November 11, 1997… November 11, 2007
Renee and I marked ten years today. We flew off to Africa for the first time exactly a decade ago – young, broke, bright eyed, and ready to change the world. It seems like a lifetime already, and like yesterday.
While we don’t count ourselves “old” just yet, we have surely grown. Looking back over the past ten years, the first thing that comes to mind is how thankful we are to have something to look back on. There was a time when we thought this adventure would be short-lived.
I remember a year or so into our first term, when Renee cried a little too regularly and I retreated to the work. Stressed and somewhat downtrodden, we hid away the credit cards lest we buy a ticket home on impulse and go, Jonah like, in the exact opposite direction of God’s gentle, leading hand. We looked for reasons to stay, and looked for a vision of ourselves five or ten years into it – one where we could see the point of what seemed like such a great sacrifice. But despite the clearly awesome ministry before us, we couldn’t see it. Wiser missionaries told us to stick it out. And they were right.
For a new missionary, youth and a US passport are an insurance policy. In them are the knowledge that you can always go back and make a new start if things don’t work out quite right. We held on to these, for a long time unknowingly, as an “exit strategy” of sorts in our endeavor. And as the years moved on, we sometimes struggled to see our youth slip away. Ten years later, it seems much less important. Thirty-six years old now, still relatively broke, the passports represent less of an exit and more of an entry into other possible ministries in other lands somewhere down the road. And our security is not wrapped up in job-potential anymore, but in a faithful God with a history of meeting our needs. This has been a priceless lesson, and really just a footnote to the broader lessons and insights of a decade of ministry.
I have flown actively, and safely, as a mission pilot for four terms. I’ve logged three to four thousand hours over Africa – the individual hours representing distances that would otherwise be measured in days or weeks of travel without an airplane. I don’t know exactly how to measure the impact of all that flying on Christ’s Kingdom, but I am not unaware that it is probably very large. These skills have sustained ministries, rescued people in distress, brought hope to hopeless places, and encouragement to other missionaries contemplating their own exit strategies.
The mission airplane simply plays a supporting role in the wondrous drama of God at work at the ends of the earth. It is a backdrop to churches planted, lives transformed, and such ordinary things as hospitals built, wells dug, and people cared for. In Africa, wherever redemption and remoteness meet, there you will find airplanes and pilots. Being counted among them, in my muddied boots and tattered flight shirt, to save the day or simply be humbled again, has been an awesome privilege.
For Renee, the privilege is yet one more step removed as she graciously assumes a supporting role to my supporting role. Time has not changed the difficult reality of this second-hand blessing – the life of a pilot’s wife. But time has revealed the importance of her contribution. Renee is my anchor. As I go out from day to day to wrestle thunderstorms and evil men, as I grit my teeth and face the chaos with a courage easily mistaken as my own, the truth is that I only have the nerve for this work because I have Renee behind me.
I have learned to appreciate her like I never could, I don’t think, carving out a life of comfort in America. With an unfettered view of Africa’s awful dark corners, I have had my naivety shocked by the reality of humanity’s inhumanity, stirring me closer to my precious wife and kids. Renee has slept through many nights without me. And she’s slept through as many with me awake at her side, meditating on life’s fragility, knowing that every day has been a gift. These years have been stressful for our marriage. And they have been like glue.
This valuable perspective has not only brought about an unexpected closeness in our family, but it has also challenged my presumptions about God. Part of me came here, I think, to see what God looked like in Africa – if the idea of God made any sense here. What I have found is a God less predictable, but more real, than I ever knew. His hidden ways are like a metaphysical mountain sometimes, especially when confronting the misery that defines Africa. But His ways seem more and more right as I grow older. More simply, God has grown very big to me whilst serving here. And I appreciate more and more the feeling of being small.
The enormity of Africa’s problems contribute to that feeling of smallness. They are saddening, and there’s not much we can do about them on a human scale. The depth of human sin, impervious to the world’s programs and projects, yields only to the life-changing power of God. Changed hearts are the only hope for Africa, but this is true anywhere in the world. As a missionary sent to this particular place, our task is not to save the world. Our task is simple obedience to the Master who, in His way and in His time, will do the saving. Understanding our “calling” to this work as obedience to God has helped us to see the reasons for sticking it out. We are not striving toward some puny human goal, but instead resting in a God who works in us and around us, and remarkably, through us.
These past ten years are full of fleeting glimpses of God’s redemptive work… I hear a little girl squeal with joy at the sight of her mother. The two, reunited on the parking ramp of a war-torn old airstrip in eastern Congo, were separated in the onslaught of ethnic fighting and the girl lost to the forest. She was found months later and placed on my airplane. She runs into her mothers arms just beneath the wing of it, and I will never forget the sight. I see a Sudanese pastor hoisted upon the shoulders of a village, the whole assembly bursting into song as they celebrate his return, surrounding the plane, shaking the earth. I see a ragged portion of the Bible painstakingly translated, delivered by air, clutched to the chest – to the heart – of an old woman in a hut of sticks and thatch. I hear a sigh of relief from a weary missionary on a patch of mud flanked by thunderstorms as I unload two thousand pounds of medicines to her isolated clinic, “Thank God you got in, we ran out of supplies yesterday.” I am hugged by a young Sudanese man, his mouthful of crooked teeth calling me “brother” on a neglected strip in the middle of what I consider to be nowhere. There is no such thing of course. God is everywhere. It’s only that you need an airplane to see that it is true for Africa.
Through the eyes of a pilot and a plane, these years have offered a window into what God is doing here. And they have revealed His purposes in us amid the process – through the uncertain moments, the heart-stopping, the heart-wrenching, and the glorious. How do you measure the value of such a gift? And how do you say “thank you” to those who have prayed, and paid, your way?
It has been interesting to look back at ten years of ministry and come out with a singular, tremendous feeling of being blessed. One would gather that ten years would add up to some sum of what has been given or sacrificed. Yet this journey has been our gain. And now we see the future a little differently than we did when we were twenty-five.