Is Missions a Joke? Answering the Critics

Editorial note: A Life Overseas is a place to share stories and have conversations about cross-cultural missions and international living. In this space we avoid personal attacks. The following piece is a critique of ideas currently being circulated among the missions crowd. It is not a personal attack on anyone whose words are quoted here, and personal attacks of any kind will be deleted from the comment section. Thank you in advance for honoring this request.  ~Elizabeth Trotter, Jonathan Trotter, and Marilyn Gardner

I came off the mission field with a new mission which is to burn down missions. ~Jamie Wright

You come [to the mission field] with the veil of, ‘I’m called, not qualified’ and then when everything falls to s*** and you decide to go back home, it completely negates the authority of the God you said called you in the first place. And it’s just a damaging cycle that just goes on and on. ~Emily Worrall

Missionaries are trying to save themselves. There’s this sense of ‘God is going to come through for me.’ So you have a lot–a lot–of addiction…tons and tons and tons of sexual sin. Deeply wounded people who need help, who need therapy, who need support systems. But we give them permission to leave all that behind and go to a foreign country where it is all exacerbated and everything gets way worse. It’s a rampant problem in long-term missions. ~Jamie Wright

The long-term missionary lifestyle is almost, like, insidious. Because long-term missionaries are the ones really using the manipulative language. They are really misrepresenting their purpose and the necessity for them to live in these other countries. Or they are hiding information about their behavior or the things they are doing. It’s just not good. There are so many people living abroad on the church-dime who have no accountability. It’s really ugly. ~Jamie Wright

Corey Pigg: They [our organization] were sending us out to the 10/40 window.

Jamie Wright: Yes, the 10/40 window. Everybody loves that.

Corey: They felt it was imperative that we went to closed nations to be superheroes. Because those are the last places that need to hear the gospel.

Jamie. Which is hilarious. ……All that matters is that you use the lingo.

Corey: That’s what sells, right?

 

Hi, I’m Amy Medina, and I’m a missionary.

I was a missionary kid in Liberia and Ethiopia for six years of my childhood. I’m now 41 years old and have been living in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for fourteen years as an evangelical Christian missionary. My husband trains pastors and I am the elementary school principal at Haven of Peace Academy. We’ve adopted four Tanzanian kids.

We live off of the financial gifts of churches and friends from the States. We write newsletters every month. We use phrases like “fruit of our ministry” and “unreached people groups” and “discipleship.” I blog. And my blog header has zebras on it. And a rainbow encircling an orphan.

So is my life a joke?

I’ve been mulling over what I read in Jamie Wright’s memoir, The Very Worst Missionary: A Memoir or Whatever and what I heard in the “Failed Missionary” podcasts with Corey Pigg, Emily Worrall of Barbie Savior, and Jamie Wright. I’ve known all along that some non-Christians scoff at my life as a misguided, ridiculous attempt to “save the world,” but I must admit I was surprised to find out that there are some of “our own” who feel the same way–and are loudly proclaiming it.

Ironically, I actually agree with a lot of what these critical voices have to say about missions. I believe that “calling” can be misguided and even idolatrous. I believe that missionaries need to be well-vetted, well-trained, and held accountable. I’m confident that there is a temptation among missionaries to hide their struggles and beef up their successes. I believe that the “white savior complex” is real and sinister, and I definitely hold that Americans need to stop shipping stuff overseas for poor people. And I do think that missions in general, but especially short-term missions, can often bring more harm than help.

So I don’t believe we should write off these critical voices. If we stand against them with scowling faces and hands over our ears, angry at their profanity or their bluntness or their criticism of our sacred cows, then we walk right into the realm of the Pharisees. I’m not saying we have to agree with everything they say or how they say it, but we need to listen.

The truth is, it’s not a bad thing to knock missionaries off those pedestals. And it’s not a bad thing for us missionaries to ask ourselves the hard questions, or for those who send us to ask those questions of us.

Why did I really become a missionary?

Was I running away from something? Was I just looking for more meaning in my life? Was I thinking that missions would elevate my life to a higher spiritual level?

Does my dependence on financial support make me cover up the truth or portray myself as something I am not?

Am I afraid of what would happen if people could see bank records or my internet history, or if they saw what a day in my life really looked like?

Am I really the best person at this time and in this place to be doing this job? Am I submitting myself to accountability? Am I humbling myself and my ideas to the local people?

Almost my entire life has been devoted to missions, in one way or another. And I’ve seen what these critics are talking about. I’ve seen terrible short-term teams who offend the local people or steal jobs in a struggling economy. In rare instances, I’ve known of missionaries who preach the gospel on Sunday and have affairs during the week. More commonly, I’ve seen ignorance and arrogance and racism among missionaries–including myself.

But my conclusion is different. I don’t believe missions needs “gasoline and a match,” as Jamie writes in her memoir.

Really what it comes down to is this: Do we have a message worth sharing?

The data suggests we do. Robert Woodberry has done extensive, peer-reviewed analysis of historical data that demonstrates that the impact of the gospel is overwhelmingly positive. In “The Truth About Missionaries,” Hugh Whelchel writes, “[Woodberry’s] research finds that where Protestant missionaries had a significant historical presence, those countries on average are now more economically developed. These countries have comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in non-governmental associations.”

