My favourite thing about Christmas has always been the name Immanuel, and what it really means. To have an omnipotent creator God who saw that the most important thing for him to be and do is to be present: to be God-with-us. Even as a child, without understanding the theological beauty of this, I loved Immanuel.
In the tumult of ongoing personal and professional storms, with no spiritual community to uphold me, I find myself ruminating on the connection between Immanuel and hope. Both feel far away from me in my current circumstances. When someone talks about hope, I want to walk away. There’s no place for hope in this pit. Things will happen as they happen, and there is no point in hoping for them to fall a certain way.
People wishing for the best for me, saying they hope and pray things will work out even better than expected – this makes me feel alone, not hopeful or supported. More comforting are those who simply acknowledge that my situation is awful and then include me in life, maintaining presence without expecting me to perform either grief or joy for them.
Right now, hoping hurts. It hurts to remember how I previously built a business from nothing to a liveable income. I look at empty bank accounts, and the life I lived two years ago feels like another lifetime. It hurts to imagine living with my husband in our own home, because they are on the other side of the world, out of reach.
Which brings me to Immanuel: God with us.
The Almighty God of love looked at a dark and broken world, and he knew that what we needed wasn’t inspirational stories, cheery words, thoughts and prayers, or to be checked in on. What we needed was presence.
The hope of Christmas isn’t that things are wonderful now that Christ is here.
The hope of Christmas isn’t that Jesus will fix everything.
The hope of Christmas isn’t even that Easter is on the horizon and THAT will fix everything.
The hope of Christmas is Immanuel.
The hope of Christmas is that we are not alone.
The hope of Christmas is that we have a God who has lived in the darkness with us.
The hope of Christmas is that Immanuel is in it for the long haul.
Our God doesn’t swoop in and save us at the end. He’s here for the whole journey. The whole dark and broken experience of life among messy and messed up people. He’s the friend who sticks with us when we’re not nice to be around. He’s the one who will sit with us in silence, not just offer cliched words of “comfort.” He understands that hope isn’t about twirling in the sunshine; it is about believing in light while living in utter darkness.
Sometimes, remembering the good that was – hurts.
Sometimes, believing in the good that will be – hurts.
But it is here in the darkness, the brokenness, the mess and destruction, that we find Immanuel. God with us. This is the real hope of Christmas.
I don’t have to change, I don’t have to fix anything, I don’t have to paste on a smile or make myself peppy. These things aren’t hope. I don’t have to believe that immigration paperwork will happen quickly or smoothly. I don’t have to believe my business will recover. I don’t have to believe my health will ever be okay.
Hope is knowing that what I see now is not all there is.
Hope is knowing that no matter what befalls me – Immanuel.
Hope is knowing that journeying through darkness is part of the journey of faith, and not a diversion from it. It is an opportunity to experience Immanuel.
Jesus looks at my dark and broken life and knows that what I need isn’t inspirational stories, cheery words, thoughts and prayers, or to be checked in on. What I need is presence with me on the journey. What I need is Immanuel.
Have you ever watched someone build a fire who doesn’t know what they are doing? They have all of the elements—tinder, kindling, and fuel—but they often make one key mistake.
They do not leave enough space for oxygen.
And without oxygen, no amount of trying will lead to an actual fire. Instead, even with the best of intentions and effort you have … a pile of wood.
I heard Juliet Funt speak this year and then read her book A Minute to Think. What she shares is probably something you’ve sensed deep in your soul and didn’t need her to tell you: busyness is epidemic.
And we cross-cultural workers, sadly, are no exception. Funt quotes Juliet B. Schor, who calls the way we choose to operate “performance busyness. There is no ‘they’ doing it to us anymore. From corporate executives to sheep farmer to retiree, our driving pace and pressure has become fully internalized.”
That resonated with me. For many of us, we might not physically go to a work place and report to a boss in person. But it doesn’t matter because, it’s true, I have internalized performance busyness, and I bet you have too.
In both our heads and hearts we know this isn’t the way of Jesus. Funt, though not a Christian, points to a deeper truth: “There is visible work and invisible work. Thinking, pondering, considering, reframing, mulling, concocting, questioning, and dreaming—none of these require a single muscle to be moved in order to be enacted. We only see the results when completed, not in the process.”
