The Hopefulness of Mission, or Why I’m Not Worried about the Future of the UMC

I am a United Methodist.  My denomination recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, remembering how it was formed by a union of The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1968.  This church has formed me as a disciple of Jesus Christ, has taught me grace, taught me how to sing grace, preach grace, and practice grace.  I have given my life’s work to Christ through the United Methodist Church.

United Methodist Church’s Difficult Season

But the United Methodist Church is having a difficult season.  To be honest, it’s been having a contentious season for about 40 years.  If you are a United Methodist and you’re on social media, you are likely aware of our struggles.  If not, let me try to summarize.

The issue is inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church.  Our denomination has been in the news for holding clergy trials when pastors officiate same-gender weddings, even for their own children; for holding clergy trials and stripping clergy of their credentials when they admit their identity as an LGBTQ person; for having protests and debates at our quadrennial gatherings during which church legislation is considered.  We’ve had study commissions, we’ve added language to our Book of Discipline (the text that holds our constitution, our Articles of Religion, our structure and order for ministry), we’ve argued and argued.  Most recently, our last General Conference (that once every four year gathering) asked our Council of Bishops (all bishops, active and retired) to form a commission and advise the church how to move forward as a united denomination, despite our continuing and harsh disagreement over LGBTQ inclusion.

And so, the commission has held meetings, prayed and discussed our difficult season.  In the end, they recommended three plans to the Council of Bishops – the Traditionalist Plan which would essentially maintain the status quo; the Connectional-Conference Plan, which would allow churches to affiliate with other churches that their perspectives align with, rather than our current geographic structure; and the One Church Plan, which allows decisions about ordaining LGBTQ persons to be made in local areas and removes all restrictive language from the Book of Discipline.  The Bishops are recommending the One Church Plan to the special session of General Conference that will meet in February 2019.  You can read articles here and here about this recommendation.

And So, Anxiety Reigns

Now, if you’re not United Methodist, this may all seem confusing and tedious.  Methodists have a decision making process that isn’t simple.  We don’t have a pope and cardinals to make decisions for us.  We don’t have a simple majority rules vote.  We hold our church buildings and land in trust for the church that will come after we are gone, so we understand that the brick and mortar in which we gather isn’t “ours” but God’s for the work of God’s people.

And it’s exactly at that point – God and the work of God’s people – in which I take great hope for the United Methodist Church.

In the midst of all the debates, clergy trials and commission reports, people have been getting very upset and anxious.  At a recent pre-conference meeting (yes, a meeting before our annual meeting, it’s how we do things in the UMC) I heard such anxiety from the people gathered as they discussed what our future may look like.  “If this happens, then….”  or “if that happens, then…”  The proposed resolutions we were voting on were contradictory, as people wanted to be ready for whatever comes next.  If things don’t go according to their desire, they want to be able to split the denomination, to take possession of their buildings, to ensure their beliefs and not have to compromise or change.

Such anxiety.  Near panic.  Judgment and suspicion.  The one thing we could agree on is that we disagree.

I was only able to attend the meeting because I had been visiting my parents.  When I got back home, I found in my mail a letter from our Board of Pensions, which administers all clergy retirement accounts.  The letter opens with “concerns” and “expressed worries…during this time of change.”  The whole purpose of the letter was to reassure anxious clergy, who, as the meeting had made obvious, were still anxious.

They Will Know You Are My Disciples By Your Love

I am not anxious about the future of the church.  No matter what happens in the United Methodist Church, I have faith in the work of the Holy Spirit to call people into partnership with God in mission.  God is always at work in the world, reaching out in mission in, to, and for the world.  The church is the Body of Christ, and God uses the church to share God’s grace and love with the world.  No church split or union will change the mission of God.

In the book of Acts we read about the early church, and how the Spirit moved people to show love for their neighbors.  Chapter 2:44-45 states that Christians were together, collecting funds so that if anyone had a need, it could be taken care of by the group.  This care for others is reinforced in chapter 4:34-35, that there was not a single person in need among the believers because the people trusted the apostles to use their funds to care for everyone.  By chapter six, the group of believers had grown so large that seven people had to be appointed to manage the funds for common care.

The disciples and the early church were not afraid to care for those who were on the margins.  In Acts 8 we read the story of Philip and the Ethiopian treasury official.  Despite being a eunuch and barred from entering the temple, he had traveled from Ethiopia to Jerusalem to worship.  In his chariot as he rode home, he was reading Isaiah and Philip helped explain how this passage revealed the good news of Jesus Christ, unbothered by the fact that he was with a person who was considered impure.  Immediately after this, we read in chapter 9 that Peter healed Tabitha, who ministered to widows in Joppa.  Widows led a fragile existence, often on the margins, without the legal protection of spouse or family.  In chapter 10, Peter shares the good news of the gospel with Cornelius, despite the fact that it was unlawful for him to visit the house of a Gentile.

These early practices of mission – care for those on the margins in the face of difficulty and/or legal restrictions continued in the early church.  Takanori Inoue argues that during a time of plagues and rampant disease in Roman cities, “Christians ministered as a transformative movement that arose in response to the misery, chaos, fear and brutality of life in the Roman Empire.”  The basis for this ministry is love of God and love of neighbor “because it is God’s pleasure that they should share [God’s] generosity with all people.”

In Mission By Grace

The inspiration of the Holy Spirit moves us to love God more deeply and enables us to live out God’s love for and with our neighbors.  This participation in God’s mission was a witness to the gospel by the early church – love made visible – and it continues in the church today.  I know that people will continue to participate in mission practices – to go on short-term mission trips to offer disaster relief and recovery assistance, to make UMCOR kits to distribute around the world, to make meals to share with those who are food insecure in their communities, to volunteer in free clinics, to sit and listen with humble spirits and open hearts.  I know this because people are moved by the Holy Spirit to live out the Great Commission and the Greatest Commandment with Great Compassion – and they will not stop loving their neighbors because our denomination is struggling.

We live out the call of Christ to go and make disciples, to love one another and to care for those on the margins because we have heard the call in our local communities.  In our local churches we worship, pray and study together.  In our local churches we learn about the needs of our neighbors near and far.  In our local churches we invite each other to participate in mission practices.  I choose to live in a posture of hope, knowing that ordinary United Methodists will continue to practice mission as a witness to the world of their faith in Christ.  I choose to live in a posture of hope because the mission work of everyday United Methodists reveals the ongoing call of God through the gift of the Holy Spirit to live in love.  I choose to live in a posture of hope because I trust in God’s unfailing grace.

The Early Church's Approach to the Poor in Society and Its Significance to the Church's Social Engagement Today by Takanori Inoue.  Quotes from pages 11-13

Planning a Mission Trip – Part Four

Putting Together A Team

About a month ago one of my daughters came for a visit.  We had a list of places to visit and things she wanted to see, but it was a rainy weekend and we had to make some changes.  That Sunday afternoon, the skies cleared and it was a glorious day for a hike.  A quick lunch after church, we all changed clothes and gathered water bottles and off we went exploring.

However, each of us had our expectations and assumptions in our day packs along with those water bottles.

We let our daughter choose the trail, and it was one we hadn’t been on yet.  I had a book with a description of where to park, the location of the trail head, blaze colors, and other assorted information.  My husband decided to bring our dog along, so we put extra water and a few treats in his day pack.  I sliced some apples and cheese for snacks, double checked that my first aid kit and other essentials were in my day pack and we hit the road.

I assumed that the directions in the book would be easy to follow (mostly) and that my cell phone GPS would be functional at least until we arrived at the trail head (it wasn’t).  My husband and daughter expected that I’d hike almost as fast as they do (I don’t).  I expected that my dog would be well behaved (she had a blast but isn’t the best behaved).  I didn’t anticipate being passed by young adults in shorts and running shoes blasting past me on the trail, as I slowed down with each switchback.  My husband assumed our dog would love to splash across the creeks on our trail (she had to be carried because she refused to get wet).  Lastly, we all assumed the trail would be well marked.

Despite having to stop for directions, mistakenly starting on the wrong trail, the eroded trail sign which left us confused as to which fork to take, and my late arrival to snack break (they sat and waited for me because the snacks were in my pack), we had a great time.  When we got back into the car we were wet, muddy, sweaty and very happy.