In fact, Woodberry’s research shows that contrary to popular belief, protestant missionaries often stood in direct opposition to white colonialism. He writes, “[M]issionaries punished abusive colonial officials and counterbalanced white settlers, which fostered the rule of law, encouraged less violent repression of anti-colonial political organization, and facilitated peaceful decolonization.” Andrea Palpant Dilley, referring to Woodberry, concludes, “In short: Want a blossoming democracy today? The solution is simple – if you have a time machine: Send a 19th-century missionary.”

These missionaries weren’t just do-gooders who were looking to make the world a better place. They were “conversionary Protestants” who, frankly, were trying to convert people to Christianity. Christian missions, when done correctly, is “both/and” when it comes to sharing the gospel and helping to effect social change.

Why is that? Because a person who has truly been transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t just trying to earn gold stars for converts. That person has had an entire shift in worldview–a worldview that values all human life as sacred, understands that sin has broken the relationships that mankind has with himself, others, and creation, and that redemption in all of that brokenness starts with a relationship with Jesus Christ. So despite how missionaries over the centuries have royally messed up a lot of the time, their success was based on how well they embraced a biblical worldview, and how well they shared it with others. History shows us they have been surprisingly successful.

Nancy Pearcey writes, “That’s why C. S. Lewis calls Christianity ‘a fighting religion.’ He means that disciples of Jesus are not meant to passively allow evil to flourish on earth, while looking forward to escaping someday to a higher realm. Instead they are called to actively fight evil here and now. The doctrine of the resurrection means that the physical world matters. It matters to God and it should matter to God’s people.”  

According to the critical voices, our message should be–and only be–one of love. Jamie writes, “Let’s agree to write an epic of love to the benefit of others.” She wants us to make missions not about ourselves and how it makes us feel, but about what’s best for others.

I wholeheartedly agree. I’m just not sure we would agree on what “love” actually looks like. Emily Worrall says, “Basically what the [Great Commission] boils down to is ‘kindness.’ That’s something that I don’t see a lot of in the mission field. Period.”

Point taken. Missionaries–or Christians in general–often should be reminded to get in touch with their kind side. The gospel is not about forcing rules upon others. It’s not about molding others into our image. But does ‘love’ start and end with only kindness? What makes the gospel so transformative is by recognizing the depth of our sin, the rampant effects of that sin, and how surrender and faith in Jesus is the means of redemption–and our only hope of heaven.

That means that loving others isn’t just standing by and allowing people to self-destruct in the name of acceptance. It doesn’t mean being okay with others’ futile attempts to work their way to heaven. There are times when love needs to confront sin–whether that be the sin of an individual or the sin of a culture. That doesn’t mean we should be arrogant or unkind, but it does mean that we say, “Look! This is why we all need Jesus!”

As an American, I’m certainly not insinuating that American Christians have this all figured out and are the only ones who should be going out to “save the world.” This notion is there and it’s sinister, and it’s not okay. But as God’s Church becomes more global, I think that all of us, from all nations, can take a posture of humility in learning from each other–including and perhaps especially the people who we may be evangelizing. And therefore, the Global Church, under the authority of Scripture, should be working together to bring the gospel to those parts of the world where it’s never been heard. And that’s exactly what’s happening! I see this right here in my corner of East Africa. A cross-cultural global group of Americans, Europeans, South Africans, and South Koreans are working alongside Tanzanians to bring the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth. It is an amazing, beautiful thing.

Are missionaries a joke? Sometimes. People are sinners, including missionaries. Please, by all means, let’s topple missionaries off of our pedestals. Let’s remember that missionaries are just as much in need of the redemption they preach to others. Let’s hold them accountable. Let’s redefine “calling” to include gifting and training. Let’s be wise and sacrificial about how we steward God’s people and God’s resources. Let’s examine ourselves to make sure the mission isn’t all about us.

But is missions a joke? God forbid. Missions exists to elevate Jesus Christ above all, to bring glory to him in places and among people where he is not known. If he really is the Son of God, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the First and the Last, the Redeemer of Mankind, and the Light of the World, then let’s go out….and make his name Glorious.

 

Failed Missionaries and “But God…”

When my husband and I left what was supposed to be a three-year missions commitment in Pakistan after one year, we were angry, hurt, and deeply wounded. We didn’t leave Pakistan, but we did leave a missions community that I had been a part of since birth. This community had raised me, loved me well, and shown me a lot of grace. Though there had been times of deep pain, loneliness, and misunderstanding in my childhood, I had been nurtured and loved in extraordinary ways, and those were the memories that I held to.

I had failed at the one thing that I thought I would be great at.

We moved to the capital city, Islamabad, and my husband began working for a USAID program. Pregnant with our second child, I stayed home with our little girl and began to meet other expatriates in the community. We ended up making deep friendships at our international church, and on the surface we were doing well.

A Time of Cynicism

But the wounds of failure went deep and soon gave birth to cynicism and anger toward the entire missionary community. “They” had hurt us.
“They” were hypocrites. “They” were spiritually superior. “They” made stuff up. “They” embellished facts to get money.

WE however? WE were real. WE were genuine. WE admitted failure. WE lived off our own hard-earned money, thank you very much. WE loved Pakistanis more than “they” did.

It was exhausting. Because we all know that bitterness and hatred are a bitter poison to drink. And while cynicism, when analyzed, can be a tool for discernment, we didn’t analyze our feelings. Because that would have taken work. Yes, we were hurt, but we were also lazy. We did what we had always challenged others not to do – we made broad, sweeping judgments and used labels. Ultimately, labels are lazy.

