When Dying is Out of Vogue


If you go back only a couple of hundred years in time to be a missionary was a huge undertaking.

For most it meant going overseas to ‘non-Christian’ countries and for many it meant probably not returning.

There was great cost involved in missionary service and if you read the autobiographies of those from that era you feel a whole different mindset in operation. Many who went to foreign shores gave up the opportunity for marriage, or put their kids in boarding schools. They got sick and often died in their attempts to share the gospel. It was enormously costly work.

Yet read their stories and it seems they saw their struggles as a joy rather than a burden. Strange…

As I was reading Hudson Taylor’s biography and journals I genuinely wanted to say ‘Come on buddy – snap out of it!’ The way he took joy in his suffering read as completely foreign to me – almost dishonest. Similar with the journals of Jim Elliot and others from the 19th and 20th centuries. They wrote in a way that seemed to suggest their own wants and desires didn’t matter.

Ridiculous fanatics.

Thankfully we have come to grips with the fact that we need to be fulfilled in whatever we do and that the gospel ought to actually serve my own sense of achieving my destiny rather than getting in the way of it. Those old missionaries were well over the top and the level of irresponsibility and lack of wisdom they showed was appalling. Today we are much more concerned for ourselves, our families and our futures than they were.

Very sensible…

However as I have been preaching on Mark 15 last week and this week, and reflecting on the life of Jesus in an .acom Christology class I was facilitating, I couldn’t help wondering if maybe we need a bit of that old missionary spirit rekindled? But you knew I was going to say that didn’t you?…

In ch 15 Mark presents to us a ‘king’ – 6 times Mark tells us Jesus is the ‘king of the Jews’ – but a king who rules in a very different way over a very different kingdom. He allows himself to die for others when he could have summoned angels to his rescue. He suffers abuse, ridicule and abandonment when he didn’t have to. This king calls his followers to deny themselves and take up their

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cross to follow him. He seems more in synch with those old missionaries than with most of us today.

I tend to think we have replaced the cross with the couch and the life of discipleship with what Bonhoeffer called the ‘happy religious life’. Even those of us who would hope to live differently are still trapped in a culture that has formed us and shaped us to look after our own needs first and to trust ourselves rather than God. We hope to live differently, but not so it impinges on our comfort.

It was Kierkegaard who said ‘It is much easier to be an admirer of Jesus than a follower’.

Whatever we think of the lives of those of those old missionaries and the sometimes bizarre choices they made, there was no question who was calling the shots in their lives. I fear for the generation to follow us, that they will know nothing of a gospel of sacrifice and self denial. If nothing changes in the contemporary Christian psyche then we are in deep trouble.

At least there is a vague memory still there in some of us that all is not as it should be, even if we struggle to reclaim the ground.

Its why we need our prophets – to keep calling us back to the world as God intends and to the life of discipleship as Jesus described it. We need the idealists who won’t settle for a pragmatic ‘oh well this is how it is’, because in their absence we seem to create a world that more closely resembles contemporary western culture with a religious flavour than the kingdom of God.

21 thoughts on “When Dying is Out of Vogue

  1. Spot on, Mark. I agree whole-heartedly. I just have trouble living it… “suffering is pure joy, suffering is pure joy”. Signed a real-life current-day misso in Cambodia

  2. Colosians 3:1 “We’ve died to self”, has been in my thoughts over the past few years and challenged me about dying to myself.

  3. True Hamo. “We’ve died to self” is an incomplete phrase. According to Paul, we have died to self but when we have also been raised with Christ. What does that mean? Paul describes practical in the rest of his letter. And, when we read about that kind of life in Colossians (and Paul’s other letters), we easily see the life of Hudson Taylor and the others.

    I wouldn’t fear too much for the generation following us, Hamo. God has a way of presenting new opportunities for future generations. If I am worried about the next generation, I start with my own children in teaching them to work out their salvation with much fear and trembling.

  4. What I feel is being presented here is less ‘what about them’ and more ‘what about me’. ie, what am I doing compared with what I feel God calling me to do?

    What is MY cross-couch ratio?

    How much is ‘looking after my family’ really ‘looking after me’?

    Is it right to subject my family to my fanatical leanings? Or do I do them a disservice to deny it to myself and those who love me most?

    If I’m looking for biblical role models, will I look like a Peter? Or Paul? Or J.T Baptist? or Zacheus?

    That Kierkegaard comment was timely.


  5. Great post Hamo. I think you hit the nail on the head. I love the comment “I tend to think we have replaced the cross with the couch”. Great stuff.

    I can almost hear the old song “Thank You for the couch Lord, thank You for the discount we got…” 🙂

  6. I’m glad we live in this post colonial age – a legacy left behind of covert racism, social, economic,political and environmental failures, that West is best.

    The Kenyan President, Jomo Kenyarta says, When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, let’s pray. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.

    It’s interesting, reading books looking from the angle of those that needed to “change their heathen ways” and it is not flattering reading. I think there is a myth about missionaries of old, a lttle like the ANZAC tradition, the myth needs to be deconstructed and we need to apologise and seek forgiveness.

