I love to travel. Regular readers of this site will find that perhaps the greatest understatement of the week, if not longer.
But more than that, I love to travel as a missionary. Almost always, anyway. And I know, I know – on the one hand, I’m most definitely not a “real missionary”, because I get to do this a couple of weeks, or maybe a month each year. and I also know that in another sense, every believer is a missionary every day. But some days…well, some days it’s a little easier to feel holier than others. Let me explain.
Sometimes, the work that travelers get to do is simply amazing. You finally get face to face with some partners, or you are able to dig deeply into a project, and WOW! There is no greater feeling in the world than being dead tired because you have expended your body, mind, and spirit in some great cause. One of the things that draws me into this kind of trip is that feeling of exhilaration that comes from knowing you have committed yourself and all the best that is in you to some great cause, idea, or friendship and coming back to the guest house in the evening realizing that such an expenditure has paid off in some way. It doesn’t matter if the travel is to Malawi or Texas or to the North Side of Pittsburgh – there is something wonderful about leaving the normal pace of life and concentrating fully on a different work. It is one way in which I become more fully engaged in the whole of my life – that which I have temporarily left, and that which I am temporarily embraced. Going “all in” brings a certain freedom.
But it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes, mission travel is, well, boring. I shouldn’t be surprised by this, of course. One of the great mission travelers in history pointed this out in a passage that those of us in the 21st century would do well to remember. When the apostle Paul writes to his friends in Galatia about the early days of his work, he throws out a phrase that just about sneaks by.
“Fourteen years later…” (Galatians 2:1) Seriously? FOURTEEN YEARS LATER? Yes, that’s what the man said. Lots of times, you are sitting in meetings, dreaming dreams and casting vision with your mission partners, or you are in the field getting your hands dirty or teaching or worshiping.
But lots of time, to be honest, you are sitting. And waiting. And sitting some more. Just as Paul spent 14 years waiting in Tarsus before God equipped him to take the next step.
When you book a cruise or plan your trip to, say, the great capitals of Europe, you do so knowing that you have a certain amount of time and there are certain things that you’ll need to do. Itineraries are planned weeks, months, or years in advance. And while it takes a little fiddling around to get the pieces to fit perfectly, you can do that, because you know when the Eiffel Tower wills be open, what time the show starts at the theater, and how long you’ll be able to stay at the Coliseum. You pay a guide service or invest your own energies into making sure that not a moment of time is wasted.
But when we travel in mission, we are often exploring an itinerary, or waiting to see what develops. Rather than employing a guide, you are engaging a partner – one who may face a variety of challenges and other commitments. More than that, you are seeking to be open to the movement of the Spirit in an ever-shifting landscape.
And so it was that Monday, January 28 found six deeply committed spirits doing, well, nothing for ten hours. We had had wonderful discussions about partnership and engaged deeply in worship and been immersed in the rhythm of life in South Sudan. But n Monday, our partners had a lot to do with their General Assembly. And it became apparent that they could do it better if they were not saddled with the additional burden of translating every aspect of the experience into English, or making sure that we were properly hydrated or knew where the toilets were. Sunday night, it had been the absolute right thing for us to be at the General Assembly. How I wish that I could have captured the enthusiasm and appreciation with which we were received. Our coming to stand with these partners who were trying to live into a new identity in a new place was received exactly as we had intended. In particular, seeing the way that the commissioners greeted the Rev. Mercy Chilupula was a gift! The South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church does not ordain women, but they were blessed by the presence of a strong and faithful woman leader that night.
But the next morning, things were different. So we said, “Please, just let us rest somewhere for a few hours where we will not distract you.” Our hosts took us to a small inn along the western bank of the Nile River, where we expected to spend a few hours admiring the mighty river, using the Internet, and simply relaxing. That was the plan.
However, the wireless service was barely functional, the riverine view lost its appeal after five hours or so, and the heat was intense. I wish I could say that one of these six brilliant minds came up with a way to redeem that time – that we held an unanticipated council wherein we solved one or more of the world’s great problems. Yes, it would be nice to say that. Only it would be a lie.We did see some beautiful birds, and revel in the historic river. For a time. We read, we chatted, and we exchanged faith stories. Some. But we also dozed, sighed, griped, and fretted – we hadn’t come to do this. But whatever fruit comes from this trip, I think, will have been made possible, perhaps, because we chose to wait on this day.
On Sunday evening, Mike Uko said that the CCAP Blantyre Synod and Pittsburgh Presbytery had been together for 21 years, and maybe it was time for that partnership to give birth to something new. Mike’s imagery was very helpful to me as I recalled long hours in hospital waiting rooms – time that I have spent, in some ways, enormously “inefficiently”. It just doesn’t make good sense to sit somewhere simply waiting, when there is often so much to DO. But some days, waiting is all you can do.
The truth is, our Sudanese partners did have a great deal of DOING to do, and they didn’t need us at that moment any more than the OB/GYN needed me the day that my daughter was born. Yet on Tuesday morning, when Jeff Tindall prayed with the Sudanese assembly, and we shared our joy at what they had been able to do, the waiting of Monday was Paul into perspective.
Years ago, Desmond Tutu wrote, “the privilege is ours to share in the loving”. Sometimes that sharing looks a lot like hammering or sweating or praying or doing. And sometimes that sharing looks a lot like waiting. The Apostle knew that. The church has always known that. And I am learning that. Again.
Ironic post-script dept: two hours after completing this little missive, the vehicle in which we were to take the four hour drive from Lilongwe to Blantyre broke down, so the aforementioned humble and patient missionaries had the chance to live into its truth whilst waiting in the rain for plans B, C, or D to develop. It was tough to gripe after having just written this. I get it, Lord.