She was on the mission field and she was walking. She was dirty and tired. Her muscles ached from the burdens she carried. She was walking on the right road, but she felt like a weary, disheveled version of herself. She kept walking.
When she awoke, she somehow knew that her dream was a picture of her future in missions.
This young woman, who lovingly held her infant in her arms as she sat across the table from us, had wanted to be a missionary since she was a kid. She had encountered discouragement along the way, including a woman in her own church who responded, "Oh, I'm sorry" upon being told by this young girl that she wanted to be a missionary when she grew up. But this girl held onto her hope. She grew up and still wanted to be a missionary. She met and married a man who also wanted to be a missionary, and now they were sitting across the table from us, ready to sign on with an organization who would get them to the mission field.
But that dream. It stuck with her. She knew it was God's way of saying, "Your life in missions isn't going to be rosy. You won't have the perpetual energy and excitement you did on your mission trip in high school. It's going to be hard. It's going to be exhausting. It's going to look different than you thought."
When she told us her dream and its interpretation, something cascaded inside me. Waves of understanding were followed by rapids of relief which were then followed by splashes of dismay. I related to this woman, and her story assured me that I was not alone. But it did not change the fact that I, too, was preparing myself for a future that would look different than I thought.
I never had dreams of being a missionary when I was a kid. I knew little of missionaries and even less about what it meant to be called in that direction. I remember a time when I was a freshman in college that a friend mentioned the idea of pursuing missions and I instantly thought, I could never do that! But something changed between my freshman and senior year, and by the time I graduated I was committed to the notion of living overseas with Eli. And I was excited about it.
We went to Cameroon for five months and loved it. We came home and told people we were headed back to Africa when Eli finished training. We cooked Cameroonian food from time to time and I kept in touch with my dear Cameroonian friend through emails and phone calls. We did what we could to stay in touch with Africa because we wanted to, because it was in our future and it was exciting! We also did the hard work of preparing ourselves for the future academically and experientially by going to grad school and attending missions conferences. We did everything we could to stay on track.
But seven years was a long time to keep up the enthusiasm, especially when our youthful ignorance of the real world slipped further and further away with each passing year. Seven years was far too long to maintain a romantic notion of our future. We began facing the reality of what it meant to be missionaries, as opposed to being people who do mission trips. We began exploring and embracing the actualities of missions, both the good and the bad, and our romantic notions were tempered.
Seven years was also a long time to maintain our stamina even as we maintained our focus. Our energy waned and our excitement faded over time. But we were in the morass of med school and residency. It was understandable, right? It was hard to be excited about much when we were barely holding our heads above water.
We assumed, however, that once we finally reached the point of moving forward with missions - of signing on with an organization and knowing we were finally en route to go - that the old energy and excitement would resurface and we'd be raring to go, even though our picture of the future had changed. Our assumption was imprecise, however, because we are not the same people we were seven years ago (which is as it should be) nor do we have the same understanding of who God is and how God works as we did seven years ago (which is also as it should be). We have grown and changed. We have matured and become more honest with ourselves. And we have learned that unenthusiasm, weariness, and apathy are par for the course. Energy comes and goes, as do eagerness and passion and romantic notions. But the call to remain obedient will stand forever. Christ set the example because "he humbled himself and became obedient to death - even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:8). For us, to remain obedient is to follow through on our calling, which is to be medical missionaries in Africa. He called us to this long ago, and now it sometimes feels like a cross to bear because what we'd really like to do is hole ourselves up in a cabin in the woods and read good books in between hiking and snowshoeing and playing Settlers of Catan. There are plenty of days when the notion of still going to Africa feels less like a longing and more like an act of obedience.
But obedience is good. Obedience is Christ-like. Obedience is believing in the bigger picture and rejoicing in God's sovereignty.
So although we are grieving the lost excitement that emanated from our pores seven years ago, we are anxious to experience the bigger picture of what going to Africa means. We eagerly await when God will pull us from this lull and renew our strength and joy. Because,
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
"Even youths grow tired and weary." We are barely in our thirties yet we feel run over everyday. God could have written that verse with us in mind. I often wonder how it's possible to be this tired when we haven't even lived half our life yet. But we are not alone in our weariness, nor are we alone as we come to grips with the fact that our future will look different than we thought. And we are learning that it's okay to move forward with some trepidation.
When the woman shared her dream with everyone else at that table, I was surprised by her admission but also humbled by her bravery. It's not a small thing to admit that, as someone headed to the mission field, it can be difficult to find the enthusiasm to go. There are pressures placed upon missionaries - indeed, placed upon anyone in ministry - to be holy and righteous, to be up to speed on daily devotions, to be full of nothing but prayer and lacking nothing but sin. Lethargy? Not allowed! Detachment? Heck no! Scriptural memory loss? Heavens above, what on earth are you doing in ministry??? These are the pressures we face, and certainly the pressures we feel. But we are not perfect and we are not holier than thou. We are broken and bruised, but we are faithful to Jesus. In other words, we are normal.
It's only recently that we've felt comfortable sharing more of our struggle. We had to acknowledge the fear that, if we admitted our listlessness which has accumulated over the last seven years, that people might not support us. Who wants to support missionaries who are exhausted and spent, or, God forbid, who are ineffective in the eyes of their supporters? It's a legitimate fear for people who rely on the financial support of others. Whether right or wrong, there are expectations to meet. The stereotype of missionaries being on a righteous pedestal as they bring the light of Jesus to the nations is still alive and well. Some people have told us they could never be missionaries themselves because they're not good enough to do mission work. We're not sure what it means to be good enough for anything, but it was a reminder that the stereotypes still exist. Since we are now subject to that stereotype as we begin training and fundraising to move to Africa, we feel the necessity of being more transparent.
So here's the truth: To be sure, we are recovering from what the past seven years have wrought upon us, but recovery from that kind of strain doesn't happen in a day. We are excited to head to Africa in the sense that we're relieved to finally be at this end of our ten-year journey to get there, but the idea of packing up and moving somewhere new yet again sounds perfectly draining. And if raising small children here is tiresome, then the idea of raising them (and homeschooling them) halfway around the world in a foreign culture sounds practically defeating. And the expectation of missing out on ministry opportunities because of the time required to raise and homeschool children on the mission field is downright discouraging. And although Kenya is in Africa and where the residency training program is that Eli feels called to work with, it's not Cameroon which would have been more comfortable in the sense that it's familiar and also where our hearts were first planted in Africa.
So here we are, willing to go as we remain obedient to Christ and trusting in Him who does not grow tired or weary and who understands the bigger picture in a way that we cannot fathom.
"I don't see how any degree of faith can exclude the dismay,
since Christ's faith did not save Him from dismay in Gethsemane.
We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us;
we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be."
~ C.S. Lewis