Friday, September 14, 2012

reluctant missionary

A few years ago I read a book called "Reluctant Missionary" written by Edith Buxton.  She is the daughter of famous missionary C. T. Studd and married one of his best known recruits, Alfred Buxton.  The title of the book beckoned me into its dusty pages and I related to Buxton's reluctance and was inspired by her rising to the challenge of being a missionary in the jungles of Congo in the early 1900's.  "The sea journey took three weeks.  On the last morning I was awake early and on deck to catch my first look at Africa.  It was a brown line on the horizon of a dull grey sea.  To those who are susceptible to her magic, Africa can cast a spell which binds you to her for ever.  I still feel that magnetic pull whenever I set foot on her soil.  The age-old earth at your feet, baked by an unremitting sun, sends a thrill through me to this day."  She writes with eloquence and vulnerability.  "Long before we reached Nala I knew I did not fit.  I did not like my fellow missionaries and I am quite sure they did not like me.  I became critical, often speaking ill of my neighbours, I was bored.  Had I not been happily married, I could not have stood the isolation.  There is no place like Africa for finding you out."

That sentence, "There is no place like Africa for finding you out" still proves to be true even a hundred years later. I want to share a story of how I was found out a couple of years ago.  I hesitate to share this story because I like to be well thought of, to be considered a paragon of Christian virtue.  Unfortunately I am more often not.  This story occurred in early December 2010 in the midst of much change and personal heartache.  We were having one last beach day with a missionary family who would be returning to the US, leaving Gabon for good.  Though it was deep into the rainy season we decided to go to a remote beach reached only by traversing muddy roads carved out of dense forest.  We met around 9ish at a local bakery before convoying to the remote beach.  Unfortunately our US Embassy friend had a minor accident on the way out of the bakery parking area and insisted that we carry on without her as she would have to wait for someone from the embassy to help with the logistics of the accident.  We reluctantly agreed and piled the kids from her car into ours.  We drove on for about 30 more minutes before becoming stuck, suctioned really, deep into a muddy, rutted puddle along with another car or two.  We had just poured quite a bit of money into our aging Nissan Patrol and as it was being dug out incidental damage was inflicted to the car and I began to feel irrationally trapped.  I knew the feelings to be irrational, eventually we would be free of the muddy stronghold, yet I felt so overwhelmed and honestly wanted to vomit.  By the time we were free we had collectively decided to turn back and go to a beach closer to Libreville and easier to get in and out of with our cars.  Our embassy friend had joined us by this time and we pulled up to a beach area hours after starting out that morning.

After we unloaded and dipped our muddy feet in the ocean to clean them off a bit, a man was gesturing wildly and talking to Steve.  I drew near and understood the fellow to be complaining that we had splashed mud on his clothing when we drove by.  I looked him over and found no offending mud on his brightly colored jogging suit.  It is customary in this culture to reimburse someone the cost of cleaning their clothing should your car splash mud upon them.  Usually a few dollars will cover the cost but this man was insisting on a larger more ridiculous amount to cover the cost of cleaning his outfit.  Still no mud to be seen on his person.  Steve joked around with the man and offered a more appropriate amount.  The man refused.  Meanwhile an anger rose up within me, one that surprised me.  I was lathered up into a fury like none other by this man.  I found myself shaking some local currency at the man and calling him a thief.  This abruptly brought all around to a stilted silence.  Steve asked if I was alright.  I responded by saying something to the affect of "I want to punch this man!  Will anyone let me punch this guy?!"  Steve then asked if I needed to go home.  At this point all eyes were on me.  I knew I was irrational but the rage inside bubbled up and over.  I turned to the man and said I wanted to fight him.  He was incredulous as were all my companions.  At that point I did some kind of Tae Bo motion with my feeble fists spinning in his direction.  Fortunately the kids were playing in the waves and unaware of my unraveling rapidly into incredulous behavior.  I really really wanted to physically punch this man.  I saw red.  It's the only way I can explain myself.  I'm not a violent person usually.  In fact I've never been in a fight or even threatened to fight someone in my entire life.  I thought I was a lover, not a fighter... I thought wrong.

My dear friend Lisa started to try to explain my bizarre behavior to the man by telling him of our difficult journey that day and how one of our friends had an accident earlier and how we had gotten stuck in the mud, all in an effort to calm down the situation and bring about peace and harmony.  Lisa is a great friend and one that will go to bat for you even when you've gone batty...literally.  Unbeknownst to Lisa, this man was well aware of our friend's accident earlier because HE HAD BEEN THERE!  He had done his best to incite anger towards my embassy friend.  He wanted her to pay for her accident (in some kind of vigilante way) and demanded the gathering crowd to turn on our friend.  Fortunately the crowd benignly ignored the man and my friend was able to take care of the accident with her embassy worker in a dignified manor worthy of a wonderful diplomat.  I, on the other hand, one believed to be sent by a loving God to love and serve the Gabonese, was spitting mad ready to come to blows.  Let me remind you that the accident at the bakery occurred hours before, miles away from our present location.  I was sure the man was an agent of satan sent to antagonize and harass.  I told Steve to get the man away from me.  Steve complied.  The man and Steve conferred together some distance away and a few moments later the man apologized and shook each of our hands and quickly departed.

