Adventures in Faith: Into the Unknown
JT Hills is Pastor at Big Rapids United Church, Big Rapids, Michigan
Scripture: Exodus 3:1-15
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Loving God, open our eyes to see what is beautiful, our minds to know what is true, and our hearts to love what is good, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
When I was in seminary, I really identified with the story of Moses at the burning bush. Here is God calling Moses to serve God’s people, and Moses wasn’t having it. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, to bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Why me? Why send me, God? That was a lot of what I thought about as I thought about becoming a pastor…why me, God? And as I thought about it more, I thought up all the reasons I shouldn’t go to seminary: it’s not the right time, we don’t have enough money, I’m not even sure what I believe, I don’t know the right place to go, send someone else. Just like Moses. When God speaks to him from the burning bush, Moses has all sorts of reasons to not go to Egypt: I don’t know God’s name. They won’t believe me. I don’t speak well. Send someone else.
Moses objected, but God persisted, and in the end God got the right person for the job. As for me, as much as I wobbled in my faith and decision-making abilities, ultimately I allowed God in just enough to take that next step in my faith journey, into the great unknown of seminary. It ended up being a transformative experience for me. And there was no undertaking in this time of growth like the two weeks I spent on an immersion trip to the island of Taiwan.
I had never been outside the United States before, and so it was intimidating to think about spending two weeks in a vastly different culture than my own. It was uncomfortable to think about being in a place, where I didn’t know the language, didn’t understand the customs, and didn’t recognize the food. That food thing was the most uncomfortable thought for me. I’m a picky eater, and while I try new things as much as I can, it was overwhelming to think of all the new flavors in my future, not knowing what I could stomach and what I couldn’t.
But the experience was supposed to make me feel uncomfortable. That was the whole point of these immersion trips, to put us in an unfamiliar place, a place of discomfort, in order to experience learning and growth in ways we could not from the safety and comfort of the campus classroom. So I swallowed my fears, and I got on the plane for the longest flight of my life, and off we went.
Our goal for the two weeks was to study Christianity in Taiwan. And for the first week and a half or so, we spent time with some indigenous tribes on the Eastern side of the island. In Taiwan, about four percent of the population is Christian, and about two percent of the population consists of indigenous tribes, but something like ninety percent of people that identify as indigenous also identify as Christian. What was interesting to me was the story these tribes told us about their relationship to Christianity. They said that they came to Christianity not because they had been forced to do so, as many around the world had been in the era of colonization, but rather that they encountered a faith that mirrored their own native faith, and then brought Christianity back to their villages.
As they told us their stories, quickly, we came to learn the history of these tribes that sounded eerily familiar. Starting with the Dutch in the 17th century, other countries came to colonize the island and subjugated the native people. By the middle of the twentieth century, the native population had been decimated by disease and death brought by the colonizers, the tribes had been stripped of much of their land and wealth, and the they all faced deep problems with poverty, alcoholism, discrimination, and racism, especially environmental racism.
And in the late twentieth century, as pastors of the different tribes saw their people suffering, they turned to their faith to provide an answer. Churches became the center of connection for the tribes, allowing a place for their native languages and traditions to continue in a safe space. But churches also became a place for tribespeople to serve each other and advocate in the wider world. One tribal church established an ecological tourism business, employing tribe members to provide tours of the local national park. Another tribal church established farms to brew millet wine, and used the proceeds to not only lift tribe members out of poverty, but advocate for the tribe on the national stage. Another tribal church established a resort to employ the tribe members as well as give them a home, a place to connect with their tribe, and a place to serve as a launching point for the youth to enter the wider world. Though the tribes still battle with poverty and discrimination, they continue to fight for better systems and structures in their own communities and in the national conversation in order for the indigenous tribes to experience more justice.
In each of these instances, change required a person of faith to say yes to God’s call for justice and liberation. While many pastors we spoke with weren’t sure where their initial efforts would make a difference they put their faith in God to lead them into the unknown in order to find a better life for their tribes. And that’s really what I learned from these pastors and their congregations in my time in Taiwan. They spoke of an incarnational faith, a faith in which they work hand in hand with God to bring about a better world. Their work together is making Jesus come alive again among them, and we could see it in the way they celebrated each other, celebrated their culture, and celebrated their faith, together.
And I thought of Moses at that burning bush. What if, after all that discernment, after all those reasons why he couldn’t go, after all the consternation beyond the wilderness, what if Moses had said no, and stayed home with the flock and never given the call of God another thought? We won’t know, because Moses finally found a way to say yes, despite all the discomfort and fear. The yes of Moses, the yes of these pastors in Taiwan, made me really think about how I could also say yes to God, even when I started with a no.
That became a part of my adventure in Taiwan. As we continued around the island we stopped at a Christian university, where the story of Moses at the burning bush was made real in colorful sculpture found in the middle of the library. After all that, I found myself saying yes more. Yes to the wonderful experience of the people we met in a foreign land, yes to new flavors I encountered, some of which were the among the best I’ve ever experienced, and even a yes to facing my two greatest fears in life, heights and elevators, when I ascended to the top of Taipei 101, one of the tallest buildings in the world. My time of learning on this immersion in Taiwan has led to a continuing refrain in my life: find those places of discomfort and say yes to living there outside the box for a while, because that’s where the magic happens.
And even after all that I’ve experienced, and all the times I’ve said yes to God, I still find myself asking the questions Moses asked: Who am I? Who am I to go and do this? Who am I to speak up? Who am I to fight for justice? Who am I to act against racism? Who am I to seek change? Who am I to say yes when all I want is no? Who am I to step into the unknown when it is so uncomfortable? And there is only one answer I’ve ever known: who are you not to be? For you are a beautiful child of God, and you, like Moses, like the pastors of the indigenous tribes of Taiwan, like all of us in this one body of Christ, you have a God that says, “I will be with you.” So let’s live outside the box together and build a new world full of structures and systems that bring justice and equity to bear, a new world that gives us freedom to grow and change beyond all that we’ve ever known, a new world built on God’s love.