Photo: Great Grandma Florence with many of her children, grandchildren, and friends.
My great-grandmother is one of the finest storytellers I have ever known. When I was a little girl, Great Grandma Florence was far into her eighties. She was a seemingly frail, diminutive woman, but behind that exterior was a powerhouse of prayer. When I was growing up, she would stay with my family on occasion. I remember how it would take her five arduous minutes to hobble from her bedroom to the kitchen for supper. But she was worth waiting for. As we sat around the dinner table, she spun light-hearted, witty yarns, the kind she knew I loved. Yet her most captivating tale came not from her imagination, but from her own life.
Raised in Oregon, Florence grew up to be a spunky, independent woman. By the time she reached her twenties, with Mr. Right nowhere to be found, she was already considered an “old maid.” Meanwhile, she sincerely desired to be married but sensed an undeniable calling from God to go to China as a missionary. Though this would confirm her life as a single woman, she obeyed the call and went. Thousands of miles away from home, Florence was exactly where God wanted her to be.
It was in that unknown place that God surprised Florence. She fell in love with the people. She fell in love with her work. And without the assistance of telephones, email, or internet dating services, she fell in love with and married a fellow American missionary, Elbridge Munroe, in 1932. Elbridge was a widower who had lost his wife on the mission field. He and his first wife had previously adopted children from Canton, making Florence not only a wife, but an instant mother to thirty orphan girls. One of the girls she raised was my grandmother.
Florence’s story comes to mind quite often, as her experiences provide perspective for my current season in life. Like my great-grandmother, I am venturing into unfamiliar territory. I am concurrently completing my doctorate and navigating the job market. These tasks overwhelm me at times. It is here that the merit-based world of academe collides with my understanding of the gospel. I find myself asking, “Will I publish or perish? Is my curriculum vitæ good enough? Am I good enough?” And then I remember Florence’s story. God wants me to seek my identity and satisfaction in Jesus, to obey His call, and to be where He wants me to be. Even in unknown places.
It is the unknown places — like the complex world of academe — that bring to light the inadequacies of this world. It is in points of helplessness that God affirms me of His sufficiency. It is in desolate moments that I realize that Christ is the only one to wrap my arms around. And it is His gospel that calls me to join Him in redeeming and restoring this beautiful-but-fallen world.
As we encounter unknown places, we often grow in our understanding of who God is. We wrestle with questions like, “Why is this happening to me? Is God good? Is God holding out on me?” It is through times of uncertainty that God tenderly invites us to place our hope entirely in Him, not on ourselves, or the people or things He created, as fine and admirable as they may be. As I face the unknown in my own life, I retell Florence’s story to myself. Her story reminds me again and again that God is good, that He is enough, and that He can be trusted.
In Psalm 78, God exhorts us to share our stories — “stories we have heard and know, stories our ancestors handed down to us” in order that the next generation might know them and teach them to their children, that each generation might set its hope in God. That is my prayer for us. From our lives, in every season of life we find ourselves in, may God weave brilliant tapestries that unabashedly speak of the work of Christ and His Word. As sojourners in unknown places, may we share with those we meet “the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.”