A Summer Vacation — Almost

A vacation is what you take when you can no longer take what you’ve been taking. ~ Earl Wilson

I seem to have taken a little hiatus from writing of late. It’s almost like I’ve taken a summer vacation. Almost. Sadly, I’m not good at taking vacations and have almost never done it. I’m one of those people who has always needed to take someone else along who was better than I at deciding how to have fun, how to decide what it is we need to do next. Well, decide what it is I need to do next. I may not have realized it then, but I’d already handed over the living of my life to other people – people whom I felt knew better how my life should be lived. Up the that point, I was pretty sure I’d already failed miserably at that task.

I had a great time at Six Flags once. I was probably nineteen and already had no idea how to fun. Fun, loosely defined, meant taking a risk and I was already pretty much done with risk by that point in my life. Not a dangerous physical risk, you understand. The risk was in looking stupid, looking childish. It meant trying not to offer myself up to ridicule by looking silly in the pursuit of enjoying a moment too openly. My friend would say, “Let’s ride the roller coaster.” I didn’t want to do that. Roller coasters are scary. They’re controlled danger, designed to raise the adrenaline level while, at the same time, keeping you strapped safely in place. I rode the roller coaster anyway and had fun.

See, there’s an equally disturbing second part to having fun. Not wanting to stand out, I agreed to do something I wasn’t sure I wanted to do in order not to look frightened or to appear to be too much of a stick-in-the-mud. Of course, I knew I was both. Life’s complicated, isn’t it? I knew I might actually have fun if I got on the roller coaster but couldn’t take that first step of my own accord. I needed some help to step outside my comfort zone and gamble there might be a reward in doing so. By comparison to the continent of the Americas, my comfort zone had already shrunk to the size of Rhode Island.

Years later, I took what was to be essentially my last vacation. I was still in my thirties. Here’s how it went:

“What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know, what do you want to do?”

“I don’t know, whatever you want to do.”

Now, imagine a week of that. Rule number one for taking a vacation when you’re uncertain how to do it? Make sure you’re going with someone who isn’t equally afraid of making a decision about what might be fun. Either of us could have been wrong, you see, and neither of us wanted that to happen.

As I recall, every other trip that might have been called a vacation could also be called a working vacation. Those were a little easier. Those were the type of vacations my family took when I was growing up. Too often, I suppose, we tend to do what’s familiar. We continue because it’s easier than taking a risk. Working vacations mean there’s less actual free time for which you have to take responsibility. Mary Crosby said, “I can enjoy a vacation as well as the next person, as long as I know it’s a vacation and not a premature retirement.” I suppose that’s always been another of my worries. I’m afraid to go away because someone might discover I’m not indispensable.

So, as apprehensive as I may have been about going on a mission trip with my church, I went. I suppose it could also have been seen as a working vacation. We had jobs to do when we arrived and there would be some off time to do as we would. I could choose to spend that time with others in the group or spend some of it for my own quiet time. I did a little of both. What I’d already learned by then was that how that trip went depended entirely on me. Entirely. I could open myself to new experiences and grow or I could spend a week in fear and do as little as I could get away with. Hopefully, I chose the former. But I knew how I perceived the week was dependent on remembering that I don’t and can’t control the actions of others. As long as I remembered to take care of my own little piece of Rhode Island (me), I could allow others the same courtesy without (too much) judgment.

I hadn’t taken a hat along with me for the mission trip because I was supposed to be working indoors. Besides, I hate hats. Well, hate may be a little strong. What I really hate is how I think I look in a hat. There, that’s a little more honest. And yet, I ended up one day working on the labyrinth one of the teams was building. I spent a lot of the day shoveling crushed concrete in the full sun.

It finally dawned on me that I should probably at least put on a little sunscreen. Later, I realized I hadn’t put any sunscreen on the back of my neck. I always seem to burn there worse than anywhere else. So, I finally decided to run back across the street to grab another one of my t-shirts. I put the neck of the shirt on my forehead and allowed the rest of it to drape over the top of my head and down my back. Some of the missioners thought I looked a little Egyptian that way. Rosa, another friend, said she was thinking more along the lines of Mary.

