’It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to’ – from The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien
Tomorrow (12th January) marks ten years since my wife and I, along with our 18 week old baby, set off for Perú to serve as missionaries. Packed between the physical items in our luggage were dreams and aspirations, palpable guidance from God in his Word, and a multipack of emotions, positive and negative. That moment in Dublin Airport when we stepped across the yellow line at departures, instantly transporting ourselves a world away from home and family, was the culmination of years of preparation and prayer, of an ever-increasing sense that God was sending us there, and that he would use us there.
We weren’t blind to the potential difficulties, nor the deep challenges we would face when we got there, but nothing could have prepared us for the spiritual journey that we would chart in the year to follow, nor of the potent mixture of emotions we would feel when we returned to Ireland just shy of a year later. Ours had been the dream of long term service, we had sold our goods, we had severed our hearts from the stability of living in our own culture for the better percentage of our future, and we had prepared our friends and family that this was a decisive step. To feel the wheels come off your most keenly felt aspirations is a disconcerting and life changing experience, but we are grateful that a decade later we can reflect on the fact it has nourished the roots of our walk with God, rather than withering them.
We have never fully ‘told our story’, nor do we ever intend to, but the following four thoughts are helpful ‘Ebenezer’ points to highlight from the distance of a decade. I pray that they might be of help to those readers who are grappling with their own disappointments, with seemingly impossible forks in the road, with a huge payload of unanswered questions:
I often wish that God would move in a straight line his wonders to perform, rather than in his uniquely mysterious ways. I regularly promote myself to the Vice-Chairmanship of Divine Strategy, postulating and predicting the best ways in which God might dispose of me. Thankfully, God’s purpose is undisturbed by my reaching for demi-deity. The providence of God is often inscrutable, the purposes of God are often invisible, and the nearness of God is not always tangible. Our ‘go-to-Perú-and stay there’ plan seemed like the logical ending to the story God gave to us ten years ago, a linear trajectory which we and our supporters would follow with ease. When, for various reasons, things began to go south we had to wrestle with the fact that we were still living within the mind and will of God, even if it meant struggling with trying to find out his ways.
My great concern in preparing to move abroad for the gospel was what God might do through me; I was slightly less attuned to what God might wish to do in me. Naively, I foresaw a long term ministry which directly or indirectly would contribute to the health and growth of the part of the Peruvian church to which we were going, and I had high hopes of what God might do with us. It took a very narrow section of months to discern the fact that our hearts were part of what God wanted to harvest during our time in Perú. Faced with the challenges of living in another culture, with growing uncertainty about the feasibility of the ministries we had dreamed of (and had been sent to do), and a whole host of other issues, what rose to the surface for me were the casual corruptions of my heart, and of my concept of God and his will (more of this under point 3). There was hardened ground, and fallow soil, and high quantities of self-reliance which I would never have recognised had I remained at home in pastoral ministry. God laid my heart bare to me, but in his usual manner this was with good, rather than destructive, intent.
Hebrews 12:11 became a much used ration pack for me during our experiences in Perú, and I never read that whole section now without being mentally transported to certain locations, and vital junctures. ‘All discipline seems painful rather than pleasant’ was like the lancing of a boil in my broken spirit, the curative incision of truth which told me that the convulsions of my heart and the vagaries of our path did not need to be lined with pleasantness or peace for them to be productive – it liberated me to say from the heart, ‘I don’t like this’. ‘But later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it’ was like the application of salve to the soul. When we are in pain, when we are vexed and stretched, we can only operate in the present tense, in the excruciation of the messiness and seeming mindlessness of the trial. When I read ‘but later’ in such circumstances it gave me a future tense again, it spoke to me of progress rather than infinite regress, it spoke of purpose in the very pain which held me locked in a moment I could not welcome.
I have witnessed that discipline bear its fruit over and over again in our lives in the years which have followed. My vocational assurance in a local church pastorate, my ingrained scepticism about our entrenched consumerism, my distrust of my own heart and instincts, my greater empathy for shoeless pilgrims whom I am called to pastor and identify with on the road to heaven, are all the product of the crucible of Perú. I praise God every day for that discipline about which I once questioned him daily. Pain and purpose are often the pestle and mortar of Christian growth.
In her poem about returnees from WWI Vera Brittain captures the heart of soldiers returning quietly from the frontline thus,
And no one talked heroics now, and we
Must just go back and start again once more
That contrast of the pageantry and parading of those sent to war with the dim return of those same men is a powerful image of what it is to have been away, to come back again, and to face the task of rebuilding after disruption and interlude. The life away from home is unknown to others, a life back at home is unfamiliar to them – this is an experience of deep disconcertment.
It would be an unforgivable exercise in narcissistic self-pity to plant our experiences in a poem of such profundity, but a diluted form of that emotion was ours on touching the tarmac in Ireland again. We had gone with our hopes and those of many others, and we returned now to a future we hadn’t planned for, and with plans that now had no future. We were disoriented, and we were disappointed, and we knew that it would be easy to be misunderstood. But gradually that gloom dispelled in light of the chief thing that identified (and identifies) us as people – our union with Christ, and our adoption by God. The security of that relationship undergirded all of the vicissitudes of settling back and seeking our future, it sweetened the bitter waters of disappointment, and it gave us a confidence in God that we never could have summoned from within ourselves. To be accepted and loved by God unconditionally, even when we don’t know what others are thinking, or what the rest of our lives might hold, is literally everything.
So, I’ll mark tomorrow’s milestone with deep gratitude to God for his grace to us, and for the growth in us of a confidence in him which we never could have reaped without his ploughing. Perhaps as you survey the scorched earth where once grew your dreams, as you weigh the undeniable pain of treading a path not of your choosing, you too might have fresh confidence that now may only make sense (much) later, and that your good God is doing good things, even in the darkness.