Something Elizabeth and I recently decided is we would like to publish our sermons from the different churches we have the honor of speaking to. As a way of preservation and sharing of what God has put on our hearts in words, we will begin to put our notes and words from our travels.
I think it is a bit poetic to start with Grace Community United Methodist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana, as they are what we call our “Home” church. This was the sermon message on December 1, 2019. As an added bonus, there is a video…so you can skip the words and go straight to the video and if you would like.
Enjoy and please feel open for comments or suggestions. Lastly and legally, the thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of Elizabeth and I do not express any official views or positions of the General Board of Global Ministries.
“Psalms 122? I asked, David. Are you sure? I wish it were Psalms 121…that one speaks to me but I’m not sure what to do with Psalms 122.” But as scripture often goes, the longer I sat with it, the deeper understanding I found. I looked at the footnotes and learned this Psalms is actually a song sung on a journey. I bet we can all relate to being on a journey, right? Especially in the holiday season, you just hop on I-49 or I-20 and a gas station stop and some hours later, you’re at some families’ or friends’ house welcomed by good food and good conversations. But I imagine this Psalmist had a different experience. I imagine the journey was long, moving along a road by foot or the back of an animal. They didn’t have Podcasts or Spotify to listen too. So they sang this familiar song found here…”over the river and through the woods to Jerusalem we go.” This idea warms my heart because it reminds me of Mozambique…this place that feels so far away but also near at the same time. People often sing songs together as they journey through daily life.
As I imagine these ancient travelers singing songs along their journey, I imagine the difficulties and challenges they encountered. Maybe they had tired kids who would have rather stayed home. Perhaps this was a time when relationship issues came to a head and there was time to really hash things out. Maybe they struggled, at times, to find water, food, or shelter. Maybe there were places on the journey that were dangerous …like in the “Good Samaritan” story. I really have no idea what it was like but I bet it was not an easy journey and they encountered challenges. But they were going because they wanted to be in Jerusalem….this place of peace where everyone knew God was at work.
I think about our own journey in mission.
We were going to Mozambique to bear witness to what God is doing there and to serve as one of the connectors in our global connectional United Methodist Church. And boy did we face some challenges along that road. I think I will always remember our first months in Mozambique. We were learning the language and the culture was just so different. We needed help to do EVERYTHING. We had to have help to buy electricity, buying a stove and all of its parts were an all day affair, We needed help in navigating how to function when the water was out, how to use public transportation, and how to wash clothes without a machine. Opening a bank account involved a getting a signed letter from our neighborhood’s traditional chief? I have found that there is truly something holy…something that draws us closer to God…that comes from being away from what I know and understand…and being in need, unable to help myself. But that is a conversation for another time.
David jumped right into work at the hospital but I spent the first weeks setting up our home and doing my best to make sure our girls acclimated. When I did start at the hospital, it was was heart wrenching. I walked into exams rooms to find health care providers washing low quality gloves between patients and found the machine that sterilizes the equipment without a door….in a country where HIV infection rate is around 13%. I walked in the back of the hospital to find piles of medical waste that had accumulated since their incinerator had broken. There was often not enough fuel in the ambulance to transfer critical patients to a more equipped hospital. We learned that many of the employees had not actually received salaries in months or even longer. Those water shortages that affected our home also affected the hospital. Imagine a hospital….women delivering babies with no water. Then there were all of the power dynamics and understanding the recent history of our hospital. Overwhelming is an understatement.
And then we had our personal stuff. It seemed that our immune systems had not yet arrived in Mozambique and we all took turns being ill. Eva wore the badge of honor as being the first and only one in our family to get Malaria. David had some strange illness that left him in bed for nearly two weeks shaking with fever and sweats. Annie developed a reaction to the anti-malaria medicine causing her heart to occasionally skip beats. It seemed that we couldn’t drive a car that functioned properly. Once I was driving and the axle came off….thankfully, I made my way off the road. Then there was the time we had to leave the country by the end of the day or risk being expelled for over a year. Our borrowed vehicle quit working just miles from the border…….and a banana farmer came to our rescue. Or the time the accelerator got stuck and David used beard oil for lubrication. There is no shortage of these crazy situations.
Then there were the challenges faced by our community………High rates of unemployment in a culture wrought with nepotism and tribalism. Students who wanted advanced degrees but their professors couldn’t seem to show up consistently so they couldn’t earn their degrees. Disregard of women and their inherent worth. Elderly women who were cast out from their families because they were supposed witches….but truly their families just couldn’t afford to keep them. Children who die from diarrhea or malaria….often with underlying malnutrition. A curse that persists decades after a father dies, because cultural purification rights were not performed. The promise of a year’s worth of financial security torn away in a moment, by a single email.
So many situations that left us crying out to God…..and sometimes even feeling hopeless. These burdens were so great. ….they still are. And I think they will always be, as long as I keep looking around me. But God taught me a most important lesson on my journey. One the Psalmist already knows found in Psalms 121. “I lift my eyes up to the hills….where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth. ….The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.” I had to change my focus from what was around us and look up. I found my hope in prayer. In Romans 12, Paul tells the gentile Christians “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.”
By the grace of God, some of those issues I mentioned, we were able to come along side and improve. Through your generosity, the hospital was able to provide microloans allowing people to respond to their needs in ways they saw fit. Through your support of the Creator’s Co-op, local artists had better financial resources. Through your willingness to care for us, we were able to purchase a vehicle after ours put our family in danger one to many times. We were able to raise funds through Giving Tuesday for salary support and received grants from UMCOR to build an incinerator, buy exam gloves, and make critical improvements to the hospital. By the grace of God, we were able to find solutions and be solutions. But then there are those challenges that persist. The ones that remind us we live in a broken world with broken people….and God does not always give us nice solutions.
