Recently I came across a random blog post written by a total stranger who took my feelings and elegantly put words to them. Reading her article What They Don’t Tell You About Mission Trips brought both exuberant joy and profuse grief. It details her transition back to the United States after spending 6 weeks in a village in Zambia, Africa and explains some hard truths, often unmentioned, about how challenging it really is.
At the end of my six weeks in Ethiopia, people cautioned me that our transition back to the States and the American lifestyle would be challenging; we went through four days of debriefing in a modernized city where we had to do things like go to the movies, walk around an overwhelming and overcrowded American style mall (yes, they do have those in Africa), and eat food such as pizza – all in an effort to ease the transition. In those moments my heart ached to return to the town I had grown to love, to see the people who had become my friends and to eat the food that I could only get in Ethiopia. Over those four days I was on an emotional roller coaster, experiencing just about every feeling there is to feel.
I was excited to see all of my family and friends. I looked forward to telling them about what I learned, to relay stories of how God had been powerfully at work, and to get caught up on all the things I missed while I was gone for six weeks – internship experiences, high school graduations, new jobs, fun vacations and the small things that occur on a daily basis that everyone thinks is not worth mentioning when you can only talk for a few minutes on the phone once a week, but that you secretly miss.
Yet at the same time, there was not, within me, this deep longing to return home. My heart didn’t ache waiting to be back in a familiar environment where I understood and could communicate with everyone around me, where I had daily hot showers, weeks worth of clothing and a wide variety of food…no, if anything it ached for what I would, all too soon, leave behind.
But I didn’t want to feel those things then, and I definitely didn’t want to feel them when I returned. Tomorrow marks a month since I’ve been home and I have spent each day trying desperately to have an easy transition, but all I’ve done is have a busy one. I came back and resumed two big projects I had left off on when I hopped on a plane yesterday ten weeks ago (it still feels like yesterday), I am in the process of starting a business, I’ve planned out the next school year so that I can graduate a year early, I’ve had many meals with old friends, new friends and family. I have worked some, slept a lot, read a book and travelled back and forth from my home to my school on several different occasions. I’ve designed a website, photographed a proposal, and watched two seasons of a TV show in a matter of days.
It has taken me a month to realize, but busy doesn’t mean easy. Sure, it allows you to stay focused on so many other things that you don’t have time to feel all the hard things, but in doing so, I am withholding myself from learning more about my Awesome God. If I don’t allow myself to be sad, I can’t experience God’s comfort and peace. If I ignore the memories and beautiful stories of redemption, I’m not allowing others to witness the power of Christ.
So here’s the raw, ugly, painful, beautiful, joyful, untold, ignored truth.
The first Sunday I returned to Church my heart broke. As we sang Here I am to Worship I couldn’t help but think that this wasn’t worship. 300 believers gathered together in a room and every single one of them “worshiped” the same way: politely standing with somber expression filled faces, carefully singing to God. I closed my eyes in an effort to block out everyone else, but my mind quickly flooded with the memories of my first Ethiopian worship experience. I was crowded in a dimly lit, bare room with hundreds of university students. Some had seats, others lined the walls, the back, the front, and even outside despite the gentle rain. The keyboard was loud and the African drum rang out as each one of those students met with God. They jumped up and down as the joy inside them, over who Christ was and what He had done, overflowed and escaped. They clapped their hands on beat, off beat or to their own beat – often too unaware of what the beat actually was because they were too focused on thanking God. As I was taking it all in, I’ll never forget the moment when I looked over and saw one of my Ethiopian friends get on his knees, lift his hands up and bow before His Savior in humble, genuine, all-encompassing gratitude. In those moments my mouth could not praise God with them because I couldn’t understand the songs, but it didn’t need to because my Spirit was praising Jesus in a way I cannot fully and adequately explain.
Sitting in a cushioned chair in my church at home, I tried desperately to follow along with the message. I took two pages of notes, but left feeling emptier than when I had arrived. All I could think about was how, a few weeks prior, I would sit for a few hours and listen to a pastor I couldn’t understand, yet still leave having not only met with God but learned something from Him.
A few days later I found myself on the shampoo isle at Target, and twenty minutes later I had still not picked out some silly shampoo. Normally it takes two seconds, half a glance and not even a thought to grab some and go, but all of a sudden I found myself overwhelmed with all of the choices. There were too many different smells, colors and types of shampoo and eventually, like a six year old, I had to ask my mom which one I should get. She suggested one, I grabbed it and half walking, half running, left the store, only to discover when I got home that I had actually gotten two bottles of conditioner and no shampoo. Seriously?
