Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Missionary musings :: thoughts from the road.

I knew he was stoned from the first words of the conversation.  "Dude, you totally have to watch Inception.  No, like, totally, have a bowl and watch Inception."  The marijuana was medicinal, his chemo kept hunger far from his mind and he was wasting away to nothing.  The pot brought pounds to his body and quality to his life.  I bought a bottle of liquor on the day he died and only one friend yelled at me for drinking most of it that day.

I don't think that any missionary training class prepares you for the death of a loved one.

I remember visiting a church to hear a missionary speak once, and this was years after I had committed my life to serving the Lord somewhere without air-condition (oh, little did I know at the time, how worthless air-condition could be) but years before I had actually gone - and I remember realizing, as I entered this particular church for the first time, that I could pick out the missionary.  He was the most spiritual one there.  He was the one bouncing in his pew and clapping his way through every song.  His slide show was predictably missionary-esque and sported more than a hundred photos of "this is also the jungle."  This was the first time that I grew emotionally uncomfortable with the term missionary - it hasn't been the last.

Every time I have witnessed "missionary compounds" high on the hill over the unwashed masses, I have felt a pang of shame at the M-word.  Every time my place of privilege has opened a door, I wonder if I am doing the right thing by going through it.  Every time a well-intentioned old woman asks me if I have to learn Ukrainian because "they can't speak English there?" I cringe. Missionary math exists and is a real thing, which is real.

I am a child of the King, but I was also raised by the Empire - and it is hard to remember this sometimes. It's a never ending Kramer vs. Kramer situation, really.  My value system has to come from somewhere, right?  I was taught that drinking alcohol is a sin, but clearly this isn't what the Bible says - so I take great precaution in accepting "biblical truths literally" but I see the way that "liberal academic scholarship" just wrings the life out of faith.  As a red-headed step child of the empire, I must be especially careful about the way I treat wealth, military power, colonization, sin-scales, and skin-color.  As a missionary, I need a constant reminder that God's kingdom and the empire I come from are not one-and-the-same.

In my college days, I read a number of biographies of missionaries.  My favorite was about the ministry of my French tutors and friends. The Schultz's went into the jungle in the 1950s and grew old and unfashionable there.  Janine emerged some decades later still wearing the same wool skirt she entered in.  John only had hair on his ears when they returned to the states.  I loved their biography, because it exuded the same humility that they did.  John never boasted about his fluency in seven languages.  Janine just pardoned my French constantly in class, and loved me in spite of myself.

I read another missionary biography once.  It was filled with hubris and pride.  It was a painful read.  No one was as satisfied with this missionaries' righteousness and accomplishments as he was.  He unnecessarily risked the lives of his wife and children on multiple occasions - refusing the convenient travel arraigned by his mission board and eventually being air-rescued by the military; he proudly boasted that God's will was done.
Mother Teresa constantly insisted that she was God's littlest.  Every time that someone lifts up "missionary" as something special and hyper-spiritual, I want to look them in the eyes.  I want them to see how painful it can be to live as a missionary.  I want them to see how ordinary I am.  I want them to see how helpless I am.  I want them to see how much I struggle with faith - with the very concept of faith - every day.  I want them to see me - not some stone statue saint on a pedestal - but me - just Michael, little Michael who crawled on his belly under all of the pews during worship, big Michael who can't ever seem to conjugate anything right and always talks like he's speaking around a Big Mac. I'm so little and flawed and lost.    

When my friend was in his final days, I wondered if I would lose my faith when he died.  At some point in each of our faith journeys, we all must come to the realization that God is not "good" in that warm and fuzzy kind of way that we think about "good."  God is good, all the time.  And all the time, God is good.  And yet women miscarry, teenagers kill themselves, and the pain of this world is often unbearable. When my friend died, I was devastated and heartbroken - but within hours I knew that I would be alright.  I remember frantically searching for a hymnal - and yelling at my friend who graduated from the music school with a gold star for not being able to play it on the first try.  I desperately wanted to sing Hymn of Promise.

"In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see."

I understood that my late friend could see that victory - and if he could see that victory, then it must be true.  I'm certain that this is the kind of circular logic that any atheist would love to get his hands around to try and choke the life out of my faith, but I'm ever so content with it.  I realized the great truth of faith that day.  I learned a lesson in hope.  I learned what God's goodness really feels like.

I feel like I can't begin a conversation about my theology of mission without beginning at the story of this phone call and my friend's death.  I don't want to talk about this theme unless it's understood that I'm just a person.  I'm a missionary, a teacher, a pastor by some accounts, a translator, and a writer - but none of those things matter if I'm not a human, too.  This is my authentic voice, and it is paramount that as I begin writing about mission theology, that it is understood in this context.  Over the next few months, I want to explore some themes of mission theology - but I want them to be read with a grain of salt.  Please read them with an understanding of who I am and where I come from.

Thanks, Michael.  

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