By Frank Decker
“For what are you willing to die?” That was a sobering, yet defining query asked of me by an older pastor during the early days of my ministry. I now find myself asking aspiring missionaries that same question.
Though an unpleasant subject, it is the type of question that can serve as a filter, especially in the charting of one’s future. If I believe I am willing to offer my life in service of the gospel, but am not willing to make that level of sacrifice—simply pursuing a life-enriching adventure in another land—it may help me discern my commitment to missions in light of the risks of ministry in the developing world. And, sadly, the sudden deaths of mission officials from our own denomination in the Haiti earthquake has served as yet another severe reminder that cross-cultural ministry is often hazardous.
Furthermore, as undesirable as it is for a new missionary to consider the subject of danger overseas for one’s own life, the thought is especially unwelcome to parents with children as they contemplate missionary life as a family. Perhaps that’s why I was provoked by the question of a seemingly well-intentioned lady who asked while we were preparing to depart for our first term of service, “Are you going to take this little girl to Africa?”—apparently astounded that we would actually consider bringing our two-year-old (our only child at the time) with us to a developing nation. In retrospect, I am grateful that I did not respond with what I was thinking, “No, of course we won’t bring her to Africa. We are going to put her in a kennel for the next seven or eight years.”
Despite my sarcasm, I was convinced that God was calling our whole family to missionary service and, in my zeal, I tended to dismiss worries expressed by others about my family’s safety by categorically storing those concerns in my mental “lack of faith” file. Accompanying these thoughts was my lack of appreciation for the apprehension of extended family members; an uneasiness that was exacerbated by the fact that our only child at the time was also the only grandchild on both sides of our family.
In the wake of these discouraging detractions to our missionary aspirations, we clung to a devotional thought by Oswald Chambers: “If we obey God, he will care for those who have suffered the consequences of our obedience.”
And yet, to be perfectly candid, I did have nagging, subterranean fears about my family’s safety in a strange land. I knew stories of missionaries who were killed or died from foreign-born illnesses. And it didn’t help that our specific assigned field of service had historically been known as “the missionary’s graveyard.”
I believe the enemy of our souls seeks to employ undue fear as a potentially debilitating weapon, and he knew that my greatest fear was the loss of a child. I subsequently learned that another tactic he uses is condemnation when, a few years later, a sense of guilt became my unwanted companion when our second child, born while we were overseas, tested positive for tuberculosis as a toddler.
Now my wife and I live in the States and our three children are grown. In recent years we’ve seen each of them serve on overseas missions without us and in that process have begun to realize the depth of what our parents felt when we moved to a new country more than 20 years ago.
I had coffee yesterday morning with a colleague who has two adult children serving in different regions of Asia. He told me that one of them, a civilian working in Iraq, felt his bed shake last week when a bomb went off near his home in Baghdad. I asked, “How do you deal with that?” He smiled and said that he and his wife often recall the quote by the renowned missionary David Livingstone, “I am immortal ‘til my work is accomplished.”
Livingstone died in Africa of dysentery and malaria, ill for the final four years of his life. Likewise, there are no guarantees that we, nor the ones we love, are immune from suffering and death on the path of obedience. And yet, the same God who gives us the wisdom to answer the question, “For what are you willing to die?” is able to provide the greater grace needed when we contemplate the costly obedience of those whom we love—whether that grace is provided in the form of divine protection or eternal perspective.
Frank Decker is the vice president for mission operations at The Mission Society.
By B.J. Funk
When my children were younger, I received a few of those “Everything is perfect in our world” Christmas letters from well-meaning friends. I was happy for them. It’s just that their good news made me even more conscious that I had the opposite. My boys and I were struggling to get from one day to the next with some semblance of sanity. If one day ended and we had moved a step forward, we felt more confident that the next day might possibly bring another step, or at least a half a step. That would be the best Christmas for us. How was I supposed to write in our Christmas letter, “The boys are doing great, excelling in every area,” when in fact their lives were buried under a steady stream of tears from their daddy’s absence?
Those were dark days. Nothing hurts a mother more than seeing her children cry because they felt abandoned. As the three of us pushed forward to make it “in spite of,” I found myself in a precarious spot, my first introduction to the furnace of affliction. It was much too warm. I began to notice heat around my heart, where at times the flame was so intense I could not get out of bed in the morning. As the searing increased, the heat moved into other organs. My senses felt intense burning as my eyesight became first impaired, and then suddenly clearer than ever. My hearing changed too. Sounds I used to love faded as the flames burned away anything contrary to the fire’s purpose. Daily, I felt the inferno’s injustice moving like a searchlight into my soul. I didn’t always like what I saw; however, the fire was unrelenting. Eventually, a fire with no mercy at all moved into my slumbering soul and stirred a fresh pot of new mercy, a bubbling cool pool whose contents spilled all over me.
I watched as old habits of thinking melted in the heat’s darkness. Priorities shifted. It didn’t matter so much that I kept my house spotless; now, I wanted more than ever to keep my life spotless. I picked up the Bible and could not put it down. With the intensity of a hot branding iron, words of life were emblazoned on my heart. After months of this, I came out of the furnace a new person, flicking off the smoldering ashes, and praising God for the heat that causes change. I would not have gone back to the way I was for anything. I liked the new and growing me. I loved my new hunger for God’s Word. The furnace did all that. Romans 8:28 was true: God does use all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purposes.
Back to my Christmas letter. How could I write the truth, which included one of my sons failing two grades and finally dropping out of school? Somehow, it didn’t seem right to lie at Christmas. So, my Christmas letter flowed in senseless generalities: We got a new puppy. It snowed. My youngest likes music. No great accolades. But, at least truthful.
Later, I discovered in the Bible exactly what had happened to me. I had been in the Refiner’s Fire. “Behold, I will refine thee, but not with silver; I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction” (Isaiah 48:10).
That was a long time ago. I am still flicking off the ashes. Every now and then, God dips me back in that same furnace of purification. The book of James tells me to thank God for this new trial because he is using it to bring me deeper unto him. A dear Christian friend whose 20-year-old son died in an automobile accident pointed out, “We can still dance, even in the furnace.”
Those who have danced in the fire are those who know that the furnace will bring out their ultimate best for the kingdom of God. The purpose of the refining fire is so that the Master will see his image reflected on our purified silver lives.
King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon put three Israelites in the furnace because they refused to bow down to false gods. When he looked inside, the king saw a fourth person, looking like a god, and the others were unharmed. He ordered them out, promoting the three and forbidding anyone in his kingdom to say anything against the Israelite’s God.
After that first furnace, I stopped comparing my Christmas letters to others. I simply was thankful that God walked into the furnace with me. I saw my ashes as a treasure to his faithfulness. His desire was to bring me to a higher life within him.
Have you been flicking off any ashes lately? The book of James would say, “Count it all joy!” My friend would say, “Dance, even there.”
B. J. Funk is Associate Pastor of Central United Methodist Church in Fitzgerald, Georgia. She is the author of The Dance of Life: Invitation to a Father Daughter Dance, a regular contributor to the South Georgia Advocate, and a frequent speaker at women’s retreats. She can be reached at email@example.com.