Big trouble

A couple of weeks ago we observed that even the apostle Paul had trouble getting a visa!  So we are not alone in our difficulties.  This is the man who was lashed 5 times, beaten 3 times, stoned and shipwrecked three times! (2 Corinthians 11:24-25).

Some of us are happily in faith for God to miraculously open doors for us and give us incredible opportunities to minister, but most of us really struggle – to raise funds, get work permits, see ministry breakthroughs.

We wonder why we lack faith or what we’re doing wrong, and grapple with feelings of failure as a mission worker.  For us, the going always seems to be hard.  At every turn something seems to go wrong.  Kids get sick.  Someone gets arrested.  There is robbery and violence.

For us, the encouragement is that Jesus warned us it would be like this: “In this world you’re going to have big trouble” (John 16:33a).

Oh joy.  Thanks Jesus.  He explains why it’s going to be hard: “The world hates you because I chose you” (John 15:19).

In other words, we’ve joined the wrong gang.  This world has its way of doing things, and if we don’t go along with it, we’re in trouble.  But we’ve joined another gang.  The world’s gang leader doesn’t want us to get away with that because others might go along with us, so we’re subject to reprisals.  He’s going to attack us at every turn.  He’s going to discourage us.  He’s going to stop us spreading the message of freedom.  He wants us to become so despairing that we give up, go home and live comfortable, uncontentious lives and think it was all a bit of a mistake to go into mission.

But we’re not going to do that, are we?  Because we know it’s tough.  We knew we weren’t signing up for a cabin on a cruise liner but a bunk on a troop ship.  We know we’re on the winning side, because Jesus said so: “Take courage: I have overcome the world” (John 16:33b).  And he didn’t overcome it with six legions of angels.  He overcame it through his suffering.  And in our suffering, we join with him in both his suffering and his overcoming.

So the next time our work permit is cancelled, our funding fails, our building is bulldozed or we find ourselves in prison, here’s a prayer:

 

Lord Jesus, I have trusted in you in good times and in bad.

I cannot see how my current situation will bring glory to you,

but I choose to trust you again.

Thank you for this opportunity to reveal you

to the people around me

through my words, my actions and my attitudes.

I invite you to work in me and through me for your glory,

so that your kingdom may advance in me and through me.

Hello Goodbye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

“We were prevented…”

Paul’s Macedonian Vision

Much frustration, confusion, anger and loss is incurred by mission workers who find their plans thwarted.

Perhaps a family need draws us back home from the field.  Some of us inexplicably lose visas and are given 48 hours to leave a country we’ve lived in for 20 years.  The risk of terrorism forces our evacuation.  A sending agency decides to pull out of a given location.  Our funding falls to an unsustainable level.  The list goes on.

Each time something like this happens it causes trauma.  It is accompanied by complex emotions of guilt, loss and regret.  But there is also confusion in our spiritual life.  Did we hear God correctly?  Why didn’t God provide?  Has God changed his mind?  Did we get something wrong?

I wonder if those thoughts were troubling Paul and his companions as they tried to continue with their second missionary journey but found doors closed.  Acts 16:6-9:

They passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia; and after they came to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them; and passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas. A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him, and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 

We can only speculate why (and how!) God wouldn’t let them into the various places they tried to go, and why God didn’t give Paul that dream earlier, but we can infer that there was some unexplained purpose in a short time of confusion.  An analysis of the “we” and “they” sections of the narrative shows that Luke wasn’t with them at this time – perhaps they had to go to Troas to add him to the team.

When we are confused and disorientated by rapid relocation, we can draw comfort that Paul and his associates have been in the same place.  But we can also reflect on some possible reasons why God might do things like this:

  • God wants to move us on to a different ministry, but we’ve been so committed to the one we have that we couldn’t imagine something else
  • God is moving us out of the way so that others can take over the work we’ve been doing
  • God prevents us from building up pride in our own ministry, or even in our ability to listen to him
  • God is reminding us that he moves on, and he wants us to be ready to move with him
  • God’s plans for us are so big that we couldn’t conceive initially of what he could do, so he started small
  • God undermines our security in role, position, authority, home, church and our own anointing so that we place more of our security in him.

These and many others could be the reasons why things appear to have gone wrong for a time.  We may never know the real answer this side of eternity.  I personally draw comfort from the experience of the Israelites in the wilderness – when the pillar of smoke/fire moved, they moved, and when it stopped, they stopped.  When they set up their tents they didn’t know if it was for a night or a year, and they didn’t know why they were in that particular place.  They didn’t need to – they just stayed close to God.

