What could be more important to missionaries than the mission?
But talk about the supreme importance of the work of the church can be used to silence those who would expose sin in the church. Russell Moore pointed this out last month, writing in Christianity Today about Guidepost Solution’s investigation into sexual-abuse claims, and allegations of coverup, in the Southern Baptist Convention. Guidepost’s findings include an email sent by the executive vice president and general council of the SBC’s Executive Committee, in which he comments on those bringing accusations against the SBC:
This whole thing should be seen for what it is. It is a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism. It is not the gospel. It is not even a part of the gospel. It is a misdirection play.
This line of thinking has played out on the mission field, too, as can be seen in published reports on the treatment of victims of child abuse overseas. For example, in 1997, the Christian and Missionary Alliance’s Independent Commission of Inquiry reported on claims of abuse at Mamou Alliance Academy, a boarding school in Guinea run by the C&MA from 1950 to 1971. About the students at Mamou, one missionary mother told the commission,
They were never allowed the freedom of expressing their hurts, their problems, their emotions to us. Each week the obligatory letter was not only read but censored, and forced to be rewritten if it appeared at all negative. This destroyed a vital link that could have helped maintain a fragmented family bond. They were repeatedly told not to share adverse happenings either by letter or by word on vacation with parents, lest it upset the parents and interfere with the work they were doing for God. The hidden message to the child was that God was more important, work was more important to the parents that [sic] one’s own child.
The commission summarized the reasoning behind censoring letters as “Children were advised not to upset their parents, lest their ministry to Africans be compromised and Africans left to their pagan ways.”
In 2010, GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) reported on its findings concerning New Tribes Mission’s Fanda Missionary School, in Senegal, which boarded children from the mid 1980s to 1997.
During debriefing after leaving the field as a cross-cultural worker, I had questions: How can we deal with the guilt of turning away from a God-given opportunity? How can we walk away from an open door?
I found comfort in learning that open doors aren’t the same thing as commands from God. In fact, Paul, himself, at least once didn’t take advantage of an opportunity that God had laid out before him.
Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia. (2 Corinthians 2:12,13, NIV)
And nothing in the verses that follow shows that God was displeased.
While at debriefing I was also reminded, “When God closes a door, he opens a window.”
I can’t say for sure if the door for ministry in Taiwan was still standing open for us, or if it had been closed, but what I could say for sure is that, either way, I and my family had already moved back to the States.
Hmmmmm. With the help of Trotter’s biographer, Miriam Rockness, I had earlier traced “Don’t forget in the darkness what you have learned in the light” to Trotter’s “Believe in the darkness what you have seen in the light.” So I contacted Rockness again for more information on the door/window phrase, and she wrote that Trotter penned her version on May 6, 1904.
So was Trotter the first to come up with the idea (though not exactly the same wording)? Simply put, no. In fact, she’s is far downstream from the source on this one.
One of the first clues that I found for its earlier existence comes from Edward Tyas Cook, writing in 1907 about the artist and author Francesca Alexander. Because of failing eyesight, Alexander had turned from drawing illustrations to collecting and converting old Tuscan stories into rhyme. Of her change in focus, she writes that
it must be that when the Lord took from me one faculty He gave me another; which is in no way impossible. And I think of the beautiful Italian proverb: “When God shuts a door He opens a window.”
There are other references to this phrase being from Italy, but what I find most interesting about this one is its appearance in the introduction to The Works of John Ruskin. Ruskin was Alexander’s editor, and, as is shown in Many Beautiful Things, was also Trotter’s artistic mentor.
Expanding my search to phrases that replace a window with another (as in “When God shuts a door, he opens another”), yielded several examples predating 1900. One comes from The National Sunday School Teacher, where, in 1877, M. C. Hazard applies the saying to Paul’s missionary endeavors recorded in Acts 16:
Paul’s earnest words found a lodgment in the heart of one Lydia, of Thyatira. Thyatira was a city of Asia, where Paul was forbidden to preach. The fact is suggestive. When God closes a door it is not always that one may not enter, but that another and better way may be opened. The best way to preach the gospel in Asia may be to begin in Macedonia.
