Dear Future Missionary: How to Prepare for Missions
I want you to know I feel you.
I see your heart bursting with promise with all you will do.
And I say yes, bring your expectations, your passion, your wild and crazy ideas, your belief that you can change the world and anything is possible.
It’s what gets us all here, it’s the motivation to leave everything behind and board that plane to an uncertain destination.
Because this work of love and justice requires you are a little crazy.
We need the idealism and enthusiasm on nights when we wonder why we ever came.
Don’t wait. Someday there will be a husband and kids and mortgages and mini-vans. Don’t let your youth disqualify you or your dreams die because you were too afraid to take the risk.
And to all my single ladies—who were like me, pioneering new horizons all alone–
You are warriors.
Never let anyone tell you different.
I say, go ahead. Fall deeply in love with the place.
Let yourself have a moment with all your romanticized notions. Drink the really sweet tea, get up early to listen to the sing song prayers in Arabic spoken on the wind, smell the bougainvillea in the garden. Have that National Geographic moment photo where you’re just one white person amidst a sea of waving children. Get those long braids (Side note: half your hair will fall out too ) Journal the feeling of finally being there after so much planning.
Your missions journey will take you through 5 phases like those of grief:
1) Pollyanna-like dreams 2) Denial 3) Disillusionment 4) Despair and finally 5) Acceptance (and delight.)
These phases are part of the process. I know you didn’t really know how to prepare for missions.
Just remember, your heart matters more than all your good works.
Love is not a currency through which we earn God’s approval. We already have his approval.
Relationships of love are more powerful than “converts,” Grace is more important than law and your own limited understanding.
Be careful with those pretty expectations too.
In the beginning, you’ll feel deeply inadequate. You’ll think you can’t do anything right. Don’t worry, that’s normal. Don’t lose hope.
Because someday you’ll be a badass driving around the streets that scared you.
Everything will be harder than than you thought from learning the language, to going to the “grocery store” to doing laundry, to getting a letter signed, to staffing your organization. Things that should take minutes will take days of your life. Sometimes your life there won’t make sense because it isn’t “logical.”
Start practicing meditation now so you can be a zen-like Jedi and learn to “go with the flow,” so you can go to a happy place in your mind when the conference you planned doesn’t happen and the pastors don’t show up because of transport and airtime, and the food you ordered is four hours late. Call upon your inner hippie and just say, “No worries, man.”
Be a learner. Ask questions. Soak up everything you can like a sponge.
Test your motivations. Honor the people before you, but don’t let them limit you. Train and build up your nationals. Respect their thoughts and ideas. Give them ownership. They will carry this torch forward. Work yourself out of a job.
Find someone who’s doing what you want to do well and follow them around gophering coffee, answering their emails, gleaning how they handle hard things.
Be tenacious. Come with a perseverance that says you are called. Then give up everything you thought would happen and go back so square one.
When you look at suffering dead in the eyes, you are going to want to run away. Just sit still and let yourself feel it. Grieve it with God. He already knows.
Build relationships. Go to tea, and drive them to the hospital, do the tiny acts of love that will go unnoticed by the world. Don’t try and change people, try and just be with people. Love them where they are.
Be gentle with the things you don’t understand in this culture.
In a few years, you will begin to unravel the thread of the consequences of war, poverty, trauma, the lack of parents, trauma’s effect on the brain, attachment disorders, and you will wish you’d been more forgiving with your differences.
Brokenness begets brokenness. Judging gets you nowhere but farther away from what you’re called to love.
You can waste a lot of time on anger when your bra’s get stolen off the line, and the police men shake you down for more money.
Imagine if you could use all that energy for something good?
After you’ve been there for some time, you’ll begin to recognize the colonizer in your blood, your white privilege, your deeply ingrained superiority that says somehow you are better than “these people.” It will shock you that this bigotry lived in your heart for so long.
Your ego-centric and Americanized misguided notions will come to the surface and it will be ugly. You’ll confront racism in your thoughts you never knew existed. You’ll be shocked when a cynical statement escapes your mouth.
All your past issues and impurities, your pride and arrogance, your unhealed places, your authority issues and unforgiveness, will bubble to the surface like putrid gas and threaten to choke you.
You’ll feel off kilter and out of control.
You’ll realize you aren’t the answer to every person’s problem.
You’ll feel like a failure. You’ll feel small and unworthy until you learn that sometimes simply being there is enough.
You’ll learn to ask forgiveness. You’ll learn to forgive yourself.
You’ll find you’re going to have to write a different story of missiology if you want indigenous people to trust you because for so long religion has been mixed with slavery and violent force.
You’ll discover your naiveté needs to be tempered with wisdom.
Don’t ever become so efficient you don’t make room for the Holy Spirit.
You’ll encounter spiritual warfare, fear, and intimidation on a level you never knew existed.
Questioning and doubting your faith and God’s goodness in the face of such suffering is part of engaging with a hurting world. You’ll wonder sometimes if He’s abandoned these people you’ve come to serve, if He’s abandoned you. You’ll shout to the sky that you misheard Him, that He’s not speaking.
Don’t lose heart and grow weary (scratch that–you’ll be weary!)
It’s ok, just go back to your Source.
