September 2008 - Vol. 22

Britsh Museum in London.
Shadows and Dust

Reflections on a GAP year in London

By Dallas Burkholder

The stuff of legends
When I decided last year to do a GAP year of voluntary service in London, I felt that I was really going to make a big difference. I had high hopes and dreams as I prepared to make my mark in London – the cool global, bursting city full of young people from everywhere – home to more foreigners than local Brits – or so it seems as you stroll any street in this city of eight million people. 

I remember the excitement and uncertainty of the weeks leading up to my journey to London, and the joy at finally meeting the men and women with whom I would spend the year of voluntary service for Koinonia, an evangelistic outreach to university students in London. There were high hopes and dreams of the fall when there was a full academic year of potential before us, and an endless number of things we could accomplish for the Lord. I remember the bleak gray of winter when it took significant will power to roll out of bed and head to the Tube – London’s public, mostly underground train transport system – and prepare for another day in what seemed like an endless string of meetings – staff planning meetings, prayer meetings, small group meetings, endless meetings. Yet in the midst of all these memories one thought stands out – Koinonia today looks pretty much the same as it did when I joined a year ago. What difference did I make?

I had decided to spend a GAP year in London because I believed that was what the Lord was calling me to do. And today I still believe that. It's just that I thought he was calling me here to make a difference. I naively expected Koinonia to look drastically different as a result of my having served for a year. I had heard one too many stories of GAPers that had been made legends by time and fond memories, and I was expecting to follow in their formidable footsteps. But there is definitely nothing that I can point to and say “that’s the stuff of legends.”  I felt for the forsaken Roman warrior Maximus in the movie Gladiator, who was on a fast track to glory and success, but lost it all in a flash and was exiled into slavery in a desert wasteland. I felt like I was in an arid spiritual environment and yet helpless to do much about it. But I remember the words of Maximus’ mentor as the gladiator slave enters the arena to fight once again, “We mortals are but shadows and dust.” Oddly enough I find those words quite comforting.

We mortals are merely shadows and dust
As that reality began to sink in for me, that we mortals are in fact merely shadows and dust, I found myself coming back down to earth from the lofty heights of my imagination. I have been able to take a more sober, realistic look at the work I have done in Koinonia this past year – and in doing so see many reasons to rejoice and give thanks to God. One example for me is the Koinonia coffee stall which we  set up each week in the middle of the Imperial College campus center. We served hot cups of coffee to hundreds of students, often on cold and rainy days. Our regulars, there are probably a dozen of them who stop by on a weekly basis, are a particular joy, especially the guy who warmly greeted us, “Hello Christians.” We got to know many students by name and we invited many to join us for prayer, discussion, bible study, and social events. I look back on the many new relationships that have formed, and people who have found in Koinonia a place to be loved and supported as they seek to grow in faith.  Lives have been transformed by the work of the Lord and the power of his Spirit, and many have found new life in Christ through Koinonia. I remember Luke, an atheist when we met in October. His openness to the gospel and his encounter with Christ have changed his life. I had the privilege to attend his baptism in March. I know that my effort has mattered to these people. Certainly it was worth spending a year to touch just one life, let alone the dozens that come to mind.

And it’s not only in others that I have seen the Lord at work. When I made the decision to come to London I expected the Lord to shape me as well, and in that I have not been disappointed.  My trust in the Lord has been dramatically deepened. I've been stretched and pulled beyond what I thought I could handle and found that God's strength is sufficient. I've been asked to serve in areas where I knew I had no gifting, and seen that God can use me anyway. I've had to leave countless situations in his hands and trust in his provision, not only for myself, but also for those I care about – a task I find much more challenging. How marvelous, how wonderful that God can do such things with me, mere shadows and dust.

God could have used anybody
Armed with these new images I am amazed that I could have ever doubted the work the Lord has been doing in Koinonia this year and my small but significant role in it. How could I have possibly questioned the worth of this year spent serving the Lord? Then the phrase comes back to me again. We mortals are but shadows and dust. Everything in the culture around us rebels at that thought. We are taught that we are the future, that man must save himself, that it is our intelligence and determination that will make the world a better place; that if we want something badly enough and are willing to sacrifice for it, nothing is beyond our grasp. These lies are perhaps one of Satan's most powerful weapons in the world today, the myths of man’s independence and control over his own destiny. They stand in stark contrast to what my work has revealed to me to be true; God could have used anybody.  The thing that God required above all else, quite possibly the only thing he required of me, was none of my perceived talents but a willingness to serve him.

What an honor to be a part of what the Lord is doing. What a comfort to know that the power to do the work we are asked to do comes not from ourselves, but from God alone. As I prepare to start my work anew each day of normal non-GAP life, I reflect on these things and take heart. God wants to work in and through people who cooperate with him and rely on his strength. I try to let the God who is in control of history itself direct my work, and it is he, not I, who is responsible for the results.  All that he requires is that I remain in him and make myself available to do his work. I can think of no other work so rewarding. We mortals are but shadows and dust. How amazing that God chooses to use such insignificant people in a work with eternal consequences. 
Dallas Burkholder grew up in the United States and comes from a Mennonite Christian background. In 2006 he graduated in chemical engineering from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. Dallas has been actively involved in student evangelism with University Christian Outreach in Ann Arbor, Michigan since 2002. 

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