Have you ever stopped in the middle of a crisis or decision and realized that the choices you were making would affect the rest of your life? My college parking lot, deciding whether to pursue teaching or apply to med school. An upstairs cram school in Kyoto, determining whether I wanted to return to the U.S. or stay overseas. Jogging around a west Texas football field, debating whether this was the man God had for me to marry. Big decisions. Decisions you can’t undo or turn back the clock on. You can say “yes” or “no”, but you can’t remove them from your life, and either way they leave a mark.
We are facing that kind of decision. We are at a fork in the road of our united lives. The road well-traveled leads us to a prosperous income, comfortable house, security, family and fairly predictable journey. The “road less traveled”, well it promises financial struggle, narrowing practice opportunities, spiritual warfare, relearning how to speak, unknown diseases and dangers, and a lot less prestige.
Why do we want to do this? For me, this desire has been building for a long time. When I came to Dallas Baptist I had just done the Bible study “Experiencing God”. I was convinced that the key to a fruitful Christian life is knowing where God is working and joining Him in His work. I stepped onto campus and saw international students everywhere. They seemed lonely. They smiled and looked happy when I talked to them. And when I walked away I had the sense that I was doing the right thing. That simple impression led me into international ministry for four years. Dozens of students came to my house. Many came to a ladies Bible study in my room, and many came to Christ too. I took trips to Taiwan and Japan. When I was there I felt like I came alive in a way that I couldn’t within American culture. I lost my shyness and inhibitions. I reached out and embraced life’s adventure. All of this made me want to work overseas someday. I wanted to minister cross culturally; to take on another language and culture as my own while sharing the light and hope of the gospel. I remember sitting on a hilly meadow at DBU, and felt God lay two choices before me: “You can have a safe life, and you will be in control, but it will be small. Or, you can surrender your life to me, and let me stretch and enlarge you, and your life will be open and impact many”.
At that moment I chose the larger life, though not knowing what it meant at the time. Yet much of what was planted in me in college has laid dormant or even been dissipated by a hundred worries, distractions and entanglements. I could never have imagined the physical and personal investment med school and residency would be. Marriage is God’s gift and calling for me, but it exponentially complicates one’s decisions and ability to be clearly “called”. Bob and I have had to grapple with double med school debt, and the ensuing fatigue that weighs the travelers on this road. And then came the children. I hope to write about them in depth later, the heart melting, miraculous gifts they have been. But they do turn the telescope around. Instead of dreaming, scanning the horizon for opportunities to serve nobly and embrace adventure, I struggle to accomplish simple coherent tasks in the face of constant distraction and imminent minor disasters. Myopia sets in as I fret about the tiniest things. Fatigue drags us down to survival mode, resigning us to the most basic level of existence, where we crave only food and rest. Our sense of higher purpose can be lost. Yet I feel like, in my mid 30’s, that God is energizing me again for something. Some of my life’s purpose has lain dormant, and now the circumstances are coming together for it to be fulfilled. I want to serve God in a difficult place, a place where not enough people are working. A place with spiritual darkness and people longing for the light. I want to meet medical needs, but in a way that addresses the spirit. I want my life to be oriented around the soul needs of others. I am intrigued and haunted my the people yet unreached, almost dumbfounded to consider that there are billions who have never known the hope of peace with God and the promise of eternal life. How can so many have no clue about the Truth I take for granted every day?
For many years I have wanted to work for the kingdom in another culture. I took medical trips to Malawi, India, Haiti and Mexico. I found myself tearing up and getting goose bumps when I heard what God was doing all over the world, but especially in China. I’ve studied different languages, and lately have been learning Chinese from library cds and my Chinese neighbor. I took the Perspectives course and realized how much I had to learn about strategy and effectiveness abroad.I feel like this dream of serving overseas has already shaped my life a lot. I chose my residency because of its broad training, working countless hours to gain skills and see difficult cases I might encounter overseas. Even as we’ve built our home, we’ve purchased used furniture and avoided high priced items that might be difficult to give up later. We didn’t register for china. We structured our financial planning with a roadmap to get out of debt as quickly as possible. When I see friends move into bigger houses I remind myself that our three bedroom is probably a lot nicer than what we’ll have overseas. I’m trying to create expectations in myself for a lifestyle that would work in a less prosperous country. This dream challenges me to complain less; I catch myself and think, “if I can’t handle this, how will I face the challenge of cross cultural judgements and misunderstandings”. A friend once shared a poetic verse with me from Jeremiah: “If you have run with footmen and they have worn you out, how will you compete with horses?”. It is human nature to jump just high enough to clear the lowest bar. By living with a readiness and willingness to drop everything and go, I believe that I have learned to live under a higher standard for my life than I otherwise would have.
