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31 October 2017

Keeping Spiritually Fit on the Missionary Journey: An Interview with David Burke

Synopsis:

In this interview, David Burke discusses some pertinent issues that missionaries face in their spiritual journeys and offers practical advice on keeping spiritually fit, taking hold of God’s help in times of confusion and pain, growing as people of prayer, practicing fasting, improving Bible reading skills to love God more, and maintaining zeal and focus when we are tired and our contribution seems pointless.

MRT 13.3 David Burke
David Burke

David Burke’s journey started in Australia with his father who was a pastor, his mother who was a missionary in widowhood, and a brother and sister who served in missions. After a journey to personal faith in Christ, his feet were set to pastoral and educational ministry in Australia and Singapore, with ongoing global ministry in the majority world. His best earthly travelling companions are Glenda, their children and grandchildren, and the friends who stick. He presently teaches at Christ College in Sydney, Australia. (dburke@christcollege.edu.au)

It is widely recognized that the concept of journey is a powerful metaphor for the Christian life. What do you see as the most important guide that will keep us spiritually fit throughout this journey?

Clearly, our most important guide is God himself. Even so, we experience God’s guidance in a number of different ways throughout our lives. Sometimes he leads through explicit statements in his word. At other times he leads through conversations we hold with cherished friends or even random strangers. But while his guidance is often clear, most of us will encounter situations when life just doesn’t make sense, when what is expected fails to materialize.

For instance, Paul and Anne were late life missionaries who were sent to a large city in Africa straddling the boundary between two groups at war. One January, violence erupted and more than 1000 people were killed. Life changed. Fear and insecurity became the norm. Worse was to come. One morning Anne awoke in great pain. By evening she was dead. It was small consolation that her condition could not have been treated anywhere—she was gone.

How does one make sense of that kind of situation? What was God doing? Had Paul and Anne misread God’s will for them by entering a world of violence and death? Where could Paul find perspective after his wife’s death? Where could he find the deep wells of strength to sustain him so that he could remain on the mission field? The answer to Paul’s quest for meaning and perspective, of course, lies in God and the help that he provides.

How do we take hold of God’s help in times of confusion and pain?

The way God helps his people is sometimes called his means of grace. God himself is the origin and source of grace which overflows through Jesus and is applied to us by the Spirit. If he didn’t extend his favor to us we would never receive it. The means of grace are the God-given channels by which we plug into the grace that saves, sustains, refreshes, and enables. Of the means of grace that God gives, his written word, the disciplines of prayer and fasting, the gathering of the saints, and the sacraments stand out.

Our need for God’s word is as important as eating, as it provides our spiritual food for the day. Did you eat dinner last night? If so, what was it like? Was it a light snack or a sumptuous meal? Did you gobble it down or take time to enjoy every last morsel? Now, did you read your Bible yesterday? Was it just a quick snack or did you read slowly and deeply to discover what God wanted to say to you? By imbibing in God’s word we will find resources to keep us going through difficult times.

Psalm 1 is a very important passage in this regard, as it reminds us that we need to delve into God’s word. It speaks of a man who is blessed, both because he does not follow the way of the wicked and because he delights in the law—the word—of the Lord. His meditation on God’s word guides the course of his life. It’s not that he raises the Bible above God; he is so delighted in God that he wants to spend time learning from his word. It is simply impossible to love God but hate his word.

The blessed man of the psalm counters the problem that many Christian workers have of becoming weary of reading their Bibles due to over-exposure. This is especially true for those who regularly minister the word to others or who read only from a professional distance or who read only for others. We need to read the Bible always remembering who God is and of his works in creation and redemption. We need to rekindle our delight in him by rereading his love story to us.

We all agree that reading the Bible is important. How can we improve our reading skills so that we learn to love God more?

Notice what the man in Psalm 1 does. He meditates on God’s word day and night. Meditation is important. When you read the Bible, take your time and think deeply. Remember your lavish banquet of food. Read the passage aloud in different translations if necessary. Ask questions of the text. Seek answers, but be prepared to leave some questions hanging because the answers might evade you. Look at the text from different angles.

