"Furlough is so weird. It's like regular intervals of fulfilling clearly defined expectations (ie., church visits) interspersed with living life at loose ends." I wrote these words to my two sisters yesterday morning and the one who most recently concluded her own family's furlough immediately responded, "Accurate description."
On the mission field, although no two days are alike, there is something of a prescribed order to our weeks between church and FLORECE commitments on designated days. There are set meeting times for our Northern Chile branch team; IBF church planting team; Chile-wide missionary field team; and FLORECE volunteers. Our calendars there and our calendars here can look just as hectic, but on furlough it all feels rather more disconnected. Truthfully, it's the "off" days that really throw me for a loop as I attempt to gather my thoughts and determinate priorities for the next 24 hours in front of me. There are big-picture concerns such as filling out FAFSA(s); college and financial questions for older children; catching up on necessary appointments (dental, vision, medical) while weighing the realities of what our international medical insurance covers overseas versus what it does not cover at "home." There are planning questions such as when and where we might fit in visits with friends and family in the second half of our year here, which is already quickly approaching. Often these "off" days simply feel like playing catch up, only I never quite succeed in getting there before the next travel date comes.
A missionary furlough (today more accurately called "stateside ministry") is meant firstly as a time of reporting to supporting churches and individuals what God has done over the last term on the field. It is a time of reconnecting with family and home culture, the latter especially for missionary children who will likely return one day for college and/or adult life. It is meant for rest and restoration, beginning with a debriefing and possibly including counseling and additional training. Ideally, it might serve as a means of recruiting future missionaries if God allows. Almost always, it includes the need to raise additional support due to attrition and inflation and this is easier said than done.
Within our personal family culture now on our third furlough, one priority is a year of traditional in-person schooling for our children in the United States. The education of our children on the mission field has long been one of the most challenging aspects of raising them overseas. We often face internal struggles and questions about whether we have let them down in this area. Placing them in a school (ideally Christian) stateside both eases those concerns and creates others. We are able to measure whether they are at grade level; assist where needed; and procure educational testing or support if necessary. But we are also in a place to see everything they miss when we once again are gone, and that is hard. Especially this time around when we have a 12th grader whose younger brothers are observing for the first time what special opportunities a senior year stateside can entail, yet likely will not be able to experience the same.
A missionary furlough can be intensely emotional. There are high highs such as memorable family vacations; travel to new places; spending holidays with loved ones after many years apart; and the joyful yet humbling reconnection with people truly invested in prayer and concern for the ministry. Yet there is the tension of knowing that this is temporary; will soon end; and goodbyes are again inevitable. Meanwhile there is the weight of knowing your presence and participation is lacking on the field, with teammates having to pull a heavier load in your absence. There is the relief of letting go of some pressures because you are simply too far away, yet it only takes a single update to sweep your mind back into that intensity and twist your gut with concern once again. Our current ministry on the field is such that we hear horrifying stories on a regular basis of women exposed to danger, abuse, violence and an utter lack of basic human dignity and resources.
When I was a young girl and would read the writings of the Apostle Paul, I thought I could never relate to him. What feels like a lifetime later, having spent the last fifteen years on the mission field as an adult, his words often echo in my heart. "Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches," he penned in 2 Corinthians 11:28. He faced persecution that I can't imagine, but his heart's burden was for the people he served. And that is true on a missionary furlough as well. There is concern for the spiritual well-being of those left behind on the field and the continued growth of the church in understanding, commitment and number. There is a burden for those yet unsaved and how our absence might cool the relationships we were building towards deeper opportunities to share Christ. On this furlough, there has already been grief that one we prayed to see saved suddenly departed into eternity and we will not meet again.
"Wherever you are, be all there! Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God." This quote by martyred missionary Jim Elliot is one my father often repeated to me during my growing up years. I recall it frequently and do try to focus on what is in front of me in the moment to the glory of God. But as more pieces of my heart get up and walk away (i.e., children leaving home; changing needs of aging parents) it becomes more of a balancing act and I feel with greater urgency the need for prayer and God's merciful, sovereign intervention in our lives. Thankfully, we serve a faithful God. As the lyrics of a beautiful song remind me, "All my life You have been faithful. All my life You have been so, so good. With every breath that I am able, I will sing of the goodness of God. I will sing of the goodness of God."