The Reluctant Missionary

by Shannon Brink

Ever think maybe, just maybe, you would be a better missionary if you just weren’t one? I do.  

When did this term, this identity, get wrapped up in so many unrealistic expectations? Expectations from generations of history, from sending and receiving agencies, from churches, from supporters, from other missionaries, from Facebook, Lord help us, from ourselves. All these expectations point to an image that isn’t even real. Where are the stories of missionaries that were just average humans incarnating Christ where they happened to reside? Is that any different than what I was doing before I sent newsletters and appealed to Church boards? What makes us so special? 

The true confession is, that nothing makes me altogether special. I do dishes and make dinner and wrestle with poverty and try to make space for a devotional life, and question what I am doing and how I am helping anybody, every single living day. I show up for the hospital, I try to give my kids my attention and discipleship, and make a billion mistakes and sometimes, truth be told, hide from people. I hide because I feel incompetent in this language and space and want to be with people I can deeply connect with. I grieve, I seek Christ, I run away from Christ, and do all the very same things I did in my home country except there’s more dust and pests here.

I could gripe about how hard and how lonely this all is, except I know I am not alone. There are many of us around the world that are questioning exactly what it is we gave up our lives for. What could possibly have moved us from there, to here, for? Was I being a martyr? Was I choosing a path that seemed like the most sacrificial, the most blessed, the most exciting, only to find that I could have been just as effective (or dare I say ineffective) as the place we left behind? Are we hindering more than we are helping because of our colonial heritage?  Are we advancing a kingdom or advancing our agendas, our resources, and our need to feel like we did something for Christ? 

If anything has become clear in this COVID season which never seems to end, it is that we cannot be a people about doing anymore.  We came with agendas, we came with plans, we came with a lot of expectations behind and before us, but we are human hearts needing the grace of God not just to do something through us, but IN us. And now we are locked in our houses, homeschooling our kids, limited in resources and freedom of movement and would you believe, the Church and her Christ will still stand? Without our programs and ministries, without our perfect solutions and ideas, and without us at all.

So with every bit of pain I feel, I take comfort in the stripping away of who exactly I thought I would be in this space and think maybe it’s time to change my title and perhaps more so, actually change my heart.  If, at the end of the day, we all realize we need Christ just a little bit, then this entire year would be worth it.  Maybe if we possibly learned that we are just as inadequate as we ever feared but just as called as we ever dreamed, we might actually start being the Church instead of trying so hard to do Church.

Maybe, we’d stop trying to be missionaries and just be His.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Shannon is a mother of 4 kids, a nurse, a writer, and a missionary in Malawi. Her family is currently residing in Vancouver, Canada because of COVID. Her writing explores the awkward spaces of life like waiting, grieving, calling, and transition, which seems to become increasingly relevant in our lives and in our global story. She has just finished her first book. Find her at shannonbrink.org.

A new answer to an old question

“Are you better?”

After two months of being in pain, thinking I had a tear in my left biceps, it was a relief for the doctor to say that I had not torn anything and would not need surgery. My doctor also said that I had probably been doing all of the things I needed to do to heal, but not all together for a prolonged time. 

He prescribed an anti-inflammatory, regular icing, and told me not to use my arm for five days. (This was by far the hardest part! And clearly the reason my “I hope this heals on its own” approach hadn’t worked.) He also gave me a list of exercises to start gingerly doing to rehab my muscle after my five days of radical rest.

In the ensuing days and weeks as people asked me, “Are you better?” I’d stumble over my words. I was better than I had been, but I was not better . . .  as in all better

As I stumbled over a much-too-long explanation to my sister, she said she had run into the same problem after shoulder surgery last summer and her PT suggested she was “bettering.”

I love it! 

“I am bettering” honors the progress I have experienced without denying or downplaying that there is still work, in my case, healing to occur.

As I thought about cross-cultural work, just think of how the concept of “I am bettering” could serve us.

Whether it is culture, racism, your call, or trusting God, when the subtle message is to be all better, we miss the reality of process. So, we hid our process, either waiting until we can share a more completed picture or we present a fantasy version of ourselves. Instead, what if in answer to the following questions you could say, “I’m bettering.”

How’s your culture knowledge? I am bettering.

What have you learned about power, gender dynamics, or racism? I am bettering.

How are you managing the need to lament and rejoice in the work that you’re called to? I am bettering.

