I'm really glad I waited until tonight to write something. I've just come from our church's youth classroom, which has been taken over by the mission team in preparation for their trip to the Texas-Mexico border and Mexico, which begins Sunday after worship. It's a cross between a food pantry and Santa's workshop! Let me tell you why.
This mission trip is a tradition of our church dating back a number of years. Usually, the various groups of the church contribute items of a utilitarian nature (supplies for a struggling church, canned and staple foods, school supplies, and shoes) and a few "goodies" like hard candies and oranges. In addition, children were encouraged to bring the unopened toys from their fast-food meals throughout the year, as a sacrificial gift. (Though I have no preschool children, I have worked with many of them, and I can appreciate that not opening and playing with these little trinkets takes a real sacrifice for our kids!) On the mission trip, each child recipient would get a small bag filled with school supplies and goodies and one of the drive-through toys, and the mothers would get a few cans of food and some rice and beans. Even for such modest gifts, the recipients were genuinely grateful.
But this year...THIS YEAR! WOW! We began Advent with a church-wide Fiesta in the evening. The tree in Fellowship Hall was decorated with bright paper chains, big tissue paper flowers, and a wild-colored sombrero on top. People have been encouraged since mid-November to bring both the staple goods and children's gifts. Sunday School class parties have had their members bring gifts for Mexico and the Border instead of traditional gift exchanges. The response has been an avalanche of generosity. Every kind of toy imaginable (except super-big ones like bicycles, which wouldn't fit in the trailers and bus) is now in the youth room.
Another cool thing we do each year has also been dedicated for the mission trip this year: "Beary Merry Christmas." People bring teddy bears and other stuffed toys to the sanctuary throughout early Advent. The bears sit in the pews day and night. When services are in progress or when people take some personal time in the sanctuary, you'll find the bears being hugged and prayed for. Though that may sound odd, it's a wonderful thing, because the prayers are actually for the child who will receive that particular bear. In the past, law enforcement and shelters have received them. (Last year, our county sheriff's dept. received nearly 150 stuffed animals to give to children who had to be removed from their homes for various reasons.) But all the bears are going south this year. As always, they represent the love and prayers of a modest north Texas congregation. I'm told that for most of the children, it will be the first stuffed animal they've ever received.
There will be some renovation work for the teams to do on a couple of houses and on a church building that doubles as a community center. Some of the gifts provided are "kitchen shower" gifts for that church's first-ever kitchen.
Finally, for the first time, the team members are going to present a full five-day VBS. One of our bilingual members has translated the materials we've used here and will organize a mixed team of local and mission team teachers and helpers. They expect over 100 children.
Some of our most gifted teachers are going. Our miracle-working handyman is on the team. The flightiest (but most pure-hearted) junior high boy I've ever worked with is going, and he invited his best friend who's going as well. The team members are young and old (including junior high youth and great-grandparents and all ages in-between), male and female, long-time members and new Christians...a real cross-section of our congregation. It hurts me to my core that I can't take the time to go. SOMEday, I will!
The people in South Texas and Mexico who are expecting our church members, are also expecting the kinds of gifts we've given in the past. Are they ever going to be surprised this year! With the full body of Christ here in our little area behind this effort, the Holy Spirit seems to have multiplied our offerings exponentially. And I don't mean only the Christmas gifts.
That's a faint taste of how God intends to bless us, I think. We kinda, sorta know that heaven's going to be way cool. But God KNOWS! Our God is lavish, extravagant, and prodigal (in the actual meaning of that word). Cups are going to run SO over, that there's going to be a gushing wide river of blessing before this world and time itself are no more. We Christians get the foretaste, and we are called to pass this good news along.
As our mission trippers prepare for the mission trip, I'm reminded to keep on preparing my own life to welcome Jesus even more fully.
And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:9-11, NRSV)