From over 150 years earlier, I found evidence of the phrase’s Italian roots in Prattica per Confortare i Condannati a Morte (or Practice to Comfort Those Sentenced to Death), written by the Reverend D. Ignazio Sorrentino in 1712. Below is the relevant passage in Italian and English. (Please forgive any errors in my Google-aided attempt at translation):
Conf. Sentite, N. si fuol dire , che quando Dio chiude una porta, n’apre un’altra ; mà alle vostre figlie ne aprirà cento ; poiche se la vostra morte le priva dell’industria delle vostre poche fatiche, colle quali s’aveano d’alimentarsi, ed accomularfi te misere doticelle , Iddio Benedetto toccherà il cuore di più persone caritative à fomminiftrarli , e pe’l vitto , e per le doti .
Comf[orter]. Listen, N., it is said, that when God closes one door, he opens another; but to your daughters he will open a hundred; since if your death deprives them of the industry of your few labors, with which they had to feed themselves, and accumulate miserable gifts, Blessed God will touch the hearts of more charitable persons to provide for them, with food, and with gifts.
Looking back even further, my search came up with the following in the writings of the British Nonconformist minister Oliver Heywood, dated 1673:
on munday October 13 73 we had a private fast at John Stancliffs house, but it was not such a good day to me as ordinary I haue had : I begun the day, and my heart begun to be affected, but afterwards in the same duty I struggled and tugged, but found much deadnes, distractions, and could not get the work forward, wch wn I perceived I cut short : the Lord humble me for it, and shew me the cause, he is infinitly wise and righteous :
friday octob 24 at a private fast in my house god graciously helpt—and several other times in secret—the day after,—being alone, and munday being alone, oh wt melting seasons had I in my study : and on wednesday octob 28, in Warley god wonderfully helped both in praying and preaching—Blessed by my god :
I cannot but take notice and exceedingly admire gods providence that wn one door is shut up, god opens another for service and employment : by an observable call I was brought to one Mrs Brookes at New-house, to keep a fast upon a special occasion, Nov 18 73 and indeed I haue very seldome found such inlargemts and meetings of spirit, it may be god hath some design of good in that very ignorant place, the old woman was carnal, I fear, her daughters civil, Mr Gill the young gentleman that marryed the one keeps a Kennel of hounds, yet much affected, al of them very thankfull, gratifyed me—oh wt a mercy if god would work!—
And lastly, I came across one more instance of note: In 1868, Adalut Khan translated, from Persian into English, portions of Sa’di Shirazi’s book of poetry The Bostan (or, as Khan renders it in English, The Pleasure-Garden). One of the poems tells of a rich man who refuses to help a beggar, berating him and telling his slave to chase him away. Over time, the rich man becomes poor, and the poor man becomes rich, even taking the cruel man’s slave into his household. When their paths cross again, the newly rich man tells his slave to help the one who earlier showed him no kindness, saying,
I am he whom he drove that day from (his door), but the revolution of the world placed him in my days (place). Heaven again looked towards me, and washed off the dust of grief from my face. Though God with His wisdom shut a door, yet with His mercy and kindness He opens another. Many poor and needy became contented, and oftentimes the business of the rich became topsy-turvy.
If this is a literal translation, it would date the proverb, at least in Persian, to the 1200s, when Sa’di was living. Or maybe Khan used poetic license in translating Sa’di’s poetry, paraphrasing the idea of the line into something more familiar to his readers. Whatever the case, it is clear that the thought behind the adage has been around for a long, long time.
With all that longevity behind it, is “When God closes a door, he opens a window” true? I guess that depends on how one sees the world. In my opinion, it’s perhaps proverbially true but not absolutely true. I prefer Trotter’s usage, making a statement about what she has experienced in the past, not predicting what is sure to occur in the future.
Sometimes God closes windows and doors. Sometimes he opens them. Sometimes the two are even matched together . . . but, I think, not always.
To all that I say, “Blessed be the name of the Lord.” (And I know where that comes from.)
“Raise your hands in the air as high as you can,” says the motivational speaker on the stage. Then, looking over the crowd reaching skyward, he says, “Now, reach higher,” and they comply. The lesson? You can always do more, even when you think you’ve done as much as you can.
“I’ll give it 110%,” we say.
“Leave it all on the court,” they tell us.
