Sunday, March 23, 2014

Mission field confessions

Growing up every time "the missionary" came to speak at church it was a really big deal. They were always elevated to this high position. We, the congregation, were on the bottom, the pastor was up the ladder a few rungs. Then, way up on the top,that's where the missionary was. They would speak about how everything is so great in their little piece of the world. How awesome everything always is. As I got involved with doing international missions I placed a lot of those expectations on myself - and then some. What I learned was that I couldn't even begin to live up to them.

Here are a few of my confessions about TRUE missionary life. These may not be true of everyone, but they certainly are for me.

1. I am not brave for moving to Kenya. Okay, look, I'm going to be honest here. I took the EASY way out. Yes, you read that correctly! I said I took the easy way out. So many people say things to me along the lines of "I wish I could do what you did", or "You're so brave for doing that". Want to know the truth? Here it is. First of all, you can do it if you really want to - and if you're called, for at least a time, to do so. Second, it wasn't brave or courageous of me. The truth is that it was easy. It was easy because I knew that it was the right decision. It's actually harder moving back into the US again. Moving to Kenya - that was the easy thing for me. Let me say it another way: moving to Kenya was an act of faith and obedience not bravery. 

2. It's not always a spiritual high. In fact, there can be some pretty low times. The idea that missionaries have this perfect life and faith is outrageous. Yes, a lot of faith is involved. But that faith can be a challenge at times too. Surrounded by so much poverty, death and corruption day after day after day can really beat you up. I know it did me. There were so many times that I had a hard time seeing anything good in a situation. I remember the first time that I watched a 6 month old baby's HIV test come back positive. Talk about faith shattering! I may not have doubted the sovereignty of God, but I sure did struggle to see it sometimes. Isn't that the very definition of faith? Believing without seeing?

3. Being a missionary doesn't make you a biblical expert. I always viewed missionaries as the ones with all of the answers. Guess what - that's not even close to true. We wrestle with scriptures too. I loved the times where we, as a staff, would read something and at the end we would all be confused and left without answers. But we dove in anyway, and we sought after an understanding. It's not some magical gift we get when we become a missionary. We have to work at it too.

4. Holidays can suck. No matter how much I loved what I was doing and knew that I was right where I belonged, holidays away from family sucked. I spent two christmases away and I hated them. Part of the reason was that both years I was stuck in bed with really bad Malaria. However, a larger reason is that I missed my family. I could never escape the feeling that I was letting them down by not being with them on holidays. It sucks. Yet we push through it and cherish the times that we get to be with family and friends in the States - our first home. It's hard but the few minutes we can spend on the phone with loved ones means the WORLD to us. Hearing just one family member say that they're proud of us for the reason we're away makes the pain of being away manageable (notice, it doesn't take the pain away). The world has become so small with increasing technology. Still, on Holidays when I knew my family was together and I wasn't there I might as well have been on a different planet. 8,000 miles felt more like 8 million miles at those times.

5. Getting sick overseas can bring on some of the worst cases of homesickness. Seriously, every time I had bad cases of Malaria, I wanted to get better. But I REALLY wanted to be back home in the USA. Not for the medicine, I could get the same medicine (cheaper too) in Kenya. Not for the comfort of things. But for the comfort of family and friends. Those days being stuck in bed, barely able to move, all I really wanted was to see a family member. Someone to tell me that they hope I feel better soon.

6. We need encouragement too. Sounds simple. But so often forgotten. It's easy to think about a missionary living overseas and think to send a monetary donation. That's awesome. If you feel led to do that, by all means do so. BUT...though we may sometimes stress over financial support, there is a peaceful faith that comes with it. We know that we'll be taken care of. What we often need more than financial gifts is encouragement. A little note saying you're thinking about a missionary can make the entire week for someone. When you think about a missionary you know or support, send a little email. It doesn't have to be long - just long enough to let them know you're thinking about them. Especially around birthdays, holidays or anniversaries. It might take you 5 minutes but your email will be read with such excitement and joy over and over again.

