Why I won’t be tipping cold water over my head

August 22, 2014 in Mark, Culture, Justice, Mission

Anyone who has been on social media in North America or Europe over the past few days cannot help but have seen the phenomenon that involves people filming themselves tipping ice-cold water over their heads, apparently to raise awareness and/or money for charity. Although the details vary, the first step is generally that someone is challenged by a friend, to either give $100 to charity, or to tip a bucket of ice-cold water over their head to be released from the obligation to donate (or in some cases to give a lesser amount). This person then challenges several more people, and the cycle continues…

While the idea has become hugely popular (as my Facebook and Twitter feeds testify), and apparently successful in terms of raising money (with this report suggesting $41 million has been raised for A.L.S. research up until August 21st), I have to say it makes me feel uncomfortable. Read the rest of this entry →

Good News for the Poor?

November 13, 2012 in Life, Mark, Africa, Bible, Church, Front, Justice, Mission, Tanzania, Theology

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” (Luke 4:18-19)

This was the Scripture that Jesus read in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth, asserting that the Scripture was being fulfilled through himself, and giving an early indication as to how he saw his ministry. But how did Jesus fulfill this prophecy of good news to the poor? And what does that mean for today?

Last month we were in Tanzania’s largest city, Dar es Salaam, which caused me to ponder these questions. What is the good news for the poor of today? Read the rest of this entry →

Giving Up Everything?

May 23, 2012 in Mark, Africa, Front, Mission, Theology

When a cross-cultural worker moves to a different country and a very different culture, as well as experiencing many benefits, they will also inevitably give up a great deal to do so. The things that they have to give up may be financial (a well-paying job), relational (family and friends) or just simply the comfort of knowing what to expect when living in one’s own culture and speaking one’s own language.

When moving overseas it can be easy to focus on the things one has given up, feeling like we are suffering a great deal for God and his work. “We had to give up so much in order to move to this country”, or “my life is difficult but God needs me here” can be common sentiments among cross-cultural mission workers. In this situation I can also deceive myself that I am vitally important to God’s work, and that I deserve to be in charge and making the strategic decisions since I have invested “so much”. Read the rest of this entry →

A missional reading of Matthew 20:1-16

June 23, 2011 in Mark, Bible, Mission, Theology

Last week we were in Petaluma, California, spending time with friends and with one of our supporting churches. During our time there we were able to share with a couple of the home groups about the work we’re doing, and also to reflect on the message we’d heard in church about Jesus’ parable of the vineyard workers from Matthew 20 and the role of this story in God’s mission.

“For the Kingdom of Heaven is like the landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard.2He agreed to pay the normal daily wage and sent them out to work.3“At nine o’clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing.4So he hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right at the end of the day.5So they went to work in the vineyard. At noon and again at three o’clock he did the same thing.

6“At five o’clock that afternoon he was in town again and saw some more people standing around. He asked them, ‘Why haven’t you been working today?’

7“They replied, ‘Because no one hired us.’

“The landowner told them, ‘Then go out and join the others in my vineyard.’

8“That evening he told the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first.9When those hired at five o’clock were paid, each received a full day’s wage.10When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage.11When they received their pay, they protested to the owner,12‘Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.’

13“He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage?14Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you.15Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?’

16“So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.”

Matthew 20:1-16

The first thing we noticed about this parable is that it comes immediately after the rich man asked Jesus what he must do to enter the kingdom of heaven. The rich man was part of God’s people Israel and had been following the law all his life, so probably expected Jesus to give him one or two pieces of advice and then commend him for being a faithful believer. But instead Jesus says that in order to really follow God he must sell all he has and give it to the poor.

Next Peter asks Jesus what he and the other disciples will receive as they have given up everything to follow him. Jesus tells them they will be rewarded (which, given that some of them came from slightly dubious backgrounds, must have puzzled or even angered the rich man who had been following the law all his life) but then goes on to tell this parable.

What is the main message of the parable? What is Jesus trying to teach the rich man, and Peter, and the crowd, and us, about the nature of God’s kingdom?

I wonder if the point of this parable is that rewards are not really the important part of God’s kingdom. Every worker received the same wage in the story, but the emphasis is on the vineyard owner doing as he pleases with his money. Yes, those like Peter who give up everything to follow Christ will be rewarded (even if from the point of view of the rich man they have only started working at the eleventh hour), but the story ultimately illustrates how none of the workers can feel more important or more worthy than any of the others. The right response of the workers is simply to be faithful with whatever opportunity they are given, rather than seeking reward or comparing themselves to others.