In what ways are you trusting God with your children, singleness, marriage, health, support raising, or any number of areas of being human? I am bettering.

As I mulled over the idea and application of bettering, the truth is, in some areas I’m not bettering, I’m worsening. And while I don’t like that I’m worsening, I do like the idea. Instead of flat our failing or broken or sinful, the idea of worsening is like a rumble strip along the highway. The sound is obnoxious when my car starts driving on one, which is kind of the point! I hate the noise and almost immediately self-correct before driving into traffic or off the road.

How’s your tolerance with the culture? I notice that’s I’ve been worsening.

As you relate to those around you—maybe your neighbors, your teammates, or your family members—how are power dynamics factoring in? I’m worsening.

Or misogyny? Are you kidding me? Do not go there. I am fine. Oh wait, I want to be fine, but in truth I think with this one person I may be worsening.

Or racism? The “right” answer is I’m bettering; but honestly? I might be worsening.

How’s trust with God going? Sigh, I want it to be okay, I believe in Him, I love Him, but recent events have thrown me and I’m worsening.

Now more than two months after being diagnosed with biceps tendonitis, I am definitely better than I was, but I am not all better. While I look forward to the day that my arm is better, I am thankful to have the new language and understanding I have of my own state that I have acquired through this process.

If we were sitting togethering sharing a cup of tea and scone, I’d ask, “Where are you bettering?” And after talking about bettering for a while, I’d also be curious to know where you notice worsening in your responses, habits, and heart.

Grace and peace and bettering to you, my brothers and sisters. 

Photo by YONEKEN.on Unsplash

How’s Your Training Montage Coming Along?

I have swimmer’s shoulder, but I don’t swim.

It’s not that I can’t swim, I just don’t do it often enough to cause an injury. I’m in physical therapy for my shoulder now, but I actually started PT because of pain in my hip, and then my shoulder started acting up. I wish I could say that my hip problem was caused by swimming, or by mountain climbing or power lifting. Instead, I think it’s from stepping out of my car the wrong way. And my shoulder? It might be caused by painting our dining room. Or who knows? It could have come from brushing my teeth with too much reckless abandon.

I know what you’re thinking. But before you say that it’s clear I’m getting old and my body’s falling apart, let me first say that it’s clear I’m getting old and my body’s falling apart.

So every day I go through my series of exercises. If only my routine included things like “reverse suspended monster crunches” or “overhead double infantry lifts.” But no, I have “supine gluteal sets” and “seated shoulder flexion towel slides at table top.”

It’s not quite the stuff of a Rocky training montage. (If you haven’t seen any of the five Rocky movies, seven if you add the two Creeds, then just think about any film that includes a music video of the main character getting ready for battle.) In preparation for the next ultimate fight, set to stirring music, Rocky boxes with frozen meat (da-da-daaa), rips off dozens of one-handed pull-ups and push-ups (da-da-daaa), lifts log chains over his head (da-da-daaa), guzzles raw eggs (da-da-daaa), and outruns a car (da-da-da-da-da-da-da-daaa-da-daaa).

Here’s the thing about training montages in the movies: They’re in the movies. When you’re tackling challenges in real life, it’s not bigger than life and it’s not condensed down to just a few minutes. Seen from the inside, the real stuff of montages can feel slow, tedious, and monotonous, not monumental.

Do you have things in your life abroad that are necessary but mundane, things you do day to day on the path to your goals but that lack the flair of a movie workout? Things such as prepping for departure? Settling into a culture? Language learning? Wading through red tape? Forming relationships? Chipping away at overwhelming problems?

Here’s the thing about serving overseas—and life in general: Rarely do our efforts merit a rousing soundtrack. Now if your cross-cultural experiences are film-worthy, I won’t stand in your way, and I’ll cheer when your theme song reaches its crescendo in the cinema. But for most of us, rather than a fully orchestrated “Gonna Fly Now,” an “Amazing Grace” played by a toy xylophone and a kazoo may seem more appropriate.

It makes me wonder about the music behind the Psalms, when they read, “to the tune of ‘A Dove on Distant Oaks'” or “to the tune of ‘The Death of the Son.'” Wouldn’t it be nice to know what those songs sounded like? I’m guessing they weren’t pulse-pounding tunes but more in line with the normal, coarse warp and woof of a life serving Jesus.

