The Missionary Experience: A Path of Faith in the Midst of Paradox

Starting in the book of Acts, the history of missions is characterized by controversy. It may have begun when Paul and company set out with freshly-minted instructions from the Jerusalem Council, defining the parameters of the message they were sharing. It was certainly evident when the citizens of Lystra decided to fold Paul and Barnabas into their eclectic assortment of deities–and then to take up stones against them. And remember the story of New Testament heroes of the faith clashing over personnel issues and going their separate ways for a season? Throughout history, according to His own counsel and sovereign wisdom, God has chosen to put the transmission of the Gospel into the hands of His fallen and often short-sighted children, and the effects of that have made for some fascinating reading.

A Train-Wreck of Two Cultures Colliding

Over fifty years ago, Eleanor Vandevort came home from South Sudan in the wake of political unrest. Her thirteen years of language acquisition, Bible translation, literacy work, and relationship building were cut short with no certainty as to their effect or ultimate impact. When she set down the account of her struggle and her achievements in A Leopard Tamed, she was a woman ahead of her time, asking questions few in the golden age of U.S. missions were asking and even fewer wanted to entertain.

Vandevort’s narrative centers around her work among the Nuer, a remote and primitive culture eking out a living on dry, flat, hard-packed land bordering on the Sobat River in South Sudan. She was fortunate, early on, to connect with Kuac (pronounced /kwich/, rhyming with quite), a young man who had been educated at the mission-sponsored village school and was, therefore, a valuable informant for learning the language and reducing it to print.

What followed from Kuac’s conversion, subsequent education, and eventual call to pastor the church in Nasir is a glorious triumph of light over darkness–and it is also the story of a train wreck of two cultures colliding in one frail human soul. With vivid descriptions of the Nuer way of life, this 50th anniversary edition transported me to a land of unique beauty alongside unimaginable hardship and hopelessness.

As Eleanor learned to respect and collaborate with national believers who did not share her affinity for logic, efficiency, or planning, she also gained a sharper image of God in the context of heathenism, for He has made it clear that He loves the entire world, even the parts a North American Christian cannot comprehend:

“Try, if you can, to fathom Him, to draw His picture with clear, solid lines, to pin Him down. Just when you think you have God in focus, He moves, and the picture blurs.” (11)

A Bridge that Spanned Two Cultures

In 1949, at the tender age of 24, Eleanor Vandevort embarked upon her career as a Bible translator, joining the ranks of Wheaton College classmate Elisabeth Elliot and her peers who put their hands to the plow with no thought of turning back. It was an era in which the boundary between Christian culture and Western culture was decidedly blurred, so Vandevort was nonplussed to find that she had arrived in Africa bearing a message that would meet a need the Nuer did not even know existed.

With Kuac’s help, Eleanor slowly acquired a working command of the language with its fourteen vowels, three levels of tone, and absolutely no Christian jargon. Learning her way into those speech patterns helped in building the bridge that spanned the two cultures. However, observations throughout the book reveal a growing awareness that along with the Gospel, she and her fellow missionaries were sharing a full menu of lesser messages, some merely lamentable and others disastrous:

  • “I was incredulous that after fifty years of missionary work among these people, there was no striking hunger on the villager’s part to hear the Gospel. I wondered where the people were who reportedly were crying out for the Word of God.” (34)
  • “As far as I could ever tell, Christian behavior patterns were outlined by the missionaries and were not born out of the Africans’ own experience with God.” (22)
  • “It was painful and disappointing to be making friends with people for whom my ideas were nonsense. The more I came to know them, the more I realized the barrier of taboos between us. But my disappointment went deeper. It stemmed from the fact that God was not shining in the darkness as I had prayed and hoped for and expected.” (39)
  • “Is my scientific orientation to life, which has removed me from the constant threat of death, the factor which stabilizes my faith? Or, in that I need not fear God physically as the heathen do, has this freedom set me adrift from God, missing Him altogether?” (46)
  • “How does a person decide that he’s not going to be afraid of death?” (83)
  • “The many problems of translation exploded my theories of Bible translating, and precluded the possibility of producing an exact and therefore inerrant–as Evangelicals used the term–translation of the Scriptures. (95)
  • “We did not foresee that our things would become more important to the people than our Gospel, that they would want them. No one was to be blamed for this, but as it was turning out, were we not becoming more of a stumbling block than a help to the people?” (187)