For three years Global Trellis has created an end-of-year packet that allows cross-cultural workers to reflect on the year that is ending and prepare for the upcoming year.
As someone who saw an advanced copy said, “I just skimmed the packet. The colors are soothing, and in a year of less capacity than in the past, it feels nice to have a guide through this.”
Jesus loves to do invisible and visible work with you. We need to value and make time for both.
If you are wanting a minute to think about this past year and gather thoughts for the next, you can. The way of Jesus involves oxygen for your soul to reflect, think, and even dream. Either take a few minutes now to review your year with Jesus or you can get the reflecting packet here.
I’ve listened to the entirety of Christianity Today’sRise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast with great interest, eagerly waiting for each episode to be released. But I’ve held off recommending it too enthusiastically until the final segment aired, to be sure it didn’t go off the rails, or at least my set of rails.
Well, the twelfth*, and last, episode came out on December 4, and after listening to it, I encourage you to do the same. Even if you don’t take in the whole series, I think you should still listen to the ending segment, titled “Aftermath.” Why? Because I’ve come to the conclusion that We Are Mars Hill, and it is the closing episode that makes that clear to me.
Like many, I first heard of Mark Driscoll, co-founder and lead pastor of the Seattle-based Mars Hill Church, when Donald Miller introduced him in his 2003 book, Blue like Jazz (though at the time he was simply “Mark the Cussing Pastor”). And later, he caught my attention by infamously stating,
There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus and by God’s grace it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done. You either get on the bus or you get run over by the bus. Those are the options. But the bus ain’t gonna stop. . . . There’s a few kind of people. There’s people who get in the way of the bus. They gotta get run over. There are people who want to take turns driving the bus. They gotta get thrown off, cuz they want to go somewhere else.
In time, Mars Hill grew to, at its largest, around 13,000 attending at 15 sites in multiple states. Over the years I kept up with news coming from the church as Driscoll became more of a celebrity and accusations against him became more newsworthy, culminating in his departure from the church in 2014, followed by the dissolution of the church network. This came after Driscoll’s fellow elders declared him guilty of having a quick temper, using harsh words, displaying arrogance, and leading with a domineering manner, characteristics that had spread through church teaching and relationships.
One thing that makes the Mars Hill saga relevant is that there seems to be something of Mars Hill in so many of us—the desire to find something big and powerful that removes ambiguity and tells us how to to do things the right way, the desire to have confident leaders who aren’t afraid to brawl with easily identified enemies, the desire, especially for men, to regain significance in our culture and in our churches and in our families.
And if we’re not careful, very, very careful, we’ll climb aboard the bus and travel confidently down the same road. Yes, We Are Mars Hill.
By “we,” I mean the global church, because all of us must take care. But a smaller “we” are workers sent out from the Western church to take the gospel abroad. For better or worse, we are influenced by the values that have made their way through the church landscape back home, affecting how we do ministry and how we define success. It’s easy to believe that we will succeed if we can only get everyone on board, doing the right things—and if we don’t take our foot off the gas. How easy it is to measure our worth by what we are doing for Christ rather than what Christ has done for us . . . and we can never seem to do enough for Christ.
In the last episode of the podcast, David Zahl, editor in chief of the Mockingbird blog, warns against the kind of gospel that came out of Mars Hill, a gospel that first presents a “life shattering and extremely exciting” grace that saves us from the condemnation of the law, only to return to it again:
[W]hat happens is you bring the law back in so it becomes a kind of a . . . Law, grace, law is the way that we would normally put it. The disposition that comes through is this very sort of Get better . . . to try harder, to pull themselves together. Eventually what you’ll have is what you have in every other element of the culture, which is burnout. You’ll have people who wake up one day and’ll be like, Hey this isn’t actually working.
There’s also another way in which We Are Mars Hill—or we can be. It’s in taking our place alongside those who have been hurt by the church. In a followup interview, the podcast’s host, Mike Cosper, comments on those who were drawn to participate after listening to earlier episodes. One was “Lindsay,” who shares in the final segment about what she went through dealing with an abusive husband who was enabled by Mars Hill leadership. Cosper describes her reasoning as “I know I’m not alone. I know I’m not the only one who experienced something like this,” but it took hearing from others to come to that realization. Cosper adds, “Someone who’s been through an experience like that—domestic violence and church hurt and everything else—it’s like, man, that’s hard stuff. And so to have the courage to come forward took a lot.”