Before You Pack Your Expectations

Planning a short-term mission trip often involves building a team.  Some churches build their mission teams by invitation only, and some will open the opportunity to anyone who applies.  Team leaders should be aware that people bring expectations and assumptions on mission trips, just as I took my own assumptions and expectations on my hike.

While building teams by invitation only can avoid many of the pitfalls that may happen with assumptions and expectations, invitation-only teams leave the impression that mission teams are only for a select group, and that the entire church is not welcome to participate.  A mission trip is a small group sent out from a local church, and should be understood as an important part of the work of the whole body of Christ.  While not everyone will go on the trip, everyone in the church can be part of the support network.  More on this in a bit.

If your planning involves opening up the trip to anyone in your church, I highly recommend interviews with prospective team members.  The book A Mission Journey from the General Board of Global Ministries includes questions for teams to consider in the team formation stage.  The authors are all experienced short-term mission leaders and have written these questions in the context of a meditation exercise.

Questions To Consider

Here are some of the questions you and your prospective team members can discuss:  “What are your reasons for taking part in this experience?  What are your hopes? In what mission experiences have you participated before?  What do you expect to be similar this time?  What do you think will be different?”

The meditation continues with questions about cultural differences and the role of God already at work at your team’s destination.  These are all questions that can help frame an interview with prospective team members, and help the entire team consider their expectations and assumptions prior to the trip.

If you’ve been on a short-term mission trip, you already know that you’ll face problems along the way.  Plans may not go as anticipated.  There may be travel delays.  There may be difficulties in obtaining needed materials.  Things might get lost in translation.  Things might get lost – like luggage or people.  If your team has come together with intention, praying together, working on a local project together, reading and discussing the meditations in A Mission Journey together, you will be able to handle problems and blown assumptions together.

Not Everyone Can Go

If there are people in your church who want to go on the mission trip but aren’t the right fit for your team, consider asking them to help the team in another way.  Prayer partners is one way that people can participate directly in a mission trip without actually going on the trip.  Each team member is assigned a prayer partner who will pray with them prior to the trip and for them during the trip.  Some churches have prayer partners who write notes of encouragement for team members to open during their mission trip.  Others can help the mission team by collecting essential materials for the team to use, driving the team to or from the airport, or by working on local projects with the team.  In this way, the mission team extends beyond just the team members to include more of the church.

On that hike with my family, they expected that I wouldn’t be the fastest hiker and that I didn’t mind if they went on ahead.  We talked about it before we started out on the trail.  When we realized our phone GPS signals were lost, we switched over to paper maps and the helpful folks at the cafe.  Because we were prepared and had talked over scenarios with each other, our assumptions and expectations were better managed.  Building your mission team can allow for time to prepare together and discuss your expectations with each other, so that your team will be ready for whatever happens on your journey.

 

Quotes from A Mission Journey: A Handbook for Volunteers, page 61-2

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Planning a Short-Term Mission Trip – Part Three: Do No Harm

This past weekend two things happened:  a friend asked me a question and I got a new compass.

I’ll be honest.  I really love hiking, but I have NO idea how to use a compass.  Now that I live in a region with lots of trails, I’ve been learning.  I’ve gone to classes, I’ve researched websites on hikes in the area, I’ve got maps and lists of trails I want to hike.  I’ve learned on short hikes how to pay attention to the blazes, the colored markers along the trail.  For short day hikes, my skill level is fine.  But if I want to hike new trails and do more exploring, I really need to understand how to use a compass and topographical map (the one with all the lines that mean how much you’re going to hike up or down – at least that’s my beginner’s understanding).

Saturday morning I watched some videos on how to use my new fancy compass.  I learned about true north, magnetic north and declination.   One of the most important things was learning how to set a course and triangulate.  This is called “getting your bearing on the map”.  Sometimes you need to know where you are, so you can get your bearing on the map twice, using two different points so that the lines cross and form a triangle – this is a more accurate way to find yourself on the map and continue on the correct course.  I recommend watching REI’s navigation videos on YouTube if you’re interested in orienteering.

What Does a Compass Have To Do With Mission Trips?

My friend and ministry colleague Audrua Malvaez asked me “how do you know when you’re doing harm on a mission trip?”  This question came about in her conversations with other youth ministry folks who have also led or been on mission trips.  The question of “do no harm” is part of United Methodist theological reflection.  United Methodists have what they call Three General Rules or Three Simple Rules to help guide their Christian life.  These are 1. Do no harm; 2. Do good; 3.  Attend upon the ordinances of God – or in contemporary English, stay in love with God through prayer, worship, Bible study, etc.  When John Wesley wrote the original general rules, he gave some specific examples.  Bishop Reuben Job wrote a contemporary update about 10 years ago, which helped people to understand the Three Simple Rules as a way to question ourselves about our Christian discipleship.  So my friend’s question is specifically about the first rule as it applies to mission trips – how do you know when you’re doing harm even as you’re trying to do good in the world?

This is where orienteering and mission trips intersect: trying to figure out if you’re doing harm while trying to do good requires triangulating.  When using your compass to verify where you are, you need to check with at least two points to get an accurate location.  When you are out doing good in the world, you need to check with other people to get a more accurate understanding of how your efforts affect others.  You need ask questions of the people who have received your team, questions of the people who live in the area where you serve, questions of your host church.

Getting Your Bearing on the Mission Map

Although the exact questions you can ask will be shaped by your experience and context, here are a few examples.  Before your mission trip begins, ask your team leader to be in touch with a local leader – for Methodists, this may be a district bishop or a district superintendent (these titles vary, so check on the information for your destination).  Ask the local leader to tell you about the area.  What are the general needs in the area?  Are the churches growing in some areas and not others?  Why?  What are the main economic factors in the area?  These questions will help give you one angle of answers to consider your bearing on your mission map.

Another angle of answers can be sought through asking questions during orientation.  Ask your team leader to schedule an on-the-ground orientation session.  This might be a local person who knows the history of the area or a local church leader who knows the people and concerns of the area.  Ask them to tell you about the history of the area, about the geography and culture of the area.  Ask them to tell you their family’s story – how did they come to live there, to work there?  How did the town get its name?  What holidays and observances are important to the people there?

Once you are at your destination, you can get your bearing on the mission map by asking questions of your hosts.  Whether this is an organization or a church, have your team leaders plan a Bible study and discussion with a group from the organization or church.  Ask the local people what projects have they done that they consider a success?  What projects are they proud of, and what work do they hope to do in the future?  What local needs do they see as a priority?  How can future mission teams come alongside them to be partners in their ministry?

Three years ago I was asked to lead a mission trip and told to include a vacation Bible school for the local children.   I had the opportunity to ask the pastor and lay leader of the church if they wanted a vacation Bible school and they both emphatically said “no.”  What they wanted was a team to come and learn about the work the church was doing, to worship together, and then to have two days of working on house repairs with local church members.  A simple question allowed the local leadership to set the agenda for the work, recognized their authority and expertise, and helped me to find my bearing on my mission map.

Many mission teams have evening devotionals or time to reflect on their experience.  This is another opportunity to ask questions and to get your bearing on the mission map.  How was your day?  How was God revealed to you through the people you met?  Were your skills put to good use?  What barriers did you face?  What changes do you think would make it possible for this mission trip to build relationships between churches?

The Map of Discipleship

Walking the path of Christian discipleship calls us to continually learn.  We are not to be satisfied with a superficial faith!  Just as I need to learn more if I want to hike new paths, so must I keep deepening my faith on my Christian journey.  Walking the path of discipleship is a joy.

Walking the path of discipleship also means sometimes we make mistakes.  We might miss one of the trail blazes and wander off the path.  We might misjudge the obstacles on the path and stumble.  We use our compass skills – talking with those who walk the path with us, asking questions and listening to get our bearing on the map.  Have we done harm while we were trying to do good?  We have to ask questions of the people we hope to serve in order to find our place on the map of discipleship.  They will help us on the journey.  And we will be empowered to help them too, as we all walk the path of Christ.

Planning A Short-Term Mission Trip – The Work Project

Welcome to part two of our series on planning a short-term mission trip!  Monday we discussed selecting a destination.  Today we consider the question of the work done on a mission trip.

