Reflections on how missions can contribute to spiritual formation
Where is George Now? Ecuador
I am in Ecuador with the OMS board for the rest of this week. I’m here to present on the billion.global project and provide Information Services for the board meetings and visits with ministry staff and partners of OMS. This will be the first time that an OMS board meeting, which happens every six months, takes place there.
Why Ecuador with OMS? Here’s the short version. In the late 1940’s, a civil war in Colombia began on the streets and in the countryside (La Violencia), one which would continue until 1958. The OMS board met to discuss what its missionaries should do, as the Colombian government had stopped issuing new visas for foreigners and seemed on the verge of expelling all foreign missionaries. The board voted to open up the field of Ecuador, given that it seemed to have a more stable government. In 1953, the first missionaries landed from Colombia in Ecuador. Ironically, while in Ecuador, some members of the board will visit Colombia, as these days missionaries are reporting a widespread eagerness to receive and accept the Gospel in that country. Multiple conversions are happening daily.
On a personal level, I am struck by how magnificent and fulfilling this current visit to Latin America has been compared to the last time I was in Latin America back in ‘83. I was fairly new to Christianity and had agreed to go on a senior missions trip to Honduras led by my youth pastor, Dwight Robertson, who, out of that experience, started an entire organization dedicated to bringing youth and adults on transformative cross-cultural trips. To be honest, if you asked my adolescent self what that trip was like, I would have replied, “It was a train-wreck experience and not very impactful.” Looking back, I see now how a pivotal trip that was for my life development and who I am today.
- Where was George in summer of ‘83? Honduras
We drove around Honduras in a van with our own sound system. We visited several Christian schools and radio stations, each of us high school seniors ready to share our testimonies. I remember standing on stage,about to share my “testimony” to 400-500 high school students around my age in Christian schools in Honduras. I looked around me. Nearby were my traveling peers who had well-articulated stories about God’s presence and their transformative relationship with him. It was almost my turn. I had no real testimony to share. I felt like a fake.
This was my first time traveling outside of America. I was your middle class American Christian boy here to share the good news to the poor and downtrodden in “third-world countries” for two weeks. I was supposed to be, in my young eyes then, someone who had the answers, someone who could live a model “Christian life” for others to imitate.
I came from a high school and youth group in which how you looked and what you wore mattered a lot (as is the case in most high schools). When Ralph Lauren Polo t-shirts came out, it was a competition to see who would be the first to rock a Polo horse on their t-shirt. Even our youth pastor’s fashion style was in vogue.
My youth group did acknowledge the pressure to keep up with the latest dress codes and openly struggled with it. I loved my friends in youth group and still enjoy strong relationships with many of them; they played a large role in my spiritual formation. But I think I personally felt these social pressures more acutely than most as most of my Christian friends’ families were experiencing a rise in wealth and success, while my family was experiencing a steep economic decline compared to our prior generation’s vibrant wealth. My dad worked as a UAW tradesman for GM and certainly made good money, but my family lived a life that was visibly different from the life he had growing up. We were never poor, but there was a nagging sense of failure and disappointment that shrouded our family growing up.
My sense of inadequacy was compounded by the fact that I didn’t grow up with parents who would have been considered to be “highly moral,” while my friends in youth group had parents who were “highly moral” Wesleyan Christians. No one explicitly told me that I grew up in a “broken home,” but I began to deduce as much when I heard how people talked about parents who were divorced and what Christian family structures should be like. I began to feel a sense of inadequacy that I didn’t experience earlier in childhood growing up on the farm. I felt that I was starting a mile behind my friends, struggling to catch up to their spiritual attainments. If my parents were “broken,” so to speak, then surely I was too.
The irony was that I was in church in the first place because of my mother, who had an encounter with Christ and began turning her life around. I started going to my church’s youth group, where the cool kids in my high school went, and I tried to be included. Their faith and love drew me in.
I tried to do the right Christian and moral things I felt I had to do to get into heaven. I would try to pray in my bed, memorize scripture, but it felt empty to me. I only decided to tag along to the missions trip because the cool kids were going too. It was a cool idea until I realized that I would have to frequently share my testimony on the radio and to other Christian students. I at least could sing worship songs.
I don’t remember what I shared on those stages -- it was a long time ago. I do remember feeling that our translator inserted her/his own words in place of mine to make me look better. I also remember that after we spoke, the kids would come up to talk to us afterwards. I felt awkward and tried to turn my head to avoid interaction, but I could feel their eyes looking right through me. I felt that they knew that I was just making things up on stage, that I wasn’t a true Christian unlike my friends, and that I was empty inside.
My sense of delayed spiritual development was accentuated by the fact that all around me were clear signs of spiritual life. The church services in Honduras were filled with so much life and joy than most of the churches I attended in America. This was despite the fact that their services in were, in comparison, radically simpler. We worshipped in a mud-floor church with ten rows of chairs on each side. People from the villages would casually walk in, join us and worship with us. It was clear to me that I had little to no experience of the spiritual life that I saw abundantly all around me.