Bottom line? I didn’t care. I could laugh at Rosa’s comment because I knew there was no malice in what she said. In the past, I would have assumed malice and taken offense. I’ve found, however, life’s so much easier when I don’t do all the thinking for others. Oh, sure, I still do part of it for them, but not so much as I did in the past. And besides, Rosa’s comment was funny. Why wouldn’t I laugh? It’s a part of what having friends is all about.

But, I’ve been occupied with some real-life issues since returning from that trip. What is it, I wonder, that makes them real-life issues? I mean, as opposed to what? Unreal-life issues? It’s interesting sometimes to wonder where some of our expressions come from. It’s a little like reality TV, I think. If reality TV shows are what we believe are actual reality, no wonder we’re in deep trouble. They seem more designed to make us feel better – dare I say superior – to others. We can sit back with our beverage of choice and laugh at the antics of the characters. At the characters, not with. Another reason I don’t watch reality TV.

It’s not good, however, to look too closely at the things at which we are laughing. If we were to take a good, honest look at ourselves, we’d too often find our laughter is like the little boy whistling in the dark. He’s trying to distract himself so he won’t be as afraid. Can it be we’ve become a nation of people who need to look down on others in an effort to elevate ourselves?

Anyway, back to those real-life issues. Mission trip helped me see that I can move forward. I can keep fear in its place. Fear is a good thing in small doses. It helps us protect ourselves from real danger. Taken in too big a dose, however, it tends to freeze us in place. We can’t move forward for fear of what we may find a little way up the path. I’m finding that taking a little bit of fear out of the equation allows me to step forward a little bit and peer into the future. Unfortunately, perhaps, that means also peering into the past.

As long as I remain unwilling to look a little forward and a little back, it’s likely my present will look today just like it did yesterday. If I continue to be afraid of the answers, I will never ask the questions. And not just safe questions. At least in my case, I’ve found the only way to determine what I need to do next is by asking the dangerous questions. The but-what-about-that-scary-stuff questions that have frozen me in time for many years.

So, it’s time to ask questions, then really listen for the answers. If I ask the right questions – and those are simply the ones whose answers can frighten me the most – I can begin to see what I need to do in order to move out of a place of fear to a place of faith. It’s not like I haven’t done it several times in the past few years. It’s that more questions are revealed once I’ve acted on the answers I’ve received to the previous questions. It seems each new set of questions triggers yet another round of fear on my part. The difference, I hope, is that I’m beginning to learn that not asking the questions is more detrimental to me than asking them.

So, vacation’s over. It’s time to sharpen my Number 2 pencils and drag out my Big Chief notebook. There will be a test, of course. There always is, don’t you know? Fortunately, it’s not the grade I get that matters. What matters is that I came, I saw, and I surrendered. Conquering has always been a useless enterprise for me because the reality is that we never really conquer. The result is always that we discover we’ll need to conquer something else, then another something else, ad infinitum. Surrendering means never having to say “I’m sorry” to yourself. It opens my eyes to what’s real and allows me to take a step forward where others too frightened are still trying to conquer.

I’m finding there’s no need to apologize to myself as long as I know I’ve done the best I can do at any given moment. God asks nothing more of me. And I should never think less of myself for having tried. As long as I do what I can, I’ve not failed. If I wake up in the morning, I have another chance to find out who it is I’m supposed to be. That takes questions, answers, and the willingness to act on the answers to the questions I didn’t want to ask.

Mission Trip 2012 – Finale or Just the Beginning?

The mark of a great church is not its seating capacity, but its sending capacity. ~ Mike Stachura

It was with a great deal of trepidation I hopped into the SUV belonging to a church friend and headed to San Antonio on Sunday, July 15. Our Royal Lane mission trip for 2012 had begun. I had little idea what to expect and wasn’t certain I was actually ready to find out.

