“Without Your Help Or Mine”

One of the main reasons I now live in America instead of overseas is money. Our support plummeted and we had to come home. So obviously this topic is very personal, but even before this happened, from looking at many other missionaries I know (some of whom are thousands of dollars in debt to their organizations), it’s a wide-spread problem. “But,” says a well-meaning Christian woman of my acquaintance, “I hope you don’t worry about money!” She means that she hopes I am mature enough to have moved beyond this. Her face goes a bit pink; she assumes I am mature enough. After all, I Am Missionary! Shake not my pedestal! But that’s another topic for another post.

I know of a young man who felt God’s call on his life to go overseas. He went to his church. They said, “We can’t really shepherd you in this. Go talk to a mission agency.” He refrained from pointing out the role of church taught in Acts, and went to an agency. They gave him a lot of psychological tests and appointed him, then sent him to raise his support. He went back to his church. “If God wants you to go, you’ll raise your money,” they told him.

This is a pretty common attitude in the church today. Becoming a missionary is not in the calling of God or in obedience to His Word—it’s in the money. You think you’re called? Prove it! Raise your support. Be great at public speaking! Be talented at sharing your vision. Be skilled at power-point presentations. Should you manage to actually raise your support and go overseas, it is entirely your responsibility to keep the money up! Write lots of letters, but they can’t be too long or boring and should have lots of white space. People are too busy to read long letters. But also, most people aren’t really reading your letters. They need to see you often to remember to give to you. So you should make frequent trips home.

If you study the history of overseas missions, you’ll see it was initially a part of the church (i.e. Paul, early apostles, etc) then dwindled in the Middle Ages to the Crusades, which instead of spreading the love of Christ sowed seeds of hatred and fear whose harvest we reap to this day. After that, overseas missions pretty much died for a couple of hundred years, bolstered by the ideas of hyper-Calvinism, and the doctrine that God would save those he’d chosen and we pretty much could leave it up to him. When William Carey wanted to go to India to spread the gospel, an elder in his church told him, “If God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do so without your help or mine.”

This is shocking to us nowadays. But how is it different than telling people that if God wants them overseas, he can provide the money without your help or mine?

“God is sovereign” people respond. Yes, he is. But he still allows us to sin. He still allows us to be selfish with our money and selfish with our time and selfish with our actions. I don’t think it was his “perfect will” that left generations of people living and dying without ever once hearing the name of Christ. And I think he calls some people to go and allows them to stay home, because others who should have given are in disobedience.

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of cabbages, kings, and cherry blossoms

We stood in the dark street, pink blossoms piled in careless drifts round our feet, the dim light of an orange street light dipping and bobbing into shadow as the wind shook the blossom-laden branches and the petals whirled around us, and we talked and talked and talked. There were 3 of us, all of us overseas workers home for a bit, leaving the same prayer meeting. The host of the meeting came out to walk his dog and laughed to see us there, an hour after the meeting ended.

We spoke of everything—shoes and ships and sealing wax, cabbages and kings. Or, to put it in context, some of the particular joys of the missionary life. Like the supporter who complains she doesn’t get your letters, implying strongly that this is intentional because you don’t care about her, although she has already admitted that the reason is because she no longer checks the only email address you have for her.  Or the person who hears you describe your 3-day ordeal in Cyprus to get a new visa, which involved hours and hours of standing in line, being cut, told you had the wrong line, the wrong paperwork, being asked for bribes, etc. And then the person saying, “Sounds like the DMV!” and you saying, “Uh, no. No it doesn’t actually.”

We also danced round an issue a bit but I’m pretty sure we were referring to the same person. One of the women I was talking to arrived in the US last month for a flying visit, and she mentioned a visit with an unnamed person on the pastoral staff at our church that was really discouraging for her. And I’m almost positive, given her description and my knowledge of our church, that this was the same person who called Andy and me into a meeting a few weeks ago that was thoroughly demoralizing and has taken us a long time to get over.

I actually started a post about it soon after it happened, but I never finished it. It felt whiny. But with us, his gift of discouragement (one of the less-desired gifts of the spirit) took the form of him encouraging us to do what we already do, and him obviously not believing us when we told him we do it. (Confused? He basically didn’t believe us when we told us we share the gospel with friends from around the world. He based this on a 2-day visit a year ago when we told him we were discouraged. He doesn’t really know us, but who needs actual knowledge when you’ve already made up your mind?) He also had lots of tips and ideas about how we could better do ministry. The irony, of course, is that he has never done our particular type of ministry—the scary part is that he believes he has, and that he has a lot of influence at our church.

