Dethroning My Missionary Hero

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.”

Beware the Idols of an Overseas Life

When we first move overseas, all we feel is the sacrifice. 

Homesickness punches us in the stomach; we experience a physical ache for left-behind loved ones. Our new country feels strange and overwhelming. We lose our sense of self-respect as we bumble along in communication. We mourn the loss of our identity and productivity as we try to figure out how to drive, eat, and parent in this new universe. There are times when we even hate it, and wonder what on earth brought us here.

But then, something changes.

It will likely take (many) years, but one day it dawns on us that we feel more at home in our host country than our home country. We tell jokes in a different language. We navigate the bus system with ease. We crave the local food. We no longer look forward to our furloughs or home assignments, and might even dread them. 

We’ve found a new community, and it’s possible that those relationships are stronger and deeper than anything we had back at home. The view outside our kitchen window has become familiar. Grocery shopping is mundane. We’ve figured out how to make this new life work. And we are comfortable.

And that’s exactly when we must be on our guard.

Think about it this way: when our life overseas is a sacrifice, we continually contemplate our calling. Why am I here? Is this worth it? Am I doing any good? We dig deep into dependence on God. We evaluate our motives. When life is a slog, our vision is clear: we know why we are doing this. 

But what about when life becomes comfortable? Once we’ve adapted to a new culture, we come face-to-face with the reality that this overseas life has perks. Sometimes, lots of them. 

Our lives are interesting. Fulfilling. Living as an expat means we get the benefits of two worlds: the richness, beauty, and adventure of our host country, but with all the safety nets from our home country. We get to travel to exotic places. We become exotic people.

We get to stand out–not only in our host country, but back at home too. We are respected, set apart, even put on a pedestal. 

We don’t like to admit this. We would rather stick with the “sacrifice” narrative, because it feels better. And of course, some sacrifices never disappear. But often, with enough time, the perks outweigh the sacrifices. 

Comfort is sinister because it can lull us into lying to ourselves. This new identity can be intoxicating. We laugh and say, “Living overseas is addicting!” which is kind of funny, but kind of dangerous. This fulfilling life can blind us to the truths we need to see.

Being venerated by others can steal our cultural humility–both overseas and back at home. Feeling comfortable can poke holes in our dependence on God. Our sense of calling can be overshadowed by the fact that we just really like our life. 

We might stop evaluating our effectiveness. Stop questioning our motives. We may even ignore that little voice that tells us it’s time to turn the ministry over to locals, that it’s time to move on. 

It’s very easy for the perks of living overseas to become idols. What is especially disturbing is that these idols are disguised as sacrifices–both to us and to those back at home. The missions narrative can allow us to live for ourselves while pretending that we are only about God’s kingdom. This should terrify us. 

Does this mean that it’s automatically time to leave when life overseas becomes comfortable? Does this mean that we aren’t allowed to enjoy the gifts of an overseas life? Of course not. If you are in that place, rejoice, for it took a lot of grit to get there. But also, be on your guard. Don’t lose your commitment to humility, to self-evaluation, to asking the hard questions of yourself and your ministry. Recognize the danger of comfort, look it straight in the eye, and confront it head on. If you find yourself defensive, pay attention. What’s really going on in your heart?

John Calvin famously said, “The human heart is an idol factory.” We should not be stunned to discover how quickly our hearts will take something godly and beautiful–even in missions–and turn it into our own personal idol. Let us beware.

Magic Charms and Contingency Plans

“A few nights ago, Mama F came to me terrorized, begging and screaming for the basil plant in our yard.” 

I lived in Tanzania for 16 years, and this was one of the most extraordinary stories I heard.

I have a friend, an American I’ll call Allison, who has lived in a remote village in Tanzania for decades. Often when they visited the main city, they would stay with us. 

It was on one of these visits that she told me a story that sounded like it came straight out of the New Testament: mind-blowing to those of us from western, secular cultures, but not uncommon in the rest of the world. What struck me about this story was not just the supernatural aspect, but how at our heart-level, no matter our worldview, we cling to things that feel more certain than God. We idolize our contingency plans. 

But first, the story. 

One of Allison’s neighbors, Mama F, declared faith in Christ and started attending a Bible study. Allison praised God for this, not knowing that the story was just beginning.

This is how Allison told it:

“A few nights ago, Mama F came to me terrorized, begging and screaming for the basil plant in my yard. I saw that something had taken hold of her four-year-old daughter. She was clenched in her mother’s arms, writhing and gurgling, and foaming at the mouth.  

Hearing Mama F’s cries, other neighbor women gathered, and we all followed as she ran back to her house, smearing my basil plant on little F’s head. Baba F, the father, had run for the witchdoctor to buy emergency witchcraft to ward off the attack. Mama F would not accept my westernized offer to take them to the hospital.  

We women entered her home, everyone wanting to help. One woman shook and rubbed a live chicken over little F. Another brought a pouch with herbs to burn and handfuls of dirt to make a mud mixture to smear over her body. Mama F frantically gulped a liquid from a cup and spewed it onto her daughter. Then she placed knives under her armpits, wrapped F in banana leaves, and tied a black cloth charm around F’s wrist. The ladies burned weeds so that smoke filled the room. Meanwhile, F was writhing and foaming, enveloped in darkness.

As I walked that night with these women I love who were so fear stricken, so desperate to save this child in the only ways they knew of, I prayed out loud for His Light to shine in this living nightmare. He enabled me to speak simple, childlike words in this dark chaos of despair. ‘God is able to help and heal F. This witchcraft will not work. May I pray for her in Jesus’ name? I can ask for help from the Almighty God because I believe Jesus shed his blood to pay for my sin so I am forgiven. Please let me pray for her.’  

