I think it is important to understand what younger-Kristin pictured a missionary life being before we move on. I always pictured huts, trees, spears, gunfire, fighting diseases with nothing but leaves, warfare, danger, excitement, thrilling heroics, and the like. (Picture a lady Indiana Jones and you will about have it.) Now I think it is a safe rule to assume that something we decide to do that is new is almost never as exciting as we think it will be, nor is it as easy. Missions is no different. We don't live in a jungle-hut alongside an undiscovered people fighting off pirates and disease; someone somewhere might, but not the Coupal's. Although this sounds like a child's dream, in some ways I still expected hints and flavors of this in our life when we first got on the plane to Uganda. And I suppose there has been adventure and danger at times... But the reality of our life is the adventure of constant adaptability.
People ask me a lot what I think the most important thing is for a missionary. First, and most important, is a deep love and understanding of Scripture. We would never expect a pastor to need someone to teach him in order to read the Bible, but for some reason we send out missionaries all the time who can't feed themselves from the Word of God (side rant). The second is adaptability. In the US I was a wife, an ICU nurse, and a kid's/youth ministry worker. Those were the things I would have told you about myself. How I saw myself was incredibly inflexible. Then I got on a plane to move to Africa.
Here are some of the things I have become since then: a housekeeper, student, cook, vet, nurse, Bible-teacher, secretary, accountant, exterminator, writer, marketing manager, administrator, pharmacist, translator, web-designer, tour guide, liaison, graphic-designer, counselor, taxi service, errand runner, plumber; expert and novice. Now perhaps several of these were true in America, but not the extent that I feel them here. Because even though I am capable of doing many of these things in the States, I often find myself feeling like a child in my new culture.
I remember the first time I drove anywhere on my own after getting my driver's license. I was driving myself to work at my first job. I felt like a newborn deer trying to learn to walk. I got places and did things, but everything felt shaky beneath my feet because it was all new. That is often how I feel as I take on each new role in my new context. I can go to the bank, but I feel nervous and hesitant because everything is different, and I probably have to re-write the letter to withdraw what I need. I can drive, but it still feels like my depth perception is off because I'm on a new side of the car and road. I can order medications but I have to look everything up like a new graduate from school because all the names and diseases are different here. I can teach a kid's Sunday School (I've been doing that since I was 13) but they never quite understand me because we need a translator. Even a basic greeting to someone feels unstable here, because I have to translate my words into a language that is based on hearing tones and using parts of my throat I never have before.
I recently learned to build a website and design a brochure. I have never really done this before. But the ministry needed these things done, and no one on the team we have knows how. So we asked for help, and we learned together. I think that is a key to missions, learning together. Because there isn't someone we can just call up, pop by, or message real fast to get things done. Life works differently in this context, and even the familiar help is 9 hours behind us on the clock. We have a golden window of a few hours when we are awake at the same time as our US counterparts. So we learn how to do things here and now. Often, we can ask our blessed local friends how and what to do. Often we can't.
So all of my hopes and dreams about missions as a child are far from accurate. But life certainly isn't lacking in adventure; it's just different adventures. It is the adventure of saying 'I am mentally disturbed' when you mean 'I have a headache' because you don't know the right words. It is the adventure of eating fried ants because you know it will offend your friends if you pass, because they made them for you, and because that was very sweet of them. It's the adventure of adapting. Some days we call 'routine' here but the truth is you never really have a routine. Because no two days ever truly look the same. And even the mundane is an adventure, because we are children in this context learning how to do life all over again. We are becoming more than we ever dreamed because the ministry needs skills we don't have.
The amazing thing is that even in the discomfort of learning new things, there is growth. Not just in skills I never had before, but in my faith. You should not become a missionary if you like to feel adequate, because you won't. None of us IS adequate but nothing teaches you that truth like cross-cultural living. If, however, you want to learn your desperate need for Christ in a deep and intimate way, missions might be for you. I never knew the meaning of 'pray without ceasing' until I couldn't accomplish anything without prayer. Even cooking now has me praying 'Lord, let that temperature on the oven be the right one. Let that chicken be done! Please please let us eat before the power goes out or we run out of propane for the oven!' This is has been the greatest adaption in my life over the last two years, learning my own inadequacy.
My first missions trip to Mexico left me feeling so capable, so valuable, so confident. Little did I know that those feelings were the result of strong team leaders and very (very very very very) gracious and patient missionaries on the field. It is easy to feel like we are getting into long term missions to save our host country, heck, even the world. The truth is, missions teaches you very fast that it is only by God's grace that you can do anything at all. It is impossible to feel superior to a place when I have to ask how to us the toilet, or where to buy rice. Instead you have to embrace being a bumbling toddler learning how to talk and do for the first time. But that learning gives the chance for child-like faith that I never could have experienced outside of missions. I come from a place that values independence and strength. But Jesus has called each of us to a life of dependence on Him, of humility and meekness. It took me not knowing how to make a phone call to truly learn what that looks like in my life.
As I write this I am sitting in a bank lobby waiting for someone to arrive because the paperwork that was going to be done 2 Thursdays ago still isn't done. We are coming up on hour 4 of waiting this week because the bank didn't do their paperwork properly. It isn't a grand adventure of swashbuckling and drama. It's a "normal" day here in Gulu, Uganda. But it is a lesson is adaptability and relying on the Lord for my daily needs. And in the end, I think that is the greatest adventure of all.