Reentry and the Blessing of Guilt

FB_IMG_1534425282693Our short-term mission team recently returned from a week of service in Guatemala. It was a great week. We bonded into a strong, close-knit team. We accomplished a lot of good work in the name of Jesus Christ. Two single mother led families received new houses, 52 people received new wheelchairs, and a lot of food and clothing was distributed during our numerous home visits.

To God be the glory!

FB_IMG_1534509860013My return carry-on bag was packed with filthy laundry and I was wearing the only clean tee shirt and over-sized gym shorts on the flight back home. Pulling into my driveway at 1:30 am felt nearly as good as the hot shower that followed. For the next week, it felt like I could sleep for 12 hours each day. Boy, did my own bed feel good!

Going to work was hard. My body ached. My mind wandered. I felt like it was hard to stray very far from a bathroom. After a few days of adjustment, I was able to determine that I had lost a total of eight pounds, even though we had eaten very well.

Slowly, gradually, life has returned to normal. With the passing of time, I began to discern that something had changed.

A trip to the local supermarket to obtain food for tonight’s dinner cost me about thirty bucks. My internet bill for the cottage is due, totaling seventy-eight bucks. I just paid my thirty-five hundred dollar VISA bill. On Sunday morning, I wrote my weekly pledge check to the church. “Yikes!” I thought to myself, “Money seeps out of our household like sand between your fingers.”

Then, it occurred to me.

The cost for just one good or service is equivalent to the annual income (or substantially more) of most of the families I had just been serving. Income inequality smacked me flat in the face like a shovel, and has left me with a whopper of a guilt laden hangover. I don’t own the entire responsibility for all the economic sin of this world, but I do own my own share of it. What can I say when there is no defense?

“Your honor; I stand guilty as charged.”

Recognizing my own guilt, naming it, and taking responsibility for my own guilt is the beginning of redemption.

What a blessing!

There is no shame in confession. There is no shame in conviction. There is only shame in denial and stubborn self-refusal.

I can’t fix global income inequality. I can’t fix poverty. It is beyond my ability to save the world. This is why we’ve been given a Savior, and it isn’t you or me. His name is Jesus.

It’s a blessing to live in the grace of Christ’s redemption. Jesus Christ confronts our sins, cleanses us of our sins, and rehabilitates us from our brokenness and the brokenness we have caused. He confronts us with our guilt, then leads us down the road towards the redemption and salvation of the world. The price paid for our guilt was his crucifixion. By his blood, our sins are forgiven. By his grace, our redemption, and the redemption of the world, is progressing full steam ahead.

Who could ever imagine that an admission of guilt could become a blessing in God’s kingdom? I couldn’t just a month ago; but, I can today.

I am guilty. At the same time, I am blessed because of my guilt. A difficult re-entry this month from a short-term mission trip to Guatemala taught me this. What else can serving teach us about ourselves, each other, and our God?

Sign me up for another short-term mission trip. Are you in?

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Managing Risks

Jesus walked through the storm on the sea. He came near the boat. The disciples were terrified. “But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.'” – John 6:20

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In seven days I’ll be joining a team headed to Guatemala for another short-term mission trip. We will build two houses, fit 50 people to newly re-manufactured wheelchairs, and distribute food and clothing to many households … mostly single mothers raising children living on the brink of malnutrition. 20170813_083617

Most importantly we will be making friends while sharing the love of Christ.

There are some new members of our team; there always are (which is a good thing!). Undoubtedly, fears and anxiety will surface, not only in their minds, but in the thoughts of their families, friends and loved ones. “Will it be safe?” “What happens if … ?” “I just saw on the news …” “Maybe I made a mistake and should back out.”

I know about fears and anxiety because I’ve been there. This will be my 5th trip to Central America in six years, three of which have been to Guatemala and two to Nicaragua. I still get a little nervous, but each trip gets easier.

A few thoughts.

It is impossible to eliminate all risk. This is true, both home and abroad.

Natural disasters happen. Earthquakes roll and volcanoes blow. Mudslides, floods, and fires happen. Other than taking some common sense precautions, there isn’t much that can be done to manage mother nature.

People can be cruel to one another. Sin manifests itself in violence, oppression, and injustice. God’s laws and civil laws are broken by those who live a life of crime. Ego, hubris, greed, and pride incite atrocious acts, locally, regionally, and nationally.  Tribalism, partisanship, populism, and history can add gasoline to a burning fire. Oh, yes; don’t forget to add in religion, especially deeply held divisive or extremist issues and values.

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Our police escort were all business for the photograph. Immediately after the photo we all broke out in smiles, laughter, and high-fives!

