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.

Who?

I recently came across a commentary on the life of influential mystic and author Evelyn Underhill in which the author suggested that central to her thought and writing were two questions: who is God, and who am I.

Most of Syzygy’s readers will know God… to a certain extent.  We will know about God, have our understanding of the Trinity honed in good churches or Bible Colleges, we will have a personal relationship with God, and probably a sense of calling to what we are doing now.  Though none of us can say we really know God.  What mortal soul can truly plumb the depths of the infinite Deity?  We can only know what God graciously self-reveals.

We will probably know ourselves well.  We may have done Belbin, MBTI, Enneagram, Birkin and many other self-awareness exercises.  Hopefully we know ourselves well enough to tell which of our buttons are being pushed, and emotionally intelligent enough to respond in a measured and godly way when under pressure.  Yet few of us can truly know ourselves – we are so complex that when we think we know ourselves, we probably don’t.

Philosophers have spent lifetimes trying to answer these questions, but with respect to both them and  Mrs Underhill, those two questions only lay the foundations on which a third question rests.  This question is “Who are we?”  Who are God and I together, or – even better – who are God and our community, team, or family together?

We have blogged before on the concept of symbiosis, to illustrate the Pauline doctrine of Christ in me/I am in Christ(Colossians 1:27/2 Corinthians 5:17).  But what does it really look like for two beings, one eternal and omnipotent, and one transient and feeble, to combine in one frail body with the result that glory is brought to the One without extinguishing the individuality of the other?  This, surely, is the big conundrum for all of us in mission: how can we become so united with God that we are transformed sufficiently for the outcome to be striking to those we minister to?  How does ‘our’ ministry become God’s ministry through us?  How are we involved without interfering?

We see glimpses of such transformation in the lives of some of the Apostles, or later saints like Francis, or maybe even contemporaries like Mother Teresa.  What they show us is how to walk away from all worldly attractions so that we are truly free to abandon ourselves to the Lord.  As we do so, we are filled with him in a way that we cannot be when we keep our hands full.

Or to rephrase that in a more contemporary way: how can we live in such a countercultural way that those around us find their preconceptions about life and Christianity so undermined that they have to find out more about what motivates us.  Perhaps that is the key to 21st century mission: not changing the message but changing the messenger.

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!

Load-shedding

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

Those of us who live in developing countries will be only too familiar with one of the major sources of stress and disruption in our lives – the regular power outages which mean that unless we have invested in our own generator or solar panels, we frequently have no electricity for several hours of the day.  When it comes on there is a mad dash to recharge every battery, do the cooking and laundry while the equipment works and catch up with all the emails before the power goes off again.  Just mention load-shedding to a group of mission workers and there will be sighs, groans of frustration and a long litany of tales of woe.

Yet, seen from another angle, load-shedding is a regrettable occurrence which is better than the alternative – total unplanned blackouts.  Load-shedding happens when the demand for power exceeds the available supply.  Sometimes a power station breaks down, or the water supply is too low for the hydro station to operate.   Load-shedding protects the power distribution system from wider failure caused by trying to run too many appliances, which can lead to substations failing and major damage to the distribution system.

Most mission workers are not good at doing load-shedding in their own lives.  Often their available supply of energy is insufficient for all the things that they have committed to.  They keep going resolutely, unaware of the damage that they are doing to their systems while they run on with an permanent emotional or spiritual brownout.  Often this can continue at a low rate for years until a major stressor occurs and there is a system wide failure.  This can vary in what it looks like – lack of emotional energy to invest in family, loss of faith, stress-related illness, emotional outbursts, moral failure – but they are all symptoms of the same underlying problem: the mission workers are doing more than they are able.

The short-term response to overload, as power companies realise, is to cut the demand.  In the same way that the electricity company simply cuts off the supply to a given area, so the mission worker needs to lay down some responsibilities so that the drain on their emotional, spiritual and physical energy is reduced.  The longer-term solution is to balance the supply and demand more effectively.  There are a number of effective ways you can do this:

  • review the range of responsibilities you carry and prayerfully consider how sustainable it is
  • look at your personal strategies for rest and retreat to ensure you are taking enough time out of your ministry to recharge your batteries effectively
  • consider how effective your prayer support is
  • review the level of stress you are operating under and restore it to appropriate levels
  • work with your co-workers to rebalance your team structure and activities so that they are sustainable for everybody
  • work out whether you are an introvert or an extravert and adapt your lifestyle accordingly
  • review your eating and sleeping habits to make sure that they work well for you

Load-shedding is a short-term fix not a long-term solution.  Mission workers opting to load-shed may keep things going for a bit but if they fail to implement a permanent solution may find themselves at risk of a major power failure in the form of burnout.

 

What we can learn from daffodils

DaffodilsAt this time of year, daffodils are bursting into flower all over northern Europe.  In parks and gardens, fields and verges, their bright yellow heads bring cheer, and the promise of warmer, sunnier days after a cold, dark winter.  Year after year they poke their heads up, sometimes through snow, sometimes into golden sunshine.  Always welcome, they bring some joy into everyone’s life, whether in a drift of colour by a lake, or in a simple vase on the windowsill.

