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  • Writer's pictureSteph

10 Things I Learned in My First Year of Missions

We made it! It has been just over a year since we sold/packed up all our things moved from San Francisco to Cobán, Guatemala! Jon shared in our last email newsletter that we have truly experienced God's faithfulness! Time and time again he has shown he works through our suffering and difficult lessons. I wanted to share our top 10 things God has taught us this year in our very first year. Honestly, there were so MANY and it was hard to chose just 10, but here it is.

1. Learning the language as quickly as possible is the most important thing. The canyon of culture is vast, but learning the language is the first step to bridging that culture gap. This is the biggest regret that I personally have had in my first year: I wish I had arrived with more substantial knowledge of the language. It is the single skill that is most holding me back from being more effective in ministry. For my husband, as a result of living in Latin America most of his life, he arrived completely fluent in Spanish as well as with a strong understanding of Latin culture. Because of this, he was able to hit the ground running. However, even for him, there is a Guatemalan culture and sometimes even language gap that he is still learning about. For me, it's taking me a year to get proficient in the language, but I still feel the canyon of culture is something I've barely started to bridge.

2. Pray, Pray and Pray some more. My dependence on the Lord has never been greater. I have had to face the Great Questions. Who am I, without my community, my job, my possessions, even my voice? Can I trust God with my safety, with my daily bread, with my children's education and well-being? Furthermore, as I stepped into missions it quickly became evident that the problems in this country and the mission we had been tasked with was far greater than our limited skills could tackle (start a school, start a clinic and continue running a church). The answer to every anxiety-filled day has been to spend more time sitting at Jesus' feet, laying all our petitions and anxieties on Him, resting in His presence and letting the "peace of God guard our hearts and minds" (Philippians 4:4-8). This year, God has spoken to me time and time again though the story in the Bible of Jesus and Martha and Mary when He says (paraphrased), "the only necessary thing" is to sit at the Lord's feet and listen to His teaching instead of being quick to action.

3. God doesn't call the equipped. He equips the called. This is what my husband feels is his greatest learning this year and a verse that sums up his year is Hebrews 13:20-21. "May the God of peace {...} equip you with all you need for doing his will. May be produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him." When he was asked to start a school in one year, it felt (and still feels) a little crazy, after all, he had never started a school. He had been a teacher for 5 years and then did 2 years of ministry work. He hadn't even finished seminary! But as he started down that road, he realized God had been equipping him throughout his life or provided him with helpers as he went for every grand problem he faced (and there were many!). But what he did have, was God's strong calling that this is what he should be doing with his life.

4. You will have a lot of guilt about the disparity in your standard of living with those around you. I was pretty upset the first time someone from a short term mission team asked me, “Why don’t you eat like the locals?” (since my home cooking is generally American and Asian food). I’ve also heard, “Wow, your home is nicer than I expected,” or “Don’t you feel guilty because…” Now, when a mission team comes, I expect an offhand but well-intentioned (they're just surprised and curious!) comment from members of mission teams about our standard of living in comparison to the locals. Though I am living well below the standard of living I had in our pre-missions life and within our pre-planned budgets - In so many ways I do feel guilty about my standard of living. I cook just about all of our meals at home and every time I am in the grocery store, I struggle - should I switch to powder milk and margarine instead of real milk and butter? Is it fair that we can eat a form protein (chicken or eggs generally) with just about every meal? Can I spring for the chocolate chips and make cookies or is that too much of a splurge? I am hyper-aware that my grocery budget is larger than many people's monthly salary here largely because of our American-size consumption of meat and dairy. However as I bring my guilt and shame to God, I have never felt him asking me to give up buying yogurt, but instead asking me to share my abundant resources with others.

5. You will do a lot of mundane things and question, "Is this what I came here for?" This weekend, I will spend a full day organizing receipts to submit to the government. I clean up after events, wash a tremendous amount of dishes, shop for supplies, prepare lessons, and field dozens of requests from church partners. There's a lot of mundane things to do in ministry. Additionally, as a mother, I feel that much of my personal mission work has been caring for my children while my husband does the bulk of running the ministry. I have wondered time and time again, as I take care of the day to day care of my children, "Is this what I came here for?" But time and time again, He has shown me that there is a grander purpose for me being here - it may not be in numbers or results, but it may be in growing me and my family spiritually and preparing me for what's ahead.

