Soapbox Series: Short-Term Missions, Long-Term Damage?

I went on a short-term mission trip during the summer of my junior year back in college. It was within the US, specifically to an inner city with high rates of poverty, crime, and horrifically low school retention and graduation rates. I taught summer school to a class of twenty-something 2nd and 3rd graders, who were the most precious group of kids I’ve ever had the privilege to teach the art of spelling and grammar, and about how much Jesus loves them (which even I couldn’t fathom). They had no reason to trust me or love me, but it only took a few days before they were sitting on my lap and drawing me pictures and telling me that they loved me.

I learned two huge lessons that summer. First, I learned grace in its purest form. On our first day of training, we were told that the kids would push us to our limits every single day, and sometimes, we just weren’t going to like them. Yet we were to treat each child every morning like the drama and grievances of yesterday weren’t a factor. Each day was a brand new day, and the love was to be poured out afresh. I didn’t think I was capable of that kind of grace, but I learned it because those kids gave it right back to me. The second thing I learned that summer? I don’t think I believe in short-term mission trips.

The minute I fell in love with my kids, I wanted to go back to Colorado and somehow erase that experience for all parties involved. The minute I knew they loved me, I started grieving the fact that I was nothing more than a transient on their property, never settling in and never to be seen once I left. I felt like a sham every single day of those three months. Because how do you love someone short-term? How do you love only when it’s convenient for you, when the most sacrifice you made was sending out uncomfortable letters asking for money for the trip and agreeing to not drink alcohol for 3 months while there? How do you tell a child who’s been through more trauma than anyone should experience that Jesus will always be there for her, when you – his hands and feet – walk away two weeks or two months later? I was just another face that claimed to love them and eventually left them. And it killed me.

Here’s a thought: instead of calling them mission trips let’s just call them what they are. Trips. Adventures. Soul-expanding journeys. Because all those things are worthwhile. You should travel – whether to the next state or across the Atlantic – to expand your perspective on life, and people, and love, and God. It is impossible to return unaltered after experiencing a different way of life.  But let’s be honest about the purpose of those trips. I’d sooner give money to someone who simply asked for help to go on a journey because they were desirous to see the world, than to someone who asked for money for a mission trip. Not because I think the desire to spread the gospel to distant lands is wrong, but because I think a lot of people sadly advertise and exploit mission trips as one good way to go to that place you’ve always wanted to visit without paying a dime. I think if more people had to pay out of their own pockets for the trips they take, we’d have less people piling on the mission trip bandwagon for the coolness factor, and more people giving serious thought to the purpose of traveling anywhere in the name of God.

My rationale is simple: if you “have a heart” for orphans, for example, then that heart should break in your city the same way it breaks in Romania. There should neither be an on/off switch for your empathy or passion, nor an exclusive group worthy of your attention. I believe that we are all on a mission. We are all missionaries, right where we are. If my heart doesn’t break for the family of the little boy I nanny who needs Jesus so badly, then I am failing the mission. If I travel to Cambodia for two weeks and weep with rescued sex workers, yet come home and ignore the man holding up a sign asking for any kind of help because he just lost his job, I am failing the mission. If I’m willing to stand on a boardwalk all afternoon handing out surveys to strangers, yet I’m not willing to skip drinks with my friends just so I can afford to buy that lady on 16th St a sandwich and listen to her story, please question the state of my heart and who I’m truly serving.

I fear that mission trips are an ego-boosting, self-serving excursion disguised as ministry. Look what I did this summer. Look how much I gave up to go “love on” poor people for two weeks. Look at how long I went without a shower or a curling iron. Look at the number of people who made a decision for Christ. Look at me, look at me, look at me. At the end of the day, is it about the number of African kids that hugged you daily, or is about carrying out the mission of Christ? Because the latter can be done in simple, less glorified, everyday ways. Travel is good, the mission to share the love of God is good, but those two things do not need each other in order to work. Be a missionary while you’re at home and while you’re abroad. Sacrificial love shouldn’t only exist every summer. Save money and go see the world. But while you’re saving, serve the people who are right in front of you. If you’re only a social activist and a defender of the cause of the forgotten when someone else is paying for you to be, then forgive me if I don’t believe that your motives are pure.

Modern-Day Job

I’m struggling with something monumental – something essential to who I am and in whom I place my faith. It’s uncomfortable and messy and I’m only now beginning to process the things my heart has hidden for so long. I wrote about the moment when I realized that I don’t trust God, but that was only scratching the surface as it turns out.