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!

 

Comfortably numb?

As we enter Holy Week, I am struck by the wide range of emotions involved in the events of this epic week nearly 2000 years ago.

There’s the jubilation of the Triumphal Entry, followed so closely by the disappointment of many of the crowd who expected Jesus to confront the Romans.  There’s the excitement of intellectual debate, the thrill of miracles, the challenge of teaching, the fun of a meal with Lazarus which was suddenly turned solemn by Mary’s worship, Judas’ frustration and betrayal, the terror of the arrest and trial, and of course the tragedy of crucifixion followed by the ecstasy of the resurrection.  And all week long Jesus knows what’s going to happen to him.

As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, mission workers go through a huge range of emotions during their career, but also any given week can have massive ups and downs.  Ministry success (or disappointment), relationship challenges and joys, the secondary stress of hearing the traumatic stories of people we ministry to, our own physical and medical issues, support-raising, surprise visits, and cultural misunderstandings can have our emotions all over the place.

This can be very exhausting and in order to try and achieve emotional stability some of us can be tempted to shut our emotions down and stop feeling.  For example, TCKs and long-term mission workers who are tired of the pain of so many goodbyes can isolate themselves and stop forming new friendships so they can protect themselves from sadness.  Or we can simply not get involved with the many needs around us.  Someone remarked to me only last week how unloving she had become while on the mission field: because she had no way of meeting the needs of all the people around her, it was easier to ignore them.

Becoming unfeeling can be a sign that we have reached the end of our ability to cope.  Numbness is a way of protecting ourselves which can show we’re not coping well.  Sometimes we have  intentionally fostered emotional numbness to hide the pain – even from ourselves.  We need to be gently coaxed into opening up while receiving love and support.

Warning signs of emotional numbness can include:

  • remoteness towards family and friends
  • lack of joy in things which would have excited us in the past
  • loss of appetite for food or desire for sex
  • lack of delight in the Lord
  • disinterest in pastimes
  • boredom and lethargy

If you find yourself or your friends feeling numb – and even more significantly feeling comfortable about feeling numb – give them love and support, and refer then for member care, whether to their agency or to an outside resource like Syzygy.

Jesus appears to have fully entered into the spirit of each event, conversation and encounter during Holy Week despite the knowledge that he would die a gruesome death towards the end of it.  What kept him going was his awareness that it was only temporary, and that soon he would come out the other side: “for the joy that was set before him he endured the cross…” (Hebrews 12:2).

Our heavenly perspective gives us a huge capacity to endure, to maintain perspective, and to trust God in the midst of our difficulties.  Let’s not close down our souls so that we can endure to the end, but open them up to God and to others so that we can truly live the abundant life we are called to.

Dealing with grief and loss

As I remarked a few weeks ago when addressing the question of mourning, Christians are not always good at being in touch with our emotions.

I have been told, probably like you, that since Jesus gives me joy, I should smile.  I shouldn’t be angry.  Fear is the opposite of faith so to be afraid is to sin.  Such comments reflect a heavenly perspective which is so out of touch with the world we live in that it’s fairyland.

Having emotions is part of being human, and to deny or suppress them is merely to try to reject a part of ourselves which is no more sinful than any other part of us.  It’s just human.  And denying aspects of our humanity is bad for us.  It has been rightly observed that:

Any emotion which we buried is always buried alive, and it digs its way out again.

Mission workers can have to confront a wide variety of emotions throughout their lives:

  • leaving family and friends behind when they go to the mission field
  • returning on home assignment to find things have changed
  • sending children to boarding school because the schools where they serve are not good
  • suffering major trauma like civil war, kidnap, traffic accident and disease
  • experiencing secondary trauma as they help the vulnerable and marginalised
  • leaving their way of life in their adopted country to return to a ‘home’ country they no longer feel at home in.

Recognising the emotional impact of these occurrences on us and those around us is a mature and responsible way of coming to terms with them.  That’s why talking therapies such as debriefing or counselling are such good ways of helping the healing process.  The grief-loss cycle (click here to download a copy) is a well-known tool for helping with this.  It helps us understand how we feel in the aftermath of a trauma, and why it’s ok to feel like that.  Often I find that people recovering from trauma feel guilty about their emotions when in fact their feeling is a normal psychological response to what they’ve been through.

