I have decided to write this confessional of sorts because it’s time to address the Missionary on Pedestal Syndrome (MOPS, my apologies to you mothers of preschoolers, but really, ‘preschoolers’ is one word, so you ought to be MOP and I win). It’s a pervasive problem which can do much damage to long-term ministry relationships, whether the ones engaging in the pedestal decorating activity are family members, friends, financial supporters, teammates, short-termers, or the missionaries, themselves. The particulars of the struggles I share here won’t necessarily mirror those of every missionary you know across the board. However, you can trust that every missionary you know would echo similar sentiments to what I have written, if they felt they had the permission to do so, without fear of negative repercussions. Ultra-Frank Translation: Missionaries are afraid, sometimes, that if they tell you what they’re really struggling with, you’ll cease to like them, to pray for them, to support them, when in reality they hope it would result in the opposite.
First, an update on why I’m even bringing all this up. Just because life isn’t chaotic or complicated enough for a missionary family in transition, I decided to go ahead and tear my left knee’s ACL all the way off the bone and re-tear my lateral meniscus 7 weeks ago. This most-convenient event was doomed to happen when, at age 19, I tore both of those body parts partially during a volleyball game and well, you know what they say about leaving a job unfinished. Who was I not to comply with my physical fate? As God allowed, while out running on a beautiful Costa Rican morning with my friend, Lisa, we heard a snap and I was handed the privilege of learning the Spanish word for ‘crutches’ within a couple of hours. Since then, I’ve also learned how to say, ‘knee brace,’ ‘X-ray,’ ‘MRI,’ ‘anterior cruciate ligament,’ ‘completely torn,’ ‘God-willing, I will have surgery in February’ and ‘Yes, yes, unfortunately, my knee still hurts me very much’ in my target language. In this case, language learning doesn’t necessarily do a body good, but at least my broken body is an opportunity for vocabulary enhancement. I’ve been forced into the enviable lifestyle of a patient (for me, that’s only a noun, never an adjective, in case you were curious) whose body expresses its unhappiness at just about every turn. Many of you know that an old back injury allows me to wake up in moderate to severe pain on 95.95% of my ‘new mercy’ mornings (and that is with several pain management methods in play). The added knee-leg-foot-and-as-of-this-week-hip pain has turned my usual, pre-caffeinated, sunny disposition into a cave-womanesque reaction to the light of day, every day. Oh, how I love waking up! If you did not read this entire paragraph hearing my sarcastic tone in your head, please go back and re-read it correctly this time, with gusto.
So, in between my increased need for rest and my 2nd trimester language school schedule of independent study and tutoring, I’ve had many welcome hours to my weary self. This translates into A LOT OF TIME & SPACE TO THINK. Insert clip: Favorite Berlitz commercial line, in a feigned, heavy German accent, “Vaht ahrr you … sinking ehbout?” Mostly, I’ve been wondering why God chose us, ok, ME, to be here right now because I am so incapable, so unworthy of doing this well, and with a golden attitude, to boot. I bear absolutely no doubt that our family is supposed to be in Costa Rica this year, learning Spanish, studying Latin American culture and developing relationships. Not one doubt. We don’t wish to be anywhere else right now, although we do miss Colorado occasionally. We love where and with whom we do daily life. We love being students, even though it’s a challenge to balance our desire to invest with excellence in this temporary education with the demands of a family life which will continue on long after graduation. We feel like we’re failing on both fronts most days, but really, we’re just normal people who keep moving forward, whether we like it or not. We love our newfound church family. We have developed many rewarding friendships and with some precious people, we’ve been able to go deep very quickly. We love all that, truly. I, personally, have had several special conversations in both English and Spanish in the last 5 months and I embrace the opportunity to learn more about God’s beloved people in this world because I can understand and speak another language. It is a gift which I cherish.
However, since I got injured in early December, I have wrestled increasingly each week with fierce feelings of my being as unfit to be a missionary wife & mom as Richard Simmons leading worship at our church on Sunday. If you have no idea who Richard Simmons is, then you just missed out on an awful lot in my loaded statement. There’s always Google and YouTube and hope for you.
The reasons why I feel this way are numerous and impact me deeply. I am a lot of things which are not pretty and shiny and newsletter-brag-worthy. And yet, somehow, in the midst of my polish wearing off several layers deep, Jesus keeps showing up and making His stuff happen. I don’t get it, but I’m living in it, mess and all.
Some of these “I am – and yet” realities of mine are listed below. Let’s begin with the bad news of who I am (remember, I am a missionary):
I carry a hefty backpack of emotional baggage from my past. Some days/seasons, the backpack feels lighter as God helps me to let go of its heavy contents. Other times, I sense the weight of it more than I feel anything else. It’s a burden which can consume my thoughts and feelings and can cloud the lens through which I view others. Lately, I have had many triggers for this backpack to fall open, spilling its sharp entrails all over the sidewalk and scraping me up in the process. So far, I have not yet been able to apply the duck-feathers-to-water, nor the Teflon-to-oil approach which I got really good at doing last year. Nope. It’s been more like: My heart = Dry sponge. Baggage = Liquid. Me = Mess.