The Problem

We desperately wanted to cut ourselves off completely from missionaries, but here was one of the problems: My entire family was involved in missions in some capacity. My parents were career missionaries. I had brothers who were connected with missions in tent-making roles. I had other brothers who were pastors, or on missions committees. And then there were our friends around the world, working in some amazing, quietly world-changing projects. A Christian Ashram in Varanasi; medical work in various parts of the world; work in translation and education – people working in these projects couldn’t just be labeled, because they were our family and friends and we did believe that their work mattered, that they mattered. There were times when we longed to wear the title of missionary again. We had been schooled well, but incorrectly, that missionaries were a level above average. We struggled, feeling like we had fallen out of favor with an exclusive club. Sometimes it left us angry and cut off from connection with like-minded people. Other times it was a relief.

But God in His gracious big picture view knew that it wasn’t the title or the place for us.

We found out that God cared far more about our hearts than He did about us being missionaries. He cared far more about obedience than He did about titles. He cared far more about healing our souls than healing our reputation in the missionary community. So we slowly moved forward. We continued living as expatriates in Egypt, just as we had in Islamabad, connecting with the international church and the broader international community. My husband worked for a university, and I stayed at home, raising a family and occasionally using my nursing background in maternal/child health. We struggled in our spare time to learn Arabic and we learned to love the Middle East with a passion.

An Honest Analysis

When we look back at our time in Pakistan, at our “missionary failure” we can now see it for what it is. There were valid hurts. We hadn’t been placed in the right jobs, instead we worked in areas that didn’t fit our skill sets. We hadn’t been given a proper orientation or mentorship. But, we had also acted out of immaturity. We had rushed into the position, knowing it wasn’t a good fit, because we wanted to get overseas so badly. We weren’t willing to go and ask for help, instead it reached a point of crisis, and we felt there was no choice but to leave the mission.

Missions is Messy, People are Messy. 

Missions is messy, because people are messy. Missions is messy, because the Church is messy. Missions has wounded people and failed people, because institutions and people have the power to walk outside of God’s love and care for the world, imposing their own rules instead. Missions and those in missions leadership should always be in a process of “quality improvement” – asking what is going well and what needs improvement, not defining success by western measures and adherence to western cultural values. Missions should continually look at history and historical inequalities and wrongs perpetrated by the church, asking forgiveness and seeking restoration, no matter how long it takes. Worldwide, missions institutions should see themselves as imperfect servants who seek cultural humility and care about the least of these, not gate keepers to a Christianity based on western cultural values. Yet, God still loves this imperfect, flawed, institution and he still uses it for his glory. That is not to say we should not continually look at the need for change and improvement, because that is necessary, but it is to say – it will never be a perfect institution because imperfect humans, who struggle with pride and insensitivity, ethnocentrism and misplaced ideals are at its core.

BUT God….

If I can go back to my own missions story for a moment – for all the mistakes of the institution, and for all our own immaturity, there were so many “But God” moments, where the plot changed because God is still God, and he is not defined or confined by human or institutional failure. Throughout Scripture, we see God intervene – sometimes in dramatic ways, but normally through quiet faithfulness. It does not give license for us to wound people, either through our own actions or the actions of our institutions, but it does offer immense hope when we are wounded; it does show that God will rescue, restore, and make new. “But God” does not excuse sin, but it also doesn’t call for dismissing an entire world-wide movement. My friend Sophie wrote this a few years ago, and when I think of my response to being a failed missionary, I think of her words.

The most powerful testimonies are the But God moments in our lives and so often we wish them away…..He takes up what humanity have screwed well and truly up and he rescues us, restores us, makes us new again.”

“He takes ashes and gives you a crown of beauty, he takes mourning and gives you oil of joy, unlimited and in abundance, he takes a spirit of despair and he gives you praise to wear instead.  It’s not just that the Great Exchange is your life for his, although that in itself is mind-blowing, but he totally transforms your life afterwards as well.- Sophie Blanc

As for this community, and the organizations we represent – we are here on a journey as sinners in great need of God’s grace and love. We are here as people who desperately want to shine the love of God in our broken world, and be true to that, but we make mistakes. We are a people who constantly need to critique what we are doing, and then walk in faith, trusting the outcome to God. We are here with our own stuff, and God raises us up, like He could the rocks or trees, to praise his name in the hard places.


For more reading and articles from our ALOS Writer’s Team:

To the ones who think they’ve failed
The Idolatry of Missions
When the Straight & Narrow Isn’t
10 Reasons Not To Become a Missionary
In Defense of Second-Class Missionaries
The Cult of Calling

You Are Not a Failure

I’ve read lots of blog posts and essays about failure lately, about people who grew up wanting to change the world and end up discouraged. Jonathan Trotter wrote about this a year and a half ago. Sarita Hartz wrote about it just last week. Abby Alleman wrote about it in February. I guess its my turn.

To people who made youthful commitments they didn’t follow through on, to people who moved back ‘home’ earlier than planned, to people who don’t see what they dreamed of seeing, I want to say: You’re not a failure. And, you didn’t even fail.

You were on a date and you’d been trained to think this was a marriage. You got on a train and mistakenly believed you could never, ever get off. You’re lost in a new city and you think U-turns are not an option here. You fell in love and like most first loves, you fell out of it again. Or, it was in truth just a crush. Thankfully no one expects us or pressures us to marry our sixth grade ‘boyfriends’ and none of us feel guilty for abandoning them on the playground. But if, in our youthful naiveté and with the emotional high of a summer project, we make grand pronouncements of a lifetime commitment to service in the name of faith and turn our backs on that – we call it failure.

