Thursday, May 28, 2015

What Missionaries Aren't Telling You (and What Needs to Change About That)

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3  

About a month ago, I was staring at the computer screen for 15 minutes.

Finally I looked up at Gil, frustrated.  "I got nothing," I told him.

Our monthly prayer update was way over-due.  But I had been putting it off because I had no great stories, no answers to prayer, nothing that seemed worth sharing.

Finally I asked Gil, "Should I just write about our discouragement?"

He paused for a moment.  "Yes."

Could I have drummed up a great little vignette about one of our students?  Probably.  Those kind of stories are always there.  It would have been true, but it would have felt fake.  The reality is that the overwhelming picture of our ministry right now is discouragement.  Things are not going as well as we had hoped.  Our plan isn't working very well.  On top of that, there's been a lot of sickness and injuries or just plain distractions that have been pulling our team down.

There's probably a dozen reasons why it's not going well.  And we've got a dozen ideas to change it.  We are not giving up; we've still got a lot of grit and oceans of grace.

But it was scary to send that email.  In the past months, I have felt the weight of our donors' disappointment bearing me down, whispering words of criticism and failure.

Surprisingly, so far it's only been my imagination.  The email I wrote broke all our records for the number of readers, and we probably received more responses from that one message than ever before.  Responses of love, prayers, Scripture, and encouragement poured into our inbox.   Not one word of criticism.

It makes me wish I had done it before.  This isn't the first time we've felt ground into the dust, even after those first two difficult years.  Maybe I didn't need to feel so scared after all.

However, I know that the anxiety is still there, and won't ever leave completely.  It is a constant battle to release it to God's control.  After all, one discouraging email is one thing....what if there are six?  Or ten?  Will people still support us?  How long will they put up with so little fruit?

And again, there is a need for delicate balance.  Even with the public lives that we lead, missionaries still are entitled to some privacy--just like anyone else.  It's one thing to be vulnerable about ministry, but are missionaries required to share with the world that they are falling apart?  If I was to go back 14 years to do it over again, would I have shared with our entire email list that I needed counseling?  Probably not.  But I would have shared it with some.  I would have looked for those people who I knew I could trust, and poured out my heart to them.  I think it would have made a big difference.

So here's my advice for the missionaries:

1.  Sometimes we bemoan the fact that people treat us like superstars.  We want to be seen as ordinary; we don't want people to be intimidated by us.  But what if some of that is our fault?  What if we've ensured that people only see the successful, happy, brave side of us and never let them peek at  the blubbering mess on the floor?  Is it fear that keeps us from being vulnerable?  Or pride?  Our supporters don't need to see everything, but they do need to see more than just the good stuff.

2.  Find the people who have your back.  Look hard for those safe people that you can be real with.  Trying to do this hard life on your own is just not going to work.

3.  Whose ministry is this anyway?  Are we walking in faith?  Are we actively seeking God?  Are we sure of our calling?  Then who do we have to fear?  Who are we seeking to please?  Does God's work, His timing, His will need defending?  This is what I preach to myself every day.  This is not my ministry.  And if He needs less of me in order to make more of Him, then so be it.  

To be alive is to be broken.  And to be broken is to stand in need of grace.  Honesty keeps us in touch with our neediness and the truth that we are saved sinners.  There is a beautiful transparency to honest disciples who never wear a false face and do not pretend to be anything but who they are. (Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel)

What Missionaries Aren't Telling You (and What They Need From You)

August 2001
I remember the day Gil took this picture during our first month in Tanzania.  Completely fake smile.  I was dying inside.  

Part 1

Part 2

Fourteen years ago, what if I had been completely transparent?

Instead of, Pray for Amy because she's struggling emotionally, what if I written this in our email updates?

Amy is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
We're traveling to Kenya during our Christmas break so that Amy can talk to a counselor.
The counselor wants Amy to take anti-anxiety medication.

