Clinging to Jesus in a foreign land

When surrounded by the new and unfamiliar, know that God is still sufficient.

Jared Miller, DMin, pastors the Middle East University Church and the Bouchrieh Seventh-day Adventist Church in Beirut, Lebanon.

 

Katie Miller, MA, is a homemaker and adjunct instructor at Middle East University in Beirut, Lebanon.

Our initial desire to serve the Lord in a foreign land took place during our seminary studies at Andrews University about 10 years ago. We thought the timing was perfect. We did not have any kids yet, allowing both of us to work full time in mission service. The Lord seemed to be opening all the doors for us. But after receiving one solitary phone call, the doors were slammed shut. Our dream of mission service was dashed to pieces. We were extremely disappointed.

The Lord began resurrecting that dream six years later. We attended the 2015 General Conference Session in San Antonio, Texas, and Homer Trecartin, at that time president of the Middle East North Africa (MENA) Union Mission, gave a compelling and convicting report of the vast unreached area in MENA.1 Later that same year, we took some youth from our district to the Generation of Youth for Christ conference in Louisville, Kentucky. Homer Trecartin spoke again. He said the harvest was plentiful, as Jesus said, but the workers were few—especially in MENA.2 He made an altar call, inviting young people to come forward and serve God as missionaries, even if it meant they may die in the mission field, never returning home to their families again. Many young people went forward, but we stayed in our seats. Later, when we talked, Katie said she felt that God was calling us to work in the Middle East. Jared did not see any possibility of that happening.

To Jared’s great surprise, about two months later, a colleague called and asked whether he would have any interest in pastoring in Beirut, Lebanon. That unexpected phone call began the exciting, and somewhat frightening, process of the Lord leading us to the Middle East. As we seriously asked God to reveal His will for our ministry,

He quickly opened the doors and made His will known. When our house sold after being listed for just three weeks and Jared’s doctoral program allowed him to continue his project implementation as previously planned, despite our potential move, we knew He was calling us overseas.

It was during this time that we read this statement: “If the followers of Christ were awake to duty, there would be thousands where there is one today proclaiming the gospel in heathen lands. And all who could not personally engage in the work, would yet sustain it with their means, their sympathy, and their prayers. And there would be far more earnest labor for souls in Christian countries.”3 God convicted us that we needed to leave our district, our family ministries departmental role, and our comfortable life in the United States (US), in order to share the gospel in a foreign land—Lebanon.

Adjusting to new people and a new culture

By moving to Lebanon, we entered the richness of Middle Eastern culture. We live and serve at Middle East University (MEU), and the MENA Union headquarters is literally next door to the university. These two places are the hub of Adventism in the Middle East. We encounter missionaries from all over the world and, beyond that, we meet people from a wide variety of countries.

Our community and campus include Egyptians, Algerians, Tunisians, Moroccans, Iraqis, Iranians, Turks, Kurds, Syrians, Jordanians, Lebanese, and others. Serving in a foreign land has allowed our whole family to build relationships with people from outside of our culture.

In such a multicultural environment, we have sincerely tried to be humble, teachable, and adaptable. We have attempted to understand and respect the Middle Eastern culture. At the same time, we strive to teach that biblical principles must take precedence over culture— including our own. Sometimes we wrestle to determine whether an issue belongs to the cultural realm or the scriptural realm. As a family, we realize our need of wisdom from Heaven to know what is essential (spiritually speaking) and what is not, and we realize that we need the power provided by the indwelling Spirit to firmly model scriptural faithfulness in all areas of life.

Family life in a foreign land

Our family has experienced blessings and difficulties in mission service. Some of the challenges we have faced are similar to challenges faced by pastoral families who live in their home country, while other challenges are unique to living in a foreign land.

When we arrived in Lebanon, Katie was 19 weeks pregnant. The search began for a hospital and doctor willing to allow us to have a water birth. Once a week, on Jared’s day off, we would borrow another missionary’s vehicle in order to search for the right hospital. However, at 29 weeks we were still searching. In desperation, Katie prayed, “Jesus, let me find someplace this week that will allow water birth. If we cannot find a place that allows that, help me accept it.” Soon thereafter, a kind nurse referred us to a hospital that did water births. A few months later, our daughter was born there in a birthing pool. It may appear to be a small thing to some, but Katie is truly thankful to serve a God that listens to, and answers, the prayers of His children.

Adjusting to life overseas after our baby was born was a blessing but was nonetheless challenging. Some challenges moved from manageable to overwhelming, simply by virtue of being away from home.