We honor that courage by showing those like Lindsay that they truly are not alone. Have you, too, ever been wounded by individuals or an organization or an institution in which you put your trust? Even if we haven’t been run over ourselves, we can still pull over to the side of the road and attend to those who’ve fallen under the bus’s tires.
And then there’s Jen Zug, a former member of Mars Hill and assistant to Driscoll. In 2014, she wrote an open letter to the church, “The Story of How Mars Hill Church Broke Up with Me,” which she reads from in episode twelve. Her letter ends with “I will always love you, Mars Hill, like a school girl remembers her first crush. But I choose to continue forward on the mission God gave me through your influence, even if you choose another direction.” Several years later, she and her husband, Bryan, visited another Seattle church that just so happened to be meeting in a building formerly owned by Mars Hill. That Sunday the church was spotlighting a ministry that offers therapists for pastors and missionaries. In her notes from that service, says Cosper, Zug wrote, “Christians are messy people, and sometimes Christians in full-time ministry are even messier than usual.” Cosper adds that “that posture and that ministry struck her as unimaginable at Mars Hill.” It is with this new congregation in an old Mars Hill building that the Zugs have now found the kind of authentic community that they originally had in Mars Hill’s earlier days.
If you haven’ t already, I would encourage you to listen to all of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. It fills in details for those not familiar with the whole story, with lots of interviews, sermon clips, and personal perspectives. It even takes off on a couple tangents with two “bonus” segments: In one, Cosper talks with Joshua Harris (of I Kissed Dating Goodbye) about his deconstructed faith, and in another, he looks at the Acts 29 church-planting network, of which Mars Hill was a product. In total, the podcast is over 17 hours, so if you don’t have that much time to give, the last episode presents a good overview, touching on many of the important issues. (It’s two-and-a-half hours long, so it still covers a lot of ground.)
The voices in “Aftermath” are striking, too. I’ve already mentioned Lindsay and the Zugs, but another poignant story comes from Benjamin Petry. His father is Paul Petry, one of two elders dismissed from the church in 2007, the day before Driscoll made his bus comments. This past September, the younger Petry travelled to Driscoll’s new church in Phoenix, seeking some sort of reconciliation. He asked Driscoll to call his father to say he was sorry, but that call hasn’t happened . . . at least not yet.
At Christmastime, we remember Jesus’ coming to the world to make things whole. But that celebration can also put a spotlight on the brokenness that will continue until he comes again, asking us to mourn with those who mourn. It was the podcasts’s final installment that brought tears to my eyes, in listening to the stories from people who once called Mars Hill their church. Some of them are now doing the hard work of asking for and offering forgiveness. Some are celebrating the holidays in their new churches. Some are picking up the pieces and trying to figure out what to hang on to and what to let go of.
All are worth hearing. They are part of our family. I hope you get to listen to them.
(*Counting the two bonus installments and a “side story,” there are fifteen episodes in all.)
Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.
Outside of my window there is frost. The green of summer and the gold of fall are long gone, replaced by winter with its early sunsets and frosty mornings.
For years I lived in places where there were no seasons. Winter was when it got below 15° Celsius and we could bundle up in light sweaters and drink cocoa. Palm trees were our Christmas trees, and we could never convince those who lived in colder climates just how cold the inside of a concrete block building could get. When I moved to a place where there were seasons, I had to adjust to changing wardrobes and activities.
Initially it felt impossible. How could I possibly survive winter? When would the shivering stop? Why was everyone else so excited about the first snow and blizzards?
One of the things you learn when you live in seasons is that if you don’t relax and accept them, you will constantly be fighting with them and everything that surrounds them. It will be you against the seasons, and the seasons will always win.
And so it is with life seasons. If you don’t relax and accept them, you are in a lifelong fight, and you have already been declared the loser. Life seasons always win.
From my comfortable chair looking out on the current changing season, I’m thinking a lot about life seasons, because it’s time to make a change. I will no longer be writing for A Life Overseas.
