I left the LAM retreat today feeling the same way I did as I left last year: humbled and impressed.
Robin and I often receive praise from friends and family for the "good work we are doing" and the "sacrifices we have made". That's not bad. In fact, we really appreciate the encouragement. But compared to the people we got to hang around with this weekend, we are nothing. Missionaries Lite. Please understand that I'm not criticizing our ministry. We firmly believe that we have been called to be where we have been and to be doing what we've been doing. Nor am I in the least bit implying that our time has been easy. But we've had a few advantages that sometimes don't seem fair:
-Because of our incredibly faithful supporters, we've never had to worry about money.
-We have no kids.
-We knew Spanish before coming down here.
-We are only staying for two years.
-I've known all along that there is a job (and a Tercel) waiting for me when I get back.
-We had both lived in Latin America before.
-This time away does not hurt our careers; it will probably actually help.
-We had very little money when we lived in the US, so the lifestyle change isn't that drastic.
-We are working with an established ministry that has been serving for many years. We just had to jump on board.
Few missionaries have those advantages. There are two groups that always amaze me: the older folks, who have been serving with LAM for 30, 40 or 50 years, and the young families who bring their children to a world and they knew almost nothing about. Many of them leave positions as successful professionals to spend a year feeling like high school students again in language school. And instead of praise and admiration from friends back home, they just get questions and criticism. It's awesome to see the step of faith they take and the sacrifices they make.
The missionaries we got to be around all weekend are remarkable. They are intelligent, experienced, hard-working, talented and, most impressive of all, genuine. Real. Humble. Missionaries, especially those who have been serving for many years, are unlike any other group of people. You don't have to be around them long to realize that most missionaries have spent their lives working, fighting, suffering, sacrificing and depending only on God and have received almost no recognition and certainly no glory. And they love it. We were at the retreat for four days. During those four days we heard about many different ministries, but we never heard a single mention of how many children had been fed, how many houses had been built, how much money had been raised, how many drug-adicts were rescued from the streets or how many souls were saved. No shadow of boasting. It wasn't that they were holding their tongues in an attempt to be modest. They honestly don't care about numbers, perception or personal satisfaction. They just want to serve. I'm getting closer to being able to answer the question. The question that we've already begun hearing, and we haven't even left yet.
What did you learn from your two years as a missionary?
I haven't yet been able to piece together all the words in my mind, but the answer is somewhere around here . . . and it comes more from listening to other missionaries than from our own experience. We've had a taste of it, but we haven't been here long enough for much more. Missionary service (and it's probably true of all service) is not about changing the world. It's about following God, surrendering your desires and getting to work.
I think week-long mission trips are great. I've been on several and hope to be a part of many more. But in some ways they skew our idea of service. We go away for a week and build a house or put on a Vacation Bible School. At the end of the week, we clearly see the results of our labor, and we feel satisfied. We've done well, and God has blessed our worked. Again, that's not a bad thing. We should see results, and God does bless those trips. But things don't always work out that way. I'm sure its not hard for you to believe that we don't come home from school every afternoon feeling satisfied. And I can tell you that none of the other missionaries we've met are perpetually satisfied. In fact, they are more often frustrated than satisfied. (I should clarify that frustrated does not mean they are always cranky. They are genuinely pleasant.) Their work is hard, and they work hard.
So if mission work isn't about changing the world, and many missionaries are often frustrated, shouldn't they stop being missionaries?
How does that make sense?
Again, I haven't completely formulated the wording yet, but here's a try . . . Scattered among those many defeats are victories. And scattered among my defeats are the victories of others. And although we may not experience it ourselves, those victories change the world.
And more importantly, when God tells you to go serve, you go serve.