Oscar Romero, pictured shortly before he was killed

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, who’s still thinking about sex?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is good advice for any mission worker.

Source: www.freeimages.com

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

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

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

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

Source: www.freeimages.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: www.freeimages.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Source: www.freeimages.com

I have blogged before about sowing in hope and about sowing what we will not reap.  As mission workers we sometime need these encouragements when it seems that ours is a thankless task bearing little fruit. Some of us are working hard and faithfully in places where it is hard to be in faith for even one person to express an interest in the gospel, let alone a mass movement to Christ breaking out.

Recently a retired mission worker told me that in his youth he had met an elderly mission worker who was hard at work but apparently achieving little.  As young enthusiastic recruits are liable to do, he asked the old man what he thought he was achieving.  “I’m not even planting the seed of the word,” came the reply.  “I’m still moving the rocks out of the field”.

We need to be aware that wherever we are ministering, we might inadvertently be placing rocks rather than removing them.  If we do not live like the locals, dress like the locals, eat like the locals, we may be unintentionally building barriers rather than bridges.

So what does removing rocks look like?  We should be asking ourselves – and our local contacts – what we communicate about Christianity that might actually put them off listening to our testimony.  So if we can address those issues, we may stand more of a chance of being seen as religious people they can engage with.  Part of their misconception about Christianity will be that they assume what they see in western media is Christian.  We ourselves are only too aware that television and movies seldom present Christianity well, but Christians are often perceived as decadent or immoral by others for whom this is their principal way of seeing the West.

Some of the things we could think about doing which might remove some rocks could include:

Prayer.  We pray so constantly and naturally that we hardly notice it.  We hold regular prayer meetings which take place in the privacy of a home or office so others don’t see it (Matthew 6:5).  But in some cultures where prayer is much more obvious or regular, they don’t necessarily realise we pray.  So if we very obviously and regularly stopped to say a prayer, they may well realise that we too are a people who take prayer seriously.  Moslem people might be more impressed with our faith, for example, if they knew we stopped to pray 5 times a day!

Fasting.  Some cultures, notably Islamic ones, make a big thing of fasting at certain seasons.  They do not see us fast, even if we do, because we try to keep it secret (Matthew 6:16).  But if we made more of an obvious effort to keep Lent, it would be a great opportunity to show people that we take fasting seriously.

Giving.  In line with the passage in Matthew quoted above, we try to keep our personal giving quiet as well.  But our giving is not only financial, but in our support for the needy.  Jesus also taught us to let people see our good deeds so that can glorify God (Matthew 5:16).  We are understandably reluctant to trumpet our acts of charity like Pharisees, but we do need to let them be seen.

Furnishings.  I have blogged before about how western architecture and décor don’t necessarily communicate spirituality to people of other cultures.  Even something as simple as having book stands to keep our Bible off the floor will show that we are people who treat it as sacred rather than just another book.  Removing our shoes when entering a place of worship might communicate something about reverence as well.

Clothing.  Much debate has taken place over how we should dress in order not to give offence, but just fitting into a local culture is a start.  This is the reason Hudson Taylor wanted the CIM missionaries to adopt Chinese dress.  I am known for preferring shorts to trousers, but in the Moslem community in which I currently live, I never wear shorts outside even for a quick visit to the shops.  Similarly, when I worked in Thailand, I shaved off my beard because Thai people don’t grow them, but grew it longer when living among people who do grow beards.

Attention to such simple things as how we appear to and behave with the people around us is the first step in removing the rocks.  St Paul summarises this strategy as:

I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I can save some.

(1 Corinthians 9:22)

When considering the perpetual challenge of ‘re-entry’ for mission workers returning to the countries they went out from, I have referred several times to Marion Knell’s excellent book with the above title. The title refers to the challenge of re-entry for a spacecraft returning to earth, and how that critical point of the journey can so easily go wrong.

Here at Syzygy we have seen far too many mission workers return to their sending country in a state of unpreparedness, or who struggle with issues even after many years of being back ‘home’ because these issues weren’t addressed at the time, so we want to encourage broader circulation of this valuable book.

Marion writes encouragingly in her introduction:

You can make it back into whichever part of the earth’s atmosphere you’re destined for.  There are people around who speak your language, who have survived the impact.  But you need to have the heat shields in place, the life-support systems working, and a good reception committee on the other end steering you back.

