It’s been a long time…

23 Nov

We’re in our eighth year living in a foreign country. Some ask, “what’s it like?”  We ask, “do people still remember us?”  Tomorrow we’ll be back in our sending church….not as highlighted missionaries, but as regular folk just coming to our worship community for a couple of Sundays. We’ve noticed each time we return that fewer recognize us. And of those that do, fewer are interested in our lives and experiences. The natural response could be feeling offended, demeaned, and self-righteously hurt. Don’t people remember what we gave up to serve in missions?  Aren’t people interested in what God is doing in our region?  The truth is, if we put our faith and hopes in the support and approval of others, we will always be deeply disappointed.

One Sunday in visiting our church I was engaged in four deep conversations, all of which were focussed on the needs of the other person. I came away feeling quite surprised at how God used me to be with these people at this critical time in their lives. I wondered why it was me, who would be gone for months or years to come, that God chose to use in those moments. I had a choice to make at that point….become cynical, or embrace the joy that comes from knowing God used me.

Much has been written about what missionaries wish their churches understood and could do to support them. But there may be another perspective of what God wants us as missionaries to understand about our supporters and sponsoring churches.

Entitlement: by giving up our American Dream lives we are not owed or entitled to special privilege from those who remain and persevere. Americans are generous, and Evangelicals who give to missionaries are sacrificially generous. But the easiest way to create a barrier with them is to communicate that we as missionaries are owed that support. Unless we understand that our support comes from God, we can fall into the trap of thinking that those who don’t go owe something special to those who do.

We should be given special attention when we’re back: life is challenging, not only for missionaries, but also for our community back in our original homes. While we are away life continues; Illnesses, job transitions, life stages all continue. Simply put, life goes on whether we are there or not. We can bemoan the fact that things aren’t the same as they used to be. Or we can actively engage when we’re back and ask God for opportunities to serve his flock, even if we’re not the center of attention.

Our friends and family care, but they also need to be cared for:  I use a simple rule…for every one story or photo I share, I need to actively seek and listen to five that others back home share. Dale Carnegie recognized this idea decades ago. If I want to be remembered in a positive manner, I need to listen and engage with people where they are, not where I think they need to be. In my case, I’ve traveled to more places and been in more hairy situations than probably 90% of humanity and 99% of my connections back home will ever experience. And the truth is, those stories are less important than the opportunities God gives us to minister to people in need back home. And more importantly, conveying those stories often harms rather than helps what God is doing in people’s lives. As missionaries our stories are unique, but we’ll have plenty of time to relay them in eternity. And I suspect they’ll sound a lot less impressive when we hear what God was doing in other places, including back home while we were off in a foreign land.

Why don’t people understand us anymore? The first twelve months of living in a different culture is fairly predictable…two to three months of honeymoon, four months of in increasing disillusionment, and six months of adaptation and acceptance. Every person, whether missionary, diplomat, military or business person, no matter the country of origin, has a similar experience that no one back in their home culture can relate to. I’ve had a number of interactions with people who returned to their home culture who felt lost and isolated and wondered why. The fact is, as believers our culture is never going to be of this world. As missionaries we have the privilege of experiencing the foretaste of  the culture of heaven. Larry Norman, the misfit Evangelical musical artist of the 60s and 70s expressed it best, “we are not from this planet.”  He was counter-cultural. As missionaries we have the opportunity to be the same. If we really believe God has called us to ministry, then that applies to our home as much as it does to our selected “field”.

The fact is, whether missionary or “regular” believers, we all have the opportunity and obligation to meet people where they are in their journey and to guide them to a closer encounter with the Creator and lover of our souls. I love the story of the apostle Phillip, who found himself walking alongside the carriage of an Ethiopian big-shot.  He didn’t question the circumstances. He didn’t consider his privileged selection as an apostle. He simply followed the leading of the Father and shared God’s love with a man who impacted many generations. And then he was moved on into obscurity. I look forward to hearing how God used my seemingly random encounters to accomplish his ultimate goal…the ushering in of his Kingdom.

But to be honest, yes, I wish folks back home at least remembered who I am and what I’m doing. May God give me grace tomorrow to let that slide and be ready to minister wherever he places me.

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