And here’s another thing: Much of what you do in cross-cultural work doesn’t culminate in a resounding, definitive victory. Often, it’s more of a series of little victories mixed in with little failures. You know, that two-steps-forward-one-step-back thing. (Or is it the other way around?)

Take language learning for instance. What if your language study doesn’t culminate with nationals saying that you sound more native-born than they do? What if your language study never seems to end? Yes, you’ll have agency- and self-imposed benchmarks to meet, but you may never get to where you wish you could be—or to the level of your coworkers. That’s OK. It’s not about matching their good, it’s about doing your good. Wherever your best efforts lead you, there’s a place for you in God’s work. I hope others believe that, too.

Much the same could be said about “learning” your new culture. It takes a lot more time and effort to be a resident of a country than to be a tourist. In A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, Eugene Peterson uses similar language when talking about the Christian life, making a distinction between those who are “tourists” and those who are “pilgrims.” He writes that most Christians “are impatient for results. They have adopted the lifestyle of a tourist and only want the high points.”

Peterson identifies the common assumption among Christians (and others)

that anything worthwhile can be acquired at once. We assume that if something can be done at all it can be done quickly and efficiently. Our attention spans have been conditioned by thirty-second commercials. Our sense of reality has been flattened by thirty-page abridgments.

“Thirty-second commercials.” “Thirty-page abridgments.” To those I could add three-minute training montages. But all of these may seem rather quaint compared to the norms of today’s culture (Peterson’s book was first published in 1980), with our current attention to Twitter and TikTok and all the other short bursts from social media.

Yes, the Christian life is “a long obedience.” And if I could paraphrase that, I’d say it could also be seen as a long series of short obediences. It’s exercising, stretching, pulling, pushing, lifting, running, jogging, walking, and resting, over and over again. It’s you, as a cross-cultural worker, doing all this with a God-ward aim, with your God-given abilities, at your God-given speed. It’s finishing your race, even if your finish line doesn’t end up being on foreign soil.

And it’s you, all the while, humming in the background the soundtrack of your own making.

(Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, InterVarsity, 1980)

[photo: “Focus,” by Keith Ellwood, used under a Creative Commons license]

Fear of Flying

I have a fear of flying. This is a problem because as an expat, I travel fairly often and fairly daunting distances. The worst moment is not takeoff or landing, during which I grip both armrests and whisper, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” The worst moment is not even when we hit turbulence, during which I take deep breaths and close my eyes. The worst moment is when the planes have just reached their cruising altitude and the pilots ease up on acceleration. There is a sudden quiet. No more thrusting, no more ear-rattling noise to confirm the plane’s operational capability. Just quiet, peaceful soaring. It is in this precise moment when all obvious effort diminishes that I fully expect the plane to drop.

The silence is disturbing, the ease disconcerting. I find the noise and strain, the bustle and ruckus of takeoff far more reassuring. We can’t possibly remain in the sky if there is no evidence of labor, if all I need do is lean back against the headrest and read a book.

Like with airplanes, on earth I am most comfortable in the place of effort and hard work. The expectations are clear – namely, effort and hard work. There is the bustle and ruckus to dwell on, to distract from feelings of guilt, doubt, failure, timidity, terror.

But the thing is, in all that noise, in the rattling chaos of exertion, I can’t hear Jesus. 

Sometimes in my faith journey these moments arrive when all the working and the accelerating vanishes and the bottom drops out, like on the plane, and I’m sure this whole thing is going down. But it is in precisely those moments, when I enter silence and begin to rest, that I become aware of nudges I wouldn’t have noticed with my foot on the accelerator.

Nudges toward intimidating, risky things, big and small things, things I can’t see the ends of or guarantee the results of. Like starting a running club. Like signing up for a marathon. Like stopping at a makeshift restaurant and asking the women if I can sit for a few days and learn from them. Like working with the local newspaper. Like saying, ‘I will trust you Lord,’ regarding our school choices for my kids. Or saying ‘yes’ to a literary agent or a publishing house.

My stomach lurches and squeezes and I grab onto the armrests and whisper, “Jesus.” And he whispers back, “In repentance and rest is your salvation. In quietness and trust is your strength.”

See, the thing about soaring, the thing I find both frightening and exhilarating is, airplanes are designed to do it. So I’m going to try, in those quiet moments, to lean into what I am designed for, to continue saying, “Jesus,” and continue saying, “Yes,” and I’m going to enjoy the ride.