I am a selfish person. I know, I know, we’re aaaallll selfish, blah blah blah, but truly, the Spirit of God has been pulling back the veil on my self-absorption, revealing my self-constructed delusions of holiness since
I hurt my knee I landed in Costa Rica as a missionary I became a mother I hurt my back I married Jordan I became aware that I existed. These revelations are a fun fiesta, never. Lately, I’ve succumbed to the fruitlessness of comparison: “Hey, if Person A can be self-serving and Person B can treat me that way, why can’t I be that way, too, and get away with it? Why do I have to be the one who initiates love and demonstrates kindness, constant care in the face of utter selfishness?” The temptation to react tit-for-tat is so tangible, I can taste it. Regretfully, I have given in too many times with my family, the people with whom I always have my guard down. I know that it’s really getting bad when I’ve been tempted to treat other loved ones that way, too. Maybe being alone more these days isn’t such a bad thing after all. Hermits consume less humble pie than the general population, I would guess.
I am struggling to connect with the part of God’s character which seeks His absolute best for my life. What does THAT even mean, anyway, and are the past 10 years of chronic physical pain and subsequent bouts of depression a clue? Does.not.compute. Not.yet.anyway.
I am surrounded by people who are physically fit and who are living the active lifestyle I was back on my way to having when I tore my knee and I sigh sadly, “That’s not me right now, yet again.” This has been harder for me than I anticipated, more difficult than I have shown. Sure, I joke around and say funny things like I did to my zumba-lovin’ friend, Amber, that I refuse to participate in any form of exercise which rhymes with Puumba (the warthog in Lion King). Honestly, though, the fact that my knee is keeping me from doing any dancing at all stinks and I hate it. I really, really hate it.
I am not a quiet wife. I watch wives who stand silently by their husbands, never once expressing a contradictory thought. Again, not me. Sometimes, I’ve even been known to apologize for it. I said, sometimes.
I am not an über-patient mother. The “broken record” aspect of parenting has irritated me much more than usual, lately. I have observed moms who patiently do the same mind-numbing, thankless routine for their incessant children moment after moment, and who would never be caught uttering the words to a friend, “I need some space to breathe. They’re inhaling all of my oxygen!” That’s not me. Most DEFINITELY not me. I’ve considered buying an airplane ticket to No-where-ville and praying that the cabin would depressurize, just so I can wear the blasted mask.
I am incredibly inconsistent in my pursuit of God and His thoughts towards me. It’s easier for me to encourage another person with His truth, than it is for me to preach that same gospel to myself and hear myself out. That might surprise some who have known me in only spiritual leadership circles. It surprises me too, but it’s true. And I am not alone in this struggle.
I’m broken and I know it. Not a day goes by in which that is not obvious, one has only to look or to listen.
Our Enemy is hard at work, seeking ways to ensnare me … and my family … so that we won’t be able to focus on what matters most. As I’ve heard his whispers lately, I’ve been struggling in my heart, in my mind and it’s been most evident with my attitude and my tongue at home. I have yelled – and have asked for forgiveness for yelling – more in the last 7 weeks than the 7 months before it. Uy.
To top it all off, in the last couple of weeks, I’ve been in a deep conflict with the compulsion not to care … about anything … and wondering if anyone would even notice if I took the plunge into that intriguing and terrifying place of emotional disconnection and numbness, just going about my daily life without investing in others and disregarding the impact it might have on them and on me. Pain – my pain – has brought me to this very precipice before. I’ve always ended up backing away because the thought of pushing away from the love I was created to give & receive is really more painful than what I already bear daily. If I’m being honest, however, this time it’s been different … and I can conclude that our being here on the mission field really irks our Enemy, so he’s shooting some heavy-duty poisoned arrows this time around. I can feel his seething displeasure. Only a Liar like him could make living in the abyss of utter disconnection seem like a good thing, as we were not made for that, no matter our personality type. So yes, I know it’s a lie, but it’s an enticing lie, as of late.
And yet (here comes some not-so-bad news), even with all this (and more) in the last 7 weeks, the Lord has been moving to remind me of the work He has done and is still doing inside of me. I see these as His “signs of life” which He infuses into me as I navigate this not-as-simple-as-it-sounds path of sanctification:
The emotional baggage I have is what gives me the ability to sense hurt in others and to offer compassion of a different nature. Sometimes, it actually makes me a better wife, mother and friend because I don’t expect pretty from people covered in puke. Sometimes is better than never. At times, I can’t handle their stink and I just want them to be all to be cleaned up and made nice. That’s not really who I am deep down inside, though. More often, I get it and it makes me tender towards them … we all have internal rubbish we’re slogging through and no amount of “Not me! I don’t smell anything!” denial covers up that reality. Maybe I’m meant to be one of those people who gravitates towards the garbage instead of turning away and pretending I don’t notice that a hint of it is right there, under our noses. That pseudo-living isn’t for me and I will usually fight against it for someone whom I love, too.
