The Religion Chronicles—Part 2: Deeper into the Well-Meaning Forest

China remains, without contest, the best three years of my life.

I had two months to raise $32,000 the summer after graduation and, despite not knowing well-off people, I trusted God would provide. My mom said seeing my faith strengthened hers. When I left for China, I told her my intention was to stay there permanently.

As a missionary, it was even easier to get a big head than it had been in college. Or maybe that was only true for me because of my pre-existing condition! Raising support, people tell you how brave you are, how important the work you’re doing is, and how they could never do it. Hear that enough and you begin to believe you’re special.

It was a vain quest, to be special. Funny, too, how vanity is at once both so full yet so empty and the pull toward chasing exceptionalism both so strong yet so subtle. Almost like gravity pulling all things toward the center of the earth without us feeling it.

I’d have done well to accept the offer on the table in Isaiah 55:2, “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen to me and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare.” Instead, I looked to the hollow chimera of being special for my “bread.” I tried paying for it with my good works. But, I kept getting an error message back: “not acceptable legal tender.”

It didn’t take long to realize how much I’d rested on my laurels. In college, people knew who I was and looked up to me. In this new setting, I had no reputation. Among other missionaries, my devotion to God no longer stood out. Everyone had made sacrifices to be there. Everyone was living outside their comfort zone. We were equals, the worst place for someone like me to be.

To be honest, talking to people about Jesus has always been uncomfortable and isn’t one of my strengths; my ministry skills were much better put to use leading small groups and meeting with women one-on-one.  But, I felt it needed to be done and I was willing to do it, even if awkwardly.

Learning the language was important to me and, in this case, made me a bit of an outlier within my organization. I refused to be the culturally-insensitive missionary I’d heard about. Plus, the faster I learned, the sooner I could use it for work. I studied my butt off and after my first semester I was able to share my faith in Chinese and had skipped a class in the sequence at my school with my teacher’s recommendation.

My first year we weren’t allowed to attend regular church, so we met in people’s homes and listened to recordings of sermons. That fall we listened to a sermon series on the fruit of the Spirit by Tim Keller. The fruit of the Spirit is a reference to a passage from Galatians that lists marks of a life that has truly been changed by God: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Keller contrasted two ways of living: one that was infused by the Spirit to bring about that fruit and the other that was the result of man’s efforts. I could not see evidence of the former in myself. Exacerbated, I again faced the disconnect between what I said I believed and how I behaved.

I remember sitting with my team leaders in Thailand at the mid year conference and telling them I’d realized over the past six month so much wrong with the previous four years. That much of my working for God had really been for me and my ego. That I couldn’t stop trying to earn His love and acceptance. I confessed that I desperately wanted to be special.

They essentially explained to me that God didn’t love me more because I was there—not more than he had before I came, and not more than he loved others who hadn’t. I only realized then that I’d been trying to fulfill my unmet desire to be accepted, exceptional, and loved through my service. I thought I could satisfy them by doing more for God and somehow secure more love from him in return. In hindsight, the notion of more love from God seems comical now but it didn’t at the time.

One of the other missionaries from my house church and I sat by the pool in Thailand one afternoon and wondered together if we were even really Christians since we’d seen such little evidence of the Spirit in our lives despite our service to God. Were we guilty of the offense the Lord leveled against the Israelites in Isaiah 29:13, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught”?

Can you imagine? Doing all of that and still missing the point? I think we were Christians and we were growing, but it was also sobering for me to think that maybe I wasn’t as mature as I’d thought. I continued to pray that God would keep me from pride and that I would live from an understanding of his unrestricted, unmerited, already perfected love for me. I had become a little weary though, that every time I thought I had it right, I’d gotten it wrong.

My second year, I lived in a city that was majority Muslim. I’d bought a Qur’an and read parts of it to understand my new friends. My teammates and I also decided that even though we could eat whatever we wanted to as Americans that we wouldn’t eat pork while we were in that city. We wouldn’t prepare it in our homes and we wouldn’t order it in restaurants. We could have probably done so with no problem but if we were going to invite people into our homes that we wanted to have a relationship with we wanted them to be comfortable. We did not insist on protecting our own comfort and conscience.

I wasn’t the best missionary. I often dozed off watching the Jesus film with students but, let’s be real, you can only watch that so many times before snoozing and once was my limit. I’d have gals over to watch Desperate Housewives instead and discuss how their search for fulfillment was or wasn’t reflected in the show and what they thought was meant by the good life. The women in the show ostensibly had it but none of them were happy or ever satisfied. I knew a thing or two about that.

It was fascinating to meet students who were Muslim. They didn’t believe they could be anything else. Their ethnicity and their religion were inextricably linked in their mind and they thought it betrayal or simply impossible to be otherwise. It reminded me a little of people who say they are “born Christian” because their families are Christian but this took that idea to a whole new level because it wasn’t just linked to family, it was linked to their whole heritage, a thing decided before their birth. Likewise, they felt their religion had been decided for them.

What I saw God do in China—mostly through my teammates—was so amazing that those miracles would sustain my faith in later years (even when I didn’t want them to!).  At the end of my second year doing missions, I felt called out of ministry as a job and again, like I’d been with Greg, I was devastated. I was supposed to stay there forever. I felt like, here’s this thing I’m doing to please God and he’s rejecting it. Why does he keep rejecting my offerings?

One morning as I prayed, I imagined two long docks extending out into the sea. I stood at the end of one and another person stood at the end of the other. Behind us on land were things we were being asked to give up. For the other person they gave up a house, a stable ‘secular’ job, comfort, and family, and the unknown they were being asked to jump into before them was Christian ministry. Behind me, on the other hand, was Christian ministry, my Christian credentials, and a glamorous life of healthy discomfort abroad. The unknown I was being asked to jump into was the world. I didn’t want to. But, ultimately, I left ministry that year.

I’d fallen in love with China though and knew I wasn’t done with it yet so I stayed a third year on my own. I’d been secretly nervous that outside the cozy blanket of Christian community I’d flounder. One morning as I prayed, I imagined a small box containing gems standing on their sides. Rays of light were shone into the box onto the gems creating this crazy kaleidoscope of reflected light. One by one, gems were taken out of the box revealing whether or not the source of their light had been the light reflected from a neighboring gem or from the light source outside the box. I was one of the gems and had to wait until I was the sole one left to see if my light had come from the outside source or not. This was my unspoken fear about my faith: that I’d discover I had simply been buoyed by the crowd.

It was on me in my new city. I owed no one prayer letters. My coworkers weren’t Christians. I wasn’t required to attend church. No one would know if I abandoned it all. But within a few months I found the international fellowship, joined the worship team, and joined a women’s small group and ended my experience in China on a high note.

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