Friday, May 6, 2011

Ladek Zdroj is a tiny village, nestled here into the rolling hills and mountains in the south of Poland. It boasts a spa with mineral waters, hiking paths up through rock formations and (if desired) back across the Czech boarder, and a fortress dating from the 1700s. It was also the site of last week's SEND conference.

Prior to the SEND conference, I am afraid I did not think particularly charitably about going: I struggled to find subs (the last few subs were all last-minute volunteers) and to create sub plans, so all the SEND conference was to me was a big hassle. Actually, I was wrong: the conference was a delightful time to meet other missionaries, to learn with them and to have fun.

Here are some things I learned this week:

Life (and the God who directs it) can be incredibly unexpected.

As time-bound human beings, we can be incredibly mundane about our lives. As a graduating high-school senior, I was pretty sure that I would go to college and then teach in a rural Christian school for the rest of my life (and perhaps get married somewhere in there). By the time I was a graduating college senior, I thought I'd be teaching graduate-level English at a university somewhere for the rest of my life. Neither option was true, just like most of the plans we come up with for our lives.

At the conference, this point was vividly illustrated for me by the speakers and then also by some of the attendees. The speakers were Gary and Terri Vincelette, both former missionaries (he to Germany, and she as part of the SEND home office), but for many years, they had lived Stateside and worked in a local church.

Now seniors, they are raising support to return to the field - an entirely unexpected (and commendable) field. Another missionary worked as a professional speech pathologist for quite a number of years before joining the Poland church planting team.

In Christian circles, we tend to think of missions as something you have to get into when you're young - or not at all. Also, we tend to think that whatever we do when we're young sets the stage for the rest of our lives. Neither is true. The truth is that God likes to surprise us, giving us opportunities and leading us down new paths throughout life.

The Lord is my Shepherd . . . .

Gary Vincelette's topic this week was 'shepherding': how God shepherds us, and how we should reach out to other people. My goal on my blog is not to rehash each observation he made, just to touch on two of the most important.

First, he stressed the difference between 'sheep herding' and 'shepherding' - in other words, between forcing conformity and obedience in those you minister to, and gently leading them through love and spiritual care. All too often I know I am guilty of sheep herding, of demanding performance rather than inspiring it, of telling people how they should behave instead of showing them Christ. (Of course, sometimes student have to be told how to behave: I reminded my 12th grade boys on Thursday that it is unacceptable to flex your muscles in class.) But in general, we as ministers should show people Christ and show them love, and behaviour will follow.

Additionally, he encouraged us to consider God as the Good Shepherd for us - in other words, as a caretaker who will always lead us beside 'green pastures' and 'still waters', who will always provide for us that which is good. Particularly, God does not send life circumstances meant to teach us a lesson or punish us for a character flaw. I did not have a 'Roommate from Hell' my final semester of college, for example, because God wanted to 'teach me a lesson' about some flaw in my own roommate situation. Even that hellish situation was instead a green pasture from the Good Shepherd, good in itself. From those four months I emerged with a clearer appreciation of praising God continually, even in difficult circumstances, and from that perspective, I can look back and say it was good - and not just a lesson. God is just this sort of good Shepherd for each one of us.

Have fun.

Life is good: Have fun. Five days in the mountains at a resort with other missionaries induced us to lay aside lesson planning and church planting stuff for a while and chill. Among other things, we played multiple rounds of Dutch Blitz (yes, even I the Dutch Blitz Queen lost a few), Farkle, and King and Scum (I spent a solid 2-3 rounds as the Scum, unfortunately). The final night, we had a massive off-board game of Clue. Without the board, the game culminates in three rounds of skits from each time, each skit making a different accusation.
The participants got creative, from introducing the murderer . . . .

and introducing the murdered . . .

At the end of the game, Danae revealed the answer: It was Mr. Grey in the Gazebo with the horseshoe.

90 centimeters is VERY short.

Halfway through the week, the entire SEND team packed up and went to a Polish fortress dating from the 1700s. The chief attraction of the fortress was the underground labyrinth, which connected the massive building and which offered shooting galleries for the defending soldiers to fire on enemies. Within the labyrinth was a tunnel which measured only 90 centimeters from top to bottom; anyone who couldn't handle the 90 centimeters was left outside.

Even before the 90-centimeter tunnel, the labyrinth was a thing of beauty. Most of my pictures are blurry because we were moving fast, hunched down like some kind of modern-day Minotaur.

As we ran, we passed other tunnels which stretched down into an endless darkness; some were filled with lights, and others not. The old stone-and-dirt floors were made slippery in the mud.

Great echoing booms could be heard faintly from the outside (we learned later that this sound was caused by the cannons firing above us, as an exhibition of the original firepower of the fortress.) At times, the lights flickered off and left us in the dark - once for several minutes. In the pitch-blackness, we groped around for the back of each other's jackets and joked about how long we could survive down there on the little muddy pools of water (turns out, you can survive for 7 days in the labyrinth.

Partway through the tour, we reached the 90-centimeter tunnel. To get inside, I crouched into a sort of squat, shifted my bag onto my lap, and shuffled inside (Please note: this is not me in the picture; it's a SEND person who works in Poland. I include this picture to give you an idea of the size of the 90-centimeter tunnel).

It got dark. Very dark. Very fast. I clutched at the guy's jacket in front of me and someone else grabbed onto my jacket from behind. I could only move forward inch by inch, not even taking my feet off the floor. About halfway through, we ran into water and started shuffling through that. About two-thirds of the way through, I heard a sploosh and discovered that my bag had turned upside down. Lying in the mud at my feet was a library book and my cellphone; from behind, I heard someone ask "Who's hairbrush is this?" Oops. They kindly picked up the hairbrush for me; I picked up my book and shuffled the rest of the way through with the book plopped on my lap. Turns out, 90 centimeters is about 34 inches. That's small! The book survived with slight mud stains, and everything else (including the hairbrush and cellphone) came out unscathed.

Afterwards, we climbed up around the rest of the fortress, exploring the military stronghold at the top:

Poland is beautiful.

I loved it. I'd love to go back sometime. But most of all, I want to carry these lessons with me: to treat each other with love and to demonstrate love for Christ, to celebrate God's good gifts, and to have fun with each other.

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