Be that as it may, I knew that as soon as our caravan pulled out of the church parking lot, it would be too late to change my mind. I was glad, however, to be in a vehicle with only two other people. I wasn’t certain I was up for the noise level in a 12-passenger van just yet. The next challenge was trying to keep a bunch of impatient Baptists all in a neat little row on the highway. Sure, we had our walkie talkies in each vehicle but they seemed only to add to the general confusion.

There’d be a squawk indicating that someone was planning to speak, then came some ear-piercing garble no one seemed to understand. There was one exception. For some unknown (probably profoundly spiritual) reason, Garland, our fearless leader, came across loud and clear. So, when someone needed to pull in closer to the rest of the group, Garland said so. When it was time for a potty break, Garland said so – complete with exit numbers and possible stopping places.

One of the final emails from Garland before the mission trip included this little gem: “Please limit your fluid intake on Sunday morning so we don’t have to stop any more than necessary.” Time management, after all, is very important on mission trip, as we were all soon to find out.

We made pretty good time until just after our first stop in Temple. Back on the road, we first drove into a traffic jam that saw us crawling along the highway for many miles. By the time we finally made it to the toll road around Austin, we’d driven into rain. The 80 mile per hour speed limit on the toll road did us little good in a pounding thunderstorm.

Somehow, we made it to San Antonio – all present and accounted for. We were only one hour late for the dinner awaiting us on the campus of Baptist University of the Americas. By the time we got to the campus apartments in which we’d stay the week, everyone was exhausted, perhaps a little cranky. Mission trip had begun in earnest.

We were divided into five mission teams. Six, actually. Two of our members were tasked with taking care of laundry and keeping us fed for breakfast and lunch throughout the week – a very important job, it seemed to me. The mission teams were the BUA team, Rosemont Apartments VBS team, San Antonio Food Bank team, Christian Assistance Ministry team, and Alpha Home team. I worked on the food bank team, though asked to work one day with the BUA team building a prayer garden labyrinth for the university. Labyrinth’s are very important to my faith journey, after all.

Alpha Home is a non-profit treatment center providing specialized services to chemically dependent women. There’s a storage building behind the home that was in drastic need of some restoration and the team took care of repainting and restoring the structure.

BUA team laid out a beautiful labyrinth across the street from the campus apartments to be used as a prayer garden. The university will be building their new campus on the surrounding land. A lot of heavy work went into its creation.

Christian Assistance Ministry assists homeless and low-income families with food, clothing, financial services, and counseling. Our team helped prepare meals, provided hygiene kits, and assisted in any way possible with that ministry.

Rosemont Apartments VBS team provided a vacation Bible school for the children in that low-income complex. They provided fun activities during the week culminating in a little fair on the last day.

San Antonio Food Bank team showed up each morning to do whatever was asked of us. We helped assemble meals for Kid’s Cafe, cleaned out big ice chests when they returned from meal delivery, helped wash dishes, and sorted canned and dry goods donated by individuals.

In the evenings, we all gathered back on the BUA campus for dinner. This provided a chance to share stories about our day and get progress reports from each team. There was also a worship time in which each of us took part in one way or another during the week. The university was our gracious host for the week.

I know this isn’t a terribly detailed account of what went on during the week. I’m not sure it needs to be, though. What was most important, it seems to me, was that the week provided a time for a bunch of like-minded people to get together and try to be of some assistance to others less fortunate than ourselves. Did we have some fun? You bet. Was that the purpose of the trip? No. Still, no one said helping others needs to be a somber task. In fact, getting too serious about how much good we were doing would simply prove to point out our own perceived self-importance.

Jim Elliot said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” These past few years have shown me the truth of that statement. The problem, I think, is our capacity as humans to forget what it is we can and cannot keep. One of the things I will keep for the rest of my life is the sight of the smiles on the faces of the children at the vacation Bible school on Friday morning. It’s one of those things worth keeping. I shed a few tears for the memory of what might have been. I also shed a few happy tears at the sight of what might be for those children.

