Mission the Point: Part II

Sunday, July 27th

I’m blogging tonight from Jaco, Costa Rica. I’ve been here with some of our high school students for the past week. We’ve renovated a community park where a local church holds weekly Kids Club, we’ve painted the roof of the Hermosa Elementary School, we’ve helped with the Kids Club, and we’ve taught kids how to surf, to name just a few of our activities.

Coming to the end of a trip like this is always a combination of bitter and sweet. Bitter, since I’m now leaving a wonderful week of ministry, not to mention spending the week surfing one of the hottest beaches in the world for surfing. To put it plainly, its been an epic week.

But not a typical “mission trip” at all, however. And purposefully so.

You’ve have perhaps already read my blog called “Mission the Point” about my disdain for “mission trips”. And where most mission trips, retreats, and other various youth events end with the “final night”, I have chosen instead to let kids simmer in the final few moments–not in tearful and emotional declarations, made sobbing en mass, but rather….well, swimming at the pool.

Here’s my logic (or lack thereof): If the closing night event, in the mind of students, serves as the “period on the sentence” of the weeklong experience, then by taking away the closing night “event” concept, I remove the perception that we are about to move from “here” to “there”. And in doing so, perhaps allow the transition from “here” to “there” be a bit more seamless.

No, I’m not fooling anyone, nor am I trying to; I’m merely looking at the past, seeing what does and doesn’t work, and making the appropriate changes. If the “final night” meeting of the trip reaps only temporary and emotionally driven results, then I say drop it like that cut and paste clip art–the kind you literally had to cut and paste.

Another example of dropping what doesn’t work–this week we’ve had prayer/Bible study times as a group. Well, 2 nights in a row saw exhausted students with bobbing heads during our supposed Bible study time. I’d say 60% of them were asleep for most of the group devo time.

So, on the 3rd night, I give a couple important announcements about the next day’s schedule, I get them into groups of 3 to briefly pray together, and that’s it. And you know what responses I immediately got? “That’s it?!?” and “You mean we’re done?” I even got a prayer hug; one of my favorite kinds. If its not working, why do it, right?

I just don’t want to hold onto anything that doesn’t work. I don’t want the reason we do things to be “because that’s the way we do things.”

This week, by the way, has been absolutely incredible. It started with a domino line of events that put us in Costa Rica 24 hours behind our planned schedule. From a delayed flight, to a rebooked flight, to an unplanned overnight stay in Atlanta. And through those and many other circumstances this week, we were blessed, moved, and blown away to see the hand of God moving. And those unexpected hours spent together served to bond our group even tighter before heading into our week in ministry to the people of Jaco.

At our “Learn To Surf” event for children yesterday, one of our adult leaders Sheldon, took a surfboard to the mouth, ending him up at the local Red Cross clinic receiving 9 stitches in 3 different places, including the inside of his mouth, his chin, and his neck. And while he was getting stitched up, another of the leaders was speaking to one of the clinic workers, ultimately leading him to a personal friendship with Jesus Christ.

In the van on one of our many rides from point A to point B, Sheldon shared with all our students that we just can never know what God is up to. What was at one moment me helping him out of the surf while blood poured from his mouth, turned into another moment where one person’s eternity changed forever. In Sheldon’s words, “I’d take a million stitches if it meant having the chance to see one person come to know Jesus.” And on top of all that, Sheldon testifys that he has had NO pain whatsoever. Not when it happened, not after, not now. No pain. Even with no pain medication. Nothing.

And its in these moments–so many of them peppered all througout our week–that we had those “green pasture” times as a group, and as individuals. So, while a closing meeting might serve to help tie the week up with a nice bow, I don’t want any part of anything being wrapped up, concluded, or ending.

And even this morning, as we joined the local church (check them out at http://www.ccfjaco.org/) for worship, several of our students participated in the open testimony time. One of our high school guys in particular spoke pointed about waiting for God to hit him with that “boom” moment–the one that he had come to expect as a staple in any half-decent retreat or mission trip. But with the week not having one “boom” moment, God taught him that life with God is truly so much more about the moment by moment walk with Him. As I’ve heard it put so perfectly: “God is more often found in the moment, and less in the momentous.” It was throughout the week that this high school student learned that if he wasn’t “feeling” God near, it wasn’t God’s fault.

And if you’ve read my “Mission the Point” blog, you know that I so want to see even more life change as a result of mission trips, not just week change. (And yes, our mission experiences are only one part of the big picture approach to discipleship.) But I truly believe that so much of the “mission trip’s” fruit still remains to be seen. Jaco, Costa Rica looks different because we’ve been there, but what will our students’ workplaces, lunch tables, school hallways, classrooms, families, and neighborhoods look like because we went to Jaco this summer? To me, that’s just as much a part of the mission experience as the trip was–maybe even more.

Because if it was a weeklong trip without lasting results, both in Jaco and in us, then we’d better adjust our perspective and approach on the viability of such trips.

