Jesus cleanses the temple

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Isaiah 56:7)

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone counts the flowers

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The culture gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hello Goodbye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Mellow fruitfulness?

Autumn is a time of fruitfulness in the UK.  On a recent walk in the countryside recently I found blackberries, rosehips, elderberries, haws and hazelnuts within a short distance of each other, along with a variety of cereal crops and of course wild flowers setting their seeds.

The objective of all this fruit of course, is to feed a variety of wildlife ahead of the winter, and in the process, to reproduce the species as the seed is dispersed.  Squirrels create caches which give seeds a chance to move away from the parent plant, and birds eat seeds along with the fruit, allowing for random dispersal in the bird droppings.

Some fruit fail to achieve either objective.  Often the fruit, for no discernible reason, gets left on the plant where it will dry up and remain, achieving nothing.

What sort of fruit are you?  It can become easy for mission workers to stay in their place, working hard but gradually drying up.  They feed nobody, and they don’t reproduce themselves.  But the alternative is not attractive to us – “Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single seed.  But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24).

Jesus teaches his disciples – immediately before his own death – that sacrifice is the way to fruitfulness.  I believe that this is not only the one-off final sacrifice that many of us may be called on to make as we follow in Jesus’ footsteps to the grave, but in the daily dying to self that we are called to as we take up our cross (Matthew 6:24).  We mustn’t fall into the trap of thinking that our sacrifice of leaving home and family and travelling to a foreign country is the end.  So what does that mean in our daily life?

  • The daily stress of living, speaking and working in a different culture can be hard. Recognising that it’s a choice we make for Jesus helps us cope with the fatigue of cross-cultural living.
  • We submit to one another in love (Ephesians 5:21). Sometimes relationships with other characters in our team can be tense, particularly if they’re from a culture which does things differently to us.  Deferring to one another and giving preference can ease tensions.
  • Developing character instead of ministry skills can help us become better advocates for the gospel, as who we are is of more significance than what we do.  In doing so we become the sweet aroma of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:15)
  • Laying aside our own sense of calling to a particular activity, church or role for the sake of the team can be a particularly effective way of bearing fruit, even though the cost to us personally may be high.
  • Sharing our lives with others (1 Thessalonians 2:8). It can be easy for us to compartmentalize our work and our private lives – and some element of this is important in maintaining our own well-being, but we are at our most effective not merely when we serve, but when we love, build relationship, and open our hearts and our lives to others.

If, like the fruits mentioned above, we commit our lives to putting others before ourselves as we follow Jesus, we will not be unfruitful, and our fruit will yield a big harvest for the kingdom.

Communication let us all down

For most of my life I have been part of various organisations – schools, employers, mission agencies, universities, churches, societies – and almost invariably they have a communication problem.  I should imagine there are few of us who feel we are in an organisation that communicates well.

Either the information is left to trickle down (or not!), it’s all pumped out in one deluge, or there is such a commitment to communicating that information comes out so frequently that people stop listening.  Rather like the rain down in Africa, good communication not only needs to come at the right time, it needs to come in the right quantities, otherwise there is huge damage caused by flood or famine.

Good communication involves expressing ideas clearly, listening with a view to understanding rather than contradicting, and being prepared for an open, frank discussion while still remembering to love those who don’t agree with us.  Without these prerequisites, a meeting can be held, words said and heard, but communication hasn’t actually happened.  As George Bernard Shaw remarked:

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

So how can we communicate effectively in our churches, agencies and teams?

First, think about who does the communicating.  Some leaders can feel uncomfortable that they don’t have the ability to communicate well, whether orally or verbally, or cope honestly with any difficult questions, and therefore they start the process defensively, which can lead them to going on the attack if challenged.  Others may be communicating simply because they think they it’s their responsibility.  Some do it because they need to make sure their people’s need for information is met and are not committed to taking people with them on the journey.

All of these are likely to do a bad job of communicating because their heart is not in it.  They would benefit from letting someone else manage the communication – a person with an understanding of what is needed, a person with the right skills and a passion for getting a message across.  Which is why important people often have press secretaries.  They think about what is being said, and how and when.

Communication is also complicated by the variety of viewpoints among the followers.  Some will have principled objections to any suggestions of change, others will be personally inconvenienced or hurt by it.  Some will feel they haven’t been heard if they’re not agreed with, and others (like football supporters) will always be of the opinion that they could do the job better than the current manager.  Many will think the organization ought to be more ‘democratic’ – in other words they feel they have a right to have a say.  And the different ethnic mix in any given context means that any communication is filtered through the differing cultural blinkers of each nationality.  These factors  complicate how well organisations communicate.

