To our family, our lives are pretty unspectacular. But over the years, many people—including my parents—haven’t hesitated to tell us that our lives are unusual.
Years ago, my wife Laura and I sat down with my mother and father on a grassy hill outside the Detroit Zoo and said excitedly, We have something to tell you!” They didn’t wait for our special news, but guessed instead: “Laura’s pregnant again!” That soon turned out to be true, but we had wanted to tell them we were going to be missionaries, Bible translators to be more exact. Their response was typical of secular humanist Jews: “Go, as long as it makes you happy.” They did express some disdain that we were going off to “force some unsuspecting people to change their religion.”
They also said that they were afraid we would take their grandchildren away to some primitive and dangerous place. Well, we did take them away to live among the Mixtec people in Oaxaca, Mexico, but we don’t feel that they were in any more danger than they would have been anywhere else we chose to live. All children, no matter where they are, need a lot of prayer and vigilant care to get safely to adulthood. In many ways, our children were removed from many of the temptations and dangers that American children face. Of course, we’re sure that now that they’re adults, they have their own opinions about how they were brought up!
When we first went to the mission field, we didn’t have the foresight to realize that our children were going to grow up without knowing their relatives very well. We know now that they missed out on a special part of life. In our obedience to God to go serve Him where He called us, we “inconvenienced” family relationships. Even now we worry about our aging parents and wonder how we can support them and be there for them, long distance. We know that we really can’t do much but entrust them and their salvation to the Lord.
Now that our children are grown, they are building their own lives in the United States, while we are still serving in Mexico. We often wonder what they/we will do when our own grandchildren start being born. How will we be able to create closeness with them when we are so far away? We are glad that these days the world is small, and missionaries have opportunities for electronic communication and home visits that didn’t exist even a generation ago. We don’t have to be any more out of touch than most American families that are scattered around the United States—except that to this day, we haven’t been able to get a phone line where we live (a longstanding prayer request)!
As an American Jewish believing family living on a “foreign field” we get to celebrate the holidays of five cultures. That’s a lot of holidays! We have to decide what customs really deserve our time and energy. We emphasize the deep significance and rich symbolism of our Jewish identity. Each of our children had a bar or bat mitzvah, learning the Hebrew for their Torah passages from an Israeli woman, the daughter of generations of rabbis in Jerusalem, who providentially lived near us in Mexico. We’ve emphasized celebrating holy days with our children and with the Gentile believers around us. Year by year the holy days teach us more and more about our incredible God and give us opportunities to praise Him. Last Passover we did a messianic seder for a new church plant in Puebla, the fourth largest city in Mexico.
With the Mixtec people, for whom we are translating the Scriptures, we haven’t emphasized that we are a Jewish family. For one thing, they don’t understand that Jews are real people who are alive today and not just in Bible times. And because of their religious traditions, many indigenous groups in Mexico use the word “judios” (Jews) for devils. You can imagine that I wasn’t particularly eager to be identified with that group! However, each day I feel more freedom and am selectively letting some people know about my background. Some of the Mixtecs I tell turn out to be glad to know a member of the original “branch” of the family of God! Our prayer for the Mixtecs is that they will be grafted into the family, too, as the Word of God is given to them in their language.