There’s a story that’s been around from our Sunday school days an unsourced missionary homecoming story that has been retold over the years by many encouragers in various ways. But basically it goes something like this.
A couple were returning to the States to retire after toiling for years in what we kids had been told was ‘Darkest Africa.’ Not been over-successful in their missionary service they were unknowns compared to such ‘greats’ as Dr David Livingstone. But they’d been faithful to their calling and had laboured on toiling hard.
Now they were both suffering from ill-health, defeated mentally and spiritually and, having neither finance nor pension, felt so exhausted, uneasy and discouraged.
Suddenly, they had the biggest surprise. When the ship that had carried them from Africa docked and they were coming down the gangway, they observed a large band playing heartily. The mayor, city dignitaries and crowds were gathered in greeting.
‘Oh, we’re being recognised,’ exclaimed the tired missionary to his wife, ‘and we thought no one knew us, no one cared.’
His delight was immediately shattered as the truth dawned and more disappointment swept over him crushingly.
The welcoming homecoming turned out to be for the man who smilingly passed by in front of them – President Teddy Roosevelt, returning from one of his safaris! No one paid any attention to the returning missionaries.
Disappointed the old missionary commented to his wife, ‘We’ve given our lives in faithful service for God all these many years and nobody cares about us.’
His wife sought to encourage him not to feel that way, but despondently he replied, ‘Can’t help it. It just isn’t right.’
Quietly they disembarked unnoticed, disappeared in the crowd, and found a cheap unit. That night the man’s spirit broke. He admitted, ‘I can’t take this anymore. God isn’t treating us fairly.’
Wisely his loving wife suggested, ‘Why don’t you go quietly into the bedroom and tell the Lord – direct?’
Dragging himself off, he did so. It was only a short time later that he reappeared, but his expression was completely different. ‘What happened?’ asked his surprised wife. ‘You’re so at ease, so at peace.’
‘I told God how bitter I was that someone else received such a tremendous homecoming, that no one met nor knew us or welcomed us home. Suddenly I sensed the Lord putting his hand on my shoulder and saying quietly but simply: “You’re not home yet!”’
Discouragement and disappointment are facts of life. They can hit anyone at any time, even Christians. Those in church ministry especially can get slammed every now and then by unthinking and uncaring people. Particularly by our arch-enemy, Satan. We all need caring friends, encouraging reminders and to stay humble.
We also need to realise than we’re not alone in such experiences. Recalling scriptures such as Paul’s advice is so helpful: ‘Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns’ (Philippians 4:6 Message).
In the previous chapter (v12 MKJV), he writes about the need to press forward despite everything: ‘I am pressing on, if I may lay hold of that for which I also was taken hold of by Christ Jesus. I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward – to Jesus.’
In chapter 3: verses14-17 (Message), Paul shares encouragingly: ‘I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back. So let’s keep focused on that goal, those of us who want everything God has for us. If any of you have something else in mind, something less than total commitment, God will clear your blurred vision – you’ll see it yet! Now that we’re on the right track, let’s stay on it. Stick with me, friends. Keep track of those you see running this same course, headed for this same goal.’
In all of life, we need to be on the right track, stick to our destiny and keep pressing forward. Christians especially are called to the greatest commission of all … faithfully serving the master, Jesus, despite every disappointment and discouragement that comes along.
May we be determined to being faithful until we hear the personal welcome greeting from the one who set an outstanding example by pressing on to win the greatest prize of all on our behalf…salvation for all humankind.
And what a welcome that will be as Jesus exclaims with delight: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! … Come and share your master’s happiness!’ (Matt. 25:21).
Only then will it all be over and only then will we have really arrived home.