Leaving the Results in God’s Hands

As a young missionary, Eleanor Vandevort began to realize that the methods she had inherited from her forebears were an imposition upon the culture. From the tone of voice used when speaking aloud in prayer to the denominational distinctives around church government, Christianity and its trappings became an ill-fitting garment in a world that required Christians to address issues such as polygamy, marriage to the dead, animal sacrifice, and grisly coming-of-age ceremonies.

The prevailing idea among Presbyterian missionaries was that “what was good for Calvin was certainly good for the south Sudan.” Within a context of very isolated and individualized people groups, the concept of “a congregation” was strange enough, but then they must “call” a pastor and provide for him. “It would hardly have occurred to the people to pay a man just for talking about God. . . In that as Christians they were now to believe that God works by the faith of His people, it would seem likely that they would wonder at having to pay a pastor at all.” (82) Then, they must submit to the leadership of the Presbytery with decisions handed down from the UPC of the USA.

Nearing the end of her time in South Sudan, it was evident to Eleanor that Kuac was floundering in his role as “Pastor Moses.” (Upon ordination, national pastors took on a biblical name which, in Kuac’s situation, was never adopted by his people because it was unpronounceable and meaningless to them.) With the introduction of a money-based economy and the acquired need for clothing, furniture, blankets, soap, and utensils, Kuac was under pressure to become something for which there was no precedent in his experience or in his history. When the mission withdrew their support and yet continued to expect Pastor Moses to pay the expense of travel to official church meetings, it became clear that the white man was dictating “what was to be done from behind the Bible without having to submit to the discipline involved himself.”

Therefore, when Eleanor received word from the Commandant of Police in December of 1962 that she was no longer welcome in South Sudan, she wondered, with a sinking heart, what would become of her translation work and of the ministry. The Arab military government had already imprisoned Kuac numerous times in an effort to stamp out Christianity through fear. Like Elisabeth Elliot in These Strange Ashes: Is God Still in Charge?she was called upon to leave in God’s hands the results (or lack of same!) of any work to which He had called her.

To Know, to Believe, and to Understand

From her home and new career in the United States, Eleanor heard of war coming to the Sudan, and then coming again.  Her story challenges many of our western assumptions about missions, while underscoring the sovereignty of God. He is free to work in a nation –or in a young, white, and slightly perplexed former missionary–in any way He deems fitting. As believers who are committed to the fulfillment of the Great Commission, let us also read and love God’s words to Isaiah, setting forth the purpose of our witness on this planet:

“You are My witnesses,” says the Lord,
“And My servant whom I have chosen,
That you may know and believe Me,
And understand that I am He.”  (Isaiah 43:10)

In our witnessing and serving, the path of God may cut through mystery and paradox. Sometimes the greatest test of faith is to know, believe, and understand the power and presence of God, even when the evidence we receive is not what we had expected.

Many thanks to Hendrickson  Publishers for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.


I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase A Leopard Tamed or These Strange Ashes: Is God Still in Charge?, simply click on the title (or the image) here or within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

I appreciate your joining me today in thinking through the conflicts and the joys of the missionary experience,

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Grandparenting: A High and Holy Calling

Mothering is the calling and the gift that came to me even though I did not have either the wisdom or the optimism to pray for it. Twenty-four years into the journey, I’m still learning, and my kids are good teachers. Because my husband and I were “late bloomers” in a part of the world where people tend to marry and start their families early, quite a few of our friends had already become grandparents while we were still up to our fetlocks in parenting. Even after our oldest son married, the idea of becoming a grandparent was nowhere on my radar — and then my first grandchild was born.

Made in the express image and likeness of his dad, my grandson was instantly “knowable” and soon became a kindred spirit. Together we’ve spread paint on paper and on popsicle sticks; we’ve made cookies and craft projects and played in the snow. Our long walks through the woods with the dog or down the road with the stroller have made him a toddler-ace at identifying flowers and making conversation with the neighbor’s donkey.

