Stay in it (part one)

Do you have books on your bookshelf just for the title? You haven’t even read the book and aren’t sure you need to; the title all by itself is enough. One of those books for me is Eugene Peterson’s Long Obedience in the Same Direction. That title was a revelation about sanctification. It is obedience over feeling. Just stay with it. This is not waiting for something to happen. This is staying power. A long obedience.

Elizabeth O’Connor’s Journey Inward, Journey Outward basically defined my vocation. It taught me everything I needed to know about Wesleyan theology — personal holiness, social holiness — and what healthy community looks like. This is Wesleyan theology. It is a journey inward that feeds the journey outward.

Just this month I had another one of those moments, but it wasn’t a book title. It was a song title. Iris DeMent is the artist who sings it right; the composer is Sanford Massengill. The song is, I don’t want to get adjusted to this world. I will go ahead and warn you now (because you’ll want to look it up) that the theology breaks down in the song lyrics but the title by itself saves me all over again.

I don’t want to get adjusted to this world.

It puts into words that low-level uneasiness I have with so much that passes for acceptable in our culture. I’m not talking about the coarsening of society or what most middle-aged people think about social media. I’m talking about that thing that sits in my gut that says pastoring must be more art than technique, that my passion for it must run deeper than the anxiety generated by whoever’s blog pops up on my newsfeed with the title, “Five things you have to do now before your church implodes.”

Discipleship must be more organic than commercial farming. A relationship with Jesus is meant be fertilized with intrigue over all there is to know about God, not with a growing pile of shoulds and oughts.

(Can we just acknowledge that the word “should” sounds a lot like fertilizer? And I don’t need any more fertilizer in my life!)

Passions are not stoked with “shoulds” and “oughts” and I don’t want to get adjusted to that kind of world that runs on anxiety and shame instead of real adventure and bold, holy mistakes. So how do I stay in it without getting to adjusted to it?

The problem with the song, I don’t want to get adjusted to this world, is that the lyrics wander off into a kind of escapism that masquerades as longing for Jesus when really, its just, “Get me out of this!” I know that kind of escapism. I’m prone to it.

I was talking to someone not too long ago who’d had a season of professional ministry in his past. It was a good season for him, but in the end he had to leave it. He’d gone through a divorce and needed a better-paying job and something more than youth ministry to keep the boat floating. But its been a few years now and he’s discouraged. He looks back on those youth ministry days with a kind of longing. He was trying to get me to sympathize so he said, “Imagine someone told you that you were doing great but you needed to step down from your ministry any way, and so for six months they told you that you needed to stay clear of that ministry, and that you couldn’t talk to anyone or make any decisions. How would that make you feel?”

I have to be real here. In that moment (maybe it had been a bad day), that sounded wonderful to me. All I could think was, Really? Are you kidding?! I’d kill for that.”

So yes … I understand escapism. But that is not what Paul was after when he told us not to get adjusted to this world. Paul said (Romans 12:2), “Don’t copy (conform to) the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.” Not by changing the circumstances, but by changing the way we process them. Not by getting us out of it (whatever ‘it” is), but by changing our perspective on what is. Thats the point — not escape but transformation. It is about seeing the world from the Kingdom down rather than from the ground up. And the power to stay in it lies within the Holy Spirit. We seek his presence because he is the one with power to change our perspective. David Thomas says, “The Holy Spirit is the one who helps us go down into the deeper places, so we can have courage to be loved and face our stuff.”

Let that sink in: “The Holy Spirit is the one who helps us go down into the deeper places, so we can have courage to be loved and face our stuff.”

This is Wesleyan Holiness at its best: It is a call to live a holy life under the influence of a Holy Spirit who leads us into greater and deeper love.

I wonder what thing you’ve got right now that you’re hoping to escape? What situation seems so radioactive that what you’d really like is to run, even if the alternative probably isn’t life-giving? What thing seems too big, too hard, too much … toxic?

