Today I am…

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

You may have come across our series of Easter tweets “Today I am…” This is not a pun on the name of the everlasting God, but an invitation to reflect on who we might be in the Easter story. Are we a bystander, a disciple, a Pharisee or a Roman? Or someone else altogether?  What role do we play?

This is not a new technique for bringing to life an episode in the Bible, but it is not common in evangelical circles. Yet placing ourselves within the story, and not merely reading it, can help to bring it to life in a new way. Asking ourselves what we did or said, or how we felt can help us become players in the drama. For example, imagine you are Peter, sitting by a fire in the courtyard, and for the third time somebody accuses you of being with Jesus, which you vehemently deny. A cock crows, and Jesus looks at you. How does he look? Angry, disappointed, sad? How do you feel? Ashamed, embarrassed, frightened? Asking ourselves to use our senses to imagine the sights, smells and sounds in the story unpacks them in a new way.

Life was not easy for the people Jesus called to follow him. They had seen vast crowds fed, heard incredible teaching and one had even walked on the water. They had faced opposition and criticism.  And now they were in hiding, in fear of their lives. They had started out realising that Jesus wasn’t just a carpenter, but someone special. They accepted him as their rabbi. They came to believe he was the Messiah. Then they feared he was just another failed rebel leader, before finding out that somehow he had come back from the grave, the same but changed, and they came to trust that he was not only the Messiah, but God.  And nearly all of them were executed for believing that.

Likewise we mission workers have to deal with success and failure (“those two imposters”) and the challenges they present to our theology. We can easily be thrown into doubt or confusion when disaster strikes, or triumphalist when it all works out well. We can trust in our own abilities and giftedness or we can wonder whether we heard God right, or whether God has let us down. We can doubt our own calling, or even our own faith.

Paul was no stranger to being buffeted by the storms of a tough life. In 2 Corinthians 11 he lists stoning, beating, imprisonment and shipwreck among his “momentary, light afflictions” (2 Corinthians 4:17, NASB)!  But despite the knocks and hardships, he kept on going. He wrote:

We often suffer, but we are not crushed.
Even when we don’t know what to do, we never give up.
In times of trouble, God is with us,
And when we are knocked down, we get up again.

(2 Corinthian 4:8-9, CEV)

This quality is known as resilience, and it is in great demand. It is a current topic in member care as we all consider how to help people acquire it. Resilience is the rare ability not to be derailed by the challenges we face, and on the odd occasion when we get knocked down, to get up and keep on going. Over the next few weeks we’re going to be doing a mini-series of blogs on resilience. We hope they help mission workers everywhere to keep on keeping on and not despair. We hope to help them discover how, like Paul, they can suffer so much and think it insignificant.

Today, I am Paul…

What van Gaal is getting wrong

Goal? (Source www.freeimages.com)

Goal? (Source www.freeimages.com)

It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it that counts.

The long-drawn out death rattle of Louis van Gaal underperforming season at Manchester United prompts us to revisit this old maxim.  While Syzygy does not have much of a track record as football pundits we came across an interesting statistic in a newspaper recently: despite Man U having a whole string of terrible statistics this season, there is one in which they are top.  They have the highest percentage of possession in the Premiership.  A solid achievement, which means absolutely nothing without the ability to convert possession into goals.

Which prompts us to ask our readers, what do we possess that we are not converting?  We can suggest three things that, we may need to put to better use for the kingdom as we reflect on our lives and values during the current season of Lent.

The Gospel.  We have mentioned before the prevailing western philosophy of Moral Therapeutic Deism, in which our Christian belief is merely there to meet our needs, help us be nice people and feel good about ourselves.  But the Gospel shouldn’t stop with us.  It is meant to be shared.  What kind of selfish people keep good news to themselves?  St Paul wrote “Woe is me if I don’t preach the Gospel (1 Corinthians 9:16).  OK, perhaps he was a bit too driven for us to feel entirely comfortable with him, but at least he was motivated.  When are we going to go and tell somebody the Good News, whether we go to the other side of the world or the other side of the street?

Our relationship with God.  We have unprecedented, open access to the throne room of the Almighty Creator of Heaven and Earth, and we use it to ask God to bless people, which God is probably going to do anyway, because that’s what God enjoys doing.  We have the power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead at work in us and we use it to pray for a parking space.  When are we going to realise that through prayer we can change nations?  Can we get a little bit more ambitious with our prayer?  How about praying for a resolution of conflict in the middle east, freedom and peace for the oppressed church, or global revival.  Let’s get a little more ambitious with our prayer.

Significant wealth.  Yes, significant.  Since the finanical crisis of 2008, many of us in the west think we’re poor, yet in comparison to nearly half the world living on less than $2.50 a day [1], we’re filthy rich.  And even if we aren’t sure how we’re going to pay the bills or put food on the table, as William Carey pointed out “even the poor can give.”  Jesus commended not the rich putting their gold into the temple coffers, but the poor widow putting in two small copper coins (Mark 12:43).  When are we going to pour our wealth into something more precious than house extensions, foreign holidays and new cars?

So this Lent, do please consider going (or at least helping someone else to),  make a commitment to pray for mission, and put some serious funding into mission.  Syzygy would be glad to help you!

