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.

Missing the symphony?

So many Christians are like distracted onlookers at a concert.  They study the programme carefully, believe every statement made in it, speak respectfully of the music, but only really hear a phrase now and again.  So they have no notion at all of the mighty symphony which fills the universe, to which their lives are destined to make their tiny contribution, and which is the self-expression of God.

Evelyn Underhill, quoted in Celtic Daily Prayer Book 2, from the Northumbria Community

 

…or should I go?

Source: www.freeimages.com

Last week we considered some of the steps you can take to support ageing parents while staying on in the mission field.  But no matter how good you are at doing that, there may well come a time when you have to leave the field and go to support your parents.  Today we’ll consider some issues which need to be settled so that you can know going back to your parents’ country is the right thing for you to do.

In a multitude of counsellors there is safety (Proverbs 11:14).  This is not a decision to be made lightly, so involve people you trust: church leaders, friends, family (including your parents) and medical advisors.  Make sure you don’t just make a decision with your head, or follow your heart, but pray about it to see if together you can work out what God is calling you to do.  It was, after all, at a conference that James pronounced “It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (Acts 15:28)

Make the decision sooner rather than later.  It’s only natural for you to leave it as long as possible because you want to stay on in the mission field, but you will need to leave some time for you (and your family if you have one) to settle into life in your parents’ country before you have to throw yourself into looking after your parents.  You may need a year or two to navigate the challenges of re-entry, and if you find yourself acting as a full-time carer within days of getting off the plane, you probably won’t have the space to process everything you need to – and will have unresolved emotional issues as a result.

Be honest with your siblings and review each of your skills.  You may not actually be the best person to provide the personal care for your parents, but you may be great at organising it from a distance or handling their finances.  Your parents may prefer one of your siblings to see them daily rather than you.  But your siblings may assume that because they have full-time jobs (unlike you!) you have the flexibility to be there for your parents, unlike them.  Make sure your family understands that your calling is just as important and inflexible as their employment.  This applies particularly to single women in the mission field, who families often think are more readily available to provide care because they don’t have a husband and children, so the expectation of looking after parents often falls unfairly on their shoulders.

Nobody who has put a hand to the plough and then turns back is fit for the kingdom of God (Luke 9:62).  With the best will in the world this harsh verse will be preying on your mind.  It will be quoted at you by Pharisees, and Satan will make sure you don’t forget it.  Have you betrayed your calling?  Did you love your family more than Jesus (Luke 14:26)?  This is why any decision needs to be thought and prayed through thoroughly.  Be convinced that this is God’s way of ending your time in the mission field (or taking an indefinite break) or this idea will continue to gnaw away at your soul and embitter you.

Finish well and say good goodbyes.  Treat this as if you are leaving permanently – because you may be!  People often leave the field ‘temporarily’, assuming that they will return when their parents no longer need their support, but in fact ageing parents can continue to live for decades, and by the time you are ready to return so much will have changed: you, your family situation, your church and agency, the needs of the mission and the country where you served.  Perhaps you won’t be wanted, and will have to deal with unsaid farewells and unresolved emotions in the future.  Better to leave well, and perhaps have a second bite at the cherry later, without holding on tightly to the hope of it.

There are huge emotional, spiritual and practical challenges involved in leaving the mission field to care for ageing parents.  Syzygy is experienced at helping people in these situations, and if you’d like to talk to us, either in person or via social media, email us on info@syzygy.org.uk.

Should I stay…?

Source: www.freeimages.com

Many overseas mission workers will be aware of the huge crisis lurking somewhere out there in the future when their ageing parents become sick, or simply are unable to look after themselves any more.

We know that at some stage we may have to weigh our desire to love, honour and care for our parents with the sense of calling we have which has taken us far away from them, and we need to work out what is the right thing to do when the time comes.  Do we  resign our position as mission workers and return to our parents’ country, or do we continue in our vocation and look for other alternatives for our parents’ care?  There are no easy answers, and even the Bible counters “Honour thy father and they mother” with “Let the dead bury their dead.”  But the decision is still out there, and most of us know it will come home to roost sooner or later.

Let us assume for the moment that most of us want to stay in the mission field.  After all, we have a sense of calling, there is a work for us to do here, and it’s our home.  If we had wanted to return to our parents’ country, we probably would have done so already.  So here are a few suggestions on how we can continue to support our parents from a distance, and so prolong our time in the field while not neglecting our parents.  Next week we will have a look at some of the issues involved in leaving.

