Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

4/30 2019

The Power of Empty Hands

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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9/18 2017

Seeing God in the World through Short-term Mission

short-term mission trip participants, The Netherlands

WMI Netherlands 2017 mission trip participants at the community of Nijkleaster

WMI Brazil 2016 mission trip participants learn from church planters in Sao Paulo

In the fall of 2014, my wife, TJ, encouraged me to look into going on a mission trip through Pittsburgh Seminary’s World Mission Initiative. I was apprehensive in the beginning because this was my first year in seminary and I had never been outside the United States or Canada. After looking at the different trips offered in the spring, I joined a group that regularly met over lunch to share about their relationships with folks that they met while in Southeast Asia on previous WMI mission trips. Through the stories I heard and the learned reality of God’s people in this land, I had to go for myself and witness what God was doing in that place.

After receiving financial help from the World Mission Initiative, the Shortridge Fund, and many generous friends and family members, I was headed across the Pacific to meet these people and hear their stories and be with them in worship, study, and prayer. On a cold February day in 2015, a group of us departed from Pittsburgh and flew 12 time zones to experience life as a Christian in a completely different culture than our own. Through this one trip I was able to explain to others back home that the world is not at all what we have been conditioned to believe but instead the world is full of beautiful people that are made in the image of God.

Fruitful Ministries Around the World

My first trip to Southeast Asia also allowed me to see what it is like to have fruitful ministries in places that we would least expect. Most churches that we visited were either additions to someone’s home or simply someone’s living room. But the Holy Spirit was present in these places and God was moving through the church leaders that we met, and the Christian faith was growing.

In the following months as I grew spiritually, I was able to see that God was really pointing me in the direction of church planting. My experience that I had in the spring showed me that God does not need walls and a hymnal to show up; but God needs people connecting with other people. So I began to connect with others and listen to stories and hear how the Spirit was moving in communities and in relationships. Once again, I was able to travel with WMI to Brazil and continue my listening journey. As we traveled around the state of Sao Paulo, we met with innovators in church planting that were wrestling with their faith, listening to others, and finding a place to welcome their neighbors. That was what God was calling me to hear and I heard it—loud and clear.

God in the 21st Century U.S.

Just a couple months after our Brazil trip, my wife traveled with WMI to Kenya and was too introduced to a new culture and a new way of defining church. This experience sparked in her what I had been unraveling since I first started traveling. We talked about culture and faith and this helped us to better discern our future together in church planting. But for me, there was still a burning question: what is God up to in the 21st century U.S.? To discover this, I journeyed again with WMI to the Netherlands to see what God was up to in a secular society.

In the cold, windy, rainy countryside known as Friesland, our group met with a gathering of people that have called themselves Nijkleaster (translated: New Monastery). This project was based out of a nearly 1,000-year-old church and included folks from all walks of life and faith traditions. They gathered on Wednesday mornings and occasionally on Sundays to dive into Scripture, pray for each other and the world, and to experience God through one another and through contemplative practices. The most profound experience occurred Wednesday morning when we took a pilgrimage walk with the folks of the monastery. This was a time of reflection and prayer and allowed people to walk around the farmlands and be totally blessed by the presence of others. What I heard God say on that walk was that people desire to be accepted and loved. They do not want fancy solutions to their simple problems; people want to be loved, just as Jesus commands.

If there is one theme that goes throughout my journey of international travels with WMI it would be that God wants to show us something, and to see it we have to be attentive to the Spirit working through others in this world. Are you unsure about whether you should go on a WMI trip? I encourage you to go and see and hear what God has in store for you.

The World Mission Initiative is now accepting applications for the 2018 spring break trips to Egypt (Church Planting in Context), Colombia (Cultures of Violence, Culture of Peace), and Israel/Palestine (Listening to Palestinian Voices). Learn more about these trips!

Ryan Lucas is a senior M.Div. student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He and his wife, TJ, are raising their daughters while both attending seminary and serving the churches and communities they love.

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