For 19 summers now, I have journeyed with a group of youth to faraway lands on a mission to work repairing homes, building relationships and transforming lives (mine included).
Several people have asked me why I would give up a week of my life each year to be with a group of High School students, working in hot conditions, sleeping on the ground with only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. Others have asked how I put up with the drama of High School students and their music for 12-18 hours of driving in a van. My response has typically been, you have no idea how rewarding it is to see the transformations that occur during these weeks and then I will tell a story about someone who transformed during a week.
This year, I decided to take some time to ponder these questions while I was at the project and reflect on why I do this year after year. What was unveiled to me during this time of reflection surprised me. What I discovered revived me and kindled in me a desire to continue this type of work. There was one word that just kept coming to me during the week, “Liturgy.”
Liturgy is defined as: 1 – a form or formulary according to which public religious worship, especially Christian worship, is conducted, 2 – the work of the people in worship, 3 – a public office or duty performed voluntarily by a rich Athenian. The word Liturgy comes from a French translation of the late Latin word liturgia which came from the Greek word leitourgia whose root is leitos (public) and ergos (working). These two words used in its original combination leitourgos was defined as minister. The earliest uses of leitourgia was service done by someone in an honorary religious or civic office, leaving a significant impact on the community.
As I reflected on these definitions, what I came to realize is that our mission work is the work of leitourgia. When we take all those definitions together what was revealed to me is that our missions trips are not only the work of the people by the priesthood of all believers (minister), in order to make a significant impact on a community, but it is a form of worship.
…In fact, what I realized is that the Sierra Service Project is a week-long worship experience for me and that youth really know how to worship. Each week is like a worship service with each day being a different movement of the Liturgy so that we might be in leitourgia.
Here’s the amazing thing about these weeks, not only is there leitourgia occurring during the day’s work on the projects we are assigned, but there is leitourgia occurring in the lives of those involved. It is amazing to see how the participants come together and work on each other’s hearts and souls. Every year I have seen how compassionate youth can be for one another. There are the youth that are strong and mature emotionally and spiritually that mentor those who are in need of guidance. Each year there is at least one youth that is at a breaking point in their life and every year there are youth and adults who are there listening to the movement of the spirit that are able to help start the healing process.
I’ve heard the confessions of young girls who admit they are cutters, teens who feel they have been abandoned by their parents, stories of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, confessions of guilt about friends who had died and boys becoming men who are struggling with identity and oppressive fathers regarding sports programs or future college choices. There are those who have no-one to talk to who open up for the first time, young people who find their adult voice and for many their first experience of the Love of Christ in their lives. It is one of the most emotionally and spiritually dense experiences you will ever have in your life.
The leitourgia of the people with and for each other is the transformational Kingdom work that leaves a significant impact on the eternal community. The conclusion I came to upon my reflections on the Liturgy or or Leitourgia of the Sierra Service Project is that all of this for me is in the context of giving thanks to God and has become a time of Worship. I have to tell you, as much as I love the organ and piano, there is nothing like the regenerative power of singing “Seek Ye First” or “Fill My Cup” SSP style. The energy that the youth bring to worship renews my soul each summer. I get to see some of the most remote and beautiful parts of God’s creation that remain undeveloped.
One last thought. Thank you to every one who has sponsored our youth to experience the Love of Christ through their work of being actively involved in creating their own leitourgia. The next time you think of Liturgy, remember that it is the work of the people and “Work – It’s not just a four letter word.”
By Rev. David McGlocklin, Pastor of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church (San Bernardino, CA)