When Plans Don’t Go As Planned

Season of New Starts

The first days of January are a season of new starts.  People make resolutions, lots of us join gyms or renew our commitment to actually going to the gym, we set goals to achieve or aim toward being a kinder, better version of ourselves.  The first work day of the new year is a good day for opening up a new journal.  If you use a paper calendar, it’s a day for writing in important dates and plans on those blank pages full of opportunity and promise.

Today as I sat at my desk, I opened the first work day of the year with my usual routine.  Journal open, Bible at hand, music by St. Hildegard of Bingen playing – and when I reached for my Common Prayer: Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, the book next to it fell over and knocked a can of colored pens off the shelf, crashing to the floor and taking out a stack of paperwork as it went.  Not the peaceful beginning I’d imagined!

To be honest, sitting down to do my morning devotional wasn’t even the first thing I did today.  My husband had his work laptop at home this weekend – he works in international freight, which never takes a holiday.  He went off to his office this morning, but his laptop power cord stayed behind.  So my day actually began as I drove down to his office to drop off the cord.

Where the Spirit Breaks In

These two not-quite-as-planned beginnings made us laugh, as we had just shared a story in worship on Sunday about one of our mission trips that also had a not-quite-as-planned beginning.  We were working at a church in South Africa, between Christmas and New Year’s Day, which is peak summer holiday season.  The brickworks was scheduled to deliver a load of bricks which we would use to put up one of the main sanctuary walls.  However, the load didn’t make it before the brickworks closed for the holiday, so we had no bricks to put up.  What would we do?  Pete, the construction foreman for the church, managed to find some smaller projects at the church for us while he searched for some other ways to use our time.  He managed to have the floor tiles delivered early, and one of our team turned out to have a great deal of experience in laying tile.  The trip certainly didn’t begin as we’d imagined, but by being patient and following the lead of the local foreman, we were able to contribute to the building of their beautiful sanctuary.

If your church or group is planning a mission trip in 2018, I encourage you to pray and make lots of plans.  Use colored pens to fill up your pages, draw in the margins and outside the lines, make notes of all the people you can follow and write prayers for all those you’ll meet.  Most of all, be sure to leave room for when plans don’t go as planned – that room is where the Holy Spirit breaks into our hearts and reveals God’s amazing love for us all.

Just Be Willing

Mission historian Dr. Dana Robert describes worship as essential to mission.  In her 2010 United Methodist Women study Joy to the World! Mission in the Age of Global Christianity, she emphasizes the importance of worship for the practice of mission.  When we gather together and worship God, we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, who fills us and empowers us to go out and be the church in the world.

The church where I now worship uses a benediction from Rev. Jim Foster, who served as a United Methodist pastor for many years.  He exemplified grace and mercy, and was a profound influence on all who met him.  He ended every service by asking: the service has ended. Now where will you go and what will you do?  The congregation replies: We will go into the world and be God’s people.

These two people – a professor of mission and a pastor – draw the connection between worship and mission.  We gather in to praise, to pray, to be filled, and we go out to serve God through acts of mercy and kindness to all we meet.  For many people I know, these acts of mercy and kindness are lived out especially in local mission outreach at this time of year, and in summer mission trips around the U.S.  We gather in to worship, to sing praises, to hear scripture and are willing to learn something new about God and ourselves.  Through this worship, we are prepared to be sent out in mission.

Yesterday in worship, we had hymns, readings and special music.  Our youth played their band instruments, our children shared the artwork they’ve been working on through Advent, and several people did prayers and readings.  One phrase caught my attention – you don’t have to be perfect, just willing to follow.

The reading was talking about the wise men following the star.  They didn’t have to be perfect before heading out, they just had to be willing to follow.  All the people I’ve met on short-term mission trips or on local mission projects immediately sprang to mind.  None of us have been perfect.  That one trip, where I messed up the rhythm of the line passing those big cement blocks…definitely not perfect!  People who go out in acts of mercy and kindness know that they aren’t perfect.  They are willing.  They go because they know the grace of God guides them.  They go because they trust in the Holy Spirit.  They go because they have been formed into the body of Christ through worship and are ready to be God’s people in the world.

