As most of you know, our family was evacuated from South Sudan a few weeks ago because of security concerns. We’d spent 9 months slowly acclimatizing to life there: learning how to live in a very different environment, practice in a very different hospital setting, and minister in a very different culture. Our language skills had progressed to the point where I could converse with most patients in the hospital about their routine complaints and we were excited to start planning for some new ventures to meet patient needs.
And then we had to leave.
If you’ve heard us talk or followed my writing for any length of time, you know that I’m a pretty vision-driven person. Maggie is more of a “details” person (thank God), but we wouldn’t have gotten married or done half the things we’ve done if she wasn’t also animated by a strong sense of purpose and calling. We were led first to Sandtown and then to South Sudan by this sense of calling, making a lot of sacrifices and taking a lot of risks along the way.
I don’t want to overemphasize what we’ve suffered because it pales in comparison to many others that we know and love, but it is hard to leave behind friends, family, and a very comfortable income to move to a place where cobras crawl up on your front porch and armed men randomly attack innocent people. It takes a certain degree of vision and passion to overcome the inertia that would otherwise keep us in a more comfortable place and to sever or strain our connections with people and places that we had come to love. Without a sense that what we are doing truly matters in an eternal and transcendent way, it is nearly impossible to conceive of making the sacrifices we made, much less put in the years of preparation we did to accomplish them.
We learned quickly once we got there that vision and passion have limits. We were about as well-prepared as we could be (in no small part thanks to the people who had come before us and faced certain challenges we never had to face), but it was still very difficult and we had a lot of our own unique challenges to deal with. In particular, I was finding that the vision and passion for medical education and discipleship were necessary to get us to South Sudan but wouldn’t provide the same animating force for my day-to-day life once I was in the field.
The routine disappointments of cross-cultural miscommunication, the personal flaws that were only magnified in our setting, and the more jarring traumas of death that are simply realities of life in a mission hospital were never going to fit in a presentation like the ones we gave dozens of times as we raised funds to go. I’d spent over ten years preparing for this life, but actually living it was still a steep learning curve. A vision like “training and discipling health care workers in a place where thousands die of preventable causes” was a great thing to aspire to, but a very difficult standard to judge myself by every day.
The spiritual friction this struggle created had to be eased somehow, so I found myself withdrawing into books, games, and social media. I don’t think any of those things are necessarily bad in moderation (especially in our case, where social media helped us stay connected with people we loved back home), but I was not good at moderating. I never neglected my work or my family, but I was missing out on a lot of opportunities to love and be loved—which, of course, only made me feel worse and emphasized the discrepancy I felt between how I spent my time and the vision that I’d cast for myself over all those years.
I discovered that I was the same terrible person in need of Jesus that I was back home, and it was good for me to wrestle through some of the struggles that I had put off up until this point. (I suppose I had expected that my problems would somehow improve on their own after moving overseas- ha!) After some counseling and good conversations, I began to work out some practices and disciplines that would make me content with how I used my time and not drive my wife crazy.
It became difficult to maintain any regular practices or disciplines when things started to fall apart around us, especially when we decided in July to send Maggie and the kids to Uganda for a few weeks. Simultaneously, the push of our vision and passion ebbed simply because the needs of the community and the capacity of the hospital changed as the situation became more dire. We were no longer attempting to build a better health system by training African health care professionals; we were trying to keep a hospital open in a place where the basic institutions of civil society were falling apart. We often discuss the difference between “relief” and “development” work—we were moving from the latter to the former very quickly.
In this rapidly changing work environment, my grand aspirations had to take a backseat to simple faithfulness. Someone that I was trying to minister to could be forced to flee tomorrow; the hospital could close overnight. I had to ask myself, “how should I be faithful to what God has called me to today?” That was a lot easier than judging myself for not living up to everything that a decade’s worth of vision and passion were driving me towards.
Now I am forced to ask that same question, but with a very different answer. On August 30, 2016, being faithful to what God had called me to meant taking my small children out of a place where the risk to their life could no longer be ascertained with any certainty. The potential good we could do (the population we served at the hospital fled in huge numbers) was diminishing while the potential harm that could come to us at any time was rising. On every day since then, faithfulness has been a matter of waiting and praying while going through the necessary steps to remain here in America for the next several months while we wait for our baby to be born.
We don’t know what’s next. We hope and pray that we can return to South Sudan in Spring 2017 and if we can’t, we’ll find another place where a doctor and a nurse can serve by training and discipling health workers. Until then we’ll have to figure out how to be faithful servants where we are.
Vision and passion are great things, but without faithfulness they are ethereal (at best) or harmful (at worst). I look forward to living in a place and doing work that lets me pursue our family’s vision and live out my various passions, but right now that simply isn’t where God has led us. While the hurting places of the world require more people with vision and passion to go to them, what every place needs is people who are willing to be faithful where they are.