I’ve just got one more post I want to share about our getting the boot. The drama continues there in northeast China, of course. The Chinese pastors occasionally get phone calls from the police. About a week ago, the police wanted them to turn over my bank card number so that they could check to see if I was a cult leader or not. Not sure what my bank card was going to tell them about my orthodoxy! This whole experience has certainly taught us much, and I hope that some of those lessons will serve others, as well.
My missionary mentor had to lend me some perspective in the days after Easter, when we discovered that I was going to be expelled. He could tell that I was sort of reeling from the blow, and he wanted to speak some establishing words. And the establishing words he spoke were also humbling words. What he said was: ‘You’re just a peon. Whoever said you couldn’t get taken out of China?’ I’m not sure how much he meant by that, but I thought about those words a lot in the ensuing days, and the more I thought about them, the greater they encouraged me. Here’s three reasons why…
First, realizing that I am ‘just a peon’ reminds me that this battle for northeast China is certainly not rising or falling on my presence on the battlefield. The battle is the Lord’s to win however he sees most fit. Naturally, I like to fancy myself a high-ranking officer, whose very presence on the field ensures victory! When I learned I was going to be kicked out of China, I immediately began to worry about the churches, the pastors, the interns, and the disciples in our ministry. What would they do without my constant help? Well, it’s time for me to see that I’m just a grunt. My expulsion hardly means the battle is lost! It was a humbling thing to tell the churches that, while I disagree rather strongly, God knows that they do not need me there. God does not sabotage his own kingdom’s advance. If he wants me out, it’s because he has some plans for their maturity that require my removal!
We have to be careful, of course, with these peon claims. One might get the impression that no missionary’s work really matters. On the contrary, it is the peon’s privilege to joyfully affirm that his work is simultaneously effective and non-essential! Our Commander has countless weapons at his disposal, and it is our glory to be his chosen instrument for a time in a place. He really does use our work to advance his kingdom. But when he sets us aside, there is truly no cause for alarm!
Second, realizing that I am ‘just a peon’ reminds me that it is not my primary responsibility to stay in China. In the modern missions era, enormous effort is put into ensuring longevity on a given field. And those efforts have a certain plausibility. After all, we want to preach the gospel in a place, and it makes sense that the longer we can stay in a place, the more gospel-preaching we’ll be able to do, right? Sure. But what happens when the efforts employed to stay in a place significantly restrict gospel-preaching activity? Quite often in modern missions, we’re trying to stay so that we can preach the gospel, but we’re not preaching the gospel so that we can stay!
For grunts and peons, this is overthinking things. A soldier’s primary concern is never to not become a casualty. Of course, a good soldier will do his best to stay alive and stay in the battle! But his orders send him to do all kinds of things that risk his being taken out. It is not a soldier’s prerogative to choose the positions and movements that minimize the likelihood of being wounded. It’s not his responsibility to ensure his own longevity. A soldier who gets carried wounded out of the battle is not a failure. It is not proof that he was reckless or unwise. Now, maybe if he had ducked faster, he wouldn’t have been hit. Maybe if he hadn’t been in the front of the charge towards the enemy lines, he wouldn’t have been such an easy target. But such concerns are not to burden the minds of grunts. Commanders don’t reprimand soldiers who were taken out of battle by enemy fire; they give them Purple Hearts. In other words, a certain disregard for caution is characteristic of what is desirable in soldiers. A soldier who is unwilling to risk being taken out of the fight will ultimately be of little use in the fight!
See, it’s the generals that are supposed to stress about the battle’s big picture. If I’m a general, and I get forced out of China, then I must have failed. I wasn’t clever enough or careful enough. But a footsoldier? My role wasn’t to figure out how to stay safe on the battlefield, but to fight for as long as I could. I do wish I had fought harder and better. But regret for being eliminated? Such regret is for generals. It’s certainly above my pay grade. I think we as missionaries in closed countries often misunderstand God’s expectations of us in this way. As was noted in the last post, the Apostle Paul was either a real blockhead, or he was not terribly concerned about risking expulsion. Let’s put more effort into our gospel proclamation and less into our safety protocols. We might just discover how good our General’s plan was!
And third, realizing that I am ‘just a peon’ reminds me that heartbreaking loss is simply part of the glorious advance of God’s kingdom. We are fighting an uphill battle to take ground away from a deeply entrenched enemy. The fact that something bad happened to myself and the churches in northeast China is not evidence that something went wrong, but that we have found the enemy’s position and begun to engage him. People are going to get hurt. Homes and possessions are going to be lost. Friends and families are going to be separated. Physical suffering and death are not going to be unheard of.
The good news is that this suffering is accomplishing things, because it is connected to the sufferings of Christ. I am reminded of the apostles in Acts 4, where they pray to the Lord for boldness after being threatened by a truly dangerous Jewish council. Their prayer identifies their present predicament as a continuation of the threats and plots that were launched against Christ. The Jewish leaders and mob along with the Roman officials and soldiers had worked together to nail the Son to a tree, and now their wrath has identified those united with the Son as their next targets. But the apostles are reminded of and encouraged by Psalm 2, which declares that the plot against God’s anointed King must ultimately fail. Therefore, though they are united with him in suffering, they are sure that they will ultimately be united with him in victory (Rom. 8:17, 1 Pet. 4:13). This certainty undergirds their requests for boldness in the face of grave threats.
In a desperate battle, there are doubtless spots where the soldiers whose side will ultimately emerge victorious nevertheless see nothing but loss. The peon’s perspective is limited. It is often difficult for us to appreciate that the bloodshed around us is part of an elaborate movement that will result in the banner of our King being raised over this hill. The nations will be his inheritance. The uttermost parts of the world will be his possession. We may be carried off the battlefield today, but we will feast with him tomorrow at his victory banquet!
The peon’s battle is a heartbreaking one, but it is no less a glorious battle. For modern people, we hardly possess a category for a ‘glorious’ fight. We have a prejudice that suspects that all wars are a foolhardy waste of life resulting from the greed and pride of the powerful. We sense that there is a pall of vanity that overhangs the carnage of the battlefield. Young men maimed and destroyed… and for what? But here is a war whose glory outshines the most legendary of battles. There is no loss on this field that is not worthwhile. This war’s glamor does not wash off with blood. Rather, all our suffering confirms to us that we are truly in league with the One who, in the first and decisive battle of this war, brought death itself to its knees.