The Zoo

Comuna 13, Medellin, Colombia

The hometown of Pablo Escobar, Medellin, Colombia, once held the distinction of “World’s Most Dangerous City.” In 2013, it was crowned “Innovative City of the Year,” just edging out New York to grab the top honor. The Mail & Globe called the shift that happened in the period between being a pariah city, singularly known for cocaine and violence, to poster child for innovation “the most remarkable urban redemption project in modern history.” Clearly, Medellin is a city wrought in superlatives.A few months ago, I visited for the first time. The areas frequented by travelers—El Poblado and Laureles— put on display the wealthier side of the city. Hip bars, eateries and shops dot the tree lined streets. Well-heeled, designer clad youth go about their business, mixed with sorts of people you’d likely see in any other city.  I spent a few days sipping lattes under the perfect hot-but-not-too-hot sun characteristic of the City of Eternal Spring.A few days into my trip, I got off the beaten path and headed to Comuna 13, a place that used to be known as the most violent neighborhood in the most dangerous city in the world.  There is still gang violence and FARC guerillas are said to still have ties to the area along with some other paramilitary groups. It isn’t exactly a safe place to wander around, especially after dark, but tourists have started coming to get a taste of the other side of Medellin, an area that used to be strictly off limits even to most locals. Built into a steep hillside, a series of huge escalators were installed within the neighborhood a few years ago to improve resident access to the main part of the city. This project is part of the broader “social urbanism” underway in the region.I rode the escalator up to the top of the neighborhood as Medellin proper spread out in a wide expanse below. The view was stunning. The escalator carried me past women washing clothes and men sitting in plastic chairs having beers in the afternoon sun.

By the time I reached the top of the series of escalators, there were about fifteen foreigners gathered,  all of us looking around. Gawking. Staring. Taking photos.  The proximity to the residents’ lives made it feel like we were at a zoo, observing from a standpoint of our privilege people in the cage of an urban ghetto. The inhuman grind of severe economic poverty is a reality here. The daily struggle to eek out an existence with an ounce of dignity is dehumanizing enough, let alone adding relatively wealthy white people to the mix, looking at you as you go about your day.

The objectification of the poor, which I wrote about recently over at The Good Men Project is a widespread issue worsened by the media and well-intentioned non-profit organizations trying to raise funds for the important work they do. Sending out photos of people living in the indignity of poverty to try to raise money for a cause, what has been dubbed ‘poverty porn,’ is one thing. Being a few meters away from a person in their neighborhood, entering the space in which they survive day to day on the price of a Starbucks Latte, is another thing altogether. Instead of looking at the porn mag it’s getting up close to the actors and staring. It’s worse than a zoo.

Feeling reviled by the whole thing, I decided to head back down. On my way, one of the escalator attendants—an unarmed security guard employed by the city—offered a greeting.
“Bienvenidos a Medellin.”
“Hola. Como esta?” I replied.

This would be the perfect opportunity, I thought, to get a local’s take on “the zoo” and hear his thoughts on this dynamic.

With my fledgling Spanish skills, I questioned him about it.
“Could you tell me about Comuna 13 and how the people who live here feel about the tourists coming, getting so close to their homes and their lives and taking photos?”

He went on to tell me a story about his friend—an artist and former gang member—who had painted a stunning mural on the concrete wall that we were standing adjacent to. It depicted the a colorful face of an androgynous being, human-like but with an undefinable sense of otherworldliness.

“My friend painted this. Isn’t it beautiful?” He asked as his eyes scanned the dramatic behind him.
“Yes,” I agreed.
“For many years my friend was in a gang. Then he began using art to help our community. Now tourists like to come see these murals.”
“That is great. But don’t the residents get tired of people coming here and taking photos?” I said, pushing my point a bit deeper.
“Some might. But most people living here like having tourists come. For them it means there is less shooting. For them it means this place is safer now than it was. All anybody here wants is peace.”

Though my critique still stood, it was much more wobbly. Listening to him speak, I realized I was importing my own assumptions about a place I knew barely anything about.  Objectification of people struggling to survive may be happening in Comuna 13, yet my critical view of what I presumed to be reality blinded me to the other half of the story, the actual experience of people living in the community. This is what we constantly do as Westerners entering contexts not our own, whether as travelers, missionaries, or volunteers. We are continually levying our own assumptions and worldviews, both conscious and unconscious, onto others.

