This was not for lack of opportunities—they held four conferences in the last five years (six conferences, actually, if you count the regional ones in 2006). This one was the fourth at which I was present, yet it is an understatement that as a staff member, I certainly was not in attendance at any of them. The pressures of conducting the event in collaboration with the other missionaries were too great to allow for much real receptivity to the gathering and the movements of grace throughout. Never before was I aware of the magnitude this privation.
For the first time, conference permitted me to pray. This was not a result of the way we all prayed; FOCUS has always leaned more towards styles of prayer that did not attract me. Yet this year, it did not matter. The intense devotion was plain, and anyone with sense was aware of it, could recognize it, saw it ebb at points and rise at others, the climax of which was always in the liturgy. And this time there were no talks to prepare, no events to fine-tune, no organization necessary to make sure dozens of students got where they were supposed to go, or last-minute pitches to reluctant potential staff-members. A certain unreality hung about the place. Part of that was not leaving the building for four days—though this gave me the distinct pleasure of savoring the taste of fresh air after getting nothing but the reconstituted stuff for so long. In another way, though, it was the conviction that the total submersion in this intensely planned world of talks and vendors and wall-to-wall custom carpeting was not to last, and should not last. Drink, and move on. Be about your business. The real work is yet to begin.
The family members of missionary staff were in remarkably high attendance, a first. One family I know piled five children in a van and hauled them from Nebraska. The thing is, families know when someone changes. When something different in one, all notice; if they are good changes, they are also intriguing ones. What caused this? they ask. Where did this come from? This is the child or sibling or friend I know, but there is a difference, and it is one I like. Perhaps I, too, should see the source from whence this freshness flows. I, too, will come and see.
There were students all about, and I was free to sit with those whose personal history had intersected with my own, and to hear what has become of them these last few years. Missionaries know there is no blame cast on those who do not stay in touch; that people lose track of one another pronounces no verdict on the authenticity of their friendship while it was a plain fact to both. The testament to this is the ease with which the darkened rooms of the soul are warmed by the tiny candleflame rekindled by stumbling over an old friend in the murk while shuffling about, each straining to catch the failing light in the corners of their eyes.
There is a distinct memory of a day when, in the midst of discernment over whether or not to throw in my lot with this bunch, I was intrigued by the thought of the faces of the people I would be given to know, to influence, and to be influenced by. They were all figments of my imagination then, adorned with cartoonish grins of adulation. They have since been retouched with a more realistic tone. The people with whom I was given to live and work, who once were mere guesses, are real. Some of them had changed since last I saw them, others were comfortably the same, and still others were discernible (along with another’s) in the round and fleshy bobblehead of their first or second child. Each had their own place within me, shaped me, are me. Out of their magnetism or repulsion, and that of many, many others, somehow a uniqueness is shaped. An unrepeatable instance of God’s creativity, each and all.
In the midst of all this, it was hard to decide whether the circumstances of our age that have made relocation so commonplace—even mandatory—are desirable. At what point does exposure to people from so many places and backgrounds cease to enrich? Is there a time when one loses a stable identity and learns little more than to step from one world to another, to navigate the world rather than to be a part of it? There is a certain violence to being thrust back into situations and relationships that were once terribly formative but are now more like the rings of an oak—to revisit them involves a rupture of subsequent progress. That is not to say that they are not intensely pleasurable or regrettable in any way, but simply that our here-today-gone-tomorrow world has made such situations standard. At such times, it is a source of refreshment to contemplate with anticipation the place where I will die: where I will leap from becoming into permanence, sped along by those with whom long friendships have mellowed with time.
This seems a strange way to end a post on the national conference, but really, what more was it about? What more is there to hope for than a long life filled with companions fueled by the love of Christ, perhaps some of them ignited by one’s own flame, remembered and offered as one breathes the last “Amen”?