SAILING CLOSE TO THE WIND
A response to Roger Parrott and Alex Araujo from Mark Oxbrow

As someone who listened to Roger opening the Lausanne Forum in Pattaya in 2004, although there I was part of a different issue group on Partnership and Collaboration, and then having the privilege in 2008 of being in the ‘Global Dialogue’ group at the WEA Mission Commission when Alex made his presentation, I have been prompted to make the following observations.

A word first on perspectives. I write as a British Christian who was brought to faith by an Ethiopian many years ago. Having worked for twenty years as a director of one of the most traditional mission agencies (CMS in the UK) I now have the privilege of coordinating a small network of mission agencies that come out of five different continents and several different Christian traditions. What I write now can only come out of that background.

Beginning with Brendan

Saint Brendan of Clonfert (c.484 – c.577), called “the Navigator” or “the Voyager” was one of the early Irish monks best known for his legendary quest for the “Isle of the Blessed”, taking dozens of his monks onto the Atlantic ocean in small corricles with the smallest of sails – totally at the mercy of God. Traditionally this was his prayer:

Whatever we make of these early Christian traditions, Brendan’s prayer strikes me as an excellent guide for all who set out in mission placing themselves at the ‘mercy’ of the wind of God. I have special reason to be grateful to Brendon and his monks as they brought the gospel to northern Britain many years before the better known St. Augustine landed in my home country!

Power dynamics

As most of us agreed in Pattaya, I find the comparison of power boats and sail boats, used by Roger and Alex very helpful, and I’m not sure how well many have listened to the strong challenge Roger gave us almost five years ago. I still see a lot of new power boats being built and others being patched up, refuelled, and polished. I also see many many sail boats, some of them as small and fragile as Brendan’s coracle, being set adrift in choppy water. The risk is that some of our power boats are so noisy and create such a splash that we will not see the sail boats and risk running right over them.

Years ago I was a sailing instructor myself and I used to love showing young people how much power there is unseen ‘in the air’ even on a day which doesn’t feel windy. But without a sail you cannot ‘see’ that power and so it is not surprising that so many people choose the power boat option.

I am not so certain as Alex (at least appears to be) that the power boat paradigm is exclusive to the Global North, nor that we find no sail boats in the North. In very general terms there may be some truth in this but I have seen quite a few power boats cruising across Asia, Africa and Latin America as well as some very fragile missionary sail boats in the very choppy waters of post-Christendom, secularised Europe. I think the issue of ‘alternative energy’ – seeing the wind and learning how to accept His power – is a critical one for all of us. In a paper which Duncan Olumbe (of Mission Together Africa) contributed to Connections some time back, called Dancing a Different Dance, he issued a strong warning to Global South leaders not to copy the ‘dance of the North’; and we Northerners have to be honest and admit that it can be quite flattering when Southern Christians imitate and adopt our (deeply flawed) methodologies. Being imitated empowers the one who is copied!

Almost all directions are possible!

Roger admits in his address that he is not a sailor and so I do not hesitate to correct him! Discussing his first benchmark on ‘unwavering trust’ he suggests that “you only go where the wind allows you to go”. In a literal sense this is true but in fact, at least in a modern sail boat, you can travel in almost every direction as shown here. (The only way you cannot go is directly into the wind.) This ‘all directions are possible’ insight helps me to see that the relationship I have with the ‘wind of God’ is far more dynamic than just being blown about (as might have happened to Brendan’s monks). In other words I have the capacity to use the power of the wind to reach a range of destinations which I can choose. I think what this means for mission is that we need to have an attitude of ‘working with’ the wind of God rather than being simply ‘blown along by’ that wind. But I also believe that the direction of the wind also normally indicates the direction we are most likely to be called to adopt.

Another interesting thing about sailing is that ‘close hauled’ on a tack heading almost directly ‘against’ the wind is when you feel you are going fastest – the boat is heeled over, everything is taught and the water rushes past noisily. In fact you are making very little progress. When you are ‘running’ with the wind everything is peaceful, the boat is upright and the water is silent and it can feel as if you are hardly moving at all. In fact this is the fastest direction of travel. The lessons for mission are, I suspect, obvious.

