What lessons will God teach you through this time?
Our entire world suddenly finds itself on a virtual mission trip. We have embarked on an unplanned and unscheduled journey, one that none of us ever signed up for, courtesy of COVID-19.
We have traveled to a strange place, one previously unknown to us. We are facing discomfort and insecurity. We are ill at ease and a bit unsure of ourselves. Even our own hands are unsafe and untrustworthy.
The days all run together and each one seems several days long. “Did that just happen yesterday?” is our constant refrain.
We are all experiencing what the word vulnerability truly means, perhaps more than ever before, and it is giving us a taste of what much of the world feels and lives every day.
Yup, those of us who have taken mission trips and vision trips can definitely recognize these uneasy feelings. Yet our unease is unquestionably magnified in this moment. Why is that? Because these feelings are happening where we live, not somewhere else. We didn’t get an agenda and we don’t know where we’re heading from here. And we don’t know exactly when—or completely if—we’ll be coming back to what we’ve known as our normal life. Talk about a double dose of disorientation.
As Pope Francis stated so viscerally in a recent meditation, “For weeks now it has been evening. Thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets and our cities; it has taken over our lives, filling everything with a deafening silence and a distressing void, that stops everything as it passes by; we feel it in the air, we notice in people’s gestures, their glances give them away. We find ourselves afraid and lost.”
We find it very difficult to deal with these feelings, and even more difficult to get ahead of them. But as a preacher reminded me the other day, at times when we have so many questions and face so many unknowns, we must always remember what we know about God and about our place in God’s world.
It’s also important to remember what we know about mission trips: We voluntarily put ourselves in uncomfortable situations in order to experience a tiny taste of how those in more difficult circumstances live. We seek to learn something from those we visit and from our encounters with the unfamiliar. We desire deeply to come home and somehow be different, changed, larger, because of the experience.
Granted, none of us signed up for this journey, but do we have any doubt that God could use it for good in our ongoing lives and in our world, after the trip is over? And, do we expect this will happen magically, or will it happen because we take this journey with intentionality?
As challenging as that feels, let’s not waste this unique opportunity to experience the moment and expand our worldview. But how do we prepare for an unplanned trip that we find ourselves already on? And how do we make the journey in such a way that it becomes integrated into our post-coronavirus life, so that we don’t forget the lessons God might have for us through this time?
1. Be present. We are living through an historic time. While COVID-19 is not nearly as threatening as the great plagues of old, which at times sickened half the population and killed half of those who fell ill, it is arguably the most riveting global health crisis of the past hundred years. Many seem determined to expend all their energy finding ways to bend the social distancing guidelines and getting their short-term emotional needs met. Fixated like this, just think of all they’re missing. Can you imagine not paying attention and thus wasting any other vision trip experience this way?
2. Be compassionate. Author and columnist David Brooks points out that very few books and stories were written about the great influenza of 1918-19. “Perhaps it’s because people didn’t like who they had become. It was a shameful memory and therefore suppressed.” Did our ancestors become self-centered and live through that crisis in such a way that they were ashamed to tell their children and grandchildren about their experiences? When we are on the other side of this crisis, as the world definitely will be, what narrative will we wish we had woven together through our actions and attentions right now?
3. Expand your horizon. Are you seeking out news beyond what’s happening in your own community, state and even nation? Do you know the impact this virus and lock-down are having on brick-breakers in India’s crowded slums, or on Syrian and Rohingya refugees in crowded refugee camps? Or even on Italians, Kenyans or Filipinos? How far do our prayers extend? We are experiencing a global pandemic; here’s our opportunity to stretch our hearts to be global Christ-followers, to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
4. Record your feelings. Someday you’ll wish you’d journaled or otherwise chronicled this time. We all have short memories, especially during these days of emotional and informational overload. Life will overtake us and seduce us back into old habits and routines, and soon this “trip” will become a distant memory from the fast-receding past, like the fading black-and-white photos of your grandmother. If you want to live a life “in color,” then color it now. Our culture has become accustomed to stringing one experience to another, with little to no space given for reflecting on the meaning of each one. In your anxiety, don’t neglect the opportunity to make annotate your journey.
5. Fully experience the moment. The miracle of the Incarnation is that Jesus lived what humans live, felt what we feel. You may never again have the chance to experience what the world’s most vulnerable feel every day. Admittedly, these are terribly uncomfortable feelings and our first inclination is to suppress and escape them. Binge TV, social media, 24/7 news—we are surrounded with the tools to distract ourselves. But exactly as you would lovingly counsel your fellow travelers on a mission trip, push yourself to stay in the discomfort a bit longer, feel it more directly, and breathe deeply. This is how we can learn empathy, not just sympathy.
6. Expect tomorrow to be worse. Did you ever have a fellow traveler who was constantly off-balance and complaining about how rough things were for them? And then the next place your group stayed was even worse? Don’t be that handwringer! If we expect things to get tougher, we won’t lose our footing when they do. Instead of fretting, we’ll be able to continue paying attention and caring for those around us and for our global neighbors who are also struggling through this. Just like on a mission trip, our expectations are crucial. We are in for rough trails ahead, and if we face those warnings and predictions head-on, we’ll be ready for the path ahead and can keep traveling through the thicket to the other side, helping others who stumble along the way.
7. Be a student. Here’s your opportunity to learn more about public health policy, about community preparedness, about how earlier cultures dealt with similar—and far more deadly—health crises. Take your pick of topics. There are plenty of lessons out there to be gleaned. Bring home some treasures from this unplanned journey afar.
8. Notice who you are becoming. What habits are you developing right now that you want to integrate into your ongoing life? What has surprised you about yourself? Can you move beyond a desperate desire for things to return to exactly the way they were, and then ask yourself if exactly the same as before is your best future? What new practices can you hone as the temporary restrictions ease up in the coming weeks and months?
9. Let Your Heart Hatch. Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision and later Samaritan’s Purse, wrote this prayer in his Bible: “Let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God.” As author Parker Palmer points out, we can imagine this “break” happening in one of two ways, “first, imagining the heart as shattered and scattered; the second, imagining the heart broken open into new capacity, holding more of both our own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair and hope.”
I envision this second kind of breaking as an egg that has a live baby chick inside. As the chick grows ever larger, it outgrows the eggshell. The eggshell breaks from the inside out because the fleshy, alive thing inside it is enlarging. Like that chick and eggshell, our hearts break from the inside out as they expand and are able to embrace more of the pain and the joy, the despair and the hope of the world.
Incredibly hopeful things are happening all around us these days. Do you see them? Stories of compassion and courageous acts by healthcare workers serving in the face of great personal risk. Global cooperation at a level not seen since World War II and sorely lacking in our own day. A heightened realization that what happens to one of us anywhere happens to all of us everywhere or will soon.
The world is learning how to save millions of lives through science and new forms of collaboration. Every nation on earth is valuing human life like never before. And we are re-learning the lessons of social solidarity, the need to behave for the common good. Infectious disease science is quantifying the importance for such behavior, and we will be better prepared next time. Good minds will collaborate and debate how we can be better prepared in future and “shelter in place” quicker with even more global synchronization.
These and more are the legacies our generation has the opportunity to deed to those that will follow. If we take this unplanned virtual mission trip with intentionality, great good can come to us personally and to our world by maximizing its lessons, to the glory of the Lord and the advancement of God’s Kingdom.
Cory Trenda is the author of After the Trip: Unpacking Your Crosscultural Experience, published by InterVarsity Press.