A Rediscovery: “The Love You Had At First”
The life of a missionary is often humiliating. There I said it. I wanted to say it was a humble life but really it’s more like humiliation.
Wikipedia defines humiliation this way: “Humiliation is the abasement of pride, which creates mortification or leads to a state of being humbled or reduced to lowliness or submission. It is an emotion felt by a person whose social status, either by force or willingly, has just decreased. It can be brought about […] by embarrassment if a person is revealed to have committed a socially or legally unacceptable act.”
When I was a teacher I felt a certain amount of pride in my work. I could do it well and I was respected by my students and colleagues. I could point to a nice house we owned, two cars, I understood my position and was constantly improving myself intellectually. I remember feeling the great importance of what I was doing and the satisfaction that comes with working hard and becoming better at something.
Missions is different. I rarely know what to expect of my work. Often I am asked to do things I can’t do well; sometimes I don’t have the slightest idea what I am doing. We make constant and numerous mistakes. Our command of the local languages is far from elegant.
Many times this year I have gone to lead a ministry and found myself alone or with one or two people (often times my own children). It can oftentimes feel like the locals are indifferent to our presence and the clergy are uncomfortable with laypeople getting involved. Here in Ecuador the tribal locals are extra cautious and very slow to open up. I often feel more neglected than respected. You could say that our social status has definitely decreased! I often feel embarrassed either speaking an awkward word or acting in a socially unacceptable way.
I don’t know why but this last week especially bothered me. I felt like I had lost my way. What was I doing? Why did we give up so much to come out here and do so little? There were more students in an average class I taught in the US than we see in a normal mass here in the region. When we do a communion service there may be less than ten people, less than five. It can really challenge me when I prepare for hours a reflection over the Sunday readings and only a few young children and an elderly lady arrive (usually late). It can be frustrating to put so much work in for so little (so I was saying to myself).
A few days ago I was walking around the plaza of our town praying my rosary and interceding for my fellow missionaries and the people of our town and region when I felt the Lord speaking to my heart words I had read earlier this week in Revelation 2:1-5a:
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus, write this: The one who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks in the midst of the seven gold lampstands says this: ‘I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, […]. Moreover, you have endurance and have suffered for my name, and you have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: you have lost the love you had at first. Realize how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the works you did at first.’”
I felt the Lord speaking these words to me personally, challenging me. “I know all you have done, what you have endured, Jonathan; I know the things you have suffered following me. But you have lost the love you had at first. Realize this and come back to me.”
I instantly remembered my first mission trip to Mexico. I remembered how Teresa and I talked on our way down to Mexico. I had just nailed a job teaching Latin at Mercer University and we were financially doing better than ever. I remember telling her that this was just a trip for a week but that was all. After the trip, I thought, my real mission and vocation to teach would continue. I never expected to find Jesus so present in the poor in the desolation, in the desert. He was there. He was calling us to follow Him into a deeper more meaningful life than I could ever imagine. As I pondered our old life and the new life Jesus called us to I felt a sense of gratitude for the call to be His missionary, to be neglected with Him, overlooked with Him, carry the cross with Him.
“There is always the temptation to counter slander and oppose anything that humiliates us or makes us feel ashamed…the Lord says “No,” that is not the right path. The path is the one taken by Jesus and prophesied by David: bearing humiliation. ‘Perhaps the Lord will look upon my affliction and make it up to me with benefits for the curses he is uttering this day’: turning humiliation into hope.” – Pope Francis
Thank you Jesus for reminding me why I love this life. I have never felt you so close as on the cross, on the dusty road, in the dry and thorny path where the blind and sick are crying out for You.
A close friend of mine told me that Jesus was purifying my intentions, purifying my heart. Soren Kierkegaard once wrote, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” I want to live my life willing God’s will. I want His life to be mine and mine to be His. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal 2:20)
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