The God Who Dwells in the Gap.

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2010-01-17 by George Kaplan

Preachers:Wayne and Lois Hochstetler
17th January 2010
A dialogue sermon
Readings: Psalm 139; Romans 8
(both only referenced briefly so not reproduced in full here)

W: We bring you greetings from other Christians around the world, who also send their greetings to you.

L: We are Londoners now. W: Please mind the gap between the train and the platform. Please mind the gap. L: We have no car, and rely totally on public transportation for traveling farther than we can walk. W: The next station is Highgate. Please mind the gap. L: We hear the “Mind the gap” message repeatedly while negotiating the subway system. W: When you exit the train, please mind the gap.

W: “Mind the gap” is a reminder to be careful. We seldom notice “the gap” as we step easily into the train, but the fact is, it is a place of danger. Sometimes it is a step up or down. One could trip, a young child could step into it, it is a long way down, and there is an electrified “third rail” down there. Pay attention to where you plant your feet.

L: Since March Wayne and I have been more conscious of “minding the gap”. There are funny ones—the gap between British English and American English. Like Mark Twain observed, the United States and Great Britain are two great countries divided by a common language! There is the gap between the British way of serving tea and the American way.

W: There is a huge gap between British and American driving habits, so please, if you are walking, look to the right first before you step off the sidewalk, because that is the direction from which the traffic is coming.

L: In our work, we are minding the gaps that inevitably show up on the mission field. Cultural gaps, language gaps, relationship gaps, family gaps, gaps between what is and what we wish would be. Gaps between our best hopes and wishes and the realities of a difficult world; Gaps between our energy level and the tasks that are waiting to be done.

W: It is our job to travel to places where there are Mennonite Mission Network (MMN) workers, and provide encouragement, pastoral care, attention to the mission work, counseling as needed and requested, and in general, wrap the arm of the sending church around our workers. Since June, 2009, we have also been asked to visit Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers when we are in their areas.

L: We are getting a close up and comprehensive view of Mennonite Mission work around the world. We are finding mission workers who are flexible, friendly and open with cultural issues, dedicated to their work as only those with a firm sense of call are able to be. They deal with great disparities in standards of living, and are joyful in their work. They all work on shoestring budgets and are amazingly resourceful. They are the ultimate examples of “making do”. One mission worker in Burkina Faso laughingly told us that one of us needs to be a handyman. Counseling is okay, but they would gladly forfeit that if we could fix things—that is what is really needed.

W: At the same time, they have been very glad for our visits. Sometimes we get to take the place of absent grandparents, and play with children. Sometimes we minister by playing games. We have long conversations, in English, and learn that the language is a challenge for mission workers, even when they have been in a country for years already. After all, when our mission workers finish most language school courses, they have achieved about a third grade vocabulary. That is inadequate to discuss the abstract concepts of faith, the nuances of theology, or teach a Christian Education class about faith. Yet that is what our workers are doing.

L: We are also seeing workers wrap their language skills in a blanket of loving respect for the people to whom they are seeking to relate. When Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message,” was he thinking of mission workers? They know that no matter how well they know the language, if they do not know how to appreciate and live within the culture, no one will hear their message. If they commit cultural faux pas, the locals will not listen to what they are trying to get across. If mission workers do not respect the local people and their ways, the local people will disregard the workers.

W: We are fortunate that when we visit, we have the mission workers to help us navigate the local customs. We find that this actually is one more way to validate their work and experience, as they educate us about what they already know. If they have been on the mission field for a number of years, they have a great deal of experience and sensitivity.

L: By telling us about their work, they review for themselves what is important, and to what it is that they give their energy. They tell with pride what they do. At the same time, they are human. They get discouraged. They worry about whether they are doing what the sending church would expect of them. Are they spending the contributed dollars conscientiously? Should they take a vacation? Are they worthy of good self care?

W: We also know that when tensions are high, it is the spouse and the family that usually gets the brunt of the disgruntled moods. L: Perhaps the spouse is the only other person who can speak English, and can hear the anguish in one’s mother tongue. W: Perhaps he attends church, but seldom gets fed, either because the service is his responsibility Sunday after Sunday, or the worship style and language are not his preference. L: Perhaps she is worried about her kids and their experience, or about parents back home. W: Perhaps he is discouraged, doubting, or caught up in something that makes him doubt himself. L: Perhaps she is having trouble with other mission workers. W: Perhaps they have hit a snag in their marriage relationship.