[1] http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats

On the road to Jericho

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

There is one small but significant word which is often overlooked when reading – and preaching – on the story of the Good Samaritan: ‘down’.  In Luke 10:30 Jesus makes it perfectly clear which way the traveller was going: down.  ‘Down’ is repeated in verse 31 – the priest was going down the road too.

This does not immediately come to the attention of English speakers since we customarily use the expression ‘down the road’ to mean ‘along’.  But in this instance it is topographically specific: ‘down from Jerusalem to Jericho’.  And that road is indeed a downward route, which drops over a kilometre from 754 metres above sea level to 258 feet below.

Yet it is not the topography which is the point being made in the specific use of the word ‘down’, it is the spiritual implications.  Why were the priest, and by inference the Levite too, going down?  At that time, it was common for many of the priests to live in Jericho, with its abundant water supply, warmer climate and good supply of fresh fruit and vegetables, than in Jerusalem.  They would go up and stay in Jerusalem while it was their turn to serve in the temple, and then return home.  So these two had just finished whatever their ministry called for them to do, and were returning to their ‘normal’ life.  They were off duty.

The unspoken criticism of them is that their religious activity had not had any impact on their relationship with their fellow human beings.  They should have had compassion, but it took an outsider who wouldn’t even have gone to the temple to show them how to live with compassion on those less fortunate.  And ‘compassion’, in Biblical usage, does not mean the bland sense of “oh, what a shame” that it conveys in contemporary English, but means “to be gutwrenched”, so eaten up with feeling that we get a physical response to what we see and hear.

This speaks to those of us who find beggars coming to our church premises, or trip over the homeless sleeping under the lych-gate.  If our relationship with God counts for anything, it should be working itself out in our compassion for the needy.

And so it does, in many cases.  Churches are largely the impetus behind food banks in this country.  Many people working for overseas development agencies are Christians.  Many of those agencies have Christian roots.  And many of us give sacrificially to these agencies, making up the lion’s share of emergency donations in the UK.

But we can easily become weary of doing good.  Particularly when it hits closer to home.  How compassionate am I when a homeless person starts sleeping in the lobby of my block of flats?  How much do we care about the plight of Syrian refugees if compassion means Britain letting into our country hundreds of thousands of them like Germany has done, and having to build more homes, schools and hospitals (at taxpayer expense)?  When push comes to shove, our compassion hardens.

Next week, we’ll be looking at some Christian responses to the current refugee crisis, but in the meantime let us remind ourselves of the words of St Paul:

Let us not grow weary of doing good.

(2 Thessalonians 3:13)

Featured Ministry: Open Doors

hist_beetle_driveIn 1955, a young Dutchman went to a youth congress in communist Poland carrying hundreds of Christian tracts to distribute.  During his visit he discovered an isolated evangelical church struggling to retain its morale in the face of communist persecution.  The young man, now known throughout the world by the name ‘Brother Andrew’, embarked on a life travelling to difficult and dangerous places, smuggling Bibles to a needy church, inspired by the words of Revelation 3:2 –

Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die.

Driving his battered VW Beetle all over the Soviet bloc, Brother Andrew smuggled Bibles into communist eastern Europe.  But his exploits did not stop there.  He pioneered work into China, and then the Middle East and parts of central Africa.  Open Doors, the organisation he founded, has gone on to print Bibles, broadcast the Gospel by radio, coordinate international prayer ministry, keep the church informed about persecution  and become well-known for delivering practical support to the suffering church.  They also advocate on behalf of the oppressed, and their annual World Watch List is a must-have for Christians seeking information about how to pray for countries where Christians are oppressed.

60 years on from Brother Andrew’s first journey, Open Doors has become a worldwide agency working in over 60 countries through nearly 1000 workers – most of them national partners, because in the places they work people who are obviously foreign can’t always be effective.  Many of them work in challenging and dangerous places, training up new generations of church leaders and equipping the church to survive in the most hostile places on the planet.

All this is true to the adventurous spirit of Brother Andrew, who is famous for pointing out that there are no countries which are closed to the gospel.  There are of course countries from which it may be hard for Christians who preach the gospel to come back alive, but Brother Andrew has proved throughout his escapades in places like Palestine, Iraq, China and the Soviet Union, that God really can shut the eyes of the authorities and open doors.

Today tens of thousands of suffering Christians are supported and encouraged by Open Doors’ campaigns of aid and encouragement.  You can read more about these on their website, where you can find more details on how to pray for them and to join in the ministry.  As the UK CEO of Open Doors, Lisa Pearce said at a recent celebration of 60s of Open Doors’ ministry:

There isn’t a persecuted church and a free church – there is one church.

Or as St Paul put it: “If one part of the body suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).  Let’s be inspired by the example of Brother Andrew and his many colleagues to relieve the suffering and pray for the parts that suffer.

Paul’s missionary strategy

Prison - would we be bold enough?

Prison – would we be bold enough?

Paul’s ministry in Europe certainly got off to a turbulent start.  In Philippi only an earthquake got him and his friends out of prison after being beaten, and then in Thessalonica the nascent church rushed them hurriedly out of the city to avoid more disturbance.   Yet in the brief time they were in those two cities they established churches that would thrive and be instrumental in partnering with them in the further spread of the gospel.  Many mission workers would love to see such a response, even if they’d rather avoid the challenges it brought with it!

