Pam attends a Ladies Retreat at our church to maintain contact with women who have been important to her spiritual growth over the years. Since we have been in Malaysia she has managed to get home for all of them, and each year she is asked to speak. This is a copy of her message for this year:
It has been more than six years since we signed that one year contract with an optional second year with Taylor’s College in Malaysia. We left behind our three children, a daughter-in-law and one three month old grandson. We knew that we would miss them terribly but fortunately had no idea what that would actually mean for us as a family. We also had no idea what that would mean for us in terms of the work and the ministry that God intended to lead us into. I think that was a good thing because I am sure we would have been too afraid to take it on if we knew the challenges that lay ahead.
Our time in Malaysia has been such a precious gift from God as we watched Him open doors for us to serve, bring new people into our lives, allowed us to see amazingly different cultures and experiences. We have so often marveled at the things we have been able to learn, the peace and strength He gives us each day and the real joy we have experienced in serving in SE Asia. We would not trade those experiences for anything.
However living the life that we do, we almost daily have to confront our own weaknesses and we do that without the support of family and friends and structures that we took for granted in Canada. In 2 Cor 12, Paul talks about his thorn in the flesh and the fact that he prayed three times that God would take it from him. When God chose not to relieve him of this limitation, Paul’s declaration was one that we are all very familiar with and often quote. “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness”. That is a promise that I have often claimed and rejoiced in.
The second, less quoted part of that verse is more problematic for me; it says, “Most gladly therefore I would rather boast about my weakness, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” I would be the first to admit that actually I would prefer for God to take away my struggles rather than leave them for me to boast about. My biggest battle has been that of loneliness and I went into this experience with lots of strategies for dealing with my issues – most of them bad. I come from a background where I had some pretty highly developed skills in terms of hiding my pain, discounting it (after all plenty of people deal with much worse), denying that it exists or just keeping so busy that I don’t really have to think about it.
Those things worked initially but when I was eventually forced to face the reality of my sadness, I used my second unhealthy strategy – look at how others are doing it badly so I can see that I have a good rationale for not dealing with the issues. I could cite examples of those who used their struggles to gain attention or sympathy, maybe even some status as a “suffering saint”. Others used it as an excuse to sit around and do nothing or to avoid dealing with their own failures or shortcomings. Again I turned to denial- the old buck up and get on with it because you don’t want to be that kind of person type of statements. I think that most of all I did not want to develop an attitude that I had no options. I could easily see that we were exactly where God intended us to be, the work we are involved in was moving forward in ways that only God could possibly orchestrate and I did not want to feel that I was trapped, feeling I was forced to stay in an uncomfortable spot because it was the will of God.
No matter how solid my rationale for avoidance seemed to be, I knew that I had to deal with this loneliness and sadness head on, to see it as part of God’s perfect plan for my life- as a gift to be treasured, to learn from and to use it well for eternal purposes. One of the first things I realized was that my loneliness does not make me special. God created us to be in relationship and every single person deals with these feelings throughout their lives. Whether it is the teenager struggling to find her place in an adult world, the young woman longing for a life partner, a wife and mother facing decisions and experiences that she has never faced before, seeing children leave home, partners pass away and eventually facing our own home going- loneliness is a part of life.
So I have this gift- this asset that God has given me -what am I to do with it. I was reminded of Christ who surely dealt with the most profound aloneness. He was God and chose to take on a human form and live in this world, He was rejected by his friends and those he came to save and eventually cried out My God, My God why have you forsaken me. His strategy was to withdraw to the mountain to pray, to fellowship with God and surrender to the will of God.
What an incredible gift it is to place all my sadness into the Hands of God. To feel a peace and strength that only comes from giving control over to God. To be fully aware of my own powerlessness and recognize that power comes from outside of me – from God. I recognized that the gift was not so much the loneliness but the opportunity to surrender myself- my own hopes and dreams and desires into God’s better plan for me. In this I became aware of some other precious truths.
