How to be a Real Missionary

Wonder woman

My first attempt at overseas missions was a rather spur of the moment decision. As I made plans to drop out of college and get an apartment with my best friend, Dad showed me the website of a medical mission in Africa and suggested I give it a try. So I did. I didn’t think about training, or have any idea of how long I’d serve. I just went.

Side Note: Although I served for 2+ years with that mission, I still didn’t consider myself a real missionary. I just dabbled in a life others spent decades in.

My next missionary attempt included nine years of preparation. From the start, my husband and I carefully considered training options and aimed for long-term service. This time I would finally be a real missionary. We joined an aviation mission and moved overseas again.

In those years of preparation, I began to develop a sense of what kind of missionary I wanted to be. I wouldn’t be like those missionaries, you know – the ones who might stay forever, but never really connect with the people or the culture. I would be a real missionary, you know – like Amy Carmichael (55 years in India without a furlough), Hudson Taylor (the man got huge results), Shane Claiborne (made the vow of poverty cool), Don Richardson (that clever ‘redemptive analogies’ guy), and Elisabeth Elliot (missionary to her husband’s murderers).

The trouble was, I couldn’t do it.

Truth: The only thing you need to do to be a real missionary, is to be a real person.

To be a real missionary, you don’t need to stay overseas for decades without a break. You don’t need to take a vow of poverty. You don’t need to start hundreds of projects. You don’t need to write books. You don’t even need huge results.

But I should tell you (and this is really important): you have to learn to be a missionary as the person that you are, not as the person you wish to be.

You are not too young or too old, too extroverted or too introverted, too technically minded or too artsy, too busy with a family or too single. It’s just you – and you are who you are.

Side Note: I really wanted to be an extrovert missionary. I’m not an extrovert. I failed in this. It’s ok though. God uses introverts too.

The whole of you becomes a missionary, not just the part that fits the job description. Your life experiences, your hang-ups, your sense of humor, your world view, your fitness level, your hopes and dreams – all of you, not a bit gets left out.

The real missionary is the person who takes all of who they are and willingly offers it back to the Lord. It’s not about striving to become a missionary, but willingly and joyfully surrendering who you actually, truthfully, really are.

Those other missionaries? The ones whose stories amaze and inspire? They are more like guides. Your own specific missions path is God’s to reveal, but you can still learn from theirs. You learn from their mistakes, successes, joys, and frustrations – but they do not define who you are.

Side Note: Corrie ten Boom is one of my heroes. I read her stories of simple acts of courage in Nazi-occupied Holland, her time in a concentration camp, and her incredible work in forgiveness and extending love to enemies. I’m inspired! I long to see that kind of fruit in my own life! Except… “God, It’s cool if you use me like Corrie, but can we just skip the whole concentration camp part?” Often I want the results of someone’s life, but not the suffering it took to get there.

Truth: You don’t have to be someone else, even if they are really cool. God’s got loads of good works prepared for you – yes, you!

What ultimately matters is that you are good clay. All the training, programs, aspirations, and strategies in the world don’t matter if you aren’t willing and pliable in God’s hands.

So you want to be a real missionary? Take a good look inside. With heart and hands wide open, offer yourself to the Lord.

“God, It’s me – just me. I’m not sure how you can use me, but I am willing.
Whatever you have in mind, I’m all in.”

Once you’ve laid it all out there, freed up from expectations and comparison, you can be who you really want to be – God’s own. Loved and loving others.

When the lights go out

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I want to do all the things. All the very good things there are to do in this world. So I overcommit myself. I don’t say “no.” I say “yes” instead, and spread myself too thin. Then my soul suffers. My work suffers. My sanity suffers. My family life suffers. My spiritual life suffers.

I suffer in silence, thinking I’m all alone. I’m the only one failing at everything. I’m the only one who can’t pull it together. I’m the only one who can’t catch my breath, who can’t catch up on work, who can’t catch up on school, who can’t catch up with friends, who can’t catch up with the God I say I love so very much.

And I, insecure missionary blogger that I am, am afraid to tell people.

To top all that off, the heat in Southeast Asia has been crushing me. The past two months have held record highs here, and we get a lot of power cuts. I echo Ramona Quimby in Ramona the Brave who shouted out “Guts! Guts guts guts!” when she wanted to say bad words. Instead, I yell “Cuts! Cuts cuts cuts!” and very nearly lose my mind.

After one particularly grueling 12-hour all-night power outage, something inside me broke — flat out broke. I lost my hope. I began to question everything. Why are we here? Why can’t we live in America? Why exactly do I serve this God of mine? And where the heck is He when I can barely sleep or even breathe in this heat?

I was struggling under the weight of all the expectations I had for myself: be a good mom, be a good wife, be a good home educator, be a good missionary, be a good team leader’s wife, be a good friend, be a good writer, be a good editor, be a good Christ-follower. And I couldn’t do any of it.

(If there’s one thing that overnight power outage taught me, it’s this: I am not nearly as good a person as I thought I was. Cuts cuts cuts: bad words all around.)

Finally, finally, I asked for prayers. I asked my closest friends and family in the States. I asked my teammates. I asked a few women in my organization. Then I confided my struggles to some other home school moms in my city.

I was met on so many levels by “me too.” I went from being alone to being supported. I went from drowning in my despair of cross-cultural servitude to feeling supernaturally upheld.

The next time the power went out in the middle of the night, I didn’t curse this land or this life or this electrical grid. I didn’t panic. I stayed calm and waited. I sang a worship song (which shocked even myself). I retained my sanity and my faith — something that could only have happened because people were praying for me.

The next day I remember waking up and thinking, seriously? Seriously? Is that really all I had to do? Ask for prayer? Why did I keep my struggles to myself for so long? Why did I think I had to hide? What kind of appearance did I think I needed to keep up anyway? Why did I think I couldn’t ask? Help came fast when I asked.

I spun my hopelessness wheels for too long. But I’ve learned again that I can ask. I can ask for prayer sooner rather than later — and so can you.

So today, if you’re spinning your hopelessness wheels, if you’re afraid to confide in someone or ask for prayer or even for practical help, can I encourage you to ask? Just ask. The God of the universe is here to help. The Body of Christ is here to help. Help is right here waiting, even when the lights go out and we find ourselves in the dark.

All we have to do is ask.