International Ministries

A "Holy" Holey T-Shirt

April 16, 2012 Journal
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The other day I was hanging up the laundry and noticed that one of our “sleeping shirts” had begun to go to pieces during its most recent washing.  (We have t-shirts that are too worn, faded, stained, or misshapen to wear in public, but they make great shirts in which to sleep.) As I looked at that disintegrating shirt, some clarity came to me.

Our older son Luke is choosing a college this month; it is for him and for us the end of a chapter in our lives and the beginning of a new adventure.  As I have been contemplating this transition, I have come to a realization:  our sons have grown up outside the US.  I never really planned this.  I did not one day say to myself:  “I would like to raise my children in a foreign country.”  But I look back and realize that this, indeed, has happened.  My sons’ childhoods have been so different from my suburban upbringing in Ohio.  And I wonder how did this happen?  The t-shirt helped me to trace the story in my mind.

I was pastor of a church in Ohio, and Debbie was a social worker at a local hospital.  Luke was in the first grade and Ben was still attending preschool.  We had a house, 2 cars, a grill, a dog, and went to Disney World for vacation—a most conventional life.  A fellow pastor invited me to his house on a Thursday to have lunch with two missionaries in the States on furlough—Ketly and Vital Pierre.  They showed a video about some construction projects they were undertaking, and I thought to myself:  “My church could do that!”  I went home that day with a mission.  I shared with the missions committee of my church that I felt a real sense of calling to organize a mission trip.  They caught my enthusiasm, and a year later we took 21 people to Mexico to mix concrete and dig a really big hole at the Baptist seminary in Mexicali under the direction of missionary Tim Long.  Debbie went on this trip, and we both had a real sense of purpose that week.  Maybe it was the beauty of the endless desert vista or the perfection of the spring weather, but it all felt right.  I bought a t-shirt on that trip, the one that recently went to pieces. 

The following year Ben, Luke, and I went to the annual International Ministries World Mission Conference at Green Lake Conference Center.  (Debbie decided she was too busy at work to go with us.  In reality, she was “softening us up,” giving us room to warm to the idea of missionary service.)  The following year we went back--this time with Debbie.  That autumn we applied for mission service and the next summer we were commissioned and moved to Belgium.  After serving for 4 years in Belgium, we have spent an additional 5 years in Italy.  And that is how my sons ended up growing up in Europe.

It all began with a lunch and then a 7-day mission trip to Mexico, with no plans to trade in our old lives for new ones; but that is where it all led.  This is a happy but cautionary tale.  Oftentimes God speaks to us in soft, prompting voice, moving us step by step.  When we listen and open ourselves up that calling, the journey takes us places we did not expect to go and asks of us things we had not prepared to do.  Usually we do not carefully mark the distance as we travel, but when we come to a juncture in our journey we look back at the ground covered and realize how far we have come. That worn t-shirt is a mile-marker along the way for me.  It memorializes a corner I turned, a corner I did not notice at the time.

May 18 to 25, International Ministries, along with the American Baptist Home Mission Society and the American Baptist Ministers Council, are hosting a Hear the Call conference for people who are feeling a call to ministry in their community, in vocational ministry, or overseas, followed by a World Mission Conference.  This event could be a mile-marker for some people; you might want to be careful!   All of us every week are at risk of hearing the call of God in our lives.  We listen and respond; and, now and then, we pause to measure the distance traveled.

The Hebrews were told to make mounds of stones as monuments to how God had led them, mile-markers along the way:

Joshua said to them,  “Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordon, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, one for each of the tribes of the Israelites, so that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, “What do those stones mean to you?” 7then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial for ever.’ (Joshua 4:5-7)

I am going to keep this t-shirt as a memorial to a corner I rounded many years ago.  It marks a holy place in my life; it is not nearly as sensational as a bush that burns without being consumed but nonetheless an important moment in my journey.  It clarifies for me why I am living the life I am living.

May God sustain you as you turn corners along your journey,

Jim (along with Debbie, Ben, and Luke)

As you pray, please remember to:

-Give thanks for the calling of God in the lives of immigrant church leaders as they prepare to serve their congregations.

-Give thanks for the U.S. staff who serve with International Ministries to enable the ministries of missionaries on the field.

-Ask that God will soften the hearts of Italian churches who have buildings that could be used by immigrant churches.

-Ask God to prepare the women who will participate in the women’s conference this June, both the leaders from the States and the immigrant women who will attend.

-Ask God to call individuals and churches to help us reach 100% of our support goal.