Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Magic of Ministry

"This is lettuce," I say, peering at the picture of "White Boston" on the packet of seeds in my hand.

"Lettuce?" Diana enunciates, but I am too preoccupied to translate lettuce in my phone. I should know it, though. It's salata, but of course, my brain thinks that must only mean "salad."

"Varza," Diana says, and I nod, so varza she writes: "cabbage."

We are planting seeds into three large, black plastic trays. Hopefully with enough water, sunshine, and time, these dormant seeds will sprout and transform into edible plants to adorn our restaurant, the restaurant that is still in its infancy, much like these seeds, and sort of like my work.

Diana plants seeds faster than I do, and after placing the trays in the sunniest room of my apartment, we set out on foot to the centru, the center where Diana lives and where I will trade my gardener's hat for my photographer's.

Diana doesn't linger in the hairdressing salon that she brings me to, choosing instead to go to her room or elsewhere, maybe to do her homework or study, because she had a big practice test for which to prepare herself. But as she goes I turn on my camera, take the lens cap off, and begin my photo shoot.

Nadia is here, cutting a boy's hair. It seems she only has male clients this evening, but she does them one after another. She knows what looks good instinctively, or maybe it's a learned talent, but she is not a domineering hair stylist; she bends and allows the teenager sitting in the seat in front of her to dictate how much hair to cut off and the way he wants it to look, even if it is not entirely to her liking.

I try to get shots of Nadia's face and the face of the boy in the chair. I try to catch their faces in the mirror. I try to get Nadia smiling. I try to catch the boy looking at least moderately happy. I try to get the full front of Nadia's face, not the side, because I know by now that she doesn't like her profile. I try to avoid blurred movement, particularly Nadia's hands. My greatest challenge is figuring out how to avoid the one or two teens lounging in the room, because getting them in the picture is a distraction to the action but sometimes they really are just right in my line of sight. I try not to manipulate the truth but to work with what is right in front of me.

I also photograph Anca, who is weaving intricate braids into a dummy's blonde synthetic hair. There is an extensive row of these life-sized Barbie-like heads all along the windows, which have grown dark with the setting of the sun. I face similar challenges with Anca, getting her face and the dummy's, avoiding the kid leisurely watching the others in the room.

Nadia cuts the hair of one boy after another, taking only one break. She'd already been cutting hair before I even got there, and I think I saw about six boys get theirs done since I walked in. We call it a night eventually, and the next day I begin my work of sorting through all my shots, editing them, and uploading them to Dropbox for future use.

I was especially excited to not only meet new kids that I had never met before, but also to see some I already knew, including one boy named Petru. I had met Petru in the summer, when I first arrived, either at a trip to the woods or to the pool. He was so small and meek, so innocent and shy. When he walked into the salon the other day, I was amazed at how much he's grown. He's taller, wears glasses now and seems to have crossed that threshold of young boyhood to just normal boyhood. I talked to him. He said he remembered me. I asked him about his glasses (I also am bespectacled) and I taught him how to play thumb war. Rasvan was there, cutting hair too, and even though I was the one to also teach him how to play thumb war, he has gotten so good that he can beat me. And believe me, I never just let him win. But getting to see Petru made me so happy but so sad at the same time. It's like I missed a chunk of his life that I will never see.

On Friday I did a new thing, all by myself. I took some girls to get pizza, just me, no translator, arranged by me, everything. Mostly. I admit I got some help figuring out when and where, but I did the contacting of the girls, and I met them at the park. I'm trying to be more independent not only in living my life day to day but in leading ministry shindigs as well.

I'd say it went well. It was a little hard to communicate, though I had Google Translate at the ready, because while I am good at using Romanian in certain situations, I am still working on how to get teenage girls to relax and talk about themselves without using English. Playing the game "telephone" worked, though. Then I bought us all pizza and then the director came by with her son, so I didn't need to carry the conversation as much anymore. The director extended the girls' free time by an hour, and as we walked out Brandusa came up out of nowhere, so the four girls, Brandusa and I went on a walk until it was time to meet the director, and then she drove them back to the centru.

The next day we had our English class for four girls, three of them from the pizza snack the day before, taught by Rebecca. Since the class was smaller than usual, all the girls got to participate more, which was very good. We plan to rotate out the kids, with this quieter group some weeks, and the more lively group other times.

