The Long-Term Benefits of Short-Term Mission Trips: ONE LAWYER’S STORY

June 8, 2010

By the look on Octavia’s face, it was as if my translator had introduced me as the devil himself. “Christian attorney” was at best an oxymoron for Octavia, a thickly muscled 60-something-year-old villager in postcommunist Romania. She could not fathom how someone in a socioeconomic position so removed from her own could possibly care about her well-being. But when American lawyers step out of their comfort zones and into the foreign mission field, not only do they impact others with the love of Christ—they return forever changed.  

Would you like to go on a short-term mission trip? When asked this question eight years ago, my response was that “I’d rather stay home and cut the grass, but I’ll help you go.” And so, I funded my friend’s mission trips for a couple of years.
Little did I know of the consequences of such an investment.
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Matthew 6:21

For over 20 years, I have worked in various law firms and served as in-house counsel for a large corporation. But I was gripped by Ephesians 2:10, “[f]or we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Applying general rules of contract construction, I read this verse in context with other scriptures (see, e. g., 1 Corinthians 3:8 & John 15:5) and concluded that in addition to eternal life, God promises to reward us for what He does through us. That is a good deal. I had to find out what good works God had prepared for me to do.

I prayed, studied scripture, sought counsel and even fasted.  No answers, until my missionary friend invited me a third time to experience the harvest field in Romania.  

Did you ever dream of being in court when your case is called, but you are totally unprepared? That’s how I felt as I was walking into the village of Lacu Sarat (Lake of Salt) in southeastern Romania. Why had I not memorized more scripture? How can I explain the Bible, much less through a translator? God, you better do something, because I can do nothing. We are weak but God is strong.  

When I entered the village and saw the people, I was given compassion for them. I did not have compassion before I went. I went, I saw, and then I had compassion. It was as if God had the gift of compassion waiting for me to receive when I arrived in the village and saw the people. I saw them through God’s eyes and fell in love with them. There is an important sequence that must not be overlooked: go, see and have compassion. It is one thing to see the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti on television, and it is quite another to go there and see the people and have compassion for them in person. “And when He approached [Jerusalem], He saw the city and wept over it ….” Luke 19:41 (emphasis added as we attorneys like to say).

Back to Octavia: she looked like she wanted to stone me out of fear that I was a cult member trying to infiltrate her village. A crowd was forming. My translator was getting nervous and wanted to leave. But I had come halfway around the world, and like any good attorney I wanted to ask a few questions. I told Octavia that if what she believed about God was true, then those beliefs could stand up to scrutiny. “Da” (yes), she agreed with arms crossed. I then informed her, “With your permission, I am going to ask you several questions. Please respond ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ You will be given an opportunity to elaborate. Are you ready to proceed?”  Sheepishly, she said “da.” As the crowd and the drama mounted, I asked her these questions:

Q. Octavia, one day you are going to die?
A. Da.
Q. When you die, you would rather go to heaven than to hell?
A. Da.
Q. In order to enter into heaven, you have to be a “good person”— isn’t that right?
A. Da.
Q. If God’s standard for being “good” is perfection, do you have a problem?

The conviction of the Holy Spirit is a tremendous blessing to witness in a person’s life. Octavia saw the problem that her religion could not solve. Understanding the bad news perhaps for the first time in her life, she responded softly, “Da” (I have a problem). Our eyes locked as I told her that the only reason I was in her village was to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If she would put her faith in Him, He would put His life in her as a free gift. On this basis, she could enter heaven. She said that no one had ever told her this good news. Octavia was born again that day. She kissed my hands and hugged me with tears streaming down her cheeks as we said our goodbyes.

It was through my experiences in the mission field that I came to learn about the good works that God has prepared for me. My gifting and passion intersected with God’s purpose and plan. I also learned that planting a church is not building a building—it’s nurturing another part of the body of Christ wherever the Gospel takes root.

Notwithstanding much fear and trepidation, I recently decided to close down my solo practice and to accept a staff position with a church planting ministry. In addition to leading short-term mission trips, I will serve as liaison for foreign counsel on non-governmental organization (NGO) permitting issues and assist with making grant proposals to Christian foundations. I also reactivated my dormant membership with the Christian Legal Society, and look forward to encouraging others in or entering our profession to consider the long-term benefits of short-term mission trips.

Have you discovered the answer to the Ephesians 2:10 question? A short-term mission trip can serve as a catalyst in your life, yielding long-term (and eternal) benefits. You can grow in the Lord and at the same time learn how He intends for your calling to be integrated in the legal profession. Leave your comfort zone and discover God’s adventure for your life.

Thomas Keiffer

The Christian Lawyer

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