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.

In recent months it has been a joy to hear reports, mostly from countries where it can be dangerous to be a Christian, of local believers going to great lengths to feed the hungry and tend to the sick.

Much of this work has been done unofficially, below the radar of repressive governments, but it has made a huge difference to the local population as they see the love of Jesus shown to them by believers.  Evidently, people of a variety of other faiths have been willing to receive prayer and to listen to the Gospel, because of the example of compassion shown by those whom previously they too might have oppressed.

The Christians have risked their lives to do this.  They could be imprisoned by the government, they could get sick themselves.  Why would they take such risks when they could stay home and keep themselves safe?  A 19th century missionary to Fiji might have the answer.

James Calvert is not a household name.  He was a trainee Wesleyan minister who was sent with his wife and several others to minister in Fiji in 1838.  A story is told about him that when they arrived, the ship’s captain begged them not to disembark, as they would doubtless be killed by the warring cannibals ashore.  Calvert’s reponse?

We died before we came here.

In fact, the missionaries weren’t eaten, and Calvert went on to minister influentially in Fiji before also serving in South Africa and as a minister in the UK.  But that’s not the point.  He, like so many other mission workers ancient and modern, recognized that “my life is no longer my own” (Galatians 2:20), that “we have died and been buried with Christ” and that He deserves our obedience, even to the point of death.  After all, we have nothing left to lose: “for me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21)

Meanwhile Fiji has been the focus of much missionary attention and almost 2/3 of the population identify as Christian, according to Operation World.  But there remain some large gaps: indigenous tribes living in remote areas, and the significant Asian-background communities who continue in the religious traditions of their ancestors.  Who will lay down their lives to bring the gospel to them?

You can read more about James Calvert and his colleagues at:

Australian Dictionary of Biography

Evangelical Times

By now you’ve hopefully realized that the plan can’t be to just ‘sit this out’ or ‘weather the storm’ until life returns to normal. We have to accept that some things won’t be the way they were. People are talking about BC and AC – Before Corona and After Corona.

As teams, organizations or churches we quickly learnt to cope and (mostly) adapt well to meet the initial practical challenges and we can be proud of that. We also, however, need to process what’s happening to ourselves and the world and be like the men of Issachar who understood the times (1 Chronicles 12:32).

Systems, methods, habits and lifestyles have changed. Jobs and livelihoods have been lost. Everywhere people have had their worldview messed with and they are disoriented. This is leading to increased spiritual hunger among many. Sadly, suspicion of foreigners is commonplace. Fear is at the forefront in hearts worldwide. We’ve been humbled as we realise we are not in control; we are weaker than we thought. The Corona virus has exposed where we have put our hope and what we have taken for granted.

This is also a time to rethink, review and evaluate what we do and prepare for life beyond Corona. It’s not simply a case of ‘keep calm and carry on.’ Keep calm yes, but change and prepare as necessary.

Here are a few questions for leaders that might help us navigate, process and prepare in the weeks ahead:

What is God saying or teaching us? Make time to listen to God; don’t just plough on. There are lots of voices and opinions; value God’s above them all.

What new or different needs are there around us and how can we serve? It’s tempting to go into self-preservation mode but it speaks powerfully when we don’t in times like this.

What do the people we are responsible for need right now? What does our community need? Too often we assume we know. Ask.

What do I need right now? Those of us who are responsible for others need to look after ourselves too. Practice self care. You, your family and team will be glad you did. Operating in crisis mode is exhausting; we need to still be functioning in the medium and long term, not just the short term.

What have we lost? It’s important to acknowledge losses and grieve them. Process along the way so it doesn’t hit you later in one big wave that takes you out (I’ve been there, it was horrible). Staying hopeful is important but so is acknowledging that this is hard for everyone. We lose trust if we’re out of touch with reality.

What are we grateful for? What do we realize we’ve taken for granted until now? Gratitude is a powerful weapon against hopelessness, despair and despondency.

How is our world, our culture and community changing? How will that affect what we do and how we do it? There are some things to keep and likely some things to let go of that are no longer effective or relevant.

How can we stay true to our vision and mission even though the way we do things has had to change? In the scramble to adjust don’t forget why you exist. Crises have a way of helping us see what really matters and what just isn’t as important as we thought it was.

What new possibilities does this situation create? The cliché is true: in every crisis there are opportunities. Don’t miss them. New ideas and initiatives could be waiting to develop. Also, as one national director in our organization noted, we now have something in common with everyone on the planet which we didn’t have before. The shared experience the world is going through can help us relate and identify with people in a new way.

What are we learning that we don’t want to forget when things improve? Maybe some things we had to come up with now can be kept along with other insights we’ve gained along the way.

A prayer:

Lord, we’ve never been here before. Please help us to navigate this territory and perceive what is happening. We ask you for insight and wisdom to lead effectively. We pray we would learn the lessons You are teaching us and not forget how much we need You. Shape us for what lies ahead. Holy Spirit make us brave to face the changes this is bringing upon us. O Lord be glorified through Your people in this critical hour. For Yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory, Amen.

 

Alex Hawke, April 2020

Alex Hawke is 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 Wade Austin Ellis on Unsplash.com

The boxer has been in a fight many times.  His face is lumpy where the bones have been broken.  His nose is crooked.  There are small scars all over his face where blows have split the skin.