No one should be berated, by themselves or anyone else, for getting lost and making a U-turn. Even with Siri and GPS, we are not infallible. And when it comes to lifelong decisions, even with the Bible and the Holy Spirit, we’re allowed to change direction as we grow and evolve.

What is all this talk about failure? Of course we fail to change the world. We aren’t God. We aren’t supposed to change the world. We are supposed to love and follow Jesus.

I think we misunderstand failure. Failure is not changing our minds. It is not choosing something else, also good. It is not doing something with passion and conviction for a while and then doing something else with passion and conviction. It is not admitting that we’ve grown and changed and understand the world and ourselves differently now. It is not a lack of visible, external ‘fruit.’

When a person who professes to love Jesus comes to work with my husband and I, we tell them we have one main goal. If we can accomplish that, we will consider their time a success and all other positive outcomes will be regarded as bonus. The goal? It is not to change the world. It isn’t to save anyone. It isn’t to build buildings, raise money, hold events. It isn’t to feed people or clothe people. Our primary goal is that they will know and love Jesus just as much when they leave as they loved him when they arrived. Maybe even, just a little bit more.

That’s it.

If they can live for one or two years or more in a challenging cross-cultural environment, headed up by two sinful bosses, surrounded by coworkers they didn’t choose, in heat and dust and loneliness and confusion, and at the end of those two years, they can say, “I still know and love Jesus,” we, and they, will call that success.

The greatest commandment is not: Go change the world. The greatest commandment is to love God. Second, to love our neighbor. We are called to walk with Jesus and get to know him more intimately as he walks with us through the new trials of a cross-cultural life. I believe that as we love and know him more deeply, some of that will shine through the cracks of our brokenness and be useful in the world. Hopefully, even. But like I said, that’s bonus.

When you start to feel like a failure, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do I still love Jesus?
  2. Do I still believe he loves me?
  3. Am I learning more about him, his character and his teachings?
  4. Am I being transformed more and more into his likeness, even a teensy bit?

If the answers are ‘yes,’ rejoice!

You are not a failure.

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5 Things You Can Do When You Feel Like a Failure

In January of 2013, after 6 years of running a nonprofit, I moved off the field in Uganda back to the USA and struggled terribly with re-entry. There were many good, wise reasons for this move, but none of them seemed justifiable enough to qualm the voice in my head that echoed with the fact that in leaving I had somehow failed.

It seemed like so many things had gone wrong. And I blamed myself.

When I left Uganda, I wondered if God still had a plan for me or if I’d somehow messed up His will, gone off track. 

I couldn’t understand why in the middle of one of my hardest seasons, it felt like God had abandoned me. I felt like maybe I deserved it because I had failed Him too. I hadn’t measured up to His expectations of me.

Even though my husband and I felt confident that God had asked us to leave, there was still expectation I had on myself that to be a successful missionary meant I was supposed to stay there forever. Anything less felt like I hadn’t finished the race.

In my coaching ministry with global workers now, this theme of feeling like a failure is always surfacing.

I’ve learned some things that have helped me not feel like such a failure.

1. Evaluate your metric for success

I believe many of us hold this faulty belief in missions and aid work, that the length of time we stay on the field is our greatest measure of success. I don’t believe this is true. We don’t measure the CEO of a company by the length of time in his job, but by how his company performed, by his output. Even Jesus’ ministry years were short in comparison to the number of people he helped. Yes, there is something to be said about how much time you’ve invested in learning a people, and a nation and the experience that comes from those years.

But I believe when we look at whether or not we’ve been successful, we need different metrics. Did people feel loved when they were around us? Did we give our best? What is the legacy left behind? Were deep relationships built? Were we obedient to what God asked of us? How is our relationship with God and those closest to us? Are we able to still move from love and compassion to those around us? Sometimes leaving is the most loving thing we can do, for ourselves, and for others.

The truth was, it was a lie that I had failed. I hadn’t. I had loved and I had loved deeply, and that can never be a failure.

2. Let go of the fear of man

When people parade your picture around church talking about all the “good works” you’re doing, it’s easy to feel like everyone has expectations of you that you can’t meet. It’s easy to feel like you’re not measuring up, or that if people knew your real struggles they’d be horrified. It’s what makes us feel like we have to plaster on a fake smile and a fake face. Or that we have to hide from people. Or that we have to perform so people will be happy with us. In order to save my own soul, I had to stop caring as much what people thought of me. I had to let go of the fear of man, and care only about what God said about me. This can be a painful death when we are used to operating to please others. But there is so much freedom in letting go and just being where we are and being honest about it.

3. Remember that imperfect can be beautiful

The Japanese art of kintsugi, which means “golden journey,” is the art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. It is all about turning ugly breaks into beautiful fixes. It’s an embracing of the flawed or imperfect. There can be beauty in brokenness and in repair. Not only that, but it these “cracks” in our journey that can lead to the most beauty. The idea that something or someone could be more beautiful not in spite of their brokenness but because of it. What I’ve learned is it’s in brokenness where intimacy with God and with ourselves is truly birthed. I see my brokenness now as an opportunity, an opportunity for growth, for redemption, for wisdom, for the chance to practice self compassion and know God’s goodness. I ask myself now, “What can I learn from this, what is this teaching me?”

