The way through the woods

The path in the picture used to be a road, until a motorway was built across it and cars and buses could no longer use it.

Now it’s only horses and hikers that follow it.  With the reduction in use, weeds are overgrowing it, trees are springing up in the gutters, and after only a few years it is rewilding.

The same thing can happen in the minds of mission workers.  The thoughts we think can be like a road in our mind, for good or bad.  Sometimes things happen which cut right through the road and derail those thoughts.

Often the death of a loved one, for example, can undermine our trust in the love of God and stop us using that road.  Many things we come across in mission can cause us to question truths that we once held to be self-evident:

  • The plight of the refugee can cause us to doubt God’s compassion
  • The oppression suffered by the global church can cause us to doubt God’s power
  • The sheer difficulty of life on the mission field can cause us to doubt the strong sense of calling which took us there

When this is happening to us, we need to start using the road again.  Perhaps we even need to clear away some brambles or fallen branches – this can be done with the help of debriefers or counsellors who can help us think through some of the issues that have challenged our beliefs.  But the important thing to do is to make sure we intentionally use those roads again.

A good example of such a choice is found in one of the least-read books of the Bible – Lamentations.  In the midst of 5 chapters of bewailing the brutal invasion of Israel, the violent destruction of Jerusalem, the rape and murder of its inhabitants, Jeremiah suddenly exclaims

This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope:

The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail.

They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.

“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “Therefore I have hope in Him.”

(Lamentations 3:21-24)

The invading Babylonians had driven a motorway across Jeremiah’s faith, but he persisted in walking along the path to stop it rewilding.  He knew the truth and he was not going to let the transient circumstances overwhelm his trust in the eternal God.

What can you do to maintain your path in the midst of the motorways that society, governments, media and even church can be trying to lay over it?  Make a positive choice to keep praying, to read scripture, to speak Biblical truth into your life and those of others, to challenge motorway-building and make sure you always pay attention to plucking up the weeds growing in your own life!

 

The man in the red shirt

The expendables?

There’s a meme among Star Trek fans that any character wearing a red shirt (except for Scottie) will die before the end of the episode.  People wearing yellow are important; people wearing blue are useful; people wearing red are expendable.  The security men in the red shirts haven’t got names, they’re not played by famous actors, and most of them won’t even have lines.  They are really just there to show how dangerous the situation is.

In a world where most people want to be Kirk, Spock or Uhura, most of us are the redshirts.  We’re not missionary heroes like the ones featured in Syzygy blogs.  Our names will never been known to the general public.  We live, we serve, we die.  In the world of mission, most of us are playing a walk-on role rather than being a leading actor.  That means making a huge sacrifice in terms of our ambition, our goals, and sometimes even our lives.  Yes, sometimes the mission workers get killed too.

I was once told a story by an elderly nurse how when she first went out to the mission field there were separatist rebels in the area she served in.  One of her colleagues was kidnapped and a ransom demanded.  The mission agency refused to pay and the body was found a few days later.  The nurse told me “She bought freedom for the rest of us.  Because they knew we wouldn’t pay ransom, they never bothered us again.”

We all have our job to do, our person to be.  We don’t look at the others and compare ourselves to them, because that’s not the role the director has cast us for.  Our job is to do our very best with what we’ve been given.

The difference between Star Trek and the Kingdom of God is that although we may have a bit-part, nobody is expendable.  Every one of us is of immense value to God, and every death is significant to him (Psalm 116:15).  The souls of the martyrs are kept in a precious place close to God (Revelation 6:9).  And one day, we will all wear a yellow shirt.

Star Trek is copyright of CBS Corporation

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.

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?

When Jesus doesn’t help

Christians usually focus our studies on healing by looking at the stories of Jesus healing people.  But there is at least one occasion when Jesus didn’t heal somebody.  It’s not recorded in the gospels (for obvious reasons!), but we can infer it from an account in Acts 3.

A man who had never been able to walk was begging at one of the temple gates, where he was accustomed to begging every day.  Peter and John came by, and Peter healed him, just like Jesus would have done.  It’s a significant event because it’s the first evidence that Jesus really did pass on his miraculous power to his disciples (John 14:12).

Only it is highly likely that Jesus didn’t heal this man when he had the opportunity!  He must have walked through this gate on multiple occasions as it was probably the most popular gate* for pilgrims going up to the temple, and he must have passed this man.