But the boxer is unbeaten.  Many blows have been landed on him, but none of them was the knockout punch.  The boxer is durable, resilient.  He’s been winded, wounded, and on the ropes, but has always found enough energy to get back in the fight.  He knows he’s only got to hang on till the bell, and there’ll be a break. Sometimes he’s only won on points, but the win still counts.

You are the boxer.

Your mission field has thrown everything it’s got at you and you’re still standing.  But each blow leaves its mark.  Your bruises have bruises.  The scar tissue is building up.  You are tired, desperately tired, but you know you’ve only got to hang on a little bit longer and you’ll get that break.  The holiday, the retreat, the home assignment is not that far away.

But all of a sudden the rules have changed and the bell is not ringing.  The holiday has been cancelled.  The retreat centre is closed.  Home assignment is deferred due to travel restrictions.  Some of us have had to leave our field of service for health reasons.  Others have found themself stuck in the UK and are unable to return home.  Some short-term workers have had their once-in-a-life-time gap year truncated, or their overseas medical elective cancelled (see last week’s blog).

For worn-out mission workers, most challenges and disappointments are not a knockout punch.  We’ve been rolling with those hits for years.  That’s why we value resilience, because we know the hits are big, but we can weather them.

Covid-19 may not in itself be a knockout punch, but it might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  It’s a low, cunning, unexpected hit, but what’s even worse is that it comes just when we thought we could make it to the bell.  One top of all the other blows that come again and again, our resources are drained and our resilience tested.

And now, all of a sudden, we have to find a new way to do ministry.  We have to homeschool our kids.  We are home alone and can’t meet with our friends, or we’re stuck in the house and have to face the tensions in our marriage.  We are concerned about getting the right resources, finding the right balance between loving and leaving.  We wonder if we made the right decision: should we have stayed in the field?  We feel guilty because we have the freedom to choose when those we work with don’t.  We carry the grief of friends and family who have died and we haven’t been able to be at the funeral.  And although others are suffering too it’s different for us, and nobody else understands, but we can’t tell them that for fear of appearing elitist.

Syzygy loves the bell at the end of the round, because we know every mission worker needs time out to refresh, take stock, ask some deep questions and re-envision for the future.  It’s those short breaks that restore our strength to get through the fight.  So we’re changing the rules back, and ringing the bell anyway.  You may be stuck in the UK but you can still have a retreat.

Together with Global Connections, we’re running an online retreat for mission workers who are stuck away from their place of calling, struggling to keep their ministry going.  It’s an opportunity to connect with God for three hours on 14th May, and reflect on what’s been happening. Find out more by visiting the Global Connections website.

We hope you can join us.

I’ve been hearing stories recently about short-term mission workers whose time abroad has been rudely interrupted by Covid.

Young people on a gap year who had barely got into their stride in the field when their agency called them back home.

People on a DTS who can’t go on outreach.

Medical students planning an elective abroad whose plans have been frustrated.

For many of these people it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to serve God abroad, and now it’s not happening.  Perhaps it’s never going to happen.

Many of these people are disappointed, confused and angry.  They need to process this.  They have questions like “Why did God send me abroad only to bring me back again?”

An interesting Biblical case to look at is John Mark.  He went with his uncle Barnabas and with Paul on their first mission trip to Cyprus.  We don’t know if they originally planned to go on to what is now Turkey, but they did, and for some unknown reason Mark went home.  We don’t know why.  Perhaps he was homesick, perhaps he didn’t like the food.  Quite possibly he didn’t get on with Paul!  Whatever the reason, Paul clearly regarded it as desertion and refused to take him on the next trip (Acts 15:36-41).

Mark could just as well have asked “what was all that about?”  He’d been willing to travel for the Lord.  He’d stepped out in faith and perhaps thought of a life in ministry.  And now he was back home in Jerusalem.  Fortunately his uncle believed in him and took him with him on another trip to Cyprus.  This gentle restoration led Mark back into a life of mission, associated with both Peter and again Paul.

So for people grappling with their disappointment and frustration, here are few suggestions:

Find a Barnabas.  Identify someone in your church (preferably with mission experience) who can mentor you through this, help you ask the right questions and seek God for what comes next.  Or perhaps your agency can find you a staff member or retired mission worker to do this.  Don’t grapple with it alone.

It’s not about you.  OK, so you wanted to experience another culture, enjoy different food, enhance your CV.  How much of that was about you, and how much was being available to serve God wherever he wants you to be?  Yes, there is an element of personal enjoyment in much of our travel, but if God’s now saying he wants you here, how are you going to get on and do that with as much enthusiasm as you were pouring into your overseas mission?

It’s not once in a lifetime.  So you were going to take a gap year before going to university.  Great!  But just because that opportunity has been taken away doesn’t mean that was your one shot at it.  You could go after university.  Or later, in between jobs.  In fact, you can go any time at all.  Who goes straight from uni onto the career ladder and stays there for 40 years anyway?  I took my gap year when I was 32, taking a year out from my job to do short-term mission.  I just never went back!

God told me to do this, and I did, and it didn’t work out.  This is perhaps the most challenging of all questions, and it’s too big to unpack in a single paragraph so we’ll come back to it in a couple of weeks’ time.  But just as a spoiler, God isn’t necessarily looking for success – he’s looking for obedience and faithfulness.

Mission work is full of frustrations and while with grace and support long-termers may learn to take these in their stride, for many short-termers it can be their first taste of things not working out and it comes as a nasty shock.  We’ve blogged a few times about disappointment, why not take a look at some of the other blogs and see if there is some help in there for you?

