Send in the workers!

Large harvest, few workers

Large harvest, few workers

The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.  So ask the Lord of the harvest to send out more workers.

This verse, recorded both by Matthew (9:37-8) and Luke (10:2) will be familiar to most of us involved in cross-cultural mission.  We are only too aware that there is a great need for more people to help with our work and yet so few people come forward.  We frequently use this verse in our prayers and in our appeals.  Yet our familiarity with it may blind us to one obvious point:

Why would the farmer not want to send out more workers?

The verse gives us a glimpse of life in an agrarian economy still relevant to many parts of the world but less so to the west.  In a society dependent on growing its own food a good harvest is of paramount importance, and getting it in quickly before it perishes or gets stolen is a top priority.  So here we’re given a picture of a farmer with a bumper crop in his fields, and not enough workers to reap it… and he doesn’t go out and hire more workers?

Camille Pissarro - the Harvest

Camille Pissarro – the Harvest

This farmer (who represents God in this instance) is not interested in mere hired hands.  He’s not a capitalist who sees labour as an expendable commodity.  He’s looking for partners who will not only work with him but share the rewards.  John’s version of this verse (4:34-38) says “he who is reaping is receiving wages, and is gathering fruit for eternal life.”  In other words, this farmer not only pays wages, he runs a profit-sharing scheme as well!  The result is that everyone is happy.

So it’s not merely a case of spending more money to attract new workers.  It’s about winning hearts and minds so that new workers will join a cause.  The best way to do that is to pray, because in prayer our hearts become aligned to the heart of God.

By encouraging people to pray rather than to go, we are helping them to enlarge their hearts for the lost.  As they buy into God’s mission to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10) they will be equipping themselves to be the answer to their own prayer – and go.

There is a huge multitude of people worldwide who are ready to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.  Of course God wants more workers to spread this news, but God wants them to join in of their own free will and not because they’ve been boxed into a spiritual corner and find themselves forced to go against their own better judgement.

All great moves of God start with prayer – let us redouble our efforts to rekindle another one by being obedient to this commandment.  Join with us in praying at 10:02 every day that the Lord will send more workers!

When Jesus doesn’t fulfil our expectations

Triumphant entry by He Qi

(He Qi)

The problem with the Palm Sunday story is that we think we know it.  We find it hard to pay attention, because we’re familiar with it.  We’ve heard it at least once a year throughout our Christian lives.  We’ve still got last year’s palm cross on the dressing table.  But what is really going on here?

The pilgrims who have come up to Jerusalem from Galilee are at fever pitch, full of enthusiasm.  Unlike the residents of Jerusalem, who are asking “Who is this?” (Matthew 21:10), they’ve seen Jesus in action in Galilee and along the road through Jericho.  He’s been demonstrating his credentials and their expectations are high.  Is this the time when Jesus is going to confront the Romans and liberate Israel like a Messiah is expected to do?

Jesus initially indulges their enthusiasm.  He arranges a donkey to ride on.  Why?  Jesus usually walks everywhere (sometimes even on water!) but on this occasion he’s deliberately stoking their anticipation.  They all know Zechariah’s prophecy which Matthew quotes:

Say to the daughter of Zion ‘Behold, your King is coming, gentle, and mounted on a donkey.’ (Matthew 21:5)

Triumph

(Unknown artist)

Jesus is making a visual demonstration of his identity.  He is answering the question they had asked him on his last visit – “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” (John 20:24).  They recognise his answer as such, and treat him accordingly, throwing their coats on the ground in front of him and forming a cheering honour guard as if he were a homecoming king.  Luke even reports that they changed the wording of the traditional greeting ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ to ‘Blessed is the King…’ (Luke 19:38).  Mark points out that they expect the kingdom of David to be restored (Mark 11:10).  No wonder the Pharisees told him to shut them up – they knew that the Romans would not tolerate sentiments such as that (John 11:48).

So this ‘King’ rides triumphantly up into Jerusalem at the head of a rejoicing multitude… and then confounds them.  He goes through the gate and turns left.  He doesn’t head straight for the Roman fortress to force a confrontation with the occupying army.  He goes to the temple.  His priorities are different.  He’s already answering the question that Pilate will ask him a few days later: “My Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).  And in doing so, he disappoints thousands of followers, one of whom was Judas, who was probably hoping for great things from Jesus, but felt he had been let down.  Those thousands were not there to support him when he was on trial for his life.  As far as they were concerned, he was already just another failed pretender.

(Sadao Watanabe)

(Sadao Watanabe)

With 2000 years of perspective, we can see that Jesus was right.  He stuck to his mission and did not let the crowds divert him.  But it would have been hard for those in his enthusiastic following to have appreciated that.  Even his own disciples do not appear to have understood what was going on even though he had spoken to them plainly about his imminent death (Matthew 16:21).

What do we do when Jesus appears to let us down?  Those of us involved in world mission know only too well how wrong things can go.  We find our visas revoked with only 48 hours to leave the country.  A colleague is killed in a car crash.  A loved one is kidnapped.  A pastor swindles money from the church.  Our children lose their faith.  We are constantly ill, or stressed with overwork.  The ministry ends in defeat.  Did Jesus fail us?  It can feel like that at times, and we can be very tempted to respond like the crowds in Jerusalem.  All deserted him.  One betrayed him.  Another denied knowing him.  Others fled for their lives.

Yet, a few days later, Jesus returns (John 20).  Not to the religious leaders, nor to his own family.  Not to his best friend, or to the men who would lead the Jerusalem church.  He comes to a grieving and confused woman.  A woman who remained faithful, even though he had not turned out to be the Messiah she expected him to be.

Jesus doesn’t mind our confusion and grief.  He isn’t upset by our lack of understanding.  He seeks our faithfulness.  Even when all appears to have gone very badly wrong, he is still there for those who trust him.  In the midst of our pain, sorrow, trauma and confusion, let us hold on tightly to the one person who is constant, Jesus Christ – the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).

Jonah – successful mission worker?

jonahWe all know the story of Jonah.  It’s taught in churches and religious schools, partly because it’s a graphic and exciting story that appeals particularly to children.  Well, at least the bit with the storm and the big fish is exciting.  We don’t always tell the second part.  While theologians may argue over whether it is a true story, a parable or an allegory, this exquisitely crafted play in four acts has much relevance for the 21st century church, and we’re going to consider four contemporary applications of its lessons.

Jonah was a reluctant mission worker.  This is the bit of the story we’re most familiar with, how Jonah ran away from what he knew God wanted him to do, and was boxed in more and more till he got on and did it.  Most of us who have been Christians for a while will know this sense of how hard it is to run away from God, though we’re not usually boxed in as dramatically as Jonah was!  Yet our own experience of God tells us that God knows best how to run our lives.  To what extent are we still trying to run away from what God wants us to do?

