When God breaks your stuff

To sit back and watch your life’s work fall apart…

(Broken...I was pleased to receive this thoughtful story for the blog.)

‘I was such a good missionary. I had given up so much. Surely God would respect that. Right?’

A cross-cultural worker writes of her experience of paring down her worldly goods ready for a simple life among people much poorer than herself, and then finding that within her first 12 months the precious things she had taken from home were mostly broken or damaged by visitors to her home.

She describes her pain and anger with God, followed by brokenness at the recognition of her resentment; the resulting surrender to God and the realisation ‘that people are always more important than things. Always.’

The title grabbed my attention because I too have pondered over similar issues. Not that I have lost crockery or ornaments. Having never been much attached to goods and chattels, I would have difficulty filling two plastic barrels, let alone the 20 that this lady writes of! But that doesn’t mean that other things don’t become precious to me…

Looking back over more than 35 years in mission I have thrown myself into my work, seeking always to honour God, to build up and encourage others. By and large I have enjoyed the ministries God has led me into. These have been for the most part low-profile, with the occasional up-front speaking engagement. I have long recognised God-given leadership gifts and have often been aware of my own insecurities in this role. At the same time, aspirations and ambitions have at times risen to the surface and have had to be laid before God. In asking Him to ‘rank me with whom You will,’ I have frequently been surprised at where He has taken me.

The vision fades

For me, the breaking has come in a different way. I look back over two periods of my life when as part of a leadership team I have given of my best, often going beyond the call of duty, to get a team to the ‘performing’ stage.

In the first case, decisions began to be taken that unwound the changes we had led. Had we failed to communicate the new vision adequately? Or had people simply gone along with it at the time for the sake of peace? Slowly we watched the ministry drift, lose personnel, and forget the original vision.

In the second instance, I stepped down and the new leadership team that took over proved to be overstretched with other responsibilities. That led to dissatisfaction and drift and eventually new leaders were appointed. But they proved to be an unhappy choice, failing to gain the support of the staff.

To sit back and watch your life’s work fall apart is painful – doubly so when it happens the second time! As a former leader I felt I couldn’t interfere. There were days when I had to work hard to avoid adding my comments to the critical voices around me (to my shame I have to say, not always successfully.) As I struggled with my feelings of hurt, anger, and resentment at those who appear to be making poor decisions and ultimately at God Himself for allowing this to happen, I could only watch and pray and ponder…

Did I as a leader miss something significant? Where did I/ we go wrong? Could I have done more to prevent things falling apart? Have other parties been at fault? (Don’t we all want to place the blame at someone else’s door?) This was my life’s work – what is there to show for it? Have I wasted my days building a house of hay and straw, only for it all to come tumbling down? And then, of course, the big question: Where is God in all of this?

The God Question has been the easiest to answer. Over and over again He continues to reveal His love and His grace. He is the unchanging One and in those ongoing revelations of grace I have been reminded that God is loving and kind and altogether on my side! He tests the motives of our hearts and takes us through the refining fire. It is after all His work, not mine, and who am I to argue with Him? It is He who permits ‘men to ride over our heads’. As time has gone on Psalm 66:10-12 has enabled me to put things in perspective. I can only conclude that God has been there all along and continues to work out His purposes, even when the walls come tumbling down.

At the end of the day He will be glorified.

The same psalm speaks of God bringing us to ‘a place of abundance.’ This too is part of my story. Not only have I discovered afresh the love and faithfulness of a Heavenly Father, but I am surrounded these days by people who are choosing to follow Jesus. Playing a small part in their discipleship and practical support is an incredible privilege, with its own joys and sorrows. Through difficult days God has indeed brought me to a place of abundance.

‘Just mercy’

American gulag.

Which country currently has locked 2.3m people in its prisons? Which country has jailed nearly 3,000 children for life with no possibility of parole? Can’t be North Korea (country isn’t big enough). Isn’t China. Stalin is dead so it’s not Russia either.

Welcome to the USA, home to between a quarter and a third of all the world’s jailed, the exceptional nation.

Bryan Stephenson is an African-American lawyer who set up a practice to offer legal support to death-row prisoners and to children who were jailed for life.

He worked in Monroe County, home of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. In a great irony, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is celebrated widely in Monroe County, but does not seem to have made much difference to the courts, where African-Americans, especially poor ones, face a fierce fight to get justice.

It’s an astonishing book – both for the stories it tells, and its glimpses of grace. I cut and pasted a few bits below.