“He just wants to help the missionaries,” another person told us. And I’m sure he does. But if everyone leaves his office dragging, depressed, and demoralized, one has to wonder how much help that is. He’s never lived overseas. He never sold his house, uprooted his family, dealt with heat and dust and language trials and misunderstandings and fear and distrust and an inability to find bacon.

This morning, I ran into another young couple, not yet finished their first year of a long-term assignment in a really difficult place. They’re home very briefly, but I insisted on getting to see them for an entire afternoon. “So we can vent,” they said longingly. They instantly tried to take it back, but I wouldn’t let them. “Exactly,” I said. Andy shared a story of a time he lost his temper when we lived overseas. I noticed them nodding. They need a safe place to share their experiences, with someone who understands. I know how much that’s helped me.

One thing that I’ve realized is that living overseas is so unlike anything else that people who haven’t experienced just don’t get it. The nice thing is that most people know that—just like I know that I haven’t actually experienced anything like divorce, or triplets, or war. I have friends whose daughter committed suicide, and she told me of friends of theirs who lost a son and how they can relate to each other and comfort each other, in a different way than I can help them. This is obviously an extreme example, but in the same way, people who’ve lived in strange parts of the world just get each other. No matter where they have lived. Someone who’s lived in Qatar will have more in common with someone who’s lived in Ukraine than with a fellow American who’s never lived overseas for longer than a vacation.

And sometimes, it’s just incredibly helpful to talk to someone who speaks your language.

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The Seafarer

On earth there is no man so self-assured,
so generous with his gifts or so bold in his youth,
so daring in his deeds or with such a gracious lord,
that he harbours no fears about his seafaring
as to what the Lord will ordain for him.

Wherefore my heart leaps within me,
my mind roams with the waves
over the whale’s domain, it wanders far and wide
across the face of the earth, returns again to me
eager and unsatisfied; the solitary bird screams,                                                          irresistible, urges the heart to the whale’s way
over the stretch of the seas.

So it is that the joys
of the Lord inspire me more than this dead life,                                                               ephemeral on earth. I have no faith
that the splendours of this earth will survive forever.
Though a man may strew a grave with gold,
bury his brother amongst the dead
with the many treasures he wished to take with him,
the gold a man amasses while still alive
on earth is no use at all to his soul,
full of sins, in the face of God’s wrath.

Great is the fear of God; through him the world turns.
He established the mighty plains, the face
of the earth and the sky above. Foolish is he
who fears not his Lord: death catches him unprepared.                                                           Blessed is the humble man: mercy comes to him from heaven.
God gave man a soul because he trusts His Strength.

Anonymous, from The Exeter Book, about 850 AD

So, why do I love this poem? Because in this life there are risks, and we don’t know what will happen, but the joys of the Lord inspire us more than anything else. Also it was written 1200 years ago. I would love it if something I write inspired someone a millennia later.

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My purpose in starting this blog wasn’t to be snarky and criticize my brothers and sisters in Christ behind their back; it really was to learn to write openly about my faith. But already I feel it degenerating. Honestly, I’m not that critical a person:  it’s just that our biggest culture shock in returning has been the increasing polarization apparent, not just in American culture, but in the American church. And because my monthly pay check comes from people in my church community supporting me, I feel a tension between expressing my opinions and potentially losing support (and yes, I feel this skirts dangerously close to hypocrisy and it’s something we work on and pray about and it’s an area where much wisdom is needed) and a call to be honest to myself and hopefully even challenge accepted beliefs and views that may actually be contrary to the heart of God.

Today’s post will be a glimpse into how I am trying to deal with it.

I have been studying the gospels lately in my own quiet times, and I have been absolutely blown away by Jesus’ response to the scribes and Pharisees. I never saw it before; I always just saw him criticizing them for their hardness of heart. But this time, there it is in black and white (and red; I have a red-letter edition). He was constantly reaching out to them in love and faithfulness. They pop out with harsh words, and he turns to them, focuses on them, and shows them their error. He moves towards them in his infinite love while not neglecting to show them the things keeping them from him.