JonahJonah was a frightened mission worker.  He knew that the Ninevites were a cruel and dangerous people.  What were they going to do to him when he told them to change the way they lived?  These were the people who invented crucifixion, and an earlier form of execution, impaling on a sharpened stake.  Faced with those two alternatives, we might have been buying a ticket to Tarshish too!  But to what extent are we afraid of telling people the good news today?  What’s the worst they can do to us?  Granted, we have to be careful not to lose our visa, endanger local believers, or damage the reputation of our agency, but let’s be bold!  Let’s risk the ridicule, criticism and bullying that might result.  Are we prepared to take the good news to people even at personal risk to ourselves?

jonah2Jonah was a judgmental mission worker.  He didn’t think these people were worthy of being forgiven.  They were foreign, cruel, evil.  Only nice people deserve to be forgiven.  He was blinkered by his racial supremacy of being one of God’s chosen people.  The other people obviously weren’t chosen.  But God had bigger plans.  We might laugh at such narrow-minded bigotry these days, but who are the people we don’t think are worthy of forgiveness?  Benefit cheats?  Illegal immigrants? Arms dealers?  Drug pushers?  Rapists?  Paedophiles?  But in God’s eyes, we are no better, but Christ died for us when we didn’t deserve it (Romans 5:8).  Are we prepared to take the good news to people we don’t think are worthy?

Jonah was a successful mission worker.  We often admire the philosophy of Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill, or the harvest of Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost.  Yet 120,000 people responded to Jonah’s message!  When Jonah was faithful to his calling, God delivered the results.  It’s not rocket science.  God does not want anyone to die, but wants people everywhere to turn to him (2 Peter 3:9).  So why would we not want to tell people?  The US illusionist and comedian Penn Jillette, who is a vociferous atheist, commented in a blog about how much he respected a Christian who gave him a Bible:

How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?

That’s a harsh statement, which strips away the cosy multicultural fudge that we are used to.  We might like to think we don’t tell people about Jesus out of respect for their faith choices, or because it’s a private matter, but surely love overrides those and demands that we tell people the good news.

Becoming less human?

trigger

Trigger the philosopher

In an episode of the classic British comedy “Only Fools and Horses” Trigger, a roadsweeper, claims to have used the same broom for 20 years, though he adds that in that time it has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles.  His friends clearly doubt that it therefore qualifies to be considered the same broom.  This is a modern variant of the ancient paradox called the Ship of Theseus, a philosophical debate over whether the identity of the original object can be said to be continuous over time when all its original parts have been replaced.  A bit like the Sugababes after the three original members had all left.

e_Coli

Alien – but friendly?

A similar question can be raised about being human.  It has been estimated by several authoritative microbiologists[1] that bacteria and fungi living in and on the human body outnumber the human cells by an incredible 10 to 1, with over 500 different species living in the gut and 500 more living on the skin.  Less than 10% of the cells in your body are human!  While these fellow-travelling cells are blatantly parasitic and can cause disease, they can also significantly help our existence, helping us digest food and absorb energy, stimulating our immune systems, breaking down waste and acting as a protective barrier on the skin.  Some of them even defend us, attacking invading bacteria of the wrong sort.  One microbiologist has said of this prolific microbial infestation: “they truly represent another arm of the immune system.”[2]

All of this has a huge impact on our understanding of what it means to be human.  Babies are born free of microbes, and we acquire more throughout our lives with every drink, touch, or kiss.  So as we move from 0% to over 90% microbe throughout our lives, life itself is a journey into becoming less human!

Sugababes: same, same or different?

Sugababes: same, same or different?

Or is it?  To be human is to be in community.  Way back in the days of the Garden of Eden, God concluded that ‘It is not good for the human to be alone’ (Genesis 2:18).  The human needed community of its own kind, and ducks, fish and elephants weren’t quite up to the job – fortunately!  This need for community reflects the community inherent in a Trinitarian understanding of God: three persons in perfect harmony, love and unity within the One being.  Historically, human life has thrived in community.  The aggressively assertive individualism of 20th century Europe is a historical anomaly, which is already showing signs of being redressed as postmodern youth are more aware of their connection to the global village and of their need for community, even if it’s expressed mostly through their technology!

In the same way as we enjoy a symbiotic relationship with other life forms at a microscopic level, we also enjoy one at a macroscopic level – with God!  Jesus teaches a lot about this in John’s gospel but we are not accustomed to thinking about our interaction with God in this way, largely because our thinking has become so individualistic.  But consider the impact of the following verses, all from John when viewed from the standpoint of a committed, interacting, mutual relationship with God:

I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you (14:20).  Is Jesus really in us in the same way that he is in the Father?  Linking these statements in this way makes it appear he believes so.  Does it really mean that being ‘in Christ’ effectively invites us through him to participate in the nature and essence of the Trinity?

Abide in me, and I will abide in you… apart from me, you can do nothing (15:4-5).  Jesus’ teaching on the vine makes it clear that unless the branch stays connected to the vine, it can’t hope to survive, let alone bear good fruit.  Branches don’t dip in and out as they choose.  They are intimately and permanently interconnected, allowing the sap to flow continuously, not just when they feel the need for it.

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him (6:56).  Eating and drinking is a reference using physical sustenance as a metaphor for spiritual life.  It parallels the sap from the vine.  It’s not about the need to take communion regularly so much as the constant communion of looking to Jesus as the source of our being (Acts 17:28).  Compare the English idiom ‘that’s meat and drink to me.’[3]

Whoever believes in me, from his belly shall flow rivers of living water (7:38).  This verse has echoes of the river seen in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 47:7-12) and foreshadows the one in the new Jerusalem (Revelation 22:1-2).  It is not a pathetic trickle or an intermittently dripping tap, it is a powerful, life-giving and permanent watercourse which symbolises the interconnectedness of our life with the Holy Spirit.

As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you (20:21).  In this, John’s version of the Great Commission, Jesus links his sending to the Father’s.  As the Father sent, Jesus sends; as Jesus went, so do we.  We are united in ministry with the Trinity.

imagesThis gives us a new view of the intimacy and togetherness of our relationship with God.  What does it mean for each of us as we go into meetings, hold conversations, shop and eat?  It means that God is with us in everything that we think, say and do, not just in the times of prayer and ministry.  We face those difficult situations together with God.  When we walk into a room, God walks in with us.  Into every situation we take with us the love of the Father, the grace of Jesus, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 13:14).  Let us reflect on how that knowledge may change our sense of isolation and disempowerment in difficult situations.

To become more human means to become less human!



[1] references are available on request as they are too numerous to quote!

[2] Gary Huffnagle, University of Michigan Ann Arbor

[3] Oxford Dictionary: be a source of great pleasure to; be a customary matter for – “but the high balls to the front two were meat and drink to the big Partick defenders, and Thistle soon hit back to deadly effect.” (The Sun, 2002)

Start the year with prayer

SpurgeonPrayer pulls the rope below, and the bell rings above in the ears of God.  Some scarcely stir the bell for they pray so languidly.  Others give an occasional pluck at the rope, but he who wins with heaven is the man who grabs the rope boldly and pulls continuously with all his might. (C H Spurgeon)

As we start out on a new year, what better way than to begin with prayer?  It is only through prayer that we discern God’s direction and purposes, and while the secular world may preoccupy itself with new year resolutions for a week or two, each of us engaged in a mission for God needs to follow God’s instructions for the important steps we have to take.

praying handsPrayer is at the heart of all our activity.  We know that Jesus spent time alone in prayer at importance stages in his ministry, and yet so few of us follow his example.  My church, like many others, is starting January with a week of prayer, and I intend to take the opportunity to set time aside to listen to God for the future of Syzygy, and I invite you to join me to do the same for your ministries.