Her book helps you to make sure those things into place.  Marion explains what re-entry is, in simple terms, and why it can be such a challenge.  She helps us understand how stress can affect us as we return.  She shows us how to leave a place well and has plenty of good advice on the challenges of an international relocation.  She emphasises the important of having a good debrief.

The second part of the book focusses on TCKs and the challenges they can go through with re-entry, and tips on how they can thrive, and the book concludes with a section for sending churches on how to welcome back their mission partners effectively.

Marion’s writing style is light, entertaining and easy to read.  Unlike many member care books, reading the book is an enjoyable experience, not hard work.

If you are a mission worker planning to return ‘home’, read this book as soon as you think about returning.  If you’re responsible for sending mission workers, either with a church or an agency, read this book now!  You can buy it from the Global Connections website where members get a discount.  You might also like to read our guide to doing re-entry well.

A few years ago we designed a course called Crash Landing? which was designed to help those who made it back to their sending country and survived the impact, but were wounded in the process and still carry the scars.  Get in touch with us if you could use some support in helping you finally settle back in.

It’s not often you get to meet with several hundred Christian leaders from all over Europe, but if you attend the Hope for Europe conference in Tallinn this coming October, that’s exactly what you’ll get.

Syzygy is proud to be part of this significant event by helping the European Evangelical Mission Association to plan a missions track at Hope for Europe.  Featuring high profile mission leaders this track will address the issue of how the world’s least evangelised continent continues to engage in global mission, where our evangelistic confidence is shatterred and the need in our own countries seems to be so great that we can easily lose sight of the need for us to engage in mission worldwide, not just on our own doorstep.

The main theme of the track will be: How can we inspire Europe with a global vision?   We will cover topics such as:

  • Inspiring ‘hard places’ mission – How do we inspire people to do mission in hard countries, hard cities, ignored places, and with neglected social groups?
  • Inspiring an integral mission. How do we engage responsibly with taking the gospel to people, while helping with their physical, social, and psychological needs?  How do we address the practical situations without merely becoming Christian social workers?
  • Inspiring a humble mission.  What is the role of the European church in world mission? How do we overcome our own barriers from our colonial past?  Can the rest of Europe say something to the northwest?  Can the rest of the world say something to Europe?

To be part of this significant event visit the Hope for Europe website, and to be part of it you can register at https://hopeforeurope.org/registration/.

 

I recently came across this quote on the website of the Youth Hostel Association.  It sounds great, in its context of being adventurous and going places, and those of us who have travelled in cross-cultural mission will be only too aware how much we have changed as a result of our experiences.

We have taken on board aspects of other cultures which we have found valuable.  Learning to express ideas in another language has helped us appreciate different ways of perceiving the world.  Our dietary preferences will have changed – whether we love the food in our host country or are more enthusiastic for the food we grew up with.  We feel richer for the privilege of having stepped outside our own culture and embraced other cultures.

The downside of this is that by exposing ourselves to other places, we have become people who are not the same as we would have been if we had stayed home.

Mission workers don’t usually notice this until it’s time to return to their ‘home’ culture.  Then they discover that they don’t really fit in any more.  They can experience various levels of stress as the difference slowly dawns on them.  This is something we know as ‘reverse culture shock’, and the effects can include irritability, tearfulness and anger as they try to find an equilibrium in a world that doesn’t feel the same as they think it should.  It’s often been observed that reverse culture shock is worse than the culture shock experienced when first moving abroad, largely because it is so unexpected.

Particularly difficult issues which can contribute to reverse culture shock include:

  • feeling that a church is more concerned about apparently trivial issues concerning its Sunday service than it is about world mission;
  • hearing about friends plans for holidays, home extensions and new cars when they don’t appear to be at all interested in world mission;
  • finding people spectacularly disinterested in what mission workers have been doing for the last few years.

At this time of year, many mission workers are back in their sending countries on home assignment.  This is a period of a few months when their work is to reconnect with churches, agency and family while raising new support, promoting the work of their agency, and having routine reviews and checkups.  Their time here is often too brief for them to struggle with reverse culture shock, but it may impact some of them.  So what can we do to help them?

