Quick hit thoughts from my trip to Sri Lanka

After my two weeks in Sri Lanka, I plan to write a few items of advice based on my experiences as a traveller in the country. Before I do that, I’d like to provide some other thoughts that, hopefully, delve into greater depths:

1.       The western church needs to stop talking about learning from the church of the Global South, and actually start doing it. I was deeply impressed when talking to students of a theological college about their experiences and thoughts of what Sri Lanka needs to move forward. Their unique perspective is as the war generation, having grown up on one side or the other of the 30 year conflict that tore the country apart. Because of this they are keenly aware of the biblical call as messengers of reconciliation, and of the tension that often blocks us between justice and reconciliation. They have thought this through at a more significant level than anyone who has not experienced conflict could ever do. I felt that some of our mistakes, such as the tragedy of the Iraq war, or the uncertain response to the Afghanistan war, by the church in many or most western nations, could have been avoided had we thought to ask what Christians in countries such as this would have to say. And now, with Syria having raised these same issues once more, I fear that their input will be marginalised and we will, with reasonably good intentions, visit old mistakes once again.

2.       The input of western Christians is welcome and appreciated. In missionary circles we sometimes talk about how churches in many other places are past the point where our help is wanted. It is good that this is happening, but it’s not the whole picture. The reality is still that we are overwhelmed with resources – books, conferences, study materials, sermon podcasts – all in a language of our convenience. But in places where Christians are the minority, such as Sri Lanka, and where the primary language isn’t English (although many have some understanding of it) they are very much open to us contributing skills and training and much more. The era of foreign church planting may be slowly drawing to a close, but there is still vast opportunity and need for foreign mission, only of a different form. We still have a vital role to play, especially from the background, helping develop leaders and facilitating better structures and resources to enable local Christians to play their part in building the kingdom.

3.       One vital role for the western church is as a megaphone for our brothers and sisters living in other countries. I would encourage you to do some research into the intense challenges faced by Christians in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the region. We have no idea about how difficult it is to be a member of a minority faith in a place where nationality and religion are intensely combined. The implication of being all a part of the family of Christ is that we cannot leave them or act like it isn’t our responsibility to stand with them. We can and should speak up on their behalf, remember them in prayer, and make sure that those we can influence, such as our own governments, are doing all that is possible to ensure freedom of belief and speech.

4.       Being a good neighbour should benefit those like us, and those unlike us. As in so many places, Christians are faced with well-connected majority religions intent on protecting their own status, Christians are at a steep disadvantage. This has caused me to consider what it is like to be a follower of a minority religion in Canada, the States, or the UK. We don’t need to compromise in our conviction that everyone needs to know Jesus and all he’s done, yet we also should never be okay with those who believe differently feeling belittled or attacked. My experiences have caused me to consider what it is like to a minority where I live, and how Jesus might have me respond.

The view on a stormy day in the tea plantations.

The view on a stormy day in the tea plantations.

The man-made lake in the centre of Kandy.

The man-made lake in the centre of Kandy.

Statues in a Buddhist temple Fishing boats near Galle


Conflict-what’s not to love?

Near my former home in Port Alberni, Canada, there were two distinct ecosystems. (Perhaps more, but two stand out now.) Towards the interior of the island stand the stunning cedars of Cathedral Grove. The sheer scale of the trees make them a worthy stop for tourists as evidenced by the long line of camper vans on either side of the highway. Yet as massive as they may be the trees are less robust than one would expect. The problem is that they are sheltered from the worst of the local weather and so do not develop root systems as deeply as they might. All well and good unless a storm comes as they inevitably do. At that point the trees change from beautiful to lethal, from lordly to precarious.

If you were to head west to the coast, toes touching the Pacific, the trees are significantly less dramatic. They are beaten and gnarled, battered by regular storms without the advantage of sheltering hills or closely gathered forests. They look small, mere shrubs compared to the cedars farther inland. And yet, if you were to look deep below the surface you would see massive root systems, making each tree a powerful bulwark against worst of winds and rain.

