I am thirteen at church camp, murmuring to friends on a jungle gym that I don’t want to have to go to Africa and run around wearing a banana leaf.
This is my idea of what a missionary is.
I’ve felt the haunted note for the past week
—the bubbling whisper that I only wanted to be Holy Ghost when it was convenience, shiny, easy. Not when the thing seemed hard, seemed the rejection of self, the rejection of a dreamed life too young to be even understood as unlivable.
They are older, the two of them, and they are wise but they don’t know it yet. They listen carefully and test my troubled waters with soft words. There are exchanges made populated with maybes as preface, as promise, as vouchsafe that it’s possible none of this shall come to pass.
I carry this possibility of not coming to pass with me into the next day, into the last night of the camp where the pastor–whom I don’t quite trust, who had us open our Bibles randomly to the Psalms and wherever our finger landed it was for us (I landed in Ezra, you can infer my lack of trust)–preached on Jacob. Something about Jacob. Perhaps the well. It must be, in retrospect, because John 4, the Samaritan woman met by Christ, the outcast woman, would come to mean so much to me. It is this pastor who repeats the words, the words I spoke in frivolity, the words only I, the two, the Holy Ghost had heard: “Maybe God is calling you to go to Africa and run around wearing a banana leaf.”
Holy Ghost, emblazoned in ice, settles on my shoulders.
All that vouchsafe maybe, thundering, clambering, dismantling in that moment.
I walked to the back and told a sponsor I was called to be a missionary.
I filled out a card.
I went to Mexico, Romania, lived in China.
But I excelled in school. I excelled even more in school. I learned Old French. I spoke at conferences on medieval history. I started a blog. I signed a book contract. I sold paintings. I moved to Scotland.
I lived a life.
Missionary didn’t really come up again.
I thought that was the end of that.
I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.
I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?
A decade later, jet-lagged and barely functional
—I’m walking out of the train station at Edinburgh trying to hail a cab. The taxi line is stopped because of construction and in a maddening moment I, who have traveled, who have lived through missed connections and pickpockets, am somehow wandering the streets of the city as it begins to rain, twenty minutes with profanities shot like javelin toward the Majesty of heaven.
I’m nearly soaked through when I find another taxi stand, halfway across town. Do I look manic? Dripping, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, barely moving with coherence. The cabbie is young. My age young. He asks if I’m alright in the head. I stare at him blanking and consider, for a moment, letting the tide of my frustration, the unmitigated emotional discharge of packing a life, moving a continent, saying goodbye to so many loved, become the charge I level solely and utterly at him.
But Holy Ghost, in ice once more, keeps me quiet.
I say I’m fine.
As we navigate the streets, he inquires after me. Who am I going to meet at the airport? Where are we going after? I’m going to St. Andrews? Really? What am I studying.
It is this moment, when I review the underlying resentment of my actions that I fumble out, confession and curse, the response of “Divinity.”
(I heard once, somewhere, the expression regarding our witness. We are supposed to be mindful of our witness. We are supposed to make our witness secure. So much for that.)
He keeps chatting.
Somehow I’m talking about my books. Somehow, I’m talking about Jesus. I’m talking about the One. I’m talking about Word made flesh and Table for all who would take from it and how the fullness of God is abundant and robust and real. And maybe it’s the exhaustion, the spectacle, or maybe, just maybe, it’s Spirit, for I haven’t felt this open about sharing my faith in a culture antithetical to it in years.
“What would you say to someone who doesn’t believe?”
He asks this as he’s pulling up to the curb. I have known this was to come, I have rolled around in my mind the question of what to say. I hate the Roman road, the pithy pitch, the overly trite explanation of an overly infinite God.
“I read a book once, by Holly Ordway. She was an atheist who ended up converting to Christianity. She writes that on her journey, there came a point where she was aware of God, but was uncertain what that meant. Her friend, aware of this, answers rather simply that he could give a lot of quotes, a lot of arguments, but the truth was she was standing on the edge of the most radiant and beautiful kingdom, that it was a beauty so good how could anyone ever want something else. And he said then what I would say to someone who doesn’t believe: I do hope you decide to stay.”
I tipped him well.
I told him to have a blessed day, which surprised even me, even then, pulling my bags out onto the curb still a bit damp.
Called to be a missionary.
Perhaps it’s as simple as that.
Who knows, next decade, this might be written to you from Africa.
But for now, this is the field. Unexpected, but ready to be tilled.
I looked for God, in whisper and rhyme. I ask, How long? To where? And when?
Came He in the acceptable time: Not yet. Not yet. Not yet.
[photo: Dave Newman (newmanchu), Creative Commons]