I am not like Jesus.

So this week, in our small life group (or whatever your church calls them), we were looking at the sin of Aachen. Now I think that story illustrates really well the idea that sin affects those around us, even those not directly touched by it. For example, I had a professor in Bible School who had an adulterous affair with a student. This obviously was not a sin against me directly, yet it affected me deeply, and I had to consciously make a choice to forgive the professor and the student.

Someone made the comment that if Israel hadn’t sinned by not killing all the people in Canaan, as they were told to, we wouldn’t have radical Islam today.

Wrong! One only needs to quickly run through Scripture in one’s mind to see the errors of this. I assumed this man hadn’t done that, so I pointed out (calmly) that Israel was never instructed to clear off the Arabian Peninsula (where Islam began) or even all of the Middle East, just a relatively narrow strip of land along the Mediterranean.

This man felt the need to write us an email, arguing his point. We were just going to ignore it, but he asked my husband, A, to write back. A did so. And got an immediate response accusing us of being brain-washed by the liberal media and having a bias against older white conservative males.

My immediate response was anger. What had we done to deserve that? It seemed like the guy had a guilty conscience; when he first wrote, he assured us over and over that he was in no way racist towards Arab peoples, and we never said he was. Like I said, I thought initially he just hadn’t thought through the implications of his statement, and once those implications were pointed out, he’d drop it. But his reaction seems way over-the-top. A argued his points from scripture; the man responded with insults.

How would Jesus have handled this? Oh how I wish I knew. I’m sure somehow his email would have been wiser. (I have no criticism for my husband, just saying that God Incarnate has more wisdom!)

In the meantime, we have been praying for this man. Praying in humility, not assuming we’re totally right about everything, but knowing that the current situation isn’t how Christ wants us as his bride to be. Trying, like Jesus, to move towards him in love rather than away from him, offended and defensive.

Note: my study of the gospels has been greatly enhanced by Paul Miller’s book Love Walked Among Us. I highly recommend it.

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Shocking when you least expect it

One of the places culture shock (or return-culture shock, I guess I should clarify) is most acute is in the church.

We don’t expect this. After all, we are the body of Christ, etc. When we would come back for just a summer, I would stand in our home church’s large auditorium, with the lights dimmed, joining hundreds of others in singing praise to God at the top of my lungs, and tears would stream down my face. It was incredibly moving and meaningful to be able to worship so openly, not worried about the tiny guard standing outside the church, not worried about how loud I sounded in that tiny group of people from around the world. Not feeling the weight of the air that exists above certain nations, a soul-sapping weight, that I believe is composed of a spiritual darkness combined with a need to keep .

So we come home and eagerly rejoin our home church, imagining that it will be a. as it was before we moved overseas, and b. that it will be like when we come home for just the summer.

Some of the disillusionment is caused by our own false expectations, perhaps even most of it. But some of it is the simple fact that living in other cultures has changed us. We return different. I remember meeting a young woman who’d just returned from several months in China; she seized on me as someone who would “get it,” someone she could talk to about how strange things were.

Reverse culture shock can be deeper though. Current events around the world have people questioning me as if I were an expert, although I have never been to the countries in question (Egypt, Tunisia). And I’m amazed at the ignorance. I don’t mean that everyone has to be an expert on everywhere, but it seems that people don’t follow the global news at all. Should they? I don’t know. I know I did, before I ever went overseas or ever planned to go overseas, but that was probably a result of growing up in a family that was aware of international issues. I guess my criticism du jour is simply a belief that we should recognize that God doesn’t like Americans best. He doesn’t, you know. Read your Bible and you will see that.

I have a lot more to say on this subject, but I’ve been working on this post for a couple of weeks. It’s still not quite right, but I’ve decided to post it and continue with the theme in future posts.

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I spent the weekend working a booth at a large missions conference that pulled in every imaginable evangelical organization in the area. It was enormous. I missed most of the sessions and workshops but the few I went to were great. (Although in some ways I felt a bit out of place, since the workshops were geared at people who have not been overseas and may be there because they’re thinking of going or getting involved in some way. I’m waaay past that.)

My husband, A, and I spent most of 2 days there. Our kids came for part of it, and made tons of friends in an amazingly short time. Typical TCKs. We weren’t thrilled when we were asked to go, but ended up enjoying ourselves and meeting new people. Today I’m rockin’ a pretty good headache as a result though.