So how did they do it?  What are the secrets of such a dynamic ministry?  Paul (together with his ministry partners Silvanus and Timothy) explained his approach only a few months later in his first letter back to the church in Thessalonica, in a missiological treatise we often overlook.  Let’s examine what he writes in 1 Thessalonians 2.

They were bold (v2) – they had already been mistreated in Philippi and were facing opposition from the synagogue but they spoke out anyway.  How often do we take that opportunity, or are our agencies teaching us to be risk-averse, looking for longevity of service and preserving their good name in the country.  Speaking out too loudly can shut down a whole field for many agencies – but what would Paul have done in those circumstances?

They were straightforward (vv4-5) – they didn’t come to flatter but spoke plainly.  Often straight-talking can offend, particularly in more polite cultures than ours where circumlocution is advisable.  But sometimes people need to be challenged over their lifestyles and guilt.

They were selfless (vv5, 9) – they weren’t greedy.  They worked for their keep so as not to be a burden and didn’t seek glory for themselves.  They remembered that they, like Jesus, had come to serve, not be served (Matthew 20:28).

They were parental (vv7, 11) – Paul invokes the imagery both of a mother and a father to demonstrate his love and concern for the church.  Sacrificial yet authoritive, challenging and committed, mission is never merely transactional.  It has to be primarily relational.

They were hardworking (V9) – In a world where many itinerant preachers were only there to make money, they made a point of embodying the gospel as they earned their living, and earned respect in the process.

They were unimpeachable (10) – their impeccable behaviour spoke for itself.  They could not, as other churches later on did, accuse Paul of not caring, or misusing authority.  They had first hand experience of the highest standards of service.

The outcome of Paul’s compassion and integrity was that the Thessalonians accepted their message as the word of God, not merely human wisdom.  Although there were subsequent theological and ethical issues in the church, it did not produce for Paul challenges on the scale of, say, the church in Corinth.  We do not know how long he was there because the speed of Luke’s narrative masks the timescale, but it was possible only a few weeks – at most months – in which he laid such a solid foundation.  So his strategy was clearly sound.  What do these characteristics listed above look like in the culture we are working in?  How do we apply and contextualise them in the world we live in?  Is it really possible that by following Paul’s example we too can see dramatic results?

We want to see Jesus

024Most ancient church buildings have a number of plaques of different sorts on their walls – tombstones of the gentry, memorials to famous parishioners, tributes to the war dead or past incumbents – but at Penhurst in Sussex there is one that in my experience is utterly unique: a private message addressed to just one person.

It is not in a prominent position; in fact it is not visible from most parts of the church, yet it is clear and conspicuous to the person about to mount the steps to the pulpit, and it is addressed only to the preacher.  It reads:

Sir, we would see Jesus.

It is a quote from John 12:21, and it is a reminder to preachers of their responsibility to reveal Jesus to their listeners.  Yet this duty (and joy!) is not the preacher’s alone; it falls to all believers – as Jesus told us to go into all the world and make disciples (Matthew 28:20).

Some of us will indeed be called to go to the other side of the world, while others are called to go to the other side of the street.  It is not the ‘where’ that matters, it is the ‘going’ that counts.  In our schools, offices and retirement homes we can all look to ‘show and tell’ to our colleagues.  In our homes we can explain and exhibit Jesus to our families and neighbours.  In gyms and golf clubs we can incarnate the risen Lord to our team-mates and competitors.  There is no-where and no-when that we cannot – and should not – take the opportunity in some way to bring Christ into a sharper perspective, whether for the first time or the umpteenth, to the people around us.

Paul sets us an excellent example.  He writes to the Corinthians “Woe is me if I don’t preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16).  He felt compelled to share the good news.  But as we will see next week when we look at his missions strategy in Europe, he made it clear to the Thessalonians that this was not only standing in the synagogue trying to persuade people that Jesus was the Messiah who was destined to die and rise again (Acts 17:2-3); it also meant publicly demonstrating Christ in his impeccable behaviour (1 Thessalonians 2:10) and privately imploring individuals to believe (1 Thessalonians 2:11).

To help me remind myself of my role in this great sermon which we live and speak every day, I like to start the day with an ancient prayer.  Perhaps you would like to join me in it:

O Lord, grant that my part in the world’s life today may not be to obscure the splendour of thy presence, but rather to make it more plainly visible to the eyes of my fellow humans.

All you need is…

Beatles

The Beatles: all you need is love

We were represented at a recent International HR Forum in London.  As 60 people representing sending churches and agencies discussed selection and recruitment criteria, one of the speakers introduced us to this quote which he had found on the internet*:

The only required characteristic for being a missionary is that you have complete and utter faith in the Lord.  God does not choose the equipped… he equips the chosen.”

On the surface, this might seem very reasonable.  Surely that is all we need.  After all, most of the people we read of in the New Testament seem to have had very little formal training, if any, and Jesus actively discouraged his disciples from being too thoroughly prepared (Luke 10:4).

