The incarnation has always provided me incredible motivation for mission. Jesus willingly left heaven, comfort, glory, and his Father. He made his home among us and gave himself for us. There could be no greater example of missionary life.
But what about missionary children? Most aren’t party to their parents’ life decisions. Some are born in foreign hospitals. Others wake up on airplanes in unknown lands. In one of childhood’s (and parenthood’s) most significant moments, many walk into school on the first day with no friends, a teacher they can’t understand, and food for lunch they’ve never tasted.
And then there’s every grandparent’s fear—will they be safe? These little treasures move into the backyard of terrorists, into the bush far from quality medical care, or into megacities where children frequently go missing. Mom and Dad may have chosen to risk their lives for the sake of the gospel, but do they have the right to put their children in harm’s way?
It’s a legitimate question. And on my worst days, it still haunts me.
I’ll never forget the words of encouragement I received from a pastor and friend before our family left for our new home in Central Asia. He’d traveled many times to India and South Asia and, without exception, the parents he’d met along the way were happy with their decision to raise children overseas. Sure, there were difficulties, but they had no regrets. As he recalled, many felt the move was best for their kids.
After five years of life in a Muslim country with our three children, I don’t doubt the words of those missionary parents. But I can’t say I always share their sentiments.
To some degree our children have done well. They view Asia as their home, more so than America. They’ve learned the language, made friends, and adapted to the culture. If we go to the mall for dinner, my wife and I want McDonald’s, but our daughters prefer rice.
Yet despite their ability to acclimate, living overseas hasn’t always been a wonderful experience for my children. They live a life of goodbyes. We see family once every year or two. They have limited options for school. We don’t have an “established” church to attend. And they have few examples of godly, mature Christians in their lives. At a young age they’ve been bullied and persecuted for their faith; my son has even been threatened with stoning and stabbing. This doesn’t even take into account the political instability in our region or the wars constantly surrounding us.
On many days I wonder if I should spare my kids from this life. But then I remember the Father who did not spare his own Son.
Of course, we know that the pre-existent Son, eternally equal with the Father, chose to come to earth of his own accord. The incarnation wasn’t about persuasion, coercion, or a Father’s “because I said so.” Nevertheless, the incarnation does provide hope and peace when we consider the plight of our own children. Jesus, after all, didn’t simply come as the God-man—he came as a child. And he knows what it is to live out the mission of his Father.
Part of the Plan
As we read the story of Jesus’s advent, we also encounter the peril of parenting a third-culture kid. God chose Mary and Joseph as the means to deliver salvation to his people, but they weren’t spared parental angst. In fact, their lives reflect those of many modern-day missionary moms and dads.
When we encounter the narrative in the Gospels, a political ruling has sent them on a long journey, dangerous for both mother and child. Mary doesn’t have the luxury of giving birth in a clean and comfortable environment, even by the standards of the day. Shortly after their son’s birth, the local ruler threatens his life. The young family must flee almost overnight to another land. During their stay in Egypt, they likely have to learn to navigate in a foreign language. Joseph must’ve wondered how such turmoil and suffering could be God’s plan for his beloved son.
When Herod finally dies, the family returns to Israel but settles in Nazareth out of fear; they still don’t know if Bethlehem is safe. In all of this, they experience the upheaval, uncertainty, and loneliness of constantly being on the move. They finally decide where to live based not on convenience or comfort, but where they think their son won’t be killed.
But these details are only part of the story, for Matthew and Luke give us a broader picture. Beyond what Joseph can see in the daily struggle to protect his family, God is invisibly orchestrating events. Governmental decrees, threats, bloodshed, arduous journeys, regime changes, and even survival-based decisionmaking are part of God’s mysterious plan.
Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem. He was to be called out of Egypt. He was to be raised in Nazareth. The dangers didn’t thwart the Father’s design; they were part of it. And they were for good.
Missionary parents don’t haphazardly or casually passage children across the globe. We have fears. We live with uncertainty. We sometimes choose out of survival more than strategy. And we’re not always sure we’ve made the best decisions.
But in the end, we hold little hands through passport control knowing that God is holding us in his. We serve a Father who knows what it is to lose a Son. And we take great confidence in his ability to work all things for good. The incarnation teaches us so.