What I have learned in two years
When I was measuring my life in another country on another continent by days, weeks, and then months, I viewed things a bit differently. Weekly I would discover a new thing, realize a new reality, learn a new custom. I was like a sponge and it was exciting and shocking and often just plain scary. At the start, I wanted to share every little detail. And now, here we are, hitting our second year. Since life became routine and more normal, I fell away from this blog just from sheer busy-ness. I have a full-time job that eats up my days, and the time to jot down the interesting points often escapes me. However, now that we are coming up on the two-year milestone, I thought it would be a good time to jump back on here and connect with you guys. I want to share some of what I’ve learned. Now, please be quick to note that this does not mean I know it all. The major Truth I keep coming back to is that I will never fully understand, or fit, and therefore, I will always be a pupil in so many aspects. Bearing that in mind, here’s a list of five things I have learned. People love lists, myself included. And if you have exactly five minutes to give to read this today, this list is for your skimming pleasure, as much as it is for my scatterbrained sanity 😉
1) I’ve changed. Or I’ve had to change …That’s probably more accurate. Had to. You change and grow and in many ways break. That is only normal I think. You must adapt to survive. Adaptability is life for missionaries, or anyone who lives abroad, I’ve come to realize. Adaptability is a part of everyone’s life, yes, but glaringly so for us. Either you change to be comfortable where you are, or you get consumed with the stuff you can’t control and it kills you. I have adapted to speaking a different language most of my days. To the point that, at times, I speak it to my family when I get in the door from working. The kicker is when you speak it in your sleep and wake yourself up having full conversations. I’ve adapted to smells and sights and sounds that first made me think I would soon die here. Dramatic much? Piles of fish lying on the road side and uncovered sewer flowing aimlessly made me dry heave. The topless granny’s sweeping the litter from their yards, blaring car horns screaming down the streets, and deafeningly loud music pouring out of blown speakers used to make me go off on a mini tangent until I felt satisfied that I had lamented sufficiently. That sounds rude and stuck up. I was. Now, by Gods mercy, I don’t notice those things so much. It just is, and I am here and this is the life we live. I have adapted to driving with one hand on the horn myself and the topless granny down the road is one of my favorite people to greet because she is always so happy. I think that’s more due to her season on life and less the nudity, but I’ve never asked. The point is, we have gotten used to these parts that are now our every day’s. They not only are familiar but they feel like home. And that’s a gift in a place that’s so far from what you always thought was home. You don’t realize how much you have changed, until you look back at how you used to view it. The reality is God changes you. And I thank Him that He makes any place comfortable when you’re willing to let Him.
2) You stop taking pictures like a tourist. That’s because it’s not a trip or a moment. It is your life. And you start seeing life as normal. And that doesn’t warrant a picture. It’s just your everyday grind. Sometimes you get some good photos and want to throw them out there for the world. Often, you get a good picture and store it away for you. I don’t think to snap pics of myself in social welfare waiting for an appointment, or going to a parent-teacher meeting about one of our many kids. It’s not momentous to see me hanging clothes on the line or doing school with our sons. I don’t have to show the world when I am taking out hair braids, buying produce at the market, or kicking a soccer ball with all the boys. I am not being a martyr and I hope I am not making you feel like I don’t want to share with you. There are things that are worth a share, but mostly, it’s just life. At some point, you say this is good. I’m just going to be here. Be present. Be mindful of the memories I’m making. Because a picture doesn’t capture it all anyway. And all that you do is for an audience of ONE.
