I have to admit that sometimes I feel lonely. Actually, that isn’t true; I often feel lonely.
Given that I appear to be a fairly gregarious and outgoing sort of bloke, this probably comes as a bit of a surprise to some people, so let me try and unpack it.
Firstly, it is true that I am quite happy with my own company; I wouldn’t go for long runs in the hills on my own if I wasn’t. I can cope with solitude. The second thing is that although I might seem outgoing, I’m actually quite shy and insecure. I find it hard to get beyond surface conversations and it is difficult for me to develop friendships.
However, there is something more significant going on. Sue and I recently celebrated our 36th wedding anniversary. Over that time, we’ve lost count of how many times we have moved house. In the first five years, we lived in Southampton, Bournemouth, High Wycombe, Southampton, France, Southampton and Yaoundé and things have never really settled down since. For good reasons, I’ve changed my job every five or six years and this has generally entailed moving to a different town or country. Over this time, I’ve made good friends, but they are mostly at the other end of the UK or in Germany, the US, East Africa or somewhere… For a while, I had roles that involved a lot of travelling and I would bump into old friends at conferences and meetings. However, these days a trip to Leeds is a big event and my opportunities for meeting up with friends around the world is very limited. To be honest, I don’t expect to see many of the people that I’ve felt closest to this side of eternity.
When I say that I’m lonely, it’s not so much that there aren’t people around; it’s that I miss a connection with people who have known me for years, friends whose kids used to play with ours, colleagues I have worked with for more than four or five years at a stretch. It’s hard to make and keep these sorts of connections when you are a nomad.
When we first signed up to be missionaries with Wycliffe, we realised that we’d have to say goodbye to friends and family when we went to live in Africa. It was hard, but we were prepared for it. However, what we were not prepared for was the fact that we would keep moving on and not only that, but our friends and colleagues would also be moving around – generally in a different direction to ourselves. We’ve spent our whole adult life saying goodbye to people.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not really complaining, well, not much. All of the moves we have made have been for the best reasons. We’ve made decisions to move jobs and home prayerfully and in consultation with friends and advisors, we’ve not done any of this lightly. Above all, we have done our best to ensure that we were where Jesus wanted us to be at every point in our lives. We’ve done what we believed we should do, but it is tough.
So why am I writing this? Because our experience is not unique. OK, not all career missionaries are quite as nomadic as we are, but most of us have our friends and shared history scattered across a few continents. Separation and loss of family is an ongoing experience and if you support or care for missionaries or if you are considering mission work, yourself, this is something you need to be aware of.
‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus replied, ‘no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospelwill fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields – along with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life.
Mark 10:29-30. We’ve done alright when it comes to persecutions, so far!