The grief-loss cycle charts typical stages of trauma recovery.  It shows how our well-being descends from where it was to a low, and then comes out of it.  Though it’s not the same journey for everybody, and it’s not always a linear progression through the curve, it can help us understand why we feel what we do, and acknowledging those feelings help us to recover more rapidly.

Research has shown that getting some talking therapy while going through a recovery process can often help people’s well-being return to the level it was previously, it can actually help them come out of the experience in an even better place as they grow through the experience.  Syzygy can help by providing mission workers with a debrief following a significant incident.  Click here to get in touch and find out more.

The last word in Resilience

Tony Horsfall and Debbie Hawker have combined their unique talents to produce a new resource – Resilience in Life and Faith.  As one would expect from two authors with excellent track records, it does not disappoint.

Defining resilience not as merely ‘bouncing back’ (as I so often have done!) but helpfully quoting a variety of authors to demonstrate that although the status quo in our lives may not be restored after a trauma, what we learned in the process changes us for the better, they have come up with their own model for understanding the different facets of life which impact upon our ability.  They call it ‘SPECS’ and I will not explain that here so that I don’t have a negative impact on their book sales!  Suffice to say it considers all aspects of our human being to ensure we have a complete awareness of how to balance our lives well.

The chapters explore each of these facets in turn, first the psychology (Debbie) and then a character study from the Bible (Tony).  This useful pairing means that the theory, presented simply enough for the amateur to understand but deeply enough to be helpful and authoritative, is balanced with lived-out practice, which is thoughtfully and interestingly brought to us.  Each chapter closes with helpful questions for reflection, which gives the book the feel more of a devotional rather than a textbook, usefully bringing together two genres.  At the end is a quick but effective self-assessment to highlight the reader’s current life practice and how it affects each facet of their resilience.

Reading this book I felt better informed about resilience, and inspired to maintain it.  I commend this resource to practitioners of pastoral care for whom it is an invaluable addition to the bookshelf, and to all Christians who will find information to help them thrive in their daily lives.

You can buy Resilience in Life and Faith direct from the publisher – just click here.

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.

 

Help for the wounded

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Tranquillity, gentleness and strength

The astute among you will have noticed that I have been following the October readings in the Northumbria Community’s Celtic Daily Prayer, which is a valuable resource for those of us wishing to cultivate a devotional life drawing on ancient traditions.

The readings have been quotes from the influential 20th century poet and mystic Evelyn Underhill.  In one passage, she writes about what today we would call resilience:

If we desire a simple test of the quality of our spiritual life, a consideration of the tranquillity, gentleness and strength with which we deal with the circumstances of our outward life will serve us better than anything that is based on the loftiness of our religious notions, or fervour of our religious feelings….  This is the threefold imprint of the Spirit on the soul surrendered to God.

Resilience is a characteristic much-prized in mission workers, but one that is hard gained.  Much member care is focussed on supporting people through trials and tribulations so that they grow more resilient with each test and are able to grow.

Yet resilience is not acquired through Biblical knowledge or professional skills, which are often the properties which commend themselves initially to church and agency as they mobilise and send us.  Resilience is acquired through prayerfulness, time spend in the presence of God despite the demands of family, church, ministry and community.  It comes from choosing, like Mary, to sit at the feet of Jesus when we know there is work to be done.

I discovered this resilience in my own life many years ago when I was struggling with long-term sickness, living on state benefits and finding it hard to live a ‘normal’ life.  Yet at the same time I experienced an inner joy and lightness of spirit that was in complete contrast to the circumstances surrounding me.  I concluded that what helped me was a heavenly perspective: God still loved me; Christ had still died for me; my place in heaven was secure – so what if the rest of this life is misery, sickness and squalor?

Yet many mission workers, far from experiencing such joy, are mired in what Mrs Underhill calls “the inequalities of family life, emotional and professional disappointments, the sudden intervention of bad fortune or bad health, and the rising and falling of our religious temperature.”

If your experience is more like that, it’s time to stop, take a holiday or go on retreat, before your stress levels lead you into burnout.  It’s time to lay down some responsibilities and make time to sit and hold hands with God.  As a result, we don’t necessarily get on top of the material circumstances of our lives, but we can transcend them.

Why you can’t leave the gardening to God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do mission workers need drive?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Passive-aggression in the mission field

Source: www.freeimages.com

We have probably all seen passive-aggressive behaviour exhibited in workplaces, shops, families, churches and of course the mission field.  It is an immature way of expressing resistance without directly challenging.