Instead of, Our ministry is struggling, what if we had written,

The church we are working with is on the verge of splitting.
We were sharply criticized today.  
We feel like failures.  

But we could not.  We were paralyzed by fear.

Missions is brewed in a pot of extremely high expectations.  Missionaries undergo a brutal screening process by their organization.  Church missions committees pepper them with interview questions on strategy and effectiveness.  If you want to be chosen, that's what you've got to prove.

Then, once missionaries are approved, signed, sealed, commissioned, and their picture spread all over foyer walls and refrigerators across the country, they are thrust out into the world to show off their strategy and effectiveness.  After all, they've got scores of donors behind them who want to see the return on their investment.

I don't know if that's true, but that's what it feels like.

So when the strategy doesn't work (since it usually doesn't the first time around), and there is very little effectiveness to be seen, what then?  What do they tell people?  When a missionary spends three months planning an event, and only three people show up, should he be upfront about it?  When the church doesn't get planted, or when the planted church falls apart, or when the exciting new believer has been stealing from you....what then?

We wanted to be in Tanzania.  We were not going to give up that easily.  We had a good deal of grit, and a lot of God's grace, and we were in this for a long haul.  But we were terrified to be honest about how hard it was.  We were terrified of letting people down, especially our donors.  

Surely that wouldn't happen, you might think.  People love you!  They will support you!  They don't care how effective you are.  

Except, we knew that is not always true.  We have a missionary friend who confided in a church leader's wife about her struggles.  She assumed it was a personal conversation, but soon this heart-to-heart talk was spread across church leadership, and before they could blink, the missionaries were pulled off the field.  Unfortunately, the same scenario then happened to another friend.

We heard the stories of friends who lost support overnight because a church disagreed with an inconsequential decision.  We hear the rumblings of, Aren't national missionaries cheaper?  More effective?  More strategic?  And we interpret it as One false move and you are disposable.

I realize that there is a delicate balance here, because I would agree that there are times when missionaries need to be exhorted, or confronted, or even encouraged to come home.  Supporting churches do need to keep missionaries accountable.  But missionaries need to have permission to struggle, to be confused, and even to fail.

So here's my advice for the Senders:

1.  I encourage churches and supporters to look at missionary partnerships like a marriage.  When you are choosing to support missionaries, just like when you are choosing who you will marry, you should be really careful.  You scrutinize.  You ask a lot of questions.  You make sure there aren't any hidden red flags.  But once you take the marriage vows, or once you sign on as a supporter, you're all in.  For better or worse.  Just as I know my husband won't leave me on a bad day, I hope that our supporters won't either.

2.  If you do need to cut a missionaries' support--for any reason--please, please communicate with them!  We totally understand when people come upon hard financial times.  But when we are suddenly dropped by a donor, with no explanation, our minds instantly go to the worst.  Did I offend them?  Am I not effective enough?  Am I a loser?  

3.  If you are on the receiving end of those missionary prayer letters, I encourage you to pray between the lines.  When you see struggle, you should most likely interpret it as STRUGGLE.  Knock your missionaries off those pedestals and remember that they are flawed and sinful and sometimes just wrong.

4.  If a missionary confides in you, either in person or in writing, know that there is a great deal of trust behind their words.  Treasure that and protect it, just like you would with any other friend.  Ensure your friend that you are a safe place with no expectations and no hidden agendas.  They need this reassurance.

If it seems like I'm being too hard on the Senders, I've got things to say to the missionaries as well.   Here's Part 3.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

What Missionaries Aren't Telling You (Part 1)

Just babies....our very first prayer card in 2001

Our first two years in Tanzania were the hardest of my life.

Gil and I were 24 years old.  We had been married only 9 months.  Ten days after we arrived, I had an adverse reaction to my malaria medication that instigated over 6 months of panic attacks.  I was deep in mental darkness, and even when I began to improve, I still was barely coping a lot of the time.

