Many people have a defining moment in their life. Whether positive or negative, it is a moment that is branded into their memory and will be with them until they die. Frequently that moment changes the direction of their life. Maybe it was being present as a loved one died, or the first time they stood up on a surfboard, maybe it was the first time performing in public and receiving applause. What might seem trivial to one person, might have life-altering implications and impact for someone else. What is your defining moment?
One of the handful of questions I get asked by everyone is: “How were you first called into orphan care.” I can still remember the sites, smells, and emotions during that day that changed my life twenty-five years ago. My defining moment that would radically shift the direction of my life happened to be shared with someone who I had never met before, during their defining moment. Each of our lives would be forever changed in a few hours together.
I was comfortable in my life as a semi-successful Christian businessman and helping with the high school group at my church in my spare time. I assumed that would be the direction of my life and had no problem with that. I was comfortable; I wasn’t even considering that God might have something else in mind. I was helping to lead our church’s high school group on short-term missions trips to serve a very small, very depressing orphanage in northern Baja. I enjoyed serving the kids in the orphanage, but I also enjoyed the change I was seeing in my high school students as they learned to serve others. Unbeknownst to me, God was making those same changes in my heart.
One day I got a call from the orphanage. They needed something brought down from the US and asked if I could help. I had a Saturday to kill and agreed to drive down. While I was there, a ten-year-old boy was being dropped off. Most people don’t think about it, but every child in an orphanage has a “first day.” Almost always it is a terrifying, branding, horrible experience they will remember for the rest of their lives. They have either been abandoned by their family or removed due to abuse or neglect. To them the reasons are irrelevant, everything they’ve ever known is gone, and they’ve landed in a scary building, crowded with strangers. It is a defining moment they will remember the rest of their lives.
As I watched this boy being dropped off, I could see how terrified he was. I didn’t speak the language at the time but even if I did, what do you say to that? What did I have to offer that child when he was at his most fragile point? I couldn’t tell him it was going to be okay. I couldn’t tell him he landed in a good orphanage (he didn’t), everything I had in my youth ministry bag of tricks was useless. So I sat with him. We split a Coke. He cried. And a couple of hours later I got in my car and drove home. I hurt for that child, I hurt for that child deeply, but intertwined with the hurt was something I had never experienced before at that level. I had been involved in a lot of ministry, but I’d never felt so used by God as sitting with that boy, in the dirt, at that moment, when he desperately needed somebody. I wanted more of that in my life. I wanted to experience more of being used by God to touch and serve people at that level. Everything I had been working towards suddenly became incredibly trivial and pointless in comparison to those few hours in Mexico.
It’s impossible to plan a defining moment in your life, but if we step out of our comfort zone and place ourselves in new and challenging circumstances those defining moments are more likely to happen. If someone doesn’t take the chance at “open mic night” they might never experience the exhilaration of an audience laughing at their jokes. If someone chooses to stay home rather than go on that first-day snow skiing or surfing, they might not ever experience that rush of adrenaline. These same principles and ideas apply to our Christian walk. We won’t know what a prison ministry, a homeless ministry, or the ministry of encouraging others is like until we’re willing to take that first step, and put ourselves in uncomfortable and awkward situations.
In my experience, both personally, and as a witness to thousands of others, few activities encourage more defining moments than short-term missions. There’s something about leaving your home country, crossing borders, and making yourself available to be used by God in new circumstances. Short-term missions, when they are done right, can bring a heightened sense of awareness and help to bring our priorities in line. Although people might be on a mission to share the gospel and meet the needs of others, there is frequently a whole other layer of ministry going on where God is working on us.
Over the years I’ve received countless letters, emails, and comments from people sharing with me how a short-term missions trip changed their lives. I know many people today who are in full-time ministry as a direct result of a defining moment brought about through short-term missions. For countless others who aren’t in full-time ministry (yet), a short-term missions trip becomes an experience that will ripple out in their lives for years to come. It can become their defining moment, a touchstone that they will remember forever.
My hope and prayer is that through whatever circumstances, you will have that defining moment that will bring more significant direction in your life. I would encourage you to take chances, to say “yes” to trying something new. Stretch yourself emotionally. You can’t plan a defining moment, but please be open to it.
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Well said and so true!
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DJ, First of all, I’m a big fan of your blog. Every week I read your post and then think about it throughout the week. I went on 3 short term missions to Kenya, same villages, different groups of people. The first trip, my roommate was so moved and inspired, she started her own ministry to serve that area. Another person in our group shared that this was one trip in a series of short term mission trips. He was already talking about his next one to another country, like it was a bucket list. Life altering for one person, just a blip on the screen for another. The second trip was with my roommate’s new ministry partners. It was a behind the scenes experience about juggling all the balls and being available and open to where God leads, not just following the script. Not my shining moment. The third trip was with another friend who had started their own ministry, staying at their home in Kenya. It was a glimpse of how incredibly different our culture was from, oh, every place of poverty everywhere. My take away from these trips, in no particular order, was that: people in need are everywhere; I don’t want to go visit and go home; and I’m an incredibly self absorbed person. I didn’t have a defining life altering moment. What I did get was a soul deep realization that I am the one who is in need. With all the comforts and blessings heaped on me, I am the one in need. That the people I went to serve had a selflessness that shamed me. And as I sit here at 4am writing this, I realize I’m probably having a Jerry Maguire moment. Thank you for sifting through and sharing your experience with others. It is very much appreciated. Happy Thanksgiving, Michelle
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Thank you for sharing, you actually said a lot more than you think. I believe most Americans are the ones in need, much more than any “poor” country they might travel to. This is why I’m such a huge supporter of short-term missions: the church in America needs to be educated and saved – you get it. (and, by-the-way, I like Jerry Maguire moments) Only with your permission, I might quote some of this in my book.