  • Remember that they may be disorientated by changes while they’ve been away. Ask them what’s changed, how they feel about it, and be ready to engage with any hurt or anger they’re feeling.  Explain changes that have happened recently and show them how to do things.
  • Show interest in what they’ve been doing. Even though you may not understand everything, remember that this is a vocation they feel passionate about, and they want to talk about it.
  • Recognise that they’re tired. Often they have been travelling around the country, sleeping in different beds, answering the same questions day after day.  Give them some space in which they don’t have to ‘perform’.
  • Understand that your country is no longer ‘home’ for them, especially their kids. When they first get back they may be longing for Sunday roast or Shepherd’s Pie, but after a couple of months they’re probably desperate for nshima or dhal.
  • Realise that as they’ve changed (and you may have too) the nature of your friendship may have changed. Work hard to establish common ground and interests so that you can maintain your friendship well.
  • Encourage them to talk about their experiences in a formal debrief, either with their church missions team, their agency, or an external debriefer like Syzygy.

Home assignment can be a great joy for mission workers, but it can also be hard work.  Let’s try not to make it any harder than it has to be!

 

Recently I was hiking in the Lake District and had forgotten to take my hiking poles. Having used them regularly for several years the whole walk felt very different, and I noticed that my legs had to work a lot harder without help from my arms.

The right kit is so important. As a good organiser and a safe hiker, I make sure I carry a lot of things I will need: map, compass, water, gloves, waterproof clothing and more. I also carry things I hope I won’t need: survival rations, spare socks, emergency whistle and a space blanket.

Which is exactly what we tell mission workers to do. They take loads of stuff with them when they go and I’ve even seem some ship out containers with their belongings in. We also make sure they get properly trained in language learning, theology, cross-cultural awareness and many other skills they will need in the mission field – even hairdressing or motor mechanics.

In stark contrast Jesus told his first mission workers to take nothing:

Go; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no money belt, no bag, no shoes; and greet no one on the way… Whatever city you enter and they receive you, eat what is set before you…

(Luke 10:3-4, 8)

The disciples were spectacularly unprepared in a way that any sensible agency or church wouldn’t tolerate in their mission workers today. So should we be sending people out on a whim, rather than putting them through recruitment and training processes which can take several years before we think they’re ready? No! For every successful Jackie Pullinger who just gets on the boat and gets off when it stops, there are hundreds of broken mission workers who have returned covered in ignominy because they were under-prepared for the challenges they faced.
So how do we explain what Jesus said?

I believe the point he was making, which is still valid today, is that when we have equipment, skills and learning, we can so easily come to rely on that rather than on God, and on the help of the locals. We turn up with all our gear and can establish ourselves as independent colonists in our host country rather than engaging with our new neighbours to find out how things work. Most of us will never, like Jesus did, have to ask a stranger for a cup of water (John 4:7). Many of us will cruise from place to place in our air-conditioned 4x4s and never know the thrill of getting to know our fellow passengers on a long bus journey. We won’t communicate vulnerability and need to our neighbours.

Stuff makes us independent. Independence can make us proud, and paternalistic towards our neighbours. Need communicates vulnerability, opens doors, and builds relationships. Perhaps we need to think about sending more mission workers with less stuff.

(Source: www.freeimages.com)

I was recently asked by a single person planning to go to the mission field for support in preparing for the challenges a single in mission will face.  What a wise thing for someone to do!  But for me it raises a further question: how do we provide Syzygy’s training to a wider audience?  We have already developed workshops, lectures and retreats on the subject, but these are not always accessible to everyone.  We have blogged about singles on numerous occasions but these don’t contain all our material because we have many non-single readers!

Yet it remains clear that singles, whether new to the world of mission or long established, can benefit from specific help and advice on how to be successfully single.  At the same time it appears that some sending agencies and few churches are not in a position to provide this.  So I am wondering how to bring our experience to a wider audience.  The options include another book/e-book, podcasts, webinars or a workbook.  And we’d like some feedback to help us work out which is best.  These of course are not only for single mission workers – we would also include material to help churches, agencies and married people understand how to help singles thrive.

So we’re inviting our readers to take part in a very brief survey to help us get a feel for what would work best.  Just click here to take part.  It will only take a couple of minutes.

And do please share or retweet a link to this page so that as many people as possible get the opportunity to express their opinion!

Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness,

Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.

Let every valley be lifted up

and every mountain and hill made low.

Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed,

and everyone will see it”

(Isaiah 40: 3-5)

I have blogged before about the “Highway of Holiness” which Isaiah prophesied about.  The point he was making is that it should be easy for people to come and find God, like using a Roman road going straight to its destination rather than the “Rolling English Road” of G K Chesterton, with its twists and turns and unexpected hazards.

