Mission to Zimbabwe, updated

Three weeks ago, I returned from my two week long mission trip to Doma, Zimbabwe.  Here are a few words that describe my experience:  fulfilling, exhausting, fun, beautiful, busy, productive, and cold.  (Any of these words surprise you?)  I am so grateful for the support of so many people, both financially and spiritually, while I was there.  Three Southwestern College students participated on the trip as well as two of my nieces, Maddy and Savannah.  The mission was a powerful experience for all.

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Throughout the trip, various members of our team of 20 people blogged.  If you’re interested, take a look at the reflections here:  Http://ashlandtoafrica.blogspot.com.

I wanted to share a couple of my most significant impressions from this experience with you.  This was neither my first time on an international mission trip nor my first visit to Africa (and I don’t believe that it will be my last, either).   I was prepared for leaving behind the conveniences to which I’m usually accustomed.  Things like…beds, wifi, daily showers, privacy, central heating/air conditioning, endless water usage.   As it turned out, despite being prepared for rather Spartan conditions (I thought that I would be sleeping in a tent in their backyard), I discovered many more comforts than I expected.  They did indeed have wifi, and it and the necessary electricity worked about 90% of the time!  Additionally, I had a bed in which to sleep (and it was even inside the house!) and a shower whenever I wanted.  Of course I knew that the water was coming from a well that provided clean water for about 800 people, so I didn’t linger longer than necessary.  Even though I was prepared for austerity, we experienced more comforts from home than I expected.  And yet, even all of our comforts had an African twist.  Take for example the house that I stayed in.  It was the home of Rory and Judy Ervine.  Rory oversees the farm and its many workers and Judy oversees the clinic.  Back to the house:  it was basically a glorified “mud hut” with thatch roof, complete with birds who nested in the layers of the thatch and woke us in the mornings earlier than our alarms.  But don’t let this description mislead you.  The house was really a piece of art.  It was soundly built, had cement and tile floors, running water and electricity (and windows!).  My favorite feature was the tree (branch) in the living room on which hung metal and wood animals and insects.  The house was absolutely breathtaking and full of life.  It was so much more than meets the eye.  Just like everything else that I experienced.

At first glance, the house of Susan and Kevin Fry was a bustling, packed, busy place of organized chaos.  People were coming and going, leaving things, taking things, talking, working, and coordinating.  We added significantly to the chaos because of our 44 trunks full of donations and supplies for our time in Zimbabwe.   Our stuff seemed to multiply and divide, leaving trails of sewing machine parts, medical supplies, and stuff for kids in every nook and cranny.  But after spending time in this “mission center,” it became clear that emanating from this place were ministries that would educate nearly 200 orphans, feed nearly 800 people (orphans, missionaries, workers and their families, and neighbors), and impact a whole region.  Sure, it may have looked like chaos, but God brings order out of chaos, and people are empowered to go about God’s work through the many items that were carried over from our homes.

One of the framing motivations for our mission to Zimbabwe was James 1:27:  “True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this:  to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.”  I first discovered this brief scripture when I was in college.  The impact of it has stuck with me.  Often, we try to complicate things—we debate what “church” should look like, who can do what in worship, how we spend our time and money—but I think that there is something much simpler to keep in mind:  are we caring for the most vulnerable, and are we living our lives in a way that reflects God’s holiness and love in the world.  I don’t want to diminish the importance of guarding the faith and teaching right doctrine.  However, this simple orienting reminder of what is at God’s heart was often curiously looking at me in the face through cropped hair, brown eyes, and hands that were constantly reaching out for a hug.

Thanks for your support!  If you want to look at some pictures, there will likely be some on our Ashland to Africa blog, but there are already some on my Facebook page.  If you think of it, please do keep Eden Children’s Village in your prayers.  You can check out their incredible work here:  www.edenchildrensvillage.org.

