Loving Beyond My Comfort Zone

My good friend Holly works for the missions organization we partnered with in Haiti and their staff is doing a guest blog series about living a missions minded lifestyle. I was honored to be invited to participate! You can find this over at her blog as well.   She’s amazing and I love reading her blog–definitely worth a look!

I initially hesitated when asked to write this for a couple of reasons, one of them being that I often don’t feel like I’m all that great at living a missional lifestyle. It is my heart, for sure. But the practical application in my life doesn’t always feel very successful.

Up until recently, I was always surrounded by people that hadn’t yet experienced the love of Jesus. I grew going to public school, went to a state university, and held several jobs in retail and restaurant and so I never had to look for opportunities to share my faith. As is the case for most people that don’t work in a church.  And it’s a beautiful thing since our co-workers and classmates are the people that see us day in and day out. These are the people that actually get to see, not just hear, us living out our faith.

Fast forward to 2010 when my husband and I were incredibly blessed to take a position as the worship pastors in a great church…2,000 miles away from home.  Suddenly I’m eating, sleeping, and breathing church. Our only connections in our new town are those in our church community and the cashiers at Safeway, Target and Quickstop. Two thousand miles from home there are no past classmates around.  No former co-workers.  And we won’t meet our neighbors for a few months because our yards here are fenced and garages are attached and you can come and go from your home without ever stepping out into the fresh (ok, not-so-fresh here in the Central Valley) air.  I’m in a giant bubble of shiny, happy, Jesus-loving folk. And it’s amazing in some ways.

I love my job and the people we work with and the people in the church, but there’s something missing.  There are no organic opportunities for community with those outside the church. As much as I could drop an old-school tract on the restaurant table, or tritely say “Jesus loves you” to the Starbucks barista it’s scary and besides that I don’t think it’s all that effective coming from someone who is a perfect stranger.  We, as Americans, are aware for the most part that “Jesus loves us” as we’ve seen it on billboards and heard it on from the sidewalk prophets at least once or twice in our lives. Sadly, it has become a cliché.

I’m not saying these venues are never effective for sharing the gospel, but what people are longing to see today are Jesus followers who really look like Jesus. Not a fictional, pharisaical Jesus who never associated with sinners except to cast the first stone, but the real Jesus of the Bible who regularly hung out with the prostitutes, embezzling tax collectors, and fisherman-nobodies.  The world is longing for Jesus followers who will love like Jesus.

I used to think that sharing your faith meant standing up on your high school cafeteria table and preaching a sermon during lunch.  Since I never could get up the courage to do that (surprising, I know) I figured I had pretty much failed.

I’ve grown in my understanding of faith-sharing since then.  There’s a familiar quote from St. Augustine that says,  “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.” There are times when we need to speak up and share with actual words what God has done in our lives, but in general those moments are much more potent when people have seen the evidence in our actions of how God has changed us.  When you think about it that way, living missionally should be pretty easy if our faith is genuine.  We simply seek, imperfectly but with humility and vulnerability, to model our lives after Jesus, and love with authenticity.

The world is weary of Christians who have plenty to say on every subject but rarely, if ever, manifest the goodness or love of Jesus through their actions.  Love, in its truest form, will open the doors of hardened hearts that politics, apologetics, and theological debate could never unlock.

So how do you live this missional lifestyle in a church bubble?  It’s been a challenge for me, being an “all-or-none” kind of person.  It’s tempting for me to think “if I can’t build a deep relationship with you day in and day out, I can’t do anything.”   I posted previously about one experience with a little boy in Haiti who like many of the children we interacted with there, was so clearly seeking even a few moments of love and affection.  I hesitated for a couple minutes before putting my arm around Angelo because I first had to think through things like “what if he doesn’t actually want any affection because he’s too old for that? What if he rejects my gesture? Or what if someone takes this the wrong way? In the U.S. you can get a lawsuit thrown at you when these things are misunderstood!” and so on and so on.  Even though it was an innocent , simple gesture—putting my arm around his shoulders—I came up with so many reasons why I shouldn’t do it. And when I finally ignored those reasons and followed through it was like this tough little boy just melted.