Perhaps having camera-wielding visitors is a small price to pay for less gun shots and less blood on the streets. It’s not exactly a superlative—Comuna 13 hasn’t won an award for “Most Transformed Neighborhood in South America.” But sometimes I suppose transformation is measured in peculiar ways, like by tourists gawking as if they’re at the zoo; in some aberrant way, that, too, might just be innovative.

Psyche, Meet Pneuma

Genesis 1:2 describes what it was like in the beginning, when the earth was a dark, watery void.  It was formless, empty, and deep. The Message says that “earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness.”

The author of this creation poem paints a picture of a place devoid of life. Soupy. Dark. Empty. Like an abyss.  But the same verse says that the Spirit of God was there, hovering over the chaos. Which is important to note, because it means that the watery void of nothingness wasn’t all there was. There was more. God was present in the very midst of this barren, soggy, soiled wasteland, and when God spoke, something shifted. Light and life and form and order came into the dark, watery blackness.

Cosmos entered the chaos.

The Spirit in the Greek version of this text is called pneuma, which translates as breath. It was the breath of God that hovered over the lifeless void, the breath that animated the dark waters with a life it had not yet known. The Spirit was the catalyst for life in the space of that which was not-life.  There is an interesting linguistic link between pneuma and another Greek word, psyche, which in ancient Greek philosophy meant “the breath of life.” It loosely translates to English as “soul” and is the root of the word “psychology.” But it wasn’t limited to the mind as it is in popular psychology today.  The ancient understanding of was capacious. It was the energy that animated all of life, a person’s deep, mysterious core essence. They differentiated between that which was living and breathing and that which was lifeless—between the animate and the inanimate, between life and not-life.

So when we talk about psychology, we are talking about more than just the mind. We are talking about a lot more than Dr. Phil, psychotherapy, anti-depressants, Freud, and Hollywood stars who had bad childhoods. Because the psyche is as much about the soul as it is the mind. Psychology is as much about the Spirit as it is about laying on a psychoanalyst’s couch while an old man with a white beard takes notes.

This creation story at the beginning of Genesis is the first time in the Biblical canon that we hear about the soul. And the soul has something to do with breath and creation and the transformation of darkness and chaos into light and form. So when we talk about psychology, we are actually talking about creation. This story of creation that the Hebrew scriptures begin with is a poetic rendition of the creative movement of God. It is about order (cosmos) infiltrating disorder (chaos). The earth was devoid of life and the Spirit was present to this space of void and darkness which was all that was in existence. Into this space of not-life the Sprit brought something fresh and new and glorious. This creative act was the divine breath infiltrating the dark formlessness and infusing it with life, something the earth had not yet known. The old gave way to the new by the breath of God. And that is what the Spirit does, hovers over the spaces of not-life, renewing and enlivening and animating. Psychology is about this new life infiltrating the spaces of brokenness and darkness within us. So when we talk about psychology, we are talking about the creation of something fresh and new.

In telling the story of God’s first creative movement that initiated the life of the cosmos, Genesis is also speaking to a broader pattern of life emerging in darkness. Just as God hovered over the lifeless void in the beginning, God is hovering over us, over the dark places of wounds and trauma that we have experienced, the spaces of shame and contempt that keep us locked into patterns of harm and abuse, bidding us entrance into the chaos of our own selves.  Just as the Spirit hovered over the chaotic waters, so too does the Spirit hover over the chaos of our lives, the darkness and pain that reside deep within us. It is from here, from this understanding, that psychology transcends the standard therapeutic box in which it has been placed and becomes a central tenet of the Biblical narrative—of the the story of God’s ongoing work of redemption, restoration and renewal of all things.

According to Genesis, psychology is all about a God that initiates life in the spaces of pain, void and darkness in our own lives. When we enter into the territory of the psyche and the unconscious, we are stepping into the sacred terrain of the soul, a space inhabited by shadow and light, repressed pain and dramatic bliss, harm and beauty. As He did in the beginning at creation, God is inviting movement into greater life wholeness, within the world and within each and every one of us.  It is the Spirit, in the beginning as now, who brings life to spaces of not-life while inviting us into the same. This is something we can do with the assurance of knowing that the Spirit never hovered in judgment and condemnation, but rather in desire for life to the full.