4. Learn to practice self-acceptance 

This is the notion that we can let go of the idea of who we think we “should be” and accept who we are here and now. It’s knowing that God created you how you are and has unconditional love for you even in the midst of your failures. He isn’t expecting perfection from you, just a full and present self. He’s not holding up the measuring stick and finding you wanting. Jesus died not just for our past mistakes, but your future ones as well. When Father looks at you He sees His child in whom He is well-pleased.

When we feel like a failure, we let shame in, and shame destroys our sense of self worth. I’ve spent many hours in therapy working through my shame. When I feel shame coming, I like to imagine Father God’s heart for me. I like to ask Him how He sees me. I find that He isn’t pulling away from me, but rather that I was hiding from Him.

Sometimes instead of negative self talk I ask myself if I can find one thing I’m doing well? Can I see one gift God has put inside me?

5. Let your greatest setbacks become your greatest comebacks 

I wholeheartedly believe that our areas where we feel we’ve failed the most or had the biggest setback, can be our area of greatest triumph. What we learn in these dark moments might be the very thing that defines our life in a new way. What if what I thought was failure, was my greatest launching pad? In fact, what looked like failure ended up leading to my greatest calling. If I had never left Uganda, I never would have found the healing my heart so needed.  If I hadn’t found that healing I wouldn’t have found the work I love to do now in journeying with others as I coach them. I now don’t just touch Uganda, but I touch nations through the lives of those who serve there. God completely redeemed my story.

What have you learned from what you thought was failure?

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Sarita Hartz is a writer, life coach, and former humanitarian worker who writes about wholehearted living and healthy missions in her blog Whole at www.saritahartz.com. She loves helping people transform their lives. You can download her free eBook A Self-Care Plan for Global Workers (Learn to Prevent Burnout) at her blog.

When I Failed At Missions

The whisper of summer breeze caresses my face as I perch on the concrete steps of New Creation Lutheran Church. This has become a daily meeting hour. After dinner, my fellow team members and I linger outside with the neighborhood kids. They’ll pop wheelies, zig-zag on skateboards or just sit and chat. Some days the girls and I chase bubbles. Some days we all get wet to abate the haze of summer.

It is fun. It is life. It is Gospel. I never want to leave.

My home, this summer, is a two-story brick church on West Tioga Street. It’s located in an area of Philadelphia called the Badlands. Here violence is just a block away. We have experienced the good in the people and the bad in crime. One day we return from downtown and find someone attempted to burn down our church.

And yet, here is where I have come to call ‘home’.  I smell gasoline mixed with stale smoke and too ripe fruit and it is comforting. I play kickball with fast running neighborhood boys until my lungs scream and love every second of it. I make crazy singing ‘Father Abraham’ in front of a hundred kids and with a gigantic smile. I look in eyes and give hope. For nine weeks I tell little lives of big love. I learn the size of God’s heart through my own. I give everything I have.

It is the summer after my sophomore year of college. My heart is just beginning to beat for God and His kingdom.

Last year I had a ‘grace awakening’, coming alive to the gospel in ways which made it feel like I had just begun to believe in Jesus. As I then began to think about missions, during my sophomore year, Bart Campolo came to my college’s chapel and talked about his ministry in Philadelphia called Kingdomworks. That day, I knew this ministry was for me and a few months later I came to Tioga Street.

Now I am here, full of faith. Unafraid. I am ready for anything. I know God is with me and He loves the city. I vow to dedicate my life to urban ministry.

I hug the tear-stained children on my last day. I promise to write. I promise to visit. I promise to come back.

 A few letters I write. I visit once. I don’t come back to stay even for a little while.

In the end, I failed. I left and never came back. Tender hearts would not trust easily again. The pressure of drugs, gangs and despair would weigh heavily and I wouldn’t be there to guide them towards the good.

I have wandered this earth ever since, remembering Tioga Street. Twenty-two summers have come and gone. How could I? How could I leave and just…leave?

I remember the chain-link fence lining the alley next to the church. I sat against it flower-covered journal in hand. I remember writing of a love for the city and the desire to commit my all to it. I was sincere as far as I understood my own heart as a sophomore in college. And yet I failed to make good on my words and what seemed a genuine calling.

Looking back, I am still unsure where I went wrong. Did the fear just creep in? Was my capacity to love limited to nine weeks? Did I lack the faith to raise support for my mission? Did the fear others had for me affect my own?

More importantly, how could I keep going after I failed?

It was a hard question to answer.

One summer I gave everything and yet later, suffered the guilt of not loving longer, of not being truer, of not risking more.

But in my quest for peace with my past, I came to see this failure as a part of a greater plan, a greater story. It was not mine to carry like so much weight on my shoulders.

Failure defines us one way or another. It can consume us, planting seeds of fear, shame, guilt or unworthiness. Lord knows I have lived this. But, it can also humble us. It shows us our limits. And, if we let it, it profoundly shapes our stories.

My Tioga Street is a love I have surrendered countless times. I have grieved the lives of the children I sought out, visiting their homes, to invite them to our day camp. My heart has broken remembering Ahmad, so tough already at the tender age of eight. I remember how he started to come to Bible study and gave his life to Jesus. Did it change anything? I remember Cely, with her long, glossy raven hair. So beautiful and sweet. What have the years done to her?

It is the deepest heave of my heart to think of Tioga Street. It is a withering strand of my story, as the hope of the ‘might have been’ disintegrates. There is no lasting triumph to give it weight. I can only fully entrust it to the heart of God.

