Have you ever muttered the words, “I will NEVER…”, only later realizing God must have been smiling down at you? At that moment He might have been thinking, “Oh, dear, sweet, child I have plans better and more fulfilling for you than you ever imagined. I have many things to teach you, yet. Don’t limit Me with what you will and won’t do.”
I’ve often looked at my own children when they’ve made an emphatic declaration of what they will and won’t do and thought to myself, “Yes, you will, child. Just wait.” God has a way of breaking our barriers down, molding us and shaping us into the children we need to be in order to accomplish His will.
Back in college I had a really good friend from another country. We had talked about dating. I decided I really didn’t want to go down that path with him because I knew dating could eventually lead to marriage. I was scared and didn’t have any desire to ever live in a foreign country. I believe the words I said were, “I’m a small town girl…I have no interest in traveling and I NEVER want to live in a foreign country.” I even added, “I especially don’t ever want to live in a country where I can’t speak the language.” I don’t even have a clue why I added that last part because he was from an English speaking country!
I had grown up in a small town. My schooling experience was K-12 in the same school building that sat in the middle of a cow pasture. My graduating class had 51 people (and that was one of the larger classes that went through the school). I loved my hometown. I loved rural America and I figured that’s where I would always end up and live my life. I didn’t really have any interest in traveling and certainly not in living abroad. I felt like God had called me to a small town life.
Fast forward a few years and I had married a wonderful American husband. I was teaching and we were enjoying getting started in our life together as a married couple in a fairly small town in Arkansas. My husband was finishing school and getting started on his career. I was in my first couple of years of teaching. This rural, farm girl took a teaching job in an inner city school. It was difficult to overcome the culture shock and build connections with my students. Though there were challenges, we enjoyed our small town life in the middle part of America and had no dreams or aspirations of moving elsewhere.
About a year into our marriage, we were presented with the opportunity to go and teach English in Japan in their public school system. We were heavily in debt from college loans and the jobs teaching English seemed very appealing in order to get our school loans paid off. We both thought we could do anything for a year if it would help us get out of debt. My husband thought it would look great on a resume as well.
Suddenly, the idea of living in a foreign country seemed very adventurous and exciting to me. I had felt my job was not exactly where I needed to be. Though I loved teaching, the atmosphere in teaching inner city children was not one I identified with very well. I poured my heart and soul into the children, but it didn’t really feel like l was making a difference. My soul ached for something more.
So, a year and a half into our marriage, I did the very thing I said I would NEVER do. I went to live in a foreign country. It wasn’t just any country, either. I went to Japan where I couldn’t even speak the language (remember the earlier declaration?). I knew how to count to ten and ask where the bathroom was. That was it! We packed up what little we owned, put it into storage, and took four suitcases worth of clothing and items with us to Japan (a place neither of us had ever been to or knew much about).
God had given me a sense of peace about the whole move and everything fell into place as only it can when God is working in a situation. As long as my husband was at my side, I could conquer anything. And really…it was only for a year, right?
Living in a country where people just stared at you because you looked different took a lot of getting used to. Hearing the words, “Oh, look! It’s a foreigner (as if I wasn’t aware of that already),” several times a day was wearing on my nerves. The language barrier made it difficult to shop, cook, function and live everyday life. This Kansas girl was out of her realm in trying to figure out what to do with all that seafood in the grocery store. My house didn’t even have an oven at first. What was I supposed to do with a rice cooker and two burners on a stove top? A little two or three year old girl in the grocery store accidentally bumped into my legs and when she looked up and saw me, she screamed at the top of her lungs. She had never seen a foreigner and it frightened her. It made me so sad. I loved children, I worked with children, I wasn’t used to frightening children. Internet and email were just beginning to take off, so we only called home once a month (for a few minutes because it was so expensive), and we sent and received our email once a day on a dial-up connection. We were isolated from family and friends in America.
The culture shock was incredibly difficult, but the Japanese were such a kind and gracious people. We found a church to work and worship with; church family who looked out for us and helped us in our adjustment time. As I looked back on things, I realized that the culture shock I had been going through in teaching inner city children was just a preparation for the larger culture shock I was going to have in moving to a foreign country.
