RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Few things are more difficult than a missionary’s life. Loneliness, harsh living conditions, spiritual opposition, danger, illness and even the death of a loved one are just a few of the things that can send someone packing.
That’s why the retirement of 37 missionaries with 1,172 years of service between them can only be explained by God’s grace and power, International Mission Board President Jerry Rankin told a group of retiring missionaries Sept. 13.
“You didn’t give yourself to missionary service because you thought it would be nice to travel to exotic places,” Rankin said. “It wasn’t because of the financial benefits and affluent lifestyle.
“No, it was because you came to the point of obeying God’s call and, because of your commitment, He blessed you with an anointing that sustained you through great difficulty and empowered your witness.”
The International Mission Board’s annual emeritus recognition week, which included a service at New Bridge Baptist Church in Richmond, Va., honored a group of workers whose service began as far back as 1950.
When some of those missionaries were appointed, the board had fewer than 1,000 missionaries serving in a few dozen countries, Rankin noted. Now Southern Baptists have 5,268 missionaries serving among 1,317 people groups all around the world.
“You’ve all had the privilege of being a part of those God-called missionaries who were privileged to complete the second millennium of Christian history and span into the 21st century,” Rankin said. “You’ve laid the groundwork for what God is continuing to do as He moves toward completing our Great Commission task.
“We stand in absolute amazement at what God has done during these years represented by your service,” Rankin said. “The Gospel continues to expand in a way that cannot be deterred. Yes, the government restrictions are still there. Yes, the religious opposition is strong. But the Gospel has been planted and that door cannot be shut, because you were obedient in following God’s leadership.”
SEEING THE HAND OF GOD
While God did have to sustain them through great trials, the joy of being part of His work made it all worthwhile, the retirees said.
For a timid and introverted shop teacher, learning a new language and interacting with highly social Africans was a tremendous struggle, said John Gray, who served with his wife, Joanne, in West Africa for 29 years.
“To live and work in Africa, you must socialize a lot,” he said. “This means long greetings, haggling over the price of everything you buy, teasing that you can’t work with a hoe or carry water on your head, sitting in on village socials, farewells and blessings to recite.
“But looking back I see the hand of God in my call. God used my abilities to work with my hands to train men, and then God used those men to help overcome my inabilities in language and communication. We traveled together to many villages. We shared the Gospel, and many people came to faith in Jesus.”
“Voluntary exile” in Siberia meant enduring religious legalism, harsh weather and severe isolation, said Phyllis Hardie, who served with her husband, Charles, in Novosibirsk, Russia, for 11 years after serving 19 years in Taiwan. Yet seeing whole families come to Christ gave them a joy that made the difficulties bearable.
As she prepared to leave Novosibirsk, her women friends gave her a small box made of a stone found only in Siberia. Inside the box were little hearts with the names of about 60 Russian women — all of whom were first-generation Christians who had come to faith through her ministry.
“When Jesus comes, He sets captives free,” Hardie said. “When the ladies presented this box to me, they said, ‘Inside are the hearts of your Russian ladies. We are all changed women because you came.’ The joy of serving Him is represented in this box.”
STORIES OF GOD’S GRACE
Every missionary had stories to tell about the blessing of obeying God’s call to overseas service:
— At the beginning of a year-long evangelistic campaign in Kenya, Louie Scales had to baptize 70 believers in an old bathtub. Over 35 years, Scales and his wife, Jo, saw scores of people accept Christ, many new churches started and hundreds of young pastors grow in the Lord.
— During 34 years of ministry in East Asia and South America, Milton and Nanette Lites focused on training local Christian leaders to do things for themselves, rather than the missionaries doing it for them. “It has been a joy to see this principle result in strong national churches, capable leaders and zealous and faithful church members,” they said.
— Through 38 years of agriculture and literacy work in the Philippines and India, God “gave me Himself,” said Margaret Fox, whose husband, Calvin, died in December 2003. “This is just what I needed to remain faithful,” she said. “God allowed us to witness the start of church-planting movements in three people groups.”
‘UNTIL ALL HAVE HEARD’
The faithfulness of veteran missionaries reflects that of God Himself, said Gordon Fort, the board’s vice president for overseas operations, during a prayer of thanksgiving at the celebration service.
“Father, some of these here tonight walk with a limp. Some have outlived their partners. Some have lived many years alone,” Fort said. “These are marks of faithful warriors. Because we see these marks, we commend them to You.
“We pray that in their hearts, You will give them a picture of those they will meet in eternity because they have been faithful. May we take heart because we recognize that these stand as a testimony to Your faithfulness through every generation.”
Much work remains to be done, however, by all Southern Baptists, as well as by “retiring” missionaries, Fort said.
“Father, may You remind us as we leave this place that there are those who have yet to hear. May we do everything in our power, in cooperation with Your Holy Spirit, until You call us home, until all have heard.”