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Is Your Canary Singing? Paying Attention to Emotional and Spiritual Health on the Mission Field

Most of us are familiar with the miner’s canary—a caged bird miners took with them into the coal mines. The canaries were more sensitive to poisonous gases than the miners, and signs of ill health in a canary were a warning to the miners that they were in danger and needed to get out. The canary was their trusted friend because it could sense the danger and save their lives.

I met a missionary once who was not watching his canary. We were exploring sending a team to a new country. Others told us we should see this missionary because he had studied the needs of the country and could tell us where the opportunities were, where missions and churches were working, and what God seemed to be doing there.

Our visit was helpful and with excitement he showed us charts, maps, and overlays, and advised us on opportunities he thought might be a fit for our team. Then his wife brought in tea and without knowing much about her, my instincts told me his canary was dying.

The toll of a difficult culture and challenging spiritual environment seemed evident in her face and carriage. She didn’t show vitality for this missionary life and I suspected she was spiritually dry and felt her husband’s enthusiasm was poured into his work with little left for her. She acted more like a servant than a partner sharing in his calling. His behavior didn’t indicate that he was observing these signs or feeling concern and care for his wife. There was little we could do to show care in our visit, but I feared she wouldn’t last long in that place. The next time I was in country I asked about them and learned they had left the country for her sake and I hope they got needed help. This miner seemed so devoted to the coal in front of him and plans for new tunnels that he wasn’t watching his canary and had to abandon the mine.

Identify your canary
Who is your canary? A wife can be an excellent canary, but you probably have several you should watch. Are your children or other children on your team acting in new ways that show the stress they are feeling? Is a new member of your team showing surprise and distress at a workload you’ve accepted as normal? Do national partners and friends give indication that things are not as they should be? You can’t watch your canaries if you don’t know who they are and what to watch for.

Wives are often good indicators of how things are going, and Peter seems to be describing that in 1 Peter 3:7. “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.” She is not the “weaker vessel” in the sense of less valuable, since her husband is told to treat her with respect and on equal standing as co-heirs of God’s grace. She is weaker, I believe, as a crystal goblet is weaker than a stoneware mug. For her husband’s benefit she is a reminder that charging ahead with overwork and bravely facing all challenges can be destructive not only to him but to her and others as well. Peter says this consideration of his wife can result in his prayers not being “cut off.” When we charge ahead in our own strength we don’t rely on prayer (which is acceptance of our weakness). When we are proud and stubborn we aren’t repentant in prayer, in need of God’s mercy. Prayerlessness follows when our canary stops singing with joy.

Care for your canary
How can you care for your canary and learn from their warning?

—     Identify your canaries and learn to observe their behavior and listen to their words. Are you experiencing more disagreements or seeing unusual behavior in your family? Are friends and colleagues pulling back from you or finding you hard to work with? Are they trying to advise you gently but you aren’t listening? Know your canaries and how to read them.

—     The miner considered his canary his friend and life saver. He didn’t wait for it to die before he left the mine, but only for it to stop singing, and then thanked it for the warning. Value your canaries, they are your best friends and lifesavers! Are you avoiding a conversation with your spouse or child or teammate that you really need to hear? Don’t consider them “weak” because they can’t manage the stress you’re accustomed to, but see them as God’s gift and protect them. Treasure and value these who are committed to you, don’t let them wither from your neglect.

—     How is your prayer life? In the mining metaphor, that would be our communication with the surface, where we get our food and air, the real world of light and life. Are you living in your own little missionary world, doing your independent thing, not listening to your canary or the surface? Or are you in unbroken communication with your Father in heaven, dependent on Christ, responsive to the Holy Spirit, pursuing the Lord’s work in His way and not your work in your way?

—     If your canary stops singing, identify what may be the cause, with their help and others, and make plans for change.

    • Does your workload need to be adjusted?
    • Are there relationship problems you need to address, to seek forgiveness or open up communication?
    • Have you been getting the rest and change of pace all of you need and enjoying the refreshment of Sabbath?
    • Are you working in dependence on God, responsive to His direction through His Word and providence, or are you working in your own strength, your own plans and your own methods?
    • Is prayer the first part of your work or what you do when things don’t work?

Canaries are not an impediment to our work but God’s gift to save us from the dangers of our work. If my missionary friend mentioned above had studied the changes in his wife with just part of the diligence with which he studied the changes in the country, he would have done far more for the gospel in that country over many years. Instead he seemed so devoted to his work that he was not watching his wife, and through neglecting her they needed to leave the work for her sake.

Paul Meiners oversees missionary care for MTW in Europe.

Paul Meiners, Reflection Feb 27, 2018
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