6. Heed the advice of older and more experienced missionaries. One of the biggest blessing here is that God has blessed us with a small community of missionary families in Guatemala. There are a million mistakes first year missionaries can make. There are so many times where I send a quick message regarding a complex situation and I get instant wise and sage advice! We are also thankful that we work under a founder missionary who has been working in Guatemala for 14 years. Honestly, sometimes his advice didn't make sense to us initially or even "felt" right, but now that we have a year under our belt, I understand where we could have stepped on landmines if we had not heeded his advice.

7. Prepare yourself for the depths of depravity. Get training in counseling or inner healing if you can. In one year, our hearts have been broken over and over again as we have dealt with severe depression, child abuse, human trafficking, alcoholism, and domestic violence. We say over and over again how much we wish we were trained in counseling and inner healing because there are so many needs in this area. I am sure in every mission field, domestic or international, human depravity is just below the surface. Any sort of professional training on counseling and inner healing would help! However, we continue to abide by lessons 2 and 3 as well as continue educating ourselves on biblical counseling and healing.

8. Working with your team will be one of most challenging areas. You will be the Human Resources Department. One missionary told me before I left that "the hardest part will be working with your team." Well, well, well, she was ABSOLUTELY right - the hardest and most sanctifying part of missions has been working with our team. We quickly learned that working with a team is an essential part of missionary work and amplifies God's work! Even though I had a lot of experience on working in teams, and was proficient at handling conflict and listening and working together, the areas I find I made the most mistakes are here! The decisions we make in missions work can be VERY emotionally charged decisions - where to spend resources, how to craft a new ministry, how to support this family, how to handle this delicate situation etc., and not to mention we are navigating culture, perspective and language gaps. For example, our staff meetings are done in a mixture of Spanish, English and Korean! Misunderstandings, conflicting perspectives, tension, high emotions, big decisions, and hurt feelings are commonplace among our team of sinners (including ourselves) and we all have had to learn and continue to learn how to work together, love our differences, apologize well, be more self aware, and listen better. Certainly a crash course in Human Resources!

9. Check your shoes before you put your feet in them, keep doors and windows closed and neuter your dog. These have proven to be very important animal-related, learnings.

10. God is faithful. "Missions is the fruit of prayer being picked up" -Gloria Furman, Missional Motherhood. There is no doubt that God has been faithful in this last hard, but life-giving year. He called us into the unknown and we took the leap. Time and time again, He has been faithful in answering prayers to impossible situations in ways we could not have imagined. A brilliant example is a medical clinic that many having been praying for. A huge need in our community is medical care. However, because we were starting a school, pastoring a church, and still getting adjusted, we expected this to be a prayer that would take some time to answer. However, last Monday, the local village chiefs asked if they could use some of our facilities as a medical clinic twice a week and we said yes. On Tuesday (literally the next day), they sent their nurses and 25 patients. And now we have a twice a week medical clinic. This is an amazing opportunity for us to pray for the patients, share the gospel with them, and meet their physical needs! Not only that, in a time of social distancing, where home visits are discouraged, God is bringing His people to us! If that is not proof of God's faithfulness and provision, I'm not sure what is!

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Eric Han
Jun 27, 2020

As always, thank you so much for sharing these really insightful lessons learned. Amazing, powerful testimonies all around but I have a feeling there's a lot of interesting stories you can share from lesson #9 offline ... =)


Jimmy and CK Lee
Jun 27, 2020

Thank you for writing this blog. Your lessons learned are very inspiring! Even though people don't really understand or appreciate your love and sacrifices, your laboring is not in vain and God will establish the work of your hands! Jesus was rejected, despised and mistreated by his own people too, so he understands what you have been through and he will continue to comfort you, strengthen you and empower you!

How wonderful that God has provided a medical clinic at your school twice a week! Praise the Lord!

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