Comfort or character?

Last year, as I was researching how Christian mission workers live, work and thrive with long-term sicknesses, one amazing lady reflected on years of living with an illness which could easily have knocked her flat.  Like many of us, she could have been wondering why God allowed her illness, but she made a more positive choice of using it to see God at work in her life.  Her conclusion?

God is more interested in my character than my comfort

The last few months have been a challenge for many of us, even those who are fully healthy.  Many of us have not had the opportunity to live comfortable lives: living perhaps in temporary accommodation in our sending country, seeing and ministering to those suffering around us, coming to terms with the death of loved ones, leading churches that cannot meet in person, adapting to preaching and pastoring through social media, and ourselves grappling with having to be confined in our homes.  Such situations could only be made harder for those already suffering from health challenges.

Many in the West seem to assume that we have a right to comfortable lives, and part of the trauma that we struggle with comes from the disorientation of thinking that the current situation is just not right.  And yet historically we look back and see how the majority of people have led lives which were “nasty, brutish and short” yet filled with faith in a loving God.

The apostles were familiar with this world as they prepared themselves and their congregations for oppression and death.  The whole tenor of the New Testament seems to assume that there will be suffering, mitigated by our joy in what Christ has done for us, and the comforting love and solidarity of the church.  James wrote: “Count it pure joy when you encounter various types of trials”, because it gives us an opportunity to become perfect (James 1:2-4).  Peter says the trials that distress us are proof of our faith that will result in glory and honour (1 Peter 1:6-7).

We are not promised an easy journey through this life, but each challenge we face is an opportunity to give vent to our fleshly frustration, or to grow in patience and Godliness as we endure.  As Scott Shaum pointed out in his book “The Uninvited Companion”, the question we should be asking when difficulties occur is not “Why is this happening? but “How do you want me to walk with you in this Lord?”  As we take this opportunity to walk more closely with the Lord, we will find our character shaped more into the likeness of Jesus.

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.

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?

Welcoming Jesus

Last week, we looked at how Jesus cleansing the temple can be a metaphor for making our church more accessible to those who are unchurched.  This week, it’s personal!

You will of course be familiar with the idea found in 1 Corinthians 6 that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.  The immediate context of this teaching is the licentious lifestyle of some of the Corinthian believers, but the wider context is of our union with Christ who dwells in us and in partnership with us by the power of the Holy Spirit – something we’ve blogged about before.

In physical terms, the temple is the place for worship and witness as we declare the glory of God to an audience visible and invisible who do not worship him.  So to cleanse the temple is to make sure that it is fit for that awesome purpose, and contains no impediments or distractions to its epic task.

So as we approach the Christmas season and plan to welcome Jesus into our cribs, nativities and our very lives, what does it look like to allow him to clean up our lives?

Physically – this is probably not the right time of year to be recommending a detox, but we do need to remember to keep ourselves physically in shape.  As a general practice, eating fresh healthy food and minimising our consumption of stimulants (caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and –sorry! – chocolate) is part of keeping ourselves physically healthy and maintaining resilience).  Do any of these things cause others to stumble (1 Corinthians 8:13)?  Do we eat and drink forthe glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31)?

Mentally – for some of us, watching a bit of rubbish tv or playing a computer game is an effective way of winding down and de-stressing.  But how easily we can become addicted to our favourite soap opera, youtube, or scrolling through Facebook.  Those apparently harmless activities can easily steal productive time from us.  How can we start to reclaim those idle moments and make the best use of our time (Ephsians 5:6)?

Spiritually – what are the things in our lives that are ‘strongholds’?  Places that are not yet surrendered to Jesus and are holding out in opposition to his rule?  These can be the things that cause us to be ashamed of ourselves and lack confidence in our identity in Christ, and can also be the things which others see and think to themselves “How can he call himself a Christian when he is like that?”  They could be a quick temper, a gosspiping tongue or a greed for fame, power and wealth.  What does it mean to us to kneel in obedience and hand over the keys to him?

So in the midst of this busy season, with all its focus on services, parties, presents, family and holiday activities, I invite you to set aside an hour to make the really important preparations.  Sit somewhere quiet and invite Jesus into the temple which is you.  Ask him to overturn the tables and chase out the traders.  We cannot do it ourselves – we have tried and tired – but when he looks us in the eye and says “I don’t think that should be in here” we have both motivation and authority to clean up our act.

Let’s welcome Jesus into a place which he can truly make his home this Christmas.  Not a stable, but a heart.

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.

Flatlining?

I recently came across the expression “to practise resurrection”.  Not in the sense, presumably, of the  film Flatliners, a 1990 film (remade unsuccessfully in 2017) in which Julia Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland and Kevin Bacon attempt to artificially create near-death experiences.