What do you need to say ‘yes’ to so you can soar?

A Global Pandemic and Ambiguous Loss

In 1999, researcher Pauline Boss, introduced the concept of ambiguous loss with these words: “In the world of unresolved grief, there is a unique kind of loss that complicates grief, confuses relationships, and prevents closure. I call it ambiguous loss. It lies at the root of much depression, anxiety, and family conflict.

While religious communities traditionally have comforted those who lose a loved one from death—a clear loss—less attention is paid to ambiguous loss. This is understandable as there is no official notice or ritual for such unclear loss. Yet, the trauma devastates people. Traditional therapies are insufficient because closure, the usual goal in grief therapy, is impossible. With faith communities so often the central support system for people who are suffering, knowing about this more nuanced and complicated loss is important.

She goes on to say: “I do not pathologize. Depression is, of course, a symptom that needs treatment… in the case of ambiguous loss, the cause lies in the external environment. It is important for people suffering from this kind of traumatic loss to know that it is not their fault.”*

Ambiguous loss is believed to be the most stressful kind of loss. Death brings finality and closure and you are allowed and expected to mourn. Ambiguous loss brings none of those things. There are no sign posts. Instead, the grief process is frozen.

Ambiguous loss is unclear, traumatic, externally caused by illness/work/leaving (not by individual pathology), confusing and incomprehensible.

Ambiguous loss can freeze the grief process. People can’t get over it, they can’t move forward, they’re frozen in place. 

Pauline Boss

I can’t think of a better description of the losses people are feeling during this worldwide pandemic. Quick pack-ups and overnight border closures, family separations and job losses, death with no or limited funerals, grieving alone – all of it has contributed to lack of closure and a prolonged and ambiguous grief process.

There are two types of ambiguous loss:

  • Type One: Occurs when there is physical absence with psychological presence. This includes situations when a loved one is physically missing or bodily gone. While there are catastrophic examples of physical ambiguous loss (including kidnapping, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and natural disasters such as earthquake, flood, and tsunami) the more common examples of physical ambiguous loss are divorce, adoption, and loss of physical contact with family and friends because of immigration. This would be the most common type with third culture kids and expats. There is a physical absence, but you know the place you left, the friends you left, are still psychologically present. You see pictures of your adopted home, but you are no longer there. Your children see their school friends through social media, but physically, though the place remains, you are gone. You may never get to visit again.
  • Type Two: Occurs when there is psychological absence with physical presence. In this second type of ambiguous loss, a loved one is psychologically absent—that is, emotionally or cognitively gone or missing. Such ambiguous loss occurs from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias; traumatic brain injury; addiction, depression, or other chronic mental or physical illnesses that take away a loved one’s mind or memory. Psychological ambiguous losses can also result from obsessions or preoccupations with losses that never make sense, e.g., some suicides or infant deaths.*

Identifying ambiguous loss is a huge step. I remember first reading about it several years ago, how just reading about it did something powerful in and for me. Realizing I wasn’t alone, that there was a name for my experiences, was a pivotal point in better understanding what I needed to do.

There were several steps to my process, and I write them here cautiously, knowing that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to facing ambiguous loss.

Naming it as ambiguous loss was an important first step. Finding a name for what I was experiencing was huge. You can’t cope with something unless you know what it is. At six years old, I waved goodbye to my parents as they stood on the platform of a train station in Southern Pakistan. I strained my head to wave, crying the crocodile tears of a child that knows that they are leaving their primary source of security, but not having words to express it. I strained to watch my parents through the window until the platform was out of sight, finally succumbing to the comfort of kind adult chaperones. I knew that my parents weren’t dead, but their physical absence brought profound loss. It would be the same for all but two years of my childhood until I turned 18 and left home. Finding out about the concept of ambiguous loss was deeply comforting to me. I thought back to many childhood events like this one, realizing I had never grieved the losses because I didn’t think there were any. Naming is an edenic act, and when we name something we open up a door to understanding that is otherwise impossible. In this Pandemic year, it is important to name the ambiguous loss. If you had to pack up with little notice and no goodbyes, if you did not have time to build the RAFT to float yourself and your family, it is probably true that what you are experiencing is ambiguous loss. The place you left still exists; the work and your place within the work may still be there, but you aren’t. Soon, someone else will take your place because though people are not replaceable, positions must be replaced. Naming this is critical to moving forward. If you do nothing else but name it, you are still on a step toward healing.