From maternal child health nurse to boarding school parent to stay-at-home mom to working as a nurse in a large multinational oil company to helping my husband run a study abroad program to teaching nursing students at a public university, my overseas careers and seasons have been many and varied. I birthed five babies on three different continents and created homes in 36 different houses along the way. I lived in four countries, studied three languages, and still only know English well. Through the years I’ve not only had to learn how to create a home in other countries, but hardest of all – I’ve had to learn how to create a home and place in the United States. And it was here at A Life Overseas that my stories and experiences found a home.
I began writing for A Life Overseas soon after I began writing publicly. It was Rachel Pieh Jones who connected me to the site and asked me initially to post as a guest. The invitation was welcome. I had recently returned from working in flood relief in Pakistan, and my heart was restless to make sense of living between. Writing publicly, initially for my own blog followed by A Life Overseas, was an incredible gift. It was through writing that I processed my life experiences from Third Culture Kid to Adult Third Culture Kid and three-time expatriate. Through this medium I connected with so many of you and we “got” each other. The loneliness, the disconnect, the joy, the humor, the homesickness, the reverse homesickness, the jetlag, the lost luggage, the cultural humility, the mistakes, the raising kids, the figuring out life, the missed flights, the language learning, the misplaced pride, the sense that we could never make it back in our passport countries, the “too foreign for here and too foreign for home”* – all of it was here to be wrestled with and figured out. Through writing I processed, connected, cried, argued, and laughed.
Along the way I have grown and learned. I have felt God’s pleasure and direction, His love for the world and for those of us who love the world.
But I have always known that at some point it would be time to pass on this privilege to others. And so it is – now is the time. There are others whose voices need to be heard, others who are living this life who can communicate what it is to walk faithfully and confidently between worlds. I have also known that when it is time to move on, it’s best not to fight it but to go with grace, to go with God. Seasons come and seasons go; only God Himself remains the same.
A couple of years ago while sitting at an airport on a lonely Sunday night, I wrote the following. I offer it here to you as a word-gift, a tribute to all of you. Whether you are weary and lonely or energetic and people-filled, whether you have left your overseas life behind or whether you are still in the thick of it, I salute you and your courage and pray that God may keep you in the palm of his strong, everlasting, ever-loving hands.
Here’s to the lonely ones, sitting at airports waiting on delayed and cancelled flights.
Here’s to the tired ones, weary of travel and goodbyes, idly eating granola bars and sipping coffee from Styrofoam cups.
Here’s to the mom, traveling with kids, weary of meeting the needs of little ones who are out of their habitat.
Here’s to the students, in that weird space between childhood and adulthood, carrying Apple computers purchased with graduation money.
Here’s to the immigrant family, a long way from home, juggling as much hand luggage as possible as they wearily look at an airport monitor flickering out their flight delay in blue digital letters.
Here’s to the grandparents heading home after visiting with a future generation of sweet and soft baby smell. A new generation who doesn’t yet know they exist but will miss them long after they are gone.
Here’s to the third culture kid who has said far too many goodbyes. Here’s to the refugee who carries their pain in their body. Here’s to the expat who is moving on to their next post with the fresh memories of their last home like an open grave receiving a coffin.
Here’s to Arabic and Hindi; Swahili and French; German and English; Chinese and Spanish; Portuguese and Farsi – and every other language of the heart that at times must be hidden in new places and spaces, but in the airport is completely at home.
Here’s to the singles and the couples; the black and the white; the discouraged and the lonely; the arguing one and the laughing one — with more in common in life’s journey than any of us can possibly know.
Here’s to my fellow travelers, sitting under the glare of fluorescent lights in the chaos of modern day travel. May you have safe journeys and traveling mercies. May God keep you in the palm of his hand and may you know his grace.
Thank you for reading my words – In Grace, Marilyn
*From Questions for Ada Diaspora Blues: “So, here you are too foreign for here too foreign for home. Never enough for both.”
Author’s Note: I wrote this poem for my 2020 Christmas newsletter. This year it feels like people need it even more.
When the days feel cold and lifeless, Like the darkest winter night, May we bring the hope of Christmas To a world that needs more light.
When it feels like nothing’s sacred— Nothing chaos can’t destroy— May we bring the hope of Christmas To a world that’s lost its joy.
