As I kissed goodbye the chubby cheeks of my adorable, bald, five-month-old nephew, Aaron, tears began to roll down my face. I quickly knelt down and hugged (and tried to kiss) my playful, happy 2-year-old nephew, Ryan. Not exactly liking to be kissed, he wiggled and squirmed until he twisted free. He didn’t know that this would be the last time he’d see his auntie for a long time. But I did.
I quickly rose to my feet and made my way to the front door, only offering a quick, over-the-shoulder “good-bye” to my brother, his wife, and my aunt and uncle. I couldn’t do more. Goodbyes have never been easy; I’ll never get used to them. The hurt will never completely go away. Something, however, about saying goodbye to two little boys who will change and grow and learn and discover new abilities every day—and I wouldn’t be there to be a part of it—made this farewell more gut-wrenching than previous ones. I want to be a part of their lives, to teach them a song, to read a story to them, to sing them a lullaby, but I can’t. I’m a global worker on the other side of the world.
I can, however, be a part of the lives of my teammates’ children. I am the only single on a team of four families with children ranging from 1-12 years old. We live in five different cities all around Poland, but regularly get together for planning purposes. When all 18 of us pack into one member’s house for a few days, the atmosphere takes on a Thanksgiving-like feel. Yes, we have our meetings and strategize how to reach the youth of Poland for Christ; but there’s also people sleeping in every corner of the house at night; Veggie Tale pajama-clad kids waking up at 6 a.m., crying and fighting, laughing and giggling.
As an adult not responsible for these wild rug-rats running between my legs, I could tune them out, put on headphones (and I’ll admit I have done that once!), curl up with a good book and space out in my own world, because “Hey, they’re not my kids!.” Or, as a 37-year-old “old maid”, I could wallow in self-pity, longing for my own children someday, for my three California nephews, and never allow these bright-eyed toddlers to sneak their way into my heart. Or, I could crack the door of my heart, engage my time, mind and emotions, and share in some of the many joys of parenthood. That is the path that I chose.
Sometimes that means playing “Chutes and Ladders” when I’d rather be watching CNN. Sometimes that means getting in a major water fight, even if it ruins my “dry-clean only” clothes. Sometimes it means playing “Slug-bug” in the car for hours. Sometimes it means finding a teachable moment to instill a nugget of truth in an open, inquiring mind. Always it means that my life (and theirs) has been enriched because of the joy we have brought each other that day. Choosing to give myself to the children of my teammates blesses me, helps the tired-out parents, and endears us as a team. It also keeps me from sad, separatist feelings and drop kicks me into the job of living life, of being a part of a greater whole.
My teammates have never expected me to be their baby-sitter. They have never forced me to participate in birthday parties, family game nights, or trips to the zoo. They have, however, opened up their cars, homes, and hearts to allow me to be an important part of their and their children’s’ lives.
In Poland, all adults in the church are referred to by children as “aunt” and “uncle”. It is a sign of respect, but it also signifies so much more. It signifies to the child that this is someone who will take care of him, someone who will protect and help him. It signifies to the adult that he/she is a part of the family of God, and as such should feel responsible for the others in his or her life and their children. We are a community of faith. Hilary Clinton did not have a patent on the idea of a “Global Village”. It’s just an age-old idea our mobile society has forgotten and needs now more than ever before. So many moms, especially global working moms, are far from family, desperately trying to homeschool, learn a language and culture, do ministry, or even simply staying afloat without grandparent and extended family support. Often ministry-minded fathers are away from home and these kids need an aunt or uncle to help fill the gap.
Singles on the field are strategically placed to extend a helping hand, to give the parents a much-needed date night, to disciple their teammates’ kids in the every day moments of life. Once, for example, I was with one of my team families in an airport and we saw an Orthodox Jew – long beard, curls, and all. I took the opportunity to explain to my teammates’ son that the man is Jewish and doesn’t yet believe in Jesus.
Such moments bless them and bless me. Jesus said that anyone who would give up their family will be blessed a hundred times over. I know that my three California blessings have tripled into nine here in Poland (and even 25 when we meet with the Czech half of our team!). Blessings come in many strange forms. I’ve been blessed with cards, hugs, pinches, and tickles. I’ve rejoiced with parents when one of their children gets saved and cried when one gets hurt. I’ve been blessed by the faith of their children. Twelve-year-old Amy, for example, prayed for a friend, and God sent a global working girl her same age and with the same name! Six-year-old Jacob wanted to have a “quiet time”, but couldn’t read the Bible, because he didn’t yet know how to read (which he reminds us of frequently), so he quietly (a rarity for this active kid!) thought about God and wrote a song in his head. Hearing about this made me wonder: when was the last time I prayed with such faith or meditated or composed a song to God?
At our last get-together I was changing into my pajamas when six-year-old Jacob, whispered through the crack in the door, “Did you get in bed yet?” “No,” I said, playing along, “I’m going to right now … ahhhhh! There’s a spider in my bed!”. “I know,” Jacob replied, with great satisfaction, “but, don’t worry, it’s only plastic.” That was his way of showing love. Screaming was my way of returning it.
Maybe we need to brush off the binding spiderwebs of “could have beens”, self-pity, and self-focused activity to open our eyes to the adorable, squirmy “nieces and nephews” just under our noses, waiting for pokes, praise, and prayer.