Use both/and thinking. It’s not one or the other – it’s both. We have both the anxiety of no closure and the opportunity of unexpected change and relationships going forward. Absolute thinking is not helpful with ambiguous loss or the pandemic in general. F. Scott Fitzgerald said this, and it is perfect for thinking about both/and thinking:

The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

F.Scott Fitzgerald

This both/and thinking is important for us and for our children. We acknowledge the losses even as we begin to write our names in the land where we find ourselves.

Find meaning in the present. Not acknowledging ambiguous loss can cripple us to finding meaning in our present reality. What is the meaning in your present reality? Where have you found meaning that is unexpected? Perhaps you have found meaning in the act of waiting. Perhaps you have had unexpected time with aging parents. Perhaps you used to long for more time with your kids, feeling like their childhoods were on fast forward in the movie of life. Suddenly, all of life has slowed down and it feels impossible to dream, to look forward to anything. Maybe there is meaning in the impossible.

Reconstructing identity is a third step in facing ambiguous loss. Moving, death, job loss, changing friendships – all of this affects our identity and our perception of our identity. Who are we without what we had? Who are we when we are not in our adopted countries using hard-earned language skills? Who are we without the brother, mother, son, or daughter that we have lost to a country or place far away? Who are we apart from our friendships? Who are we when ministry is gone? All of these questions are a part of reconstructing our identities. Ultimately, in my faith journey I’ve recognized that identity is not about where I am, for that is too fickle and can change through pandemics, military takeovers, natural disasters, and job loss – indeed everyone of those things have affected my life at different points. Instead, my core identity has to be about being beloved by God and recognizing I am part of a bigger picture in His world.

Building resilience, not seeking closure. The goal is not closure, and we make a mistake if we think that is possible. That’s the thing with ambiguous loss – the goal changes from closure to building strength and acceptance of ambiguity. We may never get to say proper goodbyes, we may always wonder “What would have happened if we stayed?” We may always long for something that we can’t even voice. I’ve been learning a lot about being grateful for those things, for they are indeed gifts. We live in a world of displaced people and refugees; indeed that is the story of our time. It is a gift that we know what it is to grieve loss of place and people. Understanding ambiguous loss is in itself a gift. It allows us to enter relationships with hope but without the guarantees that we so long for. This is far more what our world needs than a security and belief that what we have will be there forever. This is true for individuals, and it’s true for a family. As a family adapts to change, stress, and ambiguous loss, it builds resilience and this becomes a part of the larger family story. The larger family story will have a pandemic chapter, but it’s not the only chapter. It’s one of many.

Discovering new hope. As we move forward, we discover new hope. Hope in a future that will continue to hold the hard and unknown, yet entering it with a greater reality of the presence of God. Hope in the words from the book of Hebrews that He who called us is faithful. We may never know the whys, but can it be enough to know Him? I speak truth when I say that some days it is enough and some days it isn’t. I cling to the days where it is enough, where He is enough. And I’m getting better at facing the days when He is not enough, where I pray the Jesus prayer all day long and into the night.

Lastly, God is far more concerned about who we are than about what we do and where we live. If we lose everything, He still loves us. Before He called us, He loved us. I’m sitting with that hard truth, praying that I will know it in my soul. I pray that wherever you are today, and whatever your losses, you may know this hard but glorious truth. He looks at you and He loves you – and though all around you may be loss and grief, that truth is a reality.

*https://www.ambiguousloss.com/about/faq/

Freefall and Float: Following God on Non-Linear Adventures

by Alyson Rockhold

I landed in Tanzania in 2007 as a fresh-faced college kid taking a semester off to teach English. Those four months altered the course of my life. When school called me home, I vowed to return to Tanzania soon. It took 7 years to fulfill that promise. Those years were filled with great tension and worry: Would I ever get back “there”?

The homing device that had burrowed under my skin eventually returned me to Tanzania in 2013. What relief to finally be living the life I’d always dreamed of! What confusion when I had to go back to the states in 2015!  Another vow to return “there” soon: More long years of waiting.