Not that being an overseas worker requires just an extra measure of asceticism and self-discipline. No work is successful without the calling of God and His spirit in the middle of it. I’ve received an abundance of good teaching on vocation; that God’s calling to any work is holy, and that the geography where the work occurs is unimportant as long as one is faithful and obedient to Christ there. Certainly there is more kingdom work to be done in the U.S. than will get done. Why this fixation on going overseas? Why does that matter?
The only way I can process this is to acknowledge that God’s calling on each person is very individual. I don’t know His purpose for someone else, so I should not judge them if they are not passionate about the same cause I am. Those who belong to Christ engage in the work He is doing where they are. Those who have not given him their hearts do not engage, even if they are living overseas. This was a breakthrough for me that occurred just a few years ago.
And yet this journey has not been simple. As we explore the possibility of going to China, a new algorithm opens before us. We are interested in this place because of its openness towards family medicine, as well as its spiritual needs and receptivity. But beyond that, there is the draw of a hundred smaller things. The memory of my first overseas trips to Asia, my dozens of Asian college friends, our own child adopted from Taiwan, and a natural love for and comfort within the Chinese cultural system with its emotional restraint, love of diligence and scholarship and appreciation of nature. But the way is not open yet. Bob is a psychiatrist; will China let him see their patients? If he can’t will he be able to practice his vocation in the way God called him to? What if we make this trip, and decide that the door just isn’t open for both of us to serve there? Do we: a. explore other opportunities in Asia b. explore countries more friendly to western doctors, such as African countries or c. give up and decide that it wasn’t God’s will and just stay in the U.S. I’ve realized as we get ready to really do this that I’m not as open and ready to go anywhere/do anything as I was in my twenties. I want to help people in physical need, but I don’t want to work 80 hours a week in a mission hospital seeing 100 patients a day. Even though I could probably help a lot of people and there is real need, I don’t want to do that, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m too lazy. I’ve learned that I need balanced life of work and rest, physical and spiritual ministry. My heart and compassion stay engaged, and I just work better that way. So besides doing medical care I want to talk to people about God. And share my story and help others on their spiritual journey. But even after saying that, I’m not totally open to geography either. Some of North Africa and the Middle East is too dangerous for us with two young kids. What about the rest of Africa? SE Asia? Malaria, tropical diseases, and limited medical care if our family gets sick. As unspiritual as this sounds, these are real concerns for us when the rubber meets the road. How is daily malaria prophylaxis going to affect the boys’ growing livers? The Jade’s asthma attack with the ER trip was scary enough, and he runs fevers to 105 with a virus. How are we going to deal with fever of unknown cause without good access to medical care (being a doctor doesn’t help much in these situations)? Then, there’s the culture. Every culture has it’s lovely and it’s grating features. Which ones can we see ourselves working with, and which ones are unbearable? At this point in my life, I don’t think I can function well in a Muslim culture long term being viewed as my husband’s property and unable to leave my home without a male escort. Neither of us feel drawn to the Middle East, though I’m glad many people do. All of this puts us in the “count the cost” portion of our spiritual journey. What do we want? What do we need? We are real people with real fears and struggles, and we need to be in touch with those, however “unsurrendered” that feels. And what is God saying in the midst of all this? Are we truly open to His plan in the midst of all our hesitations and preferences? And are we willing to give it all up and start over?
This is not an easy place to be. But it is an exciting one. This is the place where decade old dreams, the needs on the field, the gifts we can bring and the calling of God collide into one unpredictable trajectory. As I reflect on all the roadblocks, hesitations and struggles we’ve faced along this journey I still have a sense that we’re on the right one. I still want to make the sacrifice if it’s God’s plan for us. I want to take the risk because I think at the end of our lives we will say it was worth it. I close this rambling post with a poem by Robert Frost. I like it for its simplicity and understated tone. Many times I wish I could make both choices. Or at least know where they would lead. But our lives pass quickly, and we don’t always realize we have transitioned from one chapter to the next, leaving certain opportunities behind forever. We may pass that fork in the road and not even realize it. It is important to see the crossroads in our lives, and try to make the choice we won’t regret.
Robert Frost (1874–1963).
The Road Not Taken
TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.