Thursday, December 5, 2013

Camouflaged as regular folks

Did you know that before Africa, for three years my husband and I and our kids, ages 6 and 4, moved to South America?

There in the middle of nowhere at the end of the road, it didn’t get off to a good start: With hands on hips, I shrieked at my husband, “I refuse to unpack! We made a bad mistake, and we are leaving!

He put his hands on his hips and reminded me we’d made a commitment for at least a year, and a bunch of students were counting on him to be their teacher.

With that I plotted my own escape. If he and the kids wouldn’t leave with me, I’d walk, all by myself, through Central America, Mexico, California, Oregon, and arrive at my home in Washington State.

But God had scheduled a holy appointment for me: to live in that place, populated by a hundred or so Bible translators—missionaries—who who had chosen a radical lifestyle, a radical abandonment to God, in order to live a radical faith in radical obedience to Him—despite the consequences that would come their way.

They had set aside the pursuit of the American dream—it was too small. They pursued God-sized dreams.

But I didn’t know that then, not in my first few days.

All those people were camouflaged as regular folks.

With this holy appointment, God wanted me to see my colleagues as His hands and feet. He wanted me to look into their eyes and see His.  He wanted me to witness them feeding His lambs.

That bunch lived large. I was about to learn they were willing to take risks. Sometimes big risks. They lived out what Paul urged Christians to do: They presented their bodies as living sacrifices—they offered their all—as an act of worship.

I was about to learn that they spoke up for those who had no voice. They defended the rights of the poor and needy. They fed the hungry, clothed the naked, gave a drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, cared for the sick, and visited the prisoners. They acted justly and loved mercy and walked humbly with their God.

I was about to learn that, disguised as ordinary men and women and kids, those people showed extraordinary courage in the face of threats, bandits, subversives, weapon-wielding agents, and suspicious officials descending in helicopters.

Stalked by guerrillas, attacked by the press, harassed by government officials, bombed by terrorists, despised by leftist university students, falsely accused, subjected to congressional investigation, hoodwinked, set up, put under house arrest, occasionally thrown in jail, sometimes kidnapped, sometimes murdered—those people just kept at their tasks.

They put up with minimal physical creature comforts. Sometimes they put up with loneliness, isolation, insecurity, and occasionally hunger and thirst.

They stood their ground against piranhas, stingrays, boa constrictors, anacondas, and cuatro nariz.

They coped with fire ants, cutter ants, army ants, and all manner of icky stuff that would make your skin crawl.

They endured cockroaches and mosquitoes, ticks and termites. And sometimes rifle-toting soldiers standing guard at their doors.

Some were young, some were middle age, and a few were old.

Some were healthy, some were sick,
            some were happy, some were sad,
                        some died, others gave birth.

There at the end of the road, people laughed and wept,
sang and despaired,
worshipped and cursed,
fell in love and grew to hate.

Some married there and others broke up because of what did or did not happen there.

Some of their days were filled with tedium, others filled with mayhem.

Some were excited, others scared to death;
hopeful people, discouraged people,
faith-filled people, broken people;
confused people, committed people,
exhausted people, tenacious people.

They knew remote rivers and vegetation-tangled lakes. They knew precarious, undulating, remote airstrips.

They knew back roads, muddy roads, rutted roads, no roads at all, and they knew roadblocks.

Able to navigate through unmapped territory, transcend cultural ambiguities, communicate in unfamiliar languages, catch and butcher their dinner, they were independent, self-reliant, modest, and not given to panic.

They were stubborn people. Steadfast people.

They knew abundant life, they knew wrongful death.

Those folks were not fearless. Oh, they knew fear. They experienced “the terror in the night,” but they also knew the God they served, so they prayed, looked fear in the face, and continued with their God-given jobs.

Sometimes they wondered why they had ever gone to that nation. Sometimes they pushed themselves too hard and ended up running on empty. Sometimes they didn’t have anything else of themselves to give. Sometimes they didn’t think they could endure one more round of misunderstanding and rejection. Sometimes the battles, both spiritual and earthly, seemed too much. Sometimes they wondered: Is this worth it?

Sometimes they asked: When does the time come to do what Jesus said: Shake the dust from your feet and leave?

Like the ancients, they lived by a faith that was sure of what they could not see. Like Abraham, against all hope, they in hope believed. They laughed at impossibilities and shouted, “It shall be done!”

And so, hand in hand with God, they witnessed Him perform the impossible, the inconceivable, the incredible—over and over again.

And I, I stood there with them on that holy ground—in the far back row, but I was there—and I beheld the Almighty at work.

And to think that I’d wanted to run away and miss it all….

“And I loved them, these others, those friends and teachers.…
We should remember … the foolish ones and wise ones,
the shy ones and overbearing ones, 
the broken ones and whole ones,
the despots and tosspots and crackpots of our lives who, 
one way or another,
have been our particular fathers and mothers and saints,
and whom we loved without knowing we loved them
and by whom we were helped to whatever little we may have, 
or ever hope to have,
of some kind of seedy sainthood of our own.”
Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey

Adapted from Scruffy and Winded and Full of Tales, copyright 2013 by Linda K. Thomas


  1. The missionaries you describe are walking the true walk of Christians in very difficult circumstances. What a situation you and your hubby and children walked in to, and stayed to help.

  2. Bless you, Terra, for your kind words. God placed us there among those exceptional Christians, and what an honor it was. Working alongside them was a life-changing experience. We worked with the same orgaization (Wycliffe Bible Translators/SIL) in Africa, but the South American experience was much more o-the-edge. Thanks for stopping by, Terra.