Processing the Present and Preparing for the New Normal

By now you’ve hopefully realized that the plan can’t be to just ‘sit this out’ or ‘weather the storm’ until life returns to normal. We have to accept that some things won’t be the way they were. People are talking about BC and AC – Before Corona and After Corona.

As teams, organizations or churches we quickly learnt to cope and (mostly) adapt well to meet the initial practical challenges and we can be proud of that. We also, however, need to process what’s happening to ourselves and the world and be like the men of Issachar who understood the times (1 Chronicles 12:32).

Systems, methods, habits and lifestyles have changed. Jobs and livelihoods have been lost. Everywhere people have had their worldview messed with and they are disoriented. This is leading to increased spiritual hunger among many. Sadly, suspicion of foreigners is commonplace. Fear is at the forefront in hearts worldwide. We’ve been humbled as we realise we are not in control; we are weaker than we thought. The Corona virus has exposed where we have put our hope and what we have taken for granted.

This is also a time to rethink, review and evaluate what we do and prepare for life beyond Corona. It’s not simply a case of ‘keep calm and carry on.’ Keep calm yes, but change and prepare as necessary.

Here are a few questions for leaders that might help us navigate, process and prepare in the weeks ahead:

What is God saying or teaching us? Make time to listen to God; don’t just plough on. There are lots of voices and opinions; value God’s above them all.

What new or different needs are there around us and how can we serve? It’s tempting to go into self-preservation mode but it speaks powerfully when we don’t in times like this.

What do the people we are responsible for need right now? What does our community need? Too often we assume we know. Ask.

What do I need right now? Those of us who are responsible for others need to look after ourselves too. Practice self care. You, your family and team will be glad you did. Operating in crisis mode is exhausting; we need to still be functioning in the medium and long term, not just the short term.

What have we lost? It’s important to acknowledge losses and grieve them. Process along the way so it doesn’t hit you later in one big wave that takes you out (I’ve been there, it was horrible). Staying hopeful is important but so is acknowledging that this is hard for everyone. We lose trust if we’re out of touch with reality.

What are we grateful for? What do we realize we’ve taken for granted until now? Gratitude is a powerful weapon against hopelessness, despair and despondency.

How is our world, our culture and community changing? How will that affect what we do and how we do it? There are some things to keep and likely some things to let go of that are no longer effective or relevant.

How can we stay true to our vision and mission even though the way we do things has had to change? In the scramble to adjust don’t forget why you exist. Crises have a way of helping us see what really matters and what just isn’t as important as we thought it was.

What new possibilities does this situation create? The cliché is true: in every crisis there are opportunities. Don’t miss them. New ideas and initiatives could be waiting to develop. Also, as one national director in our organization noted, we now have something in common with everyone on the planet which we didn’t have before. The shared experience the world is going through can help us relate and identify with people in a new way.

What are we learning that we don’t want to forget when things improve? Maybe some things we had to come up with now can be kept along with other insights we’ve gained along the way.

A prayer:

Lord, we’ve never been here before. Please help us to navigate this territory and perceive what is happening. We ask you for insight and wisdom to lead effectively. We pray we would learn the lessons You are teaching us and not forget how much we need You. Shape us for what lies ahead. Holy Spirit make us brave to face the changes this is bringing upon us. O Lord be glorified through Your people in this critical hour. For Yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory, Amen.

 

Alex Hawke, April 2020

Alex Hawke is a Country Team Leader with Interserve (www.interserve.org) in South East Asia where he serves with his wife Ellie and their two sons. 

 

The boxer

Photo by Wade Austin Ellis on Unsplash.com

The boxer has been in a fight many times.  His face is lumpy where the bones have been broken.  His nose is crooked.  There are small scars all over his face where blows have split the skin.

But the boxer is unbeaten.  Many blows have been landed on him, but none of them was the knockout punch.  The boxer is durable, resilient.  He’s been winded, wounded, and on the ropes, but has always found enough energy to get back in the fight.  He knows he’s only got to hang on till the bell, and there’ll be a break. Sometimes he’s only won on points, but the win still counts.

You are the boxer.

Your mission field has thrown everything it’s got at you and you’re still standing.  But each blow leaves its mark.  Your bruises have bruises.  The scar tissue is building up.  You are tired, desperately tired, but you know you’ve only got to hang on a little bit longer and you’ll get that break.  The holiday, the retreat, the home assignment is not that far away.