After going home for a little while and sweeping, washing dishes, and doing other household business, I picked up my sack of snacks and walked to my church. I am now a youth leader in the youth group at my church, so I attend a meeting during the week and have responsibilities like leading a game and bringing the refreshments. I also took photographs the week before, but this week all I had to do was the usual: set up the cookies, pretzels and drinks and get to know the teens better. It takes some effort to get to know all of the youth equally, because they do have their groups. But getting to know them is a lot of fun, especially with the ones who know some English.

One guy, Alexandru, made a big fuss because apparently he had seen me in Kaufland (the grocery store nearest me), smiled at me, and claims that I looked at him but I didn't recognize him. Honestly, when I'm in Kaufland I only want to get out as fast as I possibly can, so I was probably "in the zone" and not properly paying attention to the people around me. I apologized, and endured some more playful ribbing from Alexandru until he had sufficiently made me understand his public humiliation. I then went back to whatever I was doing until the activities and studies were over, and then I helped Alexandru put back the chairs.

Why do I bother to write out the mundane details of my week? Well, other than the fact that my journaling has almost come to a halt (due to my busy-ness), I wanted to give you this glimpse into all of the things I am actually doing. I'm not standing on the corner and preaching on the street, but I'm not just sitting around eating chocolates, either. Missionary life is somehow often shrouded in mystery in people's minds for some reason, so I decided to pull aside the shroud for you.

I suppose missionaries' lives are sort of mysterious because every missionary is different. Some translate the Bible into a new language, and others plant churches, and still others teach English. There already is a translation of the Bible in Romanian, there are many churches here and I hate teaching English, so that is why I am involved in all the things I described above. This is the magic of ministry. It's composed of a lot of little moving parts, times of individual interaction (like with Diana) and times of larger-scale evangelism (like at youth group). Ministry has a way of working into one's every waking moment, so balance is necessary. But I can think of nothing else that I'd rather have dominate my time and imagination. Thank God for that.

To donate to rent for my apartment for at-risk young orphan women, please visit this link.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Everyday Missionary

In the world, especially in the United States, and even in Christian circles folks are busily climbing the ladder of success. We learn to believe the lie that success will make us happier and give meaning to our lives, and that if we are able to achieve our prestige and paychecks then we must deserve them. We can focus so much energy on our personal growth and on all that is ours. But what if we are called to something more?

Before I get down to that something more, let me give you a little autobiographical context. As a child, I was a perfectionist, at least academically. I tried very, very hard on all my assignments. I spent a lot of time on homework and read for pleasure on top of that. When I was very young, I would get overwhelmed because I thought that in addition to my classwork I was also supposed to help all the other kids at my table. Talk about an overachiever. Some people assume, for whatever reason, that overachievers aren't actually smart, that they just work hard. Well, I worked hard and I was intelligent. So I got very good grades.

I never played on a sports team and gave up the two instruments I started learning, so my sphere of expertise was always academics. I liked reading many kinds of books. I wrote poetry. And of course, I always tried to keep getting A's. I still struggle to find peace with those two B's I got in high school and the two B's I got in college. That's how devoted to my GPA I was. It's true that there were other people who were more concerned, especially among my high school friends. We hardly talked about anything other than assignments, tests and our marks. But I was still a person serving that master, the master of grades, the future, success--all the things our teachers told us. I fell for it, hook, line and sinker.

I liked excelling. I liked having a score on a test telling me that I had aced it, having a piece of paper proving my intelligence and knowledge. It was affirmation that it was okay for me to take up space in the world. It was like I could say, "Hey, I'm good at this! I'm allowed to breathe the same air as all you other people who I feel are somehow better than me!"

I began to grow out of this as I got older. College was the most worthwhile in regards to things like research, interviewing people, exploring Los Angeles--all things that can't be evaluated or tested. Or if they are, it's sort of beside the point. One thing my university gave me that was incredibly helpful was just experience. Field trips, projects interviewing different kinds of people, working with a team of peers. All the other little things that stressed me out didn't do as much good as the things that were actually enjoyable. I began to see the value in things that weren't grade-able. I began to serve the god of excellence less and less.

Oh, I still tried (and succeeded) to get good grades. In fact, those two B's I got in college were both earned my hectic first semester when I had that major depression. After that, I did even better in all my classes (though I'm not sure how I managed tennis). I identified myself less as someone who "got good grades" and more as someone who has to power to create potential for others and for myself. I didn't cling to my grades to make me feel worthy anymore. But I have to say, man, did it feel good to walk across that stage at graduation, summa cum laude.

Success can be a master, a god, and a beast. If we buy into the American dream, or even the Indian dream, or the Japanese dream, etc., we can start to believe that our worth is contingent on how smart we are, how high our position is, or how much money we make at our job. Let me describe to you how easy it is to serve the god of success.

