17 Jun Reflections: One Year In The Field
“What are the white people doing to my son?” she asked our friend Duduzili. “Why has his behavior and outlook changed so drastically?” The boy’s mother has been repeatedly shocked over how much her son has positively changed since attending Pulse Bible Club. Our response to the boy’s mother was that it has nothing to do with us, and everything to do with Jesus and what He does in the lives of those who truly come to follow Him. Her precious son, Siviwe, has become a new boy because of the life-changing effects of coming face to face with Jesus. Only Jesus exposes our hopelessness in sin, while at the same time revealing our value and our reason for existing; to worship Him and to bring His message of hope, salvation, and redemption to all of creation. When we spend time with the children at our Bible club and sing, “Jesus Loves Me,” we aren’t simply reciting lyrics; we are singing our appreciation to the Lord for the love He has for us and the children. Hearts On Mission’s focus is the emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being of vulnerable Swazi children and we praise God that He has made this vision come to pass.
As much as we love stories like what happened to Siviwe, every day in the field doesn’t bring heart-warming stories like his. Every day in the mission field is not filled with laughter, joy, and feel-good stories to put in a newsletter. June 16th, 2017 marks our first year in the field and our hope is that these words will inform you about the adaptations and emotions of our first year in the field, but also shed light on what God does in the lives of His children when they get out of the way and completely live their lives for Him. Be confident in the truth that missionaries aren’t “super Christians,” and all of us desperately need the daily grace of the one true God. God wants you to experience the power of Christ’s resurrection and the freedom you receive the moment you lose your life and begin your new life of freedom in Christ.
Even with the best cross-cultural training money can buy, adapting to a new culture doesn’t come easy. We can say with confidence that pre-field short-term trips don’t adequately prepare anyone for the moments of physical fatigue, home-sickness, mental exhaustion, and emotional storms that will come to the cross-cultural missionary. Honestly, temper tantrums and breakdowns have occurred. On more than one occasion I’ve had to repent of things I’ve said and done during the “bad times.” Days when the power was lost for the thousandth time. Days when someone I counted on gave misinformation, or days we’ve paid someone to do a job that they did at half effort, or days we got shifted from one government office to another because no one seemed to know who could help. Having internet connectivity only fifty percent of the time is trying, especially when staying “connected” is so crucial to the administrative tasks of the ministry. On one occasion I lost my temper and yelled at a Kombi (Taxi) driver for his recklessness (Kombi drivers generally aren’t very cautious people). There are days when we are targets for pan-handlers because of the color of our skin; because in the third world, white people are often perceived as wealthy. A few people have tried to use us, so sometimes paranoia takes hold because we can’t help but wonder if the new friend we made really wants to know us, or is just trying to see what they can get from us. Some days feel dark. When we personally know children who are struggling with ongoing hunger or allegedly being abused, feelings of helplessness take over because it’s not as easy as going to social services and having them take over the difficult task of “fixing things” for the child. Not to mention how commonplace these types of problems are. Day after day of weaving through the complex cultural differences and how to navigate countless difficult scenarios can feel very defeating.
There is a flipside to most of these scenarios. That person who targets me for money because of the color of my skin has received countless handouts from whites who thought they were being helpful, not knowing that they were helping create a culture of handouts. How can I get upset about it, when my own culture is largely responsible for the problem? Truthfully, I can’t. Someone doing a job at half-effort isn’t specific to this culture alone. In fact, many times in America I’ve been left asking, “That’s what I paid for?” The person who gave me wrong information wasn’t being deceitful; they felt bad that they didn’t have the answer I was seeking (this is cultural), so they did their best to help by making something up. There is a lack of infrastructure in Swaziland, so power outages are to be expected. These are things we learned about pre-field, but it’s different when you live and experience the frustration and inconvenience that comes with it day after day.