Isaiah is fond of the image of a motorway running from Assyria to Egypt by way of Jerusalem.  Mostly it’s there to make it easy for Israelites to return to God (11:16, 35:8, 49:11) but it’s also there for the people of the surrounding nations, represented by the two superpowers of the day, to turn to the Lord – see 19:23 where the prophet has a vision not of the destruction of Israel’s enemies (as one might expect) but of them thriving as they turn en masse to God and are blessed.

God has been at work among the people of the middle east for a while now, giving them incredible dreams revealing the risen Lord Jesus to them.  For the last couple of years, he has been bringing them in great numbers to Europe, where it is much easier for Christians to meet them, show them the love of God and help them on their journey.  Some countries have tried to block this road but the people still come and the church, on the whole, welcomes them.  Christians are doing a fabulous job of helping in settlement camps, running welcome centres, and supporting the new arrivals to their neighbourhood.  But more can still be done.  I blogged about the opportunity the refugee crisis brings us over two years ago and nothing has changed.

Seventy years ago, the Windrush generation started to come to Britain.  Although many were enthusiastic Christians they were not universally welcomed into the principal churches, so they went and started their own.  Some of these churches went on to become vibrant, growing denominations which have experienced significant revival.  But the sad truth is that in most cases, we still have white churches and black churches, and very few genuinely intercultural ones.

Let’s not make the same mistake with people from the middle east.  Let’s welcome them with open arms.  In 70 years, we do not want to see God blessing a thriving muslim-background community of believers while more traditional churches continue to close their doors.  This is a wonderful opportunity for us to prove we have learned from our past mistakes and be genuinely inclusive towards those who are different.

There is an old joke about a new vicar keen to make an impact in his village parish.  Walking down the street he sees a beautiful cottage garden with an old man working in it.  He greets his parishioner and comments “Isn’t it beautiful what God can do with a garden?” to which the old man replies “That’s as maybe, but you should see what a mess it gets into if I leave him to do it by himself.”

Much of what I have written in these blogs, particularly about Martha and Mary or the Protestant Work Ethic, could be misconstrued as thinking that working is bad, and we should all sit and pray so that God can get on with the work.  But that’s not true.  While God may be able to do the work by himself, God doesn’t like working alone.  God likes others to join in.  God may in fact be an excellent gardener, but when he created Eden, he put the humans in it to look after it – literally to work and to guard it (Genesis 2:15).

The parable of the seed (Mark 4:26-28) shows us what this partnership looks like in practice.  A farmer plants the seed, and then waits for it to grow, which it does all by itself.  Presumably he waters and weeds it (although Jesus doesn’t mention this) and then he harvests it.

This is a perfect analogy for our partnership with God in mission.  We preach the word, water the seed with our prayer, weed it with our witness, but God makes it grow.

However, we must not lose sight of the fact that this is partnership with God.  I meet too many mission workers whose lifestyle reveals that they think God is a silent partner in their work, and that it’s up to them to do everything.  Which leads to stress and burnout.

That’s what’s wrong with the old maxim “Be a Calvinist on your knees and an Arminian on your feet”.  It divides mission into two separate spheres, one where I do the work and one where God does.  In fact we work together with God in both of them: in working, by constantly seeking God for energy, inspiration and guidance; and in prayer, by seeking the leading of the Holy Spirit as to how we should pray and what we should do.

In short, God wants more help in the garden.  He could do it by himself, or we could try to do it for him.  But he’d much rather enjoy our company as we do it together.  How are you going to work together with God in the coming week?

A recent visit to the Wilson Carlile Centre in Sheffield, home of the Church Army, prompted me to find out more about this remarkable evangelist.  A successful Victorian businessman who suffered a breakdown following financial ruin, he turned to Christ and, heavily influenced by D L Moody, discovered a passion for evangelism.

But unlike others of his day, his passion was for the people on the margins.  London, where he served his curacy, was full of soldiers, working class labourers, sex workers, addicts and the homeless.  Carlile concluded they would not go near a church because the feared they wouldn’t receive a welcome from the respectable Christians in them.  So he began to hold open air meetings to take the gospel out of the church and into the streets, but these got so large that he eventually had to stop them.

Resigning his curacy to devote himself full time to slum ministry, he created the Church Army to focus on outreach to the working class.  Not unlike the already-functioning Salvation Army, but with a crucial distinction that instead of becoming a separate church, Wilson determined to keep the Church Army within the Anglican church, as it still is today.