The psalmist’s reference to “day and night” gives good reason to read a passage in the morning, pray over it, and make notes about what it says. Think about it during the day, and write some more notes as you continue to pray about it. Don’t forget that 2 Timothy 3:15–17 tells us that Scripture is useful because it is God-breathed. It also tells us what to believe and corrects our behaviour.

If you really want to improve your reading of the Bible, you will need to cultivate that desire and take the time that is necessary to see it happen. As you read, be sure to engage your head, heart, and hands. What does a particular passage teach about God, his world, his word, his work, or myself? What beliefs or attitudes do I need to cultivate or correct? What behaviours must I start or stop doing? These are essential questions.

As you read the Bible, don’t forget that since God made use of many genres, you should vary the genres that you read. Since God provided long and short passages, you should read both. You may find that changing the translation will help you discover things you haven’t seen before. Reading aloud or writing a passage out by hand may help you stay alert. Adopting one of the many Bible-reading schemes that are available in print or online may prove helpful. You may also benefit by getting together with someone to share what you have learned and to maintain accountability.

If we delight in and mediate on God’s word often, it will be the spiritual food that sustains us amidst the circumstances we face in the Lord’s service.

Reading God’s word will clearly guide Christians along their way. What other means of grace will benefit missionaries in their work?

Missionaries are often surprised by just how difficult it is to live for God in cultures that are disinterested in Christianity. In many ways our experience parallels Daniel’s in Babylon where he lived a life of exile, dashed dreams, ethnic hostility, and a spiritually threatening environment. What’s your Babylon? Perhaps you live in a place where Christians are in the minority and where they are not accepted. Or it may be that, like me, you come from a country where the society’s response to Christianity is rapidly shifting from holding it in a quasi-establishment position to relegating it to a marginalized, merely tolerated, or perhaps openly harassed status. Whatever our circumstances, the Bible’s teaching about the place of prayer and fasting in Daniel’s life can be for us a means of grace.

Educated in the wisdom of Babylon, Daniel was slated to die with the wise men of the country when they were unable to tell King Nebuchadnezzar his dream and its interpretation. Wisely asking for time, he quickly gathered his friends-in-exile to pray that God would be merciful to them by revealing the dream. God’s positive response lead to continued life and praise (Dan 2:17–23). But Daniel’s prayer life was not merely stimulated by crisis. He had already formed a habit of regular prayer that he would not change, even in the face of death. When King Darius was tricked into proclaiming an edict that no one should petition anyone but the king for thirty days, Daniel ignored the threat of the lions’ den and continued to kneel down and pray three times a day (Dan 6:7–11).

In many ways, the purpose of prayer is obvious enough. As the common acronym ACTS spells out, in prayer we open our hearts before God in adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. But while we can and should approach God in these ways, Jesus teaches and models what could be understood as a more biblical approach to prayer. According to Jesus, frequent prayer should be a personal priority, but never done for public display (Mark 1:35–36; Matt 6:5–6). It should rather be known for conciseness of words and accompanied by acts performed out of true piety. Is this true of your prayer life? Do you pray much or neglect much? What is the depth of your prayer life? For sure, prayer is hard work. Do you schedule time for it? Do you focus on it? Do you determine the right words to use as you approach God? For me, the biggest barrier to prayer is that it demeans the proud, self-sufficient rebel that is in me and that really doesn’t want to turn to God.

It is hard to think of ourselves as rebels who don’t want to pray. Can you give us any practical advice that will help us improve as people of prayer?

A good starting place would be to remember Jesus’ instruction to pray to the Father in secret. This means that we must make space for prayer. The right place, the right surroundings is essential. This means that we need to turn off all devices that might distract us from this greater thing. And if space is important, so is time. Many would benefit from scheduling prayer in their diary and keeping their appointment. Others will find that a routine, such as walking to work, provides the right place and time. Whatever method we use, it is essential that we are intentional in our time and place for prayer.

