"If you want to live here you must eat our food, live in our houses, wear our clothes and speak our language." With these words, spoken to my father about 40 years ago, the chief of a remote valley in Colombia was sure that he had discouraged us from ever coming to live in the mountains with his people. A few months later our family made the treacherous 30-mile journey by foot and mule on winding trails through the mountains which led us to our new home. There was no electricity or running water, no grocery store or doctor. Our home measured 12 x 20 feet; its walls and floor were made of mud and the roof was thatched. The language of the native people we hoped to serve had never been written down. No dictionary or grammar existed. In order to reach these people, we chose to be incarnated into their culture. As St. Paul says, “I have become all things to all men that by all means I might save some.” (1 Cor. 9:22) This process of incarnation is essential to all missionary work.
The heart of the word 'missionary' is the word mission. A missionary is a person who is dedicated to fulfilling a mission. In the case of Christian missionaries, it is a person who dedicates himself to fulfilling our Lord's last great command before His ascension: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations." (Matt 28:19) This command is also the first Gospel which is read to every new Christian at their baptism. This means that every baptized Orthodox Christian has been commanded by our Lord to make disciples of all nations. It was this command that compelled my family to go to Colombia when I was a boy, and what inspired me to serve as a missionary with my family in Albania in adulthood.
All Orthodox Christians must be engaged in the process of disciple-making. For this to be successful, we must work together as members of the Body of Christ. There are many different ways in which each member can participate in the process of taking the Gospel to those who have not yet heard it. All missionaries are not theologically trained clergy. The essential thing is that each missionary is working in a strategic way to make it possible for the Church to reach out to and incorporate those who have not previously been joined to Christ and to the life of His Body the Church. Many, who themselves do not go to faraway places as missionaries, participate in the ministry of missionaries by supporting them.
The process of disciple-making occurs in a relationship between persons. It is not primarily a transfer of knowledge and it is not recruiting fellow adherents of an ideology. Disciple-making is introducing others to Christ and helping them to be formed in His image. For this reason, one of the primary tools which the Church has used throughout the ages for making disciples of all nations is long-term cross-cultural missionaries who travel from their native land to a place where the Gospel has not yet been preached.
The Importance of Self-Emptying
The primary model for missions is the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. St. Paul describes this process in his letter to the Philippians. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)
We are told to have the same mind in ourselves which Christ Jesus had when he became man for the salvation of the world. As missionaries, we must be willing to empty ourselves of everything that is an obstacle to the proclamation of the Gospel in the place where we are called to witness. We do not set aside our fundamental identity as persons just as Christ did not set aside his fundamental identity as the Son of God and the second person of the Trinity. Rather, He emptied Himself of those things which would have hindered His coming to live among us as man (John 1:14). As missionaries this means setting aside the comfort and familiarity of our homes in order to go to the place that God is calling us. At times these are things related to the fact that the standard of life in the United States is higher than in most other parts of the world; but often there are things which are simply different. For the sake of this emptying, the missionary must choose not to take all of his life in the United States with him into the mission field.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to leave behind in the self-emptying process required when becoming missionaries is our family. As missionaries we live in countries far from home and return to the United States only at long intervals. This means that we do not see our families for many months and sometimes years at a time. This separation is often very difficult both for those who go and for family members who are left behind. This painful reality has been alleviated somewhat by e-mail, inexpensive phone calls and even video-conferencing on the Internet. Still the missionary must choose a road of self emptying in regard to his family. A missionary who lives overseas but is always looking over his shoulder at the homeland he left behind can not be fully incarnate and effective. I have been blessed with a family that is fully supportive of my missionary calling. They have never opposed us being overseas. Nevertheless, it is still hard to be so far away so much of the time. We are deeply comforted by the fact that we can look forward to spending eternity together where there will be no separation.
Paradoxically, this painful separation from our families opens a door for God to bless us with a new family. As our Lord said, "Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life." (Matt 19:29) We have seen the truth of this statement many times over. We have been blessed with a network of wonderful friends which stretches across North America and around the world. These are people who have adopted us into their families because of their love for Christ and their support of our work as missionaries. We experienced this in a special way during my former wife Lynette’s battle with cancer. We were overwhelmed by the fact that thousands of people around the world, many of whom we had never met, were praying for us. We truly had a family many hundredfold.
The mission of our Lord to this earth for our salvation did not end with His becoming man. He went on and "humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross", as St. Paul says. As missionaries in the 21st century, we are not often called to die physically for the sake of Christ but many missionaries throughout the centuries have been martyred. Nevertheless if we are to be effective witnesses for Christ, we must be prepared to lay down our lives for him if it is necessary. If the missionary only stays at his post as long as it is safe and comfortable, his hypocrisy will become evident to those to whom he is striving to witness. We cannot call others to commit themselves fully to Christ unless we ourselves have done so.
My former wife Lynette gave an eloquent witness of this principle. When she was diagnosed with cancer in December of 2004 we returned to the United States in the hope that she could be successfully treated and continue missionary service in Albania. By the spring of 2006, it was clear that her cancer was terminal. She chose at that point to return to Albania and continue serving for as many months as God would grant her. She also chose to die and be buried in Albania.
Being Incarnate for Those We Serve
One of the most important aspects of the incarnation that the missionary strives to achieve o