3) You feel isolated. You are absorbing and living and being part of this culture and country and this new, God-made family, but you’re still the outsider. You will never understand everything. You will probably really only grasp a fraction. You can insert yourself in and be the best “joiner” you can be. But you still aren’t a ___(in my case Sierra Leonian)__. There is always something that highlights to others that you don’t belong and every so often you’re going to feel it. For me it happens when people speak a language I haven’t picked up… probably to talk about me. You notice that isolation when others call you by the color of your skin and giggle when you make a faux pas (cause no matter how long you have lived there, you do not know it all and you never will). It’s the most obvious when you go into your house at the end of the day and let out a sigh of relief that you’re back in your comfort zone. Your guard comes down and you relax from the daily stress of being a person living in a place you weren’t born. And the truth is you don’t belong in your own culture anymore, either. Loved ones there don’t get you, and it is not their fault. They live a life separate from you and they’re changing, too. They’re still your family, or friends (and devastatingly, you lose those, too), but they’re on a different continent and you can’t bridge that gap no matter how badly you wish it so. Truthfully, in some ways, you’re alone. And that’s hard at times. That loneliness can be the most consuming feeling in the world. I cannot find the right words to describe this huge hole that feels like you do not belong anywhere. Words are simply inadequate. But, it really hurts- really dang bad. Which is why Jesus must be your focus. (Please don’t groan. I realize that’s cheesy, but Oh how truthful it is). He is the only one who can fill the holes, and He alone can make you feel like it will be OK. He’s the reason we come and He must be the one we pour it all out to at the end of the day. You cling to the knowledge that He sees you and He loves you and He promises all the things you have sacrificed (which varies from everything to so little- depending on the day) matters to Him and He will redeem it all. There is also the bonus of Number 4 of this list –
4) You gotta find your people. Since you’re so isolated and lonely and now so different, you lack on how to explain it all to others back “home”. You don’t even know where to begin and each time you try, you feel frustrated because words fail so hard. You cannot express all this stuff in a text or a broken-up phone call. When you try, after you hang up, you feel somehow emptier. Cue the others God has thrown into this boat of crazy with you. They’re from “out there” also. The other side of the world- the side you came from. They are “strangers in a foreign land” just like you. And they become your people. They’re here for different callings and for seasons completely separate from yours. Your life becomes a series of goodbyes because you never know what God is going to move you or them onto next. But the gift of having someone who gets it is priceless. This group doesn’t look conventional. It’s a hodge podge of people you would normally never meet- due to age, parenting stages, locations or vocations. But you’re here and you become each other’s safe place. And that’s completely God. You have two major things connecting you- a calling to where you are and an understanding of why it’s so hard- and that’s enough. You pray in the same language, know the same songs and movies, and you can make our own culture together. A sum of what you came from and what you now know. The connection of missionary to missionary is not something to begrudge or dismiss. You’re not in competition or cancelling each other out. The work is plenty and the workers are few. So, I had to learn to find my people and to encourage each other as often as possible. None of this is for the faint of heart. Thankfully, they make the loneliness less obvious and the bad days a bit easier.
5) Missionary does not equal sainthood. This last one is a joke and yet a much-needed statement. And just to clarify, I used to think that was the “tip top”.… until I got recruited into it. Everyone can joke about missionaries being the “supreme” of Christians. They are the sanctified ones. They are going straight up the front of the line when the rapture happens. The truth is, the day I checked “missionary” on the occupation box did not matter one bit to the inner me. The one that God sees. I didn’t suddenly become immune to sin or start to heal people with the laying of hands. I have never turned water to wine and I have yet to have more than 1 vision in my life (and the vision happened in a living room in small town Illinois). I am not exceptional or to be revered. The pedestal idea is a lie and I am begging all of you to not buy into it. Many of you will laugh and say “no problem. I knew you when you were 16. You’re not fooling us” and that’s great. I just want to make it clear- I’m a work in progress. I will never be done. If I have breath, I will be trying to be better for Christ, as is every Christian I know. Because He so deserves my up most. And the truth is I have very ugly days where I curse under my breath and I am anything but loving and I just want to go to Target, hit a drive through (“Drive-Thru”? I don’t know, I just want it), take a hot bath, and use internet that doesn’t add to my gray hairs every time I send an email. I am a mess who happened to say “yes” to a life that takes me to hard places and shows me that I am small and God is huge and the only way to live is following Him. And I was pushed into that “yes”. I did not willingly jump. I’ve learned we’re all a mess. And we need Jesus. Whether we’re a reverend or a robber. No checked occupation box changes that truth.
So, as we move away from year two and barrel clumsily towards year three, I have so much more to learn, and I’m so grateful to be just where I am, doing just what I do. Thanks to everyone who has joined us on this journey. God bless you all.
Hello Sarah – it’s Uncle Michael…from your old country! Aunt Debbie and I have been talking about you guys lately and wanted to find a way to communicate. Hoping you will get this. I loved reading your last post here. It sure seems that this experience has been a powerful one – for everyone you touch I’m sure! Let me know if you get this. Give our love to your family.
What a precious commentary! God is absolutely smiling at your honesty and authenticity. His strength is made perfect in your weakness, dear Sarah. You re so loved.