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.

Heroes: Oswald Chambers

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.

Encouragement for the faithful

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!

Together?

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).

 

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.

Hinani

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?

Make me an instrument of your peace

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offence, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.

 

This much-loved text, often attributed to St Francis of Assisi, is an inspiration to many.  Yet once we look beyond its beauty we find a brutal challenge to our fleshly and soulish ways of doing things.

As we go about our lives, work, relationships and ministry this week, energised once again by the thrill of the resurrection we have just commemorated, let us bear this challenge in mind.

As mission workers, church planters, member care workers, church leaders and agency employees, how do we conduct our relationships with one another and those we are reaching out to in the light of the sacrifice this calls us to?  A sacrifice which mirrors the one we celebrate as bringing us new life?  How do we communicate that new life to others?  Is our transformation deep or only superficial?  How do we tap into the grace which allows us to respond to every challenge with love and forgiveness?

As we are transformed by the grace of God, we offer the same hope to others.  He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:30)

Walking with Jesus during Holy Week

As we start Holy Week – the name traditionally given to the week coming up to Easter, let us take a moment to pause and reflect.

For many of us in ministry, it’s a busy time of the year.  We have to plan services for Thursday, Friday and Sunday, perhaps several for each day, including multiple sermons seeking some fresh revelation using scriptures thoroughly familiar to our congregations.  We might even have to get up early on Sunday for a sunrise service.  One of the challenges we face at this time of year is that we are so busy trying to ensure the church has a positive experience of Easter that we can miss out on that experience ourselves.

It’s also a highly emotional time of year.  We’ve just got past the excitement of Palm Sunday with its crosses, and soon will face the awkward embarrassment of a foot-washing ceremony.  We have to balance the solemnity of Good Friday with the exuberance of Easter Sunday, with just that rather cumbersome ‘normal’ Saturday in between.

Wouldn’t it be great to just stop?

Stop and have time to read, reflect on and inhabit the Bible stories about Holy Week.

To imagine walking with Jesus in Jerusalem, listeningf to the discussions, watching the healing, pouring ointment on him as a symbol that we understand what he’s about to go through.

Try and understand what it feels like to be various characters in the stories.  Are you Mary, Peter, or Judas, or one of the many other nameless ones who have a walk-on part?  As you think about them, what do you have in common with them?  What would you do if you were in their situation?  How do you feel?

And what is Jesus going through, knowing all that is in store for him?  How does he feel?  What could you do to help him if you were there?

In the midst of this hectic and demanding week, let’s pause for 15 minutes in each day, just to reflect on some of these things.  Perhaps we will meet with Jesus.

Struggling to grow?

Recently, while on retreat, I came across a rocky headland where a wide variety of plants was struggling with grim determination to grow.  Grass, heather and trees all struggled to thrive in the rocky soil.  Not in their natural environment, deprived of good soil, they were undernourished, stunted and vulnerable.  Not unlike a few mission workers I know!

Mission takes nearly all of us out of our normal environment.  It also takes us to a context where we may find it hard to thrive.  Sometimes we are isolated (emotionally, spiritually, culturally, physically) with little encouragement, fellowship or input.  This is why Syzygy started publishing devotional blogs, so that we can help to provide a little input into the lives of isolated mission workers.

If the plants I mentioned above were in my care, I might consider moving them to a new location where they are more suited to the growing conditions.  While some of us may be aware that we are called to endure in tough places, others may be wondering if we’ve made the right choice.  And there’s no shame in relocating to a place where we can thrive better if we feel that’s the right choice before God.  After all, if our life is more shrivelled up and stunted than it is abundant (John 10:10) it would be good for us to reflect on how positive our Christian witness is likely to be.

Alternatively I might try to change the growing conditions of the plants I were caring for.  I’m a great believer in manure and (although we might joke that most of our agencies are good at giving us that) like plants we need to make sure that we get sufficient nutrition to thrive.  Eating well is obviously an important part of staying healthy, but we also need to make sure that emotionally and spiritually we are taking in more than we give out.  Where are the supportive relationships we need?  Is social media sufficient, or do we need to arrange for more team members to join us in our location?  Are we able to sustain ourselves from our own private Bible study or do we need to access podcasts, books and commentaries?  Do we need to schedule more time away from the mission field in order to recharge our batteries effectively, or make plans for more retreat?