Yet too, in Tioga Street, is the hard, even brutal, lesson for me, the young, immature girl longing to save the world. The humility of this unavoidable nature of my failure is a solid thread woven into my story. I am not the same for having lived it.

I don’t know where this finds you today. Are you coming face-to-face with your failure?

Some of you have loved and left like me. Others of you have stayed and struggled for assurance of your mission. Some of you are in the midst of failure and are not sure what to do next. Regardless, the reality of our lack is something which finds us all. But it doesn’t have to write its bold, black judgment across our lives, our story.

We all fail. We are all humbled. Yet, we must stay the course of our stories allowing the truth of what we have learned to be woven within. We don’t live in fear, doubt, guilt or shame, but remember this is a part of a larger plan. It is God’s and it is His people’s entrusted with the mission of redemption.

Let your failures guide you to perfect love, your story and God’s woven together. And whatever you do, remember, for many of us, there is a Tioga Street. You are not alone.

The Measure of Success

The year I failed algebra for paying more attention to boys than the teacher, mom and dad grounded me for the entire summer. Freedom on one condition: I had to take algebra summer school and achieve an A in the class.

I worked my rear end off. I puzzled out each equation in the math book, stayed after class for tutoring, and turned in every imaginable form of extra credit. No matter how hard I tried, I still couldn’t break the B+ glass ceiling. On the last day of summer school, I finally hit an A- for the class by scoring 100% on the final exam which, by the way, I didn’t actually earn. My teacher learned of my plight, saw how desperately hard I worked, and in the end gave me an “A for effort”. With two weeks of summer break remaining, I finally earned my freedom.

That summer sucked, but it taught me two really important things –

  • No boy is worth summer school.
  • Struggling and failing are not the same thing.

Failing was simple. Smile and pass notes with the boys. Ignore the teacher. Get lazy with homework. Justify the uneasiness in your insides: You’re just not good at math, so why bother trying?

Struggling? That’s completely different.

At the end of that algebra filled summer, Mom told me, “If you’d worked as hard as you did over the summer and still didn’t pass, I wouldn’t have cared. I would have been proud.”

Fast forward 20 years.

I live overseas and, in an odd way, life is pretty comparable to that summer of algebra.

Perhaps there are people more naturally gifted at living overseas who sail through with minimal amounts of effort. I’m not sure such a person exists, but even if they did, I’m definitely not one of them. Life here for me is fraught with difficulty and it’s easy to feel like I’m failing. I’m still the struggling summer school student.

Despite how I feel, the good news is that struggle does not mean I’m failing. Let’s replace struggle with a synonym and you’ll see what I mean. Thesaurus.com gives us some great words and phrases for struggle like: strive, endeavor, go all out, make every effort, plug away, and try one’s hardest.

Ok, so maybe you’re reading this and saying, “I am trying my hardest, but I’m still failing!”

I’d like to challenge that.

Are you neglecting something important? Have you been lazy or idle? Do you ignore instruction? Are you justifying actions you know are wrong? No? Then shake off that guilt. You aren’t failing, at least not at what really matters.

Before we go on, I should point out that struggle also does not guarantee success as we see/define it. No matter how hard you try, you might not ever really learn the language. People will still reject you. Projects will be left unfinished or fall flat. You may never be fully funded. You’ll still get sick, have awful experiences, and probably need counseling. You may have to leave your overseas home.

The point is this – Sure failure and success matter, but not to the extent we credit them and probably not in the way we tend to define them either. What really matters is how you answer the question: Am I faithful?

I love the passage in Matthew 25 when Jesus tells the story of the master who went on a long journey and entrusted three servants with different amounts of money. When the master returns home and asks for an account the first and second servants report their success doubling the money, but the third servant makes excuses and says he dug a hole and hid his money. The master commends the first two servants, but reprimands the third.

You might be tempted to think this story is evidence of the high importance of results. It’s not. This story is more about character than it is about success or failure. David Guzik’s Study Guide for Matthew 25 puts it this way:

Well done, good and faithful servant: This shows that the master looked for goodness and faithfulness in His servants. Whatever financial success these servants enjoyed came because they were good and faithful. The master looked first for these character qualities, not for a specific amount of money.

Did you get that? Success is great, but it’s not the first thing. God is looking for goodness and faithfulness.

When it comes to children, we all know that’s the truth. We celebrate the child who works hard no matter what level of success they achieve. We are proud and pleased when they make every effort with what they have. Our heavenly Father does the same.

So let’s shirk off this guilt and fear of failing. We aren’t lazily burying our gifts; we’re investing and working hard. May success come, but may we also recognize that it’s the quality of our character, the condition of our hearts, that matters most to God.

God,
You know me. The life and talents you’ve given me are no mistake; they are not too much or too little. You know my fears, difficulties, and disappointments. It’s true that I would love success, but even more than that, I want to be found faithful with what you have given me. I want to be pleasing to you.
Amen.  

If your year has been a flop

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For the past several years I’ve chosen a “word for the year.” Each word is meant to serve as a rudder for the year, a way to focus my attention and direct my inner life. Sometimes I very specifically sense God’s leading in the word; such was the case of “Listen” in 2011 and “Encourage” in 2013. Both of those words started with quiet whispers from God that were continually confirmed throughout the year. Words — and years — like that feel very successful.