  • First, can you arrange to take more frequent home assignments so that you can see your parents more regularly, keep personally updated on their needs and monitor their situation?  If you’re a family and can’t afford to fly everyone back once a year, can one of you take a couple of weeks each year to visit your parents while leaving the others behind?  Use these visits to spend valuable time with your parents, find out what’s really going on in their lives, and get to know their community.
  • Discuss the situation openly with your parents and siblings, so that you are all agreed who is to do what.  Make sure they all know that you’re not trying to shirk your responsibilities and are willing to do your share of the support from a distance.
  • Get a Power of Attorney over their affairs, so that you can act on their authority from a distance.  You will need this authority just to get information from their bank or doctor so make sure that you’ve registered a copy with them.
  • Get to know their neighbours, if you don’t know them already.  Who can help with the shopping?  Who will sound the alarm if the bedroom curtains aren’t opened in the morning?  Make sure neighbours know how to get in touch with you.
  • Get to know their doctor and discuss the situation with them so they won’t be surprised when you phone from abroad to ask a question.
  • Engage some professional care from an agency or a charity who can take in meals and help with cleaning, medication or helping your parents get out of bed.
  • Recruit your friends to be their friends.  While you’re on home assignment, hold suppers for your friends at your parents’ house if you can, so that you have a natural way of introducing them.
  • Get help from the church.  If your church is in their area, let your church leaders know the situation.  Even if your parents aren’t Christians they might welcome the contact.  And if they are Christians, make sure you are in touch with their church leadership too, so that they are fully briefed and can keep in touch with you from a distance.
  • Utilise technology.  Not only can you talk to your parents via social media, you can have webcams and movement sensors in their house so you can keep tabs on them!
  • Find out what resources are available in their community, and visit the social services and local charities.
  • Go through their house minimising trip hazards, adding handrails and improving lighting
  • Make sure you have sufficient savings to pay for a last minute flight home, as tickets can be very expensive if you haven’t booked in advance.

Hopefully, by planning carefully and engaging with your family and your parents’ community, you can facilitate their support from a distance rather than providing it personally.  And if you have any other suggestions for caring from a distance, please let us know!

Should I stay or should I go?

ClashKnowing when to leave is always one of the biggest challenges for mission workers, particularly when a crisis occurs.  A topical application of this issue would be the earthquakes in Nepal, as a result of which some mission workers have left the country, whether by their own choice or because their church or agency chose to withdrawn them.  Other mission workers stayed.  Who has made the right decision?

A few years ago, in a discussion facilitated by Emma Dipper, a group of HR managers were asked how risk-averse they had been when they were living abroad.  Most of us were so un-averse that we could be considered irresponsible, gung-ho mavericks.  We were then asked to think through how risk-averse we are when we think about the mission workers in the field for whom we currently have responsibility.  As we thought that through, we realised we would hit the panic button much quicker.  We would pull people out quickly because we had health and safety responsibilities, issues concerning ‘due care’, and trustees with legal responsibility holding us accountable.

red buttonGiven the litigious nature of western culture, it’s not surprising some churches and agencies would pull their people out of Nepal.  Suppose a mission worker were killed in the second earthquake, or one of the 200+ aftershocks, and the agency were sued by an angry relative.  We would be unable to mount an effective defence, knowing there had been a risk but not having done anything to mitigate it.  So it seems prudent to pull our people out, even if they don’t want to leave.  We have to consider the agency’s reputation.  But this will also give the mission workers huge guilt issues – they’ve had the luxury of going to a safe place while their local friends have to sleep outdoors and hunt for clean water.  Have they run away, or deserted their posts?  What will their Nepali neighbours think when the Christians run away at the first sign of trouble?

Those who stayed in Nepal are having a huge impact, channeling relief funding, facilitating reconstruction, organising counselling and debriefing for traumatised Nepalis, and demonstrating the love of God in their commitment to staying.  Many Nepalis will be encouraged that they cared enough to stay when they could so easily have left.  But the price is the trauma the mission workers will suffer, and their fear for their children.

The Bible leaves us with no easy answers either.  Jesus walked determinedly into Jerusalem knowing that he would be killed but on an earlier occasion slipped away from a mob in Nazareth that wanted to lynch him.  Noah built a boat to escape in, and must have been traumatised by the cries of those trying to escape the flood whom he didn’t let in.  No wonder he took to drink afterwards!  Paul was bundled unceremoniously out of Damascus to save his life, yet on other occasions showed uncommon bravery.  Yet the general tenor of the New Testament is that we should expect to suffer.

Perhaps our best hope of a making an appropriate decision is to ask the local church.  They will be much more aware than we are whether our ongoing presence in their community is likely to bring danger or protection, or to help clear up or be a hindrance.  At least one agency I know of makes all their personnel responsible to the national church leadership, so that the decision to evacuate is taken out of the hands both of the mission worker and the church/agency.  Perhaps that’s a new paradigm for missions – trust the locals to make good decisions!

