Looking for Old Lady Hands

by Roberta Adair

During worship sessions at a retreat for missionary women in Japan, when I normally would have been looking at the projected lyrics or closing my eyes, I was instead searching the room looking for old lady hands.

I unknowingly felt desperate to see that they were still here. These older women who have experienced more losses and griefs, challenges and setbacks, betrayals and disappointments than I have, they’re still here. They are still lifting their wrinkly, veiny, boney hands in worship, still opening well-worn Bibles and taking notes with well-worn hands, and still trusting God in some really profound ways.

Before beginning our second term in Japan, I thought a lot about Jonah. I felt jealous of the clarity of his call, of his certainty regarding what God was asking of him. I was also sad for him. He hated what God was telling him to do, and I related to the impulse of wanting to run in the opposite direction. And I was amazed (again) by the craziness of his story. I mean, really, a dude swallowed by a sea monster?! Writing poetry inside said sea monster?! Brutal enemies hearing a message from a reluctant foreigner and then repenting in sackcloth and ashes?!

But the part that I have continued to struggle with over the last several years is the part with the vine. Jonah is hot, and God gives him shade. That is so lovely, so specific, and so hospitable. And so merciful as Jonah, after being vomited out by a sea monster, gritted his teeth and obeyed God by telling his brutal, cruel enemies a message of repentance. 

Then God sends a worm to destroy this gift, this blessing. The thing that made his ministry bearable – gone.

I know that any comparison to anything I’ve done or been asked to do by God is silly. But I have my own list of “vines” – things I felt God provided that made a hard season or decision bearable. And I have another list of “worms” – ways these signs of mercy and God’s kindness were yanked away.

My very partial list of vines and worms includes people whom I saw as God’s provision in meeting my loneliness. One example is an outgoing and bilingual young woman we met at our assigned partner church when we volunteered here briefly after the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. She and I video chatted several times before moving here, and, even as I struggled to get on the plane to move my body/life/future to northeastern Japan, thinking about this potential friendship helped. Yet days after arriving, during the same worship service when my husband Robert and I were introduced to the congregation, it was also announced that it was her last Sunday. I felt confused, disoriented, and disappointed.

Another time, when we moved back to Japan after a hard (and mildly traumatic) ending to our first term, I kept thinking on repeat, “But _____ is here.” I hoped and believed that she, a friend for four years, was God’s answer to my prayers for a ministry partner. Yet as Robert and I returned to church after our furlough, she met us in the entryway to tell us it was her last day and that she was moving several hours away. I felt blindsided, crushed.

Shortly after that, one of my closest friends and a member of our small group moved to Singapore with her family. We had become moms around the same time and had made a lot of effort to meet and encourage one another over four years. I felt gutted and a bit lost.

Then another close friend moved to Israel. A sweet friend in our organization whom I pictured spending decades with moved to the US. A gentle and delightfully available Japanese friend moved south of Tokyo. Then yet another dear family in our mission (safe, fun, inspiring, wonderful) also moved to the US. And the goodbyes continue.

To different degrees, many of these losses felt like literal punches to the gut – causing pain and making it almost hard to breathe. And I went through all sorts of messy, swirling cycles in the stages of grief. Maybe some people handle change and loss daintily. Me, not so much.

I recently read in the psalms, “God, you consume like a moth what is dear” (Psalm 39:11). It sounds so accusatory, and as I read it, I inhaled sharply, wondering: Can we really talk to God like that? Even as I type this, my eyes burn and my face is getting blotchy. I have absolutely talked to God like that, calling him a vine-destroyer, accusing him of not sustaining hard-earned and highly invested-in friendships that meant so much to me.

I grew up hearing the Tozer quote: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” I confess that sometimes what comes to my mind is an image of him dangling a carrot. “See, here it is! You know you want it . . . Come and get it.” Then yank! . . . it’s taken away. But is God really like that? Cruel and mean?

A former teammate frequently repeated the phrase, “God is not a trickster.” I sometimes struggle to believe that God is not mean and not a trickster, that he is not one who enjoys giving and taking away blessings to test, punish, and mess with us. Yet as much as I want to picture Jesus as gentle and humble – a bearded dude who rode a donkey and made broken people whole, dirty people clean, blind people see, people in bondage free – this image of him occasionally blurs, and then he reappears, leaning back with his eyes squinted and his mouth almost mocking: “Let’s see how she’ll respond to this one. Muah hahahahaaaaa.”

Which brings me back to the wrinkly, spotted hands. A big reason why worshiping and learning with people older than me is so important is that I get to see people who keep singing, keep showing up, and keep praying. I get to see them in yearly rhythms at these conferences, see others in weekly rhythms in our church community, and see teensy snippets into their daily rhythms of meeting with Jesus and choosing to trust and love him even when a lot of evidence could tug them in different directions. And these older people, they’re not the crotchety, self-pitying, easily-irritable ones. They’re people who have suffered and are suffering, yet also bear fruit of joy, peace, humility, generosity, gentleness, service, curiosity, humor, and love.

They’re still worshiping God even though they have experienced soul-crushing disappointment, darkness, despair, and loss – in their families, ministries, marriages, kids, bodies. And they have experienced, again and again, God’s protection and presence. They have also seen, again and again, his provision and peace. Sometimes tangibly; sometimes in wisps and shadows. But they keep trusting, praying to, and seeking him.

When I glance at my own hands, I see veins and wrinkles along with a new swollen knuckle on my right pinky that reminds me of my grandmother’s arthritic hands. I’m aware that I have a long way to go in consistently thinking rightly about God. Yet I hope that someday people will say of me, “Look at that tall lady with glasses and frizzy gray hair. And look at those old lady hands. Can you believe she’s still here?”

~~~~~~~

Originally from Pennsylvania (USA), Roberta lived in Kosovo for three years before getting married and moving to northern Japan in 2012. She and her husband partner with a Japanese church and have four young and energetic boys. She enjoys hiking, camping, and having friends over for average and boisterous meals.

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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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