Though I missed most of it, since I had 2 church services of choir I'd committed to, I caught the end-of and just got back-from our student missionary re-entry retreat. Food, talking, activities, SM-produced on-the-spot worship service (product of us being numbered off), etc.
Beforehand, I attended a social or two for those of us who were getting ready to leave, and I'd seen SMs on stage being involved, etc. They all understood each other a certain way, they made it look like a good thing and like you'd definitely be changed, but the huge changes we were all about to go through just ... it wasn't gotten across. It was mentioned, but I wasn't aware of the upcoming ... total & utter reconstruction.
These pre-trip & post-trip get-togethers are nice, they're fun, there's some light bonding & whatnot, but I honestly feel as though there's pressure for there to be a certain kind of experience. Some things are easier to talk about than others; certain aspects are almost glamorized. What about those of us who have tough things to talk about and who'd rather use factual anecdotes to fill in the gaps between the positive stories because the difficulties of our experience would make others uncomfortable, because there's a surplus of negative stories? It's just as possible that a great good came from a great difficulty as it is possible that a great good came from a student missionary experience where you "didn't want to leave" at the end, which so many seem wont to say. What about those of us who - as much as we bonded with where we traveled to and the people there - were eager to return home? What about those of us who don't seem like poster children, necessarily?
What about the life of a student missionary without its makeup on?
It's not just that it's hard.
What if there are some things you went through or witnessed that you feel were wrong and need changing? Not just forgiving?
I've refrained from full disclosure on this blog - both regarding events that transpired as well as my reactions - because I was quickly informed upon arrival to England that they get to know the student missionaries by reading their blogs. There was hardly ever a place to let my guard down for the sake of being a good SM. I don't even think I started venting fully to my own mother until several months after I'd been in England.
I will continue to refrain & use discretion, but this I will say (since it's started to eek out in skype conversation with understanding British friends).
I have and always will be committed to seeing the silver lining whenever possible. God is good. But people ask me about my experience in England - somehow thinking I was in London, not Watford - grinning at me and assuming it was kickass rockin' awesome, and I respond "It was good. Really hard, but very good. I'm glad I did it. I don't regret it."
All that is true.
The "really hard" bit came from a huge spiritual allergic reaction I had to the atmosphere the entire time I was there. It wasn't the culture shock; in certain homes and in the company of certain people, I felt more at peace, but I'd just like to say that churches are maintained by humans, no matter their degrees or titles. These humans can get as tired and worldly and insensitive as those merely attending or not even part of the church at all. Now of course, that's a given (though I feel that some people need to be reminded, since they think they've got a free pass to holiness because they're in ministry), but there was a lack of energy & personal evidence to make sure they were all personally taking Jesus in and breathing Jesus out vs. making events happen. And because my private relationship with God is a priority to me, the friction I regularly got made life extremely difficult; in a church of all places, you'd think spending time alone with God wouldn't be viewed as a frowned-upon luxury. Jesus wasn't always with the masses. He withdrew often to solitude. He needed to replenish. We all do. That's one of the MOST needed ways we have to replicate Him, not one of the ways that was "uniquely Jesus."