How do you choose what work your mission team will do on your mission trip?  And when do you make this decision?  In part one we talked about youth mission trips that have a set agenda and adult mission trips outside the U.S.  The differences between these trips call for a different time to decide what kind of work will be done.

The Work Sets The Trip

If you are planning a youth mission trip like the U.M. ARMY camps, perhaps you don’t have to choose what work you will do.  It may be decided by a planning committee.  U.M. ARMY trips have planning teams that begin the work at least a year in advance.  They have groups of people who work on “pre-site” organization, finding people whose homes need work that can be accomplished in five days or less by a team of teens with very little experience.  This work may include flooring, wheelchair ramps, painting, yard work, and occasionally more complex work if the team is experienced enough.  Electric and plumbing are not part of the work done by these teams.

If you are planning an adult trip to an area in need of disaster recovery, your work may be set by the Conference coordinator.  Following hurricanes, floods, or tornadoes, many United Methodist conference offices will establish a volunteer coordinator.  This office will assess the work needed to be done, and match the skills of volunteer teams coming into the area with the needs of the homeowners.  Specialized groups of Early Response Teams can come in immediately after a disaster.  In the greater Houston area, these ERTs helped to “muck out” houses, cutting out wet carpet and sheetrock, removing damaged furniture and appliances.  Later teams come in over a longer period of time to help with rebuilding.

This kind of work is important.  Helping people in disaster areas or in rural areas that struggle with poverty is one key way that the church shows the love of Christ for our neighbors.  Is physical work always necessary when planning a mission trip?

Learning and Relationship Building Instead of Work

Many years ago I went on a mission seminar to southeast Asia.  The purpose of the trip was to learn about the work being done by the Methodist Churches in that area.  Methodists from Singapore, Korea, France, and the US worked together to minister to children, to offer education to young adults, and to establish churches.  Meeting the people, worshipping together, learning the history of the area, these impressions have stayed with me over the years.   Our group asked one missionary what he wanted from the U.S. church in the way of support, did he want mission teams to come over?  He asked for prayer.  He wanted to be joined in prayer first and foremost.  He preferred relationship over work projects.

I am part of a group called “Be The Bridge To Racial Unity” and one question that has come up several times is whether groups need to do a work project on a mission trip.  The feeling in the group is that just coming in to do a work project doesn’t always help develop relationships.  Often these trips have cross-racial learning as a major component, and the home church insists on a work project because the trip is called a “mission trip”.  One person recently asked about a trip like this, because she is taking time to discern whether the work piece is absolutely necessary.  Through careful planning she is allowing time to have the conversation with the people she will meet with at her destination, and allow them to set the agenda.  They will know what is needed in their area, and they will know what might be a good project for visitors to work alongside residents.

Work And Learning as Part of a Practice-Reflection Cycle

Working together on a project that is a priority for the residents makes space for relationships to form.  Maybe they will decide that sharing stories of their experience is more important than work.  Maybe they will work one morning in a community garden, followed by an afternoon’s discussion about access to food, structural racism, and foodworker justice.  A morning’s work followed by reflection on scripture, listening to the people who live where you are working is an important way to be in mission.  Work together, then listen to scripture together, then hear each other’s stories.  This way, we learn together about how God is already at work in a place, and discern how we can join in that work.

As you plan your mission trip, what questions do you have about the work your group hopes to do?  Consider setting aside time for a practice-reflection cycle.  Sister of Hope Ministries is available to facilitate mission trips with work/scripture/discussion sessions.  Contact us for more information!

 

Planning A Short-Term Mission Trip

Have you been the person in charge of planning a mission trip?  It takes rather a lot of work to plan a mission trip.  Sometimes planning a mission trip begins with someone suggesting a destination.

Destinations

How does your group choose a destination?  Many years ago I worked as a Christian Education director, and our youth group asked to go on a mission trip.  The Texas Annual Conference (UMC) had a very active youth mission trip program, so when flyers arrived in the mail (yes, this was in the 90s, before they sent things via e-mail or had websites) I shared them with the youth group and we decided to go to U.M. ARMY (United Methodist Action Reach-out Mission by Youth).  We sent in our forms, went to the training day, collected tools, and I learned how to drive a 15 passenger van with a fully loaded trailer.  Our destination was about three hours from home.  We arrived and everything had been prepared for our arrival.  Honestly, the only preparation we had to do is what I listed: fill out forms, gather tools, attend training, drive ourselves to the host church.

Sometimes the destination is obvious.  In the South Central Jurisdiction (for non-United Methodists, that’s the UM churches in New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana) their Volunteers in Mission webpage is titled “VIM/Disaster Response”.  The people who volunteer for mission projects in this region have disaster recovery as a main focus of their work.   I grew up on the Gulf Coast of Texas and have lived through about ten tropical storms/hurricanes, so I have a deep appreciation for mission teams who do disaster recovery.  The dedicated mission teams of the United Methodist Church are often those groups that are “first in, last out” when it comes to disaster recovery.

Heading Beyond our Borders

Some mission teams decide to plan a mission trip outside the U.S.  Often these destinations are chosen because someone in the church knows someone in another country, or because they have visited another country and want to go back on a mission trip.  People talk about their previous mission trips – “have you all been to Honduras?  You should check out such-and-such place for your next mission.”  Or “we went to Costa Rica last year to help Amistad Church, you should think about going and helping them finish up construction.”  Sharing information like this is one key way people learn about mission trip destinations.

The United Methodist Church is a “connectional” church, meaning we have a network of churches that share information and resources with each other.  Our mission work is organized by the General Board of Global Ministries, and they maintain a list of places that have requested mission teams to come and help with ministries in a particular way.  On their guide for “how to volunteer” finding a destination isn’t actually one of the key criteria – more importantly is finding a volunteer opportunity that best suits your team’s skills.

Team Building Before Destination

One way to approach planning an overseas mission trip is to begin planning a year and a half (or more) in advance.  Work together as a group on local projects.  This allows time to get to know each other and to discover or develop your group’s skills.  It also allows time for your mission team to get to know each other well, to pray and study together.

Sister of Hope Ministries is available to help your church or mission committee work through the mission trip planning process.  Contact us to schedule a consultation or training event for your next mission trip!

 

Going On To Perfection

Forgiveness

Through Lent, my Bible study group is focused on forgiveness.  Last night, one of our discussions centered around how (if?) it is possible to forgive like Jesus did.  We talked about how Jesus knew he was to be betrayed and yet he loved those who betrayed him, who put him on trial, who executed him.  Could we love that much – could we love the people close to us, in our families and work – knowing they would betray us?

We discussed how John Wesley believed that disciples would be made perfect in love in their lifetime, and how we need God’s grace to love that completely.  We discussed how much we need each other to learn about forgiveness, grace and love – and how we need to continue learning how much we are loved, learning how to forgive, and learning how to love throughout our lives.  We need each other to grow in our understanding of God’s sanctifying grace.

(Monday’s post described Wesley’s three types of grace: prevenient – which comes before we know we need God’s grace; justifying – which is the grace of Jesus Christ that makes us right with God; and sanctifying – which is the grace that works on us throughout our lives)

Sanctifying Grace

Dr. Randy Maddox write about Wesley’s understanding of God’s grace in his book Responsible Grace:  “When one understands sanctification on Wesley’s terms, as a life-long process of healing our sin-distorted affections, there is an obvious need for continually renewing the empowerment for this healing.  The other essential requirement is a persistent deepening of our awareness of the deceptive motivations and prejudices remaining in our life, because co-operant healing entails some discernment of that which still needs to be healed.”

Dr. Maddox asserts that sanctifying grace as Wesley understood it is a life-long work.  Once we are made right with God, our work begins.  In relationship with other disciples, through worship, communion, prayer and study, we are empowered to perceive the Holy Spirit working in our lives, and can see where we are still in sin.  It’s not comfortable.

Accountable Discipleship

My Bible study group helps me to see where I am holding on to old hurts and allowing bitterness to be a motivation (that’s the “deepening awareness of the deceptive motivations”).  My group also holds me accountable when I say I’m going to forgive.  They help me to examine my heart and see where I have lived out my privilege and prejudices, and to change those attitudes.  It’s not comfortable, but it is necessary.  My Bible study group helps me discern that which still needs to be healed in my heart.

