Don't Wear Your Missionary Bifocals Upside Down

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

I was recently looking at an article in an old missionary periodical from 1912 and came across the following drawing.  I didn’t see any explanation of its meaning but it immediately struck me as a fantastic illustration of the relative importance that missionaries need to attach to issues and concerns on the foreign mission field and in their home country.

As you may know, each lens of a pair of bifocals is made up of two pieces of glass.  The larger piece on top is to help with near-sightedness and is the primary part of the lens.  The smaller piece at the bottom is for far-sightedness and is used less often, in particular for reading and looking at things up close.   As important as the bottom lens may be, the majority of life is lived while looking through the top lens.

In the same way that the user of bifocals spends most of their time looking through the top lens, missionaries must spend the majority of their time and energy living and working in their adoptive home, the foreign mission field.  Their home country and its concerns are still important, but must take second place to the concerns on the field.  In principle, most missionaries would agree with those statements but in practice, it is much harder to strike the right balance.

One hundred years ago when this drawing was published, postal service in many parts of the world was infrequent, telephone & telegram uncommon, and radio had just been invented.  Television and internet were still many years in the future.  Given the limitations of communication (and transportation) at the time, it must have been much easier for missionaries to focus on where they were living and who they were with, rather than be distracted by news from home. 

However, if we fast-forward 100 years to today, the ability for missionaries (and expats everywhere) to communicate with home is almost unlimited.  Facebook. Internet. Skype. Telephone. We can get all the information we want at the click of a button.  Politics. Sports. Theological trends.  News from Family.  News from Friends.  News from “friends” whom we don’t even remember who they are, but somehow became one of our Facebook “friends.”  All the pressing issues of the day and all the mundane details of life at “home” are readily accessible to us.  And that can be a great thing.  But the possibility of keeping up with (almost) everything from home, and the expectation from home that we keep up with (almost) everything from home creates a problem.  Without realizing it, our bifocals can become inverted.

Instead of spending our mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical energy in our adoptive home on the foreign mission field, we spend the majority of our time wrapped in things at “home.”  I was talking with a missionary friend who recently deleted his Facebook account and testified to being much happier now.  He hadn’t been using Facebook for anything bad, but he really enjoyed reading all the political news from back home and it was taking up way too much time.  And he also got rid of his tablet device because he’d randomly look up things online that he was curious about, but didn’t necessarily need to know.   Eliminating those things helped him to be more present with his family and to be able to better focus on the things immediately around him that are more important. 

Of course there are lots of ways besides Facebook to be too attached to home.  It might be devoting your time to fixing and furnishing your home so that it is just the way you like it... namely, similar to back home.  Or maybe you spend lots of time finding the right hard-to-find ingredients in order to make your favorite meals or desserts from back home.  Maybe you watch too many movies.  Or spend an inordinate amount of time with expat friends.

There is nothing wrong with missing home, baking Christmas cookies, Skyping with grandparents, or reading politics on Facebook.  It is a matter of perspective and relative time investment.  We can’t physically be everywhere at once, and we can’t emotionally or mentally be everywhere at once either.  Multi-tasking is a modern myth that too many of us have bought into.  We can’t do it all and also do it all well.  If our minds and hearts are wrapped up with the latest political or theological controversy from home, or with the minutia of our friends’ and families’ lives back home, then we don’t have much time or energy for the foreign mission field (and people!) that we’ve supposedly devoted our lives to.  We may be present in body but our thoughts and affections are someplace else entirely.  If a missionary’s heart and mind are perpetually at home, he or she may find that it is not long before their body is there too.

So how do we achieve that perfect balance?  How do we put our missionary bifocals on the right way?  There are no magic formulas and I have no 5-step plan to offer.  We need to know ourselves and ask ourselves difficult questions about where we are spending our time and energy, and how it is affecting us.  What do we say our priorities are, and what would someone else guess they are if they looked at how we spend our time?  What “good” things do we need to cut out of our lives in order to do the “best” things?  If we are able to ask and answer these questions, then I think we’ll be off to a good start in putting our glasses on the right way, and spending our time and energy as missionaries to the glory of God and the joy of His people.  And we’ll probably become more content and satisfied with where we are as well.



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