This last week of Advent, how will you gather in worship?  I encourage you to open your heart as you worship with your church, and listen for the Spirit’s leading.  Just be willing.

The Dreaded Christmas Letter

The annual newsy Christmas letter has a bad reputation these days.  I must confess that I enjoy reading letters from friends and family, hearing about their celebrations and transitions, especially people who aren’t active on social media or frequent e-mailers.

Christmas letters are one way we share about ourselves with others.  If we don’t gloss over things, we can share joys and struggles with our loved ones.  Sharing what is going on in our lives through “the dreaded Christmas letter” is one way we build community, even if it’s just a brief newsy letter.  This year was jam-packed with transitions, downsizing, joys and difficulties for my family, and these will feature in my Christmas letter – joys of the season to be sure, but tempered with honesty.

At a recent Bible study on grace, my small group talked about how we understand God’s grace at work in our lives.  Like those Christmas letters revealing a glimpse into each other’s lives, we opened up about how God’s sanctifying grace – the ongoing work of the Spirit to make us holy – is working on us, and how we struggle with that.  We talked about John 1:16 – that we receive grace upon grace, and that we realize it often in the midst of struggle.  We were vulnerable with each other, listening deeply, and through hearing each other, learning about each other, we were building community.

Building community with others requires vulnerability and honesty.  Building community happens when we share our joys and successes, and when we share our struggles and sorrows.  Being vulnerable in community requires trust.  It takes time to build community.  Honesty, trust, vulnerability – these are gifts of God’s grace when we share together.

The work of mission requires us to be especially attentive to the Spirit and to God’s grace.  Building community through honest conversation, being vulnerable enough to be honest with people that we might only see for a week or ten days is difficult.  When we go to a place and work to help people rebuild after a tragedy or work with a community that is impoverished, we must be especially attentive to God’s grace and the need to work WITH others and not simply for others.  God’s grace builds us together into the Church, the body of Christ.  When we allow ourselves to deeply listen to those we go to serve, and we are vulnerable with them, we are living into the teaching of Christ’s commandment to love one another found in John 13:34-35 – “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

As you prepare for Christmas, whether through a Christmas letter, baking, or decorating, may the grace of Christ bless you, and may all your mission work be filled with grace, grace upon grace.

Thursdays In Black

Every Thursday, I wear black.

A few years ago I saw a few people on Twitter posting photos of women dressed in black with the hashtag #ThursdaysInBlack.  Church women in South Africa were making a public witness to bring awareness to the problem of rape and violence against women and children.  They worked with their local churches to discuss these problems and end the silence and stigma that surround survivors of sexual assault.

I decided to join them and started wearing black on Thursdays.  Somewhere – probably a United Methodist Women event – I picked up a #ThursdaysInBlack button.   Then my younger daughter contacted me about a rape that occurred on her United Methodist related college campus.  She was part of a protest movement on campus that wanted to raise awareness about the problem of rape and sexual assault on campus, and the difficulty victims were having navigating the Title IX process.  I was proud to participate in #ThursdaysInBlack in support of my daughter and her friends, and took the opportunity to educate myself about the Title IX process and the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses in the United States.   I invited other United Methodist clergywomen to join me in #ThursdaysInBlack and bought 500 pins from CABSA – Christian AIDS Bureau South Africa, to support the work of the women who inspired my first participation in this movement.  I shared buttons at the World Methodist Conference and posted photos of all the beautiful Methodist women wearing black and their #ThursdaysInBlack buttons at the conference.

Recently I moved to a new area, which means learning as much as possible about my new city and county.  In 2016 nearly 3,000 people were impacted by domestic violence, and five people died due to domestic violence.  There is a Family Justice Center which works to reduce the number of offices to visit, people to tell what happened, and number of forms to fill out for persons affected by domestic violence.  The center partners with local non-profits to work to end sexual assault, rape, and domestic violence.  I’ve visited our local YWCA and support their work, which equips families, educates children and works to end racism and sexism.

