June 23, 2010
I sat on the cold floor of the airport as my last day living in Seattle changed over to my first day of living… away. It was past midnight, and I leaned against the wall, having just checked my carry-on at the gate so as not to have to bother with it anymore. The fact that I was left with only an iPad and a violin—and that I had just stowed my cell phone, wallet and identification far from me underneath the plane—wouldn’t occur to me until later, when I was waiting to be picked up by a stranger in a city where I’d never been.
It had been a hard week. I’d just finished the last of four school years at Ingraham High School, the best and sweetest of the four. I mean, I had just finished. Ten hours before. Four hours before, I had a last meal with my gathered family, in the home they’ve lived in since I was eleven. My best friends had just come to the airport to bid me farewell at check-in, and now I was alone, with my old violin and new iPad, waiting for the worst kind of red-eye flight. This flight would leave Seattle around 1:00 AM, and get to Minneapolis just four hours later, where it would be properly morning, time for me to go meet a bunch of strangers. I was still reeling from the goodbyes, trying to sift through the haystack of loss to find a needle of excitement for a new life ahead. I was already tired, and my journey was just beginning.
I was headed to the orientation for my sending mission agency, TeachBeyond, where was told I’d learn what I needed to know to serve as a teacher at Black Forest Academy, a school for the children of missionaries in Southwestern Germany. I hadn’t intended, originally to come to this orientation at all, as it began a few days before my school year ended, and ended a few days after I needed to be already on my way to my summer job at Tauernhof Bible School in central Austria. I only had a few days of margin to begin with, and I’d planned to spend them in Seattle, gently closing what had been a long and good chapter of living there. The mission had other plans, so here I was. Off on an adventure in the middle of the night.
I only remember a little about those two days of orientation, which I stopped in for on the way from Seattle to Tauernhof. I remember a few of the lectures, fragments of the testimonies from fellow missionaries, and a bizarre swimming venture to a nearby lake. I met some women who became dear friends, one of whom was my roommate for several years in Kandern. I felt insecure about having tattoos and a nose piercing, suddenly out of my little corner of America and mingling with the rest of it. I saw the Mississippi River for the first (and last, at this point) time. I somehow—to add to the glamor of my fly-in, fly-out existence—contracted pinkeye. It was a whole scene.
And then I left. Just over 48 hours after arriving, I was on another plane, this one taking me to a familiar place, where I’d spend a summer working outside and preparing to move to this little village, this little school, where I knew virtually no one. It was to be a summer of meeting people, to prepare me for a fall of meeting even more people. Though it was a great event as a whole, I left orientation a little disoriented, glad to have met a few future colleagues, but more uncertain than ever if “missionary” was really a role that I could fit into well.
It was a messy beginning to a good journey.
From this distant vantage point of ten years, those two days melt into the rest of them, taking their rightful place as tiny pixels in the high-resolution image that is my time living in Germany. They are significant only because they are the beginning; otherwise I barely remember them. It didn’t matter at all, later, that I only went to a few days of orientation, or that I missed most of orientation at Black Forest Academy because my job hadn’t quite wrapped up in Austria yet. It didn’t matter that my course schedule changed completely just two days before school started, or that I found the first day of school so overwhelming that I couldn’t wait to get home to read Mockingjay, which had just been released that day. Later, none of those things mattered.
I remembered orientation this week because this was the week for this year’s TeachBeyond orientation. A friend of mine—one of the friends that I met at TeachBeyond orientation, actually—runs the mobilization program now, committing her significant organizational skills and interpersonal intelligence to preparing missionaries to teach in schools all over the world. She spends the year recruiting and mentoring new missionaries, many of them educators, walking them through the processes of raising support and preparing to move abroad. The culmination of all of this is the weeklong orientation, when all of these new missionaries meet in person, for a week of encouragement and support, and are commissioned before scattering around the world.
This year, orientation happened online.
It’s just a different sort of year. I think about the missionaries who are unable to host the gatherings with friends, family and churches that they usually would, especially those who are trying to raise support in these unstable financial times. I think about those who will leave without the in-person farewells to friends, family, places that they love. Or those who are still uncertain if they can even enter these countries where they’ve gotten jobs, as borders and travel remain restricted in various ways around the world. It’s a messy beginning, not the one that they expected or chose.
But it’s still just the beginning. With all the weight given to first impressions, I met one of my best friends on a day that I was still grieving the ones I’d left behind, when I had pinkeye and had only slept a few hours on an airplane. It worked out; she was in my wedding. Beginnings aren’t everything.
So this year, give yourself a break with these beginnings. Whether it’s Kindergarten for your child, or grad school, or a new job or home, it’s good to mourn the beginning you planned or wanted. But then keep walking. Because the beginning is just a few pixels, and if we trust that God can use it all—even this strange, often frustrating season—the bigger picture can still be grander than we can imagine now.