The suggestion I was reading about is that since we know we will be resurrected with Christ, we should endeavour to bring as much of that experience from the future into the present, rather in the same sense that the Kingdom of God is here and now and not just future.

So how do we practice resurrection?  We could start with Paul’s remarkable comment in Galatians 2:20:

I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life that I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God…

So if I take Paul at his word, I’m already dead.  The life of Christ is being lived out through me.  How this works in practice is further expanded in Colossians chapter 3, which tells us we have been ‘raised with Christ’ and gives lists of the attitudes and behaviours we should intentionally adopt, or avoid.

Dead people have no possessions, no hopes and dreams, and no desires.  If I am truly dead, I too will have laid all those things aside and kept only what Christ has given back to me.  As many mission workers through the centuries have discovered, abandonment to Christ alone sets us free from the shackles of our own ambitions, wants and property.

Dead people also are invulnerable to temptation.  The flesh has no control over them.  Shortness of temper, gossip, gluttony and lust have no power over them.  If I am truly like the dead, I will master the many temptations to sin that come my way daily.

It is not as easy to be a living sacrifice as a dead one.  While my death with Christ may be metaphorically true, my ego still lives on in this body he has chosen to live his life in.  And that is actually good, because we are not called to be zombies for Jesus, reanimated bodies with no life of their own.  For the time being we are in symbiosis, as I pointed out last month.  The object of the Christian life is not, like a Buddhist, to annihilate the self so that it gets consumed by the divine, but to attune myself so to the divine that we can operate as one without extinguishing my identity.

So we live on in the flesh, daily practising what it means to die to self and live in Christ.  How does that impact on our leadership style, as we learn to lead humbly and accountably?  How does it impact on our followership as we learn to set aside our own pride and ambition?  And how does it affect our daily witness as we live out our love for our brothers and sisters while working in a multi-cultural team?

As we lay aside our old way of doing things and put on the new way (Colossians 3:9-10), we bring some of the future Kingdom of Heaven into the present.  Maybe we’re trying to create a near-death experience after all?

For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

Colossians 3:3

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.

Training for singles

(Source: www.freeimages.com)

I was recently asked by a single person planning to go to the mission field for support in preparing for the challenges a single in mission will face.  What a wise thing for someone to do!  But for me it raises a further question: how do we provide Syzygy’s training to a wider audience?  We have already developed workshops, lectures and retreats on the subject, but these are not always accessible to everyone.  We have blogged about singles on numerous occasions but these don’t contain all our material because we have many non-single readers!

Yet it remains clear that singles, whether new to the world of mission or long established, can benefit from specific help and advice on how to be successfully single.  At the same time it appears that some sending agencies and few churches are not in a position to provide this.  So I am wondering how to bring our experience to a wider audience.  The options include another book/e-book, podcasts, webinars or a workbook.  And we’d like some feedback to help us work out which is best.  These of course are not only for single mission workers – we would also include material to help churches, agencies and married people understand how to help singles thrive.

So we’re inviting our readers to take part in a very brief survey to help us get a feel for what would work best.  Just click here to take part.  It will only take a couple of minutes.

And do please share or retweet a link to this page so that as many people as possible get the opportunity to express their opinion!

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!)

 

Self-care

I have written in this blog many times about the need for mission workers to be actively supported by their church, agency, family and friends – all of whom are very important for the resilience and fruitfulness of the mission worker.

However, the provision of intentional, pre-emptive, supportive care does not absolve mission workers from caring for themselves!  With millennials in the mission field, who are accustomed to more attentive parenting, workplace nurturing and personal mentoring, there may be an expectation of higher standards of support than were previously considered appropriate.  We need to lovingly remind mission workers that they are not children, they have been selected for their ability to thrive in the mission field, and have been trained to withstand the challenges of life in demanding places.

We must therefore resist the attempt to treat them as fragile, wrap them in cotton wool and run around looking after them.  Instead we need to encourage them into self-care.  This covers every aspect of who they are:

Physical self-care – They need to be paying attention to how their diet, exercise and sleep are healthily maintained to keep them well.  They need to be aware of their own biological cycle, how they adapt in their body to changing months and seasons, the amount of heat and daylight available to them, and how they plan their life around their natural strengths.  At what time of day are they at their best, and can they adapt their working time around that?  Taking the full holiday entitlement, Sabbath days and weekends (where possible) will be part of this.

Mental self-care – maintaining mental well-being has two aspects to it: allowing the mind to unwind from stress, and stretching it to enable it to cope with more.  So regular academic study, distance learning on practical or theological issues to keep people’s skills up to speed is important.  As is the need to create downtime to give the brain a chance to switch off, particularly at night to allow more chance of good sleep.  Developing a physical hobby, perhaps a craft or a sport, will go a long way towards facilitating this.