But all of a sudden the rules have changed and the bell is not ringing.  The holiday has been cancelled.  The retreat centre is closed.  Home assignment is deferred due to travel restrictions.  Some of us have had to leave our field of service for health reasons.  Others have found themself stuck in the UK and are unable to return home.  Some short-term workers have had their once-in-a-life-time gap year truncated, or their overseas medical elective cancelled (see last week’s blog).

For worn-out mission workers, most challenges and disappointments are not a knockout punch.  We’ve been rolling with those hits for years.  That’s why we value resilience, because we know the hits are big, but we can weather them.

Covid-19 may not in itself be a knockout punch, but it might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  It’s a low, cunning, unexpected hit, but what’s even worse is that it comes just when we thought we could make it to the bell.  One top of all the other blows that come again and again, our resources are drained and our resilience tested.

And now, all of a sudden, we have to find a new way to do ministry.  We have to homeschool our kids.  We are home alone and can’t meet with our friends, or we’re stuck in the house and have to face the tensions in our marriage.  We are concerned about getting the right resources, finding the right balance between loving and leaving.  We wonder if we made the right decision: should we have stayed in the field?  We feel guilty because we have the freedom to choose when those we work with don’t.  We carry the grief of friends and family who have died and we haven’t been able to be at the funeral.  And although others are suffering too it’s different for us, and nobody else understands, but we can’t tell them that for fear of appearing elitist.

Syzygy loves the bell at the end of the round, because we know every mission worker needs time out to refresh, take stock, ask some deep questions and re-envision for the future.  It’s those short breaks that restore our strength to get through the fight.  So we’re changing the rules back, and ringing the bell anyway.  You may be stuck in the UK but you can still have a retreat.

Together with Global Connections, we’re running an online retreat for mission workers who are stuck away from their place of calling, struggling to keep their ministry going.  It’s an opportunity to connect with God for three hours on 14th May, and reflect on what’s been happening. Find out more by visiting the Global Connections website.

We hope you can join us.

So what was that all about?

I’ve been hearing stories recently about short-term mission workers whose time abroad has been rudely interrupted by Covid.

Young people on a gap year who had barely got into their stride in the field when their agency called them back home.

People on a DTS who can’t go on outreach.

Medical students planning an elective abroad whose plans have been frustrated.

For many of these people it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to serve God abroad, and now it’s not happening.  Perhaps it’s never going to happen.

Many of these people are disappointed, confused and angry.  They need to process this.  They have questions like “Why did God send me abroad only to bring me back again?”

An interesting Biblical case to look at is John Mark.  He went with his uncle Barnabas and with Paul on their first mission trip to Cyprus.  We don’t know if they originally planned to go on to what is now Turkey, but they did, and for some unknown reason Mark went home.  We don’t know why.  Perhaps he was homesick, perhaps he didn’t like the food.  Quite possibly he didn’t get on with Paul!  Whatever the reason, Paul clearly regarded it as desertion and refused to take him on the next trip (Acts 15:36-41).

Mark could just as well have asked “what was all that about?”  He’d been willing to travel for the Lord.  He’d stepped out in faith and perhaps thought of a life in ministry.  And now he was back home in Jerusalem.  Fortunately his uncle believed in him and took him with him on another trip to Cyprus.  This gentle restoration led Mark back into a life of mission, associated with both Peter and again Paul.

So for people grappling with their disappointment and frustration, here are few suggestions:

Find a Barnabas.  Identify someone in your church (preferably with mission experience) who can mentor you through this, help you ask the right questions and seek God for what comes next.  Or perhaps your agency can find you a staff member or retired mission worker to do this.  Don’t grapple with it alone.

It’s not about you.  OK, so you wanted to experience another culture, enjoy different food, enhance your CV.  How much of that was about you, and how much was being available to serve God wherever he wants you to be?  Yes, there is an element of personal enjoyment in much of our travel, but if God’s now saying he wants you here, how are you going to get on and do that with as much enthusiasm as you were pouring into your overseas mission?