But I knew I needed to say more. ‘Mama F, because God is holy and only He deserves glory, you have to stop this witchcraft. He wants you to see it is by His power and grace alone that F is healed. Please remove the knives and the leaves.’

Miraculously, they agreed, and placed her in my arms.

I squatted down on the dirt floor, holding that precious, terrorized little girl in my arms and I prayed. I felt the conviction of the Holy Spirit that this was not just a physical need for healing, but spiritual. So, in Jesus name, I prayed against the powers of darkness over this little one; I rebuked Satan and told him to leave; I entrusted F into God’s arms of healing and protection.

God heard and answered! As I prayed, the convulsions and foaming and gurgling ceased, and F lay peacefully in my arms. I heard the women’s voices declare, ‘Wow! The prayer is working! Jesus Heals! God hears the prayers of Christians! Let’s go find more Christians to pray for her!’ 

We returned to my house where my teammates were waiting. With F still in my arms, exhausted but at peace, my teammates and I lingered with our neighbors in our front yard, praising God for His healing in word, prayer, and song.”

But the story was not yet over.

Allison continued, “Mama F attended the ladies prayer group again and gave praise to Jesus for his healing of her child. Then a few days later, F came to our home to play, wearing her charm necklace again.  

I spoke to her mama that God does not share His glory with another. F does not need the charms for her protection when we cry out to the one true God. She agreed, but the necklace charm remained. I told her there is no need to fear, nor appease the forces of darkness. But the necklace remained.”

Allison sat in my kitchen on a Wednesday and told me what happened just the night before:

“Tuesday evening, the terrors came again to F. Since we were here in the city when the attack came on, little F’s family sought the help of our teammates, who together prayed for her, but this time she was not responding. They agreed to take her to the clinic in the neighboring village.  

When I received word of this, I asked if she was still wearing any charms. She was. My husband called Baba F and exhorted him to remove the charms, as God will not share His glory with another. Meanwhile, the doctor was not able to help F. So they brought F to our local evangelist where they cut off her charm necklace and began to pray for her again. She was immediately restored to normal.”

When Allison finished her story, my reaction was to cry, “Glory be to God!” It is, indeed, truly a remarkable story–especially for those of us who assume that this kind of thing ended in the book of Acts. But it would be a shame for those of us from westernized cultures, who scoff at magic charms and witchdoctors, to think that God isn’t trying to teach us the same lessons that he was teaching little F’s family.

He wants the glory alone.  

And his glory is never evident in contingency plans.

I’ve thought about this often since I heard Allison’s story. How often do I have a contingency plan? How often do I say the words that God is faithful, but in the back of my mind, I agonize over solutions to worst case scenarios?

Sure, I say I believe in heaven and that life is only a shadow of what’s to come. But really, I want to enjoy that shadow with as much comfort as I can muster and as much pleasure as I can wring out–just in case this is all there is.

Sure, I know that God is the rightful king and sovereign over the universe. But I’d also really like to be under a government that is safe, powerful, and holds to all of my values–and I’m anxious if I don’t get that.

Sure, I believe that Scripture tells me that God will provide for all my needs.  But I cling to that steady savings account and regular income, just in case.

I know there’s a balance here, because God expects us to be wise and prudent with the tools for protection He gives us. God often chooses to care for us through the grace of life insurance, modern medicine, or social security. But when I go to sleep at night, where is the source of my peace? Where is the line between taking wise precautions versus tying my safety nets to my wrist like a magic charm? I must ask myself: Am I trusting in God, or am I trusting in my contingency plans?

I wonder if sometimes, God is just waiting for us to cut off the magic charm. Because He will not share His glory with another.

*A version of this post was originally published at Not Home Yet.

Hope for Those in a New Place: The Power of Muscle Memory

I recently moved to a new country. New house, new city, new grocery store, new car, new neighborhood. Just about every single thing in my life was new.

Entering a grocery store almost brought about a panic attack. I started at the jars of mayonnaise, paralyzed by indecision. Which one tastes best? Which one is healthiest or cheapest? What if I make the wrong choice? And then repeat that by 25 as I walked down the aisles, my head spinning, my list clutched in my sweaty hand. I didn’t know where the olives were. I didn’t recognize much of what was on the shelves. I stressed over how much chicken was supposed to cost. Once I was ready to check-out, another wave of tension flooded me as I had to remind myself of the procedure for buying my groceries. 

Then there was driving. My new country drives on the opposite side of the road as my previous country. That meant that every time I got to the car, I had to focus on which side of the car I needed to enter. If I happened to be absent-minded, I would get in, close the door, and attempt to put my key into the glove compartment. Once I did manage to successfully turn on the car, it took all my concentration to make sure I was driving on the correct side of the road. I repeatedly reminded myself of the traffic laws of my new country, knowing that my instincts would be to follow the rules of the former.

And of course, there’s not only the newness of living in a new house, but all new furnishings too. Are the light switches on the outside of the door or the inside? Where is that can opener? How do I get that new fry pan on the new stove to cook bacon without burning it? How do I get rid of these confounded ants? 

That much newness, all at once, was incredibly disorienting. It made me feel out of place and out of sorts. And I found myself having thoughts suspiciously similar to what I remember about middle school: I feel so stupid. Everyone knows what they are doing except me. They really must be wondering what is wrong with me. 

It was exhausting. All that concentration, all day long, from remembering the route to the store to picking up mail to cleaning the floors, had my brain on overdrive. A big part of me wanted to run back to my previous country, where everything felt familiar and routine and comfortable.

So it was during those first few months that I needed to remind myself, over and over, of the power of muscle memory. 