Source: www.freeimages.com

At the moment, many churches are asking how they can support their mission partners.

In some ways, mission partners are going through exactly the same as everyone else: locked down in isolation or with family/housemates, unable to meet others, trying to work out how to do church and ministry via social media while homeschooling their kids.

In other ways, that could be a very different thing for them.  They may be trapped in their sending country, unable to return to their home and their church community.  Others may be living in a country with a less-developed infrastructure, erratic electricity supply, and inadequate healthcare systems.  And once the borders are closed and the flights have stopped, there is a terrible finality to being locked into a country with no opportunity to leave, which they might not have had to cope with before.

And while pastors and community leaders here are stretched by the challenge of caring for their flock, that could look very different in the mission field.  Many of their flock could be day labourers, who have no income or resources to fall back on without work.  They will not have freezers full of food, so if markets are closed, they will go hungry.  They are more used than we are to relying on community and extended family so will find self-isolation difficult.  And possibly they have no access to clean running water in their own homes.

So, how can you help them?

  • As you already do, pray for them, encourage them and be there for them. Make a point of checking up on them and finding out how you can help.
  • Consider making extra funding available to them if they face unanticipated costs, which may be significant if they need hospitalisating.
  • Support them in the decisions they have made, whether they have stayed or left. They have made a heart-wrenching decision and don’t need others criticising them when they may already be feeling guilt or fear.  And if they have returned to their sending country because their agency instructed them to, they may also be grappling with feelings of disempowerment and disappointment if they personally felt they should have stayed.
  • Make time to listen to their concerns. Even if you can’t do anything to help, they may not have anyone else they can talk to who would understand.
  • Find out if they have close family members who could use some support from the church.
  • If they are back in the UK they may have challenges finding accommodation and transport, or just getting used to the way things are being done. Help them and make sure they know their way around this new world, and how they can get things done.  Some of them may be in quarantine far from their usual support mechanisms, so try to help them find a local church that can give them support.
  • Make sure they know how to access the NHS as a UK resident if they need secondary health care – primary healthcare remains free for everyone.

And don’t forget there is further help on supporting your mission partners in our churches section!

During this situation, Syzygy is aware that many mission partners might need access to additional pastoral support which we are offering free of charge to any mission partner who asks for it.  Contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk.

In these times of uncertainty, there is a lot of talk about keeping safe.  The current lockdown is designed to keep people safe.  We exhort each other to stay safe.  And I see people wearing facemasks who a month ago would have laughed at east Asian tourists for doing so.  The risk level has changed, and so has our response to managing it.

It’s natural to want to stay safe, to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our community from harm.  Safe is the sensible choice.  But safe can also be the selfish choice.  Safe can mean we’re not there for others.  Safe can mean we contribute to food (and toilet roll!) shortages by hoarding enough for ourselves.  Safe can mean we board up the doors and windows to keep danger out, but in doing so we cut ourselves off from neighbours.  In the parable of the talents, a slave was punished for playing it safe because “I was afraid” (Matthew 25:14ff).

There are times when we are called to nail our colours to the mast and step out in faith.  That doesn’t mean we are blithely nonchalant about risk.  It means we evaluate risk, take steps to mitigate it, but then step out in faith to do what we are called to do.  Whether it was Hudson Taylor or Søren Kierkegaard who first observed “Without risk there is no need for faith”, it is undeniably true.  While we play it safe, our faith withers on the vine.

Over 25 years ago, when I first felt the call to the mission field and planned to go to live in post-civil-war Mozambique, a friend asked me what I thought the risks were.  It took me a while to answer as I reflected on it.  I thought about my financial well-being if I couldn’t get a job when I returned.  I thought about my health, living far from a hospital in a country plagued with tropical diseases.  I thought about my prospects of finding a wife and bringing up children in that environment.  I thought about my mortality, going to a country littered with landmines and where guerillas still roamed the countryside.

I realized that all the things I stood to lose were not particularly important to me.  What was more important to me was, as St Paul wrote:

that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, …that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

(Philippians 3:8-11)

My answer was “There is no risk.  A risk only exists when what you stand to lose is of value to you.”

That’s not a licence to be irresponsible when the lives of others may depend on you.  But let us be people who in this current environment are not known for our fear but for our faith.

Source: www.freebibleimages.org courtesy of www.LumoProject.com

I’ve noticed a tendency in me recently, whenever I have an idle moment, to head outside and do some gardening.  Maybe it’s just the sunnier days and the warmer weather encouraging me out of doors, but I think it could be something deeper.

At times of stress, uncertainty, difficulty or danger, it can be very tempting to walk away from the situation that confronts us and go back to something familiar.  Something safe.  Something we know how to do and where we can feel in control.  I used to work as a gardener, and it was one of the happiest times of my life.  I’m going back into my comfort zone.

2000 years ago, Peter did the same.  Having had to deal with the terror of the crucifixion, the shame of denying Jesus, the confusion of seeing his messiah ‘defeated’, and the challenge of three wonderful inspiring years of ministry coming to a gory end, he was worn out.  He wanted to go back to what he knew how to do.  So he went fishing (John 21:3).  He wasn’t necessarily turning his back on his life as a disciple; he just needed to get some space.

In a similar way, Elijah responded to ministry burnout by wanting to be on his own, just like he had been for three solitary years when he was fed by ravens (1 Kings 19).  And in his cave, angels ministered to him.  In his fishing boat, Peter met the risen Christ.  These times of stepping back from ministry are not necessarily the end.  They may be a place for recommissioning, re-envisioning and refocusing.