I can imagine him starting to head towards him, in anticipation of transforming his life, when he felt the restraining words of the Father: “Not him, son, I’m saving him for someone else.”  Jesus must have been disappointed, the beggar must have been disappointed, but Peter and John certainly wouldn’t be.

One of the biggest discouragements in the lives of mission workers is disappointment.  You thought you had heard God’s call to the harvest but there is still no fruit.  The person you have discipled for years turns her back on God.  Not only is your church membership shrinking, your children are not walking with God.  The miracles don’t happen.  You begin to wonder if there’s any point in you being there at all, and maybe you should give up and go home.   I reviewed a real life case some years ago and continue to find more cases of disappointment in the lives of mission workers I meet.

Yet the church looks for success.  They want to know how many people you have baptized – and if it’s not many, what are you doing with the money they give you?  You can’t express your doubts or frustrations to your church – they might stop supporting you!  So your prayer letters never mention the challenges and the discouragement.

Neither can you tell your agency – they might send you home!  The very people who are there to support you through the hard times are the ones you don’t feel you can be honest with.  So where do you turn?

  • You can get a confidential debrief from Syzygy, whether in person or via social media.  Just get in touch on info@syzygy.org.uk.  Or there are plenty of other independent debriefers we can put you in touch with.
  • You could engage a mentor to help you grow through the issues.  Syzygy can help you arrange this too.
  • You could go on a retreat and talk to the retreat leader.  We can advise on several places worldwide where you can find mission-focused retreats.
  • You could start to talk to friends whom you trust.

Whatever you do, don’t lose your faith in a God who cares about you and your struggle, and walks with you in it.  It may not be immediately obvious to you why God hasn’t answered all your prayers, but wait patiently, for he has a plan.

 

* For an interesting discussion of where this particular gate might have been, visit www.ritmeyer.com/2010/12/14/the-beautiful-gate-of-the-temple/

Let the nations be glad!

May God be gracious to us and bless us, andcause His face to shine on us.

So that Your way may be known on the earth, your salvation among all nations.

Let the peoples praise You, O God; let all the peoples praise You.

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy; for you will judge the peoples with uprightness, and guide the nations on the earth.

Let the peoples praise You, O God; let all the peoples praise You.

The earth has yielded its produce; God, our God, blesses us.

God blesses us, so that all the ends of the earth may fear Him.

 

Psalm 67 is unusual in the Hebrew scriptures in that it shows a concern for the Gentiles to know God.  Rather than calling for God to punish or destroy them like we find in other places, it wants them to be saved.  The psalmist assumes that the way the Gentiles will turn to God is through seeing how Israel is blessed.  In other words, it asks God for blessing not out of self-concern but out of a desire to demonstrate that God is so much more able to provide for his people than other gods, that the nations would be better off following him.  It’s an apologetic not very popular in evangelical circles these days, partly through concern about the rise of prosperity teaching.

The psalm has five paragraphs, two of which are essentially repeated – verses 1-2 and 6-7, verses 3 and 5, and verse 4, which stands on its own.  This is a classic Hebrew poetry pattern of A B C B A where paragraphs A mirror each other providing an introduction and conclusion, paragraphs B mirror each other focussing in towards the main theme, and paragraph C in the middle which is the crux of the poem.  The essence of this is that unlike in European poetry, which generally builds towards a conclusion in the last line, in Hebrew poetry the most important bit is in the middle.  In other words, the whole word can rejoice, because when they turn to God they too will be blessed.

An important point to notice is that in verse 2, the word for salvation in Hebrew is Yeshua – the Hebrew name of Jesus!  We could equally read it that the psalmist is praying that all nations will know Jesus.  This is what we as mission workers also are looking for, and we can be encouraged that as God blesses us we can use his miraculous provision for us as a witness to others.  Even in adversity the comfort and strength we receive from God can be a testimony to our neighbours.  Many of us, just like the psalmist, will be telling them that our God is stronger/more compassionate/more holy/more real than their idols, and hoping to reveal that in the way we live our lives, so that they too can come to know Yeshua.

I try to pray this psalm daily, as a reminder that when God blesses me, it’s not for me to keep for my own benefit – it’s for me to use to show his wisdom and power to a world which does not yet know him.

 

You had one job…

Lindsey Jacobellis is not a household name.  In fact, unless you’re passionate about snowsports, you have probably never heard of her.

She is a champion snowboarder, winner of five gold medals in the World Championships over 12 years, and has twice been ranked world number 1.  That is awesomely good, particularly winning her last world championship in 2017 at the relatively advanced age of 31.

