by Will Rogers
Today we're going to continue looking at how to encourage medical missionaries, and we're going to hear from another experienced physician who understands what this is all about. David Narita, his wife Lara, and their three children served with OMF International for 13 years in Northwest Cambodia. Currently they live in California where he facilitates OMF healthcare missions.
When we first arrived in Cambodia, part of our settling in was learning the Khmer language and culture. I remember my instructor pointed out one day, “The red strings you see everywhere are a symbol for protection. Cambodians tie it on their wrists, bicycles, doors, everywhere like a good luck charm.” He made them sound like they were everywhere, but I hadn’t recalled seeing many of them. Yet as I walked out of class, I felt like I was in a different world. There were red strings everywhere.
There’s an idea I call the Red String Principle. If you name something, you’ll see it. All those red strings were there before; I just wasn’t looking for them. You can understand it. Now those strings had significance to me. And that new understanding allowed me to engage with their meaning. What do I think about those strings? What will I say if someone offers one to me? Ultimately naming something gives us a bit of control.
Nothing I’m going to share with you is new. It’s always been there. But I hope by putting a name on it and drawing your attention to it, you’ll be able to see what’s happening, understand it and be able to engage those situations in a more thoughtful, godly way.
Two men went up into the church to pray, one a missionary and the other a really bad guy. The missionary, standing by himself, prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like others, caught up in their worldliness and using their gifts for themselves. I value what you value; I mean I gave up my family, my career, my nice suburban life all for You.’ But the really bad guy, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven but beat his breast saying, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner!’
We exist because of God’s grace. None of us in any real sense is more righteous than the next in God’s eyes. We have all sinned and fallen short of God’s holy standard. John Stott wrote, “Nothing in history or in the universe cuts us down to size like the cross. All of us have inflated views of ourselves, especially in self-righteousness, until we have visited a place called Calvary. It is here, at the foot of the cross that we shrink to our true size.” (Stott, John R. W. The Message of the Galatians: John R.W. Stott. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986. P. 179.)
I am a proud and self-righteous person. I love to feel like I’m doing the right thing; doing better than those around me. I’m a great Pharisee. But this isn’t the way of Christ. Pride is a path that leads to bitterness and discontent, to emptiness and fruitlessness. Godliness with contentment comes from knowing that our works do not earn our salvation; that no one is better or more ahead than anyone else. Not super apostles, not missionaries, not really bad guys. We are all sustained by God’s grace through Christ. So before we go out to minister we come to the cross and preach the gospel to ourselves first.
What will you do when you start feeling like a Pharisee? When your self-righteousness threatens to take away the grace God has given you? What will keep the grace of God before you day after day?
We arrived in Cambodia very excited. But you know excitement is often just another word for stress – with a positive spin. Naturally to bring order to that sense of chaos, we organized and categorized things in our minds. For example, we’d be asked where we stood on issues such as taking the time to learn the local language or use a translator, providing food/resources to people in need or protect a community’s sustainability, paying local pastors or encourage them to be bi-vocational. We accepted that there was a right way to do ministry and a wrong way. Lines were drawn. Those lines formed groups. Groups led to polarization. And polarization can lead to conflict. Maybe not outright hostility but a sense of separation and distance.
A veteran missionary reminded us that Christ unites while Satan divides. Recognize that our real battle isn’t with those around us. Not with your spouse, your children, the nationals, other groups, your leadership, your teammates. They’re typically not the ones out to get us. Remember there’s an enemy who would rather you give up and go home. He divides us when we judge our way of ministry is better than another’s, when we allow something small to consume us, when we grow bitter towards others. That’s our sinful nature controlling us. Satan divides but Christ unites. And uniting means valuing others as Christ does.
We’re not all supposed to be the same. We would never say, “Everyone needs to be a doctor.” What an un-fun world that would be! Neither does every Christian need to be just like me. I’m thankful for a colleague passionate about theological education as much as those feeding orphans. Both have equal and important callings from God. We’re very different members of His body doing very different things but serving the same Lord.
Always be humble and gentle. Patiently put up with each other and love each other. Try your best to let God’s Spirit keep your hearts united. Do this by living at peace.
Eph 4:2-3 CEV
When you feel that judgment and division say, “Satan, I’m not going to let you win!” Pray that God will give you a heart of genuine love and respect for others, allowing others to follow God as He’s called them, and be a unifying force for His kingdom. Look for the good in others, the ways they are reflecting God. Focus on that and thank God for them.
When the lines seem to grow deeper between fellow believers, how can you love them as Christ does? When you’re tired and hot, people are pushing all the wrong buttons and you feel like you should just go home, what will you say to yourself to help you live at peace?
It took me a while to realize this, but there are two kinds of people in this world – journey people and destination people. In simplest terms, it takes journey people two weeks to drive across the country. They see, they experience, they make new friends, they laugh and cry. Destination people: 38 hours and 23 minutes without traffic. In medicine, journey people want diabetics to take ownership of their disease. To work hard at diet and exercise. To care for their feet and find a new normal. Destination people: Medicine, A1c down, done. Are the most important characteristics in your church planting keeping it simple, sustainable and nationally-led or do you primarily picture a community of local believers? Journey and destination.
Another way of saying this is to ask if you’re values-driven or vision-driven. Do you see the values embraced in the process as your motivation or is it the end result - what you hope to achieve – that you picture in your head? As you work with and lead others, this could be a huge source of unity or disagreement. Seek to understand the other person’s motivation; what makes the other person tick.