Engaging psychologically with our own personal narratives, especially the places where harm has been done, is a necessary task, especially if we are to engage in mission practices that are healthy for ourselves and people who dwell in the margins of the global village. People who are forced to live in the economic inequality, the short end of misaligned economic policy of global superpowers, in the chaos and darkness of poverty, injustice, and death.  We cannot enter well the darkness of those dwelling in poverty if we have not first replied to the Spirit’s invitation to enter our own.

A Doctor, the Ego & Shoot to Kill: Mission Work in Haiti?!

When I was in Haiti a couple years ago, I got to know a physician from the United States who ran a community development project that I was visiting. Within the few hours it took for us to make the drive from the airport in Port-au-Prince to our destination, I began to notice an obvious pattern in his style of relating to others: he spoke to the driver, another passenger, and myself in really self-aggrandizing ways, bolstering his own importance.

After spending a few days at the project site, it became all too apparent that a major impetus for this doctor to be here was his ego. His false self—wanting so badly to be seen, to be valued, to be known—was the part of him running the show. He did not have the ability to really listen to another or the capacity to set aside his own personal agenda to be fully present to the people living in the community. Though somewhere deep inside he had the desire to be a healer—to journey with the marginalized, the sick, the outcast—he clearly had not engaged in the inner work necessary to live from a place of authenticity. It had been covered up, buried somewhere deep inside of him because he had not undergone the requisite transformational process of coming to know himself and his motivations, his pain, his beliefs about who he was and who he was trying to serve.

There were two twenty-something, short-term missionaries working there alongside the physician. He held the all the power and acted like a guru to them. There was clearly a disordered relational dynamic going on between the three of them.

And besides that, there were the guns.

There had been a few attacks on expats and missionaries in the area over the previous few years and it led the doctor to decide it would be a good idea have some handguns in the house for protection from intruders. The young women didn’t know how to shoot a gun, so he took them out to a nearby field in the afternoons for target practice.

Yes, target practice. He even had an acquaintance of his, a cop back in the states, take a trip there to train them how to shoot to kill.

The doctor’s need for dominance and power were linked to this violence so incongruent with the gospel and of making oneself vulnerable to the needs of the economically marginalized.

Though an extreme example, these are the kind of things that happen when the ego hijacks mission work.  Instead of life being born in spaces of conflict and poverty, death grins even wider.

Though this doctor had a bona fide desire to serve the marginalized, the narrative that guided him in his mission work shaped these actions.  His American task-oriented view of mission combined with a debilitating sense of shame and inadequacy were tied to the self-aggrandizing manner in which he spoke and acted, as well as the need to meet violence with violence—thus the handguns. The narrative he was unconsciously living by was disempowering himself, the young missionaries helping out, as well as the local people.

Sadly, this American physician effectively disqualified his potentially beneficial project from being missionally valid. His false self, which he was most likely unaware of,  propelled the forward movement not of a gospel-oriented engagement with a devastatingly poor community, but his own narcissistic need for constant validation and to assert power over another.

Eventually, the project he had dedicated himself to so resolutely had to close its doors, collapsing under the weight of his ego. He ended up leaving Haiti, yet another forlorn example of a heart so desirous of serving the oppressed, yet divorced from the self-understanding that is critical in cross-cultural service work.

This is a tragedy that continues to unfold across the globe, and there is only one way out of the spiral that brings harm to self and other: delving deeply into the transformative process that the gospel invites us into, becoming deeply aware with our motivations and how we impact, for better and for worse, the communities that we serve. The center of the gospel has so much to do with freeing ourselves from the snares of ego, and if we are willing to do some hard inner work, to pay the price of coming to know ourselves more intimately, we will become catalysts for transformation

Medellin, Colombia: Searching for Pablo

Last month I was in Medellin, Colombia, a place that once held the unofficial title of the world’s most dangerous city. Its widespread infamy came courtesy of infamous drug cartels and Pablo Escobar, a man whose depth of violence and narcissism intersected to cause an entire nation to spiral into chaos and bloodshed.