When looking at struggling plants on that rocky headland, while having sympathy for their challenge, I also felt huge admiration for their tenacity.  Being plants they obviously had no means of simply moving to a location more conducive for growth, so they just stubbornly got on with it.  Like many of the mission workers I know.  Like it says in Matthew, those who hang on by the skin of their teeth will be saved (Matthew 24:13).  If you’re in that situation, we salute your tenacity.  Keep on keeping on!

A lingering fragrance?

A while ago I picked some delightfully fragrant flowers which I left in a vase in the kitchen for quite a while.  They filled the whole room with a sweet smell which was almost like incense.  It lifted my spirits every time I entered the room.  But after a short time the flowers, unsurprisingly, withered.  Yet the fragrance remained for a long time after.

I wonder what remains of us when we move on to somewhere else.  Is it a sweet fragrance or a bitter aftertaste?  Do people miss us or are they glad we are gone?  Paul suggests that this can work both ways.  He says in 2 Corinthians 2 that we are the “sweet aroma of Christ”, but points out that while the aroma is attractive to those who are being saved, it is repulsive to those who are not.  In the same way, the presence of Christians, the expression of our belief, and the tolerance of our faith are obnoxious to some.  And sometimes they have a point – our behaviour can actually repel people if we are too judgemental or outspoken.

A better approach is softly softly.  It is wise not to get drawn into arguments with people like this but simply to let them see our behaviour at its very best.  Proverbs 15:1 says “a gentle answer turns away wrath” and Peter encourages us to:

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

(1 Peter 2:12)

Actions, as is often pointed out, speak louder than words.  They echo long after we have gone.  I wonder how much of aroma of Christ we leave behind in other people’s hearts.

Preach the Gospel?

What does Good News look like to them?

In the world of mission there is a continuing debate of whether we should demonstrate the gospel, preach the gospel, or do both (often referred to as “wholistic” mission)*.  Advocates of the first argue that there is no point in preaching the gospel to people who are going to die of hunger, while advocates of the second say there is no point in giving people hope in this life if they have no hope for the next.  Proponents of wholistic mission try to find a mid-point and do both.

The picture is muddied even by the example of Jesus.  One the one hand it is clear that Jesus had compassion on people because they were needy (Matthew 9:36), yet the previous verse said he proclaimed the gospel and healed people.  His famous mission statement in Luke 4 says that he came to preach good news… and then proceeds to focus on the poor, the imprisoned, the blind and the oppressed.  In other words, the socially disadvantaged.  Then later in the same gospel he says “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10) which sounds profoundly soteriological.  In Acts 11 Peter calls Jesus a man who went around doing good and makes no mention of him preaching the kingdom.

One way to square this circle is to ask ourselves what Good News actually is.  Evangelical Christians would customarily describe it as “Christ died for your sins”, but of course before Jesus died, Good News must have meant something else.  In Luke 9, Jesus sent the Twelve out to proclaim the kingdom of God (Jesus’ usual message) and heal, but in verse 6 we’re told they ‘preached the Good News’ and healed.  So the Good News is not merely the Kingdom even though it includes a call to repentance (Mark 6:12).  For some people, Good News looked like healing.  For others it was food, or deliverance from demons.  Good News embraced their immediate needs as well as their eternal needs.

What does Good News look like for the people we meet?  Seen from their perspective, it may not primarily be salvation.  They might have more immediate concerns.  These might be a bed for the homeless, a meal for the hungry, a community for the refugee, healing for the sick, comfort for the bereaved, friendship for the lonely.  This is why so many Christian compassion ministries exist in the UK and abroad.

Christmas is a time of year when Christians invite their non-Christian friends and neighbours to church services, or send them overtly evangelistic Christmas cards.  But if we’re not showing them what Good News looks like throughout the year, our preaching might seem to them a bit shallow.

