I wasn’t going to post this. In fact, there are many of my posts just kind of sitting around that should never ever be read. Like, I would probably lose my job and all my friends if they were. A lot of times I write and later realize that my words were too honest, too mean, could come across wrong, or they could touch too closely to a problem near me. That is, I never want anyone to think that I am pointing directly at them while making a point. With that being said, this post is about quitting…but it’s also about much more than that. If you can, I ask that you read it all and read it knowing that my heart is not in judgement over those who have left the mission field. There are many good and wise reasons why people relocate. Sometimes it’s against what they even want but circumstances forced their hands to leave. However, there is also a huge decrease in the length of time that missionaries are willing to “stick it out” and an overall abandonment of commitments; commitments that were made to teammates, to churches, to supporters and to the people that are left behind. I believe it would be wise to ask ourselves what is happening.
But what pushed me to share this post today was receiving an email from a woman serving in missions, who I have never met, but whose words so closely resonated with me that I wanted to reach through the screen to give her a hug and a strong drink of…coffee. She said she needed to reach out to someone who could hear the discouragement that they are going through without suggesting that they return to the States. When I read her email, I knew I needed to share this.
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My mom signed me up for band in 7th grade. She also helped forced me to decide that the alto sax would be the perfect instrument to accompany my already insufferable behavior and even more intolerable permed bangs. She was right. It suited me perfectly. What also suited me perfectly was bumping my giant saxophone case into dozens of friends acquaintances fellow students who didn’t know my name, while awkwardly walking the halls. As much as I loathed the saxophone and blamed it for every single problem in my life: lack of friends, bad breath (from the wooden reed, of course), overall unpleasantness, late development (I blamed everything for that), brass-themed nightmares, bad grades, etc, my parents still refused to let me quit.
I hit a low point in 10th grade when I was still in band. I hated it. My parents would not relent. I could not quit. I went through unbelievable efforts to hide my saxophone case or any trace that I was still a member of the band. I chose symphonic band because the only public performances were attended by bored family members. But this year, in order to pass band class, I had to play in one public performance, a basketball game. I was mortified. All those years that I had tried to hide my brass shame and now I was being forced to puff my chapped-from-puberty cheeks out and blow into that horrible horn in front of everyone. My life was over. My parents loved these particular moments of my life the most, by the way. They proudly showed up to the game awaiting my performance. I decided that in order to maintain any self-respect my only option was to hide. So, I slipped down in between the bleachers, tucked my knees up to prop the sheet music (I still fully committed to the musicality of it all, I’m not a monster), backpack and jacket surrounding me to provide full coverage from my shame. This worked for half of the game until I felt something familiar…that recognizable pit in my stomach, that feeling which told me that my dad’s eyes had found me. They were locked on me. I could feel it. I scanned the crowd from the tiny breathing hole I had allowed myself and there he was; sitting across the gym…eyes fixed. With one fluid motion his two fingers made a swiping motion as he mouthed “get up now”.
I was grounded for weeks over this. My parents did not tolerate disrespect and they did not tolerate quitting. My years of brass shame mostly taught me that parents can do whatever they wanted and that I desperately wanted needed that power someday soon. But more importantly it also taught me that quitting is never our first option. Over years of band-shame my parents were building character and lessons that hurt me at the time but grew me even more. Right or wrong, my parents never let me quit a class or blame a teacher for my problems, we didn’t run from conflict or avoid hardships in our family, and we were never taught to retreat or escape even the most painful of experiences.
I’m not in band anymore and my mother (still laughing at me, no doubt) sold my beautiful saxophone without my permission. I’m now living a much different life over here in East Africa but have been filled with many similar feelings that I had way back in Jr. High of wanting to quit.
Last week was supposed to be the final step in the adoption of our youngest son which would let us finally get a passport and visit the States after years of waiting. This was supposed to be the final step of a process that has been long and very difficult. It was postponed again due to our judge being relocated. There is currently no judge available to hear our case.
Our plans, once again are being shifted. On top of this, the past year has been full of the most difficult trials we have ever faced. Trials that most have told us to run from. I would have run. I know it (don’t forget sax girl hiding in the bleachers). However, God in His infinite wisdom and mercy chose to make our adoption process long and difficult, which has us literally kind of stuck abroad for a time. We have had no choice but to run to him for refuge because we couldn’t “run home”. God graciously has us in a place that isn’t our “home” in order to be reminded daily that we are longing for a better home (Hebrews 11). He has us waiting on Him rather than making our own plans.
So, all week I had been tempted to go back and forth between anger and self-pity. I could hear the voices of all the people telling us how badly we need to go back home and how it’s been too long. Very well intentioned and wise people telling us that we have “served our time”, to leave the country, move cities, escape hardships, and return “home”. But last week, in between my sinful thoughts, God started prompting small doubts into my heart of all the well-intentioned advice that I have heard. I could not help but think that it may not always be the right advice to give our missionaries. Maybe it’s not time for “reprieve”?