What do our parents tell us? What do our teachers tell us? What does television tell us? What does success look like to these people who proclaim what it is we should do every day?

I feel like many times, everything boils down to money. I need to do well in school because...I want a good job because...I want to make a lot of money. Even if your Aunt Susie wants you to be a doctor, she makes it clear that you should do this'll make a lot of money.

I get it. Everyone wants a family, and the more money you make, the better you can take care of your family. We go to college so we can get a good job to earn money so we can fund our children's college expenses. And so the cycle goes.

I also understand that people have passions. Maybe you actually really want to be a doctor. Maybe it's your dream. And maybe you really want to help people. Okay, I'll give you that. I won't assume my readers are just greedy, money-obsessed scrooges. But I think I have come to the part where I tell you about that "something more."

That something more might actually look like something less.

Being a missionary is a practice in serving others. We share the gospel as we help people and we help people as we share the gospel. Some people think this is a special thing that only certain other people can do. But I think this kind of thing is something we should all do, every day.

Why is it so hard in America to serve other people? And why do so few Christians talk about their faith with people who believe differently?

The answer to the first question is, in a nutshell, that our society is so arranged that it is extremely difficult to interact with most people, especially people who are different from us. We live in big houses in neighborhoods where we don't talk to any of our neighbors very much and we go to church where we might open up, but then it's back to our suburban fortresses and then to work, where of course we wouldn't dare share our faith, and no one there needs any help, anyway (or so we think). I could go on, but maybe you get the idea. We are very insulated driving around in our "Lexus cages" (thanks, Switchfoot).

The answer to the second question is like the first. We live in our own bubbles. We hardly talk to other kinds of people about faith because we steer clear of them, for the most part. Even when we see a store clerk of a different nationality or ethnicity, we don't engage them anymore than asking where the quinoa is. We like to stick with who and what we know. Even if we aren't being stretched. Especially so that we won't be stretched.

Over three years ago now, I showed up on my neighbors' doorstep and they let me in, and I continued to show up unannounced every time I was living with my parents. I played with their kids. I tried to help Sukhjit with English. I helped Priya with her homework. I just basically hung out. I'm not exactly saying you should bow down to my incredible act of drinking their tea and eating their biscuits, but I'm offering this part of my life to you so you can see that, yes, it can be done. If I was able to befriend the Indian family next door, then you can have a conversation with the guy at the dry cleaner's. And--you can do so much more than that.

We all have the ability to minister where we are, and I believe we are also called to minister in a place where we have no business. If you want to work as hard as you can to get what you have been told you deserve, well, the path has been worn down for you by all the others before. But if you want to find the mission field where God is calling you to let go of your service to success, well, you will have a difficult time, indeed.

It's hard to do missions. It's not easy. Even doing basic things can be a challenge when you're going against the grain. But it really starts with little things. It begins with watching crappy cartoons with your little neighbor. It can proceed from have a conversation with a Pakistani associate. You can get involved in a homeless ministry. You could just start by volunteering at a food pantry. You really can begin.

I can see that what I am doing by ministering in Romania, a long way from my home, is something many people choose not to do. I say "choose" because I think many people are able to do what I am doing but the way they have chosen to construct their lives does not make it easy for them to do a 180, so they choose to stay in Wisconsin, or wherever. So I get that my position is unique. And I appreciate people who observe that and choose to contribute to my work. But I believe we all can be missionaries, everyday. We just have make the choice: is it more important to serve success, or to serve others? Which of these will ultimately allow us to serve God?

Can we chase success and be missionaries? Can we have our cake and eat it, too? I don't know. Maybe the question is better phrased, can I serve my own comfort and way of life while getting to know those who may never have that comfort and way of life? Will we want to serve success once we begin to really, truly serve others?

We are privileged. You don't need to look beyond your iPhone to see that. We are given so much teaching and we are fed so much in church that we may in fact be on the way to becoming spiritually obese. How are we giving out what we are taking in?

Feeding sheep is something we are all called to do. Sharing the gospel should be an immediate and unabashed accompaniment to any act of service we engage in. Jesus' name really should be on our lips at all times anyway. It shouldn't be a challenge, unless by stagnating in our churches we have forgotten how to witness (or never learned).

I never got a master's. It's sort of my way of sticking it to the man, if the man was academia. I got tired of studying and learning and writing papers. I wanted to do. So here I am. And maybe it's about time we all started doing, instead of storing up for ourselves what will only be withered in the morning.

