Tuesday, July 20, 2010

What the heck: "Living a Better Story"

This is just a whim.

I preface it this way because I fear that my story is "worth" nothing to most people. I mask this fear in derision at contests, and an attitude that says I don't really care about winning, nor do I think winning will mean anything to me anyway. Really, can a conference with Don Miller add anything to my life that I don't already have? These are the things my cynical, scoffing heart says.

But here I am, despite it all, entering his stupid contest.

Hear that, Don? I think your contest is stupid.


It began nearly three years ago, in church.

Of course, beginnings are relative, especially to Calvinists. I could just as easily say like Jeremiah that it began at my conception, or that it began before the dawn of creation. But it's just as easy to say it began three years ago. That's when I became aware of the call.

My story up until that point was mostly defined by a sense of aimlessness. I had just finished college (a process that should have taken four to five years, but due to that aimlessness from beginning to end was about seven, a la Tommy Boy), just finished student teaching, and was substitute teaching as I sought a full-time position as an English teacher. I was newly married, just a little over a year, and felt lost.

My chosen profession was not appealing to me. I'd had a murderous experience in student teaching, and came out of feeling completely disillusioned and drained of any desire to enter the field. It wasn't the kids that I'd had a problem with - it was the system. Trying to manage classes of 35 eighth-graders discovering their individuality and get them to to retain information at any sort of decent level's a challenge for even the most skilled of teachers, let alone a rookie. And all due respect to my master teacher, I would spend long hours at school lesson-planning and grading, often until seven in the evening, then felt like my best-laid plans were poked full of holes when I brought them to her, which shattered my confidence day after day. I eventually felt like I couldn't hack it, like I lacked what it took, and by the end just felt like I was a prisoner looking forward to my release date.

Now there were other contributing factors involved in the experience, but the point's not to analyze that right now. This is all just set-up for the main storyline.

When it began, I was in a long-term substitute position at an alternative high school. I was teaching a couple English classes and monitoring an in-school suspension program for a school in its first year of existence. But I had applied and interviewed for a full-time position there, and they gave it to a teacher already working at another high school in the district. Another blow to my confidence. Even so, I continued in the long-term position there, hoping it might at least lead to some good references.

Then it happened. A fateful November night in 2007. We attended a missions conference at our church, and heard Chris Granberry speak about his ministry, Sacred Road, working with the Yakama Indians in Central Washington. He talked about the need, statistics I can now easily quote from memory: a 65% dropout rate from sixth to twelfth grade, a 70% homelessness rate among teenagers, 100% of families affected by substance abuse, a life expectancy of 39 years, and only 2% of Native Americans nationwide espousing faith in Jesus.

And it wasn't just the statistics. It was the pictures. Kids at the kids' clubs with dirty faces and big grins as the "church people" blow bubbles and jump rope with them, adults moved to tears as their houses are roofed and repaired, and the Christians working among the people overwhelmed with the need to share the love of Christ with a group largely forgotten.

One image sticks with me even now. I don't even know if I remember it correctly, but I know the association I have with it. It was a tree-lined hillside, the sun shining behind the branches, silhouetting them against the sky. You wouldn't think that, among all the images of children and adults responding to the love of Christ, it would be the shot of a tree-lined hill that would be the one that sticks with me. But the reason this one was so powerful to me was because I immediately connected it with an image I'd woken up with every morning of my childhood: a tree-covered hill, right out my bedroom window on Mt. Spokane, Washington.

I was moved to tears. How could such need exist, right outside my bedroom window? Why had I not known before? Why wasn't the church doing more?

Chris talked about the vision Sacred Road had for a school, beginning as an after-school program, and eventually, as time and resources allowed, to build that into a residential school that would give kids not only exposure and immersion in the gospel, but a loving, stable place to live and grow up - a rarity on the Rez. I caught that vision immediately, and my wife next to me, too. "Maybe you should teach there," she said. I don't know if she knew then how powerfully I wanted to.

So we talked to Chris after the conference. "We want to find out more about your ministry," we said. "We think God might want us to join you."

"Come on out for a weekend," he said. "We'll show you around and you can consider it more fully then."

So we did, after the holidays the following January. We'd never felt more comfortable about anything than we did about the way they approached ministry and the gospel. The Granberrys felt like kindred spirits; they clearly loved the people and the community, and understood the need to walk gently as Christians, given the history between Native America and the church. We left only further convinced that we were being called to join them.

So we went through the process laid out to apply, going through a cross-cultural missions training and evaluation, and in February 2009 were accepted to start raising support to join Sacred Road. And now, after serious support-raising for over a year, we're at 50% of our monthly goal.

That's the story so far. Where we hope to be in the next few years is "on the field," as they say - living on the Yakama Reservation, having a home there that we can use to host guests who want to, like us, come and see the work God's doing to bring hope and light to the Rez. I want to see a place where kids can come have a quiet, safe place to study, with adults who love them, accept them, and help them learn how to grow up. I want to work teaching youth skills like woodworking and gardening, things I enjoy and give me a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that I hope would give them the same. I want my story to be defined by God's will and work through me, and by the way that He uses me to give others stories to live.

I said at the beginning that my cynical self thinks a conference won't help me in this. In truth, though, I could see it helping immensely. The story's already begun, but in order for it to reach beyond the exposition at the beginning, we need to raise the rest of our support. And support comes from relationships with people who are committed to giving and praying for you. A conference, even if it's populated with poor idealists who don't have money and have their own dreams they need to fund (my cynical side speaking again), could be vastly useful in helping to build a stronger network of people who care about and share a passion for the Yakama people being given the hope of the gospel.


So there you go, Don. There's the story I hope to live.

Living a Better Story Seminar from All Things Converge Podcast on Vimeo.

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