Changing Mission: What Can We Expect in 2016?
by Jeff Ritchie
When I served as a missionary in South Korea in the 1980s, my last assignment was in the office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Korea. We opened each day with staff devotions. I still remember one of those devotional times which took place at the beginning of a new year.
The Bible passage read that day was Psalm 90, especially focusing on verses 12-15: “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom…. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us….” As the worship leader spoke, I thought it was a rather somber way to begin a new year. “Life is short and full of trouble,” says the Psalmist. “Bad things are going to happen, so Lord, give us wisdom to know how to navigate the struggles, and please give us some reasons each day to rejoice and be glad.” Not very sanguine is it? But it is both realistic and hopeful.
As 2015 draws to an end and 2016 begins, how can we be realistic and at the same time hopeful, as the Psalmist was? Certainly there was more than enough trouble, suffering, and evil in the world in 2015 for God’s people to beg God, “Have pity on your servants.”
1. We have been overwhelmed with random and planned acts of violence in the United States.
2. ISIS and other militant Islamic groups are engaged in all-out struggles for power, creating a refugee crisis in Europe and fear in America.
3. Other parts of the world out of the news spotlight – one can mention South Sudan and Central African Republic, for example – have seen civil wars and ethnic conflicts which have devastated the peoples of those countries.
4. Religious persecution in other countries has made peoples fearful – will we be next?
5. Even if we are not directly affected by the first four of these, no one is immune from personal or family tragedy striking unexpectedly.
The above catalogue has not taken into account the many natural disasters of 2015 as well as those caused by human agency. Added to all of these things, the world has finally awakened to the fact that global warming is a mega-disaster waiting to happen.
Unfortunately, the coming year cannot be counted upon to be trouble free. Whether it is our personal lives we look at, or larger canvas of peoples and nations, there will be more than enough tragedy and evil to keep us sober. Yet as the apostle Paul wrote, “Where sin abounds, grace abounds.”
God was at work in 2015. Sometimes the work was invisible to human observation. Other times it was plain for all to see. Let us look at some examples of God’s work as it has manifested itself to and through his servants (Psalm 90:16) in 2015.
Presbyterians in Cuba and the United States are rejoicing in the restoration of the relationship between the governments of their respective countries. With the increasing freedom to travel, The Outreach Foundation finds that its trips to Cuba fill up completely every time they are offered.
In spite of an on-going civil war in South Sudan, courageous leaders of the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan at the national level served faithfully as witnesses to the warring parties that the people of South Sudan want peace. At the grass-roots level, pastors have followed their flocks into temporary exile in refugee camps in places like Gambella, Ethiopia. There they tend the spiritual and physical needs of their flocks: Bibles, hymnals, and mosquito nets have been distributed, and a trauma healing workshop has been held. God is at work through his church in difficult places such as Kule 1 Refugee Camp, Gambella, Ethiopia.
While we have heard so much about the many refugees who have gone to Europe to get away from war in the Middle East, the “rest of the story” is about faithful Christians who minister to the millions of refugees and internally displaced persons who cannot leave the region. At the frontlines of these mercy ministries are churches in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan who have not let war and lack of resources keep them from serving their neighbors. Last spring, for example, a team from the Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (Presbyterian) went to war-torn areas of northeast Syria to provide aid to refugees such as this woman and her child.
The team also was a source of pastoral encouragement for brave souls like the Rev. Firas Farah and his wife (shown here), along with the congregations he serves in very difficult places, Qamishli, Hasakah, and Malikiya.
In Pakistan a Christian couple was burned alive about a year ago. Nevertheless, the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan has a new Moderator with a vision for planting churches in this largely (97%) Muslim country.
Neighboring India has another church of Presbyterian heritage with a vision. Twenty years ago it was a struggling cluster of about forty churches. Today it has fifty-five organized churches, 250 home meetings (“emerging churches”), and it has a vision for planting another 1,000 emerging churches, mostly by trained lay leaders. This vision is being carried out in a Hindu context.
If 2016 is anything like 2015, there will be times in our own lives and in the life of mission partners where we ask, “Where are you, God? It is time to act!” We may feel helpless, unable to affect any real change in the big picture.
Rather than be overcome with despair, however, we can take heart from the faithful believers we see in our communities or whom we meet in other parts of the world. They do what they can with the resources they have, entrusting the results to the Lord. We too can follow their example by offering ourselves to the Lord and praying with the Psalmist, “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands” (90:17). By God’s grace we also will see the hand of the Lord bearing fruit through us bringing “beauty in the midst of ugliness, truth in the midst of lies, love in the midst of hatred, and light shining in the midst of darkness.”*
Have a blessed 2016.
Associate Director for Mission
*Credit for this last phrase goes to a sermon by John Buchanan, retired Presbyterian pastor, “Welcome Intrusion,” published in a recent issue of Christian Century.