But pushing ourselves beyond our limits can lead to burnout. When that happens, we can’t function anymore, and that’s not a good thing. And yet, for a cross-cultural worker, being burned out can feel like a respectable reason for leaving the field. I have nothing left to give. I’m spent. I worked too hard.
When my wife and I moved back to the States, I sometimes said it was because we were burned out, and that may very well have been true. But there were other times when I felt I didn’t deserve the label. It seemed that it should be reserved for the ones who’d worked a lot harder than I had.
“It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” we sing.
According to the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases, Revision 11, “burn-out” is an “occupational phenomenon” (rather than a medical condition). It is defined as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” showing itself in
feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion,
increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and
I like making lists. I like asking questions. I like making lists of questions. And that’s what I’ve done here on the topic of expectations for working cross-culturally.
We all set out on the journey abroad with high expectations. Of course we do. Without those expectations we wouldn’t begin. But based on the realities we encounter, or on the competing requirements of others, are our expectations too high? It’s not that we should lower them all, or jettison them altogether. Instead we should aim to recognize and understand them, have conversations about them, and modify them when necessary. There’s much to suss out along the way.
When contemplating the questions below, understand that the purpose is to identify what you expect—as in what you think, believe, or assume will happen, not what you hope, want, wish, would like, need, demand, pray for, desire, fear, or know (though they may overlap with your expectations). So if you read a question and want to respond with “I can’t know that,” then remember that that’s not what’s being asked for.
Inspired by the research and writing of Sue Eenigenburg, Robynn Bliss, and Andrea Sears (which I discussed last month), I can think of a number of ways for utilizing this list. The most obvious is for new candidates readying for cross-cultural work, to ask themselves these questions to consider aspects of their move that they’ve never considered before. Comparing answers with teammates, family members, agencies, and church representatives would be helpful as well—and could help head off later disappointments, misunderstandings, and conflicts before they occur.
Future workers could also share their expectations with veterans in the field, or with those who have returned from overseas. This could allow them to hear from those with experience in dealing with too high—or too low—expectations.
I could see using these in a team-building (or team-understanding) exercise, or as discussion starters for future cross-cultural workers to get to know each other. Each person could choose a few questions, or draw some from a hat, and use them as conversation starters.
For those already on the field, there is always a future ahead with many unknowns, even after many of these questions are already behind them, and thinking about the expectations they still hold could be insightful.
They could also look at these questions to think back on their past assumptions, comparing them to what actually has come to pass—or comparing them to how their expectations have changed.
They can ask themselves how disappointments have affected their well-being and their relationships with others and with God. And they can consider the effects of having not expected enough. Those could then produce lessons they could share with new workers coming after them.
And the cycle continues.
So here’s my list. Use it however you see fit. I don’t expect every question to apply to you, but I do expect that some will . . . and I hope and pray they’ll be helpful.
In the five years since Andrea Sears conducted her survey on missionary attrition, she’s been steadily analyzing and releasing the results, topic by topic. Late last year at her Missions Experience blog, she posted the data on how “expectations factors” affect missionaries’ decisions to leave the field. Her findings show that at least half of the former missionaries surveyed “experienced disconnects between their expectations and reality” in the five areas of
team members, reported by 62% community, 58% relationships back home, 54% ministry results, 52% job responsibilities, 50%
And in looking at how unmet expectations contributed to the respondents’ attrition, she finds the top four factors to be
team members, reported by 65% job responsibilities, 64%, community, 61% family life, 56%
These findings are interesting in and of themselves, but they remind me of the results of another survey, one that formed the basis of Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission, by Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss (a past contributor to this blog). In their book, published in 2010, the two take a deep dive into the role expectations play in navigating cross-cultural work. In 2013, I referenced their work when I wrote about the topic of expectations at my blog.
I remember the good old days when you could pack 70 pounds into each of your two checked bags on international flights—at no extra cost. That meant that when our family of six moved overseas, we could take 840 pounds of clothes, books, sheets, cake mixes, and the like. And we used just about every ounce of it.
It could be argued that we didn’t need to take that much with us, but we’re Americans, after all, and we Americans don’t often pack light. I’ve traveled with people from other countries, and even on short trips, I invariably seem to end up lugging the largest pieces of luggage. What if there’s a pool nearby? Better bring swimming trunks, and a towel. What if it snows? What if I spill something on my Friday jeans? What if I need work shoes? What if somebody throws a formal party?