The very things that make me so alive are the things that create my loneliness. I miss my kids terribly but I know they are amazing young adults and I am truly blessed by them. I ache to hold my grandkids at times but can’t help but rejoice in the fact that they are beautiful healthy kids with wonderful parents and are safe in God’s hands. I miss my friends but know that they too have rich and full lives and I am so blessed to call them friends.
I gradually find myself praying less and less that God would take away the loneliness. Now my prayer is that God would make me more loving, gentler and more sensitive to the hurts and loneliness of others. That I would not be afraid to reach out to others in their pain, to meet others where their needs are. I pray that I would be less critical and slower to judge but would see others as hurting people trying to do their best through Christ’s strength.
I had a very unique opportunity this past year to see first hand what that attitude can mean in a Christian community. I was asked to present our Cambodia project at an annual CMDA Conference which I was only able to attend because I was presenting. It is a very involved conference put on by a number of Physicians, dentists and medical professors from John’s Hopkins, and Mayo clinic who although they are not called to serve on the mission field, believe that they are called to protect their brothers and sisters who are serving. They hold this conference so that their colleagues can meet the ongoing educational requirements in order to maintain the license to practice in their home state. On my arrival I was surprised to find that there were some 570 medical professionals meeting in a very remote location- an odd choice for such a large number of participants. Then I started hearing the stories.
These individuals and families had all given up very lucrative practices in the US to serve in closed and very dangerous situations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Nepal and China. They were never free to openly worship, to meet together with other believers, they face constant scrutiny from informers and gov’t officials and threats on their lives. One group had seen 12 of their co-workers martyred over the past five years. One lady received a call midweek to say that her husband had been arrested and she should not return to her home until she knew it was safe. Several couples talked of their decision to not have children as it just was too unsafe for them. Here in a remote area in northern Thailand they were free to worship, to sing out loud, to fellowship with other believers, to share their pain and sorrow with friends who were sensitive to their needs. Although it was only Feb, we celebrated Easter Sunday together because that is just something that these faithful servants never got to do. The participants talked at length about the joy of feeling safe and free and loved by brothers and sisters who were sensitive to their desire to serve and the price they were paying.
I began to wonder how safe others are with me- can they trust me to listen, to not betray a confidence to not place my needs above theirs, to help and support them in their need. My prayer became Lord make me a safe person. Help me to be so sensitive to what others are dealing with that I would not make anything more difficult for them. Help me to be honest and trustworthy with my words, help me not to be quick to take offence or to hold grudges. Help me not to be petty, have a critical spirit or begrudge others their blessings. Help me to reach out to others in genuine loving concern and care and to stay focused on the things that are eternal.
We have the privilege- and it is a privilege that very few in this world have- to meet here every year as sisters in Christ. We all come with our burdens and we all need friends who are prepared to listen to us, pray with us, cry and laugh with us, to be gentle and accepting of us and to tell us the things we don’t necessarily want to hear. We need people who will keep us safe. This is a pretty big group but my prayer is that each of you can find a small group of safe friends. I had that for many years in the early morning ladies prayer group and there were lots of weeks that I am not sure I would have survived without that group. They kept me safe and I will treasure that as long as I live. I take great comfort in knowing that they continue to pray for me and in the fact that I can stay connected by praying for them even from a half world away.
I am so thankful for Shelley, Jan, Deb, Barb and Catherine who are so faithful to create this retreat for us each year. I look forward to being a part of it and am blessed when I can reflect back on it in my times of loneliness.
We had an opportunity to visit New Zealand and learned of a traditional Maori tribal greeting. It is called a Hongi. This greeting is offered to and shared with someone who is welcomed into the community- with all the rights and responsibilities of family. In performing this they symbolically allow their breath to intermingle- they breathe the same air. In a sense we have shared a Hongi this weekend and leave with a new relationship with each other- with all of our joys and sorrows and the rights and responsibilities that come with being a part of the family of God.