* There are of course many facets to mission including discipleship, social action, advocacy, creation care….  but the ‘show and tell’ model is a simple one to use.

Suckers!

Those people who have roses in their gardens may occasionally come across a new vigorous growth coming from low down in the plant.  They may well rejoice at the new life in the plant, but they would be wrong to.

It’s most likely a sucker.  These are shoots coming off the wild root onto which a cultivated rose has been grafted.  If allowed to grow it will take all the energy from the roots and gradually starve the rose, which will wither and die, leaving a wild rose in its place.

What has this to do with mission work?

Common to all Christians are the habits and thought patterns we got into before we were saved.  We may have had struggles with addictions, an exaggerated tendency to despondency, fear of failure or a possessive need to be loved.  When we become Christians, in theory our life has been transformed.  St Paul talks about us being ‘dead to sin’.  He tells us we have been buried with Christ through having been baptised into his death, so that we can walk in newness of life (Romans 6). But he also writes: ‘Lay aside the old self… be renewed in the spirit of your mind… and put on the new self’ to people who were believers and who presumable had already been baptised (Ephesians  4:22-24).

So there is still something for us to do to facilitate our transformation into being a new creation (Galatians 2:20).  Sometimes those old habits come creeping back, like the sucker on the rose.  Many of us make the mistake of thinking that a given negative action in our lives was an isolated act of sin, repent of it, and move on.  But the same ‘isolated’ act then occurs over and over again, becoming a weakness, and eventually a gaping hole in our armour.

In the same way, a good gardener will cut off the sucker as soon as she identifies it, but it will grow back again and again and again.  Because the problem is not the sucker, but the root it grows from.

Changing the metaphor slightly, Christians are wild olive branches grafted into the cultivated olive tree (Romans 11).  But just as with the rose, there is a tendency for the old wild plant to reassert itself.

For mission workers, often under great stress and feeling isolated or lonely, it can be very tempting to fall back into old habits.  They bring us short-term comfort even though we have the challenge of the guilt we carry with us.  They become our secret sin, and we lie to ourselves telling ourselves it’s alright because it’s just a method of coping with the stress.  But sin grows, like the sucker, sapping the life of a beautiful rose.  And one day it will be seen by everyone for what it is – bringing down our ministry, our family, possibly even our own walk with God.

We need to tackle the root of the flesh which makes us vulnerable to such sin.  We need to see it for what it is, expose the lie it is telling us, and root out the base desire.  Sometime we need help with that – prayer partners, accountability partners, even deliverance ministry.  If you would like to have a confidential discussion with Syzygy about this, email us on info@syzygy.org.uk.

A good tree cannot produce bad fruit; a rotten tree cannot produce good fruit.

(Matthew 7:18)

Pruning

Continuing the horticultural theme we started recently with ‘re-potting‘, today we’re going to think about pruning.  All of us who are mission workers will be no stranger to sudden losses in our ministry.  Whether we are being evacuated, losing a work permit, finding a key supporter withdraws funding, losing a key colleague or having a ministry closed down by our agency, we all know what it is to find our plans thwarted.

The feelings of doubt, anger, loss and confusion that can go with such events can be reminiscent of the grieving we feel at the sudden death of a loved one.  We had no time to say goodbye, prepare ourselves for the change in our lives, or to celebrate the successes.  It’s suddenly all gone, and we’re left with a gaping hole where there once was certainty and stability.

In addition to these feelings there may also be a sense that God has let us down.  He called us to do this, so why would he allow it to be stopped?  Why didn’t he answer our prayers?  And if we feel like this, we may also feel guilty that we have such feelings, because we know we’re supposed to have faith and trust God in all things.

Reading the Psalms can help us at a time like this, as many of them are written by people in similar situations, grappling with the injustice of the world and the apparent invisibility of God when most needed.  The writers work hard to reconcile the truth that they know about God with the world they see around them which doesn’t always reflect that truth.

