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Update from Chengdu

October 11, 2006

Liz & Doug Searles – China

When I was a kid, I thought missionaries got this blinding Call (capital “C”) to foreign missions. Once stationed in a suitably exotic location, despite searing trials and tribulations, they labored happily ever after, confident in the knowledge that they were in the center of God’s will. Missionaries were supposed to be permanently at peace once they said “Here I am, Lord!”

Romantic misconceptions about missionaries rarely have been in short supply.

Quite the contrary, we feel that our Call needs to be questioned almost daily. We are not in our home culture, assessing our success by the familiar barometer on the shelf. As a result, instead of feeling growing certitude, we can find ourselves more and more often jarred awake with the question: “What on earth are we doing here?”

Seeking to answer that question, we can get mired in ambivalence: Would things seem so hard if we were really (really really) in the center of God’s will? Conversely: Might things seem so challenging just BECAUSE we are doing what we are uniquely called to do?

One of our personal challenges is that we cannot officially partner with the Chinese church, and must walk very carefully when we walk with Chinese—Christian or not.

“Walking with” requires a lot of humility here. We North Americans are accustomed to leading, to being proactive, to seeking creative solutions, to airing half-formed opinions and having them heard. As Christians, too, we believe we are challenged to walk in faith through open doors. God provides; all things are possible; faith can move mountains.

Two idioms illustrate a key contrast: In the west, we say: “The early bird catches the worm.” In China, the idiom is more like: “The first bird gets shot.”

Qualities we may applaud as givens, perhaps even as “God-givens,” rarely are rewarded in China. Thus, we risk alienating our hosts when we do what comes “naturally.” We must daily seek to discern which ways of behaving or cultural assumptions we should park outside the city gates, and which ones we feel we must carry inside, both as westerners and as Christians.

Because we are products of our culture, our serving in China:

  • stretches us, sometimes beyond our comfort zone.
  • demands that we call into question almost all of our automatic responses to situations.
  • raises questions about how we can serve God’s mission of love and justice and yet live harmoniously in the Chinese cultural context.
  • requires of us a growing humility, because we must accept our status as outsiders--followers who will never be insiders or leaders, or even full-fledged team members.
  • reveals to us that we do not have all the answers, or perhaps any answers at all, except the answers provided by our faith in Jesus Christ.

Given all of these, how can we be at peace with our Call, especially when needs in the U.S. seem to summon us, as well? And what about responsibilities to family? Mackenzie is in university in Oregon. Shouldn’t we be closer? Mick is in ninth grade. Shouldn’t he go to high school in the U.S.? Liz’s dad died this summer. Shouldn’t we be closer to her mom in Iowa? We have health concerns. Shouldn’t we live nearer to quality health care?

These questions threaten to rob us of our peace. And yet, should we ignore them?

A friend recently ended her e-mail to us with an anonymous quote about what peace means:

"...peace. it does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise,
trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart."

Rewarding as it can be, “walking with” friends in China disturbs our peace almost daily. And yet, amidst the noise of 1.5 billion people, amidst the trouble that can seem to dog even the simplest task, and doing work that grows harder and more strenuous every day, we keep seeking “calm in our hearts.”

Only when we are “calm in our hearts” can we candidly accept difference, suspend our culture-bound expectations, and authentically “walk with” the Chinese friends we have come to serve.

Keep us in your prayers, won’t you? Pray that our ambivalences will cease, replaced by a calm and accepting clarity—by peace..

It’s really too bad that missionaries don’t get a special zap—a special dispensation of calm, or vision, or clarity, just because they serve far away. Peace doesn’t automatically accompany “the Call.” That “calm in our hearts” is earned in the daily struggle to discern and accept what on earth God has sent us to do.

And I guess this is true for us all, because we are all called to ministry. No pixie dust: only the daily struggle for discernment.

We hope you have read down to the bottom of this page. We’d like to hear your thoughts, too. Write your news, won’t you? Hearing from you helps us keep connected and . . . . well . . . maybe helps us keep “calm in our hearts.”

Blessings on all your ministries!

Liz & Doug, and Mick in Chengdu, Sichuan, China

Doug and Elizabeth Searles work with the Sichuan TV and Radio University in Chengdu, China. They both serve as English teachers.

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