Seasons of a Missionary Series (You Won't Find This on IMDB)

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What’s your favorite television show? Is it currently running or do you have to binge watch it on some streaming site? Or did you have go old school and buy the DVDs so you could relive your favorite moments: the drama, the laughter, the tears, the cliffhangers, and the long-awaited (sometimes long-dreaded) finale? I’m amazed at how easily we find ourselves captivated by the lives of characters on the small screen. Season after season, we agonize over their decisions, cry at their heartbreaks, cringe over their mistakes, and rejoice at their successes. We watch our favorite episodes over again and we even watch the episodes we hated, hoping for a different outcome every time. What is it that keeps us watching?

It’s the story. It’s the narrative unfolding before our eyes – the unexpected twists and turns in the plot, the surprise endings, the unanswered questions. And it’s the characters themselves. We see them transformed, for better or for worse. These are what keep us coming back.

Looking back over our missionary career, reflecting on the different “seasons” of our lives, I think it’s the story and the characters that keep us coming back as well. But not just any story…THE story. It’s the story of God’s redeeming love reaching out to a lost world that underlies our own personal chronicle, context, and call. It’s the characters we see being transformed by the startling love of Jesus as well as our own inner journey as we submit to the sanctifying grace of God in our own lives. As the plot line of eternity and redemption unfold, we are swept up into the drama of God’s narrative and find our own role in the midst of it.

The first season of a series introduces the concept, setting, characters, and plot. Responding to God’s prompting to go is the catalyst that provides the setting for that first season to unfold. Unfortunately, that first season often reveals the flaws in our own character: fears, doubts, weaknesses, prejudices, impatience, and pride. There may be episodes of embarrassing cultural gaffes, loneliness and isolation, illnesses or injuries, unexpected assignments, overwhelming responsibilities, culture shock, and then reverse culture shock when we return to our passport country. The season finale may even provide a cinematically dramatic cliffhanger, the first major turning point in our own personal dramatic arc, leading to the question, “Will I return to the mission field or not?”

Season two premieres with a reluctant resolve to return to cross-cultural service. But this time, the setting is familiar and we discover we are thriving in a particular role in a specific time and place. Now character development deepens as we learn new skills, adapt to the culture, build true and lasting friendships, and learn more about ourselves. We find joy and contentment in what’s now become our home. For many missionaries, consequent seasons see little change in setting, though characters may come and go. But mostly it’s the plot that deepens, the complex and continuous action of God at work transforming lives – a season of fruitfulness.

For others though, following seasons may take a different turn. We find ourselves ready for a new scenario. But this time, we approach change with more confidence, strengthened by years of experiencing God’s faithfulness and provision. We can anticipate the conflict, both internal and external, involved in adjusting to yet another culture and losing the relationships and familiarity we’d depended on in a place we had come to call home. We may find, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, that though the context for our story changes, our role does not, and we welcome the new depth of perspective that the end of another season brings.

If renewed for yet another season, tensions may arise. New protagonists may be introduced throughout this season, and new conflicts as well. Transitions, within and without, can affect our family, our vocational focus, our sense of purpose, our certainty about our life’s direction. Children graduate high school and leave for college. Parents grow older. Longtime supporters may no longer be able to partner with us in ministry. Each new plot twist seems to foreshadow yet another pivotal season finale. Many of us find ourselves wondering if the mission series will continue. Or will there be a spin-off that takes us in a totally different direction with a completely new cast of characters, setting, and plot line?

What we do know is that each season brings with it the opportunity to commit anew to the overarching story, to renew that sense of calling to the role God has for us to play in His story. There is no denouement yet. A certain narrative arc may end, but our story, set within the unfolding plan of redemption, continues. As for the series ending finale…God has the final cut privilege on that one.

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Betsy Phillips is a member of CoServe team of The Mission Society under a dual appointment with World Gospel Mission. With her husband, Len, she serves in educational ministries in the US and as a resource for missionaries abroad. They have their feet loosely planted on the ground in Georgia and are the parents of three children who feel at home in airports.

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