That is, for me, a symbol of the value of conflict. As unpleasant as it may be – and it truly is unpleasant – it is necessary for us to develop the strength that will hold us in place when things get tough. To switch metaphors, any weight lifter will find that lifting more will hurt more, but that trying for less produces poor fruit. The pain of resistance is where benefit is found.

Unfortunately, we spend a lot of time trying to avoid conflict. Often it happens when we hold back on a challenging word or permit ‘small’ sins because it is easier that way. But one that I see tripping leaders up far too often is the unwillingness to make a difficult decision that may rub some people the wrong way. As almost any decision will rub someone the wrong way, it leads to a paralysis of vision and undermining of momentum.

And conflict is an inevitable outcome of diversity. Our varying experiences/emphasis/visions/expectations/etc make this inescapable. This can be positive – it refines our beliefs and challenges our assumptions – and is a necessary element of true community. But that may not make it more comfortable.

We need to become strong in a few areas:

First, we need to double and triple check that what we do is done in love. I would never be permissive in saying that all conflict is good so we should look for opportunities to pick a fight. Make the hard decision, but be kind at the same time. Leading as a team allows others to provide us with the perspective to check our motivations. Leading in isolation can lead us vulnerable.

Secondly, we need to grow in commitment. Conflict can be dealt with positively and constructively where there is commitment to community, because this creates a foundation where we can talk honestly without fear of rejection or the temptation to run away. This will, in turn, bring value to our communities because we have enabled relationships to become authentic and our real selves to be visible to others. I think of Jesus words to Peter: Get behind me, Satan!” Peter could take the rebuke without the concern that Jesus would turn his back on him, and therein lies the value of an honest word in the context of a committed relationship.

Finally, change the focus from avoiding conflict to dealing with it well. Learn to speak honestly without sacrificing kindness. Not always easy, but a sign of maturity. “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” (Eph. 4:15)

I would never say that all conflict is good, or that all is necessary. Nor do I feel that we can or should find it comfortable – I would have serious doubts about anyone who likes conflict. But if we manage our own role we will find that Jesus can use conflict in amazing ways to refine our character and expand our vision.

Justice, mercy and reconciliation

It’s a shame to live in a place but never really get to see it. I therefore consider myself fortunate that work has required me to visit several cities that would otherwise be easily missed. I’ve had few complaints with any of them, although not all are destined to be tourist meccas.

But my favourite thus far has been Coventry. The reason isn’t because of the old cobblestone streets or expansive pedestrian zones – not that they hurt. Really it is because I loved hearing the story of the half-destroyed cathedral, strikingly situated in the centre of the city.

Spire of the ruined cathedral

The cathedral was built as a beautiful Gothic church in the 14th century, which should have brought it a little respect. But as fate would have it, Coventry was a priority target for the German Luftwaffe during in the Battle of Britain due to its role as an important industrial centre. The city itself suffered a great deal of damage, with the loss of many lives, in a series of raids. But the most serious raid hit the city on 14 November 1940. A large number  of bombers hit the city with a variety of bombs in the course of the evening, killing 568, injuring 1256, and destroying 4300 homes as well as other buildings. In this attack, the cathedral itself was first set aflame, and then destroyed, leaving behind a broken shell-spire intact, a few walls, but little else.

In the midst of the horror that is war, I doubt that many think beyond revenge, fighting back, taking it to the enemy. But the response of the provost (who oversees the cathedral), Richard Howard, was to do the opposite. Immediately after the scale of devastation sunk in he began to speak of reconciliation, of forgiveness for those who wronged them. It was decided that the cathedral would remain a ruin – a new one was built next door – to act as a memorial. The new cathedral would not be built as an act of defiance, but as a sign of faith and hope for the future.

Two beams that fell from the cathedral ceiling were found in the shape of a cross. They were nailed together in this position with the words “Father Forgive” etched in. This has given a name to the “Community of the Cross”, one part of a Ministry of Peace and Reconciliation begun in response to the war. Churches in Germany and elsewhere were brought into communion, and from this has spread an incredible global work of seeking reconciliation all over the world in all sorts of conflict zones.

