My son Evan and wife Sheryl were still dozing when we touched down in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The layover in La Paz, at an elevation in excess of 12,000 feet, had taken its toll on them. I leaned back as the pilot engaged the reversers and applied the brakes. After some 15 hours, we had completed the journey from our home in Nashville to Bolivia. This was Evan and Sheryl’s first trip with me to this country that has captured my heart and imagination. This, my third trip here, was to be spent teaching at a conference of Anglican Clergy, strengthening our relationships with the Diocese, missionaries, and Bolivian friends.
As I thought about what drew me here, I realized that it was the influence of 3 things: God, the Gospel, and Mrs. Guess.
Mrs. Guess was my third grade Social Studies teacher. Back in the early 80s, Social Studies focused on learning about different places and cultures around the world. I can vividly remember sitting in her class as she wrote facts in green marker on an overhead projector. I remember the pictures in our textbook of people in such distant places as Africa, Asia, and South America. As we baked in the non-airconditioned Mississippi springtime heat, I wondered about the people in the photographs –what their lives were like, what they ate, where they lived. I felt strangely drawn to them. Mrs. Guess, with her beehive hairdo and firm grandmotherly demeanor, somehow encouraged my 3rd grade self to think about the larger world.
Some thirty years later, I would be reminded that we serve a global God with a global Gospel. While I knew this, I didn’t really know it in a meaningful way. It was only as I got involved in missions, first in Ecuador and later in Bolivia that I began to experience this reality. Over time, I began to see that the missional imperative is not for a select few, but for all of the church. The entire Christian church is called to be “ambassadors of the Gospel” (2 Cor. 5:20). Missions is not a program for the local church to engage in along with all its other programs. No. Missions is, in Star Trek parlance, “The Prime Directive” of the Church. To miss the boat in missions is to miss the boat entirely. Matthew 28 is pretty straightforward:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
And there is no conflict between serving here and serving abroad. It’s not an either/or choice. It’s a both/and commitment. Jesus gives this Great Commission, and Acts shows us that the disciples understood it and lived out their calling to spread the Gospel both near and far. The Gospel compels us to engage the world and to partner with those who are actively taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
For me, the joy of my work in Bolivia is summed up well in this verses from Philippians:
“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion atthe day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace…” (Phil 1:3-7, ESV)
You see, I have not said or done anything in Bolivia that probably hasn’t already been done or said. I didn’t tell their clergy anything new at that conference. What I hope shined through was my desire to join with them in the work the Lord was doing in their midst, to offer encouragement, and to pray with and for their success. For me the great gift of missions is found in the hugs and kisses of greeting from my Bolivian friends. It is found in joining in a circle of prayer at a Bolivian house or clapping along to exuberant singing at a Sunday worship service. It’s sharing in meals and strong coffee and dreaming together of what God may accomplish among them. It’s knowing that they are praying for me, my family, and my church.
We labor in different parts of the vineyard, but we labor together. And I am thankful for their love, friendship and our partnership in the Gospel.
God, the Gospel, and Mrs. Guess– they helped open my heart and mind to the world. And I’m so thankful for it…