Second, think about why you are communicating.  If you are giving people information so that they will do something, you may want to communicate differently than you would if you are leading a consultation.  Sometimes communication needs to get a message across in a hurry, as in a combat situation where lives could be lost if there is not clear communication.

Other communication may be about an organisation’s change of ethos or policy, which may require more consultation.  Sometimes communication, as in marriage, may not be for any particular purpose or about a specific issue so much as maintaining and building on a relationship, for which it is important to ensure communication channels stay open and that people have an opportunity to be heard.

Finally, think about the process of communicating, particularly if it’s about major change.  What is the mix of face-to-face meetings, social media and written/email letters?  How do people express their views or ask questions – particularly those who are reluctant to speak in meetings or only have space to marshal their thoughts once a meeting is over and they can be alone.  What about those who are afraid of reprisals if they speak out?  How can you avoid simply going through the motions of communicating to try and soften the blow of change – because being seen to be an open, transparent and accountable leadership enhances trust, and being seen to listen reassures people that they are valued individuals and not just expendable commodities.

Decades ago a famous study of change in the Shell oil company showed that talking about change long before it happens gets people used to the idea, so that by the time it happens, it’s not a challenge anymore because they’ve already processed the transition in their minds.  Good communication was key to delivering a seamless transition.

Good communication, whether about selling a much-loved head office building, merging with another organisation, or major changes of direction, is not often talked about and it would be good to hear from any of our readers what their experiences of good communication are.

Caring for Generations Y and Z in mission

Generation Connected?

It is no secret that we live in an increasingly divisive and polarised world.  Social media, rather than helping to bring people together, often serves as the medium for people to criticise, denigrate and demonise those with whom they disagree.  The rhetoric is anything but Christlike.  Respectful and honest dialogue is hard to find, not to mention diversity of opinion.  People simply prefer to fill their Facebook or Instagram feeds with likeminded opinions.  This is the context in which generations Y & Z have grown up!

As these generations gradually move into cross-cultural missions and join intercultural teams, conflicts abound.  As Member Care workers, we must learn how to care for, serve and challenge this new generation of mission workers.  The challenges are real and the context has changed.  Today’s younger generations have grown up in a world that says, “if you disagree with me, you don’t love me.”  Moreover, it is common for them to believe that if one disagrees with them, it means they didn’t listen to them.  The math is simple: listening equals agreement! It is no wonder why conflict plagues so many missions’ teams.

Missions is changing, because generation Y & Z are changing the paradigm in which missions is viewed and practiced.  Simply put, they want hands-on missions experiences where they can see, touch, feel and hear change happening in a real and personal way that brings both justice and transformation to communities, countries and people groups.  Look around, this is the age of incarnational and social justice approaches to missions.

Within this new paradigm, Member Care providers need to be informed and equipped to provide care for generation Y & Z mission workers:

  • Be ready to challenge them on whether or not they are open to listening to new and opposing ideas.
  • Ask them what it means to be heard and loved.
  • Engage with them on how Jesus can bring both healing and transformation to a hurting, divisive and lonely world.
  • And finally, model for them what it means to be open to diversity of thought and opinion by actively listening and respecting their ideas and opinions.

Miahi Lundell

Today’s guest blog is by Mihai Lundell, a mission worker based in Italy with OCI.  He is also on the boards of Member Care Europe and the Global Member Care Network.

This blog first appeared in the newsletter of the Global Member Care Network.

Dare to be a Daniel?

In the film The Godfather, and in Mario Puzo’s book which inspired it, one of the underlying motifs is that of the relationship between the Godfather and his community.  Everyone knows how it works: you do a ‘favour’ for the Don, and he does one for you.  It’s a reciprocal arrangement whereby individuals benefit from being part of the Godfather’s community, and the community benefits from their loyalty to the Godfather.  Treachery against the family is not tolerated, loyalty is absolute.

This well-known feature of the Italian crime syndicate derives from the culture of ancient Rome, where great men like Caesar relied on the support of their ‘clients’ to vote for them, promote their interests, and even form mobs to agitate for them.  In return, the ‘patron’ looked after his people, by giving them a daily allowance of money or finding them jobs or homes. ‘Greatness’ could be measured in the number of followers (Twitter?) and power manipulated through the ability to control the masses.

Via a different route the same Roman custom worked its way into the feudal society of western Europe: a king would give land to his great barons in exchange for their military service and taxes.  They in turn would hand some of that land to lesser nobles in the same way.  In an investiture service the liegeman would kneel before his lord with his hands together in supplication and swear his allegiance.  The lord would then place his hands over theirs and accept their fealty.