One final sailing lesson – the jibe! When you are ‘running’ with the wind and everything is at its most peaceful you are at the greatest risk of breaking the mast (and your neck if it gets in the way). A slight change in the wind can bring the boom (at the base of the sail) crashing through 180 degrees from one side of the boat to the other. A jibe, uncontrolled by a watchful sailor who instantly hauls in the ropes, can snap the strongest mast. How many of us have also experienced this lesson in mission – powering along with the wind behind us, God’s blessing full in our sails, and then suddenly ……… !

Fleet Sailing

It strikes me that the questions we really need to address in our Global Dialogue are about fleet sailing, something not unfamiliar to Jesus on Lake Galilee where we learn it was not uncommon for one boat to call to another for assistance. We might also want to address the question of mixed fleets – power and sail. I propose to do this by now returning to the five issue groupings that Paul helped us to identify towards the end of our time together in Pattaya and which form the basis of our group report. In the second part of this paper I also want to be more practical in addressing possible ways forward.

1. Personal Issues

I would suggest that we might want to rename this section ‘Cross-Cultural discipleship’ (as I saw it helpfully recently, ‘Cross-culture discipleship’). For me the key point here is the fifth bullet point, “Deepening a Biblical understanding of ethnicity, race, unity and diversity”, especially unity and diversity.

As an Evangelical I can say that we Evangelicals often have a real problem with diversity and hence with unity. If there is the slightest tension over theology (or more often personality!) we plant a new church! We need to take seriously the fact that (a) the God whom we worship maintains perfect unity whilst finding expression through the dynamic relationship of three distinct persons; and (b) humanity from the start knew division between husband and wife (as Adam accused Eve) and hunter and cultivator (when Cain murdered Abel); yet our destiny is to be united – every tribe, nation and tongue – around the throne of God (Revelation).

Miroslav Volf once said provocatively, “When I stand lost in worship before the throne of His grace, I will not notice whether the hands I hold are black or white, leprous or manicured, or belong to a gay man or my worst enemy”. Worship makes us blind to difference. The deeper point of Revelation, as emphasised by Andrew Walls, is, however, that for the worship of God to be complete it is required that all nations, tribes and tongues be there. Our worship of God is not complete without all these others.

So how do we move forward on this practically? As a start I have found Duane Elmer’s book Cross-cultural servanthood helpful. Relationships are key here and for them there is no ‘quick fix’. I have learnt how to relate cross-culturally not just from books but from the ‘school of mistakes’ in which gracious sisters and brothers have offered me their forgiveness and a hand of fellowship. One thing we can all do is to help others in our ministries and churches to build these difficult relationships, to make mistakes, and to put on the bandages and press on. In our discussions we mentioned some of the key things here:

• Trust
• Humility
• Realistic expectations
• Transparency
• Identity in Christ (not ethne)
• Security in Christ
• Openness and risk taking
• Reflecting on my own culture

I wonder whether there are a few ways in which we could begin to sponsor personnel exchanges between our churches and agencies/networks which would help to build these stronger relationships.

2. Issues within our different North/South communities

One issue we can work on here, and join others who are already working, is to redress the balance in mission biography. We all know that ‘stories’, and especially the stories of how God has used others in mission, act as major motivators for new generations. Those stories also shape our missionary paradigms.

As I travel around the world I am not too surprised to find British Christians still reading the stories of David Livingstone, and Americans who are motivated by reading Jungle Pilot (the biography of Nate Saint), but what does worry me is the fact that African and Asian Christians are often reading the same stories. Of course the stories (witness) of African, Asian and Latin American missionaries, of past centuries and this, are equally powerful and motivating and, more importantly, would shape different missionary paradigms, but they are not told often enough.

Publications like the Dictionary of African Christian biography are beginning to address this need but much more needs to be done – especially in turning these biographies into African/Asia/L.American missionary paradigms which can be practically adopted in the appropriate parts of the world. (To hold on to our earlier analogy this is about making sure we do not try to sail up narrow river creeks with ocean going catamarans.)

