Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost[1]

Lydia recounts how she went to Asia desiring to share Christ with a nomadic people but ended up feeling almost like a nomad herself as she constantly moved from here to there as doors she had prayed to be opened closed one after the other. Through all the uncertainty she faced, she has stuck it out as God has shown her that closed doors are part of the journey and that they help her get to know him and what he wants to do in and through her even while she is waiting.

Lydia joined OMF in autumn 2011 and served among an unreached people group. Her journey on the field has had several twists and turns. She is thankful for how God guided her through these and for what he taught her along the way. Lydia enjoys settling in her new location and is about to take on a leadership role for her field.

 

Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost [1]

Mission Round Table 17:1 (January–April 2022): 26–29

“It is somewhat ironic that someone who was originally called to serve a nomadic people should end up wandering around between Europe and Asia for three years.”

As I read this comment from my center leader about the journey I had been on before I moved to my current location, I could only agree that it was ironic indeed.

When I came to Asia in 2011, it was with the desire to be a blessing to an unreached nomadic people and to live out my calling as a follower of Jesus among them. They are a hospitable people who take great pride in their ethnic identity, but whose lifestyle has changed significantly over the years due to changes in their environment. They deeply cherish all of creation around them, yet have so little opportunity to get to know the Creator as the Good Shepherd.

I love the concept of a long obedience in the same direction[2] and arrived committed to serve for the long term. This probably meant, even though I may not have been aware of it at the time, that I expected to serve this particular people in the same location for a good number of years.

Things turned out quite differently, however. I did not realise it then, but, over the next few years, God would take me on a journey that kept me moving in the same direction whilst gradually changing and broadening the nature of my ministry. I have felt lost and confused at times amidst closed doors and long periods of waiting when God was at work in ways I could not fully foresee. How did I make it through some of these disappointments and redirections? What kept me going?

When I returned to Asia after my first home assignment, the situation in our area had changed. This had a significant impact on local people especially—who were going through a lot of suffering—and on our ability to renew visas and get permission to stay in the area. Towards the end of 2017, several foreign workers had had to leave. When the time came for my roommate and myself to renew our visas, we were expecting a challenging and longer-than-usual process and so we started early. It became gradually clear, however, that we would not be able to renew our visa before the expiry date. We decided to pack up our apartment “just in case,” and left our home, not knowing if and when we would be able to return.

In the months leading up to this difficult departure, I had been reading through passages in the Old Testament in my quiet times. I had been wrestling with the challenging situation in our location and with the uncertainty of how things might develop. Reading through the Psalms and Isaiah provided much needed perspective on the circumstances I was facing. Isaiah emphasised that God was still on the throne, even when so much around me seemed to be out of control. Isaiah gave hope, by highlighting God’s work and faithfulness throughout the centuries and reminding me that he is fulfilling his plan no matter what. Isaiah helped me to see and experience God’s love and care as the one who is our Shepherd and carries the lambs close to his heart.

To this day I am thankful for what God taught me during that time and for how he helped me shift my focus from the circumstances to himself. God had to remind me of these lessons many times in the years that followed.

In the months after we left our home in Asia, it became clear that many of us, including myself, were not going to be able to return to our area because we were no longer granted a visa. We had to face the difficult reality that most of us could no longer continue to live and serve among this people. These circumstances forced me and my colleagues to consider what God was actually calling us to do. Instead of asking how and where we wanted to serve, we realised that the real question was how and where God wanted us to serve. What would it take to see this people reached with the good news of Jesus? And would we be willing to be available to him in the way he wanted to use us?

It became a process in which we grieved the loss of a place and people we had come to love, and the loss of our own plans and dreams for what ministry together would look like. As we prayed and explored next steps, we saw God opening doors to new ways of ministry; opportunities for work among diaspora, online ministry, and mobilising the local church.

Being more of a detail-oriented person myself, pursuing a vision had never been a major motivator for me up till then. But the experience of having to leave my ministry location coincided with a period in which I deputised as center leader. Through the difficulties and the setbacks, as well as through engaging with the bigger picture as a deputy center leader, God’s heart for the nations and, in particular, his love for the unreached people groups in our field, became more alive to me. I began to realise the importance of vision when seeking guidance and deciding on next steps. The vision to see these peoples reached with the good news of Jesus had not changed. This made me willing to “throw the net off the other side of the boat” (John 21:6), even if it meant having to start all over again in a new location. Despite the difficult circumstances faced by these people, the vision helped me see that God was still at work among them. And I wanted to join him in that.

From the start, when we began exploring new ministry opportunities, the option of getting involved in mobilising and journeying with the local church stood out to me. In the months that followed, God seemed to affirm this direction, and so I began to pursue a student visa to study in a new location. At this point, I was back in my home country to update my prayer partners regarding my ministry and to share the new direction in which I thought I was going. Unexpectedly, there turned out to be a delay in the visa paperwork. Instead of moving to my new ministry location, we decided that I would support the work of our field from a temporary location, while waiting for the visa paperwork to come through.