While the ACTS approach to prayer is useful, many people need to relegate personal supplication to the very last place lest their prayers uncover natural, selfish tendencies. This reminds us to turn to the Bible as a stimulus for prayer and a guide that teaches us how to pray. The Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer are a special help. As Jesus told us to pray to “Our Father,” we should think of prayer in the same way we think of the pleasure we receive when talking to our father or best friend. Prayer should never be a burden with a list of daily to-dos that need to be ticked off. It should be a delight that we can spend time with God, our maker, redeemer, and friend. There is much wisdom in the old adage that prayer is friendship with God.

You have said a good deal about prayer, but what about fasting? This is a discipline that many of us have to admit that we do not practice often or well.

While we often think of fasting in terms of not eating, it may be better to think of it as giving up something we are free to do, but choose not to do. While Jesus proclaimed all food clean, we may give up certain foods for a time or for life. The same could be said for the beverages we drink, the length of time we sleep, or even of a married couple abstaining from sexual relationship for a period (1 Cor 7). All of these are forms of fasting.

The Bible gives several reasons for fasting. One is so that we can dedicate ourselves to prayer. Another is so that we can train ourselves in self-denial (1 Cor 6:12). Though our age encourages us to say “yes” to all our desires, fasting is a way of saying “no” to them and to free us to serve the Lord and his people. Fasting is thus a way to put one good thing aside to make room for something that is better.

We see this in the book of Daniel. It is interesting to find that when Daniel was sent into exile he was willing to adopt many things from Babylonian culture—accepting a Babylonian name, clothes, language, and education. Even so, he refused to “defile himself with the king’s food” or wine. Why? Some have suggested that his refusal relates to health or sanitation issues, or that the food had been sacrificed to idols, or that the diet broke Mosaic food laws. It is also possible to see it as Daniel’s attempt to draw a line over which he wouldn’t pass. While he accepted many aspects of Babylonian culture, he remained the Lord’s man. Restricting himself to a diet of vegetables and water fits the qualities of fasting we have already mentioned—Daniel denied himself things that he could have eaten in order to preserve his identity as God’s man, both to himself and the Babylonians. It was a voluntary boundary that marked him out as different.

What marks us out as God’s people? What things are permissible for us but we choose not to do in order to set boundaries that demonstrate our identity?

The Bible provides several guiding principles regarding fasting. (1) It is not for public display (Matt 6:16–18). (2) It is not an addition to faith that brings us to a higher spiritual level (Col 2:16–17; 1 Tim 4:1–5). (3) There is a point where self-denial collapses into self-indulgence (1 Cor 7:5). It is thus right to end most fasts. (4) True fasting isn’t an end in itself but a means to living a life of practical godliness (Isa 58).

Are reading God’s word and spending time in prayer and fasting things that we should do on our own or that we should do with others?

This is clearly a both/and proposition. We need to do it on our own and with others. When God starts us out in our spiritual journey, he places us in the context of the church—the people of God. The problem is, we do not always find that other Christians approach these and other issues in the same way we do. This can be frustrating, as the very people God wants us to work with are often the ones we find most difficult to work with.

Let me illustrate this. John and his wife June went as young missionaries to teach in a Bible college. An older missionary had wisely told them that there is often “one thing” that is a sticking point in ministry. For June, it was isolation. She missed being with her peers. For John, it was loss of control. Decision-making in the mission college was chaotic and his plans were often pushed aside by last minute decisions by a local church leader who had a different sense of time and punctuality. Another missionary couple on the same field came from a different culture and presented more challenges in relationships.

How do we relate to Christians whose way of looking at the world and working in it is puzzlingly different to our own? What do we do when fellow missionaries aggravate us and present challenges to our sanctification? What do we do when we realise that our own imperfections contribute to relationship problems on the field?

The story of Cinderella may be of help here. Do you remember how Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters responded to her? To them, she was a threat, an inconvenience. How did the Prince react? To him, she was a greatly desired treasure. You see, the way we see what we see shapes our thinking and actions. This is as true for the church as it is for fairy-tale princesses. What we see when we think about the church shapes how we act as members.

