Have you ever felt taken by surprise? Have you ever started down a road with “great promise” only to find the road to the promised result is a lot longer and bumpier than you thought it would be? Disappointed. Discouraged. Even defeated. Normal life events take us by surprise: marriage, children, moving, all of them throw curve balls at us that we had no training on how to catch. More often than we care to admit, we arrive at those events unprepared.
Dreams aren't always reality
Many of us dream of having children, building a family, something like a Norman Rockwell painting of days gone by: a house, white fencing, a playground in the back for the kids, a dog, and good jobs to sustain it all. What a surprise for the new parents when the baby comes home. I remember years ago (1985 to be precise) when we were expecting our first child, we did everything right from the get-go; we wanted the best for our baby. In those days, some of you may remember, Lamaze was all the rage, and peer pressure dictated that we attend special classes to prepare for the baby’s arrival. There, we learned breathing techniques, and positions to take to ease the pain of labor and delivery, and were encouraged to have a totally natural birthing experience. In addition to following Lamaze, there was a real push for “supernatural childbirth” in some churches. A cassette tape of teaching accompanied by a small book encouraging women to believe in God for a pain-free delivery was circulated. I diligently followed the teachings of both: I studied Lamaze and the process for a pain-free supernatural delivery. Surely I was prepared for a smooth delivery. Fast-forward a few months (mind you I was deep into preparation mode by that time) and one Monday afternoon while walking around in the mall, I felt a strange twinge in my lower back. This came a bit earlier than my due date so initially I thought it was false labor until the twinges became full-blown knife-in-my-lower-back-put-me-out-of-my-misery pain. My husband, wrapped up in his Monday night football said, “You’re not having that baby!” To which I replied, “Oh yes I am!” It was as if a fire alarm went off and he jumped into action, up and down the stairs, “I’m going! Where is your suitcase?” This was my first undeniable indication that things were not going to go as planned…at all. It was nearly midnight by the time we cut through all the red tape of checking into the hospital. When I was finally examined, I was told, “Oh, this is going to take some time yet.” The night was young, I was strong, and I was determined to follow directions: breathe right, lay on my side, rub a tennis ball on my back, and pray, pray, pray. The minutes turned into hours and the pain, contrary to my great hopes and prayers, went from my determined announcement of, “This is very hard but I’m gonna do this!” To my begging, “Give me SOMETHING!!!” Before my son was delivered the next morning just after 7, I had had two injections for pain and wanted a third but was told when I asked for that third shot that I was too far advanced for more painkillers.
Each of my preconceived ideas for a smooth, pain-free delivery went out the door. There was no breathing technique known to man that could’ve helped me and I wondered how could I have possibly been so ill-prepared. How could I have failed so miserably?
And…the surprises kept coming. My baby had colic for the first full year of his life, sleep was a rare commodity in those days. Slowly, very slowly, I began to predict the unpredictability of parenthood. I threw out books and tapes on perfect parenting and simply listened to other mothers who had walked longer in those shoes than I had. By the time my boy was three, I woke from my disappointed slumber, no longer berating myself for my naiveté, and wanted more children. What was wrong with me? I went through two more deliveries, still unprepared each time, and one adoption but I learned through them all and fiercely loved them all (and still do). What didn’t bother me so much as time progressed were the surprises that crossed my path. I grew accustomed to rolling with the punches and began to laugh at myself for being surprised. Life, I had learned, was full of surprises.
Life together with its accompanying surprises, have a way of exposing our pride, revealing our lack of faith, and displaying our faults out in the open for all, ourselves included, to see. If only we would enter into adulthood as if we were still children, simply trusting our Father to take care of us no matter what unexpected circumstances arise. When my babies were small, all I had to tell them when trouble came along was Dad and I would take care of it, not to worry. When they heard that answer, they turned over and slept without a care in the world. Mom and Dad were going to take care of everything, which was all the assurance they needed. Oh that we would learn to trust our Father like children again! Age and life experience, another lesson I’ve learned, doesn’t disqualify me from being blindsided by life. Living overseas as a missionary is an unpredictable – and wonderful – adventure. Nothing is normal, anything is possible, and unexpected events take place, sometimes by the hour. Anything other than the unpredictable would be considered abnormal here.
Romance and reality There’s a certain romance in the Western mind about the mission field. I’ve seen it and heard it when traveling stateside and in Europe. We are told by some that they admire what we do and thank God for our service, yet we feel so very underqualified to serve these people God loves so very much and who deserve so much more than we can offer. My faults are so very apparent to me yet, despite my shortcomings, I was given this call (with my husband) and I do my best to be faithful. While on the subject of missions and the connection between the West and the mission field, I wanted to debunk an idea that some might have about those serving overseas. I get the distinct impression that those on the other side of the pond think missionaries must love everything they do and have lots of faith to get things done. Yes, we love the field, but we don’t always love everything associated with our call. We often feel that our faith is very weak in the face of the great challenges we face. No one loves financial strain and, for the most part, it doesn’t come and go for the missionary. It seems financial strain comes to set roots down in everything we do. No one wants to see young children suffer in famine, such as we see in many parts of the continent of Africa, and have our hands tied by finance and circumstance unable to do more to bring them relief. We have fed thousands, and still feed many to this day, but the cruel master of hunger still runs rampant over hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Oh, to be able to do more!
No one enjoys rejection, yes, we missionaries and the Gospel we carry are often rejected. We aren’t often received with joy and red carpets. It can be, and is a lonely and tiring journey. Even as I write this, I feel strange not putting a positive spin on that final sentence for I’ve been so conditioned to keep the difficulties of life in the shadows. However, those shadows, those dark places, aren’t to be shunned. It is in the dark that God leads, it is in the valley that He provides, and it is there where I’m at the end of myself that I find Him.
Like everyone else, we are not immune to discouragement and find, in the process of time, that we bend over under the stresses of circumstances far beyond our control. Therein our pride is revealed when we think we are responsible for bringing change, however, we are wrong in our thinking as things change only in the Presence of God. Our lack of faith is also seen out in the open when we doubt that God hears our prayers when it seems answers are delayed. These are our faults and imperfections and yet God still chooses to use us, any and all of us who dare to walk down this road towards a City that God is building.
Psalm 145:13b, 14 NLT “…The Lord always keeps His promises; He is gracious in all He does. The Lord helps the fallen and lifts those bent beneath their loads.”
Better than the Plans
Quite a few years have passed since I was so bitterly disappointed when childbirth didn’t go at all as we had planned. While I wish the pain didn’t have to accompany the birthing of our children and things we have seen God do, what we have experienced through the pain is much more valuable than a pain-free existence. I’ve seen my children grow into fine young adults, I’ve seen churches planted, and our marriage blossom into something I could never have imagined. Now, in retrospect, I see it has been more than worth it.
Instead of being disappointed, I’m finding the courage to anticipate what lies on the other side of the mountain that I am standing on. Pain? Tears? Struggle? There must be something great waiting as the fight to keep me from it is waging so strongly.