As a little girl, I remember missionary prayer cards. I remember having missionaries come to our church.
I remember their fun tables full of interesting things. I remember big pictures projected on the wall of the church fellowship hall. They had pictures of things I’d never seen before and talked of places I had never even heard of before. They spoke other languages and shared fun stories of animals in their house. They had amazing tales of snakes and miracles and huge crowds of people.
I remember holding their prayer cards with their picture and wondering what these families were really like… reading their newsletters pinned to the church hall bulletin board and thinking about how they lived between the stories shared.
As I grew older, I remember more of what they said from the platform. I remember more of their journeys and triumphs and tidbits of their lives overseas.
But I still wondered, “What is life really like over there? How do they live? How do they eat? How do they go to school? How do they shop?”
Occasionally, a missionary might talk about those things but it was quick, generic answers that didn’t always say much… sometimes there wasn’t enough time to share both ministry and real life. sometimes they weren’t asked. sometimes they didn’t know what to say about their whole lives in another country.
How does one explain that to new people all the time? How does a missionary fully describe a life most couldn’t understand?
I’m sure it was hard for them to explain and describe 2 or 3 or 4 years in a short time, in a church context. Or, fit the full ministry description onto their tiny prayer cards.
Even when we were on staff at churches, we often took the missionaries out to eat or tried to talk with them after church. And I still had no clue. I didn’t know what to ask to get the answers I wanted. I didn’t know how to look past the “missionary” and see a person. I thought I did… but now I know… I didn’t.
I wanted a glimpse behind and beyond the prayer card… past the 4 stories they told during their 5 minute window or 3 point sermon.
I wanted to know what missionary life was really like.
For me, it was in great part because I knew it would be me one day. I knew the call God had on my husband. I knew the call He gave to me to follow in college. I knew missions was going to be a part of our lives.
I specifically remember one Sunday morning. I’d been busy teaching Sunday School and then checking nurseries and making sure the kids were getting checked into kids church and taking a mom look for my own girls… greeting friends, meeting new families at church… you know, running around like a crazy pastor’s wife as normal. I peeked into the main service and saw a missionary family at the front of the sanctuary. Everyone was clapping as the missionary greeted the crowd. The family was dressed in the traditional clothing for their country.
I started crying.
Serious tears in my eyes crying.
I had a little pity party and told God, “Really? That is it, what you want for our family? That will be us standing up there awkwardly getting an applause and having to share.” I was beginning to get a glimpse behind the sweet smile of the missionary wife and the kids forced to dress up for the day. God was showing me how hard it was going to be to get applause for something we didn’t even feel capable to do and having to express a life we didn’t have the words to describe. God was helping me see their plea for support, for prayer, for help. And that it would be our family up there one day. And I cried.
I saw a family that had been driving for hours to get to our church. A family that was surviving on cheap McDonald’s meals, hotel beds and long car rides. Kids living on the road. A family living out of suitcases. Again, I cried.
The picture, the glimpse behind the prayer cards that God was giving me just felt like too much. I didn’t know if I could do it. I walked back to Jeremy’s office and tried to collect myself before making my way to kids church where the missionary would be in just a few minutes.
How do I interact with this family now that I see past the fun props, the smiles and the cute prayer card?
To balance that moment, I also saw in that same family a complete willingness to do what they were doing. A God-type joy that showed through the difficulty and a patient humbleness… a desire to be about Kingdom business no matter the cost.
And I wanted that. I wanted to know how do you walk a difficult road and still keep that kind of joy in the midst of struggle?
When a missionary life that most see as exotic, fun and interesting is really hard, painful and full of untold moments of personal growth yet contains hidden joys and triumphs… how does it all blend so beautifully?
I made my way to kids church that day determined to see this missionary family differently. We were taking them out for pizza after church… they had young kids, we had young kids… I wanted God to help me ask better questions, to get to know them in a new way and to see past their prayer card to the family, the life behind it.
It was a great lunch and truly, not long after that, we handed in our own application for missions. We began our journey of living out of suitcases, staying in hotels or friend’s houses, going from church to church, humbly asking for prayer and support. We pulled our kids up on stage and listened to applause we didn’t know how to accept. We sold things, packed up, said goodbye and got on an airplane.
