Five Lessons from an Unlikely Missionary

The first missionary I heard of was not Lottie Moon or Jim Elliot. It was Dr. Dolittle, the man with the curious ability to speak to animals. When I was a boy my parents read to me about his astonishing adventures and the way he traveled over oceans to care for a host of animals.

I admit, most of my memories of that book have faded, but one memory remains: the pushmi-pullyu (pronounced ‘push-me—pull-you’). In Hugh Lofting’s book the bizarre animal was a ‘gazelle-unicorn cross’ with two heads at opposite ends of its body. In the book, Dr. Dolittle first meets a pushmi-pullyu while in Africa, and is eventually awarded one after vaccinating a kingdom of monkeys. Sounds interesting, doesn’t it?!

The gift of this animal sets Dolittle on a tour around England, the proceeds from which enabled him to retire to his home in Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. In all honesty, Lofting’s book is slightly absurd but it succeeded in charming readers young and old with this animal-loving ‘missionary.’

Five Reflections on Missions from Dr. Dolittle

I want to suggest that by counter-example Dolittle’s missionary work provides us a glimpse of how and why we should cross land and sea to reach the lost. Given a greater task than Dolittle, we are called to save men from eternal death (Jude 23). Here, then, are five reflections on our missionary task.

First, the call to missions is life-and-death serious. In his book, Hugh Lofting presents Dolittle as a man determined to care for animals. So great is his concern for them, he loses his medical practice to tend to their needs. Upon learning their language, he invites risk by traveling into remote regions to care for diseased animals. Though fictitious, this presentation of Dolittle shows more concern for animals than some Christians have for humans—especially those people we’ve never met.

In truth, we need to recover a sense of seriousness as it pertains to missions. There is, in fact, nothing more important in the world. What is more needed than telling the gospel to African children dying of AIDS? Or equipping Haitian pastors with good theology, while rebuilding their earthquake-demolished church? Anything? I think not. Missions is serious because the eternal destinies of men and women are at stake.

Second, serious missions is seriously joyful. Like the happy doctor, there is great joy in the work. Why? Because, the infinitely happy God is laboring with his people to reach the nations, and the eternal promise is success. Jesus will build his church (Matt 16:18); the sheep will be found (John 10:16). Therefore, when we join Christ’s mission, we experience his joy (John 15:11). And it is joy in him that beckons us forward to increase the joy of the nations in Christ (Ps 67).

Third, missions is not for those who have a special gift. With Dr. Dolittle, his ability to speak to the animals makes the story. But in the case of evangelism and missions, there is never a need for an extraordinary gift or calling. The Great Commission is our invitation. It calls disciple to reach the nations. The single qualifying factor for witnessing—the Holy Spirit—indwells every child of God. Indeed, while spiritual gifts build up the body, every believer is by definition a witness (Acts 1:8). Therefore, the first requirement for missions is not giftedness, but willingness. If you are willing, God will open doors, equip your hands, and give you words. Missions and evangelism is not for a special class of saints; it’s for all of us.

Fourth, going on a mission trip is for God’s glory, not grandstanding. Grandstanding is defined as “seeking to attract applause or favorable attention from spectators or the media.” Whether he set out to do this or not, Dr. Doolittle did this very thing. Returning home with his pushmi-pullyu, Dolittle toured around with his exotic animal. In time, his circus earned him enough savings to retire.

As with Dolittle’s fame, there is a subtle temptation to use service on the field as a means for personal attention at home. By contrast, missionary efforts should be done for Christ’s glory, not our own. The call to deploy comes from him, and reporting God’s work to others should also point to him. Indeed, for those who go, the return home is not a celebration of victory—after all, we are still at war! The goal of sharing God’s work is to recruit more volunteers. Indeed, the domestic goal of foreign service is to rally others to join the effort, not to applaud us when we serve. This leads to my last point.

Fifth, God is pulling me to do more than push you. For the last four years, it has been a joy to pray for and send out missionaries from our church. Until now, school has prevented me from going myself—or more accurately, I have chosen not to go while in school. However, this May I am going with World Hope Missions International to Honduras to train pastors in the cities of Tocoa and Olanchito.

Honduras Mission Trip

I am excited about serving pastors in Honduras, and I am prayerful that God will open my eyes to see ways I can lead others in foreign missions—to Honduras or Haiti or Houston. While I have been happy to push others in the past, it has been my conviction that I should be pulling people along. Like the pushmi-pullyu, I’ve had the inner tension of someone committed to missions in theory, but not in practice.

Maybe you have had the same experience. Maybe you have prayed, given, and cheered for the work of missions around the world. What would keep you this year or next, stepping out and joining God’s work over oceans or in another country.

In the case of Dr. Dolittle it was his love for animals that compelled him. For Christians, we have a greater love that compels us (2 Cor 5:14). In this year, let us pray for God to raise up laborers, and then let us consider how we can personally volunteer as a partial answer to that request. As Luke 10:2-3 reads,

And Jesus said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. . . . behold, I am sending you.

 Soli Deo Gloria, dss

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