Last week, I had the opportunity to attend InterVarsity’s trip annual Urbana Conference. For five days, St. Louis, Missouri, was invaded by 16,000 college students and adults seeking to learn about world missions. This year’s conference was themed around one very important question: What story will you tell?
As a writer and avid reader, stories fuel my everyday life. I breathe them in, soaking in the perspectives of others. I breathe them out, letting my own experiences take shape through words. Throughout the week, we heard countless stories from around the world. We heard from indigenous people in the Pacific Island, refugees in Jordan, college students in Mexico. We heard from the persecuted church in the Middle East–the stories of men and women imprisoned for their faith. We heard the stories of our black American brothers and sisters, whose voices have been long silenced by racism and inequality.
We didn’t just hear their stories. We entered into them. Multicultural worship is a challenging, humbling experience. It was uncomfortable at times. We fumbled our way through Arabic, Korean, Hawaiian, and Swahili, to name a few of the languages. My mouth stumbled over the strange words and sounds. Even though it was different and awkward at points, entering into the songs of brothers and sisters from around the world gave me a larger picture of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is for everyone, for every tribe, tongue, and nation. I got to experience what that looks like at Urbana.
As a writer attending a conference centered around stories, I can’t merely describe what went on. I need to take up the pen and join in, adding my words.
I suppose my Urbana story starts with answering a question: Why missions?
My whole life, I’ve felt very drawn to Europe. Growing up, I remember reading about far-away places and having this sense of urgency. I couldn’t explain it, but I needed to go there. I needed to see these places with my own eyes. I needed to walk the streets and see the faces of the people who lived there. In 2013, I spent a semester studying abroad in London, England. During my three and a half months there, I traveled a great deal. Finally, I could see and experience the places I’ve been dreaming about my whole life. Along the way, I learned a great deal. I learned that the world is a dark, empty place, and that even though Europe is largely comprised of first-world nations, there are people who desperately need the light and love of Jesus.
Upon returning to school in the United States, it was a matter of months before I felt the need rise up in me again. I had been thinking and praying about going into ministry for a while, but my thoughts and prayers began to turn overseas. “What if,” I asked myself, “feeling drawn to Europe isn’t just me wanting to travel? What if God wired me with this desire, growing it with time, into a calling?”
Eager to dedicate my life to God, I embraced the calling. He wants me to go to Europe? I’m all in. But so much remained uncertain. Where would I go? What would I do there? Who would I serve? How would I find the money? What does the missions field even look like?
Attending the largest student missions conference in the world seemed like the logical place to answer these questions. Last week, I arrived in St. Louis, willing to go, wanting to serve, ready for God to point the way. What I didn’t realize was that, although I was intellectually ready to take the plunge, my heart had a long way to go.
Let me pause here for a moment. You should know that, although I feel very deeply, I’m not what one would call an emotional person. I rarely cry. I’m not very touchy-feely. Emotional things don’t seem to impact me like they do others. It’s as if my heart is sealed behind a series of walls and gates. Within these walls, I feel very deeply and these feelings guide the majority of the large decisions I make. But my heart and mind don’t often connect. It takes time for the right keys to get into the right doors.
When one enters into service for the Kingdom of God, it is important for their heart and mind to align.
Going into Urbana, mine did not. My brain was ready. But, frankly, my heart didn’t actually care about the people I was supposed to be going out into the world to serve. Of course,I didn’t realize any of this until after the fact. More on that later.
The first half of the conference was extremely affirming. To share a bit of my testimony, I grew up in a highly politicized church where one was treated differently if they held a different perspective. My experience with the American Evangelical church is that it places certain values over others. College was a wonderful time of exploring other worldview and perspectives. However, I’ve been living at home for the past nine months. Being back in this highly Republican community has me wondering if my family is crazy for caring about things like racial equality, LGBTQ rights, showing kindness to refugees, affirming women as leaders in the church, etc. Through speakers and seminars at Urbana, God affirmed that we are not crazy and that we are not the only ones thinking about these issues. He cares about them too.
As awesome as this affirmation was, I felt like something was missing. “I’m at the largest student missions conference in the world”, I thought. “Surely God brought me here to do more than affirm my perspective.”
I was right.
On Tuesday night, the large group session was dedicated to the persecuted church. Individuals, often unnamed and unseen, told their stories of being imprisoned and tortured for their faith. They talked about God empowering them to love their captors even in the darkest hours of their lives. We then were given time and space to pray for the church. Banners with different countries were raised and we could gather beneath them, praying for each nation.