And I wondered still, “Do people see past the pretty prayer cards? Do they see us? The normal, regular people who have no idea what they are doing but walking forward step-by-step in a call bigger than anything they can humanly understand? Do they see that? The real journey and the real struggle and the real God-given joy? The fun we can have in the same day of great struggle? The very painful, humanness of our days… that we are truly just people walking a missionary calling, crossing cultures and boarders with our family of 5?”
Slowly, a journey, a story began pouring from my finger tips onto this blog… sharing the stories behind the prayer cards.
The blog turned from “homeschool mom writing marriage and parenting” to something I never knew I intended to write… a real life missionary story… something that would connect anyone who was reading with a family living overseas.
At times I write, hit publish and then wonder if I should pull it back. Unpublish and just let the blog sit. At times during our journey, I haven’t had time to write… or I haven’t known what to write. At times, I fill up posts with fun travels and how-to posts… but all times, I pray and pray… asking God to help me write this story.
Loneliness and the Expat Blogger by Rachel Pieh Jones
A story that sometimes I wonder if anyone else is experiencing… is it just us, just me that feels this way and feels these intense things on this missionary journey? Are we somehow weaker for feeling weak? Somehow “not as good” for seeing this as crazy difficult? Somehow “forever newbies” for finding joy in the simple things still 3 years in? Somehow complainers for voicing the challenges? Somehow alone because not many say or share these things so publicly?
And along the way, through different facebook groups or emails with other missionary families or in real life conversations with women living overseas, I realize… this story I’m writing happens to us all.
The loss, the grief, the challenges, the coming to the end of ourselves, the struggle to raise our kids in this context, the painful conversations, the hardships of daily life, the missing of people and moments… it all happens behind every prayer card.
The joys that can’t be shared, the triumphs that burst through our day like learning to drive or learning new vocabulary or praying for someone or hearing a testimony… those triumphs just absolutely make our days and keep us going. How much we all value our support teams and literally thank Jesus every day for the body of Christ that stands with us in prayer support. The ones who give to make those triumphs happen.
So much that can’t be shared on prayer cards.
The thankfulness that we are honored enough to get to experience the complete, utter, desperate need for God in absolutely EVERY area of life. The need of Him to survive the day. A weariness that forces us to depend completely on God’s strength. A life that daily teaches us what it means to live in a strength that is not our own. Feeling this dependence in ways we never did in our home context.
The opportunity we have to talk to people who have never before heard… to live in a place where only 5% of the population believes that Jesus is the Son of God. To walk into a place where a Christian might not ever have been before. That also happens behind the prayer card… the essence of being where God wants you to be even if you can’t possibly understand why… that is taking place past the 5 minute window at your church. That is missionary life.
Missionary life that happens behind the prayer cards.
A life that is prayed for, fought for and divinely walked because Jesus never leaves our side.
A life many of us asked for… whether we realized it or not.
As Lilias Trotter, over 100 years ago, told missionary families in a letter about misery on the field… she said, “How many of us have said and sung with all our hearts “Anywhere with Jesus” but at the time we did not realize all that it meant for us… let us take very good care not to make a misery of anything that “anywhere” brings us… if Jesus is there what have we possibly to complain of? …and yet let us evermore write over all our miseries, big, and for the most part very little, these transforming words “With Jesus.” And then the very breath of Heaven will breathe upon our whole being and we shall be glad.”
In my own way, this sharing of our story on the blog and through other media outlets is my way of writing “With Jesus” all over it all. It is how I process the difficulty and remind myself that God’s got this too. That the Breath of Heaven is breathing life into me and giving me a gladness, a joy in the midst of misery.
And I hope, that by sharing our story, you are getting a better glimpse behind the prayer cards and past the 5 minute window at your church. I hope that as you browse through the blog you’ll find joy on the journey and hope for YOUR journey with Jesus.
After all, walking a road of obedience wherever in the world you are, you need the same Breath of Heaven to get you through your days, the same Jesus holding your hand and the same divine strength to be about His business. So we walk together… the journey of faith.
Getting a glimpse behind those cute prayer cards.