Filling in the Blanks...

...Closing Comments

It has been a week since returning from a journey with 15 others to Israel and Palestine. For several years, before the pandemic, I had been going over there at least once a year. It was those experiences that refreshed my soul and gave me the strength to continue in my own vocation.

When the pandemic hit my annual trips came to a halt. I found myself completely immersed in trying to keep my current appointment alive and well. I thought moving through the pandemic would only take a matter of months. I had no idea it was carry such harsh restrictions for more than three years.

The result for myself was exhaustion. I had given everything I had to give. I had not found a way to revitalize my soul. By the end of 2021 I felt I had given all I could to keep my ministry afloat only to be greeted by some as ungrateful and looking for more from me.

I made the decision to retire. Frankly, I was tired of what I had perceived as constantly trying to convince the church that it should be the Church. If I could not return to a place where I had witnessed a people and place where God was constantly shining through, then I needed to step away from a people and place where God was being shut out. It was the best decision I could have made.

Please do not get me wrong. There are several people with whom I hold in high regard. They have been responsive and faithful. Unfortunately, as so often happens, they also were quiet. As they were quietly going along with their faithfulness, there were just as many loudly being anything but faithful. The noise simply became too much.

I thought taking a year off from everything would be enough to renew my soul and allow me the time to get a new perspective on life and ministry.  I checked out my available resources and found out I had enough to buy a car, a small house and remodel it; and I could live modestly for the next forty years. Again, the world got in the way. The stock market began to reflect just how screwed up our world really is. My resources were reduced by about twenty percent.

I had to modify the plan. I bought the car. I bought the house. The remodeling would have to be put on hold. Still, it has been a pretty good year. I have enjoyed retirement. I found a small church in the country that reflects that kind of attitude and faithful response to God that I think a church should. I asked them to not to expect me to do anything that would be considered pastoral for one year. They have honored that request. I made it through Christmas without doing anything special. That was tough. When Easter came, I had to do something. I asked my church if I could lead a special service during holy week. They responded positively. It was exactly what I was hoping for. What I did not realize was just how much it would also make me know just how broken I was. Retirement has been great, but it has not refreshed my soul as I had hoped. Stepping away from pastoral leadership was the correct thing to do. I still needed something that would offer me the soul refreshing mission of God in my life.

This brings me to VIM ’23. Restrictions of the pandemic have finally been lifted. Travel to and from Israel and Palestine is now possible. The opportunity was given, and I have staked my very soul on its success.

A group of 16 people have committed to this journey. The leadership of our VIM team is not on my shoulders. The friends and ministries there are anxious to have us come. A part of me can’t believe this is going to happen. Just a few months out from our departure date and I still have my doubts. I am doing everything I can to make sure this experience is awesome. I have asked two people to join me on this journey. One of them said yes without any hesitation. The other strung me along for awhile and eventually confessed she was scared to go. This does not deter me in any way. Complications seem to be a part of the preparations. This is not uncommon in any circumstances. We continue to move forward with the plans. I have made commitments for supplies and support to our VIM ministries. I have asked my church to pray over these supplies and for our VIM team. They do not let me down. Not only did they pray, but they helped acquire the supplies needed and sent me with additional resources for supporting the people and ministries.

The day has come. Everything is packed and ready to go. Arrangements have been made for connecting with my travel companion and the entire group. We meet at the airport. From this point you, the reader, can go back and read my previous entries to get the details of our journey.

I have already repeated more than I had intended. What I have not written yet are details which will fill in the blanks of our journey itself. This was no ordinary trip. As many journeys such as this I have been a part of, still, this one held some unusual factors which had a significant impact on the experience.

I find myself being a bit cautious and skeptical of people and their motivations from the start. Attitudes are making a key impression on me even before we take off on our first flight. I b3elieve this to be a reflection more on my own broken spirit than on those I seem to be imposing my own bias. I find a need to be more patient and kinder. I am given an opportunity right away. As we board our first flight, I am seated next to a person in our group, but one I do not know. Little do I know that she will play a significant part in our journey. As I try to stir up conversation with her, I get one- and two-word answers at first. By the end of the flight, we are getting along well. I find that she is a cousin to the person sitting across the aisle from us. This, too, will prove to be significant as the details unfold.

You can read more about the beginning of our journey in my earlier writings. Let’s jump towards the middle. We are at the heart of the journey for me. We have arrived in Aboud. The elementary school there is a Christian school. I have been here several times before. The school was run by one of the most faithful women I have even met, Miss Suhaila. Unfortunately, during the pandemic, Miss Suhaila, who had been battling cancer, succumbed to the disease, and passed away.

Our time in Aboud would not only be spent working with the school doing some needed repair and upkeep but would also be spent getting to know the new director and staff at the school. I had met these folks before. I did not feel like I had a personal relationship with them. This was a goal. I wanted to develop a stronger personal relationship with them.

Things are going well on our first day. We got settled in. There were a couple of small glitches. Nothing that could not be overcome. I am trying to get clear on who is who at the school. I want to know names and relationships. I am not afraid to ask questions and to let them know of my intentions. I feel like things are going smoothly for everyone concerned.