But she hasn’t won an Olympic gold.

Her best chance came in 2006 when she was favourite in the finals of the Snowboard Cross.  This is a simple discipline where four boarders race to be first to the finish line.  No points for style, control, damage or aggression.  Just get there first.  Simples.

Jacobellis got into an early lead and two of her rivals crashed.  The other was quite a way behind and Jacobellis, grandstanding, tried to perform a stunt on the final jump.  She fell on landing and was overtaken as she lay on the ground.  She got up and continued to an embarrassing silver medal.

One of the paradoxes of snowboarding is that the casual attitude boarders show to the sport they enjoy can almost be at odds with the professional focus demanded of professional athletes.  Jacobellis subsequently justified herself by saying “I was having fun”, and ironically there is nothing wrong with that – it is what boarding is all about.  Sadly for her, it distracted her from her primary goal.

Which brings me to the point: do you have one primary goal which God has called you to?  Are you passionately committed to it with the discipline of an athlete?  What is currently distracting you from it – even if it’s good or it’s fun?  And what are you going to do about it?  Are you enthused by the desire one day to hear the Lord say to you “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

 

If you want to enjoy the race, you can find plenty of versions on YouTube!

 

Mourning

Mourning is something that many western cultures don’t do well.  Unlike our Mediterranean neighbours, or more expressive people from tropical climes, we think holding our feelings in check is a Good Thing.  “Stiff upper lip, old boy.”

Christians are often even less inclined to mourn than others, because we have a sure and certain hope that our departed have gone to be with Jesus.  We use terms like “promoted” to express our positivity.  I was even once told by a family member at a funeral that we were not going to cry, because it was a happy day of celebration for our friend who had gone to a better place.  Which left me with a lot of grief and no outlet for it. Sometimes we need to express our emotion and have a good wail.

Mourning is healthy.  Expressing our grief is part of how we cope with loss, and being real about our emotions is important.  People who can grieve unreservedly can come to terms with their loss more effectively.

But this blog is not just about confronting our bereavement.  It’s about loss in every sense.  And we mission workers have to deal with an awful lot of loss in our lives.

We often don’t recognise as loss the things we have sacrificed, because we’re serving the Lord and the joy of being faithful servants more than compensates us.  But sometimes our perspective of willingly laying down our lives in service to Him who laid down his life for our salvation can be a bit like refusing to grieve at a funeral: we never come to terms with our loss because we’re always trying to be positive.

Recognising what we have lost, and mourning it, helps us to continue in emotional health and be resilient, as well as being realistic about the cost of following our call.  So let’s look at some of the things we might want to mourn:

  • Close friendships we are unable to continue with in person as we move to a foreign country
  • Places that were once familiar haunts which have changed beyond recognition while we were abroad
  • The spouse or children we never had because we couldn’t find a suitable partner willing to serve in the remote location we felt called to
  • The physical health we could have had if our illnesses had been treated in a modern western hospital
  • Relatives we never had a chance to say goodbye to because they died unexpectedly while we were on the other side of the planet.
  • Professional skills which have grown out of date due to lack of opportunity to develop them
  • The sense of belonging in a certain place that we’ve come from and will one day have to go back to and feel like strangers
  • Grandchildren we don’t have a chance to get to know well because they’re growing up in a different country
  • Friendships in the field that always struggle because our home assignments never coincide
  • The house which the whole family calls home and our adult children can still come back to stay in their childhood bedroom
  • The wealth and security offered by a good career
  • The formative years of our children which we miss a large part of because they’re away at boarding school.

Most mission workers I know will look at such a list dismissively and say “It was a small price to pay for the privilege of serving God”, and in one way they are right.  Paul wrote for all of us when he said “all those things I have lost count as nothing to me” (Philippians 3:7).

But all of us should take time to think about the things we have lost, recognise them and grieve appropriately rather than spend our lives in denial.  David rightly said “I will not give God something that cost me nothing.” (2 Samuel 24:24).  Recognising and mourning the loss helps us to give God something of value, rather than something that wasn’t important to us anyway.

 

Are you called?

Happy New Year to all our readers!

At this time of year, it’s popular to do a bit of self-review, and set out resolutions and changes that we’d like to make in our lives.  It’s also a good idea to take a bit of time (maybe on retreat) to review what happened in the last year and learn lessons from it to apply in the coming year.