As I walked away from that ordinary, yet heart-altering experience in Haiti I was struck by how we can be so stingy with our love.  We often act as though we have a limited supply of love and so we better find excuses to hoard it for our family and closest friends lest we run out.

A similar experience in a West African orphanage six years ago. Initially the tiny girl was very stiff in my arms and resisted me. After a few minutes the tenseness eased until she finally rested in my arms to the point peaceful sleep, even amidst the other children’s rambunctious playing.

It’s easy to find excuses why we shouldn’t show love to somebody.

I’m too busy today. 

I’ve got my two year old with me, I can’t.

I don’t even know them. 

If he weren’t an alcoholic he wouldn’t be in this position. 

If she had made better choices her life would’ve turned out differently.

It’s not my problem. Someone else will do it.

I’m too busy.

Clearly she doesn’t want to let anyone close to her.

I’m sure he has other friends that he can talk to.

The need is too great, what can I do?  

It’s just not my style.

I’m too busy.

Love perseveres. It perseveres beyond what is comfortable or easy.

The fact is that Jesus Christ died for everyone and it wasn’t comfortable or easy. Which means that everyone is worth our time. Everyone is worth us stepping outside of our comfort zone, getting rid of our excuses and laying down any stones we may have picked up along the way. Everyone is worth us sacrificing our pride. Everyone that ever existed was created in God’s image and therefore has unsurpassable worth.

Sometimes those that have been without love and affection for a long time or have been rejected often are the ones that resist it the most or have the hardest exterior. Love is what will break down that hard exterior.

Andy Stanley says, “Do for one what you wish you could do for everyone.” I cannot rid the world of depression. I cannot end human trafficking on my own. I cannot heal all the world’s mental illnesses and addictions. On my own I cannot solve world hunger or bring about world peace.

But I can find the one person who needs a friend and offering a listening ear.

I can set aside my personal opinions and judgments to buy a homeless man lunch.

I can learn the barista’s name and build a relationship over time.

I can stop making excuses.

I can stop beating myself up when I fail to love and live missionally.

I can let God’s perfect love, which there is always enough of, fill my heart to the point it overflows onto everyone I come into contact with.

The reality is that as Jesus followers we are dealers of hope that the world desperately needs. They may not admit it. They may not even realize it. But those of us who have lived inside the love of Jesus Christ know it brings hope and life and peace and joy. And that is the good news, AKA the gospel. The good news isn’t rules or religion or tradition. It’s that God wants to bring His kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. That he wants to meet the needs in peoples lives and hearts right now. And he wants to use us to do it.

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Connecting the Dots in Haiti: Why I Still Believe in Short-Term Missions

Impromptu photo shoot with one beautiful boy at The Good Shepherd Orphanage.

Impromptu photo shoot with one beautiful boy at The Good Shepherd Orphanage.

In some ways it’s hard to believe it’s been two weeks since our plane landed in SFO bringing us  home from a week in Carrefour, Haiti. In other ways it seems like forever ago. I think I experience more culture shock returning home than I ever do when arriving in a foreign country. Everything that was familiar a week earlier, prior to leaving, suddenly looks brand new. I find myself shocked at how many options for peanut butter we have at the grocery store. My two bedroom home with the never-ending cleaning list suddenly looks immaculate, spacious and  luxurious through my post-missions trip eyes. And the silence of our neighborhood seems strangely deafening in comparison to the constant cacophony of club music, open-air markets and dogs barking.

I went on my first missions trip when I was sixteen, to Mexico. I was hooked from that point on. I honestly can’t even remember anything about that trip except the ridiculous thirty-some hour bus ride, cockroaches at 1am in an Oklahoma gas station, and being overly excited about seeing my first palm tree when we reached the border. But the impact of the trip on my heart was not lost. Since then I’ve been on short-term missions trips to a handful of other nations and now Haiti. I’m a believer in short-term missions.