In 2019, I got close to “there” when my husband and I moved to Zambia. I kept whispering in his ear about how desperate I was to go to Tanzania. So, when our organization planned to transfer us to Kenya in early 2020, all I could think about was that Tanzania was right on the way!

We got to Tanzania on March 9th. Within a few days, Corona rumors became reality. The borders closed on March 16th. Ultimately, our three-week vacation turned into 4 months of living in limbo. I was finally “there,” but everything felt wrong.

When I dreamed of going to the missions field, I thought it was all about getting “there.” Once I got “there,” I would establish a thriving ministry, become fluent in a new language, and get connected to the local community. In essence, I would live like the missional heroes whose biographies I had devoured in high school. I never envisioned living in 4 different countries over 7 years, preparing to move to a 5th but stopped by political unrest, and then being en route to a 6th only to be halted by a deadly virus.

My story looks nothing like I imagined it would. It does not follow the pattern set before me by my heroes. There are many curved roads, roundabouts, and U-turns on my journey. I’ve expended so much energy fighting to get “there,” consumed with the fear that being “here” meant I was a failure. But what if instead of teaching me how to march in a straight line, God has been equipping me with the tools needed to attain freefall and float?

I learned this phrase when I stumbled upon Denise Levertov’s poem, “The Avowal.”

As swimmers dare

to lie face to the sky

and water bears them,

as hawks rest upon air

and air sustains them,

so would I learn to attain

freefall, and float

into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,

knowing no effort earns

that all-surrounding grace.

As I try (and mostly fail) to get “there,” God embraces me right where I am. Surrounded by his grace, I find contentment unbound from circumstance.

I release my goals: freefall.

I  relax into grace: float.

I freefall: The ground beneath me is slippery, but His grace bears me up.

I float: The way ahead of me is unclear, but God sustains me.

I freefall and float: Surrendering my quest for straight lines and discovering beauty in each unexpected turn.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Alyson’s medical missions work has taken her to Tanzania, Haiti, and Zambia.  Along the way, she’s discovered a passion for sharing stories that honor God and encourage people.  Her writing has been featured on A Life Overseas, Busted Halo, Verge Magazine, Red Letter Christians, and more.  You can follow her at www.alysonrockhold.com.

Don’t Settle for the Search: The Path of Everlasting Life

In my previous job before becoming a missionary, my job was to identify problems for people. They would call my office in a panic, email me at all hours of the day, and even pop into my office, pulling tissues out of their purses as they walked in. It was my job to listen to their stories, look at what they had brought me, and try to piece together all the information to the point of being about to put a name to the issue they were facing along with a few recommendations.

No, I wasn’t a doctor and I wasn’t a therapist. When people came into my office with tissues, there were usually dead bugs, clumps of dirt, or decaying plant materials wrapped up inside (though a few times there were real tears too!). I was a county extension agent and my job was to “extend” agricultural information to the community. I’d go out in the field and teach, but a lot of days were spent behind the computer at my desk, a million tabs open on my browser and at least 3-5 books spread out on my table, helping a farmer or homeowner to identify the disease or insect that was causing harm to their plants.

I’d spend hours comparing photos of bugs and leaves online, asking a million questions of the owner to get the history of the plant. It was tedious, but I loved it. When I was eventually able to identify the problem, it was an incredibly satisfying feeling because it meant moving from a state of “unknown” to “known” and I don’t know about you, but my brain is inherently designed to like that.

Once the problem was identified, I would make a phone call or write up an email with further information for the owner about how to treat the problem. At the moment I hung up the phone or hit send, it was no longer my problem anymore. I put the books back on the shelf and closed out all the tabs on my browser. I was free. My job was done and this was the end of the road. It was actually pretty great. Unfortunately, this way of thinking and doing things is not too applicable in other parts of life….

As Christians, and particularly as cross-cultural workers, we are all faced with a great deal of problems and challenges that need solving or fixed every day. These problems range from purely physical issues like “Why is there suddenly an inch of water in my bedroom floor for the fourth time this year even after having 10 plumbers come look at the problem?” to deeper issues like “Why, even though I’ve known and lived and worked in this country for five years, does it still feel like no one understands what I’m really trying to say or where I’m coming from? Why can’t I seem to have a good relationship with this person?

