Every time I go home on a break from school, I’ve noticed that my testimony at home is weaker than my testimony at school. I become more selfish with my time and abrasive with my words. It wasn’t until this Christmas break that I realized why. It’s a mindset problem: I come home to be served, not to serve. I come home to relax, not to look to others interest and to count others more significant than myself (Phil. 2:3-4).
It’s easy, while at school, to live in the bubble of fellowship. My roommate is a Christian, my two other apartmentmates are Christian. The people one apartment over are Christians. Most of the floor upstairs is Christian. And we all go to the same church, and most of us to the same campus Bible study. In the midst of all that, it’s easy for me to serve people I like, and get along with, and who (hopefully) like me.
And it’s not that I like my family, but it’s true that I don’t always get along with them. I’ve had disagreements with my parents on matters large and small. And my family places expectations on me that other people don’t: that I eat when and where everybody else eats; that I do yard work and other household chores; and most of all, that I listen to, obey, or honor my parents as the situation demands. Honoring sinful people is difficult. That command chafes against my sinful and selfish heart. My heart says, “Honor me! And if you frustrate, upset, or inconvenience me, you’re on your own.” And that’s an attitude that is uncovered most frequently when I’m at home.
I saw this most clearly at the start of Christmas break, when my dad asked me to help him re-paint a couple of storage sheds we have in our backyard. One of them came with the house, and my dad built the other one a decade or so ago. They’re handmade from lumber bought at Home Depot, so if they get wet–a small miracle in this California drought–the wood will rot and our stuff inside will be at risk. Hence the re-painting.
And my heart rebelled. Externally I complied, because I knew I should serve my family. But inside my heart complained about losing an afternoon to painting in the cold in baggy old clothes my dad lent me because I didn’t bring workwear for Christmas vacation. (I don’t even really own workwear.) But as I stood on a ladder to paint a shed wall, my memory was triggered. I thought back just a few months to an afternoon in Malawi, Africa, where I varnished eight foot tall bookcases on a makeshift ladder in a storage container in the (admittedly moderate) African heat with a team from my church. And I thought about how I didn’t complain then, and how I was complaining now.
Perhaps the biggest difference was that I had trained for the situation in Malawi, whereas I hadn’t adequately trained myself for the rigors of being home. When we prepared to go to Malawi, we told ourselves at every meeting that we were going there to serve the missionary and the seminary. We knew clearly that our ministry was to serve, and that our effectiveness would be determined in large part by how well we understood that. And the bottom line is, it’s no different when I’m at home. My ministry is still to serve.
Below is an email I sent my old Malawi team after I spent a couple days reflecting on all of this. It’s still humbling for me to reflect on this, and whether you have a day or a week left at home for the holidays, I hope it edifies you, too.
A couple days ago, I found myself recruited by my dad to paint. Yes, paint–on vacation. With waterproofing, acrylic-based, with-brushes-on-wood paint. The original paint on two storage sheds in our backyard had started to crack due to sun exposure, so he had me grab a brush and a pint of paint to help him re-paint the sheds.
I found myself doing it reluctantly, not at all joyfully. “This isn’t what I came home to do,” I thought to myself. “I could be watching a TV show, or reading a book. Break shouldn’t be about painting a shed outdoors in NorCal winter cold.” Then I had flashbacks to varnishing bookshelves with you guys in Malawi. It was stressful, and messy, as we tried to finish varnishing on time with seemingly too little varnish and brushes that shed bristles like crazy.
My attitude was so different then–we had spent months reminding ourselves, “We’re going to Malawi to serve. We’ll do whatever Jim asks us to do, even if it’s manual labor, even if he asks us not to do interviews, even though that’s what we’ve prepared for.” We drilled that fact into ourselves: our job in Malawi was to serve and minister to Jim.
I came to the question, Why don’t I think that way when I come home on break?
Imagine how different our breaks would look if we thought about them the same way we think about STMs. “We’re going somewhere for three weeks, and our goal is to serve. Yes, we’ll get tired, and there will be moments where we want to do anything but serve. But this trip isn’t about us, it’s about our family, and serving them, and ministering to them.” Vacation isn’t about me. My life is not about me.
An STM isn’t about serving ourselves, it’s about serving the missionary, and that’s clear to us. It’s also clear in Scripture what the Christian life is about:
Outdo one another in showing honor.
Through love serve one another.
Keep loving one another earnestly–wring yourselves out in love for one another.
I hope–and pray–that our families are as encouraged by us as the Ayres were when we visited. I love you guys, and am encouraged by each of you.