Yet while I was preparing for this trip I had moments of wondering, “What’s the point of short-term missions? Does it really matter?” You’re probably not supposed to say or think that as the team leader of a missions trip and church staff member, but it’s how I felt. When you look at the scope of poverty in Haiti it’s easy to start to feel hopeless especially if you are an “all or none” type of person like myself.  After all, we weren’t building any homes or digging any wells. We had no medical expertise to offer, nor any other special skills. We weren’t even going to teach or preach. Was our goal simply to be personally impacted, add another notch in our proverbial missions trip belts, and come home with some nice stories to share? If so, there must be a cheaper way to do it. Wouldn’t we be better off donating the thousands of dollars we collectively spent on the trip to the organization we were going to work with? Many  would answer that with a resounding ‘yes.’ Still, there was a part of me that knew we were going with a purpose.

While we did do some painting projects, most of our time was spent hanging out with the kids who live at the Good Shepherd Orphanage. Each afternoon a bunch of neighborhood kids joined them for a meal. For some it was the only meal they received that day. We began to learn their names and personalities as we attempted to make balloon animals for them, let them braid our hair, and pushed them endlessly on the swings. “YOU! PHOTO!” they shouted in their limited English to convince us to take iPhone pictures of them while they flashed peace signs and cheesy grins.

Angelo (right) and his buddy during recess.

Angelo (right) and his buddy during recess.

Amidst all of the fun and games there were many that simply wanted to be with us. To have us put our arm around them. To rub their foreheads. To let them climb up on our laps. During recess one day at the school a ten-year old boy, Angelo, came and quietly sat down about ten inches from me as the younger children unabashedly piled around and on top of us.  After a long couple minutes of internal debating and hesitation I put my arm around his shoulders. Immediately he inched closer and leaned against me.  Soon after he was peacefully resting his head on my knees until the bell rang signaling it was time for class. We went our separate ways and as I struggled unsuccessfully to hold back the tears, suddenly it was incredibly clear to me what our purpose was in Haiti.

Love.

Our culture so highly esteems the tangible and quantifiable, often above that which is unable to be measured. And I get that. Kids need food and shelter before they can even really begin to think about much else. We need our most basic human needs met before we can focus on love and friendships and self-esteem. But we often underestimate the impact of love and affection. We underestimate the impact of a half hour of quality time. It was my own underestimation of these immeasurable qualities that kept me from seeing our purpose in Haiti.

In his book Soulprint, Mark Batterson says that,

“Life is like a game of connect the dots, where the dots are defining moments. Some of them are big dots that stamp our soulprints in indelible ways. Some of  them are little dots that shape our subconscious….Our outlook on life is determined by a dozen defining moments.”

He then quotes Graham Green saying, “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”

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Our hope is that our week in Haiti was filled with dots. Little dots or maybe even some big ones that were defining moments for the kids we encountered. For the one who has never experienced the physical loving embrace of a mother or father, we offered our arms and our hearts filled with the love we’ve received from the creator and definer of love. Our prayer became that they would know how deeply and personally they are loved by their Father.

That is the kind of love that can change an outlook on life from hopeless to destiny-filled. From abandoned or forgotten to cherished and loved.

Love like that, from the one whose love never fails or runs out, changes lives.

Lives that have the potential to change nations.

Of course food, water, safe shelter, adequate healthcare and other such things are crucial but those in and of themselves don’t have the power to transform a life beyond the physical. The love of God has the power to transform a heart and inspire hope that the most dire of circumstances can’t crush. The understanding that you were created with a plan and a purpose for your life can grow an ordinary child into an adult who is ready to take on the issues their nation is facing with confidence and boldness.

Love like that changes lives. Love like that changes nations.

So while we may have left minimal tangible evidence of our time in Haiti, our hope and prayer is that the love we poured out translated into defining moments. Moments that opened the door and let the future in.

Side note: Our church is currently working on how we can meet some of the felt needs of the children we encountered through helping fund feeding programs as well as raising awareness and support in our local area. You can learn more about Good Shepherd Orphanage or donate online by clicking here. Or if you are interested in going on a trip yourself check out Praying Pelican Missions.