I am the girl with the to-do list. I am the girl with the big day planner who relishes checking things off. I am the keep-the-room-spotless, get-stuff-done girl. When I get into a zone, I can’t break away until I’ve finished what I started out to do. I’m diligent and organized and responsible. My room is clean and organized and pretty.
It all sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? But—
I am also the girl who snaps at people when they interrupt her. I am the girl who cares more about getting stuff done than being kind to those around her. I am the can’t-stop-and-chat-for-a-bit girl. I am the get-impatient-with-people-when-they-dare-to-talk-to-me girl. I’m uninterruptible and intense and isolated.
Does that sound too harsh? It’s true, I’m not like that all the time, and I feel like I have good relationships with my friends and family (the people who bear the brunt of all this), but it doesn’t negate the fact that something’s wrong here.
When I was in South Africa, I spent a lot of time just hanging out with the missionary family we were staying with. That was really the primary point of the trip: to spend time with missionaries and watch what it’s like to be one in day-to-day life. You hear all about people working in orphanages and building churches and preaching in the streets, but they can’t spend all their time doing that. What do missionaries really do?
I know each missionary’s life and experiences are a little different—actually, they vary a lot. But as I watched the missionaries I was staying with, I learned something about missions work that I’m sure applies to everyone involved in it: It’s all about people.
It’s all about people.
I don’t necessarily mean working in soup kitchens, rescuing orphans from the street, or digging wells for them, although those are all good things that we should do. I mean just building relationships with people. I mean listening to people. Really listening. Thinking about nothing else but what they’re saying and investing your whole being into them and their lives. I mean just sitting down and snacking together, spending time together, making little memories together.
And I don’t necessarily mean deep conversations about the meaning of life, great sermons that win people over to Christ, or intense discussions about a person’s religion, although those are also good things. I mean just chatting about life. I mean sharing fears and dreams and silly stories about something funny that happened to you the other day and doesn’t seem important at all but actually is.
Yes, the missionaries took us to baby home and a safe house. Yes, I got to worship at the church they started. Yes, we all helped out at a VBS. But what impacted me most was just watching them in everyday life. Pretty much anyone can visit an orphanage for a day. That doesn’t make you a missionary.
Missionaries, I learned, are people who are devoted to other people, who spend their lives building relationships in order to share the gospel with those friends. Okay, I kind of knew that before I went. But to see it lived out is another thing. There’s one time I remember in particular, a day when we weren’t “doing anything,” a normal day. Then some friends they’d made in the community dropped by.
The missionaries dropped everything they were doing—from the dad to the littlest kid—to talk to them. Everyone brought in a chair to the living room, the mom spent the morning baking some treats, and we all sat around and just chatted. I can’t even remember what we talked about—mostly just getting to know each other, sharing what was going on in our lives, vacations, school, activities.
It’s not really what I imagined being a missionary would look like. It’s smaller, less glamorous, less noticeable, less put-in-the-report-back-to-the-church-able. But you know what? It reminds me a whole lot of Jesus, lunching with the tax collectors, picnicking with the disciples. People. That’s what He was concerned about. Not the numbers or the glory or the great big projects He accomplished.
But the thing is, it’s also pretty hard. See, I wanted to get a taste of what missions work is like, but I also wanted to apply it to my life. Right now. I’m not on the mission field, but I can be a missionary right where I am, right?
Of course. But if being a missionary is caring wholeheartedly about others in order to win them to Christ, I’m in a little bit of trouble. I’m not even going to go into the whole “win them to Christ” part, because I’ve always known that I need to work on witnessing. It’s the whole “caring wholeheartedly about others” part that hit me hard on this trip.
As I prepared to head back home and thought about what I’d learned, the hard truths slammed against me like ocean waves, knocking me down and keeping me under until I acknowledged what I needed to do:
People are more important.
They are more important than my to-do list, than my schedule, than all the supposedly vital things I must accomplish today.
Spending time with them, listening to them, building relationships with them are more important than getting stuff done, checking things off the list, and staying in my zone.
Don’t get me wrong—it’s good to be diligent. It’s good to work hard and apply myself to the task at hand. It’s good to be able to stay focused and accomplish things. It’s good to be neat and organized.
But not at the cost of people. Not when those things cause me to mistreat the ones I love. Not when they lead me into sin (’cause, yeah, snapping at my family and being impatient and walking around in a moody grump because I couldn’t finish what I was working on—those are all sins).
So: I want to be a missionary right where I am. I want to imitate the beautiful lives of the missionaries I stayed with. I want to make people more important than my to-do list—which is really making people more important than me. This all sounds very good. But how exactly am I going to do it?
I came up with some practical ways to actually try to live this out. Here they are:
- When my little sisters come to me and ask me for help, give them my full attention instead of staring at my book or computer while talking with them. Speak to them kindly and patiently and get up immediately to do whatever they’re asking (within reason) instead of speaking impatiently and making them wait or getting someone else to do it.
- Actually, any time someone talks to me while I’m working on something, do the same thing: Look away from what I’m working on, even move so my fingers aren’t on the keys or whatever, give them my full attention, and speak kindly. If I need to, stop what I’m doing and talk to them. If appropriate, ask them if we can talk later and make good on that.
- Make an effort to smile at my family members throughout the day and ask them how they’re doing—and really listen, and comment on what they tell me—instead of walking around in an Abby-centered bubble where all I think about are my own problems and what I have to get done.
- At meals, ask others how they’re doing, comment on what they say, and don’t mention (or talk about it very little) what I have to do or what problems I’m facing. Yes, other people are there to share my burdens, but too often I use meal times to vent and complain. I’ve found that focusing on others and what went right with my day usually makes those problems fade without ever mentioning them.
Most of it’s just little stuff, like looking away from what I’m doing or consciously making the effort to ask people questions. It almost sounds stupid that I have to tell myself to do all this.
I want to make people feel important and loved. I don’t want them to be afraid to talk to me or ask me for something because they know I’ll blow up at them for interrupting me. I want to be a breath of fresh air in people’s days and not a gloomy cloud or sour wind. I want to do little things to brighten up people’s days, like the missionary mom baked special treats for people who came over. I want to make time for people. When people talk to me, I want them to feel like I’m really there, like our conversation is the most important thing that happens all day.
Which it is.
I am the girl with the to-do list. But hopefully, by God’s grace, I can also be the girl who abandons the list to brighten up someone else’s day.