It’s not once in a lifetime.  So you were going to take a gap year before going to university.  Great!  But just because that opportunity has been taken away doesn’t mean that was your one shot at it.  You could go after university.  Or later, in between jobs.  In fact, you can go any time at all.  Who goes straight from uni onto the career ladder and stays there for 40 years anyway?  I took my gap year when I was 32, taking a year out from my job to do short-term mission.  I just never went back!

God told me to do this, and I did, and it didn’t work out.  This is perhaps the most challenging of all questions, and it’s too big to unpack in a single paragraph so we’ll come back to it in a couple of weeks’ time.  But just as a spoiler, God isn’t necessarily looking for success – he’s looking for obedience and faithfulness.

Mission work is full of frustrations and while with grace and support long-termers may learn to take these in their stride, for many short-termers it can be their first taste of things not working out and it comes as a nasty shock.  We’ve blogged a few times about disappointment, why not take a look at some of the other blogs and see if there is some help in there for you?

How can we help our mission partners?

Source: www.freeimages.com

At the moment, many churches are asking how they can support their mission partners.

In some ways, mission partners are going through exactly the same as everyone else: locked down in isolation or with family/housemates, unable to meet others, trying to work out how to do church and ministry via social media while homeschooling their kids.

In other ways, that could be a very different thing for them.  They may be trapped in their sending country, unable to return to their home and their church community.  Others may be living in a country with a less-developed infrastructure, erratic electricity supply, and inadequate healthcare systems.  And once the borders are closed and the flights have stopped, there is a terrible finality to being locked into a country with no opportunity to leave, which they might not have had to cope with before.

And while pastors and community leaders here are stretched by the challenge of caring for their flock, that could look very different in the mission field.  Many of their flock could be day labourers, who have no income or resources to fall back on without work.  They will not have freezers full of food, so if markets are closed, they will go hungry.  They are more used than we are to relying on community and extended family so will find self-isolation difficult.  And possibly they have no access to clean running water in their own homes.

So, how can you help them?

  • As you already do, pray for them, encourage them and be there for them. Make a point of checking up on them and finding out how you can help.
  • Consider making extra funding available to them if they face unanticipated costs, which may be significant if they need hospitalisating.
  • Support them in the decisions they have made, whether they have stayed or left. They have made a heart-wrenching decision and don’t need others criticising them when they may already be feeling guilt or fear.  And if they have returned to their sending country because their agency instructed them to, they may also be grappling with feelings of disempowerment and disappointment if they personally felt they should have stayed.
  • Make time to listen to their concerns. Even if you can’t do anything to help, they may not have anyone else they can talk to who would understand.
  • Find out if they have close family members who could use some support from the church.
  • If they are back in the UK they may have challenges finding accommodation and transport, or just getting used to the way things are being done. Help them and make sure they know their way around this new world, and how they can get things done.  Some of them may be in quarantine far from their usual support mechanisms, so try to help them find a local church that can give them support.
  • Make sure they know how to access the NHS as a UK resident if they need secondary health care – primary healthcare remains free for everyone.

And don’t forget there is further help on supporting your mission partners in our churches section!

During this situation, Syzygy is aware that many mission partners might need access to additional pastoral support which we are offering free of charge to any mission partner who asks for it.  Contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk.

When is a risk not a risk?

In these times of uncertainty, there is a lot of talk about keeping safe.  The current lockdown is designed to keep people safe.  We exhort each other to stay safe.  And I see people wearing facemasks who a month ago would have laughed at east Asian tourists for doing so.  The risk level has changed, and so has our response to managing it.

It’s natural to want to stay safe, to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our community from harm.  Safe is the sensible choice.  But safe can also be the selfish choice.  Safe can mean we’re not there for others.  Safe can mean we contribute to food (and toilet roll!) shortages by hoarding enough for ourselves.  Safe can mean we board up the doors and windows to keep danger out, but in doing so we cut ourselves off from neighbours.  In the parable of the talents, a slave was punished for playing it safe because “I was afraid” (Matthew 25:14ff).

There are times when we are called to nail our colours to the mast and step out in faith.  That doesn’t mean we are blithely nonchalant about risk.  It means we evaluate risk, take steps to mitigate it, but then step out in faith to do what we are called to do.  Whether it was Hudson Taylor or Søren Kierkegaard who first observed “Without risk there is no need for faith”, it is undeniably true.  While we play it safe, our faith withers on the vine.

