Falling Off the Missionary Pedestal

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As a twenty-something single missionary home for the summer, I sat quietly judging the other girls in the room who were laughing and talking about which color Kitchen Aid Mixer they had registered for at their bridal showers. I thought about my own home—a 300 square foot cinderblock apartment in China with one sink in the kitchen that looked like it belonged to an auto mechanic and a “shoilet”—a toilet that got wet when you showered because the shower was in the same tiny space.

As I listened to those girls, rather than feeling envy, I felt smug. I was doing the Hard Thing: purposely living a life of discomfort for the sake of the gospel. I had climbed the evangelical Christian ladder right up to the top, perching on the pedestal the church reserves for missionaries. I wasn’t going to waste my life like these other girls who could guiltlessly own a $300 appliance that would collect dust on their kitchen counters.

I had this “living for Jesus” thing all figured out. Hard always equaled holy, I believed. Discomfort was always best. And poverty was external and had nothing to do with the poverty of my own soul.

But have you ever strode confidently into what you wholeheartedly believed was the direction you were meant to go when out of nowhere a giant shepherd’s rod slips around your waist and yanks you backward … hard?

That was how my five-year missionary tale ended—abruptly and with little explanation from that “still small voice.” Before I knew it, I was back in America with the Kitchen Aid Girls, drinking La Croix and chatting about recipes we found on Pinterest.

And I was miserable.

***

That was six years ago.

Since living in China, life has gone from multiple roads, all wide open with glorious possibility, to an ever-narrowing path where I can only see enough of the way ahead to put one foot in front of the other. Getting married “late,” we were on the fast track and had three kids in four years. Sometimes I wake up stunned, wondering what happened to my life.

As a missionary, I had been a superstar, both in China and back home. In China, people asked to take their picture with me and got into motorcycle accidents while gawking at the blond foreigner. In the United States, I was asked to share at churches, gather small groups and give presentations. I felt like someone special. I was doing something meaningful with my life instead of just settling for the White Picket Fence Life so many of my peers had succumbed to.

Now? I drive a minivan. I am lost in the tunnel of parenthood and live in an all-white neighborhood. But I’m finally beginning to understand some things about Kingdom Living.

So far, God’s greatest gift has been to bring me back to live the unglamorous life of the ordinary stay-at-home mom. God has shown me that I was worshipping my call, instead of my Jesus.

I relate to Danielle Mayfield as she shares a similar tumbling from her missionary pedestal in her new book, Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith. In it, she confesses:

“I didn’t start to notice this real and powerful lie, this dark animal clawing up my mind, until it almost undid me. I didn’t see how I placed myself at the top and was eager for others to do the same. I didn’t see how that meant that my neighbors and refugee friends became my stepping stones in attaining the love of God; I didn’t see how it meant that I was using everyone around me in real and devastating ways…it was becoming increasingly clear that there wasn’t even a bit of specialness to be found in me, and that God loved me anyway”(182).

It’s in recognizing my poverty that I can finally receive the love that Jesus wants to lavish on me.

I’m being given the gift of lessening.

In motherhood, you grind your knees in the dirt and do the work of washing tiny, dusty feet just like Jesus did. And then you do it again tomorrow. This does not make me feel like a superhero. Instead, I feel small, insignificant and in need of a good footwashing myself.

From this low position, I may finally look over and see the other misfits and ragamuffins wondering about this Jesus man who gathers in prostituted women, liars, double-crossers and those despised by society.

A wise Chinese friend said something once that made me pause. “Ministry is not complicated,” she said. “You just have to look around you and pray for the people right next to you—your pang bian de ren.* Then wait and see what God does.”

Right now, my right-next-to-me people are my husband, children, neighbors, and the moms I trade war-stories with at preschool pickup. They are my virtual and actual friends and family online. And they are the invisible people who Jesus sees, but I do not yet see. I’m living life in the place where the majority of people live—in the ordinary, messy and everyday.

***

I bought a used $80 Kitchen Aid Mixer at a garage sale last week. I made the first recipe with my “helpers,” my two- and almost-four-year-old. They delighted in tossing the ingredients into the humming bowl until my back was turned and they dumped flour onto the counter, sending it sailing into the air. I cleaned as we waited for the wheat rolls. Then we popped those into our mouths straight from the oven.

Life is small right now. It is not quiet, but the loud and radical station is tuned down to the simple and same, the here and now.

***

Downward mobility begins at the heart level as I confess my own poverty. I have a slow leak that needs to be plugged by Holy Spirit fingers. And it’s only when I admit my own need that I can begin to meet others in theirs.

Like Mayfield, I am learning to declare this:

“God took away my asterisk, and now I don’t know how to classify myself anymore. I’m just a sheep of his hand, and it is more lowly and lovely than I could have ever imagined.” (193)

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* MEANING: the people right next to you

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Leslie Verner
I am a goer who is learning how to stay. I’ve traveled all over the world and lived in northwest China for five years before God U-turned my life and brought me back to the U.S. to get married to an actor in Chicago. I’m a former middle school teacher, mama to three little ones and like American cuisine the least. I currently live in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and write regularly about faith, justice, family and cross-cultural issues at Scraping Raisins.
Leslie Verner
Leslie Verner

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