Muscle memory is defined as: “the ability to reproduce a particular movement without conscious thought, acquired as a result of frequent repetition of that movement.” Muscle memory, is, perhaps, one of God’s greatest gifts to us. It means that we can talk to our kids while driving the car, or get brilliant ideas while taking a shower. Our brain can relax in our day-to-day routines, giving us the mental space we need for learning new skills or concentrating on solving a difficult problem. 

This explains why when we move to a new country, our lack of muscle memory makes it easy to be overwhelmed and exhausted. It makes sense why we might even hate our new life, and deeply crave running back to what feels comfortable and familiar. 

It’s at this point that we must remember why muscle memory is important. Life will not always be this hard, this tiring, this formidable. It will not always feel so strange. Muscle memory assures us that if we do the same thing enough times, it will eventually feel normal and easy. It will. Trust that it will. 

A year after our move, I can walk through my house in the dark and not bump into things. I don’t have to use Google maps for every place I go. The grocery store is boring, and I automatically pick up the same type of mayonnaise. When I drive the kids to school, I know the spot where the lane ends and I have to move over, and I do it without thinking. I’m not used to every part of my new life yet, but on the whole, it’s become a whole lot easier. 

Here’s the surprise twist: My new county is the United States of America. We relocated back after 16 years in East Africa. I found that re-adapting to life here was just as challenging as moving overseas. 

So for those of you in a new place, let me encourage you: Your brain will not always feel this tired. You won’t always have this maniacal part of you that wants to run away and jump on the closest airplane to take you home. 

What is the secret? Just keep going. Keep moving. Keep doing the same things, over and over again, and wait patiently for muscle memory to kick in. Push through this weary season, because it will get better. It will. I promise. 

How to Make Missionaries Cry: Ask Them How Their Vacation is Going

Imagine this scenario:

You get up at 5 am on a Sunday morning. You wake your groggy teenager, who protests loudly and grumpily enough to put everyone in the house in a bad mood. You rush around to get everyone out the door by 6 am so that you can make a two hour drive to arrive at church at 8. When you arrive, your five-year-old pitches a fit because he doesn’t remember this church and is scared to go to another new Sunday School. You hiss bribes and/or threats into his ear, because you are on display and need to make a good impression.

But you put on your happy face and start shaking hands with everyone in sight. You’ve visited this church before, so you remember a few names, but many more of them know you. You wrack your brain to recall names, jobs, children as 26 people greet you. You are ushered to the front row to be ready for your seven-minute presentation, which took you hours to tweak since you’ve never previously given one that is exactly seven minutes. After the service, you are taken to an adult fellowship class where you are asked to give a 35-minute presentation. During these presentations, you are expected to give a public account of how you spent your time and your money during the last three years. 

After the service, a friendly face shakes your hand and asks you, “So, how is your vacation going?”

And you want to cry or howl or kick something.

Honestly, friends, this is one of the most demoralizing questions a missionary on home assignment ever gets. They know you mean well. You are probably thinking, You get to be away from the grind of ministry! You must be enjoying the advantages of home! 

But what they hear is: Wow, you get a six month vacation every couple of years. Must be a pretty cushy life. And that’s discouraging. Because a home assignment is a far cry from a vacation.

This is what is important to know: Missionaries have two jobs. One job is the one you are familiar with–their cross-cultural ministry. The other job is to build and maintain the partnerships that keep them in that ministry. 

Both jobs are incredibly important. A healthy missionary has a strong team of supporters behind them, and while overseas, maintaining those relationships is a part-time job. This looks like: Creating newsletters every month, sending out prayer requests weekly, maintaining a robust social media account, writing dozens of personalized thank you notes every year, answering supporters’ emails, buying gifts for supporters, and creating videos or filling out questionnaires, or joining in on Zoom calls. That’s on top of full-time ministry and navigating a cross-cultural life. 

And when home assignment (or furlough, or deputation) rolls around, that’s when this second job kicks into their full-time job. Home assignment looks like: Speaking at a different church every Sunday, meetings every day, lots of phone calls and emails. Preparing presentations, because each church wants something different. Lots of time on the road traveling. Following partnership leads, initiating relationships, hosting dinners and dessert nights. 

You won’t hear a lot of complaining. Missions must be a team effort by everyone in God’s Church, and missionaries feel incredibly privileged to be the ones that get sent out. Building those partnerships is vital and they are an incredible blessing that feeds the missionary’s soul.

But being on home assignment is a job, it is usually exhausting, and it is definitely not a vacation. In fact, many missionaries would say that coming stateside for home assignment is the part of their job that’s the hardest. Though it’s called “home assignment,” it doesn’t usually feel like home. The constant travel, feeling on display, and helping their kids navigate so much transition can be wearying. Missionaries often look forward to getting back to their lives overseas so that life won’t be so crazy! That means that when someone assumes they are on vacation, it’s disheartening. 

So what should you say to a missionary on home assignment? 

Hug them. Tell them something specific you enjoyed about their presentation. Mention something that stood out to you from one of their newsletters. Reassure them you are praying regularly for them. Ask them the non-spiritual questions. 

And if you really want to make their day? How about, I hope you’re planning a vacation while you are on home assignment. Would you like to borrow our cabin for a few days?

I Could Never Do That

“I could never do that,” she exclaimed. “But that’s because I have kids.”

It was fifteen years ago; I was sitting behind a table at a missions conference, the church members perusing the displays of flags and brochures. She was a young mom, about my age, and was commenting on my husband’s and my decision to move back to Tanzania, long-term. 

My internal response was to feel a bit snooty. I wanted to say, “Well, I plan on having kids there, and I’m still doing this.” But I bit my tongue.

I knew better than to judge her, because how many times had I said, “I could never do that” about all sorts of other things? Moving back to Tanzania and raising kids there didn’t feel like a big deal to me because I had been an MK in Africa. But I had told my friend in Mongolia, “I could never live there.” And what about my missionary friend who lived in a remote part of Tanzania, without running water or electricity? Hadn’t the same words slipped out of my mouth?