I am borrowing a line from the book a friend recently loaned me. “Getting Involved with God – Rediscovering the Old Testament” by Ellen Davis. “Hope may be best imaged as a line suspended between past experience of God’s reliability and a future that is still open, a line stretched taut between the reliability and the freedom of Israel’s God.” We do have this experience of God showing up at just the right times to take care of us….. when Eva had high fevers for days and was demanding grape Tylenol and a short term group from the US arrived with just that. When we were broken down on the side of the road and carload of Methodist pastors just happen to be passing by and stopped to help. On an especially overwhelming day when I find a note card sent months before with only the encouraging words from Joshua 1:9 “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” There were so many times when we simply could not help ourselves but God was there to meet our needs in seen and unseen ways. So as we look to the future, we can all be assured that God is with us. God will continue to show up. God will speak to our hearts in that tiny voice and send just the right people at just the right time to see us through. And we can persevere through prayer.
And here we are, the first Sunday in advent. My mind goes to Joseph and Mary as they travel to Bethlehem. Do they sing this psalm on the journey? Are they greeting fellow travelers with “May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within in your towers…Peace be within you”? Did they look at this mandatory census as an opportunity for a road trip with special playlists and road snacks…or is Mary begrudgingly and uncomfortably riding on a donkey alongside her husband as they journey to the homeland of her in-laws?
How are they feeling as each accommodation shuts the doors in their face? One after the other, is there a mounting fear of where they will lay their tired heads, all the while Mary’s labor pangs increase. With each closed door, I image, the hopelessness creeps in.
We called it Circling the Wagons. It was our term for when we found ourselves beat down and overwhelmed with our new life. It was our opportunity to cancel our plans for the days, lock our family of four in one room, turn on the air conditioner and find the resolve to keep going in God’s mission. There were so many times when we didn’t think we could make it, we didn’t want to make it. We just wanted to come back, to call it quits, to return to our previous home…to where we understood the culture, where things were easier. So many times we cried out to God.
But, each time, we were reminded, our purpose is to not solve the problems…but to remain faithful. To be faithful to our God, to be faithful to our family, and to be faithful to those we serve. And so we pushed on. Overtime, we found a privilege in our discomfort. We found a voice. A voice to connect the stories of those who, through no fault of their own, were born in a time and place of great obstacles and hardship with those who cared to make a difference. An opportunity through the shared promises of God to break through the hopelessness.
We found our purpose in the opportunity to breath Hope into the lives of those we encountered. And you know what happened? As we worked for equality and sustainability in the community, those we served, breathed Hope into our lives. We found comfort in stillness, beauty in simplicity, and a people who had faith, not because it was easy or expected, but because it was real, and it was earned. In them we found our home.
I wonder what was going through Mary’s mind. I bet as she was in her nesting phase, she didn’t image she would be preparing to give birth to her first born child in place barely fit for sheep. How did she reconcile the picture she had in her mind with the reality of her situation? Did she cry out to God for help? Did she know even then how her son would go against the authority of the day and this was just the beginning of a mother’s concern and a need to be flexible? Did she know then the hope Jesus would bring to so many people?
This is not just the story of Jesus. It’s not just how a savior, who was prayed for over and over and over again to deliver God’s people from the hands of oppression, entered the world as a helpless baby in a hopeless time, bringing the Hope that one day, one day in God’s timing, our yokes will be cast away and we will live in the wake of peace. No, this is also our story. It is our story of how we plan our lives and then the unexpected happens. Whether it is loss, sickness, or helplessness, or coming to terms with our own finiteness and humanity, we find ourselves in circumstances where all we want to do is Circle the Wagons and all we can do is cry out to God.
Elizabeth and I were called by God and sent by this church to Mozambique. Only to arrive and find ourselves incapable of basic functioning. We couldn’t buy food, keep our lights on or communicate. We were called to serve people but found ourselves to be helpless and needing to be served for all of our basic needs. Humbling doesn’t begin to cover it. Our paradox…was that in order to learn how to serve, we had to be served. In order to give hope in hopeless circumstances, we had to live in that hopelessness. And to be faithful we had to wrestle with our faith. And even to this day, parts of us remain in Mozambique.
Let’s be honest here, Missions is messy. Life is messy. But we serve a triune God who transcends our mess. A God whose Holy Spirit reveals herself in the gentle words of a neighbor, a hug from a family member, the tears of a lay leader, and the prayers from your pastor. We follow a savior who was born to a teenager and lived in a town with a bad a reputation. You think he know something about hopeless circumstances? Someone fully human yet fully divine who turned the world upside down at every opportunity. A messiah who refused to play by the rules of Moses and set our path to Love God and Love EVERYONE! In that we find HOPE! We find comfort knowing we are not alone in those circumstances because the Hope of the Holy Spirit flows through us to the world.
And so, we see ourselves on the first Sunday of Advent, staring down the barrel of the Christmas season. Our to do lists are already pilling on, our dance card is filling up. How will we, how will you, prepare yourself to enter this season with Peace? To not let the hurriedness carry you away without finding time to prepare your hearts for the birth of the Christ. How will you breath hope into those you come in contact with? But more importantly, how will you be open for someone to breath that Hope into you?