Romance, Science Fiction, and Missions (or, I Dreamed a Dream)

by Elizabeth Trotter on March 31, 2014

What motivated you to go into missions? What keeps you going?

Romance. I don’t know about you, but romance is what drove me into missions. The romance of being a great missionary, of changing an entire people group, of seeing a whole country turn to Christ. This romantic idea was first kindled during my children’s homeschool studies of St. Patrick — the man in the 5th century AD who took the Gospel to Ireland, where practically everyone turned from paganism to Christ.

This dream of mine was further fueled when I learned about one of our organization’s church planting teams in South America. Churches have been planted that have grown to membership in the thousands. Those churches have planted other churches. Those churches have even sent out missionaries themselves. When I first heard of this field, I thought Cambodia was going to be just like that. Woo hoo!

Never mind the fact that those missionaries had been building a reality from their dream for over 20 years by the time I ever heard of them. And never mind the fact that all you experienced missionaries are laughing at me right now — I still believe it’s those kinds of dreams that propel us forward, into missions.

Science Fiction. Maybe today, my initial missionary dream seems like unattainable science fiction to you. Completely unrealistic, and completely out of reach. But Ray Bradbury, notable author of the science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451, believed that science fiction actually drove real science:

“I think it’s part of the nature of man to start with romance and then build to a reality. There’s hardly a scientist or an astronaut I’ve met who wasn’t beholden to some romantic before him who led him to doing something in life.”

Ray Bradbury continued discussing the idea of romance versus reality:

“I think it’s so important to be excited about life. In order to get the facts we have to be excited to go out and get them, and there’s only one way to do that — through romance. We need this thing which makes us sit bolt upright when we are nine or ten and say, ‘I want to go out and devour the world, I want to do these things.’”

Does the reality of life as a missionary start as a dream, somewhere deep in our pasts? In order to go out and teach Christ’s love, do we have to be excited about it? Do we need something that makes us sit bolt upright when we are nine or ten and want to go into all the world? [Or perhaps,  if you are like me, something made you sit bolt upright much later, more like age 29.]

Bradbury also said, “We may reject it later, we may give it up, but we move on to other romances then.” He clearly thought scientists needed something to motivate their work, even if they shift their focus. I wonder then, do missionaries need the same? To survive on the field, year after year after year, do we need a dream? But is it the original dream that keeps us going, or do our dreams change?

Science, like missions, is not all guts and glory. There are the countless experimental trials. There’s the disappointment when your data doesn’t support your hypotheses, or worse, it doesn’t make any sense at all. And there’s the frustration when your equipment breaks down, or not everyone interprets the lab results the way you do. Science is not mostly sudden breakthroughs – and working with the hearts of people isn’t, either.

My dream has changed. . . sort of. I’m still beholden to the romantic idea that the entire nation of Cambodia could turn to Jesus. But I no longer think that might happen simply because I showed up in obedience to His call.

It’s true that some days seem like a never-ending clinical trial, but I do still dream of nationwide revival. I long for it, I pray for it, I want it, just the same as I did when I first studied St. Patrick or learned of those thriving South American churches. That dream keeps me here, believing there’s a purpose to living through countless, repeated trials.

So today, I want to invite you to reminisce along with me.

What missionary dream did you first dream? Is that still your dream, or do you dream differently now?

What happens if you’ve lost your dreams altogether? Do you keep going without one, or do you ask God for new dreams?

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About Elizabeth Trotter

Elizabeth loves life in Southeast Asia, something she never imagined was possible. Before moving to Asia with her husband and four children in 2012, Elizabeth worked in youth ministry for ten years. She loves math, science, all things Jane Austen, and eating hummus by the spoonful. Find her on the web at www.trotters41.com and on Facebook at trotters41.
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  • Great questions, Elizabeth! Before I add my answer may I extend to you a very warm welcome to the writing team? Your unique voice adds to the conversation beautifully.

    At its core my dream stayed the same. Though, as you infer, morphing takes place over time influenced by the realities of culture and constraints. We began with a nice, neat paper plan of zealous grandiose proportions. Real life bears some resemblance to the 5 branches we listed at the start.

    Now in the thick of it all as we untangle some problems caused by pride and naivety my dream looks less ostentatious and more organic. My heart to help stayed the same. But now that desire has been informed by true needs and I can work on honing my focus.

