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?

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.

“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 changes, 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.

When Jesus doesn’t help

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Derailed?

Sderailedeveral of my acquaintances in the mission world are struggling to return to their field of mission due to difficulties getting visas.  It prompts me to reflect on how people are facing the challenges of not being at home, having to homeschool children, not being able to do their work, and trying hard to support their colleagues remotely.  Often these people have also overstayed their welcome in family homes, inadvertently found they’ve become liable for UK taxation, and had to hand back the Syzygy car they’ve borrowed because somebody else had already booked it.

This situation has led to many feelings of frustration and confusion.  Some people struggle to connect with God, and some are angry with God, because they know they have a calling to do a specific work and God has not opened the door for them to do it.  They feel as if their life and ministry has been derailed, and the longer it goes on, the more confused they become:  “Why is God stopping me what he has called me to do?”

Paul appears to have experienced this problem too (Acts 16:6-10).  He and his team were trying to move on and couldn’t figure out where to go next.  It appears that they were prevented from going to several different places.  Yet at no stage does Luke attribute the blockages to demonic activity or human opposition – it is always God who has stopped them going somewhere.  One gets the sense that God was shutting doors that they were tempted to take in order to get them to take seriously the new one he was about to open.  That was immediately prior to the Macedonian vision which took Paul into Europe for the first time.

Some years ago I participated in a security briefing where hostage negotiator Phil Harper pointed out that our mission to reach out to other people with the gospel never ceases, even if we are kidnapped!  Many of us think in the narrow terms of our specialist focus, rather than broader calling we all share.  If you have a calling (for example) to Nepal but can’t get back there, why not think a bit broader?  What about seeking out a Nepali community in the UK and working with them?  Or going to India where there are many Nepali economic migrants?

Sometimes God shuts doors before he opens new ones.  Mission workers of the China Inland Mission, ejected from China after the communist revolution, realised for the first time that they could go to the Chinese diaspora instead, in cities like Bangkok and Singapore.  Then they realised that other Asian peoples needed the gospel too, and OMF came into being, now working in many east Asian countries and with diaspora groups globally.  This might never have happened if they’d all stayed in China.

If you know people with visa problems, please pray for this specific area of their lives, that God would open doors for them that nobody else can shut.  Even if they’re doors they didn’t expect.  Pray that they would experience clear guidance.  Pray that they will not feel ‘derailed’ but will take the opportunity to do mission work wherever they are.

 

Is “failure” at short term mission always a bad thing?

This month’s guest blogger is Charlotte Wright, who shares a retrospective on an ‘unsuccessful’ short-term experience.

Charlotte setting off for an island in Lake Victoria

I spent a year in Uganda working with a mission agency after university, with the aim of considering longer term mission work.  I thought I had an idea of what life in Africa could be like, but my expectations were wildly misplaced!  I had the opportunity to go as part of a team, but as I had significant other overseas travel experience, the agency were happy for me to go out on my own and “tag” onto another team already in place.

Looking back, my faith was very shaky at that time, but I was certainly not aware of it.  Once I was resident in my first location, the loneliness of mission work set in and I felt totally isolated, despite there being lots of people around, both African and from overseas.  I missed my life in the UK – my family, being able to go out for a drink with friends and also playing sport, especially as women taking part in sport was frowned upon by those around me.  I was told that I could not wear trousers as it was not culturally appropriate and I really fought this rule – I simply couldn’t understand how this might upset people, despite being told that it would!  On the back of this, my faith faltered and I realised later that this was because I had always used friends and family to prop up my faith rather than relying solely on God.  I simply wanted to go home!  Thankfully however, I am stubborn and refused to give up.  I rode the loneliness out and I also had friends kindly organise to come out and visit me which was a massive lifeline.

After 4 months I moved to a different location and found myself with more emotional support from other mission workers around me.  My faith started to recover and I felt a little more settled.  However, I found myself time after time questioning the long term beliefs of the African women around me – I couldn’t understand why they would be happy to be so subservient to men…. My western views often caused upset and anger from those around me.

Over the final six months, I took part in a biblical foundations course and God spent significant time putting my faith back together, for which I will always put as my major lesson from the trip, learning to rely solely on God and nothing else.  Once that foundation was in place, I found I could withstand so much more.  However, being forced to preach most weeks was very difficult, as I never felt called to preach and I found this very stressful.

Looking back over the time I spent away I am not sure that I was a blessing to those around me……. I clashed with the culture, did not enjoy the subservient role that women are obliged to take and generally missed being at home.

Some would therefore see this year away as a failure.

However, God used the time to rebuild my faith, for which I will be forever grateful, and I have also developed a passion for the African culture and country.  I have subsequently come home to be involved in financially supporting mission as well as understanding how difficult mission workers can find things whilst away, hence my involvement in Syzygy.  I would therefore not say that the experience was a “failure”, just a massive learning experience as well as strengthening my faith hugely over the time.

Charlotte Wright is a stockbroker who is Chair of the Syzygy Trustees.

Disappointment and disillusion

Source: www.freeimages.com

I few weeks ago I was talking to a lady who is angry with God.

30 years ago she and her husband moved to a part of the world where they confidently believed God would bring revival through their ministry.  Despite much prayer and labour, and many false dawns, there has been no breakthrough.  Moreover, her husband has a debilitating illness from which he has not been healed, and their only son has turned his back on God.

She is angry with God, because they haven’t succeeded, and life is not as sweet as she thinks it should be.

Yet she has a high standard of living, financial security, and is not persecuted for her faith – unlike most of the global church, which is far more accustomed to poverty, oppression, suffering and death.  As were the earliest Christians, many of whom would have been slaves.  Much of the rest would have been poor, and were accustomed to their property being confiscated, or facing death if they did not renounce their faith.  And yet the writers of the new testament insist that this is normal.

So, if like my angry friend, we feel tired and fed up in our ministry, what encouragement is there for us?

Jesus calls us to be faithful.  He promises the faithful a welcome into his kingdom.  Faithfulness is not synonymous with success.  In fact, it is possible to be faithful without being successful at all.  Faithfulness is persevering in a calling despite failure, discouragement and defeat.  Faithfulness is doggedly persisting when common sense is telling you to give up.  The martyrs in Revelation 12 suffered death, but we are told that they overcame.  What looked like defeat God considered victory, because they refused to give up even when it cost them their lives.

Faithfulness leads to fruitfulness.  Fruit is godly character produced under adverse circumstances.  I once met a man who had spent 18 years in prison for being a Christian.  Each day he was made to stand chest-deep in human sewage as he shovelled out the cesspit.  And the fruit of that labour showed in the joy and godliness of his life.  He spoke of his experience as if he were in a garden with the Lord, as the smell kept people away and he was able to sing praises to God at the top of his voice while he shovelled.

I draw encouragement from saints like these, for whom the grace of God which they have experienced is so much more important than their immediate circumstances.

” I did not labour in vain even if I am being poured out as an offering…”