But other times I’ve chosen words that simply seemed to fit my spiritual needs at the time, as has been the case for the last two years. In 2015 I chose the word “Peace,” mainly for the warm fuzzy feeling it gave me. I just wanted a little bit of rest. Some peace and quiet. But throughout that year, God peeled back the layers of my illusory peace and revealed relationships in my life that were not actually at peace. My year felt like a failure until right at the end, when relational reconciliation emerged as an eleventh-hour gift from the Father.

Maybe that year wasn’t such a flop after all, I thought. It gave me the confidence to choose a word again. So in 2016, I chose the word “Steady.” I wanted to have steadier emotions no matter the amount of stress I was under, and regardless of which day of the month I was on. I thought this was a great goal. I wanted to be like Caroline (Ma) Ingalls – wise, calm, and gentle in all circumstances.

Basically, I wanted to be perfect.

And it was a complete flop. Right from the very beginning of the year, my emotions were more volatile than ever, and my emotional stability was rather, um, nonexistent. I wanted to cheat and switch words halfway through the year, but instead I chose to ignore the fact that I had ever chosen a word. I went about the second half of my year attempting to survive over-scheduled weeks and power-outaged days, emotional instability and all.

I so skillfully forgot about my dreams of steadiness that when I began processing this year at the beginning of December, I couldn’t initially remember what my word had been. I racked my brain a while and then remembered: Steady. That’s what it was. I had wanted to be emotionally steady. A rock, a foundation, a cornerstone for my family. Always cheerful, happy, and helpful. I’d wanted to be, you know, perfect.

But I was, disappointingly, more unsteady than ever. At least, on the surface I was more unsteady than ever. When I paused to look deeper, I was surprised to see aspects of my life that had stabilized:

  • My belief in the Bible as God’s Word.
  • My participation in truly life-giving community.
  • My commitment to homeschooling as the right choice for our family.

I didn’t ever manage to perfect myself as I had hoped. I’m still an emotional train wreck. (Though perhaps emotional perfection was too unrealistic an aspiration?) I tried and failed to tread water at the surface of my life, but throughout the year God was working to give the deeper structures of my life more strength and support. Looking back now, I learned — and am continuing to learn — so many things this year, but chief among them is this:

When we fail to measure up, God is sufficient.

And when we waver, He still stands firm.

I don’t know if your year was a massive failure or a grand success. Perhaps you had a bit of both. Or maybe your year was somewhere in between those two extremes. No matter what your year held, what I want all of us to remember as we enter this next year is that Jesus Christ is sufficient. He is the foundation upon which our faith rests. He is the Person in whom we live and move and have our being.

So will I choose a word for this coming year? I don’t know yet. What I do know is that whatever this coming year holds, the Christ, the Son of the Living God, will be in it.

 

Did this year feel like a flop for you?

What has been your experience of choosing a “word for the year”?

To the ones who think they’ve failed

photo-1448067686092-1f4f2070baae1So, you failed to save the world.
You failed to complete the task of global evangelism.
You failed to see massive geopolitical change in your region.
You failed. Or at least you feel like it.

Good-hearted people in your organization (maybe) and your churches (hopefully) tell you you’re not a failure. But you still feel like one. You came home before you planned. Maybe for health reasons. Maybe for burnout reasons. Maybe you don’t need reasons. You were done, so you finished. You came “home.”

But now you’re finding home’s not home anymore. You knew for sure you didn’t fit in there, but now you’re very much afraid you don’t fit in here anymore. You failed there, and now you feel like you’re failing here. You want to believe that some good came of it. Or will come of it. Or something.

For now, though, you mourn. And you should, because you lost something. You lost dreams, maybe, and years. You lost relationships. Some of those relationships you wanted to lose. Others, you didn’t. And still other relationships you thought you’d regain, you haven’t.

So mourn. Mourn well. Jesus is near to those who mourn. Feel the loss. Welcome it, even. It is a bitter pill that you should swallow as often as needed.

You’re still part of the team. You’re not a washed up, has been, burnt out, broken down, used up, person. You are a child of God, dearly loved. Cherished. And you are still needed. The Church still needs you. The Father still wants you. Jesus still loves you. And the Holy Spirit is still near to you.

The Church still needs your voice. You’ve seen things that many folks “back home” haven’t. Your voice is different. Weird, maybe. But it’s so needed in the Church that sent you. Don’t let them forget the global nature of the Kingdom of God. The Church still needs you.

The foreign mission field needs you. You can counsel, caution, and console in a way few people can. Those still serving abroad need you. Be a voice for them. Be a voice to them.

May you find God to be the great Restorer. The One who heals.
The Great I AM at both departure and destination.
The King who knows you’re always en route.

May you find Peace. May you realize that God’s love for you was never conditioned on your performance. Ever.
He loved you then. He loves you now.
He asks you to love him.
He asks you to obey him.
Today.

So whether you’re here or there,
Whether you feel like a wonderful success or an abject failure,
May you remember His love.

May you believe His love, shining most eloquently through his Son, and may that belief lead to obedience. Here, there, everywhere.

And in the middle of it all, may you hear the Father calling you.
Home.

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A Note from an Impostor

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On Wednesday of last week, Laura Parker announced changes and new leadership here at A Life Overseas. Later that day I received a lovely note on Twitter from Denise James, co-author of the amazing blog Taking Route. Two days later, I received another encouraging note from Jillian Rogers, another woman from this community.

And with that encouragement and love from afar, I write this honest response to this community.

