Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Spiritual Life of Missionaries: Lessons Learned from the Field

If you're new to my blog, then you might not know that Danny and I have been missionaries with SIM for the past 10 years. I was recently asked to share with undergraduate students at Wheaton on the topic of spiritual formation for missionaries. I thought that perhaps some of you would appreciate hearing our story as well. Living in the Philippines was very difficult for us spiritually, not so much because of Filipino language, culture, or climate, though learning to live there had its challenges. The biggest challenges for us were internal, related to our expectations and identity, and missional, related to our roles and opportunities for service. I hope that our story is helpful to you in some way!

Danny and I were model candidates for missions. We were both Bible college graduates with supportive families and a strong sending church. We had experience in short-term missions and in church ministry. We were considered “strong Christians” by all who knew us. We passed our psychological and other evaluations with flying colors. We set a new record in SIM: In less than 12 months we had completed all of SIM’s pre-field training requirements, sold or stored all of our worldly goods, raised all of our support, and were on a plane bound for the Philippines. Our vision was crystal clear: we were going to see a reproducing church planted among a minority ethnic group in the Philippines.  Danny would serve our SIM team by handling the administrative tasks that bogged them down. I would engage in outreach and eventually Bible teaching and discipleship. We planned to stay a really long time.
But then we landed in Manila and reality hit. Learning Tagalog would not be easy. Sweating all the time was not fun. Our team was spread out across a sprawling metropolis with some of the worst traffic jams in the world. We were isolated, lonely, and discouraged. But worst of all, after a grueling year of language study, it was no longer clear to us how we could even help. Danny’s administrative tasks only took him a few hours per month. Our team was too small to need a full-time administrator, and SIM was actively considering whether any more westerners should even be sent to the Philippines. I tried no less than 7 different ministries inside the local neighborhood where our target people group lived. Every one of them was a flop.
We thought we were going to the Philippines use our gifts to build God’s kingdom. But we were frustrated at every turn. Danny is most fully alive when he is in some kind of helping role -- working behind the scenes to make things happen (which is why I’m here speaking while he is shuttling our kids between school and after-school activities) -- but Filipinos wouldn’t let him set up chairs or clean up after an event. Such tasks are too menial for a white man. And our western teammates didn’t actually need his help. It was very debilitating for him. I, on the other hand, had gone to teach, but for the first time in my life I sensed very strongly that God was asking me to keep my mouth shut. It was time to learn. As time dragged on my confidence gradually drained away. I began to doubt if I had anything worth saying.
I remember very distinctly one day walking in the tropical heat down a crowded street to the open market to do my shopping. I looked at the street vendors lining the sidewalk … watched them arranging their goods. I knew they would be lucky to make 50 pesos of profit in a day, and that they had left their babies home in the care of older siblings, some only 5 or 6 years old. At any moment the police could show up and clear the place out. Sidewalk vending was illegal. But it was the only way they could find to survive. Suddenly I felt very empty. What did I have to offer that these people actually needed? My sophisticated methods of Bible study were useless to them. Their modes of thinking and learning were almost entirely oral. Their focus was on survival. What’s more, they were already cheerful, generous, selfless. When I looked deep inside myself, I saw no great reserves of those qualities, or any others that would give evidence of a spirit-empowered life -- joy, faith, peace, gentleness, self-control. Spiritually-speaking I was just about bankrupt.
About a year after we arrived in the Philippines, I wrote this poem in my journal and later posted it on my (old) blog. It will give you a window on my heart in that very dry and difficult season.

before I journeyed here
my heart was full
now I sojourn
far from home
emptied of all I once knew

afraid that before I find
my voice in this culture
I will have nothing left to say
what was profound and meaningful before
now seems

so, Lord, I sit here
like the jars at Cana lacking wine
thirsty for You to fill me again
with your living water
so I can pour
into the lives You've gathered
around me

Come, Lord Jesus,
do your miracle in me.
God’s answer to my prayer was not what I expected. There was no instant miracle. I hoped for overflowing joy or successful ministry opportunities or at least peace that we were on the right track. He gave us none of these. But he did give us a gift that we learned to treasure – his gift was longing. Danny and I became desperate for God. We were constantly and painfully aware of our own weaknesses, our inabilities, our absolute need for Him. We lived every day for months on end with an ache in our souls that would not go away. A craving for God to do something. A thirst for his presence. And we waited. We waited beyond what we thought we could bear and then waited some more.

During that lonely season, authors—dead ones, even—became some of my most trusted spiritual guides. Henri Nouwen, Larry Crabb, Lettie Cowman.
Henri Nouwen taught me (in his books Wounded Healer and Reaching Out) that ministers of the gospel must be unafraid to venture into the depths of their own soul so that they can lead others to wholeness in a fragmented world. Being broken is not the end of ministry, it is the surest beginning. I was certainly broken, and I did not like what I saw in my own soul. But Nouwen said this was as it should be.

Larry Crabb’s book Shattered Dreams also ministered to me deeply. In it he wrestles with the same questions we were asking. He wonders out loud why God allows suffering: "He could do something. Yet He does nothing, at least not what we ask Him to do. Why? To deepen our desire for His Presence, to strengthen our passion to pursue Him, to help us see how preoccupied we are with filling our God-shaped souls with something less than God." (121)
Crabb says, "When God seems most absent from us, He is doing His most important work in us." (157) I clung to the hope that somehow God was using our isolation and struggle to do something deep in us.