These days, Medellin is a far cry from its dark days of the 80’s and 90’s when Escobar went to war with the government and nearly turned Colombia into a narco state. It is a city on the rise, known for its spring-like weather year round, gorgeous setting, state of the art metro system, and emerging middle class. Visitors have started to flock here in droves.

I spoke with several local people about Medellin’s former notoriety, including the son of a man who once worked for Escobar. He spoke of how, to many Colombians, Escobar was a like saint. Before turning into a militant drug lord, he was touted as a Robin Hood figure for the schools and homes he built for the poor. For many Colombians I talked to, his legacy was situated somewhere between Mother Teresa and Adolph Hitler—somewhere between the sacred and the desecrated. He was a man both lauded and feared.

There is an increasing amount of tourism focused around Medellin’s shadowy past, including the extremely popular “Pablos Escobar Tours” that guide participants to his grave, some of his former homes and various other sites of interest. I met several North Americans and Europeans who were enthralled with following the Escobar trail. They spoke eagerly about visiting his grave and his former hangouts, like they just had to see it, to touch and taste a piece of Pablo.  It was as if they were on a search for the radical image of Escobar the Fallen Saint, who could be an object of reverence and sanctification.

To revere someone or something is to give honor and praise to a person or place of spiritual significance. Pilgrimage has long been a means of journeying toward a destination that holds spiritual importance.Humans are born with a religious impulse. The desire to praise and seek the transcendent is wired into our biology. It is something we can’t escape. But this age of consumerism and a resulting collective sense of meaninglessness in the West, it seems that for many nothing is holy anymore. The secularization of society, though not inherently bad, has left very real consequences in our psyches and souls.

But this natural longing of the soul has to go somewhere, it doesn’t just disappear. Often, it becomes misplaced in our postmodern West where technology and the pursuit of progress has blighted out the subtler, softer yearnings of our personhood. The search for the sacred is easily perverted.
We are all, in one way or another, on a search for the transcendent, the divine, the holy. We are all on a search for the sacred. The search for Pablo represents this archetypal quest that has been misplaced.  This misconstrued attempt at pilgrimage labels his defunct mansions as sites of hallowed ground, to be revered and honored. To visit his grave and stand in the presence of his corpse is an attempt at encountering the holy. The sacred and the desecrated are easily confused.

To honor a mercilessly violent man who inflicted such egregious harm on a nation is simply the search for the sacred gone awry. The search for Pablo is the search of a pilgrim who, having lost touch with the innate desire to venerate the holy, encounters the desecrated and believes it to be the sacred.

But the soul is not easily fooled. The yearning is not filled when the desecrated takes the place of the sacred. In the moment of encounter with the false masquerading as the real, the soul is left empty and dry, its attempt at contact with the divine is shattered.

So the search continues. Eventually, if the journey isn’t halted prematurely, the sojourner learns what he or she really desires. And whatever that is, there is the choice to follow the yearning, to heed the depths and honor the true self. Eventually, there may come a moment of realization, when there is no need to search only on the outside anymore, not for Pablo, not for anyone or anything. The need to look only without ceases when we realize the divine One we have been searching for, often without knowing it, has been moving toward us the whole time, and indeed has already found us.

The Sacred has made its home inside of us which means we don’t need to look outside anymore to find an object of reverence. The divine presence is never an object, anyhow, as Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “God is always apprehended, experienced, and conceived as a Subject, never an object.”

The end of all our searching will be to return home to ourselves, and as TS Eliot said, know the place for the first time, to finally know that within us dwells the sacred that we have been searching for.
I’d love to hear more about your search for the sacred and where you have encountered the divine both within and without. Please comment below or send me a note. As always, thanks for reading 🙂

Victorian Prudes

Well, let’s just say it’s been a while since since I’ve been here.  I took a long hiatus from the blog, went totally MIA for over a year while I continued to work on the book I am writing. And besides that, it has been a really full season with starting a stand up paddle board business and an Airbnb gig out of house, as well as a spiritual direction practice, not to mention working non-stop on house projects, interviewing for jobs, and trying to get in the water to surf at least 3-4 days a week and having family & friends in town. Anyway, excuses aside, I am back.