In the world money, rewards, power and status are important. Immediately after this parable Matthew records the mother of James and John asking that they have the most prestigious places in his kingdom. But I think in this story Jesus is saying that actually his kingdom is not about rewards, it’s not about comparing ourselves with others or trying to achieve more status or power. It’s not about getting ahead or looking down on those who are not playing the game as well as we are. But rather it’s about service, sacrifice and being faithful with the good gifts and the opportunities that God gives us.

How is this missional? Well, I think the main aim of God’s mission, and of Jesus’ life on earth, is to establish his kingdom. Many of the stories Jesus told, including this one, were aimed at sparking people’s imaginations to envision the new creation that God is bringing about, simultaneously teaching about his kingdom and drawing the hearers into it. As we read these stories I think we can learn a huge amount by seeking to understand what Jesus was trying to communicate, what attitudes and misconceptions he was trying to correct, and the methods he used to try to do this.

As we seek to live as missional people in our world, playing our part in God’s mission, how can we, like Jesus, help those outside the church to understand what God’s kingdom is really like? We live in a world where power, money and status are seen to be hugely important, and people naturally assume that it is the same in God’s kingdom. Jesus creatively and imaginatively challenged people to think outside of this box and realise that God’s kingdom turns these values upside-down, making the first last and the last first.

How can we as Christians be showing the world, through our lives and through creative means of communication, that God’s kingdom is not about power, money or status, or about trying to do better than those around us? How can we show that following Jesus is about giving, sacrifice, putting others before ourselves, and being faithful whatever opportunities God gives us?

Vineyard

Wealth, Poverty and Partnership

April 12, 2011 in Mark, Mission

As part of my ongoing MA in Bible and Mission I am writing an essay about Missio Dei – seeing mission as God’s mission – and what it means for the church in the 21st Century. As I’ve been researching and writing this essay I came across an explanation by Ajith Fernando of the importance of lifestyle choices related to wealth and comfort in the context of world mission.

We should be careful about the lifestyle issue when we enter into partnerships between Christians from rich and poor nations. Partnership is certainly a good and necessary thing, and it is one of the heartening areas of growth in missions today. Many churches in richer nations honestly want equality with other Christians, and this is a key for missionary motivation for partnership. Paul said, “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality” (2 Cor. 8:13). Richer Christians feel bad that there is such a difference between their lifestyle and that of Christians from poorer nations. But when they come to our [poorer] nations, they live in luxury hotels where a day’s cost is about the monthly salary of a Christian worker. Unconsciously, the local leaders also get sucked into this lifestyle. And the guilty rich visitors feed this desire by suggesting that the locals need more conveniences. This is a powerful temptation, because we all like comfort and efficiency, and the simple lifestyle may be quite inefficient. If we succumb to this pressure, we will soon become distant from the people we are called to serve.

My father is a layman who has been active in the Evangelical Movement for a long time. He once told me that often a young evangelist goes to an unreached area and begins a good work of pioneering evangelism. This goes on for a time, until he comes in touch with a foreign sponsor who takes him on as “Our man in Sri Lanka.” From that point on, the ministry goes downhill. The worldwide missionary movement, therefore, needs to do a lot of thinking about the whole issue of lifestyle and how that affects the way missionary partnerships work.

Ajith Fernando, Jesus: The Message and Model of Mission, in Taylor, 2000, Global Missiology for the 21st Century

This is something that has been on my heart a lot recently, and I’m not sure there are any easy answers when we live in a world of such economic contrasts. Some people will advise missionaries from richer nations going to live in a poorer country that they should buy all the things they need to feel at home, in order that they not burn out. Often this is justified by reasoning that this is what the local people expect of outsiders, and that if they tried to live at a lower economic level their discomfort and uneasiness would be obvious to those they’re living with. On the other hand some people do try to give up their wealthy lifestyle and live as close as possible to the people they are serving, but in many cases they are only able to keep this up for a short time before returning to their home country.

I don’t know where the balance lies, and it will certainly be different for every person and situation, but I’m convinced that the area of wealth disparity is something that cross-cultural missionaries cannot just give simplistic answers to, but need to continually wrestle with.

Women at well