Speaking of “Coming Home”

2057958540_c80ea35181_m-1Last year I posted Carla Williams’ “Silences,” about how missionaries express themselves without using words, “about what faith looks like in the failures. Not in the everyday, stumble-and-move-on failures, but in the ones that knock you to your knees and change the course of the rest of your life.”

Recently, Carla wrote an article for Team Expansion‘s Tell magazine, titled “Coming ‘Home’: When Missionaries Come off the Field.” This time she used the words of former missionaries to share their thoughts on returning to the States. Here is some of what they came up with:

“We tried to change the factors and could not. I had arrived at the point that I cared more about being a missionary than I cared about my family. Ministering at the expense of your family isn’t really what God had in mind.”

“You know yourself, but you don’t know yourself here.”

“It was difficult to hear some people suggest ideas right away. We were numb and not in a good state to make big decisions.”

“I have to figure out I can explain this to someone who’s never done this and they’re just not going to understand the depths of emotion and the heights and lows that come with coming back.”

“In the moment of everything happening, it feels like such a heavy burden. We felt guilty that we weren’t following through with what we told people we would do. We felt like failures. But in the end, we can appreciate everything that we learned and did and can see how much more effective it has made us in the ways we are able to serve now. Coming back to the US wasn’t the end. In a lot of ways, it was just the beginning.”

Read the entire article in the latest Tell for more, including a discussion of why missionaries leave the field and what can be done to help them once they return.

I’m grateful to Carla for inviting Team Expansion repats—including my wife and me—to give their input for the article. And she even included my poem “Back in the States after Being Gone for a Long Time” as part of the issue.

Sometimes I need someone to listen to my silence. Sometimes I need someone to listen to my words.

(Carla Williams, “Coming ‘Home’: When Missionaries Come off the Field,” Tell, Fall 2012, pp 24-27)

[photo: “Make up chyer mind, please,” by Nikki, used under a Creative Commons license]


Silences, by Carla Williams

During our time in Taipei, my family and I served as missionaries with Team Expansion. Carla Williams, Team Expansion’s Creative Arts Writer, wrote the following a couple years ago for Window’s into the World, and she has allowed me to reprint it here. It is a reflection on years of meetings with missionaries, and on one conversation in particular. It speaks for those of us who often run out of words but still have much to say. 

I want to talk about the silences. I want to talk about the pained glances shared between husband and wife when I asked questions that hurt just a little too much. I want to talk about what faith looks like in the failures. Not in the everyday, stumble-and-move-on failures, but in the ones that knock you to your knees and change the course of the rest of your life.

I want to talk about the silence that filled the room when I asked the young couple sitting in front of me what they thought they did well while they were in the country they’d just left. The silence of insecurity. The silence of painful memories. The silence of doubt.

I want to talk about the silence that was the result of the question, “How is God affirming you right now?” The silence of seeking. The silence of uncertainty. The silence of battered hope.

Those silences are honest. They are full of all that is not being said. They are almost too loud.

I’ve heard countless stories of victory.  God calls people out of the complacency of their lives and pushes them toward a fruitful life of adventure and faith.  They have their struggles and their challenges, and even some very dark times, but in the end, those are stories of hope—of knowing what God called them to do and faithfully pursuing it. And there’s affirmation and joy and a sense of purpose. These are beautiful stories—stories that should be told over and over. These stories inspire and encourage.

But these aren’t the only stories.

There are also stories of bitterness, burnout, and arrogance. Sometimes, people sit in front of me angry, tired, and frustrated. But their stories are not full of silences. They are overflowing with words—issues to be talked out and resolved, fingers to be pointed, faults to be listed, and hopefully—peace to be restored. These stories are hard, but they’re not the ones I want to talk about.

I want to talk about the quiet couple who sat in front of me, with their eyes looking intently at the floor, their very presence conveying the wounds they were suffering. They’d eagerly and prayerfully moved where they wholeheartedly believed God wanted them to be. They’d fallen in love with an unreached people group. They’d invested years of their life into pioneering a ministry in one of the most spiritually dark parts of the world. They had been obedient and faithful. And they’d failed. Or, at least, that’s how it seemed to them.

And so, they sat in front of me. Cautiously and painfully looking behind, as if looking at a fresh wound under a thin bandage. And even more carefully peering into the future. Not knowing how yesterday’s pain was going to shape tomorrow’s journey.

With all the pain of having sought the will of God and having it bring them to an unspeakable valley, they answered my gentle questions. But it wasn’t in their words that I learned about their persistent hope in the face of the raging storm. It wasn’t in their words that I discovered their unfaltering desire to keep going. It wasn’t their words that revealed the faithfulness of the broken.

It was in the silences.

(Carla Williams, “Silences,” Windows into the World: True Stories about Team Expansion Workers around the World,” June 15, 2010)

[photo: “Simple Silhouette—Busy Delancey,” by leonem, used under a Creative Commons license]