I am by nature a cautious, unadventurous person. I like the status quo; I’m not into new things. So it is way too easy for me to say, “I can’t do that.” I can come up with all kinds of excuses that sound really noble. I’m not wired that way. I’m not gifted in that area. I don’t have the time (when maybe I do). 

I can even make my excuses sound spiritual. I’ve already sacrificed so much for God, so why would he ask me to do this other hard thing? Or the best one, that no one can argue with, God hasn’t called me to do that.

This is tricky. Some of us struggle with boundaries and say yes too often. Some of us really do need to take a rest. And of course, there are actual “can’ts.” We have physical limitations. Your medical condition may prevent you from serving in a very hot climate or a very polluted city. Your bad back may keep you in a bed for long stretches. You might not be able to sing a note on key, or your tongue might be unable to trill those r’s, no matter how hard you practice. 

But the truth is, sometimes we say, I can’t when really what we mean is I won’t. It just feels so much better–to ourselves and the people around us–to say I can’t. 

I can’t raise support.

I can’t homeschool.

I can’t send my kids to boarding school.

I can’t live without electricity.

I can’t form a relationship with that cranky neighbor.

I can’t go to one more dysfunctional church meeting.

I can’t put up with one more person knocking on my door. 

This is where we’ve got to do some soul-searching. When we find ourselves bucking up against that hard thing in our lives, we’ve got to let down our defenses, open up to God–and probably an honest friend who will tell us the truth–and ask ourselves if we are just making excuses. 

I look back on my years in Tanzania and consider all the things I accomplished that I never would have thought I could do. Driving on the left side of the road. Leading worship. Hosting large groups. Conducting an interview. Killing ticks and centipedes. Writing Sunday School curriculum. Navigating foreign government offices. Making bagels from scratch. Deboning a chicken. Flying by myself to a remote area of the country. 

I didn’t feel brave. I was not excited about trying these new things. But the reality was, if I didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done. If I wanted to adopt those children, I had to get used to driving on the psychotic downtown streets. If we wanted to stay in the country, I had better learn how to navigate immigration. If my husband longed for bagels for his birthday, then I better learn how to make them myself. If I wanted to be a school principal, then figuring out how to do interviews came with the job. If I didn’t want centipedes in my child’s bed, then I had to learn how to kill them. 

I surprised myself, over and over again. Lo and behold, when I was forced to do things, I was far more capable than I realized. In fact, I look back on my missionary life and I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to stretch myself in so many different ways. At the time, it just felt hard and scary. But in the end, I was able to do a whole lot more than I ever thought I could. 

I’m not endorsing self-help mottos like, “If you can dream it, you can do it,” because this isn’t about finding strength in ourselves. This is about being willing to take an honest look at our excuses and how they line up with what we know God wants us to do with our lives. God will give us the strength to do what we know He has called us to do. His grace is enough. In our weakness, His power is made perfect. It may require repentance, humbling ourselves, and taking a step of faith. Or a lot of steps. 

Just last year, I was faced with a challenge I thought I couldn’t do. We were returning to the States, and I had the opportunity to stay on with our mission as a pre-field missionary coach. The position was perfect for me and God made it clear that I should move towards it, but I balked. I can’t raise support as a stateside missionary, I told myself, my husband, and my friends. It’s impossible. But God finally broke through my excuses, I surrendered to Him, and here I am, as a stateside supported missionary. I can’t or I won’t? 

How to Pre-Raise Support Before You Actually Raise Support

Do you see missions in your future? Then this is for you. 

Right now, you’re just planning, and dreaming, and hoping. But one day it will finally be the right time, and you’ll find yourself filling out an application with a mission organization, packing your bags, and moving overseas.

There’s just one thing you might not be thinking about very much: Raising support. Before you can get on that plane, you’ll need to find an army of people who are willing to partner prayerfully and financially with you each month to make your missionary service possible. 

Raising support to become a missionary may just be the most challenging thing you will ever do. Trust me, raising monthly support will be a whole lot harder than raising $3000 for a short-term trip. Fundraising may require more faith on your part than even moving to a new country. But it’s necessary, and important. And guess what? There are things you can be doing, right now, to make that process much more effective when the time comes. 

So here’s my advice:

Starting now, get deeply involved in a missions-focused church. 

What do I mean by “missions-focused?” I mean a church who loves missions, and it’s obvious. They support missionaries, and they’ve got their pictures plastered in the hallway. They invite their missionaries to speak. They give regular updates on those missionaries, and pray for them often. The leadership intentionally encourages their people to consider missions (and not just for short-term trips). This is the kind of church you will need behind you when it comes time for you to raise support. If you are at a point in your life where you are looking for a new church (for example, starting college or moving to a new city), then make it a priority to choose a church that loves missions.

But what if you are deeply involved in a church that isn’t missions-focused? Should you leave and find a different church?

Not necessarily. Could you be an advocate for missions at your church? Could you meet with the leadership to discuss what a missions program would look like? Could you offer to host a Perspectives course? Could you contact your denomination to see if they offer any missions training or resources? Maybe God could use you to bring a fresh vision to your church that wasn’t there before.

And if that’s not possible, or just isn’t working? Well, I would never encourage someone to leave their church without understanding their unique circumstances, because I think it’s a big deal to leave a church. But you do need to consider how much more difficult your journey to missions will be if you don’t have your church behind you. Not only will it be significantly more challenging to raise financial support, but you will need your home church to give you spiritual, emotional, and prayer support as well. If you don’t think you’ll get that, then you should be fervently praying about your options–starting now.

