“Letters Never Sent” but, Thankfully, Published Instead

It’s been 25 years since Ruth E. Van Reken125933835_e355fbcad2_m first published Letters Never Sent, but I hope it doesn’t ever become a book rarely read.

Following her experiences as a Third Culture Kid, born to missionary parents in Nigeria, and later as a missionary to Africa herself, Van Reken wrote a series of “letters,” to her mother and father, and to God, expressing feelings that earlier she wasn’t able to fully share.

While it would be easy to assume that the details of Van Reken’s story are dated—the book begins with her trip to boarding school in 1951—her expressions of honest emotions cut through the years and show the wonderings and pleadings of a heart that beats in many missionaries and their children today. But it is a heart that is all too often hidden and quieted.

One of the feelings voiced by the young Ruth Ellen is guilt . . . guilt that her inner thoughts are a betrayal of her parents’ calling. During her high-school years, she and her sister stayed in the States, while their parents returned to their work in Nigeria. As her mother and father’s departure nears, Ruth Ellen fights with her emotions, writing in a “never sent” letter:

If I throw myself into your arms and sob my heart out, it might keep you from going. And even though that’s what I want, how could I ever bear the guilt of being the one who kept you from doing God’s work? I’ve always vowed I wouldn’t be one of “those kids,” the kind that other missionaries talk about in whispers, with a sad shake of their heads. “So-and-so couldn’t come back to the field because of their children.” They must be pretty bad kids, I’ve always figured. I don’t want anyone to say that about me or our family.

And I can’t very well come to God with this because, in a way I feel like it’s all His fault.

Years later, as Ruth Ellen ponders her approaching wedding to David Van Reken, she expresses a distrust of God, developed from many years of having, as a TCK, to let go of what is dear to her:

I can’t believe God will let me keep David. It’s like He’s dangling Dave on a rope, letting him come closer and closer. I’m afraid that at the last moment, when I put out my hand to take him, the string will be jerked back and God will laugh.

“Ha ha. Thought you finally had someone you could keep. Don’t count on it. Whatever you depend on, I will surely take that, so that you’ll depend solely on Me.”

Ruth does get to keep David, and the two are soon joined by a baby daughter. But depression comes to Ruth, seeming to be at odds with the spirituality that she longs to possess. “How many hundreds of testimonies have I heard about the joy that Jesus gives?” she writes. “He surely isn’t giving it to me right now—or maybe I just don’t know how to receive it.”

Her depression becomes deep enough that she thinks about suicide:

I’ve actually wondered what it would be like to take pills and never wake up. But in my heart I know that wouldn’t solve anything. I have a child I’m responsible for, and I want to see her grow up. And I want to live, if I can be the person that I’ve always thought I had the potential to be. But right now that seems like a hopeless dream.

Then, using words that are reminiscent of those penned by the Psalmist in Psalm 13, she writes,

The thread I’m hanging on to is an intellectual belief that God still has a purpose for my life. I can’t imagine how He can ever put all the pieces back together and make me whole, but it’s my only hope. I told Him today that He could forget helping me to do better—there’s nothing left of me to help. If He doesn’t do something new, I’m finished.

But there is hope. There is help for her to do better. And it comes in the form of a new friend, Linda, who opens a path for Ruth by sharing her own personal struggles in a Sunday school class. This is something that Ruth hasn’t experienced before, and it gives her courage. This leads to many conversations with Linda, in which Ruth shares her pain, and Linda listens without judgment.

Within a few years, the Van Rekens are preparing for their own missionary work in Africa, and Ruth continues to learn how to function without hiding behind masks. Sometimes the masks come off gently, as with Linda, but at other times, they are pulled off forcefully, as when a pastor shares from the pulpit about some of her struggles. But to her amazement, she writes, when “[t]he awful, naked ugliness of my soul was exposed, . . . I was still accepted!”

Healing also comes through forgiveness: forgiving her parents for her many separations from them and forgiving “all those who locked me up with pat answers or quick words of encouragement, when what I needed was understanding and a hug.” Following the death of her uncle, Ruth gets a different kind of response from Jesus: “He held me and understood. He acknowledge my pain. He didn’t try to talk me out of my hurt. . . . I’m learning about God as the Comforter and binder of broken hearts.”

But in letters dated less than two years later, as she and David are serving in Liberia, Ruth writes that the depression has returned. She tells God, barring a change in the next month, to let her die. In her conversations with God that follow, she learns that she has not addressed all of the anger that is leading to her depressed feelings. She still needs to “forgive” God.

“Why don’t you leave me alone?” she hears herself say. “Ever since I came to Liberia to serve you, You’ve done nothing but bad things to me. I’m sick and tired of it.” And she hears God say to her that he isn’t at all shocked by her anger. He can handle it. “You can love someone and still be angry at him,” God tells her. Acknowledging this anger is an important step for Ruth, a step that leads to more healing.

One of the final letters penned by Ruth is dated 1984. That’s 24 years after Ruth Ellen had voiced her struggle with guilt because she wasn’t the perfect missionary child. In it, she says, after reading through all of her previous letters, that there still was one more person to forgive:

I can forgive the little girl I was, for not being all she thought she was supposed to be. The greatest joy has been to understand for the first time in my life that God is the “God of all Comfort.” I could not understand that until I recognized how much I needed His comfort.

Ruth’s story is one of faith and anger and hope and fear and sadness and peace, all flowing one into another. It is a story beautifully and sincerely told. It is a story that can speak to generations of TCKs and cross-cultural workers and to those who want to understand them. And it’s a story that continues. Last year, Van Reken published a newly revised edition of Letters Never Sent, containing 30 additional pages, with photos and an epilogue addressing her later life, including a bout with cancer.

It’s been 25 years since Ruth E. Van Reken first published Letters Never Sent, but I hope it doesn’t ever become a book rarely read.

The above quotations are taken from the 1988 edition of Letters Never Sent. The book was first printed in the US in 1987 under the title Letters I Never Wrote.

[photo: “unreachable,” by Daniel Zimmel, used under a Creative Commons license]