This essay, written by Rev. Mark on July 7, 2016 immediately following the last day of Ramadan, is dedicated to his wife and daughter who often do not have him by their side because of his mission work. It is also written for all of his fellow workers in missions who labor tirelessly, without ceasing!
The following major events occurred over the past thirty days: China’s college entrance examination, the Turkish airport terrorist attack, the Jiangsu cyclone, the “second” Brexit— and, of course, the Muslim celebration of Ramadan (June 6 to July 6, 2016).
For me, those thirty days were by no means ordinary in the sense that they could be expressed in a span of thirty days. Nor were they a simple physical concept of time—one month of measured time. Whether we are talking about the cycle of evening to morning, or the alternating sequence of sunrise to sunset, I was suddenly aware that those thirty days seemed like a unique winter, summer, spring, and fall. Those days made people see the depths of winter and discover the abundance of spring; they allowed all to appreciate the summer heat but also to set foot in the autumn harvest. Those thirty days were a particularly emotional journey for me.
People hold differing views about keeping Ramadan and will handle it in different ways. Some people, with a surprised look or a questioning tone, seem to believe you have become weird if you keep it. However, in order to experience my Muslim friends’ Ramadan period, I chose to practically observe this Muslim holy month. I say “practically” because I did not strictly follow what is forbidden during Ramadan. Except for not eating breakfast and lunch, I still swallowed saliva, drank water normally, and ate a small amount of fruit. During the thirty days, I not only lost nearly five kilograms but also gave birth to the words on this page. I also experienced some things I had never experienced in the past.
First issue: Hunger
Eating habits during the month of Ramadan are different from the “fasting” we are familiar with in our own spiritual disciplines. Hunger becomes an everyday problem to confront, and it continues for thirty days. This is a great challenge.
Those thirty days, aside from the changes brought on by dietary restrictions, continued as normal with other life and ministry matters. There were no changes to my travel plans. My scheduled intensive classes lasting five consecutive days were not adjusted. Ministry tasks such as short-term mission team trainings, evangelism mobilization, and Sunday preaching went on as always. I also needed to visit my aged mother, spend time with my child who returned home for the holidays, as well as enjoy time with my wife of 23 years. I could not just cut short all these things because of my own personal experience with Ramadan. While abnormal elements produced by Ramadan entered into my normal life, it seemed as if everything was still normal. In fact, for me, everything actually became a new kind of normal. In Muslim areas, the control of dietary restrictions during Ramadan is normal.
When reflecting on mission work (to all people, not just Muslims), it is worth thinking about this a bit more. On the mission field (including mobilization, training, and other aspects) the missionary or ministry is in a state of “hunger” which is the “normal” state of affairs. “Normal,” for example, includes insufficient financial provisions, a lack of ministry manpower, incomplete cross-cultural preparation, inadequate spiritual care, lonely and helpless lives, as well as deep, daily longings for Chinese goods and food. It is not that we lack these, but we are short of these things—and that is exactly what missionary life often is. Someone who serves on the field, or who wants to serve on the field, needs to have sufficient knowledge and understanding about this. Those who are rearguard supporters or senders also need to know that, aside from Jesus Christ who rose from the dead, nothing can make a field worker truly “satisfied.”
Second issue: Loneliness
Those thirty days, loneliness was not necessarily tied to quietness. Loneliness existed in the hubbub of the city. I have experienced loneliness during times when there is no slowing down in life. In the past, I have often used lunch time to meet with coworkers and friends. Not only do we enjoy good fellowship, but we also discuss work together. However, thirty days of keeping Ramadan led to many meetings falling through or being postponed. For someone of my physical makeup, maintaining a good figure is not easy, so missing some delicious delicacies did not cause me a lot of grief, but missing my brothers caused me a great deal of pain.
Those thirty days of blank calendar dates reflected loneliness in my life. I was meeting myself face-to-face. This is a true portrayal of everyday life for workers serving others in cross-cultural missions. This, then, is another issue in missions that needs to be faced.
Loneliness is especially prominent among those serving unreached people groups in closed-off areas. The healthy, happy lifestyles of workers in the field as well as their mature living are important in influencing the people around them. This author calls people who have these characteristics mature workers. When people who have these characteristics are placed in the field, it can then be called a mature field. Each area first needs to have one mature worker. Only then you can send in other people (young people, people who lack cross-cultural training). The leadership of mature workers causes younger workers, teams, and fields to gradually mature.
Good mental attitudes, healthy active spiritual lives, awareness and ability to self-heal, a disciplined, deep, devotional life, solid biblical and cross-cultural training, and a sense of which team is a good match for a specific country are all important factors in whether or not loneliness can be confronted and overcome. Workers about to head to the field need to ask themselves: “Can I live a healthy, happy life and use my life to influence other lives in the place where I am going?” Supporters and senders must continually ask: “What kind of person is this individual?” “Which individuals have priority for being sent?” “Where is the best place this person can be sent?”
Third issue: Spiritual Warfare
My initial posture for those thirty days was one of obtaining experience. However, over time, hunger and loneliness crept in. The experience also brought additional unexpected ramifications. Although I was reading the Bible every day, praying, serving, and having fellowship to some extent, yet I was unknowingly sinking into depression. It was not until the last week that I realized the cause of my depression. This kind of experience was like putting myself in the heart of a fierce battle. Up to this point, I did not realize what was happening, and no one had given me any warning that this could happen.
Those thirty days I was still actively promoting missionary work, praying for Muslims during Ramadan, and fulfilling other ministries associated with missions. Nevertheless, there was one thing I profoundly ignored: my own prayer life. In addition, those thirty days I did not feel other people praying for me. This sort of internal struggle left me speechless. Hunger is temporary, loneliness is also momentary, but this indescribable force from the abyss of my soul left me in a deep valley, a place of shadowy death. Disappointment, helplessness—I had never experienced these before. As the thirty days drew to a close, these feelings grew more intense.
Jesus’ words on the cross, “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46) became my prayer during my depression. This not only helped me to understand what was happening but also enabled me to get out of this dilemma! My Lord Jesus expressed the same loneliness and powerlessness on the cross! Discouragement and depression are issues that need to be considered in mission work.
As cross-cultural field workers serving unreached people groups engage in a variety of ministries they need to shoulder the “suffering” these ministries produce, suffering similar to what Christ experienced on the cross. Such suffering may even be related to their own action or rebelliousness. They need to demonstrate the spirit of “substitutive atonement” through their ministry. That is ultimately what will “win” those they serve to the gospel.
The fundamental expression of this spirit is revealed in “the Word became flesh and dwelt among ‘them’ (original text: ‘us’), full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), so that they can say, “We have seen his glory,” (the Bible refers to Jesus as the worker sent by God to live among them), “glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14).
The apostle Paul, Hudson Taylor, Samuel Pollard, Che Yinggui, and many other distinguished predecessors experienced not only hunger and loneliness but even gave their lives to manifest Christ-likeness so others would receive the gospel. They became disciples of Jesus Christ and continually spread his glory so that the gospel would illumine the land of China. This is the most effective way to spread the gospel.
The thirty days have passed; Ramadan and the Ramadan experience have ended. However, this moving experience from God remains.
Chapters remain to be written on the history of the Chinese church. The chapter on the Chinese church’s road to missions is still blank. We can write something worth remembering, something that will stand the test of time.
This article is a ChinaSource translation.