Mission as a voluntary exile
Our family has lived in the mission field only one year, and so we are still beginners. At home in Alaska for the summer we have had time to reflect on our experience, and we are quite different than we were when we got off the plane in Fiji last year. Having returned to our home town, parish, family and friends for a few months, we feel a certain mental or emotional distance from the familiar routines and activities associated with life at home.
There is something different about “home” now, or rather, something different about us. Instead of a geographical location and a group of people and patterns, we are starting to experience “home” wherever we find the Holy Spirit working and active in our lives – a taste of the true Heavenly Home that God has prepared for all of us.
For the sake of our children, of course, we must have some stability – we aren’t becoming nomads for the Gospel. But when we move are required to move house, which we do often in this vocation, we try to make each place we stay into an icon, or an image, of Heaven where our children will feel a healthy level of security and predictability. Some familiar toys, pictures, icons and blankies travel with us everywhere. However, we also try to help the children see that no place in this life will be a perfect home, and we will (and should) always feel that something about our lives here is inadequate and incomplete. The full resolution will come with our eternal rest in Christ. Just as an icon is not the complete reality of the blessed one it portrays, neither can any earthly home completely embody the full rest that will be for those who attain to Heaven. The Church offers us a very helpful way to understand this: the concept of the Nation of Israel in exile, as slaves in Egypt and later as captives of the Babylonians. God allowed Israel to experience exile in order to bring them back into proper relationship with Him through correct worship and repentance. As a way of recognizing our own need to return to proper relationship with God, the Church prescribes the repentant season of Great Lent each year, which is replete with references to exile. The Parable of the Prodigal Son is a story of exile, repentance and return to the bosom of the Father. Each Sunday during the matins service we sing Psalm 137 (136): “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” Just like the Israelites lamented their separation from Jerusalem where they worshiped God in the Temple, Christians repent of our separation from God because of our sin and turn to Him again.
In a similar way, workers on the fields of the Lord accept a voluntary exile for the sake of spreading the Gospel.
Ierapostoli, or Sacred Mission, requires that disciples of Christ leave the familiarity of their home, culture and loved ones in order to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). This was lived out in the lives of all the Apostles, and in every great missionary saint of our Church, from St. Nina who traveled from Jerusalem to Georgia in the 4th century to St. Herman and his companions, who in the late 18th century made the longest missionary journey in history to evangelize the native peoples of Alaska. But this voluntary exile is not easy. Living in a foreign culture comes with unexpected stresses and difficulties at every level of life. Practical things such as when and where to dispose of household rubbish are sometimes as enigmatic as advanced calculus would be for a fourth grader. The challenges of communication and building relationships with people of a different cultural and language background take many years to overcome, and always through many, many humbling mistakes. Underscoring this there is at times a deep loneliness that accompanies long-term separation from the familiar, the comfortable and the predictable.
Like the Israelites in exile, the time our family spends away from home leads us to be thankful for the beautiful and good things we have left back home. But we also are amazed to see how God is leading us to a new and different understanding of home, which we attain by different means.
Instead of looking back to a previous phase of life and the good things we once had, we are starting to see the great blessings that come from putting our trust in God to provide everything for us. As we struggle to maintain our faithfulness through the difficulties we face, God shows us again and again that He can easily arrange for our every need. He is teaching us that the more we trust the more He proves trustworthy. When we first learned of the Apostolic Ministry in Oceania, we felt led by the Holy Spirit to “help” with the work in some way, and ultimately decided to move to the South Pacific as long-term volunteers.
Yet we have begun to realize – and it is humbling – that this “calling” to serve in the mission is not due to unique gifts or virtues God wants us to share, but because we are so desperately in need of growth ourselves.
For this reason, we accept a voluntary exile from our familiar and comfortable life so that we can grow in love and true repentance. Then, according to God’s call, we hope others see something of value in our struggle and are drawn to walk the same path, so that we can attain the full and unending rest of salvation in Christ all together.
Reader Michael Jones