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OFF TO COLLEGE: Empty nest, a world away

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
RICHMOND, Va. (BP) -- Rebecca Millsapp* balked at returning to the mission field in 2006.

She already had sacrificed a lot to answer God's call on her life. A decade earlier, she and her husband Joshua* gave up their dream home and lucrative jobs in medicine and technology in Alabama for a call to missions in southern Asia. They didn't regret the decision.


But now Rebecca was hesitating about leaving her daughter Aubrey* in the States to attend college while the rest of the family returned home half a world away.

"I took comfort in knowing there were people around who would take care of her if she needed it," the missionary mom said. "I had seen God take care of our family in so many other situations, and I knew He was big enough to continue to do this."

But her "mom's heart" still was full of grief as she returned overseas "kicking and screaming."

Grappling to adapt is nothing new for the Millsapps. It took a while for the family to adjust to their new surroundings in southern Asia. Rebecca remembers her first impressions upon arrival. Her children were ages 8, 5 and 2.

"I walked into this small, concrete apartment and began to look around for the refrigerator. There wasn't one. There was no stove, either. I soon discovered that the temperature was so cold in I could place food on my concrete counters and it would keep," Rebecca recalled.

Over time, the family grew accustomed to the people, their culture and their land -- even the frigid temperatures. The most important thing was they were together.

But now the family ties were being tested.

While Rebecca battled the desire to stay close to Aubrey in the U.S., her youngest child, Percy*, was relieved to be returning "home" to Asia.

"How do you balance those two worlds?" the missionary mom asked.


Nearly three years later, Rebecca experienced that anguish again when it was time for her son Brody* to attend college. Like so many parents, she struggled with separation anxiety, all the more so because she wasn't just sending her child a few hours away or even a few states away; she was faced with leaving yet another child halfway around the world.

And she was beginning to feel the pangs of empty-nest syndrome.

Even so, Rebecca said God taught her that "it's not as much about me as I think it is."

It worked out for the Millsapps to spend about a year in the U.S., enabling them to be closer to Aubrey and Brody for part of their time in college. The flip side, however, was Percy's struggle to adapt to teenage American culture after growing up overseas.

As soon as he began to feel settled in the U.S., it was time for the family to return to Asia.

Only he didn't want to go.

He told his parents that after the challenge of finally adjusting to American high school, he didn't think he could make the transition back overseas.

"He was just so full of emotion and said to us, 'I don't want what seems to be my selfishness in wanting to stay here to interfere with your and dad's call to missions,'" Rebecca said. "And we quickly said to him, 'That's not your burden to bear.'"

After seeking counsel from other IMB personnel, Rebecca and Joshua extended their time stateside until Percy, who recently graduated from high school, gets settled in college.


"If I could encourage my colleagues and friends who are in the same season of life, I would say be open and honest," Rebecca said. "You'll be amazed at how many people come alongside you and encourage you, and say, 'You know, I never really thought of it that way' because we have this 'halo' that's 10 feet wide.

"I mean, why would anyone with a halo that big struggle with any of this stuff? Just remind people that we're real, and we struggle with the same things other people struggle with."

The Millsapps' call to missions hasn't been put on hold. While stateside, Joshua and Rebecca are helping deploy and train others to serve among the peoples of southern Asia. In 2012, the couple will return to Asia while all three children remain in the U.S., each living in a different state.

"If I was just completely honest and vulnerable and transparent, if the decision was just mine and there were no other factors besides a mother's heart -- wanting to be where my children are -- I would stay ," Rebecca said.

"But knowing that God has called me to do this and that I still feel that call to missions, I am expecting God to show up in a great way, with hefty doses of grace and mercy."

Going overseas without their children will affect Joshua and Rebecca's ministry as well. For nearly 17 years, they have had children with them as they work. Often, Rebecca said, it was their children who opened the door for ministry opportunities to other families with children.


Now, she said, they can live in areas without a good school or pediatrician and can travel more frequently.

But that freedom is emotionally expensive.

"It'd be easy to just let these waves of grief that you feel -- of ending the season of life of having kids at home -- to be the primary thing throughout your day, and God just doesn't allow me to do that," Rebecca said. "He reminds me to focus on the things that are most important; He reminds me that it was a very important season of life, and I did it to the best of my ability and His help.

"There's always going to be another place that I can plug in with my gifts and skills and talents. … He's always there with another door I can walk through if I'm open to that."

*Names changed. Reported by the communications staff of the International Mission Board.

Copyright (c) 2011 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press

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