7. We don't need financial gifts. We need support. This one ties into the above. You might not think that there is much difference in financial gifts and support. But there is a HUGE difference. I didn't realize how much difference there is until I left Kenya last year. It was then that I realized that I had support, not just money. The way that I was welcomed back into my community at home was such a blessing. I didn't just have people sending checks each month. I had people that were invested in me. And as a result, I am still cared for at home as well. When I left Kenya, I was forced out for refusing to pay a bird to the government. I was given 48 hours to be out of the country or be arrested. The amount of support that poured in still brings me to tears 9 months later. The emails, voice messages and get messages during that time were so desperately needed. Within hours of being kicked out, I had three different families open their home to me. One that drove over 4 hours to pick me up at the airport. This is not financial support. This is SUPPORT. This is relationship. THANK YOU TO ALL OF YOU!

8. Sometimes the spotlight is so bright that it burns. This may be something that I tended to place on myself more than anything else. But I often felt that there was this bright light over my life and everything I did was subject to scrutiny. Every time I bought a samosa (my favorite food over there!!) or anything as a treat for myself, I felt a pressure (again, mostly I placed it there) of what people would think. So many times I just wanted to turn the light off and blend into the background again. Back to a time where no one knew who I was.

9. Missionaries love to share our stories but we might not be ready right away. This one is tricky, so please be sensitive. I love to share stories about Kenya. I could talk for hours about my experiences. But sometimes, I just want to be alone too. Sometimes, usually after coming back into the US, it's difficult to start talking about it right away. Please don't be offended if your missionary friend isn't able or ready to talk about it right off of the plane. It is not a sign of disinterest or a lack of desire to share with you. He may just need a bit of time to decompress first. Believe it or not, returning to the US, even after a short term trip, is a HUGE culture shock. Be patient and know that when your friend is ready, you will be rocked by their stories.

10. We want to know about your life. This ties into the last one. We may send regular updates. We do so because we want you to be a part of the experience with us. But we also want to be a part of your life too. We want to know how you are doing. What is happening in YOUR life? Don't be afraid to send a note back with an update on you. Just because you're not the one living in another country doesn't make you any less interesting to us. Plus, it will allow us to feel connected to you too.

11. Burn out exists. My last summer working at camp, a man that I greatly admire, Steve, said something remarkable. He asked the question, "are you working for God or living for Him?". I thought that I had it down. I tried to take care of myself and have daily quiet times and a weekly sabbath. Unfortunately, that stopped at some point. There were times that I would go weeks without taking a true day off. I started to work for God, not live for God. This will always lead to burn out. It may not happen right away, but it will happen. Take care of yourself or you will leave the mission field burnt to a crisp.

12. Relationships are not perfect. I'm flawed and broken just like everyone else. When I became a missionary my life didn't all of a sudden fit neatly together. I still have broken relationships that I wish were able to be repaired. Moving 8,000 miles away doesn't fix them. In fact, it can actually put more of a strain on already fragile relationships. I know because I've had, and still have, plenty. It doesn't mean that we stop caring or trying. It means that we're just like everyone else. We live in a fallen and broken world. We are not above it.

13. We can leave the country but the country stays with us. I may feel peace about not returning to Kenya but those memories will ALWAYS be with me. I think of stories from In Step and the kids there that have had such an impact on me. I think of Peter Lojore and how some of the most difficult lessons I've ever learned came from his far too short life. I still think of the first time I had a legitimate death threat. I still think back to the street boys and how they became my friends, not my ministry. I think often of the time I got to talk with the local glue (cheap drug for street boys) dealer. I think about my little buddy Alex Juma (local street boy) and how free he was when I took a simple ball to town and had a catch with him. I so often think of how much I have grown and changed because of Kenya. My friend Daniel once told me not to go to Kenya expecting to change the country. But go expecting the country to change me. And it sure did. I am not the same man that I was in 2009 when I first boarded a plane to Kenya. I may have left Kenya, but I have not forgotten it. I never will.

14. I got used to life there. It became comfortable. Remember when earlier I said that moving there was not brave? This is why. Things made sense in Kenya. The phrase "this is Africa" (or "TIA" for short) was often uttered. Life was simpler. When something didn't make sense, it all of a sudden did because "it was Kenya". It may have been a running missionary joke, but there is a lot of truth to it.

15. I loved it. Even the parts I didn't like, I loved. These last two may sound a bit out of place with the other ones, but they're true. There were parts I may not have always liked. But I loved my life there. There was a deep sense of purpose; it mattered. I have peace about not being back right now. But I also miss it dearly.

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