To a world that thrives on outrage— No forgiveness, no release— May we bring the hope of Christmas Through the promised Prince of Peace.
There is fear and death and darkness But through faith we rise above As we show the Christ of Christmas To a world that needs His love.
Krista found a heart for missions accounting in Papua New Guinea and still uses what she learned in her seven years there to support Bible translation from Texas. She writes poetry to process the ups, downs, and outright crises of life. Her favorite poems call herself–and others–to remember God’s faithfulness in every situation.
As Advent begins, I think about my current cross-cultural work of loving refugees from all over the world. I think about you loving the peoples and cultures of your host country. I think about all of us loving our neighbors wherever we are in the world.
But mostly, I think about Jesus.
He bridged the chasm between heaven and earth. In him, there is every bit of the fullness of what we need to love across cultures.
Here are some of the most beautiful ways Jesus teaches us about Boundless Love:
Love Requires Emptying: For the journey to even begin we must empty ourselves of all of the riches of our own competency, at times our material wealth, and most of all, our desire to control our lives. We must become vulnerable. But here we see the beauty of how Christ models this perfectly. As Philippians 2:1-11 so clearly states, he became as nothing in order to love this world. With supreme grace, He endured the culture shock of the ages. Yet, the great secret is that we find in Him more than an example: we find the once-and-for-all incarnation of God alive in us to live as He did.
Love Looks into the Eyes: Can you imagine even one interaction which Jesus had that wasn’t eye-to-eye? His words were firm in truth and rich in grace, but his eyes sealed all the love of Heaven to each person who beheld him. Whether healing the sick, teaching his disciples, preaching to the masses, or delivering the hard word, He met the eyes of others with the intensity of Immanuel, God with us.
Love Honors Our Shared Humanity: When I think of honoring humanity, I think of the marginal whom Jesus touched. The lepers. The blind. The outcast. The stranger. In each of these situations, he did not patronize. No, He advocated with his very life, aligning himself with the uttermost of humanity, becoming one of us in all the fullness of which that means. Whether a demon-possessed person, a prostitute, or a member of the religious elite who visited in the night, he humanized and equalized each image-bearer. And through this, each one was forever changed.
Love Never Gives Up on Anyone: There were the Pharisees over whose city he wept, longing to carry them tenderly in his arms. There was the bottom rung of society that the whole town had relegated to filth. There were the earthy fisherman, deemed unworthy of status. And there were more. In each impossible case, Jesus said, ‘No more lies of unworthiness! You are valued and loved just as you are, and you are tenderly held by God.’ His was and is that tenacious love that will not let go, wishing none to perish, but ALL to come to the saving knowledge of what his coming was all about.
Love Walks in Stride: At the end of our lives, it will likely not be the spiritual highs or lows which define us. Rather, it will be the everyday living out of our faith. Jesus took the posture of a servant, and that dictated his interactions with everyone. He was the one who learned how to walk in this world by laying down his power, his full right to be worshipped by all. So we walk like him. We lay down things like our privilege to live comfortably, whether materially or within our native culture. We walk among other lands and peoples, showing them that Love walks more than it talks. Love’s scope is universal, and at the proper time it will call all the children of God, of every people, tongue, tribe and nation, Home.
Be encouraged, dear friend. There is no uncomfortable, alien circumstance of being the foreigner where Jesus has not gone before. He was tried in all things and all ways, yet without the sin of ethnocentrism — or any other sin.
And He’s holding out those enveloping arms. He’s saying, ‘Beloved, rest here in Me for a while. I love your heart for the nations, for it sings that ancient song of Love, the one I created over all humankind. Well done, faithful one, I delight in your surrender and sacrifice for My Name. Now, you, rest in my love beloved.’
Streams of uniformed children walked into school, trampling on the scattered grey snow. As I watched from my window, I couldn’t believe my eyes; it was all wrong and weird.
I knew well ahead of time that Christmas is not a public holiday in China, but I still felt surprised. School and cold weather should not be present on December 25th.
Christmas to me meant the end of the school year and the beginning of summer holidays. That was all I’d known, my entire Australian childhood. It was for family, church, and water fights.