Because of the messy combination of language barriers, cultural lenses, gender biases, distrust of foreigners, underlying value systems, etc., sometimes these challenges take quite a lot of time to navigate and sort through before a problem can really start coming into focus, identified and somewhat understood. I’ll spend days, sometimes even months and years pouring through books and blogs and talking to friends and other missionaries about a particular cross-cultural topic trying desperately to pinpoint the source of my tension or misunderstanding with my Liberian colleagues.

Adding to the mess in my head though, I often find that while sorting through what appears to me to be merely external cross-cultural challenges, God is also asking me to search my own heart as He strives to confront me with some of my sins that might also be at play in this situation. When it comes to these matters of the heart, I will again spend hours processing things verbally with friends, scribbling out pages of thoughts in my journal, and begging God to give me some clarity.

Sometimes, God reveals the problem right away. But other times, it hides itself as emotions that I can’t easily identify…something that gnaws at me or pricks at me over and over again over the course of weeks or months. Sometimes, all I really know for certain is that something is not right with me and God. I know sin is there crouching at the door like a lion ready to devour me (1 Peter 5:8), but I don’t know which sin exactly it is, and that bothers me. For some reason, I want the lion to have a name…as if that would make me feel better (haha!?). But instead, God repeatedly allows me to sit in this state of tension; of wanting to know, but not knowing.

In one particular case, I remember it took me a year to finally understand and accept that the bad feelings and continual miscommunication I had with someone in my life stemmed from not only cultural and personality issues, but also my own sin. At that moment though when it finally clicked and everything came into focus, I felt such a weight lifted. The problems I had been experiencing that were once “unknown,” were now “known.” Although the diagnosis was quite bad (pride strikes again!) it was still in a way comforting for me because now the problem now had a name, it was identifiable. I had prayed the prayer “Search my heart and know me, Oh God. See if there is any offensive way in me….” (Psalm 139:23-24 NIV) and the Holy Spirit had led me here.

But at that point, all I wanted to do was just sit back and turn off my brain, hang up the phone, hit send on the email, close the journal, pack up all the books, and walk away from all this. I was tired. Unlike Jacob who had wrestled with the Lord for only a night, it had been a long drawn out year of wrestling with God before he could break through all the cultural noise and stubbornness in my heart and identify the real problem of sin. And I really wanted this to be the end of the battle, not the beginning.

But, it turns out there is just a little bit more to that Psalm 139 prayer that David had prayed:

“Search me, Oh God, and know my heart;

     Test me and know my anxious thoughts

Point out anything that offends you,

     And lead me along the path of everlasting life.

(Psalm 139:23-24 NLT)

It’s not enough for us to just ask God to search us and point out our sins, but we must also be willing to go a step further and allow Him to then do the equally hard work of “leading us along the path of everlasting life.” Just because you give a problem a name, doesn’t mean it ceases to exist. A lion crouching at the door, named or otherwise, is still a lion crouching at the door! It needs to be dealt with.

It’s not the unknown parts or names of sin that should bother us and keep us awake at night, it’s the very existence of sin in our lives that should unsettle us to our core and bring us to our knees. If we are going to pray to God to help us identify a sin, we must also be willing to pray and trust that He will help us deal with it too! And that’s not a job we can just pass off to someone else to deal with, that’s really where the work, through the strength of the Holy Spirit, begins.

Because identifying sin is different than repenting of the sin and turning away.

Repenting of the sin is different than turning towards God and asking for forgiveness of the sin.

And asking for forgiveness is different than asking God to lead me forward in the path of everlasting life.

What are you asking God for right now? Are you content asking God for help just understanding your past and present struggles, or do you also want His help to carry you through all that is to come in the future too? Do you want a temporary enlightenment about your problems or do you want an eternal perspective in dealing with those problems? Do you want Him to merely to search your heart or to lead your heart? Is it enough for you to just be aware of your sin or do you also want forgiveness and freedom from sin? Are you good just searching for the answers to life’s problems or do you want life itself?

Keep doing the hard work of asking God to search you heart and point out your sins amidst the backdrop of this crazy messy life of overseas ministry. Find comfort and give thanks to God when these little moments of clarity finally arise, hard as they might be. But, don’t grow weary and let yourself fall into the temptation to stop there. We don’t just need God to search our hearts, we need Him to enter into our hearts, change them, and direct them. What good is it to know our sins if we also know we can do nothing about them on our own? Don’t just settle for the search. Ask God and trust God to lead you in the path of everlasting life.