Can I encourage you to stay in it and allow the Holy Spirit to turn that toxic space into holy ground? Can I challenge you to stay in it until you’re able to see it as God sees it? That’s no guarantee that it isn’t hard or bad or not his best, but it is a challenge to stay open to the possibility that he can work all things together for good. Or that maybe this hard thing is exactly your next step if you’re going to sink into the deeper places where you can be loved and face your stuff.

Friends, let the Holy Spirit do his work in you, because the world has met its quota of tired souls who’d rather just escape, but  the Kingdom Church is starving — and the fields are white — for Spirit-filled followers who are willing to stay in it … to have their minds transformed and their world views altered by the power of the Holy Spirit.

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Four principles for a healthier short-term mission experience

I am writing this while “on mission with Jesus in Ecuador,”* serving together with seventeen genuinely kind and faithful people from two churches in Georgia and the Wesleyan seminary of Venezuela. We are being hosted by Sharon and Graham Nichols, who serve Christ through The Mission Society.

Back in the day, church folk took suitcases of shoes, toys or food when we traveled to remote places. We planned big projects for communities that didn’t ask for them. We came home and showed pictures of children we held and houses we built. We felt great about ourselves. Well intentioned as we were, we were clueless about the long-term damage of this approach to short-term missions.

Americans have learned a lot in the last thirty years about what it means to be on mission with Jesus, how short-term experiences can help and hinder, and what is actually useful for building the Kingdom of God on earth. Churches genuinely driven to be both faithful and effective are changing the ways they do short-term international and even long-term local missions.

For those having that conversation, here are four things I believe any short-term mission team should consider:

1. Get a Kingdom perspective on poverty. One of the hardest things to learn for an American traveling in a third-world country (or among those who live in poverty in our own country) is that our stuff will not get anyone into the Kingdom. To the contrary, often the giving away of stuff or money fundamentally disrespects the person on the receiving end and changes the nature of a relationship. In the end, it may well stifle the message of the gospel.

To gain a more mature posture toward poverty, I highly recommend reading at least one of these books: When Helping Hurts, or Toxic Charity. The message of both books is the same: By giving to appease our own consciences we completely miss the chance to give something of infinitely more worth: genuine relationship, the kind that isn’t built overnight.

2. Get the posture of a learner. The most valuable gift of a mission experience is exposure to God’s heart. If we allow ourselves to travel under the illusion that we “know” and that in any equation we are the teachers (or saviors, or givers, or …) then we’ll completely miss God’s heart. What most respects the country to which we travel and the hosts who have us is to learn how God is working among them.

To get a better sense of what it means to “go as a learner,” I recommend these two books: Thriving in Cross-Cultural Missions, by Carissa Alma, and Journey to A Better Way, by John Bailey. The last chapter of “Thriving” is an excellent assessment of the current short-term missions culture written from the perspective of one who has been on the receiving end of teams for nearly two decades.

3. Think of it as discipleship.  Invest time in the team before going, while you’re there and after you return. Require every team member to write a testimony in 500 words. Study the great commission together. The team that invests time in meeting, praying, sharing testimonies and preparing to go as learners will receive so much more than the team that simply gathers supplies and heads off to complete a task. And they’ll do less damage.

4. Make sure it translates into action at home. The point of a mission experience is to gain God’s heart for the world and get our hearts broken for the things that break his heart. That shouldn’t leave us pining for the next “trip fix” when we return home (side note: to use mission trips to get one’s own emotional needs met is an abuse of the system. Don’t let yourself be guilty). A successful trip should create more effective disciples, more active leaders, more passionate servants … either in the field or in the community in which they live and worship.

What makes an effective short-term missionary? It is someone who goes as a learner  to discover God’s heart for the whole world and to encourage those who serve full-time in the field. It is one who is challenged to go deeper in devotion to God and to look for where she can more intentionally serve upon return. It is one who comes home and starts praying with a stronger understanding and passion for the Harvest.

 

*This is how our hosts, Sharon and Graham Nichols, prefer to describe short-term experiences. It emphasizes the leadership of Jesus and our partnership in the process. Short-term missions isn’t about what we do, but who we are. And even more importantly, who God is.

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