    To come to this current place of diminished ambition and augmented humility I traveled a long and confusing path of undoing. For which I am eternally grateful. It’s not been easy to let go of the fluff and dig deep to the true truth. But it has been so good. The dream looks different now… but the important thing is that a dream still lives. At times I doubted that would be the end. I feared a loss of hope. That is no longer the case. I am happy to know there is still hope.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I like the way Angie describes her “long and confusing path of undoing.” Where I find myself is completely different than where we thought we would be. We thought we would go with a traditional mission. That dream failed completely and we ended up in education and development work. In fact it’s something that some of my TCK friends and I talk about — so many of us ended up not in positions where we had to raise support. Was that because of bad memories? I don’t remember bad memories but I know I struggled with that aspect when we first went in a short term capacity. The dream looks quite different – but it, like us, has matured I like to think in a good way. I really like the quotes by Ray Bradbury – they ring true. The idealism and romance is used by God to light a fire and push us. When we encounter reality and we don’t allow the romance or idealism to mature, that’s perhaps when some give up and go back. If it matures then it leads you in ways you could never imagine and you are left knowing it was God all along. Thanks Elizabeth for this post. So glad you are with ALOS.

      • Elizabeth Trotter

        I really relate to that, Marilyn, what we thought we were going to do on the ground in Cambodia, we are not doing at all. And I agree, God really does light a fire in us, but He doesn’t just stop there, He keeps leading us places — all kinds of places. And it really is God all along. I love that I can look back at my life and see how He was leading in things, things I never ever thought would be related to missions, but I can just see His hand so clearly. Although you bring up a really interesting point about TCKs and support raising. Would be interested to hear more. . .

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Thank you for the warm welcome, Angie! And wow, yeah, I totally see pride and naivety in myself as well. I think it’s easy for me to look at someone thinking about moving overseas and be contemptuous of their grand plans and innocence, but I also know I was there once, and those innocent dreams are what started me on this path. And I know I was SO ill-prepared at first, but God still got me here, which means He’ll do the same for others! So thankful for that. I love the part where you describe “diminished ambition and augmented humility.” Pretty much sums it up. And so glad this is not the end for you, that you still have hope, and you still have dreams, different though they may be from your original ones.

  • Interesting! One of the things our mission org red flags in the interview and selection process is having unrealistically romantic ideas of missions, and then they cover this quite extensively in our (5 month long) pre-field training as well.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Hi Tamie, I’m glad you brought this up. I completely agree about having unrealistically romantic ideas! In fact, I’ve noticed over-the-top expectations before, in people planning on getting to the mission field. I do think they need to be addressed. I just don’t know where the balance is, of having grand dreams, and not letting them be dashed by reality too soon. How much do I say to someone who is looking into moving here? How positive, and how negative should I be?? These are seriously things I wonder when people start asking me questions, because I know there’s the tension between needing a dream and also needing to have some accurate information about daily life on the field. I don’t know, maybe you have some advice in that area?? How does your organization handle it?

      There are SO many unromantic things in missionary life. There’s the tediousness of daily living that you have to get used to, the insane traffic, the power outages, the water outages, the sickness(es), the heat (or the cold, depending!), and so on. And then maybe the first ministry you show up to do, doesn’t work out — this happens for so many different reasons. But if you truly understand all those things ahead of time, would that delete your dream, demotivate you from ever getting out of your homeland??

      I personally needed some romance in the idea of missions, because for the most part, I was way too scared to actually move overseas at the time. I needed to catch some vision if I were ever going to leave American soil. And I am thankful for those long term missionaries who instilled dreams in me, who said that going into missions was worth it, who loved people with the love of God and felt compelled to take his love to the ends of the earth. I don’t think I could have gotten here without them.

      • Hmm, yeah I reckon the tension/balance is a tricky one. Our org doesn’t disqualify on the basis of having romantic ideals, but they also do a heck of a lot of education in that year before we hit ‘the field’. I think it’s the kind of movement you’re talking about, of having dreams refined, but they try to start that earlier in the process.

        My husband and I are talking with someone at the moment who has very naive notions of ‘missions’ but thus far we haven’t tried to talk him down from the romance because we don’t want to dampen the enthusiasm. What we have done is tried to encourage the notion that he will be much better prepared (both to serve and survive) on ‘the field’ if he is trained properly, including understanding the realities of life. Of course, you never understand it until you get there, but it’s something at least!