The second day we are given work projects. Everyone is doing a great job. The morning goes without a hitch. One of our big missions will be to lead a VBS with the children of Aboud. Our format is to greet the children around nine o’clock. We divide them into classes. The classes will rotate six times. In each rotation the classes will have a lesson and an activity. Each lesson and activity will focus this year on the Fruit of the Spirit. Our group leader has prepared an opening session with all the kids to introduce the theme. Members of our group have divided up to lead each of the six classes. Our group leader will gather all the children at the end for a time of reflection, summary and closing worship.

I am supposed to be the key person responsible for another major event on Friday that will be a Youth Rally with Jr High, Sr High and college students. Because of my role in the Rally, I have not taken on any responsibility for the VBS.

After lunch on the second day everyone is supposed to shift from the work projects to making sure everything is ready for the next day’s VBS. Last-minute preparations are being completed. The rooms being used are to be set up. I was going to go into my room and work on plans for the Rally. I hear a commotion out in the hallway. I go out to find that one of our team members has fallen. We find out later that she broke her leg, near her hip, in the fall.

Suddenly everything changes. Arrangements must be made to get her to a hospital. Our leader needs to go with her to make sure everything that needs to be done is done for her best care. The person who fell was the person who sat next to me on the first flight over. I feel a connection with her. As others are making the necessary arrangements, I stay with her and try to keep things calm. Her cousin is among the others with us. Eventually we get most folks cleared out. Her cousin goes to get her things ready for being transported to the hospital. Our group leader gets all the papers ready and his stuff together so he can go with her. The ambulance arrives, the EMTs are very good, and everyone is on their way.

Our leader is now gone. No one is sure when or if he’ll be back for the VBS. Everyone has responsibility of their own for the VBS. It falls on me to fill in for our leader, as needed. Needless to say, I was needed. The leader had told me what he had planned for the opening and the closing. I’m sure it would have been great if he had done them. I needed to do my own thing. I stayed up that night and created an opening and a closing. I got all the props I needed from around the school to do them.

God shined through.  I turned the VBS and all that went with it over to God. The children arrived and we went on as if nothing was amiss. The team did great. I coordinated the rotations after leading the opening session with all the kids out front of the school. We met in the chapel for the closing. We had some fun in reflection. Our team sang for the children, and I asked the children to sing for us. The children were given various gifts and a snack before leaving. All went well.

The hospital details and care were given. It took a little longer than any of us anticipated. Our leader was gone for a longer period than any of us had hoped. The surgery was arranged and completed for repairing our team member’s leg. She remained in the hospital for the rest of our journey. Praise given to all concerned, she did get to come home with us.

There were very few things, places, and people that I really wanted to see on this journey. I must admit there were a few times I was more than disappointed. I knew this was not my group. I agreed to that when joining. I felt like it was not my place to make a fuss over such desires. It became a matter of what was best for the group. It was also a matter of not being in charge that sometimes took its toll. In reflection there were only two instances of any significance. Both of which I will get over in time. The first was going to a place that carries a great deal of meaning for me. Timing and energy levels just made going to this place completely impractical. When the opportunity was presented, I felt like the negative impact it would have on the group was simply not worth it.

The second opportunity was a combination of poor planning and miscommunication. Getting to this place and being with these people was a priority of mine. I made no secret of this to anyone. We started the day later than we should have. We ran late from the very first place we went. Timing became an issue all day. There was a small ray of hope. A change in the schedule looked like I was still going to get to have the experience I desired. Instead, we ended up at what I would consider the worst place ever. This is not just because I wanted to be someone else. What we were supposed to be experiencing and learning at this place did not happen on any level. The presenter had an agenda of his own. We did not learn anything that applied to what we were there for. It was bad enough I did not even try to avoid falling asleep during this guy’s presentation. By the time he was done our group was done as well. We attempted to make the most of it. The moment had passed. What I was hoping to experience was not an option.  What should have been the best experience ever turned into a modest experience at best.

This journey was exactly what I needed. It did not fail in any way. Things happened within the journey I would not wish on anyone…delayed flights, delayed luggage, broken leg, and missed opportunities.  Experiences happened that I wish everyone could experience…God’s holy creation, friends living out their calling with energy and excitement, building new relationships, seeing God shining through.

Most of all I needed to open my heart and soul God. I found even in the disappointments God was at work in me. It was very difficult leaving.  My guess is that most of us feel this way. We hunger to be in a great relationship with God and each other. Jesus went to a mountaintop. Jesus took with Him Peter and James, and his brother John. While there, he met up with Moses and Elijah. He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light. Peter thought so much of the experience that he never wanted to leave the mountaintop. Jesus encouraged them to take the experience to heart but stressed the importance of continuing in their daily lives.

We all need those exceptional experiences to lift our spirits. More importantly we need them to fill our souls. These are the times that help us carry on with what God calls us to do and to be in daily living. I came home to a respiratory infection thanks to a freezing terminal that made my nose feel like an iceberg in the middle of a communion service. Nothing like being thrown back into everyday life. My spirit is lifted. My soul is full. I am anxious to see what God has in store for me. I am in a place, now, ready for whatever it is. I pray for you those mountaintop experiences that will prepare you to do and be what God is calling you, too, as well. Amen.

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