If we only see the church from below, two things may happen. First, we might see the church as a very earthly institution, an imperfect organization made up of imperfect people that needs to be replaced. And though the New Testament is realistic in its assessment that things are wrong in the church (e.g. 1 Corinthians and Revelation 2–3), this is not the whole picture. Second, we may view the church as a man-made organization that has lost its usefulness in today’s world and turn to new ways of coming together or focusing on private piety or turning to para-church organizations. This can be a touchy point for mission agencies, as the organization can easily replace the local church in our affections. By viewing the church from below, and apart from Christ, we can easily despise or dismiss it. This is a dangerous option that must be rejected.

Another dangerous option is found in many institutional churches. This is to focus more on the church than on Christ. It’s a problem of allowing a good thing to be ruined by putting it in the wrong place. The church is good. It was given to us by God to help us come to Christ, grow in Christ, stay in Christ, and serve Christ. And that’s precisely the point. If we untie the connection between Christ and the church, all that is good is lost and replaced by the idolatry of substituting the church for Christ. While it is right to love the church and strive to be a good Christian, the bottom line is that we must always and only live in Christ and follow after Christ.

It is easy for many of us to say that the dangers you mention are the problems of others and not of ourselves. How can we examine our own actions to see our true understanding of the church?

Very simply, if we stay away from the church or talk it down, we show that we view it in isolation from Christ. And since the church is the body of Christ and since he is personally building it, this response leads us down a spiritual dead end. Similarly, if all we do is talk about the church and its growth, we show that we have elevated the church above Christ. But since Christ is the head of the church, the foundation of God’s holy temple, this is another spiritual dead end.

Let’s return to Cinderella, the story of a poor orphan who was treated as a grubby housemaid by her stepmother and stepsisters, and yet became a princess-bride. Importantly, she becomes a princess-bride only because of the love of the prince. While this is just a fairy tale, the story of God’s love for the church, demonstrated through Jesus Christ, is infinitely more wonderful.

God’s love for Israel is sketched in Exodus 19 where we read that he took the initiative to bring them out of Egypt (19:4) and that if they would obey his voice and keep his covenant he would make them to be a treasured possession, kingdom of priests, and holy nation (19:5–6). The origin and nature of God’s people is based upon God himself. He chose them. Even so, they need to behave like God’s people in order to remain in close relationship with him.

This idea is reinforced in Deut 7:7–8 where we read that “It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors.” Though Israel had been nothing, God’s love made them a treasured possession and kingdom of priests.

These ideas are picked up in the New Testament and given a new twist in the light of Jesus. In 1 Peter 2:4–10, distinctly temple language is used to portray Jesus Christ as the cornerstone upon which the whole church is built (4), and the church as a spiritual house and holy priesthood that will offer spiritual sacrifices to God (5). Emphatically taking over Mosaic idiom, Peter envisions the church to be God’s chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation, and treasured possession (9). Just like in the Old Testament, the emphasis is on God’s action. He lays the foundation of the church in Christ and he chooses the people so that they can become his people.

These, and other, New Testament images of the church honor its nature and emphasize its importance (cf. 1 Cor 12:27; Eph 2:19). The high point of the imagery is to recognize the church as bride (Rev 18:23; 19:7; 21:2, 9; 22:17; cf. Eph 5:22–33). Just like Cinderella, the church becomes the bride solely because God loved her and gave himself for her. For that reason, we should see and treat the church as he does.

What you have said gives us reason to acknowledge our co-workers as honorable because of Christ. That is different from saying that working with others is easy or that ministry is all about sharing the spiritual privileges we have received in Christ.

The spiritual privileges are there. When we are on the front line for the Great Commission, we can watch God’s glorious work whereby he calls his people from every tribe, nation, people, and language. We are also privileged to be part of a global partnership, working with fellow missionaries and a national church, and living in another culture.

But mission is not all about privilege. Only those who know little of field realities retain such a naïve romanticism about missionary life. The downside includes isolation from one’s own culture, Christian networks, and family with all their joys and problems. These are all compounded by difficulties in language and cultural communication. More disorientation comes when we attempt to maintain an “in-between identity” that pretends we can live both in our country of service and keep up all ties in our homelands. Some experience a feeling of deprivation due to the lack of a proper water supply, electricity, and communication networks. On top of this there are dangers that impact security, health, finance, and the spiritual life. And if this is not enough, frustrations abound due to relationships, lack of results, our own limitations as creatures, and the Fall.