It is possible to do something about the human factor. It is possible to manage risks in such a way that overall risk is reduced to an acceptable or tolerable level. This is my strategy; I pray it can be helpful for you:

  1. Partner with a stable non-governmental organization (NGO) that is based in the location of your mission. Local personnel know the neighborhoods, the security network, the police, and community leaders. Bethel Ministries International in Guatemala know when police are needed for an escort and which neighborhoods to avoid. Bethel works months ahead of time with clergy and faith community leaders to build a network of  support in an area where we will be working.  Trust is built. Friends are made. Risk is reduced.
  2. Follow the rules. Your NGO will provide some basic guidelines for your safety. This is one time where it is essential that you completely comply with their rules. Rules from past trips have been: Travel in pairs. Never walk more than a block from the hotel. Don’t leave the safety of the hotel after dark. Leave the driving up to locals. Handle money with modesty. Keep your passport on you at all times. Trust in the experience and wisdom of those who live locally. They know how to enhance your safety. Risk is reduced.
  3. Follow the example of your team leader and fellow team members who have served on previous mission trips. Listen. Watch. Learn. Then, relax and make a friend, or grow a friendship that has already started. Follow in the footsteps of experience and Risk is reduced.
  4. Draw upon your faith. God has made possible this awesome opportunity to serve and love our neighbors; do you think we are called but meant to fail? No! God gives us partnerships with our NGO and its members. God sends us people to protect us, guide us, even direct us. God gives us the power of prayer, not only for ourselves but also for for those who are supporting our mission. God softened your heart for a reason. God filled it with love to share for a reason. God’s gift of grace is everything. Because of God’s gift, Risk is reduced.

Keep your eye on Jesus. “It is I,” he tells his frightened disciples. “Do not be afraid.”

Have a spectacular, spiritually moving mission experience!

Volcanic Faith

The eruption of the Volcano of Fire has me concerned for the friends and relationships that I’ve made and built over the past couple of years in Guatemala. Friends on Facebook have posted that they are safe, which leads me to believe that the tragedy is much worse than what can be conveyed in the press or on television.

Last summer, in the weeks before I returned, a terrible fire in an orphanage killed many children and led to national outrage. This year, a volcano that served as a beautiful landscape prop for a roof top dinner in Antigua has brought tears, anguish, and death to  many families and neighbors.

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The peak of Volcán de Fuego is hidden by cloud cover on this beautiful August 2015 evening.

Human suffering is so painful.

There is a lot of suffering in the world, some nature made, some caused by humankind. Living with a disability makes everything harder.  Poverty, injustice, and oppression tends to magnify suffering. People endure such difficulty day-in, day-out. Then the mountain explodes.

If only I could take it all away. Suffer no more.

In my experience, the only meaningful response to suffering is empathy.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It begins with being present. In other words, show up. Empathy takes root when you’re able to place yourself in the situation of another person. Open your heart. Open your eyes. Listen. Pray. Empathy matures with a conviction to respond. Be receptive to the movement of the Holy Spirit and act accordingly.

Empathy is the channel, through which God’s love and grace is poured into the world.  Empathy allows love and relationships to become reciprocal, with God and with neighbors. Every occasion I have made a short term mission trip, I returned having received much more than I ever could have given. Love, kindness, humility, grace … you name it.

Empathy makes it possible for rescue, recovery, and rebuilding; for healing and restoration; for new life to become more than can ever be imagined. Empathy even makes it possible for individuals to disagree yet remain united by Christ.

Serving as a short term missionary builds empathetic capacity in my life. Serving with empathy could likewise benefit you, too. Join me?

The world would be a much better place.

Lone Sat the Man

Lone sat the man on a plastic chair in the center of a covered pavilion. His son was draped face down over his lap. Everyone else had left. Everyone else had been served.

Flies buzzed. You could cut the air with a knife.

Once or twice each minute his boy would arch his back and become rigid, teeth clenched, and eyes shut tight. He was eight years old, but barely 40 pounds and wearing diapers under his jeans.

Epilepsy is painful to watch.

With patience and gentleness this father held his son, stroked his head, and spoke quietly in his ear. His bulging muscles could have come from working road construction. His soft hands told a different story.

Forty-nine children and adults had been fitted to wheelchairs earlier in the day, shrinking the crowd of perhaps 200 down to a lone man and his son. The second-to-last pediatric wheelchair, which takes longer to properly adjust for a good fit, was holding up the line.

We’d been squatting and running, adjusting and tightening, drilling and sawing, smiling and praying, and of course, everyone poses for a selfie with each overjoyed family. For some, this was the first wheelchair they’d ever received.