Spiritual self-care – mission workers are selected for their ability to feed themselves from the Bible and thrive in hard places, but regular times of retreat, seeing a spiritual director and being helped through podcasts or discussion groups can contribute to their spiritual well-being.  So too can keeping regular hours of prayer, journaling, or using a personal liturgy to help with prayer.

Emotional self-care – often we find ourselves too busy to stop and reflect on how well we are relating to those around us: family, friends, church and co-workers.  How do we intentionally deepen our accountable relationships?  How do we live in ongoing repentance and stronger commitment to others?  This can be complicated by being in cross-cultural teams, churches or families – can we identify the facets of the culture we live in which cause us the most stress, and find ways of coping better, even to the point of thriving in them?

In considering all these different things they need to do to care for themselves, mission workers may want to consider inviting a friend to be an accountability partner, to ask searching questions about what they are doing to look after themselves.  Some people may feel that the idea of looking after oneself does not fit well with ‘laying down one’s life’, but like a good marathon runner, we are in this race to finish well, and in order to do that we need to pace ourselves rather than run the race like a sprint!

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 growing Syzygy network

Source: www.freeimages.com

The world of cross-cultural mission in the UK is in transition at the moment as churches and agencies all look at our practices and processes and try to find new ways of sending mission workers which will replace the outmoded model originally developed in the 19th century.  This is given added urgency by the financial challenges many churches and agencies are experiencing.

In this climate, there is a severe risk that mission workers will suffer due to lack of member care.  Small agencies are not able to devote sufficient resources to it.  Larger agencies are looking to reduce central costs.  Agencies are expecting churches to do more to support their mission workers, but the churches struggle to find the vision, capacity and expertise to deliver this competently.

Syzygy is uniquely placed to ensure mission workers continue to be effectively supported during this upheaval.  We have already entered into arrangements with several sending agencies, both large and small, for us to provide member care for their workers.  We also are able to support churches to develop the vision and capacity to do more to support their mission partners.

In order to provide this level of service we have been expanding our own capacity and have developed a network of  member care professionals across the country who are conveniently located for the mission workers we hope to support.  The Syzygy representatives are able to carry out one-to-one pre-departure training, ongoing member care for mission partners in the field, and home assignment debriefs.

For more information contact Syzygy on info@syzygy.org.uk

Is anybody listening?

Source: www.freeimages.com

Blogging can be a frustrating activity.  I can spend days mulling over a good idea, hours finely crafting my prose, and finally release my most earth-shattering blog onto the internet, only to be met by the deafening sound of silence.  No comments.  No shares.  Not even a like.  Nothing.  It’s deflating.

Just like that deflating feeling most mission workers know when asked by some innocent church member back home “How many people have you baptised this year?”.  Most of us know the embarrassment of squirming a bit, thinking of some excuses (“that’s not really my role”) before reluctantly admitting the truth – none.  And for many of us, it was none last year, or the year before.

Our sending churches seem to expect a vast harvest, or at least a regular crop, of souls for the Lord.  When did mission become subject to arbitrary productivity statistics more fitting to a factory?  And why are these standards not applied to those working on the home front?

The reality is that western mission workers seldom produce significant numbers of ‘converts’.  We sow a lot of seed but seldom see the harvest, even though we continue to hope for a harvest.  Unlike Isaiah, who was told by God at the start of his long ministry that he would see no fruit.  We often hear sermons on the powerful call of Isaiah, his vision of the Lord in his temple, his enthusiastic response, but we seldom hear sermons on the passage which immediately follows:

Then the LORD told me to go and speak this message to the people:

You will listen and listen, but never understand.

You will look and look, but never see.

The LORD also said: Make these people stubborn!

Make them stop up their ears, cover their eyes, and fail to understand.

Don’t let them turn to me and be healed.

 

Would you have gone into the mission field if you’d known that was your mission?  Small wonder that within minutes of his enthusiastic “Here I am, send me!”, Isaiah’s response was “How long do I have to do that?”  No prophet wants people to ignore his message, as no mission worker wants her words to fall on deaf ears.

I am sure many of us can identify with this frustration.  We have spent years, sometimes decades, working hard in the mission field, with little harvest to show for it.  But we are not called to be successful.  We are called to be faithful to him who sent us and to the work he has called us to do, and we are called to bear fruit in our lives.  The obedient mission worker, persevering in adversity, has far more in common with Isaiah than with Jonah, who preached and an entire city repented immediately (Jonah 3:10), or the rare contemporary outbreaks of revival we hear about, but seldom experience in our own ministries.

