Two missionaries had high blood pressure,” I reported, “because they ate instant noodles every day.”
My husband nodded gravely. “What else did you learn?”
I recited the alliteration of doom that befalls some missionaries: “depression, despair, divorce, death.”
We were about to enter the field as first-time, independent missionaries. Though I wasn’t a member of Wycliffe, they had graciously let me join their orientation seminar for new members. One morning session was all I had time for. Four weeks later, we were off to Japan. Right away, my husband, SH, plunged into teaching English and preaching at a bilingual church in Chiba—and into depression and despair.
At the time, we were hardly aware of the extensive preparation some mission organizations require of their missionaries. We simply accepted a direct invitation from the church in Chiba (which SH had volunteered at for a one-month mission trip several years before). The pastor had been scouting for English teachers to replace their retiring missionaries and heard SH was applying for English-teaching jobs in Japan.
Looking back, I wonder how different our first six months might have been if we had entered missions with an organization. I think we’d have been better prepared in five major areas—general readiness, language and cultural training, finances, member care, and goals. Here’s what we faced and how we’ve coped.
Mission boards have thorough vetting processes, don’t they? Well, I would’ve been the first to disqualify myself. Unlike SH, I didn’t want to be a missionary or work with churches or teach English. I wasn’t passionate about people or spreading the gospel.
After months of uncertainty, I agreed to “try Japan out.” But instead of teaching English, I wanted to continue my freelance work in editing and writing. So, we drafted an agreement, outlining the roles SH and I would play. Without an intermediary, we had to be assertive and negotiate directly with the Japanese church. But it enabled us to focus on work we enjoy and are good at.
But I still struggle to understand and accept the missionary role. A confidant observed, “Whether you have ‘the call’ or not, you don’t seem ready for that call.”
Ready or not, here I am. Inadvertently, I am expected to do the work of a missionary. Instead of lingering on my lack of interest or adequacy, I choose to see this as an opportunity to grow. If I lack a heart for the gospel, then being here forces me to ask why. A good hard look at myself reveals that I accept the gospel but haven’t understood it emotionally. Not quite. Perhaps I’m in Japan to “relearn” the gospel as much as to share it.
Language and cultural training
We arrived with only beginner to intermediate levels of Japanese. Yet we weren’t expected to learn much Japanese by our host church because our missionary predecessors there hadn’t. Naturally, I had a meltdown after trying to pay the rent at an ATM. How dare the ATM expect me to read kanji!
But a bigger stressor was culture. We had little experience serving in a Japanese church. Despite the church’s overflowing hospitality to us—which continues even now—cultural stress floored SH with monthly bouts of illness. Our limited Japanese made it hard to discuss expectations and feelings.
Thankfully, SH has a habit of asking for help. When he was unsure how best to word things in a delicate situation, he’d text a Japanese friend back in Malaysia. Before leaving Malaysia, he asked friends for Japanese Christian contacts. He kept in touch with church mentors before and after arriving in Japan. Over the months, God surrounded us with wise, caring friends who helped with different problems. He also sent us three language tutors.
On top of attending cross-cultural and language training, members of missionary organizations like OMF are required to have financial support promised in advance for an entire term (usually four years).
In contrast, we came as tentmakers with unstable wages that couldn’t ensure long-term survival. Apart from work—teaching, preaching, editing, writing, and cleaning—we depend on spontaneous donations to cover 30% of our monthly needs. Despite being able to quote Jesus’s words about not worrying about how our needs will be met (Matthew 6:25–34), we often worry about the months ahead.
I could easily succumb to a diet of instant noodles, given a history of previous addiction to these dubious stress-relievers. But the Wycliffe trainer had warned, “Do not be too frugal. Take care of your health.” So, we choose to eat well and have a social life.
Every month is unpredictable, but God has provided abundantly for us so far. We’re also becoming less ashamed of telling people about our financial needs. We share at our two home churches in Malaysia (by Skyping into their prayer meetings and scheduling an annual visit), contact old Christian friends to catch up, and dispatch a monthly newsletter that keeps us on the radar of serious supporters.
The Wycliffe trainer also said, “There are things you can do to take care of yourself. You, too, can do ‘member care’.”
We dispelled cabin fever by visiting a half-Japanese, half-Malaysian lady in her gigantic house in rural Chiba. Her advice? “Don’t ganbaru (try your best) so much. And don’t try to be Japanese.” It’s my favorite mantra these days: don’t try your best.
When my mother visited in our fourth month, she remarked kindly, “You’re doing very well.”
“Am I?” I moped. “I don’t feel like it.”
She replied, “See what you’ve managed to accomplish so far! Setting up home, learning the language, getting along well with people . . .” I only saw what I hadn’t accomplished, while Mum’s perspective as an outsider was more balanced.
SH began seeing a counselor to sort through his struggles. He felt better after examining his expectations and setting better priorities for our first year of adjustment.
We also picked up Japan Harvest and were shocked to discover the existence of other missionaries in Japan. We forged a formal connection with OMF, another shot of morale. That helped disperse our cloud of gloomy isolation.
As a freelance writer and editor, I spend most of my time typing on a laptop in seclusion. “Am I really drawing anyone to Christ?” I wonder. “What is a successful missionary? How would I quantify that? Do we deserve our supporters’ funding?” These questions easily morph into a despondent “Why are we here?”
Our sending and receiving churches allow us great freedom. But the lack of structure feels less like freedom and more like free-falling. At the start we didn’t know what goals to set. Only after consulting several missionaries did we follow their unanimous advice: “Take it easy . . . and study the language!”
These days I’m asking new questions like “What am I thankful for?” It’s important to celebrate the small things. One of SH’s students opened up recently about personal and family issues. The young man said, “I’m glad I have someone to share my problems with. I am very encouraged by you. Thanks for coming to Japan.”
A fellow independent missionary heard of our struggles in Japan and shared about her own despair. She wanted to end her life. So, we wrote and called and prayed. I’m grateful we could empathize and be friends. This doesn’t quite answer the question “Why are we here?” Yet it does, too. Despite our muddling, God has allowed us to be useful.
I trust that at least God knows what he’s doing. Meanwhile, we do our best to love the people who come our way, lean on our support network, and look forward to what God will teach us. So far, he’s taught us this: at every juncture, we need him and the people he sends. We may be independent, but we should never be self-reliant.
Photo by Flickr user Davic Bleasdale