It can also help us to think of these situations as times of pruning, although we often don’t recognise God’s intentional hand in them until many years after.  The farmer growing a vine has learned from experience that he has to ‘be cruel to be kind’, and that hard pruning leads to more, and better, fruit.  The farmer will be cutting off some of the strongest, most vigorous growth, in order to prevent it producing too many leaves and twigs.  We all know the result: more fruit.

But the individual branches probably don’t know this.  They’re probably thinking “Ouch” and wondering why that branch which was growing so long has been so brutally lopped off.  Their favourite bits are now missing.  Some of their most lovely green leaves have gone.  But they don’t know what the farmer is planning, and what great plans he has for them to produce much fruit.

So when your fruitful ministry has been suddenly stopped in its tracks, as well as grieving (which is healthy) and stopping to consider what happens next, pause also to reflect on how God is redirecting your fruitfulness to bring even more glory to him.

Re-potting – unpleasant but necessary

I’ve recently met with a lot of people going through transition.  Whether they are leaving a posting, parting company with their sending agency, closing a ministry, going to a new country… people in mission relocate frequently and are no strangers to change.

People going through change often notice their physical reactions.  They may be unusually tired (beyond the usual jetlag symptoms) or unduly emotional.  This disturbs them, as they like to think of themselves as self-controlled, focussed people who don’t fall apart easily.  But something about leaving has rocked their boat, and they lose emotional equilibrium.  And losing emotional equilibrium rocks their boat further.  So they get tearful, or angry, or sleepy.  It’s a perfectly natural response to a stressful situation.  And relocation is stressful.

It’s like being a plant that has its roots pulled out of a nice snug pot, teased apart a little, and planted back in new soil, unfamiliar soil.  We all know that this needs to be done periodically to help the plant thrive, but you can be certain that the plant doesn’t appreciate the experience.  Most plants wilt a little, or drop a few leaves, before bouncing back with new growth.  Transition is seldom enjoyable.

There is the stress of packing things up, deciding what to keep and what to do with the rest.  There is the endless paperwork involved.  There are emotional goodbyes with people we love.  There is grief at losing relationships, guilt at having the freedom to move on, and bereavement as we leave projects and people we have worked with for years.  If things haven’t worked out there may be a nagging sense of failure, and if our departure is forced, there may be fear, anger and disempowerment involved.

There is also uncertainty about the future – where we are going to live, be church, work and relax.  We may be going to a different culture with which we are unfamiliar.  And we know from experience that transition is seldom one clean step – there are many moves, new starts and restarts until we can feel settled again.  And just as we think we’ve got there, another change rocks our boat, or some innocent comment or event triggers a memory and throws us back into crisis.

Recognising how the uncertainties and stresses affect us is the first part of the solution.  Understanding how the transition affects us reminds us we need to take steps to treat ourselves to familiar things – if you’re going to a major world city it’s quite possible that your favourite chain of coffee shops or restaurants has got there before you!  Doing familiar things helps us cope with the unfamiliar, so we can take refuge in our favourite meals, music or hobbies, and take time to talk with loved ones who support us through the change.

But above all connecting with God is important.  In the busyness of transition God often gets squeezed out, when he is needed even more.  He is the one unchanging constant in our ephemeral lives, and when everything else is upheaval he is the same – yesterday, today and forever.  Many of the Psalmists in times of difficulty and turmoil wrote songs to him reconciling their trust in his unfailing goodness with their unpleasant experiences.  Reading them helps us to connect with him in the midst of our turmoil:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, and the mountains slip into the heart of the sea…

“Cease striving, and know that I am God.”

(Psalm 46:1-2, 10)

 

Anyone who is going through a transition and would like some support is welcome to contact Syzygy on info@syzygy.org.uk to arrange a conversation, either in person or via social media.

 

Is anybody listening?

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Blogging can be a frustrating activity.  I can spend days mulling over a good idea, hours finely crafting my prose, and finally release my most earth-shattering blog onto the internet, only to be met by the deafening sound of silence.  No comments.  No shares.  Not even a like.  Nothing.  It’s deflating.