Resources for Grandparents-in-Training

Like his dad and his uncles, my grandson is also a good teacher. However, even after the birth of his baby sister, I’m well aware that I’m still a grandmother-in-training.

Phyllis and Andrew LePeau have provided a Life Guide Bible Study that encourages me to open the Word of God and to step into its wise instruction for grandparenting well. In Grandparenting: Loving Our Children’s Children (Lifeguide Bible Studies), the LePeaus have a light touch, likely cultivated by their own 13 grands.  And since, in their opinion, “grandchildren are the reward for not killing your kids,” I want to learn from both the positive and the negative Biblical examples so I can be a blessing to future generations.

According to the study, the greatest blessing we can give to our grandchildren is a solid relationship with their parents. We bless them well by layering our affection, our time, our prayers, and our teaching about God on top of what their parents are trying to do. Analyzing the content of Old Testament blessings reminds me of the importance of my words (spoken and written), of expressing high value for their little lives, of picturing a special future for them, and of making an active commitment to their good.

When viewed through the lens of loving our children by loving their children, the story of Ruth becomes a lesson in accepting my daughters-in-law as if they were my own children. Isaac and Rebekah’s regretful favoritism becomes a cautionary tale about multi-generational dysfunction. Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness is the lubricant that prevents a family’s relational gears from grinding and wearing. The little known story of Barzillai, aide to King David, offers wisdom about stepping aside and giving adult children the gifts of freedom and encouragement.

The profound sacredness of loving our children and their children leads to a role that is fun, challenging, and necessary. Michele Howe asserts that There’s a Reason They Call It Grandparenting , and then goes on to distinguish between run of the mill grandparents and GRAND parents:

“A grandparent seeks to pack a positive punch of biblical influence into their grandchildren’s lives. They prayerfully seek out the most effective ways to lend a hand to their adult children in both practical and fun ways. They don’t simply seek to spoil their grandchildren with good times or material extras . . . The wise grandparent will do everything they can to demonstrate and illustrate the love of Jesus Christ to their grandchildren. . . . Grandparents understand how fleeting life is and proactively look for divine opportunities to point their grandchildren to Jesus.”

Grand Ideas for Maximum Impact

Howe expands on her definition with practical counsel around hospitality, relationship building, and unconditional love. “Grand Ideas” at the end of each chapter provide support and inspiration for offering spiritual instruction. Cheering on our grandchildren is a priority whether they live close by or even if distance adds to the challenge.

  • Set aside time and money and energy to invest in that all-important relationship. Make the most of every opportunity to connect.
  • Become a student of your grandchild’s uniqueness so you’ll know their love language and how to communicate with them.
  • Listen with patience to their struggles and successes. Let them know you have their full attention and support.
  • Get creative in engineering opportunities to be with your grandchildren; e.g. picking them up from school, shuttling them to their activities.
  • Never stop praying for any of your grandkids — and their parents.
  • In challenging seasons of family life, be a safe haven. On a fallen planet, illness, divorce, and struggles with addiction can be devastating, but a caring grandparent can provide stability.

The opportunity to have an impact on another generation is a humbling privilege. Working to be a transforming influence in the lives of our children’s children is an investment in our family’s future and a journey that is sure to keep a grandparent’s faith vibrant and growing.


I have begun to experiment with including an Amazon affiliate link here in my book reviews. If you should decide to purchase  Grandparenting: Loving Our Children’s Children (Lifeguide Bible Studies) or There’s a Reason They Call It Grandparenting click on the title here, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

These books were provided by the publishers in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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When God Says “Yes”

From her earliest days, Meadow Rue Merrill dreamed of adopting a child, and she longed to travel to Africa, even wrestling a promise from her husband that if she promised to marry him, he would not stand in the way of her going. Redeeming Ruth is Meadow’s record of God’s “yes” to her dreams — and it stands as powerful evidence that the unfolding of our dreams may not look exactly as we imagined.