“Going on to perfection” is a Methodist way of saying, I’m listening for the leading of the Holy Spirit, my friends along this path help me to face my fears and faults, and God calls me on to loving my neighbors more like Jesus did.  Any good work that I hope to do in mission requires that I pay attention to God’s sanctifying grace, that I am part of an accountable discipleship group, that I worship and pray and learn how to go on to perfection.

 

Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology by Randy L. Maddox, quote from page 202

God’s Grace is Our “Why”

Why Write Down All the Numbers?

A couple days ago I went to a workshop for entrepreneurs, covering the basic legal and financial issues related to starting up a business.  My dad had his own business, and sometimes we could help.  I remember filling out massive spreadsheets, filling in detailed information from invoices.  Amount of labor goes in one column, amount of parts goes in another, how much was paid goes in another.  I didn’t pay much attention to why I had to write down all these details, but I remember that I thought it was odd to keep track of all these numbers separately when they were all on the invoices (this was back in the days of carbon paper invoices).  Now I’m learning the “why” of keeping track of expenses and income as I start my own venture.

My work now focuses on the “why” of short-term mission.  Why do people get involved in going on short-term mission trips?  Why do they choose the places they serve?  Why do they go at all?

Grace-formed Church

Methodists have a particular way of describing God’s grace.  “God’s grace goes before us (prevenience), God’s grace comes among us uniquely in the person of Jesus Christ (justification), and God’s grace abides with us restoring our lives to an unrelenting love for God and neighbor (sanctification).”  These three ways of describing God’s grace – prevenient grace, justifying grace and sanctifying grace – help us to think about how God is at work in our lives, forming us into disciples so that we can faithfully live out how we are called to be in the world.

And God’s grace goes beyond just working on us as individuals: “The triune God is grace who in Christ and through the Holy Spirit prepares, saves, and makes a new people.”   When a person is made new in Christ, they are brought into the family of God – God’s people in the world.  Our ability to work for good in the world comes from God’s sanctifying grace: “Missional vision is not created by the church, rather it is given to the church by God’s saving activity in and on behalf of the world.”  What this means is that when we go out on a mission project, whether that is volunteering at our local food bank or traveling to another country on a medical team, the mission is given to the whole church by God because of God’s grace.  God loves the world.  God loves the people in the world.  God gives the church grace so that the church can reach out in compassion to others, and be living witnesses to God’s grace.  That is our why.

How is your grace-formed church living out its call to be in mission?

The Possibilities of a Round Table Conversation

The List of Names

Perhaps you, like me, have been overwhelmed with the news lately.  Another mass shooting.  Another list of names of lives cut short, images of grieving friends and family on the tv.

I’ve listened to too many pastoral prayers, heard too many bells rung, watched too many candles lit in churches after mass shootings.  I’ve had too many conversations cut short by others who just don’t want to face the fears they have for their own children.  I’ve had difficult conversations with my own family members who are avid hunters, who know that I’m a pacifist.

Mass shootings.  War.  Devastation.  It can be overwhelming.

But there’s hope.  My friend Rev. Melissa Cooper writes about Gen Z and why young adults today are quick to speak up and speak out against violence and injustice.  I encourage you to read both her pieces on Gen Z: https://www.revmelissacooper.com/blog/

Social, Political and Cultural Issues

I believe the activism of young adults from Parkland, Florida and others is important for us to listen to as those who are active in Christian mission.  Social, political and economic issues are part of what we should pay attention to as we prepare for mission and continue to work in mission.  Drs. Jacob and Glory Dharmaraj, authors of Mutuality in Mission, articulate why mission must attend to these issues:

“The gifts of God include both personal salvation and human liberation.  Faith in Christ Jesus and service to humanity cannot be separated.  Inner renewal and fulfillment through the working of the Holy Spirit lead Christian communities to commit more deeply to tackling issues that face God’s children everywhere in social, political, and cultural spheres, and to take bold stands on behalf of the exploited, dominated, and oppressed.”

As Christians, we are to take bold stands on behalf of the exploited, dominated and oppressed.  This may mean we need to sit at the table with people we disagree with – with people who may tell us uncomfortable truths.  This may mean taking risks and making changes.

Round Table Conversation

The image of sitting around the table of Christ, listening to each other with humility and courage has come up time and time again in my prayers.  Dr. Letty Russell describes a vision of the church as a round table, where everyone is heard, where all are valued and included.  In this vision of the church, those who are at the table always look for people who aren’t at the table and invite them to join, to sit with each other as equals around the Lord’s table.

Can you imagine round table conversation that would empower and encourage your work in mission?  Can you imagine round table conversation that would break down walls, open up opportunities for the church to dig deep into tackling the painful issues people face every day?  Can you imagine how it would challenge us to sit at a round table and just listen to David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, Jaclyn Corin, and Emma Gonzalez as they listened to and learned from Geneva Reed-Veal, Sybrina Fulton, Lezley McSpadden and Samaria Rice, as they listened to and learned from Sunny Red Bear, Jennifer Himel, Johnnie Jae and Naelyn Park?  Can you imagine the possibilities?

I encourage you to seek out those in your community who are at the margins and invite them to sit with you at a round table, where all are welcomed and all are heard with respect and deep dedication to the gift and work of God for justice.

 

Further Reading:

Johnnie Jae’s organization: A Tribe Called Geek

Jennifer Himel’s organization: UNite to End Violence: Native Women’s Empowerment

Sunny Red Bear’s spoken word work: Grandbabies

Find a local chapter of Black Lives Matter or Be The Bridge , a faith-based grassroots group working for racial unity

Lenten Practices

Ash Wednesday in Community

Last night I went to church for Ash Wednesday service.   We sang together, listened to scripture, and prayed together.  Our pastor gave a short sermon, and led us through a silent meditation time by passing out cards with a single word printed on them.  We would meditate on the word, and at the sound of the bell, pass the card to the right and receive a new card from the left.  Then we read the litany of healing and received the ashes, and closed with prayer and song.

Many times in my life I’ve attended Ash Wednesday services like this, and often they close in silence.  Last night though, we ended our service with a time of fellowship.  We talked and laughed, checking in with each other about how work is going and asking about upcoming travel plans.  The children who had participated in the service were relaxed and happy, but eager to head home for dinner.   It was a lovely way to remember that Ash Wednesday and Lent are not solitary practices.

Why Lent?

In the early days of Christianity, Lent was a season of preparation and reconciliation.  New converts devoted themselves to study and preparation for taking communion.  Those who had fallen away could seek forgiveness and renew relationships.  People in the Christian community took seriously the importance of spiritual preparation for the celebration of the resurrection.

Dr. Jack Levison, a professor of Hebrew Bible at Perkins School of Theology, described the early practice of fasting by Christians as fasting from food and drink from sunup to sundown.  In later years, a light meal was allowed; and then later the times were relaxed so that people could eat breakfast and dinner.  Eventually fasting became abstaining from just one thing – so that now we ask “what are you giving up for Lent?”  and expect to hear a single thing, like chocolate.

Belonging

For me, the question is not “what will I give up for Lent?” but rather, how will I live so that I am reconciled to God and my neighbors?  The Lenten disciplines of self-examination, prayer, fasting, reading and meditating on God’s word are designed not for my heart alone, but for the community of faith.  My Lenten disciplines are not mine, but belong to my church family.

Belonging to a church helps me to grow in what Methodists call “sanctifying grace” – which is God’s grace that works on us, makes us holy, gives us the ability to love God and neighbor with our whole hearts.  Worshiping and studying with other Christians helps me to see beyond my own perspective, and hold me accountable to the call of Christ on my life.  In this way, I understand Ash Wednesday and Lent to be practices that prepare me for the work of mission with the Church.

How will you be observing Lent?  Does it help inform your mission work?  Leave a comment and let me know what Lent means to you.