As the Benedictines say, always we begin again…

I took a philosophy class in seminary taught by an eccentric, almost too brilliant for his own good type of professor named Dr. Carl Raschke. His lectures were a mix of complete, utter nonsense and some astounding philosophical logic (or perhaps illogic because that is how one feels when one leaves the classroom after listening to him talk for 8 hours: ill) thrown in. They made my head spin and left my brain feeling like it couldn’t handle even the simplest of tasks because it was chock full of terms like noumena, ockham’s razor, and weltanschauung. Ya know, words like that you hear at lunch with co-workers.

I love words. I love language. Having done a master’s degree in theology, I’ve used some words that are pretty far out there. But I felt like I had to learn a whole new, strange language just to read Derrida, Kant, and the rest of the philosophers or to understand dear old Raschke.

But there is something he said, in plain English for once, that I’ll never forget.

“We are Victorian prudes when it comes to language.”

The language that Christians use has become neutered. It has become impotent largely because so many try to honor God by overusing religious speech. How many times have you heard someone offhandedly throw out phrases like “praying for you,” or “just have faith,” or “her faith is carrying her?” Or heard someone say “It was a blessing?” Nothing is inherently wrong with using these words, of course. But overusing them, speaking in “Christianeze” has an impact on us and the people around us: language that once held power turns into religious platitudes. This ends up dishonoring God and other people and cheapening the gospel itself. As Carl said, we end up “dehumanizing by routinizing.”

Let’s look at the word “faith” for a minute. It has become a Christian catch-all for anything pertaining to belief. The problem is, that is not what faith actually is according to the ancient Christian tradition from which many of us come.  Faith in its original sense is not a simply a matter of belief. In fact, it has as much to do with doubt as belief. Faith can probably be better described by what it is not than by what it is. Yet so often, the word faith is used to signify certainty and security, or a means of getting what we want.

If I have enough faith maybe I’ll get that thing I’ve been praying about.

If I believe enough maybe God will answer my prayers.

Real faith takes going beyond the mind and into a different kind of knowing, one that relies on mystery more than certitude. The great philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard said that faith involves a leap into the absurd, into that which is unknowable.

The absurd
A leap
Embracing doubt

Wouldn’t it be such a breath of fresh air to hear these phrases at church next Sunday?

Christianity doesn’t need to be so congested with menial platitudes-it’s the greatest story ever told. Which means that we can let go of our inner Victorian prudes, that part of us that believes cramming as much god talk as possible into as many conversations as possible will make us better Christians. It won’t. And no one wants it or needs it. Sometimes less is more- and that’s the good news. We can stop trying to please God and other people with trite phrases. We can relax and be present with ourselves and others when we stop neutering our language and start being real. We can let the words we choose be those that contain the  gravitas that reflects the depth of the Christian mystery.

McMission and the Standard American Diet

The Standard American Diet—SAD— is about eating things that don’t offer any nutritional value, things that look like food but aren’t really food at all. All the processed stuff that goes into our bodies, the preservatives and the trans-fats, like Fruit Loops, Slim Jims, and my all-time favorite, McDonald’s french fries and chicken Mcnuggets—which the fast food behemoth just publicly announced are now being made of real, actual chicken meat. Now that leaves me wondering about what the Mcnuggets were made of before…

Similarly, the typical North American diet of cross-cultural mission is a fast food style, in and out type of approach—a paradigm that has its foundations in our culture that is driven by results and outcomes and obsessed with achievement and accomplishment. Generally speaking, mission is very task oriented. At its worst, it becomes a mode of Western imperialism on a small scale. Many projects in the Majority World started by North Americans mirror our culture far more than the gospel. And to be clear, Christians aren’t the only ones implicated in this, either. The hordes of people traveling overseas for “voluntourism” and secular service work are not any wiser in their ways. The ubiquitous use of the phrase “giving back” sheds light on how much we use the poor as objects of our compassion, as a means to reduce our guilt. The psychological payoff is enormous. We go “help” and paint houses and dig wells and build schools and in doing so set ourselves free while unwittingly propagating neo-imperial patterns that do nothing to catalyze real transformation in communities that are economically marginalized.  We go in, work on a project for a few days or weeks or months and leave feeling good about what we did and excited to share the photos we took with our new “friends” with our loved ones back home.  But nothing really changes. We continue to tell ourselves the same stories about how happy the poor people we served were and how much they smiled. But we continue to see “them” as helpless and in need of “us” to help them, serve them, rescue them. In the end, everything stays the same: the marginalized are still marginalized and we persist in telling ourselves the same narratives about who they are—the ones who need help—and who we are—the ones who can rescue.