Some were carried in. Some scooted in. Others rolled in; wheeling in broken down, warn out, dilapidated chairs. One pulled himself in a discarded janitorial mop bucket. Each of the 50 selected to be given and fitted to a newly re-manufactured wheel chair had been chosen by some unknown lottery. Everyone, but one, had been served. This father and his son were the end of the line.

We were tired. Everyone showed sweat stains on our shirts. Guatemala City can be hot in August.

My station had fitted six or eight adults and I was done. I opened a sports drink from our mission team cold chest, looked up, and saw this lone father. Gathering up four or five unopened bottles and a spare chair, I walked over and offered him one. He smiled and nodded yes. He didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Spanish, but a smile and a cold drink on a hot day is universal.

I sat down with dad and his son. No one should have to sit alone.

The seizures continued, as certain as the sun rises each morning and sets every evening. We waited with patience for his turn, the final turn of the day, to have his son fit to a new chair. I wondered how my friends who were specialists in fitting children would go about helping this child who arched his back so severely with every seizure.

I held the child’s hand, uncertain if he was aware of my presence. Dad smiled at me. He was aware.

Others began to bring over a chair and join together as a group. Two became three, three became four, four became more. One of our team who is bilingual began to learn his story. Mom had left her husband. She couldn’t take the burden any longer. Dad had to quit his job to attend to his son full time. They had lost their house and their home, moving back in with extended family.

Dad was on his fourth or fifth sports drink by the time the specialist team members were ready to start. It was go time.

lonesatthefatherUsing specialized straps and blocks, pads and extenders, and other assorted modifications this boy was perfectly fitted into a reclining specialized pediatric wheel chair. Some of my fellow mission team members are wonderfully talented experts. As soon as his body touched the chair, his muscles relaxed, and he settled in as if he was sliding into a familiar pair of shoes.

Dad cried with joy.

Our entire group gathered around for the selfie. We paused and bowed for prayer.

Thank you God. Thank you for a chair, and those who provided it. Thank you God, for the fit of a perfect chair. Thank you God, for the love of a father. Thank you God, for your love; perfect love from you, our heavenly Father.

This is why we come. This is why I return.

Our trucks were loaded and we saddled up. With two taps on the door we headed home, swirling dust down the parched streets of Guatemala City.

Anticipation

It’s three weeks and two days before our team returns to Guatemala.

“What do you do there?” I’m often asked by family, friends, and colleagues.

“We will build two houses and fit fifty people to wheelchairs,” is the elevator speech I frequently pitch, meant to quickly convey a summary of what we do over the course of our seven day visit. Sounds good, and most people walk away happy.

Yet, my elevator pitch is wearing thin on my soul.

In the days leading up to each short-term mission trip I have circling in my mind what I need to pack. There is the usual: clothing, underwear, razor and cream, toothbrush and paste, bug spray, antibacterial hand sanitizer, sun screen, phone and fitbit chargers, medication, and protein bars. But that only fills a half of my suitcase, and I intend on bringing an extra bag, or two.

What else do we take with us? I like taking children’s toys; jump ropes, Frisbees, (water) balloons, ball caps, bubbles, sunglasses … anything I can imagine that would bring a smile and a squeal of delight from a child. I bring any prop that can facilitate play, that I know I can safely leave behind as a gift made with a new friend.

What we pack and bring with us on short-term mission trips is revealing of the far deeper question, “Why do you go on mission trips?” More specifically, “Why do you go on mission trips to Central America?”

“My goodness, Pastor Todd,” well-meaning people will remind me of what I already know, “You don’t know a lick of Spanish.”  Nope. I don’t.

What I pack reveals my top priority for taking part in short-term mission trips, and why I make a habit of returning to where I’ve previously served. It is about making and building relationships that are deeply rooted in my Christian faith, as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

20150809_170955Though I may look and play the part of an old curmudgeon pastor back home, on mission trips I love to let my hair down and play with children. For some reason, children love to play with me, too. Playing is a way of making new friends and strengthening old friendships. Playing with children is a means of building trust with parents and extended family.

Play opens minds, hearts, and doors to the love of God.

Playing with children is a real and visible reflection of the sparkling, vivacious love our Heavenly Father has for humankind. Playing with children shares the love and grace that our Lord shares with each of us as His own created and adopted children. Playing with children reflects the depth of love that God expressed when He shared His Son, Jesus Christ, with the world.

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Sharing the love of God with the world spreads the Gospel, leads people to Christ, and strengthens the kingdom of God. Sharing the love of God drains sin from the world, breaks down walls, and eliminates barriers that separate us … from each other and from our God.