Cultural Dialogue on My Plate

This week I am back in Texas, for several meetings and to visit my family.  Being back home means a trip to Whataburger.  If you’re not from Texas, you may not know about our devotion to Whataburger, a burger restaurant which originated in Corpus Christi.  Our passion for Whataburger extends to telling each other tales of how far we drove to get to the nearest Whataburger if we happened to live out of state for a time.  Bon Appetit even has an article about our love for Whataburger!

https://www.bonappetit.com/restaurants-travel/article/whataburger-history-texas

As I sat with my parents at Whataburger, laughing and talking through our lunch (just 30 minutes after my  plane landed, didn’t take me long to get into that orange and white striped building) I began to think about how important food is to culture, and all the regional and cultural differences in the U.S. that are revealed through our passion for food.

What’s BBQ got to do with mission?

Bar-b-que is a vivid example.  Now that I’ve moved from Texas to North Carolina, all my Texas friends laugh and ask if I miss brisket.  North Carolina bbq uses pork rather than beef and their sauce is vinegar based.  Texas bbq is famous for slow smoked brisket and the use of sauce is debated in the old school establishments.  One of my favorites is the New Zion Missionary Baptist Church BBQ stand, with its tomato based smoky-spicy sauce.  Now if you’re from the Kansas City area, you will have a completely different style of bbq and sauce.  Each region defends their style of bbq as THE one.

Pizza is another example.  Consider the way New Yorkers defend their love of a thin crust eaten-by-the-slice pizza, and the way Chicagoans prefer a use-your-knife-and-fork deep dish pizza.  Other examples include my friends from Louisiana who are particular about how gumbo and jambalaya are made, and who celebrate Mardi Gras season with King Cake.  Or my California friends who prefer In-and-Out burgers over Whataburgers.  Or my friends along the Texas border who make tamales at Christmas time.

We each have our food that brings back memories of family and friends, celebrations, holidays and time spent with treasured loved ones.  We remember how mom used to make her special dinner, how a favorite aunt or grandmother made a dish that everyone loved at family gatherings.  These are part of our culture.  The foods we love, the foods we say “it’s not ________ without”, the foods that mean we’re home – those are cultural markers.

Cross-Cultural Learning

It’s easy to see these cultural markers when we go on a short-term mission trip outside of the U.S.  I’ll never forget having guava juice with breakfast instead of orange juice, or the roast chicken that was served with its head still on.  These were new and interesting.  It is harder when I go on trips inside the U.S. because I tend to think “that’s not how we do it at home” instead of asking questions and being open to learning about a different culture in my own country.

Cultural differences within the U.S. are important points of inter-cultural dialogue.  As Dr. Hunt’s article discussed, the future of the United Methodist Church requires that we recognize the need for inter-cultural dialogue as essential to our mission.  Talking with each other, listening deeply to one another, honoring the history and contexts of each other are essential to understanding how we are connected as disciples, connected in and though the Body of Christ.

People may laugh and ask me how I “manage” to live in North Carolina without Whataburger and the bbq that I know best, and I often laugh with them, but in practice, I am learning.  I listen to the stories about family meals, listen to how someone’s grandfather did bbq for family gatherings, listen to what is important to these people in this place.

Dr. Hunt makes the point that the mission of the UMC, and by extension, the mission work of volunteers, can’t be reduced to making the gospel relevant to the latest group (Boomers, Gen Xers, Millenials) but that we have to discover our own cultural contexts and be in dialogue with others about “what it means in specific times, places, and social locations to proclaim and enact that Jesus is the Christ.”  When we go on short-term mission trips, we must prepare by becoming aware of our own culture, the many contexts that contribute to our culture, be open to learning about our hosts’ culture, and then working side-by-side to live out the call of Christ to love our neighbors in word and deed.

Read more from Dr. Hunt’s article here:  http://www.umglobal.org/

Texas Style BBQ Sauce debate: https://www.texasmonthly.com/bbq/all-about-the-sauce/

New Zion Missionary Baptist Church BBQ

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Cross-Cultural Short-Term Mission

#MyHope4Methodism

If you are a member of the United Methodist Church, you are likely already aware of the conflicts and divisions within the denomination.  If not, a quick internet search may lead to you to blogs, articles, news reports and Twitter feeds about our wrestling with how to be a single denomination while holding differing views on human sexuality.  I am a United Methodist clergyperson, so I’ve been paying attention to these developments.

One of my preferred sources for reading is the blog UM & Global, which is written by staff of our mission agency, the General Board of Global Ministries, and members of United Methodist Professors of Mission.  These two groups have an intentional relationship to deepen conversations around issues in the practice of mission and in the United Methodist Church.  By reading this blog, I am challenged to think about my denomination and its work in mission, and turn my focus away from division and toward unity in mission.  This heartens my soul because one of my favorite scripture passages is 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 that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The UM & Global blog has a new series of posts titled #MyHope4Methodism.  Authors share their perspectives on the future of the global United Methodist Church and other Methodist churches around the world.  Last week, Dr. Robert Hunt wrote that his hope for Methodism requires an understanding of the church as inter-cultural rather than international.  He asserts that the mission of the United Methodist Church must include “the cultivation of a pragmatic inter-cultural dialogue on the meaning of the claim that Jesus is the Christ in relation to God’s Reign.”

Cross-Cultural Without Leaving the Country

One comment I’ve heard many times from United Methodist volunteers is that the mission trip isn’t really about the work.  The work is always helpful to those in need, but volunteers in mission recognize that what is most important is being present with those who are suffering after a natural disaster or who are struggling in an economically depressed region.  What is most important is listening to the other person.  What is most important is living into the new commandment of Christ – loving one another as Christ loved us.

Volunteers in mission also point out that loving one another in the context of mission isn’t always easy.  Some groups have excellent training before their trip and are equipped when faced with the different cultures across the U.S.  Some groups are challenged when faced with people who live in ways that seem “wrong” or may struggle to quiet the voices of judgment in their minds.  There are cultural differences within the United States, and when we plan a short-term mission trip it is important to prepare our hearts and minds for the encounter.  Dr. Hunt’s assertion that we “cultivate a pragmatic inter-cultural dialogue” means for short-term mission that we are intentional about the cultural differences, that we learn about ourselves and our fellow disciples we go to serve SO THAT we can learn together more deeply about the love of God through Jesus Christ.

Read more about #MyHope4Methodism here:  http://www.umglobal.org/

 

 

 

The Problem of Persistent Poverty

Ten years ago my oldest daughter went on a youth mission trip.  She was the only one from our church, joining a group of youth from churches in our district.  They spent the week working on the kitchen of an elderly woman who told them stories of growing up in Jamaica, how proud she was of her sons, and all the food she loved to cook.  My daughter felt that she’d made a difference helping to improve this woman’s kitchen.  She’d had a great mission trip, made new friends, had meaningful worship services, and did something good for another person.

Fast forward a couple years – she and I were in the car, between college campus visits – driving through a long stretch of rural middle America.  She was quiet, observing the area, looking at the homes, farms and small towns we passed through.  And then she wondered aloud – did any of her work on that mission trip matter if poverty never changed?

Her reflection on the problem of persistent poverty is one that is not easily resolved.  It calls people of faith to deep reflection on their role in the world.  If we help those who are poor, but we don’t think about why people live in poverty and we don’t do anything about those reasons why, then we won’t make much progress in our call to feed the hungry, to care for those on the margins.

Dr. Angus Deaton, professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University, wrote in the New York Times this week about poverty in America.  He stated that it is “time to stop thinking that only non-Americans are truly poor.”  I would argue that United Methodist Volunteers in Mission have long been aware of poverty in America.  Like my daughter, youth and adults volunteer for mission trips to repair homes across the U.S.  Organizations like Appalachia Service Project, Ozark Mountain Project and Mountain T.O.P. provide needed services for people in areas of deep poverty.  Dr. Deaton pointed out that life expectancy in Appalachia is lower than in Bangladesh.

Why we Work

In part, Deaton’s article articulates his shift from prioritizing “the faraway poor” to prioritizing the needs of people in poverty in America.  He states that he believes we as a society have an obligation to help those who live in poverty.  I don’t know what his motivations are, but I know that the United Methodists who spend time as Volunteers in Mission are motivated by their love for God and their love for their neighbors, whether those neighbors are far or near.

