Mission [Im[Possible Part 2
Okay, If you are wondering why I am starting with a Pt. 2... Just so you are aware, Pt. 1 to this little essay can be found HERE. I am currently working on a sermon series that explores the Great Ends of the Church. You can listen to these sermons online.
Here's something that I have found to be true...
Fear and anxiety are at the heart of every controversy, division or argument that has occurred and will occur within the Church, the Body of Christ. Seriously, scratch the surface of every schism and you will find a fearful and anxious people seeking to find meaning and stability in the only way they seem to know how to find it... by fighting.
So when one of the elders in my former church began fomenting division within the congregation by complaining about our plans to take a small intergenerational group from the church on a mission trip to Mexico, I should have realized more clearly what was happening. But I didn't. Instead I took it personally, and got mad. Honestly, I think anger is sometimes the right response to gossip and innuendo within the Church, but in this case a soft answer might have turned away not only wrath, but also a goodly amount of fear. At any rate, we all retreated to our corners---staring balefully at one another and thinking negative thoughts. I regret that part of this story.
Despite my frailty [as is always the case] the mission trip was an unbelievable turning point for our church. The group from our church (a band of about 25 teenagers and adults) was the nucleus of our fledgling emergent worship gathering. We had been searching for an identity, a way to understand who we were and what we were called to become, and God chose to send us on a pilgrimage to discover all of that and more.
During the course of the mission trip we found ourselves re-roofing and cleaning out the house of an old man, who we affectionately called "El Senor." Ironically, "El Senor" is also a Spanish term that is used for "Lord" or "God." El Senor was blind, and his only income came from begging or accepting charity from his neighbors. His only daughter had experienced a psychotic break when she was young after seeing her mother killed in a tragic accident. Their house was filthy. They had no running water, no electricity, no toilet... The area they used as a toilet was literally inside the house and on the ground. It was unspeakable. There were two young college-aged women on our team, who became so overwhelmed by it all that they went outside at one point, held each other and wept.
I remember standing in front of the house and looking down at the five gallon buckets that El Senor and his daughter used for water---water that was provided by his neighbors. This was the water that was used to drink, to cook, to bathe when a bath was required, and the buckets were filthy and covered in algae. Inside one of our college students was scrubbing out an old refrigerator that no longer worked, but was being used to store food---food that was rotten and covered in flies. I worked beside her for a while. Both of us had to put our bandannas around our faces because of the stench inside the room, and the dust and dirt that was being tossed up by all of the cleaning efforts. A crew right outside the room was using an electric saw to cut an opening for a new window---the only window that would be able to be opened in the house. Our hope was that it would bring light and fresh air into a space that had neither.
As we worked, none of us were cheering and delivering high fives over how awesome we were, and how much fun it was to live out the mission we had vowed to undertake together. There was nothing sexy about our work. Our efforts were not going to add members to our respective churches, and they definitely weren't going to increase their financial bottom line. More than once during those few days that we worked there I heard one of our participants say, "Why we are doing this? What's the purpose in all of this work?" I have to admit, the same question had occurred to me as well. It didn't make a lot of sense to spend so much energy, money, time, toil and effort on the house of a blind man and his mentally deranged daughter. In fact, it made no sense at all.
The day that we finished our work was a day that I will never forget. My friend Ann, who has co-led about 8 trips to Mexico with me, took El Senor around his house to explain what we had done. Since he could not see, he used his hands to feel his way around the house as she walked with him. When they came to the window, he paused and asked what it was. "A window," Ann told him, and showed him how it opened. "It is not possible," he said. She told him that we had painted the outside of his house and given him a new roof. "It is not possible," he kept saying over and over again. "It is not possible."
We all stood there and watched---aware that we were witnessing something sacramental. I imagine that more than one of us felt like we should be kneeling, or at the very least taking off our work boots to stand on that holy ground. Even now I feel myself getting emotional as I think about what it was like to hear the words "It is not possible," and to know that with God, all things are possible. But even further, I think we all came to realize that the "impossible" task was not the work that we accomplished, but that God chose us to do it.
My good friend Greg once shared with me, "God has a plan for every life, and sometimes you can be part of someone's plan for a brief moment whether your role is as complex as helping to build their house or as simple as holding their hand."
I feel sad and sorry for people like that elder from my former church. She could have been there with us to experience the impossible grace and mercy of God. Instead she chose to remain behind in a state of fear and anxiety, which prevented her from standing on holy ground, from becoming the person she was created to be. And further, I am sad and sorry because as I remember my conversations with her, I realize that the elder from my former church embodied so much that is wrong with the Church. Rather than going out into all the world to share in the impossible work of God's grace through Christ, the Church chooses to stay at home and grouse. For far too many churches "Mission" has become something that requires a vast number of committee meetings, but not a lot of action. The word "mission" has lots its edge, lost it's impossibility. It has become instead a safe, easy word to say, a pleasant activity that members of our church congregations can do on a weekend or once a month.
We have stopped listening to the whispers and groans of the Holy Spirit in all of Creation, calling for us to pay attention to what God is already doing around us, and to join God there. Instead we have begun to pay far too close attention to trends and "mission" programs that are designed to "grow" our churches rather than exhibit the kingdom of God. We have forgotten that we have been called, in the words of the Apostle Peter, to do what makes absolutely no sense at all---face down evil and abuse [we can easily place hunger, poverty, war, hatred, doubt, fear, anxiety, etc. under that umbrella], and repay them with a blessing. There is no safety in this kind of cross-taking-and-following, no assurance of financial gain, no guarantee that our communities of faith will become mega-churches.
I love what Peter wrote "to the exiles." He exhorted them to "have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind." When that "emergent" gathering returned home from Mexico to our existing church we began to listen to the way that our own little corner of Creation was groaning through the Spirit. We found that we had learned how to listen, and we discovered that holy ground is anywhere where God's people become aware of God's presence. And slowly but surely we made a difference in our neighborhood and almost as importantly in the heart of our congregation.
The following year as we began to prepare a return trip to El Florido, Mexico, we stopped hearing, "Why are you going?" and started hearing "How can we help?"
The words of Peter speak to us so beautifully, "Those who desire life and desire to see good days, let them keep their tongues from evil and their lips from speaking deceit; let them turn away from evil and do good; let them seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer..."