A number of years ago I spent about four months living and working in Nepal with WMF. I arrived in Kathmandu a few months after my 20th birthday, idealistic, full of big dreams about the difference I would make, and certain that my time would be an adventure in every way, serving the poor, learning to be like Jesus, and basically having everyone admire me for how amazing I was. It only took me a few weeks to find out that I was not all that.
I had arrived with visions of being the next Mother Theresa or Gandhi, with a touch of Oscar Romero thrown in, and my expectations were dashed when I discovered that the “working with street kids” (which I envisioned as cute little boys and girls who were hungry for affection and just needed someone to come play soccer with them for a few hours each week to point them on a path towards wholeness, health, and the restoration of all that was broken in their lives) that I had hoped to be involved in wasn’t going to happen.
Instead, we would be spending our time volunteering at one of the local Missionaries of Charity homes, doing distinctly unglamorous tasks such as pulling up water from the well, washing dishes, cleaning, doing laundry by hand, cleaning out septic tanks one bucket at a time, and generally doing the best we could to not get in the way too much, or get talked to sternly by a nun for being too slow, incompetent, or inefficient. It was not fun. It was not sexy. It was not even “missionary cool,” like working at the home for the dying, or with photogenic kids, or with crowds of needy people that you could tell others about and bask in their glow about how holy you were. Instead, we were at a home called Shanti Bhivan (House of Peace) for mentally and physically disabled Nepalis. It was simple, quiet, unassuming, and hidden. It was hard.
I toughed it out for a few weeks. After all, I was with a team of people, and to simply stop going would look bad. I didn’t want others to think poorly of me. I didn’t want them to see how unspiritual and shallow I truly was. I didn’t want them to see me as I really was, so I pretended. I pretended to be a servant, all the while grumbling inwardly about how I didn’t really want to be here, and how I really wanted to be somewhere else – somewhere more exciting, more dramatic, more more… But inside, I was stuck.
Our regular schedule included getting up at 5am for an hour of silent, contemplative prayer. The first month or so involved lots of falling asleep in the midst of it – only to be woken by a jab in the ribs from Julie, or a throat clearing from Ben or Kipp. I’d return the favor when I noticed their breathing turn too deep or regular for being awake. But as we stuck it out, I began to recognize something beautiful and holy about those quiet, dark, cold mornings we spent on the floor, wrapped in our woolen blankets, learning to quiet our hearts and inhabit the silence that was a doorway to God’s heart.
After prayers, it was time to go to work. There were two bikes that we could use, and for the first few months that was my favorite part of the day: the 30 minute bike ride to work. It felt like a video game as I dodged tuk-tuks and cows, taxis and pedestrians, buses and trucks, dogs and street vendors, weaving in and out of the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu’s morning rush hour. I felt alive – the adrenaline flowed – and it was exciting in a way that the rest of my days were not.
One morning as I was riding to work, I was feeling tired, grumpy, and just plain fed up. We had been there for a couple of months, and whatever appeal had been present at the beginning was gone. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to serve. I didn’t want to go to the stupid Missionaries of Charity home, run by the stupid nuns who would just make me feel bad for not giving more, doing more, being more… I felt like I wasn’t enough. And I wanted to do something more fun. I wanted to stop and go to a cafe and get breakfast and coffee and spend time reading my novel. I wanted to do what I wanted to do. Who cared if I was on something called a “Servant Team.” I was tired of serving. I wanted out.
At the same time, I was intensely self-conscious and worried about what others would think of me. If I just didn’t go to work that morning, the nuns would ask about me. Kipp would know that I didn’t show up. I couldn’t lie about it. They would catch me. They would know the depths of my self-centeredness, my shallowness, my laziness and general lack of spirituality. They would know that I wasn’t really like Jesus. Not in any ways that mattered, anyway. After all, I couldn’t even spend a measly five hours volunteering and working with the poor – the poor that I claimed to love, and had come to Nepal to serve. However, I had found that loving “the poor” in reality was often difficult, challenging, and hard (just like anyone that you truly enter into relationship with.)
I didn’t want people to know who I really was, and how I really felt. But I also didn’t want to go. At that moment, I had a brilliant idea… What if I got a flat tire? If my bike tire went out, I’d have a ready made excuse. I COULDN’T go in to work if my bike tire was flat. I’d have to stop and get it fixed, and who KNOWS how long that would take. It might take all day, if I could find someone slow enough… and my problem would be solved. It just might work…
I could explain to anyone who asked how I intended, nay, deeply WANTED to go to volunteer today. I was trying to, but my cursed bike let me down by getting a flat tire, and what was I supposed to do? … Yes. I would have the rewards of people looking to me and still admiring me for what I WOULD have done if only the mechanical bike hadn’t gotten in the way. AND, I would be able to do what I really wanted to do, which was read my book over a pot of coffee and a set breakfast (with little delicious pastries) from the German place down the road. It was a win-win.
However, there was only one slight problem with this plan. My bike didn’t have a flat tire.
I didn’t let this stop me. I still had a few miles to go before I got to work. There was still time. There was still hope that I COULD get a flat tire. And if it needed a little help from me, then that could be arranged…
So, I started hitting potholes. Every pothole, crack, piece of glass, sharp object, bump, or nail in the road… If it was there, I hit it. I started pushing hard on the front tire, trying to put more weight on it and get it to pop (or at least go flat) before I arrived. As I drew closer and closer to Shanti Bhivan, I grew more and more nervous, and more and more frantic. The tire wouldn’t pop. No matter what I hit, no matter what I ran over, it wouldn’t go flat.
As I pulled up to the front gate, I was disgusted. “Fine,” I remember saying to God. “I’m here. I’m not happy about it. I don’t want to be here. But since I’m here, whatever… I’ll serve. But don’t expect me to be happy about it…”
I grudgingly walked through the gates… and as I fell into the rhythm of work, or buckets pulled and clothing washed, of meals served and wounds tended, something happened… My anger – my bitterness – my frustration – it melted away. I couldn’t hold on to it. I tried. But somehow, someone reached through and softened my heart. Through the practice of obedience, I was transformed and made obedient. Through the discipline of service – by simply showing up – my heart was renewed. I left that afternoon rested, thankful, and blessed. Joyful. At peace. All because the tire I had been hoping and praying would go flat held up. All because my attempts at sabotage had failed. All because God would not give up on me. All because of grace…