This topic is a little heavy for the week of Thanksgiving. However, I can’t seem to get away from the burning issue that is upfront in my heart and mind today. Here it is: I’m thankful for every crack in the road that took Ben and me from our fledgling newly married life to the jungles of Papua New Guinea. I guess you could say we grew up together here. I think about the deep caverns of richness that have built up from the struggles we have had. I don’t really ever want to go back and do it again. (well, if I did, I’m sure I’d do a lot of things differently, but that’s another story.) BUT I am thankful for each of those hardships because I’m essentially not the same person I was twelve years ago. I started writing this post weeks ago, after reading Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission by Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss. It became a reflection of the expectations I had as a brand new missionary. I wonder if I had read the book before I came here, would it have opened my eyes to things I hadn’t been aware of, or if the ideas would have been way over my head? I am not quite sure!
Here are some words that come to mind when I think about the “new missionary” me:
Back in 2002, I knew I was heading into one of the most beautiful, untouched lands. I was going to share the Love of God with Those Who Did Not Know Him. Little did I know about God’s love myself and little did I know Him like I do now! I will add here that I didn’t really know much about joy, either, because I didn’t believe it was possible or necessary. I had blocked off many of my strongest emotions–anger, fear, joy, sadness–in order to protect myself.
I knew that mission work was going to be hard–I had seen my missionary parents suffer in many ways as a child–but I knew that God had called me to it. I knew I was leaving for a great adventure with Ben. I was all in!
There was NOTHING wrong with being idealistic or excited. But I was unprepared for the traumatic realities ahead of me. Some of my most guarded secrets began to rise to the surface within weeks, even months of arriving. I didn’t want to admit that depression consumed me, making it hard for me to function or sleep at times.
Expectation #1: I was tough. I was a missionary kid after all…shouldn’t I be able to handle cross cultural living with a smile on my face?
On the day we first met, I rolled an apple on the floor and took a bite out of it, after Ben challenged me by saying “you really are a missionary kid, aren’t you?”
I stomped through the creek and slathered myself in clay.
I walked barefoot over rocks at a national park.
And yet, that college girl looks a lot different from the woman I am today. I’m still up for adventure, but only safe ones! (I suspect the change in my desire to go after safe adventures now has to do with me being a mom.) I’ve learned that my highly sensitive nature is both a blessing and a curse: it’s ok to be vulnerable because it creates safety for others who might relate to my struggles….the other side of it is, I have to deal with strong emotions as they come and respect them because they tell me a lot about what I think. (as opposed to squishing them and living in the world of ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts.’)
Expectation #2: I thought that service to God meant denying myself the ability to say “no.”
I spoke to counselors on furlough and learned from a good friend that it takes practice to look at my life and see what I could say “yes” to and what I had to say “no” to. If I didn’t notice where I was spiritually and emotionally, I quickly began to burn out. I began putting things in place, like a self care plan, before heading back to our second term here.
Expectation #3: I thought that God needed me to do work for Him. That’s all.
I didn’t really understand or believe that He loved me. (I never could have verbalized this though!) I had a vague idea of Him being distantly aware of what we were doing, providing enough money for us to be here and being pleased if we followed the Right Way of doing things, rather than the Wrong Ones. My perception included a lot of pretending…that we were o.k. even though we weren’t.
I am still devoted to serving God as long as He gives me strength to do it. In all honesty, there’s not much of ‘me’ left to boast about now. Don’t get me wrong. I am not speaking as a jaded disgruntled missionary. Rather, I’m writing as someone who realizes that I’m nothing without God’s help. It’s so easy to write those words but even now as I write them, I must admit that I have so little understanding of how that works practically because I tend to grab control back as soon as I’m starting to feel on top of things. I suppose my life has been a constant ‘catch up’ game between what I believe and how I truly act or speak in my heart.
Newer Realizations: If I believe God loves me…then…He is enough
The authors of the “Expectations and Burnout” book say that we often don’t even know what expectations we have until they are unmet. I planned on having infinite strength to do literacy work…until I realized that the bare essentials of living, cooking, and caring for my children took a great deal of my time and mental energy. I could do both literacy and my work at home until we went from a family of five to seven when the twins joined us.
Similarly, I had planned on having harmonious relationships with the people I lived amongst, both expats and Papua New Guineans. Once again, my expectations began to slide into a completely different picture. Not a bad one, just different than I had expected. At the time, it looked like I was being used, rejected, left to navigate my stresses by myself, or that my family was being targeted. Even if those perceptions were true, they were the best things that could have ever happened to me. Because, if I had everything I had expected, I don’t think I would have been quite as willing to throw myself at God’s mercy.
Now that I’ve been here a few years, I’ve learned that I’m not the only one who has had to shift her expectations. Some come here grieving the loss of convenience food or comfortable furniture. Others come, thinking that it’s going to be easy to maintain relationships at a distance but then realize how much they miss their families back home, particularly in times of great joy or major crisis. Some grieve the loss of autonomy or freedom to travel safely that they might have in their home countries. Still more find it really hard to maintain a close relationship with their spouse when there are no places to go for date nights and the stress of work and living cross culturally and raising Third Culture Kids piles up. It can also be a shock and sorrowing to see a spouse struggling with his or her own issues, which, essentially cannot be separated from the rest of the family. The possibilities are endless. Whatever one’s expectations are, it’s not fun and sometimes it can last for months, even years, for some until their service overseas is completed.
Some things I’ve been able to process and receive healing from but I suspect there are other things that I will find hard until the Lord takes me Home. I’m thankful that I’m here despite all of that. I’m thankful for the things I see now that I never noticed before–the deeper things I had thought were just a part of me that are coming to light. Where God is taking those broken bits and putting them back together in a healing way.
A couple of days ago came the Voice I have come to recognize and love so much whispered, “Just wait and see what I’m going to do with you…” every time I think of that, I smile, because that’s what I deeply desire the most. I am all in!
for further reading (or, “Books I wish I had read before heading overseas….”)
“Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission,” by Sue Eenignburg and Robynn Bliss“Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High,” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler
“Boundaries” by Henry Cloud and John Townsend
(there’s a whole series: “Boundaries in Marriage,” “Boundaries with Kids”)
“Emotionally Healthy Spirituality,” by Peter Scazzero
“The Way of Transition,” by William Bridges
“The Inner Voice of Love,” by Henri Nouwen
“Grace Based Parenting,” by Tim Kimmel