People have asked me if I ever feel like just giving up on missions. We try to be honest on our blog about our lives here and sometimes when people hear the difficulties they feel like it is just too much. Of course, they are usually thinking about the things that are not that hard, like cockroaches and snakes. Those things are just annoying. What is hard is watching babies die, seeing people fighting in the streets, knowing that most of our neighbors are living incredibly difficult lives without God to comfort them, and knowing there is little to nothing we can do about it. Those are the realities that wear on you.
Surprisingly, for me at least, I very rarely find myself in a place where I just want to leave. Most of the time those hard aspects of life drive me to greater concern and love for my neighbors, knowing that their only hope is currently locked away from them in a book they cannot read, but that we are working to translate. But there are those days. Days where my flesh tells me that life would be so much better if I was anywhere else. It is usually a day where all of the normal stresses are compounded by something stupid: a flat tire, getting shouted at unjustly in the street, or having something stolen. Those dumb little problems are just the straw that breaks the camel’s back. On those days I find it difficult to remind myself of the hope, the love, and the compassion I know I should be feeling. And it is those days that I need little reminders to press on. Sometimes the reminder comes from my wife, who miraculously does not often feel the despair on the same day I do. Often it comes in the form of a passage of Scripture, or a quote from a missionary whom I know has endured much worse than me. And then every once in a while, it comes from a kid’s book.
If you have not read it, the Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson is an amazing series. I am right now reading the last book to our kids, and there are so many themes that have been a blessing. There is a heavy value placed on servanthood, bravery, gentleness, and protecting the weak. The three main characters (Janner, Kalmar, and Leeli Wingfeather) are sinful, weak, frustrating, and growing up to be the kind of kids I want my kids to be. On top of that, the story is engaging, and the kids hate it when I say we have to put the book down.
Janner Wingfeather is really the lens through which we read the story. He is young and finds out at some point that he is called in a very special way to serve and protect his younger siblings. We are able to watch him wrestle with this responsibility that he never asked for, sometimes failing wildly, and sometimes surprising us with his courage. In the fourth book of the series (The Warden and the Wolf King) Janner finds himself once again alone, in a dark place (literally), and with every reason to believe he is going to die. He felt like turning back (though there was nowhere to go) and just giving up altogether. But then, Peterson tells us,
He remembered old tales, stories about self-sacrifice and the way a single, beautiful act done for the sake of another could shine out across the dark of the ages like a breaking dawn. When he was little, he and Kal had made swords out of sticks and defeated dragons, Fangs, and villains, and Janner had lain awake in his bed at the Igiby cottage yearning to be one of those heroes. Maybe now the Maker was only giving him what he wanted. Maybe the Maker was answering the prayer of his little boy heart by leading him here and giving him the chance to live one of those stories.
It might be just a guy thing, I don’t know, but I still find myself quite inspired by those old stories of heroism. I still find myself daydreaming of fighting off the bad guys, defeating the fiery dragon, and rescuing the damsel in distress. From the missionary perspective, I like to imagine myself tearing down idols and preaching so clearly in the language that thousands are saved on the same day. What is interesting about these dreams is that they almost always consist of one dramatic, heroic moment. I never find myself daydreaming about training to use a sword, or studying nautical charts, or learning to speak another language. And in my dreams my victories are public, triumphant, and received with gratefulness. I don’t dream of being in a dark dungeon alone waiting for death. I don’t dream of holding a dying child with no way to help them. I don’t dream of giving a message to those who reject it.
But, like Janner, I have discovered that heroism is not a dramatic flourish. Courage is not rushing into the castle of an ugly, scar-faced fiend. True heroism is returning kindness for anger. It is speaking the truth over and over again, even when all you get in return is hatred. Heroism is washing the feet of the man who you know will soon betray you. True heroism is composed of small, beautiful acts of self-sacrifice, acts that we get lost in and never known for. And they can only come after years of learning humility and a willingness to put our own glory aside. And in doing so, it places us in the dark places, often alone and in distress. But it there in the shadows that we find out the reality about true heroism: it is not about us at all.
William Carey is known as the Father of Modern Missions, and has done much to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth. You can read books all about his exploits, efforts, successes, and failures. Yet one quote you don’t hear a lot is: “When I am gone, say nothing about William Carey – speak only about William Carey’s Saviour.” Carey got it. From the perspective of the Bible, being a hero is to make much of Christ and little of us. When we have that mentality, we can go into a tiring, frustrating situation and endure. We can remind ourselves that it is not about us. And we can tell ourselves that each of these situations is either training to be a hero, or an opportunity to be a hero. Either way we win.
And so, when I am having one of those days, I now think of Janner Wingfeather. I think about how in my childhood I longed to be a hero. I think about how in adulthood I have prayed over and over that God would use me in great ways. And then I go out and serve, even when it hurts, believing that this is the opportunity that God is giving me to live out the dreams of my youth. Maybe not in the way I would have expected it, but just as He planned it.
*image from http://wingfeathersaga.com/