Point of Weakness, Point of Grace
“By joining this mission, you are drastically reducing your chances of every marrying.” I sat in an orientation course in Seattle in 1970 eager to join Wycliffe Bible Translators. The statement was shocking even though I realized the truth of it. A normal female in my early twenties, I, like most, longed for marriage. Sensing God calling me to serve Him in a French-speaking country in Bible translation, I had a choice. Either I obeyed Him, facing the possibility of life single, or, I stayed home where the chances of finding a mate were more promising. Knowing finally that staying would insure me nothing, I took wings to France on this great adventure.
Springtime in Paris did flower into love, but it was plucked suddenly from me. I went to Africa feeling, naively, that the door had slammed rudely on my last opportunity to belong to a man. Arriving in Côte d’Ivoire in the fall of 1972, I joined three married couples and eight single women. Seven of those women were Europeans and older than I, some already in their mid-thirties. I took a long, hard look at them and saw where I might end up in a few years.
Foreign mission boards in the mid-1800s did not find it proper to send single women alone overseas. Those who desired to go were quickly introduced to single men with the same goals. By 1859, the Southern Baptists admitted that circumstances might require the appointment of a single woman. In 1873 Charlotte (Lottie) Moon left for China—single. Her stunning career, stretching over 39 years, put an end to questions about the appropriateness of woman crossing the sea for God, sans husbands.
Let’s not conclude that single women missionaries are resigned to singlehood. Gladys Aylward, a parlor maid, left for China in 1930 at the age of twenty-six. Shortly before she died in 1970, she told fellow missionary Elisabeth Elliot: “When I realized what I had missed in not being married, I prayed that the Lord would send a man straight from England, right to where I was and to have him propose.” She shook her bony little finger at Elliot and said, “Elisabeth, He called him, but he never came.” Indeed, some of the women missionaries who impressed me as epitomes of strength and independence sobbed into their pillows every night.
I too struggled many nights, and days. Riveting my eyes on Bible texts dealing with the gift of singleness, I wanted to force the decision and have it done with. But God never let me see beyond tomorrow. There was no agreement, no dotted line on which to sign off marriage. Lying on my bed in my home in an isolated African village, I made my peace with the situation. I chose to believe God was giving me his very best at every moment. He claimed to be “The Great I AM.” I said, “OK, I’ll take you up on that. I’ll fill in the next word: I AM your father. I AM your older protective brother. I AM your best friend. I AM your husband. You know what I need, Lord. Be everything my heart longs for.”
In 1978 I returned to the US for a few weeks. The women in my church were concerned that I was still single. They urged me to be sensible and stay home. I had done “my part” for world missions. It became clear to me that the very point they perceived as my weakness was the button that God was pushing to release his grace and glory, not only to me, but to them. That point of weakness for me was my singleness; for others it may be illness, poverty or lack of education. The apostle Paul boasted gladly in his weakness, knowing that God’s power would surge through it. The point of weakness becomes the point of grace.
My grandmother always used to pat me on the hand and say, “Don’t worry. I didn’t get married until I was thirty-one.” It was on my thirty-first birthday that Neal proposed to me in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. We had met for the first time at a Christmas party in Paris in 1971, the night before he left for Africa—without a wife.