Outside the big window
There was a buzzing street light
And a dripping AC
And a confident frog
Chirping up in a tree
And there were two little boys playing with toys
And cars driving by
And a jet in the sky
Continued at A Life Overseas . . .
how the people and parts of our world cross cultures
Outside the big window
There was a buzzing street light
And a dripping AC
And a confident frog
Chirping up in a tree
And there were two little boys playing with toys
And cars driving by
And a jet in the sky
Continued at A Life Overseas . . .
Inspired by Laura Numeroff—
If you send an MK some cookies, she’s going to want to eat a couple.
But first she’ll ask her mom if she can walk down the street to get some apple soda to go with them.
On her way, she’ll see a stationery store.
That will make her think about buying a card to send to you.
In the store she’ll find one that says, “Thanks You! Very! Very!”
Then she’ll decide to make a card herself.
For that she’ll need some glitter, so she’ll ask the clerk (in his language) if he has some “really small colorful things,” while making “sparkly” motions with her hands.
He’ll probably reach under the counter and pull out a bag of marbles.
Finish Reading at A Life Overseas. . . .
[photo: “Cookies,” by z Q, used under a Creative Commons license]
A group of five women, all daughters of missionaries, recently went on NBC’s Today to share their stories of sexual abuse in New Tribes Mission boarding schools. One dorm father, whom the women from Fanda Missionary School in Senegal name as their abuser, left the school in 1988. Another dorm father, named by the women from a school in Aritao, the Philippines, was removed from his position in 1993.
It’s been more than 25 years since the latest of their abuse took place, yet these women are still bringing it up. Why?
In their interview, Today‘s Kate Snow asks the five to pick a word to answer the question “What’s this about for you?”
“Truth,” they say. “Justice.”
When Snow commends them for their strength in speaking up, Kelly Emory, who is not only a victim but also a daughter of the accused abuser at her school, says,
I’m strong for the little girl that was never able to say anything, and I’m strong for her, and I’m a strong woman. And I’ll do my best to protect anybody who sees this and wants to speak out. You can come and talk to me. Come and talk to me. I will protect you.
Another of the group, Jaasiel Mashek, in an article at NBC News, says, “If we don’t speak up, it’s going to keep happening. And we’re going to pass on that mentality of covering it up to the next generation. It’s got to stop.”
That’s why they’re still talking. They don’t want it to happen again. They don’t want the rest of us to forget. They don’t want us to think that silence is a remedy.
After the interview aired, Larry M. Brown, CEO of Ethnos360 (formerly New Tribes Mission) responded with an apology and a thank you, writing,
We wish to express our deepest gratitude to these women who came forward and others who have raised awareness of abuse. It is because of their willingness to share their painful stories that . . . preventative measures have been put in place, and we want to publicly thank them.
I want to thank them, too. I know I still need to hear their voices. Their stories are not new to me, but I’d already swept them to the corners of my memory, stripped of faces and details, kept where I can know that they exist without having to acknowledge them often. But I need to remember, really remember, because otherwise it’s too easy for me to give in to my tendencies to ignore hard things, to avoid confrontation, to give the benefit of the doubt when faced with suspicious activities, to hope that things will take care of themselves, and to protect the mission. In this I’m not alone.
And sadly, children in New Tribes Mission haven’t been the only ones to suffer abuse—sexual, physical, emotional, verbal, or spiritual abuse—from missionaries. In 2008, the production company Good Hard Working People produced the film All God’s Children, focusing on accounts of abuse that took place from 1950-1970 at Mamou Alliance Academy, a Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA) boarding school in Guinea. The film is available online in 10 parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10.
In the following video from The Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS—now thirtyone:eight), Wess Stafford, president emeritus of Compassion International, tells of his own experiences as a victim of abuse at Mamou:
Beverly Shellrude Thompson, one of several former Mamou students we hear from in All God’s Children, gives another reason for speaking out, saying that “truth-telling is an integral part of my healing, because as a child I didn’t have a voice.” In 1999, she helped launch MK Safety Net to provide a forum for MKs and TCKs to share their stories, to network, and to learn how to bring their concerns to church/mission leadership. Former Fanda students have contributed to a similar site titled Fanda Eagles.