Another issue here, which received a lot of attention in Pattaya, is our own attitudes to financial resources. I am becoming more and more convinced that we get into problems over finances when we relate to each other because we struggle with how to use money as a Christian within our own culture. It’s an age old problem – why did Jesus talk more about money than sex? If I always use the word ‘poor’ to refer to my financial condition rather than by family relations, health or spiritual state then my view of whether my Asian sister is ‘wealthy’ or ‘poor’ is always going to be distorted. Can we as a group work on a biblical (missional?) understanding of wealth and wealth sharing?

3. Issues Concerning active collaboration

I will keep this section short because it is the one I am tempted to write most on – it is my day-to-day work as the coordinator of an international multi-cultural, multi-denominational network and I could write books, not paragraphs, on this one. Thankfully I don’t need to write the books because others have done it. Two I commend are Phill Butler’s Well Connected and Lianne Roembke’s Building Credible Multicultural Teams. I am aware that one of these books is by an American and the other by a European – what are Asians, Africans and Latin Americans writing on this topic?

Of key important here I would list:

• Trust building
• Trust maintenance
• Trust restoration
• Shared discipleship (esp. prayer)
• Shared expectations
• Transparency – about power & money
• Achievable objectives
• Care with language
• Celebrating others’ achievements
• Understanding leadership models
• Evaluate competition
• Be generous with time

There are a lot of resources out there to help us with these issues (PowerofConnecting, VisionSynergy, etc.) and we need to make good use of these without trying to reinvent the wheel.

4. Contextual Issues

Again a lot of work is taking place in this area but sadly Evangelicals are not always as ready, and Biblically equipped, to address these issues as some of our Liberal colleagues who rapidly get lost in syncretism, and plain woolly thinking!

There is much hermeneutical work to be done here and it will often be best done by the ‘serving missionary’ than by the academic who only visits or learns second-hand. An issue for us as churches and missions is whether we are so ‘activist’ and so focused on ‘getting the task done’ that we fail to give some of our best missionaries the encouragement, space, time and resources to do deeply Biblical contextual reflection on the mission issues they face. I have met too many retired missionaries who have finally got round to some reflection and who say, “If only I had taken a year out to do this thirty years ago.”

It was in this section that the Pattaya group picked up on the issue of ‘informal’ or ‘non-intentional’ missionaries. My hero Rowland Allen of course wrote on the ‘de-professionalisation’ of the ministry (including missionary work) a century ago but we still have a lot to learn. I have a small contribution on this issue in my article in the January edition of Lausanne World Pulse.

5. Training Issues

As a former sailing instructor (much out of practice now) I know the key importance of training. (I was horrified to hear Roger Parrott say he took his wife on the ocean with no instruction at all!) All training must be appropriate to the context, the student and the trainer and must contain an element of ‘life-long-learning’.

I have been privileged to work a little in recent years with secular trainers in the UK who adopt a ‘systemics’ approach to learning and talk a lot about the ‘learning company’ or the ‘learning hospital’. There is not space to go in to all of that now but I have been helped by their thesis that each of us constructs meaning out of every event, every human interaction, and that these meanings then begin to build up into a whole system of meaning which eventual, shapes the way we act and relate. These meaning may not be ‘true’ but they become true for us and exert their power on us.

If I can try to illustrate this from our context ………
Reuben does not respond when I send him this document, although I see he replied to Russ and Alex. Meaning Reuben is not interested in what I have to say. (Not true – he was just busy, but I construct another meaning!) Reuben proposes a tele-conference call and then chooses a date when I am not free. Meaning Reuben really doesn’t value my input. (Not true – it just happened to be the date most people could make, but my earlier experience reinforces my constructed meaning.)

After that call Russ sends me an email which thanks me for my contribution but disagrees with one point in my document. Meaning, ‘they’ probably talked ‘about’ me on the tele-conference call and decided they didn’t really want me in the group. (Not true, but that’s my meaning.) Result – I act on the meaning I have made and withdraw from the group.

These challenges of confused meaning are even greater across cultural divides. Mary of the solution is a commitment to processes of corporate meaning making, learning from each other, review and reflection.

I wonder whether we can in some way begin to build these concepts of corporate meaning making and living as a ‘learning mission community’ in to our interactions as a global community of churches and agencies/movements in mission?

Mark Oxbrow
February 2009

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