Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

4/30 2019

The Power of Empty Hands

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The temptation is strong and will grow as your mission trip departure date approaches.

The mere thought of traveling to and working in Third World communities is enough to get our anxiety working overtime: Will I be safe? Can I drink the water? Will I be able to handle the poverty? What will it be like to be the wealthiest person the community may have ever met (I, who have never considered myself wealthy in the least!)? How will I respond to people in need—to hungry children? How will the trip change me—in my understanding of how God works . . . in relationship with my modest “wealth”?

This internal anxiety, though uncomfortable, can be a God-given instrument of deep learning and personal change (precisely why I signed up for this trip anyway!). It signals I’m crossing over, stepping onto that holy ground of encounter with people whose life assumptions are quite different from mine. And a faith which I hope to understand. It prepares my heart to receive the unexpected. And, it reminds me that God is in charge of the trip from start to finish.

But as the anxiety grows, most short-term missionaries begin to stock up on “gifts”—pens, candy, spiral notebooks, toothbrushes, etc. Well, maybe “gift” is the wrong word if a gift is meant to symbolize the relationship between two people. In fact, the items many groups leave behind in the community tell the receivers little about who we are, and clearly reveals that we know precious little about them. Often, all it communicates is that I assume that the receiver needs it. (If I give a friend a toothbrush, I’m bound to get a strange look.)

 

Meeting New Friends

To truly meet a new friend, I have to set aside previously-held assumptions, my degrees and status, and my power, and receive the person for who they are. For a long, uncomfortable moment, my complete ignorance of the local language reduces me from a respected professional to a mere toddler, babbling phrase-book greetings to the raucous delight of the host community’s children. In a flash, I realize how accustomed I have become to my personal “accessories”—my status and specialized knowledge about all kinds of things that, suddenly, don’t seem very important. In a way, these are the things that make me who I am. Or do they? I blush, bowing my head under the weight of the revelation. Tears well up in my eyes. I smile. And the host community’s Welcome Committee somehow senses the moment, surges forward, and embraces me. All 34 adults and all 52 children—the little ones, repeatedly. (“I’ve never been hugged by 86 people in a row in my entire life!”, I complain later, beaming). The awkward yet powerful initial encounter set the stage for the whole week of work and transformed us into the impossible: friends.

Embracing with Empty Hands

This is why the mission pastor told us not to load ourselves down with “gift” items—we would have transformed the moment of powerful encounter into a “give-me” circus with kids yelling and grabbing to get more. Unknowingly, we would have flaunted our wealth and left powerful expectations for the next church group coming to this community. A proverb from western Ethiopia puts is this way: “We only embrace with empty hands.”

Don’t get me wrong. To take a simple gift or two on a mission trip is a beautiful act. To give something that speaks of where I come from to that special new friend who teaches me something surprising about myself and about God. And we can set aside the rest of the clutter which really serves only to make us feel better about returning to our comfortable homes and hot showers.

 

I have to empty my hands to be able to receive from my new friends.

For our calling is to engage in “mission in the way of Jesus Christ”, following the One who embodied a deep commitment to solidarity. Jesus stands in solidarity with people caught in the line of fire, those trapped under the weight of systemic oppression, people at their wits’ end due to hunger or police violence or injustice. Though we can’t change the world in a day (and sometimes I use that as an excuse to avoid taking the first step!), we can choose to stand with those who are hurting. In a time of discouragement and frustration, how might you join with Jesus Christ who is today standing in solidarity with the poor and oppressed?

 

The Rev. Dr. Hunter Farrell is the director of the Seminary’s World Mission Initiative. Additionally he teaches mission courses at the Seminary including the M.Div. required class Intercultural Experiential Learning. During the 2019 January-Term, groups traveled to Cuba and studied mission in context at Evangelical Theological Seminary as well as the Philippines where they learned about the Churches’ response to the environmental crises with Silliman University.  

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12/18 2017

The Fight for . . . Not Against

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prayers for healingIn the midst of polarizing political and denominational battles, the word “fight” may turn many of you away from reading this. However, the fight I’m describing has nothing to do with political rhetoric and is far removed from congregational committees and denominational commissions. It is a fight that no one will know I am in by looking at the smile on my face or by hearing the sermons that I preach. I am fighting for the life of our unborn daughter who was recently diagnosed with a critical congenital heart defect. I am not fighting the health care system nor am I at odds with insurance companies. I do not think that I am fighting with evil forces nor am I fighting with/or against God. Honestly, I have no idea exactly “who” my fight is against.