No HIstorical parallel

‘When I first went to death row in December 1983, America was in the early stages of a radical transformation that would turn us into an unprecedentedly harsh and punitive nation and result in mass imprisonment that has no historical parallel. Today we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970s to 2.3million people today. There are nearly six million people on probation or on parole … one in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated.’ (pp 14-15)

Youth justice

‘Some states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults; we’ve sent a quarter million kids to adult jails and prisons to serve long prison terms, some under the age of twelve. For years, we’ve been the only country in the world that condemns children to life imprisonment without parole; nearly three thousand juveniles have been sentenced to die in prison.’ (p 15)

Further consequences of mass incarceration

We ban poor women and, inevitably, their children from receiving food stamps and public housing if they have prior drug convictions … Some states permanently strip people with criminal convictions of the right to vote; as a result in several Southern states disenfranchisement among African American men has reached levels unseen since before the Voting Rights Acts of 1965. (p16)

A principle

Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. (p 17-18)

Alabama’s racist constitution

‘The legislature shall never pass any law to authorise or legalise any marriage between any white person and a Negro or descendant of a Negro.’ (Section 102 of the Alabama constitution.) This was only voted down in a statewide ballot in 2000AD; still, 41% of voters opposed it. (It had been unenforceable since a Supreme Court ruling in 1967)

Redemption and mercy

I have discovered, deep in the heart of many condemned and incarcerated prisoners, the scattered traces of hope and humanity–seeds of restoration that come to astonishing life when nurtured by very simple interventions.’ (p17)

‘The true measure of [our society’s character] is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated and the the condemned.

We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community … Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive … The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and–perhaps–we all need some measure of unmerited grace.’ (p18)

‘For I’m building a people of power’. Fail.

We may not be cut out for it

Look left, look rightFor I’m building a people of power, I”m making a people of praise, who will move through this land by my Spirit.

Now is the time for us to march across the land.

What were we thinking of in the 1980s? When did the church ‘marching across the land’ end well? What would it even look like, the clatter of zimmer frames, the trundle of wheelchairs, the clergy in nice jumpers, overweight people looking hot and wanting to sit down, the toddlers needing the toilet?

Surely ‘marching across the land’ is not how the Kingdom of God spreads. Here’s how the experts do it:

For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.1

 

A new day for churches doing mission

New day is dawningA friend who is missions director at a large American church sent me a copy of their latest thinking about church/mission relationships.

Two earlier phases of mission support

For 50 years or more, his church ran a typical missions policy, mainly focussed on supporting career missionaries through a missions committee.

Inadequacies in this model led them to a second phase, dating from around 2008:

  • They evaluated missionaries’ work as well as the missionaries themselves, learning about their impact and their standing among local partners.
  • They expanded involvement of the congregation through short-term teams and other partnership opportunities.
  • And they took over some of the traditional roles of the mission agency in pastoral care and missions advocacy.
Another new day

But after only eight or so years of this second phase, they again felt a need to refocus, to keep up with a rapidly changing world.

They are seeing a future made of ‘vocational professionals who partner with local Christians to advance missional goals’.

To get there, they suggest diverting funds from traditional missions to build a learning community of disciples within the church.

This community would learn in millennial-friendly contexts such as cross-team story-telling as well as pursuing a basic training curriculum.

Meeting every month or so, they would become a missions-focussed community within the wider congregation.

Presumably from this community would come the ‘Kingdom professionals’ as well as the members doing mission in other ways: some involved in short-term teams, some awarding grants, some in partnership/networking initiatives, some supporting the existing, traditional missions force, some doing local international ministry.

For our UK context

I found a lot of thought-provoking stuff here for our UK context.

  • What do we think about recruiting generalists–eg ‘church planters’–for mission to the least-reached? Is it seeing God’s blessing? Have we analysed how these generalists actually spend their time? How possible is it to send generalists for most of the places we want to send people?
  • Should we be recruiting ‘Kingdom professionals’ instead, people with a clear role and duties? One example cited was sending a Western doctor to an international hospital, with an understanding her role would include teaching indigenous Christian nurses who may then serve among the unreached in villages.
  • How good are we at networking with the global south? Does a commitment to this networking lead us towards or away from a focus on evangelism among the least reached?
  • What do we think of  developing a missions community within our church? This community would embrace people as diverse as an old-style missions committee, short-term teams, and people with cross-cultural opportunities within their work-life or ministry. Such a community would cohere around a regular practice of mutual learning, story-telling, support, and worship.
  • What’s the role of the traditional mission agency in this reshaped landscape?

Challenging stuff both for traditional agencies and churches!

Tolkien on ‘shards of the true light’

Creativity is son-light, filtered

SunlightCreativity is son-light, filtered. Some delicious verse from J R R Tolkein on how our ‘creativity’ is really a derivative of the divine creativity:

Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light

through whom is splintered from a single White

to many hues, and endlessly combined

in living shapes that move from mind to mind.1

 

For Tolkein, myth was a fragment of a truth, and a pointer to God.  (The quote also shows him to be no fan of modern technology.)