So, if you have reaped little harvest, take courage.  Jesus told his disciples “Others have laboured so that you can reap.” (John 4:38)  Perhaps it is your role to plant the seed.  In impacting the culture, demonstrating the gospel by your lifestyle, encouraging and equipping local believers, softening a harsh spiritual environment through your prayer, and being a faithful witness, you are planting an immense crop for others to reap.  In many of the places we are called to, mission is a long-term, multi-generational enterprise.  Like a worker on a production line, you may weld the chassis but never see the car roll out of the factory.  But the car wouldn’t be any good without your humble and unlauded work.

He who has ears, let him hear.

Processing….

Photo by Ayhan YILDIZ from FreeImages

You are probably no stranger to that moment when you hit a button on your computer and nothing happens.  Perhaps a little icon rotates, or a dialogue box pops up that says “Processing…”  And you just sit there, uncertain whether to press the button again, or go and make a cup of tea.

Often the reason is the processor is overloaded with demands.  Perhaps it has to sort through a lot of junk to find the information it needs, or maybe you’re running several programs at once.  Sometimes there is a huge automatic download in progress (it’s usually Windows).  Whatever the reason, the demands on the system exceed its processing capacity.

It’s just the same with humans.  We don’t like to think we have limited processing capacity, particularly in a world where multi-tasking is so valued, but for mission workers there are often a lot of things going on at the same time.  Our heads are busy with the demands of operating in a foreign language, navigating traffic, managing family needs, planning for meetings, preparing sermons and liaising with co-workers.

Some of us are not equipped temperamentally to balance so many competing demands for our attention, and struggle to concentrate on any one of them because others keep surfacing at the same time.  In such circumstances it’s good to have times when we allow ourselves to close the office door or switch the phone off so that we can minimise the demands on our attention.

There may also be a lot more going on behind the scenes than we are aware of.  The pressure of living cross-culturally creates a lot of circumstances which we may think we are able to handle, but all add small amounts to the daily stress we suffer.  Did that person misunderstand me because my language is limited?  Did I fail to pick up subtle cues that I’m not used to?  Why do I have to wait so long in this queue?  Why do people drive like this?  Often these uncertainties create ‘feedback loops’ – situations that we keep mulling over, whether consciously or not, that also demand part of our processing power.

In order to deal with these issues which keep running in the background, we need to have a look at the task manager to get a better grip of what’s going on.  As we’ve remarked on previous occasions, regular retreat is an excellent way of doing this.  Even if we can only manage a day away at a quiet or spiritual place to reflect, we can still ask ourselves questions like:

  • How am I coping in this culture?
  • What are the stress points for me?
  • What are the ongoing issues in my personal life, team relationships and engagement with the local community?

This then equips us with a bit more knowledge so that we know which thought processes we can shut down.  We do that by reflecting on these issues and asking ourselves:

  • Why am I upset by this?
  • What can I do about it?
  • How is God equipping me to grow in this situation?

Many of these issues can be quickly dealt with once exposed.  One practice that is helpful to get into is to do a mini-reflection each night before going to bed.  We can ask ourselves simple questions like:

  • What upset me today?
  • Why?
  • Who do I need to forgive, or ask forgiveness from?
  • How do I resolve this?

But let’s not finish with the negatives!  We can also finish the day by reminding ourselves what brought us joy, what we can be thankful for, and where we saw God at work in, through and around us.

Just like our computers, a little bit of regular maintenance will help us to operate a little more effectively.

Lost

IMG_20160805_091801Over the summer, I had a curious and (for me) unusual experience: I got lost.  No, it wasn’t the occasion when I was on a mountain in low cloud, when I had compass, map and GPS and was able to navigate the terrain easily despite not being able to see the landmarks.  It was on a lowish moor, under clear skies, when I could see the nearby lake and the town beside it.  But the path had disappeared.

Soon I found myself wading through bog, scrambling up rocks, pushing through heather, and fording streams to try to get to my destination.  Yet the whole time I knew where I was, but couldn’t find the way to where I wanted to be.

I felt on later reflection that the entire situation was symbolic of what we have been discussing in the last two blogs: it is possible to know exactly where you are, while being equally unsure whether you ought to be there.  Lost and not lost.  Which raises an interesting question: is it possible to be lost with God?

If we are walking with God, doing our best daily to put our hand in his hand, our feet where his feet have trod, to listen to his voice and follow the sound, can we ever really be lost?  Even in the midst of transition, when all we know is that we’re leaving one place and moving to another, possibly completely unknown, we cannot be truly lost.  God knows where we are, which direction we are facing and where we are going.

Which are all things we may be uncertain of.  Yet in our confusion and doubt we must trust the shepherd, whose gentle voice we have come to know, and even if we have no idea where we are, trust that he knows.  He is quite capable of turning us around, moving us in a different direction, or rescuing us should we really need it.  Just as Thomas Merton wrote:

Therefore I will trust in you always, though I may seem to be lost.