There are some who might read the above paragraph and then hotly respond as though I spent too much time in my room and it's necessary to be available. I was VERY available as the majority of people would say so. I was polite through the times when certain people made me feel slow and stupid, which silently infuriated me since I'm not good with quick comebacks and since I never was unkind and since it's downright thoughtless and foolish to make judgments on a person because they're different, nevermind that they're just as capable; it's like a form of emotional racism and I hated it. I had gifts that can't be replicated and I did things nobody would have stretched themselves to do, yet those things were taken for granted as part of me "being a nice person." I was shocked at what got laughed at and what people shrugged their shoulders over. Shocked. I took care of the people who had greatly aggravated me. I Took Care of them. I made a point of doing so, because whatever misunderstanding they had, I didn't want to give it any credit whatsoever even though sometimes helping them unnecessarily (aside from my assigned responsibilities) felt galling. The amount of affirmation I received still makes me blush when I remember. Service is felt by those on the receiving end, not by the critics on the sideline and according to those who received what I had to give, I got an A+. Nobody can possibly get along with everyone and even those who love each other can't get along perfectly 24/7. Sometimes all it takes for some people is a small blip on the radar for them to lash out with paranoia rather than seeing the big picture, taking it in stride and - oh I dunno - nurturing & defending those they work with rather than turning on them. Whatever happened to unity being important? It's like asking someone to chop wood with a sprained wrist when "teams" function that way. You may work through the pain, but how is that good for you? The wood gets chopped, but your sprain just might be worse off and if this sort of thing keeps up, you just might wish it were as small a problem as a sprain. When constructive criticism is necessary, it needs to be given with tact, not like a tractor otherwise it does more harm than good to someone with less fortitude and even though I've got a lot of fortitude I felt like there were plenty of moments when I did NOT need the extra dose of character development lab. Thank you very much.
I did realize and say this to - again - try & diffuse the idea that I have a personal vendetta; I don't. I made the connection that people in ministry are very tired because needs are 24/7 and personal and ministry is against the grain of sinful nature. Of course we're going to rub each other the wrong way. But I didn't see hardly any conviction that people realized they needed to take extra care of themselves, since they're in a position to so greatly influence others. Church is a HUGE influence for life, for good or evil. We don't take that seriously enough. We're not humble enough to embrace our need and some of us won't come down off our high horses to remember that church is about Jesus, not about the location or style. Issues of the heart transcend location & style of worship. I'll be bold and say I think there's the existence of church politics at all because of how little we genuinely call upon the Holy Spirit's presence; I think we just say we're praying for Him and I think it's tantamount to taking His name in vain, except it's worse than someone swearing on a street in London. People who are humble don't get their hearts hardened and if groups were praying like in Pentecost, with hearts truly open and ready to obey and ready to be changed if necessary, we'd have the unity and successes that Pentecost had as well. The Holy Spirit hasn't left us yet; He's still close by to walk alongside us and hear & respond to our prayers. And I'll be bolder still and say that my beefs with church politics are addressed to both Parallel & Main Service committees. Y'all gotta work together and not talk smack about each other behind closed doors. "Whatever you say/do to the least of these," Jesus said, "you've said/done to Me." By this standard, I AM guilty too. God forbid I get on a high horse while I'm delivering criticism and venting honestly at last. If I got on a high horse I'd deserve what would come to me, because I have bad luck with horses as it is. It's an issue we all have, and if more of us aspired to better things, well then the majority just might become a good thing rather than a negative pun.
I made many good friendships, I left a lot of people behind whom I love greatly and miss. But you can love people, and develop relationships while having huge issues with the regular choices & effects of said choices. I think that helps explain the complexity of abandoning repression of these issues I have while still saying I don't regret the experience and I did come to love the place & its people. It DID become my second home. God set me free while I was in England. Its geography will forever be precious to me.
But for most of the time I was there, I was shocked by the ugliness & hypocrisy that doesn't just exist but almost thrives in a religious institution. By what is allowed. By what is either not at all considered or what is glanced at and belittled. By where priorities are. They say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Please try and understand, I didn't feel personally shot at - nobody over there had personal vendettas against me, but I feel as though my heart and my faith struggled to stay alive like no other time in my life. There was a time in March when I felt like I was losing my mind and I remember sobbing in a friend's lap that "I can't live like this anymore, but I don't know what to do!"
This year changed me to have far more respect for God giving you energy for the last little push - to reach a little farther for that vital grip - than I have for the sweeping emotion that makes you feel like skipping through a meadow with elation. That last push, that last stretch is far more important, especially if you're rock-climbing and that inch or two involves your soul staying in one piece.