Sharing the love of God by playing with children is the ultimate act of inclusion. It is radical, revolutionary, and turns the world on it’s head. It’s kind of like building houses for people living in cornstalk huts and fitting people to wheelchairs.

Perspective

We held an organizational meeting yesterday of short term missionaries planning to return to Guatemala this summer. It was good to be together, talk about budgets, airfare, and accommodations, and best of all … to share heart-felt stories of past trips and lives transformed and brought to Christ, in part, due to our friendship and outreach.

I so enjoy setting back and observing how God has given life to faith in the lives of each or our fellow travelers. It is such a privilege to serve as a team. Every member is precious.

It is easy to forget the value of working together, as disciples of Jesus, for a common goal: loving God and loving neighbor. The ways of the world and the work of sin want us to be forgetful, to be distracted, to take our eyes off of Jesus.

My own denomination is on the verge of division over issues of doctrine and morality. “They will know we are Christians by our love”? not if you listen to the vitriol and poison being spewed by some of my colleagues and fellow Christians. It would be easy to become depressed and catatonic by the hate and hurt that is being propagated.

Our own country feels like it is in free fall towards an armed confrontation with a maniacal leader and his murderous henchmen. Name your country and pick an incident. Granted, I am a peace-nick, a follow-the-Gospel-message-of-Jesus-at-all-costs, kind of Christian. Where is the “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” in this whole mess?

International missions help me to keep my eyes on Jesus, even in the midst of life’s most challenging storms. Crossing cultures and tribes to reach out and lift up is an antidote to division and strife. Kindness without an expectation for reciprocity is better than a fire extinguisher on a hot fire. Love, simply because this is what Jesus tells us to do, is the most perfect solution to all that threatens God’s beautiful creation.

Pouring a concrete floor for a family that had only been surviving in a cornstalk house, fitting an elder to their first wheel chair, or delivering a malnutrition kit to a hungry family and praying with them helps me to keep my eyes upon Jesus.

International mission experiences remind me to

  • Repent of my selfish and sinful ways, of being easily distracted, of not loving my neighbors as Jesus so desires
  • Be humbled, by what love does for the world, and how love changes me
  • Be the love of God, everywhere that God leads me
  • Be still and take a breath, and allow the Holy Spirit to fill and refresh me
  • Keep my eyes on Jesus, and let God take care of the rest

What a privilege it is to serve. Won’t you join me?

“Not Exactly Pealing”

I parked at the aquatic center, gathered up my swim suit, towel, and goggles, turned up my collar, pulled tight my took, and was immediately swept away from the below-zero, bone-chilling, snow-gently-falling January morning. I was swept away to one hundred degrees Telica, Nicaragua not by anything I saw. Rather, my mind was captured and taken away by something I heard.

It was the sound of bells.

Actually, it was the sound of a light pole next to my car. In the howling wind, the pole swayed back and forth in a perfect rhythm that caused the interior cables to  beat against the exterior aluminum skin. It sounded exactly like the sound of the church bells on January 6th 2014 at 5:00 a.m. emanating from the Roman Catholic church in the center of Telica, Nicaragua. Telica a terribly poor remote village where I’ve twice visited on mission trips from my local church.

It wasn’t the distinctive sound of ringing that I’d grown accustomed to in upstate New York, serving in a lifetime of ministry and growing up as a preacher’s kid. It wasn’t a sweet, well tuned ding-a-ding-a-ling. The sound was more like dong-dong-dong-dong, repeated over and over until everyone in the village was woken from their slumber.

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Telica’s church bells don’t exactly peal.

The occasion, of course, was the Epiphany of our Lord, the presentation of Jesus. The church was rousing parishioners to gather for a pre-dawn celebration, a Mass to mark the occasion of the travelers from the East following the star to find the newborn baby Jesus in Bethlehem.

The wise men from the East traveled a long way, obediently following the star, heeding the the call of our Heavenly Father, to seek out and find the new King of Creation, to present him with royal gifts … gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The Biblical narrative of the Epiphany of our Lord brought me spiritual insight on a cold January day, three years later and half a world away. I too had responded to the urging of God. I too had traveled a great distance. I too had brought gifts worthy of my King. My gifts may have been clothing, medical supplies, and my talents to teach Bible school, … not quite as grand as gold, frankincense, and myrrh … but my most important gift was the gift of friendship. I showed up. I made friends. I loved, and received love in return. That love comes from God, and my life would never be the same.

That’s what international missions has done for me, and continues to do for me. How about you? Are you ready to answer God’s urging?