We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.” 2

Evangelical mission: notes for the future

Potted intro to a new day

| 5 |If evangelical mission was software, we are seeing the launch of version 5.0. Borrowing from other church historians (especially Ralph Winter) here’s a simplified version history.

Missions 1.0: nothing at all

Shortly after the Reformation, the Catholic mission orders such as the Franciscans, Dominicans and Jesuits had the fields all to themselves. Through these brilliant missionaries, with their mass-baptism programmes and their culturally sensitive outreach to elites, the Catholic church gained more converts than it had lost through the European schism.

Mission 2.0: The invention of the NGO

The mission agency was invented at the end of the 18th century. It was a Swiss-army-knife-type operation that developed all the necessary skills to recruit and manage a flow of Christians from the Protestant world (mostly Europe and the US) to the non-Christian countries, and also to the Catholic and Orthodox lands.

Mission 3.0: Inland

A generation or so after NGOs got a foothold on the coasts and trading posts, a new wave of pioneers took the gospel beyond coastal cities like Shanghai or Kolkata into the inland regions. This was the era of leaders like Hudson Taylor, trusting God for missionaries in every province of China, and of a new generation of NGOs like the China Inland Mission, the Unevangelized Fields Mission and the Heart of Africa Mission (later WEC).

Mission 4.0: Unreached peoples

Fast forward to 1974 (and pass over other developments like two world wars, the liberal/conservative split and Pentecostal and charismatic renewal). An understanding of unreached peoples took hold in the missions community. Even though a church was present in every country, many people were still isolated from the gospel by cultural barriers. Missions 4.0 built networks to discover and reach every cultural group–hence NGOs like Wycliffe Bible Translators and Gospel Recordings; books like Operation World; and strategies and networks that tried to catalyze new Christian movements so that everyone could meet Christ within a language and culture in which they felt at home.

Missions 5.0 Pluralism

Just as computer software has had to adapt from life on a single PC to appearing on many interlinked devices of differing shapes and capacities, so the simplicities of Mission 2.0 have been replaced by an increasingly universal pluralism. Cultures are all shaped by the same forces. Universally, people are moving into cities, leaving poverty and its diseases behind, getting access to travel and information. And cultures are being jumbled together. Ever-more people work with, live next to, or worship alongside people from different cultures. Ever-more unreached peoples have Christian near-neighbours.

Evangelical mission is still based on its original version 2.0 coding, despite extensive tweaks at versions 3.0 and 4.0 that extended its life. It’s time for a re-write.

The need of the hour is to spread vision and skills for cross-cultural mission onto a variety of ‘devices’ such as local Christians, local churches, local specialist agencies, short-term trippers, schoolchildren, students, professionals, refugees, migrants and retirees. This is evangelical mission 5.0. Mission agencies, instead of being swiss-army-knife, we-can-do-it organizations, need to be–I would argue–like ‘the cloud’, resourcing everything everywhere, knitting networks together and in those ways making cross-cultural kingdom-spreading a realistic option for Christians in every context.

The game is up for the Christian publishing industry?

I need help.

I have just thought a terrible thought.

The single biggest obstacle to getting books into the hands of eager readers is the Christian publishing industry, an industry that I love, respect and owe much to.

Here’s the problem.

I am preparing a talk on Revelation. I would like to read a book called ‘The Theology of Revelation’ by scholar Richard Bauckham. An internet search tells me it’s on sale at Amazon for £21 or rather less on Kindle. The same search pulls up a pdf copy of the book available for free.

I am queasy about downloading the pdf because I am cheating somehow, but I am also queasy about shelling out £20, even if I did this through my local Christian bookshop. £20 is a lot of money.

What I would really like to do, it occurs to me, is email Richard Bauckham and ask if he minded me reading the free pdf. I do not think he would mind (I don’t know him). But I also think he would say he has a contract with the publishers and they would mind.

I decide to do without the book, so I neither download it nor buy it. The Christian publishing industry made the barriers too high for me.

In the late-medieval days of yore– say 1989–the only way to get material from a fine mind like Richard Bauckham into my lesser head was to have a Christian publishing industry. And it was fantastic. It shaped the Protestant world.  The book cost £20. That was relatively expensive, but we paid it sometimes because we knew that although some money went to the author, most went to maintaining a world-spanning chain that edited, printed, marketed, warehoused, and displayed this and thousands of other wonderful books and made them available everywhere. In an analogue world, this was a modest cost for unimagineably vast benefits.

But everything has changed. Getting Prof Bauckman’s book direct from his head to mine now costs almost nothing, probably less than a penny.