Good self-care steps back for a bit when the world threatens to overwhelm us.  And in doing the simple, familiar tasks, whether they be baking, gardening, reading or watching Netflix (you probably can’t go fishing at the moment!), we create a space in our busy lives for Jesus to come and meet us afresh and revive us.

Peter came away from his fishing trip with a renewed relationship with Jesus, confidence in his ministry and vision for the future.

How are you creating space in your life for Jesus?

Across the world, billions of people are being told to stay home.  For weeks.  Quite apart from the economic damage this is causing, there is a huge social trauma as people have to adapt to a new situation.

For a small number of introverts who live alone, this is heaven.  They get solitude enforced on them; how bad it that?  But for some introverts it’s a nightmare: being shut up in a house with housemates, a partner, children and no private space will be a huge challenge.

And for extraverts, they will be struggling with the lack of companionship and group activities.  We are finding the limits of social media – you can be on your phone all day long and still feel starved of people.  And many of the more tactile of us will be longing for physical touch.  An extravert with an introvert partner will be clinging to that partner for company, at the very time the partner is wanting more space.  There could be divorces as a result of this.

To manage this situation well, first work out whether you’re an introvert or an extravert.  It’s not always easy, as some introverts are highly social and can look like extraverts, and some extraverts can also be reflective.  It all boils down to how your regain energy: if solitude drains you, you’re likely an extravert.

Second, communicate this to the people you’re living with so that they know what you need.  And listen to them so you understand why their needs may be different to yours.

Third, work out a compromise that delivers some of what you all need.  Define times for space and times for being silent or social.  Agree that a certain room is designated either noisy or quiet.  Come up with a sign that you need to be undisturbed, like wearing a particular hat or putting an apron over your head like John Wesley’s mother!

Fourth, pray for each other to have the grace to put up with you!  In The Marriage Course there is a wonderful testimony from a man who said he spent the first 15 years of his marriage focussing on his needs and his wife’s shortcomings, and the second 15 years focussing on his wife’s needs and his shortcomings.  The second 15 years was the best!

During this challenging time, let’s all be people who put the needs of others before our own.

Last week, we looked at how Jesus cleansing the temple can be a metaphor for making our church more accessible to those who are unchurched.  This week, it’s personal!

You will of course be familiar with the idea found in 1 Corinthians 6 that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.  The immediate context of this teaching is the licentious lifestyle of some of the Corinthian believers, but the wider context is of our union with Christ who dwells in us and in partnership with us by the power of the Holy Spirit – something we’ve blogged about before.

In physical terms, the temple is the place for worship and witness as we declare the glory of God to an audience visible and invisible who do not worship him.  So to cleanse the temple is to make sure that it is fit for that awesome purpose, and contains no impediments or distractions to its epic task.

So as we approach the Christmas season and plan to welcome Jesus into our cribs, nativities and our very lives, what does it look like to allow him to clean up our lives?

Physically – this is probably not the right time of year to be recommending a detox, but we do need to remember to keep ourselves physically in shape.  As a general practice, eating fresh healthy food and minimising our consumption of stimulants (caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and –sorry! – chocolate) is part of keeping ourselves physically healthy and maintaining resilience).  Do any of these things cause others to stumble (1 Corinthians 8:13)?  Do we eat and drink forthe glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31)?

Mentally – for some of us, watching a bit of rubbish tv or playing a computer game is an effective way of winding down and de-stressing.  But how easily we can become addicted to our favourite soap opera, youtube, or scrolling through Facebook.  Those apparently harmless activities can easily steal productive time from us.  How can we start to reclaim those idle moments and make the best use of our time (Ephsians 5:6)?

Spiritually – what are the things in our lives that are ‘strongholds’?  Places that are not yet surrendered to Jesus and are holding out in opposition to his rule?  These can be the things that cause us to be ashamed of ourselves and lack confidence in our identity in Christ, and can also be the things which others see and think to themselves “How can he call himself a Christian when he is like that?”  They could be a quick temper, a gosspiping tongue or a greed for fame, power and wealth.  What does it mean to us to kneel in obedience and hand over the keys to him?

So in the midst of this busy season, with all its focus on services, parties, presents, family and holiday activities, I invite you to set aside an hour to make the really important preparations.  Sit somewhere quiet and invite Jesus into the temple which is you.  Ask him to overturn the tables and chase out the traders.  We cannot do it ourselves – we have tried and tired – but when he looks us in the eye and says “I don’t think that should be in here” we have both motivation and authority to clean up our act.

Let’s welcome Jesus into a place which he can truly make his home this Christmas.  Not a stable, but a heart.

 

Source: www.freebibleimages.org courtesy of www.LumoProject.com

We are all aware of the incident when Jesus overturns the tables in the temple and upsets the traders, but we might not be fully aware of what was really going on here and how it can relate to us today.

The public space of the temple was divided into 3 sections starting with the outer court, which was freely accessible to anyone who satisfied some basic requirements and so has become nicknamed ‘the court of the gentiles’.  Then came the ‘court of women’ where only Jewish people were allowed to enter and in which most public worship took place, and then finally the ‘court of Israel’ in which the sacrifices took place.

It seems that there were not a lot of Gentiles coming to the temple, as Israel had forgotten its role of revealing God’s blessing to the nations (Psalm 67) and focused on their exclusivity as the people of God.