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My Birthday Psalm (A reading of Ps. 37)

ImageOn my 29th birthday, I started a practice that I have celebrated each year since on my birthday.  I was struggling with turning 29 and thus, decided to embrace the number just a little bit by reading the Psalm that was associated with my new year.  Wow!  I was awed by Psalm 29 and decided to commit the whole psalm to memory, specifically for this part of it:  “The voice of the Lord is powerful.  The voice of the Lord is majestic…The voice of the Lord strips the forest bare and all in his temple cry, ‘Glory!’”

These words resonated so much in me because I wanted to invite the Lord’s voice into my life in a more significant way.  I was captured by both the destruction (of my false self) and the worship (with my new self) of God.  As the year went along, I really began to be shaped by and find communion with God through those verses in Psalms 29 in a way that I had not before experienced.

This practice of reading the Psalm associated with my new age has become my birthday tradition.  Some years, it has been a lament, others a psalm of joy.  This year, on my 37th birthday, I’ve discovered that Psalm 37 is a Psalm written by David and is an acrostic poem.  In an acrostic poem, the first letter in each successive line, when taken in order, spells out a word, or in the case of the acrostics in Psalms, are the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  Of course this doesn’t translate into in English in quite the same way, but I love knowing that this Psalm was written with a sense of completeness, order, and artistry.  The particular phrases that caught my eye are verses 3-4 (CEB):

Trust the Lord and do good; live in the land, and farm faithfulness.  Enjoy the Lord, and he will give you what your heart asks.

Many people know verse 4, as it is often quoted as a word of hope and encouragement.  I’ve even heard it criticized for having a sort of prosperity-focused interpretation that some may say only reinforces a sense of self-focused individualism (the motivation for finding delight in God is so that one might have the desires of one’s heart).  However as I’m reading these two verses together (especially on my 37th birthday), I am struck by verse 3 especially:  Trust in the Lord and do good; live in the land, and farm faithfulness.  Remember, this is one of the psalms of David.  He knew how important the land was to the people of God.  In fact, he was the quintessential king of the United Monarchy, when Israel was establishing firm borders.  Of course this implies that it was establishing these borders through war, but the promise of the land for which generations had been longing was being realized.  So David said in this psalm to “live in the land” and “farm faithfulness.”

Living in the land has a beautiful imagery to me.  For the Israelites, it meant to put down roots (figuratively and literally), to cultivate the land, to trust God’s provision.  For me, today, it means that I need to “live in the land” of my life now, in Winfield, KS, USA!  It is often tempting to live for a time in the future, in the past, in one’s hopes and dreams, or even in one’s fears.  But for me, living in the land means that I will embrace the kingdom of God that Jesus spoke about right here and now.  I will embrace the promised abundance (especially of God’s grace), and the call to bring heaven to earth through living out God’s Kingdom.  I’ll live in the land as one who has inherited God’s blessing and not mourn what the locusts have eaten, or what I think I deserve to be given.  This year, I’m not just going to occupy the space in which I reside, but I’m going to live in it—embrace it, share it, and see it as a blessing.  All my gifts, limitations, freedoms, relationships, positions, and responsibilities—those are the land in which I live, and I will live in it.

As empowering as I found this phrase, I found the next phrase even more empowering.  The second half of the sentence, “Live in the land” includes the admonition to “farm faithfulness.”  I love this phrase in the CEB.  It also is powerful imagery.  Instead of farming animals, or crops, one is told to farm faithfulness.  It’s as if I hear the instruction:  grow your ability to be true, diligent and obedient.  Cultivate habits that enable you to trust God and be faithful in your relationships with God and others.  When the weeds creep in, and they will creep in, do the hard work of love, forgiveness, perseverance, and giving and receiving grace.  I’ve learned that certain practices help me in this pursuit.  Prayer, study, meeting regularly with other Christians who seek the same things, intentionally seeking to engage with those most in need, and worship.  These practices are my tools, my sustenance, and that which helps me to grow in faithfulness.