There was nervous laughter as my friends asked how I was doing.  There were some jokes throughout the day to not get in my way or I may go Billy Blanks on the offending party.  Some even mockingly spun their fists in my general direction.  It was shocking to me how angry I was at that man.  I mean, I really thought I was a nice person!  I thought when I sold or gave away all our belongings and moved to a distant land to love and serve in God's name that I would be loving and kind and long-suffering like all good missionaries.  Wrong.  I was none of those things.  I was tired and frustrated and grieving again the loss of more teammates.  I was overwhelmed and empty.  We had just celebrated our first Thanksgiving with our kids away at boarding school.  By Christmas time we would be the only missionaries on our team in the capital city.  I was feeling woefully inadequate.  I had no love inside to spill out and over onto those around me.  I, instead, was filled with anger and frustration.  It was a serious low-point in my life.  Yet, God met me there.  He loves me and knew me better than I knew myself.  He wasn't surprised by my bad behavior.  He loved me before and during and would love me after.  He allowed me to face the ugliness inside and gently forgave.  He healed and refilled me along the way.

So I can certainly relate to being a reluctant missionary.  I will close with these words of Edith Buxton, "Perhaps there is still time -- time left to learn.  And there is so much to learn -- learning to accept each day as it comes, at peace when the day is over; loving God through loving my neighbour, and, finally, to know that fulfillment which comes from learning to walk in grace.  And this grace must be taken new every morning from the very hand of God."      

Monday, September 3, 2012

Thoughts from a mission cemetery called Blessing

Amidst discarded beer bottles and other refuse on a weedy plot of land lies a cemetery on a high point of Libreville over-looking downtown buildings, rambling neighborhoods and the grey-green estuary spilling out into the Atlantic ocean.  Recently Steve and I went there to take some photos for a man who is writing a book recounting the lives of the first protestant missionaries to Gabon.  The grave stones are scattered somewhat haphazardly in a sad state of neglect.  After driving towards downtown Libreville and taking a cratered road that wandered and wound around an adjacent neighborhood we found the mission called "Baraka" which translates to "blessing".  Behind the mission building lies the cemetery.  It was a sunny hot day with billowy white clouds drifting lazily across a brilliant blue sky, occasional breezes carried up from the sea stirred the sombre air as we walked reverently around the old headstones searching for specific names to photograph for the author.

Many of the simple arched headstones were weather-worn with etched script hard to decipher.  Another missionary friend of ours had taken an interest in preserving the stories of these early missionaries.  She had come years before us and used a sharpie marker to fill in the script to sharpen the contrast and render the words legible once again.  We did the same for the headstone of the one the author was most interested in our photographing.  Even in the bright sunlight the chiseled words were lost amidst the rough stone so Steve carefully filled in the words with the sharpie, bringing to clarity the epitaph so long ago carved out by a dear friend of the deceased.  The dates on the oldest stones were from the 1820s.  One marked the grave of an entire family, husband, wife, and baby, who most-likely from disease, the young missionary couple in their late twenties when they died just days apart.  Many of the graves told of lives cut short, barely into their thirties when they breathed their last breath in this foreign place.  Their gravestones spoke of their passion to reach this place and love the people here, to shine the light of Christ.  It grimly reminded me of when missionaries packed their belongings in coffins.  They counted the cost.  They knew death awaited them but went forth with the promise of eternal life.  Their life was well-spent sharing the gospel of Christ a couple of centuries ago in this very land where I currently live.

As I sat and watched Steve work I thought about what it must have been like for those early missionaries.  I could imagine this mission located on a high point with views of the sea, a great location to catch those precious sea breezes to cut through the oppressive, cloying humidity that hangs like a scratchy wet woolen blanket.  I could imagine away the crowded buildings and neighborhoods that surrounded and could see the cemetery clean and green.  I could imagine the gravestones with etchings sharp and clear.  I could imagine the mourners left behind fresh with the grief of losing another teammate.  The mounds of red Central African earth piled high as yet another of their team lies beneath never to crack a joke or share in a holiday meal or hold hands in prayer again.  As I sat there and contemplated the lives of those who's earthly remains are left in this dirty plot of land I realized I don't really know what hard is.  Sure I've said goodbye to many a teammate and felt the loss of their leaving and the loneliness amidst the crowds of people in this foreign place but I've never buried a teammate or carved out their epitaph on a gravestone.  What a precious price they paid.  I've never seriously feared death or disease.  I've lived in relative comfort.  It's not the comfort and convenience of home, not by a long-shot, but it's not the dangerous and wild place it once was.  I wondered what it would be like to live my life poured out as a drink offering to a spiritually dry and desperate place.  I wondered if I would count the high, high cost and board that ship with my belongings packed in a long pine box waving a final goodbye to all my friends and family.  Would I have the courage to have children and raise them in a hostile environment?  Would I love the people here with my very life?

It really made me examine my life and my commitment here and now.  It made me question how deep is my love for the still lost people here.  I realized my often grinch-like shrunken heart is needing growth.  Please pray for me to love, really love the people here, love them more than my own comfort.  I confess my love for comfort is a guiding force in my life.  I want to count the cost and find it worth it.  Only God can enlarge my heart and He can only enlarge it as I give it to Him.  He's a gentleman, never pushy or controlling.  I love that about Him but hate that I am so hard-hearted and so stingy with my love.  Sometimes I wish He would just make me do the right thing, the loving thing, to take me out of the equation.  But He doesn't, He has given me freedom and a mind and body and life, He has given me the Holy Spirit that lives within and speaks wisdom and guidance... when I pay attention.