On the other hand, as Gentiles started joining the Jewish church in Antioch (Acts 11:22-26) Barnabas appears to have sought out Saul for his cross-cultural experience.  Although Jesus did send his disciples out lightly equipped, they had already spent quite some time in his company, watching him heal and hearing him teach.  They had been mentored by him.  And we wonder if John would have headed home early from Pamphylia (Acts 13:13) if he had been better prepared for the experience.  Perhaps he was homesick, or maybe he had culture shock.  Or was Paul too hard a taskmaster?  Some better member care may have helped him.

So is it really true that we can go into complex, different and often dangerous situations without some sort of preparation?  Is it still a world in which the likes of Jackie Pullinger can just get on a boat and do effective mission wherever it stops?  Or is it a more prudent, risk-averse world in which churches and agencies will stop us doing anything risky because they have a duty of care? (See our blog from two weeks ago for more on this issue)

We asked some mission workers what they thought were the qualities mission workers really needed.  Here’s what they said:

  • A sense of calling
  • Patience
  • Humility
  • Stamina
  • An ability to laugh at themselves
  • Recognition that God is more interested in what he can do for them than what they can do for him
  • Realistic expectations
  • Ability to cope with disappointment
  • Realisation that who they are is more important than what they do
  • Understanding that God has called them to be faithful, not successful
  • Resilience
  • Flexibility
  • Experience of coping with hard times at home before you leave
  • Compassion
  • The ability to ask for help

We don’t disagree with any of these.  They are all really valuable qualities, which most of the mission workers we asked are recommending with the hindsight of their own experience in the field.  What interests us most is that without exception all these qualities relate to character and life experience.  Not one of them is a skill, qualification or competence.  Nothing that was learned in a school, management development course or Bible College.  And we didn’t specify that we were looking for character qualities.  It seems that, as one of them commented, it really is more about who you are than what you do.  And as we concluded in our HR forum, the most important character quality is Christlikeness.

So perhaps the anonymous author of this dubious quote is right, in a certain way.  Perhaps God does equip the chosen.  But it would appear that God equips them before they are chosen, as well as after, using the difficult times we have encountered throughout our lives to make us look more like Jesus.  That, perhaps, is all we really need.

* It has been observed that you should never trust anything you find on the internet.  Except on this website, obviously.

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!

For the good of those who love him?

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

Bad stuff happens to mission workers.  You don’t have to be in the world of mission for long before you hear of people who have been kidnapped, killed in car crashes, caught terrible diseases, been lynched, suffered emotional or spiritual abuse, or lost their faith as a result of what they’ve experienced.  That is the lot not only of mission workers but of many thousands of Christians worldwide, particularly in communist and moslem countries.

But when these things happen to us and our loved ones, it can make us doubt either our faith or God’s goodness, because most of us in the West subscribe to a triumphalist theology: God is in control and everything will work out.  We build our worldview on three principal tenets:

  • God loves me and wants the best for me
  • God is able to do anything to help me
  • God is fully aware of all that is going on in my life.

House of cards

While each of these beliefs is true, it’s naïve to build them into a house of cards without reference to other variable factors in the way God created the world, like freewill, cause-and-effect, teamwork and prayer.  And the fact that we are in a battle with the kingdom of darkness.

The result is that when something goes badly wrong it challenges our belief system and therefore our faith.  We wrestle, like Job, with the problem of why bad things happen to good people (Job 10:3).

But a belief system such is this is based on a false premise: the consumerist view that God is there for me, and that if God doesn’t deliver to make my life more comfortable/safe/happy, he has invalidated my faith in him and disproved his own existence.

Vivien Whitfield wrote:

Can we go on trusting God even when terrible things happen and God seems absent?  Only such altruistic trust is the basis for a true relationship with God, shorn of ulterior motives.  God is to be loved and obeyed for himself, not for what we can get out of it.  God’s purposes are for the entire cosmos – not only for me; we sometimes need to be reminded of that.

From The Passion of the Christ

From The Passion of the Christ

If God’s purposes are for the entire cosmos, there are times when his plans may not be in our own interest.  He may ask us to do something hazardous not because it’s good for us but because he needs it to be done.  In doing so we become more like Jesus, laying down our own lives in obedience to God’s will.  There was no way that being crucified served the immediate interests of Jesus, but he chose to be obedient to God’s plan instead.  And sometimes God’s plan for us may be that God has asked us to do things that are clearly not in our own interest but enable him to accomplish something in and through us for the greater good of the Kingdom.

When we don’t understand what is going on, and why something bad has happened, we often turn to Romans 8:28: “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God.”  Taken on its own, out of context, it looks as if all we have to do is love God and everything will go fine for us.  But that is just Christian superstition.  We need to read on to verse 29 to find out the definition of ‘good’.  It means being conformed to the image of the Son.  It doesn’t mention wealth, or happiness, or safety.  In fact St Paul makes the opposite clear: this is in the context of “tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and sword!  But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer!  How can that be?  We conquer, not because everything goes well for us, but because when it doesn’t, we don’t give up, we don’t compromise, we don’t retaliate.  We become more like Christ.   That doesn’t make our suffering any easier.  But it does, at least, make it tolerable.