Carlile set up a school in Oxford to train working-class evangelists to reach their own class, thus avoiding the potential class-barrier that could hinder others in outreach.  Today the Church Army still welcomes and trains evangelists who might not be welcome in other places, but who are adept at forming connections with people on the margins of society.  They have ministries in 20 different countries.

My visit challenged me again with the problem of how to reach out to people who are different to us.  Many churches are monocultural even if they are multiracial, and tend to reproduce (if they do at all) in their own image, rather than adapting themselves to be genuinely accessible to people of other backgrounds – especially those who are already marginalised.

Some years ago, an urban outreach worker who lived in a very deprived area of the city but was attached to a church in the suburbs told me: “I’ve got a problem – a man on my estate just became a Christian”.

“Why’s that a problem?” I asked.

“Because I can’t take him to church.  They’ll reject him.”

Let’s hope things have changed in our churches.

Source: www.freeimages.com

“Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair.”

“Trust is like paper: once it’s rumpled it can never be perfect again.”

“Trust is like an eraser: it gets smaller and smaller with every mistake.”

These popular quotes illustrate how easy it is to damage trust and how hard it is to rebuild trust once it has been betrayed.

Many of us will have experienced damage to relationships when trust is broken.  Someone has betrayed a confidence.  Another person stole.  Somebody abused their power, or failed to follow through on their commitment.  Sadly the missions world is far from immune from such challenges.  Our relationships with nationals and team members can be complicated by different understandings of trust, and misunderstandings can quickly arise leading to a loss of trust.

Trust is essential to any relationship, but it involves risk.  We start any relationship by divulging personal information like our name, family details, home town and possibly occupation, and then move into more intimate information like age and earnings.  We trust even the most casual acquaintances not to abuse these.  As relationships deepen, we entrust people with more, and this in turn engenders more trust as we see people handle our personal information, commitments and dependencies with integrity.  Until something goes wrong.

So how do we repair the damage once this has happened so that trust is restored to its previous pristine state quickly?

Forgive.  Often easier said than done, and although the initial decision to forgive may be effective, in our hearts and minds we may need to keep repeating it till our thoughts and feelings agree with our will.

Leave the past behind.  “I’ll forgive but I can’t forget” isn’t really forgiving.  OK, we can’t always forget what happened, but we can choose not to bring it to mind.  A friend of mine once said of someone “He swindled us out of a lot of money, but of course we forgave him.”  She clearly didn’t need to tell me, so I assume she hadn’t tried to forget.

Be honest.  Tell them how much their action hurt you, but that you’re willing to forgive and try to trust them again.  Hopefully your action will stimulate some change in them.

Get it in perspective.  Is this just one error in an otherwise trustworthy life?  Just because it’s happened once doesn’t mean it’s bound to happen again.

Take baby steps.  Give them an opportunity to be faithful in small things, and let them rebuild trust by showing themselves trustworthy.

Be patient.  Change doesn’t happen overnight, as we know from our own character weaknesses, so don’t expect instant transformation in others.

There is a curious incident in the story of Joseph’s incognito meeting with his brothers in Egypt where Joseph frames his little brother Benjamin with theft of his favourite cup (Genesis 44).  As punishment, he is to become Joseph’s slave, but older half-brother Judah steps in, and stays he will take Benjamin’s place, as it would break his father’s heart if he lost the second child of his true love Rachel (Joseph being presumed dead).

This incident makes no sense until you connect it with an earlier event when Judah was the one who suggested selling Joseph as a slave (Genesis 37).  Joseph had more justification than most of us for wanting his revenge on his brothers, but instead he is giving Judah a chance to prove he has changed, and in doing so, he took a risk.  He didn’t know what Judah would do, but Judah had learned his lesson.

The best way to rebuild trust is to trust.

 

Many of us will be familiar with Isaiah’s enthusiastic response to the revelation of God he received: “Here I am; send me!” (Isaiah 6:8).  You may well have used it as an appeal for mission workers.  But the first part of his sentence, “Here I am…” merits a little more unpacking.

This unremarkable statement acquires weighty significance when we look at it more closely.  “Here I am” seems a somewhat redundant response to a God who knows where we are.  But it is not a mere statement of location.  There’s a different expression in Hebrew for that, which is equivalent to saying “Present!” when the school register is called.  In this instance, hinani  in Hebrew indicates readiness and willingness.  It indicates being present, here and now, not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, but fully in the present, available to God for him to use.  It’s like a soldier snapping to attention and replying “Yes, Sir!” when an officer calls his name.  He instantly stops what he’s doing and listens for orders.