How often do we make a significant amount of time for prayer?  Most of us spend a few minutes at a time, or some emergency prayers for help when we find ourselves in difficulty, but how often are we, like Mary, to be found at the feet of Jesus listening to his words – even to the distraction of some of our colleagues who think we do not do enough work!  We are far more likely to be like Martha, toiling away diligently for him, which in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t actually take us away from Jesus.

Spurgeon’s great quote above reminds us of the need for determination, persistence and energy in prayer.  How can we achieve this when our church, work and home lives are all demanding time and attention of us?  Surely, not all of us have the luxury of setting aside great chunks of our lives for prayer?  I think few of us would think that Jesus did not have pressures and demands on his time and attention, yet he seemed to make time for it.  Perhaps it’s because we’ve lost the understanding that prayer is crucial to the effectiveness of our ministries and the fruitfulness of our lives.  Here are some of Syzygy’s top tips for developing a prayerful life:

  • firepanStart and end each day focussing on God.
  • Pray before you start your work, and invite God into your busyness.  Focus your attention on God and remind yourself that He’s the reason you’re in this ministry.
  • Two or three times a day (more if you can manage it) pause in your work to remember God, ask for his help, and thank him for equipping you to do your work.
  • If you have colleagues, meet together regularly for a short time of prayer.
  • Create at least an hour a week for a time of unhurried prayer.
  • Set aside a significant time each week, month and year to get away and be alone with God.  Arrange for others to cover your responsibilities so you can get away.
  • Don’t be slow to communicate prayer requests to others.

Prayer is the boiler room in which we stoke the great fires which power our ministry.  The more we shovel, the more energy we generate!

Syzygy has a number of intercessors committed to prayer for mission.  If you would like them to pray for a particular issue, or if you are willing to join this band of heavenly bellringers, please email prayer@syzygy.org.uk.

I am a leaf on the wind… watch how I soar!

FallAt this time of year in the northern hemisphere, the colours of leaves turn to red, gold and brown, creating a magnificent kaleidoscope across the woodlands.  For many of us it is our favourite time of year, as we admire the glorious views and kick our way through piles of dry fallen leaves.  On a clear day, with a light breeze, it is possible to see a leaf wafting through the air and be amazed at its lightness and agility.

Although the title of this week’s blog, borrowed from Joss Whedon’s epic sci-fi film Serenity, sounds more Zen than Christian, it mirrors Jesus’ inscrutable saying in John 3:8 – The wind blows where it wills: you hear the sound of  it, but you don’t know where it’s coming from or where it’s going.  It’s like that with those who are born of the Spirit.

Those of us who are born of the Spirit are like leaves on the wind.  Others don’t understand our attitudes and motivations, or our hope for the future.  Often we may feel like we don’t know where we’re going but think we are being driven along by the tide of circumstances, though in fact we are being borne along in the arms of the Spirit.  As we whirl through life’s ups and downs we may feel more confused than guided.  Yet the Spirit knows where he is taking us.

Falling leaf 2

Autumn, however, always comes to an ignominious end, with those gloriously wafted leaves lying decomposing in a sodden, driven heap underneath a hedge somewhere.  How can we avoid that happening in our lives?

We need to be light.  Gravity pulls the leaves to the ground, but the lighter they are, the longer they seem to float.  Three things make a leaf heavy: its own nutrients, rain, and dirt.

A leaf that is weighed down by the moisture and sugars that it has been producing all summer is unnecessarily heavy.  If it has been untimely ripped from its tree by strong winds it will not have had the chance to return all that goodness to the tree, and become a light hollow shell.  John the Baptist said ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’ (John 3:30) and a little later Jesus said ‘Only the Spirit gives life; human strength can achieve nothing ’ (John 6:63).  We must make less and less of our passions and desires, so that Christ can become more in us.

Dead leavesRain symbolises life’s circumstances.  Heavy rain can drive leaves from the trees.  Soggy leaves don’t soar.  Life’s hardships can make us cynical, and cause us to focus on the challenges we face rather than the glorious creator God who is with us in the midst of them.  When this happens, we need to remind ourselves that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39).

The dirt of being part of this fallen world rubs off onto us on a daily basis as we go through life.  What we see and hear around us affects us, can lure us into compromise.  We can become attuned to ungodly attitudes and values around us.  At times like these we need to come back to Jesus to be made clean, and remember that we are called to be holy, just as God is holy (1 Peter 1:14-16).

In addition to making sure we are as light as possible, we need to become attuned to the Holy Spirit in our lives, to be able to listen to the still, small voice, and understand where we are being taken so that we don’t fight it, but let go of ourselves and trust in God’s tender mercy.  Only then will we be truly able to soar in the Spirit.

Jesus rescues us from God?

rob-bellOne of the attention-grabbing statements in Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, published a couple of years ago, was the statement that ‘Jesus rescues us from God’.  Bell loves these potentially controversial yet thought-provoking sayings, and while this may on the surface sound ridiculous, put into the context of the surrounding paragraph, it might superficially seem to make sense:

Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue.  God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life.  However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach us that Jesus rescues us from God.

But in doing so, Bell has revealed his lack of Trinitarian thinking.  Steve Chalke did the same a few years ago, when an evangelical storm in a teacup blew up around his suggestion that God might have been guilty of cosmic child abuse by beating up his own son on the cross.  Neither of them intended to communicate that they really believed what they said, but they both inadvertently ignited some controversy.

Trinitarian or tritheistic?

Trinitarian or tritheistic?

What these two, and countless other Christians in recent years have started to do, is think of the Father (aka God), Jesus and the Holy Spirit as separate people.  This is understandable given that we classically formulate the Trinity as ‘God in three persons’.  But a person today is an individual, whereas 1700 years ago when the word ‘person’ was first used in this context, identity was far more rooted in community, family and relationship than individuality.

That means that the Christian Fathers who thrashed out the orthodox definition of Trinity were thinking more of three ‘persons’ in relationship, in community, together, rather than three individuals.  But in our individualistic culture the imagery of the Trinity is stretched almost to breaking point, as we find it hard to conceive of three ‘persons’ in one being, unless it is evidence of a personality disorder.  The postmodern church has become functionally tritheistic, simply because it is, on the surface, easier to reconcile.

But Bell is wrong: Jesus does not rescue us from God because Jesus is God.  Chalke is wrong: God did not beat up Jesus; God took the beating personally on the cross.

Trinitarian believers need to learn to see God in Jesus as much as we see Jesus in us.  Jesus had a very high Christology: He who has seen me has seen the Father (John 14:9).  I am in the Father and the Father is in me. (John 14:11).  I am the Father are one (John 10:30).  In this latter verse the Greek implies one thing or one substance, rather than the more metaphorical being of one heart and mind.

Jesus handNot only did Jesus self-identify with the Father, he co-acted with the Father  – The Son can do nothing by himself… Whatever the Father does, the Son also does the same (John 5:20) and he co-spoke with the Father – I do not speak on my own initiative… I speak what the Father told me (John 12:49-50).

Even more radically, he then goes on to include to include us in this relationship of being and acting – I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you (John 14:20).  Remain in me, and I will remain in you (John 15:4).