Coffee – a fragrant aroma

Ripe coffee berries

Ripe coffee berries

Fruit is a well-known biblical metaphor.  Jesus tells us that bearing fruit glorifies the Father (John 15:8), and Paul says we are joined to Christ so that we can bear fruit for God (Romans 7:4).  Jesus makes it clear that the fruit is the evidence that we are disciples (John 15:8) – or not (Matthew 7:20).  Whether we understand the fruit to be a metaphor for our activity (Colossians 1:10) or our character development (Galatians 5:22-23), it is clear that if we’re genuine disciples of Jesus, fruit is the outcome.

When we think of fruit, we probably have in our minds fruits like peaches, grapes, apples, apricots or strawberries, which we can just pick and pop in our mouths.  They are the ready-meals of the fruit world.  But other fruit requires a bit of work to it.  While we can eat grapes just as they are, they can also be made into wine.  Apples can be made into pie.  Corn, a slightly different type of fruit, can be made into bread, a much more pleasant form of carbohydrate.  But to achieve this, the fruit needs to be crushed, chopped or ground.  A totally different experience.

Coffee beans

Coffee beans

Another type of fruit is coffee.  Most of us never even seen the coffee fruit on the plant, but we enjoy the end product.  But to get to us, the coffee fruit has a terrible experience.  First, the fruit is stripped off the bean and discarded.  It has no value to us.  The bean is then fermented, and rinsed in large quantities of water.  Then the bean is roasted and, finally, ground up and brewed using hot water.

Suddenly being fruitful doesn’t sound quite so attractive.  And many of us are no stranger to processes like those the coffee bean undergoes – we often feel like we’re in deep water, walking through fire or being ground to bits.  When things like this happen, we can often wonder if we’ve got it all wrong, and begin to doubt our faith.  We discussed the theology of this last week, but suffering is an ever-present reality in the lives of most Christians, and is clearly the biblical norm.  All the writers of the New Testament letters expected their correspondents to be undergoing varying degrees of difficulty, if not active persecution.  One even tells them to ‘count it pure joy’! (James 1:2)  This is because even though the process is unpleasant, the outcome is good.  James tells us that as a result we will be ‘perfect and complete’ (James 1:4).

Photo courtesy of ace barista Simon C Bright

Photo courtesy of ace barista Simon C Bright

The careful processing, roasting and brewing of a fine coffee results in something remarkable.  A simple berry has been turned into a refreshing drink which invigorates and stimulates.  Taken in moderate quantities it is beneficial to concentration, alertness and general health, and may even contribute to longevity.  Even its aroma is attractive.  The next time we undergo some sort of trial, let us remember what the coffee goes through to bring some joy into the life of its drinker, and remember that our suffering is part of the process of bringing joy to the Lord, as in the flood or the furnace we are made more like Jesus.

Come and worship!

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

This week, Christians will celebrate the momentous event in human history when God stepped into his own creation to live and die as one of us.  It matters not one bit that it may not have happened in December (or January if that is your tradition), or whether the inn was really a guest room, or whether there were kings present, or donkeys, or snowmen.  The important thing is that it happened.

It happened because God was so concerned about the plight of selfish, ungodly humanity that he did what only he could to bring us back into relationship with him.  Or as St Paul puts it “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19).  The whole point was to restore the broken relationship so that humanity could live at peace with God.  Jesus came to make that possible.  That is why we celebrate him as “The Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

For this reason he is the ultimate role model for mission workers.  We may follow the examples and tenets of the founding father of our agencies or movements, or other heroes of mission, but only because they point the way to the one who has gone before all of us.  He left his home, learned the language, and adopted the culture and customs of his mission field.  He laid down his life in obedience to his calling, and he raised up followers to continue the spread of the message.

At the end of his letter to the Romans Paul writes “the gospel and preaching of Jesus Christ… has been made known to all the nations” (Romans 16:25-26).  The world has grown bigger than the Roman Empire of Paul’s day and many more tribes and peoples have been located who have not yet heard the good news.  The missionary imperative to tell the great glad tidings still rings out to us.  Many of the carols and readings that we use in our worship at this time of year encourage us, like the magi (Matthew 2:2), to come and worship Jesus.  What better way to do that than to bring others with us to discover the Saviour for themselves?

Come over here and help us

Paul's Macedonian Vision

Paul’s Macedonian Vision

Paul’s vision of a Macedonian man (Acts 16:10) asking him and his co-workers for help initiated Paul’s ministry in Europe.  It is also an excellent paradigm for modern global mission.

It is at the invitation of the local believers, not the instigation of the mission workers.  Today, except in frontier missions where we have no knowledge of local believers, we should be seeking to partner with indigenous churches, agencies or believers.  How often do we go to a local group with a good idea and sell it to them, and they are too polite to say no even though they don’t want it and they know it won’t work?  It is much better for us (and more empowering for them) to go and sit at their feet, and ask them ‘What do you want for your community, and how can we help you achieve it?’  We need to seek their guidance and advice, respect their decisions, submit to their leadership, and be ready to leave when they feel that we’ve done what they need us to do.