It is used notably by Abraham (Genesis 22:1, 22), Moses (Exodus 3:4) and Samuel (1 Samuel 3:4) when God speaks to them.  Each time it marks the beginning of a new faith journey.  Abraham is called to make a significant sacrifice.  Moses is commissioned to lead his people.  And Samuel commences a significant prophetic ministry with words of doom to his predecessor.

Each of us had a hinani moment when we committed our life to follow Jesus, and most likely another one when we followed him into world mission.  Some of us may be able to identify several of them.  Sometimes they are obvious, like a clap of thunder in our consciousness (John 12:29); at other times they are much more subtle, like the still small voice after the storm (1 Kings 19:11-12).

But I wonder how many of them we have simply missed, by being busy, preoccupied or stressed.  Listening to God is an art which needs to be practised – in the present, in stillness of soul.  I was struck recently by something Elisha said – “the Lord has hidden it from me and not told me why” (2 Kings 4:27).  We might expect the opposite, that God would reveal something to us.  But Elisha, admittedly an anointed prophet, had practised listening to God so closely that he felt it was normal for him to have a prophetic perspective on what was happening (2 Kings 6:16).

Sometimes God shouts, but more often whispers, and if we’re not in a place where we can hear the still, small voice, we may risk not moving on when we should.  God doesn’t always set a bush on fire to get our attention, so we’d better be giving it readily.  Let’s make sure we create the time in our busy schedules to be able to do this.

Leonard Cohen drew on his Jewish roots as he used hinani in his powerful final album You Want it Darker as he readied himself to meet God.  He translates it as “I’m ready, my Lord.”

Are you ready?

I was asked recently whether drive is a necessary characteristic for a mission worker.

My instinct is to say no.  I have seen a lot of drivenness in ministry, often expressed as a compulsion to succeed, to achieve, to prove others wrong, and in many cases is appears to stem from unresolved personal inadequacies.  Drivenness can lead to stress and burnout as we try to achieve things in our own strengths rather than trusting God for fruit in our ministry.  We have blogged many times about these dangers.

But drivenness is not the same as drive.  Drivenness implies something painfully pushing someone on, like a herder using a cattle prod to keep oxen moving forwards.  Drive, however, is internal.  A car has drive under its bonnet.  Without it, the car wouldn’t go anywhere.  Drive is less intense than drivenness.  Drive motivates us to get out of bed in the morning.  Without any drive at all, we would drift aimlessly through life.   In a positive way it stimulates us to fulfil basic natural needs to eat and sleep, and higher desires, which may be healthy or not.

And surely some drive is necessary for a mission worker.  If you were the leader of a mission agency would you recruit people with no drive?  Someone who just turns up and casually asks if they can join you, somebody who might drift through life on the mission field never initiating projects, not pressing forward?  They’d probably not get through the first round of recruitment – as someone who has been through that process myself, I know that drive is needed just to complete the application form!  So a certain amount of drive is necessary.

But drive has a negative side in that it pushes us to acquire a sense of belonging, significance, fulfilment and achievement, albeit less compulsively than drivenness, though in just such an unhealthy way.  Drive is the Freudian Id, or to use a Pauline expression, the ‘flesh’ which is not merely the healthy desire to meet natural needs, but the unhealthy demands that those needs are prioritised, even at the expense of others.  These are things which Christian thought tells us to die to.

So, to answer the question, let’s look at the life of Jesus.  Did he have drive?  Clearly, yes.  He talked about things that he came to do (Luke 10:19), and showed determination to achieve them (Luke 9:51).  He refused to be distracted from his mission (Matthew 15:24), and didn’t seek his own gratification (Mark 10:45).  Ye he clearly wasn’t driven.  He made time for people (John 4), and created plenty of time for God (Mark 1:35).

So I think the answer to the question is that it depends where drive comes from.  Is it a fleshly or soulish desire to have our own needs met, even if we express that desire through the vehicle of a productive-looking ministry?  Or is it a godly passion which drives us to ever more submit to God’s will in our lives in the pursuit of his greater glory.

After all, Jesus did tell us “Whoever seeks to save their own life will lose it, but those who lose it for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25)