Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Reluctant Missionary

It was not often that I had seen my father scared. He was sitting there in his reclining chair, a light shade of green, with luggage piled up next to the door.  He hadn’t slept over three hours on any night the entire week, and he was due to take about twenty college students to El Salvador for a ten-day mission trip the next day. 

As a Spanish professor at a Christian college, Dad was the likely choice to take students on mission trips to Spanish-speaking countries.  He had contact with students who wanted to learn Spanish; he had contact with native speakers who lived in the countries where the trips were to occur; he had contact with the language and the cultural mores of the country visited.  If you were to make a list of the people on the campus where he teaches who would be the most likely person to take a group to El Salvador, Dad would be near the top of that list.   Yet there he sat, turning ever-more olive-toned. 

At the time, I really didn’t connect with Dad’s fear.  It was the summer of 1994, and I had just finished my first year of college.   I had seen much of the effort he had put forth to make this happen. He’d worked hard, and he had built a team that, by all accounts, should work well together.  As is his practice, he put in long hours and trained these students the best he knew how.  He listened to the ministry organization and leaned heavily on their advice.  He chose highly-motivated Spanish speakers as his student leaders.  The group had worked together, prayed together and unified to have a successful time of ministry in El Salvador.  His effort was exemplary. 

So, I thought, “why didn’t he feel comfortable?”

Knowing my Dad, he had been thinking the previous week about why he shouldn’t feel comfortable.  He thought about the insanity of taking a group of college students to a country that had, until recently, been embroiled in a violent civil war.  He recognized his own personal weaknesses, some of which were not perfect for overseas ministry (weak stomach).  He considered all the work he could do—around the farm or at his office—that he could get done during these ten days.   He imagined all the bad things that could happen to his life, to his career, if things went wrong.  He even chose I Corinthians 2:2 as his verse for the trip, focusing on the “For I determined not to know anything among you” part.   He knew he wasn’t truly equipped for this trip.  And he turned ever-greener.

As the caring college student I was, I thought most of this was pretty funny.  I had thought about the trip for a whopping thirty seconds, so I felt like I had a pretty good handle on the situation.  At least I had a good enough handle on it to offer a bit of humor. 

I said, “Dad, you’re looking a little sick.  Shouldn’t you get Montezuma’s revenge after you eat the food?”

He looked up at me with the “get-away-from-me-or-I’ll-throw-this-recliner-at-you” look on his face.  I smiled internally.

I continued.  “No, really don’t you want to go?”

He answered.  “Not really.  No.”

I was a little surprised.  Most of the time, Dad’s pretty enthusiastic about his ideas.  If he’s come up with it, he’s also discovered the reasons to get excited, or at least motivated, to do it. 

My next question was pretty bold.  “Then why are you doing it?” 

I was still at that stage in life where I thought that people didn’t do anything they didn’t truly want to do.  (My interaction with the federal tax code that summer would change my thinking somewhat, but that’s another issue).  Dad had volunteered for this, hadn’t he?  He had prepared; he was equipped.  Why dread it now?

He answered.  “You’ll never mature if you don’t do things that make you sick.”

Even now, his answer is a little odd.  I’ve grown up in a society that encourages the avoidance of discomfort and the rejection of pain altogether.  Hard times—even in Christian circles—are seen as the result of bad decisions or loose morals.   Too hot?  Turn on the air conditioning.  Relationship gone bad?  Find someone new!  Get too fat and your pants don’t fit?  Don’t lose weight—buy new pants! I was swimming gleefully in those philosophical waters. 

I thought about it for a while, and I’ve come to the conclusion that Dad was following in the footsteps of some pretty significant men of God who didn’t want to do what God had asked them to do.  Who were afraid.  Who turned green at the thought of the upcoming tasks, ticking off the list of things that could go wrong.  Men like Moses and Abraham, David and Elijah, Peter and Paul.  These guys, and a bunch of guys like them, had moments in the reclining chair, thinking.  They had sleepless nights.  They had swirling visions of utter calamity.  (Quite often, they also had a smart-alec beside them asking stupid questions).

These guys weren’t imbeciles out for a quick thrill or a thoughtless adventure.  These were men who planned and worked and led other leaders.  They weren’t without talent or brilliance or ability.  Yet they were asked to do things that made them nervous or scared or sick.

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