Inefficient

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Good morning!
I bring you greetings of friendship and love
from the church of Espíritu Santo,
your sister congregation
in the Diocese of the Dominican Republic.

As most of you know, our diocese
and the diocese of the Dominican Republic
share what’s known as
a “companion diocese” relationship.

This means we pray for one another,
commit to support one another,
and celebrate our common mission and identity
across the boundaries of language and sea.

Out of that relationship,
about seven years ago,
St. Anne’s was invited to become involved
with a small congregation
in a village called Las Carreras.

For fifty years,
there has been an Episcopal congregation
meeting in this small town.

For fifty years,
the priest has driven over
from the neighboring city,
and in people’s homes,
in their back yards,
in the town square,
they’ve routinely unfolded a small aluminum table
and shared Communion together.

For fifty years,
they have dreamed of having
a meeting place,
a sanctuary,
a church.

Last week, that dream finally came true.

For the past seven years,
you and I have been sending people down
to work alongside our friends
in the building of their permanent sanctuary.

What once was a pile of rubble and dirt
slowly became a cinderblock wall,
then a roof overhead,
then a concrete floor,
then pews, an altar, a cross,
and a church full of people.

Last Saturday, thirteen of us from St. Anne’s marched and sang
alongside our brothers and sisters from Espíritu Santo
as we paraded from the town square to the church.
We watched with joy as Bishop Quezada
knocked with his crozier on those big, new doors and said,
Que sea abierta la puerta!
Let the doors be opened!”

(A photo of this moment was taken
by our friends and fellow Georgia missioners
Julius and Julia Ariail,
It’s striking in its similarity
to the photo of the same moment
taken by Herb Pilcher
at the consecration of St. Anne’s in 1985.)

I wish I could describe to you
all that happened next.

I wish I could describe to you
the singing, the clapping, the smiles, the hugs,
and the joyful Communion.

I wish I could describe to you
how Bishop Quezada walked around
and blessed each new furnishing:
the lectern, the pulpit,
the baptismal font, the altar.

I wish I could describe to you
the moment when the bishop stopped the service,
looked at me, and said,
Ven, lee estas oraciones.
Come read these prayers.”
I said, “En Español?
and he said, “Sí, en Español,”
and I said, “No hablo Español,”
and he gave me a look that said,
“I don’t care that you don’t habla Español.”
So I read them the best I could
while he and the other clergy
grinned and chuckled all the way through.

I wish I could describe it all to you,
but really, you’ll just have to take my word for it.
What happened there last Saturday was a joyful miracle,
and all of you—by virtue of your long and generous support—
were a part of it.

*     *    *

Over the past several days
I’ve been reflecting on all of this
and what it means for us
to go “on mission” and
to have a sister congregation.

The one surprising word
that keeps coming to mind is:
inefficient.

If I’ve learned anything
through these mission trips
over the last seven years,
I’ve learned to accept
the grace and the beauty
of how frustratingly inefficient God can be
in the working of his will.

Take time for example.

When I tell people we’ve been working seven years
to help our sister congregation build their church,
they say, “Seven years! It must be a cathedral!”

Hardly.

In reality, it has only taken seven weeks,
but those weeks were spread
over the span of seven years.

How ridiculously inefficient.

“Couldn’t it have been done faster?” some might ask.

Of course it could have.
But what they miss in their question
is the fact that we’ve been building more than just a church;
we’ve been building a relationship.

Over the last seven years,
we’ve forged a relationship
with our sister congregation
that never would have existed
if all we ever cared about
was a building blitz.

Work has also often been
incredibly inefficient.

Here in the United States,
many of us teach our children about efficiency
from a very early age,
often without even knowing it.

Yesterday my kids and I were running errands
and had one more stop to make before heading home.
Tired from a full morning,
one of my daughters asked,
“Daddy, can’t you just drop us off at home
before you go to this last store?”

“What?!” I said. “No!
Why would I drive all the way home,
zig-zag back to the store,
then drive home again?”

To my efficiency-oriented American mind,
there’s hardly ever a legitimate reason
to do things out of order,
to duplicate effort,
to waste time, gas, and resources.

But in the Dominican Republic,
the mindset is different.
Relationships matter more than efficiency.

The work is often slower.
Steps are often repeated.
You move a pile of rocks from here to there
only to end up moving them back a little later.

The thing is, though,
you do it together,
and that’s what matters.

Remember last March when
I told you how we painted the church
a striking shade of blue,
chosen by the priest himself?
“Everyone will love this color!” he said.
“They’ll say, ‘Ah, the big blue church!
I know the blue church!
I want to go to that church!’”

Well, when we arrived this time,
the blue was gone,
covered with a new coat of paint
that I can only describe as “beige.”

