Understanding Our Perspective

A few days ago I went to a lecture by John Pavlovitz. He spoke passionately about the church’s need to embrace an expansive hope, to keep extending the table, because the table belongs to Christ, not to us. I think a lot about extending the table, in part because I drive past a restaurant renovation every day on my way to and from town. The restaurant will be called “Sawhorse” because the new owners grew up in a family that used sawhorses to expand the table, to welcome guests for any meal. It’s an approach to hospitality and abundance that is inspiring. After the recent General Conference vote to add more punitive measures to LGBTQ exclusion in the UMC and the mosque shootings in Christchurch, NZ, I needed to hear words of hope and inspiration to continue living into the way of Christ the peacemaker. I’m grateful for the work and ministry that John is doing.

One thing he said caught my mission-oriented ear however, and it is an all-too-common thing I hear from people who have been on mission trips. “They had nothing.”

Pavlovitz was describing the joy and warmth of the young people at a school in Kenya, where he and his wife were visiting. By the way he described it, the village must have been in a rural area and likely one struggling with poverty. It is shocking to US citizens who travel to discover the depths of poverty that affect the majority of the world’s citizens. It is shocking for US citizens to discover that poverty affects so many people right here in our own country. Sometimes it takes a short-term mission trip to push us beyond our familiar streets, neighborhoods and stores to see the reality of poverty and how it affects our neighbors. Yet, we can be restricted in how we view our neighbors because of our perspective.

Our perspective is the set of unconscious lenses we wear when we look at the world. Dr. Cate Denial is a historian who recently described an exercise she used to help her students understand the perspectives they bring to the study of history. She had students pair up, with one describing a set of objects to another whose back was turned away from the objects while they drew what was described to them. Student pairs were scattered around the room, with the objects on the desk at the front of the room. They shared their drawings and discussed the differences between them. Great questions were raised about primary sources (the persons who were describing the objects) and perspective. The students began to consider other lenses that affect our perspective - cultural background, education, ideology.

In short-term mission, our perspective is impacted by the unconscious lenses we wear. Our cultural background affects how we think about money. Our education colors how we think about other people and governmental systems. Our own political views are a lens. When we travel, we bring our perspectives with us, and these affect how we think about and talk about our neighbors in other places. The common phrase “they had so little” or “they had nothing” can be a perspective that comes from our affluence. We may not realize that we understand “what we have” in material terms, while the people who are welcoming us understand “what we have” in terms of hospitality.

When Pavlovitz visited Kenya, the young people who greeted him likely welcomed him with joyful songs and cheerful smiles. Their perspective was that they offered him their best hospitality, which is what they had in abundance. What if when we return home from mission trips we talked about our hosts in terms of what they had instead of what they lacked, which came from not unpacking our perspective? What if we took off our lens of materialism and consumerism to see that our humanity is what we share and judge people from a perspective of hospitable generosity? Then we can say “they gave us their very best”.

Unpacking our perspective and understanding the unconscious lenses that we wear on mission trips is important, because how we talk about our neighbors matters. How we talk with them matters. How we talk about them when we return home matters. The concept of Ubuntu means “I am because We are.” I am more fully human, more fully who God created me to be because we are in relationship. I am, because we are. How we talk about our neighbors matters, to us and to our shared humanity in Christ.

Training Season

 

Last Sunday my town was hit by an ice storm.  The weather forecast had called for some snow, but all we got was rain, sleet and freezing temps.  That added up to a layer of ice on trees, power lines and roadways.  Many area churches canceled their regular services or moved them to a later time.  For large churches, a notice on the local TV station got the word out.  Others used Facebook.  My congregation includes many folks who don’t have computers or smart phones, so we relied on our landline phone list and prayer chain. 

Sometimes things are as simple as A plus B plus C equals success.  Other times things are R plus S plus F equals Sunday morning scrambling around coming up with alternative plans. 

A friend of mine asked last week if I had any information for his new leadership position at his church.  I found an old copy of a booklet from the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship that had information for his job in his church.  While I was looking, I remembered that January is a time when many United Methodist districts will offer leadership training.  Last week I saw that there was a training session happening in my annual conference for mission volunteers.  It seems that January is “training season” for volunteers of many kinds in the church.

My friend had a look at the information booklet and said “there’s a lot there”.  It can be overwhelming when you’re suddenly in charge, and you know that the church is important to people so you want to get it right.  In fact, the information booklet for leaders in charge of mission at their church has this interesting quote:  “There is no magic formula for a perfect mission program.  Don’t think that 2 mission trips + 50 UMCOR Health Kits + 1 mission study = success!”