Some insights I’ve developed both over the years, and in the wake of this most recent trip:
1. It’s best to downplay the differences between here and there, and magnify the similarities. Highlight transferable principles that will be invariably born out of cultural experiences.
2. Its in flexibility that we see God work. Its often in the unplanned and uncomfortable that God does His thing.
3. Build a strong prep and follow-up that allows students to prepare spiritually, so that as much as possible, the activities of the trip aren’t done only on the trip.
4. Spiritualize everything–it all is, anyway.
5. Allow all participants to be led by God to their own conclusions and commitments about their experiences. I’m not saying don’t do corporate worship or sharing (I’m not an idiot), but I am saying it isn’t wise to shoot for a synchronized group-wide “aha”. Let God handle that.

I hate when people say, “I know what you’re thinking…” because I’m thinking “No, you don’t.” So, I won’t slap a bunch of qualifiers and disclaimers on this thing, trying to explain myself out of the things that readers might certainly disagree with in what they read here.

Heck, I might read this in a week and totally disagree with myself. I’m as teachable as they come, but I doubt it.

So, I’ll just leave it right there.

What am I doing here?

Right now, I’m sitting in the library on the University of Richmond campus. I’ve been invited here by the leadership of the Governor’s School, after being nominated by one of my good friends (and students) Ashley Pitzer. Ashley is a phenomenal young woman with such a wide variety of talents, abilities, and passions. Which makes it all the more baffling as to why she would nominate ME as an “Outstanding Educator”; a title for which I am (try not to chuckle) receiving an award as well as a “Presidential Citation” tonight at a special ceremony.

When I was first notified of my inclusion in this evening’s ceremony, I had to check the envelope to make sure I didn’t get my neighbor’s mail again. But believe it or not, it’s me that’s here and apparently supposed to be here. Go figure.

But what am I doing here? I mean, out of all the people that Ashley COULD have nominated and invited to be with her today, why would I be the one so honored (and humbled) to be here?

Don’t expect an answer to that one. I don’t have one. But I am very humbled to be known by her, let alone recognized in any way.

And as I think about “Teacher Recognition Day” as it is also called here on campus, I can’t help but think about the greatest teacher of all time. And it is in His steps that I endeavor to walk as I live, think, speak, and even…gulp….teach. I’m also reminded of a wonderful little book; a book that could fit into my pocket–a simple book entitled “Jesus, the Teacher”. I was given this book by my father-in-law along with a boxful of other various books he thought I might be interested in.

Truth be told, anything that would credit me as an “Outstanding Educator” can be found in the yellowed pages of that pocket-size book.

Just moments ago, I stood in a hallway chatting with other teachers who are also a part of today’s festivities. And they began to ask one another what subject they teach, and at which school. My mind reached feverishly for what my answer might be when inevitably someone might ask me that question. The conumdrum? I’m not—

[I just saw an ant walk off a window sill and fall to the ground like a rock.]

—anyway, I’m not a teacher of a “subject” per se, and I don’t teach at a “school” per se. So, all the others in the circle fit nicely and neatly into a category. Like James who teaches math and theater in Virginia Beach. Or Paul who teaches history in Williamsburg (what a cool place to teach history, right?!?)

So, the time had come. Paul turned to me and asked, “What about you?”

I responded, “Oh a teach a little bit of everything…..I’m Ashley’s youth pastor.” It was a fair response, I suppose. I certainly couldn’t say “math” or “biology”, and I DEFINITELY didn’t want to say “religion” or “theology”; though those might have been a little closer to the mark–but would leave me susceptible to being misunderstood or worse: mislabeled.

And I suppose that’s my anxiety. Being labeled. Saying anything having to do with church, or Jesus, or God, or ministry and the common responses are similar to those I might receive had I said, “I’m with the IRS” mixed with the looks I might get had I said, “I’m a cancer patient…but also a cancer researcher.”

I heard recently that freedom isn’t “getting to do whatever you want”. Freedom is not being able to do whatever you want, and being o.k. with that. I think freedom also has to do with liberation from the anxiety we feel upon the prospect of being labeled; no matter what that label is.

OK, enough of that. I could go on and really get nowhere and even bore myself, let alone anyone who might ever read this.

As for now, I’m honored to, for a day, be labeled “Outstanding Educator”, even while inwardly I know that I have only tried to learn from the Greatest Teacher that has ever lived. So, as I receive whatever certificate or whatever token I am given tonight, I’ll be thinking about and thanking not only Ashley for inviting me here and bestowing this weird deal on me, but also thanking He whom I follow, learn from, and try to teach about.

OK, I’m out. Time to hit what’s next on the schedule.
Oh, and don’t forget that today is 7-11, and thus is “Free Slurpee Day”. Brain freeze? Bring it.

Mission the Point.

Last week, I took a large group of pretty typical middle school students and a handful of quite extraordinary adults to Kilmarnock, VA for our middle school mission trip. It is a trip we tend to make every summer. More on that in a moment.