What do I mean by “get deeply involved?” I mean that you need to be known at your church as someone who serves widely, frequently, and whole-heartedly. You need to take advantage of social events, men’s or women’s retreats, and church camping trips as opportunities to get to know people. Volunteer to be a greeter–that person who meets everyone at the door. You should be someone who is “always there.” Of course, I’m not encouraging you to over-stretch yourself, but your reputation should be as the one who is happy to volunteer for just about anything. Serve cheerfully, in any capacity– not just the “up front” jobs. 

When the time comes for you to talk to the missions committee about your plans to go overseas, their reaction should be “Well, it’s about time!” not “So who are you?” When your support raising coach asks you to make a list of people who know you well, the list from your church should be a mile long. It’s going to take intentionality on your part–starting now, not just when you are ready to start building your support team.

There’s a fine line here, because I don’t want to encourage you to attend the women’s retreat or volunteer in the nursery just because you’re hoping people will add you to their budget someday. You don’t want your motives to be manipulative. Hopefully, these ideas will just give you an ‘Aha!’ moment, not a guilt trip. If you find yourself resisting, you need to ask yourself, “If I’m not willing to serve here, how do I know that will change overseas?” “If it’s too much effort to build relationships here, how do I know I will be motivated to build them cross-culturally?” 

When the day comes to start humbly asking for financial and prayer support, a lot of your success will be dependent on how deeply involved you have been in your missions-focused church. Most likely, there will be a connection to how well you pre-raised support before you actually raised support.

You Are Going to Hate It

You know that country you’ve been dreaming about? The one that you have been praying over and researching? You’ve been talking about it endlessly these days, building a team who will support you when you move there. You are ready to uproot your family, your job, your entire life to pour your soul into the place you love so much.

Call me a party pooper, but today I’m here to tell you something important: Shortly after you finally arrive in that country, you are going to hate it.

It might take a few weeks, or maybe a few months, but at some point it’s going to happen: You will wonder why on earth you thought you would love this country. You will question why you enthusiastically raised support for so many months to go live in a place that you actually despise.

It might happen when you come to the realization that this doesn’t feel like a fun adventure anymore. The public transportation is claustrophobic and smelly. You are tired of eating baked potatoes and scrambled eggs and yet the idea of facing the grocery store again makes you want to cry. You feel like a frizzy, unattractive mess. The pollution is triggering your little girl’s asthma or your four-year-old has gotten malaria twice in two months.

It might be because the people you meet are cold and suspicious of you. Or in your face and critical. Or just in your face, all the time, peeking through your windows. You feel like a curiosity on display, or you feel like an ignored, cast aside monstrosity. You wonder why you ever thought you could love these people who apparently abhor you. 

Or maybe you find yourself spending all day every day learning the difference between a past perfect continuous verb and an intransitive verb. Your body hurts from sitting all day and your brain hurts from thinking all day, yet you know you still have 16 months of this same horrible task ahead of you. And you wonder why you uprooted your happy, productive, meaningful life so that you could spend all of your time looking at meaningless squiggles on a piece of paper. 

Maybe you’ll hate it because your team leader seems distant or your co-workers are too busy for you, and you feel very alone. Maybe it will be because you are a woman in a country that demeans women, and you’ve never felt so insignificant. Maybe it will be because you didn’t anticipate how this new country would change your family dynamics, and it’s so hard and so painful to try to figure out new ways of helping your children find joy.

There are a million reasons why you could hate it. But one thing is for certain: At some point, it will happen.

Yeah, I know, just call me a dream smasher. I can hear you imploring, Do you have a point? Do you even want me to move overseas? 

Absolutely. Stay with me. I’m going somewhere with this.

Here’s my point: I want you to know what you are getting yourself into. When you get to the point of hating your country and your life and your calling, you need to know that this doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you. Or with your country. Or with your calling.

There are three things you need to know:

Make your calling sure. Do this now, before you go overseas. Your calling to this country needs to be more than just a really strong feeling. It needs to come from hours of prayer, consultation with your pastor, soul-searching with godly friends. You need to know the reasons for why God is sending you to this country: What is the need? How are you uniquely qualified to fill that need? Write it down. Plaster it to your refrigerator. You will want to remind yourself of these reasons when you find yourself hating life. 

Make your faith sure. Do this now, before you go overseas. You must fully understand your worldview. Read a book on how to study the Bible on your own. Read a book on the theology of suffering. Read a book on the theology of poverty. Wrestle with the big questions before you go, so that when they hit you in the face and seek to destroy you, you will already be prepared. 

Perseverance is the whole battle. Not half the battle, not 90% of the battle. The entire battle. Do not give up. Do not give up. Let me tell you something: There will always be a reason to leave. Always. If you want to leave, you will find a reason, and it will be a good reason that will sound honorable to your supporters. 

I know, this is tricky. You are not going to live in this country forever; the right time to leave will come at some point, sooner or later. But make sure your call to leave has just as many prayer-filled, logical reasons as your call was to go. Because if not, then maybe you just need to persevere. Learn one more verb. Meet one more person. Go out your front door, one more time.

And here’s the part where I give you hope. You will not hate this country forever. I promise. Cross my heart; hope to die. If you stick this out and keep your heart open, a lasting love for your host country will sneak up on you. It might take 6 months, or a year, or even five years, but you will not hate it forever. There may be some things about it that you always dislike, of course, but your capacity to love this country will stretch and expand and deepen the longer you are there. One day, it will dawn on you that you don’t hate it, quite so much. And one morning, you will wake up and realize that you love this country. And you will never want to leave. 

Let’s Not Put Too Much Hope in 2021

I can picture the house I was in on New Year’s Eve 1999, but I don’t remember who it belonged to. Which is odd, actually, that I was willing to go to a stranger’s house on the night when we thought the world might end. I guess you do those kinds of wild and crazy things when you’re 23 years old.

