The Book That Changed Amy’s Life

Well, I will be straight with you: this one is a doozy. I SO identify with everything my good friend Amy writes here– missionary biographies were my JAM growing up. However, Amy highlights some pervasive lies we swallow in regards to vocation that have serious consequences for us all. As someone who devoured these types of books with fervor (and realizing how they have shaped me) I am so glad that Amy is working on a book-length project (!) that deals with all of these sorts of issues. I cannot wait to read it.

 

 

 

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The Book That Changed My Life

by Amy Peterson

 

 

 

 

This summer I’ve been re-reading the missionary biographies I devoured in childhood. Amy Carmichael was my favorite missionary, not only because we shared a name, but because she was as imaginative, daring, and heroic as Anne of Green Gables and Nancy Drew combined.  Amy Carmichael started a Bible study for “mill girls” on the margins of Irish society, traveling through neighborhoods considered unsuitable for proper young ladies. Eventually 500 girls attended her Bible studies.  In India, she snuck disguised into temples to rescue girl-children destined to be temple prostitutes.  She adopted the Indian way of dressing, assimilating at a time when few missionaries understood the importance of entering a new culture as a learner.  She wrote poetry. I loved her- her rebellion, her zeal, her heroism, her red hair, all of it.

But when I opened With Daring Faith: A Biography of Amy Carmichael this summer, to re-read it, my breath caught in my throat at the author’s dedication. It was to her daughter:

To Katherine Joy Davis

with the prayer that she will hear and

answer a call from the Lord

to a foreign mission field.

I tried to imagine praying that for my daughter, Rosie, when I put her to bed at night.  Wouldn’t hearing that prayer send a seed into the soil of her heart, implanting the idea that I believe (or even that God believes) that overseas missions work is the best thing you can do with your life? What kind of pressure might that put on a child?

 

 

I wondered if Katherine went.

***

Before I continue, there are some things you need to know.  Chief among them is that when I was twenty-two, I moved to Southeast Asia to “teach English.”  When I say that books like With Daring Faith changed my life, what I mean is this: when it came time for me to decide how to live an adult life, I could envision no more interesting, meaningful, or heroic work than missionary work overseas, and I blame that mostly on the books.

Sure, if you had asked me, I would have said that there was no division between “sacred” work and “secular” work — that working as a copyeditor at a publishing house could be just as meaningful and worthwhile as moving to a foreign land for God — but I didn’t really believe it.  How could I?  No one wrote biographies of copyeditors.  Accountants never snuck into temples. Housewives never changed the world.

Sermons that talked about living lives fully dedicated to God rarely held up sweeping the floor daily as an example of dedication.  They seldom lauded people who responded to emails punctually and thoughtfully.  They didn’t praise those who regularly attended conferences for professional development so that they could be up-to-date in their fields.

I wanted an extraordinary life, flush with spiritual vitality and adventure, fully committed to God.  I wanted to be the greatest.  And the only way I could see to find that life was by going overseas.

***

How does a child begin to believe that one way of life is more spiritual than another?

***

I read the dedication to the book, and I wondered about that daughter – Katherine. How old was she when she found those words?  What did they mean to her then? What do they mean to her now?

My daughter is five, and I’m not sure she knows what the word missionary means.  I ask her.

-Have you ever heard the word missionary?

-I think, maybe, once.

-Do you know what it means?

-No.

-A missionary is a person who goes to another country to tell people – people who have never heard about Jesus – to tell them about Jesus.

-Oh. {pause}.  Like, if Mae Mae and Papa didn’t know about Jesus, and we went to visit them and told them about Jesus?

 

 

 

 

Yeah, like that.

***

I confess: then I googled her.  I googled the author, and found her on Facebook.  Her daughter Katherine is married now, maybe a few years younger than I am.  She has an art degree and lives in Michigan with a husband and a baby.  There’s no sign that Katherine ever heard a call to foreign missions.