My teaching job required me to wake up at 5:00 and leave the house at 6.  Usually, I didn't get home until 5 pm.   Gil's job took place in the afternoons and evenings.  When I got home from work each day, I immediately joined him in his ministry.  I loved what we were doing, but I was utterly exhausted.

Gil had joined a ministry that wasn't healthy, though we were too young and naive to see it.  We received a lot of criticism and internalized it all, believing the problems really were our fault.  Gil repeatedly asked for mentoring but didn't get it.

Then came the final blow.  There was a young man who claimed Christ, and we heavily invested in him.  He was at our house 5 days a week for almost a year.  Six weeks before we left Tanzania, we found out that he had been stealing from us.  We returned to the States in pieces.  Thankfully, God's grace put us back together again, but it was a long road.

No one knew.

We could hardly even talk about it with each other.  For goodness sake, we were newlyweds.  In our eyes, everyone we worked with was experienced and godly and strong and competent.  We certainly couldn't tell them we were falling apart.

You can bet your life we didn't tell our supporters.  Oh sure, there were vague prayer requests like, "Pray for Amy because she's struggling emotionally."  Whatever that means.  I look back on our prayer updates and they were full of only the good stuff.  Stories about great conversations with young people, about victories and opportunities and answered prayer.

We were not lying.  The good stuff really did happen.  We wanted to stay.  In fact, we came back.  It just wasn't the whole truth.  Everything bad, which really was overwhelming at times, got relegated to nebulous statements about "struggle."

I'm writing today because I believe wholeheartedly that we were not alone.  Not alone in how hard it was, and not alone in feeling unable to share it with others.  My next two posts will be about what I've learned--one post aimed at the senders, and one post aimed at the missionaries.  Read along and tell me what you think.

Part 2

Part 3

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Finding Truth

Millenials Leaving Church in Droves, Study Finds.  This is the big news circulating this week.  In reality, it's not that concerning since it's really just a decline in cultural Christians, not committed followers of Christ.  

However, the inability of Christians to pass on their faith to their children is a concern.  Increasingly, university students are not taught critical thinking in their classes, they are indoctrinated into a religion of secularism in the name of "tolerance."  Yet our churches, and often even our Christian high schools, are simply not preparing students for the real-world onslaught of secular ideas.  

The article above states:  "Christianity in the United States hasn't done a good job of engaging serious Christian reflection with young people, in ways that would be relevant to their lives."  After spending 13 years in ministry with high school and college students, I absolutely agree. True, disturbing, and yet inspiring.  Let's change that.  

So I'm writing today with a plea to every Christian parent.  If you want your child to take their faith past high school and college, if you want them to really be able to impact culture, if you want them to not just know and love the gospel, but have a confidence in the gospel, then you must train them in worldview analysis.  

If I was talking to you right now, I would probably be getting way too loud and way too passionate, and Gil would gently remind me that I'm sitting right next to you and I can talk in a normal voice.  

Oh, my friends.  I have sat with so many college students in my living room, who are attending some of the best universities in America, and had long talks with them about the intellectual challenges they are facing in their classrooms.  The war is on in our culture, and the pawns are our children.  Yes, the gospel is what saves them.   But they must have the tools--they must have the confidence--to know why it is true.  Why Christianity is superior any other philosophy.  Why they don't need to be ashamed of what they believe.  How they can learn to ask the right questions which will disarm any secular philosophy--even in their college classrooms.  

My point today is to make a passionate plea for every Christian parent to read this book.  

Nancy Pearcey is my all-time favorite author.  Her first book, Total Truth, is by far the most influential book I have ever read.  It's still my favorite, but Finding Truth is shorter and more practical, so it's a really good place to start.   

This book is not an easy read, but it is utterly fascinating.  Nancy Pearcey has an amazing way of taking complex topics and bringing them down to a level that even a non-academic person can understand.  Worldview and philosophy are not light subjects.  However, understanding them is absolutely essential to giving our kids teeth to their faith and giving them the chance to really impact our culture. 

