I told a dear friend in an email recently that lately I’ve noticed I keep pulling into myself—becoming more private, seeking more alone-time, avoiding connection over phone or internet, and trying to keep to the smallest circles of people possible. I recently observed to my mom that I seem to have regressed three years backwards into the painful introversion and social awkwardness I had hoped I’d outgrown. Those self-assessments germinated and grew into what, unfortunately, may be my first contact with you, dear readers, in over three months. So with a squirming in my stomach that feels an awful lot like guilt at avoiding you, I’m writing my jumbled thoughts for the first time in a while.
Coming back to the States has been an adventure to say the least. There have been healing days and beautiful moments and times when I’ve almost noticed some of the personal growth I’ve experienced. There’ve also been heart-sore days and frustrating moments and times when I’ve wondered about the worth of my time in Bulgaria.
All of the mental and emotional see-sawing has led me to retreat as far back as possible into a safe space. I avoid Wal-mart like the plague. I’m hesitant to connect with people I know I can trust—people who are walking the same roads or have been down them before. I spend what time I can surrounded by family and relishing in daily tasks that give my life a rhythm, like baking, cleaning, reading, or manual labor on our small farm.
The one thing I’ve enjoyed that keeps me connected to my time in Bulgaria (even though it’s made me feel like a nervous wreck sometimes) has been speaking at churches. Speaking and sharing stories feels comfortable and useful and important on a deeply personal level I can’t quite describe. They’re things I can do that give me a sense of continuity and constancy in who I am and what the Lord has called me to do. And they feel like one of the few lifelines that help me connect the fractured pieces of life here, life there, and life here again.
So it was that I found myself last week spending time in Texas with family there, sharing at their churches and telling the stories that help me stitch back together my fractured sense of self. I began the trip withdrawn. I unknowingly carried a burden of isolation I had packed and slung across my shoulders myself. I guess I assumed that because my own tangled thought life was burdensome to me, I would be a broken, burdensome houseguest. Better just to do what I came to do, keep quiet, and smile when the occasion called for it. None of this thought process was intentional, of course. I would never consciously expect family to feel that burdened by me, let alone treat me like a stranger who just happened to be staying at their house before speaking at their churches. I only realized my mindset when things began happening to expose it.
They unquestioningly embraced me as family in everything: from feeding me, to letting me help with chores, to hammering out who takes the longest showers and what our morning shower schedule should be. I got to be a part of my cousins’ weekend activities and watch with pride as they performed, quizzed, and coached. But I wasn’t just someone along for the ride. I was the lap chosen to sit in. I was the coveted companion for dog-walking and roller-blading. I was the resident dessert cook, confidant, and errand runner.
And when talk in Sunday school turned toward persecution, and my mind and heart were stretched so far towards foreign friends and foreign countries that they began to break, my cousin unquestioningly held my shaking hand until it stilled. When I couldn’t navigate the Dallas streets I should have known from experience, my cousins gave me directions from the front seat without so much as a judgmental glance or a word of question. When we had time alone together, it was the most natural thing in the world for my Aunt to probe gently into my tangled mess of repatriation thoughts and feelings and half-conceived understandings.
They cared about me. Deeply. I was not a burden for them to bear, like I so often feel myself to be in these days of limbo. I was not even a wounded missionary they felt compassion for out of the goodness of their hearts. Because of their hospitality and loving-kindness, I didn’t feel myself to be a burden, but a blessing. They enjoyed my company just as I enjoyed theirs.
As I began to process these thoughts, my fractured sense of self seemed to be on the mend and I was joyful to be a blessing again to someone. I was beginning to understand that my idea of needing to be ‘whole’ to be able to truly bless and benefit other people was hogwash. It’s in my weakness that Christ is strong. And I was forced to think about grace more deeply than I had in a while because family gave me precious gifts of time and comfort and laughter that I didn’t deserve. And those weren’t the only undeserved gifts of grace that week.
These ideas of grace and wholeness and blessing hadn’t yet coalesced into words in my mind by the time I left Texas to return home. In the driveway my aunt quoted words I had said just minutes before to her class about missionaries traveling without a money bag or an extra cloak, and nothing much besides the dust on their clothes, expecting others to provide for them—expecting God to provide. She slipped money into my hand as I tried to deny her, and then to find the right words to express thanks. And when I failed to back my manual transmission car up the steep slope of the driveway without first rolling into my aunt’s car, they laughed unconcernedly and the whole family pushed my car back up into the street.
I fought back tears for the next hour and a half’s worth of driving. They weren’t tears of embarrassment or shame or self-pity. They sprang from confusion and grief at leaving, and the same unresolved paradox of blessing through brokenness. I couldn’t understand it. And I struggled to accept the grace I had been extended by my heavenly father and my earthly family. By the time I stopped for supper I felt numb. And when the cashier only charged me for half of my order with a knowing wink, I knew I had to pull over for some time to reflect and pray.
Sitting in a deserted parking lot, I asked God through brimming tears, “Why won’t people quit being so nice to me?!” I felt broken and unworthy of the grace. I felt confused about my brokenness and wondered for the umpteenth time whether my time in Bulgaria had been worth it. I wondered why reentry into the States was so hard. I wondered why I kept ending up in situations as bizarre as being parked in a strange parking lot crying over why my mac-n-cheese was too cheap, fighting the urge to vomit brought on my medicine and hormones and overflowing emotions.
And then it all just stopped. I was enveloped in the embrace of my heavenly Father’s presence that I so desperately craved. I felt His words as clearly as if he’d whispered them into my heart, “Child, I bless you out of my lavish, extravagant love because I can. I can show you grace whenever I want. And when you don’t understand, know that I feel your pain, and you cannot fathom the love with which I respond.”
I felt prompted to turn on a song from an album I had recently bought and not really listened to yet. And as I listed to the words, a smile, and then a giggle broke through my tears:
…The dawn, it shot out through the night
And day is coming soon
The kingdom of the morning star
Can pierce a cold and stony heart
Its grace went through me like a sword
And came out like a song
Now I’m just waiting for the day
In the shadows of the dawn
But I won’t wait, resting my bones
I’ll take these foolishness roads of grace
And run toward the dawn
And when I rise and dawn turns to day
I’ll shine as bright as the sun
And these roads that I’ve run, will be wise
(Shadows of the Dawn, by The Gray Havens—do yourself a favor and check out their music!)
These beautiful words were a reminder that sometimes grace takes us down winding roads to which we can’t see the end. And the journey may look like foolishness until we reach the goal. It certainly looked foolish to plenty of people for me to move overseas for 2 years. And it felt foolish enough moving back when the time came. But all that matters is that I follow in obedience because my Guide knows the way and He knows the wisdom in the path.
Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians chapters 1 and 3 promises that God’s wisdom looks like foolishness at times, but that what looks like wisdom may not be as it seems. And the gleaming promise of vindication from Psalm 37 says that if we commit our way to the Lord, he will make our righteousness shine like the dawn, and the justice of our cause like the noonday sun. We’ll see it all clearly in the end, and sometimes for now we have to keep trudging along even though we aren’t shining very brightly, and even though we can only see dimly.
The reason I’ve used to justify these extended ramblings is that maybe some of you readers are in a season of life that doesn’t make much sense either. Or maybe you know me or others like me returning from the field in a jumbled confusion. Show them what grace you can, and encourage them to accept grace themselves. Remind them that if this season of life looks foolish, it’s not necessarily wrong. And if you’re the one in my shoes, I encourage you to accept your portion of grace, even when it’s uncomfortable, and keep walking your foolishness roads. Know that one day, the roads that we’ve run will be wise.