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The Missionary Life and What The Newsletters Do Not Tell You

Updated: Jul 1

When I used to drive in my home country, I had many witty Christian bumper stickers that I never got around to displaying on my car. Those stickers would have easily identified me as a Christian to other road users. Even though I consider myself a patient driver, there were often frustrating moments that brought out the F1 racer wannabe in me. What if, in one of those moments of unintended road rage, I had given Christianity a bad name and caused someone to stumble because of my behaviour?

It is the same on the mission field. Missionaries often do not speak about how their daily life is highly stressful and subject to intense scrutiny, always occurring in the most mundane moments when the sacred seems distant. Sometimes, it is resisting the un-Christian like urge of emptying the entire supermarket shelf of your favourite grocery item without leaving any for other shoppers, knowing that the shelves are rarely restocked with the same imports from your home country. At another moment, it may be making a conscious choice not to buy that more expensive rechargeable fan (while living in a city with frequent blackouts) to better relate to your neighbours (who have to do without one) whom you are trying to befriend.

At other times, the scrutiny goes deeper. In the classes that I teach, my students’ favourite repeated question to me was, “Miss! Why did you leave your home that is so far away to come here to teach us?” My oft-repeated response was, “It is because Jesus loves you and me so much! I hope I’ll be able to share with you how much he loves you by being here.” To this same group of students who sometimes exasperate their teachers, there is the pressure to always maintain one’s composure.

On the other hand, there are also profoundly heavy moments. How do you tell a child, who just lost his mother to suicide in a distant village, that God loves him? The acute awareness that you are wearing the proverbial bumper sticker that shouts JESUS and thus ought to always speak love and hope brings so much mental challenge to the already high stress of cross-cultural living.

Once, at a missionary team retreat, we were each given a comprehensive 500-question survey to measure our stress levels. It turned out that the average score of those of us who were active field workers was shockingly high. One would never have guessed it from the joy-filled worship and enthusiastic chatter that filled the same room. We were stunned at our high scores and indeed, surprised by the prevailing presence of stress among us missionaries.

Why isn't the issue of stress addressed more often? Perhaps words don't adequately convey its impact. Maybe we're afraid it may seem weak or cause others to stumble. I suppose we accept these daily stressors because we are aware that it is through them that we see clearly and taste God’s goodness. We come to know and rely entirely on the joy of the Lord, which truly strengthens us. Ultimately, we come to experience more and more that it is a privilege and testament of His grace, not a burden or even a label of courage, to be openly carrying the bumper sticker of His name in our lives.

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