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Overcoming array of odds, couple fulfills missions call

Revised 11:17 a.m. Jan. 9, 2007.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–An early marriage, a postponed calling and an uphill struggle form the backdrop for the appointment of Joseph and Mary Matthews* as Southern Baptist missionaries to Mendoza, Argentina.
Looking back, the Matthewses marvel at how God sustained a call to missions in a marriage some would have predicted to fail.
“We had two strikes against us,” said Joseph, reflecting on his marriage at age 19 to 16-year-old Mary. “We were teenagers and we had a baby on the way.”
Neither of the Matthewses had lived away from home when they were married in 1985, but Joseph immediately enlisted in the Air Force to support his new family. He credited the initial growth in their marriage to the way they struck out on their own.
“The best thing we ever did was to leave home, like Abraham,” Joseph said of those early years.
Life moved quickly for the young couple. By the time she was 20, Mary was the mother of two and had recently accepted Christ. A young Christian himself, Joseph had been sharing the gospel with other airmen on the base and winning them to the Lord. One day, however, it became clear that the Lord had more in store than Joseph had imagined.
“I was in my second enlistment and driving home,” said Joseph, recalling his initial sense of a call to foreign missions. “I was listening to the radio, and there was a missions report on China and how God was working there. Suddenly, it hit me, and I said, ‘Yes, Lord — that’s what I want to do.'”
When Joseph shared his experience with Mary, however, he received a cool response. Mary had grown up in a Spanish-speaking Catholic church and had little understanding of either the Bible or Southern Baptists’ emphasis on missions. While she was beginning to grow in Christ, the idea of going overseas as a missionary was untenable. To her, missions meant being stuck at home with her children in a place of turmoil and confusion — a prospect she did not relish. Rather than press the issue, Joseph began to pray that God would change Mary’s heart.
During the next five years, Joseph’s call to missions lay dormant while the Lord matured the couple. Mary grew as a believer and became increasingly involved in the church. Joseph was able to attend night school and in time graduated from college. He also continued to find the air base a ready mission field and soon began to disciple men, bringing them to their home for Bible study. As several of these men began to develop spiritually, Joseph sensed that God was calling him into full-time ministry.
“We didn’t talk about his role,” said Mary, who was still hesitant about missions service. “He was just going the next step.”
Part of Mary’s uneasiness arose from feeling inadequate to serve as a pastor’s wife. She shared her concerns with Robin Kicklighter, whose husband, Van, was pastor of the mission church in Omaha, Neb., that the Matthewses were attending. Since Robin herself did not fit the stereotypical image for a pastor’s wife, she encouraged Mary to trust God to equip her for the ministry she would one day fill.
“She explained to me that God gives us the tools we need,” Mary recalled, “and that it’s not us changing ourselves.”
About that time, in October 1994, Joseph attended an Operation Mobilization missions conference with a friend. As the speaker began to preach on missions and report about God’s activity in the world, Joseph realized anew the call God had given him. That night, he reaffirmed his commitment to missions service.
“I remember driving home that night,” Joseph recalled. “I told the Lord, ‘I’ll go — you work out the details with Mary. I don’t know how to work it out.'”
Both Joseph and Mary soon realized that Joseph’s call to full-time ministry meant seminary, and so they applied at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. Meanwhile, the Lord was beginning to unite their hearts for missions service. Mary explained how the more that she and Joseph discussed options, the more clear it became that missions was God’s will.
“We asked ourselves, ‘What else could we be doing?'” Mary said, describing how they would try to imagine themselves in a different role. “As we did, we realized, we didn’t fit into the other pictures.”
Defining, too, was a visit to Jericho week at Glorieta (N.M.) Baptist Conference Center. During the missions appointment service that week, the Matthewses’ growing passion for missions reached a new height.
“Glorieta was the worst,” Mary said, recalling that evening. “I felt the tension in Joseph. We were both holding in our tears. We had a desire — there’s no words to explain it. We had to sit there and watch the commissioning service, and we were miserable, because we knew we were supposed to go.”
Part of the tension the Matthewses faced came from realizing that several hurdles stood in the way of their serving as career missionaries. Mary, who had taken five years to get her G.E.D., would need to take a number of hours of seminary coursework. Their oldest child would soon be too old to allow them to be appointed. And Joseph had no pastoral experience.
“We were discouraged,” Mary said. When learning of the needed coursework, “I said, ‘There’s no way.'”
However, the Lord gradually began to make it possible for the Matthewses to fulfill the requirements. Joseph began to pastor a small church not far from the seminary while working on his master’s degree. Mary was hired as secretary to Gary Ledbetter, vice president for student development, who worked with Mary so she could take classes over the lunch hour. With Mary working full time, Joseph began to assume responsibility for taking care of their three children at home.
“It was hard to switch roles,” Mary said. “It taught us to appreciate each other’s jobs. And it took time for the kids to adjust.”
Joseph was quick to give credit to Mary for her endurance during that time. “She’s the success story,” Joseph said of his wife. “She sacrificed to make this thing work.”
As time wore on, the Matthewses’ initial enthusiasm began to wear down under the pressures of work and seminary life. The vision which had been so long in coming now seemed so close, yet still out of reach. It seemed, too, as if Satan was working overtime to discourage their efforts.
“As he sees what we’re doing, he tries to attack with little problems and stresses,” Mary said. “The closer you get, the more Satan attacks.”
Their seminary family, however, soon stepped in to undergird and encourage them during this time.
“If it weren’t for the prayers of others, our prayers and God’s affirmation, we wouldn’t have made it,” Mary said.
“It was like the Elijah syndrome,” Joseph said of that time. “We were empowered from on high.” The Matthewses were appointed International Mission Board missionaries during the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in June.
Looking back now, both Joseph and Mary say they are grateful for the time that has passed since their initial call.
“We had to face the question, ‘Can you see yourself doing anything else?'” Joseph said of the lengthy process. “We tried, and we couldn’t. And we say, praise the Lord for Herman Russell (IMB candidate consultant) and the process.”
“If God has called you, don’t worry about the hurdles,” Mary counseled others who feel called to international missions. “You do what you have to do, the rest God takes care of.”
Joseph added his own advice to applicants. “Line up and do what your candidate consultant says,” Joseph said, “and then hang in there. Line yourself up and go with it.”
“Get others to pray for you,” Mary added. “Be realistic. It’s not always going to be hunky-dory. It’s not going to be an easy time.”
When struggles arise, they should not be seen as discouraging, but instead as opportunities for growth, Mary said. “What makes you think there aren’t missionaries out there with problems?” she said, recalling the question she had to ask herself when she felt inadequate. “I’m not perfect, but I can do anything through Christ who gives me strength.”
Both the Matthewses noted the blessings that have come through their years of waiting. “We have staying power in our marriage,” Joseph said. “The advantage is in overcoming.”
“Commitment is a big thing,” Mary added. “We don’t want to be another statistic. Statistically, we shouldn’t be where we’re at today.”
The Matthewses hope God’s working in their lives will be a blessing to others who feel that they face insurmountable odds. Mary noted how the Lord has already used their testimony to reach those around them.
“We have had the biggest impact with military personnel and with youth or young adults,” she said. “Once we share what we came out of, they can see the potential for God to work in their lives, too.”
*Names changed for security concerns.

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  • Clinton Wolf