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

In the early 6th century BC, the small, independent kingdom of Judah was crushed by the power of Babylon, a huge global superpower.  The king was executed, the nobles abducted, the temple burned to the ground, and many of the population were forcibly relocated to a new home deep into enemy territory, where they were surrounded by people with different customs, religions and languages.

Psalm 137 (which made a brief but infamous appearance in the British charts in 1978 at the hands of Boney M) is a lamentation about this experience of going into exile.  It refers to pain, a desire to go back, and a lust for revenge.  Their mocking captors had asked them to sing one of their folk songs to entertain them, but this just reminded them of the home that they couldn’t return to.  ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land’ becomes a shorthand reference to the challenge of living as an insignificant minority in a hostile culture, where there are multiple religious beliefs, a variety of practices which the faithful may be forced to participate in, and a complete lack of tolerance for their previous national customs.

This is a situation not unlike western Europe today, as Christians struggle to come to terms with the fact that Christendom is no more.  Christianity no longer provides a moral compass even if David Cameron himself claims that Britain is a Christian country.  There are too many competing voices now for that to be completely true.  There are Christian elements to our world, and a huge Christian heritage shaping much of our public practice and principle, but effectively now we are a post-Christian country.  Like the exiled Jews, we need to come to terms with it.

In fact, throughout most of history God’s faithful have been in the minority.  In Genesis, just eight people made it onto the ark, and the Abrahamic covenant was made with just one family among many tribes.  Throughout the rest of the Pentateuch they were just twelve tribes among the Egyptian oppressors, or wandering through the wilderness among hostile neighbours.  Under the judges they were just one nation amongst many.  Under the kings, they were battling with external threats and against internal apostasy.  Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel had to deal with the challenge of being subjects of a huge multinational empire and the whole of the New Testament takes place against the backdrop of the oppressive might of Rome.  Subsequently Christianity spread around the world but often had to deal with suffering and persecution at the hands of others – particularly in communist or modern Islamic countries.

For only one significant period of history has there been an exception to this rule: the bizarre 15 or so centuries when Christendom thrived in Europe in an alliance between church and state that ‘christianised’ nations and ‘authorised’ church.  But today Christendom is crumbling.  People of other faiths (and no faith) have a voice.  Christians are losing ours.  We are going into exile and we don’t like it.  Old familiarities are changing, old paradigms are failing.  People stronger than us have taken us into exile.  Now our challenge is to work out how to live alongside others on their terms, not on ours.

Some of the issues that face us include: keeping Sunday special, ethical issues surrounding the beginning and end of life, accommodating other faiths, the possibilities of witness in the workplace, and the church’s attitude to those who sexual and gender preferences are different to those traditionally sanctioned by the church.  When we are not Biblically literate, we struggle to determine our response to these issues.  But we can rely on different precedents to indicate how we might approach these situations, which range from opposition to compliance.

Daniel (Chapter 6) chose to react with open defiance when ordered to pray only to the king.  When Jesus (Mt 22:15-22) was given the opportunity to encourage people to revolt against paying taxes to an illegal occupying force, he chose to focus on our devotion to God.  Paul (1C10:31) would have felt it was ok for Christians to eat halal or kosher meat as long as they felt they could do it with a clean conscience.  Nehemiah (Neh 13:23) clearly thought it was wrong to marry an unbeliever while Paul said that if you’ve already done it, you should not divorce them (1C7:12).

What each of them is doing (in their own context) is determining which issues are worth fighting over, and which we can safely going along with.  Each of us, together in our church contexts, and not in isolation, needs to work this through too.  Sometimes the church fights on the wrong ground, making a stand on things that could comfortably compromised over, or giving way easily over massively significant issues.  Some guidelines to help us extrapolate biblical teaching into contemporary contexts may include asking ourselves the following questions:

Would our compliance contravene the 10 commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), or any other clear scriptural injunction?

Does resistance prevent us keeping the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:32-40)?

Does compromise help us to fulfil the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20)?

Often, Christians who make a stand on an issue can easily alienate and offend the very people we hope to reach out to with the love of God.  So we need to be careful in how we express ourselves.  We need to remember that in a post-Christian, multi-cultural world it can be evangelistically counter-productive and morally dubious to force non-believers to comply with our views, even if we believe we are right.

Jeremiah wrote a letter to the Jewish exiles .  He wasn’t popular for it, but it was good advice from God.  He said:

‘Build houses and live in them, and plant gardens and eat their produce… Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare your will have welfare’.  (Jeremiah 29:5-7)

In other words, get used to it.  Don’t live in a dream world; don’t carry on complaining that this is wrong.  Get over it.  Adapt and thrive.