Photo by Maxim Hopman on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

(John 1:9)

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Other blogs in this series:

Episode 1: Who am I?

Episode 2: What do I do?

Episode 3: What is my calling?

Episode 4: Coping with loss of control

Photo by Keppens Toon from FreeImages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The moral of the story: keeping watching the Pillar!

 

Other blogs in this series on identity:

Episode 1: Who am I?

Episode 2: What do I do?

Episode 3: What is my calling?

 

Photo by Svilen Milev from FreeImages

 

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

Yet we find it very difficult to define it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Other blogs in this series on identity:

Episode 1: Who am I?

Episode 2: What do I do?

Episode 4: Coping with loss of control

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Source: www.freeimages.com

 

“What do you do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Other blogs in this series on identity:

Episode 1: Who am I?

Episode 3: What is my calling?

Episode 4: Coping with loss of control

Frank Lake’s dynamic cycle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Other blogs in this series on identity:

Episode 2: What do I do?

Episode 3: What is my calling?

Episode 4: Coping with loss of control

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God is more interested in my character than my comfort

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

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

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

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

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.