And his missional mandate includes us too: God seeking the lost in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:9) becomes Jesus seeking and saving the lost (Luke 19:10) becomes our mandate in the Father and the Son: As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you (John 20:21), empowered by the Holy Spirit, who abides with you, and will be in you (John 15:17).

When we see ourselves as part of this Trinitarian missio dei – God’s outreach to the world – we will find ourselves truly commissioned, sent, indwelt and inspired by the living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Reconciliation

A gesture of reconciliation? (Source: sxc.hu)

A gesture of reconciliation? (Source: sxc.hu)

On a long flight recently, I watched three movies.  Although they were in different genres and from different studios, they all shared a common theme – healing broken relationships.  In fact, this could even said to be the real plot of all three films, though not necessarily the headline one.  And if you think about it, there have been so many films recently which address this issue, that it may even be a reflection of a deep need within society.  Art mirrors life, not the other way round.

In the UK, where only 25% of children are brought up by both their biological parents, and the number of single adult households outnumbers the couples, there is clearly a lot of relational damage.  Add to that the fact that during the 20th century many people consciously broke traditional ties to family, community and hometown to assert their individualism and independence, and we are left with a world which is desperately in need of healed relationships.  Many other cultures share these challenges, together with other deep fissures in their society resulting from race, class, tribal, religious and political divides.  Not surprisingly, the three films I watched featured three different generations looking for that reconciliation.  All of them, of course, were successful.  Only in Hollywood do they all live happily ever after!

Jesus hand

Source: www.captivatedbychrist.org

Reconciliation is a key biblical theme.  It could even be described as the main one – God looking to restore the damaged relationship with humanity.  It starts with God’s first question ‘Where are you?’ (Genesis 3:9), via the mission of Jesus to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:9) and ends with the ultimate reconciliation – a wedding (Revelation 19:9).  As Paul writes, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

A careful study of Paul’s writing about what Jesus accomplished on the cross reveals that he uses the concept of reconciliation more frequently than other terms such as salvation, atonement, healing or redemption.  Restoring a damaged relationship is essential to God’s mission, and deep inside, even the lost crave reconciliation, a sense of oneness, of belonging.

Once reconciled with God, we have the ability to become reconciled to the rest of humanity.  We have been forgiven, so we can forgive.  We have been reached out to, so we can reach out.  We have received peace, so we can give it.  This is a message the world is crying out for, yet we are still timid to share it.

Souce: www.gdwm.org

Souce: www.gdwm.org

Not only do we hang onto this message for ourselves, but often we fail to apply it.  The church is riven with division, between denominations, differing styles of worship or methodology, and individuals who have fallen out with each other over issues of belief or practice.  We often cite our own ethics or convictions as reasons for maintaining a rift with an ‘unrepentant’ Christian – but does that mask an unwillingness to engage with someone who really just holds a different opinion?  Are we really so different from those believers of an earlier generation who burned each other at the stake?

True reconciliation means not that we overlook matters of faith or style, but that we recognise that what unites us in Christ is greater than what divides us in the flesh.  It requires grace, and generosity of spirit to acknowledge that Christians who have markedly different practices from us are also loved and forgiven by God.  Let us have the humility to walk barefoot across the gap between us and ask forgiveness for our judgementalism on those for whom Christ also died.

The wounded hands of Jesus have reached out to us in reconciliation.  Why do we find it so hard to reach out ours to others?

Sowing what you did not reap

206

Planting out rice seedlings in Cambodia

I am sending you to harvest in fields where others have done all the hard work for you. (John 4:38)

Sometimes we hear stories of miraculous revivals which seem to have no preparatory work involved.  They just seem to spring out of nowhere.  Historically we might think of the Welsh revival, or the Karen turning to Christ in response to Adoniram Judson’s preaching, or the arrival of Christianity in Korea following the death of Robert Thomas.  They’re not just historical though, and such revivals continue to happen today, for example in parts of Latin America, India and Africa.  Even south Wales.  People who reap such harvests are often praised, as if somehow they’ve done something innovative or creative to make revival happen.  These blessed few get to speak at conferences, publish books, and tell their story over and over again to admiring churches.  They attract followers, their organisation grows, and they’re able to achieve more and more.  They become CEOs.

At the same time, there are probably many thousands of mission workers globally who are struggling hard yet reaping very little.  Their churches may not be growing, their projects not entirely effective.  They are plagued with self-doubt, yet continually strive harder in order to achieve more.  Or they may be under pressure from sending churches or support partners.  ‘What are you doing out there?’  ‘Is it really effective?’  ‘Are you sure you’re not wasting your time (translation: our money)?’  You’re probably one of them.   Working hard, sowing seed from which there is no obvious harvest.  Such mission workers are often at risk of burnout, leaving their ministry early, and possibly even beginning to have doubts in their faith.  Yet their hard work may be planting the seed which others will harvest a generation later.

Image source: www.sxc.hu

Image source: www.sxc.hu

This apparent injustice will be familiar to many of us.  It’s also Biblical.  Jonah, despite his initial reluctance, was the Bible’s most successful mission worker.  In just one day of ministry an entire megacity repented (Jonah 3:4-5).  By the grace of God (Jonah complained), and not because of Jonah’s oratory.  Philip saw revival in Samaria (Acts 8:4-13), and Peter saw a small revival break out spontaneously in Caesarea when he went to visit a centurion (Acts 10:44-48).  Yet Paul, at one stage of his ministry, wandered around for weeks looking for the right place (Acts 16:6-8).  He was ineffective in Athens (Acts 17:32-34).  And most of the Old Testament prophets had nothing but jeering and opposition to their ministries.

If we could bottle ministry success it would be a best seller.  But we can’t.  Most of us have absolutely no idea why our ministry thrives, or doesn’t.  But what is probably true is that it has less to do with our strategy, or effort and our resourcing than it does on the grace of God.  When God chooses to move sovereignly to bring revival, it will not be because one pastor has a good idea.  It will be because God chooses to bless a particular church, town or people group.  At the moment we are seeing incredible revival among Iranians.  It has little to do with the church’s outreach.  It’s just because that suits God’s purpose.

It can be easy for us to let success go to our heads, or to allow failure to discourage us.  But recognition that it is God’s decision where revival breaks out relieves the pressure on us and allows us to do two things.  The first is to pray.  If God is on the move, the best strategy is to find out what’s on God’s heart and ask if we can join in.  Sometimes God will say yes, in which there’s no credit to us when it goes well.  If God wants us to work somewhere else, that is God’s decision and the result does not reflect badly on us either.

The second is to embrace humility, whether we have the outward trappings of ‘success’ or ‘failure’.  If it’s in God’s hands, it’s not in ours, so we can deserve neither blame nor credit.  And we should remember that the Bible does not call us to be successful – it calls us to be faithful and fruitful.  Faithful in serving God wherever we are called, and fruitful in the process of doing that.  The fruit we bear may be numerical, or in the maturity of our church, but it may also be in the personal character growth that comes with perseverance when we appear to be unsuccessful.  To serve where God wants, and to serve how God wants, is the ultimate in faithfulness and fruitfulness.  We can only be responsible for ourselves.  And leave the results in God’s hands.