There’s also another set of luggage that cross-cultural workers tend to overpack. It’s the bags that hold our assumptions, our plans, . . . our expectations.
A friend of mine once joked that if you listen to prayer requests in church long enough, you’ll come to the conclusion that traveling is the most dangerous endeavor known to Christians. Whether it’s for a drive across the state or a plane ride to another country (with an occasional cruise thrown in), we long for God’s blessing of safety, or, as it’s often phrased, “travel mercies.”
Where does that come from? Not the desire for safety. I get that, though I don’t understand why a four-hour trip to St. Louis seems so risky. Maybe it’s a testament to just how safe we are otherwise in our daily lives.
No, I’m referring to the phrase travel mercies itself. A quick Google search shows that some link it back to Southern Baptists, but a more thorough search shows that it (or a similar phrase) predates the establishment of that group. Others tie it to early Protestant missionaries, but it predates them as well.
The first usage I can find for travel mercies is from 1914, in John Faris’s Book of Answered Prayer (published by Hodder & Stoughton). Actually, what I found was an ad in The Herald & Presbyter, stating that in the book (sold by the Presbyterian Board of Publication for $1) the author “gives simply and without argument seventy striking instances of answers. These have been gathered from both home and foreign sources.” “Travel Mercies” is listed as one of the book’s ten chapter headings.
Some twenty years earlier, the similar phrase traveling mercies appeared in the Minutes of the Second Biennial Convention of the World’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. In their meeting on the morning of October 17, 1893, the group held a memorial service for Mary Allen West, their former “round-the-world missionary to Japan,” who had died in Japan there promoting temperance. Chika Sakurai spoke during the service, saying,
My Dear Sisters: You cannot tell with what joy I meet you this morning, and as I look upon you I feel that we are friends and not foreigners. (This is my first journey from my native land, and it is no easy matter for one to leave the scene of her childhood days, and the many friends and loved ones. But one always feels that leaving home, friends and beloved ones to work for God is no loss). I feel thankful to God for his goodness and mercy to me. He has blessed me with traveling mercies and allowed me to come here to try to do something for him. I trust my efforts will be blessed by God.
And before that? Well, we’ll need to expand the search to include travelling, with two Ls, the way the British spell it. That led me to a result from 1770, when British philanthropist and prison reformer John Howard wrote it in his journal, while en route from Holland to Paris:
I would acknowledge it is thro’ the goodness of God alone that I enjoy so many travelling Mercies, such comfortable degrees of health and strength with such an easy calm flow of spirits.—
Howard knew something of the need for God’s help during travels. In 1756, while sailing to Portugal, he was captured as a prisoner of war by a French privateer.
Today, I’m not sure which is more popular in the lexicon of prayer groups, travel mercies or traveling mercies (with either spelling), though travel mercies is what I hear more often in my part of the world. But traveling mercies might have a PR advantage, as it’s the title of a memoir by the best-selling author Anne Lamott. As the book’s full title suggests —Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith—the journey that Lamott recounts is not a road trip but a spiritual pilgrimage as she works out her belief in God (with a capital G). She writes that she started out as an unbelieving daughter of an unbelieving missionary kid:
My father’s folks had been Presbyterian missionaries who raised their kids in Tokyo, and my father despised Christianity. He called Presbyterians “God’s frozen people.” My mother went to midnight mass on Christmas eve at the Episcopal church in town, but no one in our family believed in God—it was like we’d all signed some sort of loyalty oath early on, agreeing not to believe in God in deference to the pain of my father’s cold Christian childhood. I went to church with my grandparents sometimes and I loved it. It slaked my thirst. But I pretended to think it was foolish, because that pleased my father. I lived for him. He was my first god.
Fast forwarding to Lamott as an adult attending St. Andrew Presbyterian, we come to the place where she shares what became the inspiration for her book’s title, writing about a time when the church’s preacher went on a vacation:
“Traveling Mercies,” the old people at our church said to her when she left. This is what they always say when one of us goes off for a while. Traveling mercies: love the journey, God is with you, come home safe and sound.