***

I’ve been wondering if I should put missionary biographies on the shelf for my daughter.  She’ll be old enough to read them in just a few years. Do I stack them next to Nancy Drew and Half Magic and A Wrinkle In Time, or keep them in my office?

***

I went overseas, running face-first towards what I thought was the will of God. I hit a wall of thorns, landing flat on my back, the God I thought I knew quite well wilting like a punctured balloon animal next to me. I went overseas looking for adventure and found tragedy. God was silent, and I spun into a dark night of the soul.

That’s why I’ve been re-reading these books from my childhood.  I had to know: did they leave the tragedy out when they wrote the stories for children?  Why had I expected adventure but not opposition, spiritual success but not sorrow?

Here’s what I found: the hardships are there, right there in the stories I read as a child.  Gladys Aylward leading a group of starving children through mountain passes. Elizabeth Elliot losing Jim. Eric Liddell dying in an internment camp, hardly having spent any of his adult life with his wife and children. The heartache was there, plain as day.  Why hadn’t I remembered it?

I hadn’t remembered it because missionary biographies shaped my imagination in my formative years, when I could understand heroism but had no framework for tragedy.  The intrigue and daring had stuck with me, but the losses and struggles had gone in one ear and out the other.  I had no way of comprehending them.

It’s like this: you read Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth before you have your first baby, and you feel confident in your ability to give birth: you hear these stories about women strong and in touch with their bodies and their babies, and you think, I can do that, too.

Then you go into labor.

And when you read Ina May again after having given birth, you notice things that slipped right past you the first time.  Oh, in this story her labor lasted for thirty-six hours.  Oh, one woman said the pain was orgasmic, but another described it as the worst feeling of her life.

Before, your mind had attached to the successes, but now, when you read about the thirty-six hour labor, that detail doesn’t go in one ear and out the other.  Now, you know exactly what that feels like.

So should we encourage women to read Ina May before they give birth, knowing that they won’t really have the framework to understand the stories?  Should we encourage children to read missionary biographies?

I haven’t decided whether to put the books on the shelf for Rosie yet.  I still have time.

***

 

If I ever dedicate a book to my daughter, I’ll say this:

 

To Rosemary,

the beloved of God,

with the prayer that she will grasp how wide

and long

and high

and deep

is the love of Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Amy Peterson teaches ESL and works with the Ockenga Honors Scholars at Taylor University. Read more at her blog, or follow her on twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other posts in the Book That Changed My Life series:

Night

Walking on Water

Jesus For President

 

 

 

 

 

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13 thoughts on “The Book That Changed Amy’s Life

  1. Stina KC says:

    Love the Ina May analogy Amy, like you know I would. Wonderful writing.

  2. Cheryl Ann says:

    Wow! This is really neat! Good job! ❤

  3. I’ve had some similar experiences, one weird one that stands out involving watching The Rock (with Nicolas Cage) a second time after 2 years in Bible college, and being UNABLE TO HANDLE it, being very afraid. Another time is when I went to the circus as an adult and couldn’t enjoy it because of how stressed I was watching all the jumps and tricks — it’s like understanding gravity ruined things for me. When Jesus says “be like little children” I wonder if he also means be as resilient to pain as they are? Kids are amazing, they heal so fast, their bodies are walking miracles. I know as we age our bodies just stop working that way but — perhaps there is something to their ability to overcome and keep being joyful? To be so excited about everything that the thought of injury, pain doesn’t slow us down at all? Stupidity vs. trust, ignorance vs. hope — I think these are the things at tension here. I am also thinking of kids who live in homes with lots of domestic violence, and how they adapt, but those things are still in them. Ah, so many thoughts. Thanks for your post!!!

    • Amy says:

      I’ve been thinking a lot, too, about how this kind of thing should affect how and when we introduce certain biblical stories to our kids. I think Pete Enns has written about his…

  4. sandy says:

    amy, wonderfully said. maybe it’s time to grow a generation of jesus-loving kids who understand that there is no hierarchy of geographies when it comes to living out that love.

