Directly after college, I moved to a country in the former Soviet Union to work with an emerging evangelical student movement. I was only twenty-two years old, but this was my seventh cross-continental move, so I thought God had prepare me for missions. Now I wasn’t so sure.This was my first experience living in a non-English-speaking country. I questioned my preparation. I wished for more “résumé builders” that would make me seem prepared for life in Eastern Europe, at least on paper. Some Russian language classes under my belt perhaps, some significant leadership experience, formal seminary training-–something that would prove I was competent. Instead, looking back, I see that my best qualifications couldn’t have been put in a list of achievements, job experience or diplomas. It was simple life skills I acquired in daily life as a military child.
One day, a few months after moving to my new home, I took the bus to the university where I was studying Russian. The bus was so crowded I couldn’t reach the ticket press to punch my ticket—thereby proving I had paid my fare. At a stop, a fierce-looking group of ticket inspectors pushed their way on and pretty soon I knew I was in trouble. They physically took me off the bus and into their curtained van where three of them took turns yelling at me while several others sat and laughed at the strange, and scared, foreigner. I struggled to explain who I was and why I hadn’t punched my ticket.
In the end, I paid a fine, took back my passport (phew!) and walked the rest of the way to class. I was near tears already but when I arrived at my third floor classroom it got worse. It seemed half the Russian Department was waiting for me-–someone had seen me and rather than stopping to help, had run ahead to tell the story. I was humiliated and felt the full negative burden of my foreignness in those moments. As the only foreigner studying at the university, everything I did (especially such a public mistake as this) was fascinating and amusing for them. My teacher gruffly told them all to go away and as we sat down he quietly took the cap off my pen for me, handed it to me and said “Here, write this down. ‘Punch – my – ticket - please.’”
That night, in faltering Russian, I went over my humiliating morning with a friend who’d come over bearing ice cream. Sveta spoke very little English, so I practiced some of my newly-acquired vocabulary: fine, punch my ticket, bus inspector, embarrassed. Together we laughed and I felt the warmth of friendship and the miracle of connecting with someone different than me.
God was preparing me.
Before departure, I had been convinced I would never become fluent in Russian, but here I was, six months later, conversing fairly freely. As it turns out, humility, perseverance, a good sense of humor, and (most of all) a desire to talk to people, are the key qualifications for learning a language. God had prepared me for life in that country by giving me a longing to learn. In the process of learning – of being dependent and feeling the struggle of being isolated, trying to connect - he taught me things I don’t think I would have learned had I known Russian before I moved there.
God’s preparation in my life began long before I knew his care for me, let alone his plans for me. I grew up moving every three years or so, as my Dad’s military career took our family back and forth between England and Nebraska. I bounced between schools, and floundered between cultures. My accent fluctuated, and does to this day, depending on where I was living and who I was talking to. Along the way, and without realizing it, I became adaptable not just in my speech but in other more significant ways.
God was preparing me.
I am the oldest of seven children, accustomed not just to bearing responsibility and taking charge but also to sharing and compromise. In my family there is rarely such a thing as “personal space”. I can count on one hand the number of years in my life when I have had my own bedroom. God was preparing me.
Before graduating from college, in search of some concrete wisdom that would help me figure out what to do with my life, I did a biblical word study on “God’s will”. I was struck in particular by verses from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians: “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
My conclusion was that instead of asking “What should I do?” I would do better to start with the question “How should I live?” The second question is much less tangible, but in the end it’s the how, and not the what, that matters more. Character traits such as patience, humility, flexibility, generosity, and love are better qualifications than the skills, diplomas or job responsibilities listed on my résumé.
So I waited on the what and worked on the how, and in the midst of waiting, God was preparing me; in particular for all those times when I cry out “What now, God? What are you doing? What do you want me to do?” I continue to ask those questions on a regular basis, hopefully though with less fear than in the past. Sometimes I even manage to enjoy the feeling of the unknown-–the expectancy of knowing that God will do something, something which I cannot see or perhaps even imagine in the moment. I wait for God to take me where he wants me to go, to make me who he wants me to be.
And in my waiting I work hard at paying attention to what God is doing in me, because I know he is preparing me-–for whatever it is that comes next.