As a missionary kid/TCK I never wanted to be a missionary. When good folk at the Baptist churches that gave sacrificially of their time and money, not to mention a good part of their prayer lives, asked me if I wanted to be a missionary when I “grew up,” I would look at them and pray they didn’t see the panic under my response. No. No. NO. I did not want that. My best friend and I — we were heading off to Emory University to wear mini skirts and smoke cigarettes. Oh yes we were. Nancy was from Macon, Georgia, and I had fallen in love with Macon through her, though I had never been there.

And yet, a few years later I did not go to Emory. Instead, I headed to Chicago and chose nursing as a career — largely because I knew I could use this skill overseas. I knew just one thing: there was no way I was raising my family in my passport country. I couldn’t fathom living in the Western Hemisphere, more specifically the United States. So as soon as I became a nurse, I began making plans to go back to Pakistan and work.

The year following my graduation into the real adult world of patients, supervisors, night shifts, and more was one of the most difficult of my life. While God’s voice was whispering into my heart, I wanted no part of it. Though on the surface I taught Sunday School to junior high students, and sang “special music” during services, I was dead inside. My days were spent with patients, my evenings at punk rock bars in Chicago. And so I decided I needed to go home. The easiest way for me to go home was to get other people (you know, the ones who give sacrificially) to pay for it.

So I joined a short-term mission. The impostor act was in full swing at this point. I think I made the interview committee cry – I was that good at playing a part. Oh yes – it was going to be difficult. Oh yes – I was a lovely, young, single woman, and was that going to be hard? Oh yes – but I? I had counted the cost, and if the Lord wanted to use this lovely young woman – well then, that was a small price to pay for the sacrifice of the cross. I walked out with their seal of approval and began raising funds to return home to Pakistan.

When I think back on it, I was nauseating. I was an impostor.

But it worked. I received the money and so in September I packed my bags and headed for Pakistan. My mom tells me that when she met me at the airport in Karachi, she was shocked. I was at a stage when I ate my way through misery. She knew I had been miserable and expected to find me a good forty pounds heavier than when she last saw me. Instead, I was thinner than I’d ever been. I was a mess.

I slowly healed in the land I called home. I began loving God and man again. I began caring about what God would have me do. And then I got deported. It would take too long to tell that story here, but I ended up back in Chicago in early January, having only been in Pakistan four months. I often look back at that period as a time when I learned what it was for every waking breath to be a gift of grace from my Creator. I was aware of the presence of God in my life in a way I had never experienced. It was a gift.

Two weeks after I arrived back in the United States, while eating a curry in an Indian restaurant, I met the man who has been my husband for 30 years.  A year later we were back in Pakistan celebrating our engagement with 200 people – Muslims, Hindus, Christians – all come together for a huge celebration.

We got married and immediately began making plans to go overseas. That was our heart beat, one of the things that had attracted us to each other. We decided we would take the easiest route possible and go as short-term missionaries to the boarding school where I was raised.

It was a complete disaster. We were young, immature, had only been married a bit over a year – and we were in charge of 24 junior high boys. We fought with the other staff, we had favorites instead of loving each boy well, we called people names that I can’t write here, but if we were in person I’d tell you. We left the position two years earlier than we planned. We were hurting and bruised. At one point when someone in leadership asked if we had prayed about leaving, I looked at him and said “Maybe the better question is – have we prayed at all? And the answer is no. We haven’t prayed in three months.”

We headed to the capital and my husband began a job with US AID. We were tired, we were angry, we were hurt. And we wanted nothing to do with missionaries ever again.

We found out that God cared far more about our hearts than He did about us being missionaries. He cared far more about obedience than He did about titles. He cared far more about healing our souls than healing our reputation in the missionary community. So we slowly moved forward. Our journey would never have us wear the title ‘missionary’ again, and we struggled mightily with that. Instead, we ended up living as expatriates, first in Islamabad and then in Egypt. My husband worked for a university, and I stayed at home, raising a family and occasionally consulting around nursing and maternal/child health. We struggled in our spare time to learn Arabic and we learned to love the Middle East with a passion.

There were times when we longed to wear that title again. Where we wanted to be in that community. Sometimes it left us angry and cut off from connection with like-minded people. Other times it was a relief. Our best friends still bore those titles. Our tithe went almost exclusively to missionaries. But God in His gracious big picture view knew that it wasn’t the title or the place for us.

And that brings me to this community. At so many levels, I feel like an impostor. I haven’t raised support for years – and in fact, I hated raising support. I hated it. I haven’t had to answer to a mission agency, to struggle with some of the things you all struggle with, for a long time.

You have an impostor as a chief editor! Wow – that must be encouraging. And so I take this on for a season with complete humility. Believe me, you all will never fail like I’ve failed. But I’ve learned something important – all of us outside of God’s grace are impostors. If we think we can go one minute without His grace, we are impostors, pretending to be something we aren’t. If we think we can do any of the work we do, if we think it’s our personalities or our good looks or our education or our brains or our writing skills that get us places and keep us there, then we are impostors. We are people who pretend to be something we are not. 

We are here on a journey as sinners in great need of God’s grace and love. We are here as people who desperately want to shine the love of God in our broken world, and be true to that. We are here with our own stuff, and God raises us up, like He could the rocks or trees, to praise his name in the hard places.

So I offer you my love, my heart, my words – as an offering for a season. Thank you for accepting them.

And now I’d love to hear, have you ever felt like an impostor in your work? How did God meet you in that place?