After leaving for the mission field in 2003 and now being well into our first year back in the United States, the word paradox has become a theme in my life. Paradox explains our leaving the United States, our living overseas and even our links back to Africa. Currently it is helping me to see and understand the United States as a radically different place than when we left, as well as helping me to understand some of the feelings my wife and I are experiencing as we continue settle back.
Merriam-Webster gives this simple definition of paradox:
Something (such as a situation) that is made up of two opposite things and that seems impossible but is actually true or possible.
Missionary Paul not only knew and lived the concept of paradox, he used it extensively in his writings. One example is when he wrote, “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). Being far more than a literary tool, it shows two opposites coming together in Paul’s missionary life to not only express a truth, but to explain Christ’s work in him as he takes pleasures in what should not be pleasurable, r.e., illnesses, insults and needs.
For the modern missionary, and those who love them, I propose an understanding of paradox provides ability to explain, express and accept the bittersweet experiences all missionaries go through. Here are three areas of the missionary stream where understanding of paradox may be most helpful.
The Pre-Field Paradox
In explaining to loved ones that the Lord has called them to far off lands a pre-field missionary can feel deep love, but also deep grief for relationships who will stay behind. In their time of loss and grief, missionaries will also likely have great anticipation for departure and the new relationships it will bring. It is a time of releasing of the known and loved, to grasp what is not known in the love of something greater. Confusion and seemingly conflicting feelings are normal in such a situation.
These conflicting feelings may not be unique to the missionary experience, but understanding the paradox helps pre-field missionaries know their sway of emotions and confusing thoughts are normal.
The On-Field Paradox
The pain and pleasure of language and culture acquisition is exhausting. The humbling experience of becoming like a child in the ability to speak conflicts with the great joy and power of sharing the love of Christ in a new language. The love-hate relationship of doing things differently, but not with the same efficiency, often brings conflict.
Prayer and financial partners may not understand when in one sentence you express great joy in the work and show adaptation to your host culture, and yet immediately afterward you communicate deep disappointment and confusion. A missionary can express the people are learning of the things of God, but in the same conversation explain deep cultural hindrances to the Gospel. It is only the concept of paradox that helps us reconcile that pain and pleasure of cross-cultural ministry.
The Post-Field Paradox
More than 10 years of living in Kenya made what was once novel to be familiar to my family. In our first year back we are discovering that we have a love-hate relationship with the reality of leaving what had become familiar and home, and now returning to a place we also love, but which is no longer familiar.
The paradox for many missionaries, and especially missionary kids, is that while we never quite fit into our host land, neither do we now quite fit into our original homeland. The paradox of being like foreigners in our home country becomes real.
Philippians 2:5-8 tells us the ultimate missionary Jesus not only lived, but thrived in greater paradox than any human missionary. He left His position in the perfection of heaven to become a bondservant of no reputation and offer eternal life to those who would kill Him. Even in the perfection of His resurrected body there is the paradox of the eternal wounds caused by the temporary cross upon him (Luke 24:40).
As missionaries and those who love missionaries, it is good to recognize there is not much we can do to stop the paradoxical feelings and emotions common to missionaries, especially in times of transition. While they cannot be stopped, we can know the feelings and conflict is normal. The understanding of the reality of paradox may mitigate some of the effects and help all gain understanding, and possibly some laughs.
Ed Compean, along with his family, served as missionaries in Kenya and Mexico for more than 12-years. He is now engaged in church relations and communications at Shepherd’s Staff Mission Facilitators.