The wooden cross

I had a chance to spend some time in the old cathedral. I found it a challenging place – it sets a high standard for a faithful response to challenge – but also an inspiring one. Coventry Cathedral is, for me, an example of the church at its best. When the church is as it should be it avoids the well-trodden paths of rights-based individualism and self-righteous indignation. We are called to make the difficult decisions to choose mercy over justice and forgiveness over revenge. Anyone can respond to an insult with a harsh word, or a bomb with a bomb in return, but haven’t we had enough of those? I’m far more interested in living out the mercy of Jesus when he forgave those who had him on the cross, and I believe that we live in an exhausted world starving for the same.

When I get to the peak of discouragement at how far we as Christians fail to live up to the standard of the Bible – and myself as the same – it is a great reminder that, when we really do live in a way that takes Jesus seriously, we can be and do something pretty special.

If you are interested in hearing more about the work done from Coventry Cathedral you can find if here.


Visits From Friends

426398_10151326009627898_1890656712_nIt’s not often enough that I get to hang out with my missionary pals, even those who live relatively close. Living off of voluntary support does not usually lead to a monetary surplus, so travel is generally restricted to essentials, or at least to offers difficult to refuse. This is a shame because I have yet to leave a conversation with my missionary peers lacking encouragement. There is something special about hearing stories of God doing something amazing- a changed life, a small breakthrough, a small sacrifice. It is the best kind of fuel, and a demonstration of the power of community when we share a journey and bear each others burdens. A couple of hours over a latte with someone hungry for Jesus and hungry to serve is time well invested.

I am quite happy to have had the chance to spend an afternoon with two friends from Italy, one old and one new, a couple of weeks ago as they passed through London. It’s always a blast when someone comes to visit. I feel a certain ownership of the city, although I’m not sure any true Londoner is ready to accept me as a local given my regular pronunciation of consonants. Still, it is fun to show off favourite haunts and highlights, and act like I know my way around.

In between photographing Big Ben and avoiding the crush at Piccadilly Circus, I got to hear about a church being born and big ideas for the future. I regularly leave these conversations with the sense that God is up to something substantial in Italy. For too long a spiritual backwater where Jesus and the Bible were marginalized there is a change in the atmosphere, and no less in the church.

But this is taking place in the midst of significant opposition beyond the normal cultural barriers to non-Catholics in Italy. The financial crisis, among other things, has created a difficult situation for everyone. For missionaries, this means huge difficulties dealing with new tax burdens that are making it unsustainable for many to remain. Those that try to remain are struggling to navigate the legendarily difficult Italian bureaucracy and confusing rules to find out how staying put may be possible.

Having been through a difficult couple of months dealing with some similar issues, I deeply admire all of those who are demonstrating deep faith and commitment to serve God in Italy and elsewhere. What struck me from the conversation we had was how much trust was required to keep going when so much of the future was unknown, and uncontrollable. It cannot ever be easy to give your life to serve in an area without knowing if finances or visas will let you stick around next year.

In every ministry there is a moment where we hand it all over to God. It is not up to me whether this work succeeds or fails. I don’t succeed because of my effort. I don’t live and eat because of my financial accumen. Progress isn’t made through my gifts, personality or force of will. God does it, and although he invites me to join in the journey and participate along the way, he does not and never will ask me to bear a burden beyond my ability to lift.

I have learned that ministry is challenging enough without trying to take one all those things that aren’t our responsibility, like the way people respond to what we have to say. I suspect that one of the reasons why so few people last long in full-time ministry is because we are dealing with expectations we could never deliver on. The biggest thing that I have learned in this is to separate what is my responsibility (work ethic, faithfulness, availability, etc.) from that which belongs to God. When faced with difficulties like the missionaries in Italy it’s such distinctions that make all of the difference. I do what I can do and should do. The rest I gladly leave to a faithful and powerful God.


My life as an Impressionist Painting

One of my most favourite place in the world is The National Gallery in London. I try to make a quick stop there as often as my life allows. Although it contains an astoundingly large collection of European art I am always drawn to the Impressionist section. Every time I walk in I get so overcome with emotion that I am sure everyone else can see my visible goosebumps. What is so special about the Impressionists paintings and what sets them apart from the classic style?