While the temptation may be strong to can’t skip the farming part for the blessing part in 37:4, “Enjoy the Lord, and he will give what your heart asks,” we cannot skip over it.  Our hearts must trust that God has our best interest at heart, that what we have is enough, that the suffering that we endure is not going to destroy us.  And this trust is built only through farming faithfulness.  Yes, I pray that that I would enjoy the Lord and that God will give me what my heart asks, but in the days and months ahead, as I work through Psalm 37 and live in the land, my first thought is that I might be found faithful.  And for today, that is enough.

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Finishing the Race: advice to new grads

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At our Baccalaureate service, I have the opportunity to give a brief “charge” to our graduates.  Here is my 2013 version.

Graduates, you may feel like your 4, 4 and a half, or maybe even 5 years of college has been a bit of a marathon.  Maybe you feel like you started running it that freshman year at Builder Camp and you’ve quoted Dory’s awesome advice from Finding Nemo, Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, swimming, swimming, swimming (I’m not going to sing the whole song).  But here you are, you’ve made it!  You’ve turned in papers, projects, assignments, learned how to keep going, even when your body and your mind would rather take a nap.  You’ve finished the marathon of college and instead of a medal, we give you a diploma. 

Some of our adult learners from our Professional Studies programs may feel like your degree has not been a marathon, but a sprint, as you’ve balanced work, family, and school responsibilities for a couple of years without much time to rest or recover.  You’ve sacrificed sleep, and money, and time with family and friends to finish this race and are relieved and excited that it is over!

Anyone who has reached a goal in their lives knows this feeling that you graduates are experiencing today.  In fact, I think that there are parallels between running the marathon or sprint of an academic degree to running an actual race.  Last Sunday, at just about this time, I had finished running a half-marathon in Oklahoma City.  That’s 13.1 miles for you sane people who have no desire to spend time pounding the pavement!  It was my second such accomplishment, so one would imagine that I would have thought twice about committing to the hours of training and physical discomfort, not to mention the psychological torture that one feels when setting out to do something of this sort. The training seemed a breeze to me as I struggled to finish the race to which I was committed, oh, about mile 9.  And yet, I knew that I had not just gone to Oklahoma City to start a race, but I had gone to finish it. 

Thankfully, that’s what today represents for you graduates today.  You’ve worked hard, put in hours of homework, stepped out on your own, invested good money into your education, probably somewhere around junior year wondered why you had made some of the choices that you had made, and yet, here you are, you’ve finished the race. 

But I hate to tell you, while you’ve finished one race, a different one begins today (well, maybe tomorrow…I’ve give you a couple of days of downtime).  The race that begins upon graduation is the marathon of taking lessons that you’ve learned in college and in life and putting them into practice, both in a career, but also in how you choose to treat people, spend your money, and live out your priorities.  It’s a lesson that allows for incredible successes, but also, may include some difficult steps.  You may be thinking, “Gosh, Ashlee—let us celebrate today!  Don’t depress us by telling us how hard things are!”  Well, my intent is not to depress you, but it is actually to encourage you as you leave this community and enter a new one. 

We read two passages that hopefully should give you a little of the encouragement that I seek to offer you.  In Philippians 3:12-14, the apostle Paul writes from prison perhaps his most uplifting words in all of his writing.  He is writing to the Church at Philippi and telling them that despite the fact that he himself is in chains, he is finishing strong.  He counts the things in his past as successes…his righteousness by the law, his faith in Christ, enduring despite difficulty…but goes on to say that he hasn’t already reached the goal yet…he has to forget what is behind him—both his successes and his difficulties—and press on to finish the race.  

So with that word of encouragement, I offer my first piece of advice:  You’ve learned a huge lesson about how to keep swimming and finish the race.  But remember, just because you’ve finished one race doesn’t mean that you’re done.  You’ve got to set your sights on another goal—finding a job that combines your passions and your talents, making your corner of the world a better place, besting your old campus minister and running a faster half-marathon, gaining healthy habits and setting new goals.  Push yourself in new ways—the motivation of grades has just come to an end.  What are the motivations now for finishing the race?  But press on to not just finish this race, but to finish the ultimate race of life.