Somewhere during our first year in Japan, we felt like things were going so well (optimism in the midst of all that cultural stress), we decided to stay an additional year. A second year would allow us to totally pay off our loans and be able to save up some, too. The Japanese people were working their way into our hearts and God was working on us to be open to yet another opportunity He had in mind for us. About a year and a half after we had initially moved to Japan, we were asked by the congregation we had been worshipping with to stay and work full time as missionaries when our 3 year teaching commitment was up (yes, we had already committed to being there three years!).
God had shielded us, protected us and grown us. A sweet widow lady from church would bring us bags of a special kind of rice because she knew it was more like American rice. Friends had helped us go to the doctor and try to figure out the medical system there. Other friends spent hours with us at city offices helping us to wade through the mounds of paperwork required for us to live there in Japan. Every step of the way, God placed someone in our path that would help us when we needed it most. I knew the opportunity to stay and work as missionaries was from God and that He had been preparing us from the beginning for this very mission He had in mind. After much prayer and realizing this was God’s will for our lives, we committed to working full time as missionaries. In fact, this Kansas girl was the one to help convince my husband to stay on for a few more years.
Fast forward a few more years and we ended up spending nearly TEN years in Japan. Three of our four sons were born there (God provided an English speaking midwife who we went to church with that was able to make it to all three of the births there which was such a blessing. Listening to a foreign language while going through labor and delivery is not easy!). Trying to figure out hospitals and motherhood in your own country is hard enough, but trying to figure it out in a different culture is very challenging. We were blessed to have our children in a country with one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world. After a normal delivery, mom and baby are kept for about five days to make sure everything is going well before being sent home on your own.
The relationships we built with the Japanese and our time spent there have changed the way we view the world. God took our near sightedness, opened our eyes and used us in ways we never imagined possible. We saw people give their lives to Christ, churches grow and we had the opportunity to teach so many about God and His wonderful plan for our lives. I had the opportunity to teach people the creation story for the first time and see their eyes light up because they had never heard how God created this world. I remember one lady exclaiming with a wide smile on her face, “That makes a lot more sense and has more order to it than the Big Bang Theory, which is common here in Japan! Why haven’t I ever heard that story before now?” I had the joy of sharing with people the Good News about Jesus and helping them to understand that Christianity is not just a Western culture or Western idea, but a message for all. God had a plan and a purpose for them.
I was “adopted” by several Japanese women at church who helped me as I struggled with being a new mother at times. My Japanese mothers and sisters loved me and helped take care of me as if I was their own. We still remain close even though there are thousands of miles between us. Some helped me go to doctor appointments when the language was going to be hard for me to communicate. Some took me to far off shopping places that just happened to have a little American food in the store, so I could have a taste of home. Some helped us negotiate on a car. I had the pleasure of working along beside them and sharing our lives. They will forever be my sisters in Christ, but also in my heart even though years pass now before we see each other. God knew I needed them and others in my life while I was in Japan.
The time in Japan grew me, stretched me, molded me and shaped me into who I am today. I often laugh and say that God sent me to a country where I couldn’t speak the language at first as a last ditch effort of trying to get the message through to me that I needed to speak less and listen more! He sent me somewhere where it took me awhile to learn the language so I had no choice but to listen!
God’s plans and ways are always better than our own. I am so grateful that God was (and continues to be) patient with me. When I emphatically declared that I would NEVER…, He guided and showed me that I would and could all in His timing.
I want to encourage you not to limit God with what you will and won’t do. Whatever that NEVER is in your life, just remember His ways are ALWAYS better than our own. Our human nearsightedness often keeps us from seeing the whole God Story in it all, but it is there; constantly being woven through our lives and in the people we come into contact with. My life has turned out so much better than what I had ever dreamed it would be.
That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been without trials and valleys of despair, but with God all things truly are possible. As our Father, He can always see and know what’s better for us just like we can with our own children. When we embrace God’s Story for our lives, He will take care of us and carry us through anything placed before us. Don’t let your NEVER keep you from doing God’s will for your life. Be open to His guidance and direction and enjoy the discovery of your own God Story!
Photo Credit: Image courtesy of Dan at freedigitalphotos.net