Just like that deflating feeling most mission workers know when asked by some innocent church member back home “How many people have you baptised this year?”.  Most of us know the embarrassment of squirming a bit, thinking of some excuses (“that’s not really my role”) before reluctantly admitting the truth – none.  And for many of us, it was none last year, or the year before.

Our sending churches seem to expect a vast harvest, or at least a regular crop, of souls for the Lord.  When did mission become subject to arbitrary productivity statistics more fitting to a factory?  And why are these standards not applied to those working on the home front?

The reality is that western mission workers seldom produce significant numbers of ‘converts’.  We sow a lot of seed but seldom see the harvest, even though we continue to hope for a harvest.  Unlike Isaiah, who was told by God at the start of his long ministry that he would see no fruit.  We often hear sermons on the powerful call of Isaiah, his vision of the Lord in his temple, his enthusiastic response, but we seldom hear sermons on the passage which immediately follows:

Then the LORD told me to go and speak this message to the people:

You will listen and listen, but never understand.

You will look and look, but never see.

The LORD also said: Make these people stubborn!

Make them stop up their ears, cover their eyes, and fail to understand.

Don’t let them turn to me and be healed.

 

Would you have gone into the mission field if you’d known that was your mission?  Small wonder that within minutes of his enthusiastic “Here I am, send me!”, Isaiah’s response was “How long do I have to do that?”  No prophet wants people to ignore his message, as no mission worker wants her words to fall on deaf ears.

I am sure many of us can identify with this frustration.  We have spent years, sometimes decades, working hard in the mission field, with little harvest to show for it.  But we are not called to be successful.  We are called to be faithful to him who sent us and to the work he has called us to do, and we are called to bear fruit in our lives.  The obedient mission worker, persevering in adversity, has far more in common with Isaiah than with Jonah, who preached and an entire city repented immediately (Jonah 3:10), or the rare contemporary outbreaks of revival we hear about, but seldom experience in our own ministries.

So, if you have reaped little harvest, take courage.  Jesus told his disciples “Others have laboured so that you can reap.” (John 4:38)  Perhaps it is your role to plant the seed.  In impacting the culture, demonstrating the gospel by your lifestyle, encouraging and equipping local believers, softening a harsh spiritual environment through your prayer, and being a faithful witness, you are planting an immense crop for others to reap.  In many of the places we are called to, mission is a long-term, multi-generational enterprise.  Like a worker on a production line, you may weld the chassis but never see the car roll out of the factory.  But the car wouldn’t be any good without your humble and unlauded work.

He who has ears, let him hear.

This is what we are about…

This is what we are about:

we plant the seeds that will one day grow;

we water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold promise;

we lay foundations that will need further development;

we provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our own capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.  This enables us to do something, and to do it well.  It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, and opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.  We are workers, not master builders; ministers not messiahs.  We are prophets of a future not our own.

Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Common Prayer – A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals

Be excellent to each other

I know a chapel recently vacated by a group of nuns, who took with them the large cross which had been nailed on the wall behind the altar for many years.  Although the cross has now gone, it is still possible to see the outline of where it used to be, which reminds me that even where the cross has been removed, its shadow remains.  This can lead us to mistakenly believe that the cross is at the centre of our lives, when actually we are looking at its shadow.  Where is the cross missing in our lives and communities, even though its shadow remains?

If we do not return continually to the cross, and remind ourselves of our complete need for that one moment in time when Jesus dealt with the price for our shortcomings and excesses, and realign our lives to live out the impact of that great cosmic event, we can end up with an empty outline of Christianity which may appear structurally, liturgically and ethically Christian but lacks the authenticity of a truly redeemed lifestyle.

And this lifestyle starts with how we treat others.

In Europe today we are seeing the rise of intolerance.  Some groups are feeling threatened by other groups.  Some think their needs are being marginalised.  Some fear a loss of their cultural identity.  As a result, these people express themselves vocally, sometimes violently, against those they perceive to be different.  Similar fears can arise in missions teams around the world too, where one particular group or culture becomes dominant.  Others can easily feel marginalised and overlooked.

