On Some of Those Countries

 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” – Matthew 5:31-40 ESV

Some time ago I moved from boarding school to university. If I had been lost and confused moving to the Middle East from Africa, it was nothing to how I felt moving from over seas to the Bible belt. Jackson was a phenomenon beyond compare. Massive bill boards displayed endless options of fast food, adult stores, and shooting ranges. Slide your pick up truck into the next lane to catch flashing signs pointing toward one of 200 something churches in the city limits. It was loud, bright, and Southern – and everyone seemed to know exactly what to do except for me. And yet – I adapted. Even though it was different and terrifying (and there was a lot of resentment I had to work through) I adapted to my surroundings. Quickly, I learned how to order light ice so I wouldn’t receive an insane quantity of frozen slush. I discovered that denominations are a big deal in the South; Christian doesn’t cover everything for some people and my theology of loving Jesus Christ with all I am was not enough for the pre seminary men in my classes. Pop culture caught up to me very fast – or rather my lack of knowledge did. When I arrived at University my musical repertoire included every Taylor Swift album, ABBA’s Gold Album, an old Celine Dion CD and the sound track to Les Miserables.  Spotify has since changed my life forever.

I know these learning curves are shallow, insignificant even, but they were a vital part of my culture shock and my adaptation to the United States. It’s important to realize that people from different countries or backgrounds have a steep climb when it comes to naturalizing themselves in unfamiliar surroundings. I’m not sure we do any visitor (long-term or short-term) any favors by exonerating derogatory language regarding foreigners – have we forgotten that we all are foreigners in this broken land?

I was acutely aware of being a foreigner when planning a wedding. First, I had no idea what was required and second, I am the only bride I’ve met who’s mother was half way across the world while I was planning. My mother is a saint and used the internet to arrange my wedding with a skill unknown to our modern world. She might not understand emojis yet but my mum is first-rate when it comes to planning any event from a different country. When our wedding came around my mother and mother-in-law had some photos of us as children to display at the rehearsal dinner. I quite strongly opposed to this – probably very rudely as I was a bride, a full-time nurse, and my wisdom teeth had been removed seven days before my rehearsal dinner. Honestly, I was not the most gracious bride and most likely have many grievances to address from that weekend – but that’s not the point just now. I was against parading our childhood photos for several reasons.

I had seen my husbands’ childhood pictures many times. He has some posed, some candid, some hurried, all lovely and clean. He is generally surrounded by his family or his football team. He is almost always surrounded by white people and he has the background of a safe, secure homestead. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with the way he was raised. The Lord has blessed his family immensely. Yet I could not help look at the stark contrast between our childhoods – and I did not want to be reminded of it on my wedding day. My childhood photos consist of me wedged in a group of girls my age, we’re all wearing my sister’s hand-me-downs. My photos consist of me barefoot, blindingly white next to everyone else, with dirty hair and happy eyes. When I look at these photographs I recall the smells, sounds, and tastes of Angola. I also remember every belligerent, insensitive question about growing up in Angola.

“You grew up in Africa? Were you not terrified every day?? How awful – how could your parents take you there?” Terrified? Only when there were gun fights in my street. Oh I don’t know – how could they say no to God? “How many churches did your dad plant in Angola? Was it really worth him going there?” Are numbers the only way to convey worth? What about the friendships he built, the men he trained, the families we met with and share our lives with… what about the love of Christ seen and shared? “You grew up in Angola…. Where is that? Asia? If you grew up there – how do you speak English?” My parents were missionaries, not silent monks…. 

It’s an overwhelming smattering of memories to face the day before your wedding. It was a reminder of how much I had changed to fit into Jackson, TN – and how different I was from my husband. It was a reminder of how little he knew of my life, and how little he would ever experience of my hometown. It was also a deep source of guilt. As I looked at the faces of neighborhood girls I had grown up with I was ashamed knowing my parents were paying for a beautiful wedding, while these girls were on their third or fourth child, some of them already dead. Guilt had an unhealthy hold on my heart. I wish I had been forthcoming in the moment about those photos; it’s given me a lot to think about since. Mostly, I find myself realizing how much I have adapted to my husband’s world and how little he knows of mine.