They had been with Jesus…

Jesus' last message

Jesus’ last message

In the book of Acts, there’s quite a lengthy story about the trouble that Peter and John get into for preaching the resurrection of Jesus after the healing of a lame man in his name (Acts 3-4).  The ructions go all the way to the top, and they end up being hauled before the authorities to account for themselves, where Peter preaches a bold message.  And then as the national and religious leaders begin to debate what to do with them, Luke adds a delightful little phrase:

They recognised them as having been with Jesus. (Acts 4:13)

Of course, it may just be that realising they were Galileans they remembered seeing Peter and John with Jesus.  But I like to think it was more.  I wonder if they saw something in their boldness, their integrity and eloquence that reminded them of Jesus.  Had Peter and John begun to resemble Jesus?

After three years of living with Jesus, it’s highly likely that some of his mannerisms and expressions had begun to rub off on them.  Even subconsciously, we emulate key authority figures in our lives.  But this could have been so much more.  Having received the gift of the Holy Spirit (as Jesus promised them in John’s gospel) they were beginning to undergo inner transformation.  They were being reminded about what Jesus had told them (John 14:26).  They were doing what he had done, and saying what he had said.  They were becoming like him.  And it showed.

They had been with Jesus

They had been with Jesus

The great mystery of this is that the Father and the Son have set up home with us (John 14:23).  Not merely that they moved into our neighbourhood, or visit our church on a Sunday morning, but that they have settled in.  Most of us fail to actively cooperate with them.  We treat them like lodgers, who live in a room at the back of the house.  We see them occasionally, and sometimes we may have a chat, but effectively they live separately lives while under the same roof.

They want more.  They want to be treated as part of the family.  They want to belong with us.  Jesus says he wants to come in and eat with us (Revelation 3:20).  Note that he says this not in an evangelistic way to unbelievers, but as an offer of deeper fellowship to Christians.  This is an intimate relationship, living together cheek by jowl, talking things over, doing things together, just like Jesus would have done when he was living with his disciples.  And when we cultivate this intimacy, we become more like him.

Do the people you work with see Jesus in you?  Not merely the Christians, who might be looking to see him in us, but the non-Christians.  The policeman at the roadblock, the customs official, the taxi driver or the shop worker.

If they don’t, it’s probably because we haven’t been with Jesus.

And on the Sabbath…

ChillingYou’re probably already aware that the Genesis account of creation tells us that God rested on the seventh day, but have you realised that God actually blessed it, and made it ‘holy’ (Genesis 2:3)?  God blessed humanity, and some of the animals too, but didn’t call us holy.  So the seventh day is clearly something important.

Holy doesn’t necessarily mean sombre or sacred, it can also mean separate or special.  The first thing God called special was a day off!  That says something about the significance of taking a regular day off.  You may know of the importance that the Jewish people have historically attached to their Sabbath, and while it has become somewhat rule-encrusted (as you will find if you ever go to Israel and get in a lift on the Sabbath – it stops on every floor so you don’t have to ‘work’ by pressing the button!) the traditional Jewish celebration of God, the Word and family is a good way to focus on what is really important in our lives.  Many Christians who have followed their example and tried to avoid work, shopping, DIY and other leisure activities on the Sabbath have discovered the blessing of a complete day of rest.

Of course, many Christians in ministry are not able to take their Sabbath on Friday/Saturday/Sunday as they are often ministering in church.  They may try to take a day off in lieu during the week, but this doesn’t always work so well as children are in school, colleagues who are still at work make phone calls, church members have needs and the general temptation to shop, catch up on emails or do the housework can eat away at that precious time with God and family.

RelaxingMany of us, of course, believe that every day is Sabbath, in the sense that it is a day dedicated for serving God, but while it is true, this understanding has helped to undermine the sense of setting aside a day for stopping and restoring the soul.  But this one day off a week, whenever we take it, is part of God’s plan to help us avoid becoming workaholics and burning out with constant striving.  It is important to get rest.  Recently I was involved in preparing the job description for my church’s new minister, and I wrote into it ‘You will take one complete day off each week’ because I believe that without stopping and recharging the batteries regularly, we can quickly run them down.

God, of course, did not need to recuperate from creating the entire universe.  The Hebrew word Shabbat from which we get ‘Sabbath’ implies sitting, being still, or stopping.  We might easily in modern language say ‘chill’.  I can just imagine God and Adam, lying on recliners by a pond somewhere, having a drink together and chatting.  Some gentle hanging out together.  We should remember that Adam was created on the sixth day of the week, and on the seventh, like God, he chilled.  Adam’s first day on the job was a day off!  The result was that he started his work rested and refreshed.  He didn’t need the Sabbath to recuperate from the previous week; he had it to prepare for the coming one.

Which is why our ministry works best if it flows from our place of rest rather than drives us to it.

Where’s the guide?

A Huarani guide

A Huarani guide

I recently heard this story told by Elizabeth Elliot, the mission worker and author:

Two young Americans with high adventure in their hearts arrived in the city of Quito, Ecuador on their way to the “Great Amazon Rain Forest” east of the Andes.  They were going on a six weeks trek and planned to write a book about their experiences.  They had every imaginable supply that they thought they might need for this adventure.  They had been to an army surplus store before they left home and bought everything the salesman told them they would need.

They described their equipment to me with great pride and I could see that it was not going to be of much use.  I wanted to tell them that what they ought to have was a guide, but they had asked only for help on the language and not for advice.  So off they went, full of confidence.  Perhaps they found their way all right, survived, and even wrote the book.  I never heard from them again.

Elizabeth Elliot

Elizabeth Elliot

What we really ought to have is the Guide himself.  Maps, road signs, equipment is useful, but infinitely better is someone who has been there before and knows the way…

Many of us spend a lot of our time  sitting in meetings planning and strategising,   While those activities are necessary, they are no substitute for following the Guide, listening to His advice, and going where He leads even when we can’t see why he’s going there.

Can we change the way we do our meetings?  Instead of opening with a brief prayer for guidance and closing by asking God to bless our decisions, can we spend more time listening to God than we do to each other?  You will recall that last week I reminded us that the famous missionary call of Barnabas and Saul came not when the church leaders were strategising but when they were worshipping.  If we engage in God-focussed activities in our meetings, it will not be surprising if God participates in them.

The Lord is my Guide… He leads me in the right paths.  Even when the going is tough, I am not afraid because He is with me.

Elizabeth Elliot is one of the foremost mission workers of her time.  After spending many years working among the indigenous people of Ecuador, she became a renowned author and teacher.  You can read more about her at www.elisabethelliot.org.

Tech notes: podcasts

1084232_headphonesOne of the ongoing challenges for mission workers is the need to ensure spiritual input.  One of the major reasons for burnout is that we continually give out at a faster rate than we take in.  So we need to make sure we have ample access to good quality teaching.

There is an extent to which, due to isolation or security needs, some mission workers can’t meet together easily for Bible study, and the local churches in which we minister are not always geared to meeting our needs.  But the internet makes good resources much more accessible than the days when our churches used to post us cassettes of the sermons.   One such benefit is the podcast, which can vary in length from five minutes to over an hour, and is an easily accessible resource that can be used in a variety of contexts: while setting aside time for study, or travelling, jogging – even on a flight.