This is not an apologetics book for Christianity.  This is a book that trains the reader how to think--how to analyze any concept, take it back to its origins, and determine its truthfulness.  

If you do not start with God, you must start somewhere else.  You must propose something else as the ultimate, eternal, uncreated reality that is the cause and source of everything else.  The important question is not which starting points are religious or secular, but which claims stand up to testing. (Nancy Pearcey)

I would love for every young person to read and digest this book before college.  But if that's just not going to happen, then every parent needs to read it and teach these things to their kids.  The concepts in this book, once learned, apply to everyday life--movies, books, newspaper headlines, cultural trends.  The possibilities are endless for teaching kids to learn to think both philosophically and biblically--which really go hand-in-hand. 

Will you join with me in this quest?  Read it and tell me what you think!

Friday, May 15, 2015

24 Hours (A Day in My Life): A Messed Up Knee and Legendary Traffic

Wednesday, May 13

8:30 pm:  Gil is home from playing basketball, and limping and wincing.  "I think I really messed up my knee," he tells me.  "I'll need to go to the doctor tomorrow if it's not feeling better."  I know he's serious because he almost never voluntarily wants to go to the doctor.

Thursday, May 14

6:15 am:  I am up and getting the kids ready for school.  Gil tells me that we will indeed need to see the doctor today.  It's his right knee that is injured, so I will need to drive.

7:30 am:  I get the kids off to school, and go to my mom's prayer group.  I cancel my Swahili lesson and our meetings with our team leader.

9:30 am:  We have stalled going to the clinic, hoping to avoid rush hour traffic.  We've had two weeks of solid rain, significantly damaging many roads.  We've been avoiding going to town lately, because we heard that the already bad traffic become atrocious.  But since it's not raining today, and we avoided rush hour, we are hoping it won't be too bad.

The clinic is 9 miles away.

11:15 am:  We arrive at the clinic.  Obviously, our hopes were dashed for a decent traffic day.  One hour and 45 minutes for 9 miles.  That's bad even for Dar es Salaam.

We wait at the clinic.

12:45 pm:  Gil finally sees a doctor, who gives him crutches, and also a referral for an MRI at a hospital.  We grab some lunch and head over to the hospital.

We wait at the hospital.  I make a few phone calls to make sure our kids will be picked up from school and taken care of.  My friend Alyssa saves the day.  I love her.

3:00 pm:  Gil gets his MRI.  The doctor checks it out and wants to order an x-ray as well.  However, the x-ray machine is broken and won't be ready for another hour.  We decide it is better to wait rather than trying this journey again tomorrow.

5:00 pm:  Gil gets his x-ray.

5:17 pm:  We are on the road to go home.  We have 10 miles to drive from the hospital to our house.

9:00 pm:  We arrive home.  That's 10 miles in 3 hours and 45 minutes, in case you don't want to do the math.


1)  I can't even describe the traffic here.  It's not traffic, it's TRAFFIC.  Yes, I've lived in Los Angeles.  This is nothing like that.  In Dar es Salaam, at peak traffic times, people make four lanes--or five, or six--out of two.  People drive on the side walks.  No one pays attention to stop lights.  Cars are going everywhere.  After driving 6 hours yesterday, I am utterly exhausted.

2)  We'll get the results for Gil's knee on Saturday.  Praying he doesn't need surgery, or if he does, that it can be done here.  Although, if he does have to fly to South Africa for surgery, it might actually take less time to travel there than driving to the hospital in Dar es Salaam.

3)  We are now in the market for a helicopter.  Anyone got a used one lying around?

37 minutes.....HA HA HA.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Longing for a Better Country.....guest posting over at "A Life Overseas!"

This is a pretty exciting day for me!  I finally got brave enough to submit some of my writing to a missions blog I follow....and today, I am guest posting!  

Follow this link over to "A Life Overseas" to read my post, a memoir of loss in Africa.  

