“I should have worn sturdier shoes.”
“What was I thinking?”
Well, for one thing, I was thinking that an invitation to go for “a walk” issued by a seventy-five-year-old woman with a snowy crown of fly-away hair would be a rather sedate affair. I was thinking that we would chat, and that Helen would tell me stories about her years as a missionary in China, about her escape from the communist armies – on a bicycle.
Crashing through bushes and skirting a steep embankment, Helen certainly did talk. (Could she hear me huffing and puffing to keep up?)
She talked about becoming engaged to her husband in a foxhole. She told of being evacuated from China (the second time) in the unpressurized cabin of an airplane that flew over the Himalayas, about the weight of unborn death she carried into the crowded streets of some Indian city, about seeking medical assistance as a refugee, and then being reunited, miraculously, with her husband days later.
I’ve always been thankful that I became an adult in time to meet and befriend a few pioneer missionaries. Hearing their tales, witnessing their clear-eyed following of the will of God has brought much-needed perspective to my understanding of ministry and calling.
Of course, by comparison, my own resume looks like a hen house that was built in a hurricane — random shingles of children’s ministry hammered into place, followed by a few years with an office and a 401(k), and now full-time mothering. I’m no athlete, but have somehow managed to produce a brood of bike-riding, ice-skating, tree-climbing boys whose sense of balance takes them safely – and effortlessly – through treacherous bike paths, onto snow and ice, and even over ridge poles (don’t ask). I’ve noticed that the secret to maintaining their balance seems to be movement – the ever-so-subtle adjustments they make to their position.
Could this have been Helen’s secret? She may have been chased out of China by the Japanese army, but that didn’t stop her from returning – in time to be chased out again by the Communists. And if all the doors slam shut, and it becomes impossible to minister to the Chinese in their own country, one mustn’t let all that good language training go to waste. Helen and her husband went on to serve a Chinese-speaking population in Taiwan and then, later, in the Philippines.
It is likely that throughout Helen’s long ministry, someone in an office somewhere was concerned about a 1940’s-era equivalent of the words impact and platform. Helen’s thoughts, however, would have been occupied with constructing a net that would — hopefully — capture some of the pigeons that roosted on a nearby roof. Famine brings out the creativity in anyone, but God was way ahead of her: He sent a torrential rain one night with plummeting temperatures that froze the birds’ feathers. They fell off the roof into the courtyard, and Helen was able to pick them up by the basketful.
A life-long pianist, Helen brought music to several of Amy Carmichael’s poems, but she wasn’t averse to writing her own hymn lyrics either. Is her secret to vocational equilibrium found in the simple words of this song she referred to as “My Testimony”?
Through all the journey of the years,
The Lord has shown His grace.
What shall I render unto Him,
How come before His face?
I’ll take salvation’s cup and drink
‘Til all my thirst is lost
In the deep well of Calvary love –
Secured at awful cost.
Helen Anderson had no idea that she would someday be thought of as a “pioneer missionary,” that her photos and the letters she wrote to her mother on dress patterns (paper was scarce) would be archived at Wheaton College. However, she did know that her heart’s satisfaction was found in the “deep well of Calvary love” – and that she was called to share that love with the world. Keeping her feet, Helen moved to the rhythm of God’s call on her life.
For over two decades, I have leaned hard into mothering, bearing four boys in eight years, hanging cloth diapers on a sunny clothesline, reading mountains of story books. Adjusting my stance, I found that you could gather a kitchen-table-full of women around The Word if there was a swing set outside. The tiny deaths to self and the my-life-for-yours of this mothering vocation have kept me moving, adjusting, seeking equilibrium.
For missionaries and mothers, for everyone who follows a calling, the secret of vocational balance may be as simple – and as complicated – as leaning into the task at hand, drinking deeply from salvation’s cup, and trusting the One who says that He is “able to keep you from stumbling.”
Photo courtesy of the Wheaton Archives (Billy Graham Center)
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