“We live between worlds, sometimes comfortable in one, sometimes in the other, but only truly comfortable in the space between.” –Marilyn Gardner,Between Worlds
The author was writing about her experience as a child growing up overseas. She spent her formative years outside her passport county. I can also relate to it as an adult living overseas. I spent my formative years in my passport country, but most of my adult life I’ve lived outside it.
Before I visited China and then moved to Cambodia in my 20s, I was comfortable in Australia at Christmas. That was all I knew growing up. It surprised me that banks were open on December 25th, even though I had known that would be so.
But I would not be comfortable in Australia now, as most of my adult life I have been in Asia. I don’t think I know how to be an adult in Australia or what one would be expected to do at Christmas. But I know there are expectations as people plan weeks or even months ahead.
I was uncomfortable in Asia,but now I’m a lot more comfortable. The feeling of school and cool weather being wrong is long gone. In fact, I appreciate the cooler weather.
At first it didn’t feel like Christmas without Christmas trees and gift exchanges. But now I don’t feel that way. Some years if I have energy, I do trees and gifts — but if not that’s fine.
Christmas trees and Santa Clauses are now visible and available where I live. This wasn’t the case in northern China 20 years ago when I had my first overseas Christmas. Both Asia and I have changed.
Now I’m most comfortable between worlds. Not in Australia where Christmas is such a big deal, and yet also not going about my usual work day in Asia either.
So what are my Christmases like in this season of life? I still think of December 25th as a holiday. I feel like it is the right day to celebrate Christmas, even though I don’t believe there is anything spiritual about that date.
We join the local church to celebrate Christmas. It never feels like a proper Christmas to me because they have it on a Sunday. Local churches choose any Sunday in December or January to celebrate Christmas. It’s usually a big, noisy affair and includes a nativity play and meal. It’s an amazing display of God’s gift to us, the biggest time of the year for the young church in a Buddhist nation.
In Australia we have a church service on December 25th no matter what day of the week Christmas falls on.
So far I have been able to take December 25th off every year; I know this is not the case for many. There was one close call when I was helping at a school, but luckily I had dengue fever so I stayed home anyway.
My husband and I didn’t have a tradition of doing presents. Since our children have been old enough to know what’s going on, they have decided they need presents!
Our favourite way to spend December 25th is having a quiet day at home. I usually buy special food. Something delicious that is easy to prepare, often something foreign that we don’t eat on a normal day.
Some years we get together with other expats for a meal, sometimes not. I love that we can make a big deal of it if we want to, but if we are feeling like a low-key day, we have freedom to do that too.
What about you, O fellow expat or repat? What are your Christmases like? And how are you feeling about this Christmas?
Are you excited to be able to choose your favourite Christmas traditions and adapt? It could be an opportunity to create your own Jesus-focused fusion of cultures.
Or maybe you are dreading being in a place where you’re away from family and there are no signs of Christmas? It might not even feel like Christmas at all.
Or are you missing that expat friend whom you used to do Christmas with? Life hasn’t been the same since they moved back to their passport country.
And if you are back in your passport country, you might also have mixed emotions.
Maybe you are looking forward to finally having a proper Christmas? You’ll have it with the right people and the right weather.
Or are you dreading the first in-person family Christmas since the death of a loved one?
Or perhaps feeling overwhelmed at the commercialism and obligations?
Maybe the church in your passport country seems so different to how you remember it? Perhaps it feels Christmas time would be more meaningful with people from around the world?
I don’t know if you will be in a world that is comfortable to you or not this Christmas. Whichever it is, I hope you can still celebrate that the maker of the universe entered our world.
The light of life among us dwells Oh, hear the darkness quake as angels all proclaim The glory of Immanuel!
(Lyrics from “Maker, Made A Child,” by Abi Marthinet-Glover, Alanna Glover, and Jake Marthinet-Glover. Emu Music, copyright 2020.)
Katherine’s childhood church in Australia launched her on a trajectory to Asia. After a decade of preparation she landed in Cambodia and married a local Bible teacher.
During my first year on the mission field — twenty years ago now — I read Elisabeth Elliot’s only novel, No Graven Image. I immediately regretted it.
Elisabeth Elliot was my hero. Her books about her first husband’s life and martyrdom significantly influenced my decision to become a missionary. Her emphasis on steadfast obedience, no matter the cost, inspired me to do hard things for God.