I never got to say good-bye, either to the country or the people I loved.  Liberia haunts my dreams; it remains an unfinished part of my life to this day.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Dear Birthmother

My children are mine, no doubt about it.  Legally, emotionally, forever and always, through late-night fears and throw-up on the floor, first toddling steps, fingerprints on the walls, bright scrawled drawings on my refrigerator.

They grin at me and yell "Mommy!" when the tooth comes out.
They look to me and whine, "Mommy............" when life is unfair.
They cling to me and whisper, "Mommy" when the doctor comes at them with a needle.

I am Mommy.  But you are too.

There is a part of them that is yours, and always will be.  I look for you sometimes, in their faces, in their movements, in their reactions.  I wonder if you have the same shoulder dimples, if you have the same almond-shaped eyes, if you have that slight frame.

One of you gave your life bearing my child.  Tragedy. Sorrow.  So unnecessary, because if you had given birth in another country, you would never have died.

I think about that day, when my child was taking her first breath, and hours later, you were taking your last.  Did you get to hold her?  Did her fingers curl around yours?  Did you get to comprehend, at least for a few minutes, the beautiful miracle you brought into the world?  Or did fear and pain overwhelm it all?

And the other two, you who held my child for nine months.  You felt her kick against you.  You watched your belly grow large with him.  A miracle, a life, a breathing, feeling, child in the image of God, growing inside you, yet you felt only

What caused your hopelessness?  Was it the lack of love in your life?  Were you afraid of losing your only chance at an education?  Was it rejection by your own mother, your empty purse, a broken heart?

I wish I had known you.  I wish I could have come alongside of you and given you hope, and helped you realize that there could be another way, that this child who was knit inside of you for nine months could have always been yours.

If I met you today, I would collapse at your feet and thank you.  The child you bore made me a Mommy.  The child you bore has overflowed my cup.  The child you bore is beautiful and intelligent and loving and full of hope.

I wish you could see her.  I wish you could see him.  I wish you could see me.  I wish we could help you fill the holes in your heart.  I wish for hope for you.  And Redemption.

Your sorrow meant my joy.  Your loss was my gain.  I am sad that you will never know.

Dear Birthmother, you have given me an indescribable gift.  I am forever indebted to you.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Truth on the No Good, Very Bad Days

The day started when one of my kids woke me up a half hour before my alarm.  "My bed is all wet," the child mourned.

And that was just the beginning.

"Mom!  I spilled my smoothie all over myself."

"Mom!  Look out the window!  Leo chewed up another patio chair!"  Leo is the dog we recently acquired.  He happens to be the Most Obnoxious Dog on Earth.

"Mom! Daddy says he has a migraine."

Of course, all of these things were also happening in semi-darkness, since we're having electricity issues (again) and currently none of our overhead lights are working.

"Grace, go get the fan from your room so that we can try to dry the laundry from yesterday."  "Mom!  The top of the fan broke off!"  Of course it did.

That was all before 7:15...which is also when I remembered that we had a flat tire, which we had not changed because yesterday it was pouring rain.

The kids were 45 minutes late to school.

I'm with Alexander; I want to move to Australia.

It doesn't help that this comes during a time when I am battling discouragement.  Ministry isn't going as well as we had hoped; things are hard; we don't feel good at this; we feel out of our league.  I have been anxious and emotional.

Then this morning I read, Truth affects our emotions when it is believed.

Yes.  What is the Truth I need to believe today?

His grace is sufficient.  Give thanks in all circumstances.  Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.*

Some will say, "Well, that doesn't work for me.  When I hear truth, it doesn't have an emotional effect on me.  It doesn't take away my anxiety".....If the Bible's arguments are not having an effect on you, it's because you have little faith in what it says.  Faith is massively important here.  We must trust.  We must believe what Jesus says.  (John Piper)

If the Bible doesn't apply to days like today, then it doesn't apply at all.

Here's to believing.

* (2 Cor. 2:9, I Thes. 5:18, I Peter 5:7, Prov. 3:6)