We go from some of the most motivational words in scripture to a book that contains some of the most negative ones.  Our passage contains the rare positive words in the book of Lamentations.  Thankfully, Lamentations is only 5 chapters and I guess that if a book is named Lamentations, one shouldn’t expect it to be full of warm fuzzies. The writer of Lamentations offers words that speak to the idea of not letting your present difficulties dictate your perspective.  Graduates, despite that which may seem difficult, remember:  the continuing love of God never comes to an end.  In fact, this is where my second piece of advice comes into play.  The writer of Lamentations in the midst of all of his lament says, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.  They are new every morning!  Great is your faithfulness.”  Don’t just live in the glow of the blessings of today.  You’re stealing the joy of the blessing of tomorrow.  So today is great!  Wonderful, in fact!  But tomorrow holds promise as well, so long as you are willing to endeavor to find it.

I ran that race last week and the pain and in some ways the accomplishment of it is over.  And so, I lace my shoes up and run again today…and tomorrow…and the next day.  I hope to see you out there on the streets.  And I hope that you’ll tell me, “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, swimming, swimming, swimming!”  I’ll do the same for you until we both remember that great is God’s faithfulness and his mercies are new every morning!  Amen.

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God’s Voice(s) in a Call to Ministry #explo13

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I suppose it’s true for many people, an encounter during a pivotal time in life is a window into one’s calling.  This is definitely true for me.  I came to my UMC-related college as a Baptist biology major who was seeking a great education that would prepare me for Physical Therapy school and was seeking to grow in my faith.  I experienced both a great biology education and took steps of faith that would have blown my high-school aged mind!  My twin sister and I got involved at a local United Methodist Church, as many of our friends had grown up UM and we found a meaningful faith community there.  “Randomly,” the youth pastor who remembered us from attending church asked my twin, another friend and me  if we would be sponsors on a youth ski trip.  From that impulsive decision—both for him to ask and for us to go—I became an intern with the youth ministry, eventually hearing and walking forward into a call to ministry.  The guideposts along the way for me to walk this way in ministry were several crucial mentors who helped me understand that the thoughts, convictions, and impulses that I had were actually not just random, but they were all a part of God’s call in my life to ministry.

The first time I actually considered that God might be calling me to ministry started as a “hallway conversation” at the church.  It was now after my sophomore year and I was almost done with a summer internship with the youth ministry program of the church.  I remember telling Bill, the youth minister, about something that I had been working on.  He said in response, “Ashlee, you’re really good at this.  You have a great understanding of what is going to connect with youth spiritually.  If you wanted to be a youth minister, I’m sure that a church would hire you.”  I looked at him like he was crazy, I’m sure.  But it planted a seed for another mentor, Martin, (who is now a colleague) who said to me after attending  a really vibrant FCA meeting that I was leading on campus, “So, are you going to go to work for FCA one day?”  What he didn’t know is that I was feeling a pull to do just that (which I did for two years after college).  His verbal acknowledgement, also a passing comment across campus one day, fueled the desire that Bill had uncovered.  Just a few short weeks later, Steve, my campus minister and religion professor, held me after class after a presentation that I made on Peter walking on water in my New Testament class, “Ashlee, have you ever considered seminary?”  My first response was, “Baptist girls don’t go to seminary,” to which he replied, “Maybe you’re not Baptist.”  This little interchange not only rocked my understanding of what the next steps of my future might include but it forced me to examine my theological and ecclesiological home.  And now, 15 years later, I see that these mentors helped me see what others saw and gave a vocabulary to what I was I was experiencing in my own “prayer closet.”  As I came to understand the voice of God, I saw that sometimes God’s voice sounded like Bill’s and Martin’s and Steve’s.