International adoption is complicated even without a large family and economic limitations. The Merrill family had both, but when they met tiny Ruth, she captured their hearts.  Ruth  had traveled from Uganda through Welcome Home Ministries, Africa, to stay with a family in Maine (friends of the Merrils) where she could receive physical therapy. When Meadow and her husband Dana held Ruth’s limp body for the first time, they were astonished at her level of disability from cerebral palsy — and at the way their hearts responded to her.

Desire warred against ambivalence as Meadow and Dana weighed the wisdom of bringing a profoundly disabled African child into their already-full-and-busy home located in the whitest state in America. Yielding to what Meadow described as Dana’s “annoying habit of believing that God will take care of us,” (22) they took one tentative step after another, weathered countless setbacks, and put thousands of miles on their vehicle until one momentous day, Meadow and Ruth boarded a plane for Uganda to finalize Ruth’s adoption.

Time to Walk

In the spirit of “leaving the 99 to save one,” Meadow spent nearly a month in Uganda chasing paperwork, caring for Ruth in primitive surroundings, living among the other orphans and workers at Welcome Home. There, she gained insight to the hopelessness of Ruth’s future, forever trapped in a body with the skill set of a two-month-old infant, if she did not gain entrance to the United States and the privilege of hope that comes with education, health care, and rehabilitation.

Together, the Merrill family prayed for healing and trusted for progress, but what would healing look like? Her big brothers and sister prayed specifically that Ruth would walk and talk. Would a cochlear implant restore Ruth’s hearing? Meadow pondered theological implications of her daughter’s fragility:

“[P]erhaps God’s purpose was higher than ours. Perhaps instead of healing Ruth, he intended to heal us of our selfishness and pride. Wouldn’t that be a miracle?”

A Faith Journey into God’s Yes

Redeeming Ruth reminded me of why memoir is my favorite genre. Not everyone who reads Meadow’s descriptive prose will be able to appreciate her references to Brunswick area landmarks or have memories of sunny days at Popham Beach and walks around the trails of Mackworth Island that heightened my appreciation for the setting. However, it will be a rare reader who does not identify with the struggle to hold onto a dream that keeps slipping away or to continue in faith when sight is alarmingly out of sync with expected outcomes.

The Merrill family’s unique story is a valuable resource for anyone who is learning to trust God’s motives and struggling to live well in the tension of pursuing a dream while holding it loosely, for within the flow of story, priceless principles emerge:

Close the door on worries.

“I can believe what my  mind is telling me, which is ‘Panic!’ Or I can believe what the Bible tells me, which is that children are a blessing. Whenever I feel overwhelmed, I close my eyes and picture myself physically putting my trust in God the way I’d put something in a cupboard. I give my worries to him. Then I close the door.”   (149)

Love like a fool.

“Even if you love and lose, keep sharing God’s love anyway. Love in the face of suffering and grief and heartache and loss. Love beyond racial and religious and physical borders and barriers. . . You won’t have to look far to find someone who is hurting, someone without a voice, someone waiting to know they are loved.” (203)

There is nothing of value that may be lost here that will not be redeemed in heaven.

“Everything life takes, love restores. Everything. Broken bodies. Broken hearts. Broken dreams. No matter how painful. No matter how devastating. God can transform even our greatest sorrow into something good.” (201)

The unfolding of Ruth’s story rebukes the notion that God is made visible only in happy endings. Loving and caring for Ruth became Meadow’s offering to God, “one small piece of this broken, pain-pierced world that [she] could redeem.” It will surprise no one who has read the New Testament that redemption is a costly process. In the midst of grinding fatigue and great joy, discouragement and soaring faith, mourning and soul-deep comfort, the Merrill family continues to live their way into God’s high purpose for bringing Ruth into their family.

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This book was provided by Hendrickson Publishers in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Additional Resources

Downeast Magazine is a favorite here in Maine, and Meadow shares an excerpt from Redeeming Ruth in their March 2017 issue. You can read it here.

A fellow member of the Redbud Writers Guild, Meadow wrote an article featuring her adoption journey for September 2017 issue of The Redbud Post: A Promise, a Prayer, and an Irresistible Smile.

For more of Meadow’s fine writing, including her blog, be sure to check out her website.

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Featured image from Meadow Rue Merrill’s website.

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.