Sunday, November 14, 2010

the "m" word

I never wanted to be a missionary. 

In my mind, almost every single word in the English language carries a very specific meaning. "Missionary" is no exception. If I played a word association game with the word missionary,  I'd immediately sputter out: third world countries! extreme poverty! priests and religious!

When Fr. Michael asked us to come to New Zealand as missionaries I immediately felt uneasy with the term. When I explained the call to others, I tried hard to dance around that word. When we began fundraising and speaking at various churches, I distinctly remember feeling embarrassed every time that word was used. I can't count the number of times I asked Richard: "Why do we have to say  missionaries? Do you really feel like that word fits us?" But no, Richard had no problem with the word. If I had to use it, I did so apologetically, anticipating that my audience would have the same protests against its use that I had. I'd say things like, "Oh, I know we're not real missionaries, but Fr. Michael is calling it that because, you know, we're travelling far away for the sake of the Gospel and not getting paid, but obviously we're not REAL missionaries." I simply did not feel worthy of a term that carries such noble connotations of extreme sacrifice, hardship, courage and self-giving.

I thought that this awkward word would just sort of go away once we actually arrived in New Zealand. I could not have been more wrong. Granted, there was no way I could have anticipated that the church would have posted large color photographs of our family with the bold-face caption: "WE WELCOME OUR NEW YOUTH MISSIONARIES!" Nor did I expect that Fr. Michael would pray for us as missionaries from the altar...frequently. But the biggest source of pressure to "be a real missionary" came from the most unexpected source of all: myself.

It began with an attraction to the word "volunteer". Now there is a word I can live with! Volunteer is a term I can be at home with - a role I can comfortably assume. Before we met, Richard and I both (coincidentally) spent one year each as full-time volunteers in (separate) CapCorps programs. In other words, I have lived one very comfortable and not-at-all-awkward year under the title of  "Lay Volunteer". I began to wonder why we couldn't simply be called volunteers here in New Zealand. The idea was really gathering some momentum in my head when one little corner of my brain asked another little corner, "What's the difference? It's just one word or another - after all, it doesn't affect your actual role here at all, now does it?"

But it does. It completely changes everything. The essence of the word volunteer is radically different to me than that of  the word missionary. See, there's something wonderfully voluntary about a "volunteer"! When I was a volunteer, I saw myself as something akin to an unpaid worker. True, my ministry at the time was more than a job and it did entail a total lifestyle commitment...but it did not require a complete psychological and spiritual overhaul.  Some of the externals of my daily living as a "volunteer" were unique to that period of my life, but my interior will remained largely untouched. Not so here, not so.  Being here as a missionary calls me to a more total giving of self than I have ever been willing to attempt at any time prior. Honestly, much more than I'm fully willing even now.  Missionaries demand little and give everything. Missionaries do not jealously guard their own time nor do they keep looking back to what they have left behind. Missionaries are joyful and open - or they fail in their mission.

Coming to New Zealand as a missionary scared me...and it still does. If we are here as missionaries in the eyes of Fr. Michael - and those of our American and Kiwi benefactors - and those of the youth here whom we serve - then we ourselves must also look at the ministry through that lens...and we must strive to be worthy of the title. More importantly, we must strive to be worthy of the call because ultimately it was the Lord (not Fr. Michael) who orchestrated the use of that title to describe our posture here. I finally have realized that my reluctance to assume that title was largely formed by my reluctance to assume that level of responsibility. Deep down in my heart I had no real intention of being that courageous or generous. However it only took a few days of actually living here before I realized that there wouldn't be any other options. There is no escaping the title or the responsibility. The choice is either to embrace and grow into the whole thing - or spend two years trying unsuccessfully to reject it.

My desire to live up to the "m-word" with integrity has been a huge - and difficult - source of accountability in our first 6 months here. Just the struggle to live gracefully without Rice-a-Roni has humbled me in a way that I never thought possible - I see now why the Lord did not call us to a Third World mission territory! Thank you Jesus for simply wanting to stretch me, not break me completely. I'd speak for Richard too, but he might not want the entire readership to know that he's coping with the loss of X-Box by amassing a large army of little plastic tabletop gaming elves. He'd definitely be embarrassed to have everyone hear that his wife nearly wept over some Progresso breadcrumbs that her parents sent last week. Suffice it to say that we each find that there are some things that it is very hard to give up....even for "just" two years. We both tend to try to find a substitute rather than surrender the longed-for comfort altogether. In fairness though, I can't help but notice that Richard has accepted every sacrifice involved in this mission far more manfully than I have - and I believe that part of that is because he accepted and embraced and longed for the experience of authentic missionary living right from the beginning, hence his ease with that title even from the earliest stages of our discernment.

Food, entertainment, creature comforts - these smaller deprivations are easy to share and joke about. The demands on our time, our hearts, our patience, our souls, our privacy, our habits, our charity, our family life and traditions....these are harder and heavier and lend themselves less to laughter. We simply ask for prayers. Our attachments and weaknesses and smallness are some days very much before our eyes. We know that no one expects us to do this perfectly, but our true desire is to give the best that we are presently able - and to grow to be able to do so more perfectly by the end of this. And we do see that happening even now. But slowly. Very, very slowly.

I never wanted to be a missionary. But if I am now a missionary -and that by God's design and not my own - then I definitely never want to be a failed missionary. I do speak for Richard as well on that last note - and confidently so. By God's grace, we are not failed at present and we confidently wait upon further help from the One who has begun a good work in us, trusting that He will bring it to completion.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux, patroness of missionaries, Pray for us!

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