One Easter, in university, I spent at a friends’ home in Clarksville, TN. She took me on her old running trails, old eateries, and local hangouts. I so desperately wanted to return the hospitality. I wanted to take her to Kenya – where I learned to love running with the Great Rift Valley under my shoes. I wanted to show her the dukas, eat chapatis, drink overly sweet chai at ten in the morning, watch the flying ants drizzle down after a heavy rain. The impossibility of showing any of my American friends my home weighed on me heavily. When my husband and I got married I was nearly obsessed with the reality that he would not see Angola any time soon – he would certainly not see the Angola I grew up in. So while we drove to Mississippi every other month and I experienced more and more of his home and family I realized this was becoming a one-sided adaptation – as it had been for all my relationships in America. I was morphing to their surroundings, their norms, their differences without ever having to express mine. This was highlighted for me at Christmas this past year. It was my first Christmas with my in-laws and it was truly lovely, yet any holiday filled with someone else’s traditions can be particularly lonely. Of course, it would be absurd to ask people to change the way they celebrate, or the way they live or vote or communicate with one another to fit your needs. If I had had a ‘familiar’ Christmas we would all have been sitting in Laurel, opening presents by candle light, waiting for a gingerbread house to melt with humidity, and watching films on a tiny battery-operated DVD player – again, it would have been absurd!

However, it does make one think about all the different experiences found in a large family and how one should respect them, show interest in them, even appreciate them. I have been convicted by that thought in regards to how I relate to my husbands’ family and my own. I also think I’ve failed my friends in many ways because I have been inhospitable in not allowing them to see more of my past.

Perhaps now is a good time, in such a climate, for me to speak about some countries I have called home. Countries I believe are good places, created by the same God who created the United States and filled with people made in the image of that God.

ANGOLA

A sub Saharan country with a land mass twice the size of Texas. Population 24.3 million, major religion Christianity, currency Kwanza, major languages Portuguese, Umbundu, Kimbundu, Kikongo, life expectancy is 50-53 years. It is second to the top for the highest mortality rate of children under five. Angola’s wealth is isolated in the highest government officials’ pockets. The money comes from oil – lots of oil. Many western countries have oil companies with bases in Luanda. There was a 30 year civil war after the Portuguese colonists left the country with no standing government. Cubans and South Africans fought in the war on opposing sides. Human rights have certainly been compromised in its history. All these facts can be found on Wikipedia. I would encourage you to educate yourself – whether you are European or American you glean oil from this country, maybe you should know a little bit about it.

Let me tell some about my corner of Angola – Graffanil, a slum right outside the capital, Luanda. That term President Trump so eloquently used to describe African nations? Well, my neighborhood would have been the literal definition of that term. Sewer ran along the street. Muddy paths eroded into deep pot holes with each rain. Concrete walls stained with urine, burning rubbish, and anti-government graffiti surrounded me. Every morning I woke up to a stale, lifeless ceiling fan – it was useless due to the lack of electricity but it certainly made for nice decor. We ate overly imported breakfast cereal with UHT milk (ultra pasteurized) and started our days in the sweltering tropic heat. Mum and I would walk to the prasa to support local vendors. Wafts of burning charcoal, salted fish, grilled corn all mingled in the dusky air. Some days we went to the Isla – meetings with oil workers, church planters, other missionaries, whatever the occasion it was a chance to see the ocean and breathe fresh air. We would sit on the seaside, salty warm wind caressing our sun burnt faces. On incredibly special days we would eat at one of the local, overpriced restaurants (usually if an oil company worker was present). On such blessed days I would order a prego no pão – French bread stuffed with marinated steak and a side of potato wedges. How delightful, how decadent I felt chewing mouthfuls of simple meat and bread while watching the sun dip dramatically over the Atlantic. I wish I had known in those moments to reel it all in, capture every second, every breath in a slide I could play back in my bleak dorm room. Everyone in Jackson raved about their sunsets – orange skies over grey horizons while I couldn’t help but pine for the magnificent sub Saharan tropical expanses.