I thought about the Christians who lived before us who boarded ships many times with no promises of ever “returning home”.
I thought about the King David who cried out in Psalms “how long, oh God will you let me suffer?”
I thought about the Israelites who were placed in waiting, by God, in the dessert for 40 years.
I thought about Sarah waiting desperately for a son and God telling her “no” for a season.
I thought about Moses, “choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.”
I thought about Paul, in prison multiple times, but writing letters of encouragement to others and then continuing ministry shortly after his releases. I thought about how if Paul lived today what kind of advice he would get. “You’ve done enough, Paul.”, “It’s not wise to preach so boldly in this dangerous city”, “You have put in your time”…
So through sovereign circumstances, God Himself has chosen to “not let us quit”. I have those same feelings I got when my dad’s eyes were on me as a hiding teenager, hiding and wanting to quit, but with a good and wise Father pushing me on. Just like my dad was building character in my awkward Jr. High self through brass shame and lessons in “sticking it out”, God often uses waiting, pain and trials, not as an opportunity to abandoned ship and run, but to stay and to abide in Him. God asks us to trust in Him, learn from him, and place our burdens on HIM during these times. We just rarely get a chance to because we are so quickly bailed out. We are so fast to rescue ourselves in the west and overall, we are pretty fantastic at preserving our own safety and comfort.
Isaiah 30: “Ah, stubborn children, declared the Lord, who carry out a plan, but not mine, and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit, that they may add sin to sin…”
In this passage the Israelites were afraid for their lives because of the oncoming danger and desolations of Judah by Sennacherib’s invasion. They didn’t seek God and they didn’t obey what He had commanded them to do. Rather they went to the Egyptians to seek refuge, which actually would have seemed like a just resolution at the time. I would have been championing that decision. I’m sure of it.
Children of God can make plans for safety, plans for departure, plans for resigning, plans for “protective boundaries” and it not be of the Lord. We so often place hasty man-made solutions to quickly get us out of our discomfort before ever truly consulting God.
We have a way of making self-serving or self-protecting decisions seem right without really trusting God, abiding in His Word, and contemplating the effects of breaking the commitments that we have made on the mission field. We then claim our decisions as “his will” claiming to have “peace about it”, both of those statements being nearly impossible for outsiders to challenge. We have a romantic and Christian way of explaining our escapes as “using wisdom”, “making margins”, “protecting ourselves”, “moving on”, “being redirected”, “shifting ministry philosophies”, etc. when sometimes it’s just quitting. And because our culture has become to obsessed with comfort, so quick to find easy solutions, so wishy-washy on our commitments, so fast to move on to the next best thing, and so weak in our ability to confront others in love, we encourage quitting and sometimes aid people in “carrying out our own plans…but not HIS”. Just like the shiny appeal of the sax and dreams of being Kenny G. wore off quickly; so does the lure, the adventure, the romance, and all the “feelings” we got on those short terms missions trips fade away.
But, sometimes God still might want us to stay.
Maybe being uncomfortable, or allowing those we love to be uncomfortable, is exactly what God will use to free us from the facade of “control” that we worship in our culture. Maybe being out of control will release us into a painfully beautiful surrender to God; receiving our power to continue on from HIM despite circumstances.
Maybe God wants us to stay in the furnace, feeling both the pressure of the fire and the fear of death…waiting for HIM to deliver us.
Maybe sometimes God wants us to continue in our work even though persecution and danger come (Jesus actually promises persecution when we choose to follow HIM).
Suffering may just be HIS greatest tool of refinement that we will miss out on when we run.
Sometimes it’s God’s grace, though painful, that keeps us where it hurts us the most.
Sometimes the destroying nature of our trials is what brings us to the end of ourselves and into the arms of our loving heavenly Father.
Sometimes God is asking us to step out on the stormy waters rather than stay safe in the boat.
Sometimes God wants us to ignore the advice of Western society that idolizes immediate gratification and comfort and instead chose the painfully difficult path He has laid before us.
Sometimes HE wants us, in faith and despite reason, to wait on Him. To stay.
And sometimes He wants the friends and family of missionaries to be like what Aaron and Hur were to Moses; not removing the burden or making an easy escape but holding up our arms while we stay. So, please…if you see I am in need of refuge, point me to God, not America. If you see my thirst, lead me to the Living Water rather than offering me temporary tastes of anything less.
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*And if, after all of this, as a missionary, you still decide to go home…can I buy your imported couch and Tupperware?
Only expats will get the strange phenomena of missionary moving sales that made that joke quite literally impossible to pass up.