As the plane descended over Toronto, Canada, the analytical and jet-lagged occupant of the aisle seat neat to the nice lady from Germany couldn’t sort out the source of her unease and anticipation. Was she excited to see her boyfriend and eat something other than plane food? Was she excited to show off all her pictures and hand out the souvenirs she bought for family and friends? Or was she anticipating an opportunity to pull out her journal and try to process exactly what happened for the past 10 days on the other side of the world? I’m sure her mind was on her boyfriend and her food and her pictures, but I also know that, for her, there’s something strangely alluring about the combination of a racing mind, the blank page of a journal and an intriguing experience.
That analytical and jet-lagged passenger was me and my experience in Ukraine had certainly been an intriguing one.
We went to Ukraine with the understanding that our purpose would be to perform on stage and expected that it would work out the way we had anticipated. We had rehearsed drama and music. We had prepared videos to show in the schools. We had perfected the script so that it would challenge the students who heard our words, prompting thoughts of their value and the possibility of triumphing over the issues they face. I realized something entirely new as I pulled out my journal and began to write: this trip was profoundly different than any other I had ever been on because our purpose was held back in a very real way.
I think there’s an unspoken expectation in short-term missions that things will generally go according to plan. If we’ve prepared our hearts, taken care of all the little details and rehearsed our presentation, whatever it may be, we expect to return home with a glowing report to share with our churches. We expect to be able to talk about how we faced challenges but, as we expected, how things generally came together and lives were impacted the way we anticipated.
Our expectations of a smooth trip certainly did not connect with the reality that became obvious upon arrival in the Ukraine. There was very evident persecution of the church with which we were partnering and an obvious opposition to our being in the schools where we were to make presentations. From conveniently timed power outages just before our arrival at a school to completely cancelled presentations, we experienced significant opposition in the physical realm. We stayed in that city for the rest of the week, but we knew that we were not wanted.
Facing opposition to something in which you have invested heavily and that you believe God has made a way for you to do does something to chase you outside of your expectations and is particularly difficult. Being held back from doing presentations in schools and having to be even more careful about the words we shared for fear of having future presentations cancelled shook us. Initially, the trip lacked the sense of purpose that I’m used to experiencing in short term missions opportunities. I felt like we weren’t doing anything and like we couldn’t do anything.
Then, slowly but surely, I realized what God’s purpose may have been in all that we did. Knowing that God worked beyond that opposition was truly remarkable, given our initial reception. We watched in amazement as He opened the door via the government into the rest of the city simply because we asked. We may not have seen the fruits of these struggles while we were in Ukraine (in fact, we may have seen more of the struggle and disappointment than anything) but I believe that they will be harvested in the future and that our fundraising, jet lag and prayers will not have been in vain!
I’m not quite sure we all would have signed up for the deal if we’d known exactly what the trip was going to entail. If we knew that we were going to have to get up at 5 a.m. and travel by bus to a school only for them to tell us we couldn’t come in, I don’t know if we would have put so much effort into the preparation of the assembly or so much prayer into the trip in general. It strikes me as ironic that, even though our primary and outward purpose was thwarted in some ways, God needed our prepared hearts and our excitement to allow us to persevere.
This reminds me of how God often chooses to call His people, not based on anything on the outside, but on the condition and preparation of the heart. When God called David to be King, He passed over David’s stronger brothers, who likely seemed much more prepared as leaders, for the youngest and least likely candidate. At Samuel’s confusion that God would choose David, a seemingly unprepared shepherd boy, God responded this way: “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). God doesn’t look at our “clothing,” the image we’ve prepared for ourselves for the day; he looks at our heart. In Ukraine that November, God’s purpose for our presentation seemed less about its aesthetic appeal or even its success to impact youth and more about our hearts.
How often do I miss that perspective when something doesn’t go my way in my own life?!
In my experience of missions in Eastern Europe I am always struck by the passion of the people despite the challenges that they face and despite the conditions in which some of them live. I always have to be careful not to compare our comfortable excessive lifestyle with the simplicity that gives these people so much passion. And I think this is the culture and the attitude that we need to adopt if we are to be truly successful in expanding God’s Kingdom. I watched the Ukrainian Christians with whom we partnered and heard the stories of the opposition that their church had faced for the past few years. Remarkably, their passion and their excitement for how God was using them in the midst of opposition was what surfaced. Instead of disappointment that they weren’t able to do what they planned to do, I saw how God was using the preparation that He did in their hearts in ways more remarkable than anything they could have performed or anything we could have performed. And they seemed to believe that this was just how God was choosing to work.
Leaving a country that is rich in so many ways, to come home to a country that is rich in entirely different ways is discouraging and makes me want to get right back on the plane, forgetting my comfortable bed, hot shower and bank account. And that’s because it’s not about the performance or the comfort, but because it’s about the heart.