In an earlier blog I described the differences between the UK & USA as a delicate hopscotch, because they're both so urban & modern yet so different. It was tricky. The mass of negativity I experienced is like that as well; it was here & there but not quite everywhere. And repeating situations didn't mean the negativity got repeated. This led to a lifestyle of feeling as though I always had to be on edge personally, not just on-call professionally. Someone might say, "Trust God and you won't be on edge." Not necessarily so. Sometimes your circumstances don't allow you to not be on edge, but it's ONLY trusting God that keeps you sane and even successful. You do not know how much it killed me that when I was struggling the most on the inside, when I was regularly asking what the point of my faith was, that the "public opinion" about me was the most positive; I was getting along well with nearly everyone (finally) and was having professional breakthroughs, my tasks were getting easier, etc. It scared me. That I could feel so disconnected from God yet have people telling me that I was so wonderful. Now, I know it'd be disrespectful to God to be totally scared about that, since it's clearly an evidence of God's grace despite circumstances. But it scared me nonetheless and I know it wasn't stupid fussing. I know it was valid. God was good and He is great about making sure the glory goes to Him no matter how His children are doing. But I've never felt like such an empty shell. Except the emptiness was because of so much that I'd repressed and shoved WAY down and put lots (way too much) unhealthy food on top of.
Praise be to God I haven't felt like that for months now; God led me out and has continued and is still leading me to better places. This year broke my pendulum swing. I can't possible think everything's either total hell or absolutely wonderful. My eyes have been opened.
I RECOMMEND that people give a year of service. I had a year that put my heart through hell, but it was paradoxically a great good. There's a song lyric that says, "If I'm never broken, how can I be restored?" We're born with a sinful nature and Oswald Chambers says that our spiritual journey isn't about God teaching us new things, but about helping us unlearn the bad things.
This year was hard and while I could go back to Stanborough Park Church and willingly, happily do another year there, I never want to go through the mental dissonance and emotional pain a second time. But you know, there was a medical case of Grey's Anatomy Season 7. Their theme was "Let the healing begin," because at the end of season 6, there was a mass shooting in the hospital. This metaphorical medical case is as follows: a young man has a brain tumor in a very difficult place. If he doesn't have the operation, he will most assuredly die. But if he does have it, he has a chance at life though the risk is still quite high. They have to split his entire face (skull included) open to access the tumor. Recovery will be long and painful. I found it ironic that the surgery split open his face; a personal place, crux to one's identity. The man survived and when he became conscious, he was indeed in serious pain, but Dr. Shepherd (McDreamy as some of us know him & all the ladies go "Aww!") rushed to his side and said,
"Hang on. This is victory pain. This is healing pain."
Lately the working summary of my year (Dad suggested "Messy Church," which I thought was great) is as follows: all the key relational & atmospheric props for my faith were jerked away and I had to rough it with God. You make it or you break. Somehow, I got through. I never would have made it without Jesus. He was the one relationship I was able to take with me over to England; and over there we went way deeper. You can't truly go deep with anyone unless you go through the ugly, depressing, angering, oppressive areas inside of YOU and in the world. You may think you've had a bad year or the worst one yet, but it's the year when you nearly lost your faith, when you ate ripe disappointment with God; that's the worst year of anyone's life. And when you go through it, you KNOW it. All past, present & future difficulties pale in comparison.
As for me earlier saying that it scared me that one of my most successful seasons was when I felt like a shell, I just heard a song lyric that spoke to me while typing here:
"Glory is putting others before yourselves." (Jaeson Ma)
God took care of His glory, and even though I felt I didn't deserve praise I received because of my internal status, maybe it was His kindness that people thought I was so wonderful as a tender touch on my obedience. A touch I'd one day receive as a comfort, even if at first it made me sick.
It is an overwhelming beauty when you slowly, daily experience God restoring your faith back to you, except this is a true faith; not your natural talents or aptitudes being mistaken as faith. You've been broken so now you're unbreakable. Faith isn't about what you have, it's about what God has. It's not about your heart, it's about His. And because of this, we have the most amazing assurance.