Posts Tagged ‘mission trip’

Advent 3: Give thanks in all circumstances

This selection was not read at our church on Sunday, but it was one of the lectionary (“suggested”) readings in our church calendar.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

should we be grateful for this pile of mail?

There is a joke going around online about “First World Problems.” A first world problem is a difficulty only experienced by middle- or upper-class people, such as, “Starbucks ran out of cinnamon dolce lattes so I had to have vanilla instead.” Some of the jokes people submit are crude, but others demonstrate razor-sharp humor.

It never fails to amaze me that during a mission trip, the first-world participants will invariably talk about gratitude. Some give thanks for the comforts they enjoy at home and are currently doing without… and others go to a deeper level, noticing the ways that the people we are visiting give thanks. Sometimes,we even have the awkward experience of the mission trip participants feeling like the people we were helping weren’t thankful enough.

Looking back, I’m incredibly grateful for an experience I had in Guatemala five years ago. We visited a village devastated by a hurricane, and the pastor was not very happy to see us. He was not receiving adequate compensation for his services and travel, and he demanded to know how much I and the other trip leaders were paid in our calls back home. (Pardon me if I’ve told this story before.) The village church presented us with a request for money and we truly had a “first-world problem moment.” Everyone felt wounded, because we had taken our spring break to go all the way to this little village and they didn’t appreciate us.

Later that night, we snapped back into reality (and we owned up to our pouting.) The students realized that even though they were tied down by school and student loans, they knew people who weren’t. We all knew someone who could help. So, to make a long story short, we shared the plight of the village when we got back home, and now they have a great relationship with some good Christian folks who provide all kinds of help. When our college group returned two years later, the village was physically and spiritually renewed. Gratitude was everywhere.

I like how Paul juxtaposes the direction to “pray without ceasing” along with encouragement to rejoice and give thanks. Sometimes it really does look like there is no reason to express thanks … but given some patience and prayer, God can help us turn things around.

I wonder how Mary and Joseph felt as they prepared for the birth of their son. Certainly they were in an awkward and vulnerable place. It would be years before Jesus’ public ministry began, and even then, he would not be universally appreciated. Yet the weary parents carried on, plodding along toward Bethlehem. I wonder if they gave thanks, and for what.

May the Spirit of Christ give us patience for the journey … patience enough to wait for when the gratitude shines through.

not in vain

Tomorrow I’m preaching before our presbytery, which is more than a little intimidating.  But I’m encouraged, knowing a former presbytery colleague who has moved will be preaching before his presbytery on the same day!

Here are some sketches from my sermon, based on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11.  Even after the sermon is over, I believe I will still be thinking about these issues.

Mostly, I’m thinking about the mainline church.  I have the privilege of working with people (i.e., young adults) that are much coveted by mainline congregations, who have seen their numbers declining over the past few decades.  Many folks in the mainline church just come across as  sad … but it doesn’t have to be that way.

a child in Guatemala checking out our 2008 college group

Some key words from Paul really strike me as I get ready to deliver this sermon.  Here, Paul is writing about the basic Christian message, which is something that gives him great joy.  But, if you read carefully, a lot of pain seeps through the page.  He keeps emphasizing how he was “the least of the apostles,” and he uses the phrase “in vain” twice.  Somehow that strikes an off note here.  Why write about all the great things God has done and then muse about God’s work being in vain?

I wonder if Paul was at the edge of what he could take from various people:  people who insisted on everything looking good, people who said that anyone who was less than perfect was not of God.

I wonder if that’s why we mainline American Christians are in so much of a mental and spiritual tangle:  for a long time, we looked darn good, and it got the best of us.

As a campus minister, I go on a fair amount of mission trips, and every time the participants get upset at how things look wherever we go.  Why aren’t there more social services in Country X, so that the streets wouldn’t be full of beggars?  Why aren’t the buildings better constructed?  Why is there a dirt floor here–there are babies crawling on it!  No one actually says it, but the truth is, we have a lot of trouble seeing the work of God unless everything is new and shiny.

Thankfully, by the end of the mission trips, most people learn to see things differently.  They learn to see that God’s grace is not in vain.  They learn to see the hard work God does in the most strenuous of circumstances.  (Sort of like the hard work Jesus had to do with Paul!)

Anywhere we might go, whether far away or next door, someone is yearning for a word from the Lord.  Someone is feeling like (to borrow from Paul and Matthew) “the least of these,” “untimely born”, or that everything has been in vain.