The problem comes when we realize that Jesus was right – the poor are always with us.  However, this should not cause us to simply repair a roof yet ignore the reasons for poverty.  We may – like my daughter and I in our car ride conversation – just wrestle with the painful realities of our world.  We may not come up with solutions for global poverty.  We may find reasons for poverty in our communities, and work to make small changes so that poverty is alleviated in our neighborhoods.

More than Hammers

The problem of persistent poverty may not go away in our lifetime.  This requires that we who work in short-term mission dedicate some of our time to critical reflection on the contexts in which we work.  We must look deeply and seek to understand.  We must work with hammers and nails, and also with our minds.  We must love our neighbors enough to face difficult realities about our world and be brave enough to make changes.

The Blessing of Shared Worship

Singing Together

A couple weeks ago I had to miss Sunday morning worship due to a family emergency.   I didn’t think missing one worship service would be too detrimental.  I listen to an online daily devotional, keep a prayer journal, and attend a weekly Bible study.  Turns out, what I missed was the music.

Congregational singing and music offerings by choirs or musicians help to form us as Christians.  We sing together, being formed together as the worshiping body of Christ.  We sing scripture and hymns inspired by scripture.  We sing prayers, how we hope God will form us into the Church and use us for God’s mission in, to, and for the world.

Sometimes the worship music is powerful, leaving a mark on us far beyond the worship service.  A friend of mine said how much he wished I could have heard the music on the week I missed – and then repeated it again, how the music was so good and he really wished I’d heard it.

The shared experience of listening to music and singing together are important practices of faith.  They remind us of who God is, tell us again the story of Christ’s life, and help us focus afresh on being open to the Holy Spirit.  As I turn the pages through my United Methodist hymnal, so many of the hymns bring to mind worship services – from my childhood, at camp, on mission trips with friends old and new, at funerals for dear friends and family members.  Some hymns remind me of powerful experiences of worship and prayer.

Open to the Holy Spirit in Song and Sign

Sometimes the gathered community for worship is close friends, and other times they are fellow disciples that we don’t know very well.  Yet our shared worship helps to form us as disciples and gives us strength for the journey.  I went to a Christian education retreat over 30 years ago, at a center in the Texas Hill Country.  It was a bitterly cold weekend.  A handful of people gathered in the tiny stone chapel one night, with a single candle lit on the altar, throwing shadows up on the wooden cross on the high stone wall.  Someone started to sing “Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me….”  Others joined in, breaking into harmony.  It was a holy moment, one that I’ve never forgotten.

I didn’t sing along in that small chapel, but instead I joined along in American Sign Language.  It felt right to be quiet and let the others’ voices lift up our shared worship.  About ten years later, I was privileged to attend a gathering of the United Methodist Congress of the Deaf at Lake Junaluska in North Carolina.  Hymns and worship were signed and led by Deaf choirs, and again, I was moved by the presence of the Holy Spirit – only this time, I kept my voice and my hands still as others’ gifts of worship blessed me.  Another holy moment I’ve never forgotten.

On countless mission trips I’ve sung familiar hymns with Methodists around the world, with familiar tunes but in languages I don’t know.  The blessing of shared worship is a gift of the Holy Spirit to God’s Church in the world, empowering us to be sent out into the world to be a blessing.  Share your favorite hymn below!

Conversations Around the Table

Woah.  That’s too much.

A couple weeks ago, my friend Jonathan was in my town on business.  We invited him over for dinner and enjoyed catching up, laughing and talking while we ate dinner.  Dinner table conversation is underrated, in my view.  I think it’s one of the most important ways we build each other up as disciples.

Jonathan and I have had deep conversations about our faith over frozen yogurt, coffee at church, and during dinner.  We share questions and what we’re reading that helps inform our journey in faith.  Recently he’s asked some questions about the history of the Church and after dinner, I went over to my bookshelf and pulled a couple books down for him.  That’s when he laughed and said “woah, that’s too much”.

Academic theology is written in a particular way.  It can be daunting, to see the table of contents and then how tiny the print is on the pages of a very thick book.  He chose one that I think is more accessible, Justo Gonzalez’ The Story of Christianity.  He could get it on his e-reader, so that he could read while on business trips.

Somewhere Between Academic Theology and Fluff

Solid theological writing is often aimed at graduate students or for an academic audience.  It can be too much for the average person to try to wade through a complicated academic argument when they are trying to work through their particular questions.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of theological fluff out there.  A list of “easy” steps or a watered down but warm fuzzies kind of book.  What my friend and I wanted was something in between – something that would inform our dinner table conversation and deepen our faith.

This is the beauty of dinner table discipleship – I could share what I’ve read with my friend and our conversation could inform both our journeys.  His questions challenge me, and his experience broadens my understanding of the faith.  Our conversations help him to consider his questions deeply and carefully.

I have a deep appreciation for complex academic theology, and I have a deep appreciation for the people I meet who don’t want to ever read complex academic theology.  I live in the “somewhere between” world, in what has been described as the gap between church and academy.  I firmly believe that we need each other.  Just as Jonathan and I build up our discipleship over dinner table conversations, so too do church and academy need each other and can build each other up through conversation.  The way I do that is to weave them together – to use bite sized pieces of theology in conversation, engaging questions with relevant passages from theologians and researchers.

I probably shouldn’t have suggested so many books to my friend.  The thing that fed our souls that evening was our conversation.  Gathered around a table, sharing life, questions, joys and concerns, all a gift of the Spirit.  One of my goals through this blog is to view it as a conversation around the table, sharing our questions and bite sized pieces of theology, building each other up along the journey of faith.

Mission as Learning Together

Learning together on the journey

Last week I read a column by Omid Safi on On Being – a thoughtful radio program which also has a blog, columns and podcasts focused on civil conversations, the complexity of human life, and wisdom and moral imagination.  I am always challenged and uplifted by what I read or hear from the people at On Being.

Omid Safi’s post last week was titled “The Art of Learning Side-by-Side” and he tells a lovely story about a mentor and his apprentice.  I encourage you to read it here:  https://onbeing.org/blog/omid-safi-the-art-of-learning-side-by-side/

Safi articulates the human desire for learning as something that we want to do in community.  We want to trust in those who will walk with us on the journey of life.  We want partners on the journey rather than an authority figure who tells us what to do on our own.

In my conversations with young adults who participated in short-term mission trips with their church youth groups, they all talked about experiencing a situation in which they could make a friend who they wanted to be like, someone who had faith that they could see, someone who could walk the journey of life with them.

Learning together in community

Larry Duggins describes the longing for this kind of connection in his book Together: Community as a Means of Grace:  “Our Creator lives in a constant state of life-giving community, thriving through an inseparable bond between Father, Son and Spirit.  Our Creator made us in the Creator’s image, so we, ourselves, long for the same kind of community with each other and the Creator.  Through learning to love each other in community, we live into our nature as the reflection of the image of God, fulfilling the desire of God, which draws us closer to God.”  We learn to love each other not alone and willing it to be so, but by learning together, on the journey of life.

Mission trips provide a unique opportunity for people to experience learning side-by-side what it means to know God’s grace more deeply, and what it looks like to love our neighbors.  If the mission trips are to places where people know the same language as we speak, learning side-by-side means that we don’t judge their cultural differences.  This isn’t easy in the U.S., where we are brought up to cheer for our hometown team and disparage the other guys – just listen to the trash talk around major sports events, how easy it can be to dismiss people from another place.  I grew up thinking stereotypical things about people in Oklahoma and Louisiana, until I met some and became friends with them.  I’m still not a fan of gumbo, but I know that I have much to learn from my friends in Louisiana even as I go to help with mission projects.

Language learning as community building

If mission trips are to places where people do not speak our language, it is critical for us who travel to learn the language before we go.  If we are to truly embrace community and to learn together on the journey, then we must be ready to listen carefully to our hosts.  Our preparation must include language learning before the trip, just as much as we include vaccinations, passport updates, and supply lists for packing.  Learning together and building community together means that we learn and teach, we give and take.

Help us to help each other

According to Dr. Todd Johnson of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, Spanish has been the “leading language of church membership in the world” since 1980.  If we are to truly help each other, then our mission trips must be conducted knowing we learn as much from our hosts as they do from us.  In this sense our mission trips are done with an attitude of humility – if we travel to a place where people worship in Spanish, then we learn Spanish before we go, so that we can truly learn side-by-side.

