A FTER OUR DELTA 757 arrived in Guatemala City, our group of 31 tired travelers disembarked.
We made the all-important pit stop in the terminal before working our way through customs and spotting our mission partner Philip Beisswenger.
Philip was with two drivers and a couple who would become quick friends with our group — PCUSA mission co-workers Richard and Debbie Welch.
This was my first trip traveling to Coban, a 5-to-6-hour bus ride from the capital, Guatemala City.
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ROUGHLY HALF OF OUR GROUP had never been on a mission trip at all, and two-thirds of the group had just never been to Guatemala. Honestly, I was a bit apprehensive.
I’d led plenty of mission trips, but never to an international destination. And certainly not to a place where most of our group couldn’t speak the local language.
After a good night’s rest, we found ourselves at the Presbyterian complex in the city of Coban, where we quickly got to work. One of my better traits as a person is that I don’t mind getting my hands dirty. I’ll jump right in on a mission project.
And I soon found myself shoveling gravel to be spread out as a parking lot surface.
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LET’S BE CLEAR — shoveling gravel is a tough job, but it’s a job you can’t mess up. Just the kind of job that’s perfect for me!
I was working alongside Paul, a Trinity member. Paul had never been on a mission trip, didn’t speak a lick of Spanish, and is a bank president. Shoveling gravel — a job you can’t mess up — was also right up his alley.
If you ever go to Guatemala, you’ll need to know that local church members often join us at the work site. We eat meals together, we worship together, we sweat together, we work with schoolchildren together.
Despite any language differences, it’s a partnership.
Well, Paul the banker and Pastor Chris started slowing down after an hour of shoveling and took a break.
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A GUATEMALAN PRESBYTERIAN who was working with us just kept going — shoveling and shoveling and shoveling. I knew enough Spanish to ask a couple of questions of this guy who was putting us to shame.
His name was Donaldo. He was 34, the same age I was at the time. He had a wife and daughter and he attended the Presbyterian Church. That was about all I was capable of learning from him in Spanish, but it turned out I’d learn a greater lesson later on….
I’ve gotta be honest…. Whether I’m in Coban or Daphne or Foley, I can get caught up in the little annoyances of life. I can get grumpy and frustrated. And when I get grumpy, I lose sight of how to best follow Jesus.
If working hard on a mission trip is a good trait, getting annoyed in a long grocery line in Rouses is a negative trait. It’s a truth of who we are as humans.
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WE’RE SINFUL and we don’t always do what’s right. We get frustrated, we say harsh words under our breath, and we’re distanced a little bit from God and from our neighbor….
The Apostle Paul seemed to get this because he was clear that he wasn’t perfect either. Before today’s scripture, back in chapter 7 of Romans, Paul writes:
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
It’s the deep reality of our lives. Even though we know and trust in Christ, we often fall short of the rule of love for God and neighbor. That ethic of love is what Christ said was the most important lesson for our daily living — the greatest commandment.
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TO GIVE YOU an example: Last weekend, I had to go to Enterprise to pick up a rental van for our year-end youth event. I’d booked a vehicle online as I’d done a thousand times before. I booked it for a noon pickup, and when we arrived just after noon, the place was a ghost town.
I walked up to the door and found out that they closed at 12.
I’ll just say if you’re going to close at noon, it might be smart for your online rentals to end around 11:45, but that’s another sermon…. I wouldn’t be able to pick up the car.
I was grumpy, and Lauren got me to re-focus and call the other Daphne location. Their staff was incredibly helpful, but when I arrived at the other location, I saw a line of people and was told I’d be helped in a minute.
I said “Thank you” and started veering into grumpy-Chris-mode.
I sat down and started scrolling through my phone to avoid eye contact until my name was called.
The person ahead of me was playing 20 questions about his car, so I started thinking, “What are you doing? Just get the car, buddy!” Until he told the agent, “I just want to make sure we have enough seats for the kids. We have two little girls and a baby. I’m not sure how insurance pays for the claim if you upgrade, but we need the space.”
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AND THEN I REALIZED my attitude was the real problem.
Not Enterprise, not this guy — but me. I realized I wasn’t being the person I should or could be as a Christian…. I put my phone away, slowed my thoughts and recited Romans 12:18 in my head….
“If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
Another translation reads:
“If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people.”