We sat around the living room with our Doritos and sparkling cider (yep, wild and crazy) and watched the ball drop, and when 2000 officially jumped into existence, the lights didn’t go off, the aliens didn’t invade, and there was no mayhem in the streets. I think we all were a little disappointed.

In the same way that everyone waited for the birth of 2000 with fascinated dread, we’re all holding our breath that 2021 will be the opposite. When the clock strikes midnight, we wait in hopeful expectation that all of the disappointment, chaos, and isolation of 2020 will fade away, ushering in a year of prosperity, peace, and happiness. We deserve it, right? Surely the dumpster fire that was 2020 won’t continue for another year?

The chasing of new things seems to be ingrained in human nature. There’s something that dazzles about newness. The shiny new truck, the next new iPhone, even the latest vacuum cleaner. I have a young teenager who, for his birthday, predictably asks for the new version of his favorite video game every single year. We tease him relentlessly about this, since there isn’t much difference between the old and the new. But he remains resolute: He always wants the new one. 

We find hope in new things. There’s a thrill in seeing that new package, enveloped in its shrinkwrap, perfect and pristine. There’s an intoxication with the new relationship, dancing on the clouds, devoid of disappointment. Maybe this time will be different. Maybe this time the happiness will last.

We were created to love new things. Common grace gives them to us rhythmically–in the dependable sunrise, in the coming of spring, and every January 1st. Hope rises in the clear morning air, in the budding cherry trees, and in the clock that ticks past midnight.

But when the clock struck midnight, Cinderella found herself dressed in rags, holding some mice and a pumpkin. 

Let us not forget that the thrill of these new things are only meant to be symbols, shadows, road signs that point us to our true source of hope. They should not be where our hope lies. 

The problem with misplaced hope is that it is sure to disappoint us. After a few months, the new video game gets boring. The car gets scratches on the door and spilled soda on the seat. The clear spring air dissolves into the muggy heat of summer. And 2021 might not usher in the utopia we are longing for. It could, actually, be worse than 2020. 

If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 

And there lies our hope, firm and steadfast. In Christ, I am a new person. In spite of my circumstances, in spite of whatever kind of year 2021 turns out to be, my inner being is being transformed into something new. The world may fall apart around me, but it will not consume me.

Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.

They are new every morning.

As a New Creation, I have a New Day to look forward to, which will be better than any new gift, any new morning, any new year. When the New Day dawns, it will never end. On that day, I will never be disappointed again.

But it might not happen in 2021. And until then, we wait with eyes turned upward. 

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed awayHe who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”  

Scripture references: II Cor. 5:17, Lamentations 3, Revelation 21 

This Pandemic Can Help Us to Identify With the World’s Poor

I was always blown away by the number of funerals. During the years our househelper in Tanzania worked for us, I lost count of how many times she asked for time off to attend a funeral for a family member. She was my age, but during those years she lost her mother. Her mother-in-law. A sister. More than one uncle. Several cousins. What was the cause? I would always ask. Malaria, typhoid, or many times, no one knew why. Disease and death were far too common. 

Experts will probably be asking it for years: Why are some developing countries seemingly less impacted from COVID-19 than more developed countries? Is it because they just are testing less? Have a younger population, get more sunlight, have more built up immunity? I’m certain some of those factors are true, but I also wonder if a central reason is because the effects of this pandemic haven’t changed much about regular life for the poor in developing countries. What feels shocking and abnormal to us is simply the way they have always lived. 

I’m listing some of these ways below, and I want to be clear that this is not about inducing guilt in those of us from affluent nations. I’m not trying to minimize the grief and loss so many of us have experienced this year. Instead, my purpose is to help us have greater compassion and empathy with the world’s poor. This pandemic can help us to identify with them in ways we had never been able to before. 

What’s new for us is normal for them. Here’s how:

Normalcy of deadly diseases

Yes, COVID-19 is a new virus, but for many in the world, they are already dealing with much worse. Statistics tell us that one and a half million people worldwide have died from COVID. Yet that same number of people die every year from tuberculosis, most of them from India, other parts of Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Like COVID, tuberculosis is also an airborne virus. It may not be a pandemic, but it is most certainly an epidemic.  

In addition, malaria kills over 400,000 people each year, the vast majority in sub-Saharan Africa (and some in South East Asia). Most of them are young children. There’s also HIV, dengue, typhoid, and rotavirus. For many people in the world, having deadly viruses lurk around every corner, in every cough, in households and churches, is normal life. 

Familiarity with death

Statistics tell us that in Central African Republic, the life expectancy is 53 years. In Nigeria, it’s 54 years. In Afghanistan, it’s 64 years. In contrast, the life expectancy of someone in the United States is 78, the United Kingdom is 81, and Australia is 83. 

Of course, every death is tragic, even in affluent countries. But perhaps my generation has never before been surrounded by such a high death rate right in our own communities. Let us remember that this is real life for many of the world’s poor. 

Stretched healthcare systems

For every 1000 people, there are 2.3 doctors in Canada, 2.6 doctors in the United States, and 4.2 in Germany. In contrast, there are .05 doctors for every 1000 people in Chad, .62 in Myanmar, and .16 in Zambia. Crowded hospitals? Doctors who can’t give their full attention to patients? Many in the world were already used to this. 

Unpredictable government restrictions

Shuttered churches with unrealistic rules, mask mandates, forced closure of small businesses–all these are things that many of us would never have thought possible in our countries. On top of that, the regulations keep changing on a daily basis, feeling like whiplash as we struggle to keep up. As those of us from liberty-loving countries are dealing with a clamp down on our cherished freedoms, let us remember those from countries where this has always been their reality. Many of them are our brothers and sisters in Christ. 