  5. I absolutely love this! I, too, dreamed of being a missionary, mostly because my parents were. But I had a couple of books on missionaries when I was a kid, too. I guess I always thought missionaries were at the top of the ministry pyramid, but now I think we can all minister in different ways within our own circumstances. I also think a lot about how my kids are growing up so differently than I did. In some ways, it’s sad because they are missing out on the family feel and mission-driven denomination I grew up in, but I also think it’s more healthy in other ways. It’s just strange. By the time I was my daughter’s age (9), I knew about the 10/40 window and missionaries and I already knew I was going to Thailand soon. Her world is much more closed in that aspect, but I feel like it is also more open because I was so sheltered. Wonderful post!

    • Amy says:

      Thanks, Karissa. I have a lot of the same complex feelings about raising my kids in the Episcopal church rather than the non-denominational evangelical churches of my youth.

  6. Haley Baker says:

    This is a great post. I want to read more, too! Keep us posted about when her book comes out!

  7. Hi Amy,

    A friend shared your post with me this morning and I appreciate what you’ve shared because I think there is a true danger of viewing “far off mission fields” as more exciting or important or meaningful, than living with a mission-mindset-lifestyle here…

    But I also think it is necessary…more exposure to missionaries (past and current)….so that they are real people, with real faults and real victories…real people we know, host, love and pray for. Real people that God simply chose to use in a different location. If anything…I think the danger for our children often is rooted in a myopic view of Christianity and God’s workings in the world. (http://thechuppies.com/2012/08/praying-to-grow-a-world-christian/)

    Lydi (our youngest of five…our oldest is almost 14)) just turned 5 at the end of June…and she can list off a string of the missionaries she “knows” because they’ve stayed here or had meals with us or we pray for them regularly. She knows their children and understands to some degree at least why God has them where they currently are….there’s a sense of how we are on their team and want to support them and we pray for how God is using them wherever they are.

    I think the danger comes if we don’t teach and LIVE (most importantly) as missionaries here…when exposure to missionaries elsewhere is coupled with a constant affirmation of the value of living as missionaries here…I’m not too worried/concerned that a skewed perspective will be developed. Our crew could quickly name those we are specifically praying God will allow us to reach in our own neighborhoods and community.

    I did think the inscription the author wrote in the book was odd/off…absolutely agree with you on that…my prayer is that our kiddos will love the Lord wholeheartedly and be ready to pour out their lives for Him wherever they are…whether it’s a small farm town in the middle of nowhere, a major city, or Uganda.

    I think if anything…when I hear/read/learn about missionaries elsewhere… I feel a welling up of desire to be bolder and braver here and now.

    While I do agree with & understand some of your concerns….
    From my perspective, the dangers with missionary biographies come more when authors gloss over their faults or mistakes of missionaries and make them out to be hero-like without pointing back to God…where the focus is taken away from what God has accomplished and is (even unintentionally) directed more towards the missionary as some sort of superhero.

    But we have that very discussion when we read missionary biographies.

    As our crew gets older, we’ve been able to read some biographies that give depth to the missionaries…their struggles and how God was even able to use their weaknesses and failures. That is encouraging to me…

    I really think one could make a similar case for almost every Bible “hero” story…if their story is told outside of the context of God’s overarching plan for redemption and His working in their life (why we love the Jesus Storybook Bible )…then the focus rests on the “excitement” of their story or their abilities…not on God’s choice to simply work through them.

    Anyway…random thoughts…thank you for sharing…my crew is all still sound asleep this morning and it was fun/good to process through this. Hope I made some sense…my coffee cup isn’t quite empty enough for this much dialogue 😉

    If you haven’t checked out the “Dispatches from the Front” DVD series– Tim Keesee and new book just out too, you might really love it? Too heavy/slow for little some little ones and deals with some hard issues, but really good.

  8. […] I read Amy Lepine Peterson’s post about her favorite missionary book this week, I had to pull this book from my bookcase and dust it […]

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