There will be crying into cement floors and tissues piled high and sweat pouring down your temples.
Somewhere in your darkest moments you find an intimacy with God you didn’t know was possible.
He’ll sidle up to your despair. You’ll understand His heart in ways you never thought possible. Someday you’ll wish to go back to those days no matter how painful, because those were the days God’s presence hummed close and still.
Jesus won’t be just a word to you anymore. Jesus will become real flesh, real skin. You’ll see him in the eyes of that little girl with dirty hands and an exposed belly on the street.
You’ll burn with injustice and passion one day and struggle to overpower feelings of numbness the next.
Your passion will grow tepid, but that doesn’t mean your love has to.
When traumatic things happen, and they will happen, care for your soul right away. Don’t let the demands of ministry keep you from tending the soil of your own heart because too quickly pain and bitterness can strangle the very mission you came to lay your life down for.
Remember that holiness is marked by healing.
Sacrifice. Oh be willing to sacrifice. Being seen and being yelled at and being invisible and isolated, forgotten by most of your friends and peers will be a sacrifice.
Poverty is going weigh you down like walking in thick mud. Sometimes the hopelessness will invade your soul and you’ll wonder if there really is hope.
It’s going to feel strange and weird to have while other people don’t have.
But don’t feel guilty for buying that AC unit for your bedroom Sister, because let me tell you, some days will feel like a total waste and you’ll drag your tired, failure ridden, sweat soaked body home into a sweet cool breeze and that might be the one thread that keeps you from a f*#$% meltdown.
Crucify the lie that you have to be a saint or a martyr. You can still swear like a sailor and have that drink of wine (just do it in your “prayer” closet.)
And get a dog. That dog can sit in there with you and be your only friend in the world. Seriously, anytime I was depressed my husband brought home a new puppy. (it works!)
Change is slow, but change is possible.
It will all be worth it someday. When that woman’s eyes shine and she dances and sings, when that child stops running away and knows they are loved, when that baby begins to fatten up and grow healthy–
You will know in your heart that this is the great reward God was talking about: to bear witness to the transformative power of love.
Be gentle with the people you left behind. They don’t get it, they don’t understand, how could they? They haven’t seen what your eyes have seen, or come to love a people and a place as intimately as their own skin.
Be slow to anger.
Don’t try to compete and strive. It’s just silly. Just be you.
And when that new kid on the block arrives in trendy, non stretched-out clothes after you’ve been there for years, try not to bite their head off when they come up with the “solution” for changing a war zone in the five seconds after being there.
Idealism is the fuel we need to fan our flame in this world of social justice.
There will be tons of temptation to feature creep into the next new and sexy thing. Know your zone of genius and what you do well and do it with excellence.
Know burnout is always around the corner.
Don’t listen to the haters.
But beware of those humble brags that will start slipping out of your mouth because your sacrifice makes you feel like a superhero.
When you’re lonely, reach out. Don’t assume everyone knows how you’re feeling.
Don’t bully your spouse. Even if they’re trailing behind in the reasons why they’re giving up so much to be there, know you’re on the same team.
Learn early that working harder and longer doesn’t equate to more fruit. Fruit flows out of who you are, not your performance.
Take care of your health. No matter how cool and Indiana Jones-like it might sound to get malaria, don’t be one of those people who lives with a tape worm for six months and brags about how much weight they’re losing.
Try not to let your typhoid vaccination expire. (Trust me on this one)
Learn the art of self-care and stop thinking it’s selfish.
Don’t trust the first person or pastor you meet who has grand ideas of building an orphanage together.
But don’t be afraid to ask for help. Hire that cook and home cleaner, it will give her a job and it will save you from pulling your hair out as you wait for a pot of beans to boil. Serve and be served.
And for pete’s sake, don’t try and be perfect.
Realize you will gain more than you could ever give, and that’s ok.
If I could go back and tell my twenty year old self anything I’d tell her to enjoy it more, to be more fully present. I’d tell her to cut into the flesh of that avocado, and hold that woman’s arms a little tighter. I’d tell her to make more time and room for dancing, more time worshiping with the Congolese women, whooping with them in laughter. I’d tell her to feel the joy more and feel the burden and anxiety of all she wasn’t doing, less. Be more gentle with herself and others. Laugh more! Life doesn’t have to be so serious. I’d say she should get into therapy earlier (much earlier!) I’d tell her to spend more time in the Secret Place receiving more love, knowing she was accepted so she could accept all those around her. I’d tell her to build fewer walls around her heart, to be less guarded and more vulnerable. I’d tell her to not let other people’s words affect her so much. I’d tell her to love for the audience of ONE, to enjoy her victories more, and ruminate over her mistakes less, to go on that safari vacation and feel her body blending into the deepening light of the wilderness. I’d tell her to be kinder to her inexperienced volunteers because they hadn’t walked her path yet. I’d tell her to have more compassion for herself. I’d tell her don’t wait! Do all that is in your heart to do now. I’d tell her dreaming again is as important a phase as doing.
I’d tell her leaving isn’t a failure if you’re always saying yes to God. I’d say her greatest measure of success is how well she loved.
I’d tell her it will all be worth it someday. I’d tell her love wins.
What would you go back and tell your younger self?