But at its healthiest, mission is about something else entirely. At its best, it can result in mutual transformation, both in the lives of the economically poor being served and the economically wealthy traveling to do service work. Perhaps we can be catalysts for bona fide transformation and ameliorating poverty, but not unless the narrative shifts. Not unless the SAD American diet of mission shifts into something more sustainable and more holistic. We don’t get fit and healthy overnight. It takes time, effort, guidance, hard work, and persistence. It’s slow and painful and it’s the project of a lifetime. The same can be said for service work overseas. We need to slow down. We need to reflect on the stories we are telling ourselves about the people and communities we visit. We need to stop trying so hard to accomplish and achieve and “make a difference” and begin to enter the difficult inner journey of engaging our assumptions, biases and beliefs. Without crawling about in the cave of the unconscious and bringing our shadow toward the light, we’ll forfeit the hope of leaving our inner colonialist behind and actually participating cross-culturally in ways that are good for us and those we want to see flourish.

We don’t have to keep stuffing our faces with the Standard American Diet of mission. Real food is there for the taking. But like the organic meat and produce in the grocery stores, there is a premium to be paid. It costs us something to dive into the dark abyss of our souls and be honest about what is there, to be real about what payoffs we get from doing mission work. About where we have hurt ourselves and others in the process of trying to do good by consuming the SAD of mission that leaves everyone hungry and unwell.

But that high price we pay will be worth every cent, because it will escort us into a space where the sustenance of honesty awaits, where we receive the nourishment of a plain look at the reality of our inner world. This is the process of leaving the fake chicken nuggets behind for the nutritive, sustaining food of life, of saying goodbye to the McMission drive-through window and encountering a more authentic, vulnerable, and just way of entering into economically marginalized communities.

Small Seeds and Soldiers: A Morning in El Salvador

It’s 10am and sweltering hot inside the little black Nissan Sentra where I am sitting. Through the windshield I can see six heavily armed soldiers in full camoflouge right in front of us. The guns they carry are the biggest I’ve ever seen. They make an AK-47 look like a little kid’s bb gun. The soldiers have a tense look written on their faces. They are patrolling this gang infested neighborhood in San Salvador that we just entered. As they walk past the car, I turn my head and watch them approach two young men standing around idly. One of the soldiers motions them to put their hands on a cement wall adjacent to where they are. Two of them pat down the men, searching for guns. A few years ago, the police and the military never entered this neighborhood due to fear of the gangs.

A hundred feet away is a school called Semillitas, Little Seeds in English. Inside, 30 young children age 4-6 are coloring and drawing. Their bright white collared shirts somehow are still sparkling clean. Two teachers and an assistant accompany them in the classroom. The room is inundated in the energy of youth, the children laughing and smiling with a glorious innocence.

The classroom looks like it could be any other in Latin America. But there is one major difference: the children here are the daughters and sons of gang members. The gang that controls the community where the school sits is considered one of the most violent and ruthless on the planet.

The teachers know not only the kids, but their parents–the gang members and their partners. The teachers live right there in the community where they work. Their life is here, amid the violence and chaos of this place where soldiers with gigantic guns patrol 24/7.

The Salvadorean run organization that we are visiting facilitated the birth of this community based project. In my mind, this project epitomizes what mission is about: run by local leaders, grassroots, sustainable, bottom up, small. Hidden almost, barely perceptible amid the chaos and guns. I am certain that a project such as this could never have been started by a foreign missionary. It would be impossible for someone from outside this context, even outside this neighborhood, to come in and create a thriving program such as this; no NGO or missionaries needed.

Because this is real mission.

These leaders are birthing the gospel in radical ways. They are choosing to participate in the dire realities of life here with creativity. They hope against darkness. It makes me wonder what kind of imaginations they have have, one that can hold the thought of new life, hope, and love despite the crudeness of spilled blood. This is what living missionally is all about. This is what mission done well looks like.