John Wesley emphasized the importance of mutuality in the Christian life.  He wrote these verses for Methodist small groups, so they would remember the importance of learning together on the journey:

“Help us to help each other, Lord, each other’s cross to bear;  Let each his friendly aid afford, and feel his brother’s care.  Help us to build each other up, our little stock improve; increase our faith, confirm our hope, and perfect us in love.”

Rev. Larry Duggins’ book is available from the Missional Wisdom Foundation bookstore:  https://www.missionalwisdom.com/bookstore/  Quote taken from page 25; John Wesley’s prayer quoted on page 26

Dr. Todd Johnson’s work is cited in a report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life:   http://www.pewforum.org/files/2005/05/051805-global-christianity.pdf

Moving Beyond Voluntourism

Rev. Matt Lacey, director of United Methodist Volunteers in Mission for the Southeast Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church  wrote a blog post this week digging into the term “voluntourism”.  Voluntourism mashes together the words “volunteer” and “tourism” and describes what some critics of short-term mission see as the main problem with the practice of volunteers going on mission trips.

I’ve been on great mission trips and horrible mission trips.  Sometimes people are prayerful and prepared and sometimes they want to do a little good while having a great vacation for cheap.  Sometimes people want to meet Christians in another country and worship together, and sometimes their motivations for going aren’t simple or straightforward.

Rev. Lacey describes how God took his mixed up motivations and opened him up to be more attentive to how God was already at work in the world and calling him to do more – to participate in God’s mission in, to and for the world.  This effect of mission trips is what Anthony Gittins calls “Adventure in Three Movements”.

Mission in Three Movements

In Ministry at the Margins, Anthony Gittins describes the “adventure of mission” in three movements.  First is the Homeland, where our “our identity was forged and where we sank our cultural roots.”  This is where we begin to develop empathy and the ability to understand other people and other perspectives.  The second movement in the adventure of mission is the Wonderland.  Gittins explains that in the Wonderland we experience a culture in which our rules for understanding the world don’t apply.  There may be some commonalities, but we must be intentional in trying to understand both similarities and differences.

Gittins’ third movement in mission is called the Newfoundland.  He states: “returning from the Wonderland, then, we encounter the Newfoundland.  And far from ending, our missionary journeys may be only just beginning.”  Because we have been challenged by our experience in the Wonderland, we return as renewed people – and we may be ready to see our own place in the world with fresh eyes, with an open heart for the work to be done in our Homeland.

Meeting Each Other as Equals

The adventure of mission in three movements is why I love to work with people who volunteer in mission.  No matter how old they are, people want to help others.  And they want to know more about God and how to live with fresh eyes for their own hometowns.  Rev. Lacey states that “the [mission] trip really isn’t about us but instead about how we see and interact with the rest of God’s children” and that we need to be prepared so that whatever learning we do on a mission trip isn’t the responsibility of the people we go to serve.  This is an important point – we go to meet our brothers and sisters in Christ as equals.

My goal is to continue to work with groups of people who are planning a mission project – whether they are fourth graders working in a community garden at their local food bank or a group of retirees building a house in Mexico – and help them to do the preparation of self-examination and the follow-up of spiritual reflection and renewal.  Like Rev. Lacey, it is my hope that we all go out to serve God by “listening more than we talk, learning more than we teach, and seeing God in every person we meet.”

Read Rev. Lacey’s blog here:  http://umvimsej.blogspot.com/2018/01/from-directors-desk-mission-voluntourism.html

Prof. Anthony J. Gittins’ book is available through Orbis Books: http://www.orbisbooks.com/ministry-at-the-margins.html   Quotes taken from pages 6-7

We Are Seeds

Browsing through seed catalogs on a snowy day is an act of hopefulness.

One of my favorite hobbies is gardening.  I love turning over the soil, transplanting seedlings, watching them grow and keeping an eye out for weeds and non-friendly bugs.  Sometimes there’s a big harvest – like the year I got a flyer from the Texas Ag Extension office for a “Japanese Tomato Ring” and ended up with three five gallon buckets of tomatoes.  More often though, I’m lucky if I get a single tomato.  The herbs seem to do much better, and I love to cook with thyme snipped off the plant just outside the kitchen door.

Much of the southern U.S. is taking today off, schools are closed and so are the roads.  Snow and ice have major cities shut down.  So it’s a good day to look through a seed catalog and imagine the possibilities.  That is an act of hope – to imagine, to consider new plant varieties, to plan out a garden layout and hope for a good harvest.

Gardens require hard work and sustained attention.  The weather may not be favorable.  A late freeze might kill some of the seedlings, or a heavy storm with hail might crush some of the plants.  Looking through the seed catalog, a gardener has to keep in balance the hopes for a good planting season and the realities that might affect the plants.

Short-term mission is a little like those seeds in my catalog.  We go, willing to be used by God, not knowing what may affect the outcome.  We plan, like a gardener, the work that we’ll do, keeping in mind the things that may go wrong.  We prepare, making ourselves as ready as possible before the trip begins.  We pray and we hope, trusting in the work of the Spirit.

There’s a lovely hymn in the United Methodist hymnal that describes how Christians are to live in the world.  “Sois la Semilla” was written by Monseñor Cesáreo Gabaráin, and translated into English by Raquel Gutiérrez-Achon and Skinner Chávez-Melo.  The first stanza is “You are the seed that will grow a new sprout; you’re a star that will shine in the night; you are the yeast and a small grain of salt, a beacon to glow in the dark.  Go, my friends, to to the world, proclaiming love to all, messengers of my forgiving peace, eternal love.”

This hymn contains a wealth of illustrations – seed, yeast, friends, waves, bread.  On a cold and blustery winter day, it may be hard to imagine the heat of summer, and the sweaty work on a mission project – but we can pray and plan.  We can sing the hymn and open ourselves to the Spirit working through us to make us yeast, salt, and witnesses.

My favorite lines are “You are the flame that will lighten the dark, sending sparkles of hope, faith and love” and “may your good deeds show a world in despair a path that will lead all to God.”  May the work we plan today be a witness to God’s love.  May the work of our hands be a witness of the love that God has for the world.

 

Read more about Sois La Semilla here: https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/the-great-commission-inspires-spanish-hymn-you-are-the-seed

Hear the hymn tune here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=94jnanUWCko

Ubuntu – We Need Each Other

“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’ “  1 Corinthians 12:21

Last evening the news was full of the vulgar comment made by the U.S. President about certain countries and the entire continent of Africa.  The comment was made during a meeting with senators regarding U.S. immigration policy.

The BBC World Service interviewed a person who defended the comment saying that he voted for the president because he didn’t “sugarcoat” comments, and that he and his friends often spoke of African countries with similar derogatory language.  He stated that the African continent wasn’t “very stable” and due to that he didn’t approve of people immigrating to the United States from African countries.

This man did not discuss his faith, but the president has identified himself as a Christian.  Christians have an obligation to value all God’s children as part of the body of Christ.  We are not to treat them with less honor or dignity for any reason.  We are to remember that we are all part of the body of Christ, and if one member of the body suffers, all suffer together with it.

 

The Complexity of Mission

I have spent many years going on short-term mission trips and studying mission.  The history of mission is complex, as is the growth and expansion of Christianity.  While on a mission trip outside the U.S., I am always acutely aware of how I am a guest of the people I go to serve, and how my humanity is bound up with theirs.  When I come back home, I’m left with the problem of how it is that the place where I live has more than enough – enough food, enough clothes, enough shoes, enough housing for everyone – and yet not everyone has access to those things.  And this complexity is in stark contrast to the situation of the people and place I’ve just left.  It is never easy.  There are no easy answers when examining the disparities of our world.

Part of our current global economic situation is due to colonialism and the ways in which international financial aid maintains inequality rather than eradicating it.  The missionary movement took advantage of colonialism and global trade routes.  This meant that missionaries were sometimes complicit in colonial mindsets and abuses, but quite often missionaries were active in standing with people against oppression and injustice.  The history of missionaries who lifted up indigenous leaders, who immersed themselves in new languages for the sake of being able to translate scripture, who worked to establish clinics and schools so that the people they served could be healed and educated – and then those people could teach and serve as doctors and nurses – the history of these missionaries is often forgotten because the work they did was for others, lifted up others.  The work they did lived out the passage from 1 Corinthians 12 – that the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you.