That is SO right.  There is no formula for a perfect mission program or a perfect mission trip.  I’ve been on mission teams that used the pre-trip team meetings to decide the schedule, the vacation activities, and who would bring the Vacation Bible School project supplies in their second suitcases.  However, those meetings didn’t spend any time on learning the language our hosts would speak, learning about our destination’s history and current context, or considering what problems we might encounter on our trip.  There are always problems to encounter on a mission trip.  The group might have had a better experience if we’d been a little prepared for difficulties – or at least hadn’t expected perfection.

My work as a mission consultant would be a snap if I could advertise it as “Four Easy Steps To The Perfect Mission Trip!” or “Three Easy Steps To Revitalizing Your Mission Outreach!”.  Truth is, there is no magic formula.  But there is joy in the journey.  Each mission team or outreach committee is made up of dedicated people who are ready to put their hands and hearts to work, to be involved in disciple-making for the transformation of the world.  When they feel a bit overwhelmed like my friend, then I’m ready to come alongside and guide the mission team or outreach committee through the work of discerning their particular goals, to help them prepare for their trip, or to have a post-trip retreat to unpack all their feelings and questions about their experience.  It really helps to have someone walk with you through your work in local church missions, beyond a booklet or an hour-long workshop at the district training session. 

If you are new to mission team preparation or you’ve just accepted a role on your church’s outreach team and you’re not sure what to do, contact me for a phone consultation or a video consultation.  We can create a plan to help your team be ready for missions and avoid the last-minute scramble.

Waters of Baptism

This week as I’ve been preparing for Baptism of the Lord Sunday in my local churches, I’ve been reading a lot about water, about Methodist understanding of baptism, and as always, mission. What does mission have to do with our baptism?

Baptism is one of my earliest memories, watching my brothers being baptized in our childhood church. What I didn’t realize as a child was that being baptized meant that we were being incorporated into the body of Christ. A four-year old child has a limited capacity to understand such an abstract concept. To be honest, most of us no matter our age, struggle to really, deeply understand what it means to be incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God’s new creation, which is the body of Christ for the world.

In the United Methodist liturgy for baptism, these are the words the congregation says to the newly baptized person. “Through baptism you are incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God’s new creation and made to share in Christ’s royal priesthood. We are all one in Christ Jesus. With joy and thanksgiving we welcome you as members of the family of Christ.” This is the thing that we all work to understand as disciples. Our experience of baptism is not private. It is personal, but it moves us beyond our selfish interests and helps us to become part of the body of Christ, given for the sake of the world. We are saved, not for ourselves, but for others.

This brings us to mission. When we go out on a short-term mission trip, we likely have been moved by empathy and compassion for those who struggle and suffer. We want to help! This is clear by the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission response to the needs in Puerto Rico. Devastated by hurricanes, the people of Puerto Rico need help to recover. The Methodist Church in Puerto Rico reports that there are already 125 teams signed up to work there in 2019 - that’s more than two teams of volunteers per week on average. Our baptism means that if our brothers and sisters are suffering, so we suffer with them, and some folks are able to travel and put their compassion into sweat and work.

For our worship on Sunday, we’ll use water imagery. We’ll sing about baptism, we’ll talk about baptism, and we’ll dip our fingers in water to remember our baptisms. A clergy friend of mine has a family coming to be baptized on this special Sunday. I love water imagery. But everyone has a different experience of water, and for me, this includes growing up on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricanes were an annual threat. I’ve lived through several hurricanes, some with rain and wind, and some with flooding. Water is a powerful image and it is helpful to remember that although we have the water of baptism as one of our sacraments, we need to remember that water imagery can be helpful or painful for people.

I worshiped with a group once that loved to sing a contemporary worship song that talks about God’s love being like a hurricane. The first time I heard it, I was stunned into silence. That song did NOT help me to sing praise to God or to consider more deeply God’s love for me. All I could think about was the destructive power of hurricanes. Surely the songwriter did not know what it was like to live through a hurricane, right? And then I learned that the song was written by a Houston-based Christian band leader. Is it possible that a person living in Houston would not know the destructive power of hurricanes? Yes, it’s possible.

This is the point at which we find the opportunity to learn together through mission projects. All those United Methodist volunteers going from the US to Puerto Rico to help with hurricane recovery have the opportunity to worship with their Methodist brothers and sisters, to listen to their stories, to learn about their faith, and how their faith has sustained them through it all. While the work projects are critically needed, so are the connections and relationships between people. All those mission teams have the opportunity to listen to the faith of the people of Puerto Rico. It can take a lifetime to understand what it really means to be incorporated by the Holy Spirit and to share in Christ’s royal priesthood.

If you have a mission team heading out on a hurricane recovery trip this year and you are interested in having a post-trip team retreat to debrief and talk about how baptism shapes our mission work, contact me! Dates are open now for summer and fall 2019 retreats and workshops.

