How Mission Trips Change Us

Excerpted from
After the Trip
By Cory Trenda

Every cross-cultural journey has its own lessons to be gleaned, every encounter its unique impact on our lives. And over time we will discover more and more treasure from our past cross-cultural experience—if we remain open to its lessons.

Because integration is a journey, if we honestly want our encounters to shape us, we have to not only make time for processing but also give it time. Often memories or connections come to us on their own, when we’re going about our day. Giving it time means paying attention when an experience involuntarily flashes back into your mind. Then you can set a reminder or appointment with yourself to make time to reflect on that memory. You need to mark the spot so you can dig later for the deeper nugget—and then actually follow through on the reminder!

Still, as every miner knows, digging and sifting can be hard work.

Over the past thirty-plus years, I’ve spent countless evenings and mornings with fellow travelers during our cross-cultural trips debriefing our encounters from the prior day or week, not to mention the many subsequent conversations once we are home. Though the activities and discussions and locations vary greatly, the main takeaway themes that surface are quite consistent and similar.

Though there is some value in understanding the insights others have gleaned, your most enduring cross-cultural lessons are those tied to your own experience—your encounters with others, hearing their stories firsthand, glimpsing their values and observing their actions and choices.

Still, experience is only a beginning. Many people in our culture are experience gluttons. I have one acquaintance whose motivating goal is to visit one hundred different countries. This guy admires people who have reached the hundred-nation mark, looks for exotic trips to take to add more countries to his “collection,” and spends significant amounts of money to reach this milestone. Yet in many ways he is one of the least culturally sensitive or curious people I know. In short, it seems his goal is to go, not to grow.

Growth or life change doesn’t require that you go to more places and have more experiences. There are undiscovered treasures in the experiences you’ve already had, and mining those can uncover great riches.

So let’s look first at some of the postures of processing, if you will. These are key attitudes you need in order to become receptive to the lessons of your experiences and allow them to truly speak to you.

Think about your spiritual journey. Every generation has discovered anew and passed down timeless spiritual practices, such as prayer, contemplation and communion. These practices have helped seekers and disciples throughout the centuries to draw closer to Christ, take their faith more seriously and grow spiritually, even as they glean fresh insights for their own generation through these timeworn methods.

Similarly, there are proven practices that can help you glean your own unique lessons and foster a lifetime of learning and true life change from your cross-cultural encounters. To develop the eyes of our global God, you can employ these attitudes or postures to pay closer attention and dig deeper.

How do we plumb the depths of what God had in mind for our cross-cultural encounters? In addition to prayer and journaling, reflecting on Scripture in light of our cross-cultural experience and, conversely, reflecting on our experience in light of Scripture can be powerful tools for mining precious gems.

At times, our reflections may be driven by emotional experiences as visceral as wrestling through the question, How could a loving God allow people like those I just met to live in such miserable conditions? The velocity and ferocity of the facts on the ground about poverty and inhumanity can peel the plaster right off our neatly crafted understanding of God. In those times, we may be tempted to turn our feelings of helplessness and dissonance into anger toward God, pointing an accusing finger heavenward as we wrestle with God’s goodness or power or even existence.

At other times, you might desperately want to understand how people living in such conditions could appear to experience real joy or be unreasonably generous, despite their circumstances or suffering. What do they have that I lack? we wonder in our quieter moments.

Recently I spent some time in the Czech Republic, a land controlled during the past century by the Austria-Hungarian Empire, then overrun by Nazi Germany, and then for seventy years repressed by the Soviet Union. Wandering through the Museum of Communism in the Czech capital, Prague, and reflecting on their long years under the thumbs of stronger nations, I marveled at the resilience of the Czech people and their ability not only to survive but now to thrive. Where did they find hope during all those years? I pondered.

Contemplating our lived experiences such as these in light of our faith is an important part of theological reflection. Consider changing up your Bible-reading habits or the books and devotional materials you use in order to dig into these questions and to integrate your cross-cultural experience more fully into your understanding of God and Scripture.

In our Western society, it’s easy to fall into a mindset of God as our private deity whose main concern is helping us pick the right college or job or spouse. Once we’ve had experiences outside our own societal worldview, and perhaps gained a more God-sized view of the world, these interpretations of Scripture and understandings of the God of the universe may no longer seem sufficient. I have found that I sometimes need to alter my spiritual habits to further develop this new mindset and not fall back into my old, nearsighted patterns of seeing and thinking. Being “transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2) is not a one-time process but a continual invitation. Fear not! If the cross-cultural experiences we’ve had were superintended by God, then to mine that treasure for our transformation is the only obedient response we can make.

One of the strongest barriers standing in the way of our opening ourselves to God’s kingdom and our place in it is our preconditioned understanding of how to interpret Scripture. We can hold on so tightly to what we’ve been taught that it feels threatening to realize that sincere Jesus followers in other cultures read the very same Bible passages yet find quite different meanings than we do, and they notice other passages that we virtually skip over. A friend of mine once vociferously insisted that, unlike other people, he does not interpret Scripture, he simply reads “what’s written on the page!” Anyone who says that has no awareness that we each come to the Bible with our own a priori worldview, our own cultural paradigms, and our own needs. Our understanding of God often shuts out anything that might uncomfortably challenge our own lifestyle, not to mention our tidy perceptions of God and of our place in the world.

A few years ago I discovered a monastery not too far from me. Because it is a working Benedictine cloister, the monks gather multiple times each day for the Liturgy of the Hours. Vespers is at 5:00 p.m. daily, and occasionally I stop in for the twenty-minute observance. It almost exclusively features antiphonal singing of the Psalms in medieval plainsong, and we few bystanders are welcome to sing along. It’s quite different to experience the Psalms in this ancient way, word by word and line by line in their completeness as musical compositions, as in fact they were written. At times the words present themselves in new and more powerful, even discomfiting, ways.

It was here, as I heard the words of the Psalms come out of my own mouth, that I vicariously felt within them the mourning of those billions around the world and throughout the centuries who hang all their mortal hopes on these very words. Standing in the shoes of the poor and the oppressed, of those who feel they are at the bottom of the heap, imagine how these words become promises, how they might leap off the page and into your heart:

“But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted; you consider their grief and take it in hand. The victims commit themselves to you; you are the helper of the fatherless.”  (Ps. 10:14)

“‘Because the poor are plundered and the needy groan, I will now arise,’ says the Lord. ‘I will protect them from those who malign them.’” (Ps. 12:5)

“The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.”  (Ps. 103:6)

“He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap.”  (Ps. 113:7)

“I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy.”  (Ps. 140:12)

As it turns out, much of the Bible is written not only about the poor but to the poor—words of comfort, of justice from exploitation, of life in all its fullness. Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55), which is sung at the close of vespers each day, has been called one of the most subversive religious texts ever written. Her hopes for the Messiah were tied up not in personal salvation (as our majority culture’s theology might have preferred it) but, uncomfortably, in societal transformation, political justice and even redistribution of resources. If you didn’t see that previously, try reading Mary’s words of amazement and hope through the eyes of those you’ve now met and learned to love who are poor, marginalized or living under occupation—as Mary was. How might they read the same text?

“And Mary said:
‘My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.’”

(Luke 1:46–55)

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Excerpted from After the Trip by Cory Trenda. ©2018 by Cory Trenda. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove IL 60515-1426. IVPress.com