Perhaps my own experience of being called to ministry while in college is the reason that I ended up in campus ministry (at my own alma mater, even).  I know the power in someone witnessing one’s gifts and then speaking that witness into being.  I know what it means to wrestle with expectations (my own and those of other people), and I learned what it means to submit my plan to God.  I experience grappling with theological convictions and ideas that pushed me beyond where I felt comfortable and I now love to be a witness and a voice in the lives of other young adults who may find themselves in the same place of openness to God.

It was during college that I discovered the Frederick Buechner quote that has framed much of my own understanding of vocation:  “Vocation is where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”  I discovered that my deep gladness was helping young adults see who they are in Christ and know how to respond to that understanding.  It involves knowing who God is, knowing one’s own gifts, and then, in the context of community, being able to sort through opportunities to find the next step of service and ministry.  For me, my deepest gladness is seeing a high school or college student become passionate about something and feeling compelled to do something about it.  I’ve seen students cultivate gifts of leading worship, become passionate about prayer, and donate money that was set aside for a “fun day” on a mission trip to build a school in a cyclone-destroyed country.  And I’ve even seen students walk faithfully into a call into ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church.  I’m hopeful and prayerful about an opportunity in November for 18-26 year olds to consider ministry in the UMC.  Exploration ’13 will include speakers, worship, workshop leaders, clergy, and church leaders who can help young adults formulate questions, identify opportunities, and see what it means to walk faithfully into a call to ministry.  When I went during my junior year of college, it helped me see that perhaps my plans were bigger than me.  Perhaps God had a call on my life.  Perhaps a church (or college) would hire me.  And perhaps seminary would be a place for me to continue to grow.  I’m so glad that I had people in my life who could help me understand my experiences and I seek every day to do the same for other young leaders.

Do you see gifts in another person?  Do you share how God might be able to use those gifts with the world?  Do you know someone 18-26 who might have the gifts to serve in ministry?  I hope that you’ll be God’s voice to a young person.  I’m so glad that I had three voices in my life.  And I hope to be the same for many others.

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Mission to Zimbabwe

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My closest friends would tell you that I often find myself in some situations that are somewhat out of the norm for most folks (especially when it comes to being in other countries).  I would tend to agree.  About a month ago, I fairly quickly decided I was going to Zimbabwe this summer.  Maybe this doesn’t seem so crazy to some of you, but to others, it might seem like the kind of decision that you don’t make overnight.  This actually isn’t so crazy…I have had a heart for Zimbabwe for nearly 10 years when a friend from seminary made plans to live there and work in a children’s home.  I’ve prayed for her (and her adopted twins) over the years and we’ve had several SC students from Zimbabwe who I’ve come to know and love.  I’ve always thought I would go to Zimbabwe one day, but didn’t think it would happen so soon!

Here’s the story:  I learned last summer of a mission opportunity for some SC students to join a team that was going from Ashland, KS.  I recruited students, talked with them about the trip, and prayed for them as they prepared to go.  I even invited the trip leader, Benjamin Anderson, to speak in our chapel service in February.  I fairly quickly dismissed the possibility of going, financial and time concerns, being chief among my reasons.  I’ve also always imagined going with the UMC when I when to Zimbabwe.  You see, the Kansas West Conference of the UMC has a partnership with the Harare East Conference of the UMC in Zimbabwe.  This mission is not with the UMC.  However, I have continued to feel drawn by the the call of the mission that will go in July this summer, partly because of the team that I sense God is putting together.  From June 29 to July 13, 3 Southwestern students and myself will be joining a team of nearly 20 people based out of Ashland, Kansas, on mission to work with Eden Children’s Village in Doma, a small village that is home to a large number of children, many of whom are AIDS orphans.  They have found a loving school, family, and Savior through Eden Children’s Village.  Our team will be made up of people ranging from 10 months to 91 years old, it will include professionals, students, artists, and people who are willing to put their skills and gifts to work.  We will do some physical labor while we’re there, but we will also teach some skills to members of their community when we do the labor.  We also will have some medical staff in our group, so those with that background will serve and teach skills to friends in a medical clinic.  I will have an opportunity to share in some bible teaching in the homes of children, among other things.  We are excited about the group that God is assembling for our team and are confident that it will be both a significant learning and sharing experience!