To understand this place I’ve found myself inhabiting, there are a few things you should know about me. My childhood wasn’t one of ease and safety and freedom. I had to grow up fairly quickly because life’s circumstances forced me to – I’ve been referred to as more mature than my peers for as long as I can remember. I guess a hard childhood has its perks. I’ve been taught the ways of the God of the Bible since I was an infant, learning that He was the good father who wouldn’t abandon me like my earthly one did, and that He loves me more than anyone else ever can. I didn’t really understand those concepts until I arrived at college and began embracing – and flaunting – my independence from the ideals and culture I was raised in. And it wasn’t until I went to therapy post-college that I truly began to deal with the pain of my past.

Now, I believe that there is a God, and I believe the bible is inerrant and divinely inspired. In all my soul-searching, I’ve found those two things to be constant. The part I’m having trouble dealing with? My heart cannot reconcile a God who knew of and had the power to stop all the pain of my childhood with this God of goodness, mercy, and grace that I claim to be serving today. I don’t know how to deal with a God who is all-knowing and all-powerful, one who has the ability to stop injustice with one word, and doesn’t. I know that he can bring beauty out of the messiest situations, but I don’t know that I want to serve a God who is just a fixer. Why fix when you can prevent, you know?

It’s funny how it becomes incredibly easy for people to spout off pat answers about issues like this when they’re not directly affected. I was one of those people. Injustice in all its forms, but most especially sex trafficking, breaks my heart to pieces. Sitting safely in my apartment with both bolts secured, I can say that sex trafficking is horrendous but that God is raising up an army of his people who will fight against this atrocity and bring redemption to this fallen world. Why does he let it occur? I don’t know, but I choose to focus on the redemption and freedom that will eventually come. And then there are those precious girls who are told about Jesus after being rescued from the sex trade and they ask, “If your God is so good, why didn’t he stop those men from raping me?” How do you answer that question? When it isn’t just this far off idea, but an actual breathing, broken human in front of you, how do you answer that?

That’s where I find myself today. If I wanted a good Christian pep talk, I could give myself one. But that doesn’t suffice anymore, because those well-intentioned speeches give no comfort and sometimes drive the knife in deeper. Someone pointed out that I’ve never let myself be angry at the people who hurt me. I was taught to forgive and to bury it all away, but I was never allowed the space to be angry. So decades worth of anger have begun to surface, and I find that underneath the smiling God-is-good face that I wear, I’m really angry. At my father, at my brother, at my brother’s father, and as scary as it sounds, at God.

I’m not negating his goodness, or calling his entire character into question. In fact, I still regularly see his goodness in little things like sitting in the sunshine with my feet in the river, listening to the birds chirp. But in the singular occasion where he could have stepped in to save this fragile little girl years ago, he didn’t. And I need time to process that, to ask him why his arm of justice lay still when I needed him the most; to ask him if his plan for redemption and glorification was really worth that much pain. That’s where I’m at – asking hard questions like Job did, and letting myself be angry at the God of the universe.

One of the greatest things my mother taught me was that God isn’t scared of my questions and my doubts. I might terrify all the other good, unquestioning Christians around me, but he can handle it. So it’s just me and God, sitting across from each other, trying to mend my broken heart. It might take forever, and my heart might never be mended, but I sure as hell am not going to pretend like I don’t have these questions. If nothing else, he deserves my honesty; it’s the respectful thing to do.

When Jesus Isn’t Enough

These days I’m having a rough time with the concept of “enough”. What is enough? Who is enough? Is anything ever enough? I have this ongoing battle in my head, so overwhelming that it threatens to spill out into everyday conversations that should be, in fact, rather simple and lighthearted. Then again, I’ve always been the serious type. In my dilemma with the idea of “enough”, I find that this question puzzles me the most:

Is Jesus enough?

For being a Christian who incidentally is studying at a seminary and is mostly surrounded by other Christians, that is quite the terrifying question. Is Jesus enough? Is he truly all I need? I should probably clear up any misconceptions before I continue. I do believe that he is the source of every good thing. I believe that he is hope and joy, restoration and life. I believe that it is only in him that we live and move and have our being. Without him, none of the grandeur around us or within us would be.

But you know how sometimes you get an awful headache, and while Jesus is certainly the Healer, sometimes you still just need some aspirin? Or you trust God for good health and vitality, but you also still buy some running shoes and make friends with endorphins on a regular basis? What about when you lock your house or your car at night? Is it because you don’t believe Jesus is the protector he claims to be? Not at all; it’s just common sense.

We might all agree on the above situations, because they don’t necessarily deal with the issue of contentment. Well, what about the career of your dreams? What if you couldn’t pursue your dreams to be a doctor, or professor, or designer, or author, or – in my case –  a therapist? Wouldn’t there be an ache left within you for a life you don’t have but believe you were made for? Why do we desire career fulfillment even as Jesus-lovin’ folks? Shouldn’t loving him and making him known be the only career fulfillment we need? And why on earth do we desire relationships, romantic or otherwise, when we’re in a relationship with Love himself? Christiandom tells us that if we have these desires raging within us, we’re not sanctified enough. There’s something wrong with us. May I propose another theory?