It sits on a spectrum which runs from “Yes, I’d be happy to” to “No, I won’t do that” and while it may not be as vocal as either of those statements, it could be expressed with a shrug, a pout, and slow, unwilling movements.  Think of a child who has been told to tidy her room, and realises she has no alternative if she wants dinner.  She do it, so is actually being compliant but everything about the body language is saying “NOOOO!”

Sadly, the mission field is no stranger to this behaviour, and one of the reasons may be because, whether we are leaders or followers, we think we ought to avoid conflict.  Or perhaps we’re uncomfortable with conflict because we do so need to be liked.  Christians today don’t do conflict with each other well, but at least we’ve stopped killing each other, so things are looking up.

One way in which passive-aggressive leaders can try to avoid conflict is by introducing new rules which affect everyone, rather than the one person they have an issue with.  So, for example, imagine your team holds a regular lunchtime prayer meeting, which is voluntary.  Only one person in the team doesn’t attend, so the leaders make it compulsory.  Everyone knows why – the leaders don’t actually want the risk of triggering interpersonal conflict by engaging with the individual and asking if there’s an issue.

If the team member is also prone to passive-aggressive behaviour, he will go to the meeting but sit there sullenly, in silence, possibly sighing or yawning loudly, doing everything he can to say “I don’t want to be here” without actually verbalising it.  Outright resistance would actually be more productive, because it would bring the issue to a head and force a flashpoint, rather than leaving it to simmer, unaddressed, for many years.

So how do we avoid passive-aggression?  With openness, honesty and humility.  Whether we’re leaders or followers, we should find constructive ways of expressing how we feel.  Not in an angry outburst, but in a meek, non-confrontational manner.  One which will take tension out of a discussion, not add to it.

None of us like conflict.  We tend to sweep things under the carpet.  The trouble with that approach is that the lump under the carpet starts to get so big that people trip over it.  We try to keep the peace by not making an issue of things, but peace is more than merely the absence of war.

Peacekeepers prevent conflict breaking out, but they don’t bring real, lasting, restorative peace.  No wonder Jesus said “Blessed are the Peacemakers”.

 

 

The value of sabbatical

Source: www.freeimages.com

As Syzygy takes a much-needed holiday this week, today we are going to pause and think about the value of stopping and reflecting.  Many times we have blogged about the value of retreat, and while we recognise that this can imply a time of solitude and silence which would be torture for some of our more extroverted readers, all of us can find value in withdrawing regularly from the busyness of life’s challenges and burdens to reflect on life and ministry.

Occasionally we may hear about people who have been on sabbatical, or maybe we have even met some of them, and wonder why we don’t seem to be able to get so much as a week off let alone a few months!

Sabbatical draws its principle from the Sabbath, the seventh day, and keeping the Sabbath rest is something that has marked Israel out from its neighbours over the millennia, and is also a custom the church followed until fairly recently.  Less famously the Old Testament law included a Sabbatical year – a year in which fields, fruit trees and vines were left unsown and unharvested every seventh year to allow them to rest.  And perhaps more importantly, to allow the people to trust that God would provide sufficient harvest for them in the sixth year to last them until the eighth year’s harvest came in.  Sadly there is little evidence that this act of faith and obedience was ever fully-implemented in ancient Israel, although the idea has continued to hold sway in ministry.

Not that we necessarily get – or even need – a whole year off every seventh year.  But to be free of ministry responsibilities for a significant amount of time once in a while is valuable in a way that short bursts of holiday or even the less-structured but nevertheless demanding time of home assignment can never be.

However much time we manage to set aside, there is value in stepping out of our daily routine to reflect.  Without doing so, we can get so stuck in the treadmill we don’t have time to think.  If we can break that cycle and get away, we can ask ourselves serious questions like:

  • Are we still true to our original calling?
  • What are we doing that is outside the will of God?
  • What work can we drop/delegate to someone else?
  • Is there a better way of achieving our goals?
  • What new things is God calling us to?
  • What else does God want to say to us or do in our lives?

Perhaps, if we took more time out to reflect, there would be fewer issues of missionary burnout.

(Syzygy Trustees please note I have now been in my current post for 8 years!)

 

Struggling to grow?

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

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

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

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

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

Coping with constant change

Change, it has been observed, is the only constant.  And that was pointed out 2500 years ago by a Greek philosopher.

Many of us in mission struggle to keep up with various aspects of change, whether it’s organisational structure, new technology, government regulations or the constant coming and going of co-workers.

