The first taste I had of mission work was through a program with our Baptist Campus Ministries (then called Baptist Student Union) for S.P.O.T.S. (Special Projects Other Than Summer). Then every first week of winter break a team of 8 to 12 college students and our campus minister and college “sponsor” traveled from our campus in Alabama to a church in Savannah, Georgia. The church operated a mission in the row of townhouses behind the church building itself. The students camped out in one. The others were all reserved for various activities of the mission. For a week we were the entertainment, Bible study and small group leaders, cleaning crew, handy men and women. If the mission was involved in it so were we. Those trips were some of the best memories I have and provided growth opportunities for me spiritually I can’t ever forget. I was privileged to go for three years.
The last trip I was able to go on was tougher than the other two. Usually the teams seemed to find instant ways to bond together and get the work done. We had fun, no doubt, but we worked hard and often showed up to Bible studies or small groups looking like we’d just gotten off our knees scrubbing baseboard edges with old toothbrushes because we had! This year though as a team we were not pulling together. We agreed on very little, the teamwork was poor, the attitudes were prickly and it seemed things went from bad to worse every day.
To begin with the townhouse we shared was an old and narrow, three-level building with a living room, dining room, kitchen, fire escape/backdoor, two rooms upstairs with mattresses or cots and one bathroom. The bathroom was not only small but the bathing situation was always the subject of much despair, joking and groans.
A gender mixed group of ten college students sharing one bathroom whose shower was a two-foot section of a rubber hose in an iron clawed foot bathtub connected to a small hot water heater and lousy water pressure was a recipe for moodiness. There were many methods applied by a multitude of minds for a multitude of years but the only one that came close to working for me was to squat in the tub and HURRY. The bathroom this week seemed to be a constant battleground.
Work started at 8:00 in the mornings and being college students we didn’t make a point to get to bed early of course. This meant either you bathed in the evenings before bed or shifted through a schedule in the morning. Oh how badly this went! Those who signed up for night showers would change their minds throwing the morning schedule off. The ones who choose their morning shower time slot couldn’t adjust their routine to accommodate the less than ideal shower/tub issue or couldn’t pull themselves out of bed on time so between these and those needing to brush their teeth everyone seemed to be in a bad mood from clamoring for the bathroom first thing in the morning. And then there was the one whose habit it was to bathe often during the day.
We were there for a week and were supposed to allow the regular mission leadership a breather from their regular duties. Instead of jumping in and agreeing to cover what needed to be done there were always someone who would refuse to do something and attitudes flared.
“No I don’t lead Bible studies.”
“No I don’t give testimonies.”
“No I don’t act.”
“No I don’t read out loud.”
“No I don’t talk to older women, younger women, young mothers, that group type of men, move boxes, want to be inside, or want to work outside.”
“No I don’t see the point in that.”
“No, no, no, I, I, I….”
On and on and on, all week long; there was one knotty problem after another and by the last night I was more than ready to go home. A first, because normally I wanted to stay a while longer. It always felt before that the needs were far greater than our week of work could help accomplish. This week though I felt like we’d created more needs than helped meet. I felt like a failure.
The traditional last night activity was that as a group we’d sit around the folding table used as a dining table for the week and record ourselves sharing on topics such as what we’d loved most about our week at the mission, what we’d learned and what it had meant to us. The tape would then be given to the mission director and the church pastor. Surely this would break through the walls between us and we’d learn what we’d expected of this week, what we’d gained and those moments we had felt God was able to move through us to meet the needs of the people we came to serve. I was so wrong and looking back I don’t know why it was such a surprise.
This night no one would talk. The general consensus was that the request of answers to the questions was “personal and private” and no one wished to share. Not with the group, not with the mission director and not with the pastor. It turned into a gripe session and more than a few “blame” darts were thrown. Senseless complaints. Endless complaints. I left the room in tears.
Later I slipped down to the living room ready to have a “little talk with Jesus”. I was resentful. I was having a pity party. I was angry at the group members. I was angry at myself for failing. I was angry at God for everything.
I poured it all out, I scribbled in my prayer journal and reminded the Almighty of verse after verse to prove my points. When I had spent my bitterness, resentment and anger out to God I sat and I waited.
I waited for God to bring instant judgment. I waited for words of comfort and understanding. I waited in the silence for Him to tell me I was right and He was wrong.
The minutes ticked by and the silence grew louder. Still I waited. I waited until I fell asleep.
Bone chilling temperature penetrated my slumber and I woke instantly realizing I had fallen asleep waiting on God to answer me. He hadn’t. Didn’t God understand? Why would He act like this? Proving how much like the spoiled child I was acting like I truly was I grabbed my Bible, prayer journal and marched upstairs. As I crawled onto the cot I had one last parting shot I fired off at God. This, I was sure, would get His attention!
“I quit! That’s right. I resign! I won’t do this anymore. I just quit! I resign! Do You hear that Lord? I resign! No more mission work for me! No more drama team, no more praise team, no more anything!”
Thankfully God was slow to anger and merciful in His actions. When the week was over and I was home and really listening to God I wanted to crawl under a rock I was so ashamed of my behavior that night. I realized many truths about that week of mission work, about myself and about teamwork.
I could, and I tried, to justify my reactions to others actions and attitudes that week but the only person I was responsible for was myself and the One I was accountable to was God. Truth is, no matter where, why, when, what or how long God calls us to a specific mission field “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”* My job was to get out of the way and let God do through me and through everyone else too that week. There was no room for pettiness, irritability, resentment, bitterness or egos.
My expectations and God’s were polar opposites that week. I lost sight of whose needs came first, His or mine. God’s agenda was far more important than mine. His were for needs to be met at the mission, in the lives of those we came in contact with that week and in the lives of every one of His children on that mission trip. My need had been to know, to see results, to see evidence of our good deeds instantly so I could feel we’d made a difference for the kingdom that week. But I wanted that in the ways I’d seen and experienced the previous two years and on a longer two month mission trip the summer before. I thought I knew what mission work looked like because I’d been blessed to be a part of trips that were amazing in visible, tangible ways. In ways that spirits connected and you just knew you’d done what God wanted done. I didn’t know how to deal with a mission trip that looked “bad”.
Looking back I see that while I still don’t know all that was accomplished that week in anyone’s life, even my own, much was done. If nothing else this now forty-nine year old, then twenty-three year old remembers the night she learned God is not a job one can resign from and that regardless of what I think needs to be accomplished God doesn’t need me to get what He needs accomplished done. I also learned that flexibility means I am more open to my personal mantra “Mistakes are just creative opportunities!”
It was easy for me to get discouraged that week and I did. Life is like that every day. But just as there was no provision for me to resign on God then there isn’t one for me to do so now. Once we’ve asked God to be the Lord of our lives, made that covenant with Him it isn’t something we can walk away from. Now we may think we can and often do but we can’t. It may not even “catch up to us” while we live here on this earth but the day is coming when we all account for those times we’ve “resigned” on God. I don’t know if anyone else has ever done it quite as dramatically as I did but I do know I am not alone in the attitude or action. Most of all, I know I answer for my actions regardless of what others do or don’t do, think or don’t think, agree with or disagree with – all of that is not important. My walk with God is my walk with God.
“Therefore, my dear friends; as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:12-13 NIV)
*Luke 9:62 NIV