Padre, por qué el templo no es azul?
Father, why isn’t the church blue?” I asked.

Turns out, the bishop made a final decision on the color
and had it repainted shortly before our arrival.
(Actually, it looks great.)

If all we ever cared about was efficiency,
we could get bent out of shape about this,
and to be honest, I did for just a bit.

But in the end, it was a local decision
between the local priest and the local bishop.
It’s not our business
what color they paint their church.

Truth is, even while painting it blue last March,
we were laughing, working, praying,
and being present alongside our sister congregation.
The church may have been painted over,
but our relationships were not.

*     *     *

There are dozens of other ways
we could speak of the inefficiency of mission:
health risks and the possibility of getting injured or sick,
collaboration with others when you don’t speak the same language,
skill and labor when none of us—and few of them—are trained builders,
finances and the big question of whether it would all be better
if we just sent gift cards and checks instead.

It’s all just so incredibly inefficient.
 
But don’t you see?
Don’t you realize?
Don’t you know?
 
This is exactly how God operates.
If you don’t believe me,
look no further than Jesus Christ.

Long ago,
God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit
looked across the great divide
between heaven and earth
and saw us in need.

What did they do?

They could have stayed remote.
They could have helped from afar.
They could have sent gift cards and checks.
Instead, they got skin in the game.

In the person of Jesus,
God journeyed across the great divide
at great risk to himself
and came to live among us.
The time was limited.
The area was small.
But the impact was wide and everlasting.

So why do we go “on mission?”
Why do we cultivate companion diocese
and sister congregation relationships?
Why do we care about this at all?

Because it is what God does,
and we are made in God’s image.

To be clear, we are not Jesus in this equation,
and frankly, neither are our friends in the Dominican Republic.

But the risk of coming together?
The joy of building something together?
The grace of being reconciled into unlikely friendships together
across so many obstacles, barriers, and divides?

That IS Jesus.

*     *    *

A few weeks ago, a colleague of mine
wrote a piece about mission trips,
posing the question, “Who is it for?”

It’s actually a really important question,
one that often goes unasked in ministry.

Asking “Who is it for?” serves to redirect
well-meaning, misguided do-gooders
from traipsing and tromping into places
where they’re not really wanted,
to do work for which they’re not really skilled,
all in the name of “helping.”

It’s another way of asking,
“Is this really for the people I intend to ‘help,’
or am I just doing this for me?”

The answer, however, can differ
based not only on the person asking,
but also on the situation at hand.

Hustling to any locale, near or far,
with unrequested supplies and unskilled help
in the wake of acute disaster
is usually never the thing people need.
There’s a reason why local governments say,
“Please do not come here. Just send money,”
after a tornado rips through a town.

But being willing to help over the long haul
to forge relationships of stability and reliability
whether one street over,
one town over,
or one ocean over—

well that’s a whole different matter.

By the end of my colleague’s piece,
the clear implication was that mission trips
are inevitably, invariably for us,
to stroke our own fragile egos
and to make us feel good.

And you know what?
In some ways that’s true.

It does feel good
to be remembered and welcomed by name
by people who see you only once a year.

It does feel good
to see a project
begun, continued, and completed
in a place where people
have desired it for so long.

It does feel good
to make a difference
with your own hands and feet,
your own sweat and blood.

But it’s so much bigger than that.

Deacon Leeann Culbreath
accompanied us on the trip,
and her Spanish is a good bit better than mine.
When we returned home, she asked:

“Did you catch what Padre Manuel
and Bishop Quezada kept saying
during the announcements?

“They kept using a specific phrase.
They were not saying,
‘Thank you for doing this for us.’
They were saying,
‘Thank you for walking alongside us.’

That.
Right there.

That’s the difference.

For both the impulsive do-gooder and the jaded cynic,
mission trips can only ever be about condescension:
deigning to help from on high
from a position of assumed power
all for the sake of one’s own pride.

But for those who are willing
to commit to the long haul,
to dig into the real work of Incarnation,
to develop relationships where none once existed—
in other words, to walk alongside—
mission trips become something else entirely.

They become ground zero
for the reconciling love and power of God:

a love that spills forth
in a thousand unexpected directions,
increasing in abundance
every time you let it go.

Who is that for?
Well, that’s for everyone.

*     *    *

You’ve often heard me define mission as
“sharing the love of Christ across any significant border.”

Sometimes that border is the ocean.
Sometimes it’s Highway 82.
Sometimes it’s just the next pew over.

In that regard,
every relationship in your life
is a mission field,
an opportunity for
grace and reconciliation.

Mission is risky.
Mission is frustrating.
And Lord knows, mission is incredibly inefficient.

But so, too, is the love of God . . .
and therein lies the blessing.

Amen.

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