Thanks for reading, and if you want to donate to my fundraiser to give orphan girls a home, please click here.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The New Place

It's a twenty-minute walk from my old neighborhood. I've divided it up into thirds in my head: from my old home to the Winnmarkt mall, to the park, and then on to my new place. Each time I pass two different Petrus, with their baked good being sold on the street. I pass news stands and flower shops and maybe ten different second-hand stores. I cross the street four different times. I pass young couples sitting together on park benches. Students walk home from school with their friends. Small children wear hats with bear or cat ears on them. I like to do something as I walk, maybe eat an apple or a bag of Krax (they taste better than they sound). This evening I listened to the five songs I've purchased off of Banks' album The Altar. I wanted to feel a little edgy, like a rebel.

Let's say I'm arriving at home. The new home, my new place. I come in the door and have to decide if I should put down whatever is in my hands or if I should take off my shoes to keep the floor clean. Usually I put down whatever it is in the kitchen and then walk to the laundry room, hang up my coat or jacket, and take off my shoes. My boots are beloved but the zipper on the left one is all messed up so I've been only unzipping it a few inches and then yanking it on and off, my foot just fitting through the hole. I bought them new, too. Anyway, I'll slip on my papuci (house shoes) and then busily begin to put away the new items I've bought for the house.

Today I bought a bunch of food. I've been buying fruit and snacks to sustain myself but I decided it was time to begin to stock the fridge and cupboard. I got a little carried away in Kaufland, picking up pasta and rice and sugar and flour and many more things. When I checked out I realized just how much I'd selected and my bags were so heavy I could hardly lift the heavier one. It's a short walk from Kaufland back to my place but lugging two heavy cloth bags made it feel much longer. Then I had to get all that up to my floor, which is the fifth. If you're a Romanian you'd only call it the fourth floor, not counting the ground floor, but in any country four flights of stairs is a lot when you're carrying pounds and pounds of kitchen essentials.

I really, really love my apartment, though. Finding this place and especially cleaning and moving in are challenges that I've had to face, but they've been surmountable. It's always nice when you purposefully do something difficult and find that you can actually do it.

Over the past week I've swept, mopped, and swiffered the floors, shook out and vacuumed rugs, vacuumed pillows and the mattresses and the sofa bed, wiped down the couch and chairs in the living room, wiped down many, many other surfaces, cleaned the toilet, washed windows and the dishes and pots that were abandoned and the bedding and towels that were left behind, and of course I've thrown away a bunch of junk. The list goes on. Brandusa helped with a bunch of the dishes, but for the most part, this has been my responsibility. It's been nice to have a project.

Whoever lived here before me loved music and books, two things that I also really love. They left behind three different boom boxes, a kitchen music player and piles upon piles of books. I've kept a few of the volumes and Nadia is going to commandeer the rest for our club. One book I've kept that I'm excited about is a Romanian to French dictionary, my two additional languages, so I can bypass English completely.

If you look down the street you can see the golden domes of the nearest church just ahead, and of course more and more apartment buildings. Kaufland is right around the corner, where I can buy basically any food, cleaning supply or toiletry that I might need. Besides the location, the apartment just feels right. It's old enough that it has a lived-in feel but it's not run-down. It could use a fresh coat of paint and maybe something could be done about the handful of loose baseboards, but it really has the makings of a great home.

I've been doing a lot of thinking about Romanian life and American life and how those compare with the life Jesus calls us to live. What am I doing to usher in the kingdom of God where I am? What am I doing that invests in what Jesus spent his life on earth doing, and spends his reign in heaven dreaming of and orchestrating?

For now, I suppose my contribution comes with cleaning up this apartment so that up to five other young women without a place to stay can move in and call this place home. The cleaning will subside, but the praying will continue and as girls arrive, the talking, sharing and learning will only increase. This home is very purposefully not just for me but for these girls. Right now things feel very quiet at home but one day, maybe soon, the fruit of new roommates will be growing right under my nose.

This is the stuff long-term missions is made of, I guess. Creating a foundation for life, for your life but mostly for the lives of others. Investing, building, meditating. Things that take time. Love takes time, too. It's easy to rush into a place and put on a show, which is how short-term missions can feel, to me. It's a new challenge to realize that the person you meet today could be in your life years into the future. How do we make the work we're doing in God's name sustainable? How do we actively love today, tomorrow, and every day after?

If you'd like to donate to my apartment for grown orphan young women, by all means click here. Thanks!