The first time I moved overseas, I arrived without my luggage. Somehow the ticket agent forgot to ask me if I had luggage to check and I was so nervous saying goodbye to my family and friends, I didn't realize it until I got to my connecting flight. Frantic calls to my parents (before cell phones) revealed that my bags were still at the check-in counter. Several days later I received the bags that I had so carefully packed, containing all that I thought I would need to help me settle into a new country, culture and calling.
The second time I moved overseas, the luggage was there, but there was no one to meet us at the airport. My husband and I were so excited about our new assignment and sure our national hosts were excited about having us join them. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that they had forgotten to make arrangements for our arrival. We did make contact with our host, and when he arrived to pick us up (and our luggage) and proceeded to fit it all in his miniscule subcompact car, we knew that God was taking us on a journey that would defy our expectations and expand our vision of the possible.
Was I Ready to Go?
I do think I was ready to go. And being able to look back at significant signs in the road, gave me courage to go forward with the journey when things got tough. But in my journey, those markers served not as arrival points, but as starting points for what the next steps forward would be.
Maybe you are wondering if you are ready to go. Perhaps you struggle with doubt or fear. I would like to suggest that rather than waiting to arrive at the Ready to Go starting line, you envision yourself on a journey where you are looking for God to show you just what your next step is. Even so, there are some well-worn paths on the journey that should not be neglected.
At my first Urbana, I will never forget hearing for the first time that all Christians are called, and realizing that the scope of activity embraces the whole world. For me, responding to God's call meant starting by saying, "Yes, I am willing to go if you call me." Many doors opened for me along the way because I agreed to be available and to pay attention for opportunities.
I can't point to one single powerful experience with God that galvanized my desire to be a missionary. There was a series of events, though, that came together in my heart and mind which pointed clearly to the fact that God was calling me to missions.
The call doesn't stand alone. It is refined and defined as we consider the other steps on the way.
Experience and Service
For me, some of the most formative ways that God proved and expanded my understanding of my call, first as a Christian, and later as a missionary, were through opportunities to gain practical training and experience. Most of the time they just started out as opportunities to serve, and later I understood that God had strategically placed them in my path.
The best place to begin is right where you are. For me, as a student, that meant getting involved where I was on campus. It started with leading a Bible Study in my dorm. As it happened, my Bible study group was a pretty diverse bunch. I began to learn to care for and worship with brothers and sisters from different ethnic backgrounds.
That experience opened me up to a desire to pursue other cross cultural opportunities, including an overseas summer study program. By the time I took my first short term missions trip, I was already asking God the question, "Is this something you would have me pursue longer term?" And I was asking myself and others, "How do I do when I find myself in a foreign culture in a missions context?"
My experiences served both as testing and training grounds. But they were by no means exhaustive, they were, as I have said, simply the next step on the journey. They confirmed a growing passion for and desire to make a longer commitment to cross cultural missions.
They also exposed areas of weakness and vulnerability, and helped me to better understand the context and organization that would best suit me and help me to grow. Coming to the end of myself in these experiences, I met God in new ways, and I began to understand that if he was calling me, he would and could work in and through me.
Knowing we are called by God and having an idea about how we might serve him must also be paired with a good deal of heart work. I have been asked many times over the years, "Why do you want to go?", or "Why are you here?" Being able to answer those questions others ask, is a start but we must stop to honestly ask ourselves, "Why do I want to go?” and “What am I seeking?"
If we don’t ask these kinds of questions before we go, it won’t be long before our hearts are tested, and exposed. It was not until I was actually on the field the first time that I really had confronted the question, "Why am I here?" But once there, I was confronted with answers I didn’t expect.
When my husband and I were forgotten on my second move overseas, we were put face to face with our pride at being the dynamic, young, American missionary couple coming to serve and we saw how much we wanted (and needed!) to be appreciated and affirmed.
Being ready to go doesn't mean we never have to check our motivations again, but it does mean we have confronted those places of longing for love, affirmation, success and meaning inside of us that do not lead us to the feet of Jesus. Having once confronted them, we recognize that we will continue to confront and confess them as our motivations are exposed through circumstance, challenge, conflict, and even success.
Ask yourself the hard questions and get help from trusted friends and mentors in navigating the answers. Then, listen for confirmation.
Confirming the Call
I'll never forget the send-off I got for my first short term overseas trip. Those same students from my dorm Bible Study who had helped me learn to love and worship through differences, blessed me with a song and scriptures. They encouraged me by affirming that they saw God working in my life. Our call, experiences and motivations are confirmed as we share them with others.
Sometimes it takes courage to share with friends and family what God is doing in your heart. What if they don't see things the same way? But as we aren't called in a vacuum, we don't serve in a vacuum. We need to hear from others we trust and respect what they see in our lives. And we will need their support and blessing in the journey.
Your family, your friends and your church can all be great resources, and so can those who know missions. Getting to know experienced missionaries (who can share their experience with you) is a great start.
There were two women from my church who served as mentors for me in my journey. They were able to share from their own experience and to guide me in thinking about mine. In this age of Skype and social media, there are even more opportunities to connect with people who can serve as great guides and resources.
Even though you may not be sure about many things, it is not too early to begin to talk to missions agencies about opportunities. As you share your story, they will be able to help you ask questions you may not have considered. You don't need to feel like you have to 'sign on the dotted line' to begin a conversation with a sending agency.
At my second Urbana, when I was already sure that I wanted to pursue missions, I was helped greatly by talking to a variety of agencies about how my combination of training, experience, and interest could best be used. In my case, those conversations serve to confirm and more clearly define my focus and direction.
Focus and Direction
It would be difficult to explore calling, motivation, confirmation, experience and service without having an idea in general about where, what and how you would like to serve. I believe those elements all help us in determining our direction. By the time I began to speak to people specifically, I had learned a lot about myself and much more about missions to begin to clarify those things in my mind and articulate them to others.
Our field of study is also a key source. Having invested nearly four years in studying Russian, including spending a summer there, every mission’s representative I spoke to told me that it would be foolish for me to look at going to a non-Russian speaking country! Your unique combination of study, experience, training and interests will be used by God in your mission’s journey, though perhaps not always the way you expect!!
Can Anyone Really Be Ready?
You will never have all of your questions answered, your problems solved, or your boxes checked. I can guarantee your journey ahead will be full of surprises! But God has taught me in my own journey that I just need to take the next step in following where he is leading me. I never could have predicted where I would be today, 25 years after my first Urbana, or even 20 years after my first term overseas. But I am thankful for his faithfulness each step of the way.
What is your next step? Where will it take you?