Firm foundations?

 

As we’ve been exploring over the last few weeks, this year has been tough in so many ways, and not just the obvious Covid ones.  But one of the saddest things for me has been how so many Christians have struggled with their faith as a result of these issues.

To me, this is a challenge for churches and agencies as we deal with a lack of fundamental discipleship.  The pressures imposed by Covid 19, its impact and the chaos it has caused have revealed huge flaws in the character of many of us and shown that, far from our lives being built on Christ and rooted in the gospel, we gain our basic rootedness and self-worth through our employment, our social activities (including church) and our material and emotional wellbeing.

The result of this is that when something goes wrong, our faith is shaken because it is not built on the right foundations.  Those of us with any responsibility for leadership need to be directing the church back to basics to give us the resilience we need to thrive during hardship, and in this blog I want to look at the life of St Paul to investigate that.

In view of the very long shadow Paul casts over the church as a key apostle into Europe and author of a significant part of the New Testament, it can be easy to overlook the challenges and hardships he faced along the way.  He summarises it very simply in 2 Corinthians 11:

Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes.  Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep.  I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren;  I have been in labour and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.  Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches.

 

Paul, like most of the New Testament believers, was no stranger to the hardships of life, and not only the physical ones, but also the mental ones caused by the pressure he refers to above.  At the start of 2 Corinthians he writes “we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life..”

Yes, Paul knew what suffering was, so what was the secret of his ability to remain unshaken in his faith, so much so that he elsewhere in the same letter calls his suffering “momentary light affliction” (2C4:7)?

The one verse that I think sums up Paul’s attitude to his life is Philippians 1:21 –

For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

 

In other words, he was free to live a risky lifestyle because he knew that the end of this life is not the end of our existence, and what we have to look forward to in eternity is infinitely better than anything we could dream of in this life.  This heavenly perspective gave the whole first century church the ability to withstand persecution and to grow in numbers despite the challenges they faced.  I wonder how many of us are busily making sure we’re comfortable in this life instead.

And while he was waiting to die, Paul got on with living for Christ.  For him life was not about self-gratification, enjoyment of leisure opportunities or building his personal financial security.  It was about serving Christ by building the church and sharing good news with the lost.  He was very much aware of his role as a servant of the Lord and appears to have devoted his time and energy to God’s work.

If Paul were part of the 21st century church, I think he would be reminding us to build on the firm foundation that is Christ, not on the shifting sand of wealth, comfort and security.

 

Other blogs in this series:

Episode 1: Who am I?

Episode 2: What do I do?

Episode 3: What is my calling?

Episode 4: Coping with loss of control

Out of control?

Photo by Keppens Toon from FreeImages

One of the major challenges we have faced this year is uncertainty.  Events have been rescheduled, re-rescheduled and moved online.

Flights have been booked, rebooked, cancelled.  Churches have been open, closed, partially reopened, re-closed.  And so on.  I don’t need to tell you how unsettling the uncertainty is.

Many mission workers I talk to have found the inability to plan ahead has been particularly hard to deal with.  It has been costly, as they have paid for flights at short-notice but then not been able to get entry to the country.  It’s been emotionally demanding as they wrestle with enrolling their kids in the local education system or not bothering because they might be returning home soon.

One of the reasons this is a challenge is that we live in a structured world that doesn’t facilitate spontaneity.  I once heard a story (probably apocryphal) about a western mission worker in Tanzania who was on a bus to Dar-es-Salaam which had broken down.  As the delay grew longer he grew more and more nervous until the calm African man sitting next to him asked if there was a problem.  “Yes”, replied the Westerner, “I’m booked on a plane this evening”.  To which the African replied “Isn’t there another plane tomorrow?”  But of course, it doesn’t work like that.  Tickets aren’t transferable.  In so many ways, we are locked into planning.

A deeper and more disturbing reason for our discomfort at being unable to plan is that we like to be in control.  Or at least to have the comforting illusion of being in control, which has been completely stripped away by recent events.  Very few of us are naturally comfortable being tossed on the rough seas of life with no means of navigation, even though most of us normally have no more control than a cork in the ocean, comforted by the mere fact that we are still afloat.