We are invited to help, not take over.  It seems that we often marginalise the local believers and do all sorts of things for them, when they may be capable of doing things for themselves.  We turn up with our education, technology, and Biblical understanding, but leave our respect behind.  A genuine partnership asks ‘How can we do this together?’, and seeks to release everyone into the ministry that God has for them.  In many cases we may bring skills and resources which they do not have, but that does not entitle us to take control.

What does genuine cross-cultural partnership in mission look like?

What does genuine cross-cultural partnership in mission look like?

Our work should be inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Paul hadn’t even thought of going to Macedonia.  He and his friends had tried several times to go into different parts of what is now Turkey.  In this vision, God expanded their boundaries.  He took them into something different.  How willing are we to contemplate doing something different rather than doing the same old thing in the same old way?  Let us be open to the Holy Spirit guiding us into God’s appointed ministry for us.

God is already at work and lets us join in.  The spread of the gospel in any country will have started before we get there.  Paul didn’t bring the gospel to Europe; there would have been several small communities of believers which may have traced their roots back to the crowds of Jewish worshippers who had flocked to Jerusalem for the feast of Shavuot (Acts 2:10).  God was already on the move and gave Paul and his friends a chance to join in.  Let us not be so arrogant as to assume we are taking God in with us.

West isn’t necessarily best.  In large parts of the world Christianity is seen as a western faith.  Yet this incident reminds us that the gospel was originally brought to Europe by people from the Near East.  Europeans would still be pagans (and in many respects we still are!) if mission workers from another continent had not come to teach us.  Let’s remain teachable.

Who is today’s Macedonian?  Who today is calling us to go and help them?  We looked at some of the options a few weeks ago – and they include remote unreached tribes, people in the 10/40 window, and urban slum dwellers.  Are we open to the possibility that there are people hungry for the gospel who we haven’t even considered?

Paul’s vibrant and controversial ministry opened up a new mission field right across Mediterranean Europe.  He was driven by the desire to preach the gospel where it had not been preached before (Romans 15:20).  Let’s follow his example and seek out new frontiers for the kingdom!

Slaves of righteousness?

A Roman soldier leading captive slaves.

A Roman soldier leading captive slaves.

In Romans chapter 6, Paul uses strong visual imagery to ram home a theological point – slavery*.  This would have made a lot of sense in his day when slavery was a significant part of the Roman economic structure and everybody would have been fully aware of the issues.  Many of the early Christians would have been slaves; a few were slave owners and most of the rest would have aspired to own slaves.  At the time Paul was writing, possibly a third of the population of Rome were slaves.

Everyone knew that slaves had no freedom to choose.  They were quite literally the property of their owners and were not legally recognised as people.  They were assets which could be bought or sold.  They had to do exactly what they were told, or they were punished.

Imagine then a slave, let’s call him Maximus, who has recently been sold by his former owner, Brutus.  One day his new owner sends him out to do some shopping, but on his way to the market he meets Brutus, who tells him to go off on an errand for him.  What is he to do?  He knows he shouldn’t, but he’s afraid of Brutus who is a violent man, so he goes.  Of course, when he gets home late, he’s in trouble and his new owner wants to know where he’s been.  What can Maximus say to defend himself?  He’s a pawn in a power struggle who has ended up satisfying nobody.

"You have been set free from sin"

“You have been set free from sin”

Paul uses an argument just like this to put us in the place of Maximus.  Why are we still obeying sin when we have a new master?  Sin used to control us (Romans 6:17) but then we were bought (the Greek word exagorizo, which is usually translated ‘redeemed’, literally means “bought from the market”).  So we no longer have to obey our old master.  In fact, when he turns up, demanding obedience, we can tell him where to go, because we have a new master.  And Paul encourages us to obey him, so that we wholeheartedly belong to him (6:19).

All of us struggle to break the habits of our former lifestyles.  We learned sinful thoughts, attitudes, words and behaviour from our old master, and even though he now has no power over us, we’re in the habit of living in a way that would please him.  The new master has different standards, and we should make a strenuous effort to live in a way that shows we are now living according to his standards.  So the next time the devil comes knocking, remind him it’s a done deal and he’s not in charge any more.

Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, for sin shall not be master over you.  Though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.

 (Romans 6:12-18, edited)

 

 

*Health warning – it never does to take biblical imagery to extremes.  Certain aspects of the slavery motif can be problematic (e.g. did God do a deal with the devil to ‘buy’ humans out of satan’s control?  Are we slaves or free people?).  The Bible writers used imagery like this to convey a general example, not an exact parallel.

Persecuted for their faith in Iran

captiveWe have blogged on numerous occasions about the suffering church worldwide but a visit to hear two young women from Iran talk about their experience of being imprisoned for sharing their Christian faith prompts us to consider the heroism of the many millions who struggle daily just to stay alive, let alone actively share their faith.

Maryam and Marziyeh both grew up in muslim families in Iran, and independently met Jesus while still in their teens as a result of their search for more meaning.  Within weeks they had led family members to Christ, and then shared the gospel with friends and strangers.  Boldly they spent four years handing out New Testaments around Teheran, or leaving them in restaurants, or posting them through people’s letter boxes.  In four years they were able to distribute 20,000 before the authorities finally caught up with them and imprisoned them.