These ritual declarations of loyalty are repeated whenever a new Godfather/ Caesar/King comes to power, to ensure that he has the full support of his major vassals.  For example, the closing scene of The Godfather shows the senior members of the family kissing the hand of Michael Corleone to demonstrate they submit to him as his father’s heir, mirroring an earlier scene in the film where they do the same to Don Vito.

These practices are reflected in many cultures worldwide, and they are also found in the Bible.  Twice in the book of Daniel we find different kings demanding fealty, and Daniel and his friends break all the norms of Mesopotamian society because of their loyalty to God.  Jesus made it clear he expected his followers to take sides when he said “You cannot serve God and Mammon.” (Matthew 6:24).  And megalomaniac Roman emperors executed Christians who refused to make sacrifices to the emperor while saying “Caesar is Lord”.

Perhaps the strongest Biblical example is part of the Exodus story, where God sets out the deal “I will be your God, and you will be my people” (Exodus 6:7).  He then gives them the Law, and much of the subsequent justification for the Law can be summed up as “do not do this, because the nations around you do it, and you are different.”

God makes it clear right from the start that his kingdom has behavioural standards.  Keep them and there are rewards; depart from them and there are consequences.  The big question for us, in our cross-cultural world, is not who we will serve – we have already decided that.  It’s how will we be loyal?  In a world where compromise is so easy, how do we make righteous choices even if there are serious consequences?

As outsiders in the culture they serve, mission workers can often be targets of begging, bribery and manipulation by people who think we don’t know the unspoken rules of their society.  So, following in the footsteps of Daniel and his friends 2,500 years later:

  • How are we bowing down to other gods, not in the sense that we pray to idols, but in how we handle our financial planning, demonstrate our faith in God rather than human goodwill, and seek solutions in prayer?
  • If eating foreign food is not an issue, what does cross-cultural compromise look like with regard to bribery, patronage and employment?
  • How do we maintain a public commitment to our faith in a world which is increasingly intolerant of Christianity?

Daniel’s reputation and character were unimpeachable.  He stood out from the prevailing culture around him and refused to compromise his loyalty to God.  Even his enemies recognised that (Daniel 6:4-5).  Can that be said of us?

What Notre Dame tells us about our attachment to buildings

Photo by Rohan Reddy on Unsplash

The fire last weekend at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was a tragic and heart-rending experience for many.

In some of the live footage the gasps of the onlookers were audible as the tower fell.  Afterwards many people, particularly French ones, spoke of their sense of loss, their grief, their numbness in terms which mirror bereavement.

And for many people, not just Parisians, there really was a sense that part of them had died too.

How is it that buildings – and not necessarily ancient, sacred and beautiful ones – can become such a significant part of us?

Some buildings, of course, we choose to invest with part of our identity.  They might represent our nationality, our culture or our religion.  They can symbolise our history and encapsulate our values.  So they are more than buildings – they represent who we are.  Perhaps that’s why Prince Charles was so annoyed way back in 1984 about the proposed modernist extension to the National Gallery in London:

…what is proposed is like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.

We profoundly object to change that is forced on ‘our’ buildings, because it embodies change that is being forced on us.

Other buildings are part of our corporate history.  That explains why some mission workers are so traumatised when an agency sells off its beloved old country house headquarters.  It’s not an objection per se to the move to practical, functional offices, but it’s the lost of a place that has links to past generations of mission workers, to key events like the training of a particular cohort, or a formative season of ministry.

And some events are part of our own personal history.  Churches in which we married, houses in which we lived, and places we have enjoyed visiting.  Most of us have driven past old homes to see what they are like now – because we are still attached to them (see our blog on the folly of trying to go back).  This is why it can be such a difficult experience for mission workers abroad to find their parents are selling the family home and there is no opportunity for them to go back and say goodbye to the bedroom they grew up in.

Mission workers, perhaps more than most, have a significant need to try to hold on to some stable points of reference from the past.  As they return to the UK on home assignment or to retire, they find a bewildering array of change in their family, church, high street and national culture.  While they can attend workshops or retreats to help them manage this (and I have just led one at Penhurst Retreat Centre on this very topic) their journey can still feel very much like a trek through the wilderness in hope of a promised land.  A few familiar landmarks can go a long way towards smoothing the transition.

Family time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Help for the wounded

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lost in transit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who?

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.

Making the changes permanent

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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.

Removing the rocks

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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)

“Where you go changes who you become”

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!

 

The right kit?

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.

The direct route to God

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.

Cricket in Crisis?

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Anyone who has followed the defeat of the England cricket team at the weekend, and indeed over the last winter, cannot escape the conclusion that English test cricket is in a crisis, as has so frequently been observed over the last 100 years or so.

