My eldest and I just returned this weekend from a mission trip to the inner city of Philadelphia. This was our senior high mission trip and we traveled with a total of 55 kids and adults from suburban Virginia. As I have found with the previous mission trips in which I have participated, this was a profound, life-changing week where I learned more about God's heart…His heart for me, His heart for the students with whom I served and His heart for this broken world in which we live. I have spent the days since our return trying to form words to describe our experience.
During our time in Philadelphia, we were given a devotional to use for our times of private reflection, devotion and prayer. Through this devotional, I learned a new word which I can not even remotely pronounce "splanchnizomai." Splanchnizomai is a Greek word that takes its origin from another Greek wording referencing "the bowels or intestines." This word refers to that sense of feeling something deep in our gut. We can all relate perhaps to feeling things in the pit of our stomach? In Jesus time, they would have referred to the bowels…or the "gut"…as the center of our emotions, in the same way that we refer to the heart today. Our devotional guide told us that "splanchnizomai" was only used 12 times when the New Testament was originally written in Greek. Each time, this word is used in reference to Jesus or God and is most often translated "moved with compassion." This word tells us the story of our Lord, deep in His gut, being moved by the needs of others and, in every case, being moved to action by that emotion. Our God, our brother Jesus, is a God of deep, heart-felt, gut-wrenching compassion.
Our trip last week was, in many ways, all about allowing God to develop this kind of compassion in each of us. We prayed for God to break our hearts for the things that break His. Because we made ourselves available to see the world through God's eyes, all of us walked away changed to some degree. Some of my favorite moments of our trip occurred during our debrief each evening when the kids were given the opportunity to share what God was doing in and through them that day. It was powerful. While those are not my stories to share, I can tell you about my own experience.
On Wednesday of last week, we began our day with the opportunity to pray individually and as a group about how to spend our morning. On Monday and Tuesday, each group was given specific assignments about how to spend our morning (we all served in one of two VBS sites in the afternoons.) On Wednesday, we were given a couple of choices and asked to spend some time praying about where God might be leading us to go. I quickly joined the group that felt led to go to Kensington Avenue to pick up trash and be available to minister to the people that God might put in our path while we were there. We loaded up two vans full of teenagers and, along the way, stopped to purchase bags full of Slim Jims, cheese sticks, breakfast bars and water bottles to share with those we met who might be in need of food. We arrived on Kensington Ave., parked our vans and took to the streets armed with trash bags, gloves and bags of goodies.
If you are unfamiliar with Kensington Avenue, as I was, these were streets that I would not have traversed without several large teenage boys as my companions. These are not streets that anyone cares about or loves…these streets were overflowing with the refuse of people who have lost hope. The trash alone was overwhelming. As we walked along and filled bag after bag with trash, I tried to make eye contact with every person we passed and offer a greeting. A few people were curious about what we were doing and we stopped to talk to them. A gentleman in his 80s named Bob shared his experience of a lifetime of watching the decline of this neighborhood, his despair as he watched so many young lives stolen by drugs and crime, his determination to teach his own children a different way. He joined hands in prayer with our little group of 5 and offered a blessing for us…his new friends and brothers and sisters in the Lord. We also talked to and prayed with Lloyd and Michael who both shared that they were headed back to rehab and were believing that this time, the Lord would set them free from the addictions that had enslaved them for so long.
While I was blessed by the opportunities to encourage these folks we met along the way, the majority of the people we passed seemed oblivious to their surroundings…like they had given up entirely. Either anesthetized by chemicals or depression, noone was home inside. As I tried to make eye contact, time after time I was met with dead eyes. Eyes so full of hopelessness that they no longer saw the human beings around them. Eyes so tired, so weary…the images from scripture about "crushed bones" came to mind. Bone crushing weariness, bone-crushing despair. The light was gone from so many eyes and the sense of brokenness was palpable…and there was NOTHING I could do to make a difference. During our drive back to our lodgings for lunch, my van was almost entirely silent. As tears streamed down my face and the face of the young woman who sat in the front seat with me, these words were on the radio reminding me that the Kingdom is coming:
Though it's not easy
But faithfully, I will wait ,Yes, I will wait
I will serve You while I'm waiting, I will worship while I'm waiting
I will serve You while I'm waiting, I will worship while I'm waiting
I will serve you while I'm waiting, I will worship while I'm waiting on You, Lord
Over lunch, I had occasion to share my broken heart with some of the other adult leaders and we found that we were all in a similar state of mind. We talked about brokenness and remembered that God does not ask us to surrender our hearts to be broken and then allow us to stay broken. Our God is a God of healing, redemption and renewal. Our God is a God of hope and new life. Our God is a God of mercy and restoration. Like a broken bone that is re-set and heals stronger than before, our broken hearts surrendered to God are transformed. Ezekiel 36:26 (New Living) "And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart." As we moved into the afternoon's activities, I waited in expectation to see what God would do next.
That evening, we had the opportunity to go back to Kensington Avenue to attend a coffeehouse. Stuck on a vacant lot in between two buildings, we found a gravelled oasis where several times a week the local residents are invited in for music, coffee, lemonade and good news. The local ministry who runs this coffeehouse is a consistent presence there in that neighborhood. The two gentlemen who we met from their ministry had been rescued from those very streets and found renewal and healing through the power of God working through similar ministries. Both have families now and were a testament to the fact that God had not given up on the people of Kensington Ave. As the evening unfolded, I had the privilege of spending almost 2 hours talking and sharing and praying with Maurice, Kenny and Greg. Their stories are not mine to share, but suffice it to say that God is working powerfully in the lives of these folks. As I looked around to the other picnic tables at our students, including my eldest, listening, sharing and ministering to these our brothers and sisters from the streets of Philly, my heart found healing. God IS at work through His people as we allow ourselves to be used as His hands and feet. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself = the kingdom of God brought down to earth. A little glimpse of heaven. In allowing me to see and experience the coffeehouse that night, the Lord reminded me that engaging in the process of compassion matters. Caring about this broken world, although sometimes painful, allows us to see people through God's eyes and offer hope….whether in the ghetto of Philly or in the relative comfort of Northern Virginia. Sometimes all we can offer is to look someone in the eye and listen to their story. Like the loaves and fishes, God can multiply our humble efforts into healing and restoration and new life. What a privilege!!