I am sitting in an airport lounge waiting to fly back to my home in East Africa. I am returning from a week-long work-related visit to my passport country, and am now longing to be back in the warmth, chaos and dust of home.
It has been over a year since I was last here. So many people have asked me open-ended questions, such as ‘How are the family?’, or, ‘How is work?’, or ‘What is your church like?’, or ‘How is Africa?’ Often I am quite bewildered to know where to start. There are some things that are just too difficult to fully explain, and it is easier to focus on concrete facts (like, ‘Please pray for a favourable judgement at my daughter’s adoption hearing’). As I return home, I feel quite emotional and jumbled, and from that perspective, offer a few reflections of what it can be like for a person who now lives far away to parachute back into their ‘old’ life for a short time:
1. General bewilderment: It is just like parachuting back in to a life which in some ways feels absolutely familiar and which in other ways feels completely foreign. I find this really unsettling – examples this time have included a change in several denominations of the currency used, some quite dramatic fashion trends (for example full beards on young men), people who have undergone significant life events in the time I have been gone, computerisation of all medical records in the hospital where I work and even the building of a brand new, very shiny hospital (not open yet – likely to be by the time I am next back)
2. Relationships. It can be immensely rewarding and encouraging to meet with friends, even for a short time, and yet at the same time, this can also be frustrating as there just isn’t always enough time to really connect. I have not worked out a particular formula to predict which encounters will fall into which of these categories, but I have noted a couple of things. For me, I don’t even tell very many people that I will be around – I pray about this a lot before making the trip, and then get in contact with a few people. It is much easier to meet one on one with a person and talk properly than to be surrounded by many people, but not actually get to talk to any of them at any level. I often find it quite bewildering to be surrounded by friends who are all chatting away about many different things – particularly when I am just back, I’d much rather meet for a quiet meal, coffee or walk in the park with just one or two people. At the same time, I also pray that God shows me any opportunities I should make the most of – for example colleagues going out after work, a group of friends going to a run together, or somebody you had not planned to meet who has a particular need. This time, I particularly enjoyed something called Park Run where I went with two friends and bumped into a number of people I had not seen for years. It was relaxed and enjoyable and conversation was easy as we’d all just shared a run on a beautiful morning.
3. Cultural changes. There are often subtle changes in the way people think, talk and behave, and it can be noticeable even after a year. I had read a statistic that in the UK apparently more food is now consumed outside the home than at home (I am still not quite convinced I believe this). On my first two nights, staying with two different friends, both decided ‘just to go out for dinner because it’s easier’. It’s a small thing, but took me by surprise. (Both were extremely pleasant evenings, and I am not commenting on whether this choice is a good one or not, but rather that this was not something that I would have ever thought of doing!). More sadly, there is a huge amount of pressure towards general tolerance, and particularly shifting of gender and sexual norms. There are subtle (and not so subtle) signals of this everywhere, and I have found myself relieved that I have not needed to explain such things to my children (yet). I have little doubt that when we visit for longer as a family, that my now capable readers will ask me some interesting questions about things they see and read out and about, on billboards, in newspapers and on screens. I think in some ways it is helpful to come back and be a little shocked by a shift away from biblically correct worldview – it is a reminder that we need to live in this world as strangers and pilgrims, being as innocent as doves but as shrewd as snakes (in the words of Jesus). It helps me to pray for the country of my birth, for my friends and family, for the political decisions that are made, and also to prayerfully consider how to prepare my children for their first visit back.
4. Emotion. I tend to be quite pragmatic about life, and tend to see problems as challenges to overcome and opportunities for growth. I tend to be thankful for what is in front of me in different places (people, food, gospel opportunities, fun things to do) rather than lamenting the things that are not available in that place. But I find short visits a strangely emotional whirlwind. In Africa, I have good friends and feel very settled in a church where we can both serve and grow as Christians. But there is often just a level of separation – of not quite feeling really understood, having to be a little careful about use of humour, of always feeling a little guarded and aware that there may be cultural undertones of which I am unaware. When I am back in the culture where I grew up, I do not feel some of these subtle barriers, and with some friends, there is this amazingly liberating feeling of being understood. This is really precious, and I think you don’t always realise quite how precious it is until you do not have it. This week I have been greatly encouraged and refreshed by some of my closest friends, and I feel sad to be leaving (but thankful at least for the internet and ways of trying to remain in touch). At church this morning I felt quite overcome by a wave of emotion – thankfulness, sadness and a real awareness of eternity where every tribe and tongue will sing God’s praises in harmony.
5. Loss. If you read this blog, you know I am thankful for so many things that I could not even begin to list them. But with that, there are feelings of sadness and loss. Two days ago, it was nine years since my daughter died, and because I was in the right country, I was able to visit her grave. I was able to reflect on all she taught me, and all I am thankful for. But there is always going to be sadness there. When she died, I really did feel like a part of me died too. I think the part of me that died was a selfish, worldly part that feels entitled to pleasure and comfort in this current world. Another part was a fresh innocent hope that this world was not as bad as many people say, but her death was a reminder that this world is fallen, broken and in need of redemption. The Bible is clear on those points. So whilst I am thankful too for these lessons, I can still feel the raw pain – almost as though somebody had ripped my heart out and thrown it at a wall. Another reflection that comes is that as we live in this world, almost all of us will face pain and loss of one degree or another. Many of my African friends have been through more than my European friends could possibly imagine. Some of my European friends have been through more than many of my African friends would understand. One group might face political instability, genocide and prejudice, hunger, poverty and high death rates from illnesses which might be preventable in other parts of the world. Others might face abuse from dysfunctional families, mental illness and addiction, financial insecurity and bereavement without the support structure to support them through it. Nobody is immune to pain and loss. And when I move from one world to another, sharing the lives of people from many places, I feel aware of the pain that is a universal part of being human. I long for the new heaven promised in Revelation chapter 21, where we are promised that there will be no more illness, pain or death and that the Lord Himself will wipe away every tear. True comfort is found nowhere else.
I am aware that this reflection is not particularly well structured, and that I have touched on a number of challenging themes without really working the thread through to a conclusion. In attempt to draw things together a little, I would say:
1. If you have friends or family who have moved between cultures, be aware that coming back for a visit may bring complex thoughts and feelings that can be difficult to articulate
2. Be aware that this must be very similar for those who have moved into your country and culture from elsewhere – and take the time to listen
3. Remember that God’s family will be made from every tribe and tongue. We are all made in His image, and in this world, we all know joy and pain, sadness and loss, hope and despair, often all jumbled in a complex tangle
4. Be thankful for what you have – relationships, material provisions, health and strength – and where you feel loss in these areas, find things that you can give thanks for
5. Remember that confusion, misunderstanding and loss will be in this world until Jesus returns to make all things new. Beware of the idol of earthly comfort and security and seek to live as a stranger and pilgrim in this world, spending your life (your time, your strength, your resources) to build His kingdom