Held in detention in a notorious prison, they continued to share the gospel with guards and prisoners, leading many to Jesus.  When challenged by interrogators, they said it was the fault of the authorities for putting them there!  They pointed out that it was natural for other prisoners to ask why they were there, and they had only answered truthfully, which led to people asking what Christianity was all about.

Which for us at Syzygy raises a rather uncomfortable question: how can two young Iranian believers be so bold in their faith when we in the west feel embarrassed to mention Jesus even to members of our own families?  Many of us will excitedly travel halfway round the world to take part in the latest outbreak of Holy Spirit revival but we won’t walk down the road to share the gospel with our neighbour.  We talk about being persecuted at work when colleagues tease us about being Christians and never have to face a life-and-death choice.  How did we get our values so upside down?  Why can’t we say, with St Paul:

I do not consider my life dear to me, in order that I may finish the course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God…. For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

(Acts 20:24, Philippians 1:21)

Subsequently cleared of the charges, freed, and allowed to emigrate to the United States, Maryam and Marziyeh now devote their time to reminding the church of the plight of believers in Iran, where many Christians are still in prison, and those who are not face significant discrimination and active persecution.  They are currently on a world tour telling their story to help Open Doors raise funds for a much-needed project.  We strongly recommend going to one of their remaining events, which you can find out about here.

Please pray for the suffering church in Iran, particularly those in prison.  You can find out more at the Open Doors website.

Book review: Redeeming Singleness

Redeeming SinglenessOne of the most challenging issues for single Christians, including mission workers, is the church’s seldom-questioned assumption that marriage is good.  The church rightly celebrates marriage, parenting and fidelity but the corollary to this assumption is the implication that singleness is wrong.  If married people are defined by what they have, singles are defined by what they don’t have, and that can be seen as an underlying deficiency.

This means that those who are married often fail to affirm and celebrate singles, while the singles can spend their lives feeling that they are somehow abnormal.  Unchecked, this negative attitude can undermine their spiritual wellbeing and come to dominate their thoughts and emotions.

Barry Danylak’s book Redeeming Singleness tackles this challenge head on.  It is one of the very few quality resources that Syzygy regularly recommends to single people at our events (along with our own Single Mission!).  At one such event recently, after we outlined Danylak’s proposition, one person in the audience commented “I feel really angry that these things are not being taught in our churches.”

We share that concern, which is why we recommend Barry’s book.  Academic without sacrificing readability, Redeeming Singleness propounds a positive theology of singleness that is absent from most churches today, despite the huge heritage of single people serving effectively in mission and ministry over the centuries.

David Hayward @ Naked Pastor.tumblr.com

David Hayward @ Naked Pastor.tumblr.com

Danylak starts by acknowledging the high importance attached to marriage in the Bible, particularly in the Genesis account where it is apparent that marriage has the duel function of companionship (Genesis 2:18) and procreation (1:28 and 2:24).  However he soon moves into explaining that it was important for people in the Old Testament to be married because they had no concept of the afterlife.  They lived on in their descendants (hence the significance of the genealogies) and in the land which they passed on to their descendants.

Thus, for an individual in Israel to be devoid of spouse, children, and land, such as Naomi on her return to Israel, was to feel the weight of divine judgment (Ruth 1:21-22).

Having established this base, Danylak shows how the prophets, particularly Isaiah, pave the way for a New Testament refocussing.  The woman who cannot have children is promised that she will have more ‘children’ than a mother (54:1-5).  The man who cannot have children (56:2) is promised something better – a lasting place and an eternal memorial.

Barry Danylak

Barry Danylak

Danylak then goes on to unpack Jesus’ frequently overlooked statement that, if you can handle it, it’s better to live a single life for God (Matthew 19:11-12) and then follows it up with an analysis of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 to demonstrate that there is significant esteem given to the single lifestyle by these two Jewish rabbis who, given their cultural background, might be expected to do exactly the opposite:

What is striking in Paul’s counsel to his Greco-Roman audience is that, while his perspective on sexuality and sexual ethics is so clearly rooted in the moral tenets of Old Testament law, his response on the question of marriage and singleness appears to be anything but a traditional Jewish perspective. 

goWhat happens to the blessing to Abraham?  It’s fulfilled in his ‘seed’ Jesus and in the ‘children’ of Jesus.  What happens to the blessing on Adam and Eve when they were told to ‘Go and multiply’?  This commandment is nowhere reiterated in the New Testament.  It is replaced by ‘Go and make disciples’, and in doing so, the followers of Jesus inherit the blessing.

This book is an excellent contribution to the well-being of single people.  It helps them overcome the implicit stigma of living a single life and be able to embrace their singleness through finding scriptural affirmation.  It fully demonstrates that while marriage may be normative in Christian culture, it is not the only way of living, and that singleness is equally, though differently, blessed.  Danylak concludes with:

Singleness lived to the glory of God and the furtherance of his kingdom testifies to the complete sufficiency of Christ for all things.  The Christian is fully blessed in Christ, whether he or she is married or single, rich or poor, in comfort or distress.

This clear, concise Biblical teaching needs to reach a wider audience, so that single Christians will be encouraged and the church will be equipped to bring balanced teaching to facilitate a Christian culture fully supportive of both single and married people.

