Change – an MK reflects on the only constant


Language is what we use to describe the world.  The philosopher Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language define the limits of my world,” and speaking two languages, as MKs often do, expands those limits.

In Portuguese the word that means you miss someone or something is saudades.  Saudades is such an expressive word that the Wikipedia article for it is over 3,000 words long.  It expresses a longing that gnaws; it is the sense that a part of you is gone and has left a gaping chasm where your breastbone should be.  I’m glad to know the word; without it I would still have the feeling, but not be able to express it.

Being an MK isn’t all mangos and cream.  Difficulty and loss are frequent companions on what can be a lonely road.  By the time I was 13 my home had moved 13 times.  Twice I moved back to a place I had already lived in, but the problem is that those who say ‘you can never go home’ are right.  Once you’ve left, even if you do go back it won’t be the same.  The people have changed, you have changed, the place has changed.  You can rebuild, but not from where you left off.  Weeds will have grown in between the cracks, rain will have swept the earth from beneath your feet.

And things are different in every new place.  Always different.  Rules are different everywhere.  Should I call my teacher by her first name (and title), or her surname?  Why does that lady from church call me ‘filha!’ (daughter) when she tells me off?  I’m NOT her daughter!

New school, new church, new ‘home’.  God and family were the only constants.  So my identity was change; I was the exotic one who was new, the one who always knew she would soon be leaving.

Gill Gouthwaite grew up as an MK in Brazil with her four sisters and English-speaking parents from different countries.

Can postmoderns do long-term?

I was talking recently to a young woman who’s been serving the Lord in France for a few years.  In the course of conversation I enquired whether she’s thinking of doing missions long-term.

“Long-term!” she exclaimed, aghast.  “I’m postmodern; I don’t do long-term.”

Which raises an interesting question: how do people who don’t do long-term engage with missions that do?  Which one changes?  And how? Or can the two approaches be brought together?

The traditional missions model thinks of ‘terms’ of 3-5 years with a break in the home country in between.  I’ve heard it said that in your first term you start learning the language, in the second you start to appreciate the culture, and in the third you’re just about ready to start doing some useful work.  Add in the time you spent preparing to go, at Bible college, raising support and getting other training, and it could be nearly 15 years before you’re actually getting bedded in.  That’s the equivalent of nearly two careers for a postmodern!

It seems likely that in future, more people will do missions as a phase of their life rather than make it a long-term career choice.  This has huge implications for those organisations which stress language acquisition and cultural familiarisation.  But maybe postmoderns with their global perspective will actually integrate much more effectively than their predecessors, who may speak the language fluently but may also have a tendency to isolate themselves in homogeneous micro-communities.

We need to accept that increased turnover is a fact of life.  People come and go.  We can loathe that or we can embrace it.  It might mean that young people don’t stay with us for life, but it also means that older people can join in at a later stage in life than they might previously have done, bringing life skills with them.  The important thing is that we greet people well, and say goodbye well too.  Moving on is neither a lack of commitment or a failure.