Some highlights included:

  • Seeing friends we hadn’t seen in years. Most didn’t know we were back, and stared in shock at us. We had a good time catching up on the basics, and hope to spend more time with old friends soon.
  • A young woman whose parents took her all over Europe when she was a child, because they wanted her exposed to cultures and languages, because they love to travel, just because. She sat at the edge of our booth like a child. “Tell me stories,” she said. “I love stories.” So we did. We’d all been in different places, and we told of mountains and deserts, of sandstorms and nights where sharp-edged rocks cut shapes against the stars, of mountain tribesmen and business men in suits talking on their cell phones. Her enthusiasm was contagious and she was a lot of fun to talk to—obviously an extrovert who is also an excellent listener. That’s a rare combo. I hope I run into her again; I really liked her.
  • Two young men came up to our booth. One said, “So…it’s like God has just been talking to me about unreached people?…it’s just…I don’t know!…It’s just getting stronger!” I smiled. “Let me tell you my story,” I said, and I told him how the exact same thing happened to my husband and I nearly 15 years ago now. The funny thing was that they hadn’t even planned to come to the conference; they happened to be downtown and met someone in the Christian section of a bookstore who happened to mention it. They walked in and ended up at our booth at random. I’m excited about them; I know they are on a journey, and I suspect I know where they might end up.

I came away with a longing for more—more worship, more workshops. I wish I could have gone to more sessions. One workshop I did attend talked about the importance of debriefing and understanding those who’ve come back from overseas. And, in retrospect, I think that’s part of what I loved about the weekend—I felt normal.

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Week of Prayer

Our church is having a week of prayer this week. The point is to kick-start the new year with a renewed fervor and vision and all that other good stuff. I’m not skeptical of the prayer itself, but I was a bit worried at the emphasis placed on the 6:30 a.m. meetings. I have the utmost respect for our pastor, but I was dismayed when he said, “Isn’t prayer better than sleep?” Uh, no, not necessarily. I was dismayed when he compared time with God to monetary payments, and chided us that we’d get up for cold hard cash. (Which I would: I admit it. The simile breaks down pretty quickly though)

First of all, it’s true that Jesus rose early in the morning to pray. There are countless times of him doing that recorded for us, so we can assume it was fairly standard procedure for him. But we don’t see him haranguing the disciples to join him. We don’t see him calling them lazy and guilt-tripping them. “Don’t you know you only have a short time with me? GET UP! If I was going to feed you bread and fish you’d get up, wouldn’t you?” No. The only time we see him asking them to pray with him is in the Garden of Gethsemane, and then he’s asking them, as his friends and companions, to join him in his grief and carry him in his sorrow.

If I am godly (i.e. at prayer meeting) at 6:30 a.m., I will not be godly (i.e. not snipping at my kids or crashing dishes into the sink in temper) at 6:30 p.m. I can only handle once in a 12 hour period. Lo, I am mortal.

Secondly, it just sounds too Muslim for me. Did you know that every morning, when the call to prayer echoes throughout the city, the mussein is saying, “Get up, get up. It is better to pray than sleep…”? Yeah. I’ve had enough of that already. And while I do not fear Muslims, I don’t think we want to model our guilt trips after theirs.

Thirdly, I believe encouragement works better than guilt trips.

So, how would I do a prayer week?

I would talk about why we pray. I would talk about when we pray (emphasizing that old impossibility “without ceasing”) I would mention the 6:30 prayer meetings, but I would encourage people to gather at other times as well…whenever works for them. I would specifically blast the myth that God listens better if you drag yourself from your bed to talk to him. I’ve lived in too many time zones to buy into that one—time is too slippery to hold on to like that. And also? God listens to us at 11 p.m. And 2:30 p.m. And 2:30 a.m., when we lie awake with our minds spinning, our thoughts out of proportion in the dark. He is there. He tells us to come.

So how am I personally doing prayer week? I am going to all the evening events. (There are 3 of them) I am trying to pray more on my own. And I am trying to remember that early mornings may not equal godliness, but neither does a rotten attitude.

At least we’re not required to have a Crazy Hair or Twin Day! (Why does Prayer Week remind me of Spirit Week in high school? Anyone else think of that? Is this thing on?)

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