As part of the process of addressing the problem, New Tribes Mission and C&MA have produced public reports detailing the abuse at Fanda and Mamou and examining how the organizations responded. The investigation of Fanda was conducted by GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment):
The Christian and Missionary Alliance
Other groups, as well, have created their own reports on the abuse of children on the missions field. These include
The Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE)
In calling attention to this information, I want to make it clear that I am not on a vendetta against missionary boarding schools. I know many fine people who serve overseas in such places, selflessly and righteously watching over and educating the children in their care. But while writing this post gives me pause, I am convinced that these accounts still need to be heard.
I understand that not everyone agrees. “Some,” say the writers of the Presbyterian Church report, “strongly believe that the Church would be better served if those who believe they have been abused or are aware of past abuse would keep such information to themselves.”
They then go on to present and dispute three myths:
The current mission of the church will be hurt by revelations of past abuse on mission fields.
The reputations of former missionaries, current staff, or advocates will be damaged by the investigation of allegations against them.
What is in the past is best left alone.
That is why those five women aren’t staying quiet. It’s because the truth needs to be told, and because these myths aren’t true.
(Kate Snow, et. al., “Ungodly Abuse: The Lasting Torment of the New Tribes Missionary Kids,” NBC News, February 7, 2019; Larry M Brown, “NBC Story Follow-Up,” Ethnos360, November 15, 2019; James Evinger, et. al., Final Report of the Independent Abuse Review Panel Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), PCUSA, October 2010)
[photo: “New Gallery Peckham,” by J Mark Dodds, used under a Creative Commons license]
Our pictures are on the walls!
It’s been a year since I wrote about the long process I and my family were going through fitting back into life in the States and not yet feeling at home—still not having our pictures hung up. Since then, quite a few things have changed, and I would be remiss if I didn’t pass that on as well. I have a new job and my wife is able to stay at home, and we’ve unpacked our pictures and they’re all hanging in the house we’ve been able to buy.
We are so grateful for the ways God has helped us move forward.
But though it’s been over five years since we came back, we can’t say that the transition is completely behind us. It’s still there, just now in less obvious ways.
This post is about reverse culture stress, but it’s not about the difficulties of fitting back into a home culture or family culture or church culture. It’s about the undercurrent of feelings that flow in the opposite direction of our physical move. It’s about the difficulty of wanting to fit in. It’s about the difficulty of wanting to want to.
What are some of the things that hold returned missionaries back from pouring our whole hearts into settling in? What are the feelings—good or bad, right or wrong—that can keep us from jumping into this new chapter? Here are a few I’ve noticed. . . .
Finish reading at A Life Overseas. . . .
“Every time there’s transition, there is loss. So when people are feeling strange about their situation I ask them, ‘What did you lose?’ Because where there’s loss, there’s grief.” —Ruth Van Reken, author of Third Culture Kids
The losses involved with cross-cultural transitions are many, and not all will be voiced as simple answers to the question “What do you miss the most?” They include relationships, dreams, purpose, status, identity, and some things that defy labels.
When someone is grieving a loss—whether of a loved one or of opportunities or of “home”—we tend to search for something to say rather than for a chance to listen. And when we speak, we too often don’t invite the person to express her sadness. Instead, we say what we hope will make the grief go away.
Why are we so uncomfortable with grief? Of course, we don’t like for our friends to be sad, but how often does our discomfort also come from not wanting to be around sad people?
At the risk of being hypocritical, I’ve made a list of things that I don’t like to hear when I’m sad and hurting. I’m afraid that I’ve said most of them myself and probably will continue to do so from time to time. But I’m trying to listen more and talk less. I’m trying to allow grief to run its course in others and not try to make it go away so that I can get on with life.
I need to give credit to a small book, A Friend in Grief: Simple Ways to Help, for it’s inspiration and validation. At just over 100 pages, this guide by Ginny Callaway is full of practical advice for what to say and what not to say, for what to do and what not to do when helping a grieving friend. From her own experience—Callaway’s ten-year-old daughter died in a car accident—and from talking with others, Callaway knows what she’s writing about. Even though the subject of her book is grief caused by the death of a loved one, her advice is valuable for dealing with people grieving other losses as well.
You may not agree with my list. Some items may seem rather picky, and some may be the things that in fact cheer you up. But if I do nothing else, I’d like to initiate an inner conversation on how our words may sound, even if they come from the best of intentions.