“Jesus is enough” is a myth propagated by the Christian circle to shame us into abandoning our desires and living safe and boring lives.

I think we’re too afraid to truly want because we might not get what we deeply desire. And so to keep ourselves insulated from the pain of disappointment, we’ve come up with this clever, super-spiritual-sounding myth that claims that Jesus is all we should ever desire. I’ve sat through sermons where the explicit message was, “the source of your unhappiness is the fact that you’re searching for Jesus AND something else.”

Maybe I’m a heretic. Maybe I’m not Christian enough. But I’m starting to believe that this isn’t what he truly wants for us and from us. We’re so obsessed with this idea of sacrificial living that we offer unsolicited sacrifices to a God who only wants a broken and contrite spirit. Not our renouncement of our [healthy] desires, not our clever shaming of each other when we admit that we want something other than him. I think he might just want us to sit with him and say, “You are the love of my life, and apart from you I have no good thing. But I’m still lonely. And I’m not fulfilled. And I want you but I also want the job of my dreams and the man of my dreams.”

I don’t think he would be offended. In fact, I think it is in the honesty and rawness of our desire that he meets us most fully. Why else would Adam, living in the very presence of the living God and communing with him directly, still feel lonely enough that God created an exquisite creature to satisfy that ache? How else can you explain Jesus asking people who were clearly disabled what they wanted him to do for them? Duh, Jesus. I’m blind – what do you think I want you to do? But he still asked. He wanted them to articulate that desire, to let it envelope them until they weren’t ashamed to ask for it out loud. Did any of those blind men, cripples, or paraplegics say, “Well, I don’t desire anything else but you. Sure, I’m blind and lame, but I don’t need my eyesight and legs when I’ve got you, Jesus.”

Yet, that’s what we’re told today is the good Christian response. I don’t buy it anymore. I love Jesus with every fiber of my being. Sometimes his love for me makes me cry unexpectedly in public places, because it’s so big and beautiful and overwhelming and freeing. His love for me frees me to admit that there are many other things I want with equal fervor. I want Jesus AND a life that’s full of music and art and beauty. I want Jesus AND a career of helping people find wholeness and healing. I want Jesus AND a cabin that houses the man of my dreams, the kitchen of my dreams, and the children of my dreams. And there isn’t a single thing wrong with that.

Therapy Tuesdays

I went into our group counseling session on Tuesday expecting another mediocre class exercise that was supposed to teach me the foundations of effective counseling. We would take turns counseling and being counseled about real issues, and then we would leave and analyze our performance in a paper. The assignment this week was to simply reflect the client’s feelings without asking questions or leading the conversation in any direction. Pretty straightforward. Except the fact that this Tuesday wrecked me irrevocably.

It started when I didn’t give my usual surface-level response to the, “So, what would you like to talk about today?” question. Instead of talking about how I want to graduate with straights As, I took a risk and brought up my tumultuous emotional state regarding romantic relationships. He listened, nodded, and effectively reflected the explicit emotions in my responses. We were doing pretty well. Until he took a step past the explicit emotions and told me that the underlying emotion he was hearing was that my frustrations with relationships [or a lack thereof] stemmed from my desire to maintain control and my aversion to being dependent on others.

Well, damn. My immediate response was the nervous laughter characteristic of discomfort, and eventually, I curled up into a ball on the couch and said, “I’m ready to not talk about this anymore.” I certainly wasn’t expecting my classmate, who has received the same seemingly inconsequential amount of training that I have, to be able to look into my soul and deconstruct my frustrations in one sentence. I’m still reeling.

So, I started asking my absolute favorite question. Why? (Side note: The best part about this profession is that it allows me to ask this question all the time, and even encourages it – as long as it’s phrased creatively. I’m fascinated by stories and uncovering why it is people act and think the way they do. If you aren’t excited about conversations about why serial killers exist, or why women tend to feel entitled to a man’s heroism, then we probably won’t end up being really great friends.)

Back to the topic, I sat down with my journal and asked myself why I was desperate for control in this area of my life. Why am I compulsively self-reliant when it comes to relationships? At first, the answer was because I didn’t trust that someone would actually show up. When the responsibility lies on me to show up and play my part, I trust myself to do it. I show up. I make things happen. I set goals and I work towards their achievement. Not so with other people.

And then I asked myself why I believed people were inherently unreliable. This answer was much easier to get to: there is no precedent for reliability. No man has ever shown up with intentionality, determined to make things happen. This dates back to an absent father and a severely troubled brother. How can I possibly believe in the dependability of the male species when my life’s experiences have taught me otherwise? Well, we’re getting close.

