I Never Signed Up For This

by Ann Bowman

For every missionary who takes up their cross and follows Christ to the ends of the earth, there are parents and family members whose lives are affected by the calling. This group never chooses to offer themselves, to share in the sacrifice, and yet they must. Will the pain result in bitterness or healing? This was a decision I was forced to make when my family heard the call.

When my oldest daughter left for a third world country with a six-month-old baby on her hip, I began a journey of sorrow that I didn’t choose. I thought I supported missions — until it was my own child leaving for full-time overseas work. It was then that missions became more than just the information booth in the church lobby, the glossy support letters in my mailbox, or the fascinating guest speaker at church. It became personal, and the hardships and dangers that missionaries experience now touched my life and my emotions daily.

I was always proud of my children’s interest in missions. During their teen years, they eagerly joined in summer service trips to exotic places, always with a bit of danger involved. I envisioned that they would continue their involvement as adults, possibly serving on the missions task force at church or leading short-term mission trips. I never expected any of them to take my grandchildren and plunge into full-time work in a poverty-stricken area of the world. I want to say I handled the challenge with grace and faith — but I didn’t.

Throughout the weeks leading up to departure, I thought I was adjusting and holding it together. My daughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren moved into our house after divesting of most of their worldly goods and leaving their apartment. They bought one-way tickets and sold all that was left of their belongings — everything that didn’t fit into the three bags allowed per traveler. It stung that much of what they sold off had been gifts from my husband and myself.

The day of departure came, and the airport trip was brutal. I pasted a smile on my face and locked my tears up tight. I wanted my grandchildren to remember a joyful Nonna; I wanted my daughter and son-in-law to feel the support I was trying to fake. I waved until the little family I loved turned the corner in the security line and I could no longer see them.

My daughter had asked a friend to walk me to my car in the airport parking garage and make sure I was emotionally ready before starting the four-hour drive home. My false bravado lasted only a few miles down the highway, at which point I pulled over and wept. When I was finally alone in God’s presence, I was honest with Him. I was angry and hurt. This was not how I had planned my life.

The Psalmist proclaims, “Those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy” (Psalm 126:5 HCSB). I have learned much in the past seven years about sowing in tears. I have leaned into God, bringing Him my grief and the deep shame I felt. Grief arose when my dreams of life with grandchildren and family living near me were shattered. I felt shame when I could not readily rejoice that my children were sacrificing so much for the gospel and doing what God called them to do — the holy mindset I was supposed to have.

In turning to the Lord in honesty, I was met with tenderness and compassion, not condemnation. He understands the mother’s heart He created in me that must balance the desire to protect with the command to release my children to do all that God calls them to do. My season of dying to my dreams was like being crushed in an olive press. It was painful, and some days felt like hand-to-hand combat with my emotions.

Being an artist, I poured myself into prayer-painting. The enemy was not silent during my time of wrestling with God. When I heard cruel whispers giving me dread and sorrow, I chose to create and lift every concern to God. I painted rural scenes from their beautiful adopted country. My heart shifted as I began to pray for the people my daughter’s family encountered and for increasing boldness as they shared the good news. Bitterness loosened its grip as I chose not to listen to fear and self-pity.

Hebrews promises us that, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11 ESV). In these years of separation, I live out the words of Hebrews. I did not reach a permanent peace-filled plateau. Because my daughter lives in a country with political upheaval, I often cycle through times when sudden dread will seize me after reading world news headlines and all contact with my daughter gets cut off. I choke out my prayers by sheer obedience. Peace returns when I once again focus on God’s purposes.

One of the greatest sources of discouragement for global workers is often from their own families back home, yet many of these relatives are committed church members. I don’t want to be part of that statistic. I never want to be the one to dissuade my children from obeying where the Holy Spirit is leading them.

Over the years, my daughter has sometimes called home discouraged. She shares wounds and disappointments. I pray for her and encourage her with scripture. She told me once that of all the team members in their area, her parents were the only parents who didn’t offer tickets home and encourage them to give up. I count that as God’s victory; I have been changed from grief-filled to poured out and finally to finding purpose as I support my missionary family’s work.

I have traveled to their country several times. I now see the wisdom of God and how well-suited my daughter and son-in-law are for their work. I’m amazed by the spiritual fruit from their ministry. They witness miracles rarely seen in the States. When I see my grandchildren share their faith with neighborhood children in their adopted tongue, I am humbled. How could I ever have wished them anywhere else? My grandchildren’s deep faith is worth far more to me than having them live nearby.

So, I visit with my grandchildren mostly by video chat. I do not participate in their lives the way most of the world enjoys their family. That is not my lot in this world and not mine to question. Nonna’s gifts are not cute clothes or countless stuffed animals, but instead, Kindle books, crocs for the rainy season, and jars of peanut butter. I choose to let go of anger and my own empty dreams to receive so much more: a deeper prayer life and a much closer relationship to my daughter’s family, although we live far apart.

Jim Elliot, slain missionary to Ecuador, once said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” As I love and support my family from afar, I think about his words. The loss felt so great in the beginning, but I can truly say that what I’ve gained is of greater worth. And those gains are eternal — in the lives of my children and grandchildren and the people they serve. One day we will all be partying together in heaven, forever, no more separation and no more tears. That hope lives in me and gives me strength for the journey.

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Ann Bowman (not her real name) is a mentor to young women serving overseas. Having two grown daughters in missions, she has walked with them through the joys of living abroad and the trials. Ann is an artist, writer, teacher, and Nonna to four grandchildren who live in Southeast Asia. She and her husband reside in Texas and spend as much time with their family on video chat as they can.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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