Two weeks after Eva was born, Katie’s mom traveled to the Middle East to see her newest granddaughter, leaving the US for the first time. The older girls were enjoying a wonderful time with Grandma when we received word that Katie’s grandfather had a heart attack. He passed away and mom’s planned two-week stay with us ended half-completed. Our shock and devastation extended beyond the bereavement. “God, why did this happen,” we cried, “at this time, cutting short mom’s trip when we needed her help with the baby?”

Eva was about three weeks old. We did not have her passport yet. That meant we could not fly to the US for the funeral. For us, being missionaries in a foreign land has meant missing some family funerals. This has been difficult for us and also for our extended family, some of whom do not understand why we left the US to serve in the Middle East. During painful experiences like these, when our questions have not been answered, we have chosen to cling to Jesus.

Grounded in Jesus

Life seemed to settle down a little with our third child at home. Homeschooling returned to high-priority status. We had the essential tools, good curriculum and books, but now we had to get the new baby on a regular schedule. We asked the Lord to help us, and He has. We know how much grace He has shown us, and He has impressed us to give grace to our daughters and patiently teach them. Additionally, we are also extremely thankful for the strong Adventist environment our children are growing up in at MEU. There are many young families, missionaries and locals, and therefore our daughters have many more Christian friends in Lebanon than they did in the US.

One day, Katie was walking back and forth on a spiritual retreat in the Lebanon Mountains. She was between the mouth of the cave, where the early Christians would hide and worship, and the end of the hallway with the high glass wall overlooking the mountains. Praying as she walked, Katie listened to hear what God wanted to say to her. She sensed Jesus asking whether she would still love and follow Him even if He turned her world upside down.

As she wondered what that meant, Katie stopped walking and spotted a tree growing upside down on one of the nearby cliffs. At times in the mission field, she felt just like that tree, hanging upside down. But God showed her during that walk that just as the tree had good roots embedded into the mountainside, she has good roots grounded in Jesus. He assured her that He will not let her fall.

Our family is by no means perfect, but we are grounded in Jesus and His Word. When families are grounded in Jesus, they can go anywhere He leads without fear of falling. He carried and empowered us as a pastoral family in the US, and He has done the same for us as a pastoral family in a foreign land.

Sacrifices

Living overseas has meant we have missed Thanksgiving and Christmas with extended family in the US for the last three years. While technology has made communication easier, and video chatting allows us to see our families while we talk, that is still not the same as sitting down with them for Thanksgiving Dinner. At times we and our daughters have felt homesick. During these times, we have tried to cling to each other and God.

Moving overseas has also meant making a substantial financial sacrifice. Life in Lebanon is expensive. The used car we bought for our growing family cost twice as much as it would have cost in America, with an income significantly lower than our previous income. We have been faithful in returning tithe and offerings, but we have had to live on a tight budget, dip into our savings, and forfeit thousands of dollars in retirement contributions. We still believe that God has been faithful. We still believe He has opened the windows of heaven. We still believe He has poured out blessings upon us.4

Strong families, strong ministry

We have tried to prioritize our marriage and family while in this foreign mission field. When church leadership provided a marriage retreat for the workers in our region, we took advantage of the opportunity to strengthen our own marriage. In the mission field, our priorities are the same as they were in the US: a personal relationship with God first, our marriage and children second, and ministry third. We understand this is easier said than done, but even with young children at home, we have been able to minister together as a family.

We have opened our home for Friday night vespers, we have gone visiting people as a whole family, and we have engaged in door-to-door witnessing together (yes, that is safe and permitted in Lebanon). Oftentimes, Jared will bring one of our older girls with him when he is studying the Bible with someone. Last March, we had a major prophecy series taking place with Pastor John Bradshaw from It Is Written. While Jared was coordinating the adult meeting, Katie worked in the childcare department taking care of infants and toddlers so their parents could focus on the messages being shared.

We believe if our family is strong, our ministry will be stronger. As Ellen White wrote, “One well-ordered, well-disciplined family tells more in behalf of Christianity than all the sermons that can be preached.”5 The psalmist asked the question, “How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:4, ESV). As a family, clinging to Jesus in a foreign land has been one of the greatest highlights of our ministry. The sacrifices have been worth it. God has abundantly blessed the work in Lebanon—and us. We are deeply thankful for His leading.

1 The population of Lebanon is over 6 million, with approximately 300-400 Seventh-day Adventists.

2 See Matthew 9:37.

3 Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1892), 81.

4 See Malachi 3:10

5 Ellen G. White, The Adventist Home (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1952), 32.

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