    I don’t think we need that old missionary spirit rekindled – not at all.

  7. Mark R – there are missionaries and there are missionaries. What you will find if you read the actual primary texts of these people, rather than the interpreted history by those who may have an anthropological axe to grind is that those missionaries who really did love Jesus and really did love the people, fought for the rights of the people in the face of imperialism. Much of the damage done to cultures was through the trading companies and those who pioneered the way into new lands in search of riches. Many of the missionaries tried to make the best of a bad situation. It was often their high view of humanity’s dignity, value and worth that saw them fight for basic human rights when the money men and the empire men would have swept them aside in the quest for power.

  8. I preached on faith last Sunday. I suggested that in a society that is focussed very strongly on risk management and in so many things we have become risk averse, we have dumped faith because it is just too risky. There’s a lot we can learn about faith from the old time missionaries.

  9. Hamo, I had a similar reaction reading the biography of Mother Teresa’s spiritual struggles last year. I put it down to her “ridiculous” Catholic devotion to Jesus on the cross that she could rejoice in any little suffering (as well as the big ones). I agree we need prophets, but also role models and friends who walk with us and keep calling us back to the truth of the gospel.

  10. “At least there is a vague memory still there in some of us that all is not as it should be, even if we struggle to reclaim the ground.”

    As long as we carry a God memory that keeps us renewing and changing we connect with His effort to counterbalance anything society shapes. We are different missionaries in a different time working with the same Spirit. Our family forms and life expectencies have changed which gives a whole new shape to answering the call of mission. Many of us have raised our children and are answering new calls to prepare for a new direction of service which very well may entail picking up and moving away from grown families. We are healthier, wiser, and still able to learn and be used by God as in our later years. Suffering or not, for those that are willing to hear and obey the couch can become very uncomfortable indeed! Especially when the call to raise a family has been fullfilled :0)

  11. Steve Mac – I have no anthropological axe to grind, and it is very condescending to point me to primary sources to read, I don’t doubt they loved Jesus, the people they served? – I’m not so sure. (in general)

    There is a myth of Mother Teresa for example that is greater than the reality.Which is a very REAL pity because of the great lady she was, the myth very much to me devalues the person, let her BE!!! in all her frailty and humanness – it’s not A Current Affair. The Mother Teresa many know know was not the Mother Teresa who was.

    No – I still would not like to see some stoic, Victorian, colonial, form of missionary spiritual discipline rekindled. Their day is done and the damage will reverberate for generations.

  12. I don’t think old time missionary methodology was perfect, but I also think in 100 years time people will look back on us and say the same.

    Its pretty rare we can see our own failings – otherwise we’d probably change.

    My wife’s grandparents were missionaries in the kimberleys for 50 years early in the 20th C and I reckon we could easily critique their methods.

    But their willingness to lay down their lives is beyond anything we see today

    That is my point.

    I don’t see anywhere near that spirit around today.

    I do know that there was an unhealthy aspect to all of that too – almost a glorying in it at times and a culture of suffering, but I think our pendulum has swung way too far towards comfort

  13. Pretty simple Lance.

    I wrote this for our website and I reckon it sums up some aspects of it. Essentially its not conforming to social norms that don’t correspond to the gospel just because we feel pressure to do so.

    We believe life is found in knowing God and living life as he intends. We have come to call this ‘upstream living’, a way of life that reflects the priorities of Jesus and intentionally challenges the dominant norms and values of Australian society.

    * In a world that is self focused we hope to be unselfish, seeing others as more important than ourselves.

    * In a world that is about upward mobility and affluence we hope to live lives of relative simplicity and contentment.

    * In a world that is about busyness we hope to live slower, savouring life rather than rushing through it.

    * In a world of disposable relationships we hope to live in authentic community, making time for friends and resolving conflicts when they arise.

    How would you see us called to live?

  14. Here’s the thing….when we look back on what others have done we have a hind sight bias. Missionaries of yesterday did what they believed God called them to do in the way that they believed God equipped them to do….we are called to do the same….”How would you see us called to Live?” In the way you believe God has called you to live…no more…no less…and let nobody but God tell you other wise! :0)

  15. Love the 4 points Hamo – I am taking them for home group this week!!! Use those points as a skeleton and throw a bit more flesh around them.

  16. The challenge for us as i imagine for everyone, is to keep it actually happening rather than being good rhetoric!

    There are days when I think we are winning and days when we clearly aren’t

  17. Hey Mark R – the anthropological axe grinders are those (in the context of my comments) who have written books about mission. If you are one of these aforementioned authors, then I apologise. However subsequent posts seem to pick up the real issue – hindsight. Our great grandchildren will be embarrassed by how we viewed many things – including many things about mission and how to do it. CS Lewis always called on people to be on their guard for chronological snobbery – as if somehow our own enlightened views and actions leave those of our forebears in the shade. One wonders how the missionaries of the Elizabethan Era (Lizzie the Second that is) will be judged.

  18. Pingback: Urgently Required: A Theology of Suffering. | Kouya Chronicle

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