On January 16, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia launched from Cape Canaveral on its 28th mission. For the next 16 days, the seven-member crew conducted more than 80 scientific experiments including fire in microgravity, formation of crystals, and compression of granular materials. “This has been a very successful mission,” space shuttle flight director Leroy Cain said as the experiments wrapped up.
As Cain looked to plans for the crew to return, he downplayed concerns about Columbia’s heat protection tiles that had been damaged during launch—tiles that protect the vehicle and crew from the high temperatures created during re-entry.
“We took a very thorough look at the situation with the tile on the left wing and we have no concerns, whatsoever,” Cain said. “Therefore we haven’t changed anything with respect to our trajectory design.”
On February 1, as families of the crew awaited its return at the Kennedy Space Center, the shuttle began its re-entry. The damage to the tile left the shuttle more vulnerable than NASA realized, allowing super-hot atmospheric gases into the orbiter’s wing that triggered a catastrophic chain reaction causing Columbia and her crew to disintegrate over north central Texas.
That disaster provided a stark reminder of how critical re-entry is for fulfilling a mission. Without an accurate sense of the shuttle’s vulnerability, the flight director saw no concerns and didn’t change anything, resulting in tragedy.
So too, re-entry is a critical point for men who are seeking to live mission-driven lives while also being faithful husbands and dads. Many men face the vulnerable transition point from intense mission-focused time—at conferences, retreats, speaking engagements, short-term mission trips, or even from a regular mission-focused job—to home.
In the same way that a grueling travel day can seem to undo all the relaxation of a good vacation, the messiness that often follows when men walk in their front door can seem to undermine the mission-focused time they just left. Without recognizing the inherent vulnerabilities of transitioning between the two distinctive environments, men can experience turbulent re-entries that lead to arguments and sinful anger, and may even contribute to family neglect and affairs.
Why is re-entry such a vulnerable point for men and what can you do to protect your family and your mission during re-entry?
Why re-entry is hard
Mission-focused settings can seem worlds apart from home life. Consider at least three atmospheric changes from one setting to the other:
From the significant to the mundane
Conferences, retreats, church services, counseling sessions, short-term mission trips, speaking engagements and other mission-focused times tend to involve big ideas and important work. Even when those times require wrestling with difficult issues or doing hard things, they still seem more significant than (and can seem like a welcome break from) the mundane nature of taking out the trash, mowing the yard, changing diapers, paying the bills, and other family responsibilities.
That contrast only seems exacerbated when you want to report on the experiences and insights of your time away, only to find your family uninterested and instead turning on the fire hose of updates about what happened at school, what Lego creations they made, and what level they reached on a video game.
From clear mission to unclear mission
The space shuttle astronauts received clear details about their mission and knew exactly what NASA expected of their time in space. Your role in a church service, a meeting agenda, or a retreat seems a lot more obvious than your role in resolving a dispute over what movie your kids watch in the van, who gets to use the iPad, or how to divide a package of 8 cookies among 3 kids.
Worse still, returning from time away often sets up a clash in expectations. Where you might be looking forward to starting the books you got at the conference or resting after a grueling speaking schedule, your wife is likely to be eager for a break from your kids who are bouncing off the walls ready to play with you.
From productivity to frustration
Additionally, fruitful stretches of time engaging on mission can make life at home seem much less productive and even frustrating. It may take a while for mission work to bear fruit, but what it does bear often stands in contrast to the slower cultivation of fruit at home. When is this kid going to stop wetting the bed? When will she eat something other than Cheerios? When is he going to learn to put his toys away and not leave them where I trip over them?
Even more frustrating than slow growth is the sense of going backwards. Moments of sweet reunion can quickly dissolve into interrupting, whining, disobedience and other displays of sin that seem more raw and unguarded than the sins we see in the context of our mission-focused work.
Turbulence and temptation
In the face of this re-entry turbulence, we can be tempted by dangerous thoughts:
My family doesn’t appreciate my ministry work like my colleagues do, like the people who thank me for my messages, or like the person I’m counseling.
My time at home feels like an interruption and a hindrance from more valuable vocational engagement.
I could be more effective in my important work if I had more relief from the demands of home.
What can you do to change your approach to re-entry and keep these temptations from leaving you vulnerable to disaster?
Be intentional about re-integration
An Air Force chaplain told me recently how the military recognizes the jarring effect of soldiers heading home after wrapping up a mission and as a result spends millions on re-integration as a way to limit the wear and tear.
What are some practical ways you can be intentional about your re-integration? First, whenever possible preserve margin for reconnection. Build time into your return schedule for uninterrupted, (smartphone-free) connections with your wife and kids and protect that time from other demands that may press in.
Second, plan something of a mission de-brief. Give everyone an uninterrupted moment in the spotlight to share their stories, look at each other’s photos and videos, or whatever else is most helpful for briefing each other.
Additionally, consider what kind of “moon rocks” you could bring back. What kind of memento could you give your wife and kids as a piece of your experience? Inexpensive things such as books, refrigerator magnets, ornaments, candy or other small gifts can make your re-entry more special and tie your family more closely into your mission-focused work away from home.
Don’t compartmentalize your missions
Another insight the Air Force chaplain shared with me is that re-integration is easiest when soldiers don’t allow the world of their work to grow far apart from their world at home. Unless you’re in some kind of setting in which all communication lines are unavailable, modern technology makes it possible to retain a lot of the rhythm of home life even while you’re away—making re-entry less of a dramatic adjustment. For example, I try to retain regular prayer time with my family, even if it means doing it over speakerphone or FaceTime. We also trade texts, emails, and phone calls as much as possible during any time we’re apart.
Ultimately, this kind of effort is not about protecting mission work and home life from each other—it’s about staying faithful to the equally important mission you have as a dad and a husband. It may be hard to recognize, but many other people can likely step into the mission-focused work you do. On the other hand, you’re the only dad your children have and the only husband your wife has. That makes your home life mission critical. You have an indispensible calling to raise your children in the instruction of the Lord and to love your wife—nourishing and cherishing her— as Christ loves the church.
Embrace the mission field and sanctifying means of your family
Finally, instead of being tempted to see your family life as an obstacle to fulfilling your mission, recognize God’s design in placing them in the middle of your mission, both as a mission field and as a means of shaping your mission to be more Christ-like.
It’s God’s will that we be sanctified (I Thes. 4:3) and conformed into His image (Col. 3:10 and Eph. 4:24). We are to model Christ in humbling ourselves and taking the form of a servant (Phil. 2:3-8). Our families are often a primary means God uses to shape our mission in life to be more other-centered and servant-hearted. By His grace, He uses the commitments and demands of family to put our selfishness to death and to grow our dependence on Christ.
Re-entry to home can be a great challenge for men—but it’s not an obstacle to your ability to live out a Christ-shaped mission. More likely, it’s the path.
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