In my sinfulness, I’d defaulted to selfishness and annoyance. We all do it from time to time. We get snippy. We get frustrated. We get so self-focused, we lose sight of the neighbor struggling next to us.
But in Romans 12, Paul gives us a set of teachings that challenges us.
One of my favorite lines is 12:18, which has become a memory verse for me over the past few years.
It can easily get lost in the larger passage, so I want to break that verse down:
If it is possible …
So far as it depends on you,
Live peaceably with all.
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“IF IT IS POSSIBLE.”
Now, I don’t think that means Paul wants us to look for a loophole in being Christian.
It’s easy to say, “I’m annoyed, so it’s not possible.”
But Paul isn’t offering excuses. He’s offering instruction. In other words: If there’s any chance you can look beyond your selfish motives and follow Jesus, just do it!
He goes on:
“So far as it depends on you.”
I think that’s a call to self-awareness. To take a step back and look at our situation with perspective….
In other words:
■ Chris, it doesn’t matter that the first office was closed.
■ Chris, it doesn’t matter that you’re waiting behind others who were there first.
■ You need to be self-aware.
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BEING SELF-AWARE means we survey what’s building up inside us….
“OK, I’m annoyed and feeling impatient at Enterprise. I’m hungry because I haven’t had lunch yet.” Now I know why I’m starting to feel grumpy. Now I know why I’m failing to love my neighbor.
It’s not about them, it’s about me.
Paul goes on:
“Live peaceably with all.”
Now that I don’t have excuses, I am freed live at peace with those around me and to share Christ’s peace with them.
The rental agents are slammed and doing their best, so I am sure to say “Thank you” and interact with gratitude as they help me.
There’s a dad whose wife’s car was totaled, but everyone was safe, so I am sure to smile as he follows the agent to his car.
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SOMETIMES IT’S THESE little steps; sometimes it’s more.
Romans 12:18 — one verse — helps me to get perspective when I’m snippy and frustrated:
So that I can share Christ’s peace with the world around me.
Romans 12:18 appears in a larger chapter that is all about new life in Christ, written in a letter that is meant to encourage a church Paul did not establish, in Rome, the center of one of the most advanced, worldly cities of its time.
Romans 12 is filled with powerful statements about what new life in Christ looks like in the church and in the world.
David Bartlett was a favorite professor of mine at Columbia Seminary and he calls Romans 12, “the great therefore….” He says it is a chapter where Paul gives “the implications of God’s grace for the way in which we live our lives.”
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ROMANS 12 IS “The Great Therefore.”
God has shown you grace in Jesus Christ, who died for your sins and was resurrected — defeating death…. Therefore, you are to live differently.
God has shown you grace in Jesus Christ. Therefore, let your love be genuine. Therefore, be patient in suffering. Therefore, care for people in need. Therefore, welcome the stranger. Therefore, rejoice with the rejoicing. Therefore, weep with the weeping. Therefore, live in harmony. Therefore, live peaceably with all.
Friends, God has shown us grace in Jesus Christ. Therefore, we live differently. That’s the great therefore of Romans 12. That’s our reminder to follow Christ’s ethic of love.
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IN COBAN, I SAW the great therefore lived out in Donaldo, our new friend who smiled and laughed with Paul and me. Our new friend who encouraged us in our shoveling. During lunch on the third day of work, Paul noticed Donaldo roll up his pants leg to adjust a large prosthetic knee brace.
For three days Donaldo had been working circles around us. And it turned out he’d faced mobility difficulties since childhood.
As Paul and I reflected later at the hotel, we realized we’d been complaining that morning.
Because just when we thought we were finishing up, another dump truck showed up at the complex with a mountain of gravel to spread. While Donaldo smiled and got back to work, encouraging us by his example, we both felt humbled and challenged to give our absolute best the next day, our last day of work.
Donaldo was patient and service-minded. And, Donaldo showed us how to be more genuine in our love that would be lived out in a shovel.
A new parking lot in Coban. And a lot of laughter and smiles with our Guatemalan siblings in Christ.
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FRIENDS, SO FAR as it depends on us — in the small annoyances and the big issues — we need to be more….
■ Slow down.
■ Survey the world.
■ Survey ourselves.
And therefore, get back on track. Therefore, we may live peaceably with all people. Therefore, we may show genuine love for our neighbor. Therefore, we respond to God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
May it be so for all of us this coming week.