At the same time, since it was quite difficult to walk with your ram or bull all the way from your far-flung home to the temple, worshippers were allowed to sell their sacrifice at home, bring the money with them to Jerusalem, change it in the temple for ‘holy’ money, and use that to buy an animal to sacrifice.  What better place for this to happen than in the temple precinct itself, handy for the altar?  So the underused court of gentiles became full of traders and moneychangers.

So, if Gentiles came to worship God, they found themselves not in a place of tranquility but in a bustling market place, full of smelly animals and busy people, and the air full of the sounds of haggling and mooing.  Not a pleasant place to worship.

It appears that this is the focus of Jesus’ wrath – they have not made it easy for to those who don’t yet know God to come and worship him.  And Jesus is blisteringly angry with that.  Of the gospels only Mark (11:17) makes evident the link between this and the verse from Isaiah that Jesus is quoting:

For My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations

(Isaiah 56:7)

In this context Isaiah is prophesying that Gentiles who choose to worship God will be welcome in the temple and their sacrifice will be accepted.  The outsider is welcomed in, a theme clear in the New Testament with Gentiles being welcomed into the early Jewish community of Jesus-followers.

I don’t know of any churches today that have money-changing booths, or indeed cattle markets, but I wonder what practices go on in your church and mine that are obscure, esoteric, or just downright confusing to an outsider today.

For example, I knew one lady who went to church and came out shuddering: “all that talk of blood, it was disgusting”.  Many of us who make the decisions about how we do church have been Christians for a long time, and it can be easy for us to forget the confusion and bewilderment we felt when we first met the church.

In this context, cleansing the temple means making it accessible, both literally and culturally, to those who are outside it.  It means removing abstruse and arcane language (see what I did there?), and explaining clearly where we use symbolism.  It means intentionally creating an environment conducive to spirituality and in which other people, other cultures are embraced and accepted rather than required to conform.

If Jesus walked into your church meeting this Sunday, what would he be overturning?

 

If you buy someone a bunch of flowers in Romania, be careful what message you’re giving.

A conversation with a friend recently accidentally revealed the potential for a major inter-cultural error.

Apparently, in Romania, you give even numbers of flowers for a funeral, and odd numbers for another occasion.  Since every Romanian knows this, they automatically count the flowers to check what your message really is.

This is a good example of ‘culture’, which can be defined as the unspoken shared assumptions about ‘the way we do things round here’.  When people within a given community all know something, they don’t even consider the fact that outsiders might not know it too.  My friend was astounded that I wouldn’t consider it an insult if you gave me a bouquet with 10 roses in it.

Mission workers live in this world of cultural faux-pas, particularly in more inscrutible cultures where it can take decades to learn the subtle nuances, which may even be intentionally kept secret from outsiders.  We can all tell stories of our embarrassment at insulting somebody while trying to be polite.

But it a world where more mission workers are coming to the traditional sending countries of the West, and internationals (particularly students) are brought to us from all corners of the globe, how aware are we of our own unspoken shared assumptions?  How inscrutible do we make our culture to others when we don’t stop to explain why we talk about the weather so much, queue politely, or roll our eyes in exasperation at our neighbour on the bus when somebody else has music on annoying loud but we don’t actually talk to the offender?

One of my great joys is to welcome incoming mission workers and provide some training and cross-cultural orientation for them so that they stand less chance of alienating the British with their brash approaches to cross-cultural interaction.  When I was conducting some research (among people I hadn’t trained) I asked them what one thing they now wish someone had told them when they first arrived in Britain.  The main answer was “I wish I’d known you don’t mean what you say.”  Ouch.

Perhaps it’s time to be more honest, with others and ourselves, if we’re going to help them thrive cross-culturally in our world.  After all, not everybody knows they have to count the petals.

By F.G.O. Stuart (1843-1923)

This story has been doing the rounds on social media and is too good not to reshare…

 

We all know the story of the Titanic, how on April 14, 1912 an iceberg scraped the ships’s starboard side, ripping open six watertight compartments and leading to the death of over 1500 people.

On board the ship that night was John Harper and his much-beloved six-year-old daughter Nana. According to documented reports, as soon as it was apparent that the ship was going to sink, John Harper immediately took his daughter to a lifeboat. It is reasonable to assume that this widowed preacher could have easily gotten on board this boat to safety; however, it never seems to have crossed his mind.

He bent down and kissed his precious little girl; looking into her eyes he told her that she would see him again someday. The flares going off in the dark sky above reflected the tears on his face as he turned and headed towards the crowd of desperate humanity on the sinking ocean liner. As the rear of the huge ship began to lurch upwards, it was reported that Harper was seen making his way up the deck yelling “Women, children and unsaved into the lifeboats!” It was only minutes later that the Titanic began to rumble deep within. Most people thought it was an explosion; actually the gargantuan ship was literally breaking in half. At this point, many people jumped off the decks and into the icy, dark waters below. John Harper was one of these people.

That night 1528 people went into the frigid waters. John Harper was seen swimming frantically to people in the water leading them to Jesus before the hypothermia became fatal. Mr. Harper swam up to one young man who had climbed up on a piece of debris. Rev. Harper asked him between breaths, “Are you saved?” The young man replied that he was not.

Harper then tried to lead him to Christ only to have the young man who was near shock, reply no. John Harper then took off his life jacket and threw it to the man and said “Here then, you need this more than I do…” and swam away to other people. A few minutes later Harper swam back to the young man and succeeded in leading him to salvation. Of the 1528 people that went into the water that night, six were rescued by the lifeboats. One of them was this young man on the debris.

