I’ve been savoring a lot of things lately. Navigating a lot of big feelings, too.
When we return to our house in the US in a few months, it will have been nearly four years since we left it. We had first looked for opportunities to serve among refugees in Germany for a two-year period. When we were asked to commit instead to three years, we agreed. Once we were in the thick of cross-cultural life, though, we realized that time flies, and transition takes time, and that leaving in the middle of a school year would be a bad idea. So, in the interest of good closure for our whole family, it will be closer to four years than three when we return.
A lot has happened in these four years. While things like the slowness of church-planting and the hospitality involved with refugee ministry were essentially within the bounds of what we had expected, the impact of other unanticipated challenges is undeniable, and through difficulty, we’ve been changed. The entire situation we had joined completely fell apart last year, leaving us with a fledgling church plant—and some big decisions. Depending on what the needs were, we had been open to extending our initial commitment, but in a period of just a few months, everything changed.
From the start, the leading we sensed from God had been that we would only come for a few years. When we arrived, we dove right in with language and building community and the work of ministry (and for me… also having a baby). We were all in for the time we’d be here, intensely purposeful about being present. Though we have never understood why—which has sometimes been frustrating—we didn’t expect to be in Germany forever. But we wondered about this again as we re-examined our commitment last year, wrestling with whether we should stay. When nothing new lined up in a way that made sense, it ended up that everything changed but our plan.
I’ve often thought about migration as death to self—a painful peeling away of everything known and familiar, into confusion, humiliation, exhaustion. Sometimes it begins as a welcome departure, full of hope for starting a new life. Sometimes it’s necessary, to preserve any kind of life at all. Like for our refugee friends, it can be permanent, or, like for us, a temporary option.
But leaving home always involves loss, a death of identity and competence that had been tied to place. I’ve felt this death, and I’ve witnessed the pain in my friends too, in practical ways as well as deep ones. Though we come from many countries all over the world, we can relate together: this place is not fully our home. In that, too, it’s been possible to find some semblance of belonging, even across multiple languages and cultures.
The significance of the incarnation has come into focus for me throughout this time, with direct application in work and in life. That Jesus became human, leaving the glory and honor of His own place and belonging as part of the Godhead to become limited as a lowly being—and even then, treated badly in human terms, too—is pretty shocking. When I struggle with how limited my life became after moving here, I am encouraged to know that Jesus deeply and even more fully understands these humbling aspects of crossing cultures. This recognition has made me feel more known, and I think it has helped me to know Jesus better, too.
Yet there is more, beyond being able to relate—the end of the beloved section of Philippians 2 says, “For this reason God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow—in heaven and on earth and under the earth—and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (vs. 9-11). After His work to reconcile us with God, Jesus is restored to His place of glory and honor, and all is as it should be.
Exhaling into these truths allows me to take one day at a time as I seek to follow in Jesus’ footsteps of humble obedience, assessing things as they really are and not as I wish they could be.
Even though I feel like I’m leaving again just as I was starting to find my place, I can hold this tension before the Lord and savor the pieces of this life that I love and will miss—this strange nostalgia for the present that I am beginning to feel—as I watch my kids chattering and playing with ease, or as I walk through my neighborhood with my closest friend, or as I catch the scent of my house after being away… realizing that at some point, it started smelling like home.
Being rooted in Jesus helps me to face my impending uprooting: I have sincerely loved everywhere I’ve lived, and I’m free to open-handedly love this place, too.
Further, as I notice the changes in myself that I had initially resisted, and gear up to return to a place that over the past four years has inevitably changed as well, I can lay my fears and uncertainties before the Lord. All these big feelings can be entrusted to my big God, who emptied Himself and became small as an act of great love.
What has been your experience of death to self as you’ve crossed cultures? When have you wrestled through place and belonging? How has the incarnation of Jesus impacted your day-to-day life?