Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Reflections on Colima: 4 Ministry Insights from a Missions Experience

We frantically hurried through the lively exterior of the Guadalajara airport, a teeming network of taxis, buses, and vans all skirting around each other while idle drivers waited on the curb for their next client. Our bus left from the station in 25 minutes; the drive to the station would take at least 30, and the tickets weren't refundable or transferable. Our two hired drivers had been waiting for us outside instead of looking for the large group of semi-confused Canadians expecting them inside in the airport. (I found out later, our hosts had miscommunicated about this particular portion of our journey to the van rental company; hence, our nervous idling in the airport terminal.)

As we piled our rolling bags into the back of the two vans, I glanced at the darkening sky and prayed a quick prayer: "Lord, protect us. Get us onto our bus safely." Our group got in, the doors slammed shut, and the drivers took off. Completely ignoring any driving or safety regulations, Mexican or otherwise, the drivers navigated the Guadalajara traffic with a strange combination of frenetic energy and complete ease. The driver casually chatted in Spanish with my friend, Liliana, while he tore through the now-rainslicked streets. The two drivers were somehow communicating with each other through a Morse-like language of flashing their lights and turn signals in particular ways. As the traffic came to a complete halt, their lights flashed back and forth until our driver turned and drove onto the shoulder, passing the stopped traffic. Liliana turned around and informed me with a look of hesitation in her eyes, "they're going to take a short cut." Of course they are, I thought.

I gripped the seat in front of me and spent the next twenty minutes on the ride of my life, flying down tiny Mexican cobblestone streets transformed into rivers of brown water from the continuing rain. We passed onlookers and VW Beetles, water spraying from our wheel wells like muddy fountains. The driver kept telling Liliana, "cinco minutos. Only five more minutes." Curbs, stop signs, passing lanes--they took second fiddle to our need to get on our bus. When we arrived twenty minutes late for our bus, I was still strangely calm, particularly after such a terrifying and intense shuttle ride from the airport. We thanked our drivers--they had done their job and transported us to the airport safely and quickly, all nerves aside--and went up to the desk to check on our status. Gone. The bus had left on time, and we were left in the station. We had been told that the bus company never offers refunds or transfers; our group's need of 17 transfers was an impossible request. So when the ticket agent casually nodded and allowed our group onto the next bus leaving for our destination in only 35 minutes, completely free and without hassle, I realized a small miracle had happened. The prayer had been answered--we were safe and we were getting on our bus.

Thus, we had arrived in Mexico.

For the latter half of July, my time and energy has been spent leading a short-term missions trip of 19 people to Colima, Mexico to partner with a developing church plant, Pan de Vida. It was a full trip--full of people, full of ministry, full of food, full of the Holy Spirit and moments where the kingdom of heaven broke into our midst. I will admit, it was not an easy missions trip for me. With my substantial food allergies and the potent heat and humidity of central Mexico, I was often feeling drained or empty. Yet Jesus did some incredible things in the lives of our team and the people of Colima, and I am hopeful that each person in our team returned to Canada with a remodeled heart for God's mission in this world.

As I reflect upon the trip, there are four particular themes or insights that keep coming back to my mind. Perhaps they are relevant to any short-term missions trip, but they certainly were key lessons for me and my experience for the past 10 days. While these aren't exhaustive, and really don't give a full narrative of the experiences we had, they are the repeated rhythms in my memory. Here are the four insights I gained from our time in Colima:

1. The value of partnering with instead of doing for. Often, North American short-term missions looks like this: an eager team shows up in a poorer country, does a quick-fix work project or a rapid-fire outreach program, then leaves with a sense of accomplishment. Often relationships with the locals are left in the wake of such blitz-like trips, and relationship can become secondary to accomplishing the project. This is a doing for missions experience; the North Americans do for the locals what they likely can (and should) do for themselves. Much of the ministry we did in Colima was relational; we simply hung out with the people of Pan de Vida, particularly the jovenes (younger generation). It was also in collaboration and partnership with a local church and its ministries. We went along with them to do the ministry they were already doing in an orphanage, a soup kitchen, and a youth detention centre. It was a true partnership, a locking arms in the gospel and focusing on deepening our relationships rather than doing a particular project.

2. The emerging generation has much to offer its elders. The group of young people on our team was exemplary. I was never really worried about the teens on this trip; I was more concerned about the adults. Both the Canadian and Mexican young people took the lead on ministry initiatives--they led worship, they performed skits, they created art, they had conversations, they served faithfully, and they led others to Jesus. It's not that the older generation (myself included, I suppose) doesn't have anything to offer. Their wisdom, experience, counsel, and leadership are absolutely essential for the body of Christ. Yet we have so much to learn from the passion, ingenuity, faithfulness, and beauty of the emerging generation. This is why I'm so passionate about intergenerational ministry, why I believe there is no kids' table in the kingdom of God. As the family of God, we each have a role to play and gifts to bring to the table. I saw glimpses of this kingdom paradigm in Colima this past week.

3. Discipline and flexibility are partners. A ministry friend once commented to me that he thought I was one of the most disciplined people he had ever met. His affirming words have stuck with me, an exhortation and encouragement to keep pursuing discipline in my life. I'm not naturally disciplined, but I deeply value the practices of rhythms and habits, both spiritual and otherwise (though, in my mind, every discipline is spiritual). With my food allergies, I have to be disciplined about what I eat. With my growing knowledge that I am more introverted than I ever realized, I have to be disciplined about getting reenergized for social situations. I am growing in disciplines of prayer, silence, mediating on God's words in Scripture, Sabbath, and fasting (more from technology than food). Yet being disciplined does not equate with rigidity or a static lifestyle of monotony and boredom. It's not self-flaggelation or denial of desire. Discipline leads to freedom, a freedom to relax and flex and roll with what life brings, recognizing that the unforeseen and unexpected won't sway my soul away from the furrows of grace etched into my heart and mind. It's practicing submitting my desires to God's desires, allowing Him to woo me and shape my heart. Without discipline, flexibility is simply wishy-washy impulse. Without flexibility, discipline is legalism. Both are necessary for a robust spiritual life.

4. I will shepherd even when I cannot lead. This was the first international missions trip I co-led with someone, and the first international trip with my church. There were particular decisions, schedules, and values that were different from my own, and I found myself often trying to lead a trip where I wasn't truly the leader in that moment. Both leading up to the trip and while on it, when questions were asked about what was happening next, I would often have to honestly reply, "I don't know." As a leader with a vision, experience leading international missions trips, and a personal value for honest and clear communication, I found myself often having to lead and guide others even when I didn't know what was going on. Regardless of whether or not I should have been the leader in those moments, there are plenty of arenas in my life where I am not the leader in a situation, where I'm not "in charge." Yet I'm still a shepherd of others; I am still a spiritual guide, a caretaker of the flock, a disciplemaker. A leader isn't necessarily a shepherd; a shepherd is always a leader. A person with the spiritual vocation of pastor will find themselves as a spiritual model, measure, manager, and motivator, regardless of job description, title, or experience.

Overall, it was a personally challenging, uplifting, and inspiring missions experience in Colima. We saw prayers answered and witnessed people enter into the kingdom of God. Yet even as I reenter my everyday life in British Columbia, I'll be meditating upon and attempting to practice the ministry insights God has given, seeking His kingdom in the ordinary rhythms and moments.

Which of the four insights resonates with you? What is God teaching you this summer?

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