Back in the day when “missionary” brought to mind pith helmets for the men and polyester ruffles for the women, my husband and I took three little girls away from their grandparents and everything they knew to Italy. The term carried with it good-byes like “see you in about four years.” Going overseas was a really big deal.
Not just everybody flew over an ocean. We bought new clothes for the trip. We had a go-to-Italy hope chest. We packed U-Haul cardboard boxes of what we expected to use in the coming years, next size clothes and shoes for the girls.
At the airport, my dad put his arms around me and cried. I couldn’t remember him doing either one before. With my nose buried in his black wool coat and his fedora bent against my hair, I felt about as awful as I’d ever felt before. My mom pulled out her ever-ready-white-hanky and blew her nose. We pried our little girls off the trousered legs of two grandpas and panty-hosed legs of two grandmas, and we boarded the TWA 747.
It was 1982. I’d never been out of the country before. And I don’t mean the USA.
My husband grew up in Ecuador where his parents served as missionaries. So when we got to Florence Italy where our language training began, all that new stuff was like candy to him. He laid out a map of the city with its bus routes, and scouted how to get to an open market. He knew where to get on the bus and where to get off. He did a trial run. Like a boomerang he made it back to our apartment and was ready to take us on our first outing.
The five of us huddled at a bus stop shivering in cold November fog. Clothed in new wool coats, our blonde haired children chattered in English. Italian words flew like bees around us, but we didn’t understand any of it.
Although most of my life I’d felt called to missions, experience wanted to choke the call but I was too exhausted to get back on the plane.
During Paul’s missionary journey to Asia, things were so rough he literally saw no exit, no way out. “For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself,” the Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Cor. 1:8. (ESV).
The Apostle Paul didn’t sugarcoat facts in his writing to inform the Corinthian church about what he’d faced on his missionary journey. It had been challenging in every way, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. He wanted them to know the details had been so tough, he’d despaired of life.
At an Italian bus stop, Paul and I forged a bond. The bus pulled up to the curb, and the group around us squeezed into a wedge thick as a slice of Parmesan cheese.
People inside stood body to body, all up and down the aisle, even the entrance and exit steps carried riders.
“We can’t get on,” I said. “It’s jam packed.”
Phil, already pushing his way on the steps, with experienced bravura said, “Just shove.” He pulled our seven-year-old by the hand into its bowels.
I heaved our four-year-old onto my left hip and our two-year-old onto my right and shoved. The doors slide shut against my backside.
A man at the back of the bus gestured me to take his seat. Grateful, I rested both girls on my lap. I sat my purse on their laps. The bus careened forward. I lost sight of Phil and Amee because of all the people smashed around us.
We didn’t go far before Heidi said, “I don’t feel good.”
My first thought was a horrified, “Oh no, she’s going to be sick.”
My second thought was, “No, she’s not. God would never do that to me. He knows I can’t take anymore.”
And as soon as that thought flashed through, Heidi lost it. I opened my purse.
I yelled, “Phil.”
His head swiveled twice.
“Get off at the next stop,” he shouted.
I was amazed at how roomy the bus became as we marched through.
We were spewed out in a strange city with indecipherable tongue somewhere between point A and B.
Our new wool coats weren’t looking too good. Stretched to my limit I wondered how to dry clean in Italy.
“I think that might be a pharmacy,” Phil pointed to a green cross outside a shop. “I’ll get something to clean you off.”
“…But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” (2 Cor. 1:9).
Do you sometimes feel that God is giving you more than you can bear?
Paul declares that hardships teach reliance on God. He assures purpose in the trials we face. God doesn’t leave us wallowing in our tears. He brings hope into our darkness.
Today I climbed the steps into an Italian bus and remembered. It was like getting back up on a horse. I swayed with the curves and hung on through squealing stops. And I remembered a foggy day years ago when I thought God was giving more than I could handle.
A lady smiled at me and I realized she thought I was smiling at her. In reality I stood again on the long ago sidewalk watching Phil walk through the fog holding out one kleenex in his hand.