But her novel absolutely mystified me. It’s the fictional story of a young missionary — Margaret — in South America, working to translate the Bible for a remote tribe. An Indian family befriends her and the father, Pedro, becomes her closest ally in her translation work. I don’t remember much about the story except for how it ends: Pedro dies — and it’s Margaret’s fault.
As a 24-year-old idealistic Elisabeth Elliot fan, this was incomprehensible to me. Why on earth would Elisabeth write such a thing? It felt depressing and cynical and almost anti-missionary. Sure, Elisabeth’s own husband had died on the mission field — I knew bad things could happen — but he was a martyr, a hero. And his death inspired a whole generation of new missionaries. That story had a happy ending….right? So why write a novel about missionary failure, where the ending is actually worse than the beginning? God wouldn’t let that happen in real life….right?
I ignored the story. It didn’t match my perception of Elisabeth, missions, or God. My brain didn’t have a category to fit it into, and I consciously made a decision to forget about it.
And then, 20 years of missionary life happened. Yes, I saw many victories, but an equal number of tragedies. The local pastor who abused his adult daughter. The American missionary with six kids who had an affair with a local woman. Families who left the country because of irreconcilable conflict with teammates. Students we poured into for years, only to have them lose their faith on a full-ride scholarship to Harvard.
Many times, the world swung crazily around me, shifting perceptions of God and myself. Why did I come here? Am I doing any good? Is this really what God wants me to do? At times I paced the room, raging against injustice or abuse perpetrated by people of God, accusing myself of not doing more to stop it. God, we obeyed you when we came here; why are you not fixing this? Changing this? Why did you let this happen?
Recently I read the biography written by Ellen Vaughn, Becoming Elisabeth Elliot. Vaughn filled in my manufactured picture of Elisabeth’s life: not just a hero, a fearless missionary, a martyr’s wife, but a woman who wrestled deeply with obeying God. Yes, she followed Him into the jungle (with her toddler!) to live with the tribe who murdered her husband, but she also cried herself to sleep from grief. She struggled with resentment and selfishness when she shared her home with another missionary family. And conflict with a colleague eventually took her off the mission field entirely.
As I read this biography, my memory plucked No Graven Image out of a dusty corner of my mind. Vaughn writes, “By the end of her time in Ecuador, Betty had puzzled over what the word missionary even meant.” And I realized that I should have paid more attention to the lesson Elisabeth was trying to teach me in her story of Margaret and Pedro: God is God; I am not. We don’t often get happy endings; my job is simply to obey. Her novel was far more insightful than I gave it credit for. I had to learn the hard way.
Vaughn quotes Elisabeth: “Faith’s most severe tests come not when we see nothing, but when we see a stunning array of evidence that seems to prove our faith vain. If God were God, if He were omnipotent, if He had cared, would this have happened? Is this that I face now the ratification of my calling, the reward of obedience? One turns in disbelief again from the circumstances and looks into the abyss. But in the abyss there is only blackness, no glimmer of light, no answering echo… It was a long time before I came to the realization that it is in our acceptance of what is given that God gives Himself. Even the Son of God had to learn obedience by the things that He suffered. . . . And His reward was desolation, crucifixion.”
My hero had stared into the abyss more than I realized. And her understanding of God came from the abyss, not in spite of it. Vaughn explains that Elisabeth learned that “God’s sovereign will was a mystery that could not be mastered, an experience that could not be classified, a wonder that had no end. It wove together strands of life, death, grace, pain, joy, humility, and awe.”
I came away from Elisabeth’s biography with a far more imperfect, cracked, patched up image of her than I had twenty years ago. But that’s true of how I see myself and missions too, for that matter. Knowing that she fought through grief and doubt and failure into a more beautiful understanding of the goodness and sovereignty of God gives me hope. If Elisabeth could get there, I can too.
Ellen Vaughn writes, “The only problem to be solved, really, is that of obedience. As Betty noted, futility—that spirit-numbing sense of despair—does not come from the thing itself, but from the demand to know ‘why.’… For Betty, the question is ‘what?’ As in, Lord, show me what You want me to do. And I’ll do it. And in that acceptance—’I’ll obey, whatever it is’—there is peace.”