Additionally, my complex about my family’s lack of economic wealth was turned upside down when I would observe the faces of the children living on the side of the road, selling pears and fruit; their dirty faces radiated a happiness that baffled me despite my material comforts. They had been wearing their clothes for at least a week -- no one had any Polo shirts -- but all I really saw was their dignity staying out taller than anything else.
When I played basketball with the other high school boys, and sensing how normal they were. They weren’t insecure or resentful about coming from a “backwards” or “less developed” country. They had what A. W. Tozer called the “blessedness of having nothing.” I, the privileged Westerner who thought he had a lot to give, was duly humbled. I was here to learn from them.
Looking back, I wouldn’t say that I had a genuine spiritual transformation during my time in Honduras, although I played it off as that to those who asked. But now as a more mature Christian, I’m aware of the seed that was planted during my Honduras trip. It paved the way for a personal encounter with God that occurred in my sophomore year of college. It overturned my hierarchies (West > rest, rich > poor) and revealed my insecurities about my family background and my self-loathing sense of emptiness. It opened my eyes to see people living full lives, free of insecurity and undistracted by modern conveniences. It awakened in me a thirst for real humility and a hunger for a pervading spiritual life, instead of just the facade of one. It is why I am a missionary today.
A philosophical approach to missions work
A few years ago, I switched from the corporate sector to the nonprofit world. While my organizational mission has changed greatly, my work is still within IT and information services. Thus my day-to-day has not changed dramatically; it is still consumed in lines of code, flurries of emails, and back-to-back virtual meetings online. I don’t get to see firsthand, unless I leave my country, the tangible good that I am helping to bring about.
Since I don’t have this immediate gratification, it is important for me to be disciplined in my purpose and intention. I want to share a few quotes from George Kunz’s The Paradox of Power & Weakness that concisely sum up my purpose in pursuing altruism as a mission. These are quotes that I come back to in order to remind me of what is true in order to align my intentions and actions.
(The quotes, especially the one below may be rather dense, but take your time through it. Or you can just skip ahead to my reflections on the quotes).
- “When the [missional] call goes out to us we obviously have our individualized liberty either to give or to turn away from this call of [helping] the weak. We have the power, in the form of freedom, to respond either with help, or with selfishness, even viciousness. But we do not have the freedom to choose whether or not we are called. The call has its source outside of us coming from the weakness of the weak. The power of the weak is the Other's neediness. It commands us to respond to weakness."
Most academic theories of ethics presume that people do good out of enlightened self-interest. We want to act fairly to others so that they will act fairly to us; it’s a quid-pro-quo. We want to do good because doing so makes us feel good and happy about ourselves.
But while all that may be true, these reasons are ultimately secondary and subsequent to what is primary and what happens first: the ethical obligation that we feel from other people’s neediness and worthiness. The ethical call begins from outside of us, not exclusively from within. The next two quotes will elaborate on why this point matters.
- “Both the deserving and the undeserving suffer. Their suffering calls out to us to help. It does not call for our judgment about their previous free choices and therefore deservedness.”
This quote is a nuanced version of the first quote. The ethical call begins from other people—from their “neediness” and “worthiness,” not from their “deservedness.” A homeless man on the street has both “neediness” and “worthiness”: he is homeless, and he is a man created in the image of God. Our call is to respond to him, however we deem best, not to make a judgment about whether he truly deserves our help, whether his homelessness is mostly of his own doing or of others.
Imagine that you are a parent with a small child. The child is throwing a tantrum and flailing her hands around. She accidentally hits a bookshelf and cuts her hand. Do you, as the parent, stop to calculate whether the child deserves help because she threw a tantrum? Most likely not. Her hurt – and the fact that she is worthy of help – is what matters most.
- “Being appointed does not give me dignity deserving honor; it only gives me responsibility.”
This point has been a good one for me to learn. Growing up, I pictured missionaries whom our church supported as spiritual honoraries receiving praise for their work, sacrifice and spirit. While these missionaries may very well be role models of virtue, the truth is that we do not help others primarily because of something grandiose within us.
We help because we hear the call of others to come and help. This means that the ultimate aim of our missio work is not ourselves, but those whom we are helping. Our inward life may be fulfilled and improved as a result of helping others, but that is a secondary effect.
This is what it means to put on the mind of Christ. It is more difficult than it seems in modern life. As missionaries, we are at risk of going through our day puffed up with self-honoring pride and flattery that people are supporting our cause. But that's a dangerous humanistic motive that leaves the inward life empty. Kunz concisely sums up the key distinction here: Responsibility is other-oriented; honor is self-oriented.
These three quotes act as a compass with which to align my actions and intentions. I hope they are beneficial and helpful to you.