Many churches now put their sermons out as podcasts, and even if the quality is not always consistent, it does have the benefit of keeping you in touch with what’s going on in your sending church.  But you can get them from other churches as well.  You might like to try, for example, Holy Trinity Brompton, Mars Hill, Gold Hill Baptist Church, Saddleback Church, St Helen’s Bishopsgate, or Willow Creek.

165809_headphonesSome famous speakers podcast regularly, sometimes even daily, though the quality of these can be variable.  Try out Mark Driscoll, Joyce Meyer, N T Wright, Max Lucado, David Pawson or (from beyond the grave!) Derek Prince.  Even classics such as My Utmost for his Highest and The Practice of the Presence of God are available as a podcast.

Other organisations such as the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable  programme and Christianity magazine also have regular and thought-provoking podcasts, and Member Care Media, which we have highlighted before, issues daily podcasts aimed specifically at the mental, physical and emotional wellbeing of overseas mission workers.

Individual podcasts can be downloaded from the website appropriate to your preferred church or speaker (as linked above), but it’s a lot easier to subscribe to them through iTunes, or go to One Place, a Christian resource for bringing lots of Christian teaching resources together online.  You can download podcasts to your computer or phone, and though for some people download speeds at home are often a challenge, you can get round this by going to an internet café or office where they may have a better service.  If you’re in a country where you need to think about security, make sure you regularly alternate between different cafés.

There are of course many more online resources such as Bibles, commentaries and guides, sermon resources, audio books and devotionals, and Oscar has a full list of these.

With God in the desert

The Wilderness of Judea

The Synoptic Gospels all record that Jesus went out into the desert and spent 40 days there in prayer and fasting prior to the commencement of his ministry.  That is a significant retreat, but going into the desert was not an uncommon thing to do in his day – John the Baptist had lived in the desert, and various Jewish monastic communities thrived there.  Later on, Christian ascetics would move there, and eventually many Christian monasteries started.

The desert is a place of transformation.  It represents the end of human existence.  Hunger and thirst, heat and cold render it inhospitable to humans, and the existence there of wild animals and outlaws makes it dangerous.  Yet here at the extremity of human survival, we meet God.  Both Moses (Exodus 3) and Elijah (1 Kings 19) had powerful experiences of God in the desert which equipped them for future ministry.

But why go into such a place where survival is difficult?  What drew them there?  Surely it’s about more than just getting away from it all?

For the ancient Israelites, their first corporate experience was in the desert, and as they wrote their Scripture and told their stories that experience embedded itself in their cultural assumptions.  Yes it was dangerous – “were there not enough graves in Egypt?” they asked Moses (Exodus 14:11) – but in their extremity, they met God.

Water from the rock

In the desert God provided them with food, water, protection and guidance.  With their human existence hanging by a thread, they learned that with God, the desert is a safe place.  Most significantly, it was in the desert that they heard the voice of God (Deuteronomy 4:22-27).  It is not a coincidence that one of the Hebrew words for desert – midbar – can also be translated “He speaks”.

Today we don’t need to go into the desert to meet God.  We can meet God anywhere.  When we are at the end of our human endeavour, God provides.  When we have run out of strength in battling our human nature: controlling our tongue, managing our sex drive, mastering our temper – whatever our personal challenge is, that’s when we can turn to the grace of God to help us.  Perhaps that’s one meaning of Jesus’ teaching “If anyone wants to follow me, let him take up his cross…” (Luke 9:23).  It’s when we finally admit we can’t make ourselves better people, or do a better job, and allow the Holy Spirit’s transforming power into our lives instead.

In my experience, too many cross-cultural mission workers are trying too hard to do more than they can or to be someone they’re not.  It drives many of us to burnout as we reach the limit of our ability to keep on striving.  That’s when we need to abandon ourselves to God to care for us.  We need to stop gritting our teeth and carrying on, and start letting God work in us and through us.  We need to let go of the illusion of strength and competence we project around us, and allow God to move through our brokenness and vulnerability.

The Spring of En-Gedi

The Gospels record that Jesus was in the habit of regularly going off by himself to pray.  That’s how he expressed his total dependence on the Father to teach him what to say (John 8:28) and show him what to do (John 5:19).  His entire ministry flowed from this dependence.  It is a ministry model we would do well to implement for ourselves.  We can’t always make the time to get away for an extended retreat, but we can take steps to do a retreat in daily life, and I’ll detail some of these in a future blog.

It is thought that David wrote Psalm 23 while hiding from Saul at the spring of En-Gedi, in the Judean wilderness.  It is a beautiful, refreshing stream in the desert (Isaiah 35:6).  Only when we are in the middle of the wilderness will we truly appreciate how God “leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.” (Psalm 23:2-3)

Working from a place of rest

Working fromI once heard a story about a colonial expedition into the African interior.  On the first day, they made excellent progress through the forest.  By the end of the second day, they had travelled much further than they had expected.  But when the third day dawned, the African porters steadfastly refused to move.  No amount of cajoling or beating from the European leaders could change their minds.  “We have travelled a long way from home,” they explained.  “And we are waiting for our souls to catch up with our bodies.”

Whether this story is true or not, it deserves to be.  It is true that our souls cannot travel as fast as our bodies do, and we ignore this truth at our peril.  One of the reasons so many mission workers suffer from fatigue, burnout and breakdown is that we don’t plan in regular times to stop and wait for our souls to catch up.  Tony Horsfall, himself a veteran mission worker who is now a celebrated author and speaker, learned this the hard way, as have many of us who have suffered burnout in one way or another.

Tony uses his own experience to encourage us to slow down and wait for our souls to catch up.  Using the story of Jesus sitting alone by a Samaritan well, he points out the importance of regular rest in our lives, as exemplified by our Lord, whose frequent breaks from ministry for rest and prayer enabled him to cope with extraordinary demands on him.  Tony invites us to

Come and sit by the well for a while. Take some time out to reflect on how you are living and working. Watch Jesus and see how he does it. Listen to what the Spirit may be saying to you deep within, at the centre of your being; and maybe, just maybe, God will give you some insights that will change your life and sustain your ministry over the long haul.

TonyWorking from a place of rest is well-written and easy to read, with short chapters that don’t weigh you down.  But the content is not light, as Tony covers such issues as The Discipline of Stopping, Remember the Sabbath and Drinking from the Well.  This book can help us discern what God wants us to say “yes” to, and when to say “no”; it can help us learn to build margin into our lives so that we work from a place of rest.

I wish I had been familiar with the concepts in this book before my health broke down and took me out of my overseas ministry early.  This book is a must-read for all mission workers who think they are too busy to stop and rest, and particularly for those who don’t think they need to.

Working from a place of rest is available online from its publisher BRF for just £6.99, as well as Christian bookshops and online retailers.

White as snow

DSC00220Snow is falling in England, at the time of writing (23.1.13).  It usually happens a few times in winter, but it’s unusual for it to be quite so deep or to lie around for more than a few days, particularly in the warmer south.  Our continental neighbours who are more accustomed to snow must marvel at the havoc and delight it causes.  Schools close.  Deliveries cease.  Traffic stops.  Instead, people make snowmen and throw snowballs.  We go sledging.  Facebook is filled with photos of cute children playing in the snow.