Every time I see a little African American boy I think it’s Alazar – our four year old friend who had no shoes, no parents and no place to live. I think of holding him in my arms and twirling him around as he threw back his head and laughed, I can still hear the joy in his precious little giggle. I remember how his little hand felt in mine as we walked down the street, how his eyes lit up every time he saw us and how his happiness was contagious, because even though he didn’t have a loving family to offer him a safe house and food, even though he wasn’t in school, even though his only pair of pants were filled with holes, even though he had absolutely no idea where he would be in one year or five years or twenty, despite all that he still beamed with joy, his smile radiated with happiness.
I find myself going to the grocery store or Goodwill or to a friends house, and half the time I can’t remember how to get there, despite living here for 16 years, because I got accustomed to walking everywhere or taking a bajaj (a cute little three wheeled taxi), but either way we always had someone with us who knew where we were going and how to get there. The other half of the time I’m tempted to roll right through stop lights or stop signs (I may or may not have on one or two occasions) because there was only one stop light in Bahir Dar and people didn’t abide by it. And there still remains that knee-jerk reaction to honk my horn whenever someone cuts me off or sits a little too long at the green light because, well, every driver in Ethiopia thought that honking the horn would make traffic disappear, that it would make it okay to cut someone off or that the goats would cross the road quicker when they heard the beeping, annoying blare. (It didn’t).
Every time I sit in my bed or on the couch with my bible and a notebook there is a small part inside me that desires the little courtyard, some hot tea and the sounds of a cow mooing and children playing soccer in the background that permeated my quiet time each morning in Bahir Dar.
I am constantly craving beyanitu – my favorite Ethiopian dish, and the Coke never tastes as good here as it did there.
I have cried myself to sleep plenty of nights. I have cried at random times for no apparent reason during the day. And I have felt the need to cry way more than I’d like to mention. I even cried some while writing this, because, whether I like it or not, with each joyful memory comes a little bit of sadness that now, it’s just that, a memory, something of the past.
Ultimately through the last ten weeks, I have learned that the only thing that can satisfy that deep longing within my heart is Christ. A place won’t fulfill it, a person won’t satisfy it…only God can.
I have discovered that the exact same God that was with me day in and day out in Ethiopia is with me in South Carolina. True, since I’ve been back I haven’t had to rely on Him to help me answer a seemingly impossible question about suffering or faith or the book of Revelations, but I have found myself in situations where I desperately need Jesus’ strength to get up the next morning and He has always proved faithful. When I’ve been sad, He’s allowed me to find joy in Him. When I’ve been heartbroken, He’s brought healing. When I’ve been anxious, He’s given me His peace that truly does surpass my understanding.
The same God who brought me to Ethiopia brought me back to America. He has not forsaken me. He has not forgotten me.
Perhaps this all sounds crazy or pathetic or ridiculous. Perhaps I’m being too emotional or too dramatic. That’s okay. I am learning that the more transparent we are, the more glorified God is. Through all of this I see how broken I am, how silly I am and how much of a mess I am, and I hope you do too.
But, I also know that God knows all of that, He knows me fully and completely, He knows all of my mistakes – past, present and future – and He still loves me wholly. He still sent His Son to die for me.
It is easier to love someone that’s good, that has it all together. It is much harder to love someone who is broken and falling apart. When I’m transparent about how silly, pathetic, emotional and broken I really am, then I hope you might understand a bit more of how much of a sacrifice it was for Jesus to die to for me.
Africa will always hold a special place in my heart, but Christ has used it to show me that I am not called to Africa. I am called to worship Jesus and love His people…wherever I am.
What does that look like? Well, it’s being patient and kind, it’s not being envious or boastful or prideful. It means not dishonoring others and not being self-seeking, not being easily angered and not keeping a record of all the wrong doings that happen to me, or someone I love or even the ones that I do. It means not delighting in evil, but rather rejoicing in truth. It is protecting, trusting, hoping and persevering. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)
God has called me higher than a specific village, country, or even continent. He has called me deeper than a certain place, and He is calling you.
If, at the end of the day, all we can say is that we loved God and loved people, it is enough.