L: In these and similar circumstances, we are available to listen, to help think through the issues, to support, to provide a different perspective, to pray, to hear underlying layers of meaning.

W: It is our aim to be flexible, as it is not easy to host strangers for several days, in settings that are not familiar to the visitors. We are told we are easy to host, and we take that as a great affirmation. Yes, we can eat African food with our hands, sitting on little stools around a common pot. We realize that we are being honored to be invited into their courtyards to eat with them, and know that they feel honored by our being there. Thus we are enriched over and over again, in many places, with many people.

L: Since March of 2009, Wayne and I have visited 15 countries, and have slept in 65 or more different beds. As a past-middle-age woman, I consider it a specials gift of God’s grace that I have been able to sleep well in spite of it. That has been a special blessing, and a confirmation that this work is exactly what I am supposed to be doing.

W: As we go out, we are confident that God walks with us, that God is in the gaps — the challenges, the conundrums, the puzzles, the dangerous spaces we encounter. Indeed, the good news of the gospel is exactly that — God is there, always, extending love, acceptance, care and nurture. It is because of this that we do mission work.

L: But gaps are difficult places to be and to stay in for any length of time. How does a mission worker stay & work in some of these gaps / spaces? How does anyone negotiate these places? Where is God in this process?

W: Psalm 139, read at the beginning of the service, speaks about a persistent God who does not give up on us. This God simply will not let us out of His sight. “O Lord, you know me … You know when I sit down & when I rise up.” Vs 7: “Where can I flee from your presence?” The answer is “nowhere”, but the Psalmist does not say that. Instead, to paraphrase, he says, “Even when I live in the gap, and it seems like death or Hell (Sheol), you are present even there, as well as in the good places. Even if I go to the far reaches of the world to serve you and others, even there you are present.”

L: Story of Mission Worker who prepared before she went to Ukraine, as a young girl who studied Russian.

W: We have a God who has promised to be with us in the gaps of life. That is a very comforting thought, because when we serve God, we can find ourselves in many different & difficult situations.

L: Story of a mission worker who said to her neighbors and teenagers, when a conflict arose, “There will be no violence in my courtyard!”

W: Mission workers sometimes find themselves in cultural situations that suggest a different way of dealing with a situation than their own orientation would suggest. Now, what is the right thing to do – The direction of the local culture, or the mission worker’s tendency, which feels so right? South American missionaries in Argentina faced this one. Confusion was coming into the process – whose work is this?

W: Three mission worker families are translating the Bible into Toba & Pilaga. As they worked they found their own cultural way of proceeding getting in the way of the Toba owning the process and claiming these scriptures as their own. So they stepped back and asked the local church leaders to designate people to lead the process. That happened, and the mission workers took the role of walking beside the local translators as resource persons & technical advisors. This worked so well that now they firmly embrace the concept of “accompaniment”, rather than doing things themselves.

L: Story of a mission worker who counsels military personnel in Europe regarding their options when they begin to ask questions about how faith and military service intersect.

W: These are stories of mission workers who have stepped into the gaps which were present. As ambassadors of Christ, mission workers step into the gaps to represent God in those places. For them, stepping into the gap is a step of faith.

W: In similar ways God’s call to mission comes to every one of us. All of us may find ourselves in situations where we will choose to enter into the gaps of people’s lives in one way or another.

W: When we choose to walk with people through the situations and gaps of their lives, it may not be easy. But again, we have the promise of God in Romans 8, where God promises that nothing can separate us from the love of God. This is true even in those spaces/ places/ gaps when we’re not sure we can feel God’s love. And yet, in Romans 8, God is the one who claims us as belonging to God. God is for us as we walk with people through the gaps in their lives.

W: I have gaps in my life as well. I live with them, and need to claim God’s grace for those times & situations. I also need people to live and walk with me through those times. I need to recognize God’s promise to me to be with me in these gap times. You most likely need that also. Let’s together claim God’s grace & presence for ourselves & for each other.

Amen.

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