Perhaps the most important thing to come out of a week on mission trip was to remind us we are surrounded by need — and that we have it in our power to do something about that. I discovered that sometimes being Christ to others requires a hair net, latex gloves, and a lot of sweat. Now, that will tend to knock you down a peg or three when you’re tempted to feel smug about yourself! I’ve found, however, that it can be quite useful to occasionally allow yourself to look vulnerable — even ridiculous when necessary. After all, how do you put a price on providing a smile and a helping hand to someone else?

All in all, it was a wonderful week. I believe every member of our teams worked hard to make the week a success. Were there a few problems? Sure. After all, it’s difficult to throw thirty-five or so people together in close quarters for a week without someone getting on someone else’s nerves. But I believe everyone remembered in the end we weren’t there for us. We were there to serve others. And that notion becomes a great leveler.

The first planning meeting for next year’s mission trip is scheduled for October. I think I’ll plan on being there. Robert Speer said, “Prepare for the worst, expect the best, and take what comes.” Good words to remember whether on a mission trip or simply living your life.

What, I wonder, is your next mission?

Mission Trip 2012 — San Antone or Bust!

Here is a test to find whether your mission on Earth is finished: If you’re alive, it isn’t. ~ Richard Bach

I don’t like that quote of Richard Bach’s. I mean, what does he know? What if I want my mission here on Earth to be finished? What if I went contentedly along for most of my life secure in the fact that there was no mission in it for me at all? Yeah, what about that, Mr. Bach?

I will be leaving at the end of the week on my very first mission trip with my church. I was supposed to go last year but ended up with a severe infection and had to cancel at, literally, the last moment. This year’s trip has been hanging in the balance for at least the last couple of months. Circumstances at work in the form of a new software system left my approval for time off in question until late this past week. My own health issues over the past year seemed still not to be resolved. In fact, I’d already informed the lead of the mission trip that I was not going to be able to go again this year.

Suddenly, I received permission to take the time off. My reaction? Panic. How could my boss have done this to me? Here I had the perfect excuse to allow me to bow out again and she’d just blown that right out of the water. My next reaction? Guilt. Okay, there’s really nothing particularly unusual about me and guilt. In fact, it ranks right up there in my top five most likely reactions to, well, everything. Truth be told, it’s probably number one. I am extremely adept at manipulating guilt in either direction. Either I feel guilty for doing something or I feel guilty for not doing something. It’s a very versatile emotion. I believe it’s referred to as “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” For me, I just called it Being Ben.

Next reaction? Depression. I was going to be letting someone down either way I went. Those at work, after all, would be hard-pressed to survive a week with me gone. Delusional, you say? Certainly. Still, run with me on this one, okay? I asked my boss if she was going to have to drink heavily while I was gone and she said yes. I felt instantly better. Those going on the mission trip? They would not be hard-pressed to survive the week without me, but I would be left to wonder, once again, what I’d missed by not going.

Versatile, you see? Put me in a boxing ring by myself and we’re guaranteed a knock-out blow. It matters little which side delivers the winning blow, I still end up the loser in all cases. It’s sort of the nature of guilt and depression, though, isn’t it?

So, why is there more fear associated with the mission trip side of the argument over staying and making sure my department at work stays afloat that week? Change, pure and simple. There have been so many changes in my life these past few years. You’d think I might be used to it by now. You’d be wrong. I’m left wondering all the time whether or not I can survive any more change – good or bad.

What could change, you ask? And, how do you know there will be change? And how can you be sure what change and, after all, why should that be frightening in advance?

There will be change, that much I know. How? The change is already there. It’s walked with me all my life, generally ignored. The change is waiting there, just out in the wings, ready to try to take center stage unless I can stave it off once again. And I’m afraid I may not have the strength to fight it off any longer. Surrender, as it turns out, is a process rather than an event. Nothing happens if nothing happens, but nothing huge ever really happens all at once. Oh, sure, the change may be there waiting to be acknowledged but it takes some action on my part to allow it to take full effect. You might call that my saving grace. Well, it had been in the past. But, it takes massive amounts of energy to hold off who you know, deep down, you really are. It’s been a waiting game, I suppose. God’s infinite patience, it appears, may win out in the end. It probably always does, acknowledged or not.