So in keeping with that spirit I’d like to encourage you to reflect on your sense of calling and ask yourself some fundamental questions about it.  Calling, as you will recall from a previous blog as well as our Guide to Going, may vary from one person to another but can generally be defined as a deep-seated conviction that God has a task for you to do, or a place for you to be. It is discerned both spiritually and practically by a community working together to determine what is right for you – a community made up of family, friends, church and agency who together confirm your course of action.

If you are a mission worker in the field, you must have had a sense of calling at some time in the past which impelled you to get up and go, and encouraged others to send and support you.

But do you still feel that sense of calling?  If not, what has happened?  Have you taken on other tasks and responsibilities which seemed like a good idea, or which you thought needed to be done, but which have ended up taking you away from the service you felt called to?

If you do still have a sense of calling, how are you protecting it?  Are you testing against it the various tasks, relationships and opportunities that come your way, to ensure you don’t get dragged off course?  And how are you shaping and refining it?  Are you regularly praying into it to get more clarity and definition about where and what you are called to?

In the interests of being a good team member and supporting the aims of our agency, there will inevitably be times when we are asked to lay aside our own sense of what we have been called to in the past to take on something new.  Maybe it involves a change of ministry, or a different town (or even country).  As our own circumstances change, this might actually be a new calling which supersedes the original one.  Who are we consulting and praying with to make sure that the decisions we need to make are a team effort? 

Wandering away from our sense of calling puts us into a dangerous place.  We have no conviction to hold us in place when the going gets tough, we may well find ourselves doing things that God doesn’t want us doing, and operating for a significant amount of time outside our sense of calling can sap our energy and do long-term damage to our resilience and well-being.

So I encourage all of us to set aside some time at the beginning of what will inevitably be a busy and challenging year to reflect on our sense of calling and ensure that we are convinced we are the right people in the right place doing the right thing.

And if you can’t say that with conviction, do something about it!

Is it better?

This photo shows the quote on the board outside a church near my home last week.  Once I had overcome my initial shock that a church would prefer to run with a common misquote rather than the real biblical text, I wondered if it was actually true.  Is it really better?

At this time of year, many of us are in the habit of giving presents to express our love and generosity for our nearest and dearest.  Some of us give charitably to the needy.  This is a custom that has its roots in the Roman midwinter festival of Saturnalia and only has tenuous links with the Christmas story.  Yes, the wise men brought ‘gifts’ to Jesus – but they weren’t presents for the baby shower!   More about that later…

From a financial point of view, it’s unlikely that it is better to give than to receive.  After all, you would be worse off, unless your lavish generosity inspired an even greater reciprocation.  You’d also have spent a lot of your time shopping for presents, and most of us have too little time to do everything we’d like to, particularly at Christmas.  You might have expended a lot of emotional energy on thinking about what presents to get people.  Granted, these last two problems would have been overcome if you decided simply to give money, but then you’d have the guilt of not giving people a ‘proper’ present, and possibly their resentment that you didn’t care enough to give one.  Given all these dilemmas, perhaps it really is better not to bother giving anything at all.

So back to the misquote.  The original quote is from Acts 20:35 where Luke records Paul quoting Jesus: “It is more blessed…”  ‘Blessed’ is not the same as better.  ‘Blessed’ (in this case, the Greek word makarios) can mean happy, fulfilled, spiritually wealthy, joyful, in God’s favour).  ‘Blessed’ may be applied to unenviable situations – like the poor, the persecuted and the grieving in the Beatitudes.  Even if it is better, it probably doesn’t feel better at the time.

The greatest gift of all, which we celebrate at this time of year, is God’s gift to humanity of Jesus.  Our response to his incredible generosity is to give back to him all that we have in worship.  And we bless God.  And in our giving, we too are blessed.

The gifts brought by the magi were presented to Jesus in the context of their worship of him, the word ‘gift’ being  used in the Septuagint of Levitical sacrifices, and also by Jesus in the same context (Matthew 5:23).  So really, if we do want to give Christmas presents, we should really be giving them to God!  But in fact giving them to one another in the name of God may be as good – but only if we expect nothing in return.

May you and all your loved ones be truly blessed this Christmas!

Ten Self-Care Resolutions

Caring for ourselves can seem selfish but if we don’t then we can’t sustainably serve those around us.  Self-care should in no way negate Jesus’ call to self-denial nor be an excuse not to work hard, rather it helps maintain our resilience and perseverance in the midst of the challenges of serving others.