1 Corinthians 12:26 says that if one part of the body suffers, all suffer together with it.  Wearing black on Thursdays is a visible way to show solidarity with those who suffer.  Educating yourself about sexual assault in your community is a way of living missionally, learning about the context in which you live.  Supporting the work of organizations that work to eliminate rape, sexual assault, HIV/AIDS and racism are also part of the call to live as the body of Christ.

Learn more about CABSA here: http://cabsa.org.za/

Learn more about YWCA here: http://www.ywca.org

Environmental Volunteers

There’s a small city park across from the complex where I live, and I like to take my dog for a walk there each morning.  Last April I moved to western North Carolina and I’ve loved observing my new landscape.  Mountains and lush forests are new to me, and this area has many hiking trails to explore.  For short morning walks with my dog though, the little city park is perfect.  I was shocked one morning in October to find that along one side there had been some clearing.  Trees, shrubs, vines, all ripped out and left in a big pile on the sidewalk and blocking part of the street.  It seemed so random and ugly.

This morning the parking lot at this little park was full.  On a rare morning there will be one person sitting at the picnic tables, but this morning the pavilion was packed with people in yellow safety vests, sharing coffee and conversation.  As we got closer, I noticed two things: a sign announcing that environmental restoration work was in process and to please not disturb new plantings, and the word “volunteer” on the back of all those yellow safety vests.

A crisp sunny Monday morning, a day when most people would be at work, and yet here were forty or so people gathered in their work clothes to plant native trees and other plants in a city park.  Care for our environment – care for creation – is an important part of why people volunteer in their communities and beyond.

When I arrived here a few months ago, I looked for a church to join, and I found a small church that was in the midst of major changes.  The old church building was undergoing renovation and so the small congregation gathered in the old parsonage living room for worship – about 15 or so of us.  One summer morning we had a full living room and so my husband and I sat out on the front porch with another church member, sitting in wood rocking chairs, listening to the service through the open windows, looking out over the garden and the ridge of mountains beyond.  During the anthem, I walked out into the community garden and picked a few berries, warm from the sun and bursting with sweetness.  What I didn’t know then was that this transformation from dwindling congregation to community garden and renovated church space into co-working space/community gathering space/worship space was a long journey that required a lot of trust from the church.  Over time, I’ve discovered that this church has attended carefully to each step along the way, trying to imagine something different so that they don’t just become another statistic, another closed small church in small town America.

The vision of this small church involves a great deal of volunteering and care for creation.  In particular, care for native plants and pollinators.  Western North Carolina is experiencing a loss of farm land and increasing development.  The decision to take existing church-owned land and develop it for chickens, bees, a natural playground in the wooded area between the elementary school and the church, and a community garden is a missional decision.  The church decided its mission was to care for creation and their neighbors.  Last Tuesday as I sat at the kitchen table in that old parsonage, a group of second graders burst through the door, ready for the pastor to let them into the chicken coop to check for eggs (they found ten).  One little girl ran into the kitchen asking for our community gardener, because she’d found broccoli big enough to pick and take home for dinner.

Perhaps one day these children will grow up and become adults who take a day off work to be environmental restoration volunteers in the communities where they live.  The missional witness of my small church to care for creation is a blessing to the children who come in and see the work of the church.

Does your church’s mission work include care for creation?  Have you taken risks to expand how you think about what it means to be the church?

A Different View

This weekend it snowed in my hometown.  Some of my friends posted photos on Facebook.  If you live in an area where it snows in the winter, this may sound silly, but when we were kids growing up in the Rio Grande Valley, snow seemed like a far away dream.  It’s only snowed twice in my hometown in the last 50 years, and even then it’s just a dusting.