Deprived of control, we are confronted with our own feebleness.  How do we respond?  We may become, like Job, angry at God because this isn’t the way things ought to be, thereby proving the faults in our own theology.  We may, like Saul, succumb to tyranny as we struggle to maintain control by our own authority, masking our weakness by bullying others.  Or perhaps, like Belshazzar, we use avoidance techniques to convince ourselves that the problem isn’t really there.

And if you think those are rather extreme examples, consider what they might look like in our day-to-day lives.  Job may represent the person who is giving up on God because God didn’t stop all this happening and has let our friends and relatives die.  Saul is the Myers Briggs J who, valuing order and stability, tries to bring order into her world by creating rules and regulations which others feel are aimed at control and repression.  And how many of us, like Belshazzar , are drinking more wine or gin than usual, or reverting to the comfortingly familiar foods of our childhood?

So how do we face the reality of living in a world in which we have no control, and continue to thrive?  Firstly, we know the One who is in control.  We may have robust debate among ourselves about how direct and extensive that control is, but few of us will believe in the ‘absent watchmaker’ of the Deists.  We believe that the incarnation and crucifixion prove that God is intimately involved in this world, and the many daily miracles and intimacies prove his ongoing concern for it.

Second, we have to learn to ‘freewheel’ a little more.  Does everything have to be so neatly planned, deftly coordinated and well-organised?  Or can we share the love of God through a chance encounter, a spontaneous act of kindness, or an expression of comfort.  How hard is for us to learn to go with the flow for a bit?  Many of us are missing the gift of the present by becoming overly concerned with the future.

Third, we need to be listening to the Holy Spirit a lot more.  We’ve already blogged about Paul and his team being frustrated in their plans.  We need to learn the difference between a good idea and the moving of the Spirit, to pray intently into everything we plan, asking not for God to bless it but whether God is telling us to do it at all.

At times like these I am thinking a lot about the Israelites in the wilderness.  They never knew when they’d have to pack up their homes and move, where they were going next, or whether they were pitching their tents for a stop of one night or three years.  All they knew was when the Pillar moved, they moved.  And in the midst of all that uncertainty and insecurity, they learned to trust God for their protection, their provision and their guidance.

The moral of the story: keeping watching the Pillar!

 

Other blogs in this series on identity:

Episode 1: Who am I?

Episode 2: What do I do?

Episode 3: What is my calling?

 

What is my calling?

Photo by Svilen Milev from FreeImages

 

Calling.  It is one of the most nebulous concepts in mission.  We all know we need it.  We all agree it’s an essential requirement for a cross-cultural mission worker.  Hopefully we all believe we have it.

Yet we find it very difficult to define it.

Calling, as you will recall from our Guide to Going, can be very personal and subjective, may vary from one person to another but can generally be defined as a deep-seated conviction that God has a task for you to do, or a place for you to be.  It is discerned both spiritually and practically by a community working together to determine what is right for you – a community made up of family, friends, church and agency who together confirm your course of action.

And every now and then, like the pillar of smoke in the wilderness, the calling moves on.  Sometimes it takes us to a new activity, or a new field, and sometime it brings us out of the mission field into some other form of ministry.  The problem for each of us at the moment, when we can’t be where we feel called to, or do what we feel called to, is knowing whether the calling has moved on or not.

So we begin a time of prayer and reflection, asking God for guidance.  We discuss with friends, church and agency what the nature of that call might be now.  Like a person lost in the mountains (I know plenty about that!) we retrace our steps to the last point we were confident of where we were, and we re-examine the map.  We do this by asking ourselves some deep questions:

  • What did I originally feel called to do?
  • How has that calling changed over the years?
  • Is what I normally do still true to that calling?
  • Have I taken on roles and responsibilities I am not called to?

In doing this, we can get back in touch with our sense of calling.  But that is only half the problem.  What if we are confident in our calling to a place we can’t currently be, or a role we can’t currently do?  Isn’t that part of the evidence that the calling has gone?

