith must have been unthinkable.  They were a new nation, a new family.  Christianity may have supplanted their previous commitments but didn’t change their understanding of how they fitted into community and family.

Perhaps we would have more impact on such cultures if we intentionally adapted our thinking so that our understanding of “together” was a binding, permanent, committed, irrevocable sharing of all that we have and are with our new family.  Maybe then they will know we are the disciples of Jesus because they will see our genuine love for one another (John 13:35).