So, what’s a mission trip? Frankly, I don’t know. Oh, I sort of know the particulars of this trip but that doesn’t mean I really know what it means. I think that’s been my fear. I think if I go I’ll find out and there won’t be any turning back. I have been told, in fact, that once I go I’ll want to go again. What? I mean, who’s got the time?

Here’s what I like about the missions I’ve seen now in two different churches. With each, the focus is on helping others. That’s it. No requirement that you listen endlessly to some church’s agenda for your soul, no coercion, no “you’d better turn to the Lord now before it’s too late” message. Showing up with open arms is all that’s required. The rest will come as it does. That’s what I like. I am convinced that I will be on a trip with a group of people who none of them believes exactly the same thing. What’s even greater about that is the fact they’re willing to admit it. It makes it a lot more difficult to try to drag someone else over to your side when you know your side is your own personal, deeply-held belief system – loosely in agreement with others on the same journey with you.

But why spend money going somewhere else to help others when there are so many in need right in your own neighborhood? Excellent question. You’re a bright group! I’m sure I must have said it before, but it bears repeating. I admit that question has troubled me a little, also. Wouldn’t the money spent be more useful given directly to aid local folks in need? Perhaps. On the other hand, here’s how it shakes out for me. Caution: this opinion may change in a couple of weeks after I’ve returned from the trip.

Going on a trip together, whether vacation or otherwise, pushes people in closer proximity to each other than is likely to happen on a daily basis. Often, that even holds true if the people on the trip happen to be a spouse or other family members living in the same house with you. One of two things, even both, are likely to happen. Either you find out that you were right about how much those people annoy you or you discover things about them that gives you a deeper respect for them. Either way, you’ve learned something and I believe that’s always useful. Win-win.

Couldn’t you do that getting together right where you are? Well, yes, to a degree. I have a feeling, though, that it’s simply easier to see (and acknowledge) people in need when you’re in a place unfamiliar to you. It may feel safer to reach out when you know you’ll be going home in a few days. I mean, if you discover you really suck at helping others, at least you will have learned that hundreds of miles from home.

On a more positive note, you may discover that, whether you suck at it or not, help is help no matter how well or poorly you believe you do it. And, that knowledge may help you return to your everyday life a little richer, a little more open, a little more caring. It may be that you discover the part of mission Bach was talking about is simply opening your heart a little more each day to the needs of others. It may be that you return home with a new urgency to reach out a hand to others right where you live. And if that’s so, it sounds like it should be well worth the money.

Garland, our fearless leader for the mission trip, says the three most important things to remember about a mission trip are: focus, flexibility, and faith. There’s a need to focus on the tasks at hand to do the best we can at any given moment. Flexibility is key because nothing ever goes exactly the way you plan it. And faith. Faith plays an enormous role here. It’s important to have faith that it will all work out the way it does and, somehow, that will be enough.

So, frightened though I may be about the potential result, I’m packing my sunscreen, a hat (hate them), two sets of work clothes, toiletries (no need to stink up the place), medications (a whole separate bag, in my case), work gloves, reusable water bottle, a swimsuit (yeah, like I intend to let anyone see me in that), and bug spray. I mean, what’s the worst that could happen? Either those with me will discover I’m not as patient, spiritual, and serene as I occasionally appear or I may discover that I’m actually more patient, spiritual, and serene than I believe myself to be.

Years ago, I had an intense fear of asking someone to dance. Only a small part of that had to do with the fact that I’m an awful dancer. When I sobered up, I came to realize asking someone to dance never once killed me. Not once. Can you believe it? I suppose a fear of reaching out a hand to someone else is the same. No matter how much I fear simply breaking down in tears at the mere gesture of offering help, it’s likely that also won’t kill me. Not even once.

Perhaps Richard Bach is right, after all. I’m not dead, yet. That said, the mission must not be over.