So why can’t the book be available for 99p, most of which would go to Prof Bauckham? Why not? Because the publishers and the booksellers can’t live with that price, and through their contractual arrangements they stand in the way of it being available at that price.  Christian publishers and booksellers, once the friend of Christians who wish to learn, have become their enemy. This is my terrible thought. Committed to an archaic ante-deluvian distribution model, they make books needlessly, ruinously expensive and thus drastically reduce their circulation and usefulness. Bauckham should be read by his tens of thousands; but thanks to the Christian publishing industry, he only has his thousands, or indeed his hundreds. What a terrible waste! 

But, say the industry, it’s not so simple. They will tell me I am underplaying their contribution: talent-spotting, editing, marketing,  gate-keeping; that magical work of taking an MS and making it fluent, coherent, available, and hallmarked as theologically solid and well-written.

I will return and say that may have been true once but is so no longer. Editing? You jest. Developing authors? Dream on. Marketing? Authors have to  do it themselves. Typesetting and cover design? Free or cheap alternatives will do just as well for this kind of book. (See what CUP did with Bauckham’s book, below: this is intern stuff.) Gatekeeping? Proper reader reviews are worth much more than the fluff that goes on the cover. What is left? The prestige of being published by a respected house. This is true. But it ain’t worth £19, not when these very respected names are being taken over by accountants and falling off the perch like the rest of the rust-belt.

Publishing once was a world-changing industry; so was coal-mining.

Please someone help me, save me from my sins!

The Theology of the Book of Revelation (New Testament Theology)

I edited this blog after first writing it, to try to simplify the arguments. I changed the title from ‘Christian bookshops’ to ‘Christian publishing industry’. I also added the Amazon ref to Prof Bauckham’s book, which I would like to warmly recommend–but of course I  haven’t read it. 

How to give to charity (3)

This can’t be right. Can it?

I once looked at a writing job with a large Christian charity.

‘It’s mostly fundraising,’ they explained, ‘and we’ve got a good system.’

Their good system was:

  • A fresh appeal every few weeks or months
  • Cheap-looking paper
  • Each mailshot made up of a few typed sheets, black and white photos, with “handwritten” additions and underlinings in red ink.
  • Sent out to a carefully refined mailing list. Single women in their 40s-70s were the favoured audience.
  • Guaranteed results.

I decided not to work for this charity.

Where does carefully monitoring the success of fundraising campaigns end? Where does cynical exploitation begin? I couldn’t figure that out, but I wouldn’t have felt right doing that job.

There has to be a better way, and that better way has to be us givers taking the initiative, giving regularly and generously to a set of good causes, and not letting ourselves be manipulated.

More than bananas – revisited

I’ve collected some blog posts specially for  all the people who enjoyed my book More than Bananas – How the Christian faith works for me and the whole Universe. This title — a free download on Kindle– has been in the Kindle theology bestseller list for the past 9 months or so.

Here they are:

Even more bananas

The real problem with praying to God for healing: he has an agenda

We might not like the medicine

You probably know the old joke about a person who fell off a cliff but managed to grab hold of a branch halfway down. As he swung, he called into the mists below him, ‘Is there anybody there? Can you help me?’

A voice came from the mist. ‘Trust me, and let go the branch.’

The person thought about it and then said, ‘Noted. Is there anybody else down there?’

Involving God in our healing exposes us to the risk that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not our ways.

We may come to him with the hope of a quick fix to a medical problem. But in coming, we open ourselves to the fact that God may have a view on what is really wrong with us and what needs to be put right.  

We may point out the mote in God’s eye (he let me suffer toothache!), he points out the plank in ours. We bring our agenda to him; he brings his agenda to us. It is like when you have to speak to your wife about something.  It’s unpredictable. You don’t know what avalanche will be unleashed as you remove the first boulder. 

Unfortunately I know of no way round this. Once we bring our problems to God we are in the same position as the king with an army of 10,000 discovering that the opposing king has an army of 20,000.  By the end of the day there will only be one king left standing. One agenda will survive the meetup. And it won’t be ours.

Our options at this point are limited. We could take the ‘Henry V’ option (‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…’) Or, since it is God we are now facing, God and his agenda for us, we could take our army to one side and say, ‘Lads, it’s like this. We either face certain death in battle or we surrender and hope for the best.’ We come to him: we submit to him. We want his touch; the only thing offered is his outstretched arms, his deep embrace. It’s all or nothing, all of him or nothing.

Our only way out of this dilemma is to take our medicine as soon as possible. We want healing if possible please; if so, we first need to surrender ourselves, body, mind and schedule, heart and soul and hopes, to the Healer.