Ministry in the Midst of Frigid Misery
I specifically requested a southern city for my year-long teaching placement in Asia. On my application, I stressed that I am a cold-natured weakling from the American South. Lord, You understand, right? You chose my birthplace!
I have long tried to avoid complaining about being hot, in order to maximize the credibility of my cold complaints. When I am uncomfortably hot, I am not miserable; I am just sticky, smelly, and lethargic. Sweating works, and drinking water is life-renewing. When I am uncomfortably cold, however, the already-puny circulation in my extremities screeches to a halt. My head clinches at every pore and my shoulders cling to my ears, producing constant headaches and shoulder pains. I can add all the clothing layers I want, but my body refuses to create more heat to fill this insulation. My psyche goes into hibernate-or-die mode. I am miserable, all right. If I hate being cold enough, I’ll earn the right to be warm, right, Lord?
My placement was at a university in the upper south of my Asian country, approximately the same latitude as my American home. Ironically, though, this is known as the “coldest” section of the country due to the sinister combination of intense humidity and zero indoor heat. The fall, winter, and spring in this province are one amorphous rainy season, resulting in seven months of dark, dank, relentless cold. Mi-ser-y. That is my long-johns being damp under my clothes, while I am wearing them. That is seeing my foggy breath between bites in the cafeteria. That is teaching, grading, eating, and sleeping in concrete icebox buildings that are often colder than the outdoors. That is pulling my cell phone out of my purse and having to windshield-wiper the screen with my gloved finger because it is damp. That is discovering that my thick-as-anything passport is curling up at the edges while inside my desk. That is taking a shower and having my towel never dry again. Lord, did You consult a meteorologist when You put me here???
I had ten months to invest in the university students and teachers around me. I slowly realized that seven of these would be spent in hibernate-or-die mode. If walking half a mile to grab lunch with students was optional, you had better believe I ate peanut butter out of the jar in my apartment. So Lord, You can forget about ministry. Yet…I know You brought me here to build relationships and tell Your story. Are You sure I can’t do that from under my bed covers? How can You expect me to pour out my life for these students when I don’t even feel human?
I refused to be wholly God’s while my mind and body were miserable. I am not sure which was thicker: the cold around me or the fog of my pride. I actually yelled to God that people who choose to live in frigid climates do not deserve to hear the Good News until they migrate somewhere reasonable. Was I trying to make God chuckle and then roll out the sunshine for His poor, baby girl? We could laugh about it together in Heaven someday. Instead, He gripped me with His overwhelming whisper: You don’t deserve the Good News either. I’m not telling you that being cold isn’t difficult; I know it is, but I want you to see that pouring out your life for Me as a living sacrifice will make you warmer. When you take your energy for complaining and use it instead for loving others, you will forget yourself— and that is more life-giving than any heater.
Ministry in the midst of misery. Offering my very life as sacrifice. That this depth of ministry was newto me was evidence of my superficial commitment to loving others until then.
I would love to say that I magically learned my lesson. Instead, the rest of the rainy season consisted of an inner yo-yo: Now I’m totally Yours, for ministry in misery! Now I’m partially mine, because I need to retreat and become less miserable before I can reach out to others. Up and down went my heart. Perhaps the greatest sense of failurein my life was my pathetic inability that year to break the yo-yo. My self-centrism damaged more than my own outlook. My teammates had to deal with my verbal and nonverbal, conscious and unconscious whining. I am ashamed to realize that my attitude soured much of our group time. Lord, why were You so generous with showing me Your love through my teammates? Why did you bring so much lasting, sweet fruit from my bitter attempts at ministry?
My next year in Asia, I was placed in a city much colder in temperature, but much warmer for the plentiful heat. Snow on the ground for five months? Bring it on. I might become an icicle on the way to the bus stop, but inside my apartment I could eventually thaw out. I have never, ever been so grateful for anything in my life as for the heaters in my new city. That is a merciful response to complaining I never should have done. That is undeserved manna. That is grace-heat. Though I had failed to pour myself into ministry in misery, the Lord invited me to enjoy Him and share Him still. Lord, how can I make sense of this mercy? Why don’t You punish me for disappointing You? Why won’t You let me punish myself?
What a transformation in my second year, to spend my waking energy grasping why the Lord had given me so much, instead of why He had withheld so much.