By Sarah Summers Granger
“I dream of a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything.” – Pope Francis
Ten years ago, I didn’t want a transformative impulse. I wanted stability, peace, a small dose of the Holy Spirit – just enough to keep me on the straight and narrow.
After all kinds of turmoil in my life had started to settle, I sat at a local conference in Lafayette, Louisiana, hoping for divine confirmation of my plans: graduate school, a comfortable home to raise my children by myself, a quiet life avoiding sin, enough prayer to keep my kids from making the mistakes I made. Though I loved Paul’s exhortation in Romans not to conform to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of my mind (Romans 12:2), I still struggled with wanting to conform, to blend in as much as possible. Fortunately for me, the fiery woman preaching that day spoke of complete surrender to the Holy Spirit. And looking straight at me, she spoke the words I have never been able to shake:
“Millions of people are dying and going to hell, and you have the words of eternal life. Open your mouth!”
Immediately, this call to missionary transformation made me feel uncomfortable. Actually, I felt like I had been slapped in the face. I knew that she was right about the dying and going to hell part. My own failings had confirmed for me that, truly, “the wages of sin are death.” So, on the one hand, I was 100% in agreement with the preacher. The world desperately needed people willing to proclaim the saving power of Jesus.
Growing up as a Catholic foreign missionary, I had seen the need in faces and families hungry for Jesus. I had seen the miraculous transformation in souls touched by the Gospel; hearts on fire with love for God and one another; lives given in service to God, each other, and the poorest of the poor. So my hesitation to open my mouth and lead others to eternal life lay not in a lack of conviction that missionary transformation was necessary; no, my hesitation lay within myself. I was no longer worthy, and certainly no longer called to proclaim Jesus. I had messed up, big time. I had drifted and ran from my faith. After growing up loving and serving Jesus, I had fallen. I had given in to materialism, immodesty, drinking, swearing, selfishness, despair. My marriage had ended in divorce. I was simply unworthy to be a missionary of any kind, especially the kind that speaks of salvation. Yes, I had been gloriously saved from my miserable sinful life. I had repented, confessed, and was struggling to be holy. I was seeking an annulment, working for FMC, a Catholic missionary company. I planned to serve God in some way that didn’t require any exposure on my part.
Me, a missionary? No. I couldn’t proclaim Christ. I couldn’t “open my mouth.” I was too humble, I convinced myself, and too inadequate.
“You have the words of eternal life.” The words of the Gospel – that Jesus loves and saves us, calling us to repentance, sanctification, service – I knew these words were true. They echoed in my soul, and suddenly my “humility” and “inadequacy” looked more like fear of the consequences of total surrender to God’s plan, and prideful distaste for the thought that if somebody called me a hypocrite I would have to admit my complete failure and point only to God’s boundless mercy and forgiveness. If I opened my mouth to proclaim Jesus, to offer His salvation to the lost and suffering, I would be nothing. Jesus would be everything. The Holy Spirit, not my own capabilities, would be my only hope for reaching even one person – much less the “millions” the speaker referred to.
The impulse to missions drove me to say yes to an invitation to serve as a missionary in rural Mexico. As a single Mom with three kids, I struggled to convince myself that my failures were not an impediment to the Gospel. I told the parish priest that I had fallen into sin in my adult life, that my marriage had failed, that I did not consider my past to be “a good example.” He simply said, “Nobody else is waiting in line to do this, Sarah. If you don’t serve the people here, nobody will.”
So I gave up my nice, safe, sensible plans and let God transform everything in my life and use me. If I didn’t do it, nobody would. This truth hit me every day as I embraced the crazy new plan into which the missionary impulse was pushing me. When I walked around town pushing my baby in a stroller, visiting shut-ins and praying with them, bringing them medicine, blankets, food – no one else was lining up for that privilege. When my daughters stood beside me as I introduced the Bible for the first time to lifelong Catholics, grown men and women who listened wide-eyed for the first time to the stories of the miracles of Jesus – no one else showed up to help them know the faith they tried to live.
Even more astounding to me was how my weakness drew others to Jesus. When I held the shaking hands of women begging for prayers for relief in their abusive marriages, my own wounds were transformed into strength as I was able to offer empathy in lieu of pity, prayer and counsel grounded in experience. The missionary impulse transformed everything in my life – my plans, my past, my fear, my family. I believe it transformed the town and villages where we served. The words of eternal life in scripture saved my life.
As my Dad, a fearless preacher, says, “We serve a real God who does real things for real people.” My real God saved me from hell, both the hell of my sins and countless failings in this life, and eternal hell in the next life through His merciful grace. He opened my mouth to share with those who had nobody else to share with them.
I didn’t want a missionary impulse to transform me ten years ago, but I needed one. Pope Francis longs for every Catholic to experience this impulse. What about you? What has Jesus done for you? Are His words, His life giving words of mercy, grace, forgiveness and healing in your heart? Who at your job, your home, in your family, or on the other side of the world is waiting for you to open your mouth? Are you afraid? Inadequate? Perfect! Get ready for transformation.
By Sarah Summers Granger
Want to be inspired, challenged, and fueled in your missionary transformation? Want to move beyond fear and get out there to share your faith? Join us at Proclaim 2014: the Catholic Missions Conference November 1st-2nd in Lafayette, LA!