 

Redeeming Singleness (ISBN 978-1-4335-0588-1) is available from all good online retailers both as a hard copy and ebook.

Singing in the rain?

Gene Kelly in "Singin' in the Rain"

Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain”

England has a reputation abroad for being an unnecessarily moist country.  Yet in some countries moisture is welcomed.  I have been in Africa when the rains break, and seen people stop their cars and get out and dance in the puddles because they’re so glad it’s raining.  That wouldn’t happen in Manchester.  Where people are still in touch with their farming communities, they recognise the need for rain.  No rain, no food.  So they are grateful for the rain.

It’s the same in the Bible.  Rain is generally used as a sign of God’s blessing (except of course, in the Flood).  It’s part of the covenant with Israel that if the people obey God, the rain will come (Leviticus 26:3-4).  When they don’t, it doesn’t.  And if you’ve ever been to Israel, you’ll know the value of rain.  It’s a dry land where every drop is cherished and irrigation systems are carefully designed to use no more water than is absolutely necessary.  Likewise the withholding of rain is a sign of God’s judgement (e.g. 1 Kings 16:29-18:1), and clouds without rain are the ultimate picture of disappointment (Proverbs 25:14).

rainThe English don’t like the rain.  Where we live, it’s usually cold, insipid and persistent, and it interferes with the cricket.  Unlike tropical countries, where there’s a regular cloudburst which clears up quickly, here it can go on dribbling for days with barely a centimetre falling.  Sometimes it’s even hard to know whether rain is falling or whether the air is just full of damp.  The moisture nags its way through our clothing and into our bones.  The only thing we enjoy about it is that it gives us something to moan about.

This year the English have had a lot to moan about.  Having just endured the wettest spring since records began, the whingeing Poms have had a lot of practice.  We’ve moaned about the weather so much that we’re now even moaning about people who moan about the weather.  How does this square with St Paul’s injunction to the Thessalonians to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)?

Enjoying the rainSurely we should be cultivating an attitude of thankfulness even when we’re cold and clammy and our barbecue has just been cancelled.  Can we here in England be thankful that we live in a country where the grass is green and we can turn on a tap without wondering whether water is going to come out of it?

We who are mission workers have many opportunities to moan.  We struggle with intermittent electricity and water supplies, the challenges of bureaucracy, the dangers of travelling, setbacks in our ministries and so much more.  A closer inspection of what Paul wrote reminds us that we’re not giving thanks for the circumstances, but we’re remaining thankful despite them.  The early church did not give thanks because they were persecuted, but because they had “been considered worthy” of suffering for Jesus.  James is no masochist when he tells us to count it ‘pure joy’ when we have trials – he’s encouraging us to look beyond the trials to the perfection that lies beyond (James 1:2-4).

Let us lift our eyes above our immediate troubles and give thanks to God for all that he has done in our lives.

Pray for mission workers

prayMany mission workers have a desperate need for prayer – for their health in a part of the world their body didn’t grow up in, safety as they travel on dangerous roads, protection from those who object violently to their mission, the ongoing health of their spiritual life in a hostile environment, family relationships under great pressure, visas, the provision of more funding or co-workers, patience, cross-cultural adaptiveness, the success of their ministry, communication skills in a foreign language and so many more needs both chronic and acute.

They send regular prayer letters to their churches, friends and family, and often wonder if they’re read at all, let alone prayed into.  They seldom get a reply.  They don’t know how often people pray for them.  Sometimes being an overseas mission worker can feel like abseiling without being sure there’s somebody holding the other end of the rope.

912758_hand-holding_1Yet the desire to pray for them is minimal.  Even where prayer meetings for them are arranged, they are frequently poorly attended and are often deadly boring.  There is little originality, seldom use of videos or games to make them a little more lively.  Yet if St Paul asked for prayer, as he frequently did in his letters, how much more do our mission workers need it?

There are in fact plenty of resources available to help inspire us to pray for mission workers.  Most mission agencies produce them, and they’re more than simple prayer letters.  See for example OMF‘s ideas for prayer, or download their helpful guide Seven Ways to Pray for Missionaries.  Alternatively see Eddie Arthur’s helpful booklet praying through the Lord’s Prayer for mission workers.  Most mission agencies also publish prayer diaries and other information to help you pray for their mission workers.

praying handsA couple of weeks ago we invited you to pray that the Lord of the Harvest will send out more workers.  But there are already over 10,000 British mission workers working hard to bring in the harvest.  They need prayer too.  They need our cooperation, our help, our partnership in their mission.  They need us to share their burdens.  And occasionally, when someone prays, a mission worker on the other side of the world feels the clouds of despondency lift, finds miraculous provision for their needs, makes a breakthrough in their ministry.  Prayer is the fuel which powers the engine of mission – without it the mission workers aren’t going anywhere.

Syzygy’s prayer helpline links those with needs to our group of intercessors.  You can ask for prayer at any time by emailing prayerrequests@syzygy.org.uk, and if you’d like to join our team who pray for mission workers, you can do so by emailing pray@syzygy.org.uk.

Don’t worry about anything, but pray about everything.  With thankful hears offer up your prayers and requests to God.

(Philippians 4:6, Contemporary English Version)