Many years ago, when our two oldest children were preparing to return to boarding school for the start of a new term, I plucked up the courage to enter the “forbidden zone,” our kids’ playroom. I normally hesitated to enter this battleground strewn with toys, books, and half-eaten bits of petrified food. However, this day, our oldest son needed help packing his things for school, which meant sorting out the various “treasures” he had collected. He, of course, wanted to take them all with him, but I was assigned to help him separate the worthless stuff from the really worthless items that littered the room.
Among his prized possessions, I found old circuit boards, burned-out light bulbs, 137 dead batteries, broken speakers, tangled mountains of electrical wire, and countless unidentifiable objects. Much moaning and gnashing of teeth was expressed during this painstaking sifting through his hoard. After a lot of negotiation, we separated it into three piles—a small pile deemed to be essential for the furtherance of scientific knowledge, a very large pile destined for the next trash pickup, and a third pile set aside for possible future experiments (but which mysteriously disappeared shortly afterwards!).
A precious stone
In contrast to her more flamboyant brother, our daughter efficiently went about sorting her things for school. During a lull in the storm, she mentioned she had something precious for me to safeguard until she came back. She then opened her hand to reveal a rock crystal she kept in a fancy ring box. Although the stone was worthless, it obviously had great value to her, and I felt honored to be entrusted with its safekeeping. Time seemed to stand still at that moment for me. Sitting among the rubble of what my son considered “precious,” I couldn’t help but note the contrast in my children’s values. My thoughts moved to what I considered precious, and my heart ached at the thought of saying goodbye to both of them the next day. Such were the choices we faced in those days.
I have often thought about that stone, which lay in my desk for many years and was then dutifully passed on to my daughter’s husband for safekeeping when I performed their wedding. It was a subtle reminder of God’s goodness in taking care of all I entrusted to him when faced with difficult decisions. The countless goodbyes and heartaches that accompany these separations continued to be painful, but God faithfully sustained our family in the midst of many unusual circumstances, which people back home rarely experience.
Scratchy the turtle
Over the years, our children often begged us for dogs, cats, hamsters, rabbits, etc. But our missionary lifestyle and family allergies kept us from granting most of those requests. Then along came Scratchy the turtle. We found him making his way slowly across the highway on a warm spring day during our first furlough. Immediately, cries of “Can we keep him?” rained down upon me and my wife.
“Just for a few weeks!” I consented, secretly congratulating myself for having stumbled upon the perfect pet. No allergies, shedding hair, barking, messes, or vet bills. Best of all, it could be easily disposed of! When we arrived home, Scratchy was given reign over the entire backyard. It was quite a kingdom. He soon had his private pond (I hadn’t counted on that!) and numerous homemade houses to choose from, which usually disintegrated in the rain. On many occasions, I reveled in the wisdom of our decision as we watched the kids enjoy their new pet.
However, as our time back home drew to a close, we reminded the kids that Scratchy would have to return to his native habitat, just as we had to return to ours in Japan. Again, wise dad had anticipated the anguish this event might induce and had devised a plan. We would set our beloved turtle Scratchy free in a particular pond where we could “visit” him again in the future.
My oldest son accompanied me to the designated pond. I had worked this moment out with great care. My idea was to fish, and when we were preoccupied with this fun activity, we would let Scratchy slip off into this ideal setting. All seemed to be going according to plan as my son said goodbye to his beloved pet and let him loose in the water. However, I quickly discovered that I had underestimated the hold that little turtle had on my little boy’s heart. He crumpled in a heap on the shore, sobbing his heart out for a friend he would never see again.
I cried that day too, not for a turtle but for a little boy who had had, and would continue to have, a disproportionate number of goodbyes in his life simply because he was a missionary kid. Family, friends, places, and things had already come and gone many times in his brief life due to his parents’ transient lifestyle. Now, the only pet he’d ever had joined that ever-growing list. I’m sure none of these weightier matters crossed the mind of my broken-hearted seven-year-old that day, but they weighed heavily on me. As we stood side by side at that pond’s edge, I received not only an insight into the past, but also a glimpse of the future.
Since that long-ago event, my wife and I have watched our three “turtles” leave the nest one by one, whenever they went off to school or later in life when they left for good to form their own nests. In each case, it was my wife and I who stood on the shore with heavy hearts, and we felt like the goodbyes would overwhelm us. At times, we found ourselves envying those back home. Like that little boy heading off to school so long ago, I wanted to take many of my treasures with me on this unique journey God has called us to as missionaries. They included grandparents, friends, holiday festivities, our home church’s youth program, takeout pizza, shopping malls, Little League Baseball, and a comfortable home.
It was not possible for us to hold on to such things (except for pizza!), nor would they have necessarily been good for us. Over the years, I’ve learned it can be hard to separate out the junk that creeps into our lives. It is tempting to cling to such things, but they can divert us from the greater purposes God has for our lives, families, and ministries. Separating our trash from our treasures is a constant challenge, particularly when raising a family in overseas circumstances where the choices can be radically different.
I continued to safeguard my daughter’s stone as the years slipped by as a reminder of far more precious things—my ministry, my personal walk with God, and, of course, my family. While that stone usually lay neglected and forgotten in my desk drawer, I take comfort from the fact that God’s concern for my family never waned. Through these and many other experiences, I learned I can trust him with whatever is precious to me. My little turtles and my treasures are in his care. That is all I need.
Tortoise illustration by Freepik
Mike McGinty has served with OMF International in Japan for 33 years as a church planter in Hokkaido and in various field leadership positions. He is married to Rowena and they have three children and seven grandchildren.