In the midst of this unexpected development and stay in a temporary location, I remember feeling hopeful after the initial feelings of confusion had subsided. It was Advent, and the waiting and expectation of the season resonated with my own journey and with what our local friends were going through. God used the reminder that nothing is impossible with him (Luke 1:37) and that he is faithful to his promises, to grow hope and expectation in my heart for what he would do among our peoples. The deep meaning of hope came to life for me. Hope doesn’t grow in easy places. In Scripture, we often read about hope in the context of persevering in difficult times. Hope is a fruit that the Spirit grows in us when we trust in him.

Not long after Christmas, however, my hope-filled heart was tested when I received the news that pursuing a study visa was no longer an option. Once again, a change of plans and a longer period of waiting. Instead of applying for a study visa, I began to explore work visa options. It became a daily “work out exercise” to keep my eyes fixed on God for whom nothing is impossible.

To paraphrase Rick Warren, trust is like a muscle: you have to use it, to exercise it, in order for it to become stronger.[3] I was learning to walk with God when I could not see beyond the next few weeks, not knowing what would happen and where I would be.

One online dictionary defines trust as a “firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something.”[4] It describes quite well how God became bigger for me as I was learning to “exercise” trust. I discovered how reliable he is. Even though my questions were not answered, his presence in the situation was real and I had his promises to hold on to. I discovered how powerful he is; his thoughts are higher and often different from my own, but so much more beautiful and better. I learned that trust did not just “happen”; it was a daily choice I had to make to fully surrender and rest in his reliability, truth, and ability.

Despite the unexpected twists and turns, we believed that God was encouraging me to keep pursuing the vision. However, I also believe it was not just the vision or a next placement that mattered to God. The ongoing uncertainty, the persevering, the “hanging in there” was taking its toll. There have been times when I lost joy and felt emotionally exhausted. I had to learn to be honest with myself and with God, and to be honest with those around me as well. I had to learn not to pretend I was able to “take it in my stride.” When I admitted to myself, to God, and to others that I was not doing so well, I opened up and was able to receive God’s love and the care of people. This is what kept me going.

And there was still quite a way to go.

The process of finding a suitable work visa took longer than expected, but we were delighted when the pieces of the puzzle eventually seemed to come together. This excitement, however, was followed by another seven months in my home country. Processing the work visa paperwork took much longer than anyone expected. At times, we were not even sure it would come through at all.

When I finally had the work visa in my passport, we celebrated. The long journey seemed to have come to an end. I would fly to my new ministry location after our annual field conference elsewhere in Asia.

That was January 2020.

I never got to fly to my new ministry location. The COVID pandemic meant that after our annual conference, I flew back to my home country instead. It was very confusing. And it was difficult to face the fact that the uncertainty I had lived with for so long, would last even longer. I even experienced feelings of embarrassment and shame about having to go back to my home country again.

In the next few months, deliberately engaging in worship became the means to remind myself of the truth of God’s faithfulness. I needed this, especially when it became increasingly clear in autumn 2020 that the door to my new ministry location was closed and would stay closed. Out of all the setbacks and unexpected developments, this was probably the hardest one for me. I felt confused. I no longer felt sure I had understood God’s guidance correctly. It took truth from God’s word, prayer, and conversations with leadership and friends to help me regain perspective, to help me realise that all these closed doors did not necessarily mean we had misunderstood God’s guidance.

I have come to accept closed doors as part of the journey God has taken me on. I don’t necessarily have answers to all my questions. But that is ok. If anything, I have begun to embrace my identity as a pilgrim. My heart resonates with the truth that knowing God’s will is a daily walk with him, a journey, not reaching a destination.

In the process, God has taught me so much about himself, about myself, and about different aspects of ministry to our people through the various tasks and roles I got involved in along the way. The journey has shaped me in ways I could never have imagined. These are all lessons I take with me as I embark on the next stage of my journey, in which I will serve in a leadership role.

It still moves me when I read Hebrews 11:13–16:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

No matter how much I love stability and the ability to make plans (that work out), God has his own way of doing things and he has often a different route in mind than I have. It is so encouraging to know that God is not ashamed of those who may feel like they are “wandering,” that “wandering” can even be part of our calling as a follower of Jesus. As Warren Wiersbe says:

expect to be led occasionally on paths that may seem unnecessarily long and circuitous. Remind yourself that He knows what He’s doing; He isn’t in a hurry and as long as you follow Him, you’re safe and in the place of His blessing.[5]

The passage in Hebrews 11 is also a beautiful picture of how the vision of heaven (verse 16) results in movement, in a journey. Longing for heaven, looking forward to standing before God’s throne together with multitudes of people from all over the world, should influence how we live here and now. Hebrews 11 encourages me to welcome the promise, to embrace that vision, to be that nomad, so to speak. It also encourages me to just be available for how God wants to involve me, even during times of waiting.

 


[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring .

[2] Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society(Downers Grove: IVP, 2019), Kindle ed.

[3] Pastor Rick Warren, “Your faith is like a muscle. A muscle can’t be strengthened unless it’s tested, stretched, and put under pressure. You don’t develop strong muscles by doing nothing! You develop strong muscles by stretching them, testing them, and pushing them to the limit.” Facebook, 2 July 2020, https://m.facebook.com/pastorrickwarren/photos/a.414149010902/10158553496505903/?type=3&comment_id=10158554962185903 (accessed 11 April 2022).

[4] Lexico, s.v. “trust,” https://www.lexico.com/definition/trust (accessed 11 April 2022).

[5] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Study Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2018), 106.

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