For example, singles can feel their needs are not addressed where those of families are prioritised (or vice versa).  Or where teams operate using English as their common language, those who don’t speak it well can feel they don’t have the ability to express themselves.  In other circumstances people who come from a culture where it is courteous to wait to be invited to speak often have no opportunity for their voice to be heard if others are accustomed to speaking their mind loudly and  frankly.

Fortunately these issues seldom boil over into rioting!  But they can lead to an undercurrent of discontent and add to stress and attrition.  Which is why we need to make sure that the cross isn’t absent from our missionary communities.  The shadow of it may be there, but sometimes the reality of it can be startlingly absent, particularly in the way in which we treat one another.

The New Testament is full of counter-cultural teaching on relationships.  Some examples are:

  • Love your neighbour as yourself (Matthew 22:39)
  • Love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34)
  • Regard one another as more important than yourselves (Philippians 2:13)
  • Submit to one another in Christ (Ephesians 5:21)
  • If God so loved us, we ought to love each other (1 John 4:11)

It might be a good idea for us to start our meetings with readings of such scriptures, and reflect on how we can live out those commandments, in order to remind ourselves to “Be excellent to each other.” (William S Preston, Esq.)

Be more dog

For a few years a major mobile phone network ran an award-winning campaign called “Be more dog”, encouraging people to get more out of life by being adventurous with their technology.

Dogs don’t get very good press in the Bible.  Goliath sneered at David “Am I a dog, that you come out to me armed with sticks?” (1 Samuel 17:43).  Dogs are grouped together with harlots in Deuteronomy 23:18 and used as a term of abuse in 2 Samuel 16:9.  Dogs were clearly not held in great esteem.

It’s the sheep who are the good guys in the Bible: boring, vulnerable, somewhat dim sheep.  The most popular psalm was written by a shepherd who realised that his relationship with God mirrored his relationship with his sheep.  Which is fine, but most of us these days know so little about keeping sheep that we have to read books by Philip Keller to fully unpack the imagery.

So dog lovers everywhere will agree that it’s time to rehabilitate humanity’s faithful friend.  After all, it’s estimated that 24% of UK households have a dog, and that’s a much higher percentage than those of us who own sheep.  If we don’t have a dog ourselves, we’re likely to have come across other people’s dogs, equipping us to understand our relationship with God in such terms.

A dog sees its owner as its pack leader.  It is loyal and faithful, often defending its owner, and doing its best to please the owner.  It looks to its owner for affection and affirmation, and of course food.  It likes to be close to its owner, often wanting to sleep on the bed.

If a dog has been well-trained, these instincts are finely-tuned.  The dog will come immediately when called, walk obediently at its owner’s heel, and will not eat its food until given permission.  Dogs can perform valuable tasks for emergency services, disabled people and farmers and they provide companionship for old and young alike.  Not everybody likes dogs, but there is no disputing the value of their role in human society.

So, if dogs have such a positive role in our culture, isn’t it about time we started thinking of the Christians as the faithful hounds of the Master?  Are we quick to obey the slightest command of the Master, looking eagerly into his face to interpret the slightest frown, smile or wink?  Do we crave to be close to Him, going where He goes, following closely at His heels, or do we need a leash to stop us running too far away?  Do we look to him to provide our sustenance, or give us commands?

Perhaps it’s time to start reimagining scripture:

The Lord is my Master…

 

 

A new perspective

A recent skiing trip reminded me that many years ago, I was taken by an instructor to an extremely steep slope in order to learn how to ski safely down the steep stuff.  Another learner went first, and ski-ed about a metre before falling over and sliding halfway down the slope on his back.

Somewhat intimidated by his failure, I managed a string of quick, scruffy turns, scrubbing off speed and managing to stay upright till I got to the instructor waiting halfway down, feeling pretty pleased with myself.  But the instructor sternly reprimanded me for not putting into practice what I already knew how to do.  So I tried again, and found myself skiing at breakneck speed, but under more control than I’d ever had.  I had learned how to ski on steep slopes.