        I think this is heaps important because the romances and dreams of mission that we as westerners have can often be quite inappropriate. For example, they can mean duplicating ministries that already exist in that country simply because we were ignorant, or offering something that is meaningless or less useful in that culture, or seeing ourselves as the saviours of those people. At those times, our romance can accidentally be quite self-serving. So I’m not anti-romance, but I think we’ve gotta work out what to shape that romance around.

        I’m coming from a different place from you too though. I did postcolonial literature as my undergrad and I graduated from uni determined never to go to Africa as a missionary, because the dreams of so many white missionaries were perceived to have been so damaging. (Many missionaries were also tremendously fruitful – I don’t want to dampen their legacy, this is just part of my story!) Key for getting me to come to ‘the field’ was hearing the call from Tanzanian people for a specific task, because I was so worried about imposing myself and my dreams. That said, of course, we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have a big dream! But I think part of what keeps me going is not just my dream but knowing that it’s not just my dream.

        • Richelle Wright

          I really appreciate your last sentence, Tamie: “…part of what keeps me going is not just MY dream but knowing that it’s NOT JUST my dream.” One of those things I’ve so dramatically learned is that missions is much more about joining God in what He’s already dreaming for a people than me trying to figure out what makes sense to me and then imposing that dream on those people. And it is easier to figure that out theoretically than practically…

        • Elizabeth Trotter

          Indeed. “May we dream God’s dreams.”

      • this all makes me think about how you cannot tell two people in love to take the romance out of their road toward marriage… so that they will only go forward with the reality of marriage. We would all want to bonk the person who said that. In many ways, we fall in love with God, with a nation and a mission call and this romance is the very thing that propels us forward into a long-term commitment. Without the romance (and shall I say, the heart), we would have heart-less, life-less works for God, rather than love propelling us forward with Him.

        Just rambling responsive thoughts to this blog post and the comments.

        Let’s recover the romance! Be realistic, but be full-on romantic!

  • Richelle Wright

    Our dream changed drastically the moment we touched ground in Niger because even while we were raising support (and having kids), God was changing the team in place. So I guess in some senses, we were aware of changes, just not the depth and drastic-ness of those changes. I’ll never forget the gist of the first dinner conversation we had with our brand new colleagues after clearing customs: should this field even remain open or should we start closing things down. That was definitely not what we had signed up for.

    Crazy thing now? God redirected, changed, realized some of those dreams and we began to dream more and bigger – yet part of that more and bigger was passing on the torch (at least for a season) and moving on to a different dream in a different place. What hurts is that some of those who’ve supported and known us for the last 17 or 18 years while we were pursuing God and that first dream now question if we have any real passion for this new direction.

    So, in defense of those with dreams and those who encourage them, even if they are more romantic than plausible – too much realism will discourage… and who are we, really, to evaluate another’s God-given dream? And that said, I do understand the importance of accurate and real assessments… but I also know God is never limited by my human definition of accurate and real…

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Wow, Richelle, I was blown away by both these stories. To touch down and immediately face a possible ending to the new life you had been planning for so long. Just reading it made me a little panicky! And then, the part about people doubting God’s calling on your lives at this point in time. I am so, so sorry for the loss of emotional support (and financial support, yes, but it is the withdrawal of emotional support, the doubting of your hearts, that hurts more). I am so thankful that through all this, through the sometimes convoluted paths God takes us on, that He is with us in everything, that He is with YOU through all the changes and transition and seeming chaos. I just wish I could reach out and give you a hug in the middle of this, though.

      • I have to laugh (and cry) at this line “through the sometimes convoluted paths God takes us on”…. ah how close that hits home for me right now…

    • Your comment really hit home in my heart. Wow. Thank you.

      Especially this… “So, in defense of those with dreams and those who encourage them, even if they are more romantic than plausible – too much realism will discourage…” I feel I have become too much of a realist and lost some of the romance…

      • Richelle Wright

        To paraphrase something Marilyn wrote (on Good Friday): “We go as [romantic dreamers] and we stay as realists. 🙂

        • I wish there were “LIKE” buttons for comments! Love it!

  • Dana

    Without a dream people perish. Being able to adjust the vision by seeing what God is doing–well that may save you from burn out. I think of Jeremiah also. Everything he did basically failed. Yet God’s word burn in his bones and he had to share it. I guess maybe at some point, like is indicated in Lamentations 3, God himself became Jeremiahs treasure, maybe his dream.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Oh I love that, God HIMSELF becomes the dream. Yes! May it be so in my life, and in the life of all believers. Thank you for sharing that.

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