The quote at the beginning of this chapter really does sum up most of the book, doesn’t it? “It will not happen automatically. It will require intentionality and investment.” Yep. This is true of most things in our lives–we don’t learn a new language, or an instrument, or a sport, or algebra, or how to cook, or how to drive without intentionality and investment. We spend time, energy, and money learning those things and teaching them to our children. Why is the same not true of faith?
Most of this chapter is about mission trips–how they can be, if done extremely well, life changing events for the people who go on the trip. Dean asks us to be honest about the fact that these trips are for us, really–we are the ones who benefit from these experiences. Sure, the people we go to serve may have a new wheelchair ramp or a roof or some free childcare, but they often lose their dignity in the process. In the podcast I linked to last week, where Dean was interviewed about this book, she puts it very starkly, asking us to be honest about the fact that these mission trips are often about mutual using of other people (ie, the people with a need are using us to get the need met, and we are using them to feel good about ourselves and have some kind of service experience) rather than about truly building up the body of Christ and seeing the face of Jesus in people around us. That is often true. I’ve wondered before whether, when we leave a community, anyone ever says “remember those people who came here a few months ago and hung our drywall? I really saw Christ in them, and I loved getting to know those kids from another part of the country, and I learned so much about the meaning of life while they were here.” Because those are the kinds of things we come home and say, right? But is it a mutual relationship, or another example of some of us swooping in to save the day for “the needy”? Or another episode in volun-tourism, where we really go to see what life is like somewhere else and to feel good about ourselves while we do it, but not to make lasting changes to either the “somewhere else” or ourselves? Add in the research that suggests that a really really small percentage of the teens who go on these trips have lasting (ie, more than 5 years) change come out of them, and the research that suggests that sometimes the communities we go to serve are not only no better off, but actually worse off, than when we went there, and we have a recipe to be very very careful about mission trips. They sound wonderful, and they can be. The difficulty is that, much like a trumpet player, there’s no in between–they’re either very very good, or very very bad.
So…Dean suggests that we call these what they are–they are learning trips, opportunities for cross-cultural encounter. They are wonderful times to get out of our own comfort zones, take a step back, and be more reflective about our life and faith and where those intersect with the rest of the world. The work we do is peripheral, really. The time spent connecting God’s story, our story, and the story of others all together is what’s truly valuable about these trips. And often, in order to do that, we need to go to what Dean calls The Edge of the Void. We need to get out of the self-centered place we often inhabit…to be “decentered.” Then we find ourselves in a thin place, where the separation between heaven and earth is narrow and we can KNOW God and ourselves and the world differently. But these thin places can be found in lots of ways–not only traveling to a new location, but also trying a new form of prayer, going to a different part of town, practicing Sabbath in a culture that demands constant attention, visiting immigrants detained at the county jail, teaching ESL, coming to the communion table…the list goes on and on. We can be de-centered, we can enter liminal space, in many ways, and going to a starkly different culture or landscape is only one way.
The most important phrase in the whole chapter is just half a sentence near the beginning: “Mission is not a trip.” Amen. Mission is what God is doing in the world–and that mission needs a church to carry it out. The question is whether what God is doing in the world is building a wheelchair ramp or building relationships with people of different cultures/races/economic status/education/region/experience. How can we participate in God’s mission of tearing down the dividing walls and building up the body of Christ? Sometimes that may involve manual labor. But it can’t JUST involve labor–that puts us at risk of once again serving only ourselves. It’s one thing to do something good and feel good about it, and another thing to get to know someone and to know that God is changing their lives through your own changed life.
The purpose of the gospel is transformation–of people into the body of Christ and ultimately of the world into the kingdom of God. How do we open ourselves to this transformation? How do we offer opportunity for transformation? How do we participate in the transformation of the world? These are big questions–ones that “mission” trips often seek to begin to answer. But ultimately, five days every summer is just the beginning. If we are not participating in God’s vision for the world every day, we are no more part of the mission than if we never went on the trip at all. If we are not reflecting on how God’s story intersects ours, on how the sacred text we read every Sunday affects the world, then we are missing the opportunity God has placed in our midst–the opportunity to be transformed and the opportunity to show one another (of all ages!) the good news of God’s love that can change the world.
So…I guess that’s a call to get to work! Just not in the usual way. 🙂