Can we still be used for God’s purposes?  Isn’t there still work for us to do?  Can we, the people who used to look great, allow grace to shine through our tarnished shell?


As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God? (Psalm 42:1-2, KJV)

Yesterday we completed the first full day of our New Hope Presbytery intercollegiate mission trip to Santa Fe. Coming from a rain-and-snow saturated place, where the rivers are swollen with muddy runoff, I am struck by the dryness of where we are. Obviously people have lived here for thousands of years and have adapted to the lack of water. I’m not sure if I can do it before the week is up!

Almost as soon as we arrived, our hosts began advising us to conserve water. Water is everything here, they said. If you have water, you’re set up for success.

And yet even with plenty of water in my bottle, I thirst.

I thirsted working on the Santa Fe Community Farm, as dry dirt found its way into my eyes, nose, and mouth. Back home, whenever we plant a garden I worry about mud and overgrown weeds.  I’m afraid gardening at home is not as much of a spiritual exercise as it could be.  The change of perspective to an arid environment helped me think a lot about the challenge of feeding everyone on the earth.

I also thirsted during our visit to Mass at the cathedral in Santa Fe, because I am not Catholic and therefore not admitted to communion. (I understand the reasoning behind this doctrine and practice, and have attended Mass several times before, but this time I was definitely aggrieved. I could almost taste the wine and could almost feel the refreshment I normally feel at the Lord’s table — but remained incomplete.)  I suppose our Christian communities will always be a little dry until we can work out our differences.

Finally, I experienced an emotional thirst for comfort and companionship. As I write, I’m already feeling more connected to my team members, but there is always an awkward dryness at the beginning of these trips. At the end we’ll most likely experience a deep well of our connectedness, both as humans and as disciples, but we can’t get there without working through the dry period of being strangers.

By the way, to accomplish all that we set out to do, we have divided into teams. I’m on team 2 but I hope to get some perspective from Team 1 as the week goes along.

I am counting on Christ

“Christ is counting on you.”

“And I am counting on Christ.”

This short liturgy is part of our annual commissioning service for college students going on a mission trip. Near the end of the service, the leaders pass out simple wooden crosses, and the words are recited by the giver and receiver as each cross is handed out.

Over the last few years, it has been relatively easy to say these words as I gave or received a cross. In my five short years of campus ministry experience I’ve traveled to places that challenged me. And, as someone who’s both a pastor and a woman, I have an extra layer of challenge when I visit new places and need to explain who I am. On those trips, I instinctively knew I needed to count on Christ.

This year our mission trip destination is Santa Fe, New Mexico. As we passed around the crosses at our service this weekend, I felt a little weird saying the words. After all, Santa Fe is a beautiful American city. There has been no natural disaster recently, I know of no recent crisis apart from the recession, and I wonder a little bit what the challenge will be.

To be sure, there are needs in Santa Fe, and we will spend time in service helping to meet those needs. I think the challenge, and the need to count on Christ, will emerge more within the group. We have made some covenants with each other about how to live during the week, and living out those covenants may be tough.

Here’s what we have promised each other so far:

  • To go to the grocery store only once during the week.
  • To re-use materials, such as plastic sandwich bags, water bottles, and cloth lunch bags.
  • To memorize a verse from Scripture.
  • To let everyone in the group have a chance to talk before anyone gets a second turn.
  • To spend time in silent retreat at a monastery (Christ in the Desert) and working with a spiritual director near the end of the trip.

These are simple practices and probably none of this will radically change the world. But the week of practicing these disciplines could change us.

I think I will be challenged by several of these promises, particularly the re-using of materials.  I’m always in a rush and it is so easy to get water, coffee, lunch, or anything in a disposable container.  To make it through the week, to avoid falling back into old patterns of consumption and clatter, we will all need to count on Christ.  I hope that when we return we’ll be more attentive to how much we use and how much noise we make in our daily lives.

Our commissioning service also included reading Philippians 4:10-13 (” I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”)  Paul writes in chapter 4 about having experience with plenty and with want.  The Scripture just happened to be a daily Scripture reading on the Presbyterian Church (USA) daily reading site.  It was truly one of those moments when everything comes together.  I love that I’m taking a journey during Lent, and that I, a person with so much stuff, will make the choice to make do.  Furthermore, in the spirit of the letter to the Philippians, I’ll be challenged in the knowledge that everything depends on God instead of on me.

I am counting on Christ.