In the light of such difficulties, how can we maintain our zeal and focus as the years pass, as we grow tired, and our contribution seems pointless?

Our strength doesn’t come from who we are, where we have come from, the degrees we have earned, the languages we have learned, or even the work we have done. Our strength to face the challenges comes from the gospel. While it gives rise to many challenges, it is at the heart of our privileges and provides answers to our challenges. It is therefore good to remind ourselves regularly that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the source of the grace that comes from God and which is mediated by the means of grace we have been looking at. As we refresh ourselves in the gospel we gain right perspectives on our challenges, our hearts are strengthened by contemplating God’s great works in Christ, and we get a clear sense of the gospel priority amidst competing tasks.

One of the best summaries of the gospel is found in Romans 1:1–6. Here Paul writes that the gospel is “of God.” Since it belongs to him, we shouldn’t mess with it, but preach it as delivered to us. The gospel, he says, was promised beforehand in Scripture. This is a hermeneutical key that unlocks the Bible as a unified book proclaiming God’s grace. The gospel, Paul further tells us, is concerned with God’s Son. Jesus is not just the one who reveals the gospel, he is the gospel. His full humanity is proclaimed in the statement that he came according to the flesh. His full divinity is announced when he is declared to be the Son of God. His power is demonstrated by his resurrection as he overcame death and brings us hope that we can too.

As Paul sees it, the gospel isn’t just “good news” that is to be listened to or even acknowledged intellectually; it is good news to be obeyed. That’s why he speaks of the obedience of faith. Faith is an act of obedience as we respond to the gospel. It is reckoning that the message is true. But faith also requires obedience. Obedience is thus an integral and necessary part of faith. While it is true that faith alone saves, faith never comes alone as it is always flanked by obedience.

The gospel is good news about God’s work in salvation. It is good news about the work of the Father who decided to save the world and sent his Son to save. It is good news of the Son who executed the Father’s plan. And it is good news of the Spirit who is sent by the Father and the Son to apply that gospel to human hearts and empower the church for gospel mission. The gospel has Jesus at its heart: Jesus sent, living, crucified, raised, ascended, reigning, and returning. This is our creed. This is good news for us and for the world.

Are there concrete ways in which we can live out this gospel call for obedience?

Very simply, we live out gospel obedience through our participation in the sacraments and worship. How is this seen? Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are called gospel ordinances because they preach the gospel to us. They are a visual embodiment of the gospel of Jesus. That is why we say that the sacraments are a means of grace.

Through baptism we act out the gospel’s proclamation of forgiveness and new life through the symbol of washing by water. Baptism also portrays God’s faithfulness and mercy because when we call out to confess our sin, repent, and show active faith in Jesus Christ, God gives us a new life (Matt 28:16–20).

The Lord’s Supper is a proclamation of “the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26). Through it, we act out the gospel reality that everyone is under God’s judgment and needs salvation. We also engage the gospel truth that God provided the sufficient blood sacrifice that makes propitiation for sin—something we could never do for ourselves. In the breaking of bread, we receive the gospel hope that God has invited us to one day sit at his banquet table and partake of the great wedding feast of the Lamb. It is thus our declaration that we have a personal share in the resurrection to eternal life and of the coming restoration of the whole of creation in the new heavens and new earth.

And this gospel also frames our personal and spiritual journey as mission workers. Christ has ascended and is reigning in the heavenlies, but the fullness of his earthly kingdom yet awaits his return. This shapes the contours of our path. As creatures who exist in the aftermath of the Fall, we grow old, get tired, fall sick, and die. But as those who are chosen, called, and justified, our full sanctification awaits the resurrection transformation that will be revealed when Jesus returns and we are glorified. So, as we stride through our journey of faith, we, like Paul, may be afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down, but we do not lose heart because we see the reality that, all along the road, Jesus is behind us and with us through his Spirit and that he lies ahead of us in his return. Let us walk this way with him.