Friday, April 11, 2008

Common Struggles

I enjoy reading mission history. History, as I tell my students, is a study of Divine action in time. So, when I read stories of personalities who served in a different era I gain insights, encouragement and strength of those who walked this journey of missions before me.

This past week I read an article about a Norwegian Lutheran missionary by the name of Notto Normann Thelle who served in China for 40 years. His senior colleague Karl Ludvig Reichelt overshadowed Thelle’s ministry as he was the “upfront” missionary who did pioneer church planting, wrote books and was the celebrated personality who led the mission. Thelle was his assistant, who edited Reichelt’s books, was the administrator of the work and who, for the most part, always played a secondary role. Thelle was quite content to serve as support staff, but he had two struggles that I, and many missionaries wrestle with – a feeling of uselessness and loneliness.

USELESSNESS - Thelle did not have the theological training of Reichelt or other missionaries, and though he was busy running the mission, receiving guests and speaking at chapel occasionally, he always wondered if he was making a contribution for Christ and His Church? He struggled in the language, never quite feeling that he was communicating in a way that reflected the message he wanted to present to others. Even those who are active in primary ministry often feel a sense of uselessness, how much more so of those who have, seemingly, secondary roles.

LONELINESS – As an umarried man in his early years of service, Thelle lived a lonely life in the midst of activity. Even if one has a family, loneliness is often the burden of those who leave their home country to serve overseas. As I read of Thelle’s life of loneliness it touched an emotional cord that so many of my colleagues face each day. Nothing is more painful than the feeling of isolation away from family and friends.

The encouraging thing about Thelle’s story is twofold. First, that God does bless those who faithfully serve Him, even if the work is not readily noticed or appreciated by others. Happy is the man or woman who understands that no matter if others see our service to Christ, He does. Second, that the pain of loneliness is not unique to us. Our pain of isolation is not lessened by this fact, but at least we can take comfort that many that have walked before us shared a common struggle. What is important is that we remain faithful to our calling and press forward knowing that by our lives we are adding pages to God’s great narrative of His work here on earth.