I am looking for partners in the work that we’re doing this summer.  I do need financial supporters, but I also need people to come alongside me and serve through their prayers.  John Wesley said, “Nothing happens except through prayer!”  We have already witnessed God’s providing hand through the team thus far and we are excited to meet the people whom we know only through pictures and stories.  If you have any interest in supporting me or our team financially, let me know, but we are also looking for some items to take along with us.  If anything jumps out at you as something that you have, please let me know:

  • funds for lumber
  • durable fabric/thread
  • bicycle parts
  • medical supplies (wound care, vaseline, needles)
  • sports equipment (children’s size, balls of all kinds, nets)
  • art/educational supplies
  • clothing/shoes (Crocs, child-sized t-shirts, underwear)
  • personal hygiene products
  • tools

This mission to Zimbabwe has been an unexpected mission that I wouldn’t have anticipated.  That is actually part of what compels me the most about my experience.  I think it is tempting to tell God what we want to do and expect God to bless it.  I’m finding my willingness to step out in faith and go to Zimbabwe, even though it wasn’t in my plans initially, to be an exciting reminder that to live a life directed by God, it could mean that I could go anywhere.  I would love to take you with me through your prayers, your gifts or your support.  Let me know if you’re up for it!

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Hot Off the Press: Shaping Their Future, a book for those who mentor young adults

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When I look back on how I ended up in ministry, I see many things in play:  first and foremost, God called me and by God’s grace, I said yes to little steps and then big steps of faith.  But, those steps were taken in large part because I had many mentors around me who helped me make sense of my gifts, my passions, my opportunities and my experiences.  It’s no surprise to me now, more than 10 years into campus ministry that one of my favorite parts of my job involves aspects of mentoring.  I recognize that conversations where someone can learn more about God, more about him or herself, can lead to conversations about what God is calling one to do in the world.[1]

I’ve worked with several different versions of formal mentoring programs and lots of informal programs and have checked out various resources over the years.  There is now a fantastic resource by Guy Chmieleski that is a great answer to anyone who works with college students or other young adults in either a formal or informal way.  Guy is a friend of mine and former colleague in campus ministry.  He asked me to write an endorsement of his book, which I was thrilled to do!  (My endorsement is below, but read more endorsements here.)

Guy Chmieleski has provided a welcome guide in a time when mentoring relationships are more important than ever!  This book is great for campus ministers, pastors of college congregations, and other mentors who work with college students.  Guy draws from the best scholarship related to the changing needs of emerging adults as well as his own personal and ministry experiences.  He identifies the central role of mentoring relationships in the faith development of young adults and is spot-on in describing the changing relational skills of college students.  The chapter topics are relevant and clear, the “Mentor’s Toolbox” provides excellent applications, and he gives handles for those seeking to navigate a mentoring relationship.    It is a great resource for both experienced guides and those who are only beginning to be a positive presence in the life of young adults.

Seriously…it’s a great book!  Buy one for a campus minister, your pastor, or anyone else who cares about young adults.


[1] I call these three questions—Who is God?  Who am I?  What is God calling me to do in the world?—the three questions of vocation.  Vocation is a significant aspect of mentoring.

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Some blogs I wrote for RELEVANT

I wrote some blogs about my response to Valentine’s Day that RELEVANT has published.  It was a little risky for me to write them for all the world to see, but (gulp) I did it anyway.  You can find the articles (and their comments) that I wrote here.

An Open Letter to My Married Friends

An Open Letter to My Single Friends

 

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