10 Things I’d Rather Not Hear . . . and Shouldn’t Say:
1 – I know how you feel.
(This was first on Callaway’s list, too.)
We don’t know exactly how others feel, and even if we’ve gone through something similar, it’s only similar, not exactly the same. We don’t know everything from a person’s past that has culminated in the present emotions. “I know how you feel” doesn’t invite much further sharing. You might try saying something like, “I know a little of what you’re going through,” that is, if it’s true.
“I know how you feel” often leads to . . .
2 – Let me tell you what happened to me.
This is not a time to one-up someone. We shouldn’t invalidate others’ experiences or their emotions. Maybe my friend moved three times in a year. Telling her that I’ve moved six times says, “Compared to me, you don’t have the right to feel sad.” This phrase is a close cousin to “We all have our problems.”
3 – Do you mind if I take this call?
When we’re having deep, important conversations with others, a you’re-important-enough-to-me-that-I’ve-set-aside-this-time-for-you talk, we shouldn’t even have our phones out, ringing, beeping, or buzzing. Just being able to see a cell phone during a conversation distracts from building relationships. We shouldn’t acknowledge a ring unless it’s to silence the phone. And we shouldn’t answer our phones unless we’re on call for an emergency situation. It’s not always possible to escape distractions, but that means we need to do a better job of choosing our times and places.
4 – Everything happens for a reason. (It’s all part of God’s plan. It wasn’t meant to be.)
I actually don’t believe this to be true. Maybe you do. Either way, it’s not a cure-all that makes the pain go away, even though that’s often how it’s used. It’s become something that too many people say with little thought to the theology behind it. This often sounds like “Why are you sad? This is the way it’s supposed to be.” But if the things that have occurred happen not to feel like good things, then remember . . .
5 – When one door closes, another one opens.
A more spiritualized version of this is “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” I haven’t figured out which chapter of the Bible this verse comes from. It’s one of the many platitudes that people say to make everything OK. Feel-good sayings tell the listener just that: “Feel good.” They are often used to tie problems up in a bow and to do the same for many a conversation: Now that we’ve solved that problem, we can talk about something else.
6 – Let me know if you need anything.
Many people who are huting emotionally feel as if they’re burdening others and can be embarrassed by how needy they’ve become. Saying “Let me know if you need anything” puts the ball in their court to ask for help. And even though we’ve made the offer sincerely, when someone considers sharing a need, it’s very easy for him to feel as if he’s imposing. Instead, we should continue to ask what his needs are . . . and also help without an invitation.
7 – It could be worse. (You have so much to be thankful for.)
Of course it could be worse. But that’s not the point. It’s bad enough. Words saying that a person’s problems don’t deserve the grief being expressed can lead that person to hide his sorrow, convinced that his feelings aren’t justified. Hidden sorrow doesn’t go away, it just shows up later as unexplained despair, anger, physical ailments, and the like.
8 – You need to move on.
It’s no fun to be stuck in a difficult place, but that place may seem like the only option. When the routines of the past are gone, and the future is frighteningly unsettled, what does progress look like? It’s not simply putting on a smile so that others feel more comfortable.
9 – I want the old you back.
There’s a good chance the grieving person wants her old self back, too. It may seem as if the grief is the cause of the change, but often, one of the losses that the person is grieving is the loss of the person she used to be. That loss wasn’t chosen. It wasn’t planned, expected, or wanted. And coming “home” doesn’t mean the changes will automatically go away.
And last, but not least . . .
10 – This is just a season.
Doesn’t it seem that for Christians every period of time has become a “season”? When people tell me that my difficulties are only a season, I hear them say that they will end soon, and spring is around the corner. How do they know? What if my winter lasts for 8 years? Why don’t we call the good times “just a season”?
I Need to Listen with Grace, Too
Now that I’ve gotten all that off my chest, I’ll step down off my rickety soapbox and look at things from another angle. As a sometime recipient of the words above, I also understand that I need to receive with grace my friends’ efforts—even when I’m hurting. I need better to hear their concern even when the words don’t feel right.
Missionary Rachel Marie Stone and her fellow authors address this in their Christianity Today article, “Go Ahead, Say the Wrong Thing.” She writes that “listicles” of “things you should never say” are all the rage but often misguided.