Not necessarily.  Calling doesn’t necessarily guarantee an easy journey.   Was David stilled called to be king of Israel while he was living in the wilderness on the road from a mad tyrant?  Was Paul still called to be an apostle to the Gentiles while stuck in prison in Caesarea?  Or was Moses called to lead his people out of slavery when Pharaoh kept saying no?  Let’s look further at his story.

Reading Exodus 3 we cannot doubt his spectacular calling, yet he experienced the doubts of the Elders of the sons of Jacob, the opposition of Pharaoh and his magicians, an impassable sea, rebellion among his leaders, jealousy in his own family, people who wanted to go back, hunger, drought, overwork and warfare, not to mention 40 years in the wilderness.  Had his calling deserted him?  Perhaps he wondered that in his darkest moments of despair and frustration.  But we know the rest of the story, and although Moseshe never actually completed the task of leading his people into the Promised Land, they still revere him as the man who brought them out of slavery, gave them the Law, and built them into a nation. Not a bad heritage.

So what about us?  We’ve already looked at who we are when we can’t do, and what we can do when we can’t do what we should be doing?  How do we fulfil our calling remotely?

We can pray for people and situations we know.  We can keep in touch via social media.  Perhaps we can pastor or teach remotely.  We can advocate for our host nation among our friends.  We can probably find people from our host nation in our sending country, and can get to know and support them.  We can support recruitment and training of new workers for that field.  So although we can’t actually be there, there is still a lot we can do to fulfil our calling.  Just because we are temporarily frustrated in our calling, it doesn’t mean our calling has been revoked.  It may just look different for a while.

 

Other blogs in this series on identity:

Episode 1: Who am I?

Episode 2: What do I do?

Episode 4: Coping with loss of control

 

 

What do I do?

Source: www.freeimages.com

 

“What do you do?”

It’s a very normal question here in the West.  We ask it fairly early on in a conversation with a stranger.  Our doing defines us, as we looked at last week.  But in the field we might not introduce ourselves as “I’m a mission worker” for a number of reasons: security, misunderstanding, or just ignorance of what a mission worker might be.

So we probably say, at least at the outset ‘I’m a lecturer (in a Bible college)’, ‘I do admin’, ‘I run a business’, or ‘I’m a community worker.’  All of these could be true but they are drilling a bit deeper into what we do rather than who we are.  So who are we when we can’t do what we’re supposed to be doing?

Many of us have found creative ways around the challenges we are facing by not being able to meet people face-to-face.  We can lecture by webinar, we can pastor by Zoom, we can lead church using Youtube.  But for some of us, what we do can’t easily be done online, particularly if we’re not even in our host country or we’re locked down at home.

At times like these, we need to widen our focus and look beyond the field and project that we feel is our work.  How are church planters taking the opportunity to plant a church in their sending country?  How can Bible teachers help their sending church develop its biblical literacy?  Can we continue to do what we do in a different context?  St Paul was a good example of this: sitting in prison, unable to be in the market place telling people about Jesus, he simply carried on telling people – in this case the prisoners.  Why else would the prisoners not run away from the broken jail in Philippi (Act 16:28)?  Paul had already led them to the Lord and they followed his lead.  Also, unable to visit and care for the churches he was responsible for, he started writing them letters.  He found new ways of carrying on his ministry in different circumstances.

Or focusing wider still, we could pay attention to our more general activity rather than the specific.  We are mission workers – we do mission!  The word ‘mission’ comes from Latin and means ‘sent’, and is related to the words message and messenger.  In other words, we are people who are sent with the message of good news!  While we usually interpret this as being sent abroad, in fact we are sent into the whole world.  It is not important whether we’re sent to the other side of the world or the other side of the street – we are still sent!

So a question for each of us to engage with is:

If I can’t go to the country I’ve been sent to, can I be sent to the country where I am?