As Christians engaged in mission today, and as citizens of a nation of economic wealth and privilege, we have a responsibility and a calling to live into 1 Corinthians 12 and 13.  We must live out what it means to honor the whole body of Christ, and we must witness with both our words and our actions.  When we hear other Christians speak disparagingly or condescendingly about people, we must speak up to say – they are valued, honored and respected.  Grace is found when we honor each other.

 

Ubuntu and the Body of Christ

The work of short-term mission doesn’t always allow time for developing deep relationships with Christians in other countries.  However, we can plan our trips carefully, making time for worshiping together, honoring our hosts by giving them the authority to set the agenda for the work, and by learning their language before we go.  When churches welcome U.S. teams to come and work on a project, they are saying “we honor you as part of the body of Christ” to us.

The Kenyan theologian John Mbiti describes the concept of “ubuntu” in this way: Because we are, I am.  Ubuntu is a fundamental concept of community.  My humanity is bound up in your humanity.  We need each other.  I cannot say that I have no need of you.  The fact that we are part of the body of Christ together defines my humanity – I cannot flourish unless you do as well.  If you suffer, so do I.  Our Christianity requires that we never forget we need each other.

Regardless of your view on immigration policy, if you have participated in short-term mission and you hear other Christians speak disparagingly of countries where you’ve been, be courageous and speak out.  The work of mission does not end when we come home.  The work of mission calls us to live with ubuntu in mind, to remember always God’s call to honor and respect the diversity of the body of Christ.

Mission as Pilgrimage

Journey: something suggesting travel or passage from one place to another; an act or instance of traveling from one place to another  https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/journey

During the first two weeks of any new year, you hear the word “journey” quite a lot.  At the gym – journey to fitness or weight-loss journey; at the office supply store – let us help on your journey to organization; during any sports commentary – the journey to the championship; on the church sign down the road – every journey needs a stable foundation (in front of the nativity scene, of course).

Journey is a word that we use at this time of year because we think are thinking about a destination or a goal we want to achieve – and that’s why it’s used so often when talking about sports playoffs or championship games.  But when we use the word “journey” in our Christian life, we shift the focus from the destination to the journey itself.

This shift is evident in A Mission Journey, which was written by United Methodists with experience in short-term mission for volunteers going on short-term missions.  Rather than focus on the destination – where we’d like to go on our trip – we focus on dialogue, respect and relationship building, and we always remember that “this is God’s mission and not our own.”

Pilgrimage in Mission

Our journey in mission is not really about our destination and it’s not about the work that we do – although both of those are important aspects of any mission trip.  Our journey in mission is about opening ourselves to see God at work in the world, to allow the Spirit to open our eyes and hearts to see where there may be needs in the world that we can help to ease.  Our hands may be busy, but we can’t let that be our sole focus – when we are planning a mission trip, on the way to our destination, and while our hands are busy at the work before us, we must remain prayerfully open.

At each point along the way on a mission journey, we have opportunities to get to know those who are on the journey with us.  These may be people who have signed up for the mission trip, friends from church that you may know but on the mission journey you have the opportunity to know each other more deeply, to share stories of your faith, your struggles, your joys.  There may be people at your destination, perhaps a homeowner who you are helping.  Although your visit may be brief, you can listen deeply and share the gift of being present with each other.  The porch repair, the replaced window, the new flooring – these are important tasks, but the journey is about listening to each other, giving and receiving in the name of Christ.  In this way, all people involved in short-term mission – those who plan, those who work, those who receive, those who host – all are on a pilgrimage.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines pilgrimage as “journeys to holy places undertaken from motives of devotion…”  I believe that short-term mission trips can be pilgrimage, if the travelers are attentive.  On your short-term mission journey, be prayerful.  Before you choose a destination, be praying.  While on the road, be praying.  When the hammer and saw are in your hand, be praying.  Look up and be praying.  You are going on a journey to a holy place, let your devotion to God be your motivation. Those people you meet along the journey will bless you even as you seek to be a blessing.

Balancing the Why and the How of Short-term missions

The Why and the How

Yesterday, United Methodist Communications posted an article titled “How to do short-term missions the right way”.  It’s a good article, with seven important points to consider when planning a short-term mission trip:

First, participants are encouraged to learn about issues with short-term mission trips in general.  We should be aware of issues regarding money, the needs of the community we plan to serve, and examine some of the common assumptions about short-term mission work.

Second, mission participants should consider their motives for going on the trip, and consider using the term “journey” instead of “trip”.  This shift in vocabulary helps us remember that any short-term mission trip is actually part of our spiritual journey with God and our neighbors.

Third, mission participants should do research before their trip.  Know the organization you partner with, learn all you can about your destination (international or domestic), and be aware of how the work you plan to do fits in with the community’s needs.

Fourth, groups should pick the right project for their team size, their skills, abilities and limitations.  I know I’ve gone on mission trips when my lack of skill with cement block and rebar was a limitation on the main project but I was able to plan in advance to use my talents in other ways with the host church.  Know before you go.

Fifth, the article suggests keeping open to the possibility that not going may be the right decision.  It may be that connecting virtually with a missionary and supporting their work through a gift to UM Advance Projects is the best use of resources.

Sixth, mission team leaders must train their teams.  The United Methodist mission agency, General Board of Global Ministries, recently published a terrific resource for short-term mission teams, and there’s a link for “A Mission Journey” in the article.  This blog will have a series on that book in the near future.  Rev. Dan Wunderlich, the article author, states that training “will help keep your team focused on the ‘why’ behind your journey”.  More about the “why” in just a moment.

Lastly, teams are encouraged to tell a responsible story about their trip.  By keeping the focus on the local community and remembering to listen with respect to our mission hosts, we can make the story about what God is doing instead of about ourselves.

You can read the entire article, which has many excellent links for further reading, here:   http://www.umcom.org/learn/how-to-do-short-term-missions-the-right-way

Balancing the How and the Why

Many of these tips are about the “how” of short-term mission trips.  Planning a short-term mission trip seems easy at first, but if you’ve ever had the responsibility of organizing a group for a trip, you know that there are a multitude of details to handle before, during and after a trip.  The UMCom article raises some key questions for mission teams to consider well before their trip – no matter if that trip is several hours away by plane or a couple hours away by car.

It is often assumed that if people want to go on a mission trip, they already understand the “why” of mission.  Another assumption is that if someone goes on a mission trip, then they will “get it”, thinking that if they just experience a mission trip, then they will come to understand God better.

In “Grace Upon Grace” we read about the “why” of mission.  “As the goal of mission is God’s reign of grace, we live toward that vision and from that vision.”  We participate in mission work because God’s grace is freely given to us, and that grace gives us a vision of God’s reign, in which those who are thirsty and hungry have food to eat and clean water to drink; in which justice and mercy roll down like mighty waters; in which the oppressed are freed and the brokenhearted are comforted; in which people of all nations worship God together; in which people know Christians because of their love for others.  This is the vision that motivates us to participate in mission – and it is the ultimate goal of our mission work, even if our work looks like laying tile or brick, or singing hymns in a language we don’t know very well.

The Why of Sister of Hope Ministries

This “why” of short-term mission is the focus of my work with Sister of Hope Ministries.  People who go on short-term mission trips have a unique experience that can be fruitful for thinking deeply about faith, life, and God’s work in the world.  That’s where I come in.  I work with local church groups to reflect on their mission trip experience and to discuss some of the questions they may have after their trip, to “unpack” the depth of the vision of God’s reign that both motivates us and is our goal.  Sister of Hope Ministries is about the “why” of short-term missions.  If you’d like to know more, send me your contact information and we’ll set up a phone conversation to discuss how Sister of Hope Ministries can help you in your mission journey.

 

 

For further reading:

“Grace Upon Grace” is the 1988 Mission Statement of The United Methodist Church.  The General Board of Global Ministries and United Methodist Professors of Mission recently had a blog series on this document, with links to the full text of “Grace Upon Grace”, read more here: http://www.umglobal.org/search/label/Grace%20Upon%20Grace