What is Mission?

Last month I attended the Wild Goose Festival and had the opportunity to hear a presentation by the hosts of the Failed Missionary podcast and the author of The Very Worst Missionary.  The conversation revealed a lot of pain and questions around the practice of mission, in particular, evangelical short-term mission and mission placements of a few years.  To be up front, my experience in short-term mission is in the United Methodist Church structures, not the evangelical church, and there are some differences.  However, I am familiar with a wide variety of texts on theology of mission, and the conversations I heard spurred me to look closely at the questions raised.

Questions From Experience

To begin, I started listening to the Failed Missionary podcast.  A number of things struck me, but one has echoed in my mind for days.  At the end of one episode, one of the guests asks “well, what is mission?” struggling to put a definition to their experience as a missionary.  The person being interviewed and the host had all spent a few years outside the U.S. in a missionary placement, yet they had never been given a solid theology of mission that provided a framework for their ministry.  This led to frustration and disillusionment, and ultimately, theological dissonance and abandoning of their work in missions.   

Because each of the people being interviewed acknowledged that their initial foray into mission work began with an experience in short-term mission, I felt that this blog would be a good place to explore the question “what is mission?”  What is this thing we call mission?  What are we doing when we enter into the practice of Christian mission, whether that is a two week trip outside the U.S., a one week trip to help with disaster recovery, or a Saturday helping at the local food bank community garden?  What is mission?

The question of what is mission is one that deserves to be wrestled with by people as they seek to faithfully live out their discipleship.  In United Methodism, the question of what is mission might be answered differently depending on who was asked the question.  For example, long term missionaries will take into consideration their context and the struggles of the church where they work, those trained to work as part of Early Response Teams might answer keeping in mind the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, and short-term mission teams may answer in the context of the places and people they have served, whether far from home or just across town.

 

Wait, What’s a Missiologist?

Two missiologists I have found to be helpful in beginning to answer the question “what is mission?” are Rev. Dr. J. Andrew Kirk and Prof. M. Thomas Thangaraj.  First, a missiologist is someone whose work is the disciplined study of mission and theological reflection on the practice of mission by the church.  

Second, the definitions presented by these missiologists are presented as provisional, and part of a larger academic conversation on theology of mission.  They do not present their arguments as settled, but as furthering the discussion of the church’s practice of mission.  I am always interested to hear what people who are engaged in short-term mission think when they hear these definitions, and learn together how these might inform their understanding of mission going forward.  So now, the tentative definitions.

 

Definition of Mission

Kirk asserts that “mission is, quite simply, though profoundly, what the Christian community is sent to do, beginning right where it is located.”  This grounds mission in the words of Christ at the ascension to the disciples, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem…and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8).  Mission, in this definition, is not just something that Christians do in other places, but is something they do right in their own communities.  Kirk also states that while mission is “fulfilled in different ways according to particular local circumstances, the obligations of mission are the same wherever the community is established.”  The obligations of mission are to bear witness to the “meaning and relevance of the kingdom”, which means that the church is to show in its life, worship and work the call of God to do justice, love kindness and live in humility. 

Thangaraj helpfully defines mission as something that is more than an activity of the church.  He states that while mission does mean being sent, “this ‘sent-ness’ is not… spatial. It is rather a quality of being”.  That we are sent to be the church in mission does not mean that we must travel, but our being sent as the church in mission defines how we are to live, beginning right where we are located.  Thangaraj and Kirk are clear that mission does not require travel, but a new understanding of the church community.  What we must understand about ourselves as church, then, is that “mission happens in a network of relations.”  Thangaraj describes mission as happening in the context of relationships between people.  Mission, therefore, requires that we are to consider deeply how to act in mission with responsibility, solidarity, and mutuality.  Responsibility means we listen deeply to others and acknowledge our responsibility to care for them as beloved children of God; solidarity means that as we listen deeply to the other we are mindful of how we are interconnected; mutuality means a recognition that mission is something we share with fellow Christians, both giving and receiving, not something that we do FOR others.

 

What Do You Say?

These tentative definitions of mission are quite dense, and may be explored more deeply in future posts.  But for now they are a good start as we consider the question of “what is mission?”  Whether a person has just signed up for a short-term mission trip and is wondering what they’ve gotten into, or if a person has just come back from their annual summer mission trip and want to reflect again on their experience, the question of “what is mission?” is a good place to start the conversation.  How do you answer the question “what is mission?”  Join in the conversation!

 

 

Quotes from:

Kirk, J. Andrew. What is Mission? Theological Explorations.  (Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 2000), 24, 36

Thangaraj, M. Thomas. The Common Task: A Theology of Christian Mission. (Nashville: Abingdon Press. 1999.), 48