Someone who is vision-driven will become incredibly frustrated by the seeming lack of focus of a values-driven person. And a values-driven missionary may feel a vision-driven colleague is a little too pragmatic, maybe to the point of compromise. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but if we can recognize our differences, we can all work together better.
People hold pretty strongly to their positions because I believe it’s where they get their significance. It’s what makes them feel successful and worthy. Do you gain your significance by being a certain kind of person – upholding those values. Or is it about accomplishing something – seeing a vision fulfilled? Am I here on the field in obedience? To become more like Jesus? To meet needs? You need to understand yourself, who you are and what you need in order to survive on their field.
Why are you going to the mission field and what will give you the significance to keep you there? Do you have a vision for what you will do, what will happen? Are there core values you desire to live out?
A lot of us look to Abraham’s life as an example of missions. Called by God, blessed to be a blessing, promised fruitfulness like the stars. We came to see our lives as that journey toward Canaan – a journey through school, more school, residency, years paying off debt. Abraham arrived in the hills, built an altar to God, pitched his tent. And I believed that perhaps like Abraham in that moment, when I arrived on the field everything would come together. I’d be able to use all those years of experience and the gifts God gave me fully in an incredible satisfying way. Getting to the mission field was a dream years in the making come true.
But the biblical text continues: “Now there was a famine in the land.” What? Famine in the land of your calling? And sometimes there isn’t even time to settling in. Famine just overtakes you. It looks like misunderstandings with your team members or your leadership. Stressors come from changing not only job roles and locale but also from culture and financial status, tensions come with our kids, our spouses – even from within ourselves.
A lot of this is normal – reactions to changes and loss. But realize that the enemy sows this; he delights in it. “Did God say...” The questions come. Was this what you signed up for? Will it get easier? Will it get better? Famine feeds our doubts, our disappointments, our insecurities.
Several years ago I was sitting in an ICU in Thailand. You know what that’s like - the sounds and smells are the same all around the world. But I wasn’t there as a doctor but as a friend, sitting at the bedside of our fellow missionaries’ 17 year old son. Weeks earlier, he developed diabetic ketoacidosis. We were able to evacuate him from rural Cambodia into Thailand. And in the intervening time we prayed like we had never prayed before. People literally around the world, hundreds of people, lifted up countless prayers and fasted for this young man.
We believed God would heal him. We had faith. We put our trust in God. We assured ourselves that He would do it. But in the end, this young man died. And it sent shockwaves through our team. God, they’re missionaries. They’ve given up everything to serve you. They’re faithful. We prayed so much, we prayed with such faith.
What do we believe? What does God promise us? What has He told us and what do we assume? Do we think we’re special, that God will take care of us? How will we respond when famine comes in the very place God has called you? Remember that God is with us - in the famine, in the conflicts, disappointment and suffering. The incredible truth in Christianity is that He walks with us. “Lo, I am with you always…” Like Peter walking on water, we keep afloat as we keep our eyes on Him.
What assumptions are you making about God and how He works? What do you think will happen in life, ministry? Where is your hope? When doubts overwhelm and you feel like you’re about to drown, what will help you to fix your eyes on Christ?
In Christian circles, we like to emphasize servanthood. But I think that mindset creates a sense work, ideas and resources flowing from the servant to the served. As a result, we think missions is for those we are serving. A better way to think about the whole endeavor of mission is “mutuality.” It’s a give and take – like a marriage, a partnership, any healthy relationship. In this way we can see missions as for both those we are serving and also for me and my family. Missions is an ideal opportunity for us to grow in our faith.
When we first started with OMF, a quote of Hudson Taylor’s struck me. “Unless there is an element of risk in our exploits for God, there is no need for faith” I wanted greater faith so what does “risk” look like?
For me, getting to the mission field was a checklist of doing. College – check, med school – check, residency – check. Find someone who is both willing to marry me and go on the mission field – check. Pay off debt, gain work experience, find an organization, find a field to join, raise support… but who did I become in that process? How was it making me more like Christ?
My checklist life became more challenging when we reached raising support or partnership development. We contacted people, we told them what we were going to do and then our organization tracked the progress of our support. Looking back I believe this is an unhelpful model. Why? It can reinforce the belief that what we do leads to God’s blessing; that we are in control. That success is defined by checking a box. It’s a works-based way of thinking. And unfortunately a way of thinking that we can carry over into the field. I think a picture of a sower is better. We are not in control of our crops; we’re not driving the ship. But we are in control of who we are, our attitudes as we spread seed. We sow and allow God to bring fruitfulness. It moves from a mindset of what I do to who I am.
Don’t get me wrong – doing is important. But doing without becoming – without understanding this need to depend on God, seeing Him as the one who provides – leads to spiritual dryness and burnout. This is a vital realization for a successful ministry – we are not determining spiritual outcomes of fruitfulness. It is only God who can bring understanding and growth.
“Unless there is an element of risk in our exploits for God, there is no need for faith.”
If everything you do is within your control (or you think it’s in your control) where is there room to exercise faith and see God at work in your life? It’s only in the stretching, the moving beyond what we can accomplish on our own that we’ll see God. Be intentional – plan God into your lives. Acknowledge that you’re not in control but that God is. Embrace the uncontrollable, the things that you can’t check off or put in a box, because that uncertainty binds us together with God. It is the birthplace of faith.
Where can I relinquish control and leave room for God to work in my life? How can I be intentional in seeking my own transformation through missions?