The appointment of a coach who was selected for his track record in the shorter forms of the game (“white ball cricket”) as opposed to test matches (“red ball cricket) has only highlighted this problem.  Their defeat at the weekend by Pakistan only highlighted the fact that many of the England players, while being highly adept at the sort of aggressive fast scoring that is needed in white ball cricket, are woefully underprepared for the patient, slower building of a large innings over the course of several hours, like Alastair Cooke is so good at.

And why would they be?  Test matches last five days, and the players have no other experience of five-day cricket.  County Championship matches last four days, most other tournaments last one day, and in the shortest form of cricket a game is over in just three hours.  Now the cricket authorities in England are planning to introduce an even shorter competition to attract more interest.

A similar change is taking place in the missions world.  56 years ago, when first-class one-day cricket was introduced, the concept of ‘short-term’ mission barely existed.  Now the number of British people, mainly students but increasingly retired people, going on a short term mission trip number in the thousands every year.  Like white-ball cricket, it’s popular and accessible.

Unlike long-term mission, which is more like test cricket.  It requires a lot more training, time and commitment to get established.  The quick results that are needed for short-term are replaced by the disciplined and patient endurance that builds into powerful impact for the kingdom of God even if it’s not quite so spectacular.

How we can get the thousands of people who love the thrill of short-term mission to convert to the longer form is as challenging as making test match players out of T20 players.  We would love to see more of the short-termers coming back as long termers, and while many long-term mission workers started their vocation with short-term there is apparently little evidence that short-term engagement increases long-term recruitment.  Just as in cricket, they are two different forms of the game and there is not an automatic crossover from one into the other.

Many facets of mission need long-term commitment.  Quite apart from the challenges of language acquisition and cultural adaptation which need a significant investment of time, activities such as theological education, community transformation, and Bible translation don’t readily lend themselves to being done by short-termers.  So we still need more long-termers, rather than less.

Short-term mission can be justified in its own right, and has a place alongside long-term, as long as it is done well, contextualised, and done with cross-cultural sensitivity and respect (see the Global Connections Code of Best Practice for examples of how this might be achieved).  It is not merely a recruiting ground.  But there does also need to be a focus on maintaining and developing the long-term workforce that keeps mission going forward when the short-termers go home.

Just like England will never win the Ashes with a team full of IPL stars.

Rethinking exclusivity

A Muslim man joined us recently for our regular communion service at the place where I live and work.  Which made me think hurriedly about how to do communion inclusively and build bridges rather than barriers.  I could of course simply have said “This is not for you, but you’re welcome to observe”, as indeed you might, but as part of a community that is trying hard to get along well with our ‘cousins’, I knew this wasn’t how we would want to treat a visitor.  So I improvised.

Communion can in many ways be one of the most exclusive things Christians can do.  It focuses on the death (real, not seeming) and resurrection (tangible) of Jesus the Messiah, the divine Son of God.  The introductory words we say often make it clear that this is only for people who trust in Him for their salvation.  Then we pray to him, and at the climax we may also drink alcoholic wine.  So for a Muslim person even to attend this event as a guest is an act of outreach to us.

For some of us, communion will be a non-negotiable.  It is only for believers, and we shouldn’t compromise it.  Others will not think it particularly important how we do it.  I think communion is vitally important, but I do value thinking through how we can make it more inclusive.  15 years ago I felt scandalised when a church I attended suggested that the ‘belong, behave, believe’ model meant communion wasn’t the final reward for completing the Christian initiation process but a part of that journey itself.  Today, I feel differently.

Someone once told me that if our mission is not stretching the boundaries of our theology, we are not stepping out deep enough.  So how do we do communion differently?  And indeed we need to think about other things too which are essentials of our faith but which may also alienate those enquiring.  Should we wear hats when we pray or take our shoes off when we enter a church building?  What posture should we adopt when we pray?

As we rethink mission for another age and multiple competing/complementary paradigms and worldviews there is a need for more discussion about what can be changed and what can’t, what is essential and what is cultural.  As you go through this week there will be many things that you do as part of your outreach/mission simply because you’ve always done them that way.  Why don’t you take the opportunity to ask yourself if there’s another way, different but equally good.

So in presiding over communion with our Muslim visitor, I dispensed with our usual liturgy and read the story of the road to Emmaus.  I explained that we are all on a journey, and Jesus walks with us on it, but we don’t always recognise him.  I shared the broken bread and cup of fruit juice as reminders of the meal he had in Emmaus, and said that perhaps we would see him better as we eat.  I pointed out that the meal mirrors the one he had with his disciples the night before he died, when he told us to eat it and remember him.  I said that he loved eating and drinking and would welcome everyone to eat with him, and he welcomes all of us too.  We don’t have to be perfect to eat with him.

And we all ate together.  After all, the essence of communion is reconciliation, isn’t it?