Four years later, at a survivors meeting, this young man stood up and in tears recounted how John Harper had led him to Christ. Mr. Harper had tried to swim back to help other people, yet because of the intense cold, had grown too weak to swim. His last words before going under in the frigid waters were “Believe on the Name of the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” This servant of God did what he had to do. While other people were trying to buy their way onto the lifeboats and selfishly trying to save their own lives, John Harper gave up his life so that others could be saved.

Which raises an important question: what would you do in the last few minutes before you died?

This past weekend I just happened to watch two movies which were about the Pacific conflicts in the second world war.  Both movies brought out the point that there was extensive difference between the Japanese and the British/American culture.

For example, the Japanese thought their opponents were cowards because they surrendered rather than fighting to the death.  The Allies thought the Japanese were fanatics because they preferred death to surrender.  These assumptions coloured their treatment of each other on the battlefield and in the POW camp.

But this misunderstanding arose due to a lack of appreciation of culture.  The Allies weren’t cowards, but they valued life and preferred to live to fight another day.  The Japanese on the other hand, valued honour, and would prefer to die honourably in battle than live with defeat.

We as mission workers live in this culture gap, where it is so easy for two different peoples to believe they understand each other.  We discussed this six years ago in a blog about guilt and shame.  Without sufficient investment in cross-cultural awareness, we can draw conclusions which merely reinforce misunderstanding.  For example, I have heard Christian mission workers complain that the locals are corrupt/stupid/lazy without bothering to investigate why their behaviour may appear like that to us when it may be completely consistent with a local world view.  The poor employee who steals from the till to buy medicine for his sick mother thinks he is doing a good thing in taking care of his mother at the expense of his wealthy employer.  This doesn’t excuse corruption, but it can explain it.

This problem is compounded when we lazily assume that the way we do things is ‘right’ (a western concept), and is biblical, which is easy to do when we read the Bible through the eyes of our own culture.  When we sit with people of another culture and ask “What does this verse say to you?” we may get an answer that surprises or even shocks us.  See for example, our blog on the Parable of the Talents!

This is why we need to spend as much time listening as talking, understanding as explaining, and going to great pains when we teach people the Bible that we don’t teach them our Bible.

Only by listening to our missionary colleagues from all over the world, as well as our host culture, will we begin to break free of the western mindset which blinkers our understanding of other cultures and stops us really hearing our brothers and sisters from other places.

Only by becoming more intentionally inter-culturally aware and engaged will we begin to represent a global kingdom perspective and not a narrow monocultural one which verges on religious imperialism.

There is a curious conversation recorded in Matthew 19 which is often overlooked, although it is the follow up to some oft-quoted teaching on divorce.

You’ll recall that the disciples asked Jesus where he stood on divorce, and when he says you can’t get divorced except if your spouse has committed adultery, the exasperated disciples exclaim  “It’s better not to get married then!”

And Jesus says “Duh!”

OK we don’t generally translate it that way, but in effect Jesus says “Of course it is, though some of you are going to find this hard to hear.”  And then he starts to talk about eunuchs, how some are born that way, others have been castrated, and some choose to live as eunuchs.  As he did.

If you know anything about the culture of ancient Israel, you’ll know how important it was to be married and have children, so that your name could be preserved and your land passed on.  To be a eunuch was a curse.  They weren’t even allowed in the national assemblies (Deuteronomy 23:1).  Why does Jesus suddenly start commending them?  It’s so un-Jewish.

I believe he is drawing on a wider middle eastern tradition of giving powerful roles to eunuchs, because they were trustworthy. The Assyrians were the first of several early empires (as you will remember from the Old Testament) which took some of the best young men from countries they conquered to serve the king.  This most notably occurred to Daniel and his friends.  What the Bible for obvious reasons doesn’t mention is that these men would be castrated.

The purpose was that these eunuchs could be trusted with power, authority and finance, because they couldn’t start their own dynasty, so there was no point in them overthrowing the king.  Also, without children to support them in their old age, they relied on pensions from the royal household to care for them.  As a result, eunuchs like Daniel, and the Ethiopian treasurer, achieved high office and were often renowned for their loyal dedication to the king.  As well as being trusted with the harem, they often became the king’s bodyguard or personal servants as well as being top civil servants.  Sometimes they even acted as regents for an underage king.  In fact being a eunuch was often synonymous with exercising power.

We can see this reflected in the Bible.  The Hebrew word which is translated eunuch in Isaiah 53:5 is saris.  This word is also translated in other contexts as official, chief officer, or chamberlain.  Potiphar, for example, is described as a saris (Genesis 39:1), even though he has a wife.  So is the man in charge of the Jerusalem defence force (Jeremiah 52:25) – and it’s unlikely that he was literally a eunuch as they seldom had command of the military.

So Jesus makes a powerful link between those who choose not to be married with the great court officials of the day.  Far from being cast aside and neglected, we find ourselves with a powerful vocation, devoting our time and energy not to managing a household and raising children but to serving the King.  Some of us, Jesus concedes, have little choice in the matter.  Life’s circumstances have forced us down this road.  Few of us have chosen singleness, but all of us have the opportunity to embrace it, even if only for a while.

Seen in that context, isn’t it exciting that Jesus holds out to every single mission worker the honour of being a eunuch for the King of Kings!

 

After a summer of trying to find a car that would be worthy successor to our much-loved Toyota Previa, our resident car expert Chris suggested a Ssangyong Turismo.