Despite my increased temptation to excuse my selfishness, I have also learned how to think outside of myself, how to give my life away, and how to take risks in expressing my love for others wholeheartedly and unabashedly even when, in their selfishness, it might not be returned. These lessons have come at a great cost, but most of the time, I believe they are worth every painful moment.
Although I am struggling deeply and genuinely with some of the things God is investing into my personal Abundant Life Plan, I am confident that I belong to Him. There’s a security in that. Any insecurity I carry is usually tethered to feelings of failure and unworthiness to be loved, for being a messy person. I am convinced, though, that even if every person on earth were to reject me, He never will. I’m so thankful that, out of all the things which could have stuck with me over the years, it was that.
In my pain, I can always hold onto the hope that He will choose to heal me someday. If not here on earth, then in a much, much better place! I would love for Him to choose to do it here because this is incredibly hard and has been for a very long time. I’m extremely tired of the “incredibly hard” part. And the “for a very long time” part. And I am not completely without hope for eventual healing.
As for my less-than-stellar performances in the categories of Wife and Mother, I am the only chosen one for my family. No one has loved and can love them like I have and do. If Jordan had wanted a quiet woman, he would have married one (or so he tells me), or bought a mannequin (so I say). Every day, my husband, kids and I tell each other we really do love each other, whether it has been rotten or sweet to be in each others’ presence up until that point. That matters. A lot. I need them, too, craziness and all. At least they’re my crazy.
Regarding my inconsistency in running this devotional race with diligence, it serves to highlight all the more God’s grand, unceasing pursuit of me. I am not proud of my end of it and it is not something which will change in me overnight. Some legs of the race are better than others and deep down, I want to please Him. It’s why I have loved this prayer from Thomas Merton’s Solitude for years: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” Merton was onto something way more authentic and empowering than the dude who penned, “Every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before …” Please excuse me while I collect my vomit in the bag from my fictitious flight to No-where-ville.
And so we come to my brokenness … it’s quite possible that my redeemed brokenness is actually the best part of me. Well, either that, or my cooking. Maybe. I don’t know. I do know that, thanks to a dear friend who told me what he thinks about brokenness, I will be writing more on this topic sometime down the road.
Speaking of dear friends, God has also responded to my indisputable unfitness for missionary life by surrounding me with a host of earthly angels, my band of brothers & sisters in Christ. These human messengers are proof-positive that I am not alone, that my struggle is understandable in a world of unknowns, and that God has not forgotten my journey. They have gifted me eternally by speaking some very unstupid things into my heart, things which are carrying me into week number 8 post-injury, with a greater deal of hope than I know I deserve to hold:
“Marie, sometimes faith is not fun and sanctification really sucks.” She so nailed it. Many people think that, but have been taught, by example, never to be quite so honest in public. She and I caught that reality through our journey of God-initiated suffering, courtesy of the rocky path to parenthood.
“I don’t think people realize how much your physical pain drains you and impacts ALL the other areas of your life. If that part gets fixed, things will be very different for you.” She got me. People who understand the lifestyle of chronic pain see the world differently, forever. And, for the record, they don’t expect anyone dealing with constant hurt to snap out of anything, anytime, just like that.
“None of this can separate you from the love of God, Marie. None of this. So don’t give up hope.” He was 100% correct. I cling to that truth. At least, I’m working on it.
“People like us … our brokenness is what makes our past more precious and our life more meaningful & beautiful. I don’t think you have a lot of people telling you that. You need to remember it always.” He saw right into me. I love that he did and said something.
“I wish I could sparkle and light up a room like you do, even with all the pain you are enduring.” Thankfully, she wasn’t referring to physical bling or I would have checked into rehab, stat, to dejewel myself – as that’s so not me. It’s funny, I do not see myself the way she described me. I just love loving on people, most of the time, when I’m not busy loving myself more. However, that day, seeing a glimpse of myself through her eyes and hearing how she believes I impact the world, it blessed me beyond words.
There are so many more quotes from these people and others whom I love … too many to post. My point is this. Yes. As confessed, I am completely unfit to be a missionary in Costa Rica today.
And yet, I am here because God has chosen to love me with His incomprehensible, unconditional love
- in this place,
- for this time,
- torn knee,
- screwed up back,
- messy reality,
- and all.
All the missionaries and spiritual leaders you know today, no matter how saintly you (or they) believe them to be, are unfit to be serving in that capacity. That’s because the standard never was, is not, and never will be what we are perceived to be by humans, but what God has determined holiness to be. All of us fall far short, and I am one who falleth further shorteth, or something like that. So, rejoice with us in being chosen for these roles, but along with that, talk to us as people who are really running the race next to you, not above you. As for me, I’ll be limping next to you for a season, but that’s just the natural consequence of me jumping off of my pedestal. That’s ok, I like the view much better from down here anyway.
Keeping it real,