Seven years ago, we stepped off the plane and began our lives and ministry in Portugal. It was just the two of us back then, filled with the hopes and dreams that any new missionary has. While we’re still a long way from being grizzled veterans, we’d like to think we’ve learned a thing or two since that first day. So, in honor of this momentous occasion, here are “Seven things we’ve learned in our first seven years”:
- God is working in ways both visible and invisible. We see the work that God calls us to do every day. We know the people we have taught, the prayers we have prayed, and outreaches we have prepared. Sometimes, we see immediate fruit from those efforts, and it is beautiful. But, we also see the work God is doing in other avenues. Once in a while, someone seeks us out, because the Holy Spirit is convicting him, and he wants answers. Another person will come to us wanting to hear more of what she once heard from another missionary or pastor years before. We see only what is before our eyes, but we love the glimpses God gives us of what He is doing in myriad ways in hearts in our town and around the world.
- The Parable of the Sower is so true. Recently, we skimmed through prayer letters we’ve written over the years. It’s sad to see that some people who have made professions of faith in the past no longer come to church or display any spiritual life. Today, we still celebrate with great joy any time people profess faith in Christ. However, we pray more fervently than ever that their conversion would be genuine and that they would be fruit that remains.
- Most weeks, the work is mundane. We fill our schedules with activities and people, hoping to see the Holy Spirit break through in people’s lives. While we cherish the more spiritual-looking moments (a salvation, a baptism, etc.), there are many moments that are simply “taking care of business”. We spend two hours in line at the customs office retrieving a package of Portuguese Bibles. Having people over for a meal and counseling requires the less glamorous tasks of grocery shopping and cooking. We prepare lessons, have Bible studies, meet with people, pay bills, clean the church, send messages, make phone calls, give people rides, type these prayer letters, and do all the day-to-day acts of life. In the years of mundane, we see the miracles God does in our midst.
- Growth is rarely steady and consistent. It seems that it comes in fits and starts. One year you may double in attendance, and the next you may lose people. One day, the person that seemed to be doing so well won’t even answer the phone to talk with you. Sometimes, you have a season when everything and everybody seems to be looking up. Other times, you plod through month after month feeling like you are crossing a desert. While progress is impossible to predict, our faithfulness, prayerfulness, and determination must not waver. “We will reap if we do not faint.”
- The people are the hardest and best part ministry. Often, the missionary approach to people is counterintuitive. How do you respond to the lonely old lady who calls you every day to talk about her bladder problem? What do you do with the church lady who hurts you and everyone else with her tongue? How do you treat the children who ask for a ride and a hug, but you can see the lice crawling on their head? You avoid them, of course! That’s the natural thing for any of us to do. Even though we’re missionaries, we feel the same way you do. The phone calls drive us nuts, the mean lady hurts us and our kids, and we hate getting lice as much as you do. But, instead of running away, we run toward these people in obedience to God. We listen to and pray for the lady who is lonely. We get to know the mean lady and gently confront her with the sin root of her words. We learn about lice prevention and treatment, and teach our children (and ourselves) that a soul being saved is worth some itching on our part. People hurt us, make us dirty, and mess up our preferred schedules, but they are also the only thing we can take to heaven. We have cried from sadness over choices people have made, but we have cried so many more tears of joy over seeing people be saved, be baptized, and choose to obey our Lord.
- There is nothing more encouraging than knowing people are praying for us. When one of you writes to us that you are praying for the people in our town, our church, our marriage, or our children, it encourages us more than you can know. We are people just like you. God is our Great Comforter. However, in the absence of family or our best friends, just a word from you that you are praying lifts our spirits and helps us keep going another day.
- There is no place we would rather be than right here. Do we miss American food? Yes. Do we miss speaking English and not being the foreigners? Yes. Would it be easier to stay in America? Probably. But, we believe Portugal is where God wants us, so there is nowhere else we would rather be. We have perfect peace that we are in His will, and that is always the best place to be.
We arrived seven years ago with a lot of dreams, all of which God has allowed to come true: He has started a hearing church in our town; He has saved some deaf people and begun a work among them; and He has given us children. We are humbled and grateful because of the work He has done here in Portugal, and we look forward to seeing what else He will do.