As I grew up in the 1970s I knew Christmas was coming when the Sears “Wish Book” arrived.  In the days before giant shopping malls and Amazon, we kids loved the Sears Wish Book.  It was a full color catalog of toys and gifts for all ages.  The cover photo was often of a snowy winter scene, or a big fire in the fireplace with a Christmas tree nearby.  The Rio Grande Valley is known as a major produce growing region, with several winter crops – onions, carrots, cabbage and lots of citrus fruit.  Several varieties of grapefruit have been developed in the Rio Grande Valley.  There were citrus orchards on three sides of our house when I was young, and I loved walking through the rich black dirt and picking up windfall oranges – not very pretty but very tasty.

I’d look at those citrus orchards and wish they could be covered in snow, like the pictures in the Sears catalog.  I’d listen to Christmas music and wonder what it would be like to actually have a white Christmas.  I wished very hard for snow.  One year we had a freeze warning, and I remember gathering up piles of frost as I waited for the bus, forming them into a little “snow” man.  I was delighted at the white covering everything.

My perspective was all about MY desire for snow.  Images of snow were everywhere – on winter themed bulletin boards at school, on greeting cards, in those calendars, on the radio and TV.  My fondest wish was for snow.  I never thought to ask what the people around me wanted – that didn’t matter to me in the least.

When I got older, I realized that multitudes of people around me relied on a very different view of freezing weather.  Mr. Fett and the other farmers who owned the orchards, the farmworkers, the packing house employees, the truckers – and by extension all their families – all these people needed temperatures to stay above freezing so that crops wouldn’t be lost.  It is a major blow to the economy when freezing temperatures kill off a citrus crop.  As I pretended that frost was snow and made a little frost man, the orchard owners were out examining their trees, and countless others were hoping the crop would make it so that they could keep working.

As I saw those pictures of snow in my hometown this weekend, I was reminded that when I go somewhere on a mission trip, I need to keep in mind the viewpoint of the people who live in that place.  Conversation and questions before the trip help me to keep my wishes and hopes in perspective, and allow the people who live in that place to articulate their wishes, needs and hopes.  It’s all about honoring different views.

Mission theologians Jacob and Glory Dharmaraj talk about the idea of asking others for their perspective in their book Mutuality in Mission.  “Mutuality in Christian mission is committed to a culture of equality.  The partners are bound together for a common cause in order to bring people back to God.  Mutuality enables the partners to communicate honestly and behave with integrity.  They see the world from the other partner’s perspective….”  As you plan your next mission trip, be sure to include time to talk with the people you will help, and share each other’s views and perspectives.  It will enrich your experience.

World AIDS Day

December 1st is World AIDS Day, a day to remember all those whom we love and have lost to AIDS, and a day to pledge to continue working for an end to the stigma of this disease.

The work of mission pushes us out of our comfort zones, the lives we live in which we don’t have to think too much about our vulnerabilities.  Mission calls us out of our comfort and into the world where we meet our brothers and sisters, where we work toward a small measure of justice – even if that only looks like a new wheelchair ramp or a repaired roof.  Many times I’ve heard people say that when they work on a mission team, their hands might be pounding nails or measuring wood, but it’s not really about the house.  The work of mission is, at the heart of it, to be in solidarity with others in the world, to listen to their stories, to acknowledge that we need each other and all of us are precious in God’s sight.

On World AIDS Day, we also have an opportunity to be in solidarity with others in the world.  Even if – and perhaps especially if – you think your life isn’t touched by AIDS, or that your loved ones aren’t at risk for AIDS, go get tested.  Getting tested is a way of being in solidarity with those who are more at risk, with those who live with HIV.  In many communities, it is shameful to speak out loud that a person is HIV positive.  In many countries, medication to treat HIV is expensive and out of reach.

In the United Methodist Book of Worship the prayer for persons with AIDS includes these lines: “Assure them that they are not alone, and give them courage and faith for all that is to come.  Strengthen those who care for them and treat them, and guide those who do research.  Forgive those who have judged harshly, and enlighten those who live in prejudice or fear.”

The heart of the work of mission is compassion.  Stand in solidarity with those who have HIV or AIDS.  Get tested.  Look for your community’s HIV/AIDS outreach and support their work.  Lift a prayer for all those whom we have loved and lost.