Vol 9, Num 7 :: 2010.04.02 — 2010.04.15
My friend’s question took me aback. No one had ever asked me about my relationship with my sister before. Not in this way.
My sister, Barb, and her husband, Brad, are missionaries. Missionaries in Africa. In the bush. Where mud huts squat among waving grasses and acacia trees. Where water is scarce most of the year and elephants threaten family gardens. Where diets consist of field corn and rice, sometimes beans, and an occasional scrawny chicken. Where the nearest “hospital” is a bumpy hour’s drive in the missionary’s land rover.
Barb’s words, from her Christmas 2009 email, tell their story:
Twelve years ago, our family had been living in the village for a mere six months, still adjusting to our new lives as missionaries. The rains were heavy that year and, on Christmas Day, we slopped through the mud to greet the families in the homestead where we were living. We carried with us a small nativity set, and as we visited each dwelling, we read the Christmas story in the tribal language. The folks were fascinated by the figures of Mary, Joseph and the baby. They had never heard the story of Jesus. Twelve years later, we rejoice in what God alone has accomplished. The ministry has expanded, and families of other tribes have had the wonderful privilege of hearing the gospel and, by God’s grace, have responded in faith. There is a faithful group of believers who worship at the local church, and now the primary school is another means by which the gospel is going forth.
Besides the harsh living conditions and the demands of learning two languages, Brad and Barb are separated from family and friends for years at a time. Boarding school and dangerous travel conditions are a way of life. Their bodies have taken a beating from malaria and other native illnesses. And where is home? They will always be foreigners in Africa and live with relatives or in borrowed apartments in the United States.
But they have a job to do. They followed God’s call to go, to obey the Great Commission, to take the gospel of hope to a people who never heard the name of Jesus. That call sustained them when they settled into a mud hut with three young children, knowing only two native words. When mission work from scratch, with its inevitable ups and downs, yielded victories and defeats. When discouragement buzzed around them like mosquitoes. When they returned to Africa after furlough, leaving their sons behind to attend college.
One African woman told my parents, who just returned from a rare visit, “Before the missionaries came, we didn’t know how to live. We didn’t know how to get along. But now we have Jesus.” Her broad smile showed missing front teeth, knocked out when she fell in a drunken stupor — before God changed her life. One of Brad’s helpers said, “We lived like dogs before. Now it is different.” By their humble service and faithfulness, Brad and Barb have made a difference for the Kingdom.
When my friend, Leslee, asked me about my relationship with my sister, her perceptiveness caught my attention. “What’s it like for you?” she asked, her eyes riveted on mine. “Your sister is the missionary. She’s served God in Africa all these years. How does all that make you feel?”
“Seems Barb has always been the leader, even though she’s almost three years younger,” I answered thoughtfully. “When our mom sent us trick-or-treating, Barb led the way. I followed, counting the houses until we got home. Our piano teacher recommended only Barb to a concert pianist for lessons. We both made good grades, but Barb’s were higher. Unlike me, she’s a born teacher. I’ve always felt a little protective of her though, never resentful. I’m proud of her. She’s added grit to her giftedness. I respect that. And I miss her…wish we could chat more.” Tears stung my eyes.
Leslee waited as I collected my thoughts. "When my parents went to Africa recently, I helped them prepare for the trip, handled details while they were gone, and had hot soup ready for them when they returned after thirty-some hours of travel. During that time, it dawned on me. My role in life seems to be to ‘stay by the stuff’ (1 Samuel 30:10, 24), to play a supporting role, to pave the way for others to pursue their passions. I’ve made it possible for my busy husband to better carry out his responsibilities in the workplace and community. I’m the ‘back-up leader’ for a small group, handling all the details so our leader can do what she does so well: lead! I edit people’s books so they (hopefully) can become successful authors. I e-mail prayer requests and announcements for church people so they can pray and stay informed.
“When Dad and Mom returned home with story after story of Brad and Barb’s work in Africa and all God is doing there, I drank in every word and asked question after question. I want to know more about my sister, her work, and her challenges. How I could pray for her more specifically.
“But at unexpected moments, whispering self-doubts stalk me. Can I truly be okay with the role that seems to characterize my walk? One of my biggest fears is that I will get to the end of my life with regrets, horrified that I somehow missed my calling or failed to see and do the job God had for me to do.”
My words hung in the air. Leslee understood. Maybe we fifty-somethings sense the ticking of the clock, the urgency to make the next twenty years count.
For me, the tension of serving behind the scenes and finding my place in the work of God’s Kingdom has been a journey. Yet, when I think about it, perhaps it’s one and the same. I can never be my sister. I wasn’t meant to be. Sometimes I have to remind myself that my gifts and God’s plan for me fit together. I can serve God with His strength, yet be comfortable in my own skin.
I’ve never regretted the time spent at home, using it as a platform for multiple ministries: family, hospitality of all kinds, small groups, freelance writing, etc. Attending to details, seeking to be an encouragement and support, or slipping monetary help to someone in need all brings me joy as I aim to please God (2 Corinthians 5:9).
The apostle Paul’s first-century letter to the believers in Corinth addresses how God gifts believers in various ways, “as He wills…just as He pleased…for the profit of all” (12:11, 18, 7). “There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord” (12:5, 6).
Barb and I serve the same God, arm in arm, in very different venues on two very different continents. When I get hung up on whose work seems more important, Paul’s words come to mind: “Who is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed… I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase….Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers…” (1 Corinthians 3:5-9).
Barb and I…fellow workers…for the Kingdom. Sisters with a job to do.