Next, I asked why I could relinquish control in other areas of my life that show no precedence for good yet struggle so terribly with this one. The answer to this question stole the breath from my chest and I collapsed on the table, unable to keep writing. I don’t trust that God is reliable with the protection of my heart. I don’t trust that God is reliable. I don’t trust God.

Me – the supposedly healthy, fresh-out-of-therapy girl who knows who she is and what she wants; the pastor’s kid who can speak Christianese like it’s her native tongue; the former-ministry leader at her old church. Apparently, amidst all that, I don’t trust God. It’s easy to psychoanalyze myself and come up with reasons for my distrust. I grew up around failed relationships – from divorced parents, to relationally incompetent family members, to watching abusive husbands wreck their wives. And in the midst of the mass chaos that is my dysfunctional family, it never seemed like God showed up. Or like he even cared that so many people were hurting, broken, desperate for redemption and healing. He never showed up in the way I expected the all-mighty, all-powerful God of the universe to. So why should I believe he’ll show up now that it’s my turn? Why should I depend on him? Why should I trust in his goodness when I’ve never experienced it in this particular area?

I didn’t know how to process it all, so my favorite ladies and I took to the foosball table and let out our frustrations on the innocent inanimate object. And after that didn’t seem sufficient, we sat around my coffee table for hours talking about expectations and relationships and gender roles. The blessing of being friends with other future therapists is that we’re all terrible at small talk, so our conversations always cut straight to the heart of the matter. It feels like we’re constantly in therapy even in our non-school-related conversations. Yet, even after all the words and laughter and encouragement and conviction of our appropriately dubbed “Therapy Tuesday”, I still feel overwhelmed.

I’m a goal-oriented person. I want to set “Trust God about relationships” as a goal, and then create five steps to get there. But while my head wants to race ahead to practicalities, my heart is stuck and sinking. I’m heartbroken because I know how much my distrust must break his heart. I’m heartbroken because I keep discovering that my brokenness is entrenched so deeply it sometimes feels like I will never be mended. I’m heartbroken because my beliefs about God are so influenced by my experiences in this messy world. If only my trust in God were separate from my development. But it isn’t. And I must wrestle with reconciling what I feel and what I know, what I’ve experienced and what I am promised. I don’t know how to do that yet. Who knows if I ever will. But I have learned to never underestimate the power of a silly class exercise when God is involved. He wrecks you in the most devastatingly beautiful way.

Seminary is Killing My Soul

There were a lot of things I was expecting when I moved here for school. I expected everyone to be uppity, gliding around piously on their high horses and looking down on me because I have a potty mouth, I drink whiskey, and I wear pretty tight jeggings. I expected everyone to be insincere and inauthentic, spouting off Christianese lingo and being completely unapproachable. I expected God to feel closer. After all, I’m at a seminary.

Contrary to my expectations, everyone seems normal, aware of their incompetence and brokenness, and openly seeking growth. Maybe it’s unique to the Counseling department, since we’re all drawn to broken people anyways, but I haven’t met a single person yet who fits my expected stereotype. And in like fashion, contrary to my expectations, God seems farther than he’s been in a long while.

I’m surrounded by Christians all the time – a culture shock, to say the least. And other than the family I work for, I don’t get to have conversations with people who don’t share the same faith I do. You’d think this would be spiritual growth heaven, instead, to borrow the words of a friend, I feel like seminary is slowly killing my soul. Maybe it’s because I haven’t been to church in about a month thanks to unavoidable circumstances. Or maybe it’s that I’m so focused on being productive each day that I write off my formerly habitual morning coffee, Bible, and journal time. I think it’s really because I have an aversion to living in this holy huddle, and the only way I know how to get some air is to avoid the one Being who controls my breath.

This time, I’m not running from him and he’s not hiding from me. I know without a doubt that he’s only one step away – all I need to do is move. But I’m not ready. I don’t want to move. I fear that taking that step would mean that I become that person who only listens to Christian radio, only watches Fox News, and hands out tracts to strangers. And I desperately do not want to be that person.

Maybe it’s completely selfish and sinful, my desire to remain separate from the holy huddle. But maybe it’s because I believe I’m called to bring light to dark places and right now I feel like a candle in the middle of a sunroom at noon. Where I was expecting to feel alive and free, I feel restless, caged, and numb. In the two months that I’ve lived here, the closest I’ve felt to God was in the middle of wandering around in the most beautiful blizzard of last week. Something about the complete quiet and minimal visibility spoke words to my soul that my morning quiet times hadn’t been able to speak in a long time.

But the blizzard is now in the past and once again my heart feels distant, restless, and caged. I need to somehow simultaneously take two steps in two directions, one toward God and one toward people who are not like me. Or maybe only one step is necessary, and I’ll find him in the faces and eyes of those people, contrary to my expectations. That wouldn’t surprise me at all.