Our church was as vibrant as the scenery. Praises, songs, proclamations of truth – for good news is to be truly proclaimed not simply announced, no? Dancing in the aisles, wailing during the grace offering, testimonies of remarkable experiences during the war and God’s sovereignty throughout every life. I cringe when I remember all the Sundays I didn’t want to go – because it was hot, the sermons were long, and I was the only white person in the service. If I could travel back in time I would tell myself to linger every Sunday, cherishing the swell of each note as angelic voices raised their accolades to the heavens.

That is my Angola. That is my childhood. It is a third world country. It’s government is corrupt, its infrastructure is pitiful and its people need prayer. Yet, broken as it is, I would board a plane bound for Luanda before heading to the first world country I’m supposed to call home.

KENYA 

Located on the eastern coast of Africa, Kenya holds part of the Great Rift Valley. Population 48.5 million, major languages include Swahili and English, Major religion Christianity, life expectancy 63-69 years, currency Kenya shilling. This country is NOT the birth place of former president Barack Obama. I only lived in Kenya for four years while I was attending high school so I cannot speak to its intricate political history or current climate with accuracy. I do know in 2009 there was a massive food shortage related to wide-spread drought. There was a camp for internally displaced people who had been relocated due to resources and safety. The high school I attended would arrange trips for us to minister to families living in tents in the valley. In 2011, when Al-Shabab began encroaching on the Somali/Kenyan border my boarding school tightened security and held frequent lock down drills to prepare for any political unrest that might affect us. This terrorist group led an attack in 2013 – targeting shoppers at Westgate shopping centre where many students spent their weekends.

These events are the reality of Kenya – they are not just headlines. And yet, Kenya is much, much more.

I know I’ve written plenty about the aggravations faced in high school – I can blame Kenya for none of those. It is an ideal country. The loping hills are adorned with graceful tea leaves barely seen in the morning due to rising mists. It’s mysterious and welcoming, even-tempered and still passionate.  From our boarding school my friends and I could run along old railroads, past tropical water falls, with mountains on one side and expansive valley on the other. For one of my interim trips I chose to go on a six-day cycle ride. We cycled through plains alongside zebra and giraffe. The most exciting creatures I cycle past in Cambridge are groups of Freshmen gaping at their calendars. During those six days we spent one night in a Massaii village. We experienced a hospitality I have never felt in the South, a genuine welcoming, happiness beyond compare. We spent our nights gazing into the never-ending sky of stars, drinking in every moment of the quiet wildlife around us. This is the Kenya everyone should experience. The Kenya I know includes warm beaches, cool mountain evenings, spectacular sunrises over far off ridges. It involves eating ughali on Thursdays, buying warm, greasy chapatis from the dukas on the weekends and washing them down with spicy, bitter Stoney. The Kenya I know means visiting IDP camps, playing with indescribably hopeful children on Sunday, eating smoky corn, and taking three-minute showers because of the drought. No, it was not always an easy country to live in – but it is the most beautiful.

I encourage you to look up your own country, learn about it, find pride in it, and appreciate it. These are only two out of the seven countries I’ve lived in but they were most impactful. If you’re from the United States may I suggest you read If You Can Keep It by Eric Metaxas. It’s a helpful look at the States’ history and the values its citizens need to uphold. If you want to know more about African nations’ attitudes read this article shared by my own father: https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/world/the-story-of-optimistic-happy-africans-is-more-complex-than-we-think/ar-BBI9dXM?li=AA4Zpp&ocid=spartanntp

I cannot convince you that any of these countries are first-rate. I cannot tell you that you should move your family there immediately. All I can say is this: there is not an inch on this planet not created by God. There is no tribe, sect, family, or bloodline not created in His image. There is not a single one of us who is superior to judge the others. Not. A. Single. One.

We are all created equal for we have all been made in His image. So meet them – all the others made in that same image! Meet your neighbor, meet someone from a different background, a different religion, a different country. Appreciate their life, all they’ve been through, and where they’re going. Hold an honest, compassionate conversation with them – don’t we all deserve to be honest and compassionate with one another? Share your life with them. Display the photographs I was so afraid to share with wedding guests. I was so afraid of being honest about my life with my friends, my family, and my husband’s family. Don’t miss an opportunity to be understanding towards someone who is different from you.

