My first year in China I remember taking the train from where I lived up to a much bigger city. We would make this trip about once a month because there were so few foreign imports or restaurants where we lived. The trip wasn’t too long, just about three hours, and the ticket was reasonably priced. The trains back then were all old, not like the bullet trains crisscrossing the country now. The one we were on looked like it was built before World War II, and it may very have been.
So there I am standing on the train as it sways back and forth with some significant regularity and I’m looking out the window. As far as the eye can see and in every direction, there are people. Mostly small villages of just a few homes built of cement and standing together in the midst of small farm fields. From a distance these villages always look peaceful and clean. Up close they’re usually filled with the sound of dogs barking, chickens clucking, pigs oinking, and children screaming. They have a the stench of a village lacking a real sewage system, and even the human waste is often shoveled from the back of the outhouse in to buckets and used as fertilizer.
I didn’t know all of those details at the time. I just knew these villages represented a China I wasn’t experiencing in the mega city where I lived. I’m not sure I ever wanted to live in a place like this, small little villages like these, but I know I found them fascinating.
So there I am, looking out the window and, as I always do when passing through the country side, I’m soul searching. Praying about this huge country and the sheer volume of people who had never heard the gospel. I’m dreaming about how Hudson Taylor himself may have travelled the paths we’re passing and I’m wondering what the Lord has in mind for this country.
I’m picturing a future day where I’m running through these rice fields carrying Bibles to people who are waiting on their front steps to receive them. I didn’t tell them I’m coming, the Lord just tells them a messenger is bringing good news. Or at least, that’s how it plays out in my head. I’m that messenger. I’m playing the central role.
In retrospect I see a shocking amount of personal ambition in my desires for seeing this country reached. And wrapped up in that ambition — at the center of all of my fantasies of how China would be different in ten years — is me. I wanted to be the savior of China. It is often still the case that my ambition is at work and while I know it’s foolish, somewhere deep down inside of me I still sometimes believe I am the savior of China. This place has been just been waiting for me to arrive, and now I’m here! Just wait until all the missionaries watch me do what they never could. I assume I’ll accomplish bigger (more important) things than them because they weren’t brave enough, bold enough, and their walks with the Lord were nothing compared to mine.
Years later I know a lot better. I know that very little has changed as a result of my work in China. I’ve worked my tail off and these people are not yet fully sanctified, in fact I can say with some certainty, not a single one of my friends is. I figured by now the government would have had me pegged as the biggest problem in the whole country, the guy who was most fearlessly preaching the gospel and seeing innumerable converts. I would have at once been kicked out for being so effective, and have been allowed to stay behind because the change was so positive even the communist party couldn’t deny the good I had done for China.
These thoughts are embarrassing to have written down for others to witness. But somehow they’re play a central role in what kept me overseas. It’s a big part of why I like to run. Even in America, when I’m running for exercise, I see a disturbing part of my heart come out in my runner’s-high delusions of grandeur. About three miles in to any run I begin to “realize” I’m the fastest runner in the whole world, ‘they’ just haven’t discovered me yet. I know I can win any marathon, run farther than anyone has ever even tried before, and the Lord was so lucky to have me in China because if I had just stuck around any longer in America I would have been huge in the um, running world. See, you can tell they’re delusions of grandeur because I’m not even sure what the word is for the kind of people who should have discovered me by now.
Running in China the delusions are just as embarrassing, but far different. There I imagine how great of a runner I am, and how useful of skill it will be when the government begins more intensely persecuting the best evangelists. Again, I obviously would be at the top of their list and one day, with very little notice, I would be required to run — Jason Bourne style — all the way to Laos and across the border to avoid a martyr’s death.
Starry eyed and fresh off the boat these are some of the thoughts missionaries have, or at least some of the thoughts this missionary had. Years on when we have seen a small handful of people convert, seen pastors leave their church because they’re having an affair with one of the younger girls in attendance, or watched countless missionaries come and go, our perspective begins to change. Now my delusions of grandeur involve me being gainfully employed ten years from now in a way that can actually continue to provide for my family now that I’ve left the field.
When running and dreaming about fleeing to Laos I worry about my some tendons in my feet and knees which have been bothering me lately, and how I would carry all four children on my back. Something which, even on an intense runners high, I’m now painfully aware I probably couldn’t do for even a hundred yards.
My ambition and real desires get slowly peeled away over time and they become more and more shameful over the years.
A German missionary who has was in China for twenty-five years and planted the biggest network of churches in the whole city is someone I both look up to, for their faithful service, and someone I look down on (because I’m a prideful fool), twenty-five years and just one church network? I run in to these Americans who have been in the field for thirty years and I probe in to what they’re doing. I want to hear their strategy for changing the country or changing the city they live in, or at least for reaching their neighbors. Often when asked these kinds of questions they smirk slightly and give a very vague answer I can’t possibly accept as sufficient. I now recognize this behavior in myself when a young and bright eyed missionary wants to know how I’ll change China and I no longer believe I’m going to.
None of the longer term folks ever try to talk the young ones out of their ambitions, they know from experience it would never work. They just hope the drive for significance leads to some wonderful friendships, some conversions, and a softened heart which will keep them around long after they’ve realized they’re mostly worthless. And why does the Lord pull people in to the mission field for as long as he does just to point out how little he needs us?
Why do we labor through painful experience after painful experience just to find out China wouldn’t really be that different without us. God could have accomplished this without any missionaries, he just is blessed by our presence. And why does this not cause us to crawl home weeping? Some do I suppose. The others stick around, and though it appears some stay just because they’re now afraid of ever moving home, they actually stay to see the Lord work significant changes in the little fruit they witnessed.
I often wonder if missionaries are just the creme of the prideful crop whom the Lord sends overseas because he has no use of such pride. He sends us to be missionaries, not so we can reach a people, but so he can reach us. Because it takes cross-cultural pain, awkwardness, and years of seemingly worthless service for us to realize we aren’t as awesome as we initially believed we were.
I stayed as long as I did because I wanted to see significant change in the little fruit I witnessed. I wanted to see my friends stand up and pursue the Lord passionately. I would hope they all would become like Paul and plant church after church, but I no longer see it happening unless they’re pushed by a younger “more strategic” missionary to do so despite their calling. They’re probably just called to stay and be faithful believers at their jobs in the oil industry. They’re probably just called to stay and humbly serve the Lord in their hometowns in the way I, the cocky missionary, would never have let the Lord use me.