Katie and I were given the opportunity to bear witness to what can be when the assets, relationships, expertise, knowledge and integrity of local people is leveraged for the work of transformational development. In the midst of a community torn apart by poverty and violence, there exists an image of beauty and transformation in Semillitas. It is real and enfleshed. You can see it, touch it, feel it. You can sink your teeth into it. It’s alive and active and animated.  It is the gospel narrative enfleshed into the now and here. It is a story of peace and hope amid violence and chaos.

It is the small seeds of the Kingdom, even with the soldiers still out front.

Mission Pills

Certain pills are tough to swallow.

You look at the thing and it’s just plain huge. Like the antibiotics the doctor sometimes prescribes for that acute case of sinusitis.  It seems impossible that the pill could ever make its way down your throat and into the stomach to dissolve, and then catalyze very specific biochemical responses that can treat what ails you. It simply looks too big, like it’ll get stuck somewhere on the way down and block your air passages and make you gag and need to run over to someone who can perform the heimlich maneuver.  Not so pleasant.

Certain topics come up when we start having conversations around what healthy mission practice looks like that appear kind of like that pill.  Pretty big and burly, like it’ll get stuck on the way down. That it won’t contribute to our health but make us sick and confused, wishing we never put it in our mouth.  I’ve had to swallow a lot of pills of recent years, not many for sinusitis luckily, but a good amount of the ones relating to how I have engaged in global mission.

Here is one of those pills:

Mission trips are mainly about the people going, not those being served.

When we talk about going to serve the economically marginalized, we often speak about our willingness to suffer on behalf of the suffering other, to sacrifice our lives for those who live in the anguish of poverty. This is indeed a profoundly holy desire. I would even argue that it is rooted in that which is paradigmatic of the gospel—healing, setting the oppressed free, abundant life. Yet, the means by which we seek to fulfill this end always carries a shadow side. It is this shadow with which we must engage if we are to participate in cross-cultural work in a mutually transformative way.

To get to that place we must engage our own stories and look at our deeper motivations for doing what we do.

Witnessing poverty and disease and oppression affects us, all of us. The most common experience is a sense of compassion for the individuals who are encountered living in squalor and inhuman conditions. Often this feeling is combined with a strong desire to do something, to alleviate some of the suffering. These emotions and the desire they give rise to are a very good thing. The desire to bring justice is a profoundly sacred desire that wells up from deep within. They can lead to acts of mercy and a commitment to expand one’s concept of the truly cruel nature of many people’s existence. This is the very spot where the issue I am seeking to engage with becomes pertinent: the energy moving within the “helper” to alleviate suffering, though good, most often turns into an action that unwittingly results in two consequences. First, it may unintentionally create harm to the vulnerable population. But it does more than just that. At a psychospiritual level, participating in mission relieves the helper’s guilt, and sets their own psyche free through the declaration that “I did my part. I helped someone who needed it badly. I bought medicine for a sick man. I bought a meal for a beggar. I held babies at the orphanage. I helped build a house for a poor family.”

It is all about “me”.

The helper is now free from a psychological standpoint. They feel good about themselves. Their ego is satisfied. Back at home in North America, they are wondering when they can get their next week off of work or when their next church mission trip is, so they can go back to Nicaragua or Kenya and see the people who they “fell in love with”.

This has been a tough pill for me to swallow.

It took some deep wrestling and struggling on my own and with my wife,  in therapy, and with conversations with friends to come to grips with the fact that a lot of my hidden needs were being met by living overseas, participating in humanitarian aid and community development projects. But I am so glad I swallowed that pill and entered deeper into the journey of coming to know myself more fully. The real me. The light and the shadow.

If we can swallow some difficult pills by asking ourselves hard questions about the unspoken ways in which we benefit from mission, shifts begin to occur inside of us. Space opens up. We inhabit our own selves with a bit more truth and honesty, and take a plunge deeper into the gospel. We begin to see how we can participate in mission in ways that are mutually transformative, that heal us as well as those we want to help.

Thoughts? Feelings? Reactions? As always I would love to have you engage further with what I brought here. Please add your voice to the conversation by commenting below.