It was a powerful night–16,000 people lifting their voices in prayer. As I knelt on the hard concrete praying for Kenya, I felt God’s Spirit rising in me. As I prayed, my words intangible even to me, I felt the keys to my heart unlock–The layers pulled back. Finally, the deep desires of my heart were accessible and in the open.
“Lord, I want to go,” I prayed. “I want to go. I want to go. I want to go.” It was a prayer of frustration. I came to Urbana hoping to find direction from God that would empower me to take the next step. Where was my direction? Where were my answers? As the dust from my prayer settled, I felt God’s voice: Not yet, Amelia. Wait.
I was confused. “What do you mean I have to wait?” I asked God. “I’m ready!” But, up until that point, I was ready with my mind. But my heart was sorely lacking. That night, God opened the floodgates to my heart and prepared me to not only hear His voice in my mind, but in my spirit.
If I had to describe Wednesday in one word, I would say it was humbling. With my newly opened heart, I came repeatedly before the Lord and listened to the words He had for me… These words were not comforting.
That morning, our passage in Bible study was the end of Matthew 25, where Jesus divides the sheep from the goats and says, “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters, you did for me”. As a large group, we studied the intricacies and implications of the passage deeply. I emerged with the sense that, despite my readiness to go abroad, I hadn’t given much thought to the people I’d actually be serving. I realized that when it came to serving others, I didn’t know how.
One of Wednesday’s speakers was David Platt, pastor and author of the books Radical and Follow Me. His books were the catalysts of my decision to go into ministry. I read them during a very spiritually challenging season and they pushed my desire to serve God with my life. It was incredible hearing Platt speak. The power, authority, and incredible love of God is so present in his voice and words. He talked about the woman in Matthew 26 who pours a very expensive jar of perfume on Jesus’ head as an act of love and submission.
Platt’s words cut me like knives. One statement hit my spirit like a ton of bricks:
I see myself in that statement. Here I was, trying to figure out how to get going when my heart and spirit had completely forgotten why I’m called to go in the first place. In my ambitions to go abroad, I lost my heart for Christ. Platt went on to say, “Missions is not meant to be your life. Christ is your life. Jesus is worth losing everything for.”
These words are so simple and straightforward, but my heart forgot. I forgot what it feels like, what it means to love Jesus unconditionally. My spirit churned and I felt God’s voice rising again, with words that were not comfortable: “Amelia, how can you go into the world and represent My Kingdom if you love yourself more than you love Me? You want to serve me, but don’t know how. The answer is simple: love My children. Care for them. Give yourself for them. What you do for them, you do for Me. Go, Amelia. Feed My sheep.”
I left large group that day feeling burdened with God’s Spirit, wondering what living out this command looks like in a practical manner. What does it look like? How am I to care for others? What skills and abilities do I have to contribute? Where do I fit in the grand scheme of things? How can I serve others with the gifts I have? As I meditated on my questions, God slowly revealed answers. I attended more seminars and large group sessions and began to receive smile answers. I could go into what those answers were, but that would end in lots of tangents. So I’ll start wrapping this up…
I went into Urbana feeling confident and ready. I left feeling the opposite–small, weak, and inadequate. There is so much to process. There’s so much I don’t know. Amid a big, dark world… I’m so small. So unsure. I’m leaving for England in less than a week and I don’t feel ready. I’m stepping into the vast unknown with a one-way ticket and have no idea what is in store.
The most terrifying thing is that I honestly don’t know if I’m ever coming back. At least, not permanently.
But maybe that’s the point. God isn’t looking for people who are ready. He’s not interested in how prepared I feel. He cares about my heart. He wants me in a position of weakness and humility, for it is then that I need Him most. At Urbana, He showed me that my prayers need to shift from “Where will I go?” to “Show me how to love others the way You love me”.
I don’t need to have all the answers. What I need is a heart for Christ. Like the woman in Matthew with her alabaster jar, I need to place myself under God’s authority. I need to relinquish control and let my story align with the beautiful story God is writing all across the globe, trusting that God knows what He is doing and that He will provide the next step.
I suppose the title of this post is a bit misleading. Yes, this is the story of how my life was impacted by attending Urbana. Additionally, it’s also the beginning of a new story–a story I don’t know the end to–a story in which I don’t hold the pen. There is still so far to go in the journey of cultivating a heart for others. But this is a start.