At least for a few days, until we get fed up with wet shoes, cold fingers and traffic chaos, we are thrilled.  Children want to go out and play with it.  Even adults become childlike and light-hearted.  We play in it, and marvel at its sparkly beauty and the silence it creates.

Why do we like snow so much?  What is it about it that we find beautiful?  What is its appeal?  Is it merely that it highlights the bare branches of trees and covers unsightly streets and buildings with a silent shroud of serene white?  Or is there something deeper, visceral, instinctive in it?  Something intuitive that we subconsciously connect with?

In the Bible, snow doesn’t feature much.  It is an occasional meteorological phenomenon (2 Samuel 23:20), and sometimes it is used simply to describe something particularly white (Exodus 4:6).  It occasionally snows in Israel, particularly on the higher mountains like Hermon, but for much of the year, it’s just too hot.  In a hot,  dry, dusty climate, things don’t generally stay white for long, so things that are intrinsically white are often  used as metaphors.  Snow, wool and milk are all biblical examples of this.  Where they come into their own is when they acquire a spiritual significance because of their colour.  White is deeply significant.

In cultures all over Europe and Asia white is, understandably, associated with cleanliness, and by extension purity and innocence.  Ancient Egyptian and Roman priests wore white.  Babylonians and Chinese recognised the dualistic tension between white and black, day and night, yin and yang, good and evil.  Brahmins wore it, and Japanese pilgrims do.  Moslems on the hajj wear white.  So it is clearly not merely Judeo-Christian imagery, but something common to humanity.  Where does the link with purity come from?  It may be that it is simply because milk is white, that it became associated with the innocence of a baby, unsullied by the world.  But I think it goes back further than that.

Genesis tells us that on day one, God made light.  The first thing that God created, even before he made heavenDark_Side_of_the_Moon and earth.  Light, in its purest form, when it is not bouncing off objects, is brilliant white.  Light is frequently associated with purity, understanding, and God – ‘who dwells in unapproachable light’ (1 Timothy 6:16).  God’s clothes are described as white as snow (Daniel 7:9) and so were the angel’s (Matthew 28:3).  John says the same of the hair of the risen Jesus (Revelation 1:14).

So, deep in our folk memories, the whiteness of snow reminds us of God’s purity.  It reminds us of our desire to be cleansed and become pure like God.  Two of the most famous verses about snow are about finding forgiveness.  David, repenting of his sin, said to God ‘Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow’(Psalm 51:7).  And God’s great promise of forgiveness and cleansing to humankind in Isaiah 1:18: ‘Though your sins are scarlet, they will be as white as snow.’

Deep snow covers up all manner of ugliness, making even the roughest outlook beautiful.  When I see urban wastelands blanketed in this picture of innocence, I am reminded that God’s love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).  When we look out on a pristine white landscape, let’s take the opportunity to glorify God who is even more pure, and who will one day grant his followers the privilege of dressing, like him, in white (Revelation 19:8).

Prepare the way of the Lord

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)

During advent it is customary to prepare for Christmas by reflecting on the various parts of the gospels which tell the stories taking place prior to the nativity.  John the Baptist becomes involved in this, because he was born not long before Jesus, and all four gospel writers use this quote from Isaiah to place him in context – preparing the way for the Messiah.  These words are frequently quoted in Christmas services and sung in performances of Handel’s Messiah, but what do they really mean?

John is calling for a motorway to be built!  He wants a smooth road like the Romans built, not a rocky Hebrew path.  He wants one that goes straight to its destination, not meandering through the clefts and wadis and up and down mountains.  And he wants one that’s elevated.  The Hebrew word used by Isaiah for ‘highway’ literally means a raised embankment – so that it’s not susceptible to flooding.  Modern civil engineering in the 8th century BC!

We have a love/hate relationship with motorways.  We don’t like millions of tons of concrete being poured on pristine landscape, or thousands of cars and lorries pumping out greenhouse gases (see last week’s blog), but when we want to get from A to B quickly and conveniently we’d much rather get in a car and drive along the motorway than hike along a tortuous mountain route.

But how does this prepare the way of the Lord?  John prepared people to meet Jesus.  He fomented an atmosphere of religious revival into which Jesus could step.  He got people talking about what God was doing.  He created the idea of entry into God’s kingdom not by birth but by choice, a choice which involved a change of heart about our attitudes and behaviour.  He saw himself in the role of Isaiah’s precursor to the suffering servant.  In this way he creates a context into which Jesus steps.  John is essential his warm-up act.

This Christmas, as we have an opportunity once again to present the new-born Christ to millions of people who do not yet know him, let us reflect on whether our attitudes and behaviour act like a motorway, bringing him swiftly and effectively into the lives of the lost, or like a religious roadblock.

Immigrants and strangers

In a recent exercise with a group of TCKs, we did a Bible study in which I challenged the young people to name as many characters from Bible who didn’t fit into the culture of the people around them.

From the obvious ones like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who left their homeland in search of an inheritance, and the apostles who went out into the Hellenised world and eventually beyond to take the gospel, to Joseph and  Daniel, the successful Prime Ministers of foreign powers, we came up with a list that completely filled the flip chart.  Rahab, who left her people to throw in her lot with the Israelites, refugees Ruth & Naomi, and David living with his band of outcasts among the Philistines were some of the less likely examples.  In the end, most of the major characters in the Bible were up on the list.  I left them with the challenge: in the light of that list, how do you feel about finding it hard to fit into British culture?

For mission workers adult and juvenile, the challenge is generally seen as how to fit in, whether it’s coping with culture shock when we go to live in a foreign country, or reverse culture shock when we come back home – and remember that Britain isn’t ‘home’ for TCKs who’ve spent most of their lives in another country.  Yet is this really the right approach?

People working with TCKs try to help them fit in and feel at home, to quickly make friends at school and come to grips with the very different culture they’re living in.  If they feel they can fit in, they are generally a lot happier and content to be living here.  But when you take a long, hard look at our materialistic, sensual, consumerist society, why on earth would we want anyone to fit in?  Learn to cope with it, yes, but to feel like you belong?  Surely all Christians should be actively taking steps to make sure we don’t feel we belong in this world!  Isn’t that what John means by telling us that we are not of this world? (John 17:16, 1 John 2:15)

The New Testament summarises this sense of dwelling in but not belonging as being immigrants and strangers (1 Peter 2:11, CEV).  There is a very contemporary ring about these words, yet they were ancient legal categories referring to transient migrant workers and what we now call ‘resident aliens’.  People who weren’t from round here.  People who were different, who didn’t fit in.  Who didn’t have rights.  People who formed an economic underclass, who may actually have been desperate to go ‘home’ but couldn’t find jobs or food there.  The Roman empire, particularly its major cities like Rome, Corinth, Antioch and Alexandria were heaving with this great unwashed mass of migrant humanity, living a hand-to-mouth existence, moving from tenement to tenement, city to city, in a never ceasing effort to find food, work, money.

This colourful picture shows us how Peter expected Christians to feel about their place in the world around us.  Hebrews 11:13-16 picks up on this imagery and suggests that the Old Testament heroes of faith were like foreigners and strangers in the land, looking for a better home, a city given them by God.  Paul resolves this paradox in Ephesians chapter 2, where he says you are no longer strangers and foreigners but co-citizens with the saints and the household of God.