I’ll stand by my list, but I’ll also take her point to heart:
Just before I returned from a very difficult time as a mission worker in sub-Saharan Africa, I talked to my therapist on Skype. She’d been a mission worker herself, and understood my anxiety:
“I just can’t stand the thought of all the stupid things people at church might say to me about this experience,” I told her.
“But people will say stupid things,” she said kindly. “The question is, how will you receive those stupid remarks?”
It seemed to me then that my own sense of the importance of right words did not necessitate my hair-trigger outrage at hearing “wrong” words. I could survive thoughtless remarks, choosing to hear, beneath them, the genuine concern and impulse to connect that underlies so much of our imperfect human communication.
When I’m helping, I’ll do my best not to say the wrong things. When I’m being helped, I’ll do my best to hear those best intentions.
(Peter Katona, “More and More Americans Consider Themselves ‘Hidden Immigrants,’” Columbia News Service, February 27, 2007; Ginny Callaway, A Friend in Grief: Simple Ways to Help, High Windy Press, 2011; Rachel Marie Stone, Megan Hill, and Gina Dalfonzo, “Go Ahead, Say the Wrong Thing,” Christianity Today, August 5, 2014)
[photo: “365 0127,” by Tim Caynes, used under a Creative Commons license]
The culture slide. It’s not a dance for expats—though sometimes it may feel like it.
Culture slide is the name I’ve given to the confusion and shifts in thinking brought about by globalization.
It’s when your kids grow up in Taipei and think that Giordano clothing stores must be from Italy (they’re actually from Hong Kong) and they must have outlets in the US (they don’t). Likewise, Napoli sounds Italian, but the pizza chain is Taiwanese. Then there’s NET (from Taiwan), Fnac (from France), and B&Q (from the UK). And as much as they may feel like GAP, Best Buy, and Home Depot, the kids didn’t find any of them when they traveled to the US.
It cuts the other way, too. Back in the States, we think we should be able to order corn soup and extra-spicy extra-crispy chicken at KFC. . . and tuna and peas should be available as toppings at Pizza Hut. And we’re pleasantly surprised to find out that IKEA and Yoshinoya are in the good ol’ US of A, too—even if they haven’t made it to our part of the country yet.
That last part reminds me of a story attributed to Den Fujita, founder of McDonald’s in Japan. In Asian Brand Strategy: How Asia Builds Strong Brands, Martin Roll writes about Fujita saying, “Once a group of Japanese Boy Scouts visited the United States and were asked by a local television station what their impression of America was. One boy replied, ‘I didn’t know that they had McDonald’s in the United States, too.’” Maybe you’ve heard that story before, but that time it was a Japanese boy in Florida or a Japanese girl in Los Angeles or a French girl in Times Square or a European boy or a little boy from Indonesia. It’s all so confusing.
Ahhh, McDonald’s, the king of globalization, and the instigator of so much culture slide.
Not only does McDonald’s localize their menus wherever they go—which might make Germans think that all the world’s restaurants have McCurrywurst—but they’re selections also cross borders in some fairly strange ways. A couple years ago, Germany’s McDonald’s introduced bubble tea, a drink with chewy tapioca balls that was invented in Taiwan. Here’s the commercial:
As others have pointed out, why is the actor yelling, “Bubblezzaaiii”? Is he trying to sound Japanese?
So that brings us back to Japan, the country with the second most McDonald’s restaurants, next to the US. Fujita brought “Donald McDonald” (it’s easier to pronounce that way) to his country in 1971, writes John Love in McDonald’s: Behind the Arches, with the idea that the restaurants would have to look “100 percent Japanese.” Love quotes Fujita as saying, “If I insisted that this was something that came from America, the Japanese would say, ‘This is American, and we don’t like it because we don’t like Americans.'” It seems that in Fujita’s eyes, they didn’t disdain all things Western, as he’s also credited in Love’s book with telling reporters,
The reason Japanese people are so short and have yellow skins is because they have eaten nothing but fish and rice for two thousand years. If we eat McDonald’s hamburgers and potatoes for a thousand years, we will become taller, our skin will become white, and our hair blond.
It will be some time before that can be proven or disproven, but it didn’t take nearly as long for McDonald’s in Japan to warm up to its American roots. Right now it’s in the middle of a campaign with throwback menus featuring “American Vintage” food from the ’50s, ’70s, and ’80s—or at least it features what some in Japan think is vintage American food. The offerings include a burger with two beef patties, an egg, and mashed potatoes between the buns (’50s), “Hot & Groovy” chicken sandwiches topped with salsa (’70s), and sandwiches with the addition of BBQ sauce (’80s).
Now that’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh, uh-huh.
Sing Along with Me: “Baseball, Hot Dogs . . .”
I’m just glad that here in the US, we’ve got a pretty good handle on who we are and what is ours. We know that McDonald’s is a genuine American export, even if the menu changes around the globe. We also know that no matter how much the world tilts on its cultural axis, we’ll always be able to count on things like baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet. Remember that chorus from the Chevy commercial in 1975?
To review, that’s baseball (where all the balls used in the Major Leagues are made in Costa Rica), hot dogs (which originated in Germany), apple pie (first made in England), and Chevrolet (which is the third-best-selling auto brand in the US, behind Toyota).
In 2006, Chevrolet came out with a new version of their song, once again advertising America’s “favorite brand.” The chorus was updated with several new versions, such as “stolen bases, goat-cheese pizza, bottled water, and Chevrolet.” The commercial ended with the tagline “The world has changed. But the love affair continues.”
I can’t attest to the love affair, but, boy, the world sure has changed.
Step, two, three, four. Doing the culture slide.
(Martin Roll, Asian Brand Strategy: How Asia Builds Strong Brands, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006; John F. Love, McDonald’s: Behind the Arches, New York: Bantam, 1995; Michelle Lynn Dinh, “McDonald’s Japan Serving ‘American Vintage’ Burgers Starting This January,” RocketNews24, December 28, 2013)
[photo: “iCon’ Chiken FES._064,” by TAKA@P.P.R.S, used under a Creative Commons license]
Repatriation—to borrow a phrase from John Denver—is coming home to a place you’ve never been before.
Here’s a repost from my first year blogging, with 92 things that remind repats that they’ve been out of the country for a while. As time goes by, more and more of them are happening less and less for me. But some will never go away.
In the hallowed tradition of “You Know You’re an Expat / Third Culture Kid / Missionary when . . .” lists, I offer my own version for repats. This is for the times when you’re reminded that your plug doesn’t always fit the outlet.
Since I’m a former missionary to Asia who’s repatriated back to the US, a lot of my list leans in that direction, but I hope there’s something here for repats of every stripe (or voltage, as it were).
You remember you’re a repat when . . .
1. Your passport is your preferred form of ID.
2. You comment on how cheap gas is in the US.
3. You ask your friends who they’re picking to win the World Cup.
4. Your CNN web page is set on “International.”
5. You accidentally try to pay for something with the strange coins from the top of your dresser.
6. You don’t trust your friends when they say they’ve found a “good” Italian restaurant.
7. You ask the clerk at the convenience store if you can pay your electric bill there.
8. You don’t know how to fill out taxes without Form 2555.
9. You think Americans are loud.
10. You talk about Americans overseas and call them “foreigners.”
11. You find out that living overseas is not the top qualification employers are looking for.
12. You learn to stop talking about the nanny and groundskeeper you used to employ.
13. You have to ask how to write a check.
14. You forgot how many numbers to dial for a local phone call.
15. You tell your toddler, “No seaweed until you finish all your hamburger.”
16. You try to order fried chicken at Burger King.
17. You check prices by converting from what a similar item cost overseas.
18. You think American paper money is boring because it lacks color and the bills are all the same size.
19. You don’t know how to respond when people say, “I bet you’re glad to be back home.”
20. You prefer to hear news reports from someone with a British accent.
21. You wonder why all the commentators on TV are yelling.
22. You wish you’d brought back ten of your favorite kitchen utensil because you didn’t know it’s not sold in the States.
23. You realize international students are you’re kind of people.
24. You ask where you can get a late-model, low-mileage Toyota for around $2000.
25. You turn on the subtitles on an English movie because you don’t want to miss anything.
26. You ask the clerk at the video store if they have VCDs.
27. You wonder if organization should be spelled with an s.
28. You load up your suitcase and you try not to “pack like an American.”
29. You stop bringing your bi-lingual Bible to church.
30. You smirk inside because someone calls a 4.3 earthquake “a big one.”
[top photo: “Electrical Outlet,” by grendelkhan, used under a Creative Commons license; bottom photo: “Having It Both Ways,” by Keith Williamson, used under a Creative Commons license]
In doing research on Scott Wallace’s work with isolated tribes of the Amazon, I came across his March report about two Waorani Indians who had been killed by members of an “uncontacted” tribe. According to witnesses, “the assailants belonged to a clan of Taromenane, a branch of the Waorani who spurned contact with evangelical missionaries in the 1950s and continue to roam the forests of Yasuní as nomads.”
I knew about the Waorani (Woadani, Huaorani, Auca) story, that their original contact with Western Christians had resulted in the spearing death of five missionaries in 1956, but I hadn’t updated myself on what was currently going on with the tribe. I also knew that the son of one of those missionaries, Steve Saint, had continued the work with the Waorani and that last year an accident had left him partially paralyzed. Again, I hadn’t kept up with his situation and assumed that his recovery was complete.
Following through a number of links, here is what I found: Steve Saint and Elisabeth Elliot (wife of one of the slain missionaries) living out their lives after tragedy, grabbing hold of their all-too-often idealized stories, stripping away the neatly tied bows, and letting the loose ends speak.
Our stories are part of God’s story, and by adding their epilogues, Saint and Elliot show that all our stories are best told completely, fairly, and honestly.
Steve Saint: All Is Not Good, but Let God Write Your Story
One year ago this past June, an accident left Steve Saint partially paralyzed from the neck down. Saint, the founder of the Indigenous Peoples Technology and Education Center (I-TEC), was testing an aluminum wing when it became unmounted from its stand, striking him in the head.
Steve Saint was five years old when his father, Nate Saint, was killed by the Waorani Indians in Ecuador. The story of their deaths is told in Elisabeth Elliot’s book Through Gates of Splendor and in the film End of the Spear.
Due to the continued efforts of Saint’s Aunt Rachel and Elliot—wife of Jim Elliot, another of the five killed—many of the Waorani became Christians. And as teenagers, Steve and his sister, Kathy, were baptized by two of the men who had killed their father—in the Curaray River next to the beach where the killings had taken place.
After Rachel Saint’s death, Steve Saint was invited by the Waorani to come live with them, which he, his wife, and children did, for a year and a half. Later, he started I-TEC to “enabl[e] indigenous churches to overcome the technological and educational hurdles that stand in the way of their independence.” I-TEC’s most famous invention is the Maverick, a “flying car” developed to help Christian workers reach “frontier” areas.
Since his accident, Saint has produced a series of six videos, called “The Next Chapter,” telling about his injury and recovery. The first was filmed a week after the accident, with Steve speaking from his hospital bed. The last came a year later. In it, Saint begins, over footage of him struggling to get up in the morning,
I think, maybe in some of the recordings we made earlier on, what I wanted to show was, you know, how wonderful things were, and I think we gave the impression that, you know, all is good now. And there is good now, but not all is good. . . . You know, stand up, and that’s the worst, standing up is just agony in the morning, you know, trying to get these stilts, ’cause I can’t feel from my waist on down . . . and I can’t feel most of my arms, and I certainly can’t feel my hands. . . .
I was privileged to meet Saint and his good friend Mincaye several years ago when they gave an interview at a ministry I worked for. Mincaye, now a Christian, was part of the group that speared Saint’s father. I am encouraged by Saint’s faith and dedication. Despite his current condition, he has kept his trust in God. Three months after his injury, he told the Ocala StarBanner, using much of the same language that is part of the video above:
My motto has been, “Let God write your story,” and that’s what I have always done. Opportunity comes in strange formats. You have a lot of people, nowadays, who want to write their own story and have God be their editor, when something goes wrong. I decided long ago to let God write my story.
Elisabeth Elliot: We Are Buffoons, but the Work is God’s
It’s been a long time since I read Elisabeth Elliot’s Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot. I remember being inspired by Jim and Elisabeth’s lives, but also discouraged. It seemed that their level of faith was unattainable for someone like me. If they were the definition of missionary, then I probably shouldn’t even try.
I’ve had trouble in the past putting missionaries on pedestals. But experience has taught me that missionaries are imperfect people, too, especially my experience living out my own far-from-perfect missionary life.
In 1961, Elliot wrote The Savage My Kinsman, chronicling her two years working with the Waorani. Twenty years later, she penned an epilogue that includes a brief explanation of why she left them: because she wanted to provide a better education for her daughter and because the “differences” between her and her fellow missionary, Rachel Saint, meant that they were “not in any strictly truthful sense really working together.”
“One of us, it appeared, must go,” she writes. “My decision was a painful one.”
But while Elliot doesn’t want to gloss over the difficulties of her story, neither does she want to “magnify the trivial.” According to Elliot, there are two “dangerous” extremes in the way Christians interpret life, and the stories we tell:
One is the sheer triumphalism which is the coin of much religious telecasting. Make it appealing. Make it cheap. Make it easy. Be a Christian and watch your difficulties dissolve. Obey God and everything you touch will turn to gold. The other is the exposé. Out of a very muddy notion of something called equality, and perhaps also out of an exaggerated fear of hero-worship or cultism, springs an urge to spy out all weaknesses and inconsistencies and thereby discredit practically all human effort, especially when its intention is an unselfish one.
To be sure, the life of a missionary—the life of a Christian—is a natural mix of victories and defeats. Elliot saw this in her team’s contact with the Waorani: the highs (“the Auca Indians were finally reached”) and lows (“nine children were left fatherless”), the joys (“the Aucas heard the gospel”) and sorrows (“they also got polio”). And her list goes on.
How we long to point to something—anything—and say, “This works! This is sure!” But if it is something other than God Himself we are destined for disappointment. There is only one ultimate guarantee. It is the love of Christ. The love of Christ. . . .
God keep us from sitting in the seat of the scornful, concentrating solely on the mistakes, the paltriness of our efforts, the width of the gap between what we hoped for and what we got. How shall we call this “Christian” work? What are we to make of it?
Elliot continues with these thoughts in another epilogue, this one added to Through Gates of Splendor in 1996, marking the 40th anniversary of the missionaries’ deaths:
[W]e are tempted to assume a simple equation here. Five men died. This will mean x-number of Waorani Christians.
Perhaps so. Perhaps not. Cause and effect are in God’s hands. Is it not the part of faith simply to let them rest there? God is God. I dethrone Him in my heart if I demand that He act in ways that satisfy my idea of justice. . . .
The massacre . . . was interpreted according to the measure of one’s faith or faithlessness—full of meaning or empty. . . . The beginning of a great work, a demonstration of the power of God, a sorrowful first act that would lead to a beautifully predictable third act in which all puzzles would be solved, God would vindicate Himself, Waoranis would be converted, and we could all “feel good” about our faith. Bulletins about progress were hailed with joy and a certain amount of “Ah! You see!” But the danger lies in seizing upon the immediate and hoped-for, as though God’s justice is thereby verified, and glossing over as neatly as possible certain other consequences, some of them inevitable, others simply the result of a botched job. In short, in the Waorani story as in other stories, we are consoled as long as we do not examine too closely the unpalatable data. By this evasion we are willing still to call the work “ours,” to arrogate to ourselves whatever there is of success, and to deny all failure. . . .
I think back to the five men themselves, remembering Pete’s agony of indecision as to whether he should join the others in the venture; Ed’s eagerness to go even though Marilou was eight months pregnant, his strong assurance that all would be well; Roj’s depression and deep sense of failure as a missionary; Nate’s extreme caution and determination; Jim’s nearly reckless exuberance. . . .
[W]e are sinners. And we are buffoons. . . .
It is not the level of our spirituality that we can depend on. It is God and nothing less than God, for the work is God’s and the call is God’s and everything is summoned by Him and to His purposes, the whole scene, the whole mess, the whole package—our bravery and our cowardice, our love and our selfishness, our strengths and our weaknesses.
(Scott Wallace, “Uncontacted Group Kills Two Natives in Ecuador,” National Geographic News Watch, March 11, 2013; Doug Engle, “Partially Paralyzed, Inventor and Missionary Saint Letting God Write His Story,” Ocala StarBanner, September 2, 2012; Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009; Elisabeth Elliot, The Savage My Kinsman, Ventura, CA: Regal, 1996; Elisabeth Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor, Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2002)
[photo: “Humility,” by Toni Verdú Carbó, used under a Creative Commons license]