Substandard education options 

Many Americans are faced with a difficult choice: Allow their children to receive a substandard education online, or pay for private school. For many in the world, this has always been their dilemma. Government run schools are often overcrowded and very poorly resourced, and anyone who wants their child to get a decent education must make huge financial sacrifices. Homeschooling isn’t an option for working parents in poverty, and in some places, it’s even illegal. They either pay dearly or their kids don’t get educated. 

For them, this is not temporary.

We are all tired of the upheaval, aren’t we? We are weary of the chaos, the disappointments that keep piling up, the changing regulations. Everything feels uncertain, unpredictable, and that’s scary. We want life to return to normal. Yet for those living in war zones, in refugee camps, under unstable governments, that kind of turmoil is their normal. 

Hopefully, one day, the worst of this pandemic will be over. This virus will no longer be a huge threat, the death rate will even out, the healthcare system will recover, public schools will open, and restrictions will ease. But for the world’s poor, they will continue to live life in pandemic-type conditions, as they always have. Will we think of them? Will we remember what it felt like, and use that empathy to pray and give and go? 

Continue to remember….those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. (Hebrews 13:3)

Let us resolve to never forget. 

I Never Thought I Would Miss the Spiders

Earlier this year, my kids and I were still in Tanzania, and while driving home, we stopped at a roadside fruit stand. 

I asked for a huge bunch of bananas, handed the seller my money, and she passed the bananas through the window to my pre-teen son, sitting in the passenger seat. This was routine; we did it several times a week.

I pulled back onto the street and had driven just a few yards when I heard my son give a horrified yell. Alarmed, I looked over and saw an enormous spider, about the size of a silver dollar, crawling on top of the bananas in his lap. The yell turned into a guttural yelping, as my son stood up, dropped the bananas on the seat and proceeded to clamber over all of the seats and into the trunk of our minivan. 

Meanwhile, I was still driving, and meanwhile, the spider was also running for his life in my direction, so I joined in with the cacophony of noise in the car. The spider then decided that hiding underneath my seat was a safe place to get away from all the screaming. 

I gathered my wits about me and considered my options. I could pull over, but would I really successfully manage to find and destroy the spider while on the side of the road? Or I could drive home and pray that he decided to stay put until I got there. 

I chose to keep driving, tense as a turkey in November, while imagining a giant spider crawling up my leg. Thankfully he did not, and when we got home, I relieved my tension by emptying a can of bug spray under my seat. 

Last week, I was in the grocery store in my new home in California, and I picked up a bunch of perfect, spotlessly yellow, pristine bananas and plopped them into my shopping cart. 

Comparatively, it was a very boring experience.

After 16 years overseas, I’ve lived back in the States for several months now, and what I miss about Tanzania isn’t entirely what I expected. 

America is so convenient. I get a thrill going to the grocery store, and not just because the bananas are spider-free. If the recipe calls for pepperoncinis, guess what? I can buy pepperoncinis! If I have a hankering for chive and onion cream cheese or tzatziki Triscuits or Apple Cinnamon Oat Crunch Cheerios, there they are, just like that! In Tanzania, I would have actual dreams about American grocery stores–not just daydreams. And yet, convenience can quickly turn into monotony when there are never any surprises.

I miss how excited I used to get when I would find Root Beer on the shelves of my grocery store in Tanzania. Or that time I called my best friends to tell them to get down here really quick because there’s a bin of dried cranberries for sale! Sure, cooking here is much easier, but I’m also not as motivated to cook when everything is pre-made. I love how Tanzania pushed me to develop skills I didn’t realize I had. I love how it taught me to be grateful for small things. 

In America, the garage doors open by themselves. The dishes wash themselves and the clothes dry themselves. The electricity never goes off and the water is always hot coming out of the tap. 

But yet, there were many evenings in Tanzania when I would stand barefoot in my backyard, pulling clothes off the line. The palm trees would rustle, the heavy air smelled of the ocean, and the crickets would rhythmically trill. The dryer I now have in my garage is a lot easier, but it just doesn’t carry the same magic. 

America is comfortable. With a flip of a switch I can regulate the temperature. Almost everyone around me wears the same clothes and speaks the same language and shops at the same stores. All the streets are paved and everyone follows the rules on the roads. The sameness is comforting and predictable and stress-free. But it’s also not always interesting. 

In Tanzania I struggled through diverse relationships, where my co-workers saw life very differently than I did. It was sometimes stressful, but it opened my eyes to a broader perspective of the world. I often grumpily complained about poor internet or crazy drivers or constant humidity, but the discomfort toughened me. It made me stronger, more resilient, more flexible. It helped me find my satisfaction in God. I miss that.

I feel safer in America. My white skin does not make me stand out, so I can walk along the streets at dusk and not worry about getting my phone stolen. I never worry about men breaking into my house with machetes. I sleep better. 

And yet, I take my safety for granted here. I don’t pray about it as often; I don’t often call to mind my true Prince of Peace. In the realm of the sovereignty of God, I’m not any safer in America than I was in Tanzania. I just have a misplaced trust in my government to keep me safe. 

I knew I would miss the relationships, the beauty, the culture, and our fulfilling ministry in Tanzania. But I find it interesting that I also miss the very things that I was most looking forward to leaving behind. Like jagged glass that is slowly smoothed by the pounding waves, those things that grated on me, frustrated me, compelled me to browse the internet for cheap plane tickets–those things formed who I am. They made me a different person than if I had spent my whole life in America. I wouldn’t want to change that. 

For many years, if you had asked me what I would not miss about Tanzania, I would have assured you that spiders fit into that category. Now, I’m not so sure. After all, without them I would have always thought that buying bananas was boring. 

