At the end of July, a team of eight from Lifeline Church headed down to Santiago, Dominican Republic, for a week-long mission trip with G.O. Ministries. Over the next several posts, I’ll be sharing some thoughts from my journal.
Prior to the mission trip, I went to the bookstore to grab something for any downtime I might have. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer called to me. But then my hand reached out for Fitzgerald, and Hemmingway, and then Dickens, and other Twain books. In the end, though, my hand returned to Tom Sawyer, and today I found out why.
Pastor Steve and I awoke before everyone else, as usual, and went up to the roof to wait for breakfast. Steve read the Bible and prayed, while I read from a devotional journal and scratched some thoughts. A devotional journal was given to us at the start of the trip, and isn’t something I normally do, but for the week I am here I’m giving it the old college try. I hate journaling, devotional or otherwise.
I’ve witnessed Steve’s morning ritual here with a quiet fascination. As folks who know me can tell you, it’s not that I don’t put stock in the Bible…I just have a hard time accepting it as the word of God. It seems too corrupt and inconsistent to come from whatever notion I have of God. Yet, Steve and others tell me that the Bible is a “living book,” that it speaks to you where you’re at, wherever you’re at. And though I don’t doubt it, I argue that any good book will do that if read with an open mind and willing heart.
Take another Twain classic, for example, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I read that fairly religiously, and each time I do so, I discover some new nugget of truth in it; something new speaks to me if for no other reason than my heart and mind are receptive to certain messages with each reading. But I’d never claim to find God in Huck Finn, and I suspect that would suit Mr. Twain just fine.
But there’s a cool irony in that argument that I had never before seen until today. What’s been on my mind have been questions like “Am I a Christian,” “Why not God,” “What am I missing” and more specifically, “Just what the hell is wrong with me?” While working with folks in Santiago, snippets from Matthew have sort of echoed in my head about the poor, the hungry, the righteous, the meek and inheriting the earth.
From Tom Sawyer, this is what opened up to me today:
The sun rose upon a tranquil world, and beamed down upon the peaceful village like a benediction. Breakfast over, Aunt Polly had family worship: it began with a prayer built from the ground up of solid courses of Scriptural quotations, welded together with a thin mortar of originality; and from the summit of this she delivered a grim chapter of the Mosaic Law, as from Sinai.
Then Tom girded up his loins, so to speak, and went to work to “get his verses.” …Tom bent all his energies to the memorizing of five verses, and he chose part of the Sermon on the Mount, because he could find no verses that were shorter. At the end of half an hour Tom had a vague general idea of his lesson, but no more, for his mind was traversing the whole field of human thought, and his hands were busy with distracting recreations.
My heart skips at this sort of writing, and the passage wonderfully captures a similar attitude towards the Bible as mine, cleverly twists an honest attempt to “get the verses,” and surprisingly answers just what the hell is wrong with me. I chuckled at seeing so much of myself in Tom, whose mind traverses the whole field of human thought that for all his effort he only understands the lessons in some vague generality.
Another surprise of this moment was that the verses Tom was attempting to remember were from the same snippets echoing in my mind:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Now, I’m open to the timing of me reading this as being a coincidence and nothing more, but I have been learning that it is in such coincidences where God speaks loudest. I know Tom Sawyer is not the word of God, and I merely suspect the same for the Bible, but regardless…I see clearly how God can work through both books, just as God can work through a drug lord.
For the past few days, my hands have had no “distracting recreations” of work, the gym, or family…my hands have been busy with working on a cistern. Likewise, my mind hasn’t been traversing “the whole field of human thought,” but has been rather focused on all this God stuff. I realize that now, and in doing so, a subtle change took place in my heart.
I wish I had this insight on the first day—because all this work we’ve done on the cistern has been hot, sweaty, tiresome work. But today, it no longer felt like work. It simply feels like I’m a small part of something good. No matter how hot, or sweaty, or exhausted, I felt ever ready for more; to get that cistern done. But, of course, such insights need more than an open mind and willing heart. They need perspective. I'm grateful for the perspective Santiago is giving me, and I love the irony of gleaning some perspective on God from Mark Twain.
The folks of Los Perez may never remember me or any of us from our team, but they’ll have a steady source of clean water for the small part we played here.
And that’s the good that matters here.