We gain nothing by demeaning people we have never met. Perhaps it is time for us, believers, to put to rest the inflammatory language and pick up words of love, compassion, and hospitality. How much more would we further the kingdom of God by opening our doors to people of all nations instead of standing behind people who wish to lock them out? I am not going to pretend I understand the economics of certain policies – but I do try to understand people. I understand that people want to be loved, they want to belong, they want to feel secure. I understand that as a Christian I am called to love people, all people, and I am called to let them enter my home as Christ has let me enter His. I don’t need any more convincing than that. Do you?

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On Losing Control

I close my eyes. Water surges up to the doorstep. Wind howls outside, trees are ripped up from the ground. Branches beat brutally on the weak frame. The waves outside push against the window, glass shatters. I run up to it and press my bare hands over the broken glass. Stay put, please stay put, don’t break, don’t break. I plead with the forces of nature. Too late. I blink and water is flooding in, rising past my ankles, knees, waist. I blink. My family is floating all around me, rushing past, pulled by the uncontrollable water. Stop! I scream and scream for the water to stop. I blink. I’m crashing into the walls myself. The water carries me onto the freeway, lorries and cars race past me, skidding on the massive puddles. They all collide, cars topple, bodies fall out, people scream and cry and beg. I’m swept away, unable to help anyone, unable to even help myself. I open my eyes. The living room is in one piece. My husband is reading in a chair. Rain falls ever so gently on our windows, drops racing one another down the glass. No flood. No crash. No need to be afraid.

“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we set our hope that he will continue to deliver us.” – 2 Cor 1:8-10 (NIV)

At times anxiety can be crippling. It often creeps into my life just like the above story, I’m unassumingly going about my day and suddenly scenarios beyond my control (and at times beyond possibility) grip my mind. As a child, a vivid imagination was my best friend – now it’s a haunting picture book of horror. Slowly, with God’s immeasurable grace, I’m learning how to come to terms with anxiety – but when you prefer to be in control any thought or situation that boots you out of the drivers’ seat is unwelcome.

Recently, we’ve been through a long, difficult, exhausting season of uncontrollable circumstances. My husband, Jeremiah, was accepted into a graduate program for Edinburgh University in January last year. We were preparing ourselves for one year in Scotland. I have a sister and brother-in-law in the same city and was looking forward to spending some time near my family. Come early May, Jeremiah, received an offer for a four-year program in Cambridge. After some consideration he chose to take the offer from Cambridge. We were then preparing ourselves to move to a city to which neither of us had been and in which we knew no one. To say I was disappointed about the change is an understatement. My home town is only an hour and a half from Edinburgh – I was relishing the dream of being so close. I would be able to train up for a weekend to run familiar trails, have dinner with family friends, and be surrounded by a recognizable place. It would be vastly different from the past four years of making the unknown city of Jackson, TN into a home filled with friends. I was gutted at the thought of moving to England instead but what was there to say? No loving wife is going to tell her husband to turn down a PhD from Cambridge University?

We rallied after the change of plans were set. We spent several weeks having friends over, sharing last meals and final glasses of wine. Boxes were bought and filled, then unpacked and repacked, time and time again. Jeremiah spent hours working on his visa, only to find out we had the wrong paper work several times. There was no way to expedite the process – visas are objectively sticky. I worked on switching my U.S. nursing license for a U.K. one but soon found that it was nearly impossible to work, pack, say good-bye and plan for nursing exams. We moved all our belongings from Jackson, TN to Laurel, MS in a last-minute UHAUL. Jeremiah’s younger brothers helped arrange everything we own into a neat corner in his parents’ basement. We waited for the visa. Grandparents were visited, aunts and uncles were seen, siblings, nieces, nephews, cousins – all hugged goodbye. We waited for the visa. My father took Jeremiah to a consulate in Houston for a meeting. They returned just hours before Hurricane Harvey hit. We were in my grandmother’s Huntsville home – no electricity, no open roads, and no visa. We waited.