The Impressionism emerged in France at the end of the 19th century and immediately faced opposition and criticism from the conventional art community and art lovers alike. What characterised the style were visible brush strokes, very realistic depiction of light and quite common/almost mundane subjects. To the uninitiated, the paintings looked blurry, childlike, unskilled, undignified. It looked like a BIG MESS.

When I first learned about the Impressionist movement I was about 14 and by then the furor had died down as people figured out what was so unique about the style. I also learned that to appreciate paintings done in the Impressionist style, you have to step back, quiet your soul and allow the painting to speak to you. The first time I’d done that I became a committed fan.

Last night it became very apparent to me that my life is very much like a blurry, moody and prosaic impressionist painting, and the only thing that is clear is the Light that is always present within it. I am often the poor soul standing too close to a Monet in the National Gallery, unable to discern beauty and purpose in the chaos. I am peering impatiently in the present, struggling to work out what is the purpose and meaning of it all while asking the Artist to explain himself and bring things into focus. What I realised in my moment of revelation is that was not what the Impressionist artists set out to achieve. Their goal was to impact you, make you think, move you. Is that what God wants from me?

I write this from a time of chaos and uncertainty, one of those wonderful times where what can go wrong, does. The glory of it all is not easily found. Although I catch glimpses of something special, they end up buried in the mess. It is only when I step back from the action, allow my soul to quiet in time spent with Jesus, that I am able to perceive his faithful and loving hand at work.

If you are in a similar place and studying your life far too closely in attempts to figure out what is in front of you try to remember the cardinal rules of enjoying the art.

1. Step away from the painting.

2. Quiet your soul.

3. Allow it to move you.

After all, the meaning of our life is not in the fine details but in the overall impression we leave on the people around us, and in the beauty that the Father draws out from the greatest chaos of our own lives.

Living a great story

It’s been an anxious month, with unexpected expenses and no obvious way to pay them. But God, as he always does, has come through. Although all is not yet resolved, our situation – where we briefly wondered if we would have to abandon all this and return to Canada – is looking a whole lot better at the moment.

It is inevitable in these times to wonder what God is up to and if he is aware just how un-fun it is for those of us living through it. And yet I can say with the experience of having lived through several of these moments that the Father is exactly as faithful as he promised. And as a bonus, I feel like I grow through every opportunity to have my faith stretched, coming out with more that I entered, and a great story with which to brag about the God I serve.

I was reminded as I woke up this morning of something Samwise Gamgee said in The Lord of the Rings. At one point, when things were dire, when he and Frodo were weighed down by the burden they were carrying, an uncertain road and the knowledge that failure was staring them in the face. Samwise reminded Frodo of all the great stories, where the hero inevitably faces horrible odds and a bleak future. But the worse things get in the story, the sweeter the victory in the end. Without great pain and uncertainty and crisis there are no great stories. At no level do I enjoy the crisis, but I feel like this is all a part of living a great story, which I know we will never regret in the end.

And for all of you who gave so much to help us out, you have our eternal thanks. This is your story too. We live it in different ways and in different places, but ultimately it requires us all to contribute in our own way. Thank you to all our supporters for your continued faithfulness in walking this journey with us.

Frey family

The Next Wave of Mission

We are convinced that Europe is desperately in need of Jesus.

But we are aware that not everyone will see it quite the same way. And of course we understand. For so long we have got used to thinking about mission as originating in the first world and sent inevitably to the third world, as if spiritual poverty were, always, linked to monetary poverty.

Except that it isn’t. At least not always. The church in China, Africa, South America and Central Asia is growing in ways not seen since, perhaps, Acts. At the same time, Europe-and North America is desperate for Christ, whether or not they know it yet. And at sometime in the next decade the rest of the church will wake up to the reality, as has already begun to happen. In the meantime we are happy to make the case for investment by mission into the Global North. And we’ll happily accept a little help along the way. Rather than listen only to us, have a read of this blog, which makes the case in the North American context. While Europe is different than California, the same spiritual emptiness remains the same.

And so, from Jamie, the Very Worst Missionary, we hope you enjoy Jesus in Cougar Town.