Please leave your shoes at the door.
Take off your coat.
Don't bring your phone.
Come and sit down, just as you are...
To go on a mission trip is something similar to walking into someone's home as a guest, prepared to be present to them with all that you are and to not bring with you an excess of baggage that belongs outside.
The most false idea a missionary can have is that they are going to "save people" or to "make other's lives better." It is not that this act of service and sacrifice is not heroic, but that the heroism comes in a different form. You do not show up wearing a superhero label and snap your fingers while the bad guys run in fear. Rather, you become just like them.
This is something that may be lost on our Amercian culture, but generally, when you are a guest in someone's home, you adapt to the laws of the family. Certain rituals or traditions or expectations about behavoir and conduct, language and presentation are expected to be respected by you as a guest, and upheld by you to the best of your ability. Even when you visit dear friends, who would say "our home is your home," there is still an element of care and respect that ought to permeate your behavoir because they are making their home a gift to you, and you know better than to damage what has been given as a gift.
Mission work is something akin to this. You go to be like them. You go to humble yourself, to enter in. You leave your customs and typical foods and daily routines on the other side of the ocean. You go to become integrated, to learn, to love what they love. You eat what they eat, and appreciate it. You speak how they speak, or at least try to. You recognize their customs and give them respect, whether you understand them or not. You know that you are a guest before you are a servant, and that they are serving you through welcoming you into their homes and lives, and feeding you, housing you, and teaching you how to function in their world. Figuratively speaking, you strip yourself and clothe yourself with what garments they wear, and thus seek to live as if you were the same.
Anyone who has had the experience of being served or taken care of, which hopefully is everyone, understands that a good servant is one who makes you feel as if the care they give you is a free gift, one which they desire to give, and does not seek anything in return. The kind of care that comes from true love for another human being is the kind that humbles, the kind that breaks down walls and removes prejudices. Service that is in the name of love, for the sake of love, in the strength of love stirs up great joy in the one who receives such care, and deep gratitude. When care is freely given, the recipient will find it impossible to not feel as if they are undeserving and too insignificant for such sacrifice.
What is so intriguing is the way in which this kind of gift unnerves the recipient and at the same time invites him. Whether the invitation feels like a challenge, as in a moral sense of justice or what is right that stirs the person to know they too ought to be giving in this manner, or a request, as in an invitation for a response that is equal and of the same nature, the gift entails the invitation. This is because the gift includes the self of the other, the will, the intuition, the planning, the generosity, the admiration, the appreciation, the love of the other. A heart that is open to receiving gifts of love, gifts in love, is one that has set aside the danger of being wounded for the reward of growing in truth and fulfillment. The recipient is ready to respond, because he has felt within himself the movement, the turning about, the change that such a gift makes. There must be a response.
This is the invitation that love brings, the message encrypted for the one with the eyes to see it, or the light in the heart to read it. Service is that invitation. Giving is that invitation. The generosity of love that forgives all offenses and cannot recall anything but the good... that is an invitation.
The invitation is not only to respond to the giver in the personal sense, although that is the primary dialogue, but also to the world at large. True love invites the heart to reforming. True service invites the person to be made new.
The book of Revelation has a beautiful instance of this in chapter 21:
"I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Behold, God's dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them (as their God). He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, (for) the old order has passed away.'
The one who sat on the throne said, 'Behold, I make all things new.' Then he said, 'Write these words down, for they are trustworthy and true.'
He said to me, 'They are accomplished. I (am) the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give a gift from the spring of life-giving water. The victor will inherit these gifts, and I shall be his God, and he will be my son. But as for cowards, the unfaithful, the depraved, murderers, the unchaste, sorcerers, idol-worshipers, and deceivers of every sort, their lot is in the burning pool of fire and sulfur, which is the second death.'"
The invitation is one of surrender as it is one of response, and it is one of delight and gratitude as well as one of mutual sacrifice. The acceptance of the gift given, and the appreciation of it, and the love of the one who has given.. this is essential. Similarly, the return of the gift with the same humility and gratuity ensures the completion of joy for those who love.
Lovers will say that there is no cost, that the sacrifices are nothing but daily bread for the joy that comes from the beloved. Parents will say that the sacrifices are nothing because of the wonder of the gift of their children, the stunning fact that these little lives once were not, and now are, because of the love between the two of them. Children will learn that the sacrifices are not to be counted, for they have received so much, including their very lives, as a gift. And the child who grows into an adult and discovers a beloved will know the magnificence of having received all of these gifts, from the moment of existence unto the moment another desires to united their two lives forever into one new life.
There are some who will say that the service of love, the sacrifice and humility of leaving one's shoes at the door and learning new habits and adapting one's life to a new life with and through another and a family is too much. Some will argue that this type of invitation is false, and robs a person of freedom. Many will say the demands are too great, and there is a breaking point that comes where the requirements, the invitation as it were, is too great. They are not right.
Rather, it is the ever growing, ever deepening, ever expanding generosity of this type of love, that reaches back further and further into the history of the lovers and further and further into the future of their lives that gives them all of the freedom to live. The invisible boundaries established by the invitation that promises forever and the response that speaks the same are the boundaries that set the two apart from all of the actual inhibitions of selfishness, vanity, pride, jealousy, dishonor, lust, malice and any other failure and gives them the framework to spend every day striving to live within trust, commitment, cooperation, humility, sacrifice, joy, gratitude and mercy. The truth of the human condition is that even the most true and pure loves are imperfect, but the same truth is that love never fails.
When those who love, be it a lover, a family, a community, a people, or a nation, will to daily take off their coats and shoes, put on the cloaks of those whom they care for, and spend their days learning to live as another lives, they will succeed. For every failure and diminishment, miscommunication and hardship, pain or bitterness, there will be infinitely more moments of great generosity, heroic patience, forgiveness and understanding, wisdom and truth, and merciful love. Love always triumphs, and it is nothing but the courage to embrace the path to triumph, which is inevitably through the Cross, that is the grace that comes in the invitation of Love. So Love invites, and then equips, then carries you through, strengthens and heals, and in the end, outlasts all else.