One of the first things I learned on a mission trip was a really good definition of what mission is. It used to be missionaries went to take the word of God to a bunch of savages who didn’t know about Jesus. Nowadays, especially in the Christian cultures where the “savages” may know more about Jesus than you do, mission is more of a solidarity thing. Mission is going to people in need and helping them meet those needs or merely standing beside them and holding their hand in their need. And there are lots of ways to do that. A mission trip to the Presbyterians in Guatemala is different from a mission trip to hurricane-devastated Louisiana. But each trip performs the same basic function.
I went on my first mission trip in 1999 and I’ve been going ever since. Many people have asked me why I go and I never could find the words to describe it as well as the short and simple way Ila Hitt did last week. Ila is going to Louisiana with us and here’s what she said when we were each asked to describe why we’re going;
“I have the time and the energy and it would be a shame…no, it would be a sin, not to go.”
I use a whole lot more words to say basically the same thing. Here’s my version of why I’m going to Louisiana:
It all started because Linda Terpstra went to Guatemala. Linda is a nurse anesthetist for a doctor who does cataract surgery. He got interested in a non-governmental organization called Helps. He asked Linda to go with him to assist. After her first trip she came back and gave an excited report to our church congregation. It all sounded very dramatic and dangerous. The country was climbing out of a 30 year old civil war and there were men with guns everywhere. There was a lot of poverty and crime on the streets. There was malaria, dysentery and cholera. But in the midst of all the hazards Linda described there was also the sense that God was at work everywhere she went. And, most exciting of all was the idea that God was using her, working through her simple talents to help the people of Guatemala. It sounded very exotic. Did I mention it sounded dangerous? I thought to myself in a very detached way: How nice of Linda to do this. Maybe I can contribute some money but I’m not at all interested in going myself. I knew in the back of my mind I was afraid to go.
But I didn’t count on the power of the Holy Spirit.
One Sunday in October of 1998, we had a special worship service at First Presbyterian in Garland, Texas where I’ve worshipped since the year Elvis died. (Women my age tend to date things that way.) Marj Carpenter was our guest preacher that Sunday. She had served the Presbyterian Church as Moderator of the General Assembly once, which made her a really important figure to the average Presbyterian. She has a huge interest in the mission of the church and in her year as moderator she went just about everywhere in the world there was a breathing Presbyterian. She’s a mesmerizing speaker. And also one of the most unimposing speakers I’ve ever seen; small, gray haired and very grandmotherly looking. She walks with a pronounced limp and always appears visibly tired. Because she is tired. She’s been all over the world, only spending about 15 days in her own home in a year’s time. She then spent the years afterwards speaking in churches and telling about what the Presbyterians are up to in the mission field.
I knew she had a bad back. By the end of her speech she was literally holding on to the pulpit to remain standing up. I had seen Marj speak before and knew the effect she has on people.
I gave the Childrens Story that morning and I told the kids about the important work Marj does in mission. I tied it into the charge of the congregation we say at the end of worship every Sunday.
Like many churches, we have a charge at the end of our worship. It’s based on Thessalonians with a few instructions added from here and there in the bible and since we’ve said it every week for the last 20 years everyone knows it by heart. We even teach the Confirmation Class how to say it in sign language, which gives it an added boost.
Go forth into the world in peace. Have courage. Hold on to what is good. Return to no person evil for evil. Strengthen the faint hearted. Support the weak. Help the suffering. Honor all persons. Love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.
I told the kids how important mission work is and how hard it is. But, I told the kids, God gives Marj the strength to do it because it’s so important.
At the end of worship that day a friend reached across the aisle and touched me on the back and said to me “You could do that.” In a burst of ego, I readily agreed and thought to myself what fun it would be to explore all those places and tell people all about them. What held me back was the same fear everyone has of under developed countries. Crime, war, disease, poverty…. It was all too easy to cross that project off my list.
But later that day my words came back to literally haunt me. I was driving alone in my car with nothing to do but think. What had I said in my Children’s Story? And did I really mean it? I wondered how much conviction I had in those words. After all, I had said them to the children of our church. Had I told a lie to the children? Did I really mean what I said? Was I a hypocrite or merely chicken?
The words came back to me: “Rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.” Can we really step out in faith and rejoice, depending only on the Holy Spirit to accompany us? The travel Marj Carpenter does is hard but the power of the Holy Spirit helps her. Not only does she step outside her comfort zone, she does it with joy. That’s what I had told the children. Could I do it?
Driving on the quiet highway I moved my hands in the sign I had taught the kids: “Rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit”. I moved my hands again, emphasizing the “Rejoice” movement. Then again, exaggerating the “Power” motion. Sign language is a very powerful way to understand what you are saying. At that moment the sign for “Power” sealed the deal.
The next thing I knew, I was waiting for a 5 a.m. flight to Guatemala.
And tomorrow at 7 a.m. we leave for Louisiana.