Let’s be honest. If someone asked, ‘What does a missionary do?’, most of us would dig deep and mumble something about learning languages and telling people about Jesus and smile that please-don’t-ask-me-more-cause-that’s-all-I’ve-got grin. The real truth is that most of us are not exactly sure what a missionary does and we are even more confused about this thing that missionaries periodically do with random names like furlough, deputation, and home assignment.
Sometimes people make the mistake of thinking that a missionary furlough is a vacation. This is a natural conclusion because one would assume that after a few years of snake-fighting, Bible-sword wielding, mountainside-preaching, a guy or gal might need a break. I understand why that assumption could be drawn. In fact, I think there is a lot of confusion about what a missionary does and how they do it. The term ‘furlough’ is itself misleading, which is why the powers that be have coined a new term ‘home assignment’. Of course, that very vague term leaves the non-church going community scratching their heads.
Furlough is a lot of things: exhausting, fun, challenging, hilarious, uncomfortable, memorable, a blessing (to name a few) but it is most definitely never a vacation. Missionaries are required to do home service and the vast majority do it with open hearts and and passionate spirits though it takes them away from their homes and the people that they are called to serve and love.
My hero today is an ordinary guy on furlough and one of the most committed missionaries I know.
Months earlier, his missionary partner agreed that the family would participate in a Nazarene kids’ camp service on Friday, 12 July. Now, the camp kids have been assembled all week doing various campy things and the furloughing family was invited to participate for the entire week but their funds did not allow that personal adventure. Having a good gig house-sitting for a cute Sheltie pup named Darby, they committed to just come by camp on Friday morning and share with the kids.
The 11th of July rolled around and plans were made for a next morning departure at 4:00 AM that would put them on course for a 5-hour one-way journey to speak to 160 kids for 30 minutes. Following the missionary presentation, the family was due to get back in the car and make that same 5-hour journey home.
Around 9:00 PM when the reality was sinking in, my hero called his partner into the hallway and said, “I don’t think we should ask the family to travel 10 hours in a truck. I will go it alone.”
This was not a parent caving in to loud complaints. On the contrary, the kids had great attitudes. This was a missionary dad understanding that the next three consecutive days had heavy travel attached and with wisdom beyond his years, he made a decision.
Lest we assume that his family were the only ones on his mind, let me quickly add that his impetus for making that drive in the first place was all about 160 squirming eight to eleven year olds in a make-shift chapel somewhere in the California mountains. One might ponder whether a 10 hour drive for a 30 minute sermon is a good plan when the logical conclusion is that while he speaks:
Some will be scratching their bug bites and others will telling jokes with their friends.
At least one little boy will be pulling a blonde girl’s pig-tails and she will be giving him the you-disgust-me face.
A piece of chewed bubble gum is going to find itself stuck to the underside of a chair and a brown-eyed 10-year old is going to doodle and re-doodle her name in flowers in the notebook meant for notes.
Yes. we know that this will happen. But, what we do not empirically know yet believe by faith is that in the midst of the frogs and the tadpoles, and the half-eaten snickers bars and the un-deodorized armpits, the Holy Spirit is going to be present. Quite often, the tadpoles bend their ears to hear the Holy One call their name and they respond.
That ordinary missionary knows this because he was called to be a missionary and a pastor at the age of 9. His missionary partner was called at the age of 14. And on and on it goes with God calling right there when you are wearing a t-shirt on its 5th day of use and wiggling toes that have begun to grow a mysterious mountain-stream fungus. By faith, we believe that God calls children and so that ordinary missionary on furlough went.
As I push the publish button on this post, he should be beginning that long journey back. May God grant him alert eyes and a peaceful heart as the tadpoles swim home to become ordinary missionaries in their own worlds.