Perhaps, not having an enemy to fight against is what is keeping me focused. I don’t see “that person’s face” when I sleep at night. There is no awkwardness when he/she walks into the room. I have accepted that my fight is a fight “for” rather than a fight “against.” Simply put, I fight for our daughter to be born and to live. My fight daily brings me to my knees and I feel closeness to the Lord that strengthens me. My fight drives me to the pages of Holy Scripture to immerse myself into the Story that imparts hope. My fight pushes me to seek out the prayers of the saints who have allowed our suffering to become their own.

Simply put, I fight for our daughter to be born and to live.

I am not theologically naïve to believe that somehow I am wrestling with God or that my family is being tested. Instead, we are confronted by the frailty of the human condition that cannot save itself. Yet, at the same time, we are placing a degree of trust in human ingenuity that can operate on a baby’s heart soon after birth.

I believe that God is greater than critical congenital heart defects and human ingenuity. I believe that Jesus can heal. I believe that the Spirit is at work in this situation in ways we cannot see. I also believe that as I fight for my daughter’s life, I am called to fight for other children whose fate is uncertain. As I sit in different doctor’s offices, I now look at the faces of those who sit in anticipation of the “news” and pray for them. I no longer cling to my conscious ignorance toward those “sick” people who are all around me. This fight for our daughter’s life has opened me to the fight of others. At this time in my family’s life, these words of Jesus feel especially real, “ in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, NIV).

The Rev. Keith Kaufold ’07/’12 is the lead pastor of a circuit that includes United Methodist Churches in West Homestead, Swissvale, and Millville; pastor of Community United Methodist Church in Aspinwall; and founding pastor of Eighth Avenue Place—a church plant and Christian community that confronts the ignorance that perpetuates racism and lives and ministers together in the name of Jesus Christ. Keith is currently enrolled in the master’s in social work program at California University of Pennsylvania.

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4/7 2017

Palm Wednesday – How the Church Responds to Violence

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I am continually faced with my powerlessness over gun violence and its traumatic effect(s) upon me personally and the community in which I live. This past Wednesday afternoon, my four-year old daughter and I, heard around 10 gunshots as we stood near my bedroom window. This is the second time in two weeks that we both have heard gunshots while together at our house. My daughter has recently become accustomed to the “bang bangs” and she appeared excited that such noises were near her house. I have to ask myself, “How do I respond to my daughter’s acceptance of ‘bang bangs[1]’ in her life?” As a community leader, I have to ask, “How do I respond on behalf of my community that has heard and felt more ‘bang bangs’ then I ever will?”

The Humble Witness of Jesus

This past Wednesday, we celebrated the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey. I spoke about the ineffectiveness of military to produce the change of heart and mind that God requires. I proclaimed that the Kingship of Jesus is clothed in humility and that his Kingship is the very reign of God of heaven come down to earth. The day after our service, it struck me—the humble witness of Jesus is just as applicable to my community as it was to that of Jesus. The Roman occupation of Israel was secured through its military strength and it was keen to use it to maintain control. The frustration of being an occupied people often led to revolts and it became apparent that violence would not produce the Peaceable Kingdom (Hauerwas) spoken about by the prophets. My community appears “occupied” by various powers ranging from a dominant street gang to police departments taking on a more militarized approach. The evidence of the occupation of our community is the prevalence of “bang bangs.”

Forgiveness of Sins

As we gathered for worship a few hours after a young man and his pregnant girlfriend were shot, singing of the Kingship of Jesus has a strange power. I was led to shift my focus from the violence around me, to the brokenness within me, as I sang, “Heal my heart and make it clean, open up my eyes to the things unseen, show me how to love like You have loved me” (Hillsong United, Hosanna). As I broke the body of Christ in Holy Communion, I broke it on behalf of our broken community. As I presented the cup of the blood of Christ, I presented a solution to the “bang bangs,” forgiveness of sins that leads to reconciliation between God and humanity and humanity within itself. I became aware of the true occupation of our community, the Kingdom of God breaking through. This reign of God was witnessed through a small group of people whose praises filled the air and whose hearts were at peace with God and each other.

“The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds” (2 Cor 10:4, NIV).

If you’re interested in learning more about how churches can prevent gun violence in their communities, download the Seminary’s Gun Violence Resource Kit, written in partnership with Allegheny County Health Department, Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network.

The Rev. Keith Kaufold ’07/’12 is the lead pastor of a circuit that includes United Methodist Churches in West Homestead, Swissvale, and Millville; pastor of Community United Methodist Church in Aspinwall; and founding pastor of Eighth Avenue Place—a church plant and Christian community that confronts the ignorance that perpetuates racism and lives and ministers together in the name of Jesus Christ. Keith is currently enrolled in the master’s in social work program at California University of Pennsylvania.

[1] The term I use with my daughters to describe gunshots.

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