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Rough patches and a spiritual desert

Thoughts from an African river crossing

Not long ago, I visited some missionaries in an African country. In order to get from the city where our plane landed to the town where they live, we had to cross a lake by ferry. 

Dale Hawley | In the Word

There were two routes and two different ferries. The first route was a paved road. It was a popular route, which usually meant a long wait at the ferry. Sure enough, we waited in line for about two hours before we were able to cross.  

When we returned, we came by the second route. It was shorter and there was no line at the ferry. However, the road to get to the ferry was unpaved. The missionary, in his Toyota Landcruiser, painstakingly negotiated each stretch of the rutted road, carefully traversing the boulders, avoiding the worst of the gaping channels, dodging pedestrians and motorcycles. For him, it was just another day of driving in Africa.

As I thought about the contrast between these two routes it struck me that it is a metaphor for ministry and, perhaps especially, for missions. A good share of the time things are smooth sailing. Sure, we may get delayed by the occasional ferry crossing, but overall life and work move in a predictable and satisfying manner. 

But sometimes we encounter rough patches where the going is slow and difficult to negotiate. Those rough patches may take the form of traumatic events that underscore the distance from loved ones and social supports. I recently learned of missionaries who were forced to suddenly leave their adopted countries due to medical emergencies and a death in the family.  

But often the rough patches are more subtle. They take the form of discouragement with perceived outcomes to our work or frustration over living conditions. They manifest as a case of the blahs accompanied by a side of procrastination. They create a spiritual desert — where your inner well is dry even as others seek to drink from it.

Sometimes these rough patches are prolonged and indicative of a need for intervention. They may signal depression or anxiety or burnout. But other times they are simply a season to be weathered. They are hard times in our lives that must be negotiated slowly with God’s help.  

“Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.'” — 1 Kings 19:3-4, New International Version

I love the story of Elijah who, after defeating the prophets of Baal and Asherah on Mount Carmel, finds himself in the wilderness, depleted from the confrontation and cowed by Jezebel’s threat on his life. He has moved from exhilaration to exhaustion. He complains bitterly to God about his plight and is ready to throw in the towel. 

God’s response is to provide food and drink and rest. When Elijah is ready, the Lord shows him the next steps he needs to take.

I suspect most of us face rough patches like Elijah. The swing in emotions and circumstances may not be as dramatic as his, but there may be times we question what we are doing and are tempted to give up. Those are times to negotiate the terrain slowly and to wait on the goodness of God. 

Who knows what direction he will point? But chances are good it will lead to pavement.

Dale Hawley is associate director for missionary care for Missions Resource Network, a nonprofit supported by Churches of Christ. Learn more at www.mrnet.org.

Filed under: Africa In the Word missionaries Missions Resource Network Top Stories

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