Sunday, June 10, 2007


The Upside of Feeling Used

It only makes sense that one would gain a natural affinity for whatever skill his or her environment requires. If you live in Alaska, you probably would be better at ice fishing and dog sledding than someone from Ecuador. If you live in Washington D.C., you might become skilled at sprinting over great distances while holding a 32-inch television set, or speaking in long, unnecessarily complicated sentences that some refer to as “senatorial.”

It’s approaching two years since I first came to South Korea, and in that time, I’ve grown considerably more skilled at a) catching mosquitoes with my bare hands, and b) public speaking. The first skill is optional, as some might not mind being awoken at 3:30 a.m. wee-winged visitor. “You can wake up now ‘cause I’m flying too close to your ear,” he communicates via a linguistic series of buzzings, “or you can wake up later with a desperate urge to scratch the red welts on you shoulders. Take your pick.”

The second skill has been far more necessary for my survival at the Seventh-day Adventist Language Institute.

While I generally had a cordial relationship with the English language, our dealings with one another have been similar to that of an adept broker with stocks: given enough time, I usually choose the right one. With no preparation, and with numerous onlookers scrutinizing my choices, I am more likely to resemble a first-time car-buyer facing a high-pressure salesman: I not only make the wrong choice, I do so in an undignified manner, and while giving away my debit card information.

I’ve long recognized my need to improve in this department; after all, no one would choose to appear slow-witted and inarticulate, unless he was seeking extra votes by appearing “folksy.” So, for years I hoped that I would be given more chances to grow comfortable while speaking, but since I was uncomfortable while speaking I never asked for these opportunities.

I suppose the turning point took place in 2003, when the pastor of my home church in rural West Tennessee asked me for help. Far removed from his native land in South Africa, the pastor was responsible for ministering to four churches in the area, meaning he could only speak at each one about once a month. During his absences, other arrangements had to be made, including asking the laypeople to fill in.

One on summer day, in his distinctly Dutch Afrikaans accent, he asked me to be one of those chosen laypeople, using words an American probably never would say.

“You’re a writer, Rob. I’d like to use you up front in church. Can I use you some time?”

“Of course,” I said. “I want to be used. By the church, I mean.”

So, once every couple of months, I would speak to our congregation about whatever topic I could write about and then read for at least 15 minutes. Usually, this was done by summarizing a Bible story and comparing it to something in my life: i.e. Gideon was afraid to face the vast, oppressive Midianite army, while I’m afraid of writing something and reading it from a pulpit for at least 15 minutes..

I did this several times before I left to go to Korea. All teachers who work for SDA have to fill out a form full of various skills, such as playing a stringed instrument or using Microsoft Excel. I checked the box beside “giving sermons;” after all, I had done so about a half-dozen times without visibly drooling on myself, so I considered it a “skill.”

Each of the SDA Language Institutes has a church with its own regular members, plus students who attend in order to learn by hearing a Korean sermon translated into English, or vice-versa. Teachers who come to Korea soon find that there are a whole host of activities they will be asked to do without drooling on themselves. Week to week, church members and other teachers will probe for all the activities you can possibly perform, until they reach your limit.

“Can you sing a song during church service today?” I have been asked, five minutes before the program began.

“I … guess so,” I have responded.

“Can you do a sermon this weekend?” I have also been asked, three days in advance.

“Uhm … I suppose,” I have said.

“We’d love for you to play the piano during the program,” they have stated, full of optimism they hoped would be infectious.

“And I’d love to speak Mandarin Chinese,” I state, inoculated by reality. “But I don’t think it’s gonna happen tonight.”

The first time I spoke to my home church, I slept less than five hours the night before because I was busy contemplating all the ways it could go wrong. One of the reasons I came to Korea was so that I could conquer my apprehension by bombarding it with experience. Since coming to Korea, I have given sermon or speech no less than 10 times, been invited to a sister institute as guest speaker, and twice led a 90-minute writing seminar at the summer/winter camps our institute hosts for students.

None of these experiences during the actual speeches have been particularly bad, but the surfeit of nervous energy, loss of appetite, and the restless nights preceding my time up front never seem to go away, especially when I know it’s a brand new audience.

However, once finished, it’s always good to know that you have been used for a good purpose. My home pastor was only the first person I convinced of my ability; if I can ever convince myself, I’ll really be getting somewhere.

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