Having never even heard of one I decided, while the Turismo ticked all our boxes, there was no way I was going to buy a second-hand car for Syzygy without a good inspection first.  So I resolved to visit a dealer and take a look at one.

One night, I was going out with a friend for a meal and happened to park right outside a Ssangyong dealer, so I took a quick look.  They had some good-looking cars at even better-looking prices so I went back the next day when they were open.  “Have you got a used Turismo I can have a lot at?” I asked the dealer.

“How much are you looking to spend?” he replied, to which I answered “£15,000”.

“I can do you a new one for £17,000.”  And that’s how I met our newest Syzygy car.

The last unsold example of its model in the country, we got a significant discount because he wanted to shift it.  It meets all our needs, will comfortably carry 7 passengers plus luggage without the MPG going through the roof.

As I say in a video of the new car, Syzygy would like to thank all our supporters, prayer partners and donors who made it possible for us to buy a brand new car.  And of course God, who sustains this amazing ministry and allows miraculous events like this to happen for us.

And if you’re still not sure why Syzygy needs a new car, you can read more about the Syzygy car ministry here.

A couple of weeks ago we observed that even the apostle Paul had trouble getting a visa!  So we are not alone in our difficulties.  This is the man who was lashed 5 times, beaten 3 times, stoned and shipwrecked three times! (2 Corinthians 11:24-25).

Some of us are happily in faith for God to miraculously open doors for us and give us incredible opportunities to minister, but most of us really struggle – to raise funds, get work permits, see ministry breakthroughs.

We wonder why we lack faith or what we’re doing wrong, and grapple with feelings of failure as a mission worker.  For us, the going always seems to be hard.  At every turn something seems to go wrong.  Kids get sick.  Someone gets arrested.  There is robbery and violence.

For us, the encouragement is that Jesus warned us it would be like this: “In this world you’re going to have big trouble” (John 16:33a).

Oh joy.  Thanks Jesus.  He explains why it’s going to be hard: “The world hates you because I chose you” (John 15:19).

In other words, we’ve joined the wrong gang.  This world has its way of doing things, and if we don’t go along with it, we’re in trouble.  But we’ve joined another gang.  The world’s gang leader doesn’t want us to get away with that because others might go along with us, so we’re subject to reprisals.  He’s going to attack us at every turn.  He’s going to discourage us.  He’s going to stop us spreading the message of freedom.  He wants us to become so despairing that we give up, go home and live comfortable, uncontentious lives and think it was all a bit of a mistake to go into mission.

But we’re not going to do that, are we?  Because we know it’s tough.  We knew we weren’t signing up for a cabin on a cruise liner but a bunk on a troop ship.  We know we’re on the winning side, because Jesus said so: “Take courage: I have overcome the world” (John 16:33b).  And he didn’t overcome it with six legions of angels.  He overcame it through his suffering.  And in our suffering, we join with him in both his suffering and his overcoming.

So the next time our work permit is cancelled, our funding fails, our building is bulldozed or we find ourselves in prison, here’s a prayer:

 

Lord Jesus, I have trusted in you in good times and in bad.

I cannot see how my current situation will bring glory to you,

but I choose to trust you again.

Thank you for this opportunity to reveal you

to the people around me

through my words, my actions and my attitudes.

I invite you to work in me and through me for your glory,

so that your kingdom may advance in me and through me.

The life of a mission worker is characterised by change.  Our lives are marked by constant comings and goings.  Every arrival brings new life; every departure brings a little bit of death.  We live in a constant cycle of welcome and farewell, joy and grief.

Our own journey consists of giving up our roles to do Bible College, returning to a temporary home while we fundraise, leaving home and arriving in the mission field, living somewhere temporarily while we’re trained, moving to the place we are assigned, returning for ‘home assignment’, and returning to the mission field again.

Much of our security in transition can be placed in family, but the downside of this is that it can make us focus on our nuclear family at the expense of the wider community.  Single mission workers of course left their family behind and can risk isolation in the mission field.  So we build strong, supportive friendships, but just when we need those friendships most, our friends go on home assignment, or leave the field altogether, and we have more bereavement to deal with.

All this can take its emotional toll on mission workers, and I have seen some of us so badly affected by the pain of loss that we withdraw from community to protect ourselves from the grieve of loss.  So how can we thrive in the constant cycle of arrivals and departures?

Remember that we are aliens and strangers.  Most humans have an innate desire for stability, expressed in concepts like ‘settle down’ and ‘home’.  Those of us who are continually on the move, or live in a moving community, need, like the Israelites in the Exodus, to remember that our security is in the constant reassuring presence of God.  Whether we camp for a night or a year, we move on when the Pillar of Fire moves on.

Delight in the temporary.  When we make a good friend, we want them to be in our lives forever.  Instead of thinking about the future, let’s learn to enjoy today, this week, and shift our focus into the present.  When that friend moves on, keep memories and souvenirs, thank God for the friendship, and let someone go.

Use ritual.  People who live in transient communities often use ritual to help reinforce their group identity and process transition.  The Jews are a good example of this.  We too can do the same by developing a welcoming or leaving ritual, with the giving of gifts, opportunity for prayer and blessing, laughing and crying, sharing hopes or memories, and the reading of scripture.

Build a RAFT.  We’ve commented before on the value of the RAFT model designed by David Pollock.  Whether using it for yourself or to help others on their journey, it’s a good way of helping with the transition even if it’s not us who are leaving.

