Twenty years ago, I served my first year as a NET Missionary. Two decades may have passed; however, much of that formation remains a foundation for my daily life. I’ve been asked to highlight 5 takeaways…so buckle up, say a van prayer, and let’s get started.
1. God’s Plan is the Best Plan. Even When I Resist It.
In 2002 I was fresh out of high school. I had spent four years at the top of academics, athletics, and theater (this surprises no one). I was headed out for my big adventure with NET, and I was going to travel to places my Michigander heart had only dreamed of. So when the night came for teams to be announced, I was absolutely giddy with the Holy Spirit. He was gonna take me to California or, at the very least, Texas.
So it was a great surprise when my name was one of the first announced, and I was placed on the Home Team. It felt like the wind had gotten knocked out of me. The Home Team? Spending a year in Minnesota sounded an awful lot like my last 18 years of living in Michigan. (Side note: I’ve been married for 15 years and my father-in-law often mixes up Michigan and Minnesota when asking about my family.) The first few days after being placed on the team were a blur. It felt like my whole reason for coming to NET was canceled, and maybe it was. But God’s reasons for me to have a year of humility, surrender, and abundant love from teammates and retreatants certainly didn’t change.
He knew exactly what my wild, young heart needed that year, and they came to me in moments big and small – and most of them in Minnesota. It still occurs more frequently than I care to admit that I resist God’s plans. He has asked a lot of my family and me, and we aren’t always ready or willing to go along, but NET taught me that we must go along. It is in the going along that gets us to where we need to be. It places us in the right conversations, relationships, and grace-filled moments necessary for a life lived in Christ.
It seemed like a silly talk to have at training, but it served me well both on and off the road. I was once served lamb by a host family. On a Friday… In Lent! I don’t actually care for lamb, and mint jelly certainly isn’t my thing, but there it was set on a beautiful table with two lovely host parents just waiting for me to dig in. So I did. I ate what must have cost them quite a bit of money and time and enjoyed the conversation and the fellowship. My Catholic guilt didn’t even kick in.
I had been told to respect and appreciate whatever was before me, and I did just that. Likewise, I find myself using this practice of respect in my current life. We live in a very divisive time. Our country and our world have much that is at odds. It can be hard to agree on difficult issues, even among families.
So while I have my opinions, I try to share them respectfully and tactically. I try to find the commonality of the issue or the argument. I try to enjoy the grace that surrounds the table set with lamb. I try to consider the spirit of the law. You won’t find me writing about whether or not we should hold hands during the ‘Our Father.’ It’s just not what I feel God calls me to talk about. I’m not diminishing that there should be guidance and theology. However, I think we can be respectful and not overly zealous about how we approach such nuanced topics.
3. It is Possible to Praise God in Every Circumstance.
While serving with NET, I had some of the highest mountain top experiences (especially my second year when they actually put me on a traveling team, and I literally got to climb mountains out west). I also had some heart-wrenching moments. Right before coming back from Christmas break, a teammate emailed our team to say he wouldn’t be returning. We never got to say goodbye, and I haven’t had contact with him since that email. During my second year, my co-leader and I had to bring a teammate to an airport in Oregon and send him home for various reasons. While I knew in my heart of hearts it was the right thing, it still hurt.
These losses were hard. They made me pause. But in that pause was praise. Because in all circumstances, at all times, at all places, we were taught to praise the Lord. Even now, these last 20 years have given me abundant joys: my marriage, my three children, my career, and my friendships. All wonderful, praise God! On the other hand, there has also been sorrow, loss, and loneliness: my marriage, my three children, my career, and my friendships. All difficult, praise God!
4. Never Underestimating the Power of Humor.
I have long been a person that enjoys laughter, but NET really taught me that it has a healing element. It can bring people together. Both of my years were met with so much joy. I can still remember on a particularly long and stressful day on the road, two of the sisters on my team and I laughed until well past one in the morning at a host home. I’m sure that story is shared by many other alumni in some form.
I’ve taken that same joy into my adult life. My own family is like a quirky group of misfit NET Missionaries. (I married my co-leader, so it really does feel like we have our own NET Team at the house). The five of us are half a NET Team, and we are constantly laughing. I take the humor to my writing in the pieces I present. We have been blessed to host a NET Team almost every year for the past decade. When hosting, we end up laughing after only a few short minutes because of a story they are telling about a retreat or maybe a story we tell about our time on the road. Our youngest calls them “the internets,” and our oldest counts the days until she can apply.
5. Love Never Fails.
And here we are, at the very end. So I only have one more paragraph to sum up how the past has some common threads to the present because of an organization built on (say it with me), “challenging young Catholics to love Christ and embrace the life of the Church.” Maybe the thing NET taught me the most was Love Never Fails, despite having done nothing to deserve it.
During my time on NET, I often turned my back on God. I’m not sure what the statute of limitation is on rescinding my alumni status or if the access to the roof is still available in the upstairs furnace room near the girl’s hallway at the NET Center, so I won’t be adding any anecdotal stories at this time. Just trust me. I made some poor choices. Yet He remained constant. Unmoving. Unchanging. A God that stayed. Since that time, I have spent so much energy trying to run from His love, His plan, His grace. Yet He has never left my side, never abandoned me, never said I was “too much trouble to save.” Like the story of the Prodigal Son, He is always ready to receive me in His arms. NET changed my life. If you’re reading this, it changed yours too.
Now we do our year(s) justice by allowing God to still refine us. A year, five years, twenty years later. His work is not done in us yet; it has only begun.