That’s the word it comes down to. Inconvenience. In western culture, it means waiting a few extra minutes in line for an overpriced latte. Most westerners don’t know the meaning of inconvenience. That’s why when we experience any bit of it outside of what is expected within our worldview, our blood pressure goes up and we lose our minds. We don’t know how to wait for anything, because the culture we come from has taught us that we shouldn’t have to wait for anything. One of the greatest gifts the mission field has taught us this first year is how to be more patient; how to not let stress rule our emotions. Every expected outcome we have doesn’t have to be met within our preferred timeframe. We praise God for our new broadened worldview and for His grace, even as we’ve often failed during our time of adaptation. I’ve displaced anger and thought an unkind thought or two about the people I’ve been called to serve. But in the aftermath of my sin, while kneeling in repentance to the one-and-only, gracious God of the Bible, I am met with my own brokenness and weakness. I realize that it’s not the culture’s problem, it’s my problem. I’m going to fail at times, and I’m not going to “rescue” every child I come to know and love. Allowing my frustration to lead to doubt and anger is on me alone and no one else. God has called me to love and serve people within a different cultural context than my own. How foolish am I to respond to that call with anything other than great joy? I don’t have to serve; I get to serve, and serving others is difficult no matter which cultural context a person finds themselves in.
Sometimes it’s difficult to love people, but Jesus is the example we are to imitate in how we love others. Those who were closest to Him abandoned Him in His greatest moment of need; in His greatest moment of despair. Yet, He still loved them. He even loved those who tortured and killed Him, and even me; someone whose sin He bore the cross for. Who am I to think any less of anyone, when I myself am still so broken and prone to sin? With great love, God reminds me of how I am supposed to love and brings me back to solid ground. Then I can breathe and move forward, serving and giving of myself with a heart of gladness. It’s because of Jesus that my wife and I serve. It’s because of Jesus that we will continue to serve wherever we reside. Whether it be Swaziland, America, or anywhere else for that matter. He has called all of us who claim to know Him to live lives which are not of this world. We’re supposed to look different because of the One whom our identity is in. Of course inconveniences bother us when we take our eyes of Jesus. In that moment we are taking our eyes off of Him and putting them on ourselves. His commands become secondary, and our narcissism takes precedent. There’s no room for narcissism in the life of the Christian, no matter which cultural context they serve in.
Day by day we grow in our faith and in our marriage. Day by day God shows us His grace when we mess up; when we don’t love each other well. Day by day He’s there to forgive us and give us strength to move forward and run from that same sin the next time we’re tempted to succumb to it. There’s too much at stake to let the fear of the unknown, or the fear of making mistakes rule our lives and marriage. No matter what happens during our time in the field we know we won’t look back and regret that we followed Jesus to Swaziland. One of the most painful days my wife and I ever experienced was the day we left America for Swaziland. We both thought the pain of leaving our parents would never go away. With tears in my eyes I told my parents, “Remember that if anything happens to me, if God chooses to call me home to heaven while I am living in Africa, that following Jesus is worth it.” He is worthy of all our affections. He is worthy to be praised. He is worthy to follow, even unto death. Friends, earth isn’t our home if we know Christ; our true home is in Heaven and our lives on earth should reflect that. We are simply passing through, living to unapologetically exalt Christ in all that we do and in every circumstance. Praise God that following Jesus isn’t easy because difficulties remind us of who our King is, and how powerless we truly are. All of Jesus’ apostles lived lives marked by suffering; often seen as outcasts, they were isolated and eventually died horrific deaths. Knowing where they are now, I’m positive that not one of them would look back and say that following Christ wasn’t worth it.
Our first year in the field is probably fairly typical. We have been blessed with many cross-cultural missionary friends and their experiences are often like ours. They too have experienced heartache and disappointments, but also know the truth that following Jesus is greater than any momentary struggle we might face. When my time on earth is done, I know that any material possession I gave up to be a missionary, any friend I may have lost because of my faith, or any dream I may have put aside to answer God’s call will not be in vain when I am face to face with the one who loved me and gave Himself for me. For Ashley and I, this first year in the field will hopefully be the first of many to come. Our prayer is that God will continue to allow us to serve the children of Swaziland, but more importantly that His will be done, and that we will gladly serve in whichever cultural context He calls us to, no matter the cost to us.