Tuesday, June 26, 2007

What is a Missionary?

My brother told me recently he was surprised to learn of my trip - I told him I was probably more surprised myself. It only hit me a little while ago that, if what I'm doing is "mission work," then that makes me a "missionary." Since my childhood I have sat in church congregations and listened to missionaries from Africa, East Asia, Central and South America, give their spiel about what they had been doing and what God had been doing and what their material and spiritual needs were. In college I started to hear of opportunities to go on such trips myself, and in Portland I even made friends with a guy, Stacy, who identified himself as a missionary, but I never really considered myself "like" the people who did such things - that is, like a missionary. I saw the value of the work, felt compassion for the suffering they were trying to alleviate, believed that I should even be putting a portion of my income toward some form of mission work, but I never felt called myself.

The "call" is a strange and interesting spiritual phenomenon. When people describe to you the various signs that amounted to their own personal call, one feels totally mystified - either because each instance hardly seems like a sign or could be read as rather harmless or coincidental, or because the person speaks with a confidence that you yourself are excluded from. How can I explain what made me accept this trip as a call? "God told me to forget about the money; showed me sources of acquiring the money through quite normal, if imprudent, channels; threatened to answer a thoughtlessly spoken prayer..."

The call is only a call to the one who receives it. When the call is to turn to those in one's community we say they are "serving" and call it a "ministry" (from the Latin for "servant, service"). When the call is to leave one's home for another community and culture, we say they are "going" and call it a "mission" (from the Latin for "sent"). Knowing the etymology makes it all seem far more normal than it often does in our church-speak, where those who "stay behind" look on visiting missionaries with a kind of half-embarrassed awe. Now, I'm only going on a short trip, really, but I certainly don't feel like anyone particularly special - I'm just trying to submit to the call.

It reminds me of Samwise Gamgee's reflection on heroes in The Lord of the Rings, which runs something to the tune of: maybe heroes aren't born "great," but are just regular folk, like hobbits, who choose to act when action is required of them. You could probably substitute "missionaries" for "heroes." Rather than romanticizing everyone who does something with his or her life, I think the force of the idea is that we should each attend first to the needs of who and what comes before us - let posterity work out for itself who it will value as what.

So, I guess I'm a missionary, at least for a couple weeks. It feels like a new idea to me, but really it's an old idea: God uses regular people to do great things.


Andy said...

[unpackthis.com] Thank you to Brad for these insightful comments on call as he reflects on his call to serve in Niger, Africa this summer


My favorite line: "God ... threatened to answer a thoughtlessly spoken prayer..."

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