So how can you continue to bring good news into the lives of those around you, even under these challenging circumstances?  One family I know, forced to stay in their sending country due to lack of travel opportunities to their field, but given free accommodation by a church they don’t know, have taken the view that this is a time to serve that church, build links with it and invest in its ministry.  No doubt they will be a blessing.  And they are still doing mission.

 

Other blogs in this series on identity:

Episode 1: Who am I?

Episode 3: What is my calling?

Episode 4: Coping with loss of control

Who am I?

Frank Lake’s dynamic cycle

In these days when Covid-19 continues to disrupt all manner of missionary activity, along with all the practical challenges which many cross-cultural workers are having to come to grips with, there are also some very deep existential questions about the nature of their life and ministry which are lurking in the background.

“Can I really call myself a mission worker when I’ve been living in my sending country for the last six months?”

“If I’m called to do something I can’t actually do at the moment, what is the nature of my calling?”

“How can I plan things when I don’t know what is going to happen?”

Today we’re starting a series of blogs which will help us address these issues and regain confidence in our identity and calling in the midst of uncertainty and disorientation.

We’re going to start with identity.  For many western Christians, what we do is paramount in establishing identity.  We get to know strangers by asking what they do.  We make knee-jerk assumptions about them based on the answers – about their social class, intelligence, voting intentions, economic status – even though we know we shouldn’t, and we may well decide whether they are worthy of our interest on that basis.  I myself once suffered the indignity of somebody just turning and walking away without a word when I answered “I’m unemployed”!

Perhaps some of us are ‘unemployed’ right now, in the sense that we’re not doing.  And that can be a very vulnerable place.  So who are we when we’re not doing?  For activists, as most of us are, this is particularly hard.  If you’re a Mary, you can be quite content doing nothing, sitting with Jesus, but Martha needs to be busy.

Here then, is a list of some of the things we are even when we’re doing nothing:

  • Salt and light (Matthew 5:13-14)
  • A child of God (John 1:12)
  • A branch of God’s vine (John 15:1)
  • A friend of Jesus (John 15:15)
  • A slave of righteousness (Romans 6:18)
  • A co-heir with Christ (Romans 8:17)
  • God’s temple (1 Corinthians 3:16)
  • A member of Christ’s body (1 Corinthians 12:27
  • A new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17)
  • A minister for reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17)
  • God’s co-worker (2 Corinthians 6:1)
  • A saint (Ephesians 1:1)
  • God’s craftsmanship (Ephesians 2:10)
  • A citizen of heaven (Philippians 3:20)
  • A living stone (1 Peter 2:5)
  • Part of a chosen people, a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9)
  • An alien and stranger on this planet (1 Peter 2:11)

 

You can probably think of more!  If you meditate on just one of those, and what it means, every time you’re prompted to wonder who you are, you will re-establish your identity quickly.  OK, I don’t advise you to introduce yourself to people as ‘God’s temple’ unless you want to be instantly labelled a religious nutter, but these are who we really are.

But all those things we are cannot be achieved through our own effort or godliness; they are a free gift of God’s grace.  They are not a reward for good performance.  We have referred before to the ground-breaking work of Frank Lake in this respect.  He observed that our identity is founded on the fact that God accepts us unconditionally.  This by his grace enables us to be significant in Him.  From our position of significance we are equipped to go and do things with God, and the harvest we reap points us back to the grace of God who accepted us in the first place.

Lake observed that in most Christians this cycle flows the wrong way round: we achieve in order to be significant, so that we can be accepted.  And if you doubt that is true, ask yourself how significant and accepted you feel when you stop achieving!  If your self-esteem is currently low, it may be because your dynamic cycle is flowing the wrong way round and your lack of achievement is having a negative impact on your wellbeing.

If this is the case, the remedy is simple – look to the cross!  Remember that no matter how hard you work you cannot repay Christ.  Receive gratefully his acceptance of you, acknowledge the truth about your totally-unmerited significance, and do what work you can in a spirit of thanksgiving.

 

Other blogs in this series on identity:

Episode 2: What do I do?

Episode 3: What is my calling?

Episode 4: Coping with loss of control