It’s not just a means to an end though; God simply loves us and our well-being matters to Him.  So, here are 10 resolutions to help us stay well and stay faithful plus some suggested verses to meditate on:

1. I am a child of God.  I am unconditionally loved.  My identity does not lie in my achievements.  I will rest in God’s love and not strive for other’s approval. (1 John 3:1, John 1:12, Romans 8:15-16)

2. I am sent by God.  God doesn’t make mistakes.  My life has purpose.  I will trust Him when I’m not sure what’s going on. (John 20:21, Romans 8:28, Ephesians 2:8-10)

3. I don’t have to hold it all together; that’s Jesus’ job.  It’s OK to not always feel OK.  I will get help for my spiritual, emotional and practical needs. (Colossians 1:17, 1 Corinthians 1:26-29, 1 Samuel 23:15-16)

4. Rest is good.  Jesus rested.  I have permission to rest.  In fact God commands me to rest.  I will plan to rest. (Matthew 11:28-30, John 4:6, Exodus 20:8-11)

5. I was made to enjoy a relationship with God.  I will daily spend time reading the Bible, worshipping, praying and whatever else helps me to connect with God. (Psalm 63:1-8, John 15:1-8, James 4:8a)

6. I am also made for relationships with other people.  I will intentionally invest in friendships, be honest and give and receive support in my church, small group or team. (Proverbs 27:9, 27:17, 1 Corinthians 12:12-20)

7. Prayer support is vital.  I will regularly share prayer requests with my friends and supporters. (2 Corinthians 1:8-11, Colossians 4:2-4, Ephesians 6:19-20)

8. My body is a gift from God and useful for the work He’s called me to do.  I will look after my body by exercising regularly, eating well and sleeping enough. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Proverbs 14:30, 3 John 1:2)

9. I am allowed to enjoy life.   I will regularly engage in activities which I enjoy. (Proverbs 17:22, John 2:1-2, Nehemiah 8:10)

10. There are always reasons to give thanks.  I will reject the temptation to grumble and give thanks instead. (1Thessalonians 5:18, Psalm 118:28-29, Philippians 4:6)

 

 

Today’s guest blogger is Alex Hawke, a mission worker in southeast Asia. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexGTHawke.

Flatlining?

I recently came across the expression “to practise resurrection”.  Not in the sense, presumably, of the  film Flatliners, a 1990 film (remade unsuccessfully in 2017) in which Julia Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland and Kevin Bacon attempt to artificially create near-death experiences.

The suggestion I was reading about is that since we know we will be resurrected with Christ, we should endeavour to bring as much of that experience from the future into the present, rather in the same sense that the Kingdom of God is here and now and not just future.

So how do we practice resurrection?  We could start with Paul’s remarkable comment in Galatians 2:20:

I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life that I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God…

So if I take Paul at his word, I’m already dead.  The life of Christ is being lived out through me.  How this works in practice is further expanded in Colossians chapter 3, which tells us we have been ‘raised with Christ’ and gives lists of the attitudes and behaviours we should intentionally adopt, or avoid.

Dead people have no possessions, no hopes and dreams, and no desires.  If I am truly dead, I too will have laid all those things aside and kept only what Christ has given back to me.  As many mission workers through the centuries have discovered, abandonment to Christ alone sets us free from the shackles of our own ambitions, wants and property.

Dead people also are invulnerable to temptation.  The flesh has no control over them.  Shortness of temper, gossip, gluttony and lust have no power over them.  If I am truly like the dead, I will master the many temptations to sin that come my way daily.

It is not as easy to be a living sacrifice as a dead one.  While my death with Christ may be metaphorically true, my ego still lives on in this body he has chosen to live his life in.  And that is actually good, because we are not called to be zombies for Jesus, reanimated bodies with no life of their own.  For the time being we are in symbiosis, as I pointed out last month.  The object of the Christian life is not, like a Buddhist, to annihilate the self so that it gets consumed by the divine, but to attune myself so to the divine that we can operate as one without extinguishing my identity.

So we live on in the flesh, daily practising what it means to die to self and live in Christ.  How does that impact on our leadership style, as we learn to lead humbly and accountably?  How does it impact on our followership as we learn to set aside our own pride and ambition?  And how does it affect our daily witness as we live out our love for our brothers and sisters while working in a multi-cultural team?

As we lay aside our old way of doing things and put on the new way (Colossians 3:9-10), we bring some of the future Kingdom of Heaven into the present.  Maybe we’re trying to create a near-death experience after all?

For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

Colossians 3:3

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.