Paul’s missionary journeys get a lot of attention—obviously. What missionary wouldn’t want to write a newsletter about the amazing spread of the gospel through the drama of shipwrecks, snakebites, imprisonment, and persecution?
On the other hand, those trips back to Antioch seem not only rather dull but almost parenthetical in comparison. Acts 14:27 describes the first return a lot like a typical missionary furlough: “On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.”
Parenthetical is how I often measure time over the past 20 years. Our time in the US has been between four-year terms of service in Costa Rica, Argentina, Honduras, and Bolivia. But this time we find ourselves in the middle of an open parentheses, peering into the abyss of stateside living with no definite end in sight.
Many missionary colleagues have found themselves in the same place, perhaps due to aging parents, kids in college, further study, health issues, finances, or a change of call and direction. So how do we navigate this open parentheses? How do we transition back into our sending culture, whether for years or forever, in a healthy way?
After 18 months back in the US, I can only say with certainty that I haven’t done it perfectly. I occasionally still feel confused, frustrated and even grieved when confronted with that well-intentioned question, “Aren’t you glad to be home?”
Which leads me to what I have learned—what I am still learning—about surviving coming home when we’re not even sure where home is anymore.
1) Hold onto your true identity.
Being a missionary can become more than a career, more than a title. It defines who you are in so many ways. When you can no longer lay claim to that title, you face an identity crisis. That’s when you need to remember who you truly are—a child of God, a disciple, a servant, a follower, a witness—no matter the avenue or vocation through which you now live out your faith. Who you are is defined by so much more than a description on your last prayer card. Hold on to that.
2) Offer grace, to others and to yourself.
You’ve changed. Others have changed. America has changed. Avoid the tendency to judge or criticize or compare your current circumstances and culture to what you’ve known in the past. Become a learner of culture once again, but this time of your sending culture. In the meantime, be kind. Be kind to yourself, too. Allow yourself time to grieve the loss of the life you’ve known. Talk to someone who understands. There are a lot of us out here.
3) Minister wherever you are.
After a time to rest, and some time to heal, get involved. It’s tempting to let yourself stay on the periphery, especially when you no longer feel “in the loop.” But don’t stay there long. Find a place to serve. Your value to God and His Church didn’t end just because your address changed. Let your suitcases collect dust, not you.
4) Encourage others to tell their stories.
Even if you are one of those missionaries who has stories to tell, the ones involving tropical diseases and snakes and scorpions and miracles, that doesn’t mean you always have to tell them. God’s been at work in the people around you all these years. Find out how. Ask questions, and take a sincere interest in those around you.
Though we’ve always looked at our “parenthetical” times in the US as times of ministry, it was honestly always with an eye towards the future, looking ahead to boarding a plane again soon. I wonder, did Paul preach and teach in Antioch (Acts 15:35) while simultaneously looking ahead to his next journey? I don’t know. What I do know is that, parentheses or no, we can’t let geography hinder us from allowing God to continue to write His story through our lives.