Over 25 years ago, when I first felt the call to the mission field and planned to go to live in post-civil-war Mozambique, a friend asked me what I thought the risks were.  It took me a while to answer as I reflected on it.  I thought about my financial well-being if I couldn’t get a job when I returned.  I thought about my health, living far from a hospital in a country plagued with tropical diseases.  I thought about my prospects of finding a wife and bringing up children in that environment.  I thought about my mortality, going to a country littered with landmines and where guerillas still roamed the countryside.

I realized that all the things I stood to lose were not particularly important to me.  What was more important to me was, as St Paul wrote:

that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, …that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

(Philippians 3:8-11)

My answer was “There is no risk.  A risk only exists when what you stand to lose is of value to you.”

That’s not a licence to be irresponsible when the lives of others may depend on you.  But let us be people who in this current environment are not known for our fear but for our faith.

Gone fishing

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

I’ve noticed a tendency in me recently, whenever I have an idle moment, to head outside and do some gardening.  Maybe it’s just the sunnier days and the warmer weather encouraging me out of doors, but I think it could be something deeper.

At times of stress, uncertainty, difficulty or danger, it can be very tempting to walk away from the situation that confronts us and go back to something familiar.  Something safe.  Something we know how to do and where we can feel in control.  I used to work as a gardener, and it was one of the happiest times of my life.  I’m going back into my comfort zone.

2000 years ago, Peter did the same.  Having had to deal with the terror of the crucifixion, the shame of denying Jesus, the confusion of seeing his messiah ‘defeated’, and the challenge of three wonderful inspiring years of ministry coming to a gory end, he was worn out.  He wanted to go back to what he knew how to do.  So he went fishing (John 21:3).  He wasn’t necessarily turning his back on his life as a disciple; he just needed to get some space.

In a similar way, Elijah responded to ministry burnout by wanting to be on his own, just like he had been for three solitary years when he was fed by ravens (1 Kings 19).  And in his cave, angels ministered to him.  In his fishing boat, Peter met the risen Christ.  These times of stepping back from ministry are not necessarily the end.  They may be a place for recommissioning, re-envisioning and refocusing.

Good self-care steps back for a bit when the world threatens to overwhelm us.  And in doing the simple, familiar tasks, whether they be baking, gardening, reading or watching Netflix (you probably can’t go fishing at the moment!), we create a space in our busy lives for Jesus to come and meet us afresh and revive us.

Peter came away from his fishing trip with a renewed relationship with Jesus, confidence in his ministry and vision for the future.

How are you creating space in your life for Jesus?

Lockdown!

Across the world, billions of people are being told to stay home.  For weeks.  Quite apart from the economic damage this is causing, there is a huge social trauma as people have to adapt to a new situation.

For a small number of introverts who live alone, this is heaven.  They get solitude enforced on them; how bad it that?  But for some introverts it’s a nightmare: being shut up in a house with housemates, a partner, children and no private space will be a huge challenge.

And for extraverts, they will be struggling with the lack of companionship and group activities.  We are finding the limits of social media – you can be on your phone all day long and still feel starved of people.  And many of the more tactile of us will be longing for physical touch.  An extravert with an introvert partner will be clinging to that partner for company, at the very time the partner is wanting more space.  There could be divorces as a result of this.

To manage this situation well, first work out whether you’re an introvert or an extravert.  It’s not always easy, as some introverts are highly social and can look like extraverts, and some extraverts can also be reflective.  It all boils down to how your regain energy: if solitude drains you, you’re likely an extravert.

Second, communicate this to the people you’re living with so that they know what you need.  And listen to them so you understand why their needs may be different to yours.

Third, work out a compromise that delivers some of what you all need.  Define times for space and times for being silent or social.  Agree that a certain room is designated either noisy or quiet.  Come up with a sign that you need to be undisturbed, like wearing a particular hat or putting an apron over your head like John Wesley’s mother!

Fourth, pray for each other to have the grace to put up with you!  In The Marriage Course there is a wonderful testimony from a man who said he spent the first 15 years of his marriage focussing on his needs and his wife’s shortcomings, and the second 15 years focussing on his wife’s needs and his shortcomings.  The second 15 years was the best!

During this challenging time, let’s all be people who put the needs of others before our own.