(This June, I led a nine-day mission trip to Greece, visiting the historic city of Athens with a team of 15 leaders and young adults. Our role was to support a strategic partnership between Global Service Initiatives (a US-based short-term mission group) and Streetlights (a Greek-based mission in the Kypseli neighborhood of Athens). The experience was eye-opening, surprising, and thought-provoking, and did not lend itself easily to the question, “How was it?” To help others understand the trip, and to help me make sense of what I experienced, I invite you to process the journey with me through a series of 7 blogs called THE GREEK DIARIES.)
I went to Greece because I didn’t want to go to Greece.
That sounds strange, I know, but it’s true. Let me explain.
One of my roles as Pastor of Student Ministries is to provide mission experiences for our students. We do this to expand their worldview, give them an opportunity to serve outside their daily context, and challenge them spiritually. Short-term mission trips are one of the primary elements of youth ministries everywhere. Mountain View Community Church is no different.
Over the years we have taken students to Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Mexico, Peru, Ecuador and Honduras. We have built retaining walls and church roofs, painted flood-ravaged houses, provided Vacation Bible School for scores of children, sat with villagers whose livelihood was making bricks from the mud under their feet, visited orphanages, played soccer in dirt fields, and led a camp for Ecuadorian teenagers. We have eaten guinea pig (ok), homemade tamales (fantastic), chicken-foot soup (awful), and things we couldn’t name. I’ve seen extraordinary sights such as Machu Picchu, the Equator, and the edge of the Amazon jungle. I’ve met some amazing people of faith. I never imagined or realized, when I decided to become a youth pastor, that it would entail traveling the world in this way.
But I have a confession.
I never want to go.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate the opportunities. And it’s not that I don’t see the value in these trips. And it’s not that I ever regret having gone (except for that one trip to Tecate, Mexico, which was the trip from hell). No, it’s none of those things. It’s just this:
I’m a homebody. I’m an introvert. I like my bed. I like my shower. And most of all, I just like being home with my wife and family, whom I never want to leave. Every time a trip approaches, I feel an underlying sense of apprehension and panic. What if something goes wrong? What if it’s a total disaster? Why am I still doing this? Why can't I just stay home?
In December, I was introduced to a man named Bryan Doyle. (More about that meeting in Part 2.) Bryan works for Global Serve Initiatives and the International Sports Federation. He leads mission trips all over the globe. He was trying to rally a team for a week in Athens, Greece, to work with Syrian refugees and a Greek street ministry called Streetlights. “It’s an amazing opportunity, Mate,” he said. (More about the “mate” thing in Part 2 as well.) I was in the midst of choosing trips for this summer. I knew we would do a trip to Pittsburgh for younger students, and that we needed something for high school students. But I also knew we had a strong group of recent grads who would be ready for something like this. It sounded intriguing. It sounded exotic. It sounded expensive. I put him off for a few weeks, but after praying about it, I decided to lay down a fleece and see if there was interest. “I’ll put it out there,” I told him. “We need a minimum of 8, and a maximum of 15. If we get that, we’ll do it.”
Within weeks, 13 rising high school seniors and college students had applied and paid a $500 deposit. I guess we were going to Greece.
Or somebody was. I wasn’t planning to go. I didn't want to.
It was mid-February, and my life was a mess. My wife had just finished a month-long battle with a stubborn kidney stone, my elderly parents were in crisis, I was feeling spiritually dry. Moreover, I knew that part of the appeal of a trip to Greece was the exotic locale and the chance to see biblical sites. It seemed a little touristy, and I felt a little guilty for even choosing it. I didn’t want anyone to think I had done so just so I could travel to this cool place. It wasn’t true. I planned to find someone else to lead the trip.
We talked among our youth staff. I told them I didn’t want to go. I meant it. I wasn’t just willing to let someone else go, I distinctly did NOT want to go. I selfishly didn’t want to leave my comfort zone at a time when I felt so overwhelmed. We prayed about finding leaders for all our teams, about the various combinations of staff who would go on which trip, and we waited.
One morning in late February, while sitting with my dogs and drinking coffee in the quiet of my home, I was talking to God. Or God was talking to me. I’m not sure. It was a very odd conversation. It went something like this:
“God, since I’m not going, please show me who can lead this trip.”
It’s okay. You can go.
“I don’t think you understand, God. I don’t want to go. Who can lead this trip?”
It’s okay. You can go.
“God, you aren’t getting this. I’m busy and overwhelmed. I’m not asking to go. I don’t want to go. Please tell me who can lead this trip?”
It’s okay. You can go.
“God, you can stop saying that now. I’m staying home. It’s out of my comfort zone. I need to be here for my parents, to be with Karen (it’s our anniversary, for goodness’ sake), and to let someone else have this experience because I DO NOT WANT TO GO TO GREECE.”
I know you don’t want to go. And I know WHY you don’t want to go. Therefore, I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. You need this. It's okay. You can go.
Drat! I hate arguing with God. I “decided” to go to Greece.
For the next four months, I had regrets about the decision almost daily. The spring was filled with family crises, Easter sermons, staff changes, end-of-year madness for Karen, end-of-year madness for the youth ministry, and a tragic funeral. These things were like piles of stress on the laundry room floor of my life, making it impossible to find any sense of peace. I just needed to stay home and sort things out. And now I had to go to Greece?
People would ask, “Are you excited for your trip?” I didn’t know what to say. "Well, I've been so busy I haven't had much time to think about it..."
Now I've gone and come back. It was a whirlwind of the spirit and the senses. I have been changed by the experience. We all were. I'm still sorting things out, and my life is still a bit of a mess, but at least I can begin to think about what God wanted me to learn. These blogs are my laundry baskets to organize my thoughts.
I write this because I think it’s important to understand that the lessons we learn from God do not come of our own choosing. We think we can schedule our own classes, but it’s God’s curriculum and he is the one paying our tuition. Though I realize that being reluctant to take a once-in-a-lifetime trip to one of the greatest cities in history makes me sound weak and unappreciative, my reluctance is the only reason I went. I never would have learned what I learned had I wanted to go. God knew that, so he sent me there against my will.
What is it you don’t want to do today, because your life is too messy, your schedule too full, you are too afraid or you don't want to leave your comfort zone? Well, God has some bad news and some good news...
(Tomorrow: Part 2 – Kingdom Convergence and the Hilarious Hand of God)