Leaving Early Has Complicated All the Complicated Emotions of Re-Entry

Haven of Peace Academy, overlooking the Indian Ocean

My youngest has been fascinated with finding places on Google Earth. He recently brought me the iPad and said, “Mommy, help me find HOPAC.” 

My son is in third grade, and Haven of Peace Academy is where he went to school for kindergarten through second grade. But even before that, HOPAC was always a part of his life. It’s where my husband and I ministered for sixteen years. The last three years, it was where I was the elementary school principal. 

I showed him how to type in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. “Here’s downtown, right?” I pointed out. I traced the main road that led to the north of the city. “This is Shoppers Plaza; that’s where we would buy chicken on Saturday nights; this is the White Sands roundabout. Then you turn right here, and see? There’s HOPAC!” 

Together we then traced the road down a little further until we could pick out the house where we had lived for ten years. We zoomed in on it, and a hundred memories rushed out. My eyes grew misty. My finger stopped, hovering there, suspended above our home. Ten thousand miles away, yet so close I could almost touch it.

“I like my new school,” Johnny tells me. “But I like Tanzania better.” Me too, Buddy.

***

I knew there would be grief in leaving. We had planned our departure a year in advance; we knew it was coming. We knew it would be hard. Tanzania had been our home for sixteen years.

But what I can’t figure out is what part of my grief is because we left, and what part of my grief is because we left the way we did. 

***

In July, we found ourselves needing to furnish our new apartment in California. We had very few possessions to our name, which meant we were looking to buy just about everything. Thrift stores, OfferUp, and garage sales became our new pastime. But our favorite were estate sales. There was something particularly thrilling about walking through an entire house, picking out the things we needed. 

Yet I couldn’t help but think about the strangeness of estate sales, this sifting through what felt like the entirety of someone’s life. “It must be so hard for the person that lived here,” I said to my husband, “knowing that strangers are haggling over everything they owned. It’s good that they can hire a company to sell all of this for them, and don’t have to watch it happen.”

And then it struck me: We had that exact scenario happen to us. But we did watch it happen. 

On March 20th, I had come home from my last time at HOPAC to find strangers in my house, opening my cabinets and looking for things to buy. We had been told to buy plane tickets at 1 am the night before, scheduled to leave because of COVID just four days later. Word traveled quickly, and eager buyers wanted to get a head start on the things we were selling. My husband had allowed them in, assuming I had sent them. I freaked out. “Get these people out of my house now!” I hissed. 

The next three days were a frantic whirlwind of sorting, packing, and selling. I sold the dishes out from under the children and the kitchen containers still filled with flour and sugar. We never did get rid of everything, leaving the house with a friend to finish sorting the chaos we had left behind.

At the last minute, I gave away all of my kids’ baby things that I had been carefully saving, taking pictures of them instead. I didn’t have time to overthink whether or not that was the right decision. Recently it occurred to me that I never took my curtains down. I don’t know why that bothers me; it’s not like they were amazing curtains. But I had looked at them every day for over a decade, so it’s strange not knowing what happened to them. 

The night before we left, I was in a tizzy at midnight, trying to find my only pair of closed-toed shoes, which I intended to wear while traveling. I tore the place apart, frantically looking for them. I finally found them outside in a garbage bag; someone had inadvertently thrown them out. I was relieved to find them, but nagged by the worry of what else had been accidentally thrown away.

When my husband’s birthday came around in August, I realized that our traditional birthday banner must have been sold accidentally. I mourned over that birthday banner, and then felt stupid for caring about something so silly. But even now, I get stress-filled nightmares where I’m trying to pack. And there’s never enough time. 

So I guess you could say we experienced our own estate sale. And yeah, it was strange. Traumatic, even. 

***

I keep thinking that I’m over the worst of the grief. We have so, so many good days right now. But then there’s a trigger.

Friends from Tanzania came to visit us last week. It did our soul good to see them. They brought us some things we had left behind:  Yearbooks, certificates from teachers, the name sign from my office door. Special things.

 The flood of memories, again.

I found myself awake at 2 am, tears rolling down my cheeks. Again. I pounded my fist on God’s chest crying, “This is not the story I wanted!” I did not want to leave that way. That wasn’t how it was supposed to go. How desperately I wish I could go back and re-write that story.

I can see God’s hand in it, of course. I can see how leaving early was the impetus for my husband getting the job he has now. That might not have happened if we had left in July like we planned. But sometimes, it doesn’t matter; I’m still just sad. It’s good, I guess, that the human heart is capable of holding both sadness and gratitude at the same time.

***

HOPAC started their first day of school at the end of August. I greedily stared at the pictures posted in the parent WhatsApp groups, craving glimpses of my students. A few days later, I reluctantly left the groups, knowing I needed to let go. 

I know how this works. I was the Stayer for many years, so I’ve watched many people leave. I know that it’s hard to be a Stayer and say good-bye, but that life goes on pretty quickly without the Leavers. It has to. So many leave in an expat community, every year, that you can’t sit and stew about it for very long. So now that I am the Leaver, I want to move forward, and to let the Stayers move on. 

Except, I didn’t get to hug those kids goodbye. “Moving on” feels like running in soggy sand when you didn’t get to finish well. There are loose ends dangling all over the place.

***

Whether I like it or not, the earth turns, the sun still rises and sets, the seasons shift. Each day pulls me farther away from that life, pulls me deeper into this new one. I can grieve it and yearn for it and wish that it didn’t end that way, but life continues to go on. 

Time is a healer, and that is a gift. Almost imperceptibly, the scars become a part of who I am. One day, some time from now, I will look back and not want to change the story. I’ve lived enough years to know that truth.