So for whatever trek you are on, I leave you with the following benediction, a combining of the old and the new:
May you have “such comfortable degrees of health and strength with such an easy calm flow of spirits.”
“Love the journey, God is with you, come home safe and sound.”
“British missionary William Carey is often called the father of modern missions,” writes Rebecca Hopkins in Christianity Today. “Adoniram Judson has been titled the first American missionary to travel overseas.”
And for many of us, that pretty much sums up the origin of missions in the West. But Rebecca has more to tell us in “How Black Missionaries Are Being Written Back into the Story,” as she adds in Rebecca Protten and George Liele. Why are they notable? Because both left America and planted churches before Carey or Judson went out—Protten to St. Thomas and later present-day Ghana, and Liele to Jamaica—and both were former slaves.
If Protten’s and Liele’s names are new to you, grab the January/February issue of CT to read their stories, stories that, as Rebecca writes, “add depth and complication to the sometimes too-simple narrative of missions history.” Depth, because of the inclusion of Black Christians that sit outside the traditional narrative of the White American church. Complication, because Protten and Liele were not “commissioned” and “sent out” in the traditional sense, and because questions remain as to how complicit they were in the evils of their day—Protten in regards to “cultural genocide” and Liele in regards to slavery.
I like the phrase “depth and complication.” Too often we Christians find comfort in our “too-simple narratives,” leaving out difficult details, and leaving out people, as well.
Rebecca’s article and that phrase were in the back of my mind a few weeks ago (pardon me while I go on a stream-of-consciousness trek here) when I heard on the radio the end of an interview with the African-American composer Thomas Dorsey. I looked up more on Dorsey, known as the “Father of Soul Music,” and here’s what I found.
The son of a Baptist preacher and church organist, Dorsey started his musical career as a blues piano player, often performing in bars and brothels, and later toured with the “Mother of the Blues,” Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. Then in 1921, after attending the National Baptist Convention, he committed himself to writing gospel music. But it wasn’t a full commitment, as he didn’t completely turn his back on the blues culture of the time, which included “dirty blues,” risqué songs filled with double entendres. It was in this genre that he cowrote his most popular blues piece, the hit “It’s Tight like That.” As Dorsey tried to introduce his bluesy gospel songs in churches, his mixing of the secular and holy rankled many preachers. And as Dorsey tells Steven Kaplan in Horizon, he believed preachers felt upstaged by his music. “I got kicked out of some of the best churches in town,” he says.
He found a better welcome in Ebenezer Baptist Church, where, in 1931, he helped establish the first gospel choir. But it was the next year when his life truly changed, resulting in his writing the classic gospel song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Following is the story, told by Dorsey in the documentary, Say Amen, Somebody. It takes place after he had travelled to St. Louis, while his wife remained in South Chicago. . . .
Continue reading, for more about Thomas Dorsey, Horatio and Anna Spafford, and Lilias Trotter, at A Life Overseas.
How are your language skills as a cross-cultural worker? No, I’m not talking about the language(s) you’ve learned for living and working in your new home. I’m referring to your fluency in CCW-ese, or the jargon that cross-cultural workers often find themselves swimming in. Immersion is the best way to learn, right?
I’ve put together a collection of vocabulary below to help you see just how fluent you are. Does it all make sense to you?
The next time you’re on home service and someone asks you to say something in your new language, call this up and start reading. (By the way, some of this may not apply to you, as it’s slanted toward the experience of someone with a US passport. In other words, your dialect may vary.)
Hello, I’m a CCW living overseas. I’m part of a larger group of expats that includes such people as EAWs working with NGOs to help IDPs in low GDP countries and FSOs serving with the DoS. My journey abroad started with PFO, where the MBTI showed me I’m an ENTP, and my spouse and I, along with several others, were briefed on CPM, DMM, M2M/M2DMM, T4T, BAM, and DBS strategies and were shown how to write an MOU. Then it wasn’t long before all of us were following directions from the TSA and walking through the AIT scanner at places like ORD, LAX, and ATL, headed for other places such as BKK, NBO, and PTY and parts beyond. It was hard for my MKs to leave our POMs behind, but they were looking forward to their new lives as TCKs, growing up with other GNs and CCKs, on their way to becoming ATCKs. . . .