In that suburban home, nestled next to a golf course, I was struck with the reality of how little control either of us had. We could not even turn on the lights, much less produce a visa for Jeremiah, money for tickets, or a job for me. While I wanted to hold every task in my hand, line them up in neat little rows and knock each one down as we completed it – I could not. Not only was it nigh impossible to complete our tasks, at that moment I did not know the extent of our to-do list.

I did not know that when we finally arrived in Cambridge, after receiving the visa on a Thursday, flying on Sunday, quick good byes to siblings, and a long drive from Scotland, it would be lonelier than any other experience. I could not have prepared my heart, with all the task lists or post-its in the world for the sense of total loss, confusion, and despair that were to come.

Pridefully, wrongfully, I had believed being an MK would have prepared me for another move. I thought I would excel at transition by now, my adaptation would be stellar and I would be able to comfort Jeremiah in all his inexperienced despondency. I was incredibly wrong. Rather than enforcing my ability to accept change, this move illuminated all the changes I have not embraced. Through it Angola resurfaced, the move to the Middle East, each good-bye from boarding school, each good bye from university, each manipulation, however slight, to my life over the past 23 years was brought to the surface with overwhelming force. England is lovely. A bit dark but charming nonetheless. I have no reason to fear this change other than the fact I haven’t dealt with the previous ones. Why?

I want to be in control.

I want to be the one calling the shots, cueing the lights, writing the lines. I want to be the one in the know – and I’m not.

And what a relief it has been, after sleepless nights and anxious days, to finally realize this truth. I am not in control – but I believe in the One who is. I am not privy to tomorrow’s realities – but I pray each morning to the One who’s mercies are new, the One who holds my path, the One who has ordained my days. So often we find ourselves trying to over prepare our earthly lives for the next great change instead of preparing our hearts to serve Him fully. I could wear a bullet proof vest, carry two hand guns, own a garage of dry goods, and wear a N95 mask and still I would not govern my next breath.

He does. He always has and He always will. The moment I stumbled on that blessed reality the clearer my life became. Once I can let go of my pride, I can enter more fully into His grace. Once I can relinquish my selfish desire to be in control I can enter more fully into His sovereignty – what a blessed, lovely thought.

C.S. Lewis writes in The Weight of Glory “The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.” On reading those words I palpably felt my heart ease, my very spirit relaxed. Far too often I spend my days thinking how I will accomplish something – whether it is motherhood, a career, continuing education – whatever it may be, when I should spend my time praising the Lord for the trials He has already brought me through. So much of my day is spent begging for grace for tomorrow instead of looking at today and seeing that He has already provided for me, why would I doubt His provision for tomorrow?

As we find in 2 Corinthians 1:8-10 times of uncertainty or troubles, are brought upon us so that we may rely fully on the Lord’s provision – nothing else (Paul was speaking of troubles much greater than moving to England). In these months of change I have had everything I relied on stripped away. I no longer have a steady job, my friends are in a different country, the pastor who married us is in Tennessee, and though this is trivial, I really miss having my own car. These cornerstones of my life in Jackson have been removed, leaving me with my husband and my faith. The past few months have pushed me to the brink of loneliness and anxiety – requiring me to seek solace in Christ with a fervor I never had before. It has been wondrously frightening to feel my faith in the Lord strengthen with each day I spend in His word. I shudder to think what would have become of me if I had carried on as before – never allowing the Lord to shake me, move me, deliberately force me into His Presence so He could work on the very intricacies of my heart. He has been gracious to me and allowed me an opportunity to develop faith I did not know I lacked. I can only imagine the amount of growth in store for the years to come.

And you? You also could carry all the guns in the world and never be safe from violence – or death. You also could take all the vaccines (or take none!), follow all the right diets, always wash your hands and still you will not be free from your broken, fallen body on this earth. Only death, the death which leads to life, will draw us into a perfect eternity. Until then, we can only live our lives day by day – in faith that He who is the God of Jacob is also the Lord of our lives now. And isn’t it much better to live resting in His hands than fearfully fighting with our own?