Most of us are not particularly disposed towards change, and the accelerating rate of change seems ever more bewildering.  So how can we learn to survive in a world where change is guaranteed, to continue apace?  Here are our top tips:

  • Accept that things change – for better and for worse.  Change is normal!  Our first experience of coming into this world was through change, and we continue to change throughout life until the final change in death.
  • Give yourself time to process the change – it takes time to get used to what is new and you won’t necessarily get the hang of it straight away.
  • Discuss it with family and friends.  How can they help you and vice versa?  Who is the person for whom the change is easy?  How can they be a resource for the others?
  • Recognise the stress that change causes and take steps to manage it well.
  • Research ways of making this change go as smoothly as possible.
  • Stick to familiar routines that will provide some element of stability in the midst of the change.
  • Rest in God – who never changes.
  • Eat well, sleep well, exercise well.  If you are physically healthy you will be better able to cope.
  • Are you afraid of the future?  Give it back to God, in whose hands it is anyway.
  • Make a to-do list and tick items off to create a sense of control.
  • Understand how your personality type copes with change and focus on using your strengths to help you rather than lamenting your weaknesses.
  • Read the bits of the Bible which were written by people undergoing massive change.  How did they deal with it?
  • Identify and name what you think you are losing.  This helps you be able to say goodbye to it – even reluctantly!
  • Develop your hobbies to ensure you have a way of relaxing.
  • If there is change in one aspect of your life, try to ensure there is stability in other areas to reduce the pressure on you from the change.
  • Reflect on how you personally can benefit from the change and help others to do so.
  • Find a safety valve so that you can vent your negative feelings privately without causing harm to other people or agencies.  Avoid expressing too much to close colleagues or on social media!
  • Take a retreat or holiday to recharge your emotional energy.
  • See the positives: is this a chance to grow?  Could things be better for you or your team in the future?
  • Acknowledge the extent to which your resistance to change may be based on your bad experiences of change in the past.
  • Create a ‘monument’ so that you can respect and honour the achievements of the past as you press on towards the future.
  • Be open with God and close friends about your feelings.
  • Manage stress through mindfulness, Pilates, meditation or breathing exercises.
  • Journal your feelings so that you are able to get them off your chest – and then look back to see how much God has done in you through the change.
  • Develop a rhythm of prayer or use regular liturgy to help enhance your stability during times of change.
  • Get professional help from a coach or mentor to help you process the challenges you’re facing.
  • Be open with family, friends and co-workers about how well you’re doing.  It will help them to help you.
  • Don’t assume that just because change is hard, it’s wrong.  It may ultimately be beneficial.

Syzygy runs workshops on handling change well.  If you’d like to book one for your church or agency, contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk.

The Perfect Storm

In 1993, author Sebastian Junger was researching a book about the sinking two years before of a fishing boat in extreme weather off the east coast of the United States.  In an interview, Bob Case from the National Weather Service explained to Junger that conditions became unusually intense because of the freak convergence of multiple weather events creating a “perfect” scenario for catastrophic wind waves and rain.  From that conversation was born the term, “the perfect storm.”  You’ve probably seen, or at least heard of, the movie that followed.

Last week influential mentor Rick Lewis introduced a group of member care workers to his take on this.  He pointed out that the perfect storm for Christian leadership occurs where the systemic hazards in the church or agency they lead meet the vulnerabilities inherent in a leader’s personality.

By “systemic hazards” he is referring to the adverse conditions that coalesce around Christian leadership.  These conditions are sometimes simply a consequence of helping people deal with momentous issues of life, and sometimes they are dysfunctions of the communities that Christian leaders serve.  We all know that leadership is hard.  But it is made harder than it needs to be when systems function in carnal ways that are not reflective of the kingdom of God.  Very few Christian organisations are thoroughly hazardous to their leaders; but none are completely free of hazardous conditions.

By “vulnerabilities in a leader’s personality”, he is referring to those parts of the psyche that are still in the process of being brought into conformity with the image of Christ.  These are the weaknesses, old wounds, dark secrets, immaturity and foolish ways that quench leadership capacity.  All leaders – all people, in fact – have such vulnerabilities.  They are never entirely eradicated, but through the power of the Holy Spirit significant growth and healing can be achieved and the ongoing negative effects can be neutralised.

Leaders and systems form symbiotic relationships.  The individual and the community each affect the other both positively and negatively.  Human nature being what it is, the negatives tend to have an increasing effect over time, unless outside intervention is interposed.  The hazards in a system will exploit the vulnerabilities in a leader unless someone helps the leader to keep their feet while in the midst of the storm.  Mentoring helps Christian leaders navigate the perfect storm, leveraging their strengths to address their vulnerabilities so that the hazards present in Christian organisational systems are contained and systemic health promoted.