This teaching would have been hugely encouraging to the stateless, illiterate, itinerant workers who made up the bulk of the early church.  Many of them were slaves, most would have owned no property, and few would have been Roman citizens.  To have a sense of community, belonging, enfranchisement and home would have been beyond their wildest dreams, and they found it in the church.  This truly is good news for a broken world.

At this time of year we remember the birth of the ultimate cross-cultural mission worker who brought this good news.  He wasn’t from round here.  He moved into our world and brought a message of hope.  Like those he lived alongside, he wasn’t a citizen; he lived under military occupation.  For a while he was a political refugee.  He had few belongings, and moved from place to place, with nowhere to rest his head.  He was executed as a common criminal and buried in a borrowed grave.  This was someone with whom the urban underclass could identify, even though in his own world he was a King.

How much effort do his followers make today not only to take his message to immigrants and strangers, but to take it in the same way he did?

What is a ‘calling’?

He Qi: The Burning Bush

One thing that all sending agencies agree on is that before serving God overseas long-term, there must be a sense of calling.  We may make exceptions for short-term trips as they are sometimes seen as exploratory, rather like putting a toe in the bathwater to see if it’s too hot, but before making a long term commitment, there has to be some sort of calling.

But what exactly is a calling, and how do we know when we have it?

A sense of calling  is the deep-seated conviction that God has a task for you, or a place for you to be.  It is essential if you’re going to be effective in your ministry; it motivates and energises you, and sustains you through the difficult times.  Yet it’s also something that’s extremely hard to agree on.    It varies from person to person, and depends on how they relate to God, and on the type of church they’re part of.  Some people feel they have prophetic words spoken to them, others have a vague sense that something is right, or a deep empathy for a place or a people.  Who is right?

Well, they all are, because a calling is as unique and personal to you as your relationship with God.  But let’s look as some of the Biblical models of calling and see what we can learn from them.

Abraham (Genesis 11:31-12:3) is given a cryptic call in which he is told to go, but is not told where, although it appears that they originally had the intention of going to Canaan when they set out from Ur.  Cross-referencing to Acts 7:2-3 it appears that this is the renewal of a call originally given in Ur, and that Abraham had got stuck in Haran – possibly because his father did not want to move any further.  Sometimes we need to hear our call again as circumstances can cause us to lose sight of it.  Sometimes a call is on our heart for many years before we can fulfil it.

Moses (Exodus 3) of course received a most spectacular call, involving a fireproof shrub and a lengthy conversation with God, of the type for which he would become famous.  Yet the key to it all was his own curiosity – on seeing the burning bush, he went to investigate.  If we are aware of what is going on around us, and are open to inspiration, God can get our attention.

Isaiah (Is 6:1-8) made a devotional response to God.  He did not have any idea what God was planning, but out of his profound awareness of being forgiven, his worship overflowed in a desire to serve.

Elisha (1 Kings 19:15-21) had a call which was adoptive.  God sent Elijah to anoint him and Elisha accepted.  He started out being a manservant to Elijah (2 Kings 3:11) but due to his zeal took over his mentor’s ministry and became one of Israel’s greatest prophets.

Saul & Barnabas (Acts 13:1-4).  Someone in a leaders’ meeting had a prophetic word telling them to consecrate Saul and Barnabas for ‘the work to which I have called them’.  There seems to be no further divine direction, so we must conclude that they were already mulling over the idea of a mission to Cyprus and this was confirmation.

Ezra (Ez 7:6, 9-10) went to teach in a Bible college.  It seems that he went out of a sense of personal conviction, yet it is clear that ‘the good hand of his God was upon him’.

Nehemiah (Neh1:2-5) received a call which was both locational and vocational – he had a specific task to do.  But his call arose from his compassion for a specific locality.  We should not underestimate the significance of how concerned we may feel for a particular people, group or place.

Philip (Acts 8:26-40), an accomplished evangelist, is told by an angel to go to somewhere specific.  When he gets there, he is prophetically given further instructions.

Paul and his team (Acts 2:6-10).  After experiencing some sort of closed doors to widening his team ministry, the nature of which is not exactly clear, Paul has a vision of a Macedonian man asking for help.  The whole team responds.

So we can see from the above that a calling comes in many forms.  It can be circumstantial, revelatory, prophetic, general, locational, compassionate, vocational, devotional, educational, adoptive.  It can be a call to a specific task or place, or something more general.  Many times there is some form of direct communication from God, but not always.  Of course, the most all-embracing call of all is the one found in Matthew 28 – Go and make disciples of all nations – which was originally given to the eleven but is commonly understood as applying to all believers for all time.

It is certainly one commandment of Jesus that the church has not yet completed.

Other aspects of discerning a calling can be found in our worksheet on this subject, which is part of the Syzygy guide on how to prepare for going.

‘Holy’ Communion?

A Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow

I recently had the opportunity to worship in a Russian Orthodox church, which has a very different practice to the informal protestant style to which I am accustomed.  The entire service was liturgical, with plenty of chanting, incense, robes and icons.  Their tradition is full of majesty, drama, and symbolism, something which many western churches with a ‘low’ tradition have lost.  Talking afterwards to the faithful believer who was my companion, she explained that she was unable to take communion on this occasion as she had not had sufficient time to prepare.

Apparently she would have had to spend about 2½ hours in private prayer following a prescribed liturgy reflecting on the gravity of her sin.  She would have had to fast for 5 hours beforehand so that she could take communion on an empty stomach, and prior to (or during) the church service she would have needed to make confession to a priest.  Only then was she ready to receive communion.

Many protestants will be challenged, or even angered, by this lengthy procedure.  They may be muttering about people putting stumbling blocks in the way of the penitent coming to Jesus for forgiveness.  They may be thinking that Jesus would have had harsh things to say about such apparently pharisaic behaviour.  Surely, they will say, the whole point of Jesus’ complete and perfect sacrifice was so that the sinner can come to him and find forgiveness easily, because there is nothing the sinner can do to earn it?

My Orthodox friend’s response to this suggestion is to point out that our sin is truly awful, and that we should take time to remind ourselves of the terrible price it cost Jesus before taking advantage of his free grace.  Only when we contemplate how our thoughts, words and actions have placed an impassable barrier between us and God which only Jesus can remove, are we ready to enjoy the fruit of this lavish forgiveness.

Perhaps she has a point.  Whether we are high church or low, sacramental or symbolist, what we all have in common is that we believe that communion is something special.  In many traditions it is specifically called Holy Communion.  Yet we often fail to treat it with the respect and awe that I saw in that Orthodox church.  It seems that the more informal our church meetings are, the less time we give to contemplate our sinfulness.  Many churches deliberately avoid reflecting on our human depravity because they prefer to emphasis the fact that we are saints by God’s grace than sinners by nature.  So we come to communion with nothing more than a quick ‘Sorry Lord’ to prepare our hearts, which can cultivate the impression that our sin doesn’t really matter.

Our sin matters hugely.  It is our sin that led Jesus to the cross on our behalf.  It is our sin that hammered huge nails into his innocent flesh.  It is our sin which caused him to surrender his life so that we can be reconciled to God and purchase our forgiveness with his blood.

Forgiveness is free, but it is not cheap.