John Wesley established three general rules for the earliest Methodist societies. The modern phrasing of his rules is: Do no harm, do all the good you can, and stay in love with God. The societies were small groups of people who sought spiritual renewal through gathering in small groups to pray, study scripture together, and to go out into their daily lives to intentionally help others. These groups were in addition to usual Sunday worship, and many United Methodists today still gather in small groups to pray, to study, and to be in mission together. But now we are told that to protect the most vulnerable among us we are to NOT meet in groups, we are not to gather together for worship, and we most certainly should not travel. We should practice social distancing. A hard thing to do for faithful people who desire to show love for God and neighbor by being present with one another. How do we do no harm and still do all the good we had planned to do?
One of the underlying assumptions about short-term mission work is that we have the freedom to travel and be with people in their time of need. This is why Early Response Teams have trailers packed with equipment and tools to go at a moment’s notice to an area affected by an earthquake or tornado. This is why teams of volunteers keep their passports up to date and stay in communication with their denominational partners in other countries. Yet in this moment in which a virus has spread across the globe, we are told that we must not travel, we must restrict our freedom so that others will be safe. We must practice social distancing to reduce the curve of infection spread, so that hospitals and doctors’ offices can cope with the numbers of those who fall critically ill, and hopefully to keep those who are most at risk safe.
In the last 24 hours there are many United Methodists who are coming to terms with the news that our next General Conference, in which we were to take up legislation that might result in our denomination splitting, is to be postponed. Many of my United Methodist friends have shared their initial reactions on social media. But there are other stories that aren’t making headlines or being shared widely on social media – particularly, conversations being held in churches about whether or how to proceed with their planned short-term mission trips. Is it safe for our team and our hosts if we go? How can we help if we don’t go? How can we show the love of God and neighbor if we don’t go?
Now is a good time for people to reflect on the deeper meaning of mission. We can still gather via phone calls or video conferencing. We can still pray together and study together. This is a good time to pause for a deep dive into scripture and mission theology, to equip ourselves for when we return to showing God’s love through our sweat and labor. This is a moment of holy opportunity.
Recently I visited Haw Creek Commons in Asheville, North Carolina. They have a small labyrinth painted on the floor of the coworking space. The nearby elementary school had just let out and a few children came into the room on their way to piano lessons, others to take a break from the playground outside. They were drawn to the labyrinth, and all of them ran around the path. Run to the center, laugh, turn around and run back out again. They were enthusiastic and joyful!
Short-term mission work can draw us in like those joyful children on the labyrinth. Our enthusiasm and joy in the work of helping our neighbors is shown in how quickly we respond to needs and how eagerly we set aside our usual routine for hammers and nails, saws and paintbrushes. Our time is used up in planning meetings, traveling, dividing up into work teams, working hard to finish tasks for our new friends, and then traveling home to wash laundry and get back to our regular routines. Like school children running the labyrinth, we rush in and out, not resting in the center.
This is a moment in which we can stop and rest in the center, to prayerfully consider how it is that Christ is calling us to be the church in mission. If your mission teams would like to schedule a video conference / devotional focused on mission, contact me for more information about hour long sessions or mini-retreats led by Sister of Hope Ministries. Be prayerful and patient, friends. God is with us, now and always, dispersed or together, and we are the sheep of God’s pasture.