Look to God for our resources.  “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).  When we feel we’re running out of emotional resources to cope with the comings and goings, turn to God who has more than enough resources to supply our every need.

Do selfcare.  In all of this, we need to be aware of the damaging effect on us of constant change.  Self-care is an important factor in coping.  Do what you need to do to recharge your batteries, and if you need to, seek outside help with a debriefer or counsellor.

 

Life in the mission field is demanding, and we should make every effort to ensure we can thrive in it.

 

Paul’s Macedonian Vision

Much frustration, confusion, anger and loss is incurred by mission workers who find their plans thwarted.

Perhaps a family need draws us back home from the field.  Some of us inexplicably lose visas and are given 48 hours to leave a country we’ve lived in for 20 years.  The risk of terrorism forces our evacuation.  A sending agency decides to pull out of a given location.  Our funding falls to an unsustainable level.  The list goes on.

Each time something like this happens it causes trauma.  It is accompanied by complex emotions of guilt, loss and regret.  But there is also confusion in our spiritual life.  Did we hear God correctly?  Why didn’t God provide?  Has God changed his mind?  Did we get something wrong?

I wonder if those thoughts were troubling Paul and his companions as they tried to continue with their second missionary journey but found doors closed.  Acts 16:6-9:

They passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia; and after they came to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them; and passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas. A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him, and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 

We can only speculate why (and how!) God wouldn’t let them into the various places they tried to go, and why God didn’t give Paul that dream earlier, but we can infer that there was some unexplained purpose in a short time of confusion.  An analysis of the “we” and “they” sections of the narrative shows that Luke wasn’t with them at this time – perhaps they had to go to Troas to add him to the team.

When we are confused and disorientated by rapid changes, we can draw comfort that Paul and his associates have been in the same place.  But we can also reflect on some possible reasons why God might do things like this:

  • God wants to move us on to a different ministry, but we’ve been so committed to the one we have that we couldn’t imagine something else
  • God is moving us out of the way so that others can take over the work we’ve been doing
  • God prevents us from building up pride in our own ministry, or even in our ability to listen to him
  • God is reminding us that he moves on, and he wants us to be ready to move with him
  • God’s plans for us are so big that we couldn’t conceive initially of what he could do, so he started small
  • God undermines our security in role, position, authority, home, church and our own anointing so that we place more of our security in him.

These and many others could be the reasons why things appear to have gone wrong for a time.  We may never know the real answer this side of eternity.  I personally draw comfort from the experience of the Israelites in the wilderness – when the pillar of smoke/fire moved, they moved, and when it stopped, they stopped.  When they set up their tents they didn’t know if it was for a night or a year, and they didn’t know why they were in that particular place.  They didn’t need to – they just stayed close to God.

Colombian, Indian, Nigerian, Malawian – are they really mission workers?

As I am helping the European Evangelical Mission Association plan a conference on the diaspora church (churches made up largely of members of ethnic minorities) in Europe, a couple of weeks ago I went to a very interesting conference where none of the speakers were white, middle-aged, western European men.

It’s not often that one has the opportunity to listen to wisdom and experience from people who are often marginalized by what might be called the ‘mainstream’ church, apart from the wonderful Rev Joel Edwards, who is extremely popular as a speaker.  If you’re interested, you can read a review of the conference here.

Inevitably in such a discussion, the term reverse mission came up.  You may not have come across this term much, and a quick look at articles on the internet indicates the term has only been in use for a few years.  It is used to denote those people who have come from a majority world culture to bring the gospel to European people.  It is used with wry amusement by reporters, but also by serious missiologists, and one of the organisers of the conference I attended, Rev Israel  Oluwole Olofinjana of the Centre for Missionaries from the Majority World (CMMW), has written a very helpful  introduction to the subject.

Yet despite its wide adoption, I want to take issue with this term, because I believe it is essentially derogatory to the people it describes:

  1. It implies they are not proper mission workers. After all, real missionaries are white people who go to deprived places, not deprived people who come to white places, aren’t they? So we have to put a qualifying adjective in front of the noun to belittle them and make it clear that they don’t have the same status.
  2. It also does not reflect the prevailing view to which we all pay lip service, that mission is from everywhere to everywhere. Reverse mission implies that real mission is from the West to the rest, and if the rest start coming here, it’s not quite the same. If mission is really from everywhere to everywhere, mission workers must be from everywhere to everywhere too.
  3. The word ‘reverse’ has stigma attached to it. It means retrograde, or retreating. Plans that are overly ambitious are put into reverse.  Reverse means going backward.  Reverse is essentially wrong.  If we must use a qualifying adjective, at least ‘inward’ would be neutral, reflecting a geographic direction rather than a moral one.

In Britain there are now many mission workers from former colonies and elsewhere who are sufficiently grateful that a few generations ago our compatriots took them the gospel that they are now doing the favour of returning it to people who have lost it.  We should be grateful – after all the indigenous British church is not doing a great job of reaching our lost neighbours.  We need the help.

But many British churches are not ready to receive mission workers from another continent.  We might tolerate North Americans, but when we see a Ghanaian leading worship, a Pakistani preaching or a Mexican giving communion, we might be intrigued, or amused, but we seldom honour them for the sacrifice they are making, or respect their wisdom and Biblical understanding, or appreciate their pastoral skill.  We tolerate them with a paternalistic smile, but they’re not the real thing.

As a nation, we are not ready for reverse mission.  But if we stopped calling it ‘reverse’, at least we might start moving towards it.