Lettie Cowman’s Streams in the Desert was also a source of hope. I learned that some of God’s most precious gifts can only come to us wrapped in suffering. There is simply no other way to receive them. God does not delight in our pain, but he delights in the deep work that he is able to do in us in the midst of that pain. "There are blessings we can never have unless we are ready to pay the price of pain. There is no way to reach them save through suffering." (Sept 19, quoting Dr. Miller)
My season of silence did not end until we came home from the Philippines. It was the longest two and a half years of our lives. Eventually SIM recommended that we change fields and serve where Danny’s skills were more critically needed. We returned to the states and moved to Charlotte, NC where Danny began working for a new ministry of SIM based out of the International office. The six years we spent there were some of our richest and happiest years. Everything seemed to go our way. Our kids had great schools, we found a great church, lived in a great house in a great neighborhood with great neighbors. I got to go to seminary, which I absolutely loved. Danny’s job with SIM was a perfect fit for his personality and gifting. After six years in Charlotte God opened the door for me to continue my education here at Wheaton. I’m working on a PhD in Old Testament under Dr. Block. Once again our situation is totally ideal – house, schools, jobs, everything. Danny has been able to continue serving in his role with SIM remotely, and this year we’re approaching our 10-year anniversary of service with SIM.

We are of course relieved to have moved out of a dry and difficult season of life and ministry. But happiness has its drawbacks. I have carried with me a deep sense of appreciation for the spiritual desert that we lived in for 2 years in the Philippines. I met God in a powerful way, ironically, through his “absence.” I discovered new things about myself, my own limitations, and my desperate need for the Savior. That gift never comes through success and victory and ease. It only comes wrapped in suffering. And it has changed me, I hope, forever.


  1. I enjoyed this post about lessons learned from God through a dry and difficult season of life and ministry. I also have had times where I felt empty and my involvement in various ministries was a total flop, and ... well... just felt rather useless, even wondering why God left me on the planet. I've understood what being "saved by grace" means, but I once wondered what "living by grace" could mean. I think now that it is probably a life-long lesson, but I believe that what it means to live by grace has been more evident during my "worthless" times. It is then that I become (even painfully) aware that it is not of me, but of Him. It kind of boggles my mind: why God even bothers with me. I don't deserve being used by Him, but I am so glad when He does. Thank you for sharing, Carmen.
    P.S. Your poem reminded me of Naomi in the book of Ruth. She said, "I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty." When I memorized Esther, I noticed that God isn't mentioned at all, although you can see His hand throughout. I just finished memorizing Ruth, and I noticed that they give the LORD credit for much: providing food for His people, all the misfortune that came upon Naomi, and that He did not leave her without a kinsman-redeemer, to name a few (not counting all the furure blessings they proclaimed in the LORD on each other). There is one place in Ruth 2:20 that I wondered about:
    "'The LORD bless him!' Naomi said to her daughter-in-law. 'He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead.'
    She added, 'That man is our close relative; he is one of our kinsman-redeemers.'"
    Is Naomi referring to the LORD's kindness or to Boaz'? Was Naomi recognizing the LORD's hand in this after feeling as if His hand had gone out against her? Or was it Boaz' kindness to dead men and their widows? The few commentaries I accessed seemed to lean Boaz' way, but I just wondered.
    Anyway, thanks again for the post. May the LORD continue to bless you all!

  2. I enjoyed reading this! Good lessons to have learned. I would be interested to know if your sending organization, SIM, also learned anything about what, where and how they send workers into other countries. It seems that often an "ideal" is "sold" to well meaning and eager workers and the "truth" of the situation is far from what was "sold!" Although, the lessons you and Danny learned were truly life-changing and life-growing. I have no doubt that not all workers in your shoes would have been able to learn them. Thanks for sharing your story!!

  3. Hi Jennifer!
    Thanks so much for your comment. We've really appreciated your ministry of prayer and encouragement throughout our time with SIM!

    On Ruth, my gut feeling was that 2:20 refers to Boaz' kindness, but in Hebrew it seems more like the LORD's because the phrase about kindness immediately follows "Yahweh." Here's how the Tanakh version captures it in English: "Blessed be he of the LORD, who has not failed in His kindness to the living or to the dead!" The Hebrew word for kindness here is 'hesed' which you may recognize as a covenant term for God's faithful love to his people. So, without checking any commentaries myself, my hunch is that the Tanakh version has it right. It's still a rather ambiguous sentence, and perhaps that's intentional. God's kindness to Naomi and Boaz' kindness to Ruth are all bound up with each other inseparably.

    May the LORD bless you, too, Jennifer!

  4. Bonnie,
    Thanks for your comment. Yes, SIM learned things from our experience. For one, they no longer post job descriptions that are more than 2 years old (the one we filled was 10 years old!). Every field is required to update their job descriptions on a regular basis to ensure that the jobs posted really, actually need to be filled.

    In our team's defense, there really was no way to predict what happened with us. There was no talk about pulling out of the Philippines until shortly after we arrived, sparked by the murder of a missionary on another island. Ironically, since we left the team has grown and seems to be thriving. So we have to trust that the Philippines was an important part of what God wanted to do in us, even if it doesn't make sense on paper. I'm learning that loss is a part of life, and we can't always get it to make sense. I do hope, though, that we'll get to have some one-on-one time in the new creation where we can ask lots of questions!

    Having such a supportive family made all the difference for us. Thanks so much for all your understanding and encouragement along the way!