We are not going to give away Rick’s material in this blog!  Suffice to say that here at Syzygy we have seen several instances where the way an organisation is structured and motivated coincides with a leader’s character weaknesses to set that leader up for spectacular failure unless some sort of mentoring intervention occurs to support the leader in growing and the organisation in changing.

Those who wish to know more can contact Rick via us by emailing info@syzygy.org.uk or buying his helpful book Mentoring Matters which contains more information on this subject.

Life balance

The runup to Christmas is often a busy and demanding time.  Decorations to put up at home and work, festivities to prepare, carol concerts to attend, presents to buy, meals to share, nativity plays to endure, church services to plan… The list goes on and on.  So much for celebrating the Prince of Peace.

But this is just one more symptom of the crazy demanding world we live in.  A world in which technology means we are available to our colleagues and customers 24/7.  A world in which we’ve almost forgotten that until 1994 shopping on a Sunday was almost impossible in the UK.  A world in which everyone expects more but has less to give.

For mission workers life balance is always hard, for many reasons.  Our kids have needs which are different because they’re growing up in a different culture.  The spiritual dynamic of the place we work saps our energy.  There never seems to be enough money or people.  The constant turnover of co-workers is emotionally demanding.  Coping with life in a foreign culture can be exhausting.

How do we balance all these competing demands for our attention?

First, we should decide what is important to us.  Family, friends, children, ministry, work, hobbies, health, God are all important and need to be in the mix, but what is the proportion and priority?  It will look different for each of us and we need to decide what is the most appropriate in our circumstances.

Then we need work out (on average) how much of our attention to allocate to each element in the mix, and when.  Some of this is already done for us, if we have for example a 9-5 job, or we need to be at specific church services on Sundays.  But we may be able to be creative.  For example, if you find date night hard to do with your partner because you have kids and can’t get babysitters, why not arrange a date lunch once a week when you both set aside time for a long, leisurely lunch together while the kids are at school?

Then we must be disciplined in protecting that time.  Some of us deliberately cannot access work emails on our phone.  Or make a point of turning the phone off at certain times so we can’t be interrupted.  We can put things in our calendars and say “Sorry I’m busy that day” without telling people why we’re busy.

If you need to get your life back into balance you are welcome to talk to someone from Syzygy.  Just email info@syzygy.org.uk to get in touch.  And we can recommend a weekend retreat on the subject at beautiful Penhurst Retreat Centre in East Sussex.  If you can fit it in.

At Syzygy we come across far too many Christians who are pulled in so many directions because they find it hard to say no or find it easy to overcommit.  If we are going to be known for having “life in all its fullness” (John 10:10) we need to get that life into balance.

 

Middle Space

No, it’s not something from Star Trek or a book by Terry Pratchett.  I was recently introduced (thanks to Ally Gibson of WEC International) to this aspect of phenomenology.  It’s the concept that when you and I sit down to talk, the space in between us is not empty – it is full of emotions that both of us put into it, but the other does not see.

So I may come to a meeting full of expectation, hope, anticipation and enthusiasm, together with a mental agenda of all the things I want to talk about.  You might bring your fears, anger and desperation.  Neither of us knows about what the other puts into the Middle Space, but unless we make each other aware of them, our meeting risks being dissatisfying.  If I don’t know about your fear, and you are reluctant to introduce the subject, I may go away from the meeting thinking it went well, but you will leave dissatisfied.

So how do we deal with the things in Middle Space?  We need to be aware that there may be things in it we don’t both know about, so we must discover them.  In a more formal context, such as counselling, we may be used to hearing “What would you like to talk about?”, but we need to find informal ways of doing the same thing.  “How are you feeling?” would be a good start.  A good friend of mine often asks “How are things with your soul?”, which drills a little deeper and leaves a simple “I’m fine” looking a little evasive.

Failure to address what is in Middle Space can have a huge impact on our relationships:

  • In any team meeting we may not communicate about the things that are really of concern to us.
  • In cross-cultural teams some of us may bring expectations about honour, respect, permission to speak which are not understood by others.
  • In cross-cultural marriages we may bring our own cultural expectations of a partner which are completely different in our spouse.
  • In member care we may miss issues which are bubbling away under the surface causing stress to our mission partners.

So let’s be intentional in putting our thoughts and feelings openly on the table, to improve communication, reduce misunderstanding and help our mission workers thrive!