I've often found throughout my life that I feel the best when serving in some sort of manner. Not that I always enjoyed serving my mother by doing the dishes or cleaning my room, but isn't it usually the people you're closest to that it's always the hardest to serve. Rather an unfortunate oversight really. But beside the point for my little note of the moment.
So I love to serve, especially when I really feel I'm doing something for God. I'm not, however, so great at the whole evangelism thing. I think it's great that there are people out there who are. But I am just not one of them. It isn't that I'm afraid to share my faith, it's more that I want to share my life with people, and in that way express my belief.
When I was a kid I definitely never thought I would grow up to be a missionary. It just wasn't something that I was able to wrap my head around. I was more than happy to pray for missionaries every night with my dad (especially when we would forget who we were supposed to be praying for and I would leave him to rest his eyes while I went to find the bulletin and creep quietly back into my bed hoping he would stay asleep so I wouldn't have to fall asleep alone) but in general I could never wrap my head around the concept of really "having a heart" (as Christianese is so fond of calling it) for the nations of unknown faces.
God did, however, find a way to give me a love for the nations through relationships with individuals that dot the globe. And in my care for them I support the work they do and the impact they have on the people around them as well. All those people who are so near and dear to my heart as I pointed out in my last post. Most of which I've had to say good-bye to in one way or another for the time being.
It's not surprising, however, that when I headed off on my first mission trip I chose a work team. I was able to serve, to really throw my back and my arms quite literally into it. I always loved travel to, and imaging how those abstract faces in foreign places lived, and this was a great opportunity.
Mother's Choice was another easy fit for my personality. What better way to serve than to dote on beautiful little babies awaiting their forever families? Totally perfect. And I've seen the results in such positive ways as the years have gone by, especially with the likes of my sweet Caleb (Chaska) who God blessed with the perfect family that I prayed so hard would come and take him home.
There are a lot of people out there with a very skewed idea of what a missionary really is. They think of the privileged white man going to the natives and trying to turn them into little clones. Or even worse, of tragic episodes in religious history like the Crusades when people were forced to claim Christ or die. Can we say ridiculous and totally counter intuitive? While the church has come a long way from these age old stereotypes, there is still a lot of pressure for "converts." Especially when the mission field is far from home. This is partly because these same people ignore the fact that we are called to be the love of Christ to whatever people God places in our paths, regardless of where we live at the moment. That's right, folks. You CAN be a missionary in your office. But this is also rather a tangential sidetrack from what I really want to write about.
As an English teacher in the Czech Republic, I didn't come with any sort of hidden agenda. I wasn't out to blind side my students with scripture verses in class, or force them into uncomfortable theological discussions. I came to care about them. I came to teach them English. I came to learn about them as people and to take part in their culture. Sure there is always the great hope that through conversation I would be able to stir their hearts towards the things of God, but as I'm about to leave the country after more than three years I have no radically changed lives to mark down in any ledger. Does that make me a failure as the "missionary" I was sent out to be? I think not, and here is a little glimpse as to why.
Last Tuesday, the day before my birthday, I went to Cheb in order to see Laura who was there for a couple of days as a part of her yearly visit to Central Europe. When arranging lodgings with Tammy, she informed me that she was going to be substitute teaching for a class at Winfield because the Czech teacher was in a meeting. I put two and two together in my head (a bit slower than I might have liked, which is sadly often the case!) and realized that it was likely one of my old classes. I asked if she would mind if I tagged along, and she agreed.
I arrived in Cheb early and had a chance to see how much Winfield has changed. It has now merged with a language school for children, and was definitely a different place, but still, just being in the building brought back a lot of good memories. I met the new guy, who now teaches the class I was about to visit, and it was so strange to know that he now had the chance to spend time with this amazing group of people.
These photos were taken during our last class in June. Two students were missing that night, but you can at least get a little feel.
So 5 o'clock rolled around and I followed Tammy into the classroom. Actually, the two missing from the photo were the two that were there when I first walked in, along with two new ladies I'd never seen before. The eyes of my former students grew wide, and smiles spread across their faces. This was a good sign. They were happy to see me. Two more students came and the looks on their faces were priceless. That sweet mixture of shock and pleasure that never fails to make a person really feel welcome. Finally the last two arrived, I like to call them "the Happy Couple" and they were as exuberant as ever at my presence.
Well, class quickly became a catch up session. They were all very curious about how things were going for me and when I would be leaving the country. It was so great to be able to share with them what was going on in my life, and how all the plans I've been working on for ages now were finally coming together. It was like an hour and a half long warm fuzzy hug really. I was amazed to feel myself slip so confidently back into my teacher voice. Even the way I moved had that familiar teachery motion to it. And I don't think the new ladies were horribly offended by it all. They laughed at the appropriate moments, and even shared a thought and question or two as well. It was definitely a highlight of my time spent as a teacher, right up there with, after deciding not to return after my second year, I changed my mind and people were suddenly telling me what a great teacher I was and how thankful they were that I was staying.
We talked a lot about the upcoming future and my move into farm country. I can't say I'm fully prepared for what life will be like on a burgeoning farm with a horse, two sheep, a handful of chickens, two cats and 5 dogs, but it was a great opportunity to teach them male, female, and baby animal names. Not a chance you just get every day. Did I mention it was a great night?
It was hard to close things down at the end. I felt so at home with these people I'd taught for two years. It seemed so right to be there with them again. As they left there were hugs and handshakes, and one sweet lady even got a bit teary as she hugged me. It was what I needed. It showed me that the hours I invested did make an impact. And not because of who I am, but because of Christ in me. I didn't always want to go in and teach, but through His strength I entered class every day with a genuine smile. Through His grace I was able to really care about these people who come from a world and a history so different from my own. What an incredible gift.
When everyone had left I went with Tammy back to the office, all aglow with the pleasure of the experience. Then, to make it all even better, one of the ladies had to come back to get her umbrella and as she passed by the office she said how good it had been to see me, how I always had such a positive attitude and brought so much joy to the class, and how they'd all been talking about how wonderful it was to have me back that night.
I've spent a lot of years thinking of myself as a pessimist. There have been long lists of dark days when I've hung my head low and bemoaned this or that about my existence. What a revelation to hear that people find me positive, that my presence is uplifting to them. As I said before, I KNOW that is only through the grace of God.
I'm leaving the Czech Republic on Monday. Embarking on the next massive phase in life. I don't know exactly what my acts of service will look like in Moscow, Idaho, but my prayer is that wherever I am I'll continue to let God work through me, to turn me into a positive light, and to impact the people around me. It truly is the greatest blessing around.