A decade later I returned to that resort, much improved as a skier, and went to look for this terrible precipice to see if I could now do it better.  After a morning of trying every piste in the area, I could find no steep slope at all.  It was only later that I realised what had once seemed steep, was now easily skiable.  My perspective had changed.  What had once seemed hard, was now easy.

Young king David had the courage to face a giant who intimidated even the greatest of Israel’s warriors, because he had a different perspective.  “I’ve killed a lion and a bear,” he told Saul, “why should he be any more dangerous than them?” (1 Samuel 17:36). Elisha was not afraid of the armies of Aram, because he could see God’s army camped around the city (2 Kings 6:17).

How are we taking our experience of God’s provision, care and protection, and applying it in faith to our current situation?  Many of us face struggles daily: for funding, security, work permits, health, and many other challenges that are endemic to life as a mission worker.  Sometimes each challenge seems bigger than ever before, but constantly reminding ourselves of what God has done for us in the past is an excellent way of stoking the fires of our faith for what God can do for us in the future.

We should never forget that when we are weak, we are strong, because it gives God opportunities to show his power (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).  That awesome power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead is at work in us (Ephesians 1:18-23).  Let us change our perspectives, so that we look not at the size of the problem, or our own weakness, but the greatness of the living God.

“Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

(2 Kings 6:16)

 

Strategic thinking?

We conclude this series of blogs on the successful occupation of the Promised Land by thinking about strategy.

This is a word that is often on our lips.  We need it to make sure our organisation is heading in the right direction.  We use it as a plumbline to check whether new ministries add value to our mission or distract us from it.  We think about it when we start a new endeavour.  Without strategy, we may be doomed to sleepwalking into obsolescence.  But do we overdo it?  Is our missional thinking dominated by secular management theory rather than Biblical values?

In the book of Joshua there is clear evidence of strategy: the Israelites crossed the Jordan, conquered the largest city in the river valley, went up onto the hills beyond and secured a bridgehead, then carried out an offensive to subdue the south before a final campaign to take the north.

Yet nowhere is there any evidence of the Israelites strategizing.  There are no war councils, no boffins, no new weapons.  Their strategist is clearly God, who tells them which city to attack, and frequently even determines the tactics (Joshua 8:2) and took part in the battles (Joshua 10:11-13).  The one time they make a strategic error is when they don’t consult God (Joshua 9:4).  Divine prompting is the key to their success.  Which brings us back to where we usually start each year: prayer.  Because only through consistent, intentional seeking of God can we discern God’s will for our organisations and determine strategy which is often radical, innovative and unorthodox.

Other Biblical examples of divine involvement determining strategy include:

  • Philip preaching the gospel to the first African gentile (Acts 8);
  • Ananias taking the gospel to the enemy (Acts 9)
  • Peter taking the gospel to the first European gentiles (Acts 10);
  • Barnabas and Paul being set aside for their first missionary journey (Acts 13);
  • Paul being led in a dream to take the gospel to Europe (Acts 16);

You can probably think of others.  There are also numerous examples of modern mission workers who just went, not knowing where they were going, following the prompting of God, like Jackie Pullinger.

So if our missionary endeavours are to have the impact in the nations where we work that the Israelites had on taking the Promised Land, let us devote ourselves to prayer.  Our words will be more effective if they are dropped into our hearts by God.  Our attitudes will be more compassionate if they mirror more closely the character of God.  Our actions will be more effective if they are guided by us being ever more sensitive to the Holy Spirit.

We have mentioned before in these blogs the habit of St Aidan and the other Celtic monks who brought the gospel to the Anglo-Saxons, balancing their ministry with their prayer.  Based on a small island cut off from the mainland at high tide, they retreated to the island and slept, prayed and ate while it was isolated.  When the sea receded enough, they crossed to the mainland and ministered to the locals.  Less activity and more prayer made them more effective.  How counter-cultural would that be if we made it our practice today?