First of all, let me say that I really find the concept of a “mission trip” distasteful. I don’t see much of anything that resembles anything close to a “mission trip” anywhere in Scripture. That is, of course, with the exception of the entire life of Christ. His 33 years of life were in and of themselves a “trip” that took Him from the glory of heaven to a broken earth, to the depths of hell, back to earth for a brief revisit, and then finally back home to heaven, where He now sits.
I can here some say, “What about the ‘missionary journeys of Paul’?” Really? You’re going to compare Paul’s mission LIFE to a short term TRIP we take students on? Think about the apostles being sent out two by two and reporting back. But even then, they seemed to miss the point.

But other than that, I’m not so sure the popular “mission trip” idea is a good idea at all. Here’s why:

Most mission trips fall woefully short in the department of any lasting impression they leave on anyone involved. They are inevitably “over there” and precious little of what goes on “over there” ends up “over here”. But, when [church] people see teenagers going “over there” and then coming back “over here” with pictures, stories, and even tears, it seems to look like something good. Maybe even something like Jesus would do. Or thinks we should do. Or something.

And I want to spill my guts here. I don’t like mission trips. I just don’t.

I like going to exotic places (I’m going on another “mission trip” to Costa Rica in less than a week). I like seeing new things. I like taking pictures and making videos of those places and things. I like watching people do things that freak them out a little bit. I like trying to talk to people who don’t understand anything I’m saying. I like eating foods of different cultures. I like all that. But none of that is Biblically mandated. None of it. And that’s pretty much all the stuff of today’s mission trips.

Let me tell you exactly the moment that drove the last nail into the coffin of “mission trips” for me. It happened just a few days ago, while I was still on that middle school mission trip in Kilmarnock. One of our middle school girls came to me late afternoon on Thursday. Let me back up. We had arrived there on Sunday evening, and we were leaving on Saturday morning. Friday was “play day” (jet skis, tubing, jellyfish stings, you know–fun stuff), so Thursday night was our final “worship service” as a group; the kind of gathering we had enjoyed every night that week. So, just hours before the Thursday night (final) worship service we’d have as a group on that trip, that girl came and asked me this question: “So Jerry….is tonight ‘Jesus night’?” I said, “What? What do you mean?” She responded, “You know, the night of the trip when everyone ‘gets saved’ and makes commitments they’re not going to keep.” Those were her exact words.

Well, inwardly I was absolutely blown away, deflated, and almost entirely sympathetic to this girl’s astute observation. Outwardly, however, I said something cutesy like, “Well, I’d like to think that every night is Jesus night. Every day is Jesus day. Every afternoon is Jesus afternoon. Every second is Jesus second.” She was then distracted by a friend calling for her attention and that was the end of our exchange. But the deed had been done. This girl, in her honest, innocent, and yet right on statement had summarized the very heart of why I don’t like “mission trips”.

It’s primarily because for some reason we’ve decided that God works best on the last night of the trip. And even unwittingly we orchestrate this climactic build; setting the stage for God to be right on time, but not too early. And for the last several years, I load any “trip” I lead students with overt messages that point out the very fact of the inherent danger of a trip being just that…a trip. Something that begins and ends; usually within the span of 7 days or so.

I sound jaded, don’t I? And I’m honestly not that cynical toward what God can do through mission trips. He’s used these trips for incredible good like opening the eyes of students (and adults) to the realities of poverty, injustice, despair, contentedness, and true joy. I’ve even watched Him lay “the call” to full-time missions (is there another kind?) on their hearts. Yep, I’ve see God do lots.

But when God gets predictable and we can come up with an identifiable “Jesus Night”, we’re not knocking on the right door. When that happens, we’ve led a group of students on a trip. Nothing more.

And I’m fully aware that I’m pretty much blowing the whistle on myself. After all, I’m the youth pastor leading this trip. But it also tells me that that middle school girl has been around the retreat/youth convention/mission trip block enough times to know that the final night is when the magic happens.

The root of this, or at least one of them, is the misunderstanding of the Great Commission. We typically translate the “Therefore go…” as “go over there and do that thing you do.” But the “Therefore go” is properly translated “as you are going” or “on the way”. So, “missions” becomes so much less about the destination and so much more about the journey. If my trip to Costa Rica is from July 21st to the 28th and we look the same on the 29th as we did on the 20th, then what was the point?

The “success” of the trip is not measured in whether or not we built that orphange, dug that well, played with those kids, learned that language, or cried those tears. The true measure of the trip’s success, I believe is this: What difference does it make “over here”? In essence, is the “trip” any closer to becoming the “life”? Ask a teen to pay $850 to go to another country to talk about Jesus to a stranger and they’ll do it all day. Ask them to talk to that person next to them in the lunchroom for free and you’re asking too much.

So is it any wonder then, why I don’t relish these “trips”? I’ve found that they do serve their purpose, but not usually any lasting ones. I’ve got some things I’m doing to change all this in my own ministry (and its likely not what you’re thinking), but more on that later.

For now, I’ve got to go pack.