They flower for just a few weeks each year, but no gardener begrudges the space they take up.  Nobody thinks about what the daffodils do for the rest of the year, but most of their lifetime is spent underground, unseen and inactive.  In the summer their soil is parched by long hot days.  In the autumn they are drenched by rain.  In winter the soil around them freezes hard.  Yet despite these demanding conditions, they come up again in the spring and do their thing.

The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that life is rhythmical in the famous passage that starts “For everything there is a season” (Eccl 3:1).  The daffodil has a season for flowering, and three seasons for dormancy.  It seems to me like the farmer in Mark 4:26-29, who works hard during the season of sowing, then waits patiently for harvest, when he again works hard.

Which is completely at odds with our western, protestant work ethic view of fruitfulness.  We expect to be hard at work day after day, week after week, with little time taken to recharge the batteries except the occasional, scrambled holiday – when we’re often keeping up with work by email or social media.  Small wonder that many of us are stressed!  Spending nine months of the year sounds unproductive even to the laziest of us, but there is a good principle of regularly stopping and resting, to gain strength and vision for the next stage.

At Syzygy we advocate the practice of cultivating a rhythm of life.  It helps us to break the domination of a work-orientated mindset and allows us to restore the relationship with God which we may have lost through our business – rather like Martha beavering away in the kitchen for Jesus, when she could have been with Jesus.  So we suggest you look at the following areas:

  • Regular prayer.  Whether you consciously turn your face to God once an hour, or every three hours at the traditional monastic hours of prayer, it’s good to take active steps to remind ourselves of God’s presence with us throughout the day.
  • Sabbath.  How much do we make of the one day of rest each week?  Do we use it for worship and family?  Is the computer off?  Do we leave the emails unchecked?  And if we have to work on Sunday, as many of us with church responsibilities do, do we take a day off in lieu during the week?
  • Day of prayer.  Have you thought of taking one complete (working) day out every month to rest, reflect and pray.  And we don’t mean taking one Saturday off a month!  We mean in addition to other rest days, but this one has the specific purpose of reconnecting with God.
  • Retreat.  We’ve talked a lot about retreat before.  Every three months it’s good to take a few days away, to let go of the busyness which wraps itself around us, tune our hearts in to God and hear what he has to say to us about our relationship, and not our work.

Practising regular times of rest may seem crazy when we have so much work to do, but I am sure that the daffodils would not be so spectacular if they found themselves forced to flower all year round!

They had been with Jesus…

Jesus' last message

Jesus’ last message

In the book of Acts, there’s quite a lengthy story about the trouble that Peter and John get into for preaching the resurrection of Jesus after the healing of a lame man in his name (Acts 3-4).  The ructions go all the way to the top, and they end up being hauled before the authorities to account for themselves, where Peter preaches a bold message.  And then as the national and religious leaders begin to debate what to do with them, Luke adds a delightful little phrase:

They recognised them as having been with Jesus. (Acts 4:13)

Of course, it may just be that realising they were Galileans they remembered seeing Peter and John with Jesus.  But I like to think it was more.  I wonder if they saw something in their boldness, their integrity and eloquence that reminded them of Jesus.  Had Peter and John begun to resemble Jesus?

After three years of living with Jesus, it’s highly likely that some of his mannerisms and expressions had begun to rub off on them.  Even subconsciously, we emulate key authority figures in our lives.  But this could have been so much more.  Having received the gift of the Holy Spirit (as Jesus promised them in John’s gospel) they were beginning to undergo inner transformation.  They were being reminded about what Jesus had told them (John 14:26).  They were doing what he had done, and saying what he had said.  They were becoming like him.  And it showed.

They had been with Jesus

They had been with Jesus

The great mystery of this is that the Father and the Son have set up home with us (John 14:23).  Not merely that they moved into our neighbourhood, or visit our church on a Sunday morning, but that they have settled in.  Most of us fail to actively cooperate with them.  We treat them like lodgers, who live in a room at the back of the house.  We see them occasionally, and sometimes we may have a chat, but effectively they live separately lives while under the same roof.

They want more.  They want to be treated as part of the family.  They want to belong with us.  Jesus says he wants to come in and eat with us (Revelation 3:20).  Note that he says this not in an evangelistic way to unbelievers, but as an offer of deeper fellowship to Christians.  This is an intimate relationship, living together cheek by jowl, talking things over, doing things together, just like Jesus would have done when he was living with his disciples.  And when we cultivate this intimacy, we become more like him.

Do the people you work with see Jesus in you?  Not merely the Christians, who might be looking to see him in us, but the non-Christians.  The policeman at the roadblock, the customs official, the taxi driver or the shop worker.

If they don’t, it’s probably because we haven’t been with Jesus.

With God in the desert

The Wilderness of Judea

The Synoptic Gospels all record that Jesus went out into the desert and spent 40 days there in prayer and fasting prior to the commencement of his ministry.  That is a significant retreat, but going into the desert was not an uncommon thing to do in his day – John the Baptist had lived in the desert, and various Jewish monastic communities thrived there.  Later on, Christian ascetics would move there, and eventually many Christian monasteries started.

The desert is a place of transformation.  It represents the end of human existence.  Hunger and thirst, heat and cold render it inhospitable to humans, and the existence there of wild animals and outlaws makes it dangerous.  Yet here at the extremity of human survival, we meet God.  Both Moses (Exodus 3) and Elijah (1 Kings 19) had powerful experiences of God in the desert which equipped them for future ministry.

But why go into such a place where survival is difficult?  What drew them there?  Surely it’s about more than just getting away from it all?

For the ancient Israelites, their first corporate experience was in the desert, and as they wrote their Scripture and told their stories that experience embedded itself in their cultural assumptions.  Yes it was dangerous – “were there not enough graves in Egypt?” they asked Moses (Exodus 14:11) – but in their extremity, they met God.

Water from the rock

In the desert God provided them with food, water, protection and guidance.  With their human existence hanging by a thread, they learned that with God, the desert is a safe place.  Most significantly, it was in the desert that they heard the voice of God (Deuteronomy 4:22-27).  It is not a coincidence that one of the Hebrew words for desert – midbar – can also be translated “He speaks”.

Today we don’t need to go into the desert to meet God.  We can meet God anywhere.  When we are at the end of our human endeavour, God provides.  When we have run out of strength in battling our human nature: controlling our tongue, managing our sex drive, mastering our temper – whatever our personal challenge is, that’s when we can turn to the grace of God to help us.  Perhaps that’s one meaning of Jesus’ teaching “If anyone wants to follow me, let him take up his cross…” (Luke 9:23).  It’s when we finally admit we can’t make ourselves better people, or do a better job, and allow the Holy Spirit’s transforming power into our lives instead.

In my experience, too many cross-cultural mission workers are trying too hard to do more than they can or to be someone they’re not.  It drives many of us to burnout as we reach the limit of our ability to keep on striving.  That’s when we need to abandon ourselves to God to care for us.  We need to stop gritting our teeth and carrying on, and start letting God work in us and through us.  We need to let go of the illusion of strength and competence we project around us, and allow God to move through our brokenness and vulnerability.

The Spring of En-Gedi

The Gospels record that Jesus was in the habit of regularly going off by himself to pray.  That’s how he expressed his total dependence on the Father to teach him what to say (John 8:28) and show him what to do (John 5:19).  His entire ministry flowed from this dependence.  It is a ministry model we would do well to implement for ourselves.  We can’t always make the time to get away for an extended retreat, but we can take steps to do a retreat in daily life, and I’ll detail some of these in a future blog.

It is thought that David wrote Psalm 23 while hiding from Saul at the spring of En-Gedi, in the Judean wilderness.  It is a beautiful, refreshing stream in the desert (Isaiah 35:6).  Only when we are in the middle of the wilderness will we truly appreciate how God “leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.” (Psalm 23:2-3)

The importance of retreat

We have mentioned in several blogs the importance of retreat – to get away from it all, recharge the batteries, and seek God in prayer.   This is an important part of maintaining our emotional and spiritual health – to withdraw for a while from the busyness of our lives and responsibilities and to stand and stare:

What is this life if, full of care,

we have no time to stand and stare?

W H Davies’ whimsical poem Leisure cuts straight to the heart of our busy responsibility-laden lives: – if we don’t create time to re-connect with God, the natural world around us, our own emotions and the natural rhythms of our lives, can we really said to be living?  How come the very people Jesus has given abundant life to are running around like headless chickens offering abundant life to others but somehow failing to enjoy it themselves?

Saint Aidan and his seventh century co-workers (see our blog from July 2010) set up their monastery on a remote island, whose only access was via a causeway which was submerged at high tide.  Accordingly they developed a rhythm to life which was governed by the tides: time on the island which they spent in prayer and contemplation, and time on the mainland when they engaged in mission.  Many contemporary mission workers have forgotten the importance of this rhythm, and enthusiastically do mission work without making time to restore their spiritual resources.  Small wonder that they struggle with exhaustion and burnout!

We recommend that as part of a strategy for maintaining spiritual health, missionary longevity, and human wellbeing, every mission worker should develop a personal rhythm involving daily, weekly, monthly and yearly times of retreat, contemplation, prayer and reflection.  To help with this we have provided a page listing some good places (mostly in the UK) where retreats can be organised.  These can vary from space to find individual times of prayer to fully-led times of retreat.  They can be done silently or not, in groups (better for the extraverts!) or in solitude.

We realise that regular retreat may imply five days away once or twice a year, and for many people, particularly those with families, this is not always practical.  However it is possible for one partner to give another a free day once a month to spend time with God, or even for busy parents to grab five minutes of peace and quiet in the bathroom to read a psalm and say a quick prayer.  It is not the quantity of retreat that is important, so much as the regularity.

Whichever way of doing retreat works best for you, we strongly recommend that everyone makes sure that in their busyness they don’t squeeze out of their lives the God who longs to have more of our attention.  It was Mary who was commended by Jesus, not Martha.