I could do an entire blog series on dumb things I’ve said over the years. I’ve got my fair share of cringeworthy remarks that I regret, and while I’d like to think I’ve learned to control my words better as I’ve grown older, I’m sure there are plenty mistakes yet to come. That said, there are certain remarks which, when thinking back on them, produce not only shame but also an opportunity to mature; words that come back and hit you square between the eyes, revealing to you important truths.
In 2010, my family moved to Kojima, Japan, where I worked as a vocational missionary with a full-time job as an English teacher at a local kindergarten. I had a difficult time with that move early on. I experienced significant culture shock, some of which came from Japanese culture and some from the radical change in my work environment. I dealt with a lot of anxiety during this time. Perhaps it was this shock and anxiety that led me to say what I did to the other missionaries there in Kojima, Brent and Sandy Rogers. Brent and Sandy had been working in Kojima for over a decade teaching English and using that as an opportunity to also share the gospel. Because they owned a business and seemed happy there, I thought that they simply liked living in Japan – that life in Japan was a choice based on personal comfort. I don’t recall my exact words, but I remember saying something along the lines of, “for you guys, you live here because you like it. It’s easy!”
Brent and Sandy kindly let me know that my assumption was completely incorrect. While they were accustomed to life in this small Japanese town, they were not living there because that’s what they wanted. There was much they missed about life in the U.S. They had a dream of a pleasant house and a quiet life with all the comforts of home. But the work was important, they believed in it, and they were committed to it as long as it seemed God was directing their paths there. Brent has since gone on to be with the Lord, but his life ended not with the comforts of home, but far away on the mission field. Brent lived out the words of that old hymn, “Oh Jesus if I die upon a foreign field some day, ‘twould be no more than love demands, no less could I repay.” There would have been no shame or blame in coming home to seek treatment when he found out he was sick, but Brent chose to stay and continue to work and serve, motivated out of his love for Christ. Sandy continues to do the same at the moment, doing her best to serve now as a widow.
I have come to appreciate more and more the example of Brent and Sandy over the years, and also to see how truly foolish my words were to them that day. As we head back to Japan a week from now, I know how much I am going to miss home. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve increasingly come to appreciate proximity to family and being fully a part of the community in which I live. That’s especially true in the middle of a global pandemic. We will have friends in Japan of course – people we love and trust and whose company we enjoy – but we will always be outsiders to some extent. We will struggle to understand some things. We will be separated from home, separated from the culture and community of which we are naturally a part. We will celebrate holidays that those around us will not, and vice versa. I’ll miss congregational singing in English. I’ll miss being able to pray with people naturally, without stumbling over my words. I’ll miss simple joys like Chick-Fil-A (I’m probably better off without that one!). There are dreams that won’t be realized there. I’ve always wanted to see my kids run around my own back yard on a summer’s evening, hearing their laughs as I sip my iced tea with the glow of the sunset fading to the west. I can’t do that in Japan. And unlike our previous journeys, our children will share in some of these struggles with us this time.
I don’t say any of this to complain. However, there are those who believe that we are going because that’s where we want to be, as I believed about Brent and Sandy back then. But as it wasn’t true for them, neither is it true for myself or Sara. It’s true that there are things we enjoy about life in Japan. To be honest, even though the work is very challenging, Japan is one of the easier places to live as a missionary. It’s not a third world country. There will be plenty of creaturely comforts for which we will be grateful. Nevertheless, there’s a lot we will miss, and we’re not going because it’s easy to live there. We’re not going because we’re Japan nerds. We’re going because we believe that is where God is directing our path, and the only way we could not go would be to ignore the direction he has been providing.
I don’t say this to laud us at all. I don’t seek any praise. “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty” (Luke 17:10). Rather, I share these thoughts for three reasons. First, I share it to reflect on my own ignorance in what I said to the Rogers back then. I was wrong, and it’s good to learn from my mistakes. Second, I share it to help you encourage other missionaries. For many missionaries, the work they are doing is a long slog, with plenty of opportunities for discouragement. Hearing someone say, “I’m glad you can do what you love” or “it’s easy for people like you” can be very discouraging. Instead, pray for them regularly and let them know. Reach out and let them know they are on your heart. It will do wonders for their morale. Lastly, I share to encourage you – we aren’t